Jorge Luis Borges

Start Free Trial

James E. Irby (essay date 1962)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Irby has written extensively about Borges and his writings and has translated many of his works into English. In the following excerpt from his introduction to the 1964 edition of Labyrinths, a collection which originally appeared in 1962, he provides an overview of Borges's main themes and literary techniques.]

Until about 1930 Borges's main creative medium was poetry: laconic free-verse poems which evoked scenes and atmospheres of old Buenos Aires or treated timeless themes of love, death and the self. He also wrote many essays on subjects of literary criticism, metaphysics and language, essays reminiscent of Chesterton's in their compactness and unexpected paradoxes. The lucidity and verbal precision of these writings belie the agitated conditions of avant-garde polemic and playfulness under which most of them were composed. During these years Borges was content to seek expression in serene lyric images perhaps too conveniently abstracted from the surrounding world and have all his speculations and creations respond primarily to the need for a new national literature as he saw it. The years from 1930 to 1940, however, brought a deep change in Borges's work. He virtually abandoned poetry and turned to the short narrative genre. Though he never lost his genuine emotion for the unique features of his native ground, he ceased to exalt them nationalistically as sole bulwarks against threatening disorder and began to rank them more humbly within a context of vast universal processes: the nightmarish city of "Death and the Compass" is an obvious stylization of Buenos Aires, no longer idealized as in the poems, but instead used as the dark setting for a tragedy of the human intellect. The witty and already very learned young poet who had been so active in editing such little reviews as Martín Fierro, Prisma and Proa, became a sedentary writer-scholar who spent many solitary hours in reading the most varied and unusual works of literature and philosophy and in meticulously correcting his own manuscripts, passionately but also somewhat monstrously devoted to the written word as his most vital experience, as failing eyesight and other crippling afflictions made him more and more a semi-invalid, more and more an incredible mind in an ailing and almost useless body, much like his character Ireneo Funes. Oppressed by physical reality and also by the turmoil of Europe, which had all-too-direct repercussions in Argentina, Borges sought to create a coherent fictional world of the intelligence. This world is essentially adumbrated in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." As Borges slyly observes there, Tlön is no "irresponsible figment of the imagination"; the stimulus which prompted its formulation is stated with clarity (though not without irony) toward the end of that story's final section, projected as a kind of tentative utopia into the future beyond the grim year 1940 when it was written:

Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to charm the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

Borges's metaphysical fictions, his finest creations, which are collected in the volumes Ficciones (1945) and El Aleph (1949), all elaborate upon the varied idealist possibilities outlined in the "article" on Tlön. In these narratives the analytical and imaginative functions previously kept separate in his essays and poems curiously...

(This entire section contains 2597 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

fuse, producing a form expressive of all the tension and complexity of Borges's mature thought.

His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect. They are tales of the fantastic, of the hyperbolic, but they are never content with fantasy in the simple sense of facile wish-fulfillment. The insight they provide is ironic, pathetic: a painful sense of inevitable limits that block total aspirations. Some of these narratives ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "Three Versions of Judas," "The Sect of the Phoenix") might be called "pseudo essays"—mock scrutinies of authors or books or learned subjects actually of Borges's own invention—that in turning in upon themselves make the "plot" (if it can be called that) an intricate interplay of creation and critique. But all his stories, whatever their outward form, have the same self-critical dimension; in some it is revealed only in minimal aspects of tone and style (as, for example, in "The Circular Ruins"). Along with these "vertical" superpositions of different and mutually qualifying levels, there are also "horizontal" progressions of qualitative leaps, after the manner of tales of adventure or of crime detection (Borges's favorite types of fiction). Unexpected turns elude the predictable; hidden realities are revealed through their diverse effects and derivations. Like his beloved Chesterton, who made the Father Brown stories a vehicle for his Catholic theology, Borges uses mystery and the surprise effect in literature to achieve that sacred astonishment at the universe which is the origin of all true religion and metaphysics. However, Borges as theologian is a complete heretic, as the casuistical "Three Versions of Judas" more than suffices to show.

Borges once claimed that the basic devices of all fantastic literature are only four in number: the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double. These are both his essential themes—the problematical nature of the world, of knowledge, of time, of the self—and his essential techniques of construction. Indeed, in Borges's narratives the usual distinction between form and content virtually disappears, as does that between the world of literature and the world of the reader. We almost unconsciously come to accept the world of Tlön because it has been so subtly inserted into our own. In "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," Borges's discovery of his own story (which is worked up before our very eyes and has areas "not yet revealed" to him), Nolan's of Kilpatrick's treason, Ryan's of the curious martyrdom, and ours of the whole affair, are but one awareness of dark betrayal and creative deception. We are transported into a realm where fact and fiction, the real and the unreal, the whole and the part, the highest and the lowest, are complementary aspects of the same continuous being: a realm where "any man is all men," where "all men who repeat a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare." The world is a book and the book is a world, and both are labyrinthine and enclose enigmas designed to be understood and participated in by man. We should note that this all-comprising intellectual unity is achieved precisely by the sharpest and most scandalous confrontation of opposites. In "Avatars of the Tortoise," the paradox of Zeno triumphantly demonstrates the unreality of the visible world, while in "The Library of Babel" it shows the anguishing impossibility of the narrator's ever reaching the Book of Books. And in "The Immortal," possibly Borges's most complete narrative, the movements toward and from immortality become one single approximation of universal impersonality.

Borges is always quick to confess his sources and borrowings, because for him no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes. (Hence Tlön, the impersonal and hereditary product of a "secret society"; hence Pierre Menard, the writer as perfect reader.) By critics he has often been compared with Kafka, whom he was one of the first to translate into Spanish. Certainly, we can see the imprint of his favorite Kafka story, "The Great Wall of China," on "The Lottery in Babylon" and "The Library of Babel"; the similarity lies mainly in the narrators' pathetically inadequate examination of an impossible subject, and also in the idea of an infinite, hierarchical universe, with its corollary of infinite regression. But the differences between the two writers are perhaps more significant than their likenesses. Kafka's minutely and extensively established portrayals of degradation, his irreducible and enigmatic situations, contrast strongly with Borges's compact but vastly significant theorems, his all-dissolving ratiocination. Kafka wrote novels, but Borges has openly confessed he cannot; his miniature forms are intense realizations of Poe's famous tenets of unity of effect and brevity to the exclusion of "worldly interests." And no matter how mysterious they may seem at first glance, all Borges's works contain the keys to their own elucidation in the form of clear parallelisms with other of his writings and explicit allusions to a definite literary and philosophical context within which he has chosen to situate himself. The list of Pierre Menard's writings, as Borges has observed, is not "arbitrary," but provides a "diagram of his mental history" and already implies the nature of his "subterranean" undertaking. All the footnotes in Borges's fictions, even those marked "Editor's Note," are the author's own and form an integral part of the works as he has conceived them. Familiarity with Neo-Platonism and related doctrines will clarify Borges's preferences and intentions, just as it will, say, Yeats's or Joyce's. But, as Borges himself has remarked of the theological explications of Kafka's work, the full enjoyment of his writings precedes and in no way depends upon such interpretations. Greater and more important than his intellectual ingenuity is Borges's consummate skill as a narrator, his magic in obtaining the most powerful effects with a strict economy of means.

Borges's stories may seem mere formalist games, mathematical experiments devoid of any sense of human responsibility and unrelated even to the author's own life, but quite the opposite is true. His idealist insistence on knowledge and insight, which mean finding order and becoming part of it, has a definite moral significance, though that significance is for him inextricably dual: his traitors are always somehow heroes as well. And all his fictional situations, all his characters, are at bottom autobiographical, essential projections of his experiences as writer, reader and human being (also divided, as "Borges and I" tells us). He is the dreamer who learns he is the dreamed one, the detective deceived by the hidden pattern of crimes, the perplexed Averroes whose ignorance mirrors the author's own in portraying him. And yet, each of these intimate failures is turned into an artistic triumph. It could be asked what such concerns of a total man of letters have to do with our plight as ordinary, bedeviled men of our bedeviled time. Here it seems inevitable to draw a comparison with Cervantes, so apparently unlike Borges, but whose name is not invoked in vain in his stories, essays and parables. Borges's fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life which is not only the central problem of all literature but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality. We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author; but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight's, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails, at our expense. Borges's "dehumanized" exercises in ars combinatoria are no less human than that.

Narrative prose is usually easier to translate than verse, but Borges's prose raises difficulties not unlike those of poetry, because of its constant creative deformations and cunning artifices. Writers as diverse as George Moore and Vladimir Nabokov have argued that translations should sound like translations. Certainly, since Borges's language does not read "smoothly" in Spanish, there is no reason it should in English. Besides, as was indicated above, he considers his own style at best only a translation of others': at the end of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" he speaks of making an "uncertain" version of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial after the manner of the great Spanish Baroque writer Francisco de Quevedo. Borges's prose is in fact a modern adaptation of the Latinized Baroque stil coupé. He has a penchant for what seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury rhetoricians called "hard" or "philosophic" words, and will often use them in their strict etymological sense, restoring radical meanings with an effect of metaphorical novelty. In the opening sentence of "The Circular Ruins," "unanimous" means quite literally "of one mind" (unus animus) and thus foreshadows the magician's final discovery. Elevated terms are played off against more humble and direct ones; the image joining unlike terms is frequent; heterogeneous contacts are also created by Borges's use of colons and semicolons in place of causal connectives to give static, elliptical, overlapping effects. Somewhat like Eliot in The Waste Land, Borges will deliberately work quotations into the texture of his writing. The most striking example is "The Immortal," which contains many more such "intrusions or thefts" than its epilogue admits. All his other stories do the same to some degree: there are echoes of Gibbon in "The Lottery in Babylon," of Spengler in "Deutsches Requiem," of Borges himself in "The Library of Babel" and "Funes the Memorious," Borges has observed that "the Baroque is that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its possibilities and borders on its own caricature." A self-parodying tone is particularly evident in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The Zahir," "The Sect of the Phoenix." In that sense, Borges also ironically translates himself….

Borges's somewhat belated recognition as a major writer of our time has come more from Europe than from his native America. The 1961 Formentor Prize, which he shared with Samuel Beckett, is the most recent token of that recognition. In Argentina, save for the admiration of a relatively small group, he has often been criticized as non-Argentine, as an abstruse dweller in an ivory tower, though his whole work and personality could only have emerged from that peculiar crossroads of the River Plate region, and his nonpolitical opposition to Perón earned him persecutions during the years of the dictatorship. Apparently, many of his countrymen cannot pardon in him what is precisely his greatest virtue—his almost superhuman effort to transmute his circumstances into an art as universal as the finest of Europe—and expect their writers to be uncomplicated reporters of the national scene. A kind of curious inverse snobbism is evident here. As the Argentine novelist Ernesto Sábato remarked in 1945, "if Borges were French or Czech, we would all be reading him enthusiastically in bad translations."

James E. Irby, in an introduction to Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, New Directions, 1964, pp. xv-xxiii.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Jorge Luis Borges 1899–1986

(Also wrote under pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch) Argentinean short story writer, poet, essayist, translator, critic, biographer, and screenwriter.

The following entry provides an overview of Borges's career. For further information on his life and work, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 19, 44, and 48.

Considered among the foremost literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges is best known for his short stories which blend fantasy, realism, and his extensive knowledge of world literature, metaphysics, and mysticism. Dealing with such themes as time, memory, and the malleability of both reality and literary form, Borges combined various styles of fiction and nonfiction to create a hybrid genre that defies easy classification. Although some critics have faulted his refusal to address social and political issues in his work, Borges maintained that he was "neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature."

Biographical Information

Borges was born in Buenos Aires to parents of old, illustrious Argentinean families. His father, a lawyer, educator, translator, and writer, encouraged his children in their intellectual pursuits with his extensive library and broad range of interests. As a child, Borges learned Spanish and English simultaneously, and mastered French, Latin, and German during college. A family tour of Europe in 1914 was interrupted by travel restrictions necessitated by World War I, thus affording Borges time to attend the Collège Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, from which he earned his degree in 1918. The following year he traveled in Spain where he associated with members of the literary avant-garde, particularly the Ultraists, and published his first poems, essays, and reviews. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921 and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) and Luna de enfrente (1925), was recognized as one of Argentina's leading literary figures. Although primarily a poet and essayist at first, Borges began writing short stories in the 1930s, and his first collections—Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy) and most importantly Ficciones, 1935–1944 (1944; Ficciones)—confirmed him as the foremost writer in Argentina. Despite a general dislike of politics and social commentary, Borges became an outspoken critic of Juan Perón during the Argentinean dictator's reign from 1946 to 1955; in a move to humiliate the noted writer, Perón appointed him national poultry inspector. After the return of civilian rule, however, Borges was made director of the National Library of Argentina and became a professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In the early 1960s the English translation of Ficciones, 1935–1944 brought him international recognition and, along with many offers to teach and lecture around the world, the 1961 Prix Formentor, the International Publishers Prize, which he shared with Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett. The majority of his time from this point on was spent traveling, lecturing, and dictating new works: he had grown almost completely blind and had to rely on a secretary to read and write for him. By his own account, Borges's life was devoted almost solely to literature. As he once explained: "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 thought or the music of England's words."

Major Works

Borges produced major works in three genres—poetry, essays, and short fiction. His first major books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires and Luna de enfrente, are avant-garde collections influenced by the Ultraist movement; the poems combine urban settings and themes, metaphysical speculations, and a pronounced, often surreal, use of symbolism. His later poetry tends to be more conservative in style. The poems collected in El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers) and Antologia personal (1961; A Personal Anthology), for example, employ rhyme and meter, ruminate on personal themes, and make reference to his own as well as other works of literature. Borges's works of fiction and nonfiction, as critics note, are often difficult to distinguish from one another. It is frequently observed that many of Borges's short stories are written in essay form; his essays often treat subject matter other authors deal with in fiction; and the very short works he called "parables" seem to defy classification, sharing the qualities of poetry, essays, and short stories. Borges's essay collections—including Inquisiciones (1925), Discusión (1932), and Otras inquisiciones, 1937–1952 (1952; Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952)—address a wide variety of issues and represent many diverse styles. For example, Discusión collects film reviews, articles on metaphysical and aesthetic topics, and includes the essay "Narrative Art and Magic," in which Borges asserts the capacity of fantasy literature to address realistic concerns. Borges's first collection of short stories, A Universal History of Infamy, purports to be an encyclopedia of world criminals, containing brief, seemingly factual accounts of such real and mythical characters as "The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morell," "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" (Billy the Kid), and "The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv." Ficciones contains many of Borges's most famous works of fiction. In "The Garden of Forking Paths" Borges combines elements of nonfiction writing—for example footnotes, references to scholarly works, and a detached, objective tone of voice—with metaphysical concepts and the structure of a detective story to show how two seemingly unrelated events—crimes committed at different points in history—intersect and resolve each other in a single moment. The enlarged English edition of El Aleph (1949), entitled The Aleph, and Other Stories, 1933–1969 (1970), consists of stories and essays from various periods in Borges's career. In addition to realistic as well as metaphysical stories, the book also includes his informative "Autobiographical Essay."

Critical Reception

Although critics have praised the formal precision and contemplative tone of Borges's best poetry, and have noted the stylistic as well as thematic originality of his essays, it is for his short fiction that Borges is recognized as one of the most influential and innovative authors of the twentieth century. His experiments with the intermingling of fantasy and realistic detail presaged the "magical realist" style of fiction practiced by such major Latin American authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar; the latter referred to Borges as "the leading figure of our fantastic literature." His insights into the nature of literature, the creative process, and the imagination, exemplified by such works as the frequently anthologized "The Circular Ruins," have established him as one of modern literature's most philosophically accomplished authors. Some critics have faulted Borges's writings for being esoteric, calling them little more than intellectually precious games. By exploring intellectual and philological issues, however, most commentators believe that Borges also addressed humankind's deepest concerns about the nature of existence. As critic Carter Wheelock commented: Borges "plays only one instrument—the intellectual, the epistemological—but the strumming of his cerebral guitar sets into vibration all the strings of emotion, intuition, and esthetic longing that are common to sentient humanity."

Miguel Enguídanos (essay date June 1963)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following excerpt from his introduction to Dreamtigers, Enguídanos discusses why Borges felt this collection of story fragments, parables, and poems was the culmination of his literary career.]

From the very first pages the English-speaking reader will discover that this [El hacedor translated as Dreamtigers] is an intimate, personal book…. Borges considered El hacedor—I don't know whether he may have changed his mind—his book, the book most likely, in his opinion, to be remembered when all the rest are forgotten. And the book—Borges loved to play with this idea—that would make his earlier works unnecessary, including his two extraordinary collections of stories, Ficciones and El Aleph. As is so often the case, the reader, to say nothing of the critic, may not agree with the poet; they may well continue to think, and not without reason, that the great, the unique Borges is the Borges of narrative fiction….

El hacedor, the original version of which appeared in Buenos Aires in 1960, is to all appearances a miscellany. In it the author is supposed to have gathered odd poems, stories, parables, sketches, fragments, and apocryphal quotations, with no other purpose than to show what time accumulates in the bottom of a writer's desk drawer. But actually this juxtaposing of fragments, bits, and snippets corresponds to a poetic criterion of an extremely high order: that of creating a book—the book—which is the mirror of a life. A life in which, as Borges himself confesses, "few things have happened more worth remembering than Schopenhauer's thought or the music of England's words." A life that has been, more than anything else, an internal life, a truly private life of calm self-possession and "recogimiento." [In a footnote, Enguídanos explains: "There is no choice here but to use the untranslatable Spanish word, for to live in 'recogimiento' is not simply to live in solitude; nor is it merely to live locked within oneself. A life of 'recogimiento' is the life of the solitary man who accepts and lives in perfect harmony with his solitude, nurturing himself on what the soul has within it, an unfathomable and, for many, unsuspected treasure."]

Borges has traveled a great deal. Sometimes he has made use of the customary media of transportation; but more often he has gone by way of his imagination. From his internal "recogimiento" he has ventured forth, on occasion, toward the strangest places and the remotest times. But his sallies have been only tentative explorations, amoebic assimilations of the external world. His work—and by now it can be viewed as a whole—is altogether poetic, personal, the work of a spirit so withdrawn that solitude has enlarged it and made him now see in that solitude the secret of the whole universe, now tremble before its undecipherable mysteries. Borges' "theme," then, throughout all his work—including his now famous fantasy narratives—has been simply Borges himself. It is true that, from all his excursions into nooks alien to his inner self—reading, travel, fleeting human relationships—Borges has come back burdened with every possible doubt except one. In spite of his intelligent, ironic, and painstaking defenses, each clash with external reality has reaffirmed his consciousness of self. With the world's reality in doubt, and man's, and even God's, only one certainty remains: that of being "somebody"—a particular individual, not very easily identifiable, for he could have been named Homer, Shakespeare, or, more modestly, Jorge Luis Borges—creating himself from within. This hacedor [Enguídanos explains in a footnote that in Spanish "Hacedor means 'maker' but it also has the meaning of creator. Thus God is spoken of as the 'Supremo Hacedor'"] is the creator, the poet, the man capable of "singing and leaving echoing concavely in the memory of man" murmurs—in prose and in verse—of Iliads, Odysseys, lost loves, obscure gestes, impossible and desperate adventures of fantasy. Security in this "somebody," this intimate self, is not based in Borges' case on a clear consciousness of his identity or personal destiny, but rather on the certainty of the compulsive, creative, poetic force that has borne him to the final stretch of his life work without faltering. The imprecise Homer-Borges of the story "El hacedor" knows very well that the weapon for combating life's final disillusionment, time's inexorable weight, and the terror and anguish of darkness, is none other than his capacity to dream and to sing. Dreams and song make the world bearable, habitable; they make the dark places bright. Blindness of the soul—which is the one that counts—is the natural state of man, and woe to him who does not see in time that we live surrounded by shadows! The poet, the hacedor, makes this discovery one day and descends into the shadows unafraid, illumined by his creative consciousness. "In this night of his mortal eyes, into which he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting." Borges and Homer know, then, that this is where everything begins, in the bold, loving acceptance of life and in the drive that impels them to people their darkness with voices.

Dreams and song. About the whole and about the parts. About the universe and about each of its separate creatures. The creature may be a man—gaucho, hero, Irish patriot, impenitent Nazi, sacrificed Jew—any one of man's artifacts—a whole civilization, a library, a knife—or simply an animal, a tiger. "As I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger."

But the hacedor must accept his ministry humbly. He must exercise his power, prepared, however, to recognize his ultimate impotence. For his office consists, precisely, in the will to dream very high dreams and in attempting the purest, most lasting resonances, all the while realizing and bravely accepting his incompetence. "Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variants of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird."

Dreams and song—in spite of incompetence, stumblings, and disillusionment. This is why the hacedor and his book are born. Their mission and message will not escape the reader who knows when a dream is a dream and who has an ear for remembering the melody of a song.

Let the reader not be confused. This book, though composed of fragments, must be appraised as if it were a multiple mirror, or a mosaic of tiny mirrors. At a certain distance from its reading—once it has been digested—it will be clear that the pieces outline a whole: a self-portrait of an entire soul and body. The brilliant insinuation, the mysterious or ironic reference, the small poetic incision, are Borges' chosen expressive means. The story or short narrative, a form that made him famous, and the novel—a genre he has avoided—always seemed to him unpardonable excesses. That is why Borges feels El hacedor is the culmination of a literary career, a liberation from former limitations, vanities, and prejudices. That is why he feels it is his book. How right he is, it is still not time nor is this the place to judge; but the earnestness the poet put into the effort ought to be clearly established. In El hacedor stories, tales, and even poems are reduced to their minimum, almost naked expression. Everything tends toward the poetic parable: brief, but bright as a flash of lightning.

Since El hacedor, Borges has published an Antología personal in Argentina. In it he has collected, in preferential rather than chronological order, what to his mind can be submitted to the judgment of a hypothetical posterity. As the poet tells us in the prologue, the experiment has served only to prove to him his poverty, his limitations of expression, the mortality of his writings as measured by his rigorous criteria of today. But, at the same time, the task of anthologizing his own work has made him surer of himself, created a new source of vital energy, and given him a renewed illusion. "This poverty," says Borges "does not discourage me, since it gives me an illusion of continuity."

In my opinion, the several pieces that make up the present book, El hacedor, were also put together after Jorge Luis Borges had already begun to feel the pull of that anxiety for continuity. "For good or for ill, my readers"—Borges seems to be wanting to tell us in recent years—"these fragments piled up here by time are all that I am. The earlier work no longer matters." "The tall proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not—as his vanity had dreamed—a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world" ["A Yellow Rose"]. And this is all he as a poet feels capable of desiring: to be able to add to the world a few bits of more or less resplendent mirror yielding only an illusory reflection—ah, the timid yearning for immortality!—of what was felt, thought, and dreamed in solitude. The solitude, as we know, of one of the most solitary, intelligent, and sensitive souls of our time.

