interactivity

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.

Read more…

monsters

Borges, Ficciones

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.

Borgesian

Borgesian

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:

Also:

  • chance (“The Widow Ching–Pirate,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The South,” and “The Library of Babel”)

Related:

scenes

Borges, Infamia

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.

hatchet

Williamson, Borges

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” [435]) 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.

criollismo

Borges, Otras inquisiciones

If Borges continually returned to his first book of poetry, endlessly tinkering with it and republishing it in slightly different form so that it would truly prefigure “everything that he would do afterwards” (Obras completas 33), his approach to his first book of prose was quite different. He refused to allow Inquisiciones (“Inquisitions,” 1925) to be reprinted, and indeed the story goes that he bought up old copies so that nobody else could get their hands on them. This book, and the two following collections of essays that Borges treated with equal disdain, circulated in grubby photocopies, passed between fans like underground Samizdat. It was only after the author’s death that his widow permitted their official republication.

So Borges seemed to want to expunge these early essays from his literary career. And yet he named his most famous book of essays, published over a quarter of a century later, in 1952, Otras inquisiciones: “Other Inquisitions,” a title that alludes to the existence of the earlier book, however much he had tried to repress its memory. As James Irby notes, the later 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.” (“Introduction” to Other Inquisitions)

Why would Borges want to turn his back on these initial forays into prose? They are, perhaps, too florid and baroque for the mature author’s taste. The language employed is formal, complex, and often almost archaic. But I don’t think it’s merely a matter of style–which could in any case be amended, as with the early poems. I suspect it’s more a matter, as Rose Corral argues, of Borges wanting to distance himself from his early “criollismo,” that nationalist strain within his work that sought “to recover and at the same time transform the great Argentine tradition of oral literature, that is, the gauchesque” (“Acerca del ‘Primer Borges'” 158). In the 1930s and 1940s, Borges will transform himself into the great cosmopolitan intellectual, best-known for his “games with erudition, his mix of authentic and apocryphal citations, his astonishing mosaic of allusions, his universalism as an imaginative strategy, his literary fabrications” (158). Such a transformation required the suppression of his initial Inquisitions.

Yet Borges never completely abandons the criollista strain in his work (we will see the continued obsession with violence and primitivism in a story such as “El Sur,” for instance), and equally it is not as though the other, cosmopolitan and erudite, Borges is missing from this early collection. Far from it. So if there are two Borges (“Borges and I”), it’s not so much a matter of a split between “early” and “late,” but more a tension that is present throughout his career. We can trace a constant play between on the one hand what we might call the “materialist” Borges whose avatar is the tight-lipped gaucho and, on the other, the rather more familiar “deconstructionist” Borges whose figure would be the labyrinth of linguistic signifiers in constant flux.

Of course, this divide is immediately complicated (and to some extent undone) by the fact that the gaucho is very much a literary creation, a mythic apparition, and that Borges is always fascinated by the possibility of giving solidly material form to his verbal jeux d’ésprit.

Meanwhile, another (and perhaps not unrelated) characteristically Borgesian tension becomes visible within Inquisiciones: the presence of a strikingly singular tone or “voice,” which articulates a series of arguments that withdraw any claim to that voice.

To put this another way: it’s quite remarkable how fearless Borges is in these literary “inquisitions.” He covers a huge swathe of cultural territory, from the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo or the relatively obscure seventeenth-century English author Sir John Browne, to paragons of European modernism such as James Joyce, Miguel de Unamuno, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as Argentine and Uruguayan writers Hilario Ascasubi or Fernán Silva Valdés. In each case, the young Borges is unwavering in the self-confidence of his own critical judgments and achievements: “Quevedo is, above all, intensity” (48); “I am the first Hispanic adventurer to have reached Joyce’s book” (22); “Silva Valdés [. . .] is the first young poet to bring together Hispanic culture as a whole” (69).

And yet if, in these somewhat swashbuckling (some might say pompous…) raids on the literary canon, Borges is happy to talk about “Hispanic culture as a whole” (“la conjunta hispanicidad”), elsewhere, and no less stylishly or unremittingly, he undercuts the notion that we can speak even of “the self as a whole” (“el yo del conjunto,” 93). Borges categorizes, judges, dissects, and dispatches: he puts other writers in their place. But the “I” that makes these judgments is always somehow out of reach. It’s no longer, it seems, even a matter of “Borges and I”: Borges may remain, a literary figure associated with a series of definitive judgements; but the “I” fades away or, better, fails ever to coalesce in the first place.

The clearest instance of this tension is perhaps found in “La nadería de la personalidad” (“The Nothingness of Personality”). Here, like a refrain, Borges repeatedly claims that “There is no such coherent I” (93, 94, 96, 98, 103) and that “The I does not exist” (102). And yet these adamant declarations can only be made by an “I” that insists on the coherence of the case that it is making. The first three sentences, for instance, all begin with verbs in the first person singular: “I want [. . .]. I think [. . .] I want [. . .]” (92). The self is nothing, but this essay–and indeed the entire collection of essays–only finds coherence precisely in the presumption of an articulate self defined in terms of stylistic brillo and argumentative panache.

