Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 4)
Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–
Borges, an Argentinian, is a master of the short story, a poet, essayist, and man of letters. His inimitable fictions, or "parables," are not merely anti-realistic; they define, according to one critic, "new orders of reality." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Somewhere, at a point coincident to their two orbits, Joyce and Borges meet…. Both have worked on their respective cities, Dublin and Buenos Aires, like mythographers resurrecting from sounds, local sights, houses, and streets, a timeless vision of their inhabitants. And, although at home in several languages and literatures, a shocking parochialism locates the center of their cosmopolis. Both are Daedalian architects of word structures, of labyrinths. Both are exorcists of the shadowy feelings and meanings, the mystery and power of words: literary exorcists of consciousness. Both betray that predilection for compounding the erudite and trivial, the esoteric and the oecumenical, implicating, at its most sensitive, our twentieth-century sensibility. And of course both have pressed an obsession with form, with style and technique, to bounds that dazzle even where they seem familiar. Some of their most brilliant moments are strictly parasitic and parodistic, and even self-parodistic. There is, moreover, an influence of one on the other, for Borges, in the twenties, was one writer of that vanguardist generation feeling the full impact, the contemporary impact, of Ulysses. His essay on Joyce ["El Ulises de Joyce"] and a translation of a fragment of the closing monologue ["Traducción de James Joyce, La última hoja del Ulises," in Proa, January, 1925] comprise a singular event in literary history. Borges' experiments with style, in his poetry of the twenties, [reflect] a Joycean awareness of a new sensibility in search of expression. Several of the structural ideas of Finnegans Wake acquire a dialectical form in some of Borges' stories, essays, and poems. His poem "La noche cíclica" owes at least the adjective of its title to Joyce. Perhaps the decisive point of comparison is that their interpretative vision of the intellectual, social, and moral world of man is esthetic, and that their attitudes, tastes, literary ends and means are apolitical, frequently hermetical, and heretical. It is this affinity of nonconformists that attracts attention to their use of irony for fusing style to subject. Also, we owe to a similar use of the cyclical view of time, history and personalities, some of their most inimitable and intimate revelations about themselves as writers. And a final point: Borges, like Joyce in his later years, suffers from blindness….
While we proceed in the two essays [Murillo studies Joyce and Borges, in this book, in two separate essays] by different means of analysis, the unity of the essays rests on the analogy between the reflective act that both authors accomplish through irony. The reflective act, that is, rendered an esthetic act. Here are two writers who intensify our awareness of the intellectual and esthetic phases by which irony communicates an unstated "impersonal" and "objective" meaning. Here irony, as a mode, is inseparable from the significance of works in prose and from the means of our access to that significance. We find here the how of ironical expression increasingly provoking and drawing attention to itself. Increasingly the effect becomes that of provoking the reaction that this how is attempting to simulate both the thing represented and our intellective and esthetic notions arrested by (Joyce) or converging upon (Borges) our apprehension of the thing represented. The more immediately it provokes our awareness of the mechanics of its operation, the more intensified and effective this how. Its aim is both to produce a counter-reflection through the impulses of the reader and to redirect them in a conspiratorial action between him and [the] author back upon the facets of reality or life represented. In Borges' stories we … find that our perceptions of the multiple relations between things and persons, and the causal connections between events, constitute the "meaning" of events, of lives and things, their whatness established by the howness of Borgian irony and its quality. The residue of mockery and ridicule in this mode is directed as humor or play at our impulse to attempt and to possess an omniscient view of human events and an infallible understanding of the universal laws of causality. The result of the conspiratorial action, as part of an impersonal and objective resolution of meanings, is to betray "reality," "fact," "life," into exposing themselves in our perceptions as image, or symbol, or, to use Borges' term, a simulacrum.
