Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 6)
Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–
Borges, an Argentinian short story writer, essayist, and poet, is one of the world's great living writers. He has created a unique fiction, an immensely erudite and surreal cosmos. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
The gnostic gazes into the mirror of the fallen world and sees, not himself, but his dark double, the shadowy haunter of his phantasmagoria. Since the ambivalent God of the gnostics balances good and evil in himself, the writer dominated by a gnostic vision is morally ambivalent also. Borges is imaginatively a gnostic, but intellectually a skeptical and naturalistic humanist. This division, which has impeded his art, making of him a far lesser figure than gnostic writers like Yeats and Kafka, nevertheless has made him also an admirably firm moralist. (p. 211)
Borges has written largely in the spirit of Emerson's remark that the hint of the dialectic is more valuable than the dialectic itself. My own favorite among his tales, the cabbalistic Death and the Compass, traces the destruction of the Dupin-like Erik Lönnrot, whose "reckless discernment" draws him into the labyrinthine trap set by Red Scharlach the Dandy, a gangster worthy to consort with Babel's Benya Krik. The greatness of Borges is in the aesthetic dignity both of Lönnrot, who at the point of death criticizes the labyrinth of his entrapment as having redundant lines, and of Scharlach, who just before firing promises the detective a better labyrinth, when he hunts him in some other incarnation. (pp. 211-12)
Borges remarks of the first story he wrote, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, that it gives a sensation of tiredness and skepticism, of "coming at the end of a very long literary period." It is revelatory that this was his first tale, exposing his weariness of the living labyrinth of fiction even as he ventured into it. Borges is a great theorist of poetic influence; he has taught us to read Browning as a precursor of Kafka, and in the spirit of this teaching we may see Borges himself as another Childe Roland coming to the Dark Tower, while consciously not desiring to accomplish the Quest. Are we also condemned to see him finally more as a critic of romance than as a romancer? When we read Borges—whether his essays, poems, parables, or tales—do we not read glosses upon romance, and particularly on the skeptic's self-protection against the enchantments of romance?
Borges thinks he has invented one new subject for a poem—in his poem Limits—the subject being the sense of doing something for the last time, seeing something for the last time. It is extraordinary that so deeply read a man-of-letters should think this, since most strong poets who live to be quite old have written on just this subject, though often with displacement or concealment. But it is profoundly self-revelatory that a theorist of poetic influence should come to think of this subject as his own invention, for Borges has been always the celebrator of things-in-their-farewell, always a poet of loss. Though he has comforted himself, and his readers, with the wisdom that we can lose only what we never had, he has suffered the discomfort also of knowing that we come to recognize only what we have encountered before, and that all recognition is self-recognition. All loss is of ourselves, and even the loss of falling-out of love is, as Borges would say, the pain of returning to others, not to the self. Is this the wisdom of romance, or of another mode entirely?
What Borges lacks, despite the illusive cunning of his labyrinths, is precisely the extravagance of the romancer; he does not trust his own vagrant impulses…. The gnostic mirror of nature reflects for him only Lönnrot's labyrinth "of a single line which is invisible and unceasing," the line of all those enchanted mean streets that fade into the horizon of the Buenos Aires of his phantasmagoria. The reckless discerner who is held by the symmetries of his own mythic compass has never been reckless enough to lose himself in a story, to our loss, if not to his. His extravagance, if it still comes, will be a fictive movement away from the theme of recognition, even against that theme, and towards a larger art. His favorite story, he says, is Hawthorne's Wakefield, which he describes as being "about the man who stays away from home all those years." (pp. 212-13)
Harold Bloom, "Borges: A Compass for the Labyrinth" (originally published in The Yale Review, 1969), in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (© 1971 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 211-13.
Like "The Circular Ruins," the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" winds up with the author at his desk brooding on the encroaching new reality of Tlön and the enduring old reality (which no invented alternative can change) of death. Now what can Borges mean by thus intruding upon us a reminder of his mortal self, his life as writer in the actual world? Especially as the reality of himself is far more complicated with fictions than his whole corpus ever will be. Does it all really add up to the stunning epiphany that "literature is a hoax"? And if we can't laugh at this "joke" Mr. Poirier proposes regarding Tlön [in "The Politics of Self-Parody," Partisan Review, Summer, 1968], are we at least to go along with his judgment that "one point of [it] is that if invention is probably endless, forever displacing itself, if the most solid-seeming contrivance is merely contingent, then literature, Borges' own writing and especially this piece of writing, is merely the most trivial and expendable form of fiction-making"? That Borges is a man unfathomably humble there can be no doubt, but there's serious doubt that this is what it comes down to, either here or anywhere else in his writing. Certainly it's possible to take quite another reading from this story. "Tlön is … a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men" the last page tells us, and so long as men exist it represents one of the imperatives of men, and as such a manifest aspect of the reality they don't know how to acknowledge, because it is "in accordance with divine laws … we never quite grasp": namely, the imperatives of invention itself. The real joke of the tale isn't that "any inventiveness … can take over the world" nor that "the existent reality by which the world is governed is itself only an alternate invention," but that Tlön is itself that invention, that "existent reality"—our present, our scene, our schools, our literature, our politics, our dreams…. Tlön has already taken over. No aspect of it can't be read as a paradigm of the contemporary situation. It's not a world elsewhere, it's this one. And here is the kind of magic that persuades me Borges is writing something more like parables than parodies. Whatever they are, they are the finest approximations to parables and fables we have these days. And if that sort of judgment seems as spurious as the idea of the novel as "procurer" of reality, consider the alternative idea of literature as our "fun." Reading and writing is and ought to be a procurer of our fun, whether the sport brings one closer to reality or to less ineffable things. But to see Borges as a mere parodist—or as Nabokov sees him, a mere "portico"—is to have lost sight of how much more than fun great literature can be. It is in fact to have cut the cable from the work of art itself [Ballif is referring here to Henry James' metaphor in the Preface to The American: when its cable to the earth is cut from the balloon of experience, "we are at large and unrelated."]. (pp. 33-4)
Gene Ballif, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1970.
