The work of Jorge Luis Borges is a species of international literary metaphor. He knowledgeably makes a transfer of inherited meanings from Spanish and English, French and German, and sums up a series of analogies, of confrontations, of appositions in other nations’ literatures. His Argentinians act out Parisian dramas, his central European Jews are wise in the ways of the Amazon, his Babylonians are fluent in the paradigms of Babel.… Perhaps, though, his meaning is simply in the ritual tone of voice with which he suggests some eternal, an answerable question.
~~ Anthony Kerrigan, Introduction to Ficciones
Now this was fun.
Ficciones is another of the assigned texts for the Fiction of Relationship class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera. I see a distinct progression now that I understand better the drift of the course: we’ve had something of a progression from love relationships to societal relationships to family relationships, even self-relationships, relationships with “the other” – and now we start considering our relationship with reality.
That’s a gross oversimplification, of course; Jane Eyre is as much a novel about the relation to society as is Light In August, and Manon Lescaut has as much to do with our relationship to reality as does Borges. Maybe this is the mark of a “great” novel: it covers a multitude of relationships. Or maybe it’s inherent in all literature. Maybe people are incapable of writing, thinking even, except in terms of relationship. Or maybe it’s all just sophistry: if there is more than one thing, one element to a story, if there is a setting and a character, there must be a relationship. I wonder if it’s possible to write a story where there is no relationship – doesn’t any story have a relationship with the author and the reader, at the very least? Is it possible to have a story with no relationship to reality?
Where to start with this book: One of the themes that recurs a few times in these stories is the overwhelmingness of an abundance of riches: a library with too many books, a man with too many memories. It is an overwhelming book: I am left a reader with too many ideas.
So let’s start with the outlandish: Did Borges foresee the Internet?
Noam Cohen makes a decent case in his 2008 NYT article “Borges and the Forseeable Future.” The collaborative, mutating encyclopedia of Tlön, for instance, sounds like (brace yourself) Wikipedia; Funes’ prodigious memory a mega-gig drive; the Universal Library comes closer to your fingertips every day. I’m pretty sure these story elements read a lot differently now – less “gee whiz” – than they did in the 30s and 40s.
As I read the collection, something else occurred to me: where are the women? Only a handful of his stories include women in more than a fleeting role, and they aren’t in this collection. Scholarly opinions differ as to the significance of this. Daniel Balderston and Herbert Brandt feel the homosocial relationships of the stories are standins for more homosexual images. E. D. Carter argues that women “ultimately stand in the way of what Borges has called ‘the one redeeming Argentine passion’: friendship.” I’ll forgive Borges for that, seeing as early 20th century Argentinian academia was quite different from 21st century America… isn’t it? Please tell me it is. In any event, no matter how tangled and folded on itself reality becomes in these stories, Ficciones is a men-only club.
October 1944, in the sky above Paris, sheets of paper are floating down to the ground. A few people below are looking up, waiting for the sheets to reach them. Most pay no particular attention, accustomed as they are to receiving political pamphlets in such a fashion…
…The pages are written in French, but they come from far away: from across the ocean, from Argentina. The pages include Néstor Ibarra’s French translations of Majstorovic 48 Jorge Luis Borges’ stories “[The Babylon Lottery]” and “[The Library of Babel]”.
~~ Gorica Majstorovic, A Contracorriente, Spring 2006
Borges has been recommended to me several times over the years, usually by people way, way out of my intellectual league, so I’ve always been too intimidated to just pick it up and start reading; I’m glad this course has forced the issue. I spent nearly an hour on just the Introduction (by translator Andrew Kerrigan) and Prologue (where Borges blogs his own book). Much of that was remedial (heresiarch? propitiatory lupanar?) but much was just an effort to clarify concepts vaguely familiar (Pascal’s Abyss turned out to be something completely different from what I’d thought; the passing mention of a previous “Library of Babel” led me to the above-quoted story of Victoria Ocampo, editor of the Argentinian literary magazine Sur, dropping literary pamphlets over Paris shortly after the Liberation, a move David Shook right now seeks to update via his Poetry Drone Kickstarter campaign). I didn’t want to miss a thing.
I’m sure I did, of course, but these are stories to read over and over, to remember, to link to other readings and other courses and other ideas. I used to be a spec-fic reader, favoring the more oddball works that involved time folding over itself and Möbius strips; much of that sprang from these stories, and, to pick a concrete example, with some stories I was reminded structurally of Manuel Gonzales’ “fictional journalism.” Borges himself found inspiration in everyone from Aristotle to Schopenhauer to C.S. Lewis to German writer Kurd Lasswitz. Let’s face it: everyone stands on the shoulders of giants, even giants. It just gets harder and harder to reach those shoulders as history goes on.
