A conversation for SPAN 312 about Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of translated stories and other short texts, Labyrinths. With Daniel Balderston and Jon Beasley-Murray.
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Borges exposes secret complicities, as when apparent oppositions hide more fundamental similarities. But he is also concerned with how novelty and change emerge from repetition, how real difference arises from the most minor of variations.
For Whom the Bell Tolls II
Time and timing are of the essence in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The mission at the heart of the book, for which the young American Robert Jordan is to sabotage a bridge in concert with a Republican offensive, is time critical: “To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should be done,” he is told by the man in charge, General Golz. “You must be ready for that time” (5). But then, ultimately, when it becomes clear that they have lost the advantage of surprise and Jordan tries to have the attack called off, his messenger cannot get through in time: “C’est dommage. Oui. It’s a shame it came too late” Golz reflects (428). His divisions are already on the move, and there is no stopping them now. Still, “maybe this time [. . .] maybe we will get a break-through, maybe he will get the reserves he asked for, maybe this is it, maybe this is the time” (430).
We never know what comes of the offensive, and whether indeed “this is the time,” though we must presume it isn’t: the book was published in 1940, and so in the aftermath of the eventual failure to save Madrid, and indeed Spain as a whole, from Franco’s forces. A sense of doom hangs over the entire enterprise: “I do not say I like it very much” responds Jordan to Golz even when he receives his orders (6). And “It is starting badly enough [. . .]. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it” he muses once he is on the scene with the bridge (16). Little by little, step by step, things go from bad to worse: the sky is full of Fascist planes; the leader of the local guerrilla gang is unpredictable and broken; unexpected snow reveals the tracks of an allied group, who are unceremoniously slaughtered; Jordan has to deal with incompetence and betrayal. By the time they finally blow the bridge they know that it is effectively a suicide mission, and what’s worse for a larger cause that is itself destined to fail. Yet still they go on with it. The book ends with Jordan, his leg broken and so unable to flee, on the verge of unconsciousness, waiting for his last fight as the enemy come up the road: “Let them come. Let them come! [. . .] I can’t wait any longer now [. . .]. If I wait any longer I’ll pass out” (470). But again, we are not told precisely what happens next. Instead, the novel’s final line (“He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” ) returns us to how it all started: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1). The entire book is a circle, refusing to look ahead as though to stave off the certain tragedy of what is to come, and refusing equally to look back, for the little we glimpse of the past is likewise marked by violence and shame.
Instead, the novel carves out an oasis of time: four days, or rather “not quite three days and three nights” (466), in which almost the entirety of the novel is set, between the moment at which Jordan meets the partisans and the point at which they have to leave him there by the bridge, with hardly the chance for goodbyes: “There is no time” (462). It is not as though this brief stretch is unaffected by what has gone before and what is to come: it is clear, for instance, that some unresolved Oedipal drama has brought Jordan here, while the other characters have traumas of their own that they are unable to escape; and however much they stoically (or heroically?) try to deny their intuition of a bitter finale, they are unable to dispel these presentiments altogether. But Hemingway’s point, I think, is that within these three or four days they are able to live an entire lifetime. There is something almost Borgesian about this, like the short story “El milagro secreto,” in which a man in front of the firing squad lives out what for him is an entire year between the order to fire and the bullets piercing his chest. Robert Jordan lives out his own “secret miracle” in the company of Maria, the ragged-haired young woman that the guerrillas had rescued from a previous operation.
On their last night together (Jordan’s last night tout court), “Robert Jordan lay with the girl and he watched time passing on his wrist.” But this steady temporal progression is, he feels, somehow under his subjective control: “as he watched the minute hand he found he could almost check its motion with his concentration” (378). A little later, “as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now”–and so perhaps unchecked, but also unminded–comes an extraordinary passage in which Hemingway (or Jordan) tries to delimit something like a pure present of absolute intensity:
They knew [. . .] that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now. (379)
Of course, the watch hand cannot be detained indefinitely: its motion can at best be “almost check[ed].” And language–or writing–inevitably unfolds linearly. The sentence, the paragraph, the book must all grind inexorably to their ends. But in the meantime, perhaps, this is the time; this is their time, our time. Hemingway’s wager, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is to rescue and resuscitate a moment of exceptional intensity and vivacity, even within the earshot and in full knowledge of the bells that toll relentlessly for a death that (as in the epigraph taken from John Donne) diminishes us all.