The pursuit of Eros, one of the most fundamental of human concerns, is not a frequent theme in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, its presence is sporadic. Furthermore, the sexual theme is often secreted in the body of his poetry and prose, like the Minotaur in his labyrinth. But neither periodicity nor evasiveness precludes importance where Borges' works are concerned; this holds true in this sexual context as well. When viewed together these glimpses of or references to heterosexual intimacies create an impression quite distinct from, yet related intimately to, the highly intellectualized tone of most of his writings. Such moments of carnal encounter between a man and a woman are of special interest not only in what they reveal but also in what they do not. (pp. 407-08)
Borges has concerned himself with heterosexual relations to the exclusion of other types. Neither bestiality nor forms of homosexuality are visible in his published works to date; indeed, he has chosen to avoid altogether what society currently terms deviate sexual behavior, regardless of caste. Nonetheless, poems and stories from Fervor de Buenos Aires through El informe de Brodie provide many variations on the theme of "normal" sexuality…. In fact, there are so many variants that what is encountered is a veritable labyrinth of Borgesian eroticism. Upon entering the maze, however, the realization begins to take shape that Borges has not created a set for a pornographic scenario; it becomes increasingly more palpable that Borges has slain the beast of lust but kept its trappings. The labyrinth remains, a symbol of lust's entrapment, but Borges exits through the uplifting power of his intellect. He becomes Daedalus.
Tracing the theme of eroticism in these works has uncovered that Borges' attitude was not initially pristine but underwent a drastic change—a transubstantiation—early in his career. The change is marked by the cessation of concern with sexuality as a self-serving end. The coital passion is found wanting, even deceptive. Subsequent to this recognition, there is a brief period of ambiguity. But this hiatus, in turn, is followed by the contemplative mode, the arrival at which is expressed in "Amorosa anticipación." Borges' writings reflect a new attitude towards eroticism thereafter. Dissipated through descriptive objectivity, sexuality becomes a means to a nonsexual end…. Borges clearly intends that eroticism be subverted. He prizes Love and resents its perversion through the lesser goals of carnal passion. Thus, in "Emma Zunz" the means are justified because love of father and of justice motivate the protagonist, whereas in "La intrusa" the preservation and enhancement of fraternal ties are paramount in the mind of the elder brother. The importance of Love for Borges is also obvious outside the body of his works: "We are only capable of giving Love, of which all other things are symbols." (p. 417)
Robert Lima, "Coitus Interruptus: Sexual Transubstantiation in the Works of Jorge Luis Borges," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973, pp. 407-17.
The most recurring concern of Borges's work is to reveal the gap that separates our intellectual aspirations from our intellectual limitations. In most of his stories, he presents us with the spectacle of men who set out to 'decipher the universe', only to discover that they cannot even decipher an infinitesimal fragment of it, not even that which constitutes their own person. Sometimes, maybe they think they have found the answer. If they do, they are ultimately all the more comically pathetic. The metaphysical systems they doggedly conceive are in the end arbitrary. An irreducible universe intimidatingly reasserts itself. (p. 95)
In Borges's work, God steps in where the intellect breaks down. Where explanations no longer hold water, where man's intellectual quest for them collapses, there is God. Yet 'God' in Borges's stories is often something more active than a mere symbol of intellectual confusion. Let us turn momentarily to Borges's favourite image, the labyrinth. In nearly every story, there are allusions to labyrinths, and many of the stories describe specific labyrinths. Yet the labyrinth need not be a specifically concrete one—for Borges the universe itself is a labyrinth, as is any intellectual puzzle (such as an enigmatic crime) that a man may attempt to solve. Now Borges has said that he uses the labyrinth rather than any other image to express the bewilderment of man because labyrinths are places that have been constructed artificially and deliberately to confuse. The confusion of those that enter it is the labyrinth's sole purpose. Now a good criminal is like a labyrinth-maker. If he plants false clues for the detective it is so as to lead him down false trails—the planting of false clues is a skill that all Borges's criminals possess. Suppose the criminal is God, and there emerges the image of a God who deliberately plants false clues, who deliberately goads man's intellectual vanity into the belief that he is arriving at a solution only to laugh in his face in the end by killing him. For the death that God provides for all men is, like the death that Red Scharlach provides for Lönnrot [in 'Death and the Compass'], the ultimate mockery of all those vain attempts at rational explanation they may have indulged in.
