Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 8)
Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–
Argentinian essayist, poet, and short story writer, Borges is considered a master of twentieth-century letters. A measure of his unique genius is the coining of the word "Borgesian" to describe his creations, many of which are characterized by the hallucinatory and fantastic. Borges has collaborated with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonyms of H(onorio) Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Borges [is] the archetypal writer of the Literature of Exhaustion…. (p. 11)
The first proposition of the Literature of Exhaustion [is] that authors can no longer write original literature and perhaps cannot write any literature.
This hypothesis about literature … provides the key to Borges's writing….
A critic can most quickly clarify Borges's work, and simultaneously explain the basic features of the Literature of Exhaustion, by describing the Chinese box arrangements in some of his works. (p. 12)
Each box in one of his systems represents either a real or imaginary state of being. The plot of the fiction makes clear the place of each box by showing which boxes it encloses and which boxes enclose it. In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" the largest, outermost box is Borges, the maker of the whole arrangement. The story itself is the next box, as one looks inside, and in it lies the border between reality and imagination, as one commonly understands these terms. This box is real because it exists in print, imaginary because Borges created it. Next comes the box of the secret society, although the reported inclusion of real people like Berkeley in the society gives it an aura of reality. The society creates the next two boxes: Uqbar, an imaginary land, and Tlön, another imaginary land that supposedly exists in Uqbar's literature. To understand the crucial Tlön layer one must make this visual representation more elaborate by imagining paths leading from this box. One path leads further inward to another box, Orbis Tertius, one more imaginary world. Another leads to the philosophical systems of Tlön. Another leads to the hrönir, an annex of the Tlön box built on the side toward the realistic section of the system. Because human minds create them the hrönir are imaginary, but because of their substantiality they are real. The fourth path from the Tlön box, representing the cone and compass, leads all the way back to the real world, where these objects intrude.
The differences among these four alternatives show what literary exhaustion means. The cone and compass are immediately exhausted—in other words, they cannot be used anymore for literary purposes—because they are material objects and appear in the real world, which cannot be extended in any significant sense. The hrönir and the philosophical systems, being imaginary, can each generate one more layer, but then they are exhausted and do not make possible another box. These three paths represent "exhaustion" in one sense of the word: a condition in which all possibilities have been used up. Orbis Tertius represents exhaustion in the other sense: the method that was used to create it can be used to create an infinite number of possibilities. That is, one can imagine worlds inside it ad infinitum.
Thus, Borges has written a story that belongs to the Literature of Exhaustion because he has based it on a belief that literary possibilities—symbolized by objects in the story—are used up, and he has employed this hypothesis to produce another work of fiction and to imply that the imagination can create endless and inexhaustible possibilities. This story makes another point about the imagination in addition to proclaiming its infinity, and also resolves the apparent contradiction at the base of this kind of literature, by implying that the realms of reality and imagination are less distinct than most people believe. That is, finally the imagination is inexhaustible because it spills over into "reality." The Chinese box system of this story reveals this attribute of imagination: one layer is both real and imaginary; other layers belong to one of these categories but also seem to belong to the other. By looking as naively as possible at this sophisticated arrangement one can pop it into focus, just as a quick second viewing often makes clear the meaning of a visual puzzle. This second glance should reveal that everything in the story as story (rather than as print on a page) is imaginary because Borges created it. Because a reader almost certainly will forget this obvious fact as he tries to sort out the real and imaginary elements in the story and then will realize it again suddenly, Borges dramatically makes his point that these realms cannot be separated at all. He sets this almost inescapable trap for the reader because, as a writer, he believes that the imagination is superior to reality. (pp. 13-15)
In "The Zahir" Borges makes a Chinese box arrangement by using the familiar device of the story within a story, but these stories relate to each other and to some themes in a typically Borgesian way. The frame story's narrator is writing a fantasy that strikingly revivifies the tradition of metaphors that begins with the Anglo-Saxon kennings. These powerful tropes have recently fascinated Borges so much that he has begun to study the language in which they are constructed. Within the frame story, which is brightly ornamented with these metaphors, lies an account of the narrator's discovery of a Zahir, an object that recapitulates, and eventually can replace, the whole universe. Almost at the end of the story appears a reference to the Sufis doggedly reciting names till they become meaningless. These three main elements in the story—the kennings, the Zahir, and the Sufis' repetition of words—all show that language and therefore literature can replace life. (pp. 15-16)
A similar but less sophisticated device appears in Borges's work not as a way to put together a story but as a recurring idea, a thematic equivalent of the Chinese boxes. This is the regressus in infinitum, an infinite series…. (pp. 16-17)
Borges's dependence on aesthetic subjects and techniques like the Chinese boxes and regressus in infinitum may make his work seem a bit limited and precious. Limited it is, but deliberately so, because he sees no value in many possible realistic topics which he deems inappropriate to literature. One should not call his work precious in a pejorative sense. He may work on a small canvas but he works on it exquisitely. The painter of miniatures does not necessarily have less skill than the titanic artist who covers entire walls. It may be useful to enumerate the kinds of subject matter Borges does not use and to explain his reasons for rejecting them or turning them to his own purposes. Then the area he has concerned himself with will stand out in sharper outline.
The topics he has avoided include nearly all the subject matter of realism…. He quarrels with realism primarily because it fails to recognize that, because words do not correspond exactly to the real world, a writer cannot connect with that world, so he would do better to pull in his borders and create a coherent, self-contained aesthetic artifact. (pp. 17-18)
Borges also rejects the realistic material that lies closest to a writer's hand: his own life. Some of his early poems do not conform to this generalization, but even they use autobiographical material in a peculiar way. Borges himself does not appear very often in them but he imbues them with his love of Buenos Aires—he called an early volume Fervor of Buenos Aires—and of Argentina….
According to Borges, a writer should eschew autobiography because it is part of realism (which for him is prima facie evidence) and because during the act of writing the personality of the writer vanishes and a disembodied spirit replaces it. (p. 19)
[Realistic] writers merely reproduce themselves rather than creating something new. He does not say that all literature ultimately is autobiographical, but that realistic literature is futile. Very possibly he also means that a writer has no face—no personality—except his work.