See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls I; Spanish Civil War novels.
The Map and the Territory
[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]
Infinite Jest is very much concerned with games, both “real” games, such as tennis, and others: literary games, for instance, or any of the other myriad “games people play.” And part of the game is that real games can stand in for others, that what appears to be merely a game can turn out to be quite “real” or serious, and that it is never quite clear where the game (or the gaming) ends and where something else, if indeed there is anything else, begins. How seriously then should we take these games? Does the book, for example, imply a critique of the hothouse atmosphere of the tennis academy in which hitting a yellow ball back and forth across a three-foot-high net is subject to such close scrutiny and psychic investment? Or is the game a metaphor for broader realities, perhaps even the vehicle through which what really counts looms larger, more intensely than it does elsewhere?
There is perhaps no better example of this conundrum than the game of Eschaton, whose very name, with its invocation of Armageddon and Endtimes, suggests something very serious indeed. Yet it is also a trivialization of world-historical affairs, a reduction of thermonuclear annihilation to a mere matter of lobbing a few tennis balls around. Until, that is, it turns “serious”… or until we see that it is a game that is taken entirely too seriously. It is hard to decide, and hard to judge how invested we, too, should be in the game’s outcome. Perhaps, in fact, it is nothing more than a distraction: it is after all introduced in terms of its “complete disassociation from the realities of the present” (322). And perhaps, David Foster Wallace seems to be saying, the same goes for the book (even literature as a whole), too: we can never quite know if it is no more than a jest, or if it is absolutely in earnest, perhaps a question of life and death.
Eschaton uses the infrastructure and paraphernalia of tennis, but these are radically repurposed in its gameplay. Across three tennis courts its players are arrayed to correspond to the topography of the Cold War world: there is AMNAT (presumably the USA and NATO) and SOVWAR (the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact), as well as REDCHI (Red China), IRLIBSYR (Iran, Libya, Syria), SOUTHAF (South Africa), etc. Each is provided with tennis balls in proportion to their presumed nuclear capability, every one of which represents a five-megaton warhead. Players then use tennis rackets to lob these balls/warheads towards their opponents’ territory, on which are to be found pieces of gear (t-shirts, towels, armbands) to indicate various strategic targets: population centers, industrial plants, military installations, and so on. In charge of the whole thing is game-master Otis P. Lord, who trundles a computer on an ungainly old stainless-steel food cart with a dodgy left-front wheel (and an old beach umbrella attached to protect against the elements), with which he computes projected casualties and consequences of each strike, taking into accounts things such as local geography, climactic conditions, the number of sub-code skyscrapers and the like. Essentially, this is RISK for the late twentieth century, played out on an outsized live-action court, making use of its clientele’s rather specialized (tennis) skills, with an added dose of more or less spurious statistical calculation. Its Cold War scenario is, as the narrator comments, also for its twelve-year-old players a “weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew” (322).
Suddenly, however, things get “real.” Representatives of the major superpowers confer in a space reserved for Sierra Leone as an argument erupts as to the relevance (in terms of “blast area and fire area and pulse-intensity”) of the snow that has started to fall on the court; from the sidelines, the game’s godfather, Michael Pemulis, is shouting out in a rage that “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” (333). In a move that will decisively up-end this distinction, the player charged with lowly IRLIBSYR’s tiny allocation of warheads decides to fire a shot directly at Ann Ingersoll, SOVWAR’s “Air Marshall,” hitting her smack in the back of the head. Chaos then ensues: Otis Lord declares “Utter Global Crisis”; from the sidelines Pemulis is practically apoplectic (“Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. [. . .] You do not get points for hitting anybody real” ); while everyone else starts pelting balls at each other willy-nilly. The cart-borne computer is overturned in the melée, and Lord, trying to escape the fray, is swept off his feet and ends up with his head plunging through the monitor’s screen.
