Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 3)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6396

Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–

Borges, an Argentinian short story writer, poet, and essayist, creator of hallucinatory and magical dream-parables, is now one of the world's most celebrated writers of fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

If, as Wittgenstein thought, "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our...

(The entire section contains 6396 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–

Borges, an Argentinian short story writer, poet, and essayist, creator of hallucinatory and magical dream-parables, is now one of the world's most celebrated writers of fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

If, as Wittgenstein thought, "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language," then Borges' prose, at least, performs a precisely similar function, for there is scarcely a story which is not built upon a sophistry, a sophistry so fanatically embraced, so pedantically developed, so soberly defended, it becomes the principal truth in the world his parables create (puzzles, paradoxes, equivocations, and obscure and idle symmetries which appear as menacing laws); and we are compelled to wonder again whether we are awake or asleep, whether we are a dreamer or ourselves a dream, whether art imitates nature or nature mirrors art instead; once more we are required to consider whether things exist only while they are being perceived, whether change can occur, whether time is linear and straight or manifold and curved, whether history repeats, whether space is a place of simple locations, whether words aren't more real than their referents—whether letters and syllables aren't magical and full of cabbalistic contents—whether it is universals or particulars which fundamentally exist, whether destiny isn't in the driver's seat, what the determinate, orderly consequences of pure chance come to, whether we are the serious playthings of the gods or the amusing commercial enterprises of the devil.

It is not the subject of these compulsions, however, but the manner in which they are produced that matters, and makes Borges an ally of Wittgenstein. It is not hard to feel that Borges' creatures are mostly mad. This is, in many ways, a comforting conclusion. The causes, on the other hand, remain disturbing; they resemble far too literally those worlds theologians and metaphysicians have already made for us and in which we have so often found ourselves netted and wriggling….

Thus the effect of Borges' work is suspicion and skepticism. Clarity, scholarship, and reason: they are all here, yet each is employed to enlarge upon a muddle without disturbing it, to canonize a confusion. Ideas become plots (how beautifully ambiguous, for Borges, that word is), whereupon those knotty tangles the philosopher has been so patiently picking at can be happily reseen as triumphs of esthetic design. In the right sun suspicion can fall far enough to shadow every ideology; the political schemes of men can seem no more than myths through which they move like imaginary creatures, like fabulous animals in landscapes of pure wish; the metaphors upon which they ride toward utopia now are seldom seen (such is the price one pays for an ignorance of history) to be the same overfat or scrawny nags the old political romancers, puffing, rode at windmills in their time, and always futilely….

As a young poet Borges pledged himself to Ultraism, a Spanish literary movement resembling Imagism in many ways, whose principles he carried back to Argentina in his luggage. It demanded condensation, the suppression of ornament, modifiers, all terms of transition; it opposed exhortation and vagueness—flourish; it praised impersonality, and regarded poetry as made of metaphors in close, suggestive combinations. It was primarily a poetry of mention, as Borges' prose is now…. Any metaphor which is taken with literal seriousness requires us to imagine a world in which it can be true; it contains or suggests a metaphorical principle that in turn gives form to a fable. And when the whole is an images, local images can be removed.

William H. Gass, "Imaginary Borges and His Books," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1969 by NYREV, Inc.), November 20, 1969, pp. 6, 8, 10.

Borges pushes [one] parody of creation to its furthest limits. Altogether obliterating any distinction between fiction and the analysis of it, he unabashedly makes into his subject what [I suggest] is always implicit in the literature of self-parody: that it is necessarily a species of critical analysis. Instead of writing novels, he pretends that they already exist. He therefore offers only résumé and commentary. Sometimes confining himself to specific books, as in his essay on "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" (a novel ascribed to a Bombay lawyer named Mir Bahadur Ali), he can also invent whole canons by fictitious authors, as in "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," which begins with some wonderfully accurate parody of Leavisite literary invective. And the parody of literary creation extends even to books that do exist, as in "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote."…

Self-enclosed and remotely special in their interests, Borges' narrators are concerned with essentially cabalistic facts and systems of very questionable derivation. Everything in his texts is, in the literal sense of the word, eccentric: he is a writer with no center, playing off, one against the other, all those elements in his work which aspire to centrality. Thus, while the division of animals in "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" does indeed make currently accepted divisions seem tiresomely arbitrary, the effect of its utterly zany yet precise enumeration is momentarily to collapse our faith in taxonomy altogether, to free us from assumptions that govern the making of classifications, including those of an encyclopedia of no verifiable existence. Self-parody in Borges, as in Joyce and Nabakov, goes beyond the mere questioning of the validity of any given invention by proposing the unimpeded opportunity for making new ones….

