Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Aleph and other stories by Jorge Luis Borges

There is something satisfyingly Borgesian about the fact that long before I had ever actually read Borges I wrote so many stories that are clearly reminiscent of him. I’ve recently read Ficciones, and now The Aleph, but prior to that the only Borges I think I had ever read was the story (contained in Ficciones), Funes the Memorious. And yet, reading his work, it is hard not to see the similarities between us. (This is not to say, of course, that I am comparing my ability with Borges’s, simply our approaches to storytelling and subject matter.) After all, what could be more Borgesian than a writer paying homage to an author he has never read, adopting a style he has never seen, ‘inventing’ tropes and creating situations which are already part of the canon?

There is probably a prosaic explanation – that Borges’s work has subsequently influenced much modern literature and film, which has in turn, been an unconscious influence on me. But it is nice to wallow in Borgesian enigma and ponder whether, in an echo of the developments in The Circular Ruins and The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874), the spirit of Borges is continuing through me. After all, take away the supernatural element and this is precisely what is happening, in as much as the concerns and influences which shaped him have also somehow shaped me: in this way there is an unconscious recurrence of the peculiar circumstances that created his fiction.

The Aleph, the title story of this collection, is a juncture where the entirety of existence can be seen simultaneously, from any and every angle, every moment, through the consciousness of every sentient being, encompassing every interaction. It is the spatial equivalent of temporal infinity, a moment when all existence can be comprehended at once. It is ‘the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.’ What this means, in metaphysical terms, probably depends on one’s individual viewpoint. Some may see it as a manifestation of transcendence, others as immanence; some as the glory of God, others as the glory of humanity and others still as simply the glory of existence. There are mysteries in our world, and these mysteries have formed the basis of all intellectual thought for the past six thousand years and more. The Aleph, the ability to see and comprehend everything at once, would solve those mysteries. Thus, of course, it is a fake, because mystery is the human condition.

Life is about memory and experience, and time is the conduit through which these are reached. The Aleph fails because it recreates (or invents) memory, and it can give a suggestion, a flavour, of the experience, but it cannot transmute these base elements into life: the essence is missing, and with it those human concepts of empathy, understanding, learning. It is based in the present, inevitably leaking into the past, but crucially it offers no avenue into the future, where the mysteries are. Thus, while the mimetic world of fiction can make a representation of life, it can go no further. The experience of it is all ours.

What I find most interesting about Borges’s fiction is that, for all its fantastic elements, it is rooted in the human experience. Real people are his subject matter. At one point he writes dismissively of Joyce’s Ulysses, and says something very interesting:

When I was young, I thought of literature as a game of skillful and surprising variations; now that I have found my own voice, I feel that tinkering and tampering neither gratly improve nor greatly spoil my drafts. This, of course, is a sin against one of the main tendencies of letters in this century – the vanity of overwriting – which led a man like Joyce into publishing expensive fragments, showily entitled “Work in Progress.”

For writers like Joyce, he is suggesting, words are not the tool, but the product. Thus, although Borges admired Joyce (enough, indeed, to write two poems in praise of him), his views remained ambivalent and his own prose consciously avoided the grandiosity of Joyce’s. Indeed, in The Circular Ruins, Borges has fun at the Irishman’s expense:

It is generally understood that a modern-day book may honorably be based upon an older one, especially since, as Dr. Johnson observed, no man likes owing anything to his contemporaries. The repeated but irrelevant points of congruence between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey continue to attract (though I shall never understand why) the dazzled admiration of critics.

This is an implicit criticism of what TS Eliot described as the ‘mythical method’, the layering of allusions and references. The deluded, failed writer in The Aleph, Carlos Argentino Daneri, also displays these tendencies, ascribing to his own work a retrospective cachet by seeing in it grand allusions to other works.

He read me many other [of his own] stanzas that also won his approval and his profuse commentary. There was nothing memorable in them; I wouldn't even judge them much worse that the first. Application, resignation and chance had collaborated in his writing; the virtues that Daneri attributed to them were after thoughts. I understood that the work of the poet was not in his poetry; it was in the invention of reasons why his poetry was admirable; naturally, this later effort modified the work for him; but not for other people.

Borges, on the contrary, uses his fictions not for self-aggrandisement but for the satisfaction it brings. He concludes his beautiful autobiographical essay:

What I’m out for now is peace, the enjoyment of thinking and of friendship, and, though it may be too ambitious, a sense of loving and of being loved.

I think he achieved his goals.

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