Argentine titer of fiction and poetry, Borges developed a nearly indescribable short story form which combines fiction and the essay. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 2122.) [Jorge Luis] Borges has reached a high literary level through strange and lucid narratives. He constructs poetic and hallucinatory fantasies of ancient India, of the cruel Mexico of the Conquest, of his own Buenos Aires which revive the fantastic literature of the Spanish language in order to express the human condition: Man is lost in a chaotic universe and anguished by the passage of time. Borges’ wonderment at the mystery of life has been emphasized, but more fundamental yet is his astonishment at the theories of those who attempt to interpret a world and a destiny which are unmistakably impenetrable. The idea of God, of the Trinity, of Heaven and Hell, of Platonic archetypes, of pantheism, and so many other religious or philosophical contrivances which their creators consider the exact explanation of reality or which the believer accepts like a revelation, these are of great interest to Borges because of their strange magic. Therefore he looks for those which offer him the greatest aesthetic possibilities and a supernatural suggestion in order to place his own fables in a phantasmal world where the boundaries between life and fiction have been erased. . . . To readers and spectators who consider themselves real beings, these works suggest their possible existence as imaginary entities. In that context lies the key to Borges work. Relentlessly pursued by a world that is too real and at the same time lacking meaning, he tries to free himself from its obsession by creating a world of such coherent phantasmagorias that the reader doubts the very reality on which he leans. (PP. 15-16)
Poetry, essay, and short story: these are the diverse manifestations of his spirit; through the years the spirit has been finding its way, polishing down stylistic aggravations, welding disparate elements. Enhancing the knowledge of miracles. sharpening its satire. In the process. Borges achieves the apparent simplicity of language, the complex and wise usage of allusions, the subtly ironic phrase, the perfect equilibrium of themes. and the pathetic revelation of the human condition. (p. 20) Many have fixed their attention on Borges’ intellectualism, qualifying it as excessive, and on his writing technique which organizes the narrative with mathematical exactness. However, few have observed that alongside that intellectual rigor exists a most exalted passion. (p. 234) Perhaps the most important of Borges’ concerns is the conviction that the world is a chaos impossible to reduce to any human law. At the same time that he so vividly experiences the madness of the universe, he realizes that as a man he cannot avoid searching for some meaning in it. . . . It might be said that rather than look for a solution which he knows beforehand is doomed to failure, he comments on or elaborates the literary and philosophic propositions of greatest imaginative range in order to communicate the drama or magic of human destiny. (p. 50) Borges insistently employs the labyrinth in a mental outline which resembles that of the "secret drawing." All translate the idea of the divine presence (which embraces past, present, and future), combining an old Christian topic with the legend of the magician who hears his enemy’s footsteps or sees the figure outlined by them. Some of these expressions symbolize Man’s aimless wandering through the world without understanding the meaning of his life; others symbolize the possible key to his actions which the Divinity knows and rarely chooses to reveal. (pp. 623)To the reader who is comfortably installed in life, Borges has shown the perturbing spectacle of the inverse temporal flow, of the presently existing future, of a life which is wholly in the past, and of a past which is illusory or easy to erase or transformable at will. He has also offered him a world in which time possesses many branches and Man lives an infinitely increasing number of lives, or the endless journey of postponements in "The Approach Toward AlMu’tasim," or the repeated circles of the Eternal Returning which convert men into automatons dedicated to copying the same gestures for the nth time. Borges performs yet another magical operation: the nullification of time and the presentation of eternity to it. (p. 111) Borges constructs stories in the form of essays on invented authors and books, inserting commentaries by known critics which serve to provide a real basis, and even complicates the magic by showing his inspiration in one of them. If in the Quiote he admires the judging of Cervantes by the barber, one of Cervantes’ dreams, he, in turn. makes one of his own dreams’, Herbert Quain, dream a book from which Borges derives "The Circular Ruins": the personal dream evolves into a chain of dreams. Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect is that he has fashioned stories out of the literary matter of essays; the narrative’s incidents are supplied by the literary genre. (pp. 130-31)
Ana Maria Barrenechea, in her Borges the Labyrinth Maker, edited and translated by Robert Lima, New York University Press, 1965.
Ultimately all is useful to Borges. No event or personality, however staggering (Hiroshima or Hitler), subdues his imagination, which doesn’t mean simply that everything is grist for his mill but that he can look at the most rigidly interpreted facts of history with a fresh eye. In the same way literature for him is never canonized; it is always open to new response. He is interested in possibilities and paradox. . . .
Maureen Howard, in Partisan Review, No. I, 1970, p. 136-38
[Borges’] best work is timeless, stylistically beautiful, clear and puzzling, theatrical, witty, scholarly, wise, too clever by half and enormously entertaining. His worst work, as Nabokov has noted, is ‘all lunfardo and local colour’; his worst work is. sadly. bis most recent. The stories on which his reputation rests are those written in a roughly ‘Oyear period stretching from the middle ‘thirties to the middle ‘fifties-they include The Garden of the Forking Paths. Death and the Compass, The Babylon Lottery, The Immortal, Fumes the Memorious, Deutsches Requim. The Library of Babel and lots more besides, all of a similarly fantastic and fabulous nature. . . .
The element of quest in his stories has prompted a lot of commentators to compare Borges with Kafka. It seems difficult to find any major postmodernist writer who has not been compared with the Czech at one time or another, and in the case of Borges the comparison is inaccurate. Contrasted with Borges’ puzzles and hypotheses The Trial and The Castle appear artless and plodding. metaphors for alienation, works which, even if one dries not know the circumstances of Kafka’s life. somehow bear witness to the tormented mind of their creator and give the impression of having been of some therapeutic value to him. Borges’ stories do not lead anyone I hope into seeking keys of an autobiographical nature. (Though it must he conceded that his blindness does seem to have bad a considerable influence on his work.) He is versatile, he prompts one to believe that be writes from behind a mask, and if the mask should on occasion resemble the death head of Franz Kafka we shouldn’t take it too seriously. for likely as not next time round it’ll be looking like the fluff cast of hairy, beary Walt Whitman and contradicting everything he’s just propounded. It’s impossible not to believe that the ‘parable’ Everything and Nothing which purports to be about Shakespeare is also about Borges. . . .
He has always and this is surprising in one who could state that ‘unreality is the condition of art been fond of the device of bringing himself into a story as the person to whom various ‘true’ events are related and now be incessantly relies on it in his ambiguous accounts of knife fights, gauchos and acts of revenge, and in his tales drawn from Argentinian folklore. Such tales might say such simple tales as The Intruder, The Meeting and The Captive will almost certainly disappoint those who when they think of Borges think of a fabulous maze inhabited by learned criminals and strange men seeking immortality and omnipotence, and who consider him (and for once a back cover eulogy doesn’t seem immodest) the world’s greatest (living) short story writer.
Jonathan Meades, "The Quest for Borges, in Books and Bookmen, December,1971. pp. 811.
[Because] Borges is now in his seventies, it is natural for his stories to take the form of reminiscences, folk tales told and retold, which be recalls and embellishes with an emphasis and aftermath that appeal to him. In these days when so much non-selective, mostly fiction gluts the American market, the cool clarity and force of Borges’ prose hits one like a shower bath in August.
Edward Weeks, in Atlantic, February,. 1972 , p. 107 .
Argentinian poet (of some English ancestry), master of the short story, and man of letters, Borges won the Prix Formentor in 1961. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 21 22.) . [Borges’] standard format is a simple, densely packed narrative of from five to ten pages in which, almost unfailingly, he manages to present an imagined new world, an order of reality radically different from our own. . . . Borges’ [antirealism is achieved] through a radical and systematic distortion. . . . Borges . . . works through "parables." elaborately strange and otherworldly. [Yet] a serious, even an Olympian insight into things, an evaluating and questioning is certainly present in Borges’ works. . . .
Unlike most antirealists, the essence of Borges’ meanings can be communicated in the "plot" there is, after all, little else. The writing is explicit and pure; the dreams or imaginings are recorded with an almost pathological insistence on factual documentation. In order to establish the veracity of his fantasies. Borges often devotes half or more of his scant space to an elaborate, straight-faced structure of footnotes and scholarly authorities the manner recently adopted by Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire. At the start such pretenses may help to beguile the reader into a suspension of disbelief, but they eventually appear only as another element in the elaborate game system that Borges apparently needs.
The insistently authentic, reportorial tone is, like other of Borges’ qualities, strongly reminiscent of Kafka: Gregor’s metamorphosis is related with the same strangely uncolored detachment. The primary element of antirealism in Borges’ fictions is this creation of new orders of reality. Borges details his worlds with such meticulous albeit economical care that, often before we have finished a page, they are quite unquestionable "there." The mere fact of their existence on the printed page becomes evidence for their conceivable existence beyond which is. in point of fact. one of Borges’ major themes, the evolution of the imagined ideal into the real. This manner of wilting fantasies into being is particularly successful when Borges elects to incarnate more commonplace daydreams. The fancy that we may all be only characters in someone else’s dream (immortally argued by the Tweedle twins to Alice) must have occurred at one time or another to almost everyone.
Borges appears to me the creative writer today most sympathetically attuned to the thinking of modem science. Many of his fables could almost be skillful dramatizations of the antimaterialism (antirealism?) implicit in so much of contemporary experimental science. Posited particles lapse into reality and create their antimaterial opposites, indeterminacy becomes a principle, and the universe a finite but unbounded continuum of many dimensions. It is hard to say whose reality is the more fantastic, Borges’ or the physicist’s, or whose demands the greater leap of imagination. The most important element in Borges’ work may be best represented by contrasting "The Lottery of Babylon," his chilling allegory of the existing world of chance, with "Tliin, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," his vision of an ideal world of order. But even in these, ingenuity has as high a place as moral vision, and though troubling, the visions are forgettable. Ultimately, the greatest value of Borges’ fictions may be the exercise they require of a reader’s own stiff, half atrophied imaginative muscles, forcing them to stretch so far beyond the demands of a closed and traditional scheme.
David Littlejohn (153), in his Interruptions (copyright @ 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 212,234.
His name is Jorge Luis Borges. His home is Buenos Aires. But that is only part of the story. There is "another" Borges, as he calls him, who lives in a world apart, a timeless planet lost in space, lit by the light of some fallen star, among echoes of distant voices and leather-bound editions of old manuscripts. He has a scholar’s quiet tastes. He praises simple things: bread and salt, the seasons, the art of friendship, the taste of coffee, sleep, habit, forgetfulness and diversity. These are the things with which he has been on speaking terms. For the rest, who knows but that a basic reticence and timidity may have put it beyond his reach forever. . . .
