Prudence in Hell 032
Aide-mémoires in Power, Part IV: Scheherazade and the Eternal Return
Vuelvo a recordar el verso ilustre de Dante, «Dolce color d’oriëntal zaffiro». Es que la palabra oriental tiene los dos sentidos: el zafiro oriental, el que procede del Oriente, y es también el oro de la mañana, el oro de aquella primera mañana en el Purgatorio. —Jorge Luis Borges on The Arabian Nights, during a lecture given at Teatro Coliseo in 1977 (the closing italics are mine)
On the evening of May 20, Alonso was severely injured by a racehorse (not by Carmine, featured with him in the picture, but by a doppelgänger of hers with an equally vermeil name: Cerezo Rojo.)
As someone who is well aware a horse is a living loaded weapon, I am grateful the accident took the fortuitous shape that it did and not a different course —paralysis or death, instant or less so. To be struck by a thoroughbred is stately enough; each being a mechanical animal whose ancestry can be traced back to the three eighteenth century “Arabians” that first established the breed.1 There are no blanks in any thoroughbred’s pedigree, where every ancestor down to the founder is accounted for.2 Alonso’s accident was, in this sense, historical, only survivable —or worth surviving— with a great deal of luck.
Alonso is fortunately blessed with kairos —a virtue we have and will continue to extoll in our Aide-mémoires in Power— to an exceeding degree. Seeing it at work over the past years in our lives, I may prize it even above phrōnesis.3
That said, in writing this especially sensitive Prudence, I had to be sure of two things —the fact of Alonso’s recovery, which took some time to determine, and the fiction that would serve as its connective tissue. It took me listening —or better yet, attending— to Zubin Mehta’s conduction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, op. 35 for the Berliner Philharmoniker (March 2, 2019) for both variables to click in a way that gave me the leeway I needed to write about it.
Alonso has three mythographies of central interest: The Arabian Nights; the Grail Cycle, and the Trojan War. The last two are eschatologies with no soteriological dimensions, pure ends of worlds. The first is distinct in that it is a cycle of rebirths—the overcoming of trauma and the regaining of trust through the nightly rebooting of reality. To cite Borges on the Nights, which he unabashedly admired, it is “an experiment in time.” I’ll go further, calling it a feat in kairos. The story of its composition, as expressed by Borges, is that of a felicitous —albeit not intentional— emergent assemblage over a great stretch of timespace. He states:
El origen del libro está oculto. Podríamos pensar en las catedrales malamente llamadas góticas, que son obras de generaciones de hombres. Pero hay una diferencia esencial, y es que los artesanos, los artífices de las catedrales, sabían bien lo que hacían. En cambio, Las mil y una noches surgen de modo misterioso. Son obra de miles de autores y ninguno pensó que estaba edificando un libro ilustre, uno de los libros más ilustres de todas las literaturas, más apreciados en el Occidente que en el Oriente, según me dicen.
Ahora, una noticia curiosa que transcribe el barón de Hammer Purgstall, un orientalista citado con admiración por Lañe y por Burton, los dos traductores ingleses más famosos de Las mil y una noches. Habla de ciertos de hombres que él llama confabulatores nocturni: hombres de la noche que refieren cuentos, hombres cuya profesión es contar cuentos durante la noche.
During Alonso’s convalescence, I have officiated as one of these nocturnal confabulators —an amplification of the role of éminence grise / grisaille I discussed here. Over the past nights, Alonso has requested that I read to him from the Muhsin Mahdi translation of the unending Nights, something I’ve been doing diligently and, he says, beautifully as well.4
This is one of several power-moves on his behalf. If all of Scheherazade’s efforts, and her genius, were meant to buy time and postpone death —one more day, every day— mine is to keep Alonso engaged through a kind of [n]everendingness where his accidents —where I’ll include his cancer— become essential to a new continuity, even if its conformation is no longer as linear as it is fatal.5 We are, as it were, exploring alternate timelines and lifelines already, being aware that ours is a story-within-a-story, the lineaments and limits of which are currently invisible to us. The more we explore the possibility-space around us, the better our insight will be into what can see us and what we cannot see.
