Borges, Jorge Luis (Short Story Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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...
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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.
… 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.
(Deleuze and Guattari)2
At the close of a long conversation with Borges about his favourite Victorian and Edwardian writers—Stevenson, Kipling, Chesterton, Wells, and others—the doorbell rang and the next visitor, a young Paraguayan writer, was shown in. Borges, hearing the nationality of the newcomer, asked me: ‘Do you remember the dictator of Paraguay?’ Not sure which one he was referring to, I ventured: ‘Stroessner? Doctor Francia?’ ‘No, no’, said Borges; ‘the one with the scar’. Obviously he was not speaking of a historical figure, but was still discussing literature. The Paraguayan dictator he was referring to was John Vandeleur in Stevenson's New Arabian...
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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 aurait préféré mourir sur le pavé, l'arme à la main. Ou celui de Borges qui préférerait mourir comme son grandpère le général, à cheval, plutôt que dans son lit—ou encore que l'homme est tué par son rêve, cette idée du Sud, de la Pampa, qui l'avait conduit là.
—Borges, L'Express, May 1977
Is there a structuring principle underlying Borges' short fiction? How are his stories made, and to what degree is it possible to derive from them a narrative code? How do his narratives signify? In other words, how are the literary signs organized and what meanings or functions do they propose, beyond their explicit content? Borges' work has repeatedly and perhaps...
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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
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 the Greek para doxos, meaning beyond belief, which is actually not befitting, for many paradoxes are the source of deep-seated convictions, if not “truth.” More appropriately, then, we might say that paradoxes are trains of thought condensed into a point of time and space. Contemplating a paradox has been compared to meditating on a Zen Koan, gazing at a mandala, entering momentarily into the realm of the infinite. A world free of paradox is the stuff only dreams are made of, yet rationalism, even logic itself, in the final analysis “teaches us to expect some dreaminess in the world, and even contradictions” (Peirce 1960; 4:79). According to Kierkegaard, reason ultimately leads to paradox, and faith is needed to remedy...
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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 El Aleph (The Aleph, 1949, 1952): in terms of their date of composition they represent his work of the mid-thirties through the early fifties. These texts, perhaps only twelve or fifteen in number, have been frequently reedited, widely anthologized, intensively studied, and extensively translated. It is possible that a few of the narratives written in his later years, that is, from the publication of El hacedor (Dreamtigers, 1960) till his death, will come to be included among this canonical group; but their significance will, I think, always be viewed in relation to his earlier work.
Although he is often considered to be a cuentista, a writer of short stories, it is with some trepidation...
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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 ). 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 fostered a brisk commentary industry from the very first day of its appearance on the shelves.1 It quickly became a commonplace that the secret of the book's somewhat surprising success derives from the multitude of layers underlying its plot; this multilayered structure renders the book attractive to an astonishingly wide spectrum of readers.2 The present essay is yet another contribution to the interpretation industry generated by The Name of the Rose, which is intended to shed new light on some of the book's central features.
While it is rather typical for artists with a fruitful career behind them to take a pause in their creative work in order to reflect on the nature of their art and thereby...
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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 a ladder.
In recent history the most important book in the West that purports to be a ladder is arguably Wittgenstein's Tractatus. In proposition #6.54 Wittgenstein writes:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he had used them—as steps, to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
What exactly Wittgenstein...
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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 Tsun, “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?” To which Yu Tsun replies, “The word is chess.”1 In the volume's sixth story, “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain,” the narrator, summarizing Quain's literary career, outlines the plot of his detective novel The God of the Labyrinth: “An indecipherable assassination takes place in the initial pages; a leisurely discussion takes place toward the middle; a solution appears in the end. Once the enigma is cleared up, there is a long and retrospective paragraph which contains the following phrase: ‘Everyone thought that the encounter of the two chess players was accidental.’ This phrase allows one to...
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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 thing to be eagerly anticipated, nevertheless the Olympian gods with their immense power and influence represented a positive picture of perennial existence. The Christian account presents another perhaps even more optimistic view of immortality since it teaches that eternal existence is possible for humans who live righteous lives and hold correct beliefs. The Christian promise of an everlasting life in heaven in the state of perfect bliss has long been held up by theologians as representing the apex of human happiness and fulfillment.
“The Immortal,”1 by Jorge Luis Borges, hints at something fundamentally wrong about the very concept of immortality. Most philosophical criticisms of this concept concentrate...
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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
—Macaulay, qtd. in Majumdar 10:83
“Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”
“It would be a good idea.”2
“El hombre en el umbral” brings into sharp focus the issues of colonialism and foreign domination that are present in a less obvious way in such other Borges stories as “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” and “El milagro secreto.” The choice of venue this time is British India,3 a choice that is interesting because India was one of the most thorough of the Western experiments in colonialism in the Third World4 and because its struggle...
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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 Mirrors,”2 for example, Borges uses the Narcissus myth as a subtext for his story. But Borges does not merely rewrite the Greek story using contemporary characters, he also distorts the original story and transforms it into an entirely different one. The final result, as we will see, is a new interpretation of narcissism.
