Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 83)
Jorge Luis Borges 1899–1986
(Also wrote under pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinean short story writer, poet, essayist, translator, critic, biographer, and screenwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Borges's career. For further information on his life and work, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 19, 44, and 48.
Considered among the foremost literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges is best known for his short stories which blend fantasy, realism, and his extensive knowledge of world literature, metaphysics, and mysticism. Dealing with such themes as time, memory, and the malleability of both reality and literary form, Borges combined various styles of fiction and nonfiction to create a hybrid genre that defies easy classification. Although some critics have faulted his refusal to address social and political issues in his work, Borges maintained that he was "neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature."
Borges was born in Buenos Aires to parents of old, illustrious Argentinean families. His father, a lawyer, educator, translator, and writer, encouraged his children in their intellectual pursuits with his extensive library and broad range of interests. As a child, Borges learned Spanish and English simultaneously, and mastered French, Latin, and German during college. A family tour of Europe in 1914 was interrupted by travel restrictions necessitated by World War I, thus affording Borges time to attend the Collège Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, from which he earned his degree in 1918. The following year he traveled in Spain where he associated with members of the literary avant-garde, particularly the Ultraists, and published his first poems, essays, and reviews. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) and Luna de enfrente (1925), was recognized as one of Argentina's leading literary figures. Although primarily a poet and essayist at first, Borges began writing short stories in the 1930s, and his first collections—Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy) and most importantly Ficciones, 1935–1944 (1944; Ficciones)—confirmed him as the foremost writer in Argentina. Despite a general dislike of politics and social commentary, Borges became an outspoken critic of Juan Perón during the Argentinean dictator's reign from 1946 to 1955; in a move to humiliate the noted writer, Perón appointed him national poultry inspector. After the return of civilian rule, however, Borges was made director of the National Library of Argentina and became a professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In the early 1960s the English translation of Ficciones, 1935–1944 brought him international recognition and, along with many offers to teach and lecture around the world, the 1961 Prix Formentor, the International Publishers Prize, which he shared with Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. The majority of his time from this point on was spent traveling, lecturing, and dictating new works: he had grown almost completely blind and had to rely on a secretary to read and write for him. By his own account, Borges's life was devoted almost solely to literature. As he once explained: "Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer's thought or the music of England's words."
Borges produced major works in three genres—poetry, essays, and short fiction. His first major books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires and Luna de enfrente, are avant-garde collections influenced by the Ultraist movement; the poems combine urban settings and themes, metaphysical speculations, and a pronounced, often surreal, use of symbolism. His later poetry tends to be more conservative in style. The poems collected in El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers) and Antologia personal (1961; A Personal Anthology), for example, employ rhyme and meter, ruminate on personal themes, and make reference to his own as well as other works of literature. Borges's works of fiction and nonfiction, as critics note, are often difficult to distinguish from one another. It is frequently observed that many of Borges's short stories are written in essay form; his essays often treat subject matter other authors deal with in fiction; and the very short works he called "parables" seem to defy classification, sharing the qualities of poetry, essays, and short stories. Borges's essay collections—including Inquisiciones (1925), Discusión (1932), and Otras inquisiciones, 1937–1952 (1952; Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952)—address a wide variety of issues and represent many diverse styles. For example, Discusión collects film reviews, articles on metaphysical and aesthetic topics, and includes the essay "Narrative Art and Magic," in which Borges asserts the capacity of fantasy literature to address realistic concerns. Borges's first collection of short stories, A Universal History of Infamy, purports to be an encyclopedia of world criminals, containing brief, seemingly factual accounts of such real and mythical characters as "The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell," "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" (Billy the Kid), and "The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv." Ficciones contains many of Borges's most famous works of fiction. In "The Garden of Forking Paths" Borges combines elements of nonfiction writing—for example footnotes, references to scholarly works, and a detached, objective tone of voice—with metaphysical concepts and the structure of a detective story to show how two seemingly unrelated events—crimes committed at different points in history—intersect and resolve each other in a single moment. The enlarged English edition of El Aleph (1949), entitled The Aleph, and Other Stories, 1933–1969 (1970), consists of stories and essays from various periods in Borges's career. In addition to realistic as well as metaphysical stories, the book also includes his informative "Autobiographical Essay."
