Memory Lane: Ireneo Funes and Orlando

Millais: Mariana (1850-51)


I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography. I am astounded at how prescient Mrs. Woolf is--how could she have known that just last week I was toying with an idea for a novel, some account of personality traced through an accumulation of disparate events, stages of life, and occurrences. A Whiteheadian novel in a certain way. And then I discover that not only did Mr.s Woolf write this book already (ten fathoms more profound than any of the vague notions I entertained last week), but that she wrote it in 1928, the very same year that Whitehead ended the series of Gifford lectures which would be the source of his massive tome Process and Reality. (W. James, Dewey, and Peirce were all concerned with the same sorts of themes, and I'm sure many others who I do not know of).

Anyway, the coincidences abounded and I shook my head in rueful resignation. Then I shook myself out of recognition and applied some of her more profound passages on self-creation and self-perpetuation to a little story by Borges that I read in passing last night: Funes, the Memorious, and again to some of Whitehead's more astounding passages, a couple of descriptions from Leibniz, and the project undertaken by Adam in the garden (as reminded to me by Paul Auster's City of Glass) .

It comes down to something Whitehead was critically interested in: the frenzied flux of the world that we do not, and cannot know in its detail as rational human creatures. The infinite complexity and variety of existence, from particles careening about in random motion, producing reliable, stable objects, to the complex nervous functions that control and execute out basic reactionary motions. We necessarily abstract in order to survive, to move, to make the most basic decisions. We pry out forms and species and color patches and we reconstruct the world with them, a world that is conducive to extended existence and enduring life. Leibniz describes (in the Monadologie) the variety of a pre-destined harmonious world in terms that I believe will be much like the frenzy of Whitehead's world:

There is a world of created beings - living things, animals, entelechies and souls - in the least part of matter. Each portion of matter may be conceived as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fish. But every branch of each plant, every member of each animal, and every drop of their liquid parts is itself likewise a similar garden or pond.

Whitehead's world would thrive with this same variety, but it wouldn't be limited to living things, but rather to every speck of existence.

Graphic art by Fomenko (from Giornale Nuovo)

To move on, both Woolf and Borges describe this multiplicity of experience. For Borges, (in this story, in other places he too raises the concept of the multiplicitous self), the experience of the world can be in degrees of excellence. Ireneo Funes is a man suddenly paralyzed who gains an ability to perceive and remember which is so heightened that the world is an infinite wealth of unique and utterly distinct events. Just like the system of naming that Adam must have had in the Garden, each name capturing the exact essence of the thing named, a mind of this sort would be able to know each individual instance or reality exactly as it is.

A circumference on a blackboard, a rectangular triangle, a rhomb, are forms which we can fully intuit; the same held true with Ireneo for the tempestuous mane of a stallion, a herd of cattle in a pass, the ever-changing flame or the innumerable ash, the many faces of a dead man during the course of a protracted wake. He could perceive I do not know how many stars in the sky.


Orlando, at the end of Woolf's biography, is a woman who has lived through hundreds of years, and multiple professions, loves, obsessions, solitudes, conversations, and even deaths. Orlando has been a boy, a man, a girl, and a woman. And at the end, at the very end, the moments of innumerable selves rush upon her, forcing their individual weight on her present and eventually culminating in a unity. Woolf is concerned with the multiplicitous self, the crazy variety of events that define a "person," but are not all of what it means to be a person. Here's a passage describing the multiplicitous self (it helps to think of Kant's description of our sense of "inner" life as the perpetual, inexorable tick-tock of a metronome. We know the "I" because of our inner sense of time-sequence)

For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not--Heaven help us--all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one's name) meaning by that, Come, come! I'm sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends.

A crazy world that would be! But there are survival methods: we busy our bodies so that the many selves retreat into silence, or we engage just one of them, the loving self, the self at work, the self that reads poetry (and recites it aloud as if she were Gwyneth Paltrow playing Sylvia Plath...don't ask me why I do that...). Examine your daily life, or lift the truth out of those common sayings like "I don't know who I was when I did that" or "He wasn't himself." This happens and we turn a negative eye to it for it is much harder to imagine how I might be a conglomerate of many personalities than just one that occasionally "swerves" from its norm.

But there is a dominant self, a regnant self, the monarch of our many-faceted soul. This is how Woolf describes the reacquisition of unity in Orlando:

The whole of her darkened and settled, as when some foil whose addition makes the round and solidity of a surface is added to it, and the shallow becomes deep and the near distant; and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So she was now darkened, stilled, and become, with the addition of this Orlando, what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self. And she fell silent. For it is probable that when people talk aloud, the selves (of which there may be more than two thousand) are conscious of disseverment, and are trying to communicate, but when communication is established they fall silent.


We are many and one and we do ourselves a disservice if we doubt either of those ways of characterizing a human life. How else can life remain new, surprising, wondrous? We are equipped with many pairs of eyes through which to engage the world and some see much more clearly than others. Some see differently than others. Some are just plain wrong in what they see. But taken together, in some culminating unity, the many ways of seeing that one person has creates an astounding vision of clarity, interestedness, and profundity.