Out of reserve, and shunning the exhibitionism of self-pity, he turned to investigations of time and eternity. His intellectual abstractions are a form of discretion. Behind them one senses the deep unhappiness of a solitary soul only too well aware of its insufficiencies. He has been called cold and cerebral. It would be more accurate to say refined and civilized. His feelings are carefully disguised in his work; there are only tacit references to daily life, few direct social concerns, no easy sentiments. The psychologies of his characters. as the anecdotes they live, are schematic; plots and persons are archetypal. All these might be serious shortcomings, but he has made virtues of them. Beneath the cool surface is a gentle humor and whimsy, a warm intelligence and humanity. He has been much misunderstood or misrepresented by the ignorant or malicious. His impish sense of humor often antagonizes people. He delights in seeming naive and contrary, and when cornered. at a loss for words, he will improvise a speech or a principle. . . .
Recognition. except in the most exclusive intellectual circles. has come slowly at home. He was first discovered, translated. and read in France, and it is only now, when his books circulate the world over. that he is becoming well known to his countrymen. Even so. his reputation is much in dispute. Some dubious admirers have paid him the backhanded compliment of saying he will be remembered for his poetry, which is relatively negligible. Nationalists have accused him of empty exoticism. A Communist critic anathemized him for hating the working class. another enemy reviled him for contributing to the nation’s juvenile delinquency by editing detective stories. The truth is that he has found unworldly enjoyment in just about every literary genre except the novel and the theater. . . .
Borges--a mystic Montaigne--proposes the possibility of considering eternity a sort of immanent dimension, similar to that state theologians have defined as "the lucid and simultaneous possession of all instants of time." It would be a form of sharpened awareness in which total recall would become premonitory foresight. The fullest exposition of this scheme is the complex story "El Immortal," which he calls "a sketch of an ethic for immortals." With Swiftian inventiveness, it explores the possible effects immortality would have on men. . . .
There is an "essential monotony’* in Borges that is, paradoxically, one of his most luminous qualities. He has always cast his net in the same waters. But in it he has caught hints of higher meanings. At the same time he has found shelter in its antiseptic radiance. Like one of Hemingway’s Bars, or big-hearted rivers, in wartime. It has been his clean, well-lighted place, his safety zone. . . .
Over the years he has refined his instrument till it has become one of the most flexible, concise, and efficient in our literature. At the same time, in accordance with his belief that "every scrupulous style contaminates its readers with a considerable part of the worry with which it was worked." he has contrived to keep its workings inconspicuous. He aims at ease and grace, intimacy and informality. He has freed himself of his early luxuriance of metaphor, his exaggerated incursions into slog, to obtain a precise balance of elegance and idiom. Above all, he has concentrated on universality, contracting certain habits that favor it, such as using words in their etymological sense. . . .
He has always been democratic in his borrowings, with a predilection for English style and syntax, which have had a strong influence on the structures of his writing: his adverbial forms, his punctuation, his exceptionally brief, compact paragraphs. He is a master of understatement, of dispassionate irony and conversational humor.
Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann. "Jorge L.uis Borges, or the Consolation by Philosophy," In their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American writers (copyright @ 1967 by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.). Harper, 1967, pp. 10236.
[The] awe aroused by at least one creature in "The Book of Imaginary Beings" the literary character called Borges is altogether proper and decent. Everywhere the "labyrinths" of the great Argentine fabulist and poet pose ponderable questions about the ways of the mind, the relatedness of perceivers and Out There, our extreme dependence on fancy. But nowhere do the questions count for more than the questioner--for the latter is himself an invention. a personality tolerant and undeceived, polite and principled, gentle when scornful, decorous when gay, humble when learned, at once resigned and idealistic, and unvaryingly, gracefully humane. It is, to repeat, an astonishing "construct" and the brave beautiful man behind it ranks among the few perfectly composed, thoroughly fascinating literary intelligences alive.
Benjamin DeMott, in The New York Times Book Review (1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). December 14, 1969, pp. 45, 53.
Borges holds, or, rather, makes precise imaginative use of, a cabalistic image of the world, a master metaphor of existence, which he may have become familiar with as early as 1914. in Geneva. when he read Gustav Meyrink’s novel "The Golem," and when he was in close contact with the scholar Maurice Abramowicz. The metaphor goes something like this: The Universe is a great Book: each natural and mental phenomenon in it carries meaning. The world is an immense alphabet. Physical reality, the facts of history, whatever men have created, are, as it were, syllables of a constant message. We are surrounded by a limitless network of significance, whose every thread carries a pulse of being and conducts, ultimately, to what Borges. in an enigmatic tale of great power, tails the Aleph. . . . It is the space of all spaces; the cabalistic sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere; it is the wheel of Ezekiel’s vision but also the quiet small bird of Sufi mysticism, which in some manner contains all birds. . . It embraces all books, not only those that have already been written but every page of every tome that will be written and. which matters more, that could conceivably be written. Regrouped. the letters of all known scripts and alphabets as they are set down in extant volumes can produce every imaginable human thought. every line of verse or prose paragraph to the limits of the universe. The Library also contains not only ail languages but those languages that have perished or are yet to come. Plainly. Borges is fascinated by the notion so prominent in the linguistic speculations of the Kabbala and of Jacob Boehme, that a secret primal speech. an Ursprache from before Babel. underlies the multitude of human tongues. If, as blind poets can, we pass our fingers along the living edge of words, Spanish words, Russian words, Aramaic words, the syllables of a singer in Cathay—we shall feel in them the subtle beat of a current pulsing from a common center, the final word, made up of all letters and all combinations of letters in all tongues, that is the name of God.
Thus, Borges’s universalism is deeply felt imaginative strategy, a maneuver to be in touch with the great winds that blow from the heart of things. When he cites fictitious titles, imaginary cross-references, folios and writers that have never existed, Borges is simply regrouping counters of reality into the shape of possible other worlds. When he moves, by wordplay and echo, from language to language, he is turning the kaleidoscope, throwing the light on another patch of the wall. . . .
Nonetheless, despite its formal universality and the vertigo breadths of his allusive range, the fabric of Borges’s art has severe gaps. Only once, in the story "Emma Zunz," has Borges realized a credible woman.
Throughout the rest of his work, women are the blurred objects of men’s fantasies or recollections. Even among men, the lines of imaginative force in a Borges fiction are stringently simplified. The fundamental equation is that of a duel. Pacific encounters are cast in the mode of a collision between the "I" of the narrator and the more or less obtrusive shadow of "the other one. " When a third person turns up, it will be almost invariably, obliquely, a presence alluded to or remembered or perceived, unsteadily, at the very edge of the retina. The space of action in which a Borges figure moves is mythical and never social. When a setting of locale or historical circumstance intrudes, it does so in free-floating bits, exactly as in a dream. Thus the weird, cool emptiness that breathes from many Borges texts as from a sudden window on the night. It is these lacunae, these intense specializations of awareness, that account, I think, for Borges’s suspicions of the novel. . . .
The liberating function of art lies in its singular capacity to "dream against the world," to structure worlds that are otherwise. The great writer is both anarchist and architect; his dreams sap and rebuild the botched, provisional landscape of reality. In 1940. Borges called on the "certain ghost" of De Quincey to "Weave nightmare nets / as a bulwark for your island." His own work has woven nightmares, but far more often dreams of wit and elegance. All these dreams are, inalienably, Borges’s. But it is we who wake from them, increased.
George Steiner, "Tigers in the Mirror," in the New Yorker, June 20. 1970, pp. 109-19 .
About an author named "Osberg," Nabokov, the Literary Lord of Misrule, has said: "At first, Vera and I were delighted by reading him. We felt we were on a portico, but we have learned that there was no house." As is so often the case with Nabokov, the perception is dazzling and delightful, but the judgment is wrong.
It may be true that Jorge Luis Borges (the anagrammatized author), seems all portico, all facade, but that is simply another way of saying that his is the art of trompe-l’oeil, or more accurately, trompe-l’esprit. His obvious intention in his now famous stories and essays about secret societies contaminating our world with bit of evidence from an imagined planet and priests dreaming other beings into existence only to find that they too are dreams. is to coax belief in the patently false. In this respect his prose is like those super-realistic paintings by Dali, paintings so much more surreal than his Surrealist art: it makes us want to believe in the reality of the illusion exactly at the moment we discover that it is only illusion. . . .
"Osberg" is seven-eighths submerged, and if only the tip of artifice shows, it nevertheless rests on a profound base of feeling. . .
Through the fantastically wrought portico of argument we are led into the more private dwelling of Borges’ feelings as the surface of metaphysical proof and fascinating fraud cracks to reveal a genuine. passionately imaged. lyric impulse. Those "desperations," clearly are the life behind the shifting facades of his fictitious philosophies or "assuagements." Similarly, in back of every Borges exterior looms unstated, muted and sometimes mutilated feeling, guaranteeing the nobility of his skill in temporarily deceiving us by deploying his own emotions. Thus a lasting pleasure of reading Borges is the one of peeking through the windows of such disclosure to discover the saddened, witty, lonely man who has contrived a labyrinth of metaphysical fiction as a strategy of soul. In the heart of Borges’ apparently heartless and houseless county is a deeply moving autobiographical impulse: but nowhere does it show itself more fully than in his book El Hacedor [published in English as Dream-Tigers]…
Most of us will go on preferring, ultimately, the artifices and subterfuges of Borges’ longer stories and essays. but for once and all Dream-Tigers settles the question of whether we are dealing with a clever trickster or a profoundly human artist. For those who already know the thrill of Borges, this book will prove the implicit humanity and reverberating range of his work; for those who are about to encounter him, it will introduce a gentle, wise and mysterious mind which muses behind a dazzling mask of invention and deception the melancholy wizard of our aesthetic joy.
Ronald Christ, "At Home in His Mind," in Nation, August 3, 2970, pp. 868.
Essential to Borges’ vision is a conviction of oneness. To Borges, every human act, however slight, affects all other events. It is a world of perfect complicity. Little wonder that youthful readers in search of community find Borges a kindred spirit. Yet his work suggests that community is reached not by simply linking arms or sharing pot but through sacrifice. . . . For Borges, that sacrifice is blindness, a condition that unites him with the rest of suffering mankind...
If there is salvation in Borges, it is in memory that overcomes the isolation of blindness, that links Borges with Homer or a gaucho or with the reader.
Edwin Warner, "The Dagger of Deliverance," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; @ I970 by Time Inc.), November 30, 1970, p. 80.
No mattes how fascinated we may be by the characters of Borges, we are overcome, finally, always by the narrative voice itself. It is a voice that comes from the untouched center of being, constantly revealing to those who listen well unimagined verities that form the themes, not only of the stories, but also of life itself...
Kenneth John Archity, in Mediterranean Review, Winter, 1972, p. 45.
Jorge Luis Borges is a never-ending source of surprise—possibly because he himself is constantly perplexed at what he is and what he does. . . . What may alarm Borges . . . is that American readers insist on viewing him as some kind of magician-philosopher in spite of his firm statements to the contrary. . . .
