What does it mean to “read Borges”? What are we even endeavoring to read?
“Borges” is a cipher: a proper name that stands in for a set of texts with which that name is associated. It’s a figure or speech or language, a form of metonymy: part stands for whole. The author’s name, printed on the front of each book, stands in for a series of texts from Fervor de Buenos Aires to Libro de arena. Perhaps we know that this proper name is at best a convenience: as Foucault would say, it’s an “author function”; it’s a fiction, or something that arises from fiction. It is “a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize or the exclusions that we practice” (“What is an Author?” 110). The author is, in short, the product of our reading; in reading Borges we also construct the fiction of Borges as author.
This process, by which we make the author’s name stand in for the texts to which it is attached, is, however, a rather useful fiction, which forestalls cumbersome circumlocutions. The name simply helps us classify and identify this set of texts, and to differentiate them from others. Let’s not ask too much of this operation, or hold it to impossible standards. We know that in any case each and every word we use is in some sense a cipher: an arbitrary sound or mark on a page that we customarily agree is associated with a particular concept. That association is undoubtedly tenuous, sustained more by tradition and habit than by logic. There’s always something unstable or partial about any statement we try to make in any language. But for convenience’s sake, and to save time, we say we “read Borges” rather than going into the specificities of our task at each and every mention. If we can never be fully exact, however precise we try to be, then let’s simply accept some imprecision.
And yet the fact that we have chosen to read only texts that bear the name of Borges suggests rather more than a matter of mere convenience; it smacks of obsession. There is something obsessive and perhaps hallucinatory about trying to read Borges. We will inevitably imagine we glimpse traces of some other Borges that is not some mere textual effect: a Borges that is more than a proper name, a placeholder metonymically standing in for something else. The ritualized habit of saying “Borges” has its own effects. We will start to think we see a figure that is rather more substantial than a mere figure of speech.
As so often, Borges anticipates us. His short piece “Borges y yo” is about precisely the way in which a text–textuality–seems to connect a proper name with the traces of another ghostly (if allegedly more substantial) presence. Borges the public figure, the name, the signifier that enables literary categorization and literary classification, conjures up also this other figure who likewise likes “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose” (61; the translation I’m using is Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s, found here). The two Borges overlap but never fully coincide. The one is unimaginable without the other. The schemes of the one justify the existence of the other: “I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature, and that literature is my justification” (61; translation modified).
The twist of course lies at the end the tale: it is just when we think we might have arrived at the figure who lies behind the plot, the Borges that is more than mere proper name, that we discover what could well be merely another literary artifice. For if we assume that the “I” of “Borges and I” is the writer himself, the story’s last line makes us think again: “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know” (62). This forces us to re-read the story: so strong is our impulse to imagine authorial presence, we have no doubt neglected the possibility that the “I” of the story is the convention, the literary placeholder of convenience. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Why would we have imagined that in this story–and this story alone–we should have direct access to some other Borges who lies behind that authorial function? Only because “Borges” directs us to think so, before then pulling the rug from under our feet. Yet it is equally likely (and perhaps more fully Borgesian) that the “Borges” on whom the “I” comments (and about whom he complains) is the writer himself. And why shouldn’t the proper name try to rid himself (itself?) of the referent to which he or it is supposed to refer? The life of a signifier is “a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man” (62).
And in the end our job as readers, as readers of Borges, is to track down that literary artifice, rather than its presumed author. Not that we can easily tell the difference.