Meanwhile, off-stage and barely noticed by anyone, is a mint-green Ford sedan idling by the dumpsters.
What in Infinite Jest is map, and what is territory? What is apparatus, and what is content? The very length of Foster Wallace’s book seems to bespeak an ambition to construct a map that, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s very brief story “Of Exactitude in Science,” may ultimately replace the territory. And it is this same fable that Baudrillard picks up on to describe the postmodern condition:
Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory–precession of simulacra–it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. (“Simulacra and Simulations”)
Reading Infinite Jest, it is tempting to ignore the apparatus, or perhaps to allow oneself to get swallowed up in it, so overwhelming and labyrinthine are its multiple plots and extended cast of characters. There are no doubt many layers of allusion and emplotment that the average reader–that any reader–has to ignore if they want to be immersed in the fictional universe of tennis academies and halfway houses, games real and imagined. And yet immersion means accepting the substitution of map for territory: it means an investment in the literary games that Wallace is playing; it means taking them seriously. For this is a book that, more than many others, demands investment as well as stamina and patience. Yet the book may here, more or less slyly, be suggesting that by taking the book with the seriousness required to read it (or keep on reading it) in the first place, we are missing what really matters, which is always on the sidelines, at the edge of our vision. The dumpster, the desert of the real.
And here, an extraordinary music video, whose visuals are inspired by the game of Eschaton (minus its apocalyptic ending):
“Kafka and His Precursors”
Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and His Precursors” begins oddly: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors.” The use of the verb “premeditate” is odd enough, in the Spanish (“Yo premedité alguna vez”) as much as in the English, not least because it is most usually found in juridical discourse: a premeditated crime is one that is considered and planned in advance, as opposed to a crime of passion or an outburst in the heat of the moment. This strange invocation of legal discourse might suggest that some wrong-doing is afoot, or that we are hearing some kind of confession. And yet–and this is the second strange aspect of Borges’s opening gambit–it is also suggested that the crime was never committed. “I once premeditated making a study” implies that the study remained unwritten or unmade; it was only planned. We have the guilty mind (mens rea) but not the guilty act (actus reus). The crime was averted, perhaps because some flaw was found in what was otherwise a perfect plan.
But this then leaves us asking ourselves about the status of the text that we have before us, which (as the title promises and as further readings confirms) turns out to concern precisely the topic of the projected but unwritten or abandoned study: “Kafka and His Precursors.” Yet if this is not that study (perhaps because it is too short, incomplete), nor is it the premeditation of that study: at best it is an account of that premeditation, a summary and reflection upon the preparatory “notes” that would have aided in the writing itself. It is an intervention between the plan and its execution, between intention and act.
In short, the text that we have here is perhaps triply parasitic, or three-times removed from its ostensible object: it is the summary of notes towards a study of Kafka and his precursors. It is also strangely located in time: it is the reflection on a plan in the past to write a study that is still unwritten (and so is postponed to the indefinite future) about a now-dead author and his precursors that (we soon find) proceeds by enumerating them “in chronological order,” beginning with the most far-distant.
As often in Borges, the part mimics the whole or (perhaps better) we find an almost fractal arrangement in which patterns are repeated at various orders of magnitude, albeit to produce less the comfort of familiarity than a vertiginous sense of the uncanny and a shattering of logic. Elsewhere, we see this effect in his description of the “aleph,” a shimmering ball (found in the banal surroundings of a Buenos Aires basement) that contains within itself the entire universe. But Borges also suggests that such apparent oddities (or impossibilities) are remarkably common, even quotidian: think long and hard about anything, and it soon becomes (or is revealed to be) an aleph of its own. Here, these opening lines anticipate the central problematic of the essay itself, which is about the ways in which texts are related and how strange fissures or reversals upset linear temporality, just as it in turn makes (or unmakes) its point through performance as much as through argument or exposition: for this text about Kafka and his precursors is in its own way about Borges and his precursors and in it Borges himself rewrites our collective past and disturbs our conceptions of sequence and priority.
