Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1745
[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...
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recalling the past, or by surrounding oneself with old things appears clearly in theFervor 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 phrase suggesting that their solidity and apparent timelessness are merely illusory. (p. 36)
Borges' poetry, if it is examined with an eye unspoiled by reading the brittle geometrical narratives of his later years, reveals surprisingly sentimental, affectionate qualities…. He displays a mood of frankness and sincerity which those who know his work superficially do not usually associate with him. Indeed, some of the material … is almost confessional in tone. It seems as if the Borges of 1923 were at a crossroads. Had he been a man of different temperament, it is quite possible that he would have yielded to the temptation of creating literature of unrestrained personal catharsis. Instead, he chose to deny the emotive side of life in his art. At least he promised that he would do this in his poetry. (pp. 37-8)
[Among] the twenty-eight compositions of Luna de enfrente poems of deep personal involvement … predominate over pieces of a more detached and more formalistic nature. A feeling of intimacy pervades the Luna: a third of the poems are in the second-person familiar form and the bulk of the remainder are in the first person. By contrast, the earlier Fervor contains only a few pieces directed to the familiar "you" (tú), while the majority are in the relatively impersonal third person. A further indication of the greater degree of intimacy of the Luna de enfrente is seen in Borges' tendency to personify such inanimate things as the Pampa, city streets, and the city itself. Finally, a substantial number of the compositions in the 1925 collection are love poems…. (p. 38)
Of even greater interest in the Luna is the poet's preoccupation with time. In this collection Borges' emphasis is on the relationship between time and memory rather than on the simple desire to halt time's flow. More precisely, memory becomes the remanso, the quiet backwater in which time's onward rush is checked…. [Memory] performs the important function of preserving past experience against the onslaught of time. But, Borges implies, memory is also a storehouse, a kind of infinite filing cabinet, the contents of which we cannot always control. We may indeed remember too much. (p. 39)
While history may be nothing more than the recurrence or the reshuffling of what has always been, Borges is nonetheless fascinated by historical events and personalities. Several of the pieces in the Luna show this interest. (p. 41)
Luna de enfrente is a collection of poems in which Borges reveals many of his intellectual preoccupations but even more of his affective life. The love theme and a confessional tone figure prominently in a substantial number of the poems…. The typically Borgesian treatment of external reality and time is also very evident in these poems, especially in those pieces dealing with memory. His interest in history—first seen in his poem to Rosas in Fervor—continues to grow. Finally Borges introduces in Luna a mood that has come to occupy an important place in much of his work: that of the man who has apparently done and seen everything and seems convinced that novelty is mere illusion.
As an example of poetic art, the Luna de enfrente is a rather uneven collection…. Borges' fine metaphors and striking adjectives, however, serve to make a number of the poems exceptionally beautiful. The high point of the collection, in the writer's view, is the finely wrought "Antelación de amor." Aside from the inherent lyricism of the piece, it is an example of how structural excellence can enhance total poetic impact, even when the poet is working in a completely free verse form. (pp. 42-3)
Two themes dominate [the poems of Cuaderno San Martín]: nostalgia for the past, and death. Often the two blend in a mood of elegiac evocation. Thus in the most memorable poems of the book Borges writes of the "mythical" founding of Buenos Aires; of his beloved Palermo district as it was at the close of the nineteenth century; of his grandfather Isidoro Acevedo; of the final resting place of ancestors, the Recoleta Cemetery; and of the suicide of his friend and fellow poet Francisco López Merino. (p. 43)
One of the most interesting pieces in the collection is on the death of Borges' ancestor, Isidoro Acevedo. Aside from its intrinsic value, this poem is noteworthy because in it Borges gives a clear hint of the kind of literature he would produce in the decade to follow. This "prefiguring"—to use one of his own favorite terms—of his future prose occurs in the description of Acevedo's last day. The old man lying on his deathbed in a state of feverish delirium plans a complete military compaign in his mind. Though Acevedo only mutters a few fragmentary phrases, Borges uses these as a point of departure to re-create a very concrete fantasy which he assumes his moribund grandfather was in effect experiencing…. (p. 45)
To generalize about the content of the recent poems is … difficult. Certainly history, viewed at times in the microcosm of a small but crucial event, and at other times in broad sweep, remains a major preoccupation. Closely related to his interest in the specifics of history is the constant fascination with time. And perhaps at the very root of all these concerns is a notion which has an almost obsessive recurrence in Borges' poetry as well as in his prose: the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed in the form of the labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator. These are the underlying themes of his recent poetry, though on the surface Borges' subject matter reflects his current interests and activities…. (p. 51)
A number of these later poems reveal a sharpened self-consciousness: a kind of looking at oneself from the "outside" or as in a mirror. (p. 52)
[The] desire to incorporate poetic feeling into all his literary expression has always characterized Borges' work. Poetry has been, and rightfully so, the most personal of his genres and the one to which he constantly returns. Present in everything about us, it has for Borges a humble and everyday quality. (p. 53)
Martin S. Stabb, in his Jorge Luis Borges (copyright © 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1970, 179 p.
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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 is illegible because, explains Borges, quoting Bloy, "there is no human being on earth who is capable of declaring who he is. No one knows what he has come to this world to do, to what his acts, feelings, and ideas correspond, or what his real name is." (p. 19)
The dreamer of "The Circular Ruins" [and] the wild divinity of "The Dead Man" … are projections of an inexorable will that has dreamed or written the world. (p. 20)
In these stories we recognize the condition of man's fate reduced to a fragile and contingent manifestation of an unappealable Will…. This will that dreams or writes us, and of which we are imperfect simulacra (as in the poem "The Golem") or pieces in an infinite game (as in the poem "The Game of Chess"), is God. Behind God, however, Borges suggests the possibility of a second god who repeats the dream, the text, or the game, and so on ad infinitum, as in the case of the dreamers of "The Circular Ruins." This insistence on the infinite character of the dream is not fortuitous. Besides being a recurrent motif which in greater or lesser degree appears in almost all his stories, the infinite is translated on the stylistic level as an insistent adjective whose repetition permits us to define it as a "linguistic tic."… This adjective and a few others which are repeated with almost obsessive frequency … express certain key attributes of Borges' world view and are indicative of his preference for certain ideas. The infinite is the only dimension which suits a world conceived as an insoluble labyrinth. Its function is clear: the spatial and temporal infinity of the universe accentuates its chaotic nature and reinforces its impenetrable condition.
