Empty eyeballs knew
That knowledge increases unreality, that
Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the Show
—W. B. Yeats
Although he has been writing poems, stories, and critical essays of the highest quality since 1923, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is still much better known in Latin America than in the U. S. For the translator of John Peale Bishop. Hart Crane. E. E. Cummings. William Faulkner, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Penn Warren, and Wallace Stevens, this neglect is somewhat unfair. There are signs however, that he is being discovered in this country with some of the same enthusiasm that greeted him in France, where he received major critical attention, and has been very well translated. Several volumes of translations in English have recently appeared, including a fine edition of his most recent book El hacedor (Dreamtigers)1 and a new edition of Labyrinths, which first appeared in 1962. American and English critics have called him one of the greatest writers alive today, but have not as yet (so far as I know) made substantial contributions to the interpreation of his work. There are good reasons for this delay. Borges is a complex writer, particularly difficult to place. Commentators cast around in vain for suitable points of comparison and his own avowed literary admirations add to the confusion. Like Kafka and contemporary French existential writers, he is often seen as a moralist, in rebellion against the times. But such an approach is misleading.
It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infam (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.
A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.
So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.
The stories that make up the bulk of Borges’s literary work are not moral fables or parables like Kafka’s, to which they are often misleadingly compared, even less attempts at psychological analysis. The least inadequate literary analogy would be with the eighteenth-century conte philosophique: their world is the representation, not of an actual experience, but of an intellectual proposition. One does not expect the same kind of psychological insight or the same immediacy of personal experience from Candide as from Madame Bovary, and Borges should be read with expectations closer to those one brings to Voltaire’s tale than to a nineteenth-century novel. He differs, however, from his eighteenth-century antecedents in that the subject of the stories is the creation of style itself; in this Borges is very definitely postromantic and even post-symbolist. His main characters are prototypes for the writer, and his worlds are prototypes for a highly stylized kind of poetry or fiction. For all their variety of tone and setting, the different stories all have a similar point of departure, a similar structure, a similar climax, and a similar outcome; the inner cogency that links these four moments together constitutes Borges’s distinctive style, as well as his comment upon this style. His stories are about the style in which they are written.
At their center, as I have said, always stands an act of infamy. The first story in Labyrinths, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” describes the totally imaginary world of a fictitious planet; this world is first glimpsed in an encyclopedia which is itself a delinquent reprint of the Britannica. In “The Shape of the Sword,” an ignominious Irishman who, as it turns out, betrayed the man who saved his life, passes himself off for his own victim in order to tell his story in a more interesting way. In “The Garden of the Forking Paths” the hero is a Chinese who, during World War I, spies on the British mostly for the satisfaction of refined labyrinthine dissimulation. All these crimes are misdeeds like plagiarism, impersonation, espionage, in which someone pretends to be what he is not, substitutes a misleading appearance for his actual being. One of the best of his early stories describes the exploits of the religious impostor Hakim, who hides his face behind a mask of gold. Here the symbolic function of the villainous acts stands out very clearly: Hakim was at first a dyer, that is, someone who presents in bright and beautiful colors what was originally drab and gray. In this, he resembles the artist who confers irresistably attractive qualities upon something that does not necessarily possess them.
The creation of beauty thus begins as an act of duplicity. The writer engenders another self that is his mirror-like reversal. In this anti-self, the virtues and the vices of the original are curiously distorted and reversed. Borges describes the process poignantly in a later text called “Borges and I” (it appears in Labyrinths and also, in a somewhat better translation, in Dreamtigers). Although he is aware of the other Borges’s “perverse habit of falsifying and exaggerating,” he yields more and more to this poetic mask “who shares [his] preferences, but in a vain, way that converts them into the attributes of an actor.” This act, by which a man loses himself in the image he has created, is to Borges inseparable from poetic greatness. Cervantes achieved it when he invented and became Don Quixote; Valéry achieved it when he conceived and became Monsieur Teste. The duplicity of the artist, the grandeur as well as the misery of his calling, is a recurrent them closely linked with the theme of infamy. Perhaps its fullest treatment appears in the story “Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quixote” in Labyrinths. The work and life of an imaginary writer is described by a devoted biographer. As the story unfolds, some of the details begin to have a familiar ring: even the phony, mercantile, snobbish Mediterranean atmosphere seems to recall to us an actual person, and when we are told that Ménard published an early sonnet in a magazine called La conque, a reader of Valéry will identify the model without fail. (Several of Valéry’s early poems in fact appeared in La conque, which was edited by Pierre Louys, though at a somewhat earlier date than the one given by Borges for Ménard’s first publication.) When, a little later, we find out that Ménard is the author of an invective against Paul Valéry, as well as the perpetrator of the shocking stylistic crime of transposing “Le cimetière marin” into alexandrines (Valéry has always insisted that the very essence of this famous poem resides in the decasyllabic meter), we can no longer doubt that we are dealing with Valéry’s anti-self, in other words, Monsieur Teste. Things get a lot more complicated a few paragraphs later, when Ménard embarks on the curious project of re-inventing Don Quixote word for word, and by the time Borges treats us to a “close reading” of two identical passages from Don Quixote, one written by Cervantes, the other by Pierre Ménard (who is also Monsieur Teste, who is also Valéry) such a complex set of ironies, parodies, reflections, and issues are at play that no brief commentary can begin to do them justice.
