THERE are writers who describe the real world in such a way that their readers at once feel the familiarity of their imagined worlds. All that such writers want of their readers is a nod of approval, an admission, “Yes, that’s the way the world is. How wonderfully he has caught that!”
Then there are other writers who cast doubt on what we know or think we know. If we recognize these writers’ worlds, it is because they have described them to us. We look for their creations in our own worlds, not for ours in theirs.
Jorge Luis Borges is such a writer. Thus, instead of saying, “You have described that perfectly,” we walk down a familiar street, overbear a dialogue, read between the lines of a book, and we say, “My God! That’s a Borges!” There are women who belong unmistakably to Thurber and calligraphics to Steinberg; there are Kafkaesque situations and Dantean hells; there is a Borges universe, which is like ours and yet somehow disquietingly different, alien, magic. Its deceptions are many and marvelous. Some are deceits of language, others of style; some are games and others puzzles, enigmas; some are illusions, others dreams or nightmares; some arc his fears, some are ours.
Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, the last and most lost city on this continent: an imaginary city on a river so wide its other shore is invisible, a city poised on the edge of a vast plain called (it is the title of one of Borges’ most remarkable fictions) el Sur, the South.
Borges’ father was an intellectual and a writer who remained largely unread, who encouraged Borges and his sister, Nora, a painter, to do whatever they most wanted. Two images convey the father’s legacy to his son: his eyes, which were weak, and his library, in which his son, by his own admission, passed his early life.
Borges’ myopic, withdrawn, reflective, and speculative mind may derive from his father; but it is to his mother that he owes his own survival. Mme. Borges has sterner and more exacting passions, none greater than her son. Nearly ninety, it is his mother who still rules: he will walk as far as she says, and no farther — “Mother said to go only this far; she is waiting for me.” She was mother to the father; she will be mother to the son. She survives, straight as an arrow, because needed.
His education was Swiss, and then Spanish. When he returned to Argentina in the early twenties, he was a hybrid: of cultures, of literatures, of ambitions.
To judge by his early photographs, the characteristic assymetry of his eyes, their sightless look, did not exist when Borges published Fervor de Buenos Aires in 1923. Then it is the high brow that impresses, and the loose-lipped mouth. Twenty years later, during the Perón regime, we have another photograph. The transformation is terrible. The handsome, intense young man has given way to a gangster-corpulent figure dressed in a seedy cream-colored suit of Egyptian cotton, the point of his collar turned up, his hair slicked down, and shod in cracked and rounded black shoes. By that time, his eyes have taken over. The left eye is all lid; the right is half-open but faintly glazed. He is myopic, not yet blind. The myopia seems a function of his general timidity.
A modest employment in a municipal library occupied him; he read a great deal, in a disorderly fashion, the good and the bad, the literature itself or secondhand; he saw many friends —the shaggy, cabalistic, shawl-shrouded Macedonio Fernandez, whose odd mind and fear of death foreshadowed Borges’ own world; the eccentric Xul Solar, inventor of Panlengua, the total language, and Panjuego, a game combining all games; the Ocampos, who ran Buenos Aires’ literary life like benevolent baronesses of a private fief; Bioy Casares, twenty years younger than himself, with whom he collaborated frequently. It was a world rich in overtones of surrealism, full of imaginary projects: Macedonio Fernandez wished to become President — he reasoned that almost everyone seemed to want to open a tobacconist’s shop and almost no one to be President, so the latter must be the easier thing to become. That gives the flavor of the times and the friendships.
The Perón dictatorship took away his librarian’s post and made Borges a poultry inspector; when Perón and Evita fell, Borges’ growing reputation in Argentina brought forth the expected national apotheosis. For an international audience, he had to wait until, with rare discernment, he was awarded the 1961 Prix Formentor conjointly with Samuel Beckett.
What John Gunther says in his note (beginning on page 96) is true to the Borges I know. I would add only a few touches: that he doesn’t like the color green, loves water; that he walks miles, even blind, through his mythical Buenos Aires, fancying most what is poorest there, but most rose-colored and revealing; that he knows his city better than most men their own lives; thinks animals are magic, especially cats, but that all animals of the same breed are one and the same animal; that he is vain about trifles, baubles like the Légion cTHonneur (given to a man who has little use for French culture or the French language!), but infinitely humble about what matters; that lie doesn’t like music or painting; and is at the same time both learned and ignorant.