Borges has repeatedly insisted that he should be considered a realistic writer, and no doubt he is not being facetious. Since, however, the reality he has in mind is entirely of his own fabrication it is easy for him to live with this paradox and to conceive of history as an outlandish, unreliable, ultimately impious invention. . . .
At a time when Borges is riding the crest of his popularity in the United States these volumes [Selected Poems 1923-1967 and Doctor Brodie’s Report] provide ideal companions to any kind of serious study of his poetry and prose. Reading Selected Poems I have learned that Borges stands almost alone in Latin America as a poet of ideas, now that poetry there is commonly confused with incantation and witchcraft. Here we observe Borges evolving from his early metaphoric enthusiasm, Ultraismo to a solid, vigorous, patrician poetry in praise of Argentine traditions and of Buenos Aires. Doctor Brodie’s Report, on the other hand. with its Gaucho theme somberly entwined with Borges’s speculations about death is the natural counterpart to the resonance of guitars, daggers, and spurs which permeates the blind poet’s inner music today. One might say that in old age Borges has found a way to unpuzzle and enjoy his private labyrinths.
Fernando Aiegria, "Blind Master of the Guided Dream," in Saturday Review (copyright @ 1972 by Saturday Review ; first appeared in Saturday Review, February 26, 1972; used with permission), February 26, 1972, pp. 59-61.
For some time now I’ve been both intrigued and irritated by Borges’ fame. The short stories are frail, childish and, by the author’s own admission, "decidedly monotonous." These admissions, by the way, are no sign of modesty. Not at all: they indicate instead a man who finds his own faults wonderfully charming. . . .
Sensing (rightly, I think) that his talent is more Argentine than literary, he prefaces each and every tale with an hors d’oeuvre of local history. Borges or a close relative is the hero of every story, each spare as a newspaper classified item, each usually about the same knife fight, the same South American civil war battle. It’s time we were frank: Borges writing in New York, about New York, would be unpublished.
D. Keith Mano, "A Variety of Talents," in National Review (I50 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016). March 3. 1972, pp. 25-27.
Few have grasped as well or used as lucidly as [Jorge Luis] Borges, the central problem ail mystics face: transmitting, in verbal symbols, that which is, by its essence, ineffable. In at least two of his best storks, "Funes the Memorious" and "The Aleph," that is, in fact, the central theme. Kairos, the realization of divinity, the encounter with his own God (Funes., the Aleph itself) are set within a pattern of personal experience—Borges only rarely ostensibly appears in his stories which lead to a confession of personal despair when faced with the task of sharing that experience. El congresso fits this pattern. It is Borges’ longest story, and merits its singular publication. . . .
John C. Murchison, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1972. pp. 274-75.
Until quite recently the only image of [Jorge Luis] Borges in the mind of the American reader was Borges the builder of verbal labyrinths, the monstrorum artifex of many fictions, the teller (or reteller) of myths linking contemporary men to Babel. Babylon, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In short: a writer to place beside Kafka and Nabokov, Pynchon and Barthelme, a representative of a kind of fiction that resists the temptations of realism, of political or social commitment, of brave humanistic causes. His was a world of irony and pure alienation, of escape into the structural complexities of narrative, of a text whose only ambition was to be read as a text and not as a blueprint for the universe. The Borges of [Ficciones, Labyrinths, Dreamtigers, Other Inquisitions, The Book of Imaginary Beings, The Aleph and Other Stories], was basically a many-faced magician, a thoroughly fascinating literary intelligence to borrow a few words from a review. . . .
Although this general image of Borges is correct, it does not tell the whole story. Only recently the other Borges the one that precedes and succeeds the central one is becoming available to the American reader, thanks to Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s scholarly translations [of Selected Poem 19234967 and Doctor Brodie’s Report.] This other Borges is less fascinating but as unpredictable as the previous one. It does not always succeed in upsetting all literary notions but still manages to bring out a very personal, unmistakable voice. The relationship between the central Borges we knew and this new Borges is the relationship between the center and the whole. A total Borges will emerge slowly from the new (and the old) books Norman Thomas di Giovanni is translating with Borges’s collaboration: a Borges that would be both familiar and strange to the readers of his central books. But a Borges that. if rightly read, will provide the clue to many of the most obscure passages of the central one.
E. R. Monegal. "The Other Borges Than the Central One. " in The New York Times Book Review (1972 by The Nehy York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7. 1972, pp. 4, 18. 20.
Jorge Luis Borges is an artist of anxieties, the author of brief, haunting fictions in which safe assumptions and old habits seem suddenly threatened or are shown up as tenuous and provisional. Or he used to be. For the eleven stories in Dr. Brodie’s Report. first published in Spanish, in 1970, are offered as just straightforward tales, modeled on those of the early Kipling. His discretion and diffidence, formerly represented by the frequent fussy characters in his fiction. or by the faintly mannered, self-mocking prose, here express themselves as a pretense that the stories somehow got themselves told on their own. The book is full of cautions against literature, against what can happen to good tales in the embellishing and careless hands of literary men; and we are to look for the core, for the myths half-buried in these doubtless belated and falsified versions. . . .
Borges is a man for whom elegance consists in doing the opposite of what is expected, and these undemanding tales are elegant in just this sense: the reverse of what we expect of the complicated Borges; and better still, the reverse of what we expect of an old master, whose prose, like that of Henry James. is supposed to get more tortuous as he grows older. Borges started with labyrinths when he was young, has James in mind, and means to grow simpler, since he is too subtle to use the word simple, when he knows that "each thing implies the universe," he means to strive for a "modest and hidden complexity." There is a continuity in such a development too, an extension of Borges’s lifelong war against the emphatic or the obvious in literature. . . .
Borges’s great fiction was about our attempts to make sense of the unknown, about the arrangements we inflict on the "asiatic disorder of the real world." as he once put it. Of course we have always failed to make sense of the unknown, but Borges’s tenderness went out to the ingenuity we put into our failures. His great theme was that of our ingenuity seen as a unique and fragile consolation, and in his very best stories ingenuity is seen also as a subtle and terminal temptation. "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, " "The Library of Babel," "Funes the Memorious." " Death and the Compass." "The Immortal" (from Ficciones . . . and El Aleph . . .) are metaphors for the horrors that lie at the logical end of our favorite fantasies, Piranesi prisons of the intellect representing the state of mind in which pet dreams come true and reveal themselves as nightmare. . . .
Borges’s poems are a disappointment but perhaps not a surprise. There is something formal about the mere idea of printing a poem that is absent from the blurred and camouflaged appearances a man can make in prose. Borges is an oblique and stealthy writer, and forcing himself into the self-conscious position of the poet, he sheds a large part of his talent.
Michael Wood. "Borges’s Surprise!." In The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; 0 1972 bv NYREV. Inc.), June I, 1972, pp. 323.
Although Borges has a wide familiarity and following in English as the Argentine author fabulist of trenchant ficciones, it has been difficult until now to assess him as a poet this despite his own sentiment that, as he says in the Foreword for this book . . ., "In the long run, perhaps. I shall stand or fall by my poems." . . . Borges’ wisdom in [Selected Poems, 192319671 is, like his art, unobtrusive and secure. In the life he celebrates there is nothing, really conclusive, nothing final. The events and facts that provide his material are themselves sufficiently objective to take on a clear existence in his poems, to be there and to have the stuff of irreversible reality in them; yet his literary ingenuity brings them to account again and again in the satisfyingly inconclusive matrix of metaphor, and finally in the irreducible perpetuum of human paradox. . . .
Readers familiar with Borges’ prose tales will find here some of the same penchant for the romantic lives of South American heroes and villain categories sometimes hardly distinguishable among his resurrections of those who stood and those who fell in the arenas of honor and violence, the high-minded gamblers, the duelists, the knife-fighters, the military martyrs, figures who become half-real, half-myth through his fascination with them. . . .
Edward Lueders, in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1912, pp. 291-93.
In versatility and humanity certainly, in talent as I believe. Borges surpasses Neruda. He has a large variety of forms: the long loose free line, but also sonnets, popular style ballads: quatrains. And he has a large variety of subjects: reminiscence. Biography, poems of courtship, dedications to unfortunate friends, histories, battles, above all, again and again, the streets and the houses and graveyards, the feel of the city, Buenos Aires.
Richard Lattimore, in Hudson Review. Autumn, 1972, p. 485.
It is obvious that Borges is not a philosopher. But to call him by a lesser name fails to reproduce the cautious anachronism of a prose oeuvre devoted almost entirely to a few metaphysical states. It is the state, however, rather than the metaphysic which should be emphasized, for Borges’ concern with the process of thought is restricted to pathology- the study of error within a portentous but limited region. It is a region seldom marked by pain, resentment, or failure, nor is there success or pleasure-not even anomie. In a body of work where even the subtleties of boredom are suppressed, character patently has never fully functioned: character, that is, which involves cupidity and doubt, devotion and revulsion, character which must be capable of breaks and jumps—discontinuities in order to reflect the anomalous surface against which it balances itself, grounding its consistency. Borges’ parallelisms, by contrast, claim nothing for character but its own permeability. There are neither civic nor private complexities in the lives of Borges’ figures. Not even the antinomy has meaning. There are only further lateral displacements within selves which are initially isolated, inscrutably limited, and, above all, forgetful. Memory and the epiphenomena to its lapses, nostalgia and disembodied regret, are the salient features in Borges’ emotional landscape. That his fictional figures labor in different sectors of experience serves to distinguish the ambiance of recollection within which it is available for them to forget. . . .
Borges’ fiction is . . . devotedly Aristotelian in its reticent generality; but, unlike Aristotle’s exemplary tragedians, who favored thought ("the power to say what can be said") over contingencies of character, Borges retracts the peripatetic dictum from its full generality in the Poetics into the latency of the world of Averroes. Here thought, rather than the power of saying what there is to be said and hence limited only by minimal guides such as diction and publicity, ceases to be an implement with Borges and becomes an enigma, a force, a grail. It is as if the idea of thought had been lost or culturally vitiated while the recollection of its value still persisted in some genetic trace. The apparent responsibility Borges still feels toward first philosophy is retained in the pathos of this circular rebuff.
Mary Kinzic, "Recursive Prose," in TriQuarterly 25 (1972 by Northwestern University Press). Fall, 1972, pp. 11-51.
To demand the muse is commonplace, inspiration is commonplace; to rely upon the audience by virtue of one’s act is daring: expiration is literature. That is, Borges’ writing demands the other, not in the sense of readers or publishers or critics or students (although it wishes for them too), but the other as measure and guarantee of his existence, worth. His prose is grounded as speech in an other, it is imaged forth in such speech and it discovers his value in such speech; yet that prose issues into a world of monologous singleness. Where the "1" is all and therefore unsure of its very being because the "You" who might ransom that being is remote, perhaps imaginary. . . .
