Monday, October 31, 2011


I wrote recently that Borges's fiction is often structured around scenes whose drama derives from the structural logic of the cinema. And some time ago, in a reading of a number of stories from Historia universal de la infamia and Ficciones I suggested that their guiding logic was often an accumulation of almost imperceptible (and seemingly random) deviations from the norm.

Putting these two observations together, I think we see how there are various possible relations between what we can call the logic of minimal deviation and the structure of the cinematic scene. Sometimes one leads to the other, sometimes the two complement each other, sometimes they are in tension, and so on. At times Borges seems to be asking how much deviation (or how many minimal deviations) are required to provoke a scene. At other times he wonders how many deviations any particular scene can handle. And there are still other cases in which he proposes that it is only by making a scene that the logic of gradual accumulation can be brought to a halt.

Take "La muerte y la brújula," for instance. Here the detective, Lönnrot, carefully and slowly follows the "periodic series of bloody deeds" (147; 147), each of which is but a slight variation on its predecessor, until he arrives at the climactic scene that gives (renewed) sense to the series itself. Or "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which begins with a paradigmatically cinematic scene: a dinner with Borges's friend Bioy Casares, a glance at a mirror that provokes a citation and then the fruitless search for its origin. This then opens up a concatenation of curious circumstances, each one of which could easily be overlooked: an additional encyclopedia article, a package from Brazil, a compass packed in a crate of table service, a dead man who owns an unusually heavy metal cone. Together, however, they constitute a new world.

Or, for another type of relationship between the scene and the imperceptible deviation, see "El milagro secreto" ("The Secret Miracle"). This is the story of Jaromir Hladík, a Czech scholar who is captured by the Nazis in Prague in early 1939. He is soon tried and sentenced to death by firing squad. In the interval between the sentence and its execution, Hladík reflects upon his life's work and the fact that it is soon to be cut short. He asks God for a year in which he could complete his masterwork, a verse drama entitled The Enemies. It hardly seems that this wish is to be granted when the characteristic scene of the firing squad is assembled: a bare yard, soldiers hanging around waiting for the appointed hour, the offer of a final cigarette, a cloud in the sky, a heavy drop of rain. But then all of a sudden "the physical universe stopped" (172; 161). And Hladík is indeed given his year, in the course of what for everyone else is but an instant, in which he can work out in his head the completion of his play. When finally he finishes his task, chooses the last epithet, "the drop of water rolled down his cheek. He began a maddened cry, he shook his head, and the fourfold volley felled him" (174; 162). Here, then, the scene contains the imperceptible deviation that in turn allows for the concatenation of revisions in which the book is completed before we then return back to the scene for its dramatic conclusion.

Either way, however, I think that what's at issue for Borges is the connection between habit or the routine, with its many repetitions none of which is quite like the last, and drama or the exceptional. How does the dramatic scene, with all its novelty, arise from routine repetition? Why is it that we are suddenly confronted with a decision or choice that only in retrospect we can understand has been a long time brewing in all the vagaries of chance? Or how, by contrast, does the scene itself become routinized or habitual? For after all, in Hladík's case, the firing squad scene was absolutely unexceptional from the point of view of those at the other end of the gun. Is then drama just habit viewed from some other perspective, whereby the otherwise imperceptible variation suddenly comes to take on unusual significance? And cannot even the most compelling of scenes, or the most vital of confrontations, be reframed such that the differences they invoke become strangely inconsequential?

So, for example, in both "Tema del traidor y del heróe" ("The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero") and "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" ("Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"), the most imperceptible of differences are suddenly given dramatic import. And we will see above all in two stories in El Aleph--"Los teólogos" ("The Theologians") and "Emma Zunz"--how distinctions that are quite literally matters of life and death can, with a sudden twist of perspective, suddenly come to matter not in the slightest.

But in Ficciones the emphasis is on how habit and its banal repetitions can, like the mirror against which Bioy Casares warns us in "Tlön," produce monsters.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


My aim was to write a post a week this semester about Borges, much as I did a few years ago for José María Arguedas. I'm behind, but hoping to catch up. Here is what I have written to date:


  • chance ("The Widow Ching--Pirate," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The South," and "The Library of Babel")


Saturday, October 29, 2011


Historia universal de la infamia manifests Borges's interest in performance: the ways in which the self is not a given, but is rather a role that we play. Sometimes we play no other role than the one we are given, which is why perhaps it seems so true to us, and why we easily confuse what is after all mere habit with some kind of abiding essence. At other times, however, characters find themselves faced with a decision: will they act this way or that. This is a dramatic choice between the different selves that they could potentially be. Perhaps infamy itself is precisely the result of some such decision, a deviation from an allotted role in favor of some other performance.

