Jorge Luis Borges Essay - Borges, Jorge Luis (Short Story Criticism)

Borges, Jorge Luis (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Jorge Luis Borges 1899–-1986

(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the joint pseudonyms Honorio Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinian short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter. For additional criticism on Borges's short fiction, see SSC, Volume 4.

During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer of labyrinthine short fictions, often written in the form of metaphysical detective stories. Characteristically, they blur the distinction between reality and the perception of reality, between the possible and the fantastic, between matter and spirit, between past, present, and future, and between the self and the other. They are usually situated in the nebulous confines of allegorical locations, whether identified as bizarre dimensions of the universe, Arabian cities, English gardens, the Argentine pampa, amazing libraries, or the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Since his death, Borges has attained the status of one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, a master poet and essayist, as well as an architect of the short story. His work has not only influenced the way writers write but also the way readers read. Using science fiction and fantasy literature, western adventures, detective stories, self-reflective raconteurs as narrators, philosophical perplexities, and phenomenological uncertainty, Borges created a body of fiction concerned with ideas, archetypes, environments, and paradoxes rather than with character, psychology, or interpersonal and social interactions.

Biographical Information

Borges was born into an old, Argentinian family of soldiers, patriots, and scholars in Buenos Aires, where he spent most of his childhood. His father was an intellectual, a university professor of psychology and modern languages, a lawyer, and a writer. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised to be bilingual and learned to read English before Spanish. When Borges was seven, his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince appeared in an Uruguayan newspaper. A visit to Switzerland in 1914 became an extended stay when the outbreak of the World War I made it impossible for the family to return to Argentina. Borges enrolled in the College de Geneve, and studied Latin, French, and German. He also studied European philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist influences can be perceived in the worldview of his literary work. After earning his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain. There he joined with the avant-garde Ultraistas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism, and published reviews, essays, and poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 and was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martin (1929) During these years, Borges also helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language, which were collected in Inquisiciones (1925) and El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926). In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges developed a form of blood poisoning called septicemia. Fearful that his ability to write might have been impaired by his illness, Borges began writing short fiction rather than poetry, intending to attribute possible failure to inexperience in the genre rather than diminished literary skill. The result was “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a story highly acclaimed both as a fiction and as a precursor to deconstructionist textual analysis.

Though he spoke of his disdain for politics, Borges was always politically outspoken. He opposed European fascism and anti-Semitism and the dictatorship of Juan Peron in Argentina. After Peron's overthrow in 1955, Borges was named as director of the National Library of Argentina, where he worked as an assistant before Peron removed him in 1946 for opposing his regime. In 1957 he was appointed professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he was a corecipient—along with Samuel Beckett—of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize, which gave him international fame. Borges did not oppose the Argentinian military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologizing, he signed a plea for those whom the regime had caused to “disappear.” Similarly he supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, calling the general a “gentleman,” and commending his imposition of “order” in the face of communism. Many believe that these incidents prevented Borges from winning the Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, the list of his awards and honors is long and distinguished. Borges spent his last years a literary celebrity, traveling and lecturing. Even though he was blind in his later years, Borges continued to write by dictation to his mother and to his student and companion, Maria Kodama, whom he married shortly before his death.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Borges's Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy) features stories that capture local color and the lowdown argot of gangsters. Written with the erudition of an intellectual posing as a roughneck, they show posturing toughs engaged in macho assertion through gratuitous and egotistical violence. In his second collection, Ficciones (1944; Fictions), Borges invented a form for the short story that combines elements of detective fiction, metaphysical fantasy, philosophical discourse, and scholarly monographs complete with footnotes, references, and commentary. Thematically the stories are about the conflict between the integrity of the “I” and the overwhelming power of the other—whether the other is a person, a force, a book, a dream, a dagger, or a labyrinth. In the late 1950s, Borges began to write simplified short stories, parables, and fables of a less baroque structure and diction than the masterpieces of his middle period. The stories, however, are paradoxical and philosophically complex mythic narratives. In the afterward to his collection El libro de arena (1975;The Book of Sand,), Borges called these stories “dreams,” which he hoped would “continue to ramify within the hospitable imaginations” of his readers.

