The BOOKPRESS November 1999

The Invention of Borges


Andrew Weiner

Selected Non-Fictions
By Jorge Luis Borges.
Edited by Eliot Weinberger.
Translated by Esther Allen,
Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger.
559 pp, New York:
Viking, $40.00

Though Selected Non-Fictions may be profitably read as a complement to Borges’s poetry and fictions, it deserves to be considered on its own merits. Broad, detailed, and surprisingly accessible, the selection is well-tailored to the needs of first-time readers and Borges initiates alike. Faces familiar from the ficciones—Kabbalists, crackpots, and gauchos—have made some curious new friends, among them Bette Davis, Citizen Kane, and King Kong.

The awkward title stems from Viking’s decision, understandable yet inappropriate given the subject, to presume a material difference between fact and fiction. This distinction is famously more permeable in Latin American literature, thanks in large part to Borges; in the Obras Completas his work is simply ordered chronologically. As Eliot Weinberger notes in his "Introduction to the Selected Non-Fictions," the term "non-fiction"—a negative and rather empty definition—doesn’t exist in Spanish criticism.

Though Weinberger’s decision not to describe these writings as essays, on the grounds that the term is unjustly "limiting," is curious—other challenging works have claimed that title before—it is also warranted. Many of these works were published initially as "Inquisitions," and while there does exist one "Essay" in this collection, it is overshadowed by a greater number of "Histories," "Defenses," "Postulations," and "Refutations." As in Borges’s ficciones, the steady flow of formal inventions and intellectual paradoxes slowly erode the categories one might use to describe them.

Selected Non-Fictions opens with a section of Borges’s "Early Writings," pieces composed between 1922 and 1928. Their most marked characteristic is the preternatural ability and remarkable ambition of a young writer influenced by the thriving, politically engaged literary climate of that decade. The insistence of their tone, boldly stating "Intentions" and "Courses of Action," recalls a time when the artistic manifesto was a prolific form. The speaker, however, is unmistakably Borges: "I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality…[and] to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises."

While the tone and content of these essays foreshadow much of the later Borges, their overloaded diction does not. Borges would eventually hone much of the ornamentation from his prose. Deriding his first three collections of essays as "Latin in Spanish," he would later move to have them suppressed. Luckily he was not entirely successful, else no record would exist of the "obstinate zealotry…[of] that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready." That 3rd-personalization of himself is not to be confused with the self-removed diction of the post-game interview a la Bo Jackson; it should instead be seen as the hallmark of a determinedly playful self-consciousness. Also of interest are the thinkers he cites and would return to again and again throughout his later work: Schopenhauer, Whitman, Quevedo, De Quincey, the Kabbalists.

In a volume replete with all manner of revelations, perhaps the most startling is the fact that Borges spent three years reviewing books for El Hogar, a magazine that Weinberger describes as "the Argentine equivalent of Ladies’ Home Journal." Books like Absalom! Absalom! and Finnegans Wake. Needless to say, this irony—and the freedom it afforded—did not escape its victim. In his brief reviews and biographies, we see Borges in fine form. We learn of Theodore Dreiser, for example, that his "head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character…" T.S. Eliot is introduced as "an unlikely compatriot of the St. Louis Blues." Borges wryly informs us: "I have frequented with true moderation the literature of Sweden."

Staple art? I don’t think so. Reviewing Richard Hull’s Excellent Intentions, a forgettably "pleasant" detective novel, Borges concludes that the mystery’s solution is too obvious to be true. Its true function is to mask a secret plot that can only be discovered by subsequent readings. A similar move marks his approach to the Hollywood flotsam that occasionally washed across his desk. The Bette Davis vehicle Now Voyager inspires a meditation on how the limited narrative vocabulary of American film—a "disconcerting asceticism"—has induced a collective experience of déjà vu in the streets of Buenos Aires. Then, memorably: "Across the screens of the most remote movie houses, the film spreads its bold thesis: A disfigured Miss Davis is less beautiful." Such interpretations transpose the zealous hermeneutics of the Kabbalists onto that all-too-familiar artifact of culture—mediocrity—and outline a nuanced, creative, and humane irony.

Interspersed among these witticisms are a number of genuine insights, many phrased with a keen poeticism. A Faulkner piece opens by noting: "It is a general rule that novelists do not present a reality, but rather the memory of one." One of the "Nine Dantesque Essays" observes: "Like all abstract words, the word metaphor is itself a metaphor." A review of detective fiction defines genre literature as a kind of writing that "lives on the continuous and delicate infraction of its own rules." At its best, this style combines intuition and wit in a vertiginous layering of bracketed observations:

It may legitimately be observed (with the lightness and peculiar brutality of such observations) that the philosophers of England and France are directly interested in the universe itself, or in one or another of its features, while the Germans tend to consider it a simple motive, a mere material cause for their enormous dialectical edifices, which are always groundless but always grandiose.