Borges is for my taste too little concerned with the glory of the human presence within the wastes of time, with human agencies of invention, and he is too exclusively amused by the careers of competing systems, the failed potencies of techniques and structures. We remember the point of his texts, especially since it is so often the same point, but he gives us few people to remember or care about. Our greatest invention so far remains ourselves, what we call human beings, and enough inventing of that phenomenon still goes on to make the destiny of persons altogether more compelling in literature than the destiny of systems or of literary modes.

Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright © 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 41-4.

Although many of the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges reflect the preoccupations of the literary spatialist, none does so more explicitly than "Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a piece that is architectonic both in substance and manner. There are no "characters," only the impersonal voice of a highly learned man who recounts a detective story for intellectuals: the tale of how a group of thinkers conspired early in the seventeenth century to perpetuate the ostensible existence of a country named Uqbar in a nation called Tlön in a "third" universe. Bit by bit, the narrator uncovers pseudohistorical documents that describe the culture of Tlön; it constitutes a practical demonstration of philosophical idealism. Eventually, however, the boundaries between historical time and present time, between the invented and the scientifically verifiable, between fantasy, hoax, or art and reality, are thoroughly obscured. The narrator himself is present at the discovery of an artifact of Tlön, a piece of metal engraved with the image of a divinity worshiped only in "orbis tertius." Thus, imagination has animated and then proved the reality of its own invention.

At once the "real" world submits to the now-verified "imaginary" world, its inhabitants impressed largely by the appeal of its orderly, consistent philosophy. Borges' narrator states that reality is, in fact, eager to yield. At the end of the story, this ostensibly unperplexed narrator predicts that the entire world will soon "become Tlön," but he himself continues to work in isolation on his own project, a scholarly translation into archaic Spanish of Sir Thomas Browne's "Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall." This conclusion projects into the past a phenomenon that the discovery and imitation of Tlön has projected into the future: the question to what extent the ideal forms the real.

Sharon Spencer, in her Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1971 by New York University Press), New York University Press, 1971, pp. 20-1.

[Borges'] poems are less spectacularly executed than his prose pieces and in them he does not so consistently manifest his virtuosity and his singularity. His verse seems—if the word can be applied—naturalistic and, though, of course, it doesn't necessarily follow, 'spontaneous', less worked. Those poems collected in Dreamtigers (together with a variety of sketches, parables and concise fictions) are good, readable and most certainly not to be dismissed; but one misses the feeling of the author on a tightrope, one regrets the absence of the magician. His habit of compiling catalogues—his taste, if you enjoy them—is given full rein in his verse, which is a pity, for it is one of the least auspicious features of his prose. Still it's petty to point at the spots on a star, the blemishes on her breasts. One should be grateful for the great pleasures afforded by the inventions of this extraordinary cerebral adventurer.

Jonathan Meades, "Borges in Conversation," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1973, pp. 78-9.

[Borges'] aim as a writer [is] to undermine the 'order' of the all-too-predictable modern world.

And this explains the otherwise baffling fact that Borges is the culture-hero of the new generation of hippies and dropouts, (together with Hermann Hesse). Without fully understanding why he is doing it, they sense the profound spirit of total rebellion in his work. In a way, Borges is lucky. He was born into a country with almost no literature—at least, none that has been heard of in Europe. He remained unknown outside his own country until he was sixty-two—when he shared the International Publishers Prize with Beckett. He has spent his life working quietly and modestly, with no temptation to try to reach a large audience. His work has accumulated slowly, like raindrops in a bucket or sixpences in a piggy bank. And now, suddenly, he is reaping the rewards of his life work, as unexpectedly as if he'd won the football pools. If his first volume of stories had brought him recognition (in his mid-thirties), his later work would have been robbed of its shock effect, and he would be already half-forgotten.

And here I must admit that, as much as I admire Borges, he is a minor writer. I would not go so far as to say that he is greatly overrated, for I think that he deserves the fame that has come to him so belatedly. It is nevertheless true that the style and content look so original that it is easy to assume that he is saying more than he actually is….