We have seen how fundamentally sceptical Borges is, how grimly he endeavours to demonstrate that nothing is knowable. Yet if nothing is knowable, nothing can be affirmed to be impossible. Borges revels in the description of weird exotic sects, ridiculously limited theologies, arbitrary rituals all in conflict with each other. But he does this not only to show how absurd it is to attempt to reduce the irreducible to any kind of system but also to incite the suspicion that anything is possible. Borges is as superstitious as he is sceptical, and not inconsistently. For if you cannot know even that the world exists, or who Borges is, neither can you know that, say, the markings on a jaguar's hide are not a secret message from God, or that four simpletons do not unconsciously control the universe in each generation.
A labyrinth-maker constructs his artifice deliberately in order to confuse, yet he knows its secret order. Red Scharlach plants his clues deliberately in order to confuse Lönnrot, but he knows what he is doing. Similarly, the ultimate labyrinth, the universe, may have been constructed with an aim to confuse its inhabitants by Someone cognizant of its arcane design. (pp. 102-03)
'Death and the Compass' has many supplementary richnesses that have not yet been explored. Not to forget the obvious it is of course a good detective story, but it is also a parody of the genre and a meditation on its implications. Many of the clichés of the genre are deliberately included: a mysterious telephone call cut off at the most interesting moment, the lone detective entering through a creaking gate into a large house which may or may not be deserted, the genius detective in conflict with a simple-minded colleague, the revelatory denouement, and so on. Yet one notes that ultimately the clichés are stood on their head. The 'genius' detective is wrong, the simple-minded policeman is right: it is as though Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown, not Scotland Yard, had made spectacular blunders. I mention Father Brown because Borges has always been an avid reader of Chesterton, and it is in particular the Father Brown pattern that is being meditated upon in this story. In the Father Brown stories,… the world is presented as an apparent fantasy which however becomes easily explainable when subjected to the scrutiny of reason. In 'Death and the Compass' it is the reasoning mind that turns a perfectly commonplace event into a recondite fantasy. (pp. 109-10)
Mirrors for Borges are horrifying because they remind him of all that is inescapable but also because they help to confirm his suspicion that though he cannot escape them, neither Borges nor the world may exist at all, that Borges too for instance may be an insubstantial reflection of something else, just as his mirror-image is an insubstantial reflection of him. Mirrors intolerably underline a central paradox of Borges's work: that not only is the world inescapable; it may also be unreal. (p. 120)
Idealism for Borges has always served as an image—more poetic perhaps than philosophical—of the fragility of things, as an image in particular of how little we can know for certain. For if we cannot be certain that the things we see exist outside our perception of them, we are truly absurd and hopeless creatures…. Borges takes pains to stress that his stories are fictions. Yet he wonders, too, if we may not also be fictions. If, in Hamlet, the characters on stage are watching another play, may not we, watching Hamlet, be characters in yet another play and so on to infinity? If I dream a man, may I not too be the dream of another? May not he be the dream of yet another, and so on? If I play chess, may I not too be a pawn on yet another board? What, anyway, is real? If life is a mere spectacle of insubstantial percepts, are not the percepts of a dream as real as those of waking life? The fictiveness of his stories is therefore a reflection of the possible fictiveness of a world whose status is as dubious as that of the stories. The stories often look real. Borges indeed always deploys illusionists' tricks to make them look so, before demolishing them as fictions. The stories are full of scholarly footnotes, references to real people, precise dates, all sorts of devices designed to give an appearance of reality to extraordinary things. Yet these illusionists' tricks are reflections of the tricks life itself plays to persuade us that our extraordinary world is real.
Borges's stories, in the end, are not only coolly lucid cerebral games but often highly affective, poetic expressions of the fragility of the world and of man. Again, that fragility is not a desperate one. It has a certain splendour. It is a measure of the odds against man and a measure therefore of his spirit. That spirit, which always reasserts itself in Borges's work, is perhaps best reflected in his poetry, particularly in those deeply personal, later poems such as the 'Poema de los dones' or 'Elogio de la sombra', where against all personal odds, in the face of ageing and of mounting blindness, in the face therefore of all that has dramatized the fragility of man for Borges personally, a love of life, and a dogged, sensitive hope remain undestroyed. They remain undestroyed in particular because they are relentlessly sustained by Borges's irrepressible sense of humour. (pp. 120-21)
D. P. Gallagher, "Jorge Luis Borges," in his Modern Latin American Literature (© Oxford University Press 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 94-121.
