“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.
The same occurs in “The Immortal.” A group of men gain immortality and as a result lose all interest in life, since over an infinite period of time everything must happen to them, good and bad. Any particular action becomes unimportant, no more than “the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.” So there can be “no spiritual or intellectual merits.” Homer has forgotten his Greek. What is the point of remembering anything?
Typically, Borges revels in eliminating what are normally considered the inescapable conditions of our existence, but at the same time he never fails to underline the ludicrous or terrifying consequences. As with any ghost story, “The Immortal” gains its disturbing power from the unspoken message that it is better to be alive and engaged or dead and gone than, as Cioran would put it, to “fall out of time” altogether. Thus the narrator of “The Immortal,” who has sought and gained eternal life, now seeks to return to mortality, and is overjoyed when, some sixteen hundred years later, he succeeds. The pain that promises eventual death now becomes pleasure:
Incredulous, speechless, and in joy, I contemplated the precious formation of a slow drop of blood. I am once more mortal, I told myself over and over, again I am like all other men. That night, I slept until daybreak.
The pattern in “The Aleph” is the same. Overwhelmed by the vision of a place in which all places simultaneously intersect, the narrator urgently needs to forget in order to return to normality. Again and again, the self seeks, or is granted, infinite extension, is terrified, returns to the “ordinary” world.
Ordinariness itself, on the other hand, is not a condition Borges wishes to write about, except by exploring the implications of its opposite. Perhaps this is because the “ordinary” situation he finds himself in is so unattractive. An ugly fascism has conquered Europe. Officially neutral, Argentina is spiritually pro-Nazi. Peronism is rampant. Estela no longer goes out for walks with him. Mother continues to buy his clothes, but Borges doesn’t care for the maid she has hired. The library job is unbearable, but, even more unbearable, in 1946 Borges finds himself fired for having expressed his anti-Peronist views. He has no income. The learnedly facetious detective stories he has written with his close friend Adolfo Bioy Casares are not a solution. They have generated more perplexity than royalties. Forced to take up lecturing to make ends meet, Borges feels he must visit a psychologist, of all people, in an attempt to overcome his chronic shyness. He cannot speak in public. The psychologist, needless to say, has a useful smattering of Freud, a man Borges has charmingly dismissed in a single line of a story entitled “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”5
Taken one by one each of the short stories, at least of Fictions and The Aleph, is striking, dazzling. Nevertheless, to read them all one after another is to grow a little weary. Where the self is not perilously extended by a brush with infinity, we have satires—“The Theologians,” “The Duel”—of people whose individuality is exposed as a vain boast. The first time we hear that two rivals die only to discover they are the same person, we are fascinated. There is great insight here. The second time something of the kind happens, we admire again the brilliance, the extraordinary wit, the admirable range of philosophical reference with which this idea is worked out. The two are scholars of the early Christian world. Or they are Argentine painters, or they are gaucho knife fighters. Then they are gaucho knife fighters again. By the time, in the later stories, we reach the fifth or sixth presentation of two or more central “characters” obliged to recognize a mysterious oneness, we have realized that Borges has effectively eliminated the idea of a diversified community (so useful when it comes to protracted storytelling). There are now only two conditions: the single self here and now and all humanity throughout all time. Of course these two conditions are actually the same: any antagonism is canceled out in the oneness of all human experience.
Putting it another way, we might say that Borges reaches out to a transcendental oneness, the community of all men, but finds himself constantly returned to Borges. There is nothing, or nothing we would wish to contemplate, in the middle: no interpersonal dynamic, no psychological back and forth, never any account of the passage from infancy to adulthood through the crucible of the family and the wider society in a given historical moment. But gradually Borges begins to tire of establishing the elaborate and multiform disguises behind which oneness lurks. There are so many hats a rabbit can be pulled from. Or rather: we begin to see the rabbit before Borges pulls it out. We even begin to wish he would leave it in there. And in fact this is what he eventually starts doing in the supposedly more realistic stories of the collection Brodie’s Report. But we see that rabbit all the same.
“That crowded day,” Borges writes in a piece entitled “A Comment on August 23, 1944,” “gave me three distinct surprises: the physical degree of joy I felt when they told me that Paris had been liberated; the discovery that a collective emotion can be noble; the puzzling and flagrant enthusiasm of many who were supporters of Hitler.” This is Borges writing inside history. He has not chosen the subject matter, it is forced upon him; he is obliged to recognize surprises. In particular, finding himself at one with public enthusiasm must have come as a big surprise for Borges. Immediately his brilliant mind sets to work to understand, to place this experience, and particularly the inexplicable happiness of these Nazi sympathizers, within the reference points of his considerable erudition. Needless to say, he has no intention of talking to the sympathizers. They are incoherent, they enjoy only a low level of consciousness, any “uncertainty was preferable to the uncertainty of a dialogue with these siblings of chaos.” For Borges, the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic are inseparable.