Critical Reception

A highly literate and intellectual author, Borges's works are enjoyed both by general readers and intellectuals. Although a celebrated author in Argentina and Latin America since the 1920s, Borges's first story in English appeared in 1948 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was not until 1962, after he had already produced a significant body of literature that Borges became known to the English-speaking reader when two English translations of his short stories were published. Other stories, such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Babylonian Lottery,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Aleph” were printed in Encounter. Borges was immediately acclaimed by other writers and by readers as a master, and his influence on other writers has been profound. During the last years of his life, Borges was showered with honors, awards, and lectureships. Critical commentary on Borges's work has been as various and as copious as the work itself. It extends from popular reportage on his lifestyle and work habits to literary, philosophical, and psychological investigations of his works.

Principal Works

Historia universal de la infamia [A Universal History of Infamy] 1935

El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan 1942

Ficciones, 1935–1944 [Fictions] 1944

El Aleph [The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969] 1949

El hacedor [Dreamtigers] (prose and poetry) 1960

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (short stories and essays) 1962

Elogio de la sombra [In Praise of Darkness] (prose and poetry) 1969

El informe de Brodie [Dr. Brodie's Report] 1970

El congreso [The Congress] 1971

El libro de arena [The Book of Sand] 1975

Obras Completas (short stories, essays, and poetry) 1977

Collected Fictions: Jorges Luis Borges 1999

Fervor de Buenos Aires (poetry) 1923

Inquisiciones (essays) 1925

Luna de enfrente (poetry) 1925

El tamaño de mi esperanza (essays) 1926

El idioma de los argentinos (essays and lectures) 1928

Cuaderno San Martín (poetry) 1929

Evaristo Carriego (essays) 1930

Discusión (essays and criticism) 1932

Historia de la eternidad (essays) 1936

Poemas 1923–1943 (poetry) 1943

Otras inquisiciones 1937–1952 [Other Inquisitions 1937–1952] (essays and lectures) 1952

Para las seis cuerdas (poetry) 1965

Obra poética, 1923–1967 [Selected Poems, 1923–1967] (poetry) 1967

El otro, el mismo (poetry) 1969

El oro de los tigres (poetry) 1972

La rosa profundo (poetry) 1975

La moneda de hierro (poetry) 1976

Historia de la noche (poetry) 1977

La cifra (poetry) 1981

Nueve ensayos dantescos (essays) 1982

Los conjurados (poetry) 1985

Selected Nonfiction: Jorge Luis Borges (nonfiction) 1999

Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges (poetry) 1999

Criticism

Daniel Balderston (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Mark of the Knife: Scars as Signs in Borges,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 83, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 67–75.

[In the following essay, Balderston discusses the significance of scars in Borges's work.]

… ese paciente laberinto de líneas traza la imagen de su cara.

(Borges)1

… if one wants to call this inscription in naked flesh ‘writing’, then it must be said that speech in fact presupposes writing, and that it is this cruel system of inscribed signs that renders man capable of language, and gives him a memory of the spoken word....

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Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Structure as Meaning in ‘The South,’” in Borges and the Kabbalah, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 65–76.

[In the following essay, Alazraki argues that the structure of Borges's story, “The South,” is instrumental in creating a complexity in the text that allows two contradictory value systems to be represented as coexisting.]

Quand j'ai écrit “Le Sud,” je venais de lire Henry James et de découvrir qu'on peut raconter deux ou trois histoires en même temps. Ma nouvelle est donc ambiguë. On peut la lire au premier degré. Mais aussi considérer qu'il s'agit d'un rêve, celui d'un homme qui meurt à l'hôpital et...

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Floyd Merrell (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “According to the Eye of the Beholder,” in Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics, Purdue University Press, 1991, pp. 32–42.

[In the following excerpt, Merrell explores Borges's use of paradox.]

I don't like writers who are making sweeping statements all the time. Of course, you might argue that what I'm saying is a sweeping statement, no?

—Jorge Luis Borges

1.

It has been said that paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention, and that truth is paradox crying out to be transcended. The word comes from...

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Martin S. Stabb (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Canonical Texts,” in Borges Revisited, edited by David W. Foster, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 37–68.

