1. Jorge Luis Borges is 115 today.
2. I’ve shared clips from my scattered readings of Borges on this blog (receiving the occasional takedown notice as well)—but I’ve never mustered the energy to try to say anything about him or describe his writing or try to situate it or analyze it or anything—
3. Because that’s what Borges does: He situates, analyzes, condenses, clarifies, expands, complicates, archives, curates, cultivates, teaches, improves literature.
4. And he does it in a way that makes following him with my own mealy mottled words seem superfluous (or maybe futile is the word I want—although I think Borges is unrelentingly positive and futile is such an ugly word).
5. I read a book of Borges’ essays this summer, a collection entitled Other Inquisitions. I read most of it in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the crisp morning air was perfect for Borges. Or for me to read Borges. It was lovely.
6. I wanted to write about Borges’ book—or, rather, and more exactly, I wanted to have written Borges’ book.
7. In one essay—I’ve put the book aside for now and can’t recall exactly which essay (maybe on FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam?); nor will I go look; if I had it out I’d only cite it, recycle it here; the book would kill this riff immediately, put a stake through its heart—Borges suggests that “A great writer creates his precursors.” — This, years, decades before Harold Bloom makes a career out of the same notion.
8. And Borges’ essays are a canon-making: His own canon–the formation and creation of his own precursors: Whitman, Kafka, DeQuincey, Carlyle, Becher, Valery, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne…
9. The shock I experienced reading Borges’ essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. That Borges had set about to riff on Hawthorne’s Note-Books, the same note-books I’d been reading since the early spring, the same note-books that seemed and still seem so generative to me, so full of entire worlds, so rich, so much fuller and richer than Hawthorne’s novels or his stories, so full in their singularity and off-focus, these notes, these Borgesian notes. Oh and that Borges had written the essay that I wished I could write!
10. Borges, who never wrote a novel, whose entire work might be some kind of postmodern novel.
11. Borges, whose short stories often seem like pretexts to an essay he’d like to write—and here pretext is not the right word, again—-so maybe the short stories, so many of them so brilliant, act as some kind of surface text that illuminates and yet simultaneously hides an essay underneath.
12. The great joy of reading Borges: We read through Borges: Borges the librarian grants us access to so many minds. We get to share his perceptions, read over his shoulder, or maybe through his glasses—we get to glance over his annotations, his notes. But that’s not accurate—he’s so much more lucid than that scatter-shot image suggests, even when he’s at his most Borgesian, which is to say his most labyrinthine, mirrored, winding, forking, decentering and recentering, deferring, echoing, prefiguring…
13. I’ve written more than I intended to and have yet barely edged into all the thicket of anxieties that guard Borges’ oeuvre from poseurs like myself. It’s enough to know that his works exist, will exist.
The paralleli of the achievements of Borges and Calvino are mostly obvious, the relevant anti-parallelino doubt likewise. To begin with, both writers, for all their great sophistication of mind, wrote in a clear, straightforward, unmannered, nonbaroque, but rigorously scrupulous style. ”. . . crystalline, sober, and airy . . . without the least congestion” is how Calvino himself describes Borges’s style (in the second of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the Norton lectures that Calvino died before he could deliver), and of course those adjectives describe his own as well, as do the titles of all six of his Norton lectures: “Lightness” (Leggerezza) and deftness of touch; “Quickness” (Rapidita) in the senses both of economy of means and of velocity in narrative profluence; “Exactitude” (Esatezza) both of formal design and of verbal expression; “Visibility” (Visibilita) in the senses both of striking detail and of vivid imagery, even (perhaps especially) in the mode of fantasy; “Multiplicity” (Molteplicita) in the senses both of an ars combinatoria and of addressing the infinite interconnectedness of things, whether in expansive, incompletable works such as Gadda’s Via Merulana and Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities or in vertiginous short stories like Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths”—all cited in Calvino’s lecture on multiplicity; and “Consistency” in the sense that in their style, their formal concerns, and their other preoccupations we readily recognize the Borgesian and the Calvinoesque. So appealing a case does Calvino make for these particular half-dozen literary values, it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only ones; indeed, that their contraries have also something to be said for them. Calvino acknowledges as much in the “Quickness” lecture: ”. . . each value or virtue I chose as the subject for my lectures,” he writes, “does not exclude its opposite. Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight, and so this apology for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering,” etc. We literary lingerers—some might say malingerers—breathe a protracted sigh of relief.
