All reviews copyright 2005-2013 Evelyn C. Leeper.
"April March" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/04/2010]
Back in January 1996, Mark wrote about alternate pasts in the MT VOID. Briefly, he said:
"It is the usual model to say that the set of possible alternate histories has a tree structure opening toward the future. That is, that you have at some point in time events happening that could go one way or another so you consider this a branch point to two or more alternate futures. ... For me anyway it seems likely that if there are alternate futures, there should also be alternate pasts. The branching should take place going in either direction. Most reactions in science are time-symmetric. With the exception of entropy most reactions are reversible in time. ... Currently we think of the whole set of possible alternate futures as a big and rather motley set. We think of there being only one past, because that is what we remember, but there would have to be an infinite set of pasts all of which lead to this one present and then the timelines diverge again going separate ways into the future. ... The problem is that while it is easy for us to imagine a huge array of different possible futures that come out of our present, it is difficult to imagine even one significantly different past that could have led to our present. About the nearest thing to it in human experience is the fact that different cultures have different creation myths. ... It nonetheless would be interesting to see if a good writer could give us a convincing alternate past story. It might be easy enough if it were set back in the Triassic, though it would be less interesting than a setting more recent. But any convincing alternate past supposedly from another timeline is probably indistinguishable from a viable theory of our own past."
At the time I might have said something about how this was effectively a description of what alternate history fans usually call "secret histories". Wikipedia says, "A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or not a subject dealt with by respectable scholars. Further, it says, "Secret history is sometimes used ... to preserve continuity with the present by reconciling paranormal, anachronistic, or otherwise notable but unrecorded events with what actually happened in known history."
However, I recently ran across another, more "pure" example of alternate pasts: the fictional book "April March". Long-time readers of this column will hardly be surprised to hear that this was invented (possibly) by Jorge Luis Borges in "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain".
One could say that "April March" was in the structural genre of MEMENTO and Harold Pinter's "Betrayal", except that "April March" predated both of them.
"April March" begins with a chapter which takes place on a railway platform. The next three chapters are three different possibilities for what happened the evening before, and the next nine provide the preceding evening to each of these, again three each.
Now I suppose that this is just a slightly fleshed out version of what Mark had said--after all, Borges does not actually write any of the stories.
[A side note: there are two sorts of stories that run backwards. One is the sort we have been discussing, where there is standard time-flow but episodes are examined in reverse order. The other is actual "time reversal" fiction, such as Martin Amis's TIME'S ARROW and Philip K. Dick's COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD. I don't *think* Borges wrote any of the latter, though it seems like his sort of thing.]
"Averroës' Search" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/09/2010]
Re-reading "Averroës' Search" by Jorge Luis Borges reminded me of all those "future archaeology" books. I have previously referred to Gary Westfahl's article about this genre, "The Addled Archaeology of the Future", which discusses Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (1849), John Ames Mitchell's THE LAST AMERICAN (1889), Robert Nathan's THE WEANS (1960), and Macaulay's MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES (1979). "Averroës' Search" postulates that Averroës, when he read the words "tragedy" and "comedy" in Aristotle's "Poetics", had no idea what they meant because he had never seen a drama, or rather never saw anything he recognized as a drama. For shortly after he has been thinking on what the terms might mean, he glances out the window and sees three boys "playing" with one standing on the shoulders of the second, and the third kneeling with his head on the ground. Averroës recognizes them as being the muezzin, the tower, and the congregation, but makes no extension of this to a dramatic form. And when his friend Abulcasim describes seeing a play in China, his description is similar to the "future archaeology" style--the interpretation of what is going on is just a bit off. (Even when he explains the idea of drama, though, one of the people listening asks why they needed twenty people to tall a story that one person could tell just as well.)
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"The Babylon Lottery" by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2007]
I was reminded of "The Babylon Lottery" when I read someone's comment that as far as government health insurance goes, all they want is the same medical plan their Congresspersons get. This would be far more likely in a "Babylon-Lottery" situation, because the Congresspersons would know that with the next roll of the dice, *they* could end up with whatever health plan a random person in the society gets.
BORGES ANTES EL ESPEJO by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/24/2009]
Having read many of the books published in English about Jorge Luis Borges, I figured the time had come to branch out, so I decided to try BORGES ANTES EL ESPEJO by Jorge Mejia Prieto and Justo R. Molachino (ISBN-13 978-970-732-133-5, ISBN-10 970-732-133-4), in Spanish. It was probably the best possible choice to start with, being only 180 pages, and consisting almost entirely of one- or two-paragraph quotes by or about Borges.
