Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

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.

chance

Jorge Luis Borges

One of the curiosities of Jorge Luis Borges’s stories is the way in which they combine the most rarified of philosophical abstractions with an almost obsessive focus on violence, death, and the body.

In one of his earliest books, Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), Borges is interested in how violence is narrativized: in the semi-mythical narratives that accrete around crime and criminality, preserving but also domesticating our fear of those who live on and transgress society’s margins.

“The Widow Ching–Pirate” is particularly concerned with the intersection between storytelling and warfaring. Its plot details the way in which this notorious pirate “queen” is compelled to surrender ultimately not by force, but by her own interpretation of signs both natural and man-made:

The moon grew thin in the sky, and still the figures of rice paper and reed wrote the same story each evening, with almost imperceptible variations. The widow was troubled, and she brooded. (23)

The widow feels that she herself has been emplotted in this narrative that she reads in the skies, a narrative slowly coming to its “inevitable end,” either “infinite pardon or infinite punishment” (23). And in surrendering she both accepts and influences her fate, choosing to seek pardon rather than punishment, or at least to take her chances.

It is then chance–the unpredictable, undecideable, and indeterminate–that also connects violence and narrative. Texts are constantly subject to “almost imperceptible variations,” some of which may have the most dramatic of consequences. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, though in many ways a playful satire of avant-garde literary pretensions, alerts us to the different interpretations that can be generated by barely (here, absolutely) imperceptible differences between texts:

It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth!–the idea is staggering. (94)

Again, we shouldn’t forget the comedy here, but Borges returns endlessly to the drastically contrasting outcomes that can be the result of the smallest initial differences: in, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (and compare the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors) or “The South”.

So in “The South,” it is not so much that there is any one pivotal moment: there are many, all of which cumulatively lead the plot to its narrative conclusion, and the story’s protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, to his untimely end. But each of these pivots on which the story and Dahlmann’s fate rests is presented as the lightest of touches: literally so, in the instance of the injury that leads him to septicemia and the sanatorium. “Fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions,” comments the story’s narrator:

That afternoon Dahlmann had come upon a copy (from which some pages were missing) of Weil’s Arabian Nights; eager to examine his find, he did not wait for the elevator–he hurriedly took the stairs. Something in the dimness brushed his forehead–a bat? a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him, he saw an expression of horror, and the hand he passed over his forehead came back red with blood. (174-175)

The choices we make only half-aware (taking the stairs rather than the elevator) combine with half-noticed events (a brush on the forehead) to produce unexpected and sometimes fatal results. This particular event is here later mirrored when, in a store in the south of the story’s title, “Dahlmann suddenly felt something lightly brush his face” (278). But it would be wrong to say that it is his reaction to this encounter–accepting a young thug’s challenge to a fight–that seals his fate. For one thing, what’s required is the intervention of yet another “unforeseeable” intervention, a gaucho throwing Dahlmann a weapon; for another, we might also say that our protagonist’s conclusion has been inscribed in his ancestry, his grandfather’s own death fighting in the south, and the “pull” of that lineage.

Moreover, it’s not even as though the story ends so very determinately: it requires the reader to imagine a perhaps inevitable conclusion: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains” (179; my emphasis).

Finally, “The Library of Babel” examines narrative, and its infinitude, and also the violent passions that it can provoke, with its image of librarians searching for the elusive (but assuredly existent) volume that would vindicate their lives:

Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane… (115)

The despairing realization here is of the dark nexus between chance, certainty, and totality. For it to be certain that the library contains precisely the volume that the pilgrims seek, then the library has to be infinite, to contain the totality of all possible books. Which means that the chance of finding that particular text “can be calculated to be zero” (115).

As such, even in the perfectly ordered world represented by the all-encompassing universe that is the library, we are left at best to take, but also then to relish, our chances.

Library of Babel