At the center of the analogy between Joyce and Borges are the effects each produces by redirecting the representation of certain states of consciousness onto the perceptions of their readers. Yet here precisely lies the cause for proceeding on two separate essays. The analogy results from their techniques for attaining a simultaneity of expression and multiple equivalences of form to subject. The underlying contrasts are harder to trace to their source. A basic one is the central position held by metaphysical speculation in Borges' dialectical designs. Or we could compare the dreaming consciousness of Finnegans Wake with the hallucinatory ordeals of some of Borges' heroes. Both, as dream structures, are labyrinthine and cyclical. But the verbal obscurities of Joyce's dreamer-narrator are controlled to work their way from the irrational inconclusiveness of a sleeping mind toward coherent resolutions of rational statement; whereas in Borges style and idea impel his rational disquisitions out to fantasy, non-reason, and hallucination. In more conventional terms, we may say that in Joyce's verbal patterns we have a "stream," in Borges' compact, conceptual ones, a "structure" of consciousness.
The states of consciousness in Finnegans Wake, however verbally obscure, appear transparently evident in their linear and sequential movement because they are conceived in the dream as states of nonviolence. They are inner reflections of the human mea culpa taking place or projected upon a glass of innocency. The Borgian states of consciousness, nearly always scared by acts of violence, are radical conflicts between the subjectivity of will and illusion and their objectivization in time, conflicts between dimensions of being and the process of their impersonalization that gives rise to archetypes and symbols. Thus Borges furnishes what I call "total" conflicts because the progression and movement of their warring tensions build up and impart to us through reiteration and recapitulation (a horizontal and vertical compression of themes) a total opposition between all of their components as that dichotomy of symbolical realities that is human consciousness, both personal and collective. The effect is to heighten the reader's perceptive awareness of his own consciousness, so to speak, as a counterpart to that antagony of irresolvable forces and symbolical dissonances. The Joycean effect is then quite unlike the Borgian because, although both authors impel the inductions of ironical readings to a highly logical and, stylistically, logistical point of resolution, the tensions of the Joycean ironies which I call dis-tensions neutralize their opposition at this point to provide entry into the myth that Finnegans Wake enacts; whereas in Borges' stories the conflict of tensions remains irresolvable in order to produce, in their mutual annihilation or effacement, the effect of a predicament of consciousness compounded, localized, and centered in the reader's intellective and emotive response.
L. A. Murillo, "Introduction" to his The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges (copyright © 1968 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; excerpted by permission of the publishers), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. ix-xix.
Jorge Luis Borges makes strange and compelling word-music. He plays only one instrument—the intellectual, the epistemological—but the strumming of his cerebral guitar sets into vibration all the strings of emotion, intuition, and esthetic longing that are common to sentient humanity. In his short stories alone he has written a symphony of the human consciousness—unfinished, not because he has left it incomplete, but because he sees human thought as unconsummated. Men may possibly have truth, his fictions tell us, and they can believe they have it, but they cannot know they have it. Tantalized by truth, they juggle their thoughts and words and haply achieve the dazzling suggestion of the imminence of a revelation. On this Borges has based his "esthetic of the intelligence." (pp. 3-4)
What Borges gives us is uncanny in the Freudian sense: untrue, but somehow true—or, as Plato said of his myths, they are not true but there is something like them that is true. It is in this sense that Adolfo Bioy Casares and Ana María Barrenechea have said that Borges' fantasies are more real than reality. His stories suggest other ways of interrelating the parts of the universe, other ontologies that we have forgotten or have not yet made.
This is only to say that Borges is mythic. In the ancient mythmaker and the radical philosophical idealist the wheel comes full circle. Because both are lacking an overriding perspective or mental commitment, their worlds are in flux, and each momentary contour of thought is as valid as another. An idea's value to the consciousness is the criterion of its truth. (p. 5)
Borges does not pretend, and we do not expect, that some ultimate, objective revelation will really spring from his dissolution and reformation of reality; the symphony can never be finished. But it can be played infinitely. Meaning, beauty, and satisfaction lie in the crescendo that culminates in climactic moments of near-fulfilment, when a Name seems about to be called, a summary note struck, and the face of Truth revealed. (p. 6)
[Borges] does not suppose, apparently, that in reading his tales we are going to lose ourselves in the mood or the action; instead, he gives us, with deceptive and very deliberate casualness, the symbols of an idea. Through his symbols and images he repetitiously and systematically alludes, and his allusions comprise much, if not most, of the real substance of his narratives. The semantic payload is given largely by suggestion. (p. 7)
Having to do with creation as such, many of his fictions comprise a literature about literature—art about art…. Borges' stories in the aggregate comprehend, almost omnisciently, the abstract forms of literature and of its creation and its manner of being. It is almost as if Borges had uttered the hundredth word, calling the summational Name of literature; but, courteously, he speaks it obliquely, as if to spare literature the humiliation of fulmination.