Within the context of a Borgian esthetics or metaphysics, to say that Borges is repeating himself in his poetry is a neutral, rather than a negative, statement. Of course, with the usual offhandedness of his prologues, Borges admits the presence of the problem and offers only his standard if deceitful humility as an explanation. If all literature is repetition, as are all men and all reality, it hardly matters if the Poet is discovered in advanced age and failing health to be reusing themes and patterns. But then Borges has always recognized that his literature, quite apart from the styles critics recognize, is composed of variations on the same themes. All of which leads inevitably to the reassertion of that contemporary critical cliché that literature is écriture and nothing more can be demanded of it. In repeating himself, Borges shows his adherence to the sort of "revolutionary" esthetics that makes him so important at this time. So, then, it really is no surprise when he informs the reader that his main source of inspiration has, after all, been the modernist poets whose esthetics he was once touted as being challenger of. All poets actually accomplish the same thing, and then repeat themselves—and each other—in doing so. This is evident in numerous poems by Borges on poetry, Borges the poet, and the Poet.
There is one modification [in El oro de los tigres], however, and that is the insistence on death and oblivion as a temptation to be resisted by man. This is a complement to the quest for adventure, for the heroic moment, for the historic role that rescues a life from nothingness. There are the poems that recall everyman-noman's identification with the heroic ("La busca"), and there are the poems that reiterate how all "momentous" history becomes an illusory eternity and not a memory ("El pasado"). But there is also the two-fold quest for the release of death, either as a frightening temptation ("Defiéndeme, Señor, del impaciente / Apetito de ser mármol y olvido" ["Religio Medici, 1643"]) or as a shameless desire…. It should not be this inclination toward a "laus mortis" and its thematic ramifications that El oro is to be praised, but as another example of Borges's competent and unavoidably repetitious art. (p. 104)
David William Foster, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.
[In] Jorge Luis Borges' two-paragraph fiction called "La trama" [a] gaucho is assassinated by a group of men, among whom is one who is like a son to him; his murder repeats the death of Caesar. This is not a story but a brief narrative-commentary; Borges suggests that Destiny requires symmetry and repetition, and that the gaucho died without knowing that his death occurred in order to repeat a scene.
Here, as in all of the best fantasy, the "art" lies not in the events but in their implied cause. The events of "La trama" are not really fantastic but they point to a believable coincidence that is sufficient to thrust the reader straight into a metaphysical problem. All of us wonder at the implications of coincidence and cannot explain it except as accident or as God's will; in that sense it is outside the system—fantastic. Borges "explains" the coincidence of the gaucho's death by putting it into an autonomous structure that is more complete and coherent than accident or the will of God. He implies a universal principle: time is plastic, somehow simultaneous; Destiny is a static entity of architectural aspect; God has theatrical tastes, and men are only actors on his stage; human personality is subordinate to archetypal action, and the gaucho is not only as important as Caesar, he may even be Caesar. Causality and time-sequence are suspended in favor of an a-temporal determinant; symmetry requires identical deaths and it hardly matters which precedes. And finally, neither Caesar nor the gaucho has the power to understand his fate or to overcome it. This little episode turns real life into some kind of poetic image, perhaps a great book whose beginning and end are the same.
We do not believe Borges' sophistical suggestions, but our inability to account for coincidence on a rational basis weakens our resistance to them. Whether or not we believe them becomes less important than whether we like them, and we cease to judge the text on the intellectual plane. Even before we formulate a meaning the text brings us a little thrill; its heretical aspect puts us into brief danger, for we momentarily rebel against dependable, "sacred" truth about free will and human self-direction. For a moment the text becomes a little Garden of Eden in which we can hide from reality, and we wind up affirming it—not as true, but as valuable despite its incredibility. It becomes a door to an autonomous world that is believable because it transcends the question of true or false. Truth and poetry are, for an instant, one. (p. 3)
Borges has said that philosophy is a branch of fantastic literature, and twentieth-century writers, particularly in Spanish America where everything has to be relevant to something else in order to be respectable, do not hesitate to use the fantastic to push social and philosophical view-points. Borges himself is no exception, despite his avowal of uncommittedness and his scorn for "message" literature. (p. 4)
Borges has described the method of fantasy:
I suspect there are two ways of thinking: the logical way, in which we proceed through premises, reasoning, and conclusions, and the nonvigilant way, that of dreams, which is the route not of logical man but of the child or primitive man, in which we think through images, metaphors, or parables…. I suppose that the function of literature is to serve as a sort of dream for Man, perhaps helping him thereby to live in reality.