The theme of the world as a dream of God is related to the pantheistic notion that "everything is everywhere and any one thing is all things."… The idea that anything is all things may be the solution not only to the enigmas of history but also to the riddles posed in his stories. (pp. 20-2)
The pantheistic notion that one man is all men implies the negation of individual identity, or more exactly, the reduction of all individuals to a general and supreme identity which contains all and at the same time makes all contained in each one. In the stories "The Shape of the Sword" and "Abenjacán the Bojarí, Dead in His Labyrinth," this notion functions as a narrative technique. (p. 24)
A derivation of pantheism is the idea that "God is the primordial nothingness."… The idea … appears with reference to George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in a letter: "I understand everything and everyone, and am nobody and nothing," and it undoubtedly constitutes the axis of the story "The Immortal." The incongruencies and anachronisms that at the beginning of the tale confuse the reader so much are cleared up at the end, and the story recovers an essential coherence which in all of Borges' stories binds the most contradictory details into an unquestionable unity…. There is [in the story] an apparent contradiction which can only be explained with the aid of the pantheistic doctrine: God, Shakespeare, Homer, are immortal because they live in everyone, and they have died because to be everyone they have had to renounce their identity, which is a form of nonbeing, of dying…. The theme of "The Immortal" is the pantheistic idea that a man is nothing and no one in order to be all men. The structure of the tale re-creates, in part, the implications of the theme. (pp. 26-9, 30)
For Borges, time is the central problem of metaphysics, and so it is only natural that time becomes one of the main themes of his work. Of all the temporal schemes, the one Borges prefers and the most frequent in his work is cyclical or circular time…. Of all the versions of the eternal return, Borges seems to enjoy most the one that considers the cycles which repeat themselves infinitely not as identical, but as similar. Such a conception of time promises an interpretation of reality with fertile consequences, and Borges applies it ingeniously in his essays, poems, and stories. In the story "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,"… we witness an assassination that is a replica of that of Julius Caesar…. When we are about to believe that we are seeing in Fergus Kilpatrick's death (hero of an Irish rebellion) a cyclical repetition of the assassination of the Roman hero, Borges reveals the artifice to us: there is no such repetition of cycles; the plan of Kilpatrick's assassination has been copied from Shakespeare's tragedy. This story is another typical exponent of the incessant exchange between fiction and reality where Borges delights in confounding one with the other…. [The] whole story describes a constant pendulum movement which oscillates between the real and the fictitious, between the historical and the imaginary, which in braiding confound themselves. (pp. 35-7)
Borges proposes a task on the level of art, of fantastic literature, that idealist metaphysics undertakes on the level of reality: if the world exists only as my idea of it, myself, a part of this world, is just an idea in the mind that perceives me or projects me as its perception. To achieve this task Borges creates fictitious characters who acquire historical validity (although within the frame of fiction). When we think of them as real, he returns them to the level of fiction. Conversely, Borges renders historic and real beings fictitious characters. When, finally, the narrator of the story explains the incoherencies of these identities in constant movement, Borges converts the narrator—like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights—into a character of his own narration. (p. 38)
In [Borges'] stories, reality is seen sub specie aeternitatis, which is to say, not as ordinary everyday occurrences but as generic ones, not through individual beings but through archetypes. Such a view of reality should perforce be organized into a system. Borges uses the systems already outlined by philosophy and theology. If representing reality means transporting the sillinesses and trivialities which Borges associates with the psychological novel—or at least with one type of psychological novel—to literature, systematizing it is more interesting, more creative, and more imaginative: not this or that fortuitous gaucho, but Martín Fierro, who is the archetype of the gaucho; not puzzling chaos, but reality arranged into cycles and symmetries; not time in its ironbound flow, but in circles, spirals, and infinite webs. Subjected to "a system of symmetries, coincidences, and contrasts," the narrative of Borges is organized into symbols which achieve on the level of fiction that which is denied to philosophy on the level of reality: the knowledge of the ultimate ends of things, the revelation of the essences and of the laws which govern the world.
Another of the philosophical ideas which has insistently occupied the attention of Borges is the law of causality. Borges applies it with fruitful results in his "inquisitions," in the territory of his stories, and in some lines of his poetry. (pp. 39-40)
[In the stories "Deutsches Requiem" and "Averroës' Search"] Borges delights in the possibility of a world intelligently ordered by men's restless imaginations. With the idea that "the world is an interminable chain of causes, and every cause is an effect" Borges weaves these two narratives. But zur Linde's Germany and Borges' Averroës are inventions of the human mind which have very little to do with the Germany of history and the Averroës of Islam. In both cases, Borges has constructed the destiny of a country and the destiny of a man, with an impeccable logic which he himself proceeds to destroy with an irony that returns the reader to a reality whose most intrinsic condition is its impenetrability…. Borges knows that the world perceived by the human mind is an invention or a dream which has very little to do with the real world, with that other dream dreamed by a god. His stories, which first propound a reality only to tell us later that this reality is a design of symmetrical geometry totally unrelated to the world which it intends to describe, are a form of expressing the agony of man faced with the enigma of the universe. Borges' essential skepticism and his feeling of defeat overwhelmed by an order of divine laws—which for man is chaos—make possible, nevertheless, a new understanding of man's confrontation with the world. This defeat is then a triumph. Borges suggests that since man can never find the solution to the gods' labyrinth, he has constructed his own labyrinths; since the reality of the gods is impenetrable, man has created his own reality. He thus lives in a world which is the product of his fallible architecture. He knows that there is another world which constantly besieges him and forces him to feel the enormousness of its presence, and between these two worlds, between these two dreams (a Borges who lets himself go on living and likes the taste of coffee and the Borges who weaves laborious books of fantastic literature), between these two stories (one imagined by God and another invented by man) flows the agonizing history of humanity. Borges deflects these agonies into art, humor, irony, and at times into intense poetry…. (pp. 43-5)
The common denominator of all his fiction can be defined as a relativity which governs all things and which, by being the result of a confrontation of opposites, takes on the appearance of a paradox and, at times, of an oxymoron…. This relativity compels us to see reality in perpetual movement and incites us to transcend it beyond its daily occurrences in order to discover new dimensions in it. Borges' stories, which trite criticism insists on seeing as an evasion of reality, bring us in fact much closer to reality—not to the reality of loud and flashy newspapers which bewilders us, but to an essential reality which reduces us to a fortuitous number in a gigantic lottery and at the same time links us with everything that was and is to be, to a reality which transforms us into a cycle which already has occurred and yet teaches us that a minute can be the receptacle of eternity, to a reality which effaces our identity and yet converts us into depositories of a supreme Identity—in short, an improbable, contradictory, ambiguous, and even absurd reality…. The multiple vision of reality which Borges suggests to us is an attempt to grasp the contradictory elements that compose it. Although "A" may exclude "B," Borges presents them together, co-existing, to show that exclusion is deceitful because, while they reject and oppose each other, they also complement and need each other. This fictitious world, where the measure of all things is a relativism which grants validity to the improbable and to the absurd, is not an evasion of reality; it is more precisely its return, but with a flower which, like Coleridge's, proves that it exists and that it is also a dream. (pp. 45-6)
Jaime Alazraki, in his Jorge Luis Borges (copyright © 1971 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1971, 48 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953
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 difficult than the task facing the original author. This serious story makes a quite serious point about the art of reading, though no one can read it without being at, and sometimes over, the verge of laughter. It is typical of the sort of risk that Borges, an incomparable wit, is willing to take in his best work. Even without the imaginative audacity, the elegant gaiety of his style would be a source of delight, however somber the subject.
