On recursion

If this were a story by Borges, then a man very like Borges would have written an essay about Xanadu. In that essay, Borges would have noted that Samuel Taylor Coleridge reported in 1816 that the entire text for his poem about Kublai Khan had come to him in a dream. Years later – and long after Coleridge’s death - the relevant texts were translated and it turned out that the design for Xanadu had come to Kublai Khan in a dream.

Was it the same dream?

Borges decides to consult Roberto Calasso who, just a few weeks earlier, had written a story about Baudelaire’s dream. Baudelaire’s dream, naturally enough, had been had on his behalf by his friend Asselineau. In that dream, a general is saved from execution by shooting a horse. For Calasso this is a distinctive episode because the symbolic substitution of a horse for a leader is the pre-eminent ritual in Vedic culture. Vedic culture is of especial interest to Calasso because of the importance it placed on the realm of the mind. So concerned were the Vedics with the mind that, in a culture that lasted for a thousand years, they didn’t bother with material artefacts. They left no buildings, no paintings, no weaponry, no kitchenware. They were too busy with rituals and dreams.

Was it the same dream?

Calasso excitedly points out to Borges that Baudelaire could not have known about the Vedic dream ritual of leaders and horses because the relevant texts had not yet been translated.

Borges is understandably delighted. “Let’s tell Douglas Hofstadter,” he suggests.

Hofstadter tells them he is always reading a recently-published paper entitled “Can superstition create a self-fulfilling prophecy?” In China – he explains – people believe that children born in the year of the Dragon will be destined for good fortune. As a result, there is a surge in births each time the year of the Dragon comes around. The economists looked at the data and discovered that children born in the year of the Dragon really do seem to benefit from good fortune – they are more likely to go to university than children born in other years; and they get higher scores than other students while they’re there.

Borges and Calasso (and Baudelaire and Coleridge) are waiting with breath bated – is it the same dream?

Hofstadter has disappointing news. Stripping away all the confounding variables, the economists discover that the parents of Dragon children, in having an expectation of higher performance, invest more in their children – more time, more attention, more money, more love – and, as a result, the children do better. Their superstitious beliefs drive their real-world behaviour, which has outcomes that support their superstitious beliefs.

Well this is perfect, suggests Borges, to the surprise of the others.

How so?, wonders Coleridge.

The self-fulfilling prophecy, Borges explains, would mean we could conjecture a future looped text that referred only to itself, in which we would all appear as characters that had written about self-referential events, in the full and certain knowledge that, by prophesying it we would ensure its future appearance.

“Who among us,” says Baudelaire, “has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations”

“Is it the same dream?” asks Calasso.


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