Indeed, the escape into art helps us to go back to work on Monday morning. Our momentary escape from the consequences of rationality, which include the paradoxical knowledge of our finiteness and our infinite responsibility, is a kind of gospel which "forgives" us by making us forget. This accounts in part, I think, for Borges' recent, insistent use of the idea that forgiving and forgetting are the same thing and that forgiveness can only benefit the forgiver, not the forgiven. Taken as a moral or religious statement this is quite heretical; but it must also be taken in a hidden context because real forgetting is not an act of the will. Borges' work is notoriously devoid of moralism, and even in his intimate and personal Elogio de la sombra (1969) where he admits taking up ethics as a theme, almost everything he has written seems traceable to a literary idea as its point of origin, for he sees art as one of man's two serious ways of thinking. In a short piece called "Leyenda," where Cain discovers that Abel cannot remember who killed whom, we are told that Cain must forget his own crime in order to be forgiven, because "mientras dura el remordimiento dura la culpa" ("as long as there's remorse, there's guilt"). Borges says in "Una oracion" that he cannot ask to be forgiven for his errors because "el perdón es un acto ajeno y sólo yo puedo salvarme" ("forgiving is what someone else does, and only I can save myself")…. Forgetting—el olvido—is a fundamental activity of the characters in many of Borges' more famous short stories; e.g., "La lotería en Babilonia," where forgetting is a necessary part of the early lottery; "Funes el memorioso," where the horrible inability to forget is fatal; and "El Zahir," where the unforgettable coin drives the narrator mad. In general, memory is related in Borges' fiction to insomnia and lucidity and is a misfortune which prevents "dream"—art. (pp. 4-5)
Carter Wheelock, in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974.
The eleven latter-day stories in [Doctor Brodie's Report, a] Borges collection, point up a melancholy fact relating to the psychology of literary authorship: a literary titan may possess the defect of his virtues, the weakness of his prodigality. Hawthorne, Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Walker Percy, and how many other major talents have overripened in the course of time, often with ludicrous results? Should we expect anything less of Borges, the most illustrious librarian Buenos Aires has ever known, the grand old man of Latin-American letters?
No, not unless Borges had himself been a kind of Borgesian "dream-tiger" trapped in a mysterious Borgesian "labyrinth" and gaining in power as he used up his energy in trying to "express" himself out of that shadowy maze. Human, all too human, Borges in these brief tales draws on resources he had deposited in his memory bank long ago, in a non-interest-bearing account….
It is useless to look in these modest, fatigued pieces for the exuberance, the contagious liveliness that is the hallmark of some of the best South American writers: Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Amado, Gabriel Márquez. Like these writers, too, however, Borges comes to appear (to the North American reader) parochial in the extreme; his endless litanies of place names and pedigrees become at times almost insurmountable obstacles to reading enjoyment. But his obsession with heroism (derived from family traditions), with pugnacious violence, with fighting it out on the battlefield or in the back alleys, is perhaps the dominant force at work in this assemblage of tales. A man of committed scholarship, polite letters, and ineradicable pedantry, Borges directs his mind ever to the bookish citation, while his heart finds its natural home on the field of honor.
There is nothing in this book as fresh and provocative as Borges' early sketch about an imaginary hero, "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," but there is an abundance of accounts of duels, heroic battles, and national warriors….
"I have done my best—I don't know with what success—to write straightforward stories," Borges remarks in the "Preface to the First Edition" of this collection, and in the course of his editorial comments in this volume he evokes the names of two famous short story writers, Rudyard Kipling and Henry James. His attempts to follow their leads—Kipling's straightforwardness and James's building on a situation or character—have been markedly unsuccessful here, possibly because, surrounded by events, memories, and literary techniques, he had lost sight of the hidden elements (no pun is intended!) and the indispensable recipe for putting together a worth while short story. (pp. 205-07)
Samuel I. Bellman, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Spring, 1974.
Borges' is a universe of guilt and self-pursuit and all crimes in this universe are continuous. They go on happening endlessly, endlessly confirming and dissolving human identity.
Borges' stories leave cause and effect a tentative hypothesis at best, and because they question sequence they make time a philosophical question. Without these features of the detective story format, his stories turn into metaphysical abstracts of thesis and antithesis (and occasionally synthesis, although he is more concerned with dramatizing propositions and philosophical positions than with solutions). Everything in Borges is tentative and toying. With the one exception of "Death and the Compass" he has no formal detective; the opposition is always so vaguely presented that we are not certain it is "evil"; usually the detective becomes a part of the conspiracy, which blurs the distinctions between the "good" men and the criminal; if suprahuman power is at work it is seldom given to men to know, much less to receive; there appear to be effects without causes; and the only truth is that the universe is a mystery. Borges does not give his reader a comfortably optimistic view of life as the mystery story traditionally has done, proving the world a meaningfully planned and simple place to cope with, physically and morally. Borges uses this popular form for working out uncommon ideas and dreads and disorders, less to discard them than to test their validity. If it is all a gimmick and a game, the conventions of hypothesis and paradox nevertheless are useful for investigating mysteries of time and personality. Violence and crime, pursuit and flight, obscure guilt and enigmatic punishment are assumed in the mystery genre, as is the mysteriousness of identity; deceptive appearances and false clues are expected. And Borges knows that mysteries do happen in time and space. A murder committed at time M and solved at Z began to be committed at A when the mystery's links began to come together. Space contracts as the people involved are linked together. These links hold the meaning of the experience. There is an order somewhere in these links if they can be put together. Crime in Borges never quite happens in the present but is a revelation of the forking paths of the past coming together for a moment before diverging again.