The sociopolitical world does not interest Borges either. (p. 20)
[He] almost completely [avoids] psychological themes and psychological analyses of his characters. Borges's characters perform peculiar, even outrageous, actions but rarely for any discernible motive. Extreme things happen to them. Reading a Borges story, one feels like a baffled child watching lunatics; one does not empathize with the characters. Rather he watches Borges move them around as he would watch a Grand Master marshal the pieces on a chessboard.
Finally in regard to the subjects he avoids, Borges seems to have little interest in writing historical fiction. This does not mean that his work has no historical ingredients, only that in it he transforms history into an aesthetic construct. That is, according to him "it may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors."… He bases The Book of Imaginary Beings, seemingly a jeu d'esprit, on this view of history as well as on some of the other major principles of his work. A compendium, it presents an ahistorical survey of both Western and Eastern culture that endlessly elaborates a few metaphors. Like his bias against autobiographical literature, his bias against historical literature appears under the surface of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." This fiction implies that if a man living in a later century can exactly reproduce Don Quixote, the original version cannot have been linked in any way with its historical era. He attempts to discredit historical literature because he has a more pervasive antipathy: to time, the material of history.
After he dismisses all of these subjects, Borges has left little except aesthetic themes; his literature basically is about literature, a quality that links him with the Symbolists. Writers of this kind of literature build an artificial construct, rather than rendering in artistic form meaningful details from a meaning-laden world…. "The Library of Babel" contains Borges's most vivid exposition of the reason why he creates artificial literature primarily about literature. The library described in the story oppresses a viewer because of its regularity: made of hexagonal cubicles, and having five shelves on each wall, thirty-two books on each shelf, 410 pages in each book, forty lines on each page, eight letters in each line…. In this story the universe is a library, and the books, both individually and collectively, mean nothing substantive. The only meaning in the universe derives from its relentless order or, in other words, its artifice.
For example, Borges makes literature from literature by frequently modeling one work on another work. He considers acceptable this strategy and the use of allusions because they repeat earlier literature, whereas he considers memory harmful to writers because it repeats reality. (pp. 20-2)
Borges has also in other ways made literature from literature and from literary theory. In addition to his stories that use Chinese boxes, most of his fictions, and even more clearly his essays, belong in this category…. This obvious point need not be belabored, but some of the more interesting examples of it should be cited. He has an unusual trick of writing reviews of imaginary books, which he does, for example, in "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim"…. This tactic suggests that the "real" aspect of books, their physical presence, does not matter. (p. 23)
His work develops the theme of literature so extensively and in so many ways that the world begins to evaporate before a reader of his work and a book takes its place. This replacement, another of his favorite motifs, appears, for example, in "Fastitocalon" in The Book of Imaginary Beings.
Borges has been interested in myth nearly as long as he has been interested in its kinsman, literature…. He … equates myth and the world of the imagination, of literature, not the world of archetypes or whatever. The Book of Imaginary Beings contains myth in this special sense, because Borges composed it from bits of earlier literature. However, it is not a handbook of mythology in the usual sense. Misinterpreting Borges's use of "myth" opens the door for fundamental misreading of his work. (p. 24)
Borges understands the arguments against creating a highly aestheticized literature, of divorcing himself as completely as possible from the mundane world in order to try to make pure form. But he deems the dangers far less weighty than the rewards. And even though he occasionally watches and evaluates himself at work, checking his premises, he has for a long time rigorously adhered to his principles. A reader must meet him on these aesthetic grounds, not on the grounds of myth in the usual sense or on any nonliterary grounds like sociology.
In spite of his carefully limited subject matter, Borges does interesting things with genre, especially when he uses a reader's preconceptions about whether or not a certain genre usually is realistic. He does this to make the boundary between reality and imagination seem arbitrary, if not meaningless.
To be specific, in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" he raises the problem of genre by imitating a genre. Although this is a work of fiction, references to Borges himself and Bioy Casares and the presence of apparent facts make it seem like an essay. An imaginary encyclopedia article, another genre, also plays an important part in the narrative. This imitation serves two purposes. First, it illustrates one sense of exhaustion by implying that the possibilities for original fiction have dried up so that a writer has no choice but to imitate other forms. Second, it tricks the reader by playing on his past reading experience. He expects the truth or at least the writer's version of it from an essay, and even more so from an encyclopedia. But a reader accustomed to opening his Britannica or a book of essays when he wants a fact will enter a phantasmagorical world when he opens the pages of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Most likely he will immediately wonder whether classifying works into genres will lead to real distinctions, and perhaps he will begin to doubt the reality of other categories. (p. 26)
This genre [fiction] well suits a writer interested primarily in philosophical themes. Among his themes, one of the most important, both to his work and to the Literature of Exhaustion in general, is time. Borges has said, "I think that the central riddle, the central problem of metaphysics—let us call it thinking—is time." In novels the appearance of this theme, even in exotic forms, surprises no one, since it traditionally has been one of the handful of dominant themes in that genre. Borges has never written a novel, but he retains his fascination for this topic. His interest in time does not contradict his antipathy toward realism because his treatment of this theme differs radically from most realists'. Realistic novelists usually consider time to be one of their most useful building blocks since it is a vital constituent of the real world they try to describe, but Borges, an antirealist, argues against the existence of time. He vigorously attacks time, confident that the more he can discredit it, the more discredited will be reality and realism. (pp. 28-9)
Borges does not go unarmed into battle with time. He has read widely in philosophy, though he has chosen his reading to give himself not a conventional training in the history of philosophy but ideas for his writing. He believes that there is a clear-cut argument about this issue. His allies, the idealists, hold an anti-time position, whereas most other philosophers believe that time exists. (p. 29)
Disliking time, Borges almost inevitably dislikes its storehouse, memory. Both evils afflict the title character in "Funes the Memorious," which shows how they work in combination. Funes always knows the time precisely without consulting a watch, but his remarkable ability does not please him: he tells others the time in a shrill, mocking voice. Nor does anything else please him. He feels oppressed and he lives like a prisoner, restrained physically by an injury and restrained mentally by his constant awareness of time. His other peculiarity, an unerring and all-encompassing memory, burdens him even more. Remembrances pile up in his mind until they leave no room for thought. He continually recalls things, shuffles them by converting numbers into things, catalogues his memories. Despite the illusion of newness that these projects afford, he merely repeats old things. This futility indicates memory's flaw; rather than getting on with the task of creating infinite new possibilities, it repeats old ones. At last Funes fills with memories so that he dies, appropriately of congestion. The manner of his death states a warning about the unendurable pressure of memory. (p. 33)
Borges much less frequently disparages the other main constituent of the real world, space. He does, however, attack it in "The Zahir," using a clever two-part strategy. First, he reduces the world to a single thing. Then he obliterates that thing, thereby completely destroying the real world. (p. 34)
Borges distinguishes among kinds of patterns, some valuable and others valueless. He approves of purely aesthetic patterns clearly presented as such. For example, he favors a patterned prose style, and he certainly does not write chaotically and slovenly. He meticulously composes his burnished works. He also carefully orders the body of his work by discreetly using repetition to create patterns of thematic resonances. Borges makes his own patterns, but other writers mistakenly find patterns either in the world or in literary conventions. The realists sometimes see patterns that do not exist; for example, psychological writers presume to display the etiology of their characters' personalities. Traditionalists also err by selling themselves into bondage to literary conventions.