In a way, the Chronicles of Bustos Domecq represent an even greater risk. It is sheer nonsensical hilarity, for one thing, and like every book that openly invites us to laugh, it occasionally strains rather hard and without success. But more than that, it is also an exercise in one of the rarest and most perilous of literary genres, deliberate self-parody….
Borges and his life-long friend Bioy-Casares parody absolutely everything in the Borgesian oeuvre, from the style to the individual subjects of particular stories.
Borges' style does not vary noticeably whether it comes to us as the voice of some ostensible narrator or the actual voice of Borges speaking in one of his countless interviews and public appearances. The manner is courtly yet affable, distant yet obliging, a strange blend of disdain and deference that keeps the reader or interlocutor always slightly off balance. It is of course erudite in the extreme, laden with literary allusion of an appalling breadth and eccentricity, and fussily preoccupied with bibliographic detail. The outward cloak of politeness is the perfect concealment for the honed edge of Borgesian wit that is capable of cutting an opponent's legs off at the knee so deftly that he alone remains unaware of what has befallen him. In the give-and-take of real life the manner is wonderfully lethal; in the mouth of his literary personae it is an instrument of exquisite irony; parodied in the works of Bustos Domecq it is vaudeville, sometimes killingly funny, sometimes droll, and sometimes, alas, sophomoric and tiresome. (p. 24)
As for the parody of Borges' subjects, that comes in the first and one of the funniest pieces, "Homage to César Paladión." The most obvious target within Borges' own work is the story of Pierre Menard mentioned above; but there is a target beyond this….
Menard reproduced, word for word, only portions of the Quixote. Paladión, in the expansive tradition of parody, has "granted his name" to, among others, The Pathfinder, Emile, Egmont, The Eclectic Reader (second series), She, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Georgics (in Spanish translation), the De Divinatione …, and at the time of his death had completed the first draft (my italics) of The Gospel According to St. Luke, "a work of biblical character." Owing to Paladión's never having fallen "into the all too easy vanity of writing a single new line," these works were curiously identical, down to the last comma, with others bearing the same titles. The literary world was baffled by this mystery until a critic named Farrel du Bosc wrote, in 1937, a suspiciously up-to-date monograph entitled The Paladión-Pound-Eliot Line. The writers sitting below the salt in this title had appropriated no more than large chunks of everyone from Homer to Verlaine in their writings, but the master, with the irrefutable logic of farce, had simply annexed entire works….
So Pierre Menard, as I suggest above, is clearly not the only victim of this vicious frivolity. The true victim is whatever we mean when we speak of "modernity" in literature—what Nabokov has wittily called the "post-Baudelaire age." Like Nabokov, with whom Borges is so often mentioned, to their mutual chagrin, Borges the "modernist" is nothing if not a preterist. His imagination operates at the very frontier of what is new in our conception of art, but his temperament, his soul, belongs to the distant past (or perhaps one should say to that atemporal sphere in which all of high culture exists without regard for the trivialities of calendrical time). Self-parody is made possible, or perhaps necessary, by the fact that his temperament seems scandalized by his imagination. (p. 25)
It is obviously a book for a specialized taste, but I do not think it necessary (and one could hardly pay the parodist a higher compliment) that one know the immediate original, Borges' fiction. I should think it indispensable, however, that one know the larger original, which is nothing less than the Western literary tradition in the first half of the 20th century. The percentage of laughs per line is not quite that of a Neil Simon or a Woody Allen, but Honorio Bustos Domecq is a contender. I took early reading notes for this review on a small tape recorder, and I can only report that strangled laughter frequently made the message so garbled as to be useless. (pp. 25-6)
Clarence Brown, "Books Considered: 'Chronicles of Bustos Domecq'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 174, No. 23, June 5, 1976, pp. 24-6.
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KATHERINE SINGER KOVÁCS
[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 thoughts or the music of England's words." Literature is frequently the subject of his stories, and his main characters are often writers. But whether they are real authors like Shakespeare or imaginary ones such as Herbert Quain, Borges's protagonists tend to be shadowy figures. Their creator is interested in their works rather than in their origins, background, or psychological motivation. Thus while their ideas are presented in a concrete fashion, they are nearly nonexistent as men.
That he omits details of birth and biography in his characters, that he considers these matters to be irrelevant in terms of his own life reflects Borges's longstanding monistic belief in the identity of all men. In numerous poems, essays, and short stories he suggests that the notion of individual personality is but an illusion fostered by an equally false notion of linear time. At other intersections of space and time an individual may be totally different—even the opposite—of what he appears to be now….
In Pierre Menard the notion of interchangeable identities receives its fullest and most complex elaboration. Menard is a contemporary French man of letters who sets out to compose two chapters of Don Quijote. His aim is not to copy but to invent them. For Menard shares Borges's belief that "every man should be capable of all ideas." Through the process of reading and meditation, he hopes to achieve complete identification with Cervantes, thereby becoming the author of the Quijote. Indeed, when Borges juxtaposes those passages of the book written by Menard with the ones composed by Cervantes, they seem to be exactly the same passages. And yet Borges assures us that Menard's version is infinitely richer than the original: by bringing his own culture and experiences to the interpretation of the text, Menard creates a new and more profound work, one of particular relevance to his own historical period and life. That is to say, in the act of reading Menard develops the implications of Cervantes's text, thereby transforming the Spaniard's work into a kind of "palimpsest" in which traces of Menard's future creation are visible.
In this paradoxical manner, Borges underscores the importance of the reader in the creative process. Like the author, the reader actively participates in the elaboration of the work of art. For this reason, in the preface to his first collection of poems published in 1923 (Fervor de Buenos Aires) Borges apologized to his reader for having "usurped" his verses and said, "it is but a trivial and fortuitous circumstance that you are the reader of these exercises and I am the author."
If the reader is such an important element in the creative process, if (as is the case of Pierre Menard and Cervantes) reader and author are fused, then an author's name and the details of his life ultimately do not matter. Ficciones might just as well have been signed by Pierre Menard as by Jorge Luis Borges. As a way of suggesting this, Borges has occasionally used the pseudonyms of H. Bustos Domecq and Suarez Lynch for some of his books. For from this philosophical point of view, Jorge Luis Borges the writer is as nonexistent as Pierre Menard or Cervantes. (p. 22)
Katherine Singer Kovács, "Borges on the Right," in New Boston Review (copyright 1977 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. 111, No. 11, Fall, 1977, pp. 22-3.