First of all, then, Borges is a late romantic…. He doesn't like the real world. Like T. S. Eliot, he finds it painfully vulgar and obvious. Like Tolkien, he wants to create his own 'alternative world'. But unlike Tolkien, he lacks creative staying-power. His stories remain fragments of his 'alternative world'. And these stories, while original and beautifully written, are less profound than they at first appear…. The obsessive theme that runs through all his work is of illusion and reality. This sounds very impressive; but, after all, before you accept a man's reflections on dream and reality, you want to know what qualifications he has for speaking about reality. The flat truth is that Borges is a typical scholar: withdrawn, lazy, a little cowardly. He takes good care to avoid reality, and contents himself with weaving rather empty paradoxes about it….

Borges is not a great writer because he is not a mature writer. He has remained in a kind of perpetual adolescence. It is true that what he has to say, he says beautifully. But he hasn't very much to say. You soon become aware of his limitations. Many of the stories are simply 'conceits' in the Elizabethan sense—a single flimsy idea worked out elaborately….

Examine the work of Borges closely, and the impression of originality disappears. It would not be too inaccurate to describe him as a South American G. K. Chesterton, with a touch of Anatole France. As to the 'view of life', it is pure Joseph Conrad: gloom, pessimism, fatalism….

[The] scholarly librarian Borges admires the brutal men of action and passion; and he is also working off a slightly sadistic resentment about women….

That is the indictment of Borges, and I feel that most of it holds water. He is a fine writer, a fascinating writer, but not a really important writer. He says nothing that had not already been said by innumerable romantics by the year 1900. In 1635, the Spanish dramatist Calderon wrote a play called Life is a Dream, and two centuries later the Austrian Grillparzer rewrote it in a superb version called Der Traum ein Leben. Anyone who has read these has a feeling of déja vu as he reads Borges on the subject of dream and reality. Borges is a fascinating writer because his prose is close to poetry (and his poetry close to prose—at least, in English). It induces a sad, mysterious sensation, a feeling of strangeness and alienness, a kind of nostalgia for the infinite. When I first read him, I experienced, in my mid-thirties, feelings I had first experienced when I read Keats and Beddoes and Rupert Brooke in my mid-teens. He is a true poet, and he is, in his own way, a superb writer, if only a minor one—the terms are not contradictory. It is important to know exactly what he is, and what he is not. He is not a thinker, of any description at all; neither is he one of those significant figures, like Kafka or Simone Weil, who deserve to occupy an important place in cultural history even though their work may not be of the first importance….

[After] my own initial enthusiasm for Borges, I found myself cooling towards him. I love Blake and Nietzsche; and I respect Sartre and Heidegger (with reservations), because they are trying to get somewhere; they are thinking to a purpose, with a sense of urgency. Borges is a gentle dilettante, a proponent of 'culture' in Matthew Arnold's sense. Among modern writers, the ones with whom he has most in common are Nabokov, John Cowper Powys and Charles Fort. Fort spent his life collecting weird little anecdotes about frogs falling from the skies, with the hope of discomforting modern science. But he didn't do anything with his massive accumulation of oddities; he didn't use them to argue a case, to present his own alternative to modern science. I detect the same spirit in Borges. Powys was another avid, omnivorous culture-vulture who read everything without discrimination; but he completely lacked mental discipline, so that his great novels—like A Glastonbury Romance—are successful by accident, while the bad ones are just great heaps of disorganised rubble. Nabokov, another humanistic aesthete with a broad streak of self-pity, has the same dilettantism, the same dislike of thinkers who want to think to some purpose—he is on record as loathing Dostoevsky. I hasten to add that I read Nabokov, Powys and Charles Fort with as much pleasure as I read Borges; but temperamentally, I am on the side of Nietzsche, Blake and Sartre.

Colin Wilson, "Borges and Nostalgia," in Books and Bookmen, August, 1973, pp. 36-9.

My interest in this paper is in seeing the Borgian poetics—and let me stress that I will assume throughout that it is indeed implied and/or unconscious—as the realization of principles that are directly related to (European) structuralism…. Structuralism has only recently arrived, whereas Borges has been writing fiction since the thirties…. That Borges' fiction had for so long before the critically conscious moment of the sixties attracted such interest for its apparently total rupture with established literary values and principles explains to a great degree how we can see him as having sensed, avant la lettre, the esthetic potential of structuralist principles. That Borges is grudgingly admired by the major figures of the current Latin-American literary scene, the dominant Spanish voices of the Third World, despite his political conservatism and his persistent refusal even to recognize a literature of commitment, attests to his acceptance as a bellwether of current literary esthetics….