After some reflection, the first conclusion he reaches is that these people are merely succumbing to the reality of what has happened, somewhat dazzled in the meanwhile by the power of the symbols “Paris” and “liberation.” But such a banal explanation cannot long satisfy a man like Borges, for whom it is always important that an explanation be both profound and beautiful. Happily, some nights later, he recalls that in Shaw’s Man and Superman a character has a dream “where he affirms that the horror of Hell is its unreality.” Borges then has no difficulty relating this idea to the doctrine, a thousand and more years before, of “John Scotus Erigena, who denied the substantive existence of sin and evil.”
The writer then compares these textual references to his memory of the day Paris was occupied. A Germanophile had come to give Borges the news, announcing in stentorian tones the imminent fall of London and the pointlessness of any opposition. Behind the apparent enthusiasm, Borges had sensed, with great psychological acumen, that the Nazi sympathizer was himself terrified by the completeness of Hitler’s victory. Nazism, he concludes, like Erigena’s hell (or indeed, if it comes to that, the worlds of “The Immortal” and of “The Lottery of Babylon”), “suffers from unreality.” One can die for it and lie for it, but in the end it is “uninhabitable,” one cannot actually want it. “Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.”
In just a page and a half, then, Borges has brought a historical experience, private and public, into line with his reading and with his tendency to see antagonists as obeying a larger and ahistorical design beyond their immediate intentions. Most of all, he has redeemed reality, however unpromising his own personal situation in Argentina may have been at the time. Whether we agree with what he says or not (something largely irrelevant when reading Borges), we find ourselves with a feast of ideas to consider and, above all, the example of how a remarkable mind comes to grips with the world by constantly shuttling back and forth between personal experience and the ideas of others.
Borges is a great orchestrator. There is his name on the front cover of the essay collection and then, in the index at the back, the three hundred or so names of his close collaborators, the authors he constantly quotes and examines and uses to examine others. There are sixteen entries for Walt Whitman, thirty-eight for Schopenhauer, twenty-eight for De Quincey. This is the community Borges moves in, the orchestra he conducts and seeks at once to lose himself in and to make his own. “The history of literature”—this remark from Paul Valéry appears on more than one occasion—“should not be the history of authors and the course of their careers or of the career of their works, but rather the history of the Spirit as the producer or consumer of literature.”
Borges’s essays attempt to invoke that spirit by bringing the most disparate voices together. And what better way to start than by showing that every quotation can be corroborated by another? He follows Valéry with this remark from Emerson:
I am very much struck in literature by the appearance that one person wrote all the books… there is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman.
How wonderful the word “gentleman” is there. Perhaps this “one person” is the “someone else” Borges claimed he wanted to be.
Over the sixty-four years of the writing covered in Selected Non-Fictions Borges comes at a huge range of subjects—the tango, suicide, the apocryphal Gospels, Argentinian literature, translation, the parodoxes of Zeno, German literature in the age of Bach—plus dozens of biographical sketches of the most disparate figures, and he never tires, never sinks into mannerism. Again and again he takes on a new subject, marshals his reading, his faithful friends of old, gives us fresh ways of seeing things, suggests lucid, often conflicting, frequently bizarre ways of understanding the world.
The combination of abundance and consistency is astonishing. And though the yearnings are invariably the same—the desire to annihilate time, to approach a transcendental perception of life, to grasp an ungraspable truth—Borges never stoops to wishful thinking. Here he is speaking of Emerson’s monism and assuming a position which seems an implicit criticism of much of his own endeavor:
Our destiny is tragic because we are, irreparably, individuals, restricted by time and by space; there is nothing, consequently, more favorable than a faith that eliminates circumstances and declares that every man is all men and that there is no one who is not the universe. Those who profess such a doctrine are generally unfortunate or mediocre, avid to annul themselves in the cosmos….
Is this the ironic triumph of self-effacement? Or is it that Borges feels he comes closest to that “all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman” when able to hold two conflicting views, if not simultaneously, then almost? Here he is only two years after writing the Emerson piece, leaning quite the other way over the question of Argentine provincialism, its tendency to believe the country is cut off from European tradition and must thus establish its own separate world:
This opinion strikes me as unfounded. I understand why many people accept it: such a declaration of our solitude, our perdition, and our primitive character has, like existentialism, the charms of poignancy. Many people may accept this opinion because, having done so, they will feel themselves to be alone, disconsolate, and in some way, interesting.
