Jorge Luis Borges’s Zoom Birthday Speech

Spinoza believed that all things long to persist in their being; the face mask eternally wants to be a face mask, the cat a cat. In lockdown, Beppo clings to his felinity. But it would be an exaggeration to say that I become more myself. Copulation and parties I used to find abominable, for they multiply the numbers of men. In such small matters, the Jorge Luis Borges of today is not the man he was before the pandemic. Permit me to explain by fabricating an arcane and discursive parable.

On Night 121, according to Richard Burton’s footnotes in The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade wishes Shahryar an early happy birthday, misjudging the murderous monarch’s desire for a solid eight hours of sleep before his big day. In return, the King of Kings demands a gift, a self-referential tale of conjugal caprice during a time of pestilence, on the longest and most tormented of the Nights. Interestingly, Edward Lane — Burton’s rival in love and translation — omits the episode, referring only to the heresy of cream cheese frosting on chocolate cake in the eyes of the Almighty.

I may not be the embittered emperor of Persia, but it is my birthday. After 121 days of self-isolation with a cat, despite my fondness for Lane’s Victorian discretion, I find myself admiring the ribaldry of Burton’s invention… and craving cake, cream cheese and company.

This conclave (which some call a Zoom meeting) hangs on a veritable Aleph, the place where all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist. It is difficult to describe the experience of witnessing all of you, simultaneously, from afar. Mystics, facing similar wonders, resorted to symbols: Dante’s eagle in Paradiso is composed of the souls of just rulers, who complain in one voice of the plague and its concomitant horrors of homeschooling; al-Attar wrote of the Simurgh, the pigeon-king who is all pigeons that soil the Sufi’s shirt during his socially distanced walks in the bicycle- and Mongol-free parks of Nishapur; and kabbalistic etiology holds that God struck down the Tower of Babel not for mankind’s hubris but because He was annoyed by the infernal chatter and couldn’t find Mute All. (You may have noticed that I am unafflicted by the selfsame malady.)

How did the world come to be so? In the garden of forking paths, the traveler is tempted to look back at whence he came and wonder where else in the dizzying net of divergent times he could have ended up. In one of countless pasts, Beppo did not lose his personalized Etsy mask in the Trader Joe’s wine section; in another, bats and the pathogens they harbor went extinct in the late Eocene epoch; and in one tragically proximate past, your masters did not peddle untruth and 160,000 American lives were not lost.

The truth is that Beppo no longer possesses a mask and human pathogens vastly outnumber human beings. Schopenhauer (passionate yet lucid Schopenhauer) declares in the third volume of his Parerga und Paralipomena that truth has meaning only in finitude. Drawing upon an infinite medical library whose shelves hold all possible texts — the history of past and future pandemics, psychological profiles of American presidents, the true epidemiological treatise on the coronavirus, countless false ones, rebuttals of those false works, the op-eds Anthony Fauci could have written but did not, a compendium of Reddit posts on the benefits of drinking bleach — how are a people to conclude that masks save lives? I declare that this library (which others call the world) is a wide web whose center is everywhere and whose circumference covers the expanse from Mountain View to Menlo Park.

A group rendition of Que los cumplas feliz was the last item on today’s agenda, but unfortunately I must bid you farewell, for the heresiarch E. Yuan has decreed that time be limited for Basic accounts. Gifts are optional, even though the rose is eternal and home delivery poses little risk.

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