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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 Loewenthal's part in her father's death, it has been hypothesized that "Loewenthal probably dies without knowing why Emma killed him, but then there is no one single, exact explanation as to why she did…." [A] solution to this incongruity can be found in an examination of the psychological factors alluded to in the story which may well underly Emma Zunz's actions. Such an approach reveals that the author's portrayal of his protagonist goes beyond that of a "shy, non-descript girl," and that her killing of Loewenthal has a motivation more complex than the mere desire for vengeance. In fact, the latter appears to be a symptom or manifestation of a neurotic love-hate conflict, with incestuous overtones, that characterizes Emma's relationship with her father. (p. 101)
In "Emma Zunz," textual evidence points to the sexual nature of Emma's neurosis and links it to her father. For example, in describing the moment she prostitutes herself to the sailor, Borges makes reference to Emma's noting the similarity between a diamond window in the building where she finds herself and those of the family home…. More important, in the following indirect interior monologue, which occurs at the moment of her submission to the sailor, Emma's sado-masochistic view of the sex act is related to her father…. [Her] pathological fear of men juxtaposed with the timing and nature of these two associations with her father, and in the context of what later transpires in the story, is suggestive of an incestuous element in the girl's unconscious feelings toward him….
It is within this psychological composite that Emma's reaction to the news of her father's death must be viewed, for it is that event which brings her into direct, though unconscious, confrontation with her neurosis. (pp. 101-02).
Even had Maier's death been a suicide, Emma has no immediate reason to attribute it to Loewenthal. Her knowledge of the latter's role in her father's ruination is limited to that of the details of the secret and its consequences on the family. Yet, as previously stated, these events took place some six years earlier, and no mention is made of any prior desire or effort on Emma's part to avenge Loewenthal's complicity in them.
The protagonist's inaction, however, is consistent with Borges' portrayal of her. To have sought vengeance would have required a level of affection for her father which Emma does not demonstrate in the story and of which the author gives no testimony. But when confronted with his death, the girl's guilt and anxiety lead to a defense reaction that involves an unconscious process of reconciliation with him. In that process, her ambivalent feelings are symbolically expressed, both through her contact with the sailor and with Loewenthal. Initially, Emma must avenge her father in order to fulfill the psychological need to express affection for him. Lacking an immediate, sufficient and consciously recognized reason to seek retribution, she interprets her father's accidental death as a suicide and blames Loewenthal for it. (pp. 102-03)
Emma proceeds to the fateful encounter with Loewenthal and, on a conscious level, the retribution for her father's "suicide." As in the case of the sailor, a deep-seated psychological motivation for her actions can be established, for at the moment of actually avenging Maier, it is not Loewenthal's supposed role in the latter's death which causes Emma to act, but his responsibility for the affront she has suffered…. That affront, on the unconscious level, involves the betrayal of her father through submission to another man. The resultant shame is avenged by the death of the one immediately and consciously responsible for that betrayal: Loewenthal.
Also, within the context of Emma's neurosis, Loewenthal can be said to have displaced Maier. His being of an older generation and, as her employer, having the potential for giving and withholding reward that corresponds to the paternal role, explain his desirability as a displaceable object. As a substitute for her father, Loewenthal too has symbolically become the sexual aggressor, which allows Emma to direct her negative feelings from her deceased father to him. By shooting Loewenthal, therefore, Emma not only gives vent to her hidden antagonism toward Maier but, paradoxically, by taking vengeance, she affirms her love for him, and thereby achieves an unconscious relief of the guilt arising from her incestuous feelings.
While there is textual support for varied interpretations of Emma Zunz's actions and their causes, it is clear that Borges has not sacrificed verisimilitude in his characterization of her in favor of an allegorical dramatization of a philosophical concept. On the contrary, because of the ambiguous, contradictory and unconscious nature of her motivation, Emma Zunz is one of the most unique individuals among the author's creations. (pp. 103-04)
Joseph Chrzanowski, "Psychological Motivation in Borges' 'Emma Zunz'," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1978), Vol. XXVIII, Nos. 3 & 4, 1978, pp. 100-04.
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[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 belong to serious, and permanent, art. (p. 6)
Borges's critical intellect, which insists on treating scepticism partly as play, is the balancing creative force, delighting in order. We are bound to conclude I think, that for him, 'order' exists chiefly in art, and is itself one mode of limiting fear and boredom, to make existence endurable. Even so, critiques of political and religious ideologies lurk in his tales also, with sharp precision, as a kind of social sub-stratum to this least social of arts. (p. 8)
[Borges assumes that his readers are] not only as unreal as fictions (possibly), but as varied as 'reality'. This perspective signals a dramatic break with those humanist writers who took for granted a common cultural, and even moral, response from their fellows. George Eliot is a writer who clearly expected a readership that would share, yet be further educable in, her own liberal and compassionate values; critics such as F. R. Leavis continued to believe in a 'common tradition' of 'true judgement' as the supreme prize to be sought, by artists and critics. Borges, in contrast, writes of traitors and outcasts, murderers and assassins, as well as of good and sensitive men; and how is he to know who, among such a human variety, might be reading his work? Just as there can be no explaining why the heirs of a great European culture killed Jews, for Hitler, so there can be no explaining what 'real' values—whether acknowledged, or merely discovered in crisis—any particular reader may have. The influence of literature itself is an open question: we hope that it may tend towards good, for many good reasons—but men retain their freewill when reading, as at all other times.
If Borges does have a belief, it is in the 'ordering' of art—but this effort to help alleviate boredom, weariness, emptiness, is conditional, and is itself part of the maze. Only occasionally, as in his brief comment on 'Avelino Arredondo', does he express a moral preference ('I do not approve of political assassination')—yet, in showing us the behaviour of a nineteenth-century assassin, he uncannily suggests what the killers of John and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King, and all other such modern loners, might be like. Once more, there is no explicit moralising, or psychological analysis, inside the tale: just an ineffaceable image, left for the mind to contemplate. If we find it hard to believe—or, with recent history in mind, still harder to disbelieve—Borges will offer no clue.
'The lottery In Babylon' seems a logical next port of call, since … it allows space for the reader to add twists of his own. With this, we come to Borges's major strategy, as I am defining it—which is simply the offer, in tale after tale, of images that stay in the mind. (pp. 11-12)
Unobtrusively, one central paradox establishes itself. On the one hand, some argue that the 'lottery is an interpolation of chance in the order of the world and that to accept errors is not to contradict chance; it is to corroborate it'. On the other hand, the lottery can be regarded as the interpolation of a purely human system on a universe with no order of its own or clue to order: and, by extension, as a symbolic translation of the nature of reality to human 'choice'….