Borges wrote these stories before “the linked collection” became a marketing concept; they’re gathered for convenience, not because they fit some publisher’s idea of what the market wants (though wouldn’t that be fun, a series of collections of linked stories using these stories as a base…then a series of linked stories for each of those stories… an infinite collection…). They vary in technique and mood, but certain motifs recur: Mirrors. Labyrinths. Time, history, reality. Most are very short; the entire collection of seventeen stories is only 174 pages. Most of the stories are available online; I’ve linked the titles where possible.
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
~~ JL Borges, Prologue to Ficciones
Several of the stories, particularly in Part 1 of the collection, feature invented books (and in one case an invented library), but they also look for explanations behind our assumptions, making them something like myths. Why do bad things happen to good people? “The Babylon Lottery” may explain it. Do we have control over our lives? Look to “The Circular Ruin” and “Garden of the Forking Paths.” Labyrinths, mirrors; time, reality; philosophy, history, science, mathematics, psychology: Borges’ palette is broad and draws from a variety of disciplines. Like I said: Now this was fun.
If you write it, they will come, in this extreme life-imitates-art tale. It’s also a mystery, an investigation, into an elusive (fictional) encyclopedia entry that leads to a (fictional) encyclopedia originated by a multigenerational group that invented a country. But it didn’t stop there; an eccentric American millionaire got into the act and “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of the whole planet.” Borges understood America, all right.
The planet exists in a state of Berkeleyan idealism: the world is “not a concurrence of objects in space, but a heterogeneous series of independent acts”; “the present is undefined, that the future has no other reality than as present hope, that the past is no more than present memory”; even numbers are “indefinite” and “the operation of counting modiﬁes the quantities and converts them from indeﬁnite into deﬁnite sums” (aha! I always suspected); some objects are “brought into being by hope”, and all objects “lose their detail when people forget them.”
Most dramatically, in a theme echoed by Borges again and again in these stories: “there is only one Individual, and that this indivisible Individual is every one of the separate beings in the universe, and that those beings are the instruments and masks of divinity itself.”
While all of this is fascinating – and leads me to resolve yet again to improve my understanding of philosophical schools – the thrust of the story is that this fictional encyclopedia about a fictional world transformed the actual world into Tlön. If that seems far-fetched, consider the New Testament – or any public school textbook. Wars have been fought over who gets to write the history, because history only exists in memory, and we cannot help but live under the thumb of what has come before. Or, at least, what we believe has come before.
This fictional review of a fictional book about an Indian pilgrimage is so detailed, it’s hard to remember the levels of invention. The review judges the second edition of the book to be far inferior – “In the 1932 version, the supernatural notes are scarce… Unfortunately, this literary good conduct did not last long. In the 1934 version – which I have at hand – the novel sinks into allegory… ” This jazzing up of a text to appeal to a more widespread audience sounds familiar. Geraldo Rivera was once a real journalist, Jim Jones started out as an earnest preacher, and everyone knows how I feel about what’s happened to Bravo and The Food Network.
He did not want to compose another Don Quixote – which would be easy – but the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
…To be, in some way, Cervantes and to arrive at Don Quixote seemed to him less arduous – and consequently less interesting – then to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.
I remember an art course in which the instructor said that painting flowers during the sixteenth century was not the same as painting flowers during the Industrial Revolution, or in the Information Age. Context matters. You can’t wade into the same stream twice.
By creating an author, start with his bibliography, showing his struggles (“The number of rough drafts kept on increasing; he tenaciously made corrections and tore up thousands of manuscript pages”), as well as the reviewer’s reader experience of the work (“…the fragmentary Don Quixote of Menard is more subtle than that of Cervantes. The latter indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the Meeker, provincial reality of his country; Menard chooses as ‘reality’ the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope.”), Borges turns an aphorism into flesh and blood: an idea becomes a story.
John T. Irwin adds some background to the piece: “One of the more interesting aspects of Borges’ development as a fiction writer in the late 30’s and early 40’s was his decision to turn away from the French literary influence that represented the artistic ideal for most of his fellow Argentinians (an Argentine obsession that he was to satirize in “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”) and to turn toward English, and particularly North American, fiction as the principal foreign literary influence on his work.” That was the point at which he became interested in Poe.
