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Borges and His Ghosts

Selected Non-Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Eliot Weinberger, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger
Penguin, 560 pp., $17.00 (paper)


Romantic ego-worship and loudmouthed individualism are…wreaking havoc on the arts,” announces the twenty-three-year-old Jorge Luis Borges in the essay that opens Selected Non-Fictions, a remarkable new compendium of his writings, two thirds of which have never been published in English before. “The Nothingness of Personality,” this first piece is called. It was written in 1922. In a bold polemical spirit the young Argentinian declares: “The self does not exist.”

The “non” of “non-fiction” can be a discouraging prefix preparing us for sober instruction rather than the transport of aesthetic pleasure. Not so with Borges. Many of these pieces are as much products of the creative imagination as the better-known “fictions.” What’s more, they help us to understand the fictions better. Fifty-six years after that first essay, for example, old, adored, and blind, Borges found himself lecturing on the subject of immortality. He remarks: “I don’t want to continue being Jorges Luis Borges; I want to be someone else. I hope that my death will be total; I hope to die in body and soul.”

In the earlier statement, we notice, the self doesn’t exist; in the second it is sufficiently real to be a burden, indeed the burden. It will not be difficult, going back and forth from essays to stories, to read all of Borges’s work as driven by the tension generated between these two positions: self as the merest invention, easily dissolved and denied; self as the most disturbing imposition, frightening in its implications, appalling in its tenacity and limitations. All the same, the curious thing in the later statement is the confession “I want to be someone else.” Is that an option? It is something we shall have to come back to.

Born a shy boy in 1899 in the macho atmosphere of Buenos Aires, the young Borges must soon have had occasion to feel different from other people. His parents contrived to exacerbate his self-awareness in all kinds of ways. Half-English, his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, had his children brought up bilingual. Here was distinction. There was an English grandmother, an English nanny, above all a well-stocked English library where Jorge Luis and his younger sister, Norah, did their first reading. Coddled at home until he was nine, Jorge Luis was then plunged, as if in some perverse behavioral experiment, into a tough local school. A bespectacled stammerer, eccentrically dressed in Eton blazer and tie, he had five years here to learn about bullying before the family was obliged to move to Switzerland to find a cure for Jorge Guillermo’s incipient blindness.

Transferred to Geneva, Borges was now the boy who didn’t know French and German. He learned them. His teens were spent reading voraciously in four languages, so that by age twenty he had already discovered most of the writers who would be important to him throughout his long career. The impressive list that all accounts of his life must necessarily repeat (for Borges always displayed his sources) includes, among many others, Berkeley, Hume, William James, Cervantes, Chesterton, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Carlyle, H.G. Wells, Nietzsche, Stevenson, Poe, Whitman (in German), and the author of The Thousand and One Nights.

The Thousand and One Nights was his declared favorite.1 But having read and reread this work of Arab exotica in Burton’s lubricious version, it must have been clear to the young Borges that there was now another thing he didn’t know about, another thing that threatened to set him apart: sex. Certainly his timidity and innocence were evident to the other members of the family. Jorge Guillermo, a compulsive philanderer, ever dependent on and ever betraying his domineering wife, decided that the boy’s education was not complete. Before returning to Argentina Jorge Luis must visit a European brothel. The matter was arranged, but alas, this lesson was not so easily mastered. Wide and adventurous reading would not be matched by wild adventures and women. Unsettled, Jorge Luis settled at home and, unlike Father, remained ever faithful to Leonor, his remarkable mother.

The word “intention” begins the first essay, “The Nothingness of Personality.” The word is given a paragraph all to itself. It is a flourish, a cannon shot. We are about to read a manifesto: the author wants “to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self” and in its place to “erect…an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century.”

The tone is understandable. The 1920s were, after all, the decade of manifestos. Borges had been in Spain; he considered himself an Ultraist,2 a committed man. But it is ironic and an indication of some wit on the editor’s part that this collection of his non-fiction should begin thus. For very soon Borges would appreciate that a successful attack on the cults of selfhood and personality would necessarily have to play down the role of intention, since intention is one of the most obvious and powerful manifestations of the self: “In art nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions,” he will be telling us in a later essay. When speaking of achievement, literary or otherwise, he loves to introduce such formulas as “almost unwittingly” or “without wanting to or suspecting he had done so….” “A great book like the Divina commedia,” he typically concludes one piece, “is not the isolated or random caprice of an individual; many men and many generations built toward it.”

Yet, ironically, the intention so succinctly stated on the opening page of Selected Non-Fictions remains a fair description of Borges’s own achievement in the years to come, an achievement that is anything but unwitting. Intentionally he played down intention. He accomplished what he set out to do. Even the man’s exemplary modesty, everywhere evident in these essays and unfailingly celebrated by those who knew him, was, if we can use the expression, an “engaged” modesty, a pondered modesty, and very much part of a determined and lifelong project of “self”-effacement. Whether or not we choose to see that project as linked to Borges’s feelings of social and sexual inadequacy or the fact that he remained emotionally and economically dependent on his mother right into middle age is irrelevant.