Almost all the stories in the collection revolve around some kind of imposture. Most obviously, "El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro" ("The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro"), which is based on the Tichborne Case, a nineteenth-century cause célèbre in which one Arthur Orton claimed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. Borges observes that Orton's performance gained credibility from the fact that he was in so many ways so different from the person he claimed to be: where Tichborne had been slim, dark-haired, reserved, and precise, Orton was fat, fair-haired, outspoken, and uncouth. Borges's point is that presumably an impostor would try to copy at least some elements of the original he was mimicking; the very fact that there was no such attempt at impersonation seemed to prove that Orton must be the real thing. The best disguise is no disguise at all; in the best performance there is no distance between the role being played and the person playing it.

"El impostor inverosímil" features an eminence grise in the shape of Orton's accomplice Ebenezer Bogle, who plays the part of Tichborne's manservant. When Bogle dies, Orton quite literally loses the plot and ends up "giving lectures in which he would alternately declare his innocence and confess his guilt" (40; Complete Fictions 18). Borges calls Orton Tichborne's "ghost," presumably in that he shows up after the latter's death, like some kind of strange revenant. But it is surely equally true that Orton himself is haunted by Tichborne. By the end he has spent so longer playing the role that it's as though he's know quite sure who he is, and he will let the public decide: "many nights he would begin by defending himself and wind up admitting all, depending on the inclinations of his audience" (40; 18).

In "El asesino desinterado Bill Harrigan" ("The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan"), there is no third party: neither the eminence grise nor the ghost that compelled Orton's transformation. Or rather, there is but it is impersonal, mechanistic: New York tenement boy Harrigan turns himself into the cowboy out West who will be Billy the Kid by acting out melodramatic models provided by the theater. In turn, he will become an iconic part of the myths of the Wild West propagated by Hollywood.

Borges suggests that the History he is telling us is a series of "discontinuous images" that he compares a movie. But it is even better described as a series of scenes in the cinematic sense: briefer than a theater scene but more dynamic than any single image, the filmic scene is a situation in a single space defined by mise-en-scène, a dramatic confrontation, and the position of camera angles or lines of sight. Indeed, the scene is very often the basic unit of Borges's fiction. (In this collection, think particularly of "Hombre de la Esquina Rosada" ["Man on Pink Corner"] or the ending of "El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv" ["Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv"].)

Here the key scene is the moment of transformation of Harrigan into Billy: a notorious Mexican gunfighter named Belisario Villagrán enters a crowded saloon that is outlined with cinematic precision and visuality ("their elbows on the bar, tired hard-muscled men drink a belligerent alcohol and flash stacks of silver coins marked with a serpent and an eagle" [64; 32]); everyone stops dead except for Harrigan, who fells him with a single shot and for no apparent reason. Again, the visual detail as the Mexican's body is slow to register the indignity: "The glass falls from Villagrán's hand; then the entire body follows" (65; 33). In that moment, Billy the Kid is born "and the shifty Bill Harrigan buried" (66; 33).

But even if it is Bill's "disinterested" (unreflective, habitual) killing that turns him into a legend, there is always a gap between that legend and his behavior. He may learn "to sit a horse straight" or "the vagabond art of cattle driving" and he may find himself attracted to "the guitars and brothels of Mexico" (66, 67; 33, 34), but a few tics from his East Coast days remain: "Something of the New York hoodlum lived on in the cowboy" (66; 33). The task of replacing one set of habits (or habitus) with another is never quite complete. But it is not as though Harrigan were the "real" thing and Billy the Kid a mere mask. Rather, it is that the new performance is informed by the old one. As always in Borges, there is never anything entirely new under the sun, even the scorching sun of the arid Western desert.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Edwin Williamson's Borges: A Life is the standard biography in English. But it is, sadly, not a good book.

Williamson is frankly obsessed with Borges's sexual history. The irony is that there really isn't that much to be obsessed about: Borges had a whole series of crushes on various women, but so far as one can tell they were very seldom consummated; he didn't marry until he was almost 68; and both Borges himself and the women with which he was in one way or another involved were almost all very discreet and have left little in the way of written record of their relationships.

Inevitably, then, Williamson is reduced to conjecture. There is much talk about what "must have" or "may have" been the case: "the truth may have been that he needed to feel close to the woman he loved" in order to write his longest fiction, The Congress (279); "he may have blamed Perón for coming between him and" a woman he asked to marry but who refused (332); the violence of his reaction upon hearing that another former crush was to marry someone else "must surely have been due to the symbolic significance of the occasion" (358); the woman who would become his second wife "must have been a soothing presence" from the time he first met her (370). And so on and so forth.