In Ovid's classical rendition of the myth,3 Echo, a nymph, falls in love with Narcissus, only to be treated with indifference by him. She dies and disappears, and all that remains of her is her voice. Finally, Narcissus looks at himself in the waters of a pool and falls in love with his own image. Borges realizes a double inversion of the myth: the actions of the main characters in his story are...
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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 way. But philosophical issues (such as the individuation of works of art) are one thing, literary interpretation quite another. In this paper I'll be offering a comprehensive interpretation of Borges' story and arguing, against a number of critics,1 that “Pierre Menard” is philosophically correct, i.e., that the correct interpretation of Borges' story doesn't have Menard as the author of a new Quixote. Even more importantly, I'll be arguing that the story is an extremely penetrating one, with philosophical depths as yet unexplored, although its main interest, metaphysical and otherwise, lies in a direction other than the individuation of works of art. These being my main theses, let me also issue an advance warning...
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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 is the most notable exception) and even the most veiled suggestion of erotic activities is limited to only a very few stories. Similarly scarce, too, are female characters who figure prominently in the narration and who seem to possess an independent personhood. The fictional world created by Borges is a place where women, if they appear at all, seem to exist mainly as debased objects for the purpose of providing men with an opportunity for sex and where such sexual activities, by means of a female body. Sex and women are used primarily as bargaining chips in the relationship between men, never for the traditional purposes of either procreation or pleasure. Sex in Borges' fiction, by means of an objectified female body, is nothing more than...
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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 interview with Paul Theroux: “I like Lovecraft's horror stories. His plots are very good, but his style is atrocious. I once dedicated a story to him” (300).
That story is, of course, the one presently under discussion. In other remarks, however, Borges indicates what amounts to a disdain for Lovecraft (St. Armand 289–91). St. Armand details this ambivalence of Borges toward his predecessor and offers a theory to account for it which is the thrust of his essay. It seems to him that Lovecraft anticipated many of Borges's ideas (St. Armand might object that I have simplified his thesis). He finds many similar conceptions in Lovecraft's works and in those of Borges, and since Lovecraft died fifty years before the latter, I...
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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 characteristics of Borges' work: confounding ambivalence and a clever use of paradox. His work is paradoxical insofar as it is macrocosmic, and yet microcosmic; central, and yet peripheral; collective—it seems to speak with many voices—and yet it is deeply personal and evokes the strongest emotional responses, especially in lyrical passages that reveal the unmistakable presence of Borges himself. It is precise, concise, and straightforward in its expression, and yet there is something ambiguous, nebulous, and absent in its style. These and other contradictory qualities amplify the richness and suggestivity of Borges' stories and may help explain the extraordinary quantity of criticism devoted to them.
Paradox in Borges' work...
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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 the works of an earlier age. Many critics resort to paraphrase instead of analysis, as if there is no more to be done with Borges but reiterate his own tales. Writing about The Book of Sand, Gene Bell-Villada complains that there are “no over-arching concerns, thematic or otherwise. … Although certain subjects do recur, they do not add up to any systematic set of preoccupations” (Bell-Villada 255).
I suggest that the line of Borges's narrative development precludes the explicit statement of “over-arching concerns.” Over the years, the concerns of Borges have become so familiar to both author and reader that the barest hint of a personal preoccupation in the text suffices to recall a vast expanse of meaning....
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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.]
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
I begin this essay about Jorge Luis Borges's “The Garden of Forking Paths,” appropriately enough, with a small confession. I am here engaged in a practice of which I generally disapprove: writing professionally on a text in whose language of composition I am illiterate. That a trivial discrepancy between two English translations of “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” started me down this path is a paltry excuse.2 Yu Tsun, whose sworn confession constitutes all but the first paragraph of “The Garden of Forking Paths,” has this advice for the “soldiers and bandits” he sees inheriting the world: “Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should...
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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 philosopher's own preoccupations concerning Dasein and the world: the refutation of substance (ousia) and doing (praxis) as being ontologically superior to thought and thinking (theoria), along with the dismissal of a single objective reality ‘out there’ in which one must ‘realize’ one's plans and projects. It is also, however, a maxim which might have been uttered by one of the metaphysicians of Tlön.
How much Borges knew of Heidegger (or even cared) is anyone's guess—in his entire Obras Completas he refers to Sein und Zeit twice, implying at least a nodding familiarity with the German's precocious foray into the very problems of time and reality which, ten years...
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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 insights and succinct information about thematic changes, quotations have frequently been taken from it to corroborate conclusions about the author and his work. Criticism, nonetheless, has paid little attention to its narrative quality.
Can “Borges and I” be considered a narrative text, a short story whose writing shows the author's original technique?2 In her analysis of Borges's Evaristo Carriego, Sylvia Molloy states that this biography is where “the future maker of fictions, undertakes the possibility of re-creating and inscribing a character” to add that “it is also a place where he [Borges] inaugurates the possibility of erasing the very character he has inscribed” (13–14). In her view,...
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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 strictly literary interpretation centering on the important narratorial silences and the denial of the text, this discussion will include observations on cultural and historical referents in the text. It is hoped that, in the end, the literary and the socio-historical will be seen as equally significant in the analysis of this story and that we may envision a closer relationship between the two spheres.