It is for this reason that Borges is rightly called a Baroque writer. The Baroque is, essentially, a time or a circumstance in which the creative intellect ceases to find value in the results of thought and turns to contemplating the form of its own activity. (p. 8)
The esthetic experience is essentially intellectual, but it is not usually self-conscious; it does not analyze itself in the moment of its occurrence. But when, in literature, this happening consists precisely in its looking at itself through symbolic or allegorical forms, the reader is given a degree of control over the event. Because he has some awareness of what is happening, as it happens, he can surrender to the esthetic enjoyment, or he can concentrate on the manner of production of the esthetic occurrence with intellectual appreciation, or he can do both at once with the effect of unifying and heightening his experience. A person can read and reread Borges with the enjoyment he feels in replaying his favorite music.
The Symbolists made their poetry self-symbolizing, but perhaps took the matter too seriously…. They looked for God through poetry; they tried to be mythic in order to restructure the universe. But Borges, both as poet and as fiction-maker, knows that modern man cannot be mythic, not really, and that imagination only confirms idealism as the nearest substitute for a mythic view; for in order to be mythic, the mind must lack a structured rationality. Only man's reason can call into question the hierarchy of reality it has created. The conceptual fluidity of the mythmaker can exist only as a mentality that radically doubts the validity of its own constructs, or as one which consciously forays into fancy without expecting to transcend or fulminate the vast system of practical fictions that men live by. Borges will not ride with Valéry on the seesaw of momentary subjective renewal followed by reentry into mundane reality; this smacks of psychedelic self-hypnosis, of religion, of escape. Borges will not lose psychic control over the game; he will remain the chess player as well as the pawn. (pp. 16-17)
If I seem to treat Borges' short stories as if they were primarily the artistic reflection of a few ancient ideas about the functions of the mind, it is because I must be simplistic for the sake of putting this one aspect of his work into clear relief. It is one of the most important aspects of his fictional creation. (p. 18)
Borges' intellectual esthetic, his "imminence of a revelation," his "mental process," and his penchant for the depiction of ambiguity, are facets of the self-expression of a mind inverted upon itself…. What, then, is the essential nature, the identity, of the mountains and horses and persons with whom Borges peoples his literature, if in the end they trace the image of Borges, who knows them for what they are? They are ideal beings, the constructions of a self-conscious mind, and we can expect them to behave as such, not as the mountains and horses and persons that we know in the outer world…. The world in which Borges' fictive creations move about is a primeval world and has all the earmarks of the archaic cosmology.