I am trying to suggest that while much of the work in the five hundred–plus pages of Collected Fictions actually detracts from the marvelous achievement of the best of his stories, the opposite is true of the essays. Here accretion is quintessential as we watch Borges twisting and turning to deal with new contingencies, to write for different kinds of publications, to accommodate contradictory intuitions, to strike an impossible balance, to align a film he has seen, a book he has read, a historical figure, a political event, to an essential core of reading and its related force field of ideas. Taken as a whole, Selected Non-Fictions is the more interesting, more seductive book. Joyce, he writes, is the century’s great genius, but both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, as expressing the exasperations of a highly personal style, are “unreadable.” “Psychologism” is anathema, but we have an entirely convincing psychological reading of the Divina Commedia that prompts Borges to put forward the provocation that the whole work was undertaken to allow Dante to stage an imagined encounter with the dead woman who had rejected him. All literature is the work of the same spirit, but on rereading Shakespeare and his contemporaries Borges has no difficulty in dealing with that most celebrated of authorship arguments: only Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare. Pierre Menard take heed.
It is this willingness to grapple with things, his seeking, for example, to be outside Argentine politics but then finding himself involved in a visceral antagonism with Peron, that makes the essays so engaging. As if, at last, and precisely because they were not written to be collected, we have the sustained, fascinating, chronological narrative that Borges never wrote, the tale of his own self constantly seeking to shake off that self. Indeed it occurs to me now that perhaps I was wrong at the beginning of this essay to imagine that Borges achieved his intended goal; perhaps he is right to go on claiming (in his sixties now) that “the true essence of a writer’s work is usually unknown by that writer.” For as piece after piece in the collection brings together dozens of quotations from all ages to suggest the oneness of human experience, so we grow ever more aware of a deep divide that separates Borges, and indeed us, from most of those he cites.
The phenomenon is most evident in a strand that runs throughout the book and is, one suspects, the author’s favorite. It involves the rapid consideration of this or that metaphysical view of the world. So we have “A Defense of Basilides the False,” who, in the second century AD, believed human beings to be the deficient improvisation of a lesser God. Borges justifies the idea thus: “What better gift can we hope for than to be insignificant? What greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?”
Or Borges considers J.W. Dunne’s bizarre book Nothing Dies, published in 1940, which claims that we already possess eternity since the future is preexistent. Our dreams are proof of this. In death “we shall recover all the moments of our lives and combine them as we please. God and our friends and Shakespeare will collaborate with us.” In a complex discussion Borges dismisses Dunne’s reasoning, but concludes: “So splendid a thesis, makes any fallacy committed by the author insignificant.”
In short, and this occurs again and again, he gives us an aesthetic appreciation of a metaphysical position, or a whole philosophy, without regard to, but never unaware of, its probable truth or falseness. So angels are attractive (“I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot…with their backs to the sunset”) while the Trinity is “an intellectual horror, a strangled, specious infinity like facing mirrors.”
Borges is prodigiously generous with these appreciations. The doctrine, from Pythagoras to Nietzsche, of repeating cycles of existence is shown to be ugly. Yet the theory of the nineteenth-century naturalist Phillip Henry Gosse (father of Edmund) that at the moment of creation God made not only an infinite future but an infinite past too, which explains why although the world begins with Adam he could nevertheless have come across the fossils of animals that had never been, is very beautiful.6 What separates Borges from Gosse, of course, and indeed almost all the other writers he quotes, is that for Gosse what mattered was whether his theory was true or not. These people were fundamentalists, or at least believers, always earnest scholars. Borges is not only incapable of fundamentalism and traditional religious belief but even incapable of attacking it per se. He is as far removed from scholasticism as it is possible to be. In this he declares his modernity. Butterfly-like, he sucks nectar here and there, and finds it to be largely the same nectar. It is difficult to imagine such an attitude being struck before Nietzsche.7
Meantime many beautiful and ugly things were happening in the writer’s life. Having survived the first period of Peronism, he was, to his astonishment, made director of the Argentine National Library by the generals who ousted the dictator. It was 1955. Borges had often thought of paradise as a library. But exactly as the pearly gates were opened to him, his declining sight, the consequence of a congenital condition, finally gave out. “No one,” he wrote in Poem of Gifts, “should read self-pity or reproach/into this statement of the majesty/of God, who with such splendid irony/granted me books and blindness at one touch.”