[In the following discussion of Borges's fiction, Stabb analyzes the elements that define the pieces as characteristically Borgesian.]

Borges's present fame rests on a relatively small number of short narratives. While his complete works fill many volumes, and although his essays, poems, and literary musings complement his central achievement, it is this corpus of quintessentially Borgesian texts that have established him as a major voice among Western postmodernists. The bulk of these pieces appear in Ficciones (Ficciones, 1944) and...

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Leo Corry (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Jorge Borges, Author of The Name of the Rose,” in Poetics Today,Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 425–45.

[In the following essay, Corry shows the influence of Borges's fictions on Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.]

Few books have been as quickly and unanimously acclaimed throughout the world as Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose (1983 [1980]). Its most obvious reading—as a detective story—is probably also its most exciting one; throughout the development of the plot, the reader's effort is concentrated on answering one question: Whodunit? But besides the book's value as a fine mystery novel, The Name of the Rose has...

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Theodore G. Ammon (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “A Note on a Note in ‘The Library at Babel,’” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 265–69.

[In the following essay, Ammon interprets Borges's “The Library of Babel” as a commentary on the philosopher Ludwig Wittegenstein's Tractatus.]

In Borges' story “The Library of Babel” there occurs the following curious footnote:

I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of...

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John T. Irwin (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The False Artaxerxes: Borges and the Dream of Chess,” in New Literary History, edited by Ralph Cohen, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 425–45.

[In the following essay, Irwin uses psychoanalytic methodology to postulate the symbolic significance of chess for Borges.]

In Borges's first collection of pure fictions, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), the game of chess is mentioned in four of the volume's eight stories and alluded to in the epigraph to a fifth. Let me recall briefly three of these references. In the volume's final tale (the detective story that gives the collection its title), Stephen Albert, the murder victim, asks the killer Dr. Yu...

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Jon Stewart (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Borges on Immortality,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2, October, 1993, pp. 295–301.

[In the following essay, Stewart explicates Borges's concept of immortality.]

The various conceptions of immortality in most every culture evince at once the basic human fear of death and at the same time the equally basic hope for a more congenial future beyond mundane existence. The Greek and Christian views of immortality, which have been so influential in Western philosophy and theology, represent two different, yet generally quite positive, visions of eternal life. Although for the Greeks immortality in Hades was not, as Achilles' lament indicates, a...

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Daniel Balderston (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “On the Threshold of Otherness: British India in ‘El hombre en el umbral,’” in Out of Context: Historical Reference and Representation of Reality in Borges, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 98–114.

[In the following essay, Balderston examines Borges's use of colonial India in his fiction, and his attitude toward colonialism, contrasting Borges's story “The Man on the Threshold” with Rudyard Kipling's “On the City Wall.”]

I have never found one among them [the Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.1

...

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Jose Eduardo Gonzalez (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Borges ‘The Draped Mirrors,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 175–76.

[In the following note on “The Draped Mirrors,” Gonzalez describes how Borges uses the concept of narcissism.]

Critics have associated Borges's use of mirrors in his short stories with ideas of representation and repetition.1 Although the problematic relationship between mimesis and literature is a central element of Borges's aesthetics, the symbol of the mirror can also be given a different interpretation, one that is too often ignored: In some borgesian texts, mirrors can also be said to symbolize narcissism. In “The Draped...

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Michael Wreen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Don Quixote Rides Again!” in Romanic Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 141–63.

[In the following essay, Wreen presents a philosophical argument for reading Borges's story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” as a version of Don Quixote.]

In a recent article, “Once Is Not Enough?”, I argued that a book word-for-word identical with Cervantes' Quixote wouldn't be a new Quixote, numerically distinct from Cervantes', if it were produced in the manner described in Borges' short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Menard's novel would simply be Cervantes', I tried to show, although admittedly produced in a very odd...

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Herbert J. Brant (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Queer Use of Women in Borges' ‘El Muerto’ and ‘La Intrusa,’” in Hispanofila, Vol. 125, January, 1999, pp. 37–50.

[In the following essay originally published in 1995, Brant argues that the relationship between male characters in two of Borges's stories is defined by a repressed homoeroticism.]