We cannot review [the basic concerns of structuralism] here…. Suffice it here to refer to two major concerns which I consider primordial, at least as far as Borges' works and fiction in Latin America in the sixties have been concerned. The first major concern, which underlies the socalled neoformalism of contemporary Latin American writing, is precisely the principle of structure, be it an unknown or barely sensed structure of the universe/society/human experience which the artist as man must discover and portray adequately, or be it a structure which man out of despair and solipsism creates, an act of will which imposes cosmos on chaos. An intermediate circumstance, one which is paradigmatic of the relationship between the work of art and "reality," is the creation of a structure (i.e., the work of art) which is not a documentary, naturalistic reflection of the structure of the universe, but which is a symbolic—mythic—version of it, at least as the artist, again as man, senses and interprets it (however erroneously) at that moment. The result of this attitude is an agreement that there may be divine or cosmic structures beyond human comprehension, or ones which are barely perceptible to man; that there may be structures to human society and experience which are also beyond definitive comprehension but which are barely perceptible to it; and, finally, that man may engage in the conscious and unconscious creation of structures as part of an attempt both to explain the former structures and to overcome them. As unconscious structures, we might cite our socio-cultural institutions; as conscious structures we might cite our autonomously and deliberately patterned works of art. The second major concern, which derives immediately from the first, involves a recognition of the tentative, incomplete, arbitrary, and ultimately, invalid nature of the structures created by man. A persistent preoccupation of modern literature, one which I can trace back to the turn of the century in Latin American poetry at least, involves the artist's realization of his inevitable failure as a vatic seer. The metaliterary concern of Borges' poetry with the inability to write the "ultimate" poem has been studied, and Borges has repeatedly spoken of the multiple products of an artist as his failures to produce the one work which will express what must be expressed. Each work is an attempt to produce the one work, the artistic Aleph, that will contain the final vision of mankind; but each attempt is the failure to achieve that ideal, and the artist abandons the previous work and undertakes the next one, always with the illusory hope of success and yet with the full knowledge that it cannot be done. There are no absolute structures, or, if there are, man is incapable of perceiving and communicating them. With this, we are close to Lévi-Strauss' affirmation that the mythic patterns of a society are arbitrary and that the spiraling nature of myths represents but the vain attempt to discover the most perfect pattern of expression. For Borges, this same intuition explains the multiplicity of man's philosophical and theological systems, systems which are so wildly contradictory but which are also so enthusiastically adhered to by the true believers that he can only justify their vitality, and the vitality of the human process which continues to create new systems, in terms of the most rigorous relativism that sees all systems as ultimately vacuous and false. For Borges, from his earliest fiction, "metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature." And as far as literature is concerned, both its multiplicity and its creative vitality bespeak, in the last analysis, its relativeness and its inadequacy ever to attain the "final" word. Although Borges continues to write, acknowledging the imperiousness of the human necessity ever to be creating new structures, his political and cultural conservatism and his early denunciation of entreguerre literary vanguardism (of which he had been a leader in Argentina) are the inevitable result of his realization of the complete arbitrariness of the solutions—the structure—which man creates for his entertainment as well as for his solace.

David William Foster, "Borges and Structuralism: Toward an Implied Poetics," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973, pp. 341-51.

Borges' manner of observing things through the prism of eternity and infinity clearly indicates that his stories are not meant to be interpreted on one or several or many levels, but as an endless proliferation of all possible levels. This sheer endlessness is what constitutes the central theme in Borges' fiction, but only in a figurative sense, for his version of endlessness would be misconstrued if approached in such finite terms as "central theme." The endlessness Borges depicts is the endlessness of endlessness of endlessness ad infinitum. Borges' subject matter is literally everything, and his stage, the time-space continuum of the entire universe….

