Jorge Luis Borges Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 19) - Essay

Martin S. Stabb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Borges] reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing. The capriciousness, the learned frivolity and playfulness of much of his prose are rarely found in his poetry. By contrast we see in it the other Borges—the sincere and ardent youth of the 1920's or the contemplative and nostalgic writer of the 1950's and 1960's. For many this is an unknown Borges: perhaps it is the real Borges. (p. 27)

At first glance the forty-five short pieces of free verse in Borges' first collection [Fervor de Buenos Aires] seem to be little more than a group of vignettes describing familiar scenes in and around his native city. However, to say that Fervor de Buenos Aires is a group of poems describing the city of Buenos Aires, would be equivalent to saying that Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is a poem about a bird….

It is true that about half of the compositions employ thematic materials drawn from Borges' observation of Buenos Aires' streets, gardens, cemeteries, and buildings. A few pieces, by contrast, present exotic scenes…. A limited number of poems are purely introspective and as such they do not describe any specific external reality…. [Neither] regular meter, rhyme, nor regularized strophes are in evidence. The absence of traditional forms does not mean that these poems have no structure: like other writers of free verse, Borges does incorporate formal devices into his poetry. (p. 31)

Despite the word "Fervor" in the collection's title, the reader soon becomes aware that this is a restrained fervor, a reflective passion directed toward an internalization of all that surrounds the poet. This goal is best achieved by selecting that portion of reality which is most easily assimilated: not the bustling downtown streets, but the passive, tree-shaded streets of the old suburbs. It may be a valid generalization to say that in all his writing, Borges seeks out the passive and manageable facets of reality in order to facilitate the creation of his own internal world. (pp. 31-2)

His vocabulary throughout the Fervor is revealing. It clearly indicates that he is seeking tranquillity, familial solidarity, and a kind of serenity which can only be associated with parental protectiveness. (p. 32)

Closely related to Borges' poetic transmutation of "hard" reality into a pliable, manageable reality is his recourse to a certain philosophical notion which has come to occupy a central position in all his work…. Berkeley, as a corollary to his idealism, posited God as the maintainer of the universe—if and when there might be no human beings available to perceive and hence to guarantee its existence. But Borges injects another thought …, one which is alien to Berkeleyan philosophy. He suggests that there is some danger that God might choose to take advantage of this brief period when the universe hangs by a thread. The implication here is that a capricious, vindictive, or negligent God may actually wish to destroy the world. Rather than in Berkeley, the source for this notion is to be found in Gnosticism, a philosophical current that has shaped much of Borges' thought. (pp. 33-4)

With a host of other writers past and present Borges shares the very human desire to stop time, to restore the past, or to dispel the fears of the future. In the everyday world, we know that to do these things is impossible, yet poets have always felt that their peculiar sensitivity to time may, in some way, permit them to accomplish these miracles. (p. 35)

The futility of trying to check the flow of time by literary creations, by recalling the past, or by surrounding oneself with old things appears clearly in the Fervor and has since become a dominant theme in all of Borges' writing. Yet his attitude is ambivalent and leads to a poetic tension for he knows that time—in the brutally real, everyday sense—flows on, that the world will change, that Borges will grow old, and that the past is forever gone. Yet he is reluctant to give in without a struggle, though he knows his efforts are futile. And so the rich and plastic descriptions of antique furniture, of old photographs, and of timeless streets are usually undermined by a word or...

(The entire section is 1745 words.)

Jaime Alazraki

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The themes of [Borges'] stories are inspired by the metaphysical hypotheses accumulated through many centuries of the history of philosophy, and by theological systems that are the scaffoldings of several religions. Borges, skeptical of the veracity of the former and of the revelations of the latter, strips them of their claims of absolute truth and pretended divinity and makes them instead raw material for his inventions. In this way, he returns to them the character of aesthetic creation and wonder for which they are valued and justified.

