The Book of Imaginary Beings
Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges
The Narrow Act: Borges' Art of Allusion
Among Paul Valéry’s jottings, André Maurois observes the following: “Idea for a frightening story: it is discovered that the only remedy for cancer is living human flesh. Consequences.”
One humid Sunday afternoon during the summer of 1969, in a slither of magazines on a library table, I light like a weary fly upon this, reported by Pierre Schneider: “One of Jean-Paul Riopelle’s stories is about a village librarian who was too poor to buy new books; to complete his library he would, whenever he came across a favorable review in a learned journal, write the book himself, on the basis of its title.”
Both of these stories are by Borges; we recognize the author at once; and their conjunction here is by Borges, too: a diverse collection of names and sources, crossing like ignorant roads: Valéry, Maurois, Riopelle, Schneider—who could have foreseen this meeting of names in The New York Review?
Shaken out of sleep on a swift train at night we may unblind our compartment window to discover a dim sign making some strange allegation; and you, reader, may unfist this paper any moment and pick up a book on raising herbs instead, a travel folder, letter from a lover, novel by Colette; the eye, mind, memory which encounters them as vague about the distance traversed as any passenger, and hardly startled any more by the abrupt change in climate or terrain you’ve undergone.
How calm we are about it; we pass from a kiss to a verb and never tremble; and having performed that bound, we frolic or we moon among our symbols, those we’ve assigned to Henry Adams or those we say are by Heraclitus, as if there were nothing to it. Like the hours we spent mastering speech, we forget everything; nor do our logicians, our philosophers of language, though they may coax us like cats to their fish, very often restore what we once might have had—a sense of wonder at the mental country we inhabit, lost till we wander lost into Borges, a man born as if between syllables in Argentina where even he for many years believed he had been raised in a suburb of Buenos Aires, a suburb of adventurous streets and visible sunsets, when what was certain was that he was raised in a garden, behind a wrought-iron gate, and in a limitless library of English books.1
Just as Carriego, from the moment he recognized himself as a poet, became the author of verses which only later he was permitted to invent, Borges thought of himself as a writer before he ever composed a volume. A near-sighted child, he lived where he could see—in books and illustrations (Borges says “short-sighted,” which will not do); he read English authors, read and read; in clumsy English wrote about the Golden Fleece and Hercules (and inevitably, the Labyrinth), publishing, by nine, a translation of The Happy Prince which a local teacher adopted as a text under the impression it was the father’s doing, not the son’s. In Switzerland, where his family settled for a time, he completed his secondary education, becoming more and more multi-tongued (acquiring German), yet seeing no better, reading on.
He then traveled extensively in Spain, as if to meet other authors, further books, to enlarge the literary landscape he was already living in—deepening, one imagines daily, his acquaintance with the conceptual country he would eventually devote his life to. Back in Argentina, he issued his first book of poems. He was twenty. They sang of Buenos Aires and its streets, but the few lines Christ quotes give the future away:
Perhaps that unique hour
increased the prestige of the street,
giving it privileges of tenderness,
making it as real as legend or verse.
Thus he was very soon to pass, as he says himself, from “the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity” which finally made him famous—made him that imaginary being, the Borges of his books.
Becoming Borges, Borges becomes a librarian, first a minor municipal one like our poor French village author, and then later, with the fall of Peron, after having been removed for political reasons from that lesser post, the director of the National Library itself.
Idea for a frightening story: the books written by the unknown provincial librarian ultimately replace their originals, which are declared to be frauds. Consequences.