And does this second tension map onto the first? Is it not the essence of the Argentine criollo to perform his individuality with brillo and panache, even as he argues that such individuality is necessarily a fiction?

fervor

Borges, Fervor de Buenos Aires

Borges’s first book was a collection of poems entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires, published in 1923.

One might expect the title to refer to the “fervor” or the hustle and bustle of a city undergoing rapid expansion in the early years of the twentieth century: thanks to mass immigration, Buenos Aires grew by 75% during this period (Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica 18). But Borges’s city is strangely subdued and depopulated. Practically every other poem has a reference to “shadow” (“the bank of shadow” [39], “fear of the shadows” [57]) or to “ash” (“a little ash and a little glory” [44], “between the ashes and the fatherland”), not to mention death (the poems “Remorse for Any Death” [53], “Inscription on Any Tomb” [55]), boredom (52), and solitude (67) and so on.

If this is the modern (or even the modernist) city, more than anything else it reminds one of French photographer Eugène Atget’s famous portraits of deserted Parisian streetscapes. And if Borges is an urban flâneur, he is one who avoids the city-center streets, “unpleasant because of all the crowds and fuss.” He prefers rather to wander the suburbs and indeed the very edge of the city, where the deserted lanes are “full of promise for the man on his own” (37).

And yet Borges has told us that where there is one there are always also at least two. “I am alone and I am with myself” as he puts it here (65). Or even many: his is a “solitude populated like a dream” (69). One is already quite enough of a crowd, because every “one” (or everyone) is divided, split, multiple.

And so it is too with Fervor de Buenos Aires. This is a book that is many, written by more than one. For though it was Borges’s first book, he also continually returned to it: as Kate Jenckes observes, there are at least four versions of the text (from 1923, 1943, 1969, and 1974), all of which are significantly different and none of which can be regarded as fully definitive (Reading Borges After Benjamin 7 and 141n6). The one I am reading is from the Obras completas (though again there are many iterations of Borges’s “Complete Works,” none of which are complete; mine is from 1992). This comes with a prologue dated August 1969 in which Borges admits to having edited some of the poems but claims that he

felt that the boy who wrote the book in 1923 was already essentially–what does “essentially” mean?–the gentleman who now either resigns himself to what it says or corrects it. We are the same; we are both skeptical of failure and success, of literary movements and their dogmas; we are both devotees of Schopenhauer, Stevenson, and Whitman. As far as I am concerned, Fervor de Buenos Aires prefigures everything that I would do afterwards. (33)

It’s worth mentioning, though, that in the original Spanish that final phrase (“todo lo que haría después”) could just as easily be translated “everything that he would do afterwards.” Borges and I (and he): which is which? Which wrote this book, and which wrote what came after?

Equally, if we come to this, Borges’s first book, to understand the origins of his writing career, which version should we be reading? Is what I have read (and quoted), revised in 1969, really the “origin”? Even the order of the collection varies according to the date of publication. Beatriz Sarlo makes much of the fact that the first poem to appear is “La Recoleta,” about the Buenos Aires cemetery of that name (Una modernidad periférica 18). But as Jenckes points out, in other editions (including the one I am reading) this is actually the second poem printed, not the first (140n3). Quite literally, the point of origin is murky and unstable. We are starting our reading of Borges here (if we ignore for the time being the fact that we already started), but we can’t be entirely sure as to where this “here” is. As soon as we reach out to it, it divides and multiplies.

Should this slipperiness be cause for concern? Borges is in some ways essentially slippery. Note above, for instance, that at the very moment that he justifies his editorial interventions by claiming that he and his younger self are “essentially” the same, he also has to question what is meant by “essentially.” He states and undercuts his case at one and the same time. For after all, was the boy ever even “essentially” the same as himself at the time: “I am alone and I am with myself” (65).

For Borges, the true mystery is not this endless division and uncertainty. Time passes, things change, moment to moment everything is up in the air; neither language nor reason can hold things still within their prisons of representation or categorization. I is always another. It could not be otherwise. No, the real surprise is that despite all this mutability and malleability, some things somehow do seem to remain the same. It may be mere illusion or habit (though what could be less illusory than habit?), but we do think–or better, as Borges puts it, feel–that we incarnate some kind of singularity that is more or less the same today as it was yesterday or as it was (in Borges’s case) 46 years previously. Hence then the

wonder in the face of the miracle
that despite the infinite play of chance
that despite the fact that we are but
drops in Heraclitus’s river,
something still endures within us:
unmoved. (50)

This surely is the Spinozan conatus to which “Borges and yo” already made reference: the striving to endure within what is otherwise endless flux, bubbling fervor.

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.