If we want to look in his own work for clues that might lead to the constituent parts of the Borges world and how they originated, it is to his poetry that we should turn first: his poetry comes as close as Borges can to being “personal.” His friends who wrote about him in the twenties all noted in Borges, along with his timidity, his brilliance, his intoxication, the way he is dazzled, and then dazzles, by what he sees or reads, by words, by sounds, by images. The largely free verse patterns of his poetry at that time gave him free play with concrete realities: his themes, in which the past, time, and death are constantly echoed and invoked, almost stumble over each other in their urgency.
But Borges is a curiously observable case of the making of a literary persona. His friends all note that, too: that Borges is making Borges. The new Borges is surer of himself, but less accessible; he invents where he formerly saw; words and ideas have gradually become more important than their source.
By the middle thirties, Borges wrote less and less verse. With the publication of the History of Infamy, Borges had begun to invent his own genre: the speculative fiction, or tale. When he returns to poetry, it is with a different voice altogether. The later poems are among the most skillful and immaculate in Spanish. Strict in their rules and sober in their imagery, gentle in tone, recollected in tranquillity, they are elegiac, formal, symmetrical: as one critic pointed out, they are in every sense of the word conventional. The true Borges is now elsewhere.
BORGES’ shift to prose was gradual. The first fully developed ficciones appear in the early forties, published mostly in Stir and gradually collected, beginning in 1942 with “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and following with Ficciones in 1946 and el Aleph in 1949. Thereafter, few new tales appear. Borges seems to have exhausted the genre. El Hacedor (translated into English under the title Dreamtigers), which appeared in 1960, and which Borges says is the “most personal” of his books, is an example of two unhappy truths: that even the best writers have their failings — usually their qualities overextended — and that they are only infrequently aware of what is best in their own work.
So it is on three books, some twenty-five or thirty stories in all, that Borges’ international reputation rests. They are quite enough.
For Borges, the shift to prose was anything but accidental. It had become necessary. The world of the senses, of his early poems, had become too risky, too unreal. It is no accident that Borges’ exploration of this new genre spans the years of the Perón dictatorship, and no accident that it should occur in Argentina. Borges is an unpolitical animal. Anyway, he is too fastidious for the politics of what he calls “this dismantled republic.” But the world of the totalitarian, absolutist state must have obsessed him.
The planet Tlön, invented by a group of idealists, is a nightmare world only gradually revealed to Borges and then to the public. But when this happens, and the “manuals, anthologies, summaries . . . poured and continue to pour out into the world,”
Almost immediately, reality gave ground on more than one point. The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws — I translate: inhuman laws — which we will never completely perceive. Tlõn may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
Borges’ fictions are extraordinarily difficult to describe to someone who has not read them; to anyone who has, they appear simple, necessary, almost inevitable.
However varied their plots, they all have certain elements in common. To begin with, though Borges is born into the twentieth century, he writes as though the accumulated realities of history and of everyone else did not exist, or existed only to be challenged. Thus everything is new — or very old. For many of the tales seem to hark back to some primitive time, or some era outside history altogether, when there existed what Walter Benjamin calls “the lost totality,” an original, underlying language and perception common to all.
This earlier time is often inhuman; it is also heroic and fundamental. These stories, in which the dominant passion is almost always fear, written as a defense against that fear, are an invocation of the intelligence against the forces of disorder. And yet because order itself is to be feared, as in Tlon, the temptation to order is another aspect of the death wish. Thus the violent alternation between terror and hubris, between the beast in the mind and the mind in the beast.
Of course much is missing from a Borges world. Bioy Casares wrote that his works were “deprived of every human element, whether pathetic or sentimental,” that they were written for “intellectuals, lovers of philosophy and specialists in literature.” And the young in Latin America object to his lack of social conscience, as evidenced by this passage from an interview in la Herne:
Q_. Just how does Borges imagine a worker?
A. I doubt if he knows what a worker is. He’s probably never seen one. Of course there are some around in the streets, but then Borges walks terribly fast.