This is owing precisely to the fundamental fluidity of Borges' thought. Borges is an idealist, a skeptic, a freethinker, and above all, an artist. The human mind imagines and conjectures in the same degree that it does not know, or in the degree to which it does not choose to know or does not believe it knows. Radical speculation—imagination—is the special property of archaic man, who has little fixed knowledge to guide him; of children for the same reason; and of the artist, the poet, and the skeptic. Where facts have not yet been chosen or have been rejected for scientific or esthetic reasons, fantasies compete for honor. Every truth begins as metaphor, useful fiction, or esthetic dream. (p. 19-20)
Isaiah Berlin, the British historian, has noted … a psychic difference in the mentalities of many great writers. He makes his point by quoting Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" (The Hedgehog and the Fox, p. 7). Shakespeare, Goethe, and Aristotle are foxes in this scheme; Dante, Plato, and Dostoevsky are hedgehogs. Perhaps the distinction is merely that of Nominalism versus Realism, Aristotle against Plato. (p. 24)
I would say that Borges is philosophically a fox who longs for the simplicity and certainty of the hedgehog but cannot bring himself to be one. He searches, without hope of finding, something which transcends fox and hedgehog. He finds only substitutes and metaphors for that transcending something. Intellectually, he finds idealism; esthetically, myth. Borges is both an Anglophile and an Argentine. He is steeped in the mood of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and in English literature, but emotionally he is a product of Spanish American criollismo. He has made the conflict between perspectivism and universal vision (Zahir and Aleph) one of his central artistic concerns (I would maintain that it is the central concern), and he depicts the transcendence of this contradiction as myth, the near-abstraction or esthetic fact. Because of this central concern, Borges is literarily a hedgehog.
This is the most important point to be made in this study of Borges' fiction. The system that is apparent in Borges' imagery and symbol hinges upon the simple idea of pyramidal thought, of thing and attribute, with all of its vast implications. I shall try to show that when Borges speaks of twilight and noon, swamps and towers, blood and sand, tigers and walls, and dozens of other things that recur in his fiction, he is talking about being and non-being, the created and the uncreated; and always he is talking about them with the implication that the contradiction between them is transcended—or as I see it, underlain—by myth. [Wheelock's careful explication of the word "myth," central to his argument, is found on pages 20-25.] … [Only] the poets and the mystics seem able to prolong [the "moment of myth"]; they stretch it out by declaring that the world and all of its details are somehow provisional and illusory. The idealist prolongs or converts the "moment" into an intellectual attitude. We call it pantheism, nihilism, skepticism, or intellectual mysticism, but Borges is nearest to right in calling it an esthetic of the intelligence. (pp. 24-5)
Since man's ideas cannot be validated by outside criteria, one idea is as good as another. A man can demolish and reconstruct the world, making it less banal and more beautiful, and he can do this with the complete freedom of the self-sufficient mind. With regard to this idealist solipsism, Anderson Imbert says that what interests Borges is the beauty of the theories, myths, and beliefs that he cannot believe in; he feels free to choose "a multiplicity of simultaneous paths" (Literatura hispanoamericana, II, 268). As this critic goes on to say, Borges sees man as lost in a labyrinth, capable of producing mental labyrinths of his own as explanations of the chaotic Great Labyrinth. But while men in general engage in serious hypostatization as the only form of "explanation," Borges stands above this attempt to account for the universe; his truth does not depend on the things that can be called true, but upon the assumption that nothing can be so called. For him the goal of thought is not knowledge, but distraction.
Borges' most lucid symbol of this mental isolation from objective reality is the Minotaur of "The House of Asterion." This story can be read coherently and meaningfully if one keeps in mind that the narrator, Asterion, is the idealist consciousness and that the labyrinth he lives in is the conceptual universe. (p. 27)
What does Borges mean by "dream"? This is a critical question for anyone who approaches Borges' fiction as symbolic expression…. In the first place, Borges' idea is the same as Descartes': existence and thought are the same thing. (pp. 44-5)
Borges' "dream," then, is imagination, the creation of the esthetic fiction. But here I do not intend to imply only literature, but what C. S. Lewis has called "fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic." Such fantasy is not limited to writers, as Borges would quickly agree. It is precisely because Borges' stories and prose pieces (his thoughts) have thought as their real subject that they are detached from mundane reality and hence are finally independent of language. Says Lewis [in his preface to George Macdonald: An Anthology]: "The critical problem … is whether this art—the art of mythmaking—is a species of the literary art…. [The] Myth does not essentially exist in words at all."