Borges' fiction demonstrates that by learning to think backwards, upside down, inside out, from many perspectives at once, we can make discoveries that lead to other discoveries that lead ad infinitum to other discoveries and, thereby, not only see but also experience the endlessness of the universe. The trajectory of these discoveries describes the main line of action in Borges' fiction…. Since the universe is endless and the discovering process can never be exhausted, all of Borges' stories are one inconclusive story, the general pattern of which is as follows: all the participants—author, characters, reader—are put in a position where each has to find something or solve some riddle. Immediately cerebral wheels go into high gear from every direction, and the various efforts soon reveal the presence of unseen dimensions that are somehow connected with those existing perceptibly. The story evolves as the participants' cerebrations converge upon and bring into focus the unseen dimensions. The climax comes when the unseen dimensions emerge into full view and, more astonishingly still, when the participants, who are by now one and the same mind, see that the dimensions were there all along. Once the discovery is made, it automatically becomes part of the known world and the individual tale concludes, but not the basic story, for in the ending Borges infers that the discovery is really the beginning of other discoveries ad infinitum….

As I pointed out, the horizontal sequence of events in Borges' basic story results in the discovery of certain unseen dimensions and the discovery, at the end, proliferates itself endlessly. Now in addition to this horizontal direction, the basic story bifurcates vertically in an endless array of simultaneous story: "In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork" ("The Garden of Forking Paths," [in Labyrinths]).

The endlessness of this vertical array of simultaneous stories is implied by the interplay of two stories, one written and one unwritten. The written story generates the unwritten story, and from the fact of this generation the reader is to infer the generation of other stories ad infinitum. The inference is made endlessly because the unwritten story turns out to be an obvious event or a familiar tale, something already known. The logic here may seem somewhat abstruse, but it is really quite simple. A story that is both newly generated and already known, surprising and obvious, unwritten and told, is neither new nor known nor surprising nor obvious nor written nor told, but a fusion of all these opposites, a threshold to endlessness….

Moreover,… we find that the vertical and horizontal directions coincide exactly. The vertical endlessness implied by the vertical array of simultaneous stories is the same endlessness implied horizontally by the proliferation of discoveries at the end of the plot. The unwritten story is also the surprise ending. The written story generated but was also being generated by the unwritten story. Borges' fiction, in short, does not evolve in the three conventional dimensions, but in all dimensions at once. His stories move up and down, to and fro, in and out, back and forth, in every conceivable and, by extension, every inconceivable direction co-extensively. In the endlessness of the universe all finite notions become one infinite-eternal phenomenon.

Carlos Navarro, "The Endlessness in Borges' Fiction," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973, pp. 395-405.

Borges' work is characterized, above all, by a plethora of symbols that is evident to even the most casual reader. Mirrors and labyrinths, rivers and tigers, swords and roses permeate Borges' fictions and essays, haunt some of his best poems. The permanence and reiteration of these symbols, the multiple and sometimes contradictory functions they perform, their omnipresence, makes them so notorious that, lately, even their maker feels uncomfortable about them….

Nevertheless, in his works these symbols do not have a purely ornamental function but constitute part of a code that allows a reading of the subtext, or intertext, of allusions hidden in the very fabric of his writing….

Like all writers, Broges uses symbols that come from the most distant traditions and that are often intimately incorporated into the common language. Those symbols serve to express eternal themes, and they are like metaphors created by that collective and ubiquitous author—"the spirit as producer or consumer of literature"—that Borges has evoked in one of his essays, with the help of a quotation from Paul Valéry [in Other Inquisitions 1937–1952]. In Borges' texts, then, it is easy to recognize these traditional symbols, from the rose, which reveals at the same time the fragility of things and their perenniality, since each rose represents the immortal species, to the sword, which is generally presented as a favored emblem of his ancestors: heroes of the South American War of Independence or of the civil wars which brought about national unity. These same weapons also appear in his work in degraded forms, such as the knife or the dagger, to illustrate infamous aspects of courage: the murderous bravery of the thug, the gambler, the gangster.

Some of these traditional symbols—like that of the river which symbolizes at the same time Life, in its flow, and Time, in its irreversibility—appear so repeatedly in his texts that they become signs of personal obsessions and mark his imagery with an idiosyncratic seal. Even so, Borges uses them generally to underline their traditional significance. What gives them a Borgesian turn (what makes them Borges) is, always, the intensity of the reference. This also happens with the symbol of the dream….

The traditional metaphor of life as sleep or a dream (in Spanish, "sueño" means both), which generally serves to express the unreality of life and its illusory, almost fantastic character, allows Borges to illustrate a more personal and limited philosophical conception….