Although critics have praised the formal precision and contemplative tone of Borges's best poetry, and have noted the stylistic as well as thematic originality of his essays, it is for his short fiction that Borges is recognized as one of the most influential and innovative authors of the twentieth century. His experiments with the intermingling of fantasy and realistic detail presaged the "magical realist" style of fiction practiced by such major Latin American authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar; the latter referred to Borges as "the leading figure of our fantastic literature." His insights into the nature of literature, the creative process, and the imagination, exemplified by such works as the frequently anthologized "The Circular Ruins," have established him as one of modern literature's most philosophically accomplished authors. Some critics have faulted Borges's writings for being esoteric, calling them little more than intellectually precious games. By exploring intellectual and philological issues, however, most commentators believe that Borges also addressed humankind's deepest concerns about the nature of existence. As critic Carter Wheelock commented: Borges "plays only one instrument—the intellectual, the epistemological—but the strumming of his cerebral guitar sets into vibration all the strings of emotion, intuition, and esthetic longing that are common to sentient humanity."
Fervor de Buenos Aires (poetry) 1923; revised edition, 1969
Inquisiciones (essays) 1925
Luna de enfrente (poetry) 1925
El tamano de mi esparanza (essays) 1927
El idioma de los Argentinos (essay) 1928
Cuaderno San Martin (poetry) 1929
Evaristo Carriego (biography) 1930
[Evaristo Carriego: A Book About Old-Time Buenos Aires, 1983]
Discusión (essays and criticism) 1932; revised edition, 1976
Historia universal de la infamia (short stories) 1935
[A Universal History of Infamy, 1972]
Historia de la eternidad (essays) 1936; revised and enlarged edition, 1953
El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (short stories) 1941
Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, as H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1942
[Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, 1980]
Poemas, 1922–1943 (poetry) 1943; also published as Poemas, 1923–1953 [revised and enlarged edition], 1954; also published as Poemas, 1923–1958 [revised and enlarged edition], 1958
Ficciones, 1935–1944 (short stories) 1944
[Ficciones, 1962; also published as Fictions, 1965]
El compardito, su destino, sus barrios, su música (nonfiction) 1945; enlarged edition, 1968
Dos fantasías memorables [with Adolfo Bioy Casares,...
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[Irby has written extensively about Borges and his writings and has translated many of his works into English. In the following excerpt from his introduction to the 1964 edition of Labyrinths, a collection which originally appeared in 1962, he provides an overview of Borges's main themes and literary techniques.]
Until about 1930 Borges's main creative medium was poetry: laconic free-verse poems which evoked scenes and atmospheres of old Buenos Aires or treated timeless themes of love, death and the self. He also wrote many essays on subjects of literary criticism, metaphysics and language, essays reminiscent of Chesterton's in their compactness and unexpected paradoxes. The lucidity and verbal precision of these writings belie the agitated conditions of avant-garde polemic and playfulness under which most of them were composed. During these years Borges was content to seek expression in serene lyric images perhaps too conveniently abstracted from the surrounding world and have all his speculations and creations respond primarily to the need for a new national literature as he saw it. The years from 1930 to 1940, however, brought a deep change in Borges's work. He virtually abandoned poetry and turned to the short narrative genre. Though he never lost his genuine emotion for the unique features of his native ground, he ceased to exalt them nationalistically as sole bulwarks against threatening disorder and began to rank...
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[In the following excerpt from his introduction to Dreamtigers, Enguídanos discusses why Borges felt this collection of story fragments, parables, and poems was the culmination of his literary career.]
From the very first pages the English-speaking reader will discover that this [El hacedor translated as Dreamtigers] is an intimate, personal book…. Borges considered El hacedor—I don't know whether he may have changed his mind—his book, the book most likely, in his opinion, to be remembered when all the rest are forgotten. And the book—Borges loved to play with this idea—that would make his earlier works unnecessary, including his two extraordinary collections of stories, Ficciones and El Aleph. As is so often the case, the reader, to say nothing of the critic, may not agree with the poet; they may well continue to think, and not without reason, that the great, the unique Borges is the Borges of narrative fiction….
El hacedor, the original version of which appeared in Buenos Aires in 1960, is to all appearances a miscellany. In it the author is supposed to have gathered odd poems, stories, parables, sketches, fragments, and apocryphal quotations, with no other purpose than to show what time accumulates in the bottom of a writer's desk drawer. But actually this juxtaposing of fragments, bits, and snippets corresponds to a poetic criterion of an...
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[In the following essay—his introduction to Other Inquisitions—Irby discusses the varied subjects and subtle interconnections of Borges's essays.]