Inside the library, inside the books, within their words: the world. Even if we feel it no longer, we can remember from our childhood the intenser reality which opened toward us when like a casket lid a cover rose and we were kings on clipper ships, cabin boys on camel back, Columbuses crossing swimming holes to sack the Alps and set free Lilliput, her golden hair climbing like a knight up the wall of some crimson battle tent…things, men, and moments more than merely lived but added to ourselves like the flesh of a fruit. In Borges’s case, for instance, these included the lamp of Aladdin, the traitor invented by H. G. Wells who abandoned his friend to the moonmen, and a scene which I shall never forget either, Blind Pew tapping toward the horses which will run him down. Señor Borges confides to Burgin’s tape that
…I think of reading a book as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love. I think that reading Berkeley or Shaw or Emerson, those are quite as real experiences to me as seeing London…. Many people are apt to think of real life on the one side, that means toothache, headache, traveling and so on, and then on the other side, you have imaginary life and fancy and that means the arts. But I don’t think that distinction holds water. I think that everything is a part of life.
Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance, to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous game-like reasoning; thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkeley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Blöy, the Cabbalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincy, Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce and so on, about whom, indeed, in these Conversations, he passes a few mildly unflattering remarks.2
Yet in the country of the word, Borges is well-traveled, and has some of the habits of a seasoned, if not jaded, journeyer. What? see Mont Saint Michel again? that tourist trap? far better to sip a local wine in a small café, watch a vineyard comb its hillside. There are a thousand overlooked delights in every language, similarities and parallels to be remarked, and even the mightiest monuments have their neglected beauties, their unexplored crannies; then, too, it has been frequently observed that our childhood haunts, though possibly less spectacular, less perfect, than other, better advertised, places, can be the source of a fuller pleasure for us because our familiarity with them is deep and early and complete, because the place is ours; while for other regions we simply have a strange affinity—they do not threaten, like Dante or the Alps, to overwhelm us—and we somehow find our interests, our designs, reflected in them. Or is it we wh function as the silvered glass? Idea for a frightening story.
Thus, reading Borges, we must think of literature as a landscape, present all at once like space, and we must remember that literary events, unlike ordinary ones—drinking our coffee or shooting our chancellor—repeat themselves, although with variations, in every mind the text fills. Books don’t plop into time like stones in a pond, rippling the surface for a while with steadily diminishing waves. There is only one Paris, we suppose, and one Flaubert, one Madame Bovary, but the novel has more than a million occurrences, often in different languages too. Flaubert may have ridden a whore with his hat on, as has been reported, but such high jinks soon spend their effects (so, comparatively, does the murder of any Caesar, although its initial capital is greater), whereas one sentence, divinely composed, goes on and on like the Biblical proverbs, the couplets of Pope, or the witticisms of Wilde.
We may indeed suspect that the real power of historical events lies in their descriptions; only by virtue of their passage into language can they continue to occur, and once recorded (even if no more than as gossip), they become peculiarly atemporal, residing in that shelved-up present which passes for time in a library, and subject to a special kind of choice, since I can choose now to read about the war on the Peloponnesus or the invasion of Normandy; change my climate more easily than my clothes; rearrange the map; while on one day I may have traveled through Johnson to reach Goldsmith, they are not villages, and can be easily switched, so that on the next I may arrive directly from De Quincy, Goethe, or Thomas Aquinas. New locations are constantly being created, like new islands rising from the sea, yet when I land, I find them never so new as all that, and having appeared, it is as if they had always been.
It is a suggestion, I think, of Schopenhauer3 (to whom Borges turns as often as he does to Bishop Berkeley), that what we remember of our own past depends very largely on what of it we’ve put our tongue to telling and retelling. It’s our words, roughly, we remember; oblivion claims the rest—forgetfulness. Historians make more history than the men they write about, and because we render our experience in universals, experience becomes repetitious (for if events do not repeat, accounts do), and time doubles back in confusion like a hound which has lost the scent.