But both catch only a fragment of the truth. Borges’ world is inhuman, or even antihuman; he himself is not. He is a bit spooky; he plays games, elaborate games. And that makes him a writer of and for the élites.
I claim that, in spite of his omissions, Borges is a realist. But a realist about an unreal country, time, and reality. The Borges world, so apparently unrelated to our own, raising so many more speculative questions than it offers reasoned or intelligible answers for, is uniquely his. He seems to have wandered off all alone, in search of an explanation of a prodigious and remote phenomenon: our world. He seems foredoomed not to find it.
He would leave me cold if it were not for this one fact: that he describes his world and its attendant fears and horrors in such a way that, though these are at first foreign to us, we are able to accept them as reasonable and possible. For Borges never violates the possible; even, I feel, he writes firmly in the probable, and that is why he is so profoundly disquieting. His art lies in making what we most fear, and what we do not, consequently, willingly face, eminently plausible.
The way this magic is performed is, of course, Borges’ art. I will try to describe it briefly. Borges writes somewhere that as books are gross, cumbersome, and, because repetitive, unnecessary things, he imagines his profession to be to make notes on unwritten books. Notes. That is, reductions of some larger work. The scale is very important. Borges writes very brief works — no single work of his exceeds some twenty pages. This might lead to an almost unbearable intensity within a small area; bui in fact, the first thing one notices on reading Borges is that he is not difficult to read, either word for word, or paragraph for paragraph. Nothing is superfluous; all is limpid. The overall effect is as though one were reading in a science or philosophy, where exact meaning is all.
I feel that perhaps Borges would like to escape our language altogether, to have his words stand for senses, qualities, and feelings much as numbers and algebraic symbols stand for quantities. Borges’ prose is a prose of statements and definitions; it is not a prose of description or ambiguity. His style leads the unsuspecting reader on, step by step; it seduces the reader into accepting what he would not ordinarily accept. It is so sure of itself, so unqualified in its declarations! Brief, clear, and dense, it seems almost legal in intent, so that its own laws, as the laws of the Borges world it describes, seem immutable, codified, and complete. This is half the illusion.
The other half is what Borges evokes beyond his statements, what he alludes to. For what Borges’ “notes,” his fictions, are to larger inexistent works, other worlds, allusion is to his style — a sudden expansion of die view. Here are two typical Borges sentences, with the allusive words italicized:
The visible works left by this novelist are easily and briefly enumerated.
I remember him with a dark passionflower in his hand, looking at it as no one has ever looked at such a flower. ... I remember him, his face immobile and Indianlike, and singularly remote, behind his cigarette.
(“Funes the Memorious”)
The reader naturally asks, why only the visible works? why remote? why dark, why a passionflower?
Borges once described what I feel must have been his own ideal audience, who saw a play performed and felt,
only the beginning of surprise.
That is what it is like for us, when we finally enter the world of Borges: we feel perhaps only the beginning of surprise.
TO ACCOUNT for Borges, I would like to revert to a famous, though now unpopular, formula of Henri Taine’s. Taine thought that three factors, race, milieu, moment, could define the why and wherefore of any writer. Borges’ world, after all, is a race, a milieu, a moment of its own — an overpowering and awesome environment under which man groans and seeks to escape.
If I had to hazard a guess at explaining why Borges created his world, I would speculate that he did so in order to escape —starting in the midthirties — from his own race, milieu, and moment, and that the Borges world is no more than a substitute for the abandoned real world of his early years. It is the Argentinianism of Borges, not the cosmopolitanism, the Porteño, not the universal, that is the most bewildering and least known aspect of his work. My analysis a la Taine will be in the form of notes, for brevity’s sake.
The Argentine is a country of immigrants, like all the Americas, a country of immigrants who did not come in sufficient numbers. They were Spaniards and Italians in the main, but by coming to the new world, they quickly lost sight of their origins, except as myths. They became exiles. They disembarked and found themselves so far away that they knew they could never return. Of their original myths, they retained only the worst ones, the ones engendered by national pride, which are usually false: such as the Spanish hot blood. Of what use were such myths to them?
The country they came to was fiat and phlegmatic; Buenos Aires hoarded Anglicisms to get through its rainy gray winters: Harrods and British hospitals and football. Borges preserved his English ancestor: like the rest, he tried to graft all the myths onto the unfavored reality.