Finally, if what Borges is ultimately saying is that a writer (that writing) has the strange power to intervene in history, to remake or remodel the past just as Kafka creates his own precursors (by making us see an otherwise disparate collection of historical texts as oddly “Kafkaesque” avant la lettre), he is also unabashedly claiming that there is nothing new in this notion. This observation precedes Borges and this text, and so confirms (what is now) his repetition of what can present itself as an established fact. For in another detail, a footnote–a classic paratext or parasite, neither fully part of nor fully detached from the text itself–draws our attention to T S Eliot’s Points of View, whose very title in this context becomes simultaneously uncanny and revelatory. After all, is this entire essay not about “points of view,” and the ways in which they are constructed, obscured, or undermined?
In a rather good essay on Joyce and Borges Patricia Novillo-Corvalán, whom I am here myself copying or appropriating to some extent, notes that “Eliot postulates an aesthetic principle, through which writers are not read in isolation, but as part of a living tradition in which the new alters the old, the present modifies the past and, as a result, texts are continually re-valued from the perspective of subsequent texts” (60). And Rex Butler’s “Everything and Nothing” points out that what makes Borges original–what makes the greatest authors the most original–is precisely the fact that they “can actually appear unoriginal, to add nothing to literature, to repeat what has already been written” (134).
At which point, as I observe that I in turn am in large part simply “repeat[ing] what has already been written,” remaking and remodeling it for my own purposes, creating precursors who sadly are not quite as disparate (or quite as unpredictable) as those of Borges and Kafka, perhaps it’s time to stop what is after all only a first approach to these issues. It’s time to end, in other words, so that we can at last begin.
Here’s the keynote address I gave recently to “Access 2011: The Library is Open”: “From Access to Interactivity”.
You can also, if you are so minded, watch a video of me delivering the talk.
It’s about Borges, libraries, library fines, open source, primitive accumulation, and difficulty, among other things. What follows is the opening paragraph or two:
Librarians have seldom been paid a handsome wage. At the Miguel Cané Library, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Almagro Sur, in the late 1930s the going rate was some 210 Argentine pesos a month. On the other hand, it could hardly be said that the work was particularly taxing. The library assistant tasked with cataloguing found that he could do his job in an hour or so each day, which left plenty of time for reading, thinking, and writing. Sometimes he got to thinking about the library itself, or about the place of the library in the world. He thought, for instance, that in some ways the library was a mirror of the world: after all, if you wanted to find out about some aspect of the world, you could come to the library and look it up. The library had books of Geography, History, Physics, Maths, Literature, Art: every conceivable topic. It might be an unprepossessing building in the suburbs of a city in an obscure Southern Hemisphere country, at the periphery of civilization, but a library had everything. You could spend your life there, without ever exhausting what it had to offer. If the library was big enough (and the assistant librarian imagined a library that had every book ever published, and perhaps even every book that could conceivably be published) you could even get lost in it. The library was a labyrinth, but also a rather miraculous thing, a double of the universe.
In September 1945, the library assistant published a short story about just such a miraculous double of the universe, hidden in an obscure corner of Buenos Aires that was nearly as unlikely as the Miguel Cané library itself. In this story, the narrator, a rather awkward and shy middle-aged man, discovers that an acquaintance of his, an aspiring but not very talented poet, has a secret. He still lives in the house where he grew up, which is located on a non-descript city-centre street. But the house harbors a surprise: on the staircase in a basement under the dining room is an object that is only some “two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained within it” (Borges, “The Aleph” 283). This is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281). This strange, mysterious thing takes the logic of the library to the limit: it is the absolutely universal contained within an extremely limited, compressed and particular space. The poet calls it an “Aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the number one in Hebrew, which in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is the number that contains all other numbers. As the narrator tells us of his encounter with the Aleph, in it he “saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid [. . .] saw horses with hand-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand” and so on and so forth (283). He is practically struck dumb by the experience: “I had a sense of infinite veneration, infinite pity” (284).