The narrative … characteristically explores the resulting anomalies—the inaccessibility of the Company; the complexity of matching hopes with fears, the possibly infinite aspect attending each 'draw', along with the search for methods to correct chance, and the possible new terrors in such an idea. It moves finally to heretical speculations—such as the non-existence of the Company—and ends with a classic discussion of the 'divine modesty' of the Company's elusive, unchallengeable power…. (p. 13)
The influence of Kafka will not be missed, yet the effect is entirely different, or so it seems to me. In place of Kafka's anguished exertions of logic, in a world which defies it, we have something like a triumph of logic, offering whatever level of interpretation a reader might choose. For some, this will be a tale which starts as a fantasy—an account of social evolution defying precedent or possibility—and, by a dream-like transition, turns into a symbol of the world as it is. The 'lottery' could indeed be the chance which attends the birth of each one of us: or, in individual terms, it could be emblematic of 'the changes and chances of this troublous life'…. Other readers might see, rather, political satire, not unrelated to the violent changes of government willed, or endured, by Borges's native Argentinians (or by the rest of the world). The basic equation between choice and chance in the 'lottery' will hover suggestively over any mature religious, moral or political frame one could produce. If it is argued that some, but not all, human beings undergo amazing transitions in the course of a lifetime, Borges would leave his readers totally free to ponder on that. Undeniably, the mystery of death, as an unpredictable curtailment of everything that a human becomes, is universal, and acts as a dimension which infuses mystery in every enactment of life.
The effect differs, again, from Kafka, in its detachment: the narrator himself appears to be speaking half out of a dream. In Kafka, the sharp edge of guilt, anxiety and quest, the unhealed need for clarity, is ubiquitous. Borges offers simple clarity of style and image, complete (it seems) in itself. (p. 14)
'Three versions of Judas' is deceptively simple—a sequence of supposed interpretations of Judas evolved by an imaginary early twentieth-century theologian, Nils Runeberg, whose works are ascribed to 1904, 1909 and 1912. We are told that 'Nils Runeberg, a member of the National Evangelical Union, was deeply religious', but that his views, as they developed, are regarded as either frivolous, or as blasphemous, in intellectual circles today. It is acknowledged that, had he lived in earlier centuries, he might well have been put to death, and later consigned by Dante to a 'fiery grave' in the Inferno. In the twentieth century, his fate is to be ignored. (p. 19)
This tale revealed to me—for the first time, as Borges so often manages to do, in his offbeat insights—the total unsatisfactoriness of any Good Friday devotions I have ever heard. The mystery of sinlessness has never been satisfactorily expounded; nor the sacrifice of Judas—nor, indeed, the actual agony of the Cross. The latter, indeed, if described medically, might send a congregation out of the church vomiting; all too often, the congregation is left instead singing words it cannot possibly believe (or can it?…). (pp. 21-2)
I should add that I assume that Borges no more 'believed' in the speculations of Nils Runeberg than he believes in orthodox theology; nor, I imagine, does he expect to convince any readers. At one level, the aesthetic elegance and daring of the paradox, combined with its compression, might most have pleased him; yet his purpose is wholly serious. The tale, in its nutshell, plays havoc with Christianity's 'infinite space'—yet the bad dreams remain. Borges's profound concern for the metaphysical, for religious questing, cannot be doubted—nor will any religion of the future bypass him, if it is to survive. (p. 22)
[Before] coming to what (to me) seems the central insight [of 'The Sect of Thirty'], I would point to Borges's extraordinary power of setting minds moving in different ways. If it is argued that he is playing a deliberate (even blasphemous?) game of selective fundamentalism, in what sense does he differ, in this, from many orthodox evangelicals? It is simply that the 'Sect of Thirty' choose, for their 'literal' texts, a somewhat different selection from those thundered from normal Christian pulpits—and with effects that again can scarcely be laughed off as mere play…. [In] taking literally the Sermon of the Mount, the Sect presents a different challenge, notably for those who would call themselves 'Sermon on the Mount' Christians in a modern 'liberal' and maybe cosy mood. This famous Sermon does indeed include sobering texts on mercy, love, gentleness—all pleasing concepts to the kindly; equally, it includes the more extreme texts favoured by the Sect of Thirty. (pp. 23-4)
The degree of literalness intended in scripture is no idle speculation: nor is it frivolous to see which parts of the Bible Christian 'orthodoxy' treats as 'literal', and which it does not. Borges forces us to look, maybe, at the spirit of rejection and occasional persecution directed towards certain sexual sinners by numerous well-heeled and respectable churchgoers in the tradition of 'literal fundamentalism'; and to ponder what we can deduce about them, alike from the texts they choose, and the texts they choose to ignore.
In returning to the Judas theme he is by no means obsessive, since this time, the treatment receives a different twist. The Sect—however eccentric—accepts universal salvation, and allows both its liberal sexuality, and its austere self-immolation, to cohere with belief in that. Since God's universal love is a notion writ large in scripture, they see no reason to believe that any human creature is destined to eternal pain. In contrast, the reaction of the 'orthodox' fourth-century narrator to the 'abominations' of the Sect is striking—though as usual, Borges avoids all comment, or irony, of his own. We are left, as always with an image, and an enigma—a method closely akin to (and even modelled upon?) the parables of Jesus himself. (p. 24)
'The Book of Sand' [in the short story of the same title] is the book of life, in one reading; 'of making many books there is no end'. (Likewise, of making many theories, many dogmatisms.) But, if something of the weariness of scepticism haunts this tale, even more, it illustrates the futility of dogmatism. The link I personally make between the two Judas narratives, and this, is precisely here: if men's minds are labyrinths, and the cosmos itself is the ultimate labyrinth, how can the dogmatic spirit survive, for a thinking man?
I have stressed Borges's scepticism, which is indeed extensive, yet certain positive [aspects] emerge from it, again and again. His rejection of Marxism, anti-Semitism, Nazism, all political ideologies, is everywhere apparent; his rejection of religious dogma is no less clear.
'Three versions of Judas', 'The Sect of Thirty' and 'The Book of Sand' seem a final comment on dogma, whether catholic, or protestant, or attached to any religion at all. Borges turns to the Bible, with every appearance of reverence, and produces as yet unheard-of heresies from the most obvious texts. The fact that his heresies plunge deeper, and may be more loving, than many of the more familiar labyrinths of orthodoxy, is a further refinement, upon which we may reflect as we choose. What better proof that the Bible is different for everyman?—and different for everyman, individually, at each stage of his life?
Equally, the 'book of sand' is every book we read (or teach) in a lifetime. The words may not change, but is any book, if we are honest, ever twice the same? How much more, then, must 'life' elude us, as we try to make sense of ourselves, over a lifetime? Can any page show the same image twice, in memory? Can any book have a definitive beginning or end?
It is a striking paradox that, largely by steering clear of psychology, moralising, or even explicit commentary, Borges suggests the superiority of images to intellect in all of these spheres. Perhaps our very awareness of his intellectual distinction makes his own playing with intellect doubly effective. The intellectual distinction is the art, the imagery; which in turn plays devious games with ideas and ideologies—games that may strike us, even so, as more serious than most other men's 'truths'.