The mystery genre offers unreality, inaccuracy, distortion, deception, and hiding of truth and identity to a mind obsessed with deciphering a more precise equation for an unbelievable universe. The mystery format for Borges satisfies both his awareness of the way things are and his desire to order them, even if the order is an image of disorder, because the detective story is also a genre for wish-fulfillment. The mystery form is perfect for the labyrinthine imaginings, documented with verisimilitude, of that concrete universe Borges dreams of, that mathematically exact world in which geometrical but terrible lives are constructed for men to live.
Because the mystery, superficially, is a tentative genre (and because we do not believe it has the intelligence of the serious novel and do not expect it to offer a substantial account of human life), mystery stories can get away with being largely problematical and hypothetical. Borges uses the mystery story for ironical testing of theories—trying out the artistic possibilities of philosophical idealisms—and for incorporating, even when he is most serious, the cosmic prank. His medium is not adequate to the thought—the formal conventions and apparatus of the mystery story are ineffectual in solving the philosophical mysteries of the universe—but by belittling the medium Borges suggests his idea and also breaks through the conventions of the mystery story to symbols of the reality that embody a special archetypal truth. Writers who push toward a new view of reality often begin if not end as satirists and parodists. Borges sports with literary conventions in behalf of a special vision, and his approach is carried out by new or altered literary conventions. In Borges what is not there is as important as what is. (pp. 225-26)
Generally mystery fiction is socially oriented with the criminal an anti-social figure committing crimes against the laws of men and God; but since Borges avoids a social context he avoids such legal and ethical distinctions, and his criminals have nothing to do with the mechanism of society. If they are disobedient or sinful they either are not punished or there is no relief in the punishment and they go on committing their crimes endlessly, endlessly reaffirming themselves. Borges' mysteries are not concerned with human justice any more than they are mysteries a reader can decipher for himself: we follow the narrative to be amazed by the dexterity of the creative mind. However much we are engaged by its puzzles, detective fiction is a sport, and we are a passive audience as dazzled by the process of solution as by the puzzles themselves. It is an advantageous feature of the genre that underlines Borges' sense of the individual as an observer of the spectacle of the universe. We watch the Borgesian universe as if it were a crime, staggered spectators of the hypotheses that try to track it down. (p. 226)
In the marvellously complicated Borgesian labyrinth there is no explicit separation of Good and Evil, or Soul and Body, God and Devil, Truth and Falsehood. In his universal labyrinth one passage leads to the face of God, another to its opposite; down one curving corridor in time we meet a Christ, down another a Judas, and sometimes we double back and the one face melts into the other. Mutability and multiplicity are built into the very personalities of the characters. The enemy is within…. Unconcerned with justice, Borges is an illusionist who creates mysteries only in order to investigate them—in other words, he is a disillusionist. (p. 227)
Borges believes that art is not a mirror of the world but the creation of new possibility within the world, and he assigns this creation to the jester, the outlaw, the traitor, the heresiarch. Power shifts from the traditional holder of power, the detective, and goes to the criminal; it is the criminal who has control over the world and men's destinies, for in a universe of labyrinths only he has real strength by way of his community with the "devious" universe, not with a moral community of men. Borges counts on our awareness of this convention for the reversal of the power roles to be meaningful, but (because he never put conflict in terms of good and evil) the moral element disappears in a world where the oppositions are simply power against power, intelligence against intelligence, each man trying to make facts fit a hypothesis. That intelligence may lead to self-destruction is a moral that is only obliquely drawn. (p. 228)
Mystery fiction generally contrives to intensify, then minimize guilt and the fear of death, whereas Borges' treatment, making death not the beginning of the mystery but the climax, increases guilt and fear. We think we like surprise endings, but Borges proves that we may feel disoriented by an abstract anxiety when confronted by surprises we did not expect. Imagine Father Brown murdered on a case. [Gillespie discusses earlier in this essay Borges' professed interest in G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories.]
We are never allowed, however, to sympathize with Borges' characters. Each needs the answer suggested by the enigma he faces, and what it is necessary to have each one manages to create for himself. The solution, the self-punishment or death, stands up in spite of any intellectual or moral objections because it is an emotional explanation of verifiable facts, not a principle that is always true.