The poet is setting out, then, on his last venture. It makes one tremble to think with what assurance poets know when the final stage of a creative life begins; but at the same time it is wondrous to contemplate how the chaos that is their own life and work begins to take on meaning for them. Perhaps what is seen now will in retrospect be only another illusion, but there it is. When the uneven fragments that comprise the work are pieced together—especially the ones that appear most insignificant—they outline something the poet is consoled to behold. The parts organize themselves into a whole. "A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face."

If, after all, the face is merely the mirror of the soul, it is not hard to guess the ultimate meaning of the game of illusion Jorge Luis Borges proposes to the reader in this book: the separate parts that constitute El hacedor—narratives, poems, parables, reflections, and interpolations—when read as a whole, trace the image of the poet's face: facemirror-image of the soul of the creator, of the maker.

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about one poet's dedicating one of his books to another poet. That El hacedor should be dedicated to Leopoldo Lugones is something that need not be mentioned in this introduction if it were not that the explanation Borges gives for his dedication at the beginning of the volume requires a special imaginative effort on the part of the reader [In a footnote, Enguídanos explains that "Leopoldo Lugones (1874–1938) is the most famous of the Argentine Modernist poets. He was born in a provincial town in Córdoba and took his own life with cyanide in 1938, in Tigre, near Buenos Aires. Lugones was the most important renovating force in Argentine poetry and prose in the twentieth century. His best-known works are Las montañas del oro (1897), Los crepúsculos del jardín (1905), Las fuerzas extrañas (1906), Lunario sentimental (1909), and La guerra gaucha (1911)"]. Actually, without such an effort one cannot wholly enter the mysterious realm where the poet lives his dreams. The invocation of the shade of Lugones—who committed suicide in 1938—on the threshold of El hacedor is revealing. It is an exorcism.

The dream and the song of El hacedor are troubled from the start by old, malignant spirits. In conjuring his former demons—passion, intellectual pride, rebellion against the voice of the once omnipresent poet—Borges wants to be done with them. It is not merely a question of appeasing the memory of the Modernist poet, against whom Borges and his young friends in 1921 launched the most violent attacks and obstreperous jibes. Nor of recognizing, out of the creative maturity of his sixties, the right and dignity of literary prestige honorably won. Borges intends to do this, of course, but much more as well. He wants now to incorporate into his book, into his song, the feeling that in his hostility toward the great poet of the generation preceding his own there was somehow a great and heartfelt love. For without internal peace and order the poet cannot truly face the chaos of life, or manage to have his work's labyrinth of lines trace the image of his face.

There is, besides, a certain fascination in his recollection of Lugones. Borges is the present director of the National Library in Buenos Aires; in 1938, Lugones was director of the Library of the National Council of Education. In his dedication Borges deliberately fuses and confuses the two libraries and the two times, past and present: "Leaving behind the babble of the plaza, I enter the Library. I feel, almost physically, the magnetic force of the books, an ambient serenity of order, time magically desiccated and preserved." The intent is quite clear: "My vanity and nostalgia have set up an impossible scene," says Borges. The impossibility is not merely physical; it depends rather on the fact that it is a wish, a dream, too distant to be attainable; for what the poet dreams of is nothing less than a loving communion between the voices of the poets. "Perhaps so," says Borges to himself in his illusions, "but tomorrow I too will have died and our times will intermingle and chronology will be lost in a sphere of symbols. And then in some way it will be right to claim that I have brought you this book and that you, Lugones, have accepted it."

From the very first pages, therefore, the reader can discover where the poet is going in the rest of the book. Besides, without the initial exorcism of the demons of frivolity, routine reading, and pedantry, the reader might even be prevented from coming at last to trace out the portrait of his own face. And to reach this moment to which every reader—a passive poet—should be led by the hand of the hacedor, the active poet, there is no other way than to exorcise oneself and make ready to dream and to hear the murmurs that are heard in dreams.

Miguel Enguídanos, in an introduction to Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, University of Texas Press, 1985, pp. 9-17.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Fervor de Buenos Aires (poetry) 1923; revised edition, 1969
Inquisiciones (essays) 1925
Luna de enfrente (poetry) 1925
El tamano de mi esparanza (essays) 1927
El idioma de los Argentinos (essay) 1928
Cuaderno San Martin (poetry) 1929
Evaristo Carriego (biography) 1930
  [Evaristo Carriego: A Book About Old-Time Buenos Aires, 1983]
Discusión (essays and criticism) 1932; revised edition, 1976
Historia universal de la infamia (short stories) 1935
  [A Universal History of Infamy, 1972]
Historia de la eternidad (essays) 1936; revised and enlarged edition, 1953
El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (short stories) 1941
Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, as H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1942
  [Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, 1980]
Poemas, 1922–1943 (poetry) 1943; also published as Poemas, 1923–1953 [revised and enlarged edition], 1954; also published as Poemas, 1923–1958 [revised and enlarged edition], 1958
Ficciones, 1935–1944 (short stories) 1944
  [Ficciones, 1962; also published as Fictions, 1965]
El compardito, su destino, sus barrios, su música (nonfiction) 1945; enlarged edition, 1968
Dos fantasías memorables [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, as H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1946
Un modelo para la muerta [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, as B. Suárez Lynch] (short stories) 1946
El Aleph (short stories) 1949
  [The Aleph, and Other Stories, 1933–1969, 1970]
Otras inquisiciones, 1937–1952 (essays) 1952
  [Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, 1964]
Obras completas. 10 vols. (essays, short stories, and poetry) 1953–67
Días de odio [with Leopoldo Torre Nilsson] (screenplay) 1954
Manual de zoologia fantastica [with Margarita Guerrero] (fiction) 1957; also published as El libro de los seres imaginarios [revised edition], 1967
  [The Imaginary Zoo, 1969; also published as The Book of Imaginary Beings (revised edition), 1969]
El hacedor (prose and poetry) 1960
  [Dreamtigers, 1964]
Antologia personal (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1961
  [A Personal Anthology, 1967]
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (short stories and essays) 1962
Obra poética, 1923–1964 (poetry) 1964; also published as Obra poética, 1923–1966 [enlarged edition], 1966; Obra poética, 1923–1967, 1967; Obra poética, 1923–1969, 1972; Obra poética, 1923–1976, 1977
  [Selected Poems, 1923–1967, 1972]
Introducción a la literatura inglesa [with María Esther Vázquez] (criticism) 1965
  [An Introduction to English Literature, 1974]
Introducción a la literatura norteamericana [with Esther Zemborain de Torres] (criticism) 1965
  [An Introduction to American Literature, 1973]
Crónicas de Bustos Domecq [with Adolfo Bioy Casares] (short stories) 1967
  [Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, 1976]
Nueva antologia personal (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1968
Elogio de la sombra (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1969
  [In Praise of Darkness, 1974]
Invasión [with Hugo Santiago] (screenplay) 1969
El informe de Brodie (short stories) 1970
  [Doctor Brodie's Report, 1972]
El oro de los tigres (poetry) 1972
Borges on Writing (interviews) 1973
El libro de arena (short stories) 1975
  [The Book of Sand, 1977]
La rosa profunda (poetry) 1975
Historia de la noche (poetry) 1977
Obras completas (poetry, short stories, criticism, and essays) 1977
Obras completas en colaboracion [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Betina Edelberg, Margarita Guerrero, Alicia Jurado, Maria Kodama, María Esther Vazquez] (short stories, essays, and criticism) 1979
Borges en/y/sobre cine (criticism) 1980
  [Borges In/And/On Film, 1988]
Prosa completa. 2 vols. (short stories, essays, and criticism) 1980
Siete noches (lectures) 1980
  [Seven Nights, 1984]
Antologia poetica, 1923–1977 (poetry) 1981
Borges: A Reader (poetry, short stories, criticism, and essays) 1981
Atlas [with Maria Kodama] (nonfiction) 1984
  [Atlas, 1985]
Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Including a Selection of Poems (interviews and poetry) 1984

∗This work is based on the short story "Emma Zunz."

†These works were translated and published as The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems in 1977.

James E. Irby (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following essay—his introduction to Other Inquisitions—Irby discusses the varied subjects and subtle interconnections of Borges's essays.]

[Otras inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions)] is Borges' best collection of essays, and forms a necessary complement to the stories of Ficciones and El Aleph, which have made him famous. Otras inquisiciones was first published in 1952, but its pieces had appeared separately (most of them in Victoria Ocampo's review Sur or in the literary supplement of La Nación) over the preceding thirteen years. The title harks back to Borges' first volume of essays, published in 1925, when he was twenty-six. Those original Inquisiciones now seem to him affected and dogmatic avant-garde exercises; he will not have the book reprinted and buys up old copies to destroy them. The present collection's curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. "Other" can mean "more of the same": more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But "other" is also "different," perhaps even "opposite": these essays hardly set forth inflexible dogma, with their sagacious heresies, pursuit of multiple meanings, and dubitative style. In 1925 Borges stated that his title aimed to dissociate "inquisition" once and for all from monks' cowls and the smoke of damnation. After an inquisitorial pursuit of his own work, the effort continues.

Borges' reference to De Quincey in opening the essay on John Donne is typical in its candid confession of influence and also typical in the English and uncommon nature of that influence. For Otras inquisiciones will probably seem no less unusual to the English-speaking than to the Spanish-speaking reader. Traits of nineteenth-century essayists as little read today as De Quincey—whimsical bookishness, a blend of conversational discursiveness and elevated diction, informal opinion prevailing over formal analysis—combine with the many unfamiliar subjects to produce a kind of alienation effect, a somewhat archaic or even atemporal quality remote from our age of urgent involvements, as well as from current critical modes. This effect is more compounded than mitigated by a very un-nineteenth-century brevity that may seem fragmentary and, with the great heterogeneity of the subjects, make the collection appear arbitrary and without unity. But there is method here; its basic principle is already suggested by the union of diverse and opposite meanings in the title.

One of the foremost quests in Otras inquisiciones is for symmetries; two that are rediscovered throughout the book under various guises appear in the first two essays. In "The Wall and the Books" Borges evokes the Chinese emperor who both created the Great Wall and wanted all books prior to him burned. Thisenormous mystification inexplicably "satisfies" and, at the same time, "disturbs" Borges. His purpose then is to seek the reasons for "that emotion." (Note that the stimulus for the supposedly cerebral Borges is not an idea, that the satisfaction and disturbance are one feeling.) Various conjectures lead him to suggest that the aesthetic phenomenon consists in the "imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced": a kind of expanding virtuality of thought, an unresolved yet centrally focussed multiplicity of views, which the essay's form as discussion, as tacit dialogue, has already reflected. The other essays also display, centrally or laterally, paradoxes or oppositions with analogous overtones. At the end of "Avatars of the Tortoise" the paradoxes of Zeno and the antinomies of Kant indicate for Borges that the universe is ultimately a dream, a product of the mind, unreal because free of the apparent limits of time and space we call "real." But the paradoxical confession with which "New Refutation of Time" ends—"it [time] is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire"—must conclude that "the world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges." Extremes of fantastic hope and skepticism paradoxically coexist in Borges' thought.

In "Pascal's Sphere" he examines an image which is not only paradoxical in itself—the universe as an infinite sphere, in other words, a boundless form perfectly circumscribed—but which has also served to express diametrically opposite emotions: Bruno's elation and Pascal's anguish. But the other basic symmetry to note here is Borges' history of the metaphor. Not only paradoxes are found throughout this collection, but also various listings of ideas or themes or images which though diverse in origin and detail are essentially the same. In "The Flower of Coleridge" the coincidence of Valéry's, Emerson's, and Shelley's conceptions of all literature as the product of one Author seems itself to bear out that conception. At the beginning of the essay on Hawthorne, Borges again briefly traces the history of a metaphor—the likening of our dreams to a theatrical performance—and adds that true metaphors cannot be invented, since they have always existed. Such "avatars" point beyond the flux and diversity of history to a realm of eternal archetypes, which, though limited in number, "can be all things for all people, like the Apostle." While the paradox upsets our common notions of reality and suggests that irreducible elements are actually one, recurrence negates history and the separateness of individuals. Of course, this too is a paradox, as "New Refutation of Time" shows: time must exist in order to provide the successive identities with which it is to be "refuted." The two symmetries noted above, if we pursue their implications far enough, finally coalesce, with something of the same dizzying sense, so frequent in Borges' stories, of infinite permutations lurking at every turn. Both are uses of what he calls a pantheist extension of the principle of identity—God is all things: a suitably heterogeneous selection of these may allude to Totality—which has, as he notes in the essay on Whitman, unlimited rhetorical possibilities.

Stylistic uses of that principle are the paradoxical or near-paradoxical word pairs ("that favors or tolerates another interpretation," "our reading of Kafka refines and changes our reading of the poem") and also the ellipses and transferred epithets based on substitution of part for whole, whose possibilities for animation of the abstract and impersonal explain why Borges terms a typical example "allegorical" at the beginning of "From Allegories to Novels." (The classical concept of Literature's precedence over individuals, outlined in the first essay on Coleridge, is analogous to this and to the priority of archetypes. As we shall see, Borges' very personal essayistic manner actually reinforces such impersonality.) In general, the enumeration of sharply diverse yet somehow harmonizing parts that allude to some larger, static whole unnamable by any unilateral means is a common procedure underlying many features of Borges' style and form: the sentences that abruptly rotate their angular facets like cut stones, the succinct little catalogs that may comprise paragraphs and even whole essays, the allusions and generalizations that find echoes of the line of argument elsewhere and project it onto other planes, the larger confrontations of a writer with his alter ego (in himself or in another) or of the essay with its own revision or complement—all those series and inlays, in short, which are so much the curt mosaic design of this collection.

It is even possible to see the miscellaneous range of subjects taken up in Otras inquisiciones as yet another extension of the same "pantheist" principle, as the record of a random series of discoveries in books that variously point to one subsistent order beyond. In Borges' stories (as also in Don Quixote) the turning points, the crucial revelations, are very often marked by the finding of some unexpected text. Otras inquisiciones opens with the words "I read, not long ago …" and closes with the author's reflections on rereading his own essays. This ubiquitousness of books and their scrutiny is but one aspect of that ancient topos, with all its Cabalist elaborations, that so fascinates Borges: the world as Book, reality transmuted into Word, into intelligible Sign. All reality, including the symbolic and lived aspects we normally consider separate—the translation of this unity into literary form, as "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote" points out, is the structure of work within work in Cervantes' novel, in Hamlet, in Sartor Resartus, where the boundaries between fiction and life shift and tend to disappear.

Concentric structures of this kind abound in Ficciones and El Aleph, as do direct premonitions and echoes of those stories' themes in Otras inquisiciones. It is easy to see, for example, that the literary games of Tlön that attribute dissimilar works to the same writer and conjecture upon the apocryphal mentality thus obtained, like Pierre Menard's art of "the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution," are only somewhat more extravagant applications of the scrutinies practiced in the essays. In fact, Borges' entire work, filled with recurring variants of the same interlocking themes, is a cento of itself, a repeated approximation of archetypes like those he glimpses in others. But a more intriguing comparison between his essays and his stories can be posed in this question: what is the difference for him between one genre and the other? Are his many fictions that masquerade as essays, such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" or "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," distinct from the "real" essays of Otras inquisiciones simply because the stories have invented books and authors as their subjects? But the fiction entitled "Story of the Warrior and the Captive" (in El Aleph) contains no invented element, save the speculative elaboration upon the scant facts of its real characters' lives, and the germs of this are found also in an essay like "The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald," with the same weighing of conjectures, bipartite structure, and final identity of figures greatly separate in time and place. The real difference seems to be one of emphasis or degree: fiction and fact, imagination and critique, are aspects of the same continuum throughout Borges' work, both within genres and among them. Hence, in these essays, he can use historical deeds to investigate the aesthetic phenomenon, to remark that the "inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art," to find in his own work a tendency to "evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth," and to add epilogues and after-thoughts that are the beginnings of those Chinese-box structures where literature devours and extends itself without limit.

Borges' major world-pictures have already been noted here in passing: the world as Book, the idealist and pantheist notions of the world as idea or dream, either man's or God's. (The Gnostic image suggested in the essay on John Donne—the world infinitely degraded, infinitely remote from God's perfection—is but the exact obverse of pantheism. As Borges observed in his earlier book Discusión, "what greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?") That these conceptions also coalesce is shown by the remark "we (the undivided divinity that operates within us) have dreamed the world" in "Avatars of the Tortoise," by the concluding sentence of "From Someone to Nobody," which suggests that all history is a dream of recurrent forms, and by the entire essay "The Mirror of the Enigmas," with its "hieroglyphic" interpretation of the universe that Borges claims most befits "the intellectual God of the theologians," the infinite mind that can instantly grasp the most intricate figure in space and time (a nightmare of ars combinatoria, of pure chance) as a harmonious design. Borges' world-pictures all seem to join in postulating that the world is a supreme mind about to emerge from its symbols and reveal the unity of all things and beings sub specie aeternitatis.

But does Borges believe in such incredible cosmologies? Clearly not: the alternative of infinite chaos is also always about to emerge. The word "believe" here takes on the same uncertainty as "fiction" and "reality." His cosmologies are like hypotheses, cherished but also incurably problematical, as the whole tentative, self-critical cast of his style, at its most elaborate in "New Refutation of Time," indicates. Such flexibility of mind he finds lacking in his former idol Quevedo, who is immune to the charm of fantastic doctrines that are "probably false," and relishes in the atheist Omar Khayyām, who could interpret the Koran with strict orthodoxy and invoke in his studies of algebra the favor of "the God Who perhaps exists," because "every cultivated man is a theologian, and faith is not a requisite." Any theme set forth by Borges will be refuted by him somewhere else: the concept of autonomous pure form espoused in "The Wall and the Books" and "Quevedo" is rejected in the first paragraphs of the essay on Bernard Shaw. Self-refutation has, besides the virtues of probity, its advantages, its "apparent desperations and secret assuagements." One could suspect that Borges' nature, like Chesterton's, is a discord, and see these essays simply as its testimony, but it seems more accurate to consider Otras inquisiciones as a mask, as consciously projecting the image of a "possible poet," after the manner he has noted in Whitman and Valéry, those poetic personifications of fervor and intellect, each of whom is a counter-part of Borges' creative self (the former fully as much as the latter, contrary to widespread belief).

The nature and purpose of that projection are implied in three passages from scattered essays of Borges. In 1927 he called metaphysics "the only justification and finality of any theme." In 1933 he spoke of Icelandic kennings that produce "that lucid perplexity which is the sole honor of metaphysics, its remuneration, and its source." And in 1944 he admired the "dialectical skill" of a fragment from Heraclitus, which insinuates part of its meaning and "gives us the illusion of having invented it." The themes of Otras inquisiciones, as such, matter less than the state of awareness their immediacy and strangeness and scope can induce. In Borges' sense, metaphysics is not an abstruse specialty, but the quotidian acts of all our thought, pursued to their consequences and revealed as the wonders they are. All ideas are arbitrary, fantastic, and useful. They should be remembered if forgotten or obscure, subverted if sacred (another form of oblivion), made absurd if banal—all for the sake of intelligence, of perceptibility. Borges' curious erudition, plausible paradoxes, and rest-less scrutinies serve those functions, as does his very readable style (that worn epithet must be revived and used here). Taut and effortless, transparent and mannered, deeply true to the genius of the Spanish language yet heterodox, his rhetoric is also a silent parody and extension of itself. For even certain excesses, the abruptness of certain transitions, the dubiousness of certain obviously sentimental attachments, seem a willful demonstration of the limits of his writing and thought, as if to invite the reader, once he is sufficiently initiated (Borges' work is never hermetic and is always intended for the reader), to "improve" upon these somewhat Socratic schemes. The activation of thought, shared by author and reader, miraculously effected over fatal distance and time by words whose sense alters and yet lives on, is the real secret promise of the infinite dominion of mind, not its images or finalities, which are expendable. This is the "method" of Borges' essays, the process both examined and enacted in them, received and passed on, as part of a great chain of being. Hence the essay on Whitman, hence the final epigraph from the seventeenth-century German mystic Angelus Silesius:

       Freund, es ist auch genug. Im Fall du mehr willst lesen,
       So geh und werde selbst die Schrift und selbst das Wesen.
       Friend, this is enough. If you want to read more,
       Go and be yourself the letter and the spirit.

James E. Irby, in an introduction to Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952 by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. ix-xv.

Edgardo Cozarinsky (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Spanish in 1980, Cozarinsky examines Borges's narrative techniques, arguing that his style is strongly influenced by classical Hollywood film editing and the "serializing" of "significant moments."]

Film—an idea of film, really—recurs in Borges's writing linked to the practice of narration, even to the possibility of attempting narration. Films also appear as reading matter, one among the countless motives for reflection lavished on us by the universe. The examples offered to Borges by films illustrate widely disparate themes: the hilarious response of a Buenos Aires audience to some scenes from Hallelujah and Underworld provoked his bitter commentary on "Our Impossibilities" (an article dating from 1931 and included in Discusión the following year but eliminated from the 1957 edition) [it was translated as "Our Inadequacies" in Borges: A Reader]; von Sternberg gave him the chance to confirm a hypothesis about the workings of all story telling ("The Postulation of Reality" and "Narrative Art and Magic," both included in Discusión); Joan Crawford made an appearance in the second of these essays and Miriam Hopkins in "History of Eternity" from the volume of the same title, "the impetuous film Hallelujah" furnished one of the many results of bringing blacks to America that Borges enumerates in Universal History of Infamy; the modest translator Edward William Lane provided a basis for Borges's comparison with Hollywood's then rigid censorship code ("The Translators of the 1001 Nights," History of Eternity).

During the 1920s and '30s, Borges saw the mere diffusion of images by means of film as an incalculable enrichment of life, perhaps because he knew how to recognize in those images, even though they were fictitious—or, above all, because they were fictitious?—signs of a broader context. In a digression, subsequently deleted when he revised Discusión, Borges refers in his 1929 essay "The Other Whitman" to the lack of communication between inhabitants of "the diverse Americas," and he proceeds to venture an opinion: it is "a lack of communication that films, with their direct presentation of destinies and their no less direct presentation of wills, tend to overcome." This catalogue of references could be extended effortlessly, but its sole importance is to establish the degree to which films were a habit for the young Borges, an accessible repertoire of allusions, which he consulted as frequently as the Encyclopedia Britannica or unpublished reality.

At that time, film represented to Borges the image of literature (or history or philosophy) as a single text fragmented into countless, even contradictory passages, which neither individually represented that text nor in combination exhausted it. With even greater ease than in those prestigious disciplines, this notion could come to life in the films Borges frequented and quoted from, with diminishing regularity after 1940: a cinema that in spite of Eisenstein and Welles could still seem an art unfettered by too many big names, a cinema that was, above all else, free of bibliographies and academies. Allardyce Nicoll, whose Film and Theatre (1936) Borges dismissed as an exercise in pedantry, seemed "well versed in libraries, erudite in card catalogues, sovereign in files," but "nearly illiterate in box-offices…."