But if the Aleph is a fantastical version of the library, a library that takes up the smallest amount of physical space but encompasses the entirety of the universe, there is one significant difference between the two. The library is public, while the Aleph is private. The incompetent poet emphases, “his words fairly tumbl[ing] out,” that “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school” (280). It’s his prized possession, and he keeps it absolutely to himself, hiding it from everyone else. He only shows it to the narrator in desperation, as his landlords threaten to tear down the house and so destroy the basement, the staircase, and the secret they harbor. But the narrator, having seen this precious thing, is struck by a fit of jealousy and refuses to help the pathetic poet’s campaign to preserve his precious property. Cruelly, the twist in the tale comes when the narrator refuses to admit that he has seen unusual at all in the cellar, and suggests therefore that the poet must be suffering from some kind of delusion. He should “take advantage of the demolition of his house to remove himself from the pernicious influence of the metropolis [. . . ]. I clasped him by both shoulders as I took my leave and told him again that the country–peace and quiet, you know–was the very best medicine one could take” (284). The poet will pay the price for keeping his Aleph secret, a private hoard rather than a public good: by prohibiting access he has sacrificed even his own opportunity to enjoy this miraculous discovery. He will be laughed out of town as a madman if he so much as mentions the existence of this all-capacious universal library.
The universal and all that comes with it–the university, the library–is always in peril if it is treated as private possession rather than common treasury. It would be nice if we could conclude that, by contrast, it is in safe hands if it is the property of the state. But shortly after publishing the story of the Aleph, its author, the library assistant, was summarily fired and offered in compensation only the post of “the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets” (qtd. in Williamson, Borges 292). Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer (and incidentally also the country’s most famous librarian), was out of a job.
I wrote recently that Borges’s fiction is often structured around scenes whose drama derives from the structural logic of the cinema. And some time ago, in a reading of a number of stories from Historia universal de la infamia and Ficciones I suggested that their guiding logic was often an accumulation of almost imperceptible (and seemingly random) deviations from the norm.
Putting these two observations together, I think we see how there are various possible relations between what we can call the logic of minimal deviation and the structure of the cinematic scene. Sometimes one leads to the other, sometimes the two complement each other, sometimes they are in tension, and so on. At times Borges seems to be asking how much deviation (or how many minimal deviations) are required to provoke a scene. At other times he wonders how many deviations any particular scene can handle. And there are still other cases in which he proposes that it is only by making a scene that the logic of gradual accumulation can be brought to a halt.
Take “La muerte y la brújula,” for instance. Here the detective, Lönnrot, carefully and slowly follows the “periodic series of bloody deeds” (147; 147), each of which is but a slight variation on its predecessor, until he arrives at the climactic scene that gives (renewed) sense to the series itself. Or “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which begins with a paradigmatically cinematic scene: a dinner with Borges’s friend Bioy Casares, a glance at a mirror that provokes a citation and then the fruitless search for its origin. This then opens up a concatenation of curious circumstances, each one of which could easily be overlooked: an additional encyclopedia article, a package from Brazil, a compass packed in a crate of table service, a dead man who owns an unusually heavy metal cone. Together, however, they constitute a new world.
Or, for another type of relationship between the scene and the imperceptible deviation, see “El milagro secreto” (“The Secret Miracle”). This is the story of Jaromir Hladík, a Czech scholar who is captured by the Nazis in Prague in early 1939. He is soon tried and sentenced to death by firing squad. In the interval between the sentence and its execution, Hladík reflects upon his life’s work and the fact that it is soon to be cut short. He asks God for a year in which he could complete his masterwork, a verse drama entitled The Enemies. It hardly seems that this wish is to be granted when the characteristic scene of the firing squad is assembled: a bare yard, soldiers hanging around waiting for the appointed hour, the offer of a final cigarette, a cloud in the sky, a heavy drop of rain. But then all of a sudden “the physical universe stopped” (172; 161). And Hladík is indeed given his year, in the course of what for everyone else is but an instant, in which he can work out in his head the completion of his play. When finally he finishes his task, chooses the last epithet, “the drop of water rolled down his cheek. He began a maddened cry, he shook his head, and the fourfold volley felled him” (174; 162). Here, then, the scene contains the imperceptible deviation that in turn allows for the concatenation of revisions in which the book is completed before we then return back to the scene for its dramatic conclusion.