Some random samples (all translations are mine, which is why I am giving you the original Spanish as well):
Borges talks about how he and his sister had invisible friends when they were young and, "Finalamente, cuando nos aburrimos de ellos, le dijemos a nuestra madre que habían muerto." ("Finally, when we were bored with them, we told my mother that they had died.") [page 17]
Perhaps an early example of Borges's playing with the the concrete versus the figurative can be found in José Ángel Valente's comment of Borges's thoughts when he was a boy on buying items: "Pero si el objeto que el niño desaba adquirir costaba más de un peso y menos de dos, ¿cuál era de las dos monedas de un peso la que el comerciante le cambiaba?" ("But if an object that the boy wanted to acquire cost more than one peso and less than two, which of the two one-peso coins was the one that the cashier gave him change from?") [page 22]
I must admit that sometimes I found that I had initially mistranslated something--and I liked it better that way. "Me lanzó a esta aventura el 'Sartor restartus' ('El remendón remendado') de Carlyle, que me deslumbró y dejó perplejo." I initially read this as "I threw myself into the adventure of 'Sartor Restartus' ... by Carlyle, that put me to sleep and perplexed me." But it *actually* says, "I threw myself into the adventure of 'Sartor Restartus' ... by Carlyle, that dazzled me and perplexed me." [page 26]
Weeks ago, I commented on Borges's comment on politicians: "Creo que ningún político puede ser una persona totalamente sincera. Un político esta buscando siempre electores y dice lo que esperan que diga. En el caso do un discurso político los que opinan son los oyentes. más que el orador. El orador es una especia de espejo o eco de lo que los demás piensan. Si no es así, fracasa." ("I believe that no politician can be a wholly sincere person. A politician is always looking at the voters and says what they want him to say. On the case of a political discourse it is the listeners whose opinion is expressed more than the speaker's. The speaker is a type of mirror or echo of what others think. If this is not so, he loses.") [page 43] Both this quote, and the title of the book, are reflections (!) of the importance of mirrors in Borges's work. I have commented on this at length in my reviews of Labyrinths and A Universal History of Infamy.
Borges even comments on his recurring symbols: "¡Ah, los laberintos! ¡Ah, los símbolos! Al final de cada año me hago una promesa: el año próximo renunciaré a los laberintos, a los tigres, a los cuchillos, a los espejos. Pero no hay nada que hacer, es algo m s fuerte que yo. Comienzo a escribir y, de golpe, he aquí que surge un laberinto, que un tigre cruza la p gina, que un cuchillo brilla, que un espejo refleja una imagen." ("Ah, the labyrinths! Ah, the symbols! At the end of every year I make myself a promise: the next year I will renounce the labyrinths, the tigers, the knives, the mirrors. But there is nothing to be done-- it is something stronger than me. I start to write and, suddenly, up pops a labyrinth, or a bright knife, or a mirror reflecting a face.") [page 118]
In CONVERSATIONS WITH JORGE LUIS BORGES, Borges explains why he wrote only short works: "I think what I want to write, but, of course, they have to be short pieces because otherwise, if I want to see them all at once--that can't be done with long texts. ... I want to see at [one] glance what I've done ... that is why I don't believe in the novel because I believe that a novel is as hazy to the writer as to the reader." In BORGES ANTE EL ESPEJO he is quoted as having said of novels: "Soy demasiado perezoso para escribir novelas. Para hacerlo hay que utilizar muchos rellenos. Antes de llegar at tercer capítulo me sentiría tan aburrido que nunca llegaría a terminarla. La novela es una supersticíon de nuestro tiempo, como lo fueron la tragedia de cinco actos y la epopeya. Es verosímil que desaparezca. Puede haber una literatura sin novelas de cuatrocientas o quinientas p ginas, pero no sin poemas o cuentos." ("I am too lazy to write novels. In order to do that, I would have to use too much 'stuffing.' Before getting to the third chapter I would be so bored that I would never manage to finish it. The novel is a 'superstition' of our times, as was the tragedy in five acts and the epic poem [earlier]. It is likely that it will disappear. One can have a literature with novels of four hundred or five hundred pages, but not without poems or short stories.") [page 109]
Borges also talked about how he tried to write as simply as possible; I wrote about his statements and how they do or do not apply to other authors in my comments about H. P. Lovecraft in the 10/31/08 issue of the MT VOID.