[Otras inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions)] is Borges' best collection of essays, and forms a necessary complement to the stories of Ficciones and El Aleph, which have made him famous. Otras inquisiciones was first published in 1952, but its pieces had appeared separately (most of them in Victoria Ocampo's review Sur or in the literary supplement of La Nación) over the preceding thirteen years. The title harks back to Borges' first volume of essays, published in 1925, when he was twenty-six. Those original Inquisiciones now seem to him affected and dogmatic avant-garde exercises; he will not have the book reprinted and buys up old copies to destroy them. The present collection's curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. "Other" can mean "more of the same": more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But "other" is also "different," perhaps even "opposite": these essays hardly set forth inflexible dogma, with their sagacious heresies, pursuit of multiple meanings, and dubitative style. In 1925 Borges stated that his title aimed to dissociate "inquisition" once and for all from monks' cowls and the smoke of damnation....
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[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Spanish in 1980, Cozarinsky examines Borges's narrative techniques, arguing that his style is strongly influenced by classical Hollywood film editing and the "serializing" of "significant moments."]
Film—an idea of film, really—recurs in Borges's writing linked to the practice of narration, even to the possibility of attempting narration. Films also appear as reading matter, one among the countless motives for reflection lavished on us by the universe. The examples offered to Borges by films illustrate widely disparate themes: the hilarious response of a Buenos Aires audience to some scenes from Hallelujah and Underworld provoked his bitter commentary on "Our Impossibilities" (an article dating from 1931 and included in Discusión the following year but eliminated from the 1957 edition) [it was translated as "Our Inadequacies" in Borges: A Reader]; von Sternberg gave him the chance to confirm a hypothesis about the workings of all story telling ("The Postulation of Reality" and "Narrative Art and Magic," both included in Discusión); Joan Crawford made an appearance in the second of these essays and Miriam Hopkins in "History of Eternity" from the volume of the same title, "the impetuous film Hallelujah" furnished one of the many results of bringing blacks to America that Borges enumerates in Universal History of...
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[In the following interview, Borges addresses a number of his favorite themes—labyrinths, tigers, books—and talks about his short story "Funes the Memorious."]
[Alifano]: Borges, I would like to talk with you about two images which seem to obsess you and which you repeat throughout your work. I am referring to labyrinths and to the figure of the tiger. I suggest we start with the former. How did labyrinths enter your literary work; what fascinates you about them?
[Borges]: Well, I discovered the labyrinth in a book published in France by Garnier that my father had in his library. The book had a very odd engraving that took a whole page and showed a building that resembled an amphitheater. I remember that it had cracks and seemed tall, taller than the cypresses and the men that stood around it. My eyesight was not perfect—I was very myopic—but I thought that if I used a magnifying glass, I would be able to see a minotaur within the building. That labyrinth was, besides, a symbol of bewilderment, a symbol of being lost in life. I believe that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and I saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition. Since then, I have held that vision of the labyrinth.
Borges, what has always intrigued me about labyrinths is not that people get lost within them, but rather that they are constructions intentionally made to confound...
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[In the following essay, Neilson discusses Borges's significance as an international literary figure, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his work as well as his relationship with Argentine and Latin American culture.]
"Don Quixote", Menard told me, "was above all else an entertaining book: but now it has become an occasion for patriotic toasts, for grammatical insolence, for obscene de luxe editions. Glory is a form of incomprehension and it is perhaps the very worst."
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
When Jorge Luis Borges wrote that, in the early 1940s, he was already known in Argentina as a poet fond of peculiar metaphors, a fierce literary polemicist, and the author of some strange short stories that looked like essays but were, despite the academic apparatus seemingly embedded in them, exercises in fantasy. He was not considered a likely candidate for "glory." True, as early as 1933 Drieu La Rochelle had reported after a trip to Buenos Aires that "Borges vaut le voyage." But, this and other omens notwithstanding, Borges was still the private passion of a few, most of whom knew him personally. And even they did not, for the most part, take him very seriously. Although he was obviously, ostentatiously, clever and sensitive, he struck most of his readers then as a literary prankster whose main ambition was to...
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[In the following essay, Hager examines the ways in which Borges's works poignantly satirize humanity's attempts to construct rational, systematic explanations of the universe.]
In the preface to Ronald Christ's Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion, J. L. Borges wrote: "I am neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature." More often than not, the forms that Borges's fictions take in their investigations of philosophical perplexities are fantastic. Like the Tlönists in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius," Borges thought that "metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature." In recalling his Anthology of Fantastic Literature, coedited with Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges noted the "culpable omission of the unsuspected and greatest masters of the genre: Parmenides, Plato, John Scotus Erigena, Albertus Magnus, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Frances Bradley." However, what he was forced to leave out as editor he made the persistent source and subject of his own writing.
