Jorge Luis Borges Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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James E. Irby (essay date 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Miguel Enguídanos (essay date June 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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James E. Irby (essay date 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Edgardo Cozarinsky (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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James Neilson (essay date June-July 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Stanton Hager (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Bella Brodzki (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Edna Aizenberg (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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....

(The entire section is 295 words.)