The immigrants in Argentina had it worse than ours in the United States. There were no indigènes to massacre, no antique institutions to rebel against: the frontier, to the south, grew more and more inhospitable as they penetrated it. There was no El Dorado at the end, in Tierra del Fuego. Their reaction was to worship traditions that they had to invent on the spot. The gaucho is one, the tango another. They needed these traditions; we only like ours. The more serious among them worshiped political traditions; but alas! none of these was successful, or at least the only successful tradition proved to be failure itself.
This new race needed heroes, however; we all do. It invented its heroes, too. It promoted them beyond life-size and fixed them in stone and raised them up on pedestals: the race created a city of empty-socketed stone eyes.
The temperament could not stand it: the hot climate had been transported to the temperate. In time, the extremes in the race evened out, as the country did: showing them every day a sky that was the inversion of the earth, as flat, as undefined, as unlimited; the earth an inversion of the sky, only immobile.
Borges describes the result, the Argentine psyche, in a line: Todo eso deja su sabor amargo en el alma. “This all leaves a bitter taste in the soul.”
To be born in a place that is not a place, that lacks all definition save physical substance, and where even that physical substance is often deceptive, as objects perceived on a vast plain frequently are: the climate of Buenos Aires is necessarily that of disillusion. To read Argentine history is to read a history of dashed hopes. Who today can really feel the hopes that were once raised by the Republic and celebrated by Sarmiento and generations of men of genius who were driven to despair?
Our own twentieth-century literature in the United States is something like theirs: we follow, as they do, on heady romanticisms. As our frontiers expanded, we developed a literature of optimism, of affirmation. The Argentines also. We pushed ours so far that when the bubble broke, we were left with a literature of apocalypse. The Argentines went less far, and when their bubble broke, they were left with a literature of disillusionment, of broken reality. Theirs, like ours, is an antidote to the past.
Where could a Borges turn, in that context? The milieu makes it impossible to draw up a stable tableau of values, to state firmly what is what and who is who. Without that, the novel and the epic are impossible. Both require firm differentiations and gradations, not a blur, not tiny dots on a plain.
The vast, the undifferentiated, the mutilated force literature into briefer forms: the intensity of the lyric poem — which offers an illusion of escape; the world-weary aphorism — for the cynic, too. is an escapist. Had Borges wished to write a literature of protest (another escape), he would have had to invent the protest too, for there is none in Buenos Aires.
The obvious solution was the necessary one. The best Argentine writers accept the enigma of their surroundings. They are like men who emerge from their dreams to find that the place in which they lay down to sleep has vanished, that some centuries have intervened between sleep and awakening. They are old without ever being young. The milieu of Argentine letters is that of a literature without a maturity: it had its youth; now it has its old age.
The Argentinian writer is not born into any tradition: unless it be, perhaps, the military memoir or the history of barbarism. Born into Borges’ lifetime, he could choose whatever, form or language he wished. Everything was available. He could borrow or he could invent. That is why there is no Argentine literature: there are only the writers themselves, each isolated, and each mad in his own way.
For all the apocalypses that haunt the modern world, the themes that haunt writers elsewhere, whether political or moral, whether psychological or technical, are in Argentina either so utterly remote as to be unreal, or twisted through a trick of time and place into grotesquerie and farce. For example: the theme of Perón as a twentieth-century dictator, as a substitute for Hitler or Stalin! The times have produced no blacks for them, no bomb. Sex is as it was when the immigrants came. The country lurches forward from day to day. People work without reason. Sometimes they are brilliant without reason; often they are futile out of childish desperation. They have little hope of growing up or being taken into the outside world, where, so they hear, time does exist and things do change.
In such a place time has no real importance; in fact, it is quite irrelevant. Small wonder that Borges has written its refutation.
If Borges derives from this race, this milieu, and this time, I can understand that he should say, Con voluntad heroica de engaño/anda nuestra esperanza, that his “hope should walk about with a heroic will to deception.” For there are certain contexts, both spatial and temporal, that demand rectification as much as they demand description. The task is heroic; deception, but not self-deception, is essential to its successful achievement.