Either way, however, I think that what’s at issue for Borges is the connection between habit or the routine, with its many repetitions none of which is quite like the last, and drama or the exceptional. How does the dramatic scene, with all its novelty, arise from routine repetition? Why is it that we are suddenly confronted with a decision or choice that only in retrospect we can understand has been a long time brewing in all the vagaries of chance? Or how, by contrast, does the scene itself become routinized or habitual? For after all, in Hladík’s case, the firing squad scene was absolutely unexceptional from the point of view of those at the other end of the gun. Is then drama just habit viewed from some other perspective, whereby the otherwise imperceptible variation suddenly comes to take on unusual significance? And cannot even the most compelling of scenes, or the most vital of confrontations, be reframed such that the differences they invoke become strangely inconsequential?
So, for example, in both “Tema del traidor y del heróe” (“The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”) and “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“), the most imperceptible of differences are suddenly given dramatic import. And we will see above all in two stories in El Aleph–“Los teólogos” (“The Theologians”) and “Emma Zunz”–how distinctions that are quite literally matters of life and death can, with a sudden twist of perspective, suddenly come to matter not in the slightest.
But in Ficciones the emphasis is on how habit and its banal repetitions can, like the mirror against which Bioy Casares warns us in “Tlön,” produce monsters.
My aim was to write a post a week this semester about Borges, much as I did a few years ago for José María Arguedas. I’m behind, but hoping to catch up. Here is what I have written to date:
- Borges (preview / “Borges y yo”)
- fervor (Fervor de Buenos Aires)
- criollismo (Inquisiciones)
- scenes (Historia universal de la infamia)
- monsters (Ficciones)
- chance (“The Widow Ching–Pirate,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The South,” and “The Library of Babel”)
- hatchet (Williamson, Borges: A Life)
- interactivity (Access 2011 keynote address)
Historia universal de la infamia manifests Borges’s interest in performance: the ways in which the self is not a given, but is rather a role that we play. Sometimes we play no other role than the one we are given, which is why perhaps it seems so true to us, and why we easily confuse what is after all mere habit with some kind of abiding essence. At other times, however, characters find themselves faced with a decision: will they act this way or that. This is a dramatic choice between the different selves that they could potentially be. Perhaps infamy itself is precisely the result of some such decision, a deviation from an allotted role in favor of some other performance.
Almost all the stories in the collection revolve around some kind of imposture. Most obviously, “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro” (“The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro”), which is based on the Tichborne Case, a nineteenth-century cause célèbre in which one Arthur Orton claimed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. Borges observes that Orton’s performance gained credibility from the fact that he was in so many ways so different from the person he claimed to be: where Tichborne had been slim, dark-haired, reserved, and precise, Orton was fat, fair-haired, outspoken, and uncouth. Borges’s point is that presumably an impostor would try to copy at least some elements of the original he was mimicking; the very fact that there was no such attempt at impersonation seemed to prove that Orton must be the real thing. The best disguise is no disguise at all; in the best performance there is no distance between the role being played and the person playing it.
“El impostor inverosímil” features an eminence grise in the shape of Orton’s accomplice Ebenezer Bogle, who plays the part of Tichborne’s manservant. When Bogle dies, Orton quite literally loses the plot and ends up “giving lectures in which he would alternately declare his innocence and confess his guilt” (40; Complete Fictions 18). Borges calls Orton Tichborne’s “ghost,” presumably in that he shows up after the latter’s death, like some kind of strange revenant. But it is surely equally true that Orton himself is haunted by Tichborne. By the end he has spent so longer playing the role that it’s as though he’s know quite sure who he is, and he will let the public decide: “many nights he would begin by defending himself and wind up admitting all, depending on the inclinations of his audience” (40; 18).