In this cinematic realm, many obscure narrators practiced the "differing intonation of a few metaphors" ("The Sphere of Pascal," Other Inquisitions) whose history may be the history of the universe. "I think nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns," Borges told Ronald Christ in an interview published in The Paris Review 40 (Winter/Spring 1967). "During this century," he said, "the epic tradition has been saved for the world by, of all places, Hollywood." If Hollywood really was able to compile a film-text, both craftsmanlike and collective, as well as bearing comparison to the ancient sagas, then Borges's predilection for that text is, horribile dictu, sophisticated. In order to belittle the films that von Sternberg composed around Marlene Dietrich, Borges repeatedly defends von Sternberg's earlier action films; and, in the interview with Christ, he recalls that "when I saw the first gangster films of von Sternberg I remember that when there was anything epic about them—I mean Chicago gangsters dying bravely—well, I felt that my eyes were full of tears." But von Sternberg was neither Wellman nor Hawks nor Walsh—figures who, with greater credibility, might embody a cinematic skald. Obviously, Borges felt attracted by the stylization that von Sternberg imposed on his gangland characters, settings, and conventions, whose usual violence is less elliptical, less ironic than in films like Underworld or The Docks of New York.

It is no accident that von Sternberg is the only film director whom Borges assiduously refers to or that those references appear in his early studies of narrative technique included in Discusión as well as in the 1935 prologue to the Universal History of Infamy, where the epic invocation turns into an exercise of verbal legerdemain. In the 1954 prologue to that book, Borges writes: "Scaffolds and pirates populate it, and the word infamy blares in the title; but, behind all the tumult, there is nothing. The book is nothing more than appearance, nothing more than a surface of images, and for that very reason it may prove pleasurable." Films, of course, are that surface of images, and nothing can be found behind the words of any literary work; but to admit and flaunt one's working against the referential function of language is as skeptical and cultivated an attitude as nostalgia for epic or disdain for romantic individualism.

Less ascetic than Valéry, Borges put his distrust of the novel into practice. His impatience with mere length is well known: "It is an impoverishing and laborious extravagance to create long books, to extend into 500 pages an idea whose perfect oral expression takes a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that these books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary" (Prologue to The Garden of the Forking Paths). Such boldness destroys the very possibility of even approaching a genre that, in order to develop a character and to proportion its episodes, requires a necessarily unhurried orchestration of specific circumstances and trivial information. Borges has also explained that Hawthorne's talent lent itself more to the short story than to the novel because he preferred to start from situations rather than from characters: "Hawthorne first imagined a situation, perhaps involuntarily, and afterward looked for characters to embody it. I am not a novelist, but I suspect that no novelist has proceeded in that way…. That method may produce, or permit, admirable short stories in which, because of their brevity, the plot is more visible than the characters; but it cannot produce admirable novels, in which the overall form (if there is any) is only visible at the end and in which a single poorly imagined character may contaminate with unreality all those characters who surround him" ("Nathaniel Hawthorne," Other Inquisitions).

So, then: distrust of the scale demanded by the novel and esteem for a format ("summary," "commentary") that makes "overall form" visible. As an expression of flexible disdain, of willingness to allow for occasional greatness in the practice of what he considers an erroneous genre, that phrase "if there is any" belongs to the same family as Valéry's most categorical observations. But the interesting thing about this apathy is that it does not suppose a rejection of narrative. In fact, a summary analysis of the most distinguishing characteristics in Borges's "fiction" reveals its undisguised narrative quality. The text may be a review of nonexistent literary works ("The Approach to Almotasim," "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain"), the exposition of apocryphal theories ("Three Versions of Judas," "The Theologians"), a report about an invented reality ("The Babylonian Lottery," "The Library of Babel"), even the connecting of probable episodes by means of a fictitious link ("History of the Warrior and the Captive," "Averroes's Search"). No matter. The less those texts respond to the accepted statutes of fiction, the more strongly they display the narrative process, which directs a mise-en-scène whose purpose is neither mimetic nor representational but intellectual: to arouse pleasure in the recognition of that "overall form," a recognition customarily postponed by the novel.

"The Wall and the Books," "Coleridge's Dream," "The Meeting in a Dream," and "The Modesty of History" are usually read as essays because they are included in a volume that announces itself as a collection of essays: Other Inquisitions. The book's real nature is a series of narrative exercises, operations that renew the workings of narrative on philosophical ideas, historical documents, and literary figures. Similarly, "History of the Warrior and the Captive" or "Averroes's Search" appear in The Aleph and therefore are read as "fictions." Borges's categories of narrative do not discriminate between fiction and nonfiction. The only purpose of these categories is to exhibit the inherent qualities of narrative and essayistic discourse: to unearth a design that rescues the mere telling from chaos and makes an illusion of the cosmos possible. Fiction triumphs. Tlön captures and supplants the real universe with the illusion of order: "How can one not submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? It is useless to answer that reality is also ordered. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: with inhuman laws—that we never really perceive. Tlön will be a labyrinth, but a labyrinth planned by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men" ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," The Garden of the Forking Paths).

Looking back after twenty years, Borges pronounced judgment on his first stories: "They are the irresponsible game of a timid man who did not dare to write stories and so amused himself by falsifying and betraying (sometimes without esthetic justification) other writers' stories" (Prologue to the 1954 edition of the Universal History of Infamy). To falsify, to betray—those verbs shock with their criminal connotations. Yet they apply to the transmission of every story, from the traditional tale and gossip to any projected novel being transformed into a written text. All narrative proceeds by repetitions and modifications of a pre-text, which it nullifies. Those "ambiguous games" that Borges mentions in his prologue quoted above are especially revealing because they reject the invention of anecdote, choosing to explore, instead, the various possibilities of narrative, even the mutually exclusive possibilities. In order to overcome his declared timidity, Borges both disguises and exhibits his own devices.

How did Borges view those games at the time he wrote them? In his prologue to the first edition, Borges says: "They derived, I believe, from my re-reading of Stevenson and Chesterton, and even from the first films of von Sternberg, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego. They abuse some procedures: random enumeration, abrupt shifts in continuity, reduction of a man's entire life to two or three scenes." This enumeration of sources and methods, by contrast, is not random. In fact, examining his examples enables us to define the context Borges discovered for his idea of film.

In Stevenson, even in Chesterton, Borges admires a capacity for verbal mise-en-scène:

The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration. Crusoe recoiling from the footprint, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his ears, these are each culminating moments in the legend, and each has been printed on the mind's eye forever. Other things we may forget; we may forget the words, although they are beautiful; we may forget the author's comment although perhaps it was ingenious and true; but these epoch-making scenes, which put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind that neither time nor tide can efface or weaken the impression. This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character, thought or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind's eye.

         (Stevenson, "A Gossip on Romance," Memories and Portraits, 1887).

Appreciation of verbal mise-en-scène, which Stevenson calls "the plastic part of literature," appears at a particular point in the evolution of narrative during the second half of the nineteenth century: after the inauguration of rigorous discipline by Flaubert; coincident with Henry James's early mastery in controlling points of view and alternating between "panorama" and "scene"; immediately before the consecration of these devices as technique in James's subsequent work as well as in the works of Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, and the Joyce of "The Dead." Once systematized by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction and before languishing in the universities until it died out, this tradition provided the basis for the New Critics' best work in the study of fiction.

In "The Postulation of Reality," which appears in Discusión Borges refers to these verbal, defining, and definitive images as "circumstantial invention," the third and most difficult as well as most efficient among the methods by which novelists can impose their subtle authority on the reader. He illustrates the method, magnanimously, with an example from La gloria de Don Ramiro [in a footnote, the translator explains that this is a "novel by the Argentine writer Enrique Larreta (1875–1961). Published in 1908, the book reflects the influence of both literary realism and naturalism, especially in its extravagant devotion to historical detail. Cozarinsky says that Borges chose his example 'magnanimously' since Borges did not ordinarily value Larreta's work] and adds:

I have quoted a short, linear example, but I know of expanded works—Wells's rigorously imaginative novels, Defoe's exasperatingly true-to-life ones—that use no other technique than incorporating or serializing those laconic details into a lengthy development. I assert the same thing about Josef von Sternberg's cinematographic novels, which are also made up of significant moments. It is an admirable and difficult method, but its general application makes it less strictly literary than the two previous ones. (This quotation comes from the 1957 edition of Discussion; the original 1932 edition reads: "cinematic, ocular novels.")

What can a writer do with the novelist's tools if his own intellectual habits and work with language predispose him to writing short stories and brief, intense texts? If he is also intolerant of the novel's unavoidable long stretches? Instead of finding privileged moments in the course of narrating, is it possible for him to depart from an ordering of those "significant moments" and to omit the connective tissue that should bind them together? Or, going even further, will he be able with those isolated images—so memorable within a narrative of a certain length—to conjure up phantasmagorically the absent narration that is their "lengthy development"? Evaristo Carriego proposes an answer.

Comparable only to Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol as an example of the absorption of one literary figure by another (even though the minor stature of Carriego makes the process more obvious), Borges's 1930 book on Carriego—with its discreet "betraying" and "falsifying" of another's story that scarcely serves as a pretext—is also his first approach toward that "fiction" from which a particular timidity had held him back. At several points, Borges declares his hesitations, the obstacles he encounters in writing the book. In the first chapter—"The Palermo Section of Buenos Aires"—one reads: "The jumbled, incessant style of reality, with its punctuation of ironies, surprises, and intimations as strange as surprises, could only be recaptured by a novel, which would be out of place here." And how can he represent Palermo as it was before he knew it?

To recapture that almost static prehistory would be to foolishly weave a chronicle of infinitesimal processes…. The most direct means, according to cinematographic procedure, would be to propose a continuity of discontinuous images: a yoke of wine-bearing mules, the wild ones with their eyes blindfolded; a long, still expanse of water with willow leaves floating on the surface; a vertiginous will-o'-the-wisp wading through the flooding streams on stilts; the open country-side, with nothing to do there; the tracks of a hacienda's stubbornly trampled cattle path, the route to corrals in the north; a peasant (against the dawn sky) who dismounts and slits his jaded horse's wide throat; a wisp of smoke wafting through the air.

A relationship is established among these images. In "A Gossip on Romance" Stevenson had expounded his observations as a reader and sought support from them for his method as a writer. Borges, who agrees with those observations, sees them as applicable to the films of von Sternberg; and in his early Evaristo Carriego, where he doubts the very fiction whose elements he invokes, he attempts the magic of conjuring up a more abundant, unlimited reality by naming some notable moments that may postulate it. Film suggests to him the possibility of connecting those moments by means of a less discursive syntax than the verbal. Here a notion that might be termed montage appears, operating in texts made from words. That "cinematographic procedure," that "continuity of discontinuous images" will be the stated method in the stories of Universal History of Infamy. One of the chapters that divide—and integrate—"The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" opens: "History (which like a certain director, proceeds by discontinuous images) now proposes the image of a…."

The stories in Universal History of Infamy illustrate, point by point, Chesterton's observations in his study of Stevenson: "Those flat figures could only be seen from one side. They are aspects or attitudes of men rather than men" (R. L. Stevenson, London, 1928). The stories also illustrate what Chesterton noted about "our modern attraction to short stories" and the "short story today" in his study of Dickens: "We get a glimpse of grey streets of London, or red plains of India, as in an opium vision; we see people, arresting people with fiery and appealing faces. But when the story is ended, the people are ended" (Charles Dickens, London, 1906). To the degree that they ignore what Chesterton in his book on Stevenson calls "huge hospitality for their own characters" and, like Stevenson, prefer a certain thinness in characterization, a simplification appropriate to marionette theater, the two-dimensionality of colored illustrations, Borges's early fictional essays stage a narrative mechanism more than any particular narrative itself. And they do so with the clear awareness that the mechanism is identical in written and cinematographic fiction. (A connection can be seen between this procedure and Nabokov's Dozen, in which the destinies of various Russian adventurers, exiled in Berlin during the 1920s and linked occasionally to movies as extras, are recapitulated in takes, sequences, lighting effects, and montage in order to establish a parodic intent.)

There was a moment, which might be situated between Evaristo Carriego and the writing of his first story, "Man on the Pink Corner," when Stevenson and von Sternberg equally aroused Borges's attention, a moment when it seemed possible to submit Palermo's turn-of-the-century toughs as well as the neighborhood itself to a verbal treatment, the equivalent of von Sternberg's treatment of Chicago and its gangsters in Underworld. Impatient with the restraints that the novel seemed to impose on the exercise of fiction, Borges attempted fiction by cultivating a lucid magic. It matters little whether he was guided by the possibilities revealed to him in narratives by his favorite writers or if their writings permitted him to observe these possibilities in films.

Continuity and discontinuity: cinematographic language provided the point of departure for Borges's play with these concepts in his first attempts at fiction.

All narrative traditionally works by successive effects of continuity, with suspense deriving from an apparently defective continuity later restored by a postponed connection. Poetry, on the other hand, traditionally orders its emphases spatially, ignoring all requirements for connective relation other than the formal. Enumeration is one such relation, and Borges had cultivated it in his early fiction, obviously pleased with organizing his prose in a form unprecedented by the nineteenth-century novel. Every rhetorical work in the enumerative form invokes the supposed "endless variety of creation" by alluding to that creation with incongruous signs—a procedure whose illustrious, theological, and pantheistic genealogy cannot be reduced to Spitzer's "chaotic enumeration," which is linked to one notion of modernity. Nevertheless, a single characteristic is invariable: enumeration is always the double operation of naming in order to indicate the unnamed, of making the spaces between signs as denotative as the markers measuring their extension. Enumeration proposes to express the inexpressible; and, although it relies on only one scheme—enumeration—it is, like storytelling itself, syntactic by nature.

In enumeration, the discontinuity of the actual text seems to be endowed with the prestige of representing an absent, still greater text. Similarly, in Discusión and Other Inquisitions, Borges suggests that, far from denying the figure of Whitman, all the information about the poet's persona scattered throughout Whitman's work confirms his mythic stature. A comparable mechanism controls the lists of irreconcilable or merely dissimilar unities that dizzyingly sketch the infinite in such stories as "The Aleph," "The Zahir," "The God's Script," and even in the comparatively brief list of incarnations in "The Immortal."

By 1935, Borges's enumerations in Universal History of Infamy reveal how they function as concealed illusionism: they display properties of narrative usually disguised in the very act of being employed. The most famous example is the list of effects brought about by the fickle piety of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in "The Terrible Redeemer Lazarus Morell." The terms in these enumerations—or the arguments united in a discourse—appear separated by what really connects them, as if by an electrical current: incongruity, paradox, simple otherness. At the same time, the enumerative combination as a whole registers the ironic richness of these minor clashes. Outside the circuit of conflict and ellipsis, these separate elements would lapse into the inertia of a historic or fictitious report uncharged by narrative.

It is no accident that, beginning with its title, an early Borges essay joins "narrative art" and "magic." His first fictions perform a kind of illusion: that post hoc, ergo propter hoc, an error in logic whose systematic cultivation, for Barthes, is the narrative operation par excellence, "the language of Fate." (Valéry also considered that associating the novelistic or even the fantastic world with reality was of the same order as associating trompe l'oeil with the tangible objects among which the viewer moves.) And what is that language of Fate if not an idea of montage? Cinematographic or verbal montage, which, in the chaotic archive of mankind's acts, proposes or discovers a meaning by ordering those "culminating moments" and "major scenes" in which Stevenson saw the proof and effect of the highest fiction? Stevensonsaw it as operating on different levels of fiction and nonfiction, of history and fantasy. Its name, quite simply, is narrative.

Edgardo Cozarinsky, in his Borges In/and/on Film, translated by Gloria Waldman and Ronald Christ, Lumen Books, 1988, 117 p.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Biography

Monegal, Emir Rodriguez. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978, 502 p.

Detailed study of Borges's life and career.

Criticism

Agheana, Ion T. The Prose of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1984, 320 p.

Examination of existentialist elements in Borges's fiction.

Alazraki, Jaime. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971, 48 p.

Concise essay treating Borges's literary themes and world-view.

Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981, 292 p.

Chronological examination of Borges's works.

Cheselka, Paul. The Poetry and Poetics of Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987, 197 p.

Study of Borges's poetry "from his first ultraist poems published in Spain to the publication of Obra poetica 1923–1964."

Christ, Ronald J. The Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion. New York: New York University Press, 1969, 244 p.

Analysis of the "esthetic origin, development, and masterful practice" of Borges's use of allusion.

McMurray, George R. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980, 255 p.

Thematic study of Borges's fiction.

Stabb, Martin S. Jorge Luis Borges. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1970, 179 p.

General survey of Borges's life, career, and critical reception.

Sturrock, John. Paper Tigers: The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 227 p.

Examination of Borges's theory of fiction, maintaining that the Argentinean author's stories are "formal to a degree that no writer of fiction, surely, has ever surpassed."

Jorge Luis Borges with Roberto Alifano (interview date 1981–1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following interview, Borges addresses a number of his favorite themes—labyrinths, tigers, books—and talks about his short story "Funes the Memorious."]

[Alifano]: Borges, I would like to talk with you about two images which seem to obsess you and which you repeat throughout your work. I am referring to labyrinths and to the figure of the tiger. I suggest we start with the former. How did labyrinths enter your literary work; what fascinates you about them?

[Borges]: Well, I discovered the labyrinth in a book published in France by Garnier that my father had in his library. The book had a very odd engraving that took a whole page and showed a building that resembled an amphitheater. I remember that it had cracks and seemed tall, taller than the cypresses and the men that stood around it. My eyesight was not perfect—I was very myopic—but I thought that if I used a magnifying glass, I would be able to see a minotaur within the building. That labyrinth was, besides, a symbol of bewilderment, a symbol of being lost in life. I believe that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and I saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition. Since then, I have held that vision of the labyrinth.

Borges, what has always intrigued me about labyrinths is not that people get lost within them, but rather that they are constructions intentionally made to confound us. Don't you think that this concept is odd?

Yes, it is a very odd idea, the idea of envisioning a builder of labyrinths, the idea of an architect of labyrinths is indeed odd. It is the idea of the father of Icarus, Daedalus, who was the first builder of a labyrinth—the labyrinth of Crete. There is also Joyce's conception, if we are looking for a more literary figure. I have always been puzzled by the labyrinth. It is a very strange idea, an idea which has never left me.

Various forms of labyrinths appear in your stories. Labyrinths placed in time, like the one of"The Garden of Forking Paths,"where you tell about a lost labyrinth.

Ah, yes, I do speak of a lost labyrinth in it. Now, a lost labyrinth seems to me to be something magical, and it is because a labyrinth is a place where one loses oneself, a place (in my story) that in turn is lost in time. The idea of a labyrinth which disappears, of a lost labyrinth, is twice as magical. That story is a tale which I imagined to be multiplied or forked in various directions. In that story the reader is presented with all the events leading to the execution of a crime whose intention the reader does not understand. I dedicated that story to Victoria Ocampo …

Do you conceive the image of losing ourselves in a labyrinth as a pessimistic view of the future of mankind?

No, I don't. I believe that in the idea of the labyrinth there is also hope, or salvation; if we were positively sure the universe is a labyrinth, we would feel secure. But it may not be a labyrinth. In the labyrinth there is a center: that terrible center is the minotaur. However, we don't know if the universe has a center; perhaps it doesn't. Consequently, it is probable that the universe is not a labyrinth but simply chaos, and if that is so, we are indeed lost.

Yes, if it didn't have a center, it wouldn't be a cosmos but chaos. Do you believe that the universe may have a secret center?

I don't see why not. It is easy to conceive that it has a center, one that can be terrible, or demonic, or divine. I believe that if we think in those terms unconsciously we are thinking of the labyrinth. That is, if we believe there is a center, somehow we are saved. If that center exists, life is coherent. There are events which surely lead us to think that the universe is a coherent structure. Think, for example, of the rotation of the planets, the seasons of the year, the different stages in our lives. All that leads us to believe that there is a labyrinth, that there is an order, that there is a secret center of the universe, as you have suggested, that there is a great architect who conceived it. But it also leads us to think that it may be irrational, that logic cannot be applied to it, that the universe is unexplainable to us, to mankind—and that in itself is a terrifying idea.

All those aspects of the labyrinth fascinated you then?

Yes, all of them. But I have also been attracted by the very word labyrinth, which is a beautiful word. It derives from the Greek labyrinthos, which initially denoted the shafts and corridors of a mine and that now denotes that strange construction especially built so that people would get lost. Now the English word maze is not as enchanting or powerful as the Spanish word laberinto. Maze also denotes a dance, in which the dancers weave a sort of labyrinth in space and time. Then we find amazement, to be amazed, to be unamazed, but I believe that labyrinth is the essential word, and it is the one I am drawn to.

Let's go on to the other image: the image of the tiger. Why do you, in choosing an animal, usually choose the image of the tiger?

Chesterton said that the tiger was a symbol of terrible elegance. What a lovely phrase, don't you think so? The tiger's terrible elegance…. Well, when I was a child and was taken to the zoo, I used to stop for a long time in front of the tiger's cage to see him pacing back and forth. I liked his natural beauty, his black stripes and his golden stripes. And now that I am blind, one single color remains for me, and it is precisely the color of the tiger, the color yellow. For me, things may be red, they may be blue; the blues may be green, etc., but the yellow is the only color that I see. That is why, since it is the color I see most clearly, I have used it many times and I have associated it with the tiger.

You must have derived from that the title of one of your books of poems, The Gold of the Tigers. Am I right?

Yes, that is right. And in the last poem of that book, which has the same title as the book, I speak of the tiger and the color yellow.

       Until the hour of yellow dusk
       How often I looked
       At the mighty tiger of Bengal
       Coming and going in his set path
       Behind the iron bars,
       Unsuspecting they were his jail.
       Later, other tigers came to me,
       Blake's burning tyger;
       Then, other golds came to me,
       Zeus's golden and loving metal,
       The ring that after nine nights
       Gives birth to nine new rings and these, to nine more,
       In endless repetition.
       As the years passed
       The other colors left me
       And now I am left with
       The faint light, the inextricable shadow
       And the gold of my beginnings.
       Oh dusks, tigers, radiance
       Out of myths and epics.
       Oh and even a more desired gold, your hair
       That my hands long to hold.

.…

Borges, I am interested to know the circumstances that led you to write that wonderful story, "Funes the Memorious."Could we talk about that strange character who compensates for his deficiencies with his extraordinary memory. Is it true that it relates to a period of insomnia you suffered?

Yes, it is true. And I can remember in great detail the circumstances under which I wrote that story. During a time that I had to spend in a hotel, throughout the day I feared the coming of night, because I knew that it was going to be a night of insomnia, that each time I dozed my sleep would be interrupted by atrocious nightmares. I knew that hotel very well; I had lived there as a child. The building has already disappeared; its architecture was full of all the images of the labyrinth. I remember the many patios, the corridors, the statues, the gate, the vast deserted halls, the huge main door, the other entrance doors, the carriage house, the eucalyptus trees, and even a small labyrinth built there. And I particularly remember a clock that punctuated my insomnia, for it inexorably struck every hour: the half hour, the quarter hour and the full hour. So I had no way of deceiving myself. The clock acted as a witness with its metallic ticktock.