Also present in these brief notes—none exceed five hundred words—is a sharp eye for the paradoxical events and characters to which the term "Borgesian" is now commonly given. Reviewing a biography of the Dionne Quintuplets, Borges unearths a masterpiece of tautological definition:

Yvonne is easily recognizable for being the eldest, Marie for being the youngest, Annette because everyone mistakes her for Yvonne, and Cecile because she is completely identical to Emilie.

If El Hogar provided the perfect forum for the unexpected insight, it lacked any room for more topical commentary. One charge often levelled against Borges in the past is that he was unwilling to engage himself in political critique. As Weinberger clearly shows, in a section titled "Notes On Germany And The War," this was not the case. From 1937 on, Borges wrote in condemnation of anti-Semitism in Germany and Argentina, and of the "chaotic descent" of the culture of his beloved Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. These comments shed the gleeful irony of his earlier work; they are unambiguously moral in their tone.

Yet one gets the sense that Borges’s objection stemmed equally from the distortion of past ideas in Fascist and Marxist rhetoric. Political discourse, it seems, could only be an echo, "an imperfect reverberation of former discussions." This disjuncture appears to have influenced his self-professed distance from the meat-and-potatoes business of politics. "The true intellectual," he wrote, "refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous." Whether this position was originally aesthetic or moral matters less than the fact that it became increasingly necessary when Fascism came to Argentina. If Borges’s anti-Perónism were as vocal as Weinberger claims in his Introduction, why isn’t it better represented in Selected Non-Fictions? Why does the book’s index, with multiple entries for Parmenides and Poe, lack a single listing for Perón?

The topic that would both haunt and delight Borges throughout his life was infinity. To hear him tell it, the source of this obsession was a household object during his childhood: a biscuit tin whose illustration contained the image of the selfsame biscuit tin, and so on. This type of regressus in infinitum is the motive force behind such stories as "The Aleph"; it is also the point of departure for many of his essays. "The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise," an exploration of Zeno’s Paradox, was later described by Borges as "a prehistory of infinite regression."

"When Fiction Lives in Fiction" addresses the history of what one might call "nesting" literature, the classic example being Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. This device, Borges argues, aims to imply the possibility of infinite repetition and therefore "to make reality appear unreal to us." Dream and wakefulness are only distinguishable as parts of the endless, vertiginous prospect afforded to us in fiction and biscuit tins.

Against these visions of boundlessness and uncontrollable proliferation, Borges holds up the possibility, more frightening still, of finitude. "Pascal’s Sphere" leaves off with the speculation that "universal history is the history of the various intonations of a few metaphors." In "The Total Library" he considers the idea that linguistic expression has a conceivable limit—that the proverbial thousand monkeys with typewriters would, given enough time, eventually exhaust the permutations of a fixed alphabet. Tracing the history of this idea through Aristotle, Pascal, and Lewis Carroll, Borges concludes with a delirious inventory of this Library’s contents:

Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true name of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat’s theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn’t publish…the song the sirens sang, the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog.

This heterogenous list—a device Borges perfected—destabilizes the assumption that knowledge is either progressive or unified, and questions whether language represents truths about the world. For every legible line in the Library there are miles of gibberish. Overwhelmed by this disparity, intelligibility begins to look more and more like an accident. Imagination loses any spiritual aspect, and is instead re-envisioned as the act of recombination.

Since creativity and history also work within an exhaustible set of possibilities, a similar repetition is inevitable both in art and the everyday. The laughable predictability of the Hollywood film mirrors the more disturbing implications of cyclical time. Thinkers as diverse as Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche have addressed the Eternal Return—a topic, Borges joked, to which he tended "to return eternally." Reviewing the history of this concept in "Circular Time," he envisions time as a labyrinth without exit, an "impoverished eternity."

In the end, the strongest impression left by the Selected Non-Fictions is the image of Borges as architect of his own literary legacy. He once used the Spanish term hacedor ("maker") to describe the work of a writer as a process that unites craftsmanship, divine creation, and the literary art of poesis. Borges crafted a prose style which maintains its transparency even while glossing the most arcane subjects, and a tone which, while unsurpassably arch, resonates nevertheless with an unexpected empathy, offering glimpses into a deep and tragic sense of humor. Along the way he compiled a vocabulary of ideas definable only under the category which he himself invented, that of the Borgesian.

When Borges wrote that Kafka’s work recreated its precursors, he might as well have been talking about himself. As the story "Borges and I" attests, he was fully conscious of the fact that the invented character of Borges had overtaken him even during his own lifetime: "I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all.)" Having reinvented himself once, he would turn around and fictionalize his own fictionalization—exactly the type of labyrinth he strove to appreciate in life and create in literature.

Andrew Weiner is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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