Read the rest of John Barth’s essay “The Parallels!”.
(Think about it — the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.)
–David Foster Wallace on literary biography in general and Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life in particular; from “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
. . . Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty — a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.
And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots’ centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially — consciously — a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there’s finally no difference — that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges’s is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It’s also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
—From “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
The Gospels are powerful not simply because Christ performed miracles and taught kindness, strength, and humility. Humanity has long attributed to certain individuals impossible deeds, tremendous suffering, and inordinate wisdom. We survey the collective memory and search for meaning in the lives of renowned teachers so that they might serve as an example during our own unpredictable, harrowing journey. What separates the story of Jesus from the stories of other merely great people in history is the idea that God manifested itself to humans as a human: wracked with doubt, vulnerable to temptation, victim of unimaginable pain. Although he taught that love is the first commandment, Christ was flailed, tortured, left to die on a cross between two thieves, all ostensibly for no benefit but our own. Wasn’t it Borges who said that every story is either the Odyssey or the Crucifixion? The stories we tell each other, in their reflection, become the same nothing cycle of words, told again and again, a record of our inadequacy and cowardice.
Graham Greene, in his short and powerful novel The Power and the Glory, considers the life and death of Jesus as he narrates the life of a man brought low by pride and circumstances. The last priest someplace in southwestern Mexico flees from the authorities. His hunters seek to free the peasant farmers who populate the land from exploitation and superstition with their own imperfect liberation theologies: the abolition of superstition and private property; the self-sufficiency that follows honest labor. The men in red shirts ride horses and believe in the impending, always near, revolution. On the back of a mule, the father sneaks from town to town, trying to fulfill his duty, but without understanding the significance of the words that tumble clumsily from his mouth in Latin. He performs sacred rites in exchange for sanctuary until even a hiding spot is denied to him. The police have started to execute men and boys in villages who they believe have colluded to shelter this wayward man of God.
As the priest travels, he finds himself stripped not only of the vestments of his profession: his chalice, his incense, his robes, and his bible, but his own air of invincibility, privilege and comfort. Exposed, fearful, living in a state of mortal sin and unable to confess, this fallen man of God, like Christ himself, is destroyed. The priest is, by his own admission, a bad one. He drinks heavily and thinks too much of his own comfort. Led to his profession not so much by attention to the divine will but by a desire for status and privilege, during his exile he recalls fondly dinners lavish dinners with wealthy members of his assembly and the gifts they gave him. While he may have seen that the most of his flock made a meager living on small farms after taxes and fees paid to local bosses, he never stopped to consider the meaning of his own observations, busying himself instead with ambitions for his own greater glory. He is, for the first half of the book, greedy, proud, and self-concerned.
But, as he eludes the authorities and traverses the country, he becomes, in Greene’s capable hands, a symbol of redemption and an affirmation of a full but unrealized life. Words that lacked meaning help to ameliorate the strongest pain he has ever felt. He is jailed, extorted, and rejected by the people who love him the most, but in humiliation finds real faith. Performing the sacred rites of his profession, he confronts the banality of evil and comes to finally realize the true power of the promise he brought to those who came to him:
He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world in which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had did; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.
This is a book about religion and faith, but The Power and the Glory doesn’t require its reader to have an inclination towards either. It is an adventure story, recounted in bold, confident sentences, about a normal man who fears that incorrect choices will cause him to suffer. This fear is real and it manifests itself in the priest’s moral and ethical dilemmas. We are asked to ponder those things that lead from sadness to strength. The priest is us: we see ourselves completely in him and give him our sympathy.