Borges's views may seem, in some moods, negative—but he has survived life, blindness, and now old age, with humour and style. His scepticism harms no one, persecutes no one, rejects no one: if anything, it confers dignity on the outcast and strange. It stirs fears, which are universal—and which might even unite men, if they would allow this, in a common plight. If we are all suffering, all searching, all tinged with illusion, why should we seek to imprison others in our own bad dreams? Borges's scepticism is its own two-edged sword against prejudice; it pierces every tyranny, or 'rational' ideology, that would plague the world.
Not all of us can find consolation in creation—yet the archetypes may have healing power in themselves, as Jung discerned. The denial of ego which runs through Borges's tales, in many variants, is balanced by this: 'All things long to persist in their being' ('The wall and the books'). Borges also said—more than once—'the man who reads Shakespeare is Shakespeare': an intuition which balances the 'denial' of Shakespeare himself. His insistence that each reader adds more to the work he reads than his author did, could make us more, not less, 'real' than the author himself. Meanwhile, fictions or dreams, we respond to his visions, whose very vividness counters any ultimate lack of concern.
Borges is not, after all, nihilistic: it is with the mystics, explorers of religion, that he truly belongs. How else should he make us feel that death's greatest sting is not the loss of our ego, however we fear this, but the loss of precious memories our egos may hold? (pp. 25-6)
A. E. Dyson, "'You, Fictional Reader …': Jorge Luis Borges," in Critical Quarterly (© by Manchester University Press 1979), Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 5-27.
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[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 connecting them not merely to the spoken argot of the street—a concern of many Argentinian and Israeli writers of this century—but to a classical tradition which is available to Agnon in Jewish sources and to Borges in certain favorite writers who, he claims with good reason, form a dominant tradition in western culture. (p. 351)
In ["The Scribe" by Agnon, and "Averroes' Search" by Borges] we encounter scholars whose life is their writing, which in both instances becomes a complicated and highly charged action. Both characters take an erotic pleasure in the act of writing, and both discover the irony of trying to find fulfillment in writing words in luminous, even mystic symbols in which they are themselves inscribed. Furthermore, Borges and Agnon share a common strategy, bypassing realistic expectations and creating a dreamlike world which moves the reader and the action of the tale into a suspended realm where words and deeds take on all their potential and even contradictory meanings at the same time.
Both writers create a world in which words have ceremonial and ritualistic functions. For them, words articulate fateful questions and thus serve as thematic centers for many of their stories. Both Raphael and Averroes enact traditional word rituals which catch them in the meaning they seek to elicit; their words become their fate in an ironic and oblique act of meaning-making that ultimately is reflexive rather than referential. Thus their word-work becomes a structural principle of the works in which they figure. Symbolic inhabitants, they project the symbol-making activity out of their worlds as the crucial act in and of that world. (pp. 352-53)
For both Agnon and Borges the dreams of scholars often have a strong erotic component…. [For] Borges language is the divine guarantee of humanity. Both Raphael and Averroes nest in their words. Writers, they are written up. This is the central tension of these stories: the self is defined by the very activity which is predicated of it. This tension of doubling leads to an infinite regression, until we are perplexed as to what is and is not the writer's self, where it begins and language ends. Just as the scholar or writer of these stories is symbolized in his own symbol-making activities, so too the detective of other stories is entangled in his own web, and the reader in the act which defines his role. Words become the vessels of eros. In the worlds of both writers this erotic potential of language issues into dream-actions; their stories tremble on the edge of a revelation about the erotic origins and nature of language.
Their shared concern with dreams as literary theme and narrative structure is also a way of signaling their lack of interest in the realist's business of making and matching. Neither writer is concerned with world-making on the realistic model; the fiction of both tends to be short, precise, and probing—even inquisitorial, as Borges puts it—rather than sprawling and all-encompassing. Their work lacks the voluminous energy of Balzac or Dickens; it has instead the rapier edge of a Pascalian pensée. Borges and Agnon articulate the continuing process of writing in their work, eliciting indirectly the various potentials implicit in this act. Thus a typical character in one of Borges' stories searches for a killer and finds himself in the form of his enemy, while one of Agnon's protagonists seeks a place for the night and finds the alphabet in which his name is written. Both characters, lacking the identifying mark of a personal name—the signature of a realistic novel—yet partake of the mythic naming power latent everywhere in their language which emerges as they try to discover the nature of their identities and being by probing into those of their world and their words.
Scholars who embark on a linguistic adventure (which turns out to be a search for the ultimate secrets of language and naming) figure prominently in the work of both writers. The initial quest becomes central; writer, reader, world, and word are implicated; the tales enact the entanglement of consciousness and language, often concluding in an event that makes characters and/or reader aware of the meanings implicit in this process. The writing activity that is a figure in the story as well as its constitutive action becomes both image and mirror. Closer to lyric than to realistic story, these tales do not allow us the experience of completeness and resolution so crucial to the realistic novel which thereby articulates its sense of having encompassed the world. Instead these stories lead to other stories, to the work of other writers, and to imagined, not-yet-realized worlds, thereby allowing us a glimpse of the unending process of word- and language-making that is central to the continuing action and process of consciousness envisaged by both Borges and Agnon. (pp. 353-54)
Borges' scholars—and in one sense all of his protagonists belong to this class—embark on a quest for meaning that initially produces an expectation of certainty. The strategy of his stories is to enmesh these figures in a labyrinth of ambivalence and ambiguity. The labyrinth comes to represent the ultimate meanings—of life, scholarship, and history—and is finally transformed into an image of the symbolic workings and power of language itself. (p. 355)
In exploring and comparing the theme of language-making as it shapes and articulates their fictional discourse, we can glimpse the ways in which both Agnon and Borges seek to create sacred texts for their respective cultures—charting like the epics of old the spectrum of their cultures' manifold meanings. Both accept their respective traditions as necessary conditions for their own work. Agnon and Borges are conscious of the ways in which their work depends upon that of others; both writers constantly quote and refer to other writers as part of their fictional strategies while thereby also proposing ways of reading their favorite works and traditions. Both accept the mediating functions of their roles, while responding to their respective traditions in playfully ironic and oblique ways. Of course, while Agnon is concerned with Israel, Borges focuses on Argentina and Hispanic culture. The two writers also differ with regard to the point at which each begins his analysis of the symbol-making act of language—in part a function of the differing traditions from which they derive their work and literary program.