Borges's objection to patterns becomes clearer if one analyzes his references to a specific kind of pattern, symmetry. He disapproves of symmetry, first, because it is an important attribute of reality. (pp. 35-6)
Symmetry oppresses none of Borges's characters more than Erik Lönnrot in "Death and the Compass," who begins by worshipping it. This bookish detective sees a symmetrical pattern developing in a series of murders. Because the person who kills a delegate to a Talmudic conference leaves a note saying "the first letter of the Name has been uttered," Lönnrot anticipates three more murders to fill out the "name." He works out one symmetry by plotting the first three murders on a map and then adding the appropriate fourth point to the equilateral triangle. He deduces the day of the last murder by realizing that each of the first three happened on the third day of a month. When his vectors of space and time converge and he goes to apprehend the criminal, he confirms his reasoning based on symmetries: "the house of the villa of Triste-le-Roy abounded in pointless symmetries"…. But the scenario of this drama of symmetries turns into an elaborate trap laid by his enemies. Basing their plans on Lönnrot's obsession with symmetry, they have brought him to their lair to kill him. (pp. 36-7)
Borges often signals his disapproval of people who believe in these negative themes. Such characters simply die. The villains kill Lönnrot, and Dahlmann in "The South" is about to die as the story ends because he has allowed himself to be drawn into a knife fight that he has no chance of winning. Borges's sturdy and persistent opposition to the limited and realistic themes of time, memory, space, and symmetry suggests that he just as strongly favors infinite and idealistic themes. (p. 37)
His many-pronged attack on realism and reality proceeds slowly against an implacable enemy. Sometimes he makes imaginative creations seem real, and reality seem imaginative. As an idealist, he feels justified in doing this. He told L. S. Dembo, "I wonder why a dream or an idea should be less real than this table for example"…. Besides the obvious source, Berkeley, the influence of Schopenhauer, especially his belief that the will produced the world, led Borges to this belief. A writer who accepts idealism gains primarily an increased number of possibilities for subject matter, since the imagination can create an infinity of objects…. Thus, the impossibility of distinguishing between the real and the imagined frees a writer from the realists' compunction to describe the world accurately, so he can write in any way he likes about anything. (pp. 38-9)
In his fictions various kinds of imaginary constructs replace the world or part of the world. For instance, the lottery of Babylon starts on a small scale, but it gradually grows until it is the only reality in Babylon, or until Babylon has no reality. The citizens of Babylon are disturbed that this lottery has replaced their previous lives. They can neither escape nor control this seemingly omnipresent lottery that denies them all freedom of choice. Borges objects on simpler grounds: the lottery is not an aesthetic construct but a real one and therefore inherently unsatisfying. He also presents characters who act in a certain way because they are analogues of other literary characters. These cases appeal to Borges because they are literary. In these examples works of literature actually determine action that appears to be freely performed. Also in these examples the real world, according to the norms of the fictions, gives way to the imaginary world. (pp. 39-40)
Borges frequently notes, always positively, the conjunction of dream and literature, which makes possible the replacement of reality by literature….
Dream and world will almost inevitably resemble each other in some ways, however, because the world, as well as literature, is a dream. (p. 42)
In the most famous of Borges's dream fictions, "The Circular Ruins," a hero goes to a ruined temple and begins slowly, meticulously to dream a man. When he succeeds, the man he has dreamed apparently becomes a part of reality, but soon the dreamer realizes that that is a dubious honor because he himself has been dreamed by another person. This story offers more than a shrewd preparation for a trick ending. The circularity of the ruins, undoubtedly important because Borges mentions it in the title, provides a hint as to this fiction's basic meaning. Like the fearful sphere in its circularity and its status as the only obviously real thing in the universe, this ruin represents infinity. The plot of this fiction represents the same thing because the dreamer dreaming a dreamer begins an infinite regress.
Thus, these devices demonstrate a now familiar point: literature dependent on dreams has more possibilities than literature dependent on reality, and perhaps its possibilities are unlimited. This meaning in turn suggests the premise on which Borges bases his development of the topic of dreams: dream, world, and literature ultimately merge into one entity.
This premise typifies idealism, a philosophy that has been hinted at by Borges's development of some of the themes already discussed. His debts to Berkeley, Bradley, Schopenhauer, and other thinkers in this tradition should also be clear by now. (p. 43)
The other main ideas that Borges approves have less, or no, connection with idealism. One of the most peculiar notions he toys with is that only one man exists in the world, and he is all men. He states this succinctly in "The Immortal": "one single immortal man is all men"…. In his catalogues of various men who have held ideas in common Borges hints at the similarity of several men, a less extreme version of this idea. These catalogues also apply this idea to the realm in which it becomes meaningful for Borges, literature…. He uses this idea, too, against realism, for a world populated by only one man hardly suits the concept of identity, which is important to the realists' world-view. The belief that there is only one author contradicts another premise of realism, that persons with definite identities living in definite times and places wrote each work of literature.