I remember that I used to lie down and try to forget everything, and that led me, inevitably, to recall everything. I imagined the books on the shelves, the clothes on the chair, and even my own body on the bed; every detail of my body, the exact position in which my body lay. And so, since I could not erase memory, I kept thinking of those things, and also thinking: if only I could forget, I would certainly be able to sleep. Then I would recall the belief that when one sleeps, one becomes everyone, or, better said, one is no one, or if one is oneself, one sees oneself in the third person. One is, as Addison said, the actual theater, the spectators, the actors, the author of the drama, the stage—everything simultaneously.

Forgetfulness would have been a way to free yourself and to fall asleep?

Yes. But my insomnia prevented that, and I kept on thinking: continuously imagining the hotel, thinking of my body and of things beyond my body and the hotel. I would think of the adjoining streets, of the street leading to the train station, of the neighboring houses, of the tobacco shop…. Later I reached this conclusion: it is fortunate my memory is fallible, fortunate my memory is not infinite. How terrifying it would be if my memory were infinite! It would undoubtedly be monstrous! In that case I would remember every detail of every day of my life, which of course amounts to thousands—as Joyce showed in Ulysses. Each day countless things happen, but fortunately we forget them, and furthermore, many of them are repetitions. And so, from that situation I derived the notion of a person who no longer embodied the traditional definition of human faculties (that is, memory and will)—an individual who possessed only memory. Thus, I came upon the idea of that unfortunate country boy, and this was the birth of the story "Funes the Memorious."

One of the most admirable parables on insomnia ever written.

Well, I don't fully agree with your judgment, but there it is! Now, I will reveal something to you that perhaps would be interesting to psychologists. It is strange that after having written that story—after having described that horrible perfection of memory, which ends up destroying its possessor—the insomnia which had distressed me so much disappeared.

So that the completion of that fantastic tale had a therapeutic effect on you. There are many people who assert that that story is autobiographical; it certainly is, since it is sort of an elaboration of a mental state of yours. Do you agree?

Yes. All I did was to write down "Funes" instead of "Borges." I have omitted some aspects of myself and, obviously, I have added others that I don't possess. For example, Funes, the country boy, could not have written the story; I, on the other hand, have been able to write it and to forget Funes and also—though not always—that unpleasant insomnia. Now, I believe that that story is powerful because the reader feels that it is not simply a fantasy, but rather that I am relating something that can happen to him or her, and that happened to me when I wrote it. The entire story comes to be a sort of metaphor, or as you pointed out, a parable of insomnia.

One notes, moreover, a definite concreteness throughout the story. That is, the character is placed in a specific location and his drama unfolds there.

I believe that I succeeded in making "Funes the Memorious" a concrete story. Yes, it does take place in a specific location; that location is Fray Bentos in Uruguay. When I was a child, I spent some time there, in the home of one of my uncles; so I do have childhood memories of the place. Then I chose a very simple character, a simple country boy. As I had to justify his condition in some way, I described a fall from a horse. Really, there are a number of little novelistic inventions that do not harm anyone. Finally, I entitled the story "Funes el memorioso"; a title that suits the story.

Borges, in English, "Funes the Memorious"must sound odd since the word "memorious" does not exist.

True, that word does not exist in English, and it does give the story a grotesque character, an extravagant character. On the other hand, in Spanish—although I don't know if anyone has used the word "memorioso"—if one heard a man from the country say: "Fulano es muy memorioso" (that fellow is very memorious), one would certainly understand him. So that, as I said, I think that the original title goes well with the story. Now, if one seeks an equivalent in another language, for example in French, by using the word "memorié" or some other similar word, the reader is led to see it as a mental state. Thus this title evokes the story of a very simple and unfortunate character killed at an early age by insomnia.

..…

There is a theme I would like us to speak about: the theme of books. I know that it is one of your obsessions. I would be interested to hear your opinions on the subject.

Well, last night, in fact, I had a very strange dream. I dreamed of the burning of a great library—which I believe may have been the library of Alexandria—with its countless volumes attacked by flames. Do you believe this dream may have some meaning?

Perhaps, Borges. Could it be that you owe your readers a book on the history of the book? Have you ever thought of writing such a book?

Dear me, no! But it is an excellent idea. It would be wonderful to write a history of the book. I'll keep it in mind; although I don't know if an eighty-three-year-old man can set such a project for himself. I don't know if I am qualified, and to be qualified for such a task is no easy matter; but, in any case, that work should not be approached merely as a physical labor. I, for one, am not much interested in the physical nature of books; particularly in bibliographical books, which are generally excessively long. I am interested in the various appreciations a book has received. However, I now remember that Spengler, in his Decline of the West, predates my attempt, for in it he writes remarkable comments on books.

Well, you have also written some remarkable commentary on books. I remember the essay"El culto de los libros" (The Cult of Books)in your book Otras inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions), where you synthesize much of your opinions on the subject; and I also remember a poem entitled"Alexandria, 641 A.D.,"which refers precisely to the library of Alexandria and to the caliph Omar, who burned it.

Ah, yes, in that poem I conceived the notion of having the caliph express things which most likely he never did; for he was a caliph, and a caliph would not have expressed himself thus. But, thank God, poetry (generally all literature) allows such a thing, and so why couldn't we imagine the caliph speaking. He imagines that the library of Alexandria is the memory of the world; in the vast library of Alexandria everything is found. And then Omar orders the library burned, but he thinks that is unimportant, and says: "Si de todos / No quedara uno solo, volverìan / A engendrar cada hoja y cada lìnea, / Cada trabajo y cada amor de Hércules, / Cada lección de cada manuscrito." (If of all these books / None remained, men would, once again, / Engender each page, each line, / All labor and all of Hercules's love, / Each reading of each manuscript.) In other words, if all the past is in the library, the entire past came from the imagination of men. That is why I believe that beyond its rhetorical virtue, if a work truly possesses it, each generation rewrites anew the books of earlier generations. The differences are found in the cadence, in the syntax, in the form; but we are always repeating the same fables and rediscovering the same metaphors. So that, in some respects, I concur with the caliph Omar—not the historical one, but the caliph I sketched in my poem.

Nowadays, you must have noticed it, there is a cult of books; a cult which the ancients didn't have. What are the reasons for it, Borges?

I believe there are two reasons. First, that all the great masters of mankind, curiously, have been oral; and second, that the ancients saw in the book a substitute for the oral word. I recall a phrase which is often quoted: "Scripta manent verba volant" (The written word stays, the spoken word flies). That phrase doesn't mean that the spoken word is ephemeral, but rather that the written word is something lasting and dead. The spoken word, it seems to me now, is somewhat winged and light—"something winged, light and sacred," Plato said in defining poetry. I think that we can apply that concept to the spoken word.

But let's recall another case. The case of Pythagoras, who never wrote so as not to tie himself to the written word, surely because he felt that writing kills and the spoken word fills with life. That is why Aristotle never speaks of Pythagoras but of the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras wished that beyond his physical death his disciples would keep his thoughts alive. Later came that often-quoted Latin phrase: "Magister dixit" (The master has said). Which does not mean that the Master has imposed his opinions on his disciples; it means that the disciples continue to expound on the ideas, but if someone opposes them, they invoke: "the Master has said." That phrase is a sort of formula to find reaffirmation and thus to continue professing the ideas of the Master. Speaking of the Pythagoreans, Aristotle tells us that they professed a belief in the dogma of the eternal recurrence, which, somewhat belatedly, Nietzsche would discover.

That idea of the eternal recurrence or of cyclical time was refuted by Saint Augustine in his City of God, do you remember it?

Yes. Saint Augustine says, in a beautiful metaphor, that the Cross of Christ saves us from the circular labyrinth of the Stoics. That idea of cyclical time was also touched upon by Hume, Blanqui and others.

In one of your essays you quote the words of Bernard Shaw. When asked if he truly believed that the Holy Spirit had written the Bible, Shaw answered: "Every book worth being reread has been written by the spirit."

Ah, yes. I completely concur with that notion, since a book goes beyond its author's intention. Don Quixote, for example, is more than a simple chivalric novel or the satire of a genre. It is an absolute text totally unaffected by chance. The author's intention is a meager human thing, a fallible thing. In a book—in every book—there is a need for something more, which is always mysterious. When we read an ancient book, it is as though we were reading all time that has passed from the day it was written to our present day. A book can be full of errors, we can reject its author's opinions, disagree with him or her, but the book always retains something sacred, something mortal, something magical which brings happiness. In opposition to Macedonio Fernández, who asserted that beauty was something exclusive or given to certain chosen people, I believe that beauty can be found in all things. It would be very strange, for example, if in a book by a Thai poet (I have no knowledge of that country's literature) we could not find a line of poetry that astounds us.

Borges, you have also asserted that books grow with time, and that the readers themselves modify them and enrich them.

Certainly. Books are altered by their readers. For example, the gaucho epic, Martín Fierro, that we read now is not the same one written by its author, José Hernández, but rather the one read by Leopoldo Lugones, who undoubtedly enriched it. Similarly, in regard to Don Quixote or Hamlet; Hamlet is also the play that Goethe and Coleridge and Bradley read and interpreted. That is why I feel it is useful that we should maintain a cult of books, since books are a living thing in constant growth.

In certain ways you profess that cult of books, isn't that so, Borges?

Yes, I do. I will tell you a secret. I still continue pretending that I am not blind, I still buy books—you know that very well, I still go on filling my house with books. I feel the friendly gravitational force of the book. I don't exactly know why I believe that a book brings to us a possibility of happiness. A few months ago I was given a marvelous edition of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia; and the presence of twenty volumes with beautiful maps and engravings, printed in, I am sure, a no less beautiful Gothic type—that I cannot read—filled me with joy. Those books, almost sacred to me, were there, and I felt their pleasant companionship. Well, I do have a cult of books, I admit it; perhaps this may seem somewhat pathetic, but it is not so. It is something genuine, something sincere and truthful.

Borges, there are people who speak of the disappearance of books, and they assert that modern developments in communications will replace them with something more dynamic that will require less time than reading. What do you think of that?

I believe that books will never disappear. It is impossible that that will happen. Among the many inventions of man, the book, without a doubt, is the most astounding: all the others are extensions of our bodies. The telephone, for example, is the extension of our voice; the telescope and the microscope are extensions of our sight; the sword and the plow are extensions of our arms. Only the book is an extension of our imagination and memory.

What you have just said brings to mind that Bernard Shaw, in Caesar and Cleopatra, refers to the library of Alexandria as the memory of mankind.

Yes, I remember that also. And besides being the memory of mankind, it is also its imagination and, why not, its dreams, since it is absurd to suppose that only the waking moments of men engendered the countless pages of countless books.

Well, you state in a memorable passage that literature is a dream.

It is true. Literature is a dream, a controlled dream. Now, I believe that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been, also what we will be. Our past is nothing but a sequence of dreams. What difference can there be between dreaming and remembering the past? Books are the great memory of all centuries. Their function, therefore, is irreplaceable. If books disappear, surely history would disappear, and man would also disappear.

Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Alifano, in an interview in Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges, Including a Selection of Poems: Interviews by Roberto Alifano, 1981–1983, Lascaux Publishers, 1984, 157 p.

James Neilson (essay date June-July 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following essay, Neilson discusses Borges's significance as an international literary figure, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his work as well as his relationship with Argentine and Latin American culture.]

"Don Quixote", Menard told me, "was above all else an entertaining book: but now it has become an occasion for patriotic toasts, for grammatical insolence, for obscene de luxe editions. Glory is a form of incomprehension and it is perhaps the very worst."

     "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

When Jorge Luis Borges wrote that, in the early 1940s, he was already known in Argentina as a poet fond of peculiar metaphors, a fierce literary polemicist, and the author of some strange short stories that looked like essays but were, despite the academic apparatus seemingly embedded in them, exercises in fantasy. He was not considered a likely candidate for "glory." True, as early as 1933 Drieu La Rochelle had reported after a trip to Buenos Aires that "Borges vaut le voyage." But, this and other omens notwithstanding, Borges was still the private passion of a few, most of whom knew him personally. And even they did not, for the most part, take him very seriously. Although he was obviously, ostentatiously, clever and sensitive, he struck most of his readers then as a literary prankster whose main ambition was to concoct complicated jokes in order to discomfit Argentina's solemn academic community. He seemed too wayward to be considered a "significant" writer. The idea that he, of all the many talented individuals then writing in Argentina, would acquire world-wide fame would have seemed as absurd as any of his own metaphysical propositions.

It was not until 1961, when Borges had already written most of the books he is now so well known for (A Universal History of Infamy, 1935; A History of Eternity, 1936; Labyrinths 1944; The Aleph and Other Stories, 1949; Other Inquisitions, 1952; and Dreamtigers, 1960) that his reputation overflowed Buenos Aires and penetrated into every city in the Western world. That year Borges, who was already a sexagenarian, shared the Prix Formentor with Samuel Beckett and, with astonishing speed, became the centre of a cult whose adepts were especially numerous in the academic institutions whose practices he had gently mocked. The works that he wrote after being "discovered" are, by general agreement, inferior to those he wrote when he still belonged to Buenos Aires. But, although his powers progressively waned, his fame has not yet ceased to grow. Borgesian studies, once the preserve of a handful of devotees in communication with the master, have expanded into a sizable industry. And, inevitably, imitators soon began to appear, busying themselves with turning out enigmatic tales concerning labyrinths, mirrors, tigers, résumés of non-existent treatises, and all the other features of the Borgesian universe.

Borges himself, alarmed by this horde of intruders looting his private world, abandoned it and took refuge in Argentina's past or in Anglo-Saxon verse and Icelandic sagas, where few of his admirers have been brash enough to follow him. "I've grown so tired of labyrinths and mirrors and tigers and all that sort of thing, especially when others use them", he explained to the Argentine writer César Fernández Moreno. "That's the advantage of imitators. They cure you: so many people are doing what I did that it is no longer necessary for me to do it myself."

The enthusiasm of the world-wide Borgesian fraternity may be irksome to Borges, but its activities are unobtrusive when compared to those of his compatriots after they realised that they had an internationally acclaimed literary master in their midst. In Argentina Borges has become, like Cervantes' great boutade in Spain, an excuse for innumerable patriotic toasts. Last year he even suffered the indignity of being described (by a general, no less) as a "national monument"—a curious tribute to a despiser of statuary who professes to regard the nation-state as an anachronism and has fought a lifelong guerrilla campaign against nationalists. None the less, he is regularly raised aloft like a martial trophy by Argentines who rarely read any books but who are infuriated by the Swedish Academy's refusal to give their man the Nobel Prize. "Obscene de luxe editions" of his works have also appeared, as though to complete the humiliation he presaged. "Glory", in fact, has taken possession of him. His personal life today is a triumphal progress from city to city as an "ambassador of Argentine culture" on whom are bestowed a succession of literary awards (some of them enviably generous), honorary degrees, and "homages", banquets at which he is obliged to listen to well-meaning but, like the general's remark, often pompous praise.

These traditional tokens of the world's esteem for a recognised creator grown very old would, one might think, have been quite enough for a man who had spent most of his life in deliberate obscurity. But our age has devised additional indignities for men of great achievement and, in Argentina at any rate, Borges has become a media celebrity who rubs shoulders in the popular imagination with starlets, singers, soccer players and politicians. His impassive face, now and then illumined by a weary smile, gazes from television screens and the shiny pages of magazines with disconcerting frequency. Interviews with him, descriptions of him, and foreigners' articles about him—often abbreviated and sometimes oddly similar to the pastiches he once wrote—fill columns of daily, weekly, and monthly publications that range from the serious to the salaciously trivial. Some of the interviews are so extensive that they are issued as special supplements. In them are chronicled Borges's opinions about anything that may be of urgent interest to his fellow Argentines if not to Borges himself: American foreign policy, the military régime's treatment of dissidents, the state of the Argentine peso.

The creation ex nihilo, as it were, of a revered sage by the world's collective imagination could easily have been a story by Borges:

I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dream was you, who, like me, are many and no one.

                 ["Everything and Nothing"]

Borges is, after all, more acutely aware than most people of the whimsical relationship between a man's public reputation and his private self, or what he assumes, out of habit, is his private self. The writer, Borges believes, is created by the reader out of the materials that happen to be available, and he has always argued that reading is just as creative as writing. Many of the people who regard him with awe have not, moreover, read more than a few words of what he has written: their belief that he is important owes everything to the admiration of others who have. But in the Borgesian universe misunderstanding is an aspect of human consciousness and a basic premise of most thought. Reality is an act of faith. What better illustration of this than the metamorphosis of a secretive practitioner of minor genres into one of the best-known writers on earth, a member of that small and inscrutably selected company of men who, like Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, come to mean something (although exactly what is not always easy to tell) to millions of people who usually treat literature with robust disdain?

Ever since attaining the rank of "celebrity" Borges has insisted that he is bewildered by all the attentions that are paid him. This is in part, no doubt, a calculated stance: extravagant humility about the value of his work is an important facet of his "image." Thanks to it he can enjoy, as he manifestly does enjoy, being lionised by people who often know nothing about what he has written while laughing to himself at such a preposterous situation. He is, in his way, keeping his options open, preparing himself for oblivion or glory by affecting to be indifferent to either. It is an engaging approach that has, needless to say, contributed to his fame. But it is not simply a social pose adopted for a new situation. Scepticism about the value of what he has written lies at the heart of his literary method.

Borges treats his work as though it were a long (but not very long: his Collected Works, published by Emecé Editores in 1974, contain little more than a thousand pages) novel. Its central character—its sole character—is Jorge Luis Borges, a figment only the innocent will confuse with the retiring, affable gentleman to be found walking along a street in Buenos Aires, delivering a lecture to furclad ladies, receiving a substantial literary prize or giving an interview. In an epilogue to this edition, Borges donned the mask of a Chilean literary historian writing a century later:

The renown Borges enjoyed during his life, documented by a heap of monographs and controversies, can only astonish us today. It is attested that nobody was more astonished than Borges himself and that he always feared he would be declared a fraud or a botcher or a singular mixture of the two.

Borges, of course, is no fraud. How could he be? It is not as though he has ever claimed that his work had any special significance: if others choose to think it is of overwhelming importance, that is their business. If George Steiner, for example, pronounces "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" "one of the sheer wonders of human contrivance", a "spare fable" in which "the several facets of Borges's shy genius are almost wholly crystallised", who is Borges to object? And if Vladimir Nabokov complains (about a writer called Osberg): "At first Véra and I were delighted by reading him. We felt we were on a portico, but we have learned there was no house", that is equally satisfactory. Has Borges ever pretended that there was a house attached to his finely-wrought portico?

Borges is no botcher, either. He has always been a most careful craftsman, making version after version of his stories, essays, and poems, and sending them to the printer with notable reluctance: he once suggested that if it were not for the importunity of publishers he would never finish anything. And when he writes he weighs the words he uses, fingering them for hours before deciding whether to use or discard them. He has always worried about form. For all his ritualistic modesty, he is a very serious and deliberate writer indeed.

His technical skill, his intelligence, his imaginativeness, cannot be doubted. His work—he characteristically refuses to call it an oeuvre—is all well-made. Much of it is brilliant. And it is unique: no other writer in our civilisation has ever produced anything like it. But he does present a problem. For all his ingenuity, is his work not too outlandish, too arbitrary, too narrow to bear the huge edifice of his reputation? Is he anything more than an inventor of novelties? The containers he has devised are undeniably intriguing, but are their contents worth taking seriously? They probably are, although not quite so seriously as some Borgesians would have it; but before the arguments for the defence are put forward it is useful to consider Borges's extraordinary limitations. Certainly, there can be few other writers of comparable stature who have so consistently excluded the principal preoccupations of their age from their work.

His disregard for conventional genres is striking enough: Borges has written no novels, no dramas, no "major" poems, no long biographical or critical works, no philosophical treatises. He has also, and this is even more remarkable, loftily ignored almost all the themes that, taken together, are the very stuff of modern literature. He has told us almost nothing about sexual relationships, social mores, political ideologies, or the texture of "real life." He has shown no interest in nature: his settings are as bleak and airless as a painting by de Chirico. He has also refused to recognise the individual personality: not one of his "characters", Borges apart, comes near to possessing an autonomous existence, and he has made no effort at all to satisfy this frequent demand on creative artists. Borges, in other words, seems to belong to an as yet unknown literary tradition that is quite different from the one we are familiar with and in which most of us live our intellectual lives.

This would have been easily understandable had Borges been a "primitive", driven to originality by his ignorance. But Borges is anything but a "primitive" in this sense: he is as aware of, and as knowledgeable about, a dozen literary traditions as any man of his generation. Nevertheless, he has chosen to overlook most of what has been written since his childhood in Europe or America. Although he is familiar with Joyce and Proust, Kafka and Virginia Woolf (whom he translated), he has always been most affected by the authors whose books lined the shelves of his father's substantial private library: Browne, De Quincey, Coleridge, Spencer, Shaw, Wells, Kipling, Stevenson, Chesterton, and the scholars who wrote articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the source of much of his notorious erudition. And it is to them that he most often returns.

His father, Jorge Borges, was a professor of English, and English was the first language the young Jorge Luis learned to read. Jorge Borges was clearly an unusual paterfamilias for his time: he let his son read whatever he liked, untroubled by the thought that it might be "too old" for him. So in addition to tackling weighty tomes that would test most university graduates, young Borges was also permitted to read Sir Richard Burton's "pornographic" translation of the Arabian Nights, which he did with enormous pleasure, skipping over the dull and incomprehensible erotic passages to get to the magical episodes that fascinated him. These adventures apart, it was a safe, comfortable household, made disturbing only by its many mirrors. Borges looked into them with horror; could it be that only he existed? That was the origin of one of his favourite images. There, too, it occurred to him that the universe might well be a vast library with all knowledge available to the person who knew just where to look. And he was still a small child when the tiger, leaping out at him from some volume about travels in India, became his favourite symbol for destruction, for time.

The labyrinth, perhaps the most famous of all the Borgesian metaphors, came to him much later. But perhaps it was germinating then too: certainly Buenos Aires, huge, recently contrived, and strangely repetitive with many streets almost replicas of others, seems more labyrinthine than most other cities. While still a child, moreover, he heard tales about the swaggering cut-throats, murderously and sometimes suicidally devoted to their own punctilious code, who lurked nearby. The bookish boy—and the unworldly man—rarely came into contact with them, so in his imagination they became epic heroes, elemental and wild like the heroes of the Norse sagas.

Most important of all for him, it was in his parents' house that he developed his interest in metaphysical speculation as a game, at once serious and unserious. This concern—which is as common among bright schoolboys as admiration for gangsters—was encouraged by a frequent visitor, Macedonio Fernández, a great talker whose witty paradoxes and curious fancies had a considerable influence on Argentine literature but who, unfortunately, was an indifferent writer.