The universe as dream dreamt by all (he calls it the "shared dream," in the poem, "El despertar," "Awakening"), death as another dream: little by little, Borges slips into the traditional symbol his own solipsist conception which denies external reality, denies time, denies the individual ego, going even further in all these denials than his acknowledged models: Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. The traditional symbols, like the meditations of those philosophers, serve Borges as stimuli, a starting point, means by which he always reaches his own private vision.

It is obvious that Borges discovered, after psychoanalysis, that poetry uses the same mechanisms as dreams and that its symbols can be deciphered in a similar way. But his relations with clinical psychoanalysis do not go much further….

By accentuating the oneiric character of art, and of reality, Borges comes to the conclusion that dreams put in question not only the objective world, but also the personality of the dreamer. In this, he goes further than Freud or Jung and returns (by the route of depth psychology) to the solipsist idealism which he had reached by way of Berkeley and Schopenhauer.

By means of his own fiction or those of others, Borges has often sought to define that abysmal experience of feeling oneself unreal: the dream or creation of another, a mere image, a simulacrum. Perhaps "Las ruinas circulares" ("The Circular Ruins") is the most elaborate expression of that experience which was also to surface in his poems and essays expressed as a metaphysical hypothesis as well….

There is another universal symbol which appears so frequently in Borges' work that it has been used by his translators to entitle collections of his stories and essays which, in Spanish, had other titles: it is the labyrinth. Traditionally one of the most fertile symbols of all time, the mythical labyrinth of Crete was a palace created by the architect Daedalus to enclose and protect a monster the Minotaur, the offspring of Queen Pasiphaë's intercourse with a snow-white bull. (Daedalus also invented a mechanical cow to facilitate the union.) The labyrinth is, in a manner at once contradictory and complementary, a fortress erected to preserve and defend the monster and a prison to prevent his flight. A place of paradox it fixes symbolically a movement from the exterior to the interior, from form to contemplation, from multiplicity to unity, from space to absence of space, from time to the absence of time. It also represents the opposite movement: from within to without, according to a symbolic progression. In the center of the labyrinth is the monster, or the god, since monstrosity is sometimes a divine attribute as shown by the metamorphoses in Greek mythology. There could be something else in the center of the labyrinth: a secret, a revelation, or an epiphany. The labyrinth becomes then, from the traditional point of view, the image of a chaos ordered by human intelligence, of an apparent and deliberate disorder which contains its own key. It also represents, by analogy, nature in its least human aspects: an endless river is a labyrinth of water; a forest is a labyrinth of vegetation. In a similar way, it serves also to represent certain human constructions: a library is a labyrinth of books; any large city is a labyrinth of streets and houses. The same symbol can be used to allude to invisible realities: human destiny or the inscrutable will of God, the mystery of creation, either natural or human, all can be called labyrinthine.

Many of these allusions are naturally present in Borges' work. Some of his favorite authors, like Joyce and Kafka, have given the theme of the labyrinth an important place in their respective work. Of the two, Joyce seems closer to Borges from the point of view of the use of this symbol…. But the size and scope of their respective works—to the encyclopedic proportions of Joyce's work, Borges opposes his fragmentary and minimal art—and their final visions are very different. In the Joycean conception of the labyrinth and of a search for a center, the idea of a final epiphany, of a transcendental revelation, is always concealed. In Borges, the labyrinth has a center, of course, but what is found there is something else: something in the nature of a secret….

[Other] symbols which cast a spell on Borges' work … are the symbols of the mirror, the tiger, and the library. Let us begin with the mirrors. Traditionally they underline appearance since they show an image of what is not in them, but outside them; moreover, their reflection is inverted. But they are also well-known symbols of consciousness and self-contemplation. The same word, "reflection," alludes both to thought and the images of a mirror. Because of the same reflective quality, mirrors are associated with water (the myth of Narcissus), and they can also be considered doors to another dimension of reality, as Jean Cocteau discovered after Lewis Carroll.

The symbol of the mirror is one of the most frequent in Borges' work, and it is one of the oldest. It is deeply rooted in his personal experience. As a child (his biographies tell us) he had a terror of mirrors, and he refused to sleep in a room which contained one. In a recent poem, "Los espejos" ("Mirrors"), he has tried to rationalize his fears, and although now his near-blindness has obliterated all mirrors, his poetry cannot forget that mirrors haunt us, that one is never alone in a room if there is a mirror….

