I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me
I read again today Borges on the first Emperor of all China and, as rarely happens with that consummate miniaturist, I was left less than satisfied. Borges approaches an explanation, in which the intention of the building and the burning is, in some secret way, to counteract each other but then he steps back, denying his own ability to explicate. Borges’s art, however, is always to take us beyond his own words and to hint to us at whole worlds. So, perhaps, we should take the imperfect cadence on which his essay ends as an invitation to begin.
Let us imagine, then, that one day Shih Huang Ti received a visitor. The wandering Jew had heard the tales of his grandiose achievements. Ushered forward by the counsellors, he narrates to the emperor a story from the history of the far west, telling him of Nimrod and his tower at Babel. The Emperor smiles: ‘I am greater than Nimrod. He attempted more than he could achieve and so his tower was never completed. But I am capable of what I will and, look, my wall is done.’ The Jew raises his sad eyes, momentarily catching the imperial stare. He hastily lowers his gaze again, as he gives a slight shake of the head and mutters: ‘but that is not your Babel’. And so he leaves, avoiding the fate of those, alchemists or Confucians, whom the Emperor orders to be buried alive.
The Emperor gives no sign of having heard the Jew’s response. If he had (his counsellors assume), he would have brushed it aside: how ridiculous; of course, it is my Babel; if not, then what else? They talk among themselves about what might have been meant, and one says what the other dare not: of Shih Huang Ti’s twin deeds, the more gargantuan task, so great that its accomplishment was implausible, was the destruction of all the books. The removal of written records should have killed off Confucius, but his fame has not died.
The counsellors, so close to their master, are still liable to misjudge him. In the corridors of his own mind, a chill breeze of recognition has brushed his cheek. No, I cannot destroy all books, but at least I have my wall. It is a consolation for my failure.
Years after the visit of the wandering Jew, when that day could hardly be remembered, the burnt books take on an added meaning for the Emperor. He is old and does not want to end his days. Timor mortis conturbat me. He seeks the elixir of life and seeks, ever more desperately. During this, his last challenge, he reviews his past life and reasons to himself how right he had been to cast out all those memorials of previous times. To remember is to live before birth and beyond death – but to do so is necessarily to acknowledge the temporal limits of life. To forget is immortal.