It is not unusual for a writer's work to take an embryonic shape during his childhood. But few writers can have added so little afterwards as Borges. His later experiences, such as an adolescence spent in Europe (mainly Switzerland where the Borges family were trapped by the Great War, and Spain, where Borges, then a young man, found many congenial literary companions), contributed relatively little. He added two more writers, Whitman and Schopenhauer, to his mentors while in Geneva. The many others he read did not make any enduring impression. For Borges, to many the most "modern" of writers, 20th-century literature has not been very important. His intellectual background is the 19th century. This helps account for the peculiar flavour of so much of his work. In the 19th century, scholarship was less specialised and more speculative than it is today. It was closer to literature. And when it concerned the civilisations of Asia it had something of the air of a voyage of discovery through strange lands.

Borges's father was blind for some time before he died in 1938, and in several early poems Borges seems to sense that he too would go blind one day. At Christmas in the year his father died Borges struck his head on a window frame while climbing up a dark stairway. Complications ensued and he almost died. But, although he became healthy again—and he remains a remarkably healthy man—his sight began to fail, until by his sixties he was unable to read at all, even with the aid of a magnifying glass. For many decades, therefore, he has had to rely on a succession of friends and acquaintances willing to read to him and write for him. This naturally affected his work and he has written almost as much in collaboration with others, notably his lifelong friend Adolfo Bioy Casares, as he has by himself. But the effect was, in so far as can be judged, rather less than might have been expected. His blindness, the "luminous haze" in which he was condemned to live most of his life, pushed him further back into himself, away from the surrounding world, but it did not lead to any drastic change of direction. The stories he had written before 1938 were disembodied: the ones he wrote later are ethereal. His already claustrophobic universe became even more closed in. The walls surrounding him were made higher. But he had already started to build them.

Borges's fame has little to do with his verse, striking as some of it is. And it does not owe much to his stories about his martial ancestors, gauchos, and knifefighters from the less reputable suburbs of Buenos Aires. Like most of his essays, biographical or exegetical, about other writers, they are widely read because they are by Borges and not because they are irresistibly interesting themselves. His reputation rests mainly on his "fictions"—short stories, some little more than a paragraph in length, that often masquerade as scholarly essays and concern ideas rather than people—and on his genuine essays dealing with such familiar topics as Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise; the implications of infinity (if every possible combination of letters were written down and stored in an infinite library, would not all knowledge, past, present, and future, be contained in it?) and the Eternal Recurrence; the nature of time; of death; of reality. Some of these essays, moreover, consist of quotations from other writers to which Borges has appended some cursory comments.

His preferred themes, then, are those that have troubled many thoughtful people in many places for thousands of years. They are the commonplaces of speculative philosophy. But, since the decline of religious fervour among the educated in our civilisation, most Westerners have dismissed the questions they raise—questions which have never been solved—as unanswerable, and therefore barely worth asking, by the time they reached their middle twenties, returning to them later rarely unless they were drunk, seriously ill, or overcome by a religious experience. In some Eastern societies, however, they have continued to be taken quite seriously, and respectable men can devote their lives to pondering them without fear of being regarded as excessively odd: one of the main objections to "Western materialism" in these countries is our refusal to let ultimate questions preoccupy us. It is therefore no coincidence that Borges's rise to his present position in the intellectual world has occurred at a time when many Westerners, disillusioned with their civilisation and dissatisfied with the tacit agreement to overlook the unproven nature of the axioms on which it is based, have begun to treat "the wisdom of the East" with more deference than was once the case.

Of course, Borges is not the first Western writer to decline to take anything for granted. Bishop Berkeley was as solipsistic as Borges, and Borges acknowledges his debt to him. Among the Romantics a refusal to accept without question the facile distinction habitually made between illusion and reality was something of a stock-in-trade. Western cities have always had their fringe communities of occultists, theosophists, and other students of the esoteric to whom most of Borges's assertions would have seemed perfectly obvious, although their members would have been disconcerted by his manner of presenting them. But Borges differs from his literary predecessors, just as he differs from the intense gentlemen who think they have almost understood the inner workings of the universe as a result of their careful study of the dimensions of the Great Pyramid. He has always kept both his feet planted firmly on the safe terrain of common sense even when his mind has invaded more mystical realms. He has been able to perform this feat thanks to his famous irony, by constantly implying that he does not really believe his own heterodox conclusions: they are the fancies of the writer Borges, who is, after all, merely an invention of Borges.

Significantly, what is perhaps the most quoted paragraph in his entire work is an eloquent, although peculiar, affirmation of what he has spent so much effort rebutting:

And yet, and yet—To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe are apparent desperations and secret assuagements…. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a mirror that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that tears at me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.

For the dedicated Borgesian, convinced that the master had succeeded in "refuting time" yet again, this surrender, mitigated only by "apparent", was surely distressing. But Borges the writer has, for many decades, laboured hard to dam time and thereby to win immortality, and it would not be very difficult for that Borgesian to convince himself that this unseemly dash back to orthodoxy was just an artful decoy placed to mislead pursuers: the real Borges, in so far as one can be said to exist, could make good his escape.

Everyone has his own Borges, taking from him what he wants for his own purposes, and discarding the rest. For most Argentines he is a totem and an entertainer. For some he is the teller of oddly abstract tales set in almost mythical periods of their national past, a celebrator of military achievements by their compatriots during and after the Wars of Independence, a poet of their streets and patios, a defender of their native idiom against the pedants who would subject them to the linguistic hegemony of Castile. What is probably his most savage essay is not directed against Adolf Hitler or his Argentine admirers, but against an unfortunate Spaniard, Dr Américo Castro, who dared to suggest that Platine Spanish had become corrupt.

For such Latin American writers as Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Borges is the genius who stripped away ornate Hispanic rhetoric from their written language, providing them with an instrument as fine as French and almost as flexible as English, and who freed them from the obligation to compile "realistic" committed novels about their own societies. Since Borges showed them that fantasy was respectable, few serious Latin American writers have looked back: for the last twenty years fantasy has been the predominant mode and it is the principal characteristic of most translated Latin American works. Here and there adherents of slightly more earthbound creeds like Marxism raise their voices in protest, deriding Borges as a cosmopolitan aesthete unconcerned with the very real sufferings of the unprivileged; but as the best-known cultivators of fantasy include such left-wing revolutionaries as Garcia Márquez and Julio Cortázar, their protests are made in vain. Another person who saw Borges as a laughing liberator was François Mauriac, who congratulated Borges for routing the naturalist rearguard in Latin America, and hoped that the same exploit would soon be repeated in France.

For American academics Borges is a copious source of thesis-fodder, the creator of texts that can be analysed in a great many rewarding ways. For young people unafraid of literature he is a teacher and guide who takes seriously, in his fashion, the philosophical problems they feel are more urgent than their placid elders, reconciled to this universe, care to appreciate. He also caters, in a very superior manner, to their appetite for "alternative realities" and unorthodox explanations of man's circumstances, a taste that is more commonly satisfied by H. Rider Haggard, Carlos Castañeda, and the producers of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps a thesis has already been written about the parallels between Borges's work and that of the comic-strip artists: if not, one certainly could be.

For me—and I confess that I probably have more in common with this last category of Borges's admirers than I care to admit—Borges is a writer who has effected a conjunction of Western and Eastern thought. Unlike other writers who have used Eastern settings and have even sought to describe Eastern personalities, but none the less take some basic Western assumptions for granted, Borges, no matter where he places his stories or what names he gives the insubstantial creatures that populate them, implies assumptions that would be banal enough if found in an old Chinese or Japanese tale but are astonishingly novel in a writer so knowingly aware of much Western thought.

Thus Borges's fiction, like some of his essays, has a striking similarity to the writings of Taoist monks and Zen masters. He assumes, for example, that everyday reality is not reality at all and that, at best, it may offer some clues to what lies beneath or beyond. For him, as for them, the perceptible universe is a hopelessly complex riddle, and was probably fashioned the way it is to keep men guessing and encourage some to make a futile attempt to understand it. Like them, he treats linear time as a delusion, a convenience that is a barrier to understanding rather than a bridge: the theme of time, of the unrenounceable duty to try to foil it, is a stream that runs obsessively through his work, breaking to the surface in most of his fragments. Like the Taoists he is uneasily conscious of the transience of this dreamlike world, and he has sometimes repeated Chuang Tzu:

I dreamed I was a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. Then I awoke. Am I now a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who is now dreaming that it is a man?

This alarming possibility was made explicit in one of his best-known stories, "The Circular Ruins", in which an Indian mystic who had tried to create another man "by dreaming him with meticulous integrity" discovered, "with humiliation, with terror", that he was merely the dream of another. Even the individual personality, a concept that is dear to most of us and which is fundamental to our civilisation, is treated by Borges with a disdain worthy of a Taoist monk, in flight from all earthly impediments, as a haphazard assortment of perceptions, forever changing and impossible to grasp. In accordance with this he refuses to accept responsibility for statements made many years ago: that Borges was another person.

Borges did not, of course, acquire his point of view after a long sojourn in the East or after any systematic study of Eastern works. He never sat at the feet of any Oriental sage. It came from promptings by such impeccably Western writers as De Quincey, Coleridge, Bishop Berkeley, and Schopenhauer, although Arthur Waley certainly made him more aware than he might have been of the close affinity between his thought and that of the Far East. In the last few years, however, his identification with the East has become increasingly explicit. He is now trying his hand at writing haiku, is working on a book of translations from the Japanese (with the help of a Japanese-speaking collaborator), and recently returned from a five-week visit to Japan. In February, moreover, Borges announced to his fellow countrymen:

To me Japan seems a superior civilisation. I have the hope that the East will save us because the West is in decline. I am not speaking just of ourselves, but also of the United States—a country I am very fond of, as well—because I believe it is in complete decadence.

Borges's assertion, needless to say, had nothing to do with Japan's remarkable economic achievements. What most impressed him was the large number of people who wrote verse.

Borges's admiration for Japan is unlikely to bring him the trouble his earlier admirations for England and the United States provoked. Argentine self-confidence has collapsed in the last few years: praise of foreign countries, which are tacitly contrasted favourably with one's own, is not the crime it once was. In fact Borges seems, at 82, to be winning his long argument with the nationalists intent on keeping the outside world at bay. When attacked for his "cosmopolitanism", he often responded that an ability to take what is wanted from other countries without discomfort is one of the most valuable characteristics of the Argentine and that nationalism, anyway, was only a vulgar import. Certainly his origins do much to explain why he can hover above both Western and Eastern civilisations with such ease. Argentina may not be, as some would have it, a country with no culture of its own. But its culture is new and eclectic enough to force intelligent Argentines to look abroad as well.

Unlike Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans, they cannot immerse themselves in their own traditions entirely: apart from those of the Indians, most of these traditions came from Europe in any case. Only a minority are notably attracted by Spain rather than the other European countries. Their habitual attitude to the "mother country" differs from that of Americans for good reasons: when the Americans' forerunners won their independence from Great Britain they were, to a considerable degree, simply reasserting their inherited rights as Englishmen, and Great Britain remained one of the world's most "advanced" countries with a great deal to teach them. The fathers of Argentine independence, however, were inspired by ideas from England, France, and the United States, and saw Spain as a decayed and backward country whose legacy they should proudly reject. This feeling, only slightly modified by Spain's remarkable renaissance in the 40 years preceding the Civil War, has persisted. Interestingly, while an English accent is considered "aristocratic" by many Americans, a Spanish accent reminds Argentines of a comic immigrant grocer and some think it incongruous to hear it being employed by King Juan Carlos, for instance. For Argentines, then, it is perfectly natural to look outside the Spanish-speaking world for ideas and inspiration, and Borges is by no means the only Argentine of his class to have been as familiar with a foreign language during his childhood as with his own.

Standing on the shores of the Western world—part of it, no doubt, but not feeling themselves wholly inside it—Latin Americans can pick and choose, gathering the best the world has to offer for incorporation into the new civilisation they are trying to construct. In the past they looked chiefly to Europe: most of them to France and England; some to Germany. More recently they have tended to concentrate on the United States. Now, perhaps, they will turn to the Far East, not only to Japan but to other countries that share the same underlying tradition. It is surely not an accident that the two most distinguished Latin American writers alive today, Borges and Octavio Paz, have progressively absorbed themselves in Eastern thought over the last few decades. Some Latin Americans have always argued that they could become "universal men" more easily than any European, North American, or, for that matter, Japanese or Chinese. The development of Borges and Paz suggests that they may well have been right.

James Neilson, "In the Labyrinth: The Borges Phenomenon," in Encounter, Vols. LVIII & LIX, Nos. 6 & 1, June-July, 1982, pp. 47-58.

Stanton Hager (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following essay, Hager examines the ways in which Borges's works poignantly satirize humanity's attempts to construct rational, systematic explanations of the universe.]

In the preface to Ronald Christ's Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion, J. L. Borges wrote: "I am neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature." More often than not, the forms that Borges's fictions take in their investigations of philosophical perplexities are fantastic. Like the Tlönists in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius," Borges thought that "metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature." In recalling his Anthology of Fantastic Literature, coedited with Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges noted the "culpable omission of the unsuspected and greatest masters of the genre: Parmenides, Plato, John Scotus Erigena, Albertus Magnus, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Frances Bradley." However, what he was forced to leave out as editor he made the persistent source and subject of his own writing.

To achieve the fantastic Borges did not resort to griffins, trolls, and unicorns (he confined his interest in these creatures to his bestiary Book of Imaginary Beings) but turned to topoi of metaphysics such as life is a dream, the many and the One, and the world as Text. Because the fantastic nature of such topoi is not readily apparent to the metaphysicians and their believers who make them the cornerstones of rational, systematic edifices of ontological explanation, Borges's fictional strategy, to borrow Martin Heidegger's metaphor, was to "deconstruct" those edifices; or, more precisely, it was to invent and deconstruct metaphors of metaphysical systems. He did so for no mean or pedantic reasons—to ridicule metaphysics, to demonstrate the fallacies of particular systems, or to reconstruct his own system, for he had none—but to admire it more, to reveal philosophy's and theology's kinship with poetry, music, painting, and other constructing/deconstructing activities of the human imagination in its attempts to mirror or explain the unexplainable universe.

In a much-quoted passage from his essay "The Wall and the Books," Borges wrote: "Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality." To feel imminently near a revelation that is never quite produced was not only the aesthetic reality for Borges, it was the central human experience. If, as Heidegger defined it, the distinguishing characteristic of humankind's being is its ability and need to inquire into the nature of Being, Borges would only add that it is also a part of humankind's being ultimately to recognize and reject the illusion of its "answers" to its inquiries, to return continually to a state of teasing and unsatisfied "imminence." Time and again in Borges's fictions the illusion of satisfaction is created and dissolved; closed, rational systems of explanation are elaborately constructed and as elaborately deconstructed.

The mirror and the labyrinth are Borges's chief tools of deconstruction. Borges traced his lifelong fascination with mirrors to a childhood fear. He related this fear in a number of places, including a conversation with Richard Burgin:

[Burgin]: I wonder how and when you began to use another of your favorite images, the image of the mirror.

[Borges]: Well, that, that also goes with the earliest fears of my childhood, being afraid of mirrors, being afraid of mahogany, being afraid of being repeated.

In the same conversation Borges recounted another early fear: "I don't know why, but when I first read The Republic, when I first read about the types, I felt a kind of fear…. I felt that the whole world of Plato, the world of eternal beings, was somehow uncanny and frightening." As with mirrors, Platonism and other forms of philosophical idealism became lifelong fascinations. One can easily guess that the initial fright at Platonism was the same as that caused by the reflecting surfaces of mahogany, ivory, water, and polished metal, for in Platonism reality and identity are made illusory: by duplication all substance becomes shadow. Frederick Goldin, in his book The Mirror of Narcissus and the Courtly Love Lyric, wrote:

One reason for the frequency of the mirror figure is that the medieval world view was essentially Platonic: the objects of actual experience were known and judged by their resemblance to an ideal Form. Now when all existence is understood as a relation between paragon and image, between one reality and its innumerable reflections, the use of the mirror figure is inevitable.

But the use of the mirror and other figures by Plato and other idealists to argue the illusory nature of reality is not, for Borges, carried far enough. For Plato, George Berkeley, and Arthur Schopenhauer, behind illusion is truth, behind shadow is substance, behind reflection is form, God, or will. For Borges, however, behind illusion is other illusion; there is no ground of being: reality is dissolved not by one but by an infinity of mirrors. In one of Borges's most compelling fictions, "The Circular Ruins," we find that behind the dream of reality is a dreaming god who in turn is dreamed by a dreaming god who is dreamed by a dreaming god ad infinitum. Likewise, in his poem "The Game of Chess" the unseen hand of God manipulates the players on a chessboard, but he, too, is moved by an unseen hand of a god who is moved by an unseen hand ad infinitum.

This dissolution, or deconstruction, of reality by mirror duplication is often abetted by a labyrinth. Although the labyrinth seduces with an appearance of palpable design, the mirror signals a dematerialization or distortion of reality. Often a mirror stands, like Alice's looking-glass, at the doorway of a Borges fiction, warning of things ahead turned wrong side round. Like Lewis Carroll's world, Borges's is one in which il-logic insists on its logical design. There is often, in fact, the appearance of more than usual design, as in the Library of "The Library of Babel," with its perfectly hexagonal galleries and its identical number of books per hexagon, pages per book, lines per page, and letters per line. The pun in the title gives away the contradiction, however: the Library (system) of babble (nonsense). If we miss the pun the mirror hanging in the entranceway—which we are told causes a dispute about whether the universe, metaphorically, the Library, is or is not infinite—is a sufficient clue. It is the narrator's signal not to trust the misleading labyrinth we are about to enter. The Library, as labyrinth (other recurrent metaphors of the labyrinth in Borges's writing include palaces, gardens, and encyclopedias), is a metaphor of metaphysical system; more accurately, it comprises an infinite number of competing systems. Each book is its own system, or a clue to a larger system, and there is a quest among numberless librarians for the system of systems, the book of books, the one world that contains the universe. Inquisitors of all sorts—idealist philosophers, mystics, linguists, orthographers, cartographers, magicians—endlessly voyage up and down the infinite ladders of the Library seeking through infinite books in infinite hexagons the vindications of themselves and their systems. They start out as young men and in old age find themselves back at their natal hexagon, blind, weary, unvindicated; once dead they are hurled over the bannister into the "unfathomable air," where their bodies corrupt and dissolve in an infinite fall.

Thus deconstruction of metaphysical system in "The Library of Babel" is achieved by the overconstruction, proliferation, and competition of systems that collapse under the weight of their own fantastic futility. The story is Borges's most sustained parody of system. Its form is a baroque construction from which the carved cornices are constantly falling away. The reading experience is like watching a group of workers painstakingly erect a building while other workers painstakingly dismantle it.

Another fiction in which a mirror and a labyrinth conjoin to confound the systems of human reason is "Death and the Compass," A rabbi, Marcel Yarmolinsky, has been murdered. Inspector Treviranus, in charge of the investigation, proposes an obvious solution to the crime: the hotel room adjacent to the victim's is occupied by a man who has in his possession the rarest sapphires in the world; meaning to rob his neighbor, a robber blunders into the victim's room instead and is forced to kill him. Private detective Erik Lönnrot, who "thought of himself as a pure thinker [that is, an idealist], an Auguste Dupin," tells the Inspector that such a solution is "possible, but not interesting." He prefers "a purely rabbinical solution." This is a classic confrontation in detective fiction: the unimaginative Inspector Lestrade jumping at the obvious explanation while the ruminating, ratiocinative Sherlock Holmes entertains a more abstruse one. Lönnrot starts on his rabbinical track by gathering together the dead rabbi's books, among which is A Vindication of the Cabala (the title of an actual six-page essay by Borges), and gradually he constructs a solution based on the Cabala and other esoteric Jewish lore. Thus Borges fused pure thinker (or idealist philosopher), detective, and mystic scholar. Detective-idealist-scholar Lönnrot constructs an ingenious, systematic solution to the crime—one that vindicates the Cabala, idealism, reason itself—only to find that it is the unimaginative Inspector, the empiricist who imposes no arcane and "oversubtle" systems of explanation on reality, who is vindicated: the rabbi was killed just as the Inspector proposed. Seduced by reason and metaphysics, Lönnrot is lured to the villa of Triste-le-Roy by his arch-enemy Red Scharlach (who, as Borges has pointed out elsewhere, may be Lönnrot's double) and is killed. He need not have been killed, however, if he had read enough Borges stories! When he reached the labyrinthine villa, with its uncanny, duplicating mirrors, he should have heeded his apprehensions—known that seeming design was being dissolved into nothingness; that regularity was being made irregular, logic illogical; that his elaborate construct was being parodied, deconstructed, made fantastic—and he should have turned back.

In fact, hints of this massive deconstruction were there for Lönnrot's notice throughout the story if he had not been so turned inward. As in "The Library of Babel," here, too, construction and deconstruction occur simultaneously. While Lönnrot, oblivious to reality, ingeniously constructs his rational solution, readers are made aware of the chaotic, delirious manifestations of that reality. The hotel in which Yarmolinsky is murdered is described as a tower that "manifestly unites the hateful whiteness of a sanitorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and a general appearance of a bawdy house"; as Lönnrot drives to the remote scene of the second crime, the Rue de Toulon, readers are told that "to the left and right of the automobile, the city disintegrated"; and the Rue de Toulon itself is described as "that dirty street where cheek by jowl are the peepshow and the milk store, the bordello and the women selling Bibles." Reality is manifestly not ordered and intelligible. Moreover, and perhaps most significant, it is carnival time in the city—a time of the abandonment of reason. The reality through which "Lönnrot the reasoner" moves is a chaos, a dream, an intoxication. The carnival metaphor is reinforced by a fever metaphor that Scharlach provides at the end of the story in relating that he had received his own vision of reality as a labyrinth of mirrors during a feverish delirium and that he had decided then that it would be by means of such a labyrinth that he would entrap and kill Lönnrot.

However, although it is Treviranus the empiricist, and not Lönnrot the idealist, who is vindicated by the story's plot, and although Lönnrot suffers a fatal defeat not often suffered by the sleuths of the genre, he is by no means ridiculed by the story. His rabbinical solution, although "wrong," remains more interesting than the Inspector's; for Borges being interesting is more important than being correct. Besides, even though the series of crimes began accidentally, upon that accident Scharlach did construct a secret design to which the Inspector, but not Lönnrot, was oblivious. The import is that reality is neither pure accident nor pure design but a combination of both and that a worldview that is either wholly empirical or wholly metaphysical is not just inadequate; it is fantastic. As the empiricist is at all times vulnerable to a dumbfounding recognition of a secret order or realm beyond his scheme (the gothic is full of such moments of fantastic revelation), so the metaphysician is vulnerable to a recognition of the limits of his scheme—of the corporeal limits of time, space, and human reason.

Borges employed construction and deconstruction not only in his fictions but in his essays. Most elaborately constructed and deconstructed of all of his essays is "A New Refutation of Time." The essay consists of three parts: Prologue, part A—which, as Borges explained in the Prologue, is the original article published in 1944—and part B, which is the revised article published in 1946. The argument of both articles is that time is annihilated by duplication: "[W]e can postulate two identical moments. Having postulated that identity, we must ask: Are those identical moments the same? Are the enthusiasts who devote a life-time to a line by Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?"

