Jorge Luis Borges Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–

An Argentinian poet, essayist, short story writer, and translator, Borges is one of the world's most respected authors. Borges's writings present a surreal, labyrinthine world of dream-like parables where there are few solid cause and effect relationships. Obsessed with fantasy and the idea of literature as "fun," this blind author has been described by William Barnstone as "a clever metaphysician who has given us an enormous and varied literature, ranging from re-creations of an ancient Chinese 'Book Guardian' to the characteristics of imaginary beasts." 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, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Carter Wheelock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Borges's affinity for the "cult of courage" (a phrase he took from the poet Evaristo Carriego) stretches across four decades of fiction-writing to 1970, when he filled the stories of Doctor Brodie's Report with duels and death. These primeval battles take on, by accumulation, the look of legend or myth and seem to celebrate Argentina's heroic, violent past—her national glory and tragedy.

But Borges's fascination with bravery is much more than a preoccupation with national history, fighting, and physical bravado. In a duel to the death a man comes to grips with destiny, which sweeps aside all the moral and philosophical complexities of this confusion called life….

Borges's preoccupations with bravery, then, is not based on admiration of combat nor on defense of the right. Alongside his cult of courage, moreover, we must put his cult of cowardice and treachery. In a number of stories he draws our attention to men who refuse to fight or whose loyalty is fickle. (p. 101)

When we come right down to it, it is not Borges who venerates physical courage; he merely writes about men who do. What fascinates him is that such men have made a religion of it…. (p. 102)

But although ["The Challenge" and] other tales of duels portray knife-fighting as [a] kind of impersonal, unemotional, even ceremonial obeisance to the iron gods of courage, in many of them the code is not idealized. Some (such as "Streetcorner Man" and "Rosendo's Tale") show dueling as the first and last resort of the bully and the coward. In the latter type, a man's true calling or destiny requires that he reject blind devotion to the tyrannical custom. What is significant here is that the gesture—the violence—is carried to a level above dueling and embodied in its opposite, a refusal to fight ("Rosendo's Tale") or a betrayal of some other sacrosanct idea of loyalty ("The Unworthy Friend," "History of the Warrior and the Captive," "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz"). The cult of courage is courageously repudiated.

It is no wonder that Borges, so famously bewildered by the inscrutable, labyrinthine universe, should dramatize the arbitrary knife that resolves all complexities in the same way that Omar's "whirlwind Sword" scatters the "black Horde of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul," or that he should finally extol the higher philosophical or religious act that the duel symbolizes. When he idealizes the duel, as in "The Challenge," he makes it a symbol of an apostasy that it takes courage to uphold—a religious or philosophical position which makes the individual human will the sole arbiter of what is correct or incorrect, right or wrong, saving or damning. The common denominator—the only thing finally given reverence in Borges's stories of the knife, or in his whole work for that matter—is the individual's obligation to live, move, and have his being without any kind of official sanction. Borges will not be bullied (this, of course, is well known) by hallowed ideas, sacred dogmas, or authoritarian truths, not to mention despotic men like Borges's favorite enemy, the late Juan Perón. Borges seems to declare in his stories of supposed cowards and turncoats that loyalty and treachery, courage and cowardice, are relative to one's personal and even momentary values; one man's marching music is another man's cacophony, and the only "right" drumbeat is the rhythm of one's own heart. Borges's "violence" is an arbitrary resistance to the arbitrary, a willful counterattack on the imperious and inflexible. It is not this or that unbending dogma he fights, but unbendingness itself when it expects human beings to sacrifice their integrity and identity to it.

The duel—whether fought...