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BORGES ON WRITING by Jorge Luis Borges:
TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES by Jorges Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/08/2006]
I had read most of the Jorge Luis Borges available through my library system, but I was recently in a Library not in the system, so I read a couple of books that they had: BORGES ON WRITING edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane (ISBN 0-525-47352-1) and TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES (ISBN 0-394-62192-1). The latter is a collection of interviews by Roberto Alifano carried out between 1981 and 1983, and I will make a couple of comments. In "Funes and Insomnia", Borges claims that "memorious" is not an English word. Actually it is a very old word, dating back to at least 1599; Shakespeare uses it a year later in TIMON OF ATHENS.
In "Books", Borges says, "Scripta manent verba volant (The written word stays, the spoken word flies). That phrase doesn't mean that the spoken word is ephemeral, but rather that the written word is something lasting and dead. The spoken word, it seems to me now, is somewhat winged and light...."
And then later, he adds, "I believe that books will never disappear. It is impossible that that will happen. Among the many inventions of man, the book, without a doubt, is the most astounding; all the others are extensions of our bodies. The telephone, for example, is the extension of our voice; the telescope and the microscope are extensions of our sight; the sword and the plow are extensions of our arms. Only the book is an extension of our imagination and memory."
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"The Gospel According to Mark" by Jorge Luis Borges:
"The Streets of Ashkelon" by Harry Harrison: [From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/05/2008]
As regular readers of this column know, I am a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges. Recently I listened to a reading (in English) of his story "The Gospel According to Mark" (from DOCTOR BRODIE'S REPORT, written between 1970 and 1972). And something clicked, and I said, "I've read this before." An on-line query turned up the answer: this is basically the same story as Harry Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon". And lest you think that Harrison may have borrowed from Borges, Harrison published "The Streets of Ashkelon" in 1962.
So did Borges read the Harrison story? Well, "The Streets of Ashkelon" first appeared in Brian W. Aldiss's original anthology NEW WORLDS and has been anthologized over three dozen times (in fourteen languages), including a half dozen before the writing of "The Gospel According to Mark". It is possible that Borges read it in English (a Spanish translation did not appear until 1987). It is also possible that the idea is one that could easily occur independently to two different authors.
The Borges is available on-line at http://www.mrtheilacker.com/gospel_mark_borges.doc> or http://anagrammatically.com/2008/03/09/borges-gospel-according-to-mark> (the latter being bilingual). The Harrison is not available on-line.
JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS with Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/08/2008]
After reading Edwin Williamson's opinion on the name "Emma Zunz", I ran across Borges's own comments on "Emma Zunz" in JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS (ISBN-13 978-1-578-06076-4, ISBN-10 1-578-06076-1) in a conversation with Richard Burgin in 1967. What Borges says is, "[Even] the name Emma was chosen because I thought it particularly ugly, but not strikingly ugly, no? And the name Zunz is a very poor name, no? I remember I had a great friend named Emma and she said to me, 'But why did you give that awful girl my name?' And then, of course, I couldn't say the truth, but the truth was that when I wrote down the name Emma with the two m's and Zunz with the two z's, I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name, and I had quite forgotten that one of my best friends was called Emma. The name seems so meaningless, so insignificant, doesn't it sound that way to you?" Nothing about the letters being mirror images, or rotations, or whatever.
On why he wrote only short works, Borges says, "I think what I want to write, but, of course, they have to be short pieces because otherwise, if I want to see them all at once--that can't be done with long texts. ... I want to see at [one] glance what I've done ... that is why I don't believe in the novel because I believe that a novel is as hazy to the writer as to the reader." This "holistic" view of a short story reminded me of the written language in Ted Chiang's "The Stories of Your Life". In that language, a sentence was not a series of consecutive words, but rather a single complex ideogram, written as a whole. (What is it about Borges, languages, and science fiction? A language he described in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" was very similar to that in the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Darmok".)
Borges also talked about an earlier Argentinian science fiction writer, Leopoldo Lugones, and Lugones's 1907 book LAS FUERZAS EXTRANAS (STRANGE FORCES), influenced by Wells and Poe. This is available in book form in English, or (if you read Spanish) free on the Internet at http://www.edicionesdelsur.com/cuentos_lugones.htm.
(JORGE LUIS BORGES: CONVERSATIONS should not be confused with TWENTY-FOUR CONVERSATIONS WITH BORGES with Roberto Alifano. What is it about Borgesian books?)