The argument is constructed upon the idealist principles of David Hume and Berkeley; or, rather, it is a deconstruction of those principles: in Borges's words at the outset of the essay, "it is the anachronous reductio ad absurdum of an obsolete system (Idealism) or, what is worse, the feeble machination of an Argentine adrift on the sea of metaphysics" a wry sentence in which Borges not only announces his intention to deconstruct the idealists but also deconstructs, or undermines, his deconstruction with the word anachronous and the whole demurring last clause—not that it is unusual to find in Borges's essays a thesis that does not believe in itself, that argues against itself while asserting itself. Deconstructing his deconstruction further, he drew attention to the "subtle joke" of the essay's title, which is a "contradictio in adjecto, because to say that a refutation is new (or old) is to attribute to it a predicate of a temporal nature, which restores the notion that the subject attempts to destroy." As a final stroke, Borges ended this brief five-hundred-word Prologue—dense with the rubble of a demolished argument he has not even begun to construct—with an echo of the opening. He dedicated the essay to Juan Cristósmo Lafinur, who "like all men … was born at the wrong time." That is, Lafinur's life, like that of all humans, is anachronous. Thus Borges was writing an anachronous argument dedicated to the anachronous lives lived by all people—anachronicity undermining both the achronicity of the idealist argument that he set forth in parts A and B and the sequentiality that saturates language, as that which is out of place in time is neither atemporal nor sequential.

Borges constructed his refutation of time first in part A and then again in its mirror duplication in part B. He did not choose to collapse the two articles into one, as he explained, because reading the pair of texts would make understanding the "indocile subject" easier. More wryly, more obviously, he intended the presentation of two mirrored moments—himself refuting time—in articles that must be read one after the other as both proof and disproof of his argument. But although there is a constant wryness of proof and confutation, avowal and disavowal, construction and deconstruction, that makes this essay his deftest and wittiest, poignancy is also present. Borges made metaphysics the source and subject of his writing because he was haunted by it: throughout his life he "sensed a refutation of time, which … comes to visit me at nights and in the weary dawns with the illusory force of an axiom." His refutation of time, although disbelieved and playfully mocked by his logical being, is deeply felt, is axiomatic for another part of his being—the being that moves through the haunting landscape of the story fragment that closes part A. In the midst of his witty "reductio ad absurdum of an obsolete system" is a poignant and persuasive avowal of that system, providing a temporary resolution of the essay's antinomies. Although time can be easily refuted at the level of the senses, its refutation is not so easy at the intellectual level, because the idea of succession is inseparable from the intellect. Temporality and atemporality have their separate and legitimate spheres. But having launched the argument a second time, in part B, guided it carefully with repetition and variation, persuasively drawing upon Hume, Berkeley, and Chuang Tzu, he brought part B and the essay as a whole not to another resolution but to an almost despairing disavowal:

And yet, and yet—To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret assuagements…. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.

Thus the essayist ends with a revelation suffered by so many of the characters of his fictions: having come to the limits of reason, of imagination, of metaphysical construction, he must admit the "and yet" that demolishes and makes fantastic all of his schemes. Although Borges found the blithe, fantastic denials of reality of Plato, Berkeley, Hume, and others compelling, unlike his idealist predecessors he could not escape waking from his dreams of mirrors, tigers, and labyrinths to sequential time, to Scharlach's gun, to the seeker's "fall, which is infinite."

Stanton Hager, "Palaces of the Looking Glass: Borges's Deconstruction of Metaphysics," in The Scope of the Fantastic—Theory, Technique, Major Authors: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 231-38.

Joseph Epstein (essay date April 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Epstein is an American editor and essayist who has written extensively on literature, language, and American culture. In the following essay, he qualifies his enthusiasm for Borges's writings with the argument that, ultimately, Borges's work does not match the standards set by Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce.]

One of the interesting differences between high art and great science is that the former is both unique and its emergence unpredictable in a way that is not quite true of the latter. If Newton had not lived, I have seen it argued, Huygens and Leibniz would have gone on to do his principal work; Wallace was closing in on the theory of evolution for which Darwin has since been recognized as a hero of science; and Edison's work could as readily have been done by Swan (on the incandescent lamp) and Hughes (on the microphone), or so it is said. If Albert Einstein had never lived, it is possible that Ernst Mach or Max Planck or another German physicist would have set to work on the problem of relativity; but if Proust had died in his twenties, there would be no Remembrance of Things Past, nor, it seems safe to maintain, any other book remotely like it.

And yet there are some artists, no matter how exotic their origins or how esoteric their gifts, of whom it almost seems as if, had they not existed, they would have to have been invented. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer who was born in 1899 and who died last year at the age of eighty-seven, appears to have been such an artist. In a 1967 essay entitled "The Literature of Exhaustion," the American novelist John Barth, setting out a fairly early claim for Borges as a modern master, allowed that "someone once vexedly accused me of inventing" Borges. And indeed Borges was fond of speaking of himself as an invention of sorts, as if there were Borges the writer, who contrived his literary work, and Borges the man, who had gradually become lost in the writer and who was destined "to perish, definitively."

But the sense of the word "invention" I have in mind is of another, somewhat different, kind—it is the sense in which invention is spoken of as being the mother of necessity. For Jorge Luis Borges came along in time to justify the kind of writing that certain academic authors and teachers of modern literature had long been awaiting, even if, until his arrival, they themselves perhaps did not know it.

In "The Literature of Exhaustion"—the very title leaves one longing for a nap—John Barth not only asserts that Borges is one of the few writers worthy of being placed alongside such "old masters" of 20th-century fiction as Joyce and Kafka, but, of the thin line of their successors, Borges is for Barth easily the most interesting. What puts Borges in the first rank for Barth is "the combination of that intellectually profound vision with great human insight, poetic power, and consummate mastery of his means…." But beyond these qualities, which define all literary artists of great power, Barth admires Borges for the way he appears to have both understood and transcended the chief aesthetic problems of the day—Barth rather bumpily calls these "the felt ultimacies of our time." In Barth's view, "it may well be that the novel's time as a major art form is up," which is to say that the day for traditional narrative, with its reliance on cause and effect, characterization, lineal anecdote, and the rest of it, is over, done, kaput. Barth isn't saying, or even suggesting, that the novel is dead, but instead that some of its traditionally richest possibilities may be. If this is true, the question is, where does one—if one is, as John Barth describes himself, "of the temper that chooses to 'rebel along traditional lines'"—where does one go from here? The answer, for Barth, is in the direction of Jorge Luis Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges is the answer as well for a great many other writers, critics, and teachers of literature. If the tradition of modernism in fiction is not considered at a dead end, the three writers who may be said to have carried it on with the greatest bravura have been Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges. Each in his different way is a mandarin among modern writers; each has about him the feel of an international figure. Of these three, Nabokov, despite his enormous talent, seems too much a special case—an exile and a man writing out of his own obsessions, a rare and beautiful specimen of butterfly forming a species of one; Beckett, despite his comedy of deadpan precision, is finally too dark, even for teachers and critics who do not seem to mind setting up shop right there on the rim of the abyss. But Borges—well, Borges is a different story. Borges has his obsessions, but one can separate them from his work, in a way that it is difficult to do with Nabokov; Borges has his darkness, but it is not the darkness of the inside of a shroud, as Beckett's increasingly has tended to be. Borges has the additional advantage that his work, in its various preoccupations, would seem to make striking connections with that group of writers and critics, most but not all of them university-based, who think of themselves as post-modernist. To quote a postie novelist named Ronald Sukenick on the post-modernist program in literature: "Reality doesn't exist, time doesn't exist, personality doesn't exist…. In view of these annihilations, it will be no surprise that literature, also, does not exist—how could it?"

Although Borges would not have put it quite so blatantly, there is evidence in his work for arguing that he, too, believed that reality, time, personality, literature itself did not quite exist. This in any case is the gravamen of those stories of Borges that are most widely admired among American academics. Ours may one day be looked back upon as a time when academics in the humanities in the United States spent themselves debating the question of whether reality truly exists: whether meaning was without meaning; whether not only beauty but ethics and morality generally were only in the eye of the beholder; and whether truth was not inseparable from political power. As Dr. Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley's ingenious argument for the nonexistence of matter by kicking a large stone ("I refute it thus," said he), so today might one refute the academic contemners of reality by proposing that in an unreal world they give up their tenure ("Whaddaya, kidding me?" say they)….

..…

Borges's career had a most odd shape; the line describing it would run from precocity to lengthy obscurity to worldwide acclaim to the danger of academic ossification. "By the late 1920's," Monegal writes, "it was obvious in Buenos Aires that [Borges] was the most important young poet there and a leader of the avant-garde." This is all very well, but in a worldly view comparable to being the best shot-putter in the Junior League, or the winner of a national cha-cha contest for people past eighty. Borges was himself too cosmopolitan a young man not to know this. (He once jokingly proposed starting an avant-garde review to be called Papers for the Suppression of Reality—some joke.) By 1929, according to Monegal, Borges realized that he would never achieve his ambition of being a cosmic poet and a universally admired one. He was still chiefly living off his father, but now he turned more and more to criticism and reviewing for both obscure and popular Argentine periodicals.

Borges gives much credit during this period to the influence of a writer named Alfonso Reyes, who was the Mexican ambassador in Buenos Aires. Reyes got Borges to knock off the fine writing and the attempts to forge a style built on 17th-century models in favor of a prose that was precise, concise, and pellucid. Although at twenty-seven Borges had already had the first of the eight eye operations he would undergo before near blindness set in for good in his middle fifties, he continued to store up vast amounts of desultory reading in subjects erudite and arcane. (Borges always had scholarly tastes without any accompanying illusion that he was himself a scholar.) At this point, in his early thirties, Jorge Luis Borges was still a writer who had not found his form, a talent waiting to burst into fruition.

Curiously, Borges was never a great reader of novels, preferring instead the economy and form of the short story. "As a writer, however, I thought for years that the short story was beyond my powers," Borges writes in "An Autobiographical Essay," and "it was only after a long and roundabout series of timid experiments in narration that I sat down to write real stories." At first he did stories based on incidents from the lives of legendary Buenos Aires toughs, for Borges had cultivated the acquaintance of hoodlums from the city's north side who looked back upon the days when a male virgin was someone who had not yet killed his first man. He then progressed to inventing stories or sketches around the lives of men who had in fact existed, such as Billy the Kid or the Jewish gunman Monk Eastman.

Around 1935 he began to publish tales written in the form of pseudo-essays on books or writers who never existed; these became not only Borges's trademark but the chief cause behind his eventual fame. For it is precisely this kind of thing that excites a writer and teacher like John Barth, who has noted that, instead of yet another stale narrative, Borges in these tales

writes a remarkable and original work of literature, the implicit theme of which is the difficulty, perhaps the unnecessity, of writing original works of literature. His artistic victory, if you like, is that he confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work.

In one such story, "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," Borges begins by announcing the death of an author who has been allotted "scarcely half a column of necrological piety" by the Times Literary Supplement, and whose first work, The God of the Labyrinth, had been obtusely compared, in the Spectator, with Agatha Christie, and others of whose books had been compared with Gertrude Stein. Borges then proceeds I won't say to elucidate but to elaborate upon the kind of writer Quain was. He was a writer who took special pleasure in concocting ingenious plots the purpose of which seemed to be to undermine the very notion of plot. "'I lay claim in this novel,' I have heard [Quain] say, 'to the essential features of all games: symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium.'" There follows some erudite chit-chat about what Quain was really up to; a few false interpretations of his work are put up and shot down; it is noted that a fallacious interpretation of one of his comedies as a Freudian work determined its success. Quain, who "was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species," produces a final book entitled Statements containing eight stories each of which sets out a good plot deliberately frustrated by the author. From the third of these stories, Borges tells us, he was able to extract his own story, "The Circular Ruins," which actually happens to exist.

Now this may not be everybody's idea of the way to play Parcheesi. But be assured that the board, when Borges sets it up, can be very elegantly laid out, the pieces beautifully carved. One must, it is true, have a taste for puzzles and perplexities to enjoy such a story. It would be a grave mistake, however, to take Borges for a mere gamester. He is playing in earnest. Yet his position is a curious one; he is an aesthete who does not quite believe in the efficacy of art. "Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places," he writes, "try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something: this imminence of revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon."

To value art above all else and yet to find art nearly valueless—this, surely, is a strange position. How did Borges come to hold it? Whence did it derive? Valéry remarks that "there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully-prepared, of some autobiography." It is not easy, however, to discover the analogue in Borges's life for his theories about art, unless one looks to his reading, the idealism learned at his father's knee, the avant-garde atmosphere in which he came of age, his penchant for metaphysics. But it all seems somehow cerebral, not quite to touch on life, including Borges's own. Utterly skeptical though he may have been about finding meaning in life, this seems in no way to have prevented him from enjoying it thoroughly. We are used by now to our modern writers having an edge of coldness, if not outright nastiness about them—the meanness is the message—but none of this was true of Borges, about whom Monegal has no trouble rounding up the most endearing testimonials, such as, "I believe that he is the best-humored man I ever met," and "… as Borges is so intelligent, when talking to him, he gives the feeling that we are also intelligent." This most modern of writers was himself a most old-fashioned gentleman.

Not that Borges's life was one of seamless serenity. Beginning in 1937, he worked for nine years in a minor position at a branch library in Buenos Aires, which he later described as "nine years of solid unhappiness." His job was to help impose a systematic organization on a collection of books so small as to require no such system. He did one hour of actual library work each day, spending the remainder reading and writing. But, now in his forties, he felt humiliated by working at so menial and dismal a job. Further humiliations were to come. During World War II, Borges was pro-British, not so easy a thing to be in preponderantly pro-German Argentina. Borges was an enemy of totalitarianism of every kind, and in his criticism and journalism attacked Hitler's anti-Semitism and his catastrophic effect on German culture. Borges was of course also a great enemy of Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, who, when he came to power, repaid the writer by keeping him under surveillance. In August 1946, Borges was notified that he had been removed from his job at the Miguel Cané branch of the municipal library and "promoted" to inspector of poultry and rabbits in the public markets of Córdoba Street—clearly a macho-style slap from, as Borges would later phrase it, "a president whose name I do not want to remember."

Yet Borges, by his own admission, was never a committed writer—never engagé.

My political convictions are well known; I am a member of the Conservative party—this in itself is a form of skepticism—and no one has ever branded me a Communist, a nationalist, an anti-Semite, a follower of Billy the Kid or of the dictator Rosa…. I have never kept my opinions hidden, not even in trying times, but neither have I ever allowed them to find their way into my literary work, except once when I was buoyed up in exultation over the Six-Day War.

As Borges here makes plentifully clear, there was his politics and there was his writing and, insofar as he could control them, never did the twain meet. And it is true that Borges's stories do appear drained of all political content: questions of good and evil do not arise in his stories and neither can he ever be said to seek to persuade his readers to any conclusions. He wished to entertain and move them, but to move them in a particular direction—toward wonder and wonderment over life's mysteries.

While still working at the library, in 1938, the year his father died, Borges had an accident, an injury to his scalp, after which septicemia set in, causing him to fear for his sanity. As he began to recover, still uncertain of his mental abilities, he attempted a new kind of story, which turned out to be "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." It is one of Borges's best-known stories and a work of a kind that would become characteristic of the Borges who is most revered in the academy: a narrative discourse upon an imaginary text that pretends to be an analysis of it. What in considerable part accounts for the cachet of this particular story in the university of today is that it is a story about reading. If you are going to make a major statement in the 20th century, you had better make it short: so Borges, who rarely wrote anything more than ten or twelve pages in length, appeared to believe. He also professed to believe that "the composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance…. I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books."

A symbolist from Nîmes, a friend of Valéry, a man whose bibliography reveals him to have been devoted to the arcana of literary study at the highest level, Borges's creation Pierre Menard applies himself to "the repetition of a preexisting book in another language"—the book in this instance being Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Menard, please understand, wishes to repeat Cervantes's masterpiece literally. The project is quite mad, of course, but then, as the narrator of the story avers, "there is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless." After many drafts, which he has destroyed, Menard succeeds in reproducing a few chapters of Don Quixote exactly. Although both texts are verbally identical, the narrator argues for the superiority of Menard's, its greater subtlety and richness. To him, that a contemporary of Julien Benda and Bertrand Russell could turn out such a work, writing in the prose style of a 17th-century Spaniard while thinking as a 20th-century Frenchman, so that the very meanings of his words, and the meanings behind the meanings, have changed, and with it the meaning of the story—this, truly, is a remarkable accomplishment. As the narrator ends the story by noting:

Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure. Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis-Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?

One could organize a whole little Franco-American school of university literary criticism around a story such as "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," which provides maps of misreading, mines of misperception, mimes of unreality. It is very much a story for specialists, for connoisseurs ("kind of sewers," as the playful James Joyce of Finnegans Wake might have put it). Although Borges began to write such stories before the new academic criticism was really under way, there is a sense in which the stories anticipate the criticism and play into it. As V.S. Pritchett, who is an admirer of Borges, has written: "The risk is—and there are some signs of this already—that criticism of Borges will become an accretion that will force us to see his stories as conceits alone."

But there is more going on in Borges than the organization of conceits alone. There are stories set in the Argentine past, stories about courage, about fate, about mystery; there is also in much of his work a subtle feeling for drama, even if it is not the drama of good and evil, of men swept up by ambition, love, the ambiguities of morality. His stories are all written with a fine eye for detail, for the arresting juxtaposition of word and event, and with that precision and clarity which, combined, make for the highest literary elegance. Borges was a consummate literary artist—of that there can be no question.

The question is, to what uses did he put his artistry? How good, finally, was Borges? Opinions differ—and strongly. V.S. Pritchett, allowing that Borges can be viewed as "a learned pillager of metaphysical arguments," nonetheless maintains that he passes the test for an artist of ideas by his ability to make "an idea walk," which is to say come alive on the page. But V.S. Naipaul, allowing that Borges's puzzles and jokes can be addictive, nonetheless maintains that "they cannot always support the metaphysical interpretations they receive." Octavio Paz holds that "the great achievement of Borges was to say the most with the least," adding that he was able to combine simplicity with strangeness, "the naturalism of the uncommon, the strangeness of the familiar." This is what "gives him a unique place in the literature of the 20th century." But then there is Vladimir Nabokov, speaking perhaps with the acerbity of the rival, who once told a reporter from Time: "At first Vera and I were delighted by reading him. We felt we were on a portico, but we have learned that there was no house."

No one can argue that Borges made extravagant claims on his own behalf. After he achieved fame, he gave hundreds of interviews and wrote various prologues and introductions to his own books and to books about him, and in them he mastered the tone of what might be called the modest genius. "The same few plots, I am sorry to say," he wrote in the prologue to his book Dr. Brodie's Report, "have pursued me down through the years; I am decidedly monotonous." It is true that Borges's stories and poems and criticism seem a remarkably unified enterprise. This enterprise can, I think, be accurately described as the investigation of reality with an eye toward its destruction.

Borges is above all impressed with the mystery of life, and fascinated above all with those who set out to solve the mystery. Scholars and philosophers especially excite his aesthetic interest. "Borges," Alastair Reid once noted, "really did regard scholarship as a branch of fantastic literature." Philosophy was scarcely less fantastic to him, and he found few spectacles as risible as that of a man attempting to interpret the complexity of the world with a theory. In story after story, Borges tells of plans to find order in the world; in story after story, none is finally available. Men are swamped by infinity, chased by time, rattled by memory.

As these stories unfold—"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Babylon Library," "The Aleph," "The Secret Miracle"—the planes of reality and unreality intersect and blur. Labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, strange recurrences play through these works, with the effect that man's place in the world comes to seem a highly shaky proposition and human destiny, to copy a trope from Borges's story "Averroes' Search," "a blind camel in the desert." Yet if man never seems so helpless or absurd as when searching for the secret meaning of life, Borges, while positing the precariousness of human existence, is also able to infuse poetry into the search, and with it emotion of the kind that results when men are shown alone and at the mercy of a universe they do not begin to understand.

But why would Borges, this gentle and altogether pleasant man, be pledged, in the words of a critic most friendly to him named Ana María Barrenechea, "to destroy reality and convert Man into a shadow"? "I am quite simply," Borges has said, "a man who uses perplexities for literary purposes." Yet can it be quite so simple? Skeptical of almost all philosophies, Borges was most partial to idealism, which posits that life does not truly exist outside the mind of the person, or divinity, who beholds it. In the idealistic view, life could well be a dream; and it was this possibility that Borges seemed to prefer to entertain. As a mere window-shopper in philosophy, I have always liked George Santayana's refutation of idealism, set out in Egotism in German Philosophy, which runs, "You cannot maintain that the natural world is the product of the human mind without changing the meaning of the word mind and of the word human." But why would a man of so generally skeptical a nature as Borges turn to idealism, or for that matter to playing with perplexities?

My own unfounded speculation about this has to do with the fact that for years Borges suffered from insomnia. So, too, I recently learned, did Vladimir Nabokov and the Rumanian aphorist E.M. Cioran, two other writers much given to pondering the literary uses of perplexities. So, before them, did Nietzsche, who tried to alleviate it with the use of chloral; and, before Nietzsche, so did De Quincey, who attributed to his insomnia his craving for opium. Borges spoke of "the atrocious lucidity of insomnia." There is something about this tiresome disease, to judge by the roster of writers who have suffered from it, that inflames the imagination, sending it off into dark corners and setting it intricate puzzles.

Some inkling of what a well-stocked mind suffers under insomnia is available in a brilliant Borges story entitled "Funes the Memorius." (Completing this story is said to have cured Borges of his own insomnia.) In it an adolescent boy, Ireneo Funes, a peasant lad who has the unusual ability to tell the precise time of the day without aid of a timepiece, is thrown from a horse and suffers what can only be described as the reverse of amnesia—henceforth, he remembers everything. And he remembers with a vividness of detail that is not only astounding but painful:

When he fell, he became unconscious; when he came to, the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant and trivial memories. Somewhat later he learned that he was paralyzed. The fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (he felt) that his immobility was a minimum price to pay. Now his perception and his memory were infallible.

Borges goes on to report young Funes's extraordinary accomplishments: his ability to master Latin in an evening, his impatience with numbering or indeed with any system employing generalization, or even system itself, which, given his memory, he has no need of. "In the teeming world of Funes there were only details, almost immediate in their presence." To be able to forget nothing, never to turn one's mind off, is of course to live in a kind of hell. Funes's hell is also the hell of the insomniac, as well as the hell of a certain kind of writer. Ireneo Funes cannot bear it past the age of nineteen. "Ireneo Funes died in 1889," Borges concludes his story, "of congestion of the lungs," but what he really dies of is perceptual overload.

This story happens to be a little classic of modernism, in the sense in which Clement Greenberg maintained that "the essence of modernism lies in the use of the characteristic method of a discipline to criticize itself…." Yet was Borges a modernist writer? He himself disdained all artistic labels, saying, "I do not profess any aesthetic. Why add to the natural limits which habit imposes on us those of some theory or other?" And yet it is difficult to disdain them when attempting to place Borges. For when one compares Borges with the modernist masters of fiction, he falls short.