Blindness and its attendant dependency, writes Borges’s bland biographer, James Woodall, were “not a problem for Leonor.” Mother accompanied the writer on his now frequent lecture tours. Mother walked the streets with him, to hear his rehearsal of performances that shyness still made a torture. But oddly, now that he couldn’t see them, being with women was rather easier. Often very young women. They were invited to intimate seminars in pleasant cafés to learn Old English with him. Evidently the writer’s imagination hadn’t deserted him. They collaborated on anthologies and textbooks. Did Borges consider them his intellectual equals? With its scores of literary biographies and book reviews, only a page and a half of Collected Non-Fictions is dedicated to a woman: Virginia Woolf, a writer whose transcendental yearnings are very close to Borges’s own. He had translated Orlando in 1936.
Famous now, finally secure economically, Borges was seized by a longing for the domestic happiness that had always eluded him. In 1967 he married an old friend, a widow with whom he had lost touch for twenty years. How long was it before he appreciated that this was not the beautiful thing he had wanted? The energetic and ambitious Norman Di Giovanni, Borges’s translator and uncomfortably close collaborator over the next few years, claimed that the writer was already unhappy when he, Di Giovanni, first met him only months after his marriage. Insensitive statements of the variety of “he had a lousy marriage—and I was getting divorced from my first wife” give us a measure of the distance between Di Giovanni and Borges.
Still, it is truly difficult to leave somebody in a beautiful and gentlemanlike fashion. Three years after their wedding, the unsuspecting Elsa Borges went to the door to find not her husband back for lunch, as he had promised, but a lawyer and a group of men from a removals company with instructions to take away his books. The Thousand and One Nights was going back to Mum. “A New Refutation of Time,” the essay in which Borges most energetically sets out to deny the reality of substance and time, ends with a brutal, indeed breathtaking volte-face: “The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.” Here is drama.
But what does Borges ultimately understand by the aesthetic? What makes something beautiful? An essay entitled “The Wall and the Books” begins: “I read, a few days ago, that the man who ordered the building of the almost infinite Chinese Wall was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed the burning of all the books that had been written before his time.” Borges ponders the relation between these two extraordinary gestures of construction and destruction; are they complementary, or do they cancel each other out? After much ingenious hypothesizing, he is obliged to concede that the enigma remains intact. But this is never a problem for Borges, who also enjoys “those things that can enrich ignorance.” He concludes:
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn’t have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.
The “imminence of revelation.” When do we most frequently sense it? When reading. On three or four occasions in this collection Borges fields the idea that “each time we repeat a line by Dante or Shakespeare, we are, in some way, that instant when Dante or Shakespeare created that line.” Reading is a transmigration of souls, the sacred act by which Borges can become, if only for the period of the reading, somebody else. In its yearning and respect for another’s otherness, and likewise our shared oneness, reading has a profound moral content. It is beautiful and good:
A book is a thing among things… until it meets its reader…. What then occurs is that singular emotion called beauty, that lovely mystery which neither psychology nor criticism can describe….
Beauty is the superimposition of separate minds in the experience of art. It is in this sense that we must understand Borges’s modest boast, often repeated, that he was first and foremost a reader, not a writer. As the most immediate fruit of that reading, bringing together Borges’s consumption and creation of literature in the paradise of his personal library, the essays are his greatest gift to us.
These reflections may help us to understand the relation between Borges’s wonderfully lucid prose and his underlying vision. In the early days his style had been more baroque; he had sought to amaze in each sentence. One or two of the opening essays in the collection give us a taste of this. He was excited by the invention of compound words (imagining, for example, a word that might mean at once sunset and the sound of cattle bells). But later, and under the influence of his friend Bioy, he moved to a style that erases, as far as possible, everything personal.8 His quarrel with Finnegans Wake, for example, is precisely its creation of a personal language, largely through the invention of compound words. The result of this switch from the personal to the urbane, the romantic to the classical, is that the complex and dazzling connections that Borges’s mind was continually making now come to us with greater clarity, unencumbered by “literariness” or that tiresome self-regarding cleverness that characterized so much of the avant-garde writing of the period. In particular, in the essays, the style becomes the pure transparent air in which many minds can meet.
Garrulous as he had once been shy, blessedly famous as he had been obscure, Borges toured the globe, accepting countless literary honors, cheerfully chattering to hangers-on, determined to redeem his early sin, as he described it, of having been unhappy.9 Mother was dead at last. Well aware that his best work was behind him, he dictated poetry and lectures to nice young women. Were the girls more important to him than the pieces he was composing? Certainly a great deal of what he produced in this period would have been better left unpublished.