Approaching the text to investigate its extratextual messages follows a pattern that teachers of literature have been pursuing more and more these days. This revivified interest in background, history, and context stems from the realization that we live in a time when we may no longer have the luxury of studying texts as...
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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.]
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 who were actively transforming the world literary landscape, and to rival the Nobel Prize in prestige. The first International Publishers' Prize (also known as the Prix Formentor) was split between Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges. That same year the Nobel Prize was awarded to the Yugoslav Ivo Andri'c, a great novelist but no innovator. (Beckett won the prize in 1969; Borges never won it—his advocates claimed that he was scuppered by his political utterances.)
The publicity surrounding the Prix Formentor catapulted Borges onto the world stage. In the United States, Grove Press brought out seventeen stories under the title Ficciones. New Directions followed with Labyrinths, twenty-three stories—some...
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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 era.
Following his death in Geneva in 1986, Borges's best works have settled into the rarefied ranks of the world's classics, while his most striking ideas have remained reliable currency, a part of our fin-de-siecle literary exchange. Fantastical realms invading ours; an effete French poet setting out to write Don Quixote; a cosmic library that houses every possible volume; a point in space containing all other points—these are some of the wilder notions that have made the term “Borgesian” almost as recognizable in its implications as are the familiar adjectives “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque.”
Ironically, by the time the elder Borges's face and voice had become ordinary fixtures within...
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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 distinguished among them Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Donald A. Yates, Alastair Reid, W. S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, John Hollander and James E. Irby. Borges himself encouraged this abundance by allowing different people to work on the same text at once. The most prominent translator is di Giovanni, an Italian-American who worked with him first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then in Buenos Aires from 1967 to 1972, and with whom Borges produced a total of ten books. To this day, these volumes remain controversial because they are what I call reverse translation; it appears that more than once di Giovanni suggested emendations to the original for the English version and then persuaded Borges to implement them in future Spanish...
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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 the idea of bookishness, was a miniaturist who found no virtue in length for its own wearisome sake. He had no desire to write novels, for example. Much better to embed the summary of the plot of a novel within the framework of a paradoxical short story, and thus distil its essence.
Collected Fictions gathers together all the short stories in a single volume, in English, for the first time; later in the year there will be a collection of his poetry, and, finally, a compilation of nonfiction. The last will include essays, and a selection of his considerable output of journalism on the cinema—he wrote extensively about Charlie Chaplin, for example.
Borges's first collection of stories, A Universal...
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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, and baroque, not lending themselves to easy readings or interpretations. But in 1967, Borges announced that he was tired of labyrinths, mirrors, and tigers, and stated that his prose would now take a different, purer form.
In attempting to answer why Borges's fiction took what, on the surface, seems a radical turn, critics have generally ignored the fact that by the 1960's the author had become completely blind. He no longer possessed the abilities to read longer fiction, proof it, and rewrite it. He dictated virtually everything he produced from that time forward. His love of poetry is often not considered either. Borges's first acclaim as an ultraista came through his poetry, and he continued to compose poems throughout...
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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 generally show much interest in the psychic life of his characters, whom he tends to subject to the requirements of his plots and his philosophical thematizations, but “Emma Zunz” is a different story. It is an exception that confirms the sense of inappropriate, if not false, modesty in his “confession” to the psychoanalysts. Recording and reflecting on the pathological adventures of its protagonist, Emma Zunz, on the basis of a presumed intimate confession by her, this story invites a reading of it as a psychoanalytical case history. It does so by suggesting the unconscious motivations and mechanisms underlying Emma's conspiracy to avenge her dead father with such compelling subtlety of psychological insight and narrative manipulation...
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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 / was sitting close to the fire, but suddenly turned to the dark side; / for presently he thought in his heart that, as she handled him, / she might be aware of his scar, and all his story might come out” (Odyssey 19.388–91). Not only does Odysseus's scar elicit the story of his own identity; it will later give rise to Erich Auerbach's ambitious telling of the story of mimesis in the Western literary tradition (3–3). Of course a scar may also be a mark of fame or infamy, a sign of pains inflicted, pains suffered, or both. As Daniel Balderston has observed, the scar is an inherently ambiguous sign (68).
The primary function of the scar in Homer is the facilitation of a moment of anagnorisis, or...
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Foster, David William. Jorge Luis Borges: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984, 328 p.
Scholarly in its depth and comprehensive in its range.
Loewenstein, C. Jared. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Jorge Luis Borges Collection at the University of Virginia Library. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993, 254 p.
Provides “reliable information about the origins and development” of Borges's texts.
Woodall, James. Borges: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1997, 333 p.
Contains comprehensive information about Borges's life and works.
Balderston, Daniel. “Borges, Averroes, Aristotle: The Poetics of Poetics.” Hispania, Vol. 79, No. 2 (May 1996): 201–07.
Explores Borges's postulation of the absolute dependency of language on context for meaning.
Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and his Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999, 325 p.
A handbook useful for understanding Borges's place in literature.
Friedman, Mary Lusky. The Emperor's Kites. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987, 219 p.
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