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John Sturrock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Borges enjoys metaphysics for what it offers him as a writer of fiction. He appreciates speculative styles of philosophy for the very reasons that most practising philosophers in the West despair of them, as offering unfounded, contradictory, and frequently incredible representations of the cosmos. Borges is not in the least sceptical of the human mind, only of its medium, language, whose co-ordination with reality, which is not verbal, he rightly finds unconvincing. (p. 21)

He values philosophy for something quite other than its likely truth or falsehood: for its power to attract or astonish, and there is all too little to attract or astonish in the work of contemporary logicians. Borges can deal aesthetically with metaphysics because he disbelieves the justifications traditionally made of it. He is the freest of all free thinkers in the sense that he sees no need to refer metaphysical thoughts to reality in order to establish some degree of correspondence with the facts. (p. 22)

Borges is an Idealist in philosophy only when he writes; his subscription to the ideas of Berkeley and Schopenhauer begins and ends with the making of his fictions. These are ideas to play with, not ones to live by. Their literary possibilities are straight-forward. The Idealism of Berkeley and Schopenhauer is seamless; it is a pure mentalism. (p. 23)

Idealism is, self-evidently, the one philosophy which helps to define the specific fictiveness of fiction. We are being asked to read all fiction, but especially Borges's own fiction, just as if we were Berkeley or Schopenhauer 'reading' the world. As readers we have the advantage, over even the most optimistic of Idealist philosophers, of knowing for a fact that the reality which confronts us is commensurate with our powers of comprehension, since it has been constructed by a mind no different in kind from our own. As an author, Borges gladly and logically affiliates himself to the Idealists because he wishes to demonstrate the true nature of fiction: the immateriality of fictional objects, the distinction between succession and causation, the juxtaposition on an equal footing of the possible with the impossible, and the provisional but complete authority of the fiction-maker over the fictions he makes. (pp. 23-4)

All Borges's fictions dramatize, in some measure, the lifecycle of a fiction: its birth, as a wilful departure from fact, its life, as a succession of choices made by its author, and its death, which is marked by a return to the world as it is, and no longer as we might like it to be. Borges has now and again asked to be taken as a realist, while knowing full well that it is very difficult for us to take him as anything of the kind. His realism, if it is realism, is of an etiolated kind: it is mimetic not of the happenings of the real world but of the activity of mimesis itself. Borges holds the mirror up to art, not to nature. Realism of this secondary sort I suspect contradicts rather than extends the realism we are used to. It involves, for Borges, fidelity not to the outside world but to the situation within that world of the maker of fictions; both his physical situation and his mental situation. The proper place to begin an analysis of Borges's fictions is with the special conditions which make fiction possible. (p. 33)

Physical isolation comes repeatedly into Borges's stories as the necessary condition of authorship. It comes into one of his earliest inventions, a brief tale loosely derived from the Arabic called 'El brujo postergado' ('The Sorcerer Postponed') in the Historia universal de la infamia (Universal History of Infamy). (pp. 34-5)

[This tale] embodies all the stages of a fiction. The magic art in which [the protagonist] Don Illán is so well versed is the art of fiction, of whose magical properties Borges has written in his essays…. Don Illán makes a habit of seclusion; he is first discovered in 'a room apart' and then takes his pupil to 'a place apart'. On the first occasion he is discovered reading, on the second he and the dean are interrupted as they examine his books. These symmetrical interruptions mark the points at which fiction intrudes on fact; the first interruption is followed by a meal and by a postponement of any instruction in magic, the second interruption (caused this time by two men instead of one) by the incredible, magical satisfaction of the dean's ambition and then by the refusal of a meal. There are thus two, symmetrical stories in 'El brujo postergado', the first taking us from the first interruption of Don Illán's solitary reading to the second, no longer solitary reading, the second story from that interruption to the end. The second story is the transformation of the first, with magic instead of a meal, or emotional instead of biological satisfaction. The form the second story takes, of the amazing ascent of the dean, is prefigured in the first story by his descent into the underground room; the 'well-worked' staircase wrought by the magic of Don Illán naturally serves to carry people up as well as down.