Borges aims secretly at realism as he develops his theme of the relation between language and reality. Realism partly depends on the belief that language can mirror reality, but he will not accept this belief. At least he disputes it in regard to the language of men. The narrator of "The God's Script" considers that "in the language of a god every word would enunciate that infinite concatenation of facts"…. But man falls far short of this ideal; he cannot capture the concatenation of the universe in many words, much less in one. Man sometimes finds instead that his words have only the barest purchase on things, or no purchase at all. (pp. 44-5)
Words can also be too powerful for the realist, altering reality instead of reporting on it. In "The God's Script" Borges mentions a combination of fourteen words that make whoever utters them omnipotent. Words can further confound realists by adding to reality. A combination of letters created one of the imaginary beings, the Golem…. In "The Library of Babel" Borges describes the utmost power of words. Here words have completely taken over the universe. These attributes of language frustrate the realist but delight the idealist, because, like many of the other ideas Borges favors, they create a myriad of possibilities.
These last few themes help make Borges's fictional world insubstantial and Protean. He usually subordinates the theme of metamorphosis to other themes like idealism or dreams, but once in a while it appears independently. (pp. 45-6)
Borges considers the world to be in a constant flux rather than fixed for eternity. This notion would meet with little argument, but his process theory of art is more controversial. On this matter he seems Romantic, emphasizing the process of creating art, rather than the completed product, in order to glorify the mind that created art. Process intrigued the Romantics because of their adulation of inspiration, but Borges has more complicated reasons for emphasizing process, as this examination of his themes should indicate. His world constantly changes because the unreality of the "real" world forces him continually to create his own world of art. The alternative emphasis on product, a Classical position, binds writers to traditional rules of composition and forces them carefully to imitate "real" objects. Both rules and imitation repel Borges. His position on these questions appears in "The Secret Miracle." As long as Hladik continues to tinker with his play, to keep writing it, he remains alive. When a product issues from the process he dies.
Although Borges sometimes presents his ideas discursively, even in his fictions, he also frequently develops them by means of images. Besides varying his presentation, this imagistic method, especially in the case of his major images, gives him another way to achieve repetition and thereby attack time…. The labyrinth, the mirror, and the circle are his most important images and also the most closely related to the Literature of Exhaustion.
The labyrinth's complexity results partly from its inherent nature and partly from the frequency with which this image occurs. This complexity makes it necessary to examine it in a large number of contexts. By understanding the labyrinth one can understand much of Borges's art. Appropriately, something that has a hidden answer itself reveals the hidden answer to his work, this condition being a Borgesian regressus in infinitum. Most critics have been unable to operate convincingly in the face of these difficulties; they see only one facet of this many-faceted image. Most of them focus on the negative aspects of the labyrinth. (pp. 46-7)
For one thing, their comments are limited to the labyrinth's role as a symbol of the world's chaos. If it meant only this, it would be a banal image, its banality multiplied by each appearance. Typically, Borges also adds an aesthetic dimension to this image's meaning. Realism's invalidity follows as a corollary from the theorem that the world is labyrinthine. (p. 47)
But the labyrinth also has a positive side because of its connection with the Literature of Exhaustion. One's guide to this aspect of it must be John Barth, since he seems to be the only critic who has recognized it. He understands this image more fully than other critics because he places it in its proper context instead of looking at it in isolation. He sees, as no one else does, that a person in a labyrinth must exhaust all possibilities of choice (of direction) before he can reach its center…. In other words, one response to the depletion of literature, though still not the best, is to write so as to exhaust all the possibilities presented to one. In this light, the labyrinth appears positive, because successfully dealing with it symbolizes a valuable literary goal. This feature makes up for some of the frustration in store for everyone who tries to work his way through the labyrinth of the world. (p. 48)
The center of the labyrinth, the goal for which the hero endures the almost endless wrong turns, represents a better way to create literature. Critics who discuss only the labyrinth's negative aspect have not seen this goal. Sheer luck cannot be depended upon to find the center, and the exhaustion of possibilities constitutes only a holding action till a better way is found. No, one should expect the labyrinth to have a secret key. The ubiquity of this secret key theme in Borges's work contributes another vital clue to the meaning of the labyrinth, and again most of the critics have missed it. (pp. 48-9)
It is much easier to write about the necessity of finding one's way through the labyrinth without actually making the trip. This abstruse idea becomes clearer if one remembers that the Literature of Exhaustion produces fresh work by pretending that literature is depleted and by using this situation as material, rather than facing the depletion directly. More specifically, Barth points out that Borges need not actually write the encyclopedia of Tlön; he merely has to state the idea. The hidden key, then, is to make labyrinths instead of trying to solve them. (pp. 49-50)
In Borges's work the mirror contrasts with the labyrinth. If the latter represents the Literature of Exhaustion, the former represents realism. The mirror naturally symbolizes realism since it imitates existing objects, as eighteenth century literary theory indicates. Borges states the contrast between mirrors and labyrinths (in this case, a labyrinthine book) in the first sentence of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which also is the first sentence of both Ficciones and Labyrinths: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia." (pp. 50-1)
To Borges, even when he was a child, mirrors meant the same thing they mean to him now, and they caused the same fear, as he told Richard Burgin…. In a disconcerting essay, "The Draped Mirrors," he confirms this: "as a child, I felt before large mirrors that same horror of a spectral duplication or multiplication of reality"…. Perhaps the young Borges also spurned the mirroring of reality in the realistic works in his father's fine English library. It also would be interesting to know how he would have reacted as a child to a fairytale-like story about mirrors, "Fauna of Mirrors," that he tells in The Book of Imaginary Beings. In it the mirror-people are banished to their mirrors and forced to repeat the actions of men because of their invasions of the human kingdom, with which they had previously lived in harmony despite their differences. The storyteller predicts that the Fish will be the first of the mirror-people to give up this mimetic function. If so, they will become like writers of the Literature of Exhaustion.