As with Proust, time and memory are of paramount importance to Borges; but, unlike with Proust, in Borges they are not set in the context of love and the intricacies of social relations. Like Joyce, Borges is a master parodist and student of style; but, unlike with Joyce, style in Borges never quite achieves that density of effect that turns it into a way of viewing the world—a vision. There is a weight to Kafka that Borges does not begin to possess. Kafka's argument is with reality, which in his bureaucratic dystopias becomes a nightmare, and he is anguished at his own inability to adjust to reality of this or almost any other kind. Borges, far from arguing with reality, prefers to postulate its nonexistence. When Kafka argues with reality, one feels his very soul is at stake; when Borges plays with reality, one feels it is all in his head.

Borges had for some time been a great figure in the literary life of Argentina, but it was only in 1961, when he shared with Samuel Beckett the Formentor Prize (a $10,000 award furnished by six avant-garde publishers in Europe and the United States), that Borges's renown burst the borders of his native country. He was sixty-two years old, and the award had, in many ways, come just in time. Roughly six years before, owing to his increasing blindness, Borges had to cease writing his stories ("critical fictions," his sometime collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares called them) and his elaborate essays. He now returned to writing poetry—metrical verse, in fact, the meter serving as an aid to the memory of a man who could no longer see his own text. He now had to be read to. Irony of ironies, he was appointed director of the National Library in Buenos Aires, causing him to remark that God had granted him "at one time 800,000 books and darkness." An all too Borgesian story, that.

"As a consequence of that prize, my books mushroomed overnight throughout the Western world," Borges noted. The first consequence was the simultaneous publication of Borges's collection of tales, Ficciones, in six different countries. The second consequence was the discovery of Borges by academic literary departments, who fell hungrily on the carcass of his corpus in the middle 60's and are still gnawing on the bones. Honor now followed honor. Borges was appointed to the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard; there was a "Borges Conference" at the University of Oklahoma; magazines published special Borges issues. "An Evening with Jorge Luis Borges" became a not infrequent event on American university campuses; here Borges gave dollar value, for he was impressive on stage; besides, one could hardly watch him without recalling the blindness of Homer and Milton. In 1971 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He gave more interviews than Hedda Hopper got. Monegal writes that "Borges took to fame with an almost childlike glee." One recalls the triumphal visit of Gertrude Stein to America after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Apparently few things excite an avant-garde writer like a crashing popular success.

In his last years, Borges with his deep-set eye sockets came, in his photographs, to resemble a wise old monkey of the kind one might see perched amid erotic sculpture on the outside wall of a temple in India. To his blindness was added loss of hearing, encasing him in a labyrinth not of his own but of nature's devising. He came to look upon death as a relief. As he wrote about the Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones, who committed suicide on one of the islands of Tigre, "He may have felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was freeing himself, at last, of the mysterious duty of searching out metaphors, adjectives, and verbs for everything in the world."

Borges's life is a fantastic, better yet a Borgesian, story, made all the richer by the fact that Borges himself enjoyed nothing quite so much as a fantastic story. As he once prophetically wrote:

A man sets himself the task of making a plan of the universe. After many years, he fills a whole space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. On the threshold of death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines has traced the likeness of his own face.

So it is with Borges, a writer without quite the power to present his readers with a new and higher organization of experience, such as only the very greatest artists can provide, but whose complexity and richness caused his art to rise above nihilism to become one of the most charming ornaments of the literature of our century.

Joseph Epstein, "Señor Borges's Portico," in Commentary, Vol. 83, No. 4, April, 1987, pp. 55-62.

Bella Brodzki (essay date Summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following essay, Brodzki analyzes Borges's representation of female characters and their role in his attempts to discuss the absolute, the "unrepresentable."]

My concern with the relationship between woman and representation bears directly on the critical controversies raised by Borges' work, specifically the relationship between his formalism/idealism and his textual politics. I will identify (1.) the strategies by which symbols or metaphors of the feminine—as idealized or poetic objects of desire—serve his mystical and metaphysical interests, and (2.) the ways in which the presence of an apparently more localized theme in Borges' work, the machismo cult (benignly understood as the over-determined Latin American male emphasis on courage, honor, and sexual prowess) operates as the inscription of women in a variation of the classic erotic triangle, even as Borges seems to want to move beyond it. By following the gallery of portraits of women throughout his career, one can trace a change in tendency or attitude away from ideality toward corporeality, especially in his later writings. My point will be precisely that for Borges a conceptual ideal always carries an erotic component. Thus I am arguing against the view that Borges' concept of the universal by definition both eludes and excludes the feminine (despite his sentimental idealizing of women), with the ultimate hope of demonstrating that reading Borges in light of gender consideration radically extends our view of his poetics. For, the issue of gender, although perhaps a variable, cannot be read as arbitrary in narratives so engaged in the interplay of metaphor and metonymy. Indeed, the notions of sexual and textual difference are crucially tied to any reading where the claims of power and language, however ungendered (that is, metaphysical) they may appear, are at stake.

To look at how the mystical and the metaphysical converge in a symbol of the feminine in Borges' literary enterprise, it is necessary to elaborate on a poetics that strives to create cultural analogues to sacred texts, but with a twist—for, in Borges' words, "the imminence of a revelation which does not occur is perhaps the aesthetic phenomenon" (Other Inquisitions). Itself the manifestation of certain aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations, Borges' quest for the absolute in language at the same time represents the conceptual "impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe [and should not] dissuade us from outlining human schemes, even though we are aware that they are provisional" (Other Inquisitions). In place of the multiplicity of philosophical and theological systems that express a yearning for an order unattainable to human intelligence, Borges substitutes others, all testifying with ironic and paradoxical precision, to their rigorous relativity. Thus constrained only by the limits of language, he creates a form of speculative thought as ambiguous and provisional as that which we call fiction but which is no more fictional than philosophy.

We recognize this tension between the absolute and the contingent, the universal and the perspectival, metaphor and metonymy to be oppositionally symbolized in the Zahir and the Aleph and crucially connected to two female figures, Clementina Villar and Beatriz Viterbo. As a check on the tendency toward a sacralization or teleology, the perspectival, provisional, successive configuration is necessary, but it carries its own mystique and is no less an hypostasized entity than the transcendent moment achieved, the Aleph. This is because the parabolic tactic of multiplying alternatives synoptically rather than serially does not overcome this tension but exploit it. In attempting to behold the inaccessible through language, the mode plays with the possibilities of difference (in the Derridean sense) through postponement, deferral, decentering, by forming and dissolving metaphors that hover around the absence where the unnamed, unnameable reality is inferred or intuited. It is only through the distortion of memory or supplementarity (a surplus of signification) that these metaphors are present all at once—forming the comprehensive, totalizing Aleph. In Borges' view these near-moments of self-understanding or revelation constitute the aesthetic event—its fluidity, ambiguity, heterogeneity, and open-endedness.

Haunted by "an ordinary coin worth twenty centavos" that possesses mystical attributes, the narrator of "The Zahir" begins his story by recounting his obsession with a model whose face had adorned posters and society magazine covers around 1930. Through a rhetorical sleight of hand whose psychoanalytical implications are not lost on the reader, the images of the coin and the face of Clementina Villar are indissoluably linked for "Borges," and threaten to drive to madness. What fascinates him about the woman is that "[s]he was in search of the Absolute, like Flaubert; only hers was an Absolute of a moment's duration" ("The Zahir," Labyrinths), because she adhered to the capricious and shallow creed of fashion. After a decline in both family fortune and career, she dies in a modest part of town, and "Borges" goes to her wake. Viewing her, he finds her face remarkably restored to its previous youth, unaffected by the ravages of experience: "Somehow, I thought, no version of that face which has disturbed me so will stay in my memory as long as this one; it is right that it should be the last, since it might have been the first." Associated in life with free will and continual self-transformation, indeed a strange combination of self-effacement and self-absorption ("as though trying to get away from herself"), Villar is perfected, forever fixed in death. Like the Zahir from whose hold the narrator cannot escape, her omnipresent image takes on the aspects of a hypostasized entity, but whatever the metaphorical resemblance between her face and the face of the coin, hers is eventually subsumed, and lingers only as a trace, a reminder of his former obsession. By the end of the story the world is slipping away and all distinctions between thought and reality elide: "Others will dream that I am mad; I shall dream of the Zahir." The narrator waits for the inevitable effacement when the image of the coin will replace the universe itself, perhaps revealing God behind it.

In "The Aleph," an ironic and poignant commentary on the nature of visionary experience, the sublime and the pathetic are fused in a mystical object that is the sum of all the possible visual representations of the universe. This cosmic sphere serves as the poetic inspiration of Carlos Argentino Daneri, in whose cellar it can apparently be found. His opus is purportedly the poem of all poems, a total representation of the known world, appropriately entitled "La Tierra." It is not irrelevant that the poem is immensely dull; its epic proportions and geographic trivia, far from exhausting reality, indicate the absurdity of trying to enumerate it. Inflationary, obsessively particular, and random, the pointless variety of the poem's contents only emphasizes the poverty of the mind and method that created it.

In one of the permutations of male bonding prevalent in Borges' fiction, animosity thrives between the poet-librarian and the narrator (who calls himself "Borges"), centering around professional rivalry and a woman named Beatriz: Daneri's cousin, the narrator's love object, and dead since 1929 (it is now 1941). Her "haunting" presence is pervasive: she frames the narrative, provides the sub-text. She is the unsuppressed term of the erotic triangle. Every year on her birthday the narrator pays homage "without hope but without humiliation" to her memory by visiting her house and family. She is introduced to the reader, on one of "these melancholy and vainly erotic anniversaries," by way of photographic description, in serial perspective:

Beatriz Viterbo in profile and in full color; Beatriz wearing a mask, during the Carnival of 1921; Beatriz at her First Communion; Beatriz on the day of her wedding to Roberto Alessandri; Beatriz soon after her divorce, at a luncheon at the Turf Club; Beatriz at a seaside resort in Quilmes with Delia San Marco Porcel and Carlos Argentino; Beatriz with the Pekinese lapdog given her by Villegas Haedo; Beatriz, front and three-quarter views, smiling, on her hand chin…. ("The Aleph" and Other Stories)

There is a second "communion" with Beatriz, this time with a large, single "gaudy" portrait which provokes an intimate declaration from the narrator: "Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, darling Beatriz, Beatriz now gone forever, it's me, it's Borges." It is this ideal that "Borges" loves, the summation of her image, even though he knows that each particular photograph is a vapid fiction, representing an ideal never attained. Against the passage of time and the "inexorable process of endless change," idealized Beatriz both haunts and mocks him. Clearly, her name is designed to invoke Dante's beloved, Beatrice Portinari: indeed, critics have read "The Aleph" as a parody of Dante's masterpieces, both in the universal aspirations of the texts associated ("Borges'" narrative and Argentino's epic poem) as well as their romantic pretexts. The comparison between these elegies to lost love, however, is ironized by their divergent conclusions. Dante's quest for Beatrice ultimately leads to ascension and spiritual consummation, whereas "Borges'" underworld odyssey takes place in a rat-infested cellar in the house where Beatriz lived but which is about to be demolished to make room for an expanding bar.

And the vision of the Aleph itself, an exquisitely rendered, awesome inventory of physical, concrete, organic, sensual, immediate, simultaneous and infinite life, includes more than the narrator probably cared to see, for this point in space contains not only "the multitudes of America … all the mirrors on earth … convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand … tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies … the Aleph from every point and angle … the circulation of [the narrator's] own dark blood … the coupling of love and the modification of death, the reader's face," but also "the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo," as well as "unbelievable, obscene … letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino."

The impossibility of putting forth in language "the ineffable core" of his story is of course part of the narrative's thematic structure, the very "despair" of the writer, the problem of representation itself:

All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How then can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols…. Perhaps the gods might grant me a simple metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction…. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal…. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive….

Then proceeding to articulate this parabolic event, "Borges" recollects the inviolate splendor of the Aleph—"all space was there, actual and undiminished." But by the end of the inventory, the reader realizes that whereas what has aroused the narrator's "infinite wonder" is the synchronic totalization of space, what has aroused his "infinite pity" is purely temporal: death, progressive decomposition, and irrevocable loss, all linked to Beatriz, whose image even the Aleph cannot preserve. Thus, however fragmented, partial, and idealized a representation, his memory of her and the multiple photographs to which he is metonymically attached serve to freeze a moment, to stop the passing of time, symbolized in a woman never won in life, now even subject to change in death. After his transcendent experience the narrator claims that he believes the Aleph to have been a false one and provides "objective" documentation to underwrite his assertion. Yet the duplicity and disappointment of which he speaks have another basis, lying in the implicit analogy between his desire for the woman never possessed and the absolute vision of the Aleph.

In both narratives, "The Zahir" and "The Aleph," intellectual abstraction, esoteric knowledge, and the substance of material objects compete with desire—by nature elusive and ever-changing—for the imagination of a narrator who has "only" language at his disposal. That these women characters seem to lack the kind of depth that would make them worthy of such intense desire provides Borges with the opportunity to comment ironically on the fact that desire always exceeds the value of the object of desire, that the "meaning" of the beloved herself, while subject to the limits of linguistic and visual representation, is always overdetermined and that the lover is often blind to this inherent paradox. What both complicates and simplifies Borges' use of feminine figuration to articulate the theme of longing for the Absolute is that it requires that the woman be dead as pretext. In the case of several of the poems, the death or ultimate loss of a woman serves as the occasion for writing; that the poem is actually dedicated to a particular woman or that she provides its theme is almost derivative of this first point. The issue is not that the poet or narrator only desires her now that she is dead; rather that in death she is infinitely desirable and infinitely open to interpretation. What remains of the face of Beatriz, the more idealized of the two women, no less appropriable than the elusive memory of a revelation whose center is absence—is the language that struggles to retrieve what visual memory cannot preserve.

Metaphysical or intellectual obsession as both theme and strategy pervades much of Borges' fiction and poetry, especially in his first-person narratives. "The Intruder" is yet another tale of (meta)physical obsession; it also belongs to that group of stories whose protagonists are gauchos, urban tough guys, detectives, and expresses Borges' captivation with action, physical violence, honor, treachery, and male bravado—his distinctive version of the machismo cult. This story is particularly disturbing because whereas in most of the other narratives that treat this theme women characters are "merely" absent or virtual nonentities, here a woman occupies the pivotal but silent point of an untenable erotic triangle and must serve as scapegoat in order for the primary male relationship to survive, prevail. One critic finds it "inconceivable that the same man who created 'Emma Zunz' could also have written 'The Intruder,'" because the former seems to affirm female empowerment and self-representation and in the latter an innocent woman is sacrificed to the frontier brutality of a fraternal bond. However, to read this story only as a celebration or glorification of misogyny is possibly to miss Borges' critical commentary and to understand its context (and content) only on the level of "naturalistic" transcription of a cultural reality.

The two almost inseparable originless brothers are described as "drovers, teamsters, horse thieves, and … professional gamblers … who have a reputation for stinginess, except when drink and cardplaying turned them into spenders" and who like "carousing with women," but whose "amorous escapades had always been carried out in darkened passageways or in whorehouses." Thus when one of the brothers, Cristián, brings Juliana Burgos to live with him as servant and concubine, a distinct departure from his previous sexual behavior is signalled. Soon after, the other brother, Eduardo, has fallen in love with her as well, and "the whole neighborhood, which may have realized it before he did, maliciously and cheerfully looked forward to the enmity about to break out between [them]." When Cristián offers Juliana to his brother in his absence ("if you want her, use her") and before departing says goodbye to him but not to her "who was no more than an object," the reader begins to sense the intimate exclusivity of the brothers' relationship and the specific na-ture of their rivalry. As they begin to share her body as well as benefit from her domestic service, their mutual suspicion grows, for "[i]n tough neighborhoods a man never admits to anyone—not even to himself—that a woman matters beyond lust and possession, but the two brothers were in love. This, in some way, made them feel ashamed." Soon the woman, presented as having no power and no voice, is sold to a brothel so that the brothers can rid themselves of her disruptive presence and restore their life to its previous symmetry. Yet unable to live without her conveniently near, they eventually buy her back, and the rest of the dramatic conflict is condensed into one paragraph. Cristián solves their problem by murdering her ("she won't cause us any more harm"), and the story ends with a cathartic embrace and the narrator's final comment: "One more link bound them now—the woman they had cruelly sacrificed and their common need to forget her."

René Girard's study of erotic rivalry in the novel and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's revision of his model of triangular desire, which elaborates a notion of the "homosocial continuum" in literature, can help us first to identify the structure of such a relationship and then analyze its sexual political implications in "The Intruder." Sedgwick begins with the Girardian premise that "in any erotic rivalry, the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved: the bonds of 'rivalry' and 'love,' differently as they are experienced, are equally powerful and in many senses equivalent." In "The Intruder," of course, as the title stresses, the fraternal bond both predates and intensifies the rivalry and is not produced by it; indeed it is the bond itself which makes the triangle possible and impossible. The woman is perceived by the men to be "other," to be an outsider who has driven a wedge between them or violated the integrity of their bond; and the narrator's words assert that the bond is strengthened by and maintained at the expense of a woman "cruelly sacrificed." Feminist extensions of this model situate such triangles within a larger symbolic and economic system, a patriarchal network that thrives on the traffic in women: that is, on the use of women as exchangeable property for the primary purpose and with the ultimate result of cementing the bonds between men. The story replicates the larger sexual organization in which woman figures as "conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it."

The epigraph to the narrative is taken from the Biblical passage in which David laments over the dead body of his friend Jonathan: "your love to me was wonderful / passing the love of women." As a commentary on the story, it suggests the holding up of an exemplar of male bonding, one that transcends heterosexual love, one whose loss can never be superceded. But the story is framed somewhat differently, stressing the perversion of an ideal. Indeed, the narrator justifies telling the legendary story by presenting it as a kind of cultural document, a slice of less-than-desirable life: "I set down the story now because I see in it … a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century." Had Borges, however, endowed Juliana Burgos with language to tell her side of this "monstrous love affair," to inscribe her own subjectivity rather than be inscribed and subsequently effaced, the narrative would gain texture and complexity, although it might lose some of its enigmatic quality. By reducing her to a mediating object within a quasi-mythic structure, Borges maintains a formal dependence on necessity, and not on contingency; yet it is precisely those aspects of contingency, differentiation, and the unexpected (Juliana was not expected to exceed her function as object of "lust and possession"), that suggest the story's real potential as "mirror" of a particular historical condition, as the narrator claims was his intention.

One could say that Borges is still too intrigued by formalism and susceptible to false nostalgia and sentimentality to develop the textual implications of sexual dehumanization for both male and female characters. Certainly this is one possible formulation for the disjunction between the narrator's rhetoric and the text's contradictory "message." But then what about "Emma Zunz" (Labyrinths)? In that narrative Borges uses a female subject, whose name serves as the title of her own story, to signify the suspension, if not the disruption, of a certain formal logic based on the politics of sexual difference, a logic that in "The Intruder" he certainly seems loathe to forsake. However, any attempt to compare the signifying possibilities of Emma Zunz and Juliana Burgos, respectively, must first address the difference in narrative contexts: both characters function in a linguistic and economic system where women's value is defined only through "mediation, transaction, transition, and transference" between men. And both stories are about using (carnally) violent means to achieve "pure" and abstract ends, in one case justice, in the other symmetry. But Emma Zunz is the protagonist in a clear field; the narrative begins crucially with the death of her father and then enacts through its language of figuration precisely the ways in which her subjective agency makes her unique in the Borgesian corpus while still reinscribing her in a patriarchal system she cannot transcend. The interplay of the forces of identity and sexual difference, language and power, intentionality and indeterminacy, and the critical strategies that trace them, come together in a performative moment of suspended revelation: Emma's sex/speech act. Her body/text becomes the very locus of interpretation, of self-interpretation, as Emma learns of the relationship between sex as behavior and sex as identity. The identity of Juliana Burgos is woman, "the intruder"; Borges situates her among men, and then proceeds to foreclose, indeed erase, whatever textual possibilities she ever presented in the narrative. Borges is willing and exquisitely able to make a woman the actor in her own drama; more difficult is conceiving of a female character on the level of, equal to male characters in the same dramatic field, a heroine whose destiny would rewrite the old script. Instead the story particularizes male violence and female victimization: one could almost imagine the savage ending giving way to the opening of a new story, one in which of course, the memory of a dead woman haunts the consciousness of two brothers locked in symbiotic conflict over her.

Because Borges notoriously privileges form over content, structure over essence, and event over character, how gender figures in his narratives is always fascinating. "The Duel," a story whose title echoes other narratives about the macho code of honor, is actually, according to the narrator, about two women characters who could easily populate one of Henry James's ironic, discursive, ambiguous narratives. He alerts the reader that events are subordinate to the characters, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, and the relationship between them. A complex and dissimulated rivalry exists between two women active in the art world of Argentine society, whose lives draw their meaning from their all-consuming interest in each other's work "each of them was her rival's judge and only public" ("The Duel," Doctor Brodie's Report). The intrigues of their careers are traced through a series of plot reversals and parodies of art criticism; the narrator even detects "a mutual influence" in their pictures: "Clara's sunset glows found their ways into Marta Pizarro's patios, and Marta's fondness for straight lines simplified the ornateness of Clara's final stage …" As he approaches the end of the story, the narrator highlights the gender-marked differences between their "intimate … delicate duel," in which "there were neither defeats nor victories nor even an open encounter," and those male rivalries to which Borges has devoted so much of his attention. Despite the dispassionate, ironic tone, the narrator seems genuinely to regret a cultural condition "where a woman is regarded as a member of a species, not an individual…." One is nonetheless tempted to note that his own conclusion provides the best critical commentary upon the imminence of an illumination that does not occur: "The story that made its way in darkness ends in darkness."

Two stories from the collection The Book of Sand are significant departures from Borges' other writings in which women figure as idealized or poetic objects of desire or represent a threat or danger to men. "Ulrike" is a memoir of a brief love affair between a South American professor and a Norwegian woman he meets while touring England. In the longer, more diffuse narrative about a secret intellectual organization, "The Congress," an amorous episode forms the centerpiece. Both, although somewhat sentimental, are positive representations of erotic fulfillment. In the story "Ulrike" the narrator knows almost immediately after meeting the calm, mysterious woman that he is in love: "I could never have wanted any other person by my side." She, too, seems interested in him, and because "to a bachelor getting along in years, the offer of love is a gift no longer expected," and, remembering other missed opportunities, he is willing to accept whatever conditions this ominous "miracle" imposes upon him. Abounding with references to Ibsen, Norse sagas, old conquests, and national enmities, they call each other Sigurd and Brunhilde as a sign of faith in their capacity to transcend difference. "The sword Gram" lying "naked between them," provocatively referred to in the story's epigraph, no longer separates them during their night together when "[i]n the darkness, centuries old, love flowed, and for the first and last time I possessed Ulrike's image."