The urge to extend hope finds both expression and justification in writing. but at the boundary of that hope there must be the other, if not supplied and available, then manufactured and sustained: the other, in hypostatic procession must then emanate from the self. . . .
[What] is striking in the case of Borges is that quite often he seems not to experience his self as over against an other who is not himself a questioner, for example, or "society" . . . so much as over against a previously constructed or absorbed self. Just read a couple of interviews with Borges. and you will see what I mean. Borges almost never really talks to the interviewer, almost never responds to the question, but literally echoes his own thoughts and experiences, which were made up long before the interviewer ever appeared. . . .
[We] can now see the basic function of all the literary allusions in those writings where Borges has gained his own voice and doesn’t seem to be listening to another voice. Quite clearly, those allusions still echo voices which are others in Borges’ imagination, against whom he aligns and defines himself. . .
His substance is the others; he has made himself up by communicating through and with the other voices of his reading. . . .
[In] a . . . profound sense, Borges arranges the separation of his authorial and personal selves that is;he labors at the creation of an author for this work. That author, the man who has not lived but written and read (Borges doesn’t tire of repeating it), that author whom we name when we say "Borges" that author is the character Borges has created, a character whose Life is the Obras completas of Jorge Luis Borges. Not the author in those works he has made much fun of that Borges but the author whose identity is the image we trace as we read his words, many of them borrowed from other men in whom he has discovered himself. In other words, he is the other Borges. . . . The character Borges has created, then, is precisely not himself but another self not an antiself either, but a complementary self who takes up where he leaves off and fulfills that original self by replacing it in the eyes of the world, by usurping the place of the originating Borges.
Ronald Christ, "Borges Justified: Notes and Texts Toward Stations of a Theme,"in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern University Press), Fall, 1972. pp. 52-87.
I think that Borges, moving among languages, has always seen language itself as a separate plane of existence, on which words can manipulate everything, even the one who uses them; but at the same time, he is conscious always that language is paradox itself. Words like "forever" mock the one who utters them. The image that recurs in Buges’ writings so often that at certain points, one man is ail men, that in reading Shakespeare we become Shakcspear--crops up because it has so often cropped up to Borges in his reading. He takes in language in all form--conversation and prayer, algebra and the tango, puzzles, maps, runes, the secret histories in objects, translation and mistranslation. He has even succeeded in making scholarship a device of the imagination…
At a time when the validity of literature is often in question, Borges reads and writes as one who has no doubt at all of the power of words to illumine and disquiet. I always think of him occupying that nether world of the translator and the bilingual. backstage in the great silence behind language, taking his careful daily walk from the silence to the word, to the sentence, to the book, to the library, and back again. I think that what we are most grateful for in Borges’ work is that from such disparate elements, such diverse reading, such multilingual experience, he has found a focal point. a mysterious balance, an equilibrium in a way that we, his readers, no longer thought possible in books. Once Borges has infiltrated our awareness, we find ourselves saying so often, in the course of reading other books, seeing films and paintings. "Why, that’s Borges!" And it is. We find, in reaching the most secret recesses of the imagination, that Borges has been there already.
Alastair Reid. "Borges as Reader, " in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern University Press). Fall, 1972. pp. 100-01.
The general direction of the studies devoted to Borges’ writings, as well as the preferences of certain of his translators, has contributed to an unbalanced view of his total work, and has tended. for various reasons, to create the image of a countryless writer, one foreign to the literature and the realities of his homeland. . . .
Studies favorable to Borges, by generally overlooking what is Argentine in his work. have also helped perpetuate this unbalanced view of his writings. Some have stressed the role that certain themes: time, eternity, infinity, personal identity play in his production; others have analyzed in detail the peculiarities of his style; and still others have underlined his interest in foreign authors, tracing their effect on his work. The apologists, finally, have emphasized the non-Argentine factors of Borges’ life: education, and literary sources with the intent of stressing both his singularity in the Hispanic literatures and his importance with regard to other contemporary Western writers. . . .
There is certainly one Borges saturated with foreign intellectual influences, but there is also another equally important Borges deeply interested in and attracted by the landscape, the history, the human types, the language, and the literature of his country. His true literary profile emerges only when these two partial and complementary images are superimposed. . . .
From the beginning of Borges’ literary production, three sustained interests appear in full interdependence: a fondness for the city of Buenos Aires, a feeling for the history of his homeland, and an evocative admiration for his military ancestors. . .
The basic factor, in Borges’ view of Argentine history is his constant awareness of being the descendant of men who were prominent during the conquest, colonization, and revolutionary and civil wars of southern South America. He looks upon the heroes and the episodes of his country’s past as part of the tradition of his own family. . . .
It is in Borges’ poetry . . . that evocations of Argentina’s past most persistently appear. Unlike the analytical intellectualism of most of his essays and stories, this poetry is intuitive, and it reflects Borges’ mythological view of men and events that emotionally attract him. . . .
Several factors converge in Borges’ insistent return to the past of family and country. Basically, this return springs from his vehement desire to capture the essence of the patria through an identification with some of the men who participated in its inception. . . .
Borges’ literary preference for military figures and events is also a psychological compensation for his physical limitations, prompting him to extol courage and heroism above all other virtues. . .
Two opposing but sometimes complementary emotions, pride and frustration, are present in Borges’ fervid evocations of his military ancestors. He feels pride in the distinguished heritage left to him by Sutiez, Acevedo, and Francisco Borges, through whom he reaches back to the beginnings of Argentina. But he also manifests the frustration of having arrived too late to participate in those virile campaigns. the sorrow of being unable, owing to physical as well as temperamental limitations to demonstrate that total courage he so much exalts. . . .
We touch here the emotional core of Borges’ attitude toward his civic and familial heritage, which to a large extent are one and the same for him. Conscious of being the last link of a long line of brave men who fought and died for his park. Borges sees himself as a "final creole." This sentiment, expressed early in his work, becomes more intense as he melancholically approaches a childless old age and foresees the unavoidable extinction of his name. . . .
Although attenuated, the ideological conflict that divided Argentines during the first decades of their nationhood is still in force. . .
Borges, although his writings are not ideological in character, has not remained aloof from this controversy. Every time he touches upon themes, events, or figures of Argentine history, he implicitly assumes a position in the polemic. . . .
Borges’ meditations on the Argentine past are one of the basic themes of his literary work--particularly of his poetry--which now spans half a century. In it he offers an intimate vision of men and events connected to his family and to his own experience. Family tradition thus becomes for Borges another equivalent of national history, and his approach, although circumscribed, has depth, insight, and authenticity. Argentine political change must be taken into account to understand the variations that occur in Borges’ assessment of certain key figures, just as his ambivalence toward figures like Roses modulates his understanding of bravery, destiny, and repetition. The artistic quality of his literary evocations of the Argentine past makes him his country’s best contemporary civic poet.
Humberto M. Rasi. "The Final Creole: Borges’ View of Argentine History," in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern University Press), Fall, 1972. pp. 149, 71-74
In a sense, "Borges and I" [the parable] continues Kafka’s long meditation on the theme of knowledge and Enigma--this time with a shift of emphasis to the artist as knower. Borges surmises, as Kafka foresaw, that the artist in parable must reckon with two consequences he is destined to invite: (1) "If you follow parable, you yourself become parable"; and (2) "In parable, you have lost. " Similarly, the "daily" Borges speaks to the Borges whose "perverse custom" it is to "falsify" and "magnify" things, to conjure up "games with time and infinity" which volatilize or liquidate the identity. . . .
It should not escape us that Borges was content to call his most celebrated collection of stories and parables simply Ficciones, as if he wished to ally himself generically with the world of illusion, rather than a premise of truth or reality. His point, in this shadow-play, is that fiction makes the maker of fictions fictitious just as, in another parable entitled "Everything and Nothing," he contends that drama, as another mode of fiction, rendered Shakespeare "fictitious" to himself. The paradox in each case is the same: in fiction (Kafka would say in parable) one "has everything and nothing." On the one hand, fiction liquidates the identity of the teller and in vests him with identities not his own; and, on the other, it induces an omniscience which is no longer partial or adventitious, but totally known to the teller of fictions. For the duration of the fictions in Kafka’s "Invention of the Devil" he is a congeries of personae, an "invention," a fait accompli of fictive clairvoyance. The devil of the ambiguous, the multiple, and the heterogeneous has preempted the consciousness of the storyteller and reduced him to "nothing"; but it has also endowed him with the infallibility and entirety of his fiction: "everything." . . .
The enigmatic predicament of all things--actor, action, scene, purpose, cognition--the enigmatizing of existence is the supporting vision of the "ficciones" of Jorge Luis Borges. Compared with the radical bleakness of Kafka’s characteristic manner, however, his approach is baroque, subliminal, ‘poetic." Whatever his debts to Kafka, and they are considerable, the mode of Borges is Spanish rather than Gothic; that is to say, his precursors are Calderon, Gbngora, Quevedo, Cervantes, Una muno, even Maimonides--that confluence of erudition, dandyism, the balladic, the gauchoesque, and the mozorabe, shifting its densities and surfaces as the need requires, but supporting the skipped heartbeat that sustains the Spaniard’s sense of reality: La vida es sueno.
Ben Belifl, "The Enigmatic Predicament: Some Parables of Kafka und Borges," in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern Universiry Press), Full, 1972, pp. 268-93.
Borges’ fictions very often are, in effect, parables of the creative process, its possibilities and limitations. Stories meditations on the writing of stories, they deal at heart with the power of the word to capture and recreate a reality which might be termed "objective" when it ties within. This, which may seem no more than a quibbling way to speak about "reality" and "fantasy," nevertheless reflects a vital point; for Borges, both arc equally real. If "the fantastic" seems a quality inseparable from Borges, it is owing precisely to the fact that fantasy is as real to him, as immediate and pervasive, as a blade of grass is to Whitman.
The problem, then, lies in using words in order to recreate an ambient state, whether objective or subjective. For that recreation to be effected, the anima becomes the decisive factor, the telling element without which the recreation is stillborn. And the search for that anima, that spirit, is what moves Borges, and brings him at last to the realization that the spirit, not the poet, is the creator of the living lines. The potential of enormous power’ lies within the word, and thus poetry, dealing more closely even than prose with the power of words, has always been a predominant mode of expression for Borges. . . .
The heart of the matter--what Borges is about--lies in the adjustment of the poem to Poetry, in the transcendence of the work of man, and thus of man himself. . . .
Time-bound, spatially circumscribed, words cannot succeed in reproducing that which, by definition, is limitless. At his best, then, the poet manages to do no more than allude. Still, the attempt to do more than simply allude is an urgent necessity and, as such, becomes a central issue in Borges’ poetry. . . .