Believing that his language is overwhelmed by clichés and the dead forms of the past, Borges breaks with them while building upon them…. Starting from a vision of the literary forms of the past but differing as to the vital force yet resident in them, each writer enlists a crucial principle of structural transformation of these forms in his work. As they examine inherited cultural forms, Borges and Agnon both uncover models and touchstones for their writing activity; per-forming the implicit roles, they move from scholarly detachment to artistic creation. Like Borges, Agnon enacts the process of "reading the new in an old text" and skillfully masks old themes in modern dress…. [Each] writer works out for his own culture a theory of language which displays its historical possibilities and modern potential, in a common effort to suggest the wholeness of past and future as continuous aspects of the stream of language captured in the dialectics of style. Breaking with the old forms, Borges' language liberates his world and makes it new and fresh while still allowing old interpretations that are transformed in his words, just as Agnon's midrashic sleight-of-hand makes the modern world as full of potential holiness as the classical text. Both writers conceptualize the process of writing the new (sacred) texts of their cultures as they contextualize their respective literary and linguistic traditions through the confrontation with the chaos and unformed experience of the modern world. Thus both explore the idea of culture as language-making.
Both Borges and Agnon establish a linguistic field by means of innumerable references, echoes, and stylistic imitations within which old texts and new worlds encounter each other. This is a dangerous, dialectic activity of mutual confrontation. It is also, however, the very condition by which the old texts can be enacted and put into play, as well as the method by which the new world's possible meanings—perhaps already implicit in received Law (and Literature) but not yet enacted in history—can be realized. It is for this reason that Borges' tales … are informed by the midrashic idea of commentary as the continuously unfolding and unending process of interpretation. (pp. 356-58)
Language in its original, poetic sense of making (rather than the realistic mode of world-making) is what is at issue for both Borges and Agnon. For them it is the moving force. Dreaming and writing-as-dreaming are the enabling conditions for their inquiries. By these means words become mirrors that reflect the symbol-making activities of their users, and thereby articulate the shapes of consciousness that function as the narrative personae of these tales. Here words (like consciousness) can potentially mirror everything, and the act of writing becomes fateful.
The dream quality of Borges' and Agnon's stories has a peculiar effect…. Playing written against spoken words, suggesting a hidden traditional text while articulating a present action, suspending events in a dream-medium which undoes chronology, these stories release words from the prison of the printed page into the reader's consciousness. Enacted in the reader's mind, turned into the present action of consciousness, these stories realize the constitutive force of words…. The work of both Agnon and Borges taps the flow of language as infinite interpretability, as the undifferentiated flow of language which is defined and hedged in writing and made momentarily concrete in speech. It is a reminder on the part of both Borges and Agnon that in writing we work with symbols that contain within themselves the possibility, if they were properly decoded, of reaching back to the original stream of language. Thereby Borges and Agnon engage the reader in the search for what [Arnold] Band terms "the secret of language itself."…
These themes are central to two stories—Agnon's "The Face and the Image" and Borges' "Death and the Compass." (pp. 359-60)
"Death and the Compass" [is] one of Borges' classic stories of detection. Like so many of them, it turns on a discovery of and about language which, ironically treated, expands into an image of the general process of creating language, meaning, and reality. In this story the detective-scholar discovers what he believes to be the solution of a crime by reading the kabbalistic books of the dead man and deciphering a mystical code. The process of seeking is doubled; Lönnrot, in searching for the Secret Name of God as the solution to the mystery, discovers he has been caught in the labyrinth of words. Though the story concludes with his murder, it is clear that at the same time it begins with that cyclic event: we discover that the process of searching for the Secret Name—part of the maze created by the criminal Scharlach to ensnare Lönnrot—is an unending one. This labyrinth of words becomes an image both of man's capacity to share in the more-than-human powers of angels and demons, as well as of culture as the ceaseless and universal language in and by which man has his being. (pp. 363-64)
[This] story teases us into finding allegorical meanings. The place-names sound mythic—Triste-le-Roy, Hôtel du Nord—and the names of the characters, as well as their characterizing epithets, suggest that they are not individuals but general types who repeat and reenact ancient rituals. Jewish references abound, but they are part of the same iterative process in which events are doubled and themes are repeated until their very redundancy forces us to look at the process of symbolism and language-making by which they are brought into multiple existence….
[The] story deals with the process of artistic creation as a labyrinth-making activity in which the narrator embeds himself at the same moment that he expresses it. (p. 364)
[Reader] narrator, and writer join in the complicitous acts of making, of consciousness, and of literature. Thus like Agnon's, Borges' stories eschew the realistic idea of harmony, completeness, and self-sufficiency in favor of commentary on—which is also revelation of—the nature of things and words. For both writers this is a cyclic and unending process, individual as well as impersonal, new yet always old. As writers, they are inscribed in it as they write out the unending permutations of the Name—perhaps not only of God but also of Language. (p. 366)
Murray Baumgarten, "Mirror of Words: Language in Agnon and Borges," in Comparative Literature (© copyright 1979 by University of Oregon), Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 351-66.∗
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2041
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 appears in a public medium; the best form of revelation is omission, while the most effective method of concealment is exposure; the same speech act is both a success and a failure; speech itself (or writing) is shown to be an action, and action, in turn, becomes a form of speech (or writing); time is characterized both by the uniqueness of transitory moments and by the (time-negating) eternity of repetition; and these repetitions simultaneously disintegrate and define the self.
Both Ts'ui Pên and Yu Tsun are faced with the task of transmitting a message, and both do so through indirection. Pên's message is a philosophy of time and is addressed to "the various futures (not to all)" in the form of a book …, a public medium. Nevertheless, as Albert acutely perceives, it is Pên's belief that the most effective form of revelation is omission. (pp. 640-41)
Unlike Pên's novel, intended for the many and decoded by one, Tsun's secret information is meant for one person only. But because of the absence of normal communication channels, it is addressed to the many. The spy-narrator pointedly formulates his predicament by the use of oxymoron…. Crying out a secret, and doing so without being heard; both tasks seem paradoxical and infeasible. And yet, the solution devised by Yu Tsun is no less paradoxical than the problem with which it is intended to deal. It resolves the oxymoron by reasserting it. Tsun decides that the best way to transmit the secret is by crying it out, by making it appear in the newspapers. Whereas Ts'ui Pên believes that the most effective method of revelation is omission, Yu Tsun discovers, rather like the queen and the minister in [Edgar Allen] Poe's "The Purloined Letter," that the best form of concealment is exposure, or rather pseudoexposure, since the newspaper item, formally available to everyone, is here used as a code whose real import can be deciphered only by the appropriate person. For the sake of his message's double status, Tsun devises a speech act of referring or naming from which the crucial "utterance of R" is missing and, in the fashion of Pên's novel, replaced by "inept metaphors." Nothing is said about the British artillery park, but the murder of the sinologist who carries the same name as that park is a metaphoric disclosure of the secret to the initiated. A city is named by killing a man—an indirect speech act, successful from the viewpoint of the Chief, guilt-provoking for its ingenious and insincere performer.