Troy, many times, was buried in its own body, one city standing on the shoulders of another, and students of linguistic geography have observed a similar phenomenon. Not only are there many accounts, both factual and fictional, of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (so that the event becomes multiplied in the libraries), there are, of course, commentaries and critiques of these, and then again examinations of those, which lead, in turn, to reflections upon them, and so on, until it sometimes happens that the originals are quite buried, overcome (idea for a frightening story), and though there may be a definite logical distance between each level, there is no other; they sit side by side on our shelves. We may read the critics first, or exclusively; and is it not, in fact, true that our knowledge of most books is at least second hand, as our knowledge of nearly everything else is?
Borges knows of the treacheries of our histories (treachery is one of his principal subjects4 )—they are filled with toothache—and in his little essay called “The Modesty of History” suggests that most of its really vital dates are secret—for instance, the introduction, by Aeschylus, of the second actor.5 Still, this is but one more example of how, by practicing a resolute forgetfulness, we select, we construct, we compose our pasts, and hence make fictional characters of ourselves, as it seems we must to remain sane (Funes the Memorious remembers everything, while the Borges who receives a zahir in his drink change following a funeral one day finds the scarred coin literally unforgettable—both suffer).
It isn’t always easy to distinguish ficciones from inquisiciones, even for Borges (of the famous Pierre Menard, he says: “…it’s not wholly a story…it’s a kind of essay…”), though the latter are perhaps more unfeignedly interrogations. It is his habit to infect these brief, playful, devious, solemn, outré notes which, like his fictions, are often accounts of treacheries of one sort or other, with small treacheries of his own, treasons against language and its logic, betrayals of all those distinctions between fact and fancy, real life and dreaming, memory and imagination, myth and history, word and thing, fiction and essay, which we’re so fond of, and find so necessary, even though keeping them straight is a perpetual difficulty.
If, as Wittgenstein thought, “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” then Borges’s prose, at least, performs a precisely similar function, for there is scarcely a story which is not built upon a sophistry, a sophistry so fanatically embraced, so pedantically developed, so soberly defended, it becomes the principal truth in the world his parables create (puzzles, paradoxes, equivocations, and obscure and idle symmetries which appear as menacing laws); and we are compelled to wonder again whether we are awake or asleep, whether we are a dreamer or ourselves a dream, whether art imitates nature or nature mirrors art instead; once more we are required to consider whether things exist only while they are being perceived, whether change can occur, whether time is linear and straight or manifold and curved, whether history repeats, whether space is a place of simple locations, whether words aren’t more real than their referents—whether letters and syllables aren’t magical and full of cabbalistic contents—whether it is universals or particulars which fundamentally exist, whether destiny isn’t in the driver’s seat, what the determinate, orderly consequences of pure chance come to, whether we are the serious playthings of the gods or the amusing commercial enterprises of the devil.
It is not the subject of these compulsions, however, but the manner in which they are produced, that matters, and makes Borges an ally of Wittgenstein. It is not hard to feel that Borges’s creatures are mostly mad. This is, in many ways, a comforting conclusion. The causes, on the other hand, remain disturbing; they resemble far too literally those worlds theologians and metaphysicians has already made for us and in which we have so often found ourselves netted and wriggling. When Schopenhauer argues that the body in all its aspects is a manifestation of the will, he is composing poetry; he is giving us an idea for a frightening story, one which derives its plausibility from facts we are quite unpoetically aware of (teeth are for biting), but the suggestion that the will grew its body as a man might make some tool to do his bidding is a fiction which, if we responded to the cry for consequences implicit in it, would advertise its absurdity with the mad metaphysical fantasy which would grow from its trunk like a second head.
