Two Digressions about Borges, Wittgenstein and the Aesthetic Experience

I. Borges and Shi Huang Ti

In his tale “Las murallas y los libros,” Borges tells the story of Shi Huang Ti (or Quin Shi Huang), the Chinese emperor who built the first Great Wall, also remembered for ordering the burning of books and the burying of all intellectuals. According to Borges, Shi Huang Ti ordered the burning of all history records in order to delete any incriminating memory of his own birth, since it was believed then that his mother was already pregnant at the time she became his father’s concubine.

Anyhow, in his tale, Borges argues that the attempted burning of history records is only part of the story. The other part is the building of the Wall. So, according to the Argentinean, Shi Huang Ti ordered the construction of the Wall because he also wanted to keep death afar. In a way, by deleting history and keeping everybody isolated from the rest of the world, Shi Huang Ti thought he would be able to achieve immortality by re-creating the world. How? By the the magical powers of naming things. As first emperor and the originator of history, Shi Huang Ti was also the founding father of language, the divine provider of words.

Or, maybe, goes on Borges, Shi Huang Ti thought that by eliminating history and forcing all intellectuals—the keepers of knowledge, of language—to build his Wall, he would force history to repeat itself as well, and according to his own design. Later on in the future, he might have thought, another emperor would come who might destroy Shi Huang Ti’s Great Wall and delete any memories of his Empire, becoming with this act Shi Huang Ti’s mirror image in time.

Or, perhaps, by eliminating history and leaving only his wall—a simple form made out of rocks and mortar—Shi Huang Ti wanted to convey us the sublime aesthetic experience. Borges explains:

…podríamos inferir que todas ls formas tienen su virtud en sí mismas y no en un “contenido” conjetural. Esto concordaría con la tesis de Benedetto Croce [intuition as the basis of aesthetic experience]; ya Pater, en 1877, afirmó que todas las artes aspiran a la condición de la música, que no es otra cosa que forma. La música, los estados de felicidad, la mitología, las caras trabajadas por el tiempo, ciertos crepúsculos y ciertos lugares, quieren decirnos algo, o algo dijeron que no hubiéramos debido perder, o están por decir algo; esta inminencia de una revelación, que no se produce, es, quizá, el hecho estético. [in English]

II. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” So, the Wall’s being is the mystical, its form, not the how it came to be. Similarly, in the same place, Wittgenstein also says that ethics and aesthetics can’t be expressed in words (or propositions), much the same way music—according to Croce and (Walter) Pater—can’t be translated into words. I wonder if both Borges and Witt are talking about the same kind of aesthetic experience?