It is not only the indirectness of Pên's and Tsun's speech acts and the inverse relations they entertain between concealment and revelation that make the two episodes mirror images of each other. The constituent elements of speech acts, speech and action, are also interestingly juxtaposed and equated in these episodes. On both occasions—the one diegetic the other metadiegetic, the one concerned with a book the other with a crime—speech and action are first presented as separate activities and are then equated with each other. At the metadiegetic level, we are told by Stephen Albert that the famous Ts'ui Pên renounced worldly power "in order to compose a book and a maze."… The "and" leads us, as it has led Pên's relatives and admirers, to believe that he had two projects in mind: the verbal act of writing and the physical act of constructing a labyrinth. This misleading impression is reinforced by memories of the spy-narrator, himself a descendant of Ts'ui Pên. His illustrious great-grandfather, he recalls, retired "to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost."… The "and" again acts as a leurre, further developed by the narrator's explanation that Ts'ui Pên devoted thirteen years "to these heterogeneous tasks."… No one discovered the labyrinth after Pên's death, and the book was found to be incomprehensible and self-contradictory. It fell to the British sinologist, Stephen Albert, to solve the mysteries of the loss of the maze and the incoherence of the novel by postulating an identity of the seemingly "heterogeneous tasks": "the book and the maze were one and the same thing."… To write, for Pên, is to construct a labyrinth: speech is action.
At the diegetic level, an analogous situation occurs. Two newspaper items which initially seem disparate prove in fact to be intimately related: the Germans' bombing of the city of Albert and the murder of the British sinologist by a stranger. No one but the "stranger"—the narrator—and the Chief in Berlin knew that the murder of Albert was the only way of imparting to Germany "the secret name of the city they must attack."… The bombing is a result of the killing, and the murder itself is an action which replaces impossible speech—impossible because of the war conditions and the imminent arrest of the spy-narrator. Thus whereas at the metadiegetic level speech is seen as action, here action is seen as speech; the two episodes reflect each other as if in inverted mirrors. (pp. 641-43)
A correlation emerges between this equation and the paradoxical treatment of another classical opposition, one that is prominent in the whole of Borges' work as well as in that of his fictional labyrinth producer: time versus timelessness. At first sight it may seem that language parallels timelessness, whereas action is time-bound. By its very nature a sign is reproducible, capable of being repeated by different people in different circumstances at different periods, hence time transcending and in a sense "eternal." On the other hand, action, and in particular a radical action like murder, is irreversible, irreproducible, and hence bound to the flux of time. But the story shows that just as speech and action can be identified with each other so can each of them manifest both the transitory and the eternal, and time itself must paradoxically be both negated and affirmed. For, to start with the language end of the equation, although it is true that a sign transcends time through repetition, it is also true that no repeated occurrence is identical with another, since the context in which the sign appears automatically changes it. This double nature of the sign is utilized by the narrator: it is precisely because the word "Albert" can be repeated in different circumstances that the narrator can refer uniquely to the object he intends (the city) through the one quality this object shares with another, that is, its name. But it is only because the referent of this name changes with the context that Tsun can disguise his reference and make it indicate one thing to the Chief and an entirely different thing to the ordinary newspaper reader. [Unlike language, action seems to be bound to the moment of its performance, hence transitory and irrevocable, and yet in this story it is also shown to be capable of "continuing indefinitely."] (pp. 643-44)
Perhaps the most striking way in which action can transcend time is by the coincidence or repetition of the same occurrence in different temporal dimensions and/or in the lives of different people. In an article which bears the appropriately paradoxical title "A New Refutation of Time," Borges describes such a duplication and comments: "Time, if we can intuitively grasp such an identity, is a delusion: the difference and inseparability of one moment belonging to its apparent past from another belonging to its apparent present is sufficient to disintegrate it." Thus the various analogies between Pên, Albert, and Tsun function to disintegrate time through mirroring and repetition.
These analogies also disintegrate the concept of self or identity. Consistent with the pattern which governs all opposites in the story, however, the self is both lost through an identification with the other and at the same time most authentically defined by it…. Albert becomes Ts'ui Pên through his devoted discovery of Pên's labyrinth, so much so that like Pên he is murdered by a stranger. In being killed by Tsun, Albert is revealed as a victim of the same device he so ingeniously unearthed in Pên's work, and Tsun, in turn, duplicates Albert by using the same technique in an inverted form. Significantly, Tsun is also the great grandson of Ts'ui Pên, and his thoughts before reaching Albert become, in retrospect, a divination of Pên's secret as formulated by the British sinologist…. The identification thus becomes three-fold, and the self is to some extent lost in the other.
Analogy among characters is not the only structural device which blurs the boundaries of the self. The very repetition of the act of narration, involving a chain of quotations, makes the story a perfect example of what [Roman] Jakobson calls "speech within speech" and divorces the various characters from their own discourse…. [Quotation] is a dominant narrative mode in this story, and quotation is the appropriation by one person of the speech of another. Since a person is to a large extent constituted by his discourse, such an appropriation implies, at least partly, an interpenetration of personalities. Thus both repetition through analogy and repetition through quotation threaten the absolute autonomy of the self.
Or do they? Is not a sinologist most truly a sinologist when he identifies himself with the object of his research? And is not a spy most truly a spy when he obliterates his own personality in an identification with another?… [Tsun] kills "a man from England—a modest man—who for [him] is no less great than Goethe,"… kills him and feels "innumerable contrition and weariness." He has indeed bidden farewell to himself in the mirror figuratively as well as literally, and in so doing he has become a successful spy. But the identification with Albert is not limited to a definition of the narrator's role as a spy. It also defines something essential to the real face in the mirror, something which is to a large extent responsible for his decision to associate himself with Berlin. "I didn't do it for Germany," he says, "I did it because I sensed that the Chief somehow feared people of my race—for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me. I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies."… And it is precisely the culture of his ancestors that is "being restored to [him] by a man of a remote empire, in the course of a desperate adventure, on a Western isle."… The identification with Albert, it transpires, leads to an identification with Ts'ui Pên, and this return to his ancestors most intimately determines an essential aspect of Tsun's authentic personality.
Thus the same phenomenon of repetition which disintegrates the autonomy of the individual also defines it, and Borges is far from being unaware of this paradox [see the concluding paragraph of "A New Refutation of Time"]. (pp. 645-47)
The real "scandal" in this story, I suggest, is not merely the disintegration of classical notions but the simultaneous denial and affirmation of a given concept and the interchangeability of mutually opposed ones. The world thus created is one which constantly, vigorously, and ingeniously courts paradox. And what can one expect when an irresistible force flirts with an immovable object? (p. 647)
Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, "Doubles and Counterparts: Patterns of Interchangeability in Borges' 'The Garden of Forking Paths'," in Critical Inquiry (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; copyright © 1980 by The University of Chicago), Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 639-47 (revised by the author for this publication).