He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these “imperfect writers,” whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them – not the best – insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them. I was ingenuous enough to extract from the third, “The Rose of Yesterday,” my story of “The Circular Ruins.”
A literary obituary of sorts. The books Borges invents are so clever, it’s easy to forgive him for not actually writing them. The narrator is indignant that Quain’s books are compared to Agatha Christie and Gertrude Stein; “evocations which no one would consider inevitable and which would not have gratified the deceased.” This becomes especially delicious when we consider that Borges wrote three “doubles” of Poe stories as homages, and he himself served as inspiration for so many. This story itself folds back on itself, with the reference to his own story at the end. Is this Borges’ self-litobit? A tongue-in-cheek future impression of his oeuvre? Much of his work has this sense of humor about it; it’s almost like he’s entering into a shared joke with the reader – laughing with us, not at us.
“The Library of Babel”
I have just written the word “infinite.” I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end — which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.
This may be one of Borges’ most famous stories; I’d actually read it before, though I didn’t realize it was Borges. There are, after all, only so many books, so many combinations of letters one could possibly write. In 1913, Emile Borel started the “infinite monkeys” concept (enough monkeys for enough time would eventually produce Hamlet), to be carried forward by physicist Arthur Edington; here Borges makes it concrete. It’s interesting that this Library has so much information as to make it unintelligible; it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, thus everyone goes hungry. Yet, The Book exists: the perfect book, and that is what we’re looking for.
Prof. Weinstein mentions in the introductory material to the Fiction of Relationship course, “Dry, esoteric and philosophical, Borges appears to have none of the heat our other writers bring, but think again.” Yes: look at the quote above, and think again. Look at Borges referring to the story: “In my story there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself.” Anything but dry and esoteric. I want to hug him.
In his Prologue, Borges refers to this as a story in which “nothing is real.” It’s interesting, then, especially in light of the above-mentioned comments about Borges being esoteric and philosophical, that I found this story dripping with human passion. It’s another strange story: the protagonist simply enters the scene, from where or why or even how we don’t really know. His mission is to dream a son.
The choice I love here is that his first attempt fails; he dreams a classroom setting and chooses the most thoughtful student but is unable to bring him to life. It’s only when he tries again, and begins at the heart (“He dreamed that it was warm, secret, about the size of a clenched fist, and of a garnet color within the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex; during fourteen lucid nights he dreamt of it with meticulous love”) that he is able to create. I was so captivated by the phrase “meticulous love” I looked up the original Spanish: con minucioso amor lo soñó; while there is the word meticuloso for “meticulous,” minucioso also translates there, as well as “thorough” and “minute.” A new kind of reproduction, perhaps, but one that is, literally, heartfelt.
Of course, that isn’t the end of the story; this is Borges, and everything has to fold back in on itself.
In the early 70s, when I visited Boston (from Florida) for the first time, I was confused by all the advertisements I saw for The Game; they never explained what The Game was, just exhorted people to play it. Forget notions of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence: God is the guy who sells the lottery tickets. In his Prologue, Borges notes the story is “not entirely innocent of symbolism.” Neil D. Isaacs raises the same thought I did (boy, do I feel smart!) in his article “The Labyrinth of Art in Four Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges”: of course there’s symbolism, all his stories are symbolic, pretty much all literature is symbolic. But Isaacs identifies the symbolism at a level that would have never occurred to me:
[I]n “The Babylon Lottery” one must appreciate the ironic inversion of the typical, the traditional, and the archetypal.
Borges’ “symbolism” is a remarkably sustained piece of irony. “The Babylon Lottery” describes an attempt to impose a deliberate and infinitely various disorder upon an orderly world. Yet the lottery (both the story itself and the institutions it describes) is systematic and formal. In other words, it is a program (or programmatic presentation) designed to give the semblance of formal order, that is to say, a semblance of meaning, to the chaotic and ostensibly meaningless world of human experience.…
It’s a lot more sophisticated than “S#&t Happens,” you have to admit.
Borges wrote this story with Poe in mind (and it was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; he puts a slight spoiler in his Prologue, calling it a “detective story; its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand – it seems to me – until the last paragraph.” That’s true, but it also gets into destiny and parallel universes, not to mention a mathematical theory of birfurcation. In fact, this story and “The Library of Babel” was recommended to me by my math class last Spring when I was looking for a “mathlit” series of readings (I still intend to get there, it’s just taking a while).Of course, this theory is way beyond me – much of this is beyond me – but that doesn’t stop me from having fun. Although Edward Packer wouldn’t invent Choose Your Own Adventure stories until the 1970s, I see it as an exploration of a CYOA structure in life. We do, in fact, choose our own adventures, every moment of every day, but most of the time we don’t realize it.
