In Italo Calvino’s essay ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ he describes how in Borges’ poem about ‘Ariosto and the Arabs’, the ousting of the legends of the Medieval West by the legends of the Orient were a kind of revenge for the Crusades of Europe against the Saracens.
There is thus a war between the fantasy worlds of the East and the West which prolongs the historic war between Charlemagne and the Saracens and it is in the later war that the Orient gains its revenge.
Calvino (who died in 1985) was probably writing in the 70s but his aside hits a nerve in a world where yet again the myths of the Crusade have regained currency to the point of cliche in the West whilst equally pernicious myths of blood and martyrdom apparently hold sway in the East. Admittedly, this ignores the fundamentally fictional idea that there are such oppositions as the East and the West, the Occident and the Orient, in the first place.
Calvino also identifies Borges’ idea of literature, or words, as always being the sum total of their possible meanings and cites the ambiguity Borges highlights in Dante’s story of Ugolino where the doomed count, locked in a tower with his sons, either does or does not succumb to the sin of cannibalism. The choice of the meanings in Dante’s text is the reader’s and one of those choices is the decision to not make a choice, to embrace the ambiguity of the text.
It follows that the state of war between the myths of the ‘East’ and ‘West’ (and God knows there are enough idiots happy to assign themselves to either ‘side’ with equal enthusiasm) is in fact no such thing. At a mythical level, the Crusaders of the West and their opposite numbers are at war with their own people and the richness of their cultural inheritance.
There’s a job we have as writers to put the full ambiguity and complexity of these stories (which are no more than the words that make them up, Borges asserts) in front of readers. Readers apply them or do not apply them to their lives. As writers, we have to not so much out-write the Bible, the Koran or the Ramayama as to write from within the traditions and legends and tellings of the treasure houses of story they represent. And I don’t mean clumsy assaults like the Pullman book but to write with an acceptance that these are the mountain ranges and rivers and oceans that delineate our cultural environment and that we need to be attentive. Being an attentive reader is its own reward. Being an attentive writer – not just to our own stories but to the big stories of which they are tributaries – is a civic and human duty in times of war, where the great stories of our shared and overlapping cultures are at risk. Our war as writers, of course, should be against stupidity, ignorance, unquestioning and fanatical acceptance of a nonsensical ‘fate’ and against war itself.
*In Why Read The Classics by Italo Calvino, 1991 (posthumous)
**I use the term advisedly, if clumsily; is it a coincidence that the universal misjustice across the world is misogyny?