Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/05
Reading Jorge Luis Borges is like trying to build a brick wall or house without any bricks. He is an eminently quotable, but ultimately forgettable and puerile, writer. This is not to state that there are not some brilliant metaphors, nor outstanding paragraphs, but there is no real intellectual nor philosophical depths to his work, however fanciful and/or fantastic its de-narrative. It is all a surface sheen designed to reflect the biases and imbuements of typical readers.
Like many Latin American writers he is sadly too political, but, unlike a Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his brand of Magical Realism, surrealism, or whatever you’d want to term his ficciones, has a few hues and shades. Still, it’s a very limited purview. The not so odd thing, though, when you think about it, is that artists- be they writers or not- who consciously strive to ‘different’, by jumping way out of bounds from the norm, generally are as one dimensional as the more predictable writers they abhor- it’s just a different one dimensionality, and while there are acolytes that may buoy the work for a while, that very one-dimensionality is also the undoing of the artist. Think of the American Beatnik writers. With the exception of, perhaps, a dozen or so of Allen Ginsberg’s, and half that of Gregory Corso’s, poems, there is nothing as a lasting contribution. All but the most diehard Beatnik wannabes see the paper thinness of the prose by Kerouac, Burroughs, and those lesser lights, for what it is, and my guess is that the shine will come off the Marquezes and Borgeses in time.
Part of the one dimensionality of deliberately ‘different’ artists comes with their rather staid, but predictably puerile stabs at philosophy. This usually entails making all their art about one thing, as if the idea that a great artist should work on many planes is verboten. Borges was dedicated, as an artist to the rather facile idea of ‘hidden truth. Aside from the intellectual, and some might say ethical, bankruptcy of such a pursuit of truth in art, much less the, ooh, hidden version of it, the actuality that truth can often be different things to different readers makes it, as an obsession, a lost cause. Rather, the only thing to pursue in art with vigor is excellence, which can come in many forms. Yet, most critiques of Borges, by his supporters, resides not in the dazzle of wordplay, nor in the indelible characters, but in claims about what the work is supposed to be. For instance. In Googling around, rather easily and quickly, I came up with no less than 13 references, in just a handful of Google pages on Borges, from formal essays to Amazon.com mentions, to his story The Library Of Babel being Borges’ genius at anticipating the Internet, or World Wide Web. Now, there’s no doubt that there are parallels, but in the tale, of a mystical library with every book ever written or to be written, to the Internet, but only at a surface level. There was no mention of electronics nor screens, and, if one wants to credit Borges with such ‘foresight’, should we, at least, also credit every other writer who mentioned a desire for such a library, or who wished there was a single source of information, or every library before and after the Library Of Alexandria? My point is that, upon closer inspection, the claims for the greatness for that single rather one note metaphor of a tale is a fact that is neither unique nor true, yet is repeated ad nauseam, as if purposely meant to inculcate this myth about the man. One deluded soul even asks this, with all seriousness: ‘What are the ‘infinite stories, infinitely branching’ of his character Herbert Quain’s book ‘April March,’ if not hypertext?’ Um, gee….well, I think he’s referring to paper books that reference each other by the very nature of writing all being essentially the ‘same act’ philosophically. The point is that both the assumption that Borges was referring to hypertext decades earlier, and that all of any art, regardless of quality, is the same, are palpably and demonstrably false. Is a Maya Angelou Hallmark card saying the same act as Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself or Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or a John Donne sonnet or William Kennedy’s Ironweed? No. Because at a certain point difference of degree becomes difference of kind. Yet the poor Borges acolyte incredibly states this, ‘The Aleph in the fiction of the same title, the portal through which one can see every point in the universe, is Netscape Navigator in all but name. The Zahir, an object that changes its form over time but monopolizes its owner's attention forever, is none other than Microsoft Internet Explorer….’ This may seem merely silly now, but think how delimiting he is of Borges’ fiction to future generations. He, unwittingly, wants to mire it in a single interpretation.
Borges, however he may have failed with his actual work, I think, must be spinning in his grave reading such limited interpretations, especially by his supporters. Anyway, as for the book, itself, it contains a number of culled pieces from the fictions, essays, and parables of Borges. The fictions are rather blasé. The first, the well known Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is a humorous piece, but not really a narrative. It does not fail for this fact, but rather for its turgid formulations about the realities of the fictive world it describes. Now, he need not have gone into Tolkienesque detail, but when he ends the piece about the significance of the discovery of this new world, there is nothing that leaves a reader wanting more. It is as if Borges is satisfied with the piquant idea he supposes, then lets it drop. Here is the dull, although not banal, end (translated by James E. Irby):
Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The World will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial.
There is nothing left in the mind to linger on, save more self-referentialism that predates and presages Post-Modernism’s worst tendencies. In fact, one might term Borges’ fictions fictive essays, except that they are not as poetic and well-written as those by Loren Eiseley nor my wife, Jessica. They lack focus, and are balls that roll everywhere, without purpose and direction. Were they magnificently constructed puffs of air this would not be so bad, although they would still be mere style over substance, but they are not even such puffs. Even his ball is not his own, but an everyball.