The complications of Borges's circle imagery arise chiefly because he uses it both to attack the realists and to defend his own kind of literature. That is, like his labyrinths, his circles sometimes are positive, sometimes negative. Two discordant properties of circles cause this ambiguity when he relates them to literature. A circle shares with the kind of art he favors its virtue of self-containment. But if one imagines either the circle moving or someone moving around it, the starting point will eventually be reached again, making it repetitious and finite, like realism and other depleted types of literature.
The essay on the Uroboros in The Book of Imaginary Beings lists objects whose circularity represents infinity: the Greek conception of the ocean, the world-circling serpent, etc. Borges uses a circle in "The God's Script" to describe a mystical union with the divinity. The wheel that appears during that union is everywhere at once and infinite and contains opposites. A third positive use of the circle image occurs in "The Circular Ruins," where Borges connects it with idealism because the main character goes to a circular ruin to dream a man. This last example refers to a self-enclosed dream world that the real world cannot touch. In Borges's work infinity, timelessness and dreamlikeness are all qualities of the same type of art. In "The Circular Ruins" Borges adds a variation to his circle imagery. When the dreamer learns that he, too, is dreamed, one can picture the situation as a circle within a circle, perhaps ad infinitum.
This last phenomenon, oddly, appears also in one of the negative uses of the circle image. The outer circle in "The Secret Miracle" is Hladik's circular delirium; the inner circle is his play. The play's repetition makes it negative. The seven gongs of the clock, the light from the setting sun, the Hungarian music and the words that open the play are repeated at its end. Thus, the error of Hladik that leads to his death, finishing the play, like so many of the details in Borges's fiction, can be put meaningfully into an aesthetic context. Hladik's error shows that art must not be circular or otherwise finite. (pp. 51-3)
Some of Borges's themes and the limitations he imposes on his subject matter help shape his characters. His lack of interest in psychology, it will be recalled, makes most of his characters two-dimensional. He says, with some accuracy, "I'm afraid there are no characters in my work. I'm afraid I'm the only character." His interest in philosophical topics accounts for the large number of intellectuals in his work, and his aesthetic interests call for many readers and writers. (pp. 53-4)
Among his most significant characters are the doubles. The essay on the double in The Book of Imaginary Beings sketches in the background of these characters and gives many examples, both legendary and literary. Among the inspirations he mentions for the concept is one of his own favorite images, the mirror. His own doubles, however, differ from most other doubles in literature because he creates them to make a metaphysical, and ultimately an aesthetic, point rather than a moral point. That is, he uses doubles to refute the belief that people have clearly defined identities, a major premise of realism. His three most important doubles are composed of a murderer and a victim….
Erik Lönnrot, the detective, and Red Scharlach, the criminal, in "Death and the Compass" clearly are, respectively, victim and murderer, but only their names indicate that they are doubles. Because scharlach is German for "scarlet," rot is German for "red" and Erik almost invariably suggests "the Red," their names become Red Red and Red Red. (p. 54)
Borges is the quintessential writer of the Literature of Exhaustion. Barth and Nabokov have always been interested in a staple theme of realistic fiction, love, and this has tempered their literary experiments and kept a door open for their return to a more realistic mode. Borges has, however, shown little interest in this theme. (p. 59)
Attempts to discredit [Borges] can be answered quite well. He writes mainly about literary matters, but Henry James's dictum that we must grant a writer his donnée should justify that attribute. The other serious charge, that he repeats himself, has a good deal of truth to it. But his philosophical reason for being repetitious probably justifies it….
His poetry seems quite undistinguished. His early contribution to Ultraism may have been important in the history of Spanish literature, but considered from an international viewpoint, Ultraism differs only slightly from the earlier experiments of the Imagists….
His essays are more impressive, because of their grace, originality and wit. The philosophical ones may be too idiosyncratic, because of the ideas they defend and the thinkers they revere, to hold up as philosophy. They do not belong to this category, however, for Borges writes about the ideas and thinkers who have the greatest literary possibilities for him, not those who are the most impressive philosophically. (p. 60)
The crown of his works is his fiction. Judged in almost any way, it qualifies for the first rank in contemporary literature. The originality of his forms and ideas is indeed impressive. He carefully polishes these works, using a magisterial technique and deftly combining the elements of fiction. And they rank high in a category often ignored by critics: they delight a reader, both because they entertain him and because they provide for him a vicarious experience of a subtle mind at work on fascinating matters.
Besides his work's intrinsic value, it also has heuristic value, since he has inspired many other contemporary writers. He seems to have founded the Literature of Exhaustion, identifying its opponent to be realism and working out its basic themes and techniques. A reader who can thoroughly understand "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" will have a good grasp of this whole movement. (pp. 60-1)
John Stark, "Jorge Luis Borges," in his The Literature of Exhaustion (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1974, pp. 11-61.
[Borges'] driest paragraph is somehow compelling. His fables are written from a height of intelligence less rare in philosophy and physics than in fiction. Furthermore, he is, at least for anyone whose taste runs to puzzles or pure speculation, delightfully entertaining. The question is, I think, whether or not Borges' lifework, arriving in a lump now (he was born in 1899 and since his youth has been an active and honored figure in Argentine literature), can serve, in its gravely considered oddity, as any kind of clue to the way out of the dead-end narcissism and downright trashiness of present American fiction.
Borges' narrative innovations spring from a clear sense of technical crisis. For all his modesty and reasonableness of tone, he proposes some sort of essential revision in literature itself. The concision of his style and the comprehensiveness of his career … produce a strangely terminal impression: he seems to be the man for whom literature has no future….