Thus the effect of Borges’s work is suspicion and skepticism. Clarity, scholarship, and reason: they are all here, yet each is employed to enlarge upon a muddle without disturbing it, to canonize a confusion. Ideas become plots (how beautifully ambiguous, for Borges, that word is), whereupon those knotty tangles the philosopher has been so patiently picking at can be happily reseen as triumphs of esthetic design.6
In the right sun suspicion can fall far enough to shadow every ideology; the political schemes of men can seem no more than myths through which they move like imaginary creatures, like fabulous animals in landscapes of pure wish; the metaphors upon which they ride toward utopia now are seldom seen (such is the price one pays for an ignorance of history) to be the same over-fat or scrawny nags the old political romancers, puffing, rode at windmills in their time, and always futilely. “The illusions of patriotism are limitless.” Hitler tried to turn the world into a book; he suffered from unreality, Borges claims, and collaborated in his own destruction. Under the right sun one may observe little that is novel. The world of words spins merrily around, the same painted horses rising and falling to the same tunes, and our guide delights in pointing out each reappearance. We have seen this before: in Persepolis, and also in Peking…in Pascal, in Plato, in Parmenides. The tone, throughout, is that of a skeptical conservative (this shows up very clearly, too, in his conversations with Burgin). Least government is best, and all are bad. They rest on myth. “Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors.” And we have had them all already, had them all.
As a young poet Borges pledged himself to Ultraism, a Spanish literary movement resembling Imagism in many ways, whose principles he carried back to Argentina in his luggage. It demanded condensation, the suppression of ornament, modifiers, all terms of transition; it opposed exhortation and vagueness—flourish; it praised impersonality, and regarded poetry as made of metaphors in close, suggestive, combinations. It was primarily a poetry of mention as Borges’s prose is now, and Christ has no difficulty in showing how these early slogans, like the literary enthusiasms of his childhood, continue to affect the later work. Any metaphor which is taken with literal seriousness requires us to imagine a world in which it can be true; it contains or suggests a metaphorical principle that in turn gives form to a fable. And when the whole is an image, local images can be removed.
Borges makes much of the independence of the new worlds implied by his fiction; they are “contiguous realities”; the poet annexes new provinces to Being; but they remain mirror worlds for all that; it is our own world, misthought, reflected there. And soon we find in Wittgenstein, himself, this ancient idea for a frightening story: “Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world.”
Mirrors are abominable. A photographer points her camera at Borges like a revolver. In his childhood he feared mirrors—mahogany—being repeated…and thus becoming increasingly imaginary? In the beautiful bestiary (The Book of Imaginary Beings) which has just been translated for us, it is suggested that one day the imprisoned creatures in our looking-glasses will cease to imitate us; fish will stir in the panes as though in clear water; and “we will hear from the depths of mirrors the clatter of weapons.” How many times, already, have we been overcome by imaginary beings?
This bouquet which Borges has gathered in his travels for us consists largely of rather harmless animals from stories, myths, and legends, alphabetically arranged here in the texts which first reported them or in descriptions charmingly rebuilt by Borges. Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing. There are the jumbles, created by collage: centaurs, griffons, hydras, and so on; the mathematicals, fashioned by multiplication or division: one-eyed, half-mouthed monsters or those who are many-headed, sixteen-toed, and triple-tongued; there are those of inflated or deflated size: elves, dwarfs, brownies, leviathans and fastitocalon; and finally those who have no special shape of their own—the proteans—and who counterfeit the forms of others. A few, more interesting, are made of metal, and one, my favorite, the A Bao A Qu, is almost wholly metaphysical, and very Borges.
There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play. They are objects now of curiosity or amusement, and even the prospect of one’s being alive and abroad, like the Loch Ness serpent or abominable snowman (neither of whom is registered here), does not deeply stir us. Borges’s invented library of Babel is a far more compelling monster, with its mirrored hallways and hexagonal galleries, its closets where one may sleep standing up, its soaring and spiral stairways. Even those lady-faced vultures, the harpies, cannot frighten us, and hippogriffs are tame. It is that library we live in; it is that library we dream; our confusions alter not the parts of animals any more, they lead on our understanding toward a culmination in illusion like a slut.