Sensing the imperfection of words, and knowing that they are his only tools, the only link between his intimation of a total reality (whether objective or fantastic) and its expression, leads Borges to despair of his own work. and from despairing to disparagement. The awareness of the conflict between an essentially infinite vision and its essentially finite expression involves the awareness of the risks he must take in order to overcome the limitations of his means. Since the conflict stems from the need to reduce the timeless and spatially infinite vision of Poetry to words, Borges is impelled to attempt, in every poem, something he knows beforehand to be impossible—the task of freeing the word from the warp and woof of time and space, the net in which he himself. through pondering his creations, feels caught. What makes the risk enormous is that in every instance Borges, clearly sensing the infinite in the shape of Poetry, is forced to face his own felt mortality, his own lonely finitude. . . .
And finally, we begin to see why "chaotic catalogues" are so dear to Borges: they are catalogues of things, shorn, insofar as possible, from any context which might tie them down to words. As such, in fact, they are the least imperfect reflections of a limitless reality. Their very mention provides an intimation of infinity, and a refuge from temporality. . . .
The poet, then, creates the poem, but not its endurance, since both creator and creation are bound in time; what persists of the poem is Poetry, imposed on the poem by a Greater Voice, in whom are intertwined the attributes of deity (the essence of creative will and power) and the absence of human limitations. Borges, wishing with apparent modesty to be remembered "for a few good lines, " is, in fact, wishing to equate himself with the creative godhead, not so much out of pride as out of love for Poetry. For himself, and for his fellow poets, he claims no more than the meager role of amanuensis. . . .
When we explore Borges’ road to his Greater Voice, we skirt dangerous ground. Borges’ reputation as an ironclad agnostic precedes him and seems incompatible with any idea remotely similar to the orthodox Judeo-Christian belief in God. Still, as has been suggested earlier, Borges’ faith in the Word springs from his faith in the power of Poetry as a web of words, and to that must be added his passion for our common Hebraic tradition and its Christian revitalization. In some ways. Borges’ approach to his Greater Voice bears close parallels to mysticism, in the sense of union between the soul ("the very center of my being") and the infinite ("the unseen horizon"), so that coming face to face with God is, in the deepest sense, an awareness of self.
John C. Murchison. "The Greater Voice: On the Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, " in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern University Press). Fail, 1972. pp. 312-22.
Much of Borges’ fiction seems to push the practice of symbolist fiction beyond its logical extreme, and by so doing to demonstrate how the symbol, which means so much, is ultimately subversive of meaning. . . .
In story after story, Borges offers images of focused infinity, objects and contrivances that seem to mean everything and necessarily mean nothing, therefore making the mind boggle, inducing a sense of ontological vertigo. . . .
Readers of Borges’ stories may tend to think of him primarily as an inventor of fantasies, for he seems to have used prose more typically as a medium in which he could deploy characters. magical objects, situations, and whole worlds as dramatic elaborations of hypotheses about reality that are contrary to those cherished by common sense. The fictional medium in this way becomes a solvent in which solid notions about time, space, density of matter, identity, causation, thought and extension, memory and experience are temporarily dissolved into fluid in which fascinating new patterns appear. I suspect that poetry, on the other hand, is more characteristically thought of by Borges as a means for attempting to grasp what may still be called reality, the reality that exists independent of the mind’s attempts to shape it.
Robert Alter, "Borges and Stevens: A Note on Post-Symbolist Writing," in Tri-Quarterly 25 (1972 by Northwestern University Press). Fall, 1972, pp. 323-33.
Borges is a world writer, because he knows all the rules and knows how and when to break them. His literary life has been a long struggle to liberate the word, to give it a new vitality in an age when it is constantly under attack. He is a magician of language, but like all the best tricksters and poets he makes us feel, when the trick is revealed and the poem said, that it was always there, somewhere unexpressed within us. Carlos Fuentes has written of Borges that without his prose there would be no modem novel in South America today. We honor him for that, but also for what he has done for writing and writers ail over the world. He is a great conservative who is also experimenting every time he puts pen to paper.
Frank MacShane, "Borges the Craftsman." in TriQuarterly ( 1972 by Northwestern University Press), Fall, 1972, pp. 399-402.
Toward the end of the 1930’s Borges turned from poetizing Buenos Aires and fictionalizing the hoodlums of the city’s outlying slums (as in "Street-corner man," 1933) and took to playing literary games with time, infinity, destiny, and the nature of reality. He was well equipped for it, being multilingual and having spent most of his forty years as an eclectic reader, absorbing everything from Bums’s The Saga of Billy the Kid to Berkeley and the Panchatantra. His life, he has said, has been devoted less to living than to reading. In the following ten or so years he produced three small collections of compact faction (the first two are now combined as Fitciones [1944; edarged 19561; the third is The Aleph [1949; enlarged 19523). These stories, suggestive of highbrow detective fiction and of Symbolist poetic theory applied to prose, are utterly lacking in social consciousness or moral implication; unemotional, sexless, and uncontemporary, they wave no banners and press no points. They allude to everything and recommend nothing. For the most part, these highly intellectual creations of the 1940’s are clinical, cosmic tales peopled with almost faceless characters who are not really people but archetypal miniatures that move about in a purely cerebral universe. They often act like mythical beings in primitive cosmologies, or like dream figures: two men can be one, they can be dead but alive, and they can be only half real; they can pass in and out of mortal life ("The Immortal"), stare at magic coins until they go mad ("The Zahir"), behold the universe under the cellar stairs ("The Aleph"), live a year in a moment ("The Secret Miracle"), or dream other people into being ("The Circular Ruins"). Borges’ people live in ignorance of the secret laws, or the secret will. which guide their destinies, and their actions are not finally their own. Borges surrounds them with the dicta of metaphysical philosophers who make all things logical, and their behavior is told in deftly ambiguous language. The reader finds himself acclaiming with emotion what he doesn’t quite grasp and perhaps doesn’t believe. He is floated into a kind of esthetic hysteria, feeling spoofed but also sublimated. Although Borges insists that he does not push a philosophical viewpoint (or any other), his underlying skepticism, or idealism, comes through.
Far from being verbose in proportion to their intricacy, these earlier stories are written in a wondrously frugal and exact style-richly suggestive, poetic, and full of ironic humor, baroque artifice, and rhetorical sleight of hand. Prominent symbols--mirrors, labyrinths, tigers, towers, knives--are repeated with unabashed regularity (Borges calls himself monotonous), and the repetition of other images or secondary symbols suggests an esoteric pattern with a meaning: circles, coins, pyramids, horses, swamps, cards.
But again, no messianism intrudes into Borges’ work. The ideas of men are arbitrary formulations with infinite alternatives. Certitude is intellectual death; therefore, for Borges, even his basic philosophy is a conjecture. Speculation is the law of intellectual life. Out of this view come the irony and humor of Borges’ prose. He mocks knowledge by displaying it lavishly, finally turning it against itself. But his jibes are gentle, because he relishes ail ideas for their esthetic value. Every strange figment of thought implies a whole new structure of reality, a realm in which the errant idea would not be strange at all. By piling up these pieces of heretical "fact," Borges overpowers us with the illusion that we almost understand that realm, and that if we did we would know everything. The creation of this illusion of near understanding seems, on the surface, to be the whole esthetic motive of Borges’ older fiction. By attacking our conception of reality and implying another—a secret order in our chaos--he stalks the "esthetic occurrence" in an Olympian arena. . . .
Borges’ new manner [that is, since the publication of his short story. "The Intruder." in 1961 is . . more straight-forward. Much of the stylistic complexity has disappeared, leaving his themes and plots more conspicuous. In these narratives the plots-the fabulae, tales as tales-are in my opinion superior to those of Ficciones and El AIeph, not because they are less fantastic but because truth itself is fantastic and these new tales, for the most part. are closer to it than are the stories about the equivocal verities of our mental life. . .
Borges’ characters are still chessmen, however, and both character and action are subservient to situations of a chessboard kind. His settings are still indifferent; the compadtiros could almost as easily be Chicago gangsters or western gunmen. Despite his return to the oracles, Borges is not a portrayer of local color and customs; as somebody must have said before. his Buenos Aires is a situation, not a city. Many of his themes are still highbrow, esthetic, "irrelevant." References to systems of ideas, famous and arcane, are no longer profuse, but they have not vanished: we still find Spinoza. Euclid, Schopenhauer, the Kabbalah, Carlyle, Lugones, Carriego, Henry James, Hudson, and others. Still, these allusions seem to serve less purpose than formerly and to be more often literary than philosophical. Familiar Borgesian language crops up only here and there. . . .
Borges seldom plays with time and infinity, and instead turns to destiny, cosmic irony, and chance. Regrettably, we find no rich poetic images that suggest impossible intuitions like the plight of man before the chaotic universe: veiled men uttering blasphemous conjectures in the twilight ("The Lottery in Babylon") or old men hiding themselves in the latrines, with some metal disks in a prohibited dice-box, weakly imitating the divine disorder ("The Library of Babel," Ficciones). Borges’ language is still superbly laconic. It is less connotative, and conceits and etymological uses of words are no longer plentiful. Fantastic ideas still appeal to him, as we see in "The Meeting" and in "Juan Murana" but they are no longer intended to rattle or astonish us; instead, they appeal to our esthetic sensibilities.
Carter Wheelock, "Borges’ New Prose," in TriQuarterly 25 (0 1972 by Northwestern University Press), Fall, 1972, pp. 403-40.
Borges is a great writer, a sweet and melancholy poet; and people who know Spanish well revere him as a writer of a direct, unrhetorical prose. But his Angle American reputation as a blind and elderly Argentine, the writer of a very few, very short, and very mysterious stories, is so inflated and bogus that it obscures his greatness. It has possibly cost him the Nobel Prize; and it may well happen that when the bogus reputation declines, as it must, the good work may also disappear. The irony is that Borges, at his best, is neither mysterious nor difficult. His poetry is accessible; much of it is even romantic. His themes have remained constant for the last fifty years: his military ancestors, their deaths in bank, death itself, time, and old Buenos Aires. And there are about a dozen succcssfu1 stories. Two or three are straightforward, even old-fashioned, detective stories (one was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine). Some deal, quite cinematically, with Buenos Aires low life at the turn of the century. Gangsters are given epic stature: they rise, they are challenged, and some times they run away. The other stories-the ones which have driven the critics crazy-are in the nature of intellectual jokes. . . .
Borges’s puzzles and jokes can be addicting. But they have to be recognized for what they are; they cannot always support the metaphysical interpretations they receive. There is, though, much to attract the academic critic. Some of Borges’s hoaxes require-and sometimes disappear below-an extravagant display of curious learning. And there is the occasional baroque language of the early stories.