In “El asesino desinterado Bill Harrigan” (“The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan”), there is no third party: neither the eminence grise nor the ghost that compelled Orton’s transformation. Or rather, there is but it is impersonal, mechanistic: New York tenement boy Harrigan turns himself into the cowboy out West who will be Billy the Kid by acting out melodramatic models provided by the theater. In turn, he will become an iconic part of the myths of the Wild West propagated by Hollywood.
Borges suggests that the History he is telling us is a series of “discontinuous images” that he compares a movie. But it is even better described as a series of scenes in the cinematic sense: briefer than a theater scene but more dynamic than any single image, the filmic scene is a situation in a single space defined by mise-en-scène, a dramatic confrontation, and the position of camera angles or lines of sight. Indeed, the scene is very often the basic unit of Borges’s fiction. (In this collection, think particularly of “Hombre de la Esquina Rosada” [“Man on Pink Corner”] or the ending of “El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv” [“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”].)
Here the key scene is the moment of transformation of Harrigan into Billy: a notorious Mexican gunfighter named Belisario Villagrán enters a crowded saloon that is outlined with cinematic precision and visuality (“their elbows on the bar, tired hard-muscled men drink a belligerent alcohol and flash stacks of silver coins marked with a serpent and an eagle” [64; 32]); everyone stops dead except for Harrigan, who fells him with a single shot and for no apparent reason. Again, the visual detail as the Mexican’s body is slow to register the indignity: “The glass falls from Villagrán’s hand; then the entire body follows” (65; 33). In that moment, Billy the Kid is born “and the shifty Bill Harrigan buried” (66; 33).
But even if it is Bill’s “disinterested” (unreflective, habitual) killing that turns him into a legend, there is always a gap between that legend and his behavior. He may learn “to sit a horse straight” or “the vagabond art of cattle driving” and he may find himself attracted to “the guitars and brothels of Mexico” (66, 67; 33, 34), but a few tics from his East Coast days remain: “Something of the New York hoodlum lived on in the cowboy” (66; 33). The task of replacing one set of habits (or habitus) with another is never quite complete. But it is not as though Harrigan were the “real” thing and Billy the Kid a mere mask. Rather, it is that the new performance is informed by the old one. As always in Borges, there is never anything entirely new under the sun, even the scorching sun of the arid Western desert.
Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life is the standard biography in English. But it is, sadly, not a good book.
Williamson is frankly obsessed with Borges’s sexual history. The irony is that there really isn’t that much to be obsessed about: Borges had a whole series of crushes on various women, but so far as one can tell they were very seldom consummated; he didn’t marry until he was almost 68; and both Borges himself and the women with which he was in one way or another involved were almost all very discreet and have left little in the way of written record of their relationships.
Inevitably, then, Williamson is reduced to conjecture. There is much talk about what “must have” or “may have” been the case: “the truth may have been that he needed to feel close to the woman he loved” in order to write his longest fiction, The Congress (279); “he may have blamed Perón for coming between him and” a woman he asked to marry but who refused (332); the violence of his reaction upon hearing that another former crush was to marry someone else “must surely have been due to the symbolic significance of the occasion” (358); the woman who would become his second wife “must have been a soothing presence” from the time he first met her (370). And so on and so forth.