That magic originates in the act of reading, and the 'magic instruments' to be found in Don Illán's hide-away surely include books—the realization of other men's magic. Borges, as I have said, wishes to show fictions at their point of departure from facts, but the facts he shows them as departing from are literary facts: the stock of existing fictions which the new maker of fictions takes as his models. (pp. 34-5)

The exploits of Don Isidro Parodi [the detective of Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi] were invented … to display the conventionality of detective fiction and, by extension, all fiction. One of the nicest aspects of Parodi's immobility is that, although he never moves himself, he unfailingly discovers what makes other people move: he is skilled, that is to say, in the detection of motive. The establishment of a motive in the investigation of a crime is a paradigm of the causal process in narrative generally. (p. 38)

[Isolation and immobility] are the two conditions the imagination requires if it is to be preserved from the ruinous distractions or 'invasions' of reality. The author must not be importuned. (p. 41)

Borges, whose writing is all intelligence and rigour, likes to present himself, and his representative authors in his stories, as men inspired. Partly this is a game: there is nothing at all wild or dishevelled even in the lyric poetry which Borges has written, no evidence at all that he has ever been carried away. Partly, however, it is more serious: a justification, in conventional terms, of the fact that those who write must have a reason for writing. Inspiration, in this sense, does not replace work, it precedes it: it is the excuse the author has for subjecting himself to a considerable intellectual ordeal. Borges's pose is to imply that inspiration lasts and is even coextensive with composition. (pp. 47-8)

[In Borges, 'fever'] symbolizes the unnatural state of mind the author has to cultivate if he is to make satisfactory, rigorous fictions. Isolation from reality is not enough, he also needs an abnormal concentration of the mind which might well be experienced as a kind of excitement. Where Borges is most truly misleading is in employing a symbol for literary inspiration which makes that peculiar state of mind seem so undesirable, an imposition on the mind by a disordered body. Borges makes fictions, as anyone makes fictions, because the pleasure of making them outweighs whatever strain is entailed; he does not write them because he cannot help himself. Borges's 'fever' is far from being a pathological condition, as one sees the minute one turns from its aetiology to its effects. These effects, in their supreme ludicity, are not merely discrepant from their advertised cause, they are contradictory of it. (p. 60)

[The] hallucinations to which the maker of fictions is professionally liable are not of the usual random and disorganized kind. They are, as Borges puts it in his piece on Shakespeare in El Hacedor (The Maker), 'controlled hallucinations'. That definition, and the other, synonymous definition which Borges also uses of the 'controlled dream' or sueño dirigido, probably qualifies as oxymoron. Oxymoron appeals to Borges because it is a combinatory figure which brings into conjunction two terms we would normally think of as contradictory of each other; it thus flaunts the freedom which a speaker or writer enjoys of forming verbal combinations for which there is no logical justification and no referent in the real world. And so with the 'controlled hallucination', a perfectly comprehensible idea but one which makes apparent a dominant factor of mimesis: real hallucinations are not controlled but foisted on us by the malfunctioning of our bodies or minds; 'controlled' hallucinations can therefore only be the deliberate imitation of such involuntary states. (p. 61)

Once one has begun to see the somewhat deviant sense of the word 'dream' Borges is using, talk of 'controlled' dreams looks a good deal less like oxymoron and a good deal more like tautology. To Idealists, or to those who, like Borges, have hoisted philosophical Idealism as their flag of convenience, dreaming is the very specification of mental activity; all our thoughts are fictions, only a great many of them also correspond with particular states of affairs in the outside world. Authentic fictions are those thoughts and sequences of thoughts which do not so correspond.

To 'dream', then, is to idealize, and we idealize simply by turning the world into words. Borges's world is the sum of what can be said, not the sum of what there is, so that to equate thinking with dreaming, and thus abolish the distinction between the real and the hallucinatory, is to inflate the world quite monstrously. But this inflation is temporary because it is fictive. (p. 63)

[It] is not living which is a dream for Borges, only writing…. The dream, for him, is a passing distraction from reality; once the dream is over the dreamer must go back to living and to being the victim instead of the master of time. (p. 64)

Borges's 'controlled dreams', unlike life itself, are combinations of words or, as he likes to say, 'symbols'. They are combinations, therefore, of general terms. Idealization, or generalization, is the founding principle of Borges's fiction, as it is the founding principle of natural language. (pp. 64-5)

Borges keeps the necessary abstractness of language very much in view in his fictions; he is constantly challenging the realist illusion that general terms can be a full substitute for particular things…. Borges, like Schopenhauer, has very little time for history or, to be more precise, historiography, which is in so many ways a fraud, a hopelessly insufficient and therefore misleading verbal representation of the past.