Poetic invention begins in duplicity, but it does not stop there. For the writer’s particular duplicity (the dyer’s image in “Hakim”) stems from the fact that he presents the invented form as if it possessed the attributes of reality, thus allowing it to be mimetically reproduced, in its turn, in another mirror-image that takes the preceding pseudo-reality for its starting-point. He is prompted “by the blasphemous intention of attributing the divine category of being to some mere [entities]”. Consequently, the duplication grows into a proliferation of successive mirror-images. In “Tlön, Uqbar Orbis Tertius,” for example, the plagiarized encyclopedia is itself falsified by someone who adds an entry on the imaginary region Uqbar, presenting it as if it were part of an imaginary country as his starting point, another falsifier (who, by the way, is a Southern segregationist millionaire) conjures up, with the assistance of a team of shady experts, a complete encyclopedia of a fictional planet called Tlön—a pseudo-reality equal in size to our own real world. This edition will be followed in turn by a revised and even more detailed edition written not in English but in one of the languages of Tlön and entitled Orbis Tertius.
All the stories have a similar mirror-like structure, although the devices vary with diabolical ingenuity. Sometimes, there is only one mirror-effect, as when at the end of “The Shape of the Sword” Vincent Moon reveals his true identity as the villain, not the hero, of his own story. But in most of Borges’s stories, there are several layers of reflection. In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” from Labyrinths we have: (1) an actual historic event—a revolutionary leader betrays his confederates and has to be executed; (2) a fictional story about such an occurrence (though in reversed form)—Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; (3) an actual historic event which copies the fiction: the execution is carried out according to Shakespeare’s plot, to make sure that it will be a good show; (4) the puzzled historian reflecting on the odd alternation of identical fictional and historical events, and deriving a false theory of historical archetypes from them; (5) the smarter historian Borges (or, rather, his duplicitous antiself) reflecting on the credulous historian and reconstructing the true course of events. In other stories from Labyrinths, “The Immortal,” “The Zahir,” or “Death and the Compass,” the complication is pushed so far that it is virtually impossible to describe.
This mirror-like proliferation constitutes, for Borges, an indication of poetic success. The works of literature he most admires contain this element; he is fascinated by such mirror-effects in literature as the Elizabethan play within the play, the character Don Quixote reading Don Quixote, Scheherazade beginning one night to retell verbatim the story of The Thousand and One Nights. For each mirrored image is stylistically superior to the preceding one, as the dyed cloth is more beautiful than the plain, the distorted translation richer than the original, Ménard’s Quixote aesthetically more complex than Cervantes’s. By carrying this process to its limits, the poet can achieve ultimate success—an ordered picture of reality that contains the totality of all things, subtly transformed and enriched by the imaginative process that engendered them. The imaginary world of Tlön is only one example of this poetic achievement; it recurs throughout Borges’s work and constitutes, in fact, the central, climactic image around which each of the stories is organized. It can be the philosophically coherent set of laws that makes up the mental universe of Tlön, or it can be the fantastic world of a man blessed (as well as doomed) with the frightening gift of total recall, a man “who knows by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April 1882” as well as “the stormy mane of a pony, the changing fire and its innumerable ashes” (“Funes the Memorious,” in Labyrinths). It can be vastly expanded, like the infinitely complex labyrinth that is also an endless book in “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” or highly compressed, like a certain spot in a certain house from which one can observe the entire universe (“The Aleph”), or a single coin which, however insignificant by itself, contains “universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect” (“The Zahir”). All these points or domains of total vision symbolize the entirely successful and deceiving outcome of the poets irrepressible urge for order.
