Jorge Luis Borges
How might we define the Borgesian? Borges certainly helps by calling many of the pieces he wrote ficciones: fictional works that within them often have a handful of facts that calls the fiction into question, and yet also validates it. In 'Borges and I', "this all too famous sketch", is directly autobiographical as Borges invokes the figure responsible for writing the tales. "I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires, stopping now and then - perhaps out of habit - to look at the arch of an old entrance-way or a grillwork gate". In 'The Man on the Threshold' it is slightly less direct as he tells us "Bioy Casares brought back with him from London a strange dagger." Anybody who knows anything of Borges's life knows that Bioy Casares and Borges were friends and collaborators.
Sometimes the directness is simply literary, as numerous stories invoke actual writers and texts with Borges's own, evident when he mentions an Emerson poem in 'The Other Death', or the novelette The Chosen One in 'The Immortals'. Many of the ficciones are prefaced by quotes: Rupert Brooke lines in 'The Immortals', a quote from Yeats for 'The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz'. In Borges's work, life, literature and his own fiction are all mixed in together.
Borges's is thus an oeuvre more than most "contaminated by literature", to offer a phrase used in 'The Aleph'. Now it is often argued that great writers should explore life and not literature, and the more open they are to experience - however we choose to define it - the more copious and brilliant the work. It is a sentiment more or less expressed by Martin Amis in The War Against Clich when he says in an essay on C. P. Snow, "authors ought generally to be praised for writing about people who are remote from their own lives". It resembles in some ways Keats' notion of Negative Capability, "it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Does this make the constantly self-referencing, constantly fact-finding and intellectualizing Borges a failed writer?
One believes not, and perhaps we can think not of negative capability in such an instance, but of positive capability, an approach that takes literature as a given and life as surplus. After all most of what we read is literature (in the broadest sense) by the very fact we are reading it. To pretend otherwise is maybe more disingenuous than to admit that what is being produced is fiction. When at the end of the 'Streetfighter' the knife fighter telling the story to the narrator says "then, Borges," it is the first time the narrator has been invoked in the tale, and it comes near the end of the piece, creating a minor frisson, the sense of a writer talking to a man of violence. We are aware of the fiction as we're made aware of the possible fact behind it.
It is in such instances that the self-reflexive becomes the strangely life-like, as if the awareness of fiction makes it more real. This is a variation on Borges's own comment when saying "I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that's the way reality is," adding "if you take a given fact and then say that you know nothing whatever of some secondary element, that makes the first fact a real one because it gives the whole a wider existence." (Borges on Writing) By confronting the idea that you are telling a story, you create verisimilitude not in swathes of detail, but in partiality of perspective. When Borges famously said "why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes", he is seeking out this partiality through the deliberate narrowness of point of view. This is not an all-knowing narrator going on for pages and pages, but the narrator with a few facts to hand trying to make sense of a situation.
However, this is only part of the story; another concerns an interest in what we might call hard perceptions, an approach that is basically philosophical. Thus, when in his introduction to Labyrinths, James E. Irby notes that Borges is interested in "what seventeenth-and eighteenth century rhetoricians called 'hard' or 'philosophic' words, we can add that such words carry ideas, where often softer words do no more than carry a description, and it is partly through Borges's interest in ideas that he achieves such density of meaning. For example, philosophical terms like Kant's the 'categorical imperative', Nietzsche's the 'eternal return' and Spinoza's 'inadequate ideas' are all hard phrases containing much thought-through thinking. When Borges invokes them, and often does so with a casual reference to the author as readily as to the term itself, he wants to seize on the magnitude of the observation, the degree to which a casual comment brings with it the vertigo of the universe. Hence when Andre Maurois in his preface to Labyrinths refers to Borges's "private metaphysics", this lies in Borges' interest in not closing the story down with local detail, but opening it up to metaphysical speculation.
To do so Borges combines hard perceptions with hyperbolic observations. The hard perceptions include, for example this passage from 'The Other Death'. "In the Summa Theologiae, it is denied that God can unmake the past, but nothing is said of the complicated concatenation of causes and effects which is so vast and so intimate that perhaps it might prove impossible to annul a single remote fact, insignificant as it may seem without invalidating the present." Or another from 'Borges and I': "Spinoza held that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger, a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is so that I am someone)..." Examples of hyperbole would include this passage from 'The Library Of Babylon': "The company, with divine modesty, eludes all publicity," he says. In 'The Aleph', Borges open the story with the narrator saying "on the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity." Later in the story, when he is in the titular aleph, in infinite space, he talks of "inconceivable analogies", "unbearable brilliance", "unending eyes". The hard language of philosophy meets the soft language of awe, creating a 'private metaphysic' of astonishment.