In another of the more famous tales, The Lottery In Babylon, a tale in which all the citizens of a society randomly switch positions of power and identity is a nice idea, but the payoff is Borges telling the reader that life is but random. A much better take on that germ of a notion was in the 1998 sci fi film Dark City, in which that idea had deeper meaning and a real tale behind it. Yet, others make comparisons to Wall Street and the facile nature of capitalism, and read it as a critique of capitalism. Ok, and, by that rationale Huckleberry Finn is also about prostitution and outsourcing. I can make just as tenable connections between the real target of a piece and applications far in the future. The piece, as it is, is merely a monologue describing some of the macro-workings of the society. Nothing exterior to the speaker’s opinions appears, so we have no idea whether it’s the speaker’s fantasy or a real society. That notion, however, is not picked up on. Borges longed to cast intellectual puzzles, but they are rather easy anagrams, not the mind-benders he and his acolytes presume. This is manifested by the fact that, although many argue over the meaning of his fictions, the very high degree of dissent and differing interpretations, says that there was not much meat on the bone to begin with, but dogs do love bones. A general rule of thumb in art is this: a work with multiple meanings is usually a great one, a work with merely one or two is generally not, and a work with infinite interpretations is a failure because of the artists’ laziness in refusing to take an actual stand.
Here is the end of The God’s Script (translate by L.A. Murillo):
May the mystery lettered on the tigers die with me. Whoever has seen the universe, whoever has beheld the fiery designs of the universe, cannot think in terms of one man, of that man’s trivial fortunes or misfortunes, though he be that very man. That man has been he and now matters no more to him. What is the life of that other to him, the nation of that other to him, if he, now, is no one. This is why I do not pronounce the formula, why, lying here in the darkness, I let the days obliterate me.
To say that this is not deep and is solipsistic is to be obvious. But, this is only the tail end of the tale, or fiction, about an imprisoned man’s thoughts. Read the whole thing and you are apt to be thankful they locked up this intellectual lightweight, be he a stand-in for Borges or not.
On the positive side, unlike many bad to mediocre writers, Borges is concise. He knew, I’m sure, he was treading on thin intellectual ice. Unlike a Franz Kafka, to whom he’s often intellectually compared- in overblown manners, Borges had neither the depth of thought, nor the narrative ability to thread his ideas through stories that could startle and engage, so his fictive essays almost always read like nice ideas poorly executed. Kafka was not dull, as Borges, nor was he bereft of rich phrasings and imagery. The essays, however, are better written, because an adherence to fact and reality acts upon Borges as formalism does to many a bad free versifier. When he rambles on about Argentine prose, Kafka, or Zeno, he is often wrong in his interpretation, but the reader is delighted by the little bon mots and puzzles tossed, because they are still tethered to the shore, and not off in Borges’ self-indulgence. The parables are really prose poems, and while not at the level of the best of the French and German Symbolists, they are more intriguing than contemporary American proemists. Here is the full text of Borges And I (translated by James E. Irby):
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
I do, but I ain’t telling. Quotable? Yes. Quixotic? Yes. Good? No. Lasting? No. Suffice to say, the ball is naked, and convex. Jorge Luis Borges is a child with a wicked smile, delighted in his or her own imaginary universe, and uncaring if anyone else gets in, because that would mean less for him. Such solipsism is a starting point, not an end, and one day a writer will end the Borgesian universe. Now, however, his work is obfuscatory, even as it is formulaic- and once you’ve read two or three pieces you can guess the end of any particular piece, a page or so in, to about a ninety percent accuracy rate. Borges is not a writer to be held to the breast, rather a saint of the disaffected and talent-challenged hipsters who cannot even achieve his level of art, despite apologists for his failings that always want to blame some ’illusory prejudice’ in readers for the lack in Borges. He should be read sparingly- one or two pieces at a time, so that the obviousness of many of his thin ideas, and blatant tropes, do not scream at you. Also, rereading dilutes the pleasure of his writing, for there is nothing missed on the first go-round. Rereadability is something all truly great writers, whatever their genre, share, for multi-layered art works simply cannot be taken in in a single encounter. A Borges tale will never have the same impact after the first read- great works of art constantly delight and startle. In this sense, he is like O. Henry or Guy De Maupassant; where they were dependent wholly dependent upon the ‘trick’ endings, Borges relies on the ‘weirdness’ of his situations to carry the reader past the banality of phrasing, or triteness of the tale outside the one little ‘off’ detail. He is, in short, a ‘gimmick’ writer. Read in one sitting, as I did, renders him even lower on the artistic scale, because he has that ‘Bada-boom’-like timing of a Vaudevillian- and like that lost artiste, is very dated.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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