Borges’s career begins when he returns to Argentina in 1921 after seven formative years in Europe. His parents tell him it’s okay for him to stay home and write. He doesn’t need to go to a university, he doesn’t need to find a job. So he reads and writes, makes literary friendships, and courts well-to-do young women who have no intention of marrying him or making love to him. The more they have no intention of loving him, the more he reads and writes. When his father falls ill and eventually dies, Borges is obliged, in his late thirties, to find work. He writes as a columnist for a women’s magazine, appropriately entitled El Hogar (“Home”).3 Eventually he is forced to accept a minor clerical job in an overstaffed suburban library. Most of his nine years there will be spent in the basement reading and writing and trying to avoid his colleagues. Finally, in his early forties, he believes he has met the woman of his life. He walks Estela Canto through the warm Buenos Aires evenings, phoning Mother from call boxes at regular intervals to reassure her he will be home soon. When Estela rejects his offer of marriage, Borges steps up his reading and writing.

So the output is considerable. Each of Viking’s recent compendiums of the three major strands of Borges’s work—poetry, short stories, and essays—runs to just above or below five hundred pages, and of the essays we are told that the new collection contains only 161 out of a possible twelve hundred. At the same time it’s worth noting that only a very few of the pieces in any of the books exceed six or seven pages. The long work was as alien to Borges as work in general was compulsive. A rehearsal of one or two plots from the most celebrated story collections, Fictions and The Aleph, may help us to understand why this was so and what was that “aesthetic hostile to psychologism” that Borges eventually hit upon.

A certain Pierre Menard, author of a miscellany of minor philosophical, critical, and poetical works (his “visible oeuvre“), dedicates the greater part of his life to reproducing Cervantes’s Don Quixote word for word. This he does not by copying, nor by immersing himself in Cervantes’s world, but by coming to the story “through the experiences of Pierre Menard.” “If I could just be immortal, I could do it,” he says. As it is, we are given but one fragmentary example of his success in reproducing the original (though how he himself can know this if he won’t reread Don Quixote for fear of copying it remains a mystery), as follows:

Truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

Our admiring narrator comments that while the words are banal, period rhetoric in the mouth of Cervantes, coming from Menard they are remarkable. “History, the mother of truth!—the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality, but as the very fount of reality.”

The implications of the story are as evident as its unraveling is hilarious. If Menard can reproduce Cervantes then individuality is quite superficial. “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be.” History, far from being “the mother of truth,” is mere clutter. We could all write everything that has been written. And how fascinating if I can now see a snippet of Don Quixote in praise of the military life as being influenced by Pierre Menard’s reading of Friedrich Nietzsche! Too intelligent to waste time arguing a position, Borges dazzles by conflation. The most improbable writers are magically superimposed. Humanity is one. Perhaps. Pierre Menard is a typical example of Borges’s tendency to be ironic about a position he finds congenial.

It is standard orthodoxy to praise Borges for bringing all kinds of innovations to fiction, but in a way it may be easier to think of him as working out the consequences of removing from it all the innovations of the previous six or seven hundred years.4 Along with our modern nominalism and our ingenuous belief in history and individual character, the perplexing notion of personal responsibility will likewise have to go. In “The Lottery in Babylon,” we discover that everything that happens to people, good or bad, is not the result of their psychology or relationships, but rather the immensely complex working out of a state lottery into which each citizen is automatically and periodically entered and which, instead of dealing in money, dispenses happiness, unhappiness, and tedium in every imaginable form. The random nature of their lives allows the Babylonians to enjoy all aspects of experience and become, as it were, everybody. “Like all men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment.” Again the accident of individuality is eliminated, there are no decisions, there is no responsibility, no success, no failure, no self.

  1. 1

    The essay in which Borges compares various translations of The Thousand and One Nights is one of the most intriguing and entertaining in Selected Non-Fictions.

  2. 2

    The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains: “Spanish ultraismo, movement in Spanish and Spanish-American poetry after World War I, characterized by a tendency to use free verse, complicated metrical innovations, and daring imagery and symbolism instead of traditional form and content. Influenced by the emphasis on form of the French Symbolists and Parnassians, a distinguished coterie of avant-garde poets (ultraístas) produced verse that often defied objective analysis and gave the impression of a coldly intellectual experimentation.”

  3. 3

    Selected Non-Fictions includes thirty-nine pieces written for that magazine. They are all of the highest possible quality and wit.

  4. 4

    In the same way a study of the Selected Non-Fictions would profit from a consideration of all those authors Borges chooses to ignore: Jane Austen, the Brontës, Thackeray, George Eliot, Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, in short, the whole realis-tic, psychological, character-based tradition of novel-writing. When he discusses Flaubert, it is Bouvard and Pécuchet that interests him, not Madame Bovary or A Sentimental Education. Discussing Joyce, he never mentions Dubliners.

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