Funes the Memorious is as Borgesian a character as they come, a man tormented by his hyperencylopedic mind, tragically unable to forget anything…. he is incapacitated by the compulsive absoluteness of his knowledge, unable to think and communicate with the rest of the humanity. Casting himself as the imperfect, inferior countercharacter to Funes, Borges suggests that forgetting—that is, forgetting ceaselessly—is essential and necessary for thought and language and literature, for simply being a human being.
~~ Aleksander Hemon, from Object Lessons, excerpted online
An anthropology professor once told our class that death was essential to life; it seems forgetting works somewhat the same way with knowledge. The story itself makes this point: “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything,” which brings us back to the “every man is all men” theme sprinkled throughout this volume.
I’m also reminded of “The Library of Babel,” or, for that matter, the internet, where a flood of information means nothing gets through. Hemon goes on to equate Funes’ memory with omniscience, and thus, Godhood, which leads to those thoughts about divinity – literally, separateness – and how perhaps that is what people long for when they long for God: to know everything. But that itself separates the now-God from the rest of humanity, and leaves him paralyzed, lying alone on a cot in a hut. But, by his own account, quite content: “immobility was a minimum price to pay.”
I realized then that his cowardice was irreparable. I awkwardly urged him to take care of himself and took my leave. I blushed for this fearful man, as if I, and not Vincent Moon, were the coward. What one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men. For that reason a disobedience committed in a garden contaminates the human race; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew suffices to save it.”
There it is, that theme again. I knew what was going on some time before the story revealed it; I wondered for a time if the narrator knew where the story would end up, but gave the storyteller the opportunity to make his confession. It’s a story about becoming “the other” through narrative – telling your story from someone else’s angle. For this character, this role-swap must take place in front of an audience in order to accomplish his aim.
In Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations, with Richard Burgin, Borges is quite dismissive of this story: “That’s one of the stories I like least, because it’s a trick story after all… But of course, when I wrote that story I was quite young and then I believed in cleverness, and now I think that cleverness is a hindrance.” Still, I found it to be an interesting examination of identity, fitting the “law of metamorphosis” that’s running through the class.
“Theme of the Traitor and Hero”
If you like mind-twisting paradoxical mazes, this is the story for you: a consideration of free will and destiny, all wrapped up in a Shakespearean paradox of art imitating life. Or is it life imitating art? For a very short story – barely five pages – it gets a lot done.
Erik Lonnrot studied the documents. The three sites were in fact equidistant. Symmetry in time (the third of December, the third of January, the third of February); symmetry in space as well . . . Of a sudden he sensed he was about to decipher the mystery. A set of calipers and a compass completed his sudden intuition. He smiled, pronounced the word “Tetragrammaton” (of recent acquisition), and called the Commissioner on the telephone.
His second detective story after “Garden of the Forking Paths,” this one was, in his words, “flatly rejected” by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. If that doesn’t serve as a balm to rejected writers everywhere, I don’t know what will. In order to solve this mystery, the detective calls upon religion, geometry, and Zeno; for the reader, a knowledge of German helps, but I confess I mostly just followed along and went back to pick up what I missed. After all, a Borges mystery is not just any mystery; there’s going to be a philosophical question in there somewhere, and here, it’s symmetry and, again, identity.
A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you
looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine.
If libraries – infinite, divine libraries, whose vast stores of information create problems of locating any one particular item for mere mortals – feature prominently in Borges – “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” he said – it’s worth remembering that he was Director of the National Library of Argentina for nearly twenty years, until political issues made that untenable. This story blends notions of this Divine Library, dreams, and time, yet for me it above all is a writer’s story; I see a link to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” If you write something and no one reads it – have you written anything at all? In fact, yes. I write a blog very few people read, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time on these posts, but I write it because it forces me to organize my thoughts; I frequently uncover new evidence and thus change my mind when I put together notes and write a coherent post, and that is worth the time it takes. Writing for me exists for its own sake, it is the discovery; having a place to “publish” it is merely a bonus.
It’s something of a reframing of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” though it adds some elements and creates a convincing emotional picture (something Bierce never did for me). Clark M. Zlotchew goes into great detail about the use of mise en abyme, a term new to me though I recognize the concept. See, that’s why I write blog posts no one may ever read (certainly not ones this long): I learn things. Writing is its own reward.