More seriously still, and in lieu of any other evidence, Williamson turns to Borges’s writing and reads it often as though it were almost directly confessional and autobiographical. So, for instance, almost any number of the earlier fictions are read as barely-disguised accounts of a putative love triangle between Borges and fellow writers Norah Lange and Oliverio Girondo. So Williamson has much to say about the “autobiographical subtext” of the novel outlined in “El Acercamiento a Almotásim,” which “can be discerned without difficulty” and features “a woman–Norah Lange–[who] seemed to represent a higher truth” (180). Likewise, in “Hombres de las orillas,” the protagonist’s “mysterious passivity suggests that Borges himself was at a loss to explain why Norah Lange had left him for his rival” (172). Moreover, most of Borge’s contributions to the newspaper Crítica are “a cryptic record of his feelings and attitudes to Norah Lange” (195). Meanwhile in “The Aleph” Williamson once again zooms in on an “autobiographical subtext” which, apparently, “alludes to his thwarted love for Norah Lange” (202). And reading the books described in “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” we are told that “as with everything Borges wrote, there was an autobiographical subtext [. . .], a grieving heart beating in the depths of the narrative, as it were” (215).
Admittedly, the biographer’s bias may well be to read the work in biographical terms. But the problem is that, here, such reductive interpretations edge out any other possible reading. Williamson has little if any concern for the aesthetic dimensions to Borges’s poetry or prose. Indeed, he evinces scarcely any interest in literature at all. Everything has always to shed light on the life. And yet, especially in the case of Borges, it should surely be the writing that counts. For, however you look at it, the life is frankly not that interesting. This was a man of habit and routine: he lived with his mother until her death at the age of ninety-nine, and with their maid for another nine years thereafter; for decades he dined two or three times a week with his friends Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; though he travelled both when young and when old, for the middle 35 years of his life from 1924 to 1961 he never once left the River Plate. If his romantic life was, as it seems, characterized by a series of fantasies and self-delusions, then it is precisely the creative power of fantasy that is of interest, not the banal details of who didn’t do what with whom.
Again and again, Williamson comes out with the notion that Borges was looking for a “new Beatrice” to enable a “Dantean vision” of literature as a “project of salvation through writing” (243). There may be many ways to read Borges, but this is surely among the least interesting, and least productive.
Or perhaps it is the second-least interesting and productive. For Williamson’s other major idée fixe is even more ponderous. This is the theory that Borges’s life and art were guided by the struggle between the “sword of honor” bequeathed him by his mother, with her anxiety about her criollo heritage and breeding, and what is either the “dagger of desire” (359) or the “dagger of rebellion” (463) inherited from his father, who was not particularly rebellious but who did once try to encourage his son’s sexual initiation (via what seems to have been a rather traumatic encounter with a Geneva prostitute). Borges struggles between the choice either to live up to his somewhat invented patrician upbringing, an image carefully nurtured by the woman that Williamson simply calls “Mother,” or to risk Mother’s wrath with any number of possible personal or political betrayals of family and class. This is the “deep-seated conflict between sword and dagger” (144) that structures Williamson’s biography.
In practice, the endless invocation of the “sword of honor” or the purported conflict between sword and dagger is a heavy-handed refrain, a blunt dichotomy that on the one hand steadily unravels (is it a dagger of desire or of rebellion, or is perhaps the opposing term to honor in fact “the solipsism fostered by his father’s library” ) and, on the other, has to be endlessly restated precisely to ward of the threat of the unraveling. Frankly, by the end I was thoroughly sick both of “Borges’s Dantean dream” (429) and of “the ancestor’s sword of honor” (44), “the ancestral sword, associated with Mother” (145), “the oppressive authority of the ancestral sword of honor” (211), “the sword of honor his mother held dear” (286), “Mother’s ancestral sword of honor” (318) and all the other slight repetitions of the same simplistic basic concept.
Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of Williamson’s book is the way in which it takes one of the most sophisticated and subtle writers of the twentieth century, a man whose writing is always alive to complication, ambiguity, allusion, uncertainty, and undecidability, and writes a Life that not only shows precious little curiosity about that writing (or about literature in general), but also precious little understanding of it. This is a book that might was well have been written with a sword or a dagger. It’s a hatchet job, not in the sense that Williamson denigrates his subject (au contraire, he is if anything far too forgiving, not least about Borges’s anti-democratic impulses and his many political mis-steps of the 1970s and 1980s), but because it is as crude as anything written with a hatchet has to be. And that, in the end, is the worst denigration one can offer to a writer as careful, as precise, as subtle, and as sophisticated as Borges.