V. S. Naipaul, "Comprehending Borges," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books: (1972 by NYREV. Inc.), October 19, 1972, pp. 34.
We settle all too quickly for our contemporary reality and the ideas and values that conjure it up. (I was almost martyred once for opining to some Boston Irish and Italian kids that if Jesus were alive today he wouldn’t have a driver’s license.) One of the most attractive qualities of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is his openness to unfashionable notions, and his wealth of odd ideas, discarded philosophies, outmoded heresies, and alternative life styles. This last category is the one most exploited in his Universal History of Infamy. . . .
[Most] of these pieces were written back in the early 1930s, when Borges and the century were young, and when it was no error in taste to apply Borgesian prose to such unpleasant subjects [as murder. Chinese piracy, swindling]. No real blood flows in these pages: victims and villains alike are subordinated to Borges’s graceful style, interesting speculations, and ironically deflated endings. Mirrors abound; adjectives such as sad, weary, and abominable are sprinkled about; and a fine air of deja-vu hovers over even the oddest detail. . . .
These stories are early exercises, eclipsed by his later Ficciones, but they have a self-sufficient charm of their own, for fans and newcomers alike.
J . 0. O’Hata, "Sound and Fury, Signifying Borges." in Book World The Washington Post (C The Washington Post), November 19. 1972. p. 2.
Modesty is a method of Doctor Brodie’s Report, and, though his subjects are one or another kind of violence, Borges gives subtlety of tone and a pleasant, civilized voice to his story collection -in effect, all the pleasure of an organized fictional entity. The excellent translation, in which he participates with Thomas di Giovanni, is also an expression of modesty. As Borges implies, the book is not entirely his. It belongs to Kipling, to Swift, to tricks of memory and art, to a sympathetic translator, and perhaps to the failing passions of old age. The last is nonsense, but in such artful qualifications emerges a fascinating edition of the man-not Saint Borges-witty, disturbing, deft in his "straightforward stories."
Leonard Michaeis. "A Straightforward Story," in Partisan Review fcopyrighr @ 1973 by PR, Inc.), Winter, 1973, pp.23-25.
If, as Wittgenstein thought, "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." then Borges’ prose, at least, performs a precisely similar function, for there is scarcely a story which is not built upon a sophistry, a sophistry so fanatically embraced, so pedantically developed, so soberly defended, it becomes the principal truth in the world his parables create (puzzles, paradoxes, equivocations, and obscure and idle symmetries which appear as menacing laws); and we are compelled to wonder again whether we are awake or asleep, whether we are a dreamer or ourselves a dream, whether art imitates nature or nature mirrors art instead; once more we are required to consider whether things exist only while they are being perceived, whether change can occur, whether time is linear and straight or manifold and curved, whether history repeats, whether space is a place of simple locations, whether words aren’t more real than their referents-whether letters and syllables aren’t magical and full of cabbalisticc contents-whether it is universals or particulars which fundamentally exist, whether destiny isn’t in the driver’s seat, what the determinate, orderly consequences of pure chance come to, whether we are the serious playthings of the gods or the amusing commercial enterprises of the devil.
It is not the subject of these compulsions. however, but the manner in which they are produced that matters, and makes Borges an ally of Wittgenstein. It is not hard to feel that Borges’ creatures are mostly mad. This is, in many ways, a comforting conclusion. The causes, on the other hand, remain disturbing: they resemble far too literally those worlds theologians and metaphysicians have already made, for us and in which we have so often found ourselves netted and wriggling. . . .
Thus the effect of Borges’ work is suspicion and skepticism. Clarity, scholarship, and reason: they are ail here, yet each is employed to enlarge upon a muddle without disturbing it, to canonize a confusion. Ideas become plots (how beautifully ambiguous, for Borges, that word is), whereupon those knotty tangles the philosopher has been so patiently picking at can be happily reseen as triumphs of esthetic design. In the right sun suspicion can fall far enough to shadow every ideology; the political schemes of men can seem no more than myths through which they move like imaginary creatures. like fabulous animals in landscapes of pure wish; the metaphors upon which they ride toward utopia now are seldom seen (such is the price one pays for an ignorance of history) to be the same over-fat or scrawny nags the old political romancers, puffing, rode at windmills in their time, and always futilely. . . .
As a young poet Borges pledged himself to Ultraism, a Spanish literary movement resembling Imagism in many ways, whose principles he carried back to Argentina in his luggage. It demanded condensation, the suppression of ornament, modifiers, all terms of transition; it opposed exhortation and vagueness flourish: it praised impersonality, and regarded poetry as made of metaphors in close, suggestive combinations. It was primarily a poetry of mention. as Borges’ prose is now. . .
Any metaphor which is taken with literal seriousness requires us to imagine a world in which it can be true: it contains or suggests a metaphorical principle that in turn gives form to a fable. And when the whole is an image, local images can be removed.
William H. Gass, "Imaginary Borges and His Books," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books: 1969 NYREV, inc.), November 20. 1969. pp. 6, 8, 10.
Borges pushes [one] parody of creation to its furthest limits. Altogether obliterating any distinction between fiction and the analysis of it, he unabashedly makes into his subject what [1 suggest] is always implicit in the literature of self-parody: that it is necessarily a species of critical analysis. Instead of writing novels, he pretends that they already exist. He therefore offers only resume and commentary. Sometimes confining himself to specific books, as in his essay on "The Approach to AlMu’tasim" (a novel ascribed to a Bombay lawyer named Mir Bahadur Ali), he can also invent whole canons by fictitious authors, as in "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," which begins with some wonderfully accurate parody of Leavisite literary invective. And the parody of literary creation extends even to books that do exist, as in "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." . . .
Self-enclosed and remotely special in their interests, Borges’ narrators are concerned with essentially cabalistic facts and systems of very questionable derivation. Everything in his texts is, in the literal sense of the word, eccentric: he is a writer with no center, playing off, one against the other, all those elements in his work which aspire to centrality. Thus, while the division of animals in "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" does indeed make currently accepted divisions seem tiresomely arbitrary, the effect of its utterly zany yet precise enumeration is momentarily to collapse our faith in taxonomy altogether, to free us from assumptions that govern the making of classifications, including those of an encyclopedia of no verifiable existence. Self-parody in Borges, as in Joyce and Nabakov, goes beyond the mere questioning of the validity of any given invention by proposing the unimpeded opportunity for making new ones. . .
Borges is for my taste too little concerned with the glory of the human presence within the wastes of time. with human agencies of invention. and he is too exclusively amused by the careers of competing systems, the failed potencies of techniques and structures. We remember the point of his texts, especially since it is so often the same point, but he gives us few people to remember or care about. Our greatest invention so far remains ourselves, what we call human beings. and enough inventing of that phenomenon still goes on to make the destiny of persons altogether more compelling in literature than the destiny of systems or of literary modes.
Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by, permission), Oxford University Press. 1971. pp. 414.
Although many of the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges reflect the preoccupations of the literary spatialist, none does so more explicitly than "Tlon Uqbar. Orbis Tertius," a piece that is architectonic both in substance and manner. There are no "characters," only the impersonal voice of a highly learned man who recounts a detective story for intellectuals: the tale of how a group of thinkers conspired early in the seventeenth century to perpetuate the ostensible existence of a country named Uqbar in a nation called Tlon in a "third" universe. Bit by bit. the narrator uncovers pseudo-historical documents that describe the culture of Tlon: it constitutes a practical demonstration of philosophical idealism. Eventually, however, the boundaries between historical time and present time, between the invented and the scientifically verifiable, between fantasy, hoax, or art and reality, are thoroughly obscured. The narrator himself is present at the discovery of an artifact of Tlon, a piece of metal engraved with the image of a divinity worshipped only in "orbis tertius." Thus, imagination has animated and then proved the reality of its own invention.
At once the "real" world submits to the now-verified "imaginary" world, its inhabitants impressed largely by the appeal of its, orderly, consistent philosophy. Borges‘ narrator states that reality is, in fact, eager to yield. At the end of the story, this ostensibly unperplexed narrator predicts that the entire world will soon "become Tlon," ‘but he himself continues to work in isolation on his own project, a scholarly translation into archaic Spanish of Sir Thomas Browne’s "Hydriotaphia, UmeBuriall." This conclusion projects into the past a phenomenon that the discovery and imitation of Tlon has projected into the future: the question to what extent the ideal forms the real.
Sharon Spencer, in her Space, Time and Structure in the Modem Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright @ 1971 by New York University Press), New York University Press, 1971, pp. 20-1.
[Borges’] poems are less spectacularly executed than his prose pieces and in them be does not so consistently manifest his virtuosity and his singularity. His verse seems-if the word can be applied-naturalistic and, though, of course, it doesn’t necessarily hollow, ‘spontaneous’, less worked. Those poems collected in Dreamtigers (together with a variety of sketches, parables and concise fictions) are good, readable and most certainly not to be dismissed; but one misses the feeling of the author on a tightrope, one regrets the absence of the magician. His habit of compiling catalogues-his taste, if you enjoy them-is given full rein in his verse, which is a pity, for it is one of the least auspicious features of his prose. Still it’s petty to point at the spots on a star, the blemishes on her breasts. One should be grateful for the great pleasures afforded by the inventions of this extraordinary cerebral adventurer.
Jonathan Meades, "Borges in Conversation," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1973, pp. 789.
[Borges’] aim as a writer [is] to undermine the ‘order’ of the all-too-predictable modem world. And this explains the otherwise baffling fact that Borges is the culture hero of the new generation of hippies and drop outs, (together with Hermann Hesse). Without fully understanding why he is doing it, they sense the profound spirit of total rebellion in his work. In a way, Borges is lucky. He was born into a country with almost no literature at least, none that has been heard of in Europe. He remained unknown outside his own country until he was sixty-two when he shared the International Publishers Prize with Beckett. He has spent his life working quietly and modestly, with no temptation to try to reach a large audience. His work has accumulated slowly, like raindrops in a bucket or six-pences in a piggy bank. And now, suddenly, he is reaping the rewards of his life work, as unexpectedly as if he’d won the football pools. If his first volume of stories had brought him recognition (in his mid-thirties), his later work would have been robbed of its shock effect, and he would be already half-forgotten. And here I must admit that, as much as I admire Borges, he is a minor writer. I would not go so far as to say that he is greatly overrated, for I think that he deserves the fame that has come to him so belatedly. It is nevertheless true that the style and content look so original that it is easy to assume that he is saying more than he actually is. . . .
First of all, then, Borges is a late romantic. . . .
He doesn’t like the real world. Like T. S. Eliot, he finds it painfully vulgar and obvious. Like Tolkien, he wants to create his own ‘alternative world’. But unlike Tolkien, he lacks creative staying power. His stories remain fragments of his ‘alternative world’. And these stories. while original and beautifully written, are less profound than they at first appear.
