Rubik’s Cube

by Pablo Martín Sánchez
Introduction and translation by Jeff Diteman

Translator’s note

In Spain, Pablo Martín Sánchez is best known for his novel El anarquista que se llamaba como yo, published in 2012 by Acantilado. The newspaper El Mundo named that book the best debut novel of the year, and it has earned the author widespread acclaim in the Spanish literary press. Outside of Spain, Pablo is best known for being a member of the Oulipo, the exclusive club of literary experimentalists founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The group is interested in renewing literature by turning away from the idea of spontaneous inspiration and instead embracing formal constraint. Queneau had been a member of the Surrealists, but after breaking with them, he became a critic of automatic writing. “The ancient poet,” he opined, “writing his tragedy while observing a certain number of rules that he is aware of, is freer than the poet who writes everything that comes to his mind, who is the slave to other rules of which he is unaware.”

It is in his embrace of Queneau’s spirit of intentional, orderly, cerebral innovation that Pablo is to be considered a thoroughly Oulipian author, although some of his writing may not appear on the surface to be formally experimental. Indeed, The Anarchist Who Shared My Name, my translation of which was published by Deep Vellum in 2018, can be read as a fairly straightforward novel, because in that work Pablo has chosen to “hide the bones,” so that the constraints, intertextuality, and metafictional conceits do not distract from the story. In his more recent novel, Tuyo es el mañana (2016), the author repeats the feat of integrating a spirit of formal innovation into a story that remains accessible to readers who might be unfamiliar with the Oulipian canon. His forthcoming dystopian novel Diario de un viejo cabezota (Reus, 2066) will surely continue the trend.

In assessing Pablo’s position in the tradition of experimental writing, it is important to look beyond the Oulipo, to those writers that Oulipians might call “plagiarists by anticipation,” i.e. those who did Oulipian things before the Oulipo, sensu stricto, existed. Central and paramount among these is Jorge Luis Borges. It is in homage to Borges that Martín Sánchez’s 2011 collection of short stories is titled Fricciones, a riff on the Argentine author’s seminal collection Ficciones, which includes such mind-bending works as “The Library of Babel,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It is impossible to overemphasize the impact that these pieces have had on the genre of writing that takes writing itself as a proper subject of contemplation, allowing concepts such as meaning and knowledge to function as protagonists in tales where conventional features such as plot and character, while not absent, become secondary considerations. Echoes of Borges can be detected in the works of writers as disparate as Derrida and Cortázar, Anne Carson and Italo Calvino. Pablo Martín Sánchez’s collection Fricciones is full of quirky little pieces that draw on the same spirit that nourished the imaginations of Borges, Calvino, Perec, and their ilk. Cyclical time, inverted causality, and paradox are prevailing themes in these tales. Topics include the pharmaceutical specifications of the kiss, an ars poetica for metric poetry (i.e. poetry written while riding the metro), and a silent love affair based on a misunderstanding of Oedipal proportions. These pieces were my first introduction to Pablo’s work, so it has been a great pleasure to translate a few of them for publication, particularly the present piece, “Rubik’s Cube.” This is one of the most bizarre texts in the collection, presenting an alternate reality in which three great philosophers miss the mark, pointing to the utter contingency of intellectual history. It is a playful little piece, but if we pause to consider it deeply, we can perceive the very serious implications of this contingency. I think of the sheer bad luck that caused Walter Benjamin to die at the Franco-Spanish border rather than escaping to the United States as his peers Adorno and Arendt did. Imagine what insights he might have produced had he lived on into the 1950s! Alas, he did not. Perhaps this is why we keep returning to authors of the past, to try to realign the Rubik’s Cube so that their unrealized potential might emerge. What I love about Pablo’s writing is the way it renews the literature of ideas with fresh, contemporary language and imagery, establishing unexpected continuities between the great allegorical innovations of past genius and the discursive heterogeneity of our chaotic present. Ludic, Borgesian, postmodern, and yet subtle, humanistic, and sometimes sentimental, Pablo Martín Sánchez is an author who will not soon be forgotten.

~

Rubik’s Cube

1.  Socrates

They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. They also say that a line is a series of points. Here we will claim that life is a line of moments, and among these there is always one that opens the door to posterity: one must simply know how to find it, by lining up the right place and the right time. If we also manage to adorn the moment with an inspired turn of phrase, we will probably pave the path to glory (and the clever utterance will then become the shortest distance between fame and oblivion). But if we miss the mark, we will most certainly be condemned to be forgotten forever. This inflexion point between fame and oblivion is what Axel Browling aptly calls “the biographer’s tidbit.”[1]

But Socrates has not read Browling when, one hung-over morning in the year 435 BC, he wakes up with a dry mouth. If he had read him, he might be more cautious today. However, they say that Socrates, in addition to being ugly, is also reckless. There is a short epigraph carved into his headboard, quoting one of the adages inscribed atop the Oracle of Delphi: ˝γνῶθι σεαυτόν.”[2] He has spent several weeks reflecting on this curious maxim, and last night, surrounded by jugs of wine and drunken acolytes, he had a sort of revelation. And they say that Socrates can drink more than anybody without losing an atom of his wits. So he was not surprised when, just as a slug of wine was leaving the safety of the palate to plunge into the arcane abyss of the esophagus, a clever phrase appeared in his mind.  A clever phrase that was surely destined to cause a sensation among his circle of interlocutors, and no shortage of conundrums for contemporary exegetes and future biographers. Before the wine reached his stomach, Socrates opened his mouth; however, observing the alcohol-soaked circumstances, he closed it again. “No sense squandering clever phrases,” he must have thought. “I’ll save it for the right time and place.”