Only a writer like Borges could speak of "possessing Ulrike's image" when describing a sexual union. Certainly the consummation represents the transcendence of temporal and spatial limits, but this event is not unique even if unrepeatable; indeed its universal structure poses for Borges the same problems of representation as all other absolute moments. The question is whether his use of "image" here is a metaphor for the totalized experience achieved or for what always eludes a speaking subject—that is, the difference between the moment experienced and the words to translate it. To put it otherwise, which aspect or aspects of Ulrike did the narrator "possess" that night, and which eluded him? Does "image" signify for Borges the totality of the experience or the gap between the experience and its representation? Or perhaps is he alluding to a difference intrinsic to experience itself, inclusive of language, and not separable from it?

How to contend with the problem of rendering such moments is crucial to Borges' enterprise, although sometimes one wonders if the problem is merely a rhetorical one: as linguistic act it calls attention to itself but its representational status is never seriously or profoundly threatened, nor is the thematic pattern of intentionality disrupted. In "The Congress" the heart of the amorous episode between the narrator, Alejandro Ferri, and his new lover, Beatrice, is her response to his proposal of marriage; as "a follower of the faith" of free love, "she did not want to tie herself down to anyone." She utters the word he "never dared speak" (conspicuously absent in the text), and his words immediately follow in a torrent of poetic bliss:

O nights, O darkness warm and shared, O love that flows in shadows like some secret river, O that instant of ecstasy when each is both, O that ecstasy's purity and innocence, O the coupling in which we became lost so as then to lose ourselves in sleep, O the first light of dawn, and I watching her.

Some time after, they part in the British Museum where they had met the winter before, and, "to avoid the anguish of waiting for letters," he does not leave her his address. Although extended over time, their erotic connection is symbolized as one ecstatic moment, one night, one dawn, a singular vision.

In the final section of "The Congress" we find a passage that is strikingly similar to the one earlier quoted from "El Aleph" when "Borges" struggles to describe his vision of the Aleph:

All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past…. How then can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that is somehow all birds … Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor…. (The "Aleph" and Other Stories)

Its analogue in "The Congress" comes after the episode with Beatrice and attempts to inscribe the memory of the experience Ferri had shared with the other members of the secret Congress, who have since died:

Words are symbols that assume a shared memory…. The mystics invoke a rose, a kiss, a bird that is all birds, a sun that is all the stars and the sun, a jug of wine, a garden, or the sexual act. Of these metaphors none will serve me for that long, joyous night, which left us, tired out and happy, at the borders of dawn…. Down through the years, without much hope, I have sought the taste of that night; a few times I thought I had recaptured it in music, in love, in untrustworthy memories, but it has never come back to me except once in a dream. (The Book of Sand)

Despite the literal similarity in presentation as well as the symbolic overlay of the two quintessential experiences—the problem of rendering in language that which exceeds the power of representation—there is a radical difference between the nature and content of these experiences. What marks the mystical vision of the Aleph as different from the other experiences of the infinite is that it is solitary, cerebral, and irreducible. Hence the overwhelming difficulty of recollecting and formulating a moment of pure self-containment in universal, communicable terms, that is, into language. Of course, such an understanding of language is predicated on the notion that there is potential for such communication, however ineffable the experience or imperfect the vehicle. But because the uniqueness of the thing itself cannot be grasped or articulated, to be accessible to others it must become part of a network of already constituted meanings, that is, join the cast of other already metaphorized epiphanic experiences. It is Borges' premise that these "experiences" come mediated to us by way of literature, from which we derive our "shared memory." Whether through such indirection language ever brings us any closer to the experience or whether it in fact subsumes it remains ambiguous.

In the case of the joyous nights described in "The Congress," the one experience that Ferri has sought desperately to recapture in music and love, and which seems to have been retrievable only once in dream, is not mystical in the usual sense, nor sexual in any sense. His ultimate experience, identified as "the single event of [his] whole life," was the enactment of an abstract philosophical ideal, a secret organization that sought to embrace everything in "the whole world." Understood finally to be an impossibility, the Congress of the World is dissolved and "the true Congress" realized the same night: a spontaneous, organic community, without agenda, without purpose. As "the only keeper of that secret event," Ferri justifies "committing perjury" and assumes the task of narrating their story, because with the death of the only other remaining member, the community no longer exists—and will not exist in memory either when Ferri dies. The recounting of that ideal night even includes an attempt to "bring [back] Beatrice's image," but it seems to be a perfunctory gesture. What Beatrice had rejected—the notion of an exclusive human connection—Ferri ironically learns to surpass through the experience of community. Yet an irony whose effects reverberate throughout the narrative is that one of the meanings of the word "congress" is sexual union.

Many of the variations on the theme of intellectual obsession and strategies of female figuration I have attempted to trace in this essay converge in one of Borges' last poems, "The Threatened One." As I hope to have shown, his use of a feminine ideal to explore metaphysical possibilities often requires the death or ultimate loss of a woman, and this absence serves as the very pretext for writing. The inevitable temporal and spatial distance between an idealized object of desire and the invoked image provides him with the symbolic means to pursue the implications of some of his favorite philosophical problems: infinite interpretation as a form of immortality, the deceptive truth of memory, life as the construction of paradoxes. I hope to have also identified some tendencies, especially in his later writings, toward a less abstract conception of woman and an attendant openness toward erotic experience, an important aspect of this process. Yet if what constitutes now the ideal seems to be as much an embodiment as an image, his quest for the Absolute has not attenuated; and in this perceptible movement from ideality toward corporeality, woman remains the figure of choice.

What singularly distinguishes "The Threatened One" from other poems and narratives in which women figure prominently is that it is situated absolutely in the present and that it is addressed to a living beloved. As in many of his other poems, Borges uses the rhetorical device of enumeration as a way to summarize his major motifs and mythologies, as a metonymy of his main subjects, a microcosm of his entire work. But here the self-contained, intimate world composed of the poet's "talismans [and] touchstones—the practice of literature, vague learning, an apprenticeship to the language used by the flinty Northland to sing of its seas and its swords, the serenity of friendship, the galleries of the Library, ordinary things, habits, the young love of my mother, the soldierly shadow cast by my dead ancestors, the timeless night, the flavor of sleep and dream" (The Gold of the Tigers) are cited as useless in the face of an all-consuming, threatening love. None of the familiar points of reference pertain when "[b]eing with you or without you is how I measure my time" or when a "room is unreal" because "[you] ha[ve] not seen it"; this "is love with its own mythology."

Yet images of anguish and terror of self-extinction abound: "prison walls grow larger, as in a fearful dream," and "the darkness has not brought peace" for the man who has to "hide or flee" from this love. These lines manifest a remarkable dependence upon voice or enunciation, upon the poet's own convincing unmediated confessional utterance as well as upon his beloved's voice, her sensual presence: "It is love, I know it: the anxiety and relief at hearing / your voice … A woman's name has me in thrall / A woman's being afflicts my whole body." What is most fascinating, perhaps, about this evocation of obsessive love is the absence of the ethereal, the abstract, the transcendent, indeed those very characteristics of romantic longing which mirror Borges' pervasive quest for the Absolute. That this movement from ideality to corporeality still revolves around woman as figure, of course, raises some new issues while masking others. The poet's dependence in "The Threatened One" upon the beloved's voice and physical presence is an even stronger declaration of the consumptive power of erotic desire and an admission that poesis may have its limitations. In this poetic self-portrait the repetitious effects of the conclusive words "It is love" are immediate, enduring, and absolutely corporeal—coexistent it would seem with his own being, his life. And even as this poem is addressed to, written for a specific woman, it has no meaning or value apart from her, cannot compare with her. Here there is no symbolic or metaphorical inscription of the feminine as an aspect of the quest for the Absolute, no projection backward or forward toward mystical union with a lost or deferred object, no recognition of the pleasure derived from the exercise of cerebral prowess as a means of constituting subjectivity in the world.

If the poet fears the condition of immanence in which he finds himself, it may be due precisely to love's capacity to eclipse all other things, put all else into question. If writing is predicated on loss or exile, then the entire enterprise of writing represented in the poem might now be threatened by this passion for the present, for what is none other than a competing metaphysics. To accept the performative terms of this poem, however, is not to read its ontology of female voice and body uncritically. It is to be aware that there are always at least two readers, one of whom is Borges, occupying space on both sides of the text's divide. For the "Borges" who said "I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges may contrive his literature and that literature justifies my existence" ("Borges and I," Dreamtigers), losing one's self in love may pose an ominous threat indeed. But only if "the other one"—the "other reader," that is—does not live to write about it. Borges' "idea of woman" ensures the vitality of each.

Bella Brodzki, "Borges and the Idea of Woman," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 149-66.

Edna Aizenberg (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[In the following excerpt, Aizenberg discusses the influence Borges's work has on "postcolonial" literature and criticism.]

1. Postmodernism holds center stage as the major critical practice of the moment. And Borges is there, of course. Critics working in Latin American literature, however, have noted the discomforts of fitting Borges, along with other Latin American authors, into the postmodern mold; as one critic asked graphically, if with some gender bias: "Is the corset too tight for the fat lady?" One place where the corset pinches is in its elision of the Latin American condition of the texts. Typically, these are subsumed into Euro-U.S. concerns. The traits that mark their "postmodernism" are employed to illustrate trends in "late capitalist, bourgeois, informational, postindustrial society" and are said to respond to Western needs: for example, the "totalizing forces" of mass culture. What is forgotten is the peripheric, ex-centric position. The "postmodern" characteristics of Latin American and Borgesian literature enthusiastically embraced by U.S. and European critics—self-reflexivity, indeterminacy, carnivalization, decanonization, intertextuality, pastiche, hybridity, the problematizing of time and space and of historical and fictional narration—are primarily a correlative of a colonized history and an uncohered identity, of incomplete modernity and uneven cultural development, rather than postindustrialization and mass culture. Their uncritical incorporation into a metropolitan repertoire indicates that the centering impulse of a "decentered" postmodernism is far from gone.

It is at this point that postcolonialism becomes an effective heuristic tool. Like all concepts, it is a tool, and one must take care lest it too become a corset squeezing the fat lady. There are many colonialisms, diverse postcolonial situations, significant overlaps between postcolonialism and other theoretical modes, disparate and antagonistic strands of postcolonial criticism, interrogations about postcolonialism's continuing enmeshment in the colonial gaze. Nevertheless, grosso modo, postcolonial theory has done much in its shift of focus from the "center" to the "margins," with the core of interest on conditions and developments at the "margins"; it has made valuable contributions to a comparative approach that contests the usual North-South perspective of literary studies and connects cultures and literatures that have infrequently, if ever, spoken to each other; and it has provided important insights for "identifying and articulating the symptomatic and distinctive features" of postcolonial texts, from the condition of postcoloniality.

This work is exceedingly relevant to Latin American writers, first and foremost Borges. Traits of Borges that have been understood (or misunderstood) within the two regnant contexts of study, Eurocentric or national-Latin American, acquire new sharpness when read from the perspective of postcolonialism. A postcolonial perspective brings into focus Borges's strengths and Borges's lacks. It allows for a renewed appreciation of Borges's role as a forerunner to what is significant in present literary-critical practice, particularly the writing of such "Third World" authors as Salman Rushdie, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Anton Shammas, and Sergio Chejfec, who see in the Argentine master a postcolonial precursor.

2. Postcolonial critics underscore the theoretical hegemony of Europe, a hegemony that has utilized the texts of the "margins" to construct itself—Latin American literature and postmodernism is a case in point—yet has frequently ignored the theoretical explorations of the "margins." These explorations, in the literary texts themselves and in essays and works of criticism, more than once prefigure issues that have since become crucial to the "center," as in the case of postmodernism; and this prefiguring results precisely from the "marginal" status, with its intense sensitivity to problems of textuality and reality, to troubling epistemological questions.

Borges illustrates the elision, despite the fact that he has attained canonical rank in Euro-U.S. critical-literary discourse. Certain Borges writings are cited to buttress, say, Genette or Bloom or Foucault, whereas others are little mentioned. "Kafka and His Precursors" and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" fall into the first category; "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" into the second. Then too, what we might call the postcolonial implications of even the cited works are ignored; this is true of Borges's essays and his fictions.

Let us look at "El escritor argentino y la tradición." Originally delivered as a lecture in the fifties, the essay contains many of the questions that are important to postcolonial criticism and that intersect with the preoccupations of the "center." The issue of tradition itself, with the related issue of the canon, is one. Borges's purpose in the essay is to define Argentina's literary tradition in order to guide contemporary Argentine writers in their task. The title of the piece recalls Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," an essay that Borges refers to in "Kafka and His Precursors" to develop the now well-known idea that "every writer creates his own precursors." But to continue with tradition. Nowhere in his discussion does Eliot interrogate what tradition is for the English writer. He declares: the "historical sense compels a man to write … with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order." Although Borges attempts to project an analogous sense of security and order, opening his essay by calling the problem of defining Argentine literary tradition a "pseudoproblem" and concluding with what has been read as a submission to Europe, the fact is that there is a great deal more probing of the meaning of tradition, as well as heterogeneity in describing it and subversiveness in treating it.

Borges reflects upon a number of possible traditions: the tradition of gauchesque poetry, the tradition of Spanish literature, and the Western tradition as a whole. The gauchesque receives particular attention, in large measure because it has been considered Argentina's "authentic," "native" literary tradition, and its masterwork, José Hernández's Martín Fierro, Argentina's canonical book. Borges's pointed analysis dwells on the primary claim to authenticity of the gauchesque, its language, supposedly derived from the spontaneous oral poetry of the gauchos. His examination in effect dismantles this claim; he indicates that the gauchesque poets, city men, cultivated a "deliberately popular language never essayed by the popular poets themselves." In the constructed idiom there was a purposeful "seeking out of native words, a profusion of local color," whereas the gaucho singers tried to express themselves in nondialectal forms and to address great abstract themes. Borges's conclusion is that gauchesque poetry, which had produced admirable books, not least Hernández's "lasting work," was nevertheless a "literary genre as artificial as any other."

The discussion is enormously suggestive. What is the relationship between orature and literature in conforming a literary tradition? Questions about the continuities and discontinuities between oral and written forms are at the heart of literary-critical discourse in Africa, for example, with the unexamined championing of the oral tradition as the model for contemporary African writing an area of debate. There is likewise the matter of an essentialized nativism as the basis of contemporary cultural tradition, what the Nigerian critic Chidi Amuta terms "raffia, calabash, and masquerade culture." The seeking out of a profusion of local color, including fixed "native" linguistic codes, is seen by Amuta and other critics as a retrograde maneuver that perpetuates the "exotic" view of the non-European and ignores the essence of postcolonial cultures and their languages as dynamic, dialectical, hybridized formations.

If a limited, conversational nativism could not form the basis for Argentine literary tradition (in the essay Borges recalls that early in his career he had been a "raffia and calabash" man), neither could the literature of the former "mother country." Borges states categorically: "Argentine history can be unmistakeably defined as a desire to become separated from Spain." Instead of positing a smooth interface between Spanish literature and Argentine literature as one grandly unbroken master narrative (a position more than once perpetuated in the teaching of Latin American literature), Borges posits rupture. For an Argentine to write like a Spaniard is testimony to "Argentine versatility" in assuming a persona rather than indication of a natural state. Of course, Borges returned again and again to the masterwork of Spanish literature, the Quixote, as he dialogued with Spanish writers—Quevedo, Gracián—and as he rewrote the Martín Fierro in his fictions; but his selective manipulation of elements of these traditions can best be explicated in the framework of the third tradition he examines, Western culture.

In their studies the Australian critics Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, who are among the most prolific researchers in postcolonial theory, underscore that it "is inadequate to read" postcolonial texts "either as a reconstruction of pure traditional values or as simply foreign and intrusive." These texts are constituted in the shuttle space between the two illusory absolutes, "within and between two worlds." Postcolonial texts can further be conceived as an alternate reading practice whose aim is the revisionist appropriation and abrogation of the Western canon. These thoughts are helpful in approaching Borges's approach to the Western tradition, because his posture has been construed as nothing if not "foreign and intrusive." Borges writes: "I believe our tradition is all of Western culture," but the statement does not lead to a reiteration of the authority of the "center" to "write" Borges. Instead, Borges turns the Western tradition against itself by appropriating the right to write back to the "center." "We have a right to this tradition," he asserts, "greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have." The assertion is the takeoff point for a model of difference and a strategy of subversion.

Dialoguing with another essay, Thorstein Veblen's 1919 article "The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe," Borges applies to the Argentine and Latin American circumstance the American thinker's notion of Jewish difference as the breeding ground for innovation. Long before Derrida's différance, Borges anchors his attitude toward Western discourse in "not feel[ing] tied to it by any special devotion," in "feel[ing] different," like the Jews or the Irish. Difference makes for deferral. To quote Borges again: "I believe that we … can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already does have fortunate consequences."

There is in these statements of "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" all the creative chutzpah and, yes, the ambiguity—if not anxiety—of the postcolonial situation. On the one hand, the speaking back, the challenge to the metropolis, and the installation of irreverent difference as the modus operandi of fortunate literary labor; on the other the pervasive concern, common to postcolonial societies, with myths of identity and authenticity, with establishing a linguistic practice, with place and displacement, with canonicity and "uncanonicity." Borges's lifelong Hebraism, exemplified in the essay, correlates with this double movement. It was not merely the Jewish condition, traversed as it was with many similar complexities, that attracted Borges. It was also the Jewish textual tradition, some of whose views were displaced by the dominant Greek-Western logos as inauthentic—in Borges's words, "alien" to the Western mind. (What the dominant logos judged "authentic" in Jewish textuality was authenticated by its appropriation, not by its Jewish roots.)

One such view was the conception of writing as inevitably intertextual, constituted in the bold interaction—not decorous separation—of Torah and scholia, of canon and commentary, through an ongoing process of interpretive reconstitution. Another was the idea, carried to an extreme by the mysticism of the Kabbalah, that audacious revisionism masked as faithful reproduction formed the proper stance toward tradition. Borges's exploration and radicalization of these beliefs was clearly an attempt to find precedents, from the edge of the world, for alternative literary models: models of strategic "marginality" with the interplay of the standard and the subversive that became Borges's stance.

It is not incidental that Bloom connects Jewish hermeticism to Borges via a secularized, parodic version of the principle of "reading old texts afresh," for in his nonsuperstitious handling of Western themes the "parodic miniaturization of a vast work of art" constituted one of Borges's favorite revisionary operations. We are now so familiar with these Borgesian manipulations that we scarcely stop to consider their implications, particularly in a postcolonial context.

The biblical urtext, whose questioning "to absurdity" by the Kabbalists Borges so admired, is not the least of the vast parodied works; in Borges, Cain becomes Abel, Judas becomes Jesus, the Crucifixion of Jesus becomes the crucifixion of a medical student, Golgotha becomes an obscure Argentine ranch. The event occurs after the student "brings light" to the "heathen," in a tale audaciously entitled "The Gospel According to Mark." One cannot help but think here of works like Yambo Ouologuem's Devoir de violence, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Ngũgĩ wa Thionǵo's Petals of Blood, Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, and Gabriel Garcìa Márquez's Cien años de soledad—all postcolonial novels in which scripture is parodically repositioned, its orthodox presuppositions (often in the setting of the missionizing endeavor in the imperialized area) disrupted. In "The Gospel According to Mark" Borges gives narrative substance to the linguistic-interpretive relativization that necessarily occurs in new and hybridized settings: the student Baltasar Espinosa, whose name already bespeaks Judaic heresy and whose background and religious beliefs are already impure, cannot exert interpretive control either over the text—not accidentally an English Bible—or over events, and it is ultimately the even more mestizo Guthries/Gutres who have the last word at tale's end.

Other master myths and works, and systems of knowledge, are subjected to parallel carnivalistic-reductive techniques, frequently in an Argentine milieu: the ineffable godhead is viewed, flat on the back, in a Buenos Aires cellar; the sublime Dante Alighieri is the flatulent Carlos Argentino Danieri; Erik Lönnrot meets death in a spectral porteño Southside after a rigorous Spinozan quest; Qaphqa is a latrine in Babylon, synonym of Babel, synonym of Buenos Aires, as in the line from Borges where he sings to his "babelic" home city, "texted" out of cultural and linguistic fragments from the four corners of the earth. Indeed, in many of Borges's texts it is not merely the inversion of a specific writer or system that "writes back" to the "center." There is the freewheeling pastiche of authors, epochs, languages, philosophies that is equally undermining, since the very juxtaposition short-circuits metropolitan notions of linearity, epistemological security, temporal-spatial coherence, historical and fictional progression, and mimetic accuracy.

A pastiche of associations suggests itself at this point: Foucault's heterotopic reading of the signs in teacups of Western history and thought "out of a passage in Borges" from "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" that contains the kind of juxtaposition just noted; a Chinese taxonomy of beasts, many fabulous (more shortly about postcolonialism and imaginary beings); or Homi Bhabha's positing of the lack of mimetic correspondence as a postcolonial strategy for shattering the mirror of Western representation, which brings to mind Borges's early championing of irrealism, a frequent recourse, he points out, of non-Western writing; or even Ngũgĩ's comment about space, time, and progress in the "Third World," in Kenya, and in Argentina:

Skyscrapers versus mud walls and grass thatch … international casinos versus cattle-paths and gossip before sunset. Our erstwhile masters had left us a very unevenly cultivated land: the centre was swollen with fruit and water sucked from the rest, while the outer parts were progressively weaker and scragglier as one moved away from the center.

In Borges one finds the "unevenness," the clashing orders, the disjunctive language of narration that results in large measure from the disorder left behind by colonialization; but it is a disorder that calls to answer established rhetorics so as to fashion novel discourses out of the challenge.

It is not for nothing that in "Kafka and His Precursors," where heterogeneous pieces nudge each other, Borges fabricates a more provocative, postcolonial version of Eliot's majestic proposition that every writer's work modifies our conception of the past and future. According to Borges, every writer goes further: he creates his own forerunners. And appropriately so, for at the "periphery," where things have as yet to cohere, one must create a genealogy, an identity, and a place. Still, Borges experienced the uncoherence of the edge at a time when the Western "center" itself could not hold, as a young man beholding the spectacle of the Western order disintegrating in the trenches of the Great War, and as a writer at the height of his powers observing, from far-off Buenos Aires, the even greater falling apart of things during World War II. The postcolonial world emerged out of these conflicts; Borges, with his outsider's antennae, foresaw and registered many of the seismic shifts in the realms of thought and literature.

At the same time, however, he registered the contradictions of an intellectual caught in the divide, one whose background and formation continued to enmesh him, at many moments, in the colonial gaze. The repeated dislocations at the Casa Rosada and at the Plaza de Mayo, messy and equivocal as some might have been, were in large measure the correlatives of what Borges was chronicling in his texts; but more often than not he did not see this. At the divide, Borges was crucial in shattering time-honored, dominant codes of recognition, clearing the ground; it remained for his postcolonial ephebes to carry on the work and build in the clearing through the very process that Borges had advocated: by realizing, transforming, and transgressing the precursor.

Edna Aizenberg, "Borges, Postcolonial Precursor," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 21-6.

Previous

Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 8)