In his stories we find echoes of these doctrines. At times he makes them function as the frame on which the fiction is woven. Having read any one of his narratives, we sense beneath the design the presence of a metaphysics or the reverberation of a certain theology, which in some way explains the story and at the same time confers on it a transcendental flavor which all his stories have, although Borges denies this and laughs at such transcendentalisms. In his stories, the particular is intertwined with the general, but they are also confounded within each other and integrated into a unity where it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. We perceive a meaning that goes beyond the events of the story and which projects the fable of the narrative to a level of generic or symbolic values…. Borges' stories can be read as a direct narration of fictional actions, but we know that other values throb beneath these actions. In "Deutsches Requiem" the protagonist will be shot for being a torturer and murderer, but he also represents the destiny of Nazi Germany, in the same way that the perplexities of Averroës with regard to the Greek words "comedy" and "tragedy," in the story "Averroës' Search," are a symbol of the perplexities of Islam with respect to Greek culture.

Thus, Borges projects the individual in a broader context and the singular is explained in the generic as much as the generic in the singular…. It is not difficult to see that in many of his stories, or perhaps in all of them, Borges attributes to the concrete a generic value. The concrete realities of his stories are what the concrete world is for the mystics: a system of symbols. Borges enlightens the concrete with the perspective of the generic and in this way confers upon it an intensity that it does not have as an individual entity.

Confounding the limits of the individual and the generic, of the relative of a singular reality with the absolute of an abstraction, Borges widens the scope of his stories, giving them an elasticity, a simultaneity, that if at first makes them seem fantastic, "unreal," in the end saves them from becoming a very gross simplification of reality. It is true that, for Borges, the doctrines that form the backdrop of his stories are very far from being essential truths. It is true that he judges them to be literature, to be inventions of the imagination that at best have value as marvels, but the metaphysical systems which he handles constitute the synthesis of the human mind in its attempt to penetrate the arcana of the universe, and the theologies which he uses as literary ingredients for his stories are, to this day and throughout centuries of history, the theoretic foundation of religions whose followers number in the millions. The fact that these metaphysics and theologies appear in his stories as the solutions to the puzzle posed by the narration, in his essays as an interpretation of cultural phenomena, and in his poems as an expression of the inexorable condition of human destiny, not only does not contradict the value of a marvel that Borges confers on them, but is a way of underlining the character of invention of all literature…. [The stories, essays, and poems of Borges] suggest that, in man's powerlessness to perceive the laws that govern the world, he has invented his own reality, ordered according to human laws which he can know. (pp. 4-8)

[One] can say that in Borges' short stories his metaphysical and theological motivations and his literary inventions are resolved in symbols and allegories…. In Borges we … find a system of myths but in it Borges has mythicized the "findings" of philosophy and the "revelations" of theology. In this operation (one must remember that the first tries to replace myth with reason, and the second, exorcism with doctrine, in order to understand the hugeness of the irony) Borges reduces these ideas to creations of the imagination, to intuitions that now are not fundamentally different from any other mythical form. Hence, these "myths of the intelligence" would be returned to the only reality to which they correspond: not to the world created by gods, but to the one invented by men…. [The] symbols coined by Borges always find their precise context in theories and doctrines created by human intelligence…. No less vigorous is his devotion to theology…. (pp. 8-9)

The chaos of the world and the order created by man could be considered the abscissa and the ordinate of his narrative world…. Doubly motivated by Gnostic theories and by the Argentine's concept of the world, Borges arrives in his stories at the view of the universe as a chaos. (p. 10)

"The Babylon Lottery" is … a variation of the theme of "The Library of Babel" (one need not be reminded that the connotation of Babel or Babylonia is that of disorder and confusion). The library is the symbol of the chaos of the universe; the lottery shows this chaos translated into chance which rules human life. In both cases the possibility of a divine order is presented, of a labyrinth ordered according to laws which are incomprehensible to human intelligence and which are, consequently, undecipherable. (p. 12)

From the chaotic view of the universe emerges that favorite image of Borges, the labyrinth. The labyrinth expresses both sides of the coin: it has an irreversible order if one knows the solution (the gods, God) and it can be at the same time a chaotic maze if the solution constitutes an unattainable secret (men). The labyrinth represents to a greater or lesser degree the vehicle through which Borges carries his world view to almost all his stories. (p. 15)

[The] doctrine of the world as a dream of Someone or of No One becomes another of the main themes in Borges' writings…. The existence of two dreamers [in the story "The Circular Ruins"] implies the possibility of an infinite series of dreamers…. "The Circular Ruins" gives expression to the Buddhist idea of the world as a dream, or to the hallucinatory character of the world as the idealist philosophers postulate…. [By opening the story with] a quotation from Lewis Carroll's [Through the Looking Glass], Borges transfers the Buddhist doctrine to a line extracted from that fantastic story. With finesse, with subtlety, Buddhist doctrine is reduced to a marvel of the enchanted world behind the looking-glass.