A constant bookishness gives Borges' varied production an unusual consistency. His stories have the close texture of argument; his critical articles have the suspense and tension of fiction. The criticism collected in Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952 almost all takes the form of detection, of uncovering what was secret. He looks for, and locates, the hidden pivots of history: the moment (in Iceland in 1225) when a chronicler first pays tribute to an enemy the very line (in Chaucer in 1382) when allegory yields to naturalism. His interest gravitates toward the obscure, the forgotten: John Wilkins, the 17th-century inventor ab nihilo of an analytical language; J. W. Dunne, the 20th-century proponent of a grotesque theory of time; Layamon, the 13th-century poet isolated between the death of Saxon culture and the birth of the English language. Where an arcane quality does not already exist, Borges injects it. (pp. 170-71)
Implacably, Borges reduces everything to a condition of mystery. His gnomic style and encyclopedic supply of allusions generate a kind of inverse illumination, a Gothic atmosphere in which the most lucid and famous authors loom somewhat menacingly. (p. 171)
The tracing of hidden resemblances, of philosophical genealogies, is Borges' favorite mental exercise. Out of his vast reading he distills a few related images, whose parallelism, tersely presented, has the force of a fresh thought. "Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors. I should like to sketch one chapter of that history," he writes in "Pascal's Sphere," and goes on to compile, in less than four pages, twenty-odd instances of the image of a sphere "whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere." These references are arranged like a plot, beginning with Xenophanes, who joyously substituted for the anthropomorphic gods of Greece a divine and eternal Sphere, and ending with Pascal, who, in describing nature as "an infinite sphere" had first written and then rejected the word "effroyable"—"a frightful sphere." Many of Borges' genealogies trace a degeneration: he detects a similar "magnification to nothingness" in the evolutions of theology and of Shakespeare's reputation; he watches an Indian legend succumb, through its successive versions, to the bloating of unreality. He follows in the works of Léon Bloy the increasingly desperate interpretations of a single phrase in St. Paul—"per speculum in aenigmate" ("through a glass darkly"). (p. 172)
Borges is not an antiseptic pathologist of the irrational; he is himself susceptible to infection. His connoisseurship has in it a touch of madness. In his "Kafka and His Precursors," he discovers, in certain parables and anecdotes by Zeno, Han Yü, Kierkegaard, Browning, Bloy, and Lord Dunsany, a prefiguration of Kafka's tone. He concludes that each writer creates his own precursors….
As a literary critic, Borges demonstrates much sensitivity and sense. The American reader of [Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952] will be gratified by the generous amount of space devoted to writers of the English language. Borges, from within the Spanish literary tradition of "dictionaries and rhetoric," is attracted by the oneiric and hallucinatory quality he finds in North American, German, and English writing. He values Hawthorne and Whitman for their intense unreality, and bestows special fondness upon the English writers he read in his boyhood. The fin-de-siècle and Edwardian giants, whose reputations are generally etiolated, excite Borges afresh each time he rereads them…. (p. 173)
[Of] this generation none is dearer to Borges than Chesterton, in whom he finds, beneath the surface of dogmatic optimism, a disposition like Kafka's…. Much in Borges' fiction that suggests Kafka in fact derives from Chesterton. As critic and artist both, Borges mediates between the post-modern present and the colorful, prolific, and neglected pre-moderns.
Of the moderns themselves, of Yeats, Eliot, and Rilke, of Proust and Joyce, he has, at least in Other Inquisitions, little to say. Pound and Eliot, he asserts in passing, practice "the deliberate manipulation of Anachronisms to produce an appearance of eternity" (which seems, if true at all, rather incidentally so), and he admires Valéry less for his work than for his personality, "the symbol of a man who is infinitely sensitive to every fact." The essays abound in insights delivered parenthetically—"God must not theologize"; "to fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god"—but their texts as a whole do not open outward into enlightenment. Whereas, say, Eliot's relatively tentative considerations offer to renew a continuing tradition of literary criticism. Borges' tight arrangements seem a bizarre specialization of the tradition. His essays have a quality I can only call sealed. They are structured like mazes and, like mirrors, they reflect back and forth on one another. There is frequent repetition of the adjectives and phrases that denote Borges' favorite notions of mystery, of secrecy, of "intimate ignorance." From his immense reading he has distilled a fervent narrowness. The same parables, the same quotations recur; one lengthy passage from Chesterton is reproduced three times. (pp. 174-75)
Turning from Borges' criticism to his fiction, one senses the liberation he must have felt upon entering "the paradise of the tale." For there is something disturbing as well as fascinating, something distorted and strained about his literary essays. His ideas border on delusions; the dark hints—of a cult of books, of a cabalistic unity hidden in history—that he so studiously develops are special to the corrupt light of libraries and might vanish outdoors. It is uncertain how seriously he intends his textual diagrams, which seem ciphers for concealed emotions. Borges crowds into the margins of others' books passion enough to fill blank pages; his essays all tend to open inward, disclosing an obsessed imagination and a proud, Stoic, almost cruelly masculine personality.
Dreamtigers, a collection of paragraphs, sketches, poems, and apocryphal quotations titled in Spanish El Hacedor (The Maker), succeeds in time the creative period of narrative fiction his essays foreshadow. It is frankly the miscellany of an aging man. (pp. 175-76)
One feels in Dreamtigers a calm, an intimation of truce, a tranquil fragility. Like so many last or near-last works—like The Tempest, The Millionairess, or "Investigations of a Dog"—Dreamtigers preserves the author's life-long concerns, but drained of urgency; horror has yielded to a resigned humorousness. These sketches can be read for their grace and wit but scarcely for narrative excitement; the most exciting of them, "Ragnarök," embodies Borges' most terrible vision, of an imbecilic God or body of gods. But it occurs within a dream, and ends easily: "We drew our heavy revolvers—all at once there were revolvers in the dream—and joyously put the Gods to death."
The second half of this slim volume consists of poems, late and early. Poetry was where Borges' ramifying literary career originally took root. The translations, by Harold Morland, into roughly four-beat and intermittently rhymed lines, seem sturdy and clear, and occasional stanzas must approximate very closely the felicity of the original…. (p. 178)
Together, the prose and poetry of Dreamtigers afford some glimpses into Borges' major obscurities—his religious concerns and his affective life. Physical love, when it appears at all in his work, figures as something remote, like an ancient religion…. Though Dreamtigers contains two fine poems addressed to women—Susana Soca and Elvira de Alvear—they are eulogies couched in a tone of heroic affection not different from the affection with which he writes elsewhere of male friends like Alfonso Reyes and Macedonio Fernández. This is at the opposite pole from homosexuality; femaleness, far from being identified with, is felt as a local estrangement that blends with man's cosmic estrangement. There are two prose sketches that, by another writer, might have shown some erotic warmth, some surrender to femininity. In one, he writes of Julia, a "sombre girl" with "an unbending body," in whom he sensed "an intensity that was altogether foreign to the erotic." In their walks together, he must have talked about mirrors, for now (in 1931) he has learned that she is insane and has draped her mirrors because she imagines that his reflection has replaced her own. In the other, he writes of Delia Elena San Marco, from whom he parted one day beside "a river of vehicles and people." They did not meet again, and in a year she was dead. From the casualness of their unwitting farewell, he concludes, tentatively, that we are immortal. "For if souls do not die, it is right that we should not make much of saying goodbye."