Borges' esthetic is an esthetic of the intelligence, and he usually makes dreaming equivalent to thinking—the kind of thinking, or imagination, that brings the elements of the world together into a pregnancy through extreme, almost hypnotic concentration: separation from immediate sense-perceptions and the deliberate inversion of the mind upon its contents, as if, by the heat of attention, to melt them into oneness, or to cause them to yield up something palpable, something real. In other words, dreaming or thinking is an effort to escape from language, from the idea of the world which language imposes upon us. By "dreaming" the consciousness hopes to escape its own solidified thought-history, its fixed categories, the dead words that represent memory badly and petrify the world. What the mind finally seeks is a new arrangement of reality, and to achieve this it must go back to the mythical condition prior to the gods, before language; for out of that pregnancy some more adequate God, some better language may come, though it be faceless and wordless. (pp. 45-6)
Borges longs for the Alephic vision that is given only to mystics; or rather, he longs for that cerebral mysticism which is able to hypostatize all attributes simultaneously instead of successively; to do this would be to destroy linear time. But he cannot have this, and he lives by making hypostatizations, each having its distinct moment.
The tension or interplay between longed-for universality and necessary perspectivization is a recurring preoccupation in Borges, best exemplified in "The Aleph" and "The Zahir." But this interplay is not as prevalent as a more fundamental tension that we may call hypostatic rivalry: competition among the hypostatizations of the mind, or between a hypostat and its attributes. Most of the stories in El Aleph and Ficciones are (from the standpoint of motif) only variants of this form. Two ideas, two aspects of reality, two attributes or "beings" vie for the attention of the consciousness; one must be victorious over the other; so Scharlach kills Lönnrot, the Negro kills Martín Fierro, Bandeira kills Otálora, and so on. The fate of the subordinate idea is a cause for lament, in Borges' view, and although the victory of one is necessary, it is nevertheless deplorable because the victor is only a perspective, a partial image of reality. When a dominant hypostatization becomes a fixation, a dogma, it is not a rival who kills him, but the consciousness itself (the "universe"). Fire is an entity that finally tests the contents of the mind, and only the expedient and provisional beings survive. Dogmas perish because they are too fixed, too objectively real.
The symbols of the Zahir, its modifications, its opposites, and its alternatives are repeated with monotonous persistence throughout all of the stories in the two collections. (pp. 64-5)
To dispense with the accepted verities and create fictions out of other fictions is to think freely in the most radical sense. It is to start from, and return to, the primordial home ground of myth in forming and re-forming one's ideas of the world. This makes it possible to see reality in many perspectives, all of them fresh and free of blinding dogmatism. If a man cannot have an Aleph, he must at least have a panorama of views, none of which claims to be ultimate and thus blots out the rest. Borges says it all beautifully in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote"…. (pp. 68-9)
Carter Wheelock, in his The Mythmaker: A Study of Motif and Symbol in the Short Stories of Jorge Luis Borges (copyright © 1969 by Carter Wheelock), University of Texas Press, 1969.
Borges writes of sceptics overwhelmed by mystical event and of gangsters with the logic of Auguste Dupin. [His] remarkable stories which mix cabbalism with science fiction and the detective story deride, in their ironic reversals, the fictions of communication with others and make the communication of one with oneself the greater puzzle. In his stories, narratives, and prose pieces, Borges is among the leading writers of our time who are extending the boundaries of fiction into autobiography and essay.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Spring, 1971), pp. lvi-lvii.
In his own work, Jorge Luis Borges has practiced, among other offices, that of chronicler of insomnia and of its equally unsleeping counterpart, nightmare. The states of the insomnia that he notes have included poignant and lucid memory. His degrees of dreaming or waking nightmare have been characterized by prescient insight, by epiphany. (His epiphanies we understand in the sense in which Joyce employed the term, the larger sense of passages of revelation and vision….) Borges' own obsession with a dream state—in the individual, in the created (or dreamt) world, in the gods or God—has forced his hand when writing, so that he writes of dreams which must be dreamt in the future, of man's fates which were dreamt in the past. And so we find that "the memory of the future" is of exactly the same potential as "the hope in the past"….
From the time of his first, particular, sense of the infinite, Borges has apparently suspected that everything has been dreamt before. He offers constant proof of this suspicion….
