Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones is – astoundingly so – a work of imagination. All fiction is, of course, but the sheer sweep of invention in Ficciones is remarkable. From the first story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, relating a fantastical conspiracy stretching across continents and generations to challenge God by compiling the entire natural, social, political and cultural history of an imagined planet, Borges’ collection of short stories examines the intractable nature of time and reality, of what it means to be human, of art and literature and philosophy and life. There are reviews of wholly imaginary books (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, both pre-dating Nabokov’s Pale Fire), works of fantastic fiction (The Library of Babel, in which near infinitude resides every book that ever, possibly, could have been or will be written), genre stories (Death and the Compass, a quasi-detective story, magic realism (The Garden of Forking Paths) and so on. Think of any postmodern trope and you’ll find its progenitor among these seventeen stories.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Borges is the way he addresses huge themes – time and reality – with such compressed narratives. His stories are very short, mostly under ten pages, and his language correspondingly crisp, unadorned, and yet he achieves a depth of meaning which is almost antithetical to his brevity. Mario Vargas Llosa picks up this point: ‘The revolutionary thing about Borges' prose is that it contains almost as many ideas as words, for his precision and conciseness are absolute.’ In this, Vargas suggests, Borges is not typically Latin American. He explains:

To us [Latin American writers], ideas are formulated and captured more effectively when fleshed out with emotion and sensation or in some way incorporated into concrete reality, into life – far more than they are in a logical discourse. This, perhaps, is why we have such a rich literature and such a dearth of philosophers. The most illustrious thinker in the Spanish language in modern times, Ortega y Gasset, is above all a literary figure.

Essentially, Borges seems to have been driven by a need to explore ideas. His stories, he once declared, largely come from ‘half-forgotten memories.’ He goes on: ‘I don’t think we’re capable of creation in the way that God created the world.’ And yet he does create. He writes into being an extraordinary range of characters and situations and temporal paradoxes – the library of Babel, for example, stretching into infinity, recording every possible variation of history: such truly is the work of a god, and the Chief Librarian in charge of the library must surely be a deity? And the god of The Secret Miracle, who grants Hladik the reprieve he requests at the moment of his death – is this not, too, a beautiful vision of humanity, a mundane and not a transcendent vision of heaven? Yet it is achieved in a mere few pages, unadorned, simple, storytelling at its most basic.

Thus, we have profundity-through-lightness. Llosa notes:

This lightness of literary touch freed Borges to explore more deeply. Borges was not a writer imprisoned behind the heavy bars of national tradition, as European writers often are, and this facilitated his journeys through cultural space, in which, thanks to the many languages he knew, he moved with consummate ease. This cosmopolitanism, this eagerness to be a master of so far-ranging a cultural sphere, this construction of a past upon a foundation both national and foreign, was a way of being profoundly Argentine – which is to say, Latin American. But in Borges' case, his intense involvement with European literature was also a way of shaping his own personal geography, a way of being Borges.

And what does ‘being Borges’ entail? Borges himself said:

When I write a story or a poem I am simply concerned about that story or that poem, but I have no general philosophy; I have no message to convey. I am not really a thinker. I am a man who is very puzzled – and generally speaking, very pleasantly puzzled – by life and by things, especially by books.
Borges is surely being modest. His explorations of time and reality are profound, all the more so for their lack of didacticism. His stories consistently explore the same territory – what it means to be human in a world that cannot be tied down or defined or controlled or even, frankly, understood. In this, as Seymour Menton notes in an article addressing magic realist tendencies in Borges’ works, Borges adopts a Jungian perspective:

Magic Realism adheres to the Jungian collective unconscious, to the idea that all mankind is compressed into one, that all time periods are compressed into the one moment of the present, and that reality itself is dream-like. From his own texts, it's obvious that Borges shares Jung's view of the world and rejects Freud's.

What we have, then, is an exploration of the general from the point of view of the specific, the public from the private, the hopes, fears, beliefs and actions of humanity as seen through the eyes of humans. Thus, for all the irreality of the writing, there is a reality shining through. Funes the Memorious, condemned to remember every instant of his existence in tortuous detail, represents the fears of a humanity dwarfed by the terrifying presence of eternity, but Hladik, in his long, long moment of death, in which he both triumphs and expires, is a fine symbol for us all.


Carlos said...

Hey Tom,

Ficciones is a classic, a collection that combines the bulk of two earlier publications of Borges. Thanks for putting this up.

I was lucky enough to get to 'teach' a class on "Emma Zunz" (from another Borges collection) in a Law & Literature seminar a few years back. That was a lot of fun and was perhaps the genesis of my desire, some years later, to return to the academy and try for a PhD in letters. Not there yet; we'll see.

You mention that many post-modern tropes are to be found (or in fact were invented) in these pages. I definitely agree with you. Also of note is that Borges was a broad reader of early fiction and classics, such that you'll also see early modern and ancient tropes revisited. You allude to an example of this is in the way he'll assert relationships between an imagined aspect of his story with respected authorities of the past, footnotes to sources presumably existent, ascending chronologically in the misty pre-history... all at giving the fictive a gloss of support by Tradition (with a capital “T”). This sort of trope is on display in the stories-in-story throughout the first part Don Quijote. Also see Plato’s Timaeus, where an explication of the cosmology of the polis, the philosopher’s 'true myth' of the polis is tied back through the respected “lawgiver” Solon, into Egyptian tradition, and finally into a discussion of Atlantis (which, even at that time, was likely only a myth). The interesting part for me is that this type of trope wraps itself in the cloak of ‘truth’ not just because of the respect for the authorities and tradition it asserts (which is part of it), but also because of the nature of the narrative transaction itself.

A book like Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, helps to elucidate why this works. Essentially, as we descend into the levels of story in story (or tradition in tradition) we remove once, then twice, perhaps thrice from the direction of communicative appeal. In other words, the speaker can’t be lying to me (the reader) or otherwise trying to influence my views, because he isn’t even speaking to me. That’s a very rough explication, but all I can do at the moment. I am not a big ‘theory’ guy; I think analysis should come from the text outward. But the Chatman book as been a watershed for me over the last 10 years in understanding narrative, particularly the different types of narration and how they function in the reader’s mind. The book is great because it’s not a theory of this or that particular ideology. It is rather a discussion of the nature of narrative transmission, in both a typological and functional sense. (-What is it? -And how does it work?)

So anyway, in conclusion, Borges is great. [FootNote: Sampson, C.A., “Great Writers of the 20th Century”, Journal of Imagined Literary Heros, Vol. 22: No. 102, pgs. 11-17 (2009)


Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Carlos.

I've also got hold of The Aleph, which I've made a start on. He's an extraordinary writer.

I got half way through Don Quixote when I was much younger and loved it, but never got round to finishing it. An extreme form of the story-in-story, and also the complete story-shift, is Jacques the Fatalist by Diderot, which is Tristram Shandy on speed. I haven't read Timaeus, but must get round to more Plato in connection with the McCarthy/Voegelin/gnostic debate.

I'll have a look for the Sampson as well.


Carlos said...

I'll look for the Diderot work in the library next week, thanks for the tip.

Re Seymour Chatman- he's an actual author of the narrative book. The Sampson footnote was a joke, given how Borges will make reference to imaginary works (...pardon my sense of humor).


Tom Conoboy said...

Ha! It was Chatman I meant to say...

The Diderot is great fun.