Piranesi | Designing from Ruins of Antiquity
Among the many conundrums of Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Immortal” is the City of Immortals itself: why does it fill the narrator with horror? What does the City of the Immortals tell us about immortality?
First, some background (though as we will see, Borges’ narrative is not what it seems). The Roman soldier Marcus Flaminius Rufus sets out across the desert with soldiers and mercenaries to find the river of immorality and the City of the Immortals. The soldiers desert and mutiny and Rufus is forced to flee, injured, into the desert sandstorms. Nearly dead from thirst, he wakes with his hands tied near an impure stream. On the opposite bank is the City of the Immortals. From niches in the valley and mountain emerge the Troglodytes who do not speak and devour serpents.
Rufus drinks from the impure stream “clogged with débris and sand” (108)1 – it is the river of immortality. Eventually, he frees himself from his bonds and journeys onward into the City of Immortals, accompanied by a Troglodyte. He wanders through a labyrinth for an interminable time, eventually emerging into the horrific City of the Immortals.
This palace is a fabrication of the gods, I thought at the beginning. I explored the uninhabited interiors and corrected myself: The gods who built it have died. I noted its peculiarities and said: The gods who built it were mad. I said it, I know, with an incomprehensible reprobation which was almost remorse, with more intellectual horror than palpable fear. To the impression of the enormous antiquity others were added: that of the interminable, that of the atrocious, that of the complexly senseless (110).
I had crossed a labyrinth, but the nitid [nítida] City of the Immortals filled me with fright and repugnance. A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries is subordinated to that end. In the palace I imperfectly explored, the architecture lacked any such finality. It abounded in dead end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors which led to a cell or pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and balustrades hung downwards (110).
Unlike the mathematical logic and symmetry of M.C. Escher’s impossible objects, the City of Immortals has no order or finality. Labyrinths are confusing, but comprehensible. The City of Immortals does not allow any relief from confusion because it has no order. Perhaps Piranesi’s Carceri Plate VII (1745, 1761) gives us an inkling of the City’s nature:
Rufus goes on:
This City” (I thought) “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars. As long as it lasts, no one in the world can be strong or happy. (111)
He claims that he does not want to describe it but nonetheless adds: “a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull in which teeth, organs and heads monstrously pullulate in mutual conjunction and hatred can (perhaps) be approximate images.” (111)
The quest for the river of immortality – ultimately, an impure stream – is a reflection on immortality itself. The City of the Immortals is a monument to the senseless horror of living forever. The prospect of immortality has attracted surprisingly few supporters. Before departing on his journey, Rufus notes: “In Rome, I conversed with philosophers who felt that to extend man’s life is to extend his agony and multiply his deaths.” (106) Less dramatically, “Death (or its allusion) makes men precious and pathetic.” (115) It gives meaning to our pursuits and projects.
Human beings have great difficulty conceiving of eternity. In some respects, Borges’ tale is a cipher for fathoming the nature of immortality, insofar as we fathom it at all. At first, the story appears to be about Rufus’s discovery of immortality and the City of the Immortals, but this is in fact not central. The narrative frequently alludes to the unreliability of memory which is compounded by how the story is delivered. Rufus’s story is reported by a manuscript inside the last volume of Pope’s Iliad sold to the Princess of Lucinge by the antique dealer Joseph Cartaphilus. Already, we have a manuscript that is a sort of manuscript that “is written in English and abounds in Latinisms” (105) (translated in Borges’ original to Spanish!).
But it is not merely a matter that the narrative is unreliable; rather, immortality destroys the conventions of authorship and of narration itself. This is revealed once it becomes clear that the mute troglodytes are the immortals. Rufus names the one who followed him Argos after Odysseus’s dog, only to find that Argos is Homer himself. But there is an added twist: the narration is confused and appears to have two narrators, Flaminius Rufus and Homer who are one and the same. Immortality would strip humanity of its achievements and its value:
Seen in this manner, all our acts are just, but they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; if we postulate an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible thing is not to compose the Odyssey, at least once. No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist (114).
The immortals themselves, “judging that all undertakings are in vain, determined to live in thought, in pure speculation.” (113) This is the curse of immortality:
Indoctrinated by a practice of centuries, the republic of immortal men had attained the perfection of tolerance and almost that of indifference. They knew that in an infinite period of time, all things happen to all men. Because of his part or future virtues, every man is worth of all goodness, but also of all perversity, because of his infamy in the past or future (114).
One day the immortals become convinced that if there is a river that grants immortality, there must be another river that takes it away. They set off to find it knowing that eventually they will drink from every river and find the one that allows them to die.
1I quote from James E. Irby’s translation in Labyrinths.