The idea of the universe as the book of God appears in several of his essays…. In his story "The Dead Man," Borges capitalizes on this idea. (pp. 16-18)

[The] tragic contrast between a man who believes himself to be the master and the maker of his fate and a text or divine plan in which his fortune has already been written parallels the problem of man with respect to the universe: the world is impenetrable, but the human mind never ceases to propose schemes. Man's ambition to resolve the enigma of the universe is as vain as Otálora's endeavor: Otáloza wants to map out his destiny according to a human geometry, alien to the design which Someone has already drawn and which he does not know about. In this book (i.e., the universe), God or Someone has already written out our fate. For us this text...

(The entire section is 3184 words.)

Clarence Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Borges' most famous fiction a contemporary writer, Pierre Menard, is called "author of the Quixote," a title that he does not entirely deserve, since he wrote only certain segments of Cervantes' masterpiece. But those segments which he did write correspond in every particular, and without the slightest help from Cervantes, to the text of the earlier work. The deadpan narrator of this story makes clear that, superficial identity aside, Menard's work is utterly original, since behind each of his words lay a totally different motivation from that of Cervantes, and even in some ways superior, since to write the idiom of Cervantes in the 20th century, and without a single lapse, is many times more...

(The entire section is 953 words.)

Katherine Singer KováCs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[The] shy and once ignored author of Ficciones is fast becoming an Argentinean national myth….

To those who are familiar with his writings, Borges's transformation into a public personality is of supreme irony. As he once noted, "My opinions have no importance. Only my works matter." This is not false modesty on the author's part. He considers the details of his life to be without interest. Like Henry James or Flaubert, Borges has defined his existence in terms of two activities: reading and writing. "Few things have happened to me and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer's...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Joseph Chrzanowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On a most basic level, "Emma Zunz" has been classified as a "cuento policíaco" in which a young and innocent girl plans and carries out a "perfect" crime of murder in order to avenge her father's death. Its most obvious theme, therefore, is vengeance…. (p. 100)

[There] has been a tendency to consider "Emma Zunz" a typically Borgesian metaphor in which characterization is, to a degree, subordinated to the fictionalization of an abstract concept….

A natural consequence of such a view is the ignoring of the basic ambiguity in Emma's motivation and its thematic implications. Although it is generally assumed that the protagonist acts out of a desire to seek retribution for...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

A. E. Dyson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Though] incredibly recondite in learning, and familiar with many ancient and mainly forgotten authors and speculations, [Borges] treats scholarship, like art and life, as a game. Entirely fictitious sources mingle with real ones, in texts and footnotes, some of the latter ascribed to 'editors' who are in fact the author himself. Continuing preoccupation with the dubious reality of art, of the cosmos, of himself, is one ingredient of the lucid and economical scepticism pervading his work. In one place, metaphysics is described as a branch of fantasy—yet Borges's quest is serious, his tone more tragic and stoic than flamboyant, and the various images which vividly emerge, from maze after maze, have a vividness which...

(The entire section is 2386 words.)

Murray Baumgarten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[S. Y. Agnon's] language demands attention, like a dream calling attention to itself, or a narrator telling a story about his friends that turns out to be a tale detailing the structure of his own psyche.

This aspect of Agnon's work links him not to Kafka, to whom he has often been compared, but to Borges, in whose work we find a similar interest in language as self-conscious dreaming. Both writers seek to evoke the dreamlike moment in which the symbol-making activity of language is half-hidden yet half-revealed, just as spiritual and psychic events are linked to, discovered in, and articulated by the language-making act. They also share an effort to revitalize their respective languages by...

(The entire section is 2235 words.)

Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That the governing structural principle of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" is the analogy among fictional levels goes almost without saying. In the fashion of Chinese boxes, many parallels are established between the characters Yu Tsun, Stephen Albert, and Ts'ui Pên, forming a chain that modern psychoanalysis would call "intersubjective repetition." (p. 639)

What is less self-evident is that the analogies between the diegetic and the metadiegetic levels of narration function to collapse classical oppositions either by identifying them with each other or by rendering them interchangeable. Thus a message addressed to the public becomes esoteric, whereas an esoteric transmission...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)