It would be wrong to think that Borges dogmatically writes as an atheist. God is often invoked by him, not always in an ironical or pantheistic way…. While Christianity is not dead in Borges, it sleeps in him, and its dreams are fitful. His ethical allegiance is to pre-Christian heroism, to Stoicism, to "the doctrines of Zeno's Porch and … the sagas," to the harsh gaucho ethos celebrated in the Argentine folk poem of Martín Fierro. Borges is a pre-Christian whom the memory of Christianity suffuses with premonitions and dread. He is European in everything except the detachment with which he views European civilization, as something intrinsically strange—a heap of relics, a universe of books without a central clue. (pp. 180-81)
Perhaps Latin America, which has already given us the absolute skepticism of Machado de Assis, is destined to reënact the intellectual patterns of ancient Greece. Borges' voracious and vaguely idle learning, his ecumenic and problematical and unconsoling theology, his willingness to reconsider the most primitive philosophical questions, his tolerance of superstition in both himself and others, his gingerly and regretful acknowledgment of women and his disinterest in the psychological and social worlds that women dominate, his almost Oriental modesty, his final solitude, his serene pride—this constellation of Stoic attributes, mirrored in the southern hemisphere, appears inverted and frightful. (p. 182)
The great achievement of his art is his short stories. (p. 183)
"The Library of Babel," which appears in Ficciones, is wholly fantastic, yet refers to the librarian's experience of books. Anyone who has been in the stacks of a great library will recognize the emotional aura, the wearying impression of an inexhaustible and mechanically ordered chaos, that suffuses Borges' mythical universe, "composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings." Each hexagon contains twenty shelves, each shelf thirty-two books, each book four hundred and ten pages, each page forty lines, each line eighty letters. The arrangement of these letters is almost uniformly chaotic and formless. The nameless narrator of "The Library of Babel" sets forward, pedantically, the history of philosophical speculation by the human beings who inhabit this inflexible and inscrutable cosmos, which is equipped, apparently for their convenience, with spiral stairs, mirrors, toilets, and lamps ("The light they emit is insufficient, incessant").
This monstrous and comic model of the universe contains a full range of philosophical schools—idealism, mysticism, nihilism…. (p. 185)
Though the Library appears to be eternal, the men within it are not, and they have a history punctuated by certain discoveries and certain deductions now considered axiomatic. Five hundred years ago, in an upper hexagon, two pages of homogeneous lines were discovered that within a century were identified as "a Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guaraní, with classical Arabic inflections" and translated. The contents of these two pages—"notions of combinational analysis"—led to the deduction that the Library is total; that is, its shelves contain all possible combinations of the orthographic symbols…. (p. 186)
The Library of Babel … has an adamant solidity. Built of mathematics and science, it will certainly survive the weary voice describing it, and outlast all its librarians, already decimated, we learn in a footnote, by "suicide and pulmonary diseases." We move, with Borges, beyond psychology, beyond the human, and confront, in his work, the world atomized and vacant. Perhaps not since Lucretius has a poet so definitely felt men as incidents in space.
What are we to make of him? The economy of his prose, the tact of his imagery, the courage of his thought are there to be admired and emulated. In resounding the note of the marvellous last struck in English by Wells and Chesterton, in permitting infinity to enter and distort his imagination, he has lifted fiction away from the flat earth where most of our novels and short stories still take place. Yet discouragingly large areas of truth seem excluded from his vision. Though the population of the Library somehow replenishes itself, and "fecal necessities" are provided for, neither food nor fornication is mentioned—and in truth they are not generally seen in libraries. I feel in Borges a curious implication: the unrealities of physical science and the senseless repetitions of history have made the world outside the library an uninhabitable vacuum. Literature—that European empire augmented with translations from remote kingdoms—is now the only world capable of housing and sustaining new literature. Is this too curious? Did not Eliot recommend forty years ago, in reviewing Ulysses, that new novels be retellings of old myths? Is not the greatest of modern novels, Remembrance of Things Past, about its own inspiration? Have not many books already been written from within Homer and the Bible? Did not Cervantes write from within Ariosto and Shakespeare from within Holinshed? Borges, by predilection and by program, carries these inklings toward a logical extreme: the view of books as, in sum, an alternate creation, vast, accessible, highly colored, rich in arcana, possibly sacred. Just as physical man, in his cities, has manufactured an environment whose scope and challenge and hostility eclipse that of the natural world, so literate man has heaped up a counterfeit universe capable of supporting life. Certainly the traditional novel as a transparent imitation of human circumstance has "a distracted or tired air." Ironic and blasphemous as Borges' hidden message may seem, the texture and method of his creations, though strictly inimitable, answer to a deep need in contemporary fiction—the need to confess the fact of artifice. (pp. 187-88)
John Updike, in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 169-88.
Suddenly, and without logical and convincing reasons, a culture produces in a few years a series of creators who spiritually fertilize each other, who emulate and challenge and surpass each other until, also suddenly, there enters a period of drying up or of mere prolongation through imitators and inferior successors.