And we haven’t heard the last of protagonist Jaromir Hladik…
The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, some years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously dilate: Not one thing, but everything tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false. (De Quincey, 1857.)
I was seriously religious in my early teens, and I never understood the scorn heaped upon Judas: it seemed to me his betrayal of Jesus was a necessary part of the plan. I never said a word, of course; I got into enough trouble asking where all the people after Adam and Eve came from. But it’s nice to see someone else wonders the same thing, though this story takes it a step beyond that.
I promised more Jaromir Hladik from “The Secret Miracle,” and here he is in a footnote, though I’ll admit I wouldn’t have noticed it but for Borges’ bio page on the Poetry Foundation website: “The note refers the reader to the “Vindication of Eternity,” a work said to be written by Hladik. In this instance, Borges used a fictional work written by one of his fictitious characters to lend an air of erudition to another fictional work about the works of another fictitious author.” Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?
I wonder what else I’ve been missing in these stories – like the small detail of protagonist Nils Runeberg’s name pointed out by Edna Aizenberg: “Runes were ancient mystic letters, and ‘Nils’ suggests null, or nothingness, as well as ‘Nil,’ the River Nile.” I suppose it would help if Aizenberg’s essay were not a spot-on spoof of the story itself, which also makes my head spin. I just love it when my head spins. But for more practical analysis, Timothy McGrath examines Borges’ use of historical narrative. It isn’t as much fun, but it does provide some of the religious background those who didn’t spend years in Sunday School might find helpful.
Borges: “Aside from one character, Recabarren, whose immobility and passivity serve as contrast., nothing (or almost nothing ) in the brief course of that last story is of my invention-everything in it is implicit in a famous book, though I have been the first to perceive it, or at least to declare openly that I have.” Turns out Martin Fierro is a rather popular figure in an Argentinian story of the “gaucho genre” (similar to the American Western), and this story continues his tale.
In his Prologue, Borges says: “Of ‘The South,’ which may be my best story, I shall tell the reader only that it is possible to read it both as a forthright narration of novelistic events and in quite another way, as well.” Again, I’m puzzled, since this could be said of all his stories. Time and reality are again twisted, leading us to wonder if we are really where and when we think we are. Having had some experience, due to a “medical misadventure,” with a delirious state a few years ago during which I could not tell the difference between dreams and reality, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the protagonist.
“The Sect of the Phoenix”
Once upon a time, in addition to the Secret, there was a legend (and perhaps also a cosmogonic myth), but the superficial men of the Phoenix have forgotten it, and today… they scarcely hint at the verdict of a God who grants eternity to a race of men if they will only carry out a certain rite, generation after generation. I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians; and I can testify that the performance of the rite is the only religious practice observed by the sectarians. The rite itself constitutes the Secret.
Caution: Spoiler-ish notes. It’s really a story you should read before you read about it; much of the fun is in the reading. And it’s quite a hilarious story, once you’re in on the joke.
Borges: “I set myself the problem of suggesting a common act – the Secret – hesitatingly, gradually, and yet, in the end, unequivocally; I am not sure to what extent I have succeeded.” While I was on to “The Form of the Sword” and I had a pretty good idea how “The Circular Ruins” would turn out, I missed this one completely. That may say more about me than about Borges, who, I read somewhere (though I can never find it when I need it; damn, I’ve recorded it at least twice, too) was a bit awkward and possibly uninformed about the subject himself, making it one of the few things he knew little about. While there is fairly uniform agreement on the nature of the Secret described, some, like Daniel Balderston, have a slightly different angle. And in his Borges overview The Mythmaker, Carter Wheelock denies that the Rite is anything at all; the whole story is an allegory for “the creation of the esthetic situation.” Take your pick, or make up your own interpretation.
In Borges and his Fiction, Bell-Villada enumerates the debatable points one by one (gum Arabic being the, shall we say, stickiest wicket, cork and wax being fairly easy to dispense with): “As the narrator of the story himself points out, all words allude to this rite – frequently to the discomfort of both speaker and listener – is the result that the hallowed ‘secret’ can often seem ‘ridiculous.'” That’s rather true – ask any six-year-old.
Like I said: This was fun. I’m delighted I finally had a reason to break through the intimidation factor, and surprised at how accessible most of the stories were. Not that I caught everything, of course; I’m woefully undereducated in the various philosophical schools, and the more I learn about literature, the less I seem to know. But it’s a start, and an inspiration. And fun.