The history which Borges prefers, and which he has dabbled in himself, is more abstract, more in tune with the nature of language. It is not the history of life itself but of what has been thought or written about life: the history of ideas. (p. 65)

Borges, in his fictions, conducts a platonic affair with language. It is an important part of his purpose to show that, in fiction, the old philosophical modalities of de dicto and de re are one, that the name of a thing is the essence of that thing. (p. 72)

[The tiger] is the creature from which [Borges] … has felt cut off; the dividing glass stands not between him and flesh-and-blood tigers exactly, but between fictive tigers and flesh-and-blood ones. In a short piece in El Hacedor called—the title is in English—'Dreamtigers', Borges claims that 'In infancy...

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Anthony Kerrigan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Borges, we all know by now, is too good, and too "wrong" in his politics, ever to receive a Nobel Prize awarded in accord with Swedish Realpolitik….

Any dealing with Borges as poet must necessarily begin by admitting that the Argentinian is first of all a master of succinct prose. (p. 11)

Borges writes with great compression, but what he writes is not necessarily verse. Some of the best pages in [The Gold of the Tigers] are lists of concepts/impressions/evocations.

In his Preface to [the collection], Borges had spoken of his [admiration for] Whitman, but he had qualified his admiration for the great American: "… his careful enumeration do not always rise above a kind of crude cataloguing." Perhaps Borges' lists are less prosy than Whitman's, but still they are based on the dubious spontaneity of an imagistic and over-comprehensive imagination. His earliest list in this book is called, accurately, "Things." (pp. 11-12)

But even mere lists will serve us. And even if we are only to dream, lists exist for our life-as-dream: "The dream which … was dreamed close to dawn one day in 1946 consisted … not of images but of slow specific words."

In Borges—as in Faulkner—there are a plethora of military allusions. In Borges—as in Faulkner—the military deeds are the stuff of epics. There are many allusions to bravery (even to "the scent of bravery"). Swords and knives are emblems of good death. "A vow of vengeance" moves many. His country's battles, commanded on both sides in Spanish (even in the mouths of the Wild Geese from Ireland), are as fascinating as dreams. Every deed is matter for myth and epic….

Borges is resolutely anti-modern. In his own Preface to The Unending Rose he asserts "For Muse, we must read what the Hebrews and Milton called Spirit, and what our own woeful mythology refers to as the Subconscious."

Borges "subconsciously" describes his own style (it is also a matter of "things"), which ascribing it to another poet, in a poem on Browning:

         I shall make ordinary words
         (The people's word-coinage,
         the marked cards of the sharper)
         yield up magic …
         In the dialect of today
         I will in my turn say the eternal things …
                                               (p. 13)

Anthony Kerrigan, "The Other Horn of the Unicorn," in The University Bookman (copyright 1978 by The Educational Reviewer, Inc.), Autumn, 1978, pp. 11-14.

Grace Schulman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two new works by Jorge Luis Borges, The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems, and The Book of Sand, a collection of prose tales, offer a deeper realization of the intriguing network of symbols in the Argentinian writer's artistic world. Primarily, though, they embody human insights: throughout his work, the most striking effects, as well as true meanings, are to be found not in his allegory, however fascinating, but in his construction of images and characters.

So, too, with the new collections. The Gold of the Tigers is pervaded with polarities of blindness and sight, those contrasts Borges has developed throughout his work. In his "Preface to The Unending Rose,"...

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Robin Lydenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges are representative of a major trend in twentieth-century fiction which concentrates on aesthetic rather than moral issues. Borges himself has stressed the essentially amoral and literary perspective which distinguishes his work from that of more ethically oriented writers: "I want to make it quite clear that I am not, nor have I ever been, what used to be called a preacher of parables … and is now known as a committed writer." The committed writer, for Borges, is one whose ethical preoccupations not only dominate, but dictate a creative style which invariably "declines into allegory." In contrast to such morally didactic literature, Borges presents his own stories as mere...

(The entire section is 3018 words.)