This unusual selection is actually the first comprehensive selection of Borges’s nonfiction in any language. More than a hundred of these writings have never before appeared in English. Readers who know the earlier anthology in English, Borges: A Reader (1981), will recognize Borges on authors Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, but they may be surprised to read his thoughts on Ray Bradbury, Lady Murasaki, and Bret Harte, or, for that matter, King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane (1941).
Part 1, “Early Writings,” contains material from the 1920’s taken from his earliest books, which he later disowned. The master was unnecessarily severe on himself, and, in retrospect, these early metaphysical meditations on infinity, the illusions of subjectivity, and the mysteries of language all represent a fascination with subjects that would ultimately define his fiction. From the beginning Borges wanted “to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self. . . . [P]ersonality [was] a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality.”
This war on the self was motivated largely by Borges’s hostility to what he felt was the psychologizing of experience in the aesthetics of the nineteenth century. The typical Romantic or realist protagonist of the modern novel in search of a self struck Borges as an illusion. Readers of his fiction will remember his famous story, “The Aleph,” in which a highly intellectual narrator is forced to confront the shattering truth that the universe is “unimaginable” and that the self cannot attain unity in a world that is totally seamless and where everything impinges on everything else. The same insight, in a much less cerebral tale, is struck in “The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874).” Here, a brutish and illiterate gaucho rediscovers his lost identity in the person of a fleeing murderer and sheds one subjectivity for another.
These stories, both written in the 1940’s, show how Borges’s distrust of self never left him. He fled to language as an alternative to self. This observation is made clear in the selected essays from the 1920’s, when he seems to find in the intricacy of language an apology for the chaos of experience. Literature can use language to celebrate the very chaos that maddens the mind and reduces self to an illusion. From an essay on “The Nothingness of Personality,” he moves to a self- conscious account of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in which he comments, “I am the first traveler from the Hispanic world to set foot upon the shores of Ulysses.” He admires Joyce’s appreciation of the kaleidoscope of “a day in modern life” and attributes his powers as a literary artist to the observation, “He is a millionaire of words and styles.” Indeed, the rich style and fascination with words that Borges praises in Joyce seems to be evolving in these early essays in Borges himself.
Part 2, “1929-1936,” draws on what was to become, as the editor tells the reader, the “canonical” Borges. In these years Borges is trying to hold on to his faith in language and style at the same time that his studies in gnosticism and medieval theology feed a growing skepticism. He is intrigued by the gnostic belief that the world can be imagined “as an essentially futile process, like a sideways, lost glimpse of ancient celestial episodes. Creation as a chance act.”
In “The Duration of Hell,” he reflects on the endless fascination that hell holds for the Western mind well into its modern phase. Here, he stumbles into the importance of dreams: “This desolate awakening is in Hell, this eternal vigil will be my destiny. Then I really woke up, trembling.” This oneiric element comes to play an important role in Borges’s lifelong need to reach the reality beyond the illusion of self, a reality that filtered through language far more readily than it did through the fragmented memory of the individual consciousness. Perhaps this is why, in these relatively early pieces, he is riveted on the problems of translation. Literary critics John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold, who debate the subtleties of Homeric translation, seem to push the envelope of the verbal imagination and force language into giving up more of its secret understanding of reality. In a brilliant essay entitled “The Homeric Versions,” Borges compares the translations of a passage from Homer by George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and William Cowper. After reviewing the gradations of literalness and interpretation in these various passages, Borges asks, “Which of these many translations is faithful? my reader will want to know. I repeat: none or all of them.”
The translator dreams the task of translation, and the reader is witness to a recalled dream. All of his life, Borges was drawn to the Kabbala, the teachings of Jewish mysticism. In the Kabbala’s conception of Scripture as a palimpsest for the word of God, Borges found both a metaphor and a principle for his own trust in language and bookishness as the only reliable lenses for peering into the infinite:
[The Kabbalists] turns the Scriptures into an absolute text, where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero. The conception alone of such a document is a greater wonder than those recorded in its pages. A book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of...
(The entire section is 2223 words.)