But the problems of the tales are not ethical or even emotional. They are philosophical. Borges' philosophical labyrinth is an image that is offered as a "fact" instead of a fantasy or an interpretive evaluation. (Like Chesterton, Borges presents us with a new set of facts. Unlike Chesterton's, this set is a new form of the universe.) Just as the "cosmos" Tlön replaces this world in the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Borges' symbols intrude into and become the world of experience: the labyrinth, or encyclopaedia, library or chinese garden is always a symbol, but a symbol of nothing else so much as a symbol of the psyche itself. Facts are not there to represent a vision of the "real" world, or to claim that they have a symbolic reference. Borges' is a possible world; his mysteries and clues are symbols of this labyrinth of the mind trying to make sense of itself, and we cannot dispute the labyrinth with reference to another more real world. Borges' literary affinities are finally the only clues worth following, since he puts us on to them as if to say that literature is the reality from which his symbols come, and his symbols gain their reality from the reality of literature. That he sounds so much like Chesterton means Borges can be understood better with reference to the forms of detective literature. He comes from no world of ordinary experience we are familiar with. (p. 229)
Chesterton and Borges both play with similar notions of contradiction, necessity, circular time, and transcendental reality. Borges, like a criminal philosophizing along those lines, builds them into the plot, the events, the images, the color and texture of his narratives until they become the facts of the narrative world. The more impossible the creation, the more like the Maker Borges is; and the more impossible, incredible, and fictionalized we seem to be ourselves, the more fantastic—the more like Borges'—our world becomes. It is when Borges' irony contradicts Borges' mystical vision that he offers his "No" of disbelief in his universe—in "the wheel of destiny and the serpent biting its own tail"—complicating his creation and discovering, perhaps, a truer consciousness of experience. But which Borges is it that finally has the truth, the detector or the heresiarch? Irony is disbelief that negates the creation and identity, and forces the process of confrontation with the reality of the self to begin again. (p. 230)
Robert Gillespie, "Detections: Borges and Father Brown," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1974), Spring, 1974, pp. 220-30.
Like Miguel de Cervantes, about whom he often writes, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges sees himself primarily as a poet. But Cervantes's quixotic notion of being a great poet was wrong, for the Spaniard's verses are largely mannered imitations in the Italian style and meter of the other Golden Age poets. Conversely, Borges, known largely for his ficciones, has … published his fifth volume of poems [In Praise of Darkness], a unified sequence of profound observations about people and things, dreams and darkness, showing that Borges, in giving primacy to poetry, is right. Yet with typical shiftiness, Borges also claims there is really no difference between his ficciones and his poems, that anyway he would "like to be remembered less as a poet than as a friend," that he too "dislikes them [the poems]," and finally, reversing himself, he speaks about "the book which in the end may justify [him]."
"Poetry is no less a mystery than anything else on earth," he writes ambiguously in his introduction, and so he includes among the poems some forms of prose, asking us to read the volume as a volume of poems. In itself the book is nothing, a thing among things; and the esthetic act, he says, occurs only when it is written or read. The reader controls the latter…. In "In Praise of Darkness" (Elogio de la sombra) the blind Argentine master of historical spoof, exotic violence, of mirrors, labyrinths and the circular ruins that lead us to the border of knowledge, has again taken us to the instant of recognition—where he stops, stationing us in mystery, in order to save us from false knowledge. As in all Borges, the events outside are a whimsical journey to the paradox of self-discovery. In speaking of the Gauchos, he writes:
They lived out their lives as in a dream,
without knowing who they were or
what they were.
Maybe the case is the same for us all.
This … book by Borges is unified and dominated by darkness and sight, with often an ecclesiastic note as he recreates Heraclitus or the Apostle John or fragments from an apocryphal gospel. Borges is blind and therefore sees everywhere. Yet his is not an Isaiahan vision of heaven and destruction, and when he speaks through biblical figures it is as if he were talking to an old Argentine friend over a cup of maté. Indeed, he slips through historical and imaginary time periods in such a way as to prove that man is always man, always alone, caught in the beast of his body, the labyrinth, while living out the dream or illusion of a vision beyond the labyrinth. (pp. 6-7)
Borges's sight extends even into what he calls las cosas, plain things. All the things we remember or forget, "a file, an atlas, doorways, nails, the glass/from which we drink—serve us like silent slaves." Because these things are sightless "they will live on/familiar, blind, not knowing we have gone." Clearly the elegiac theme pervades the volume. So in the manner of Simonides, he writes poems of historical praise for Israel, tracing the Jew from Eden through the Book of the cabalists, the death chambers and the battlefield. He praises his native city of Buenos Aires with the morbidity of a Palatine epigrammist…. And above all, as in the earlier famous "The Maker," where he roams through the vision of the blind poet Homer, he sees old age as a time of happiness, a coin shining under rain, and possibility. This is not resignation or silly euphoria but rather the last steps toward his search. Like Constantine Cavafy in "Ithaka," he tells us in his apocryphal gospel to seek the pleasure of seeking, not of finding. (p. 7)
Borges speaks with several voices. His blindness, as he states in many earlier works, has prepared him for the vision of darkness, for the uncertainty of waking to dream or of dreaming of nothing. Death may be violent in the act, but it holds no terror for him. He affirms that he (or we) know nothing certain while we are alive. Possibility of knowledge lies only where there is no where and when there is no when. He has lived with
Emerson, and snow, and so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center,
my algebra and my key,
Soon I shall know who I am.