Borges, the subtlest of historians, understands that history is not merely a nightmare (not just a nightmare from which we are struggling to awake, as in Joyce's cosmology, but perhaps also a nightmare we are preparing to dream?); it is also a sequence of vividly insomniac epiphanies to be repeatedly relived. In these states of pre-nightmare the personae of the action step to the music of others as well as their own, inhabit the dreams of others as well as their own, are duplicated as brothers, antagonists (second actors), chance counters of a dream lottery. Borges suspects a cyclical nihilism in it all, an annihilating repetition, a repetitious similitude, a simulacrum….
Borges is a crypto-classic. And the secret (kruptos) of his classicism is in [his] texts, and they in themselves are cryptic, which, as well as secret, means concise, laconic, succinct. His shorthand serves in making précis of numberless mythologies, personal as well as popular. In expounding his own unique vision, he establishes a valid syncretism of his own for uniting synopses of antique plots which have classically repeated each other. Previous tellers of antique tales, "synopsizers" of antique plots, seem less excruciatingly aware that they are retelling the eternal tales, re-synopsizing the plots…. Borges is so aware that he is summing-up that he finds it natural to reproduce some of the previous synopses for us so that we may marvel in comparing the "Extraordinary."
In [his] "brief and extraordinary tales," most of the pieces are not tales so much as suggestive passages of para-Kabbalistic meaning: not the Kabbalistic theory of language, but a theory of key passages: not Word/World, but Sentence/Judgment. As it is for the Kabbalist, history here is a symbolic repetition in every man's soul….
We change each day. In his own work, Borges has shown us that we change each moment in regard to a mirror, the moon, a door, a book.
Anthony Kerrigan, "Foreword," to Extraordinary Tales by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, edited and translated by Anthony Kerrigan (© 1971 by Herder and Herder, Inc.; reprinted with permission), Herder & Herder, 1971, pp. 7-15.
The laying on of heavy strokes of local colour has always been one of [Borges's] predominant traits and the more one reads of him—outside of his twenty or so 'metaphysical' tales and fables—the more limited seem his means and aims. His predictable reliance on the basic elements of gothic stories gets to be ennervating. (In this he has, I think, been rather poorly served by his recent English publishers who [in A Universal History of Infamy], greedily and carelessly include pieces which have appeared up to four times previously in other volumes….)
In the introduction to the first edition Borges makes an acknowledgement the implications of which he seems, uncharacteristically, to ignore. He says that the early films of Von Sternberg were a great influence on these tales—in fact all they have in common with movies like Morocco and Shangai Express is an emphasis on decor and setting and props.
Now it must be patently evident to everyone that the camera, and so the spectator, can take in a great deal in the way of 'atmosphere' whilst concentrating on the action of the narrative being played out before it; in print we have to depart from the drama to gather data of this (secondary) nature—in a novel such diversions need not bother us, indeed such diversions may well form the novel, but in a story of a couple of thousand words an author's concern for ambience can often come to be mistaken for his over indulgence of a facility for listing the graphic and incongruous elements of the backdrop.
Jonathan Meades, "Borges's Documentary Tales," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1974, p. 47.
Like the frugal stars he mentions in "Rubaiyat," [Borges'] poems [in In Praise of Darkness] hold their treasures back. Like those stars, his poems are distant, they are cool, they are tiny, they are remotely bright. Most of all, though, they are only and lastingly themselves.
I don't mean that Borges' poems display the extravagant stinginess of much modern poetry, the pharisaic abuse of the commandment "less is more." Not at all. Nor that he pays out in fashionably flat diction. (Although phrases like "that white thing, the moon" are the kind of achieved failure, the signal frustration this sort of diction aims at, or should.) Nor even that the real voice of Borges is in his short stories and that his poetry is metrical ventriloquism. (That, after all, is the vulgar temptation and so the easiest to avoid.) No, I mean that reading his poems is like listening to someone pacing in a carpeted study next door: we strain, we hear, we imagine, but we never do see….