Thus, not having read Browling, Socrates calmly stands up, his mouth slightly dry. He prepares an infusion of chamomile, gargles to clear his voice, and strides off toward the agora with an air of self-satisfaction. Last night he spread the word that today he would reveal something important, and the marketplace is bustling with anticipation. Socrates arrives at the square. Socrates steps up to the dais. Socrates clears his throat. And, expecting thunderous applause, Socrates says: “Je pense, donc je suis.”[3]

2.  Descartes

They say that, when an obstacle arises, the shortest distance between two points is a curved line. They also say that there are two kinds of artists: those who ask questions and those who provide answers. Faced with an obstacle, those who ask questions stop and open investigations; those who provide answers prefer the risk of an unknown curve. The problem is that the artists who give answers tend to die misunderstood, because sometimes they answer questions that have not yet been asked. The answer is then obligated to wait in the bottom of a box until humanity manages to pose the right question. This is what Axel Browling scientifically defines as “chronological discrepancy by anticipation.”[4]

But Descartes had not read Browling when, one chilly night in 1637, he heard a knock at his door. He had just finished drafting the clean copy of the final page of his new philosophical treatise. They say that he had actually written it four years beforehand, but that shortly after signing a contract with his bookseller, he received the horrible news of one of the greatest aberrations in history: Galileo Galilei was to be burned at the stake if he would not renounce his attempt to turn the Earth into a spinning top. “E pur si muove,”[5] the Italian is rumored to have hissed sotto voce, finding himself transformed into one of the greatest heretics of all time. But at the moment Descartes was in no mood for metaphysical temper tantrums, so he waited a while, aware of the scorching consequences his work was likely to incur upon publication. And so, Descartes spent those four years growing tulips and translating his magnum opus, initially written in Latin, into French (taking advantage of the opportunity to leave a few orthodoxically inappropriate phrases foundering in the inkwell). He most certainly did not neglect to save the best for last: the last sentence of the treatise not only would “revolutionize the history of Western philosophy” (in Descartes’ own words), but was also a synthesis of and key to the whole work. Finally, after four years, at the urging of his friends, his ego, and above all an ultimatum from his publisher, he decided to publish the treatise—unsigned and in French.[6]

So it was that, one chilly night in 1637, as Descartes, not having read Browling, was fastidiously transcribing the final paragraphs of his ambitious work, he heard a knock at his door. It was his bookseller. “Have a seat, I’m almost finished,” Descartes invited him, eager once and for all to turn his grey matter into printer’s ink. Descartes sat down. Descartes finished the treatise. Descartes stood up. And, with a smile on his lips, Descartes handed over the manuscript, not realizing that the last thing he had written was something along the lines of “e = mc2”.

3. Einstein

They say that if we could fold a rolling paper in half forty-nine times, the thickness would be equal to the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Nine more folds and we could reach the Sun. And with twenty more folds we’d be at Alpha Centauri. Surely, with a few more folds, we would reach God, and barge in on him playing with the universe like a person fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube. Indeed, Alex Browling used the metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube to explain his so-called “Browling’s conjecture,” according to which time and space are two concentric spheres which, in extraordinary situations, can fall out of alignment. This is what he defined, somewhat apocalyptically, as a “Rubik’s crack.”[7]

But Browling’s theories will be of no use to Einstein when, one peaceful morning in 1905, he picks up a piece of chalk before the attentive gaze of one hundred eyes. At this time, we shall spare the details of the event and skip without further ado to the end of the story, which any attentive reader familiar with modern prose will already have guessed.[8] We will only say that Einstein was getting ready at that very moment to write on the chalkboard the mathematical formula that would forever refute the majority of physical theories theretofore considered valid. Einstein will pick up the chalk. Einstein lifted his hand. And, ineluctably, Einstein writes: “I only know that I know nothing.”[9]

Epilogue

Someone once said that to be a genius is to designate oneself as a genius and to be correct. Socrates, Descartes, and Einstein had a chance to achieve posterity, but they designated themselves as geniuses and failed in the attempt. Whether Browling’s conjecture and Rubik’s crack are related to this failure is something we shall leave up to the reader’s interpretation. In any case, here we have sought to shed light on the frustrated existence of three figures who could have been famous and were not; perhaps rescuing them now from oblivion is a fair homage to their hard work and dedication. Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock, accused of corrupting the youth (certainly, the strange and sensual sonority of the French language did not help in his defense). Descartes was burned at the stake because his inexplicable formula e = mc2 was interpreted by some as “enfer = moi et le double de Christ” (and the double of Christ is none other than the Antichrist); or as “enfer = magie carrément cartesienne.” Finally, Einstein was deemed mad and committed to an insane asylum. To all of them, in memoriam, we offer our deepest respect and admiration.


[1] Browling, Axel. The Sky: An Epistemology of Fame. New York: Starworks, 1995, pp. 44-45.

[2] “Know thyself”

[3] “I think, therefore I am,” in impeccable seventeenth-century French

[4] Browling, op. cit., pp. 174-179.

[5] “And yet it moves.”

[6] It should be noted that, at that time, publishing a philosophical or scientific text in French was at best unconventional.

[7] Browling, op. cit., pp. 201-218.

[8] For more information on Einstein’s conference and what occurred there, see Pablo Martín Sánchez, Estudios cronotópicos, Ediciones del Bombín, Barcelona, 1998, vol. 2, ch. VIII.

[9] In ancient Greek, to confuse matters more: ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα.

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