To achieve the fantastic Borges did not resort to griffins, trolls, and unicorns (he confined his interest in these creatures to his bestiary Book of Imaginary Beings) but turned to topoi of metaphysics such as life is a dream, the many and the One, and the world as Text....
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[Epstein is an American editor and essayist who has written extensively on literature, language, and American culture. In the following essay, he qualifies his enthusiasm for Borges's writings with the argument that, ultimately, Borges's work does not match the standards set by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce.]
One of the interesting differences between high art and great science is that the former is both unique and its emergence unpredictable in a way that is not quite true of the latter. If Newton had not lived, I have seen it argued, Huygens and Leibniz would have gone on to do his principal work; Wallace was closing in on the theory of evolution for which Darwin has since been recognized as a hero of science; and Edison's work could as readily have been done by Swan (on the incandescent lamp) and Hughes (on the microphone), or so it is said. If Albert Einstein had never lived, it is possible that Ernst Mach or Max Planck or another German physicist would have set to work on the problem of relativity; but if Proust had died in his twenties, there would be no Remembrance of Things Past, nor, it seems safe to maintain, any other book remotely like it.
And yet there are some artists, no matter how exotic their origins or how esoteric their gifts, of whom it almost seems as if, had they not existed, they would have to have been invented. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer who was born in...
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[In the following essay, Brodzki analyzes Borges's representation of female characters and their role in his attempts to discuss the absolute, the "unrepresentable."]
My concern with the relationship between woman and representation bears directly on the critical controversies raised by Borges' work, specifically the relationship between his formalism/idealism and his textual politics. I will identify (1.) the strategies by which symbols or metaphors of the feminine—as idealized or poetic objects of desire—serve his mystical and metaphysical interests, and (2.) the ways in which the presence of an apparently more localized theme in Borges' work, the machismo cult (benignly understood as the over-determined Latin American male emphasis on courage, honor, and sexual prowess) operates as the inscription of women in a variation of the classic erotic triangle, even as Borges seems to want to move beyond it. By following the gallery of portraits of women throughout his career, one can trace a change in tendency or attitude away from ideality toward corporeality, especially in his later writings. My point will be precisely that for Borges a conceptual ideal always carries an erotic component. Thus I am arguing against the view that Borges' concept of the universal by definition both eludes and excludes the feminine (despite his sentimental idealizing of women), with the ultimate hope of demonstrating that reading Borges in light of...
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[In the following excerpt, Aizenberg discusses the influence Borges's work has on "postcolonial" literature and criticism.]
1. Postmodernism holds center stage as the major critical practice of the moment. And Borges is there, of course. Critics working in Latin American literature, however, have noted the discomforts of fitting Borges, along with other Latin American authors, into the postmodern mold; as one critic asked graphically, if with some gender bias: "Is the corset too tight for the fat lady?" One place where the corset pinches is in its elision of the Latin American condition of the texts. Typically, these are subsumed into Euro-U.S. concerns. The traits that mark their "postmodernism" are employed to illustrate trends in "late capitalist, bourgeois, informational, postindustrial society" and are said to respond to Western needs: for example, the "totalizing forces" of mass culture. What is forgotten is the peripheric, ex-centric position. The "postmodern" characteristics of Latin American and Borgesian literature enthusiastically embraced by U.S. and European critics—self-reflexivity, indeterminacy, carnivalization, decanonization, intertextuality, pastiche, hybridity, the problematizing of time and space and of historical and fictional narration—are primarily a correlative of a colonized history and an uncohered identity, of incomplete modernity and uneven cultural development, rather than postindustrialization...
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Monegal, Emir Rodriguez. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978, 502 p.
Detailed study of Borges's life and career.
Agheana, Ion T. The Prose of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1984, 320 p.
Examination of existentialist elements in Borges's fiction.
Alazraki, Jaime. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971, 48 p.
Concise essay treating Borges's literary themes and world-view.
Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981, 292 p.
Chronological examination of Borges's works.
Cheselka, Paul. The Poetry and Poetics of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987, 197 p.
Study of Borges's poetry "from his first ultraist poems published in Spain to the publication of Obra poetica 1923–1964."
Christ, Ronald J. The Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion. New York: New York University Press, 1969, 244 p....
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