Borges has only been able to give by taking away and he imagines the taking away has been a giving back—his sight for his vision, for instance. What's at stake is not the truth of his statements, their autobiographical or even "poetic" truth; rather, it is the hazard of an imagination acting on the less, on the least in order to see the most. As always, Borges' imagination is precisely superlative. Or, as Norman Thomas di Giovanni beautifully renders the poet's "admirablemente mezquinos," "wondrously paltry."
Here, then, is the latest collection of poems by one of the three greatest writers alive today. It is the slimmest of slim volumes. Unpretentious in its diction, in its imagery, in its praise of "plain things" and even in its invocation of famous figures like the near-blind James Joyce, it in fact pretends to offering the "center," the "algebra" and the "key" to Borges. But the book will no doubt be passed over in favor of more obviously assuming works by a man who says here that he wants "to be remembered less as a poet than as a friend" anyway. This book does much to create that sense of Borges as a friend, an old friend, whose richness lies not in splendid moments but in our extended relationship. So let us not forget that it is the poet who creates the friend. Let us remember that darkness lets us see the stars. Let us, too, praise darkness.
Ronald Christ, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 8, 1974, pp. 18-9.
Borges is the modern poet who best expresses not the power of the imagination but the seductiveness of the imaginative intellect, not one who evokes emotion raw or lyrical on the page but one who offers a highly idiosyncratic consciousness just prior to the awakening of an emotion or just after the emotion has passed. Immediacy has always been lacking in his works. And yet the world of Borges has its own majesty, its own penetrating cadences and charm, full of spheres within spheres, thought about thought, a parabolic shadow play continually unfolding, doubling back, and then returning (to use one of Borges's persistent motifs) like a river to its unimaginable source….
If [the poems in In Praise of Darkness] have a certain twilit convalescent air, recording Borges's familiar fascination with mirrors and mazes, to which have been added two new themes, "old age and ethics," they nevertheless have the beauty of faded cameos, of museums of shifting forms, as well as Borges's poignant, stoical apprehension of his approaching death: "I reach my center, / my algebra and my key…. Soon I shall know who I am."
The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), April 4, 1974, p. 44.
Borges frequently questions his own existence, and characteristic fictive strategies include reviewing non-existent books, inventing obscure texts to quote from, and writing biographical sketches of imaginary writers.
In Doctor Brodie's Report, his first collection of new tales for some years, Borges claims he is trying to escape from the elaborate literary games and fantastic contrivances with which he is associated and write 'straightforward stories' in the style of the early Kipling…. Only three or four of these 11 stories are Borges at anywhere near his peak. I think especially of End of the Duel, in which a pair of gauchos continue their rivalry up to and just after the moment of death, and Guayaquil, which involves a mystical conflict between two scholars who briefly take on the identities of the historical figures they are discussing. Others, for all the skill and economy of their narration, lack the intellectual excitement and resonance of his best work. They are plain tales from the foothills of a genius. But while he may have set aside the puzzles, the old epiphanies remain, and the stories reflect again and again the familiar obsessions—with time, labyrinths, doubles, chance and destiny…. There is much about history in Doctor Brodie's Report, but as usual there is virtually no interest shown in political questions or social problems. Nor is there much concern for character, though he creates people with vivid presences and convincing minds. There are however no stories here that eschew human protagonists and rely upon the excitement of ideas, as several of his most memorable fictions do….
Borges appeals to academics in part because his small, coherent, but infinitely suggestive body of work lends itself to endless exegesis. More than that though, he comforts the campus author by refuting the cult of experience, by showing so triumphantly that to be a writer you don't have to hunt big game, go to the wars or walk the corridors of power. Further, he combines in an unusual degree the cultivation of the mind and an admiration for the primitive, lucid ratiocination and freewheeling mysticism, while showing that you do not have to be either alienated from society or too closely involved in its problems. As the writer's writer, he embodies and articulates a powerful concern for craft, for vocation, for tradition …, for the invincibility of the book.
Philip French, "Labyrinthine," in New Statesman, May 3, 1974, pp. 628-30.