. . . The obsessive theme that runs through all his work is of illusion and reality. This sounds very impressive; but, after all, before you accept a man’s reflections on dream and reality, you want to know what qualifications he has for speaking about reality. The flat truth is that Borges is a typical scholar: withdrawn, lazy, a little cowardly. He takes good care to avoid reality, and contents himself with weaving rather empty paradoxes about it. . . .
Borges is not a great writer because he is not a mature writer. He has remained in a kind of perpetual adolescence. It is true that what he has to say. he says beautifully. But he hasn’t very much to say. You soon become aware of his limitations. Many of the stories are simply ‘conceits’ in the Elizabethan sense-a single flimsy idea worked out elaborately….
Examine the work of Borges closely, and the impression of originality disappears. It would not be too inaccurate to describe him as a South American G. K. Chesterton, with a touch of Anatole France. As to the ‘view of life’, it is pure Joseph Conrad: gloom, pessimism, fatalism. . .
[The] scholarly librarian Borges admires the brutal action and passion; and he is also working off a slightly sadistic resentment about women. . . .
That is the indictment of Borges, and I feel that most of it holds water. He is a fine writer, a fascinating writer, but not a really important writer. He says nothing that had not already been said by innumerable romantics by the year 1900. In 1635, the Spanish dramatist Calderon wrote a play called Life is a Dream, and two centuries later the Austrian Grillparzer rewrote it in a superb version called Der Traum ein Leben. Anyone who has read these has a feeling of deja vu as he reads Borges on the subject of dream and reality.
Borges is a fascinating writer because his prose is close to poetry (and his poetry close to prose-at least, in English). It induces a sad, mysterious sensation, a feeling of strangeness and alienness, a kind of nostalgia for the infinite. When I first read him, I experienced, in my mid-thirties, feelings I had first experienced when I read Keats and Beddoes and Rupert Brooke in my mid-teens. He is a true poet, and he is, in his own way, a superb writer, if only a minor one--the terms are not contradictory. It is important to know exactly what he is, and what he is not. He is not a thinker, of any description at all; neither is he one of those significant figures, like Kafka or Simone Weil. who deserve to occupy an important place in cultural history even though their work may not be of the first importance. . . .
[After] my own initial enthusiasm for Borges, I found myself cooling towards him. I love Blake and Nietzsche: and I respect Sartre and Heidegger (with reservations), because they are trying to get somewhere: they are thinking to a purpose, with a sense of urgency. Borges is a gentle dilettante, a proponent of ‘culture’ in Matthew .Arnold’s sense. Among modem writers, the ones with whom he has most in common are Nabokov, John Cowper Powys and Charles Fort. Fort spent his life collecting weird little anecdotes about frogs falling from the skies, with the hope of discomforting modern science. But he didn’t do anything with his massive accumulation of oddities; he didn’t use them to argue a case, to present his own alternative to modem science. I detect the same spirit in Borges. Powys was another avid, omnivorous culture-vulture who read everything without discrimination: but he completely lacked mental discipline, so that his great novels like A Glastonbury Romunce are successful by accident, while the bad ones are just great heaps of disorganized rubble. Nabokov, another humanistic aesthete with a broad streak of self-pity, has the same dilettantism, the same dislike of thinkers who want to think to some purpose-he is on record as loathing Dostoevsky. I hasten to add that I read Nabokov, Powys and Charles Fort with as much pleasure as 1 read Borges; but temperamentally, I am on the side of Nietzsche, Blake and Sartre.
Colin Wilson, "Borges and Nostalgia," in Books and Bookmen, August, 1973, pp. 36-9 .
My interest in this paper is in seeing the Borgian poetics and let me stress that I will assume throughout that it is indeed implied and/or unconscious as the realization of principles that are directly related to (European) structuralism…
Structuralism has only recently arrived, whereas Borges has been writing fiction since the thirties. . . .
That Borges’ fiction had for so long before the critically conscious moment of the sixties attracted such interest for its apparently total rupture with established literary values and principles explains to a great degree how we can see him as having sensed, avant la lettre, the esthetic potential of structuralist principles. That Borges is grudgingly admired by the major figures of the current Latin-American literary scene, the dominant Spanish voices of the Third World, despite his political conservatism and his persistent refusal even to recognize a literature of commitment, attests to his acceptance as a bellwether of current literary esthetics. . . .
We cannot review [the basic concerns of structuralism] here. . . . Suffice it here to refer to two major concerns which I consider primordial, at least as far as Borges’ works and fiction in Latin America in the sixties have been concerned. The first major concern, which underlies the so-called neoformalism of contemporary Latin American writing, is precisely the principle of structure, be it an unknown or barely sensed structure of the universe/society/human experience which the artist as man must discover and portray adequately, or be it a structure which man out of despair and solipsism creates, an act of will which imposes cosmos on chaos. An intermediate circumstance, one which is paradigmatic of the relationship between the work of art and "reality," is the creation of a structure (i.e.. the work of art) which is not a documentary, naturalistic reflection of the structure of the universe. but which is a symbolic mythic-version of it, at least as the artist, again as man. senses and interprets it (however erroneously) at that moment. The result of this attitude is an agreement that there may be divine or cosmic structures beyond human comprehension, or ones which are barely perceptible to man; that there may be structures to human society and experience which are also beyond definitive comprehension but which are barely perceptible to it; and, finally, that man may engage in the conscious and unconscious creation of structures as part of an attempt both to explain the former structures and to overcome them. As unconscious structures, we might cite our socio-cultural institutions; as conscious structures we might cite our autonomously and deliberately patterned works of art. The second major concern, which derives immediately from the first, involves a recognition of the tentative, incomplete, arbitrary, and ultimately, invalid nature of the structures created by man. A persistent preoccupation of modem literature, one which I can trace back to the turn of the century in Latin American poetry at least, involves the artist’s realization of his inevitable failure as a vatic seer. The metaliterary concern of Borges’ poetry with the inability to write the "ultimate" poem has been studied, and Borges has repeatedly spoken of the multiple products of an artist as his failures to produce the one work which will express what must be expressed. Each work is an attempt to produce the one work, the artistic Aleph, that will contain the final vision of mankind; but each attempt is the failure to achieve that ideal, and the artist abandons the previous work and undertakes the next one, always with the illusory hope of success and yet with the full knowledge that it cannot be done. There are no absolute structures, or, if there are, man is incapable of perceiving and communicating them. With this, we are close to Levi-Strauss’ affirmation that the mythic patterns of a society are arbitrary and that the spiraling nature of myths represents but the vain attempt to discover the most perfect pattern of expression. For Borges, this same intuition explains the multiplicity of man’s philosophical and theological systems. systems which are so wildly contradictory but which are also so enthusiastically adhered to by the true believers that he can only justify their vitality, and the vitality of the human process which continues to create new systems. in terms of the most rigorous relativism that sees all systems as ultimately vacuous and false. For Borges, from his earliest fiction, "metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. " And as far as literature is concerned, both its multiplicity and its creative vitality bespeak, in the last analysis, its relativeness and its inadequacy ever to attain the "final" word. Although Borges continues to write, acknowledging the imperiousness of the human necessity ever to be creating new structures, his political and cultural conservatism and his early denunciation of entreguerre literary vanguardism (of which he had been a leader in Argentina) are the inevitable result of his realization of the complete arbitrariness of the solutions-the structure which man creates for his entertainment as well as for his solace.
David William Foster, "Borges and Structuralism: Toward an implied Poetics." In Modem Fiction Studies @ 1973, bv Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette. Indiana), Autumn, 1973. pp. 34151.
Borges’ manner of observing things through the prism of eternity and infinity clearly indicates that his stories are not meant to be interpreted on one or several or many levels, but as an endless proliferation of all possible levels. This sheer endlessness is what constitutes the central theme in Borges‘ fiction, but only in a figurative sense, for his version of endlessness would be misconstrued if approached in such finite terms as "central theme." The endlessness Borges depicts is the endlessness of endlessness of endlessness ad infinitum. Borges’ subject matter is literally everything, and his stage, the time-space continuum of the entire universe. . . .
Borges’ fiction demonstrates that by learning to think backwards, upside down, inside out, from many perspectives at once, we can make discoveries that lead to other discoveries that lead ad infinitum to other discoveries and, thereby, not only see but also experience the endlessness of the universe. The trajectory of these discoveries describes the main line of action in Borges‘ fiction. . . .
Since the universe is endless and the discovering process can never be exhausted, all of Borges’ stories are one inconclusive story, the general pattern of which is as follows: all the Participants-author, characters, reader-are put in a position where each has to find something or solve some riddle, immediately cerebral wheels go into high gear from every direction, and the various efforts soon reveal the presence of unseen dimensions that are somehow connected with those existing perceptibly. The story evolves as the participants’ cerebrations converge upon and bring into focus the unseen dimensions. The climax comes when the unseen dimensions emerge into full view and, more astonishingly still, when the participants, who are by now one and the same mind, see that the dimensions were there all along. Once the discovery is made, it automatically becomes part of the known world and the individual tale concludes, but not the basic story, for in the ending Borges infers that the discovery is really the beginning oh other discoveries ad infinitum…
As I pointed out, the horizontal sequence of events in Borges’ basic story results in the discovery of certain unseen dimensions and the discovery, at the end, proliferates itself endlessly. Now in addition to this horizontal direction, the basic story bifurcates vertically in an endless array of simultaneous story: "In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pin, he chooses simultaneously all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork" ("The Garden of Forking Paths." [in Labyinrhs]). The endlessness of this vertical array of simultaneous stories is implied by the interplay of two stories, one written and one unwritten. The written story generates the unwritten story, and from the fact of this generation the reader is to infer the generation of other stories ad infinitum.
The inference is made endlessly because the unwritten story turns out to be an obvious event or a familiar tale; something already known. The logic here may seem somewhat abstruse, but it is really quite simple. A story that is both newly generated and already known, surprising and obvious. unwritten and told, is neither new nor known nor surprising nor obvious nor written nor told, but a fusion of all these opposites, a threshold to endlessness. . . .
Moreover . . . we find that the vertical and horizontal directions coincide exactly. The vertical endlessness implied by the vertical array of simultaneous stories is the same endlessness implied horizontally by the proliferation of discoveries at the end of the plot. The unwritten story is also the surprise ending. The written story generated but was also being generated by the unwritten story. Borges’ fiction. in short, does not evolve in the three conventional dimensions, but in all dimensions at once. His stories move up and down, to and fro, in and out, back and forth, in every conceivable and, by extension. every inconceivable direction co-extensively. In the endlessness of the universe all finite notions become one infinite eternal phenomenon.
Carlos Navarro. "The Endlessness in Borges’ Fiction. " in Modem Fiction Studies (1973, by Purdue Research Foundation. West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1973. pp. 395-405.