Not everybody has been an admirer of Borges's short stories, neither their language nor their metaphysics. In a piece on Borges in The Return of Eva Peron, V. S. Naipaul notes that occasionally the language happens to be meaningless. Borges opens 'The Circular Ruins' with "nobody saw him disembark in the unanimous night," an accurate translation from the Spanish, where Borges talks of "unnime noche". Naipaul asked Borges's sometime translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni what Borges could possibly have meant by saying unanimous night, and di Giovanni indeed had the same problem as Naipaul. Couldn't Borges just as easily have said the tea-drinking night, or the card-playing night? Borges simply said "that's just one example of the irresponsible way I used to write," and allowed the word to be changed to encompassing. Yet though for Naipaul this seems to seal the argument, showing an unthinking meretricious side to Borges absent from the poetry that Naipaul so admires, we should remember that much of Borges' poetry came out early in his career - would that not then be part of the "irresponsible" period? Also, Naipaul comments on Borges as a gentleman, as someone who sees himself as one "who tries to give the least amount of trouble". His acquiescence in this instance to his translator seems almost part of this gentlemanliness.
This is an approach consistent with many of the comments in the autobiographical piece that ends The Aleph and Other Stories. When Borges talks of a collaboration with Bioy Casares, he says "I think they are better than anything I have published under my own name and nearly as good as anything Bioy has written on his own" it captures the necessary modesty. Frequently he dismisses his own earlier work: "Today I no longer feel guilty over these excesses; these books were written by somebody else. Until a few years ago, if the price were not too stiff, I would buy up copies and burn them." This would be an example of what in Cesar Fernandez Moreno's words, was Borges' "invariable and invincible modesty".
There is also, though, this problem with assuming the word unanimous in the context is meaningless, as arbitrary as the other words that could as readily have been put in its place. But is that true? Unanimous seems not meaningless but simply not accurate, and therefore undeniably 'difficult'. But that is not the same as without meaning, and unanimous curiously fits the sentence; giving it that combination of awe and metaphysical speculation we're proposing proves central to Borges' ficciones.
Is Borges making language his own even to the detriment of sense? Naipaul might assume it is part of the metaphysical laziness that is often of course part and parcel of the attacks on metaphysical speculation by analytic philosophy. Whether it is Naipaul saying that the stories "are in the nature of intellectual jokes", or an analytic philosopher like Gilbert Ryle showing little interest in dreams or the inner life, we can see that both Ryle and Naipaul reckon these elements would seem to be of no more value than idle speculation. Ryle says in a book of interviews, Modern British Philosophy, "is it worth while bothering about what sort of account one is going to give of dreams? They are very peripheral things." They have little to do with real life, evident in Naipaul's comment that Borges will take a word like 'immortal' or "unforgettable" and that he simply "plays with it". What would happen if a man could survive for eternity, or if someone remembered everything and could forget nothing? These are idle issues, perhaps, but do they not contain within them ontological problems, pressing questions on the nature of being?
Two comments might help us here. The first comes through Maurois who compares Borges' stories to some of the ideas found in Paul Valery's notebooks. "It is discovered", for example, "that the only remedy for cancer is living human flesh. Consequences." Maurois can imagine Borges writing such a tale. The second comes from the philosopher Peter Sloterdjik, writing very interestingly on Nietzsche in his book Thinker on Stage. He talks of Nietzsche's belief that most of philosophy before him had been basically "ontological whitewashing"; not an attempt at finding the truth but escaping from it. "What had previously pretended to be a path toward truth was in reality a single thrust away from it, a thrust away from what was thought unbearable into the provisory tolerability of comfort, edification, and transcendent worlds."
In this sense Borges' ficciones are fascinated by the sort of questions most fiction writers wouldn't quite countenance. Thus where many fiction writers feel the need for comfort, edification and transcendent worlds with God or sense as the ceiling, Borges's fictions would seem to share some of Nietzsche's despair. Now, of course, this is not to dismiss literature that came before Borges, and there are few writers more than the Argentinean who are willing to acknowledge influences, inevitable perhaps in a writer who in Maurois's words "has read everything". But, taking into account what Sloterdijk says about philosophy and Nietzsche's intrusion into it, Borges wanted, like Kafka, whom he much admired, to find a method within which to hint at the ineffable, and numerous stories from 'The Immortal' to 'The Circular Ruins', from 'The Aleph' to 'Funes the Memorious', from 'Borges and I' to 'The Garden of the Forking Paths', show this desire. It is this combination of the brevity of description and magnitude of subject matter that makes Borges so fascinating an example of that positive capability, of making oneself the centre of the universe, but also making the universe one's centre. When Borges says in a Cesar Fernandez Moreno interview published in Encounter magazine that fellow Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez lost so much of his work because he had a "poor opinion of his creative powers", Borges also alludes to Macedonio Fernandez's fascination with certain fundamental questions and reckoned he probably stayed awake thinking about them. However, Macedonio Fernandez didn't believe they could be communicated. Borges notes that "he believed - and this is a mystical idea - that truth is ineffable and incommunicable". Is it in the positive capability, though, that the ineffable becomes communicable? From the point of view of Naipaul the achievement might seem minor, yet from another perspective it is monumental. After all, Macedonio Fernandez did not assume that the smaller questions couldn't be readily fictionalised. It was the very questions that he believed couldn't be answered that Borges consistently tackled, and found a form with which to tackle them, no matter if the language might somehow seem meaningless: they appeared to serve the infinity of the idea.