But let me return to the Rimsky-Korsakov, whose symphony consists of four movements that are notably demanding of the winds: the pranic and aeolic energies inside the pit. Where the bows of the strings parsed their instruments like styluses and sabres (pen and sword) —and the harp, that string with wind characteristics, functioned liminally as an intertitle— the strain on the winds was apparent, with hotly flushed faces, popping head veins, intensely controlled breathing with a near-threat of airlessness. These are highly trained musicians, but the effort of executing Scheherazade on flutes, bassoons, oboes and clarinets is an important one. In a composition that is largely centred on maritime themes, the strings take the shape of the sea, but the winds are like freedivers. And then there’s Mehta, who walked in leaning on a cane and conducted —with no dearth in prowess— sans the use of his legs.
This spoke to me because, when I received the first report of Alonso’s injury —for which I was not present— I was told he was not breathing. I did not know if he could walk (and indeed, over several days, he could not). But I remember teletransporting to a pitch dark open field to find that breathing was all he was doing: in the way he had learned and practiced over decades through karate. He was, in fact, able to do it —to breathe, mindfully and with enormous concentration— while in excruciating pain, for the twelve hours that it took us to transport him back to Lima.
For reference, the accident happened several hours north of the capital, in considerable seclusion, among a small group of friends who instinctively knew how to react and behave as a unit when push came to shove, with a Gogolian stop at an exurban hospital that gave us no clear outlook on the nature and extent of the internal damage received. The only comparable level of uncertainty I have experienced, barely a year ago, was his acute cancer diagnosis; meaning I have skirted possible widowhood twice, in fourteen months, with no refractory period.
While Scheherazade’s daybreak may not be Nietzsche’s, she is –until maybe Klossowski’s tour de force in The Baphomet— the single greatest instance of the eternal return in literature. Her younger sister, Dunyazad —the harp in op. 35, if I may be so bold— officiates as mistress of ceremonies and as a framing device to open and close each night. She prompts her sister to start (or continue) her tales and bookmarks the cliffhanger for Scheherazade to pick up the next night.
Her presence also bestows an incantatory structure to the text —a different and indifferent repetitiousness to it— that is strongly reminiscent of the icaros —at once leitmotifs and lifelines— intoned by shamans during ceremonial ayahuasca trips. The myse-en-abymes of an entheogenic long night of the soul can pile unto seeming infinity, but the icaro is —like Dunyazad— present throughout, as the drawbridge that cannot be severed between inside and out; between reality and insight. In addition to the frame —provided by the set and setting of the trip— the icaro is a rhythmic anchor for it, and the successful navigation of uncertainty benefits vastly from counting with each of these factors.
Thus revisiting the matter of the eternal return, Nietzsche wrote, in an unpublished note:
The question which thou wilt have to answer before every deed that thou doest: 'is this such a deed as I am prepared to perform an incalculable number of times?' is the ballast.6
My answer —as befits the eternal feminine in literature, from Scheherazade to Molly Bloom— is yes, of course: I have, I will, I do.
Apropos the rest of this piece, note that the name Scheherazade is derived from the Middle Persian Čehrāzād, composed from čehr ('lineage') and āzād ('noble, exalted'). It is, in short, a thoroughbred’s name.
I have written more on thoroughbreds and the success of hippodromes during the middling part of the pandemic in Covidian Æsthetics, here. Equestrianism and horse racing remain abiding interests of mine since childhood.
The reason why this column is named Prudence in Hell is because it constitutes a study in phrōnesis at the limits of, and even as a limit, experience.
It may be that the virtue I bring to the table is some kind of kalokagathia. All is fair in love and war, but it appears that I am especially fair in those settings.
Ludovici, Anthony M., ed. 1911. "The Eternal Recurrence". Friedrich Nietzsche: The Twilight of the Idols. §28 – via Project Gutenberg.