Borges’ work is characterized. above ail. by a plethora of symbols that is evident to even the most casual reader. Mirrors and labyrinths, rivers and tigers, swords and roses permeate Borges’ fictions and essays, haunt some of his best poems. The permanence and reiteration of these symbols, the multiple and sometimes contradictory functions they perform, their omnipresence, makes them so notorious that, lately, even their maker feels uncomfortable about them. . . .
Nevertheless, in his works these symbols do not have a purely ornamental function but constitute part of a code that allows a reading of the subtext, or inter-text of allusions hidden in the very fabric of his writing. ..
Like all writers, Borges uses symbols that come from the most distant traditions and that are often intimately incorporated into the common language. Those symbols serve to express eternal themes, and they are like metaphors created by that collective and ubiquitous author "the spirit asproducer or consumer of literature" that Borges has evoked in one of his essays, with the help of a quotation from Paul Valiry [in Other Inquisitions 1937-1952). In Borges’ texts, then, it is easy to recognize these traditional symbols, from the rose, which reveals at the same time the fragility of things and their perenniality, since each rose represents the immortal species, to the sword, which is generally presented as a favored emblem of his ancestors: heroes of the South American War of Independence or of the civil wars which brought about national unity. These same weapons also appear in his work in degraded forms, such as the knife or the dagger. to illustrate infamous aspects of courage: the murderous bravery of the thug, the gambler, the gangster. Some of these traditional symbols-like that of the river which symbolizes at the same time Life, in its flow, and Time, in its irreversibility-appear so repeatedly in his texts that they become signs of personal obsessions and mark his imagery with an idiosyncratic seal. Even so, Borges uses them generally to underline their traditional significance. What gives them a Borgesian turn (what makes them Borges) is, always, the intensity of the reference. This also happens with the symbol of the dream. . . .
The traditional metaphor of life as sleep or a dream (in Spanish, "sueno" means both), which generally serves to express the unreality of life and its illusory, almost fantastic character, allows Borges to illustrate a more personal and limited philosophical conception. . . .
‘The universe as dream dreamt by all (he calls it the "shared dream." in the poem, "El despertar," "Awakening"), death as another dream: little by little, Borges slips into the traditional symbol his own solipsist conception which denies external reality, denies time, denies the individual ego, going even further in all these denials than his acknowledged models: Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.
The traditional symbols, like the meditations of those philosophers, serve Borges as stimuli, a starting point, means by which he always reaches his own private vision. It is obvious that Borges discovered, after psychoanalysis, that poetry uses the same mechanisms as dreams and that its symbols can be deciphered in a similar way. But his relations with clinical psychoanalysis do not go much further. . .
By accentuating the oneiric character of art. and of reality, Borges comes to the conclusion that dreams put in question not only the objective world, but also the personality of the dreamer. In this, he goes further than Freud or Jung and returns (by the route of depth psychology) to the solipsist idealism which he had reached by way of Berkeley and Schopenhauer. By means of his own fiction or those of others. Borges has often sought to define that abysmal experience of feeling oneself unreal: the dream or creation of another, a mere image, a simulacrum. Perhaps "Las ruinas circulares" ("The Circular Ruins") is the most elaborate expression of that experience which was also to surface in his poems and essays expressed as a metaphysical hypothesis as well. . . .
There is another universal symbol which appears so frequently in Borges’ work that it has been used by his translators to entitle collections of his stories and essays which, in Spanish, had other titles: it is the labyrinth. Traditionally one of the most fertile symbols of all time, the mythical labyrinth of Crete was a palace created by the architect Daedalus to enclose and protect a monster the Minotaur, the offspring of Queen Pasiphag’s intercourse with a snow-white bull. (Daedalus also invented a mechanical cow to facilitate the union.) The labyrinth is, in a manner at once contradictory and complementary, a fortress erected to preserve and defend the monster and a prison to prevent his flight. A place of paradox it fixes symbolically a movement from the exterior to the interior, from form to contemplation, from multiplicity to unity, from space to absence of space, from time to the absence of time. It also represents the opposite movement: from within to without, according to a symbolic progression. In the center of the labyrinth is the monster. or the god. since monstrosity is sometimes a divine attribute as shown by the metamorphoses in Greek mythology. There could be something else in the center of the labyrinth: a secret, a revelation, or an epiphany. The labyrinth becomes then, from the traditional point of view, the image of a chaos ordered by human intelligence, of an apparent and deliberate disorder which contains its own key. It also represents, by analogy, nature in its least human aspects: an endless river is a labyrinth of water; a forest is a labyrinth of vegetation. In a similar way, it serves also to represent certain human constructions: a library is a labyrinth of books: any large city is a labyrinth of streets and houses. The same symbol can be used to allude to invisible realities: human destiny or the inscrutable will of God, the mystery of creation, either natural or human, all can be called labyrinthine. Man!, of these allusions are naturally present in Borges’ work. Some of his favorite authors, like Joyce and Kafka, have given the theme of the labyrinth an important place in their respective work. Of the two. Joyce seems closer to Borges from the point of view of the use of this symbol. . . .
But the size and scope of their respective works to the encyclopedic proportions of Joyce’s work, Borges opposes his fragmentary and minimal art and their final visions are very different. In the Joycean conception of the labyrinth and of a search for a center, the idea of a final epiphany, of a transcendental revelation, is always concealed. In Borges, the labyrinth has a center, of course, but what is found there is something else: something in the nature of a secret. . . .
[Other] symbols which cast a spell on Borges’ work . . . are the symbols of the mirror, the tiger, and the library. Let us begin with the mirrors. Traditionally they underline appearance since they show an image of what is not in them, but outside them; moreover, their reflection is inverted. But they are also well-known symbols of consciousness and self-contemplation. The same word, "reflection," alludes both to thought and the images of a mirror. Because of the same reflective quality, mirrors are associated with water (the myth of Narcissus), and they can also be considered doors to another dimension of reality, as Jean Cocteau discovered after Lewis Carroll. The symbol of the mirror is one of the most frequent in Borges’ work, and it is one of the oldest. It is deeply rooted in his personal experience. As a child (his biographies tell us) he had a terror of mirrors, and he refused to sleep in a room which contained one. In a recent poem, "Los espejos" ("Mirrors"), he has tried to rationa& his fears, and although now his near-blindness has obliterated ail mirrors, his poetry cannot forget that mirrors haunt us, that one is never alone in a r6om if there is a mirror. . .
Like the riddle of the Sphinx, like the secret of the inhabitant of the labyrinth, that which the riddle of the mirror hides is the revelation of one’s own being. That the revelation is painful and can be tragic (as it was for Oedipus) or totally destructive (as it was for the Minotaur) is something which Borges’ work, in spite of its apparent rationality and its parodic or ironic mode, does not hesitate to insinuate. By way of the mirror, of reflection or duplication, of the double and horror of engendering a murderous issue, one can arrive at an even more abysmal vision of the secret of the labyrinth. . . .
[The] tiger is (as in the poem of William Blake) a symbol of nature’s savage life and also 3 symbol of pure Evil. Borges has an obsession with tigers similar to the one with mirrors. It also derives from his childhood and has found expression in such representative texts as a prose poem. originally entitled in English, "Dreamtigers," or in "El otro tigre" ("The Other Tiger"). . . .
[The] tiger joins in the final unity of Borges’ work. with the other symbols which illustrate the terrible and sad reality of this world of appearances. of mirrors, and labyrinths. If the tiger is admired and even envied by the poet. it is because it represents life in the raw, destruction as another way of creation, death as a path to life, whereas the librarian represents only life frozen, life changed into signs, into symbols, into tropes, into mere words. Into writing. of course.
Emir Rodriguez-Monegal, "Symbols in Borges’ Work. " in Modern Fiction Studies CCC 1973 by Purdue Research Foundation. West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn. 1973. pp. 325-40.
Most of the stories of Borges’ most recent collection, Doctor Brodie’s Report (1970). are realistic although some have elements of the fantastic. In short, to say that Borges writes fantastic fiction is a misleading generalization; to limit his fiction to that genre is a clear error. Realism, even if mixed with the fantastic, tends to imply-especially in Spanish America-a commitment to social, political, or philosophical ideas; the author wants to "sell" these to the reader. Borges could be called a realist without this implication, but I prefer the idea that in spite of his manifest unconcern, in literature, for the public issues of his time, he is, nonetheless, a committed writer. Aside from his affinity for metaphysical and philosophical ideas (none of which carries his stamp of approval) and apart from his obvious repetition of themes and situations, his fiction is pervaded with an esthetic-philosophical idea which appears, repeats itself, and even alludes to itself with system and regularity. Whether Borges tries to "sell" this idea is debatable despite his having declared that his stories are intended only to entertain, not to persuade. Borges’ obsession is not public and common like socialism or existentialism, but it does not for that reason cease to be an impulse to creation as well as a reaction to the problems of both art and life. . . .
What we find in Borges-what falls his essays and is implicit, often patent in his fiction-is the esthetic equivalent and symbol of his philosophical position. As is well known, his philosophy consists largely in an agnostic affirmation that truth, although it may be known, is not recognizable. He esteems all ideas and systems, he has said, for their esthetic value, and he keeps them before him in a fluid panorama, denying that we can know whether any of them corresponds to reality. His now-famous dictum on the "esthetic event"-his "imminence of a revelation, which never comes" is his philosophical outlook applied to literary creation. Borges does not deny that literature should express truth; he denies that truth is available through expression. So he rejects expression in favor of suggestion, which he calls allusion. Reality for Borges-or what most recommends itself as reality-is an experience, a moment of apprehension without specific content or language, in which an inexpressible reality is intuited; it is simply the moment of a heightened sense of awareness-a concept totally consistent with the dictionary definition of "esthetic." The attempt in fiction to express some preconceived idea, he says, has produced some of the worst literature of our time. As he rejects all philosophical ideas or systems as final, he also rejects as literary "causes" all formulas, ideas, and systems to which writers may become committed: philosophies, political ideas, religions, social complaints and remedies, and recipes for making art. This rejection of everything is converted into a philosophical principle with esthetic application, the only alternative to which is the acceptance of one or another specific dogma. But this principle is itself an idea, and in order to be consistent Borges has to reject it as dogmatic truth. When he denies having an esthetic, as he does in the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, he does not lie, but he plays unavoidably with semantics or with his "mischievous dialectic.". . .
To intuit a truth not expressed-ambiguous and indefinite-is to be in the esthetic moment; to prefer that moment or intuition to lucid knowledge, to seek it above truth, and to allude to it constantly over the years is to be committed to it and to all it implies. For a man like Borges, whose life consists in literature and whose literature is made out of philosophy, such an obsession is a reaction to existence.
Carter Wheelock. "The Committed Side of Borges," in Modem Fiction Studies 10 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana). Autumn, 1973, pp. 373-79.