Sex and women are two very problematic components in the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges: the absence of these two elements, which seems so casual and unremarkable, really highlights the strangeness of their exclusion. For example, scenes of sexual acts are almost totally lacking in Borgesian writing (Emma Zunz's sexual encounter with an anonymous sailor...

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C. J. Buchanan (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “J. L. Borges's Lovecraftian Tale: ‘There Are More Things’ in the Dream Than We Know,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 357–63.

[In the following essay on Borges's debt to the writer H. P. Lovecraft, Buchanan discusses the nature of the minotaur in the Borgesian labyrinth.]

This tale of Jorge Luis Borges, “There Are More Things,” is almost unremarked in Barton Levi St. Armand's wide-ranging, incisive essay “Synchronistic Worlds: Lovecraft and Borges.” We do find a slight reference to it, however, in this best collection of articles yet published in the field of the weird tale. St. Armand quotes Borges speaking in a 1978...

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Herbert J. Brant (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Mark of the Phallus: Homoerotic Desire in Borges' ‘La forma de la espada,’” in Chasqui, Vol. XXV, No. 1, May, 1996, pp. 25–38.

[In the following explication of Borges's short story “The Shape of the Sword,” Brant suggests a homosexual subtext motivates the story's manifest content.]

Envidia.
Envidia siente el cobarde …
Envidia.
Envidia amarga y traidora,
Envidia que grita y llora.
La que causa más dolor
es la envidia por amor.

(José González Castillo, “Envidia”)

The fiction of Jorge Luis Borges is intriguing and yet, unsettling. These qualities seem to originate in what I consider two principal...

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Alice E. H. Petersen (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Borges's ‘Ulrike’—Signature of a Literary Life,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 325–31.

[In the following essay, Petersen defends Borges's later fiction against criticism that it is inferior to his earlier work.]

When readers of Borges reach for his later works, they are often a little disappointed by what they find. Collections like The Book of Sand (which contains the short story “Ulrike”) and Doctor Brodie's Report, which both appeared in the 1970s, are often passed over because they lack the obvious touches of “Borges” associated with metaphysical whimsy and the yellow tigers that stalked...

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Robert L. Chibka (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Library of Forking Paths,” in Representations, No. 56, Fall, 1996, pp. 106–22.

[In the following essay on the proliferation of versions of a manuscript in Borges's story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Chibka examines the significance of the proliferation of alternative, apparently trivial, details in several editions of the Spanish and English texts of that story.]

PROLOGUE

Alors je rentrai dans la maison, et j'écrivis, Il est minuit. La pluie fouette les vitres. Il n'était pas minuit. Il ne pleuvait pas.

—Samuel Beckett, Molloy1

...

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Ian Almond (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Tlön, Pilgrimages, and Postmodern Banality,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LXXV, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 229–35.

[In the following essay, referring to Borges's story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Almond considers Borges's relation to postmodernism.]

When Heidegger was asked in an interview whether he could provide a single maxim for his readers to keep in their heads as they worked their way through his difficult, at times elusive writings, he replied (and the fact that he gave a reply at all is surprising): ‘Possibility is higher than actuality’.1 It is a maxim which—to use a very un-Heideggerian verb—sums up many of the...

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Armado F. Zubizarreta (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Borges and I,’ A Narrative Sleight of Hand,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature,Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 371–81.

[In the following essay, Zubizarreta advances interpretive strategies for reading “Borges and I” as a short story.]

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAGE?

Due to its autobiographical appearance, “Borges and I,” a brief work published in El Hacedor (1960), seems to present, under the pattern of a dual personality, what a writer actually feels, or imagines he may feel, in confronting his social persona.1 Because this text, usually understood as a confession, offers some aesthetic...

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Eric Pennington (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Vestiges of Empire: Toward a Contrapuntal Reading of Borges,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XLII, No. 1, September, 1998, pp. 103–17.

[In the following essay, Pennington relies on the historical and social contexts surrounding Borges's “The Ethnographer” to elucidate the text.]