That chance seems to have manifested itself in modest but clearly perceptible proportions in the cultural zone of the River Plate in a period that runs approximately from 1920 to the present. There, without too many premonitory signs, the dimension of the fantastic bursts forth in the principal works of Jorge Luis Borges. It erupts in Borges with a force so compelling that, seen from outside of the River Plate, it appears to concentrate itself almost exclusively in his works. We in Argentina, however, situate Borges's narrative within a context which contains important precursorial and contemporary figures…; even before Borges the fantastic was already a familiar and important genre in our midst. (pp. 527-28)
In Jorge Luis Borges, the leading figure of our fantastic literature, misunderstandings accumulate, usually to his great delight. I will limit myself here to pointing out that what some literary critics admire above all in Borges is a genius of geometrical invention, a maker of literary crystals whose condensation responds to exact mathematical laws of logic. Borges has been the first to insist on that rigorous construction of things which tend to appear, on the surface, as absurd and aleatory. The fantastic, as it appears in Borges's stories, makes one think of a relentless geometrical theorem—a theorem perfectly capable of demonstrating that the sum of the square of the angles of a triangle equals the execution of Madame DuBarry. Stories such as "The Circular Ruins," "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "The Library of Babel" reflect this type of theorem construction, which would seem to hide a secret dread not only of what Lugones called strange forces, but also of the imagination's own powers, powers which in Borges are subjected immediately to a rigorous intellectual conditioning.
Nonetheless, others of us feel that despite this rational rejection of the fantastic in its most irreducible and incoherent manifestations, Borges's intuition and sensitivity attest to its presence in a good portion of his stories, where the intellectual superstructure does not manage to, nor does it probably want to, deny that presence. When Borges entitles a collection of stories Ficciones or Artifices, he is misleading us at the same time that he winks a conspiratorial eye at us; he is playing with that old ideal of every writer, the ideal of having at least some readers capable of suspecting a second version of each text. I will limit myself, of necessity, to one example which hits close to home. In his story "The Secret Miracle" Borges plays with the idea that in certain circumstances a man can enter into another dimension of time and live a year or a century during what other men live as a second or an hour. There is already a story based on this idea in a medieval Spanish text, El Conde Lucanor, and Borges himself uses as an epigraph to his story a fragment from the Koran which reflects the same concept. The theme is also dealt with in the psychology of oneiric life, which shows that certain dreams encompass multiple episodes that would demand considerable time to be carried out consecutively, and that, nonetheless, the complex plot of such dreams can end, for example, with a shot from a gun which abruptly awakens us and makes us realize that someone just knocked at the door. It is clear that the dream has been integrally constructed in order to lead to that supposed shot from a revolver, a fact which obliges one to admit that the dream's fulfillment has been almost instantaneous while the fact of dreaming it seemed to transpire over a long period of time. In other words, one could say that on certain occasions we slip into a different time, and those occasions can be, as is always the case with the fantastic, trivial and even absurd.
But Borges does not want things to be trivial and absurd, at least not in his stories, and "The Secret Miracle" is based once again on the rational and erudite crystallization of something which others grasp only in its unrefined state. The story relates that Jaromir Hladik, a Jewish writer condemned to death by the Nazis, awaits with anguish the day of his execution by firing squad. This man has written philosophical texts in which the notion of time is examined and discussed, and he has begun a play whose ending suggests that the work is circular, that it repeats itself interminably. On the eve of his execution Hladik asks God to grant him one more year of life in order to finish this play, which will justify his existence and assure his immortality. During the night he dreams that the time has been given to him, but the next morning he realizes that it was only a dream, since the soldiers come and take him to the firing squad. In the moment that the rifles take aim at his chest Hladik continues to think about one of the characters in his play; and in that same moment the physical universe becomes immobile, the soldiers do not shoot, and the smoke of Hladik's last cigarette forms a small petrified cloud in the air. Only Hladik can know that the miracle has been fulfilled and that, without moving from his place, thinking it instead of writing it, he has been granted the year he had asked for to complete his play. During the course of this year Hladik creates and re-creates scenes, he changes the characters, he eliminates and adds on. Finally, he needs to find only one word, an epithet. He finds it, and the soldiers shoot. For them only an instant has passed.
This theme, which we also find in Ambrose Bierce's admirable story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek," is not, as Borges's story might pretend, simply a literary artifice. I have already noted the frequent presence of this theme in literature and in dreams, and I have even included it in a passage of my own story, "The Pursuer"; in my case, however, I have no reason to obscure the authenticity of my personal experience and to create of it an ingenious superstructure of fiction. In my story what happens is exactly the same as what has happened to me various times in analogous circumstances. (pp. 528-30)
I think that at this point you have an idea of our way of living and writing the fantastic in the River Plate area…. (p. 530)
Julio Cortázar, "The Present State of Fiction in Latin America," translated by Margery A. Safir, in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 533-40.
In Praise of Darkness … is the work of a man facing the dark of blindness…. [The] mood is that of late life, but the tone is relaxed, the manner below declamation but above speech, and the texture a kind of lyric conversation. Even an ability to follow no more than the sounds of Spanish will reveal in the parallel (and definitive) Spanish text, the long vowels which bear a gravity sometimes missed in the English.
Borges, as ever, is openly and winningly elusive. In his preface he writes:
Time has led me to the use of certain devices: … to feign slight uncertainties, for, although reality is exact, memory is not; to narrate events (this I got from Kipling and the Icelandic sagas) as if I did not wholly understand them; to bear in mind that the rules I have just set down need not always be followed and that in time they will have to be changed.
The cool confession of craft and the acceptance of such pragmatism give Borges the authority of a conjuror. He is a poet who builds on his knowledge of what is to happen and the reader's dependence upon him through ignorance of the outcome. In "The Gauchos" he offers eighteen statements defining a composite view of the precise nature of their way of life. Seemingly the bold distinctions and the removing of misunderstandings are there to clarify our picture of these men. Then, the penultimate line reveals that the whole procedure has not been to establish a case but to deceive us into building an acceptable factual picture which Borges tugs from under our grasp:
They lived out their lives as in a dream,
who they were or what they were.
Smartly, Borges leaves his poem by the back door of teasingly irrelevant wisdom: "Maybe the case is the same for us all."
Throughout the collection a wry sense of paradox feeds uncertainty into the systems of thought…. (pp. 74-5)
The ironies make a habitable place for uncertainty: the Knight in a second poem on Dürer's engraving is "aloof", "unshaken", "eternal", but he is also "unreal": the poet, following a different, shorter way than he, has lived where nothing is firm but everything is real. His security lies in flux, in the knowledge of particularity. Unobtrusively Borges opens up and looks at the loss which all life's celebrators must face. (p. 75)
Desmond Graham, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 4 (1976).