In editing the essays, Eliot Weinberger has been particularly sharp and, it has to be said, kind in offering us only such late material as is as exciting as anything else in the collection. He also adds sufficient biographical notes to spare most readers from looking at James Woodall’s uninspired biography. It is amusing, however, to discover from Woodall that Borges’s politics were such that he was glad to accept the Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins from the hands of General Pinochet. This in 1976. Ten years later, terminally ill, he made a final attempt to extract himself from Argentine history by going to Geneva to die. At last he was back in the place of his early reading, the town where he first met Schopenhauer and Berkeley and Cervantes. Shortly before the music stopped, he married his young companion, Mary Kodama.
But now that he is in paradise, with whom does Borges find he shares his identity? To say his mother would be banal. To say his arch-antagonist General Peron would be a mockery, though I suspect of the kind that Borges himself, after a little time for adjustment, might have proposed. Let me close with an act of conflation that I hope will be understood as a tribute to the fascinating thought processes that animate this wonderful collection.
In 1961 Borges shared the first International Publishers Prize with Samuel Beckett. He never mentions Beckett in this collection, nor from what I have been able to gather, did he ever read him. Let us count the ways in which the two writers are similar. Both men came from countries considered peripheral to the cultural center, countries undergoing periods of intense nationalism from which these writers largely dissociated themselves. Both suffered from chronic inhibitions. Both spoke the same four languages: Spanish, French, English, German. Both were translators. Both had overbearing mothers. Both were obsessed with Dante. Both were theologians and atheists. Both were writers whose adventurous fiction was largely fed by their readings of philosophy (in many cases the same philosophy). Both opposed Nazism in courageous ways. Both mocked modern scholasticism and have been appropriated by it. Both were fascinated by the extent to which language has an inertia of its own, that it speaks itself regardless of individual intentions. Both also concentrated on those experiences essential to all men rather than the dramas generated by different characters and contingent circumstance. Both became fascinated by the multiplicity of the self and the inability to escape the self. Both wondered at the border between finite and infinite, mathematics and metaphysics. Both lived more or less contemporaneously into highly praised old age. Both longed for extinction.
“Racine and Mallarmé,” Borges claimed, “are the same writer.” Now that they are “quite dead at last,” as Beckett’s Malone put it, can we say as much of Borges and Beckett? “If people vary at all,” writes Henry Green in Party Going, “then it can only be in the impressions they leave on others’ minds.” To read Borges is an entirely different experience, a different encounter, a different transmigration, from that of reading Beckett. Whatever their status in a bibliophile’s paradise, we can only wonder that two men who insisted on the oneness of human experience and who themselves had so much in common, should also have such sharply distinct but equally enchanting voices. The all-seeing gentleman is a genius of impersonation.
April 26, 2001
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. ↩
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.” ↩
Selected Non-Fictions includes thirty-nine pieces written for that magazine. They are all of the highest possible quality and wit. ↩
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. ↩
The narrator has been talking about critical reaction to Quain’s strange manner of writing. In a very rare mention of Freud (I have found only one other in Borges’s work) we have: “When The Secret Mirror first opened, critics spoke the names ‘Freud’ and ‘Julian Green.’ In my view, the mention of the first of those is entirely unjustified.” ↩
Those who have read Edmund Gosse’s classic Father and Son will be familiar with Phillip Henry as the stern and strange father of the author. At once a brilliant marine biologist (inventor of the institutional aquarium) and a fervent member of the Plymouth Brethren, he was deeply disturbed by the evident substance and implications for creation theology of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His own book Omphalos involved a wonderfully imaginative attempt to reconcile Darwin’s findings with the Book of Genesis: God had created the world in seven days, but it came complete with remnants of a past that had never actually existed. Critics derided Gosse for suggesting that God had been seeking to deceive us. His reputation was destroyed. Those who were Christians and scientists were thus obliged to fall back on the less attractive notion that Genesis was merely metaphorical. ↩
The most illuminating essay in this regard is his consideration of Dante’s attitude toward the sin of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Borges is perplexed by a tension in Dante between aesthetic sense and the morality arising out of religious belief, a tension he does not share. ↩
Many of the essays in this collection deal with the problem of literary style and suggest Borges’s rejection of everything that seeks novelty as a form of personal expression. Instead he is convinced that received and well-worn metaphors are usually the most effective, and the fewer adjectives the better. Of his relationship with Bioy, he remarks: “Opposing my taste for the pathetic, the sententious, and the baroque, Bioy made me feel that quietness and restraint are more desirable. If I may be allowed a sweeping statement, Bioy led me gradually toward classicism.” One notes the standard formulas “If I may be allowed” and “sweeping statement.” ↩
See the poem “Remorse”: “I have committed the worst sin of all/That a man can commit. I have not been/ happy….” ↩