This last verse in the volume is Borges's one line of prophecy. For the reader who wants to overhear secrets, the poet is again elusive, like the ultimate knowledge he seeks; he does not have it yet, and, moreover, when he does it will belong to him alone, for he will be dead. Although Borges has again escaped, giving us "a symbol of something we are about to understand, but never quite do," we are convinced, at last, that his elogio (praise) is real, and that one day we will be the speaker in the poem….
Borges's fiction and poems work equally well in Spanish and English, and the reader need not fear disparities. In some cases, Borges tells us, he has modified the Spanish original as a result of the kind of reading demanded by the act of translation. The last two poems, including the title poem, were translated back into Spanish from the English draft.
Borges is a clever metaphysician who has given us an enormous and varied literature, ranging from re-creations of an ancient Chinese "Book Guardian" to the characteristics of imaginary beasts. His influence on younger generations, in many countries, is pervasive. Although the Royal Swedish Academy failed to give its award to the blind Homer, and failed again in the case of Cervantes (though here Borges has carefully preserved the maimed author of the "Quijote"), there is no reason for further delay in regard to the sightless Argentine. Let the Academy awake and redeem itself. (p. 7)
William Barnstone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 11, 1974.
In the introduction to his Ficciones, Borges describes "The Garden of the Forking Paths" as a detective story, one which he believes will baffle the reader. What he does not say is that there are in fact two detective stories (and at least that many detectives) here: one plot takes place in the present, the other stretches backward through endlessly forking paths of time toward another crime in the past. But both crimes blend in a single moment; the solution of one simultaneously resolves the other.
As we read Borges's story, we may think how good a model it gives of the ordinary detective story, a pursuit of hypotheses and alternatives through time. And we may also think how often the detective story deals with time as its theme, how essential its time scheme really is; for the plot of the detective story is chained to time, to getting time straight. It is the first question to be asked. "When did this happen?" Holmes asks Jabez Wilson. "Where were you when that occurred?" But the great detective stories always do more than merely straighten out time; they carry us backward in time: the movement of the plot is only a few steps forward, only a little bit turned to the future, and it is many steps backward into the past. (pp. 76-7)
In "The Garden of The Forking Paths," Borges emphasizes labyrinthine time at the expense of two other prime concerns of the detective story: order and disorder; guilt and innocence. Indeed, the movement from disorder to order is in some ways a movement from guilt to innocence: one person steps forward to be guilty and the ring of suspects is thereby dissolved, the community cleared, the scapegoat found…. Freud accomplished just this cleansing effect in his version of the detective story, his psychoanalytic case histories. He too probes far back into time in order to absolve his patients of their sense of guilt; and in the most moving of his case histories, The Interpretation of Dreams, the detective-like Freud examines his own past for clues to his own crimes and identity. (pp. 77-8)
Max Byrd, in The Yale Review (© 1974 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1974.
Borges the prose writer is an inventor of parables and paradoxes, not a novelist. That is, Borges of the ficciones is concerned with a series of metaphysical enigmas about identity, recurrence, and cyclicality, time, thought, and extension, and so it is a little dangerous to translate his haunting fables into allegories of the postmodern literary situation [or to select Borges as an example of a postmodern novelist]. Books, real and imaginary, and books about books, of course figure very prominently in Borges' fictions; but he is after all a remarkably bookish man, and the contents of a library are the aptest vehicle he could have chosen for writing about knowledge and its limits, the ambiguous relation between idea and existence, language and reality, and many of his other favorite philosophical puzzles. The fact that Borges is a fabulist, not a novelist, hardly suggests that the fable is all there remains for fiction to work with now. Were he a novelist, his prototypical protagonist would not be a meditative wraith wandering through the hexagonal mazes of the infinite Library of Babel, but a man or woman—one glimpses the possibility in his most recent stories—with a distinctive psychology living among other men and women, acting against a background of social values, personal and national history. (pp. 216-17)
Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
Much of Fictions is superficially impressive, irksome as it often is to have to be impressed. The extent of Borges's reading is legendary—can he really know Cowley's Odes and Bulwer Lytton's novels?—while his penchant for the philosophical abstract is doubtless gratifying to readers who like to feel themselves intellectually buttonholed. But his effects are frequently sickly in their pervasive archness. To read him is like exploring one of those 18th-century hoaxgardens, where alleys end in trompe l'oeil walls, fountains squirt at you out of the arbours and bridges topple you into goldfish ponds—a sustained and intricate practical joke played by an eccentric bibliophile.
The Surrealist inheritance, with its circus-ring self-consciousness and its obsession with fantasy, is all too obvious. What can't, alas, be denied is that the old mountebank possesses an imagination of labyrinthine complexity, and that these smirking, attitudinising fables are never dull. (p. 668)
Jonathan Keates, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 16, 1975.