This essay takes as a point of departure the Borges short story titled “El etnógrafo,” found in Elogio de la sombra (1969) and classified in the general category of Borges's later prose. In addition to commenting on its literary structure, I will examine its application to the world outside the text: the milieu from which the structure sprang. That is, rather than a...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 1998)

SOURCE: “Borges's Dark Mirror,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 16, October 22, 1998, pp. 80–82

[In the following review of Collected Fictions, a new translation of Borges's short fiction, Coetzee traces the development of Borges's stories, evaluates the new translation, and discusses the peculiar problems that arise when the author has translated some of his own work.]

1.

In 1961 the directors of six leading Western publishing houses (Gallimard, Einaudi, Rowohlt, Seix Barral, Grove, Weidenfeld and Nicolson) met on the Mediterranean island of Formentera to establish a literary prize that was meant to single out writers...

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Gene Bell-Villada (review date 1998)

SOURCE: “Now in English Revision of Collected Fictions,” in Commonweal, Vol. 125, No. 22, December 18, 1998.

[In the following review, Bell-Villada praises Collected Fictions.]

From the midsixties through the early eighties, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges—the man and his thoughts both—seemed well-nigh ubiquitous. There were the appearances on TV, the standing-room-only lectures at college campuses, the bylines in the weeklies, even an interview in Commonweal (October 25, 1968). A shy, reclusive man, renowned for his complex, difficult art, Borges somehow burgeoned forth as everyone's favorite foreign author, the international man of letters for that...

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Ilan Stavans (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The English Borges,” in the Times Literary Supplement, January 29, 1999, p. 24.

[In the following review, Stavans evaluates the Andrew Hurley translation of Borges's Collected Fictions, and offers comparisons with other translations.]

Jorge Luis Borges is no longer a writer but a tradition. His descendants are vital in a myriad of tongues: Danilo Kiš and Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and Julio Cortázar. For decades, his work in English—the language he loved most, in which he first read Don Quixote—was less a unity than a multiplicity; it was fragmented and anarchically dispersed in anthologies, translated by too many hands, the most...

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The Economist (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Jorge Luis Borges Big Man, Much to Say,” in The Economist, Vol. 350, No. 8104, January 30, 1999, p. 80

[In the following review of the Collected Fictions, the writer sees Borges as a “master of intellectual subtleties.”]

A single substantial book of short stories may seem a relatively modest output for a lifetime. But Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine librarian who was probably the greatest 20th-century author never to win the Nobel prize for literature, was one of fiction's most playfully paradoxical spirits, and he would surely have disagreed. For Borges, an immensely erudite man whose whole life was consumed by a passion for books and...

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Eric Pennington (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Death and Denial in Borges's Later Prose,” in Notes On Contemporary Literature,Vol. XXIX, No. 4, September, 1999, pp. 2–4.

[In the following essay, Pennington interprets one of Borges's later stories, “El disco,” as a criticism of his critics.]

The prose works of Jorge Luis Borges from 1969 are not considered by some critics to be as significant as his earlier stories (James Woodall, The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), p. 251). The great tales of the 1940s, such a “Death and the Compass,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Circular Ruins” are dense, clinical, cosmic,...

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Eynel Wardi (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Stories of Emma Zunz,” in Narrative, Vol. 7, No. 3, October, 1999, pp. 335–56.

[In the following essay, Wardi applies psychoanalytic techniques to the interpretation of Borges's story “Emma Zunz.”]

In a talk given at the Freudian School of Psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires, Borges confessed: “My father warned me against Freud. He was a psychology teacher. He had tried to read Freud and failed, and it may well be that I inherited this incapacity.”1 But as his professional hosts obviously thought and the reporter of this quotation emphatically notes, this is a case of inappropriate self-effacement. It is true that Borges does not...

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David Laraway (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Facciones: Fictional Identity and the Face in Borges's ‘La Forma de la Espada,’” in Symposium,Vol. 53, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 151–163.

[In the following essay, Laraway considers the implications of Borges's strategy of moving between first-and third-person narration in “The Mark of the Sword.”]

A scar, as Homer knew long ago, is more than a distinguishing mark that permits one to be identified: it is the promise of a story to be told. Upon Odysseus's return to Ithaca, his old nurse Eurykleia, without yet recognizing her master, prepares to bathe his feet. Richmond Lattimore's translation renders the ensuing scene in these words: “Now Odysseus /...

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