The success of these poetic worlds is expressed by their all-inclusive and ordered wholeness. Their deceitful nature is harder to define, but essential to an understanding of Borges. Mirror images are indeed duplications of reality, but they change the temporal nature of this reality in an insidious fashion, even—one might say especially—when the imitation is altogether successful (as in Ménard’s Quixote). In actual experience, time appears to us as continuous but infinite; this continuity may seem reassuring, since it gives us some feeling of identity, but it is also terrifying, since it drags us irrevocably towards an unknowable future. Our “real” universe is like space: stable but chaotic. If, by an act of the mind comparable to Borges’s will to style, we order this chaos, we may well succeed in achieving an order of sorts, but we dissolve the binding, spatial substance that held our chaotic universe together. Instead of an infinite mass of substance, we have a finite number of isolated events incapable of establishing relations among one another. The inhabitants of Borges’s totally poetic world of Uqbar “do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.” This style in Borges becomes the ordering but dissolving act that transforms the unity of experience into the enumeration of its discontinuous parts. Hence his rejection of style lié and his preference for what grammarians call parataxis, the mere placing of events side by side, without conjunctions; hence also his definition of his own style as baroque, “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities.”2 The style is a mirror, but unlike the mirror of the realists that never lets us forget for a moment its create what it mimics.
Probably because Borges is such a brilliant writer, his mirror-world is also profoundly, though always ironically, sinister. The shades of terror vary from the criminal gusto of the History of Infamy to the darker and shabbier world of the later Ficciones, and in Dreamtigers the violence is even starker and more somber, closer, I suppose, to the atmosphere of Borges’s native Argentina. In the 1935 story, Hakim the impostor proclaimed: “The earth we live on is a mistake, a parody devoid of authority. Mirrors and paternity are abominable things, for they multiply this earth.” This statement keeps recurring throughout the later work, but it becomes much more comprehensible there. Without ceasing to be the main metaphor for style, the mirror acquires deadly powers—a motif that runs throughout Western literature but of which Borges’s version is particularly rich and complex. In his early work, the mirror of art represented the intention to keep the flow of time from losing itself forever in the shapeless void of infinity. Like the speculations of philosophers, style is an attempt at immortality. But this attempt is bound to fail. To quote one of Borges’s favorite books, Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydrothapia, Urne-Buriall (1658): “There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things…” This is not, as has been said, because Borges’s God plays the same trick on the poet that the poet plays on reality; God does not turn out to be the arch-villain set to deceive man into an illusion of eternity. The poetic impulse in all its perverse duplicity, belongs to man alone, marks him as essentially human. But God appears on the scene as the power of reality itself, in the form of a death that demonstrates the failure of poetry. This is the deeper reason for the violence that pervades all Borges’s stories. God is on the side of chaotic reality and style is powerless to conquer him. His appearance is like the hideous face of Hakin when he loses the shining mask he has been wearing and reveals a face worn away by leprosy. The proliferation of mirrors is all the more terrifying because each new image brings us a step closer to this face.
As Borges grows older and his eyesight gets steadily weaker, this final confrontation throws its darkening shadow over his entire work, without however extinguishing the lucidity of his language. For although the last reflection may be the face of God himself, with his appearance the life of poetry comes to an end. The situation is very similar to that of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man, with the difference that Borges refuses to give up his poetic predicament for a leap into faith. This confers a somber glory on the pages of Dreamtigers, so different from the shining brilliance of the stories in Labyrinths. To understand the full complexity of this later mood, one must have followed Borges’s enterprise from the start and see it as the unfolding of a poetic destiny. This would not only require the translation into English of Borges’s earlier work, but also serious critical studies worthy of this great writer.
Other translations, aside from stories in anthologies or reviews, are to be found in Ficciones, edited by Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1960). Bibliographical indications on the work of Borges, including mention of some critical studies, can be found in the New Directions volume Labyrinths. A much more extensive bibliography has just appeared in Paris, in the latest issue of L’herne, which is entirely devoted to Borges (Paris: Lettres modernes). ↩
Prologue to the 1954 edition of Universal History of Infamy. ↩