And yet the infinite it seemed did not need an infinite form, but instead the opposite: a very finite, brief one. It needed to register futility of consecutiveness when accounting for what cannot be described but merely alluded to. Thus if a novel were to continue for hundreds and hundreds of pages, we wouldn't be getting any nearer the infinite but simply deeper and deeper into the allusion to it, and in the process getting closer and closer to the story, to the characters, to the texture of life that art so often mimics. The metaphysical fades as the physical announces itself.
But let us think how the metaphysical does not fade in some of the Borges stories alluded to above. In 'The Aleph' the story asks what happens if one would see everything simultaneously; how could we describe it, how would we remember it, how would we share it? The extraordinary is saved by the ordinary, as the story concludes with the narrator saying "our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in." Even a memory he wants to retain, from before seeing the aleph, the face of the late loved one, Beatriz, is fading "under the wearing away of the years". The idea of the aleph has thus been a conceit for understanding the impossibility of simultaneity and the final importance of certain memories, like Beatriz's face. The metaphysical problem gives way to the ontological problem, the problem of beings of partial memory. Yet the conceit is nevertheless the hook on which the story hangs, and the story combines the metaphysical question of simultaneity with the immediate problem of one man's remembering of things past.
In 'The Circular Ruins', someone believes he has dreamt a son into being only to find at the end of the story that he is himself a product of someone's dream. Borges takes the philosophical problem of whether or not we can claim indubitably that we are not the product of another's imaginings, and plays not for the logical absurdity of such a proposition, but the unease of its fictional possibility. When Descartes asks the question of whether we are being puppeteered by an Evil Genius, the reply is of course not, and that God allows us rational thought. "Free will Descartes stated is the sign of God in human nature," notes the Encyclopedia Britannica, "and human beings can be praised or blamed according to their use of it." In such an instance an evil genius would function like bad faith - giving us an excuse to blame another for our lack of free will. Borges wonders about this, however; muses over the problem of an advanced scepticism that leads to the possibility of malign or benign geniuses playing with our perceptual faculties. Borges's central character in 'The Circular Ruins' believes he has full cognizance and dreams another; only to find that he possesses false consciousness as he is himself dreamed. When at the end of the story he goes into the flames, he does not perish in them, for he is merely a figment of another's imagination. It resembles of course the Lao Tzu story of the self not knowing whether he is a man dreaming that he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man, a story Borges includes in a collection of pieces on the fantastic he edited with Bioy Casares, The Book of Fantasy.
In 'Funes the Memorious' lies the problem of memory. How can one hold on to the entirety of human thought, since, as Borges proposes, it is likely to hinder the very possibility of thought. Though Funes managed to learn English, French, Portuguese and Latin, "I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details..."
In 'The Aleph', 'The Circular Ruins' and 'Funes the Memorious', Borges pushes not so much the conceit, like one might an idle thought, but punctures the assumptions underpinning many a commonplace. How can one say somebody has an astonishing memory after reading Funes, or that one has free will after confronting 'The Circular Ruins'? Of course we do, because like the narrator in 'The Aleph', our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in. Yet nevertheless Borges appears to be one of those few writers who function a little like a metaphysical conscience, the sort of figure who makes us wonder about our commonplace assumptions by hyperbolizing what underpins them. The insight of the everyday is paradoxically achieved by moving very far beyond the everyday. One sees this clearly in 'The Garden of Forking Paths'. Free will indicates choice, but what if choice is not what we take it to be? Here, the narrator's task of killing someone is made difficult not especially by the categorical obstacles in his path - the sort of narrative problems of finding the location, getting into the house and avoiding getting shot by guards - but the constant sense of worlds that fold back on each other so that the action loses its determinacy. When Albert, the person he has gone to kill, says "this network of time which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time", where does that leave someone trying to communicate a clear action in the present? As the man adds "we do not exist in the majority of those times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us." The physical action becomes a metaphysical proposition, and the "house that was infinitely saturated with invisible people. All were Albert and myself" makes any action not futile but so dispersive that the tension of the story gives way to the metaphysically mind-bending. In narrative terms the story has ground to a halt as Albert talks of the problem of time, yet metaphysically the story swirls as the narrator says "once again I felt the swarming sensation of which I have spoken."
Borges's positive capability lies in several things. First the manner in which the narrational and the biographical interlink, with Borges a character within his own fiction. Secondly this calls into question the truth of the story, yet paradoxically makes it more plausible as we take as given certain facts because of the doubt thrown upon others. Then there is Borges's combination of hard and hyperbolic words that makes Borges's work read like a blend of fantasy and philosophy. Finally there is the metaphysical speculation that leaves the story we're reading somehow incidental to the question that Borges is asking, and thus it makes perfect sense for the story to remain short so that the speculation can hint at the vast. In an essay called 'Pascal's Sphere', Borges opens by saying "perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors", and in interview with di Giovanni insists that "I'm fond of stories but I'm far too lazy for novel writing." Maybe the latter is true, but it seems perhaps as much an outcome of the former: the sense that universal history is that of a few metaphors and the laborious fictionalising of these literary abstractions would appear for a writer like Borges a somewhat futile task. Perhaps inevitably for a man who, after all, insisted "time is unreal".
© Tony McKibbin