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OTHER INQUISITIONS by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/06/2006]
One finds references to Jorge Luis Borges in the oddest places. I was reading the title essay in ADAM'S NAVEL by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 0-146-00047-1), in which Gould discusses (and refutes) Philip Henry Gosse's OMPHALOS: AN ATTEMPT TO UNTIE THE GEOLOGICAL KNOT. Gosse's theory was that the world had been created by God out of nothing, but that there was a timeline before creation, implied but just as real as that after creation, and that Adam's navel, fossils in stone, and implications of growth and evolution before the time of Creation are all necessary to testify to this pre-Creation timeline. In a postscript, Gould writes that after the essay first appeared, he learned that Borges had written a comment on Gosse in "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" (OTHER INQUISITIONS, ISBN 0-292-76002-7). I find it amusing, if not downright bizarre, that the blurb on the back of OTHER INQUISITIONS from the "Saturday Evening Post" says, ". . . the word that best describes these essays is manly." I have seen many adjectives applied to Borges's writing, but up until now "manly" has not been one of them. ADAM'S NAVEL is one of those delightful "Penguin 60s" created for the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books.
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THIS CRAFT OF VERSE by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/08/2013]
THIS CRAFT OF VERSE by Jorge Luis Borges (read by Jorge Luis Borges) (ISBN 978-0-674-00587-7) consists of six lectures: "The Riddle of Poetry", "The Metaphor", "The Telling of the Tale", "Word Music and Translation", "Thought and Poetry", and "A Poet's Creed". So when I say that the book was "read" by Borges, that is not quite true, because what I listened to were recordings of the original lectures, which were later transcribed into a book. These lectures were given at Harvard during the 1967-1968 school year, but the tapes were missing or unknown for thirty years before being re- discovered in the archives. I am not generally a fan of audiobooks, but clearly this is an exception, both because the spoken version was the original format, and because it is Borges himself delivering it.
The lectures are full of examples and references, and this is all the more amazing in that by this time Borges was almost entirely blind, so he delivered these lectures (each about forty-five minutes long) with no notes. Thus when in the lectures on metaphors, he goes through dozens of metaphors in a half-dozen different languages, complete with translations and analysis, he is doing it entirely from memory. Two of my favorites were the Anglo- Saxon use of the term "whale-road" for the sea and John Burgon's description of Petra as "the rose-red city, half as old as time." Borges discusses why that is so much more evocative than "the rose- red city, as old as time," and also references use of "the thousand nights and a night" rather than just "the thousand nights."
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stories by Jorge Luis Borges:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2007]
If science fiction is the literature of ideas, then the quintessential science fictional author is Jorge Luis Borges. This occurred to me when someone cited a short story by Borges, "The Library of Babel", and I realized once more that many of Borges's stories are not really stories, but "merely" ideas or concepts, unfettered by characters or plot. "The Library of Babel", "The Babylon Lottery", "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "Funes the Memorious", ... so many of the "stories" are ideas presented so beautifully as to convince the reader that they are complete in themselves.
SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/28/2006]
Until a short while ago, I was unaware of the existence of SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares (ISBN 0-525-20480-6). I thought I had looked through all the bibliographies and such for Borges, but I suppose that they may not have included books that were co-authored, or they were in a separate section or something. But checking what Borges was available at the library, I ran across this delightful book. These six detective stories feature Don Isidro Parodi and are (not surprisingly, given his name) parodies of classic detective stories. For example, Parodi is frequently referred to as "the prisoner in cell 273", which cannot help but evoke Jacques Futrelle's classic story "The Problem of Cell 13" as well as Baroness Orzy's "Man in the Corner" (who solves mysteries without ever leaving his corner table in the coffee shop). There are references to more Hollywood movies than one can imagine, as well as to such authors as James M. Cain and H. G. Wells. And when one reads, "My brain is a huge refrigerator. The circumstances of the death of Julia Ruis Villalba--Pumita to her peers--live on in this gray vessel, untainted," one cannot help but think of Hercules Poirot and his habit of referring to his brain as "the little grey cells." Even some of the plots copy classic stories; one seems heavily modeled after a Sherlock Holmes story.
(Borges's co-authored books include SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI, CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ, EXTRAORDINARY TALES, and NEW CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ (all with Adolfo Bioy-Casares); AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE (with Esther Zemborain de Torres), THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS (with Marguerita Guerrero) and ATLAS (with Maria Kodama). ATLAS, AN INTRODUCTION TO AMERICAN LITERATURE, and THE BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS are non- fiction. "The Immortals" ("Los inmortales") from THE ALEPH AND OTHER STORIES 1933-1969 is from CHRONICLES OF BUSTOS DOMECQ. I mention this because it is *not* included in Borges's "complete" COLLECTED FICTIONS, which omits all co-authored works.)
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BORGES: A LIFE by Edwin Williamson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/08/2008]
BORGES: A LIFE by Edwin Williamson (ISBN-13 978-0-143-03556-5, ISBN-10 0-143-03556-8) is a very thorough biography of the life of Jorge Luis Borges--so thorough down to precise addresses that one could easily create a tour of Buenos Aires (and Geneva and Madrid), visiting all the houses where he lived, cafes where he ate, and so on. Beyond providing the minutiae of daily life, it also covers Borges's literary influences, contacts, and so on.
