Jorge Luis Borges Jorge Luis Borges World Literature Analysis

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Jorge Luis Borges World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Borges is often included among writers described as postmodernists. Postmodernism, a literary movement whose influence has steadily increased since the middle of the twentieth century, is characterized by literature that meditates upon the processes of its own construction. Because of their inherent self-reflectiveness and circularity, Borges’s stories provide a good example of such “metafiction.” Borges is also known for his innovative literary techniques and an austere, polished craftsmanship.

The avant-garde intellectuals of early twentieth century Argentina, including Borges, conceived of literary activity as intellectual play. In Borges’s “La lotería en Babilonia” (“The Babylon Lottery”), for example, the lottery is an intellectual construct, conceived by an unknown brain, which seduces people into risking their fates by playing with chance. Stories such as this one seem to emphasize that life—like its fictional counterpart, literature—is an arbitrary construction based purely on coincidence. Many of Borges’s detective-type stories, such as “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”) and “La muerte y la brújula” (“Death and the Compass”), emphasize equally the gamelike nature of everyday reality by their insistence on a mysterious relationship between life and accident. In such stories, Borges spoofs spy fiction and parodies other literary genres.

Borges repeatedly draws attention to the fact that literature is imitation and can be nothing but inventive repetition. In a typical story, “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” (“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), the narrator discusses the work of a fictitious writer whose experiments lead him to invent plots that repeat themselves in symmetrical structures. Borges uses stories such as this one in a dual way: He displays his interest in symmetry, invention, and the story-within-the-story structure and at the same time adopts a tongue-in-cheek critical attitude toward academic critics by mimicking them through his erudite, pretentious narrators. He thus combines serious meditations on the nature of fiction with a subtle and refined sense of humor.

In a more serious vein, Borges explores the relationship between the real world and its more fabulous counterparts. Two major metaphors that allow him to intermingle reality with imagination are the labyrinth and the mirror. Both of these appear in many of the stories included in Ficciones and The Aleph, and Other Stories. In “Los dos reyes y los dos labertinos” (“The Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths”), which appeared in The Aleph, and Other Stories, the labyrinth is both a maze and a desert—a space within which one can lose one’s way, or perhaps an intellectual problem that can be resolved only with great difficulty.

While the labyrinth suggests artifice, the mirror invokes duplication. In one of the stories from Ficciones, “La biblioteca de Babel” (“The Library of Babel”), a large library becomes an allegory of the universe. At the entrance to the library hangs a mirror, which may suggest the illusory nature of the universe or the possibility of having access to a duplicate world such as that of fiction. Such aspects of Borges’s stories point to the influence of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, in which the world is viewed as “Maya” or delusion, something ephemeral that can be shattered at any time.

What is paradoxical about much of Borges’s philosophy is that it offers a two-pronged system of conception. On the one hand, Borges insists that twentieth century writers can do nothing but repeat ideas and plots that have already been presented in one form or another. Like literary activity, reality is for Borges both repetitive and cyclical. Paradoxically, however, repetition does not imply monotony, for the human being has the ability to be infinitely inventive in the rearrangement of previously acquired patterns of knowledge....

(The entire section is 3,797 words.)