February 22, 2018

Being Borges

On this day in 1899 Jorge Luis Borges was born. Borges's Ficciones, his breakthrough collection of "essays" - the collection which introduced us to "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and other such strangeness - is regarded as one of the essential postmodern texts, and the Buenos Aires guidebooks now point out Borges's home, his favorite caf├ęs, and the streets he loved to walk, though blind (one of them named after him). So too, the books continue to appear -- in 2004 these included both a 500-page biography by Edwin Williamson and a personal memoir by Borges's decades-long housekeeper. And the scholars continue to puzzle out what the Jorge Luis Borges Center in Denmark calls the "transversal epistemologies" that make Borges's writing so unique. If there was ever an author made to enjoy such immortality, it is the non-Borges who was Borges: "No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist" ("The Immortal").

Pierre Menard did not exist, though it is understandable that some who first read "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" thought that he did. Certainly the enterprise which consumed Menard -- to re-imagine and rewrite Don Quixote, word for word -- seems, at first glance, no more fanciful than the conclusion at which Borges's narrator arrived: "Cervantes' text and Menard's are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer." When Borges does write about real people things can get just as strange, though the real people are often strange to start. Here is one aside in "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," an essay which stirs the real (Wilkins) and the unreal (Kuhn and the encyclopedia) into one head-spinning mix:
    These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance."
Such writing is dear to the postmodern heart, and influential: "That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time," said Michel Foucault, "though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off."

Borges himself seems as elusive and labyrinth-hidden as his writing, but the biographies offer fascinating glimpses. Williamson's book makes much of Borges's relationships with women -- denied love, severe sexual troubles, a late marriage that almost immediately fell apart, a very late marriage with a woman decades younger. Except for the brief first marriage, Borges lived with his mother until he was in his seventies; even after his mother's death, the housekeeper tells us, Borges maintained his habit of pausing each evening at her bedroom door to tell about his day. Willis Barnstone's With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires tries to counter the popular "caricature of the erudite and prankish bibliophile" with evidence of his warm friendliness, and of his fondness for tango-gaucho Argentina. Barnstone also tries to balance Borges's detached, cerebral prose with his poetry, which often seems more personal. One late poem entitled "Things That Might Have Been" speculates on "...The Unicorn's other horn. / The fabled Irish bird which alights in two places at once. / The child I never had."

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