It also refreshed my memory on the word "tertulia", which I had first encountered in the film BUNUEL AND KING SOLOMON'S TABLE, but could not bring to mind. A "tertulia" is a group of friends who meet regularly at a cafe for discussions, and it struck me as an excellent term for the group that my father is in that meets twice a week at McDonald's. They have been meeting there for over twenty years. It used to be every day, but they cut back over the last few years. Borges's tertulia in Madrid did not last anywhere near that long, but almost definitely had a greater literary effect.
Borges wrote of learning Anglo-Saxon that it afforded him. "The pure contemplation of a language at its dawn" ["Al iniciar el estudio de la gramatica anglosajona"]. It's an understandable reaction, but there is something wrong with it. Assume that he was studying Anglo-Saxon from the ninth century. The problem is that in the ninth century they were not sitting around saying, "We're starting a new language here." Whatever state the language was in, it was in a continuum from what people were speaking in the eighth century and what people were speaking in the tenth century. Saying that this was a "language at its dawn" is really putting the perception of people a millennium later on the situation.
I was sure that I had remembered that Borges's first appearance in English was in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, but it was actually in FANTASTIC UNIVERSE--"The Rejected Sorcerer" appeared in the March 1960 issue of that magazine. This was not mentioned at all by Williamson.
And at times I think Williamson may be reading too much into Borges:
"Borges drew attention to the name of the protagonist: 'Emma with two m's and Zunz with two z's, I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name... [T]he name seems so meaningless, so insignificant.' And yet, as he would have known, the name is so heavily charge with meaning that it reverberates like a magic charm. Emma is an abbreviated form of he father's name, Emmanuel, which in Hebrew signifies the 'savior.' Beginning and ending in vowels, Emma has an open, expansive quality, but Zumz is a thoroughly inverted word--the internal u and n are inverted mirror images of each other, and they are further boxed in by the two z's, which themselves are shaped like capital N's turned on their side. It is as if the fullness of Emmanuelle had been truncated to Emma by its juxtaposition with Zunz, and in that conjunction of a and z we again come across introversion--the a, which is the last letter of Emma, is also the first letter of the alphabet, but it is blocked by the letter z, which is the initial letter of Zunz, while being, of course, the final letter of the alphabet. The overall effect is of a confusion of beginnings and endings, of openings and closures, from which there is no issue other than in the blank space in the middle that divides one name from the other. In purely graphic terms, the name Emma Zunz functions as an ideogram of the kind of solipsistic labyrinth in which Borges imagined himself to be trapped, for all the ements end up turning in on themselves, pointing to nothing but reflections or distortions of each other, so that if there is a promise of salvation in the first name emma, the second, Zunz, stops it dead."
My one complaint about Williamson's book is that the proof-reading has some slips, including consistently giving Poe's name as "Edgar Allen Poe".
(Williamson's BORGES: A LIFE should not be confused with James Woodall's BORGES: A LIFE. Whatever possessed Williamson, whose last name also starts with a 'W', to choose the precise same title as Woodall, it must have been some Borgesian paradox.)
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JORGE LUIS BORGES by Jason Wilson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/22/2013]
JORGE LUIS BORGES by Jason Wilson (ISBN 978-1-86189-286-7) is in Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series, and combines a short biography with an analysis of how the events in Borges's life affected his thinking and writing. For example, Wilson says that Borges's friendship with Macedonio Fernandez "taught him to read [and presumably to write] skeptically." Wilson also points out how in his stories and poems Borges makes references and allusions to real people in his life, sometimes just by name, sometimes more in the manner of a roman a clef. My main complaint is that the book has no index.
In reading Wilson's comments about "Funes, the Memorious" it struck me that Funes's memory resembles that of a person with Asperger's, not just in its extent, but in its insistence on specificity: "He was, don't forget, almost incapable of generalities or Platonic ideals. Not only was it difficult for him to understand that the generic term 'dog' covered so many disparate individuals of diverse size and form, it distressed him that the dog of 3:14 PM seen in profile had the same name as the dog of 3:15 PM (seen from the front)." This is close to the situation Temple Grandin describes: she can remember every chair she has seen, but has difficulty with the idea of a "Platonic" chair. However, I do not think this extends to perceiving the dog at 3:14 as a different dog than that at 3:15. In part, this is because there would be the problem that there would be another dog at 3:14:30, and another one at 3:14:15, and indeed, an infinite number of dogs between those two times.
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