Like the riddle of the Sphinx, like the secret of the inhabitant of the labyrinth, that which the riddle of the mirror hides is the revelation of one's own being. That the revelation is painful and can be tragic (as it was for Oedipus) or totally destructive (as it was for the Minotaur) is something which Borges' work, in spite of its apparent rationality and its parodic or ironic mode, does not hesitate to insinuate. By way of the mirror, of reflection or duplication, of the double and horror of engendering a murderous issue, one can arrive at an even more abysmal vision of the secret of the labyrinth….

[The] tiger is (as in the poem of William Blake) a symbol of nature's savage life and also a symbol of pure Evil. Borges has an obsession with tigers similar to the one with mirrors. It also derives from his childhood and has found expression in such representative texts as a prose poem, originally entitled in English, "Dreamtigers," or in "El otro tigre" ("The Other Tiger")….

[The] tiger joins in the final unity of Borges' work, with the other symbols which illustrate the terrible and sad reality of this world of appearances, of mirrors, and labyrinths. If the tiger is admired and even envied by the poet, it is because it represents life in the raw, destruction as another way of creation, death as a path to life, whereas the librarian represents only life frozen, life changed into signs, into symbols, into tropes, into mere words. Into writing, of course.

Emir Rodriguez-Monegal, "Symbols in Borges' Work," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973, pp. 325-40.

Most of the stories of Borges' most recent collection, Doctor Brodie's Report (1970), are realistic although some have elements of the fantastic. In short, to say that Borges writes fantastic fiction is a misleading generalization; to limit his fiction to that genre is a clear error.

Realism, even if mixed with the fantastic, tends to imply—especially in Spanish America—a commitment to social, political, or philosophical ideas; the author wants to "sell" these to the reader. Borges could be called a realist without this implication, but I prefer the idea that in spite of his manifest unconcern, in literature, for the public issues of his time, he is, nonetheless, a committed writer. Aside from his affinity for metaphysical and philosophical ideas (none of which carries his stamp of approval) and apart from his obvious repetition of themes and situations, his fiction is pervaded with an esthetic-philosophical idea which appears, repeats itself, and even alludes to itself with system and regularity. Whether Borges tries to "sell" this idea is debatable despite his having declared that his stories are intended only to entertain, not to persuade.

Borges' obsession is not public and common like socialism or existentialism, but it does not for that reason cease to be an impulse to creation as well as a reaction to the problems of both art and life….

What we find in Borges—what fills his essays and is implicit, often patent in his fiction—is the esthetic equivalent and symbol of his philosophical position. As is well known, his philosophy consists largely in an agnostic affirmation that truth, although it may be known, is not recognizable. He esteems all ideas and systems, he has said, for their esthetic value, and he keeps them before him in a fluid panorama, denying that we can know whether any of them corresponds to reality. His now-famous dictum on the "esthetic event"—his "imminence of a revelation, which never comes"—is his philosophical outlook applied to literary creation. Borges does not deny that literature should express truth; he denies that truth is available through expression. So he rejects expression in favor of suggestion, which he calls allusion. Reality for Borges—or what most recommends itself as reality—is an experience, a moment of apprehension without specific content or language, in which an inexpressible reality is intuited; it is simply the moment of a heightened sense of awareness—a concept totally consistent with the dictionary definition of "esthetic." The attempt in fiction to express some preconceived idea, he says, has produced some of the worst literature of our time. As he rejects all philosophical ideas or systems as final, he also rejects as literary "causes" all formulas, ideas, and systems to which writers may become committed: philosophies, political ideas, religions, social complaints and remedies, and recipes for making art. This rejection of everything is converted into a philosophical principle with esthetic application, the only alternative to which is the acceptance of one or another specific dogma. But this principle is itself an idea, and in order to be consistent Borges has to reject it as dogmatic truth. When he denies having an esthetic, as he does in the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, he does not lie, but he plays—unavoidably—with semantics or with his "mischievous dialectic."…

To intuit a truth not expressed—ambiguous and indefinite—is to be in the esthetic moment; to prefer that moment or intuition to lucid knowledge, to seek it above truth, and to allude to it constantly over the years is to be committed to it and to all it implies. For a man like Borges, whose life consists in literature and whose literature is made out of philosophy, such an obsession is a reaction to existence.

Carter Wheelock, "The Committed Side of Borges," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973, pp. 373-79.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jorge Luis Borges Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 22)


Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 32)