And which is Borges, which his double? which is the photograph? the face perverted by a mirror? image in the polish of a writing table? There is the Borges who compiles A Personal Anthology,7 and says he wishes to be remembered by it, and there is the Borges who admits to Burgin that he did not put all of his best things in it; there is the Borges who plays with the notion that all our works are products of the same universal Will so that one author impersonally authors everything (thus the labors of that provincial librarian are not vain), and the Borges whose particular mark is both idiosyncratic and indelible. The political skeptic and the fierce opponent of Peron: are they one man? Can the author of The Aleph admire Chesterton? Wells? Croce? Kipling? And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed? Perhaps he is, as Borges wrote so wonderfully of Valéry,
A man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, or even define, his all-embracing possibilities. A man who, in a century that adores the chaotic idols of blood, earth, and passion, always preferred the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.
Yet can this be a figure that same age salutes? Consequences.
Or so he asserts in the prologue to Evaristo Carriego, according to Christ, although errors are constantly creeping in—his, Christ’s, mine—errors, modifications, corruptions, which, nevertheless, may take us nearer the truth. In his little note on Carriego, does he not warn us that Carriego is a creation of Carriego? and in the parable, “Borges and I,” does he not say, “I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things”? does he not award all the mischievous translations of A Thousand and One Nights higher marks than the pure and exact one of Enna Littmann? and in his conversations with Richard Burgin does he not represent memory as a stack of coins, each coin a recollection of the one below it, and in each repetition a tiny distortion? Still we can imagine, over time, the distortions correcting themselves, and returning to the truth through a circle like a stroller and his dog. ↩
I am of course not suggesting that Borges regards Wells, say, as a better writer than Joyce, or that he pays no heed or tribute to major figures. Christ’s treatment of this problem is fair and thorough. He tells us, incidentally, that in an introductory course on English literature, Borges’s own interests led him to stress the importance of William Morris. Though Borges himself appears in most ways a modest man, such preferences are nevertheless personal and somewhat vain. Just as Borges becomes important by becoming Borges, Morris becomes important by becoming Borges too. “An author may suffer from absurd prejudices,” he tells us in his fine and suggestive lecture on Hawthorne, “but it will be impossible for his work to be absurd if it is genuine, if it responds to a genuine vision.” As for Spencer, it might be worth noting that this philosopher tended to think of art as a form of play. ↩
Borges’s good friend and collaborator, Bioy Casares, once attributed to a heresiarch of Uqbar the remark that both mirrors and copulation were abominable because they increased the number of men. Borges momentarily wondered, then, whether this undocumented country and its anonymous heresiarch weren’t a fiction devised by Bioy’s modesty to justify a statement, and perhaps it’s the same here. It should be perfectly clear, in any case, that Schopenhauer has read Borges and reflects him, just as Borges reflects both Bioy and Borges, since the remark about mirrors and copulation appears more than once. ↩
He published his Universal History of Infamy in 1935, a work which is very carefully not a universal history of infamy. See Paul de Man, “A Modern Master,” New York Review, November 19, 1964. ↩
Professor Celerent has complained bitterly that there is scarcely a history of Western Europe which troubles itself to mention Aristotle’s invention of the syllogism—one of that continent’s most formative events. “Suppose,” he says, “that small matter had been put off, as it was in India, to the 16th century?” ↩
Borges has made this point repeatedly himself (in the Epilogue to Other Inquisitions, for example); yet his commentators persist in trying to pin on him beliefs which, for Borges, are merely materials. They want him more imaginary than he already is. Perhaps this accounts for the statement, written we can imagine with a smile, which Borges includes in each of the little prefaces he has written to imprimatur the books about him: in Barrenechea, in Burgin (he ”has helped me to know myself”), in Christ (“Some unsuspected things, many secret links and affinities, have been revealed to me by this book”), though he does not refrain, in the latter instance, from adding: “ I have no message. I am neither a thinker nor a moralist, but simply a man of letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of literature.” ↩
A Personal Anthology edited by Anthony Kerrigan, Grove, $1.95 (paper). ↩