More seriously still, and in lieu of any other evidence, Williamson turns to Borges's writing and reads it often as though it were almost directly confessional and autobiographical. So, for instance, almost any number of the earlier fictions are read as barely-disguised accounts of a putative love triangle between Borges and fellow writers Norah Lange and Oliverio Girondo. So Williamson has much to say about the "autobiographical subtext" of the novel outlined in "El Acercamiento a Almotásim," which "can be discerned without difficulty" and features "a woman--Norah Lange--[who] seemed to represent a higher truth" (180). Likewise, in "Hombres de las orillas," the protagonist's "mysterious passivity suggests that Borges himself was at a loss to explain why Norah Lange had left him for his rival" (172). Moreover, most of Borge's contributions to the newspaper Crítica are "a cryptic record of his feelings and attitudes to Norah Lange" (195). Meanwhile in "The Aleph" Williamson once again zooms in on an "autobiographical subtext" which, apparently, "alludes to his thwarted love for Norah Lange" (202). And reading the books described in "Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain" we are told that "as with everything Borges wrote, there was an autobiographical subtext [. . .], a grieving heart beating in the depths of the narrative, as it were" (215).

Admittedly, the biographer's bias may well be to read the work in biographical terms. But the problem is that, here, such reductive interpretations edge out any other possible reading. Williamson has little if any concern for the aesthetic dimensions to Borges's poetry or prose. Indeed, he evinces scarcely any interest in literature at all. Everything has always to shed light on the life. And yet, especially in the case of Borges, it should surely be the writing that counts. For, however you look at it, the life is frankly not that interesting. This was a man of habit and routine: he lived with his mother until her death at the age of ninety-nine, and with their maid for another nine years thereafter; for decades he dined two or three times a week with his friends Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; though he travelled both when young and when old, for the middle 35 years of his life from 1924 to 1961 he never once left the River Plate. If his romantic life was, as it seems, characterized by a series of fantasies and self-delusions, then it is precisely the creative power of fantasy that is of interest, not the banal details of who didn't do what with whom.

Again and again, Williamson comes out with the notion that Borges was looking for a "new Beatrice" to enable a "Dantean vision" of literature as a "project of salvation through writing" (243). There may be many ways to read Borges, but this is surely among the least interesting, and least productive.

Or perhaps it is the second-least interesting and productive. For Williamson's other major idée fixe is even more ponderous. This is the theory that Borges's life and art were guided by the struggle between the "sword of honor" bequeathed him by his mother, with her anxiety about her criollo heritage and breeding, and what is either the "dagger of desire" (359) or the "dagger of rebellion" (463) inherited from his father, who was not particularly rebellious but who did once try to encourage his son's sexual initiation (via what seems to have been a rather traumatic encounter with a Geneva prostitute). Borges struggles between the choice either to live up to his somewhat invented patrician upbringing, an image carefully nurtured by the woman that Williamson simply calls "Mother," or to risk Mother's wrath with any number of possible personal or political betrayals of family and class. This is the "deep-seated conflict between sword and dagger" (144) that structures Williamson's biography.

In practice, the endless invocation of the "sword of honor" or the purported conflict between sword and dagger is a heavy-handed refrain, a blunt dichotomy that on the one hand steadily unravels (is it a dagger of desire or of rebellion, or is perhaps the opposing term to honor in fact "the solipsism fostered by his father's library" [435]) and, on the other, has to be endlessly restated precisely to ward of the threat of the unraveling. Frankly, by the end I was thoroughly sick both of "Borges's Dantean dream" (429) and of "the ancestor's sword of honor" (44), "the ancestral sword, associated with Mother" (145), "the oppressive authority of the ancestral sword of honor" (211), "the sword of honor his mother held dear" (286), "Mother's ancestral sword of honor" (318) and all the other slight repetitions of the same simplistic basic concept.

Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of Williamson's book is the way in which it takes one of the most sophisticated and subtle writers of the twentieth century, a man whose writing is always alive to complication, ambiguity, allusion, uncertainty, and undecidability, and writes a Life that not only shows precious little curiosity about that writing (or about literature in general), but also precious little understanding of it. This is a book that might was well have been written with a sword or a dagger. It's a hatchet job, not in the sense that Williamson denigrates his subject (au contraire, he is if anything far too forgiving, not least about Borges's anti-democratic impulses and his many political mis-steps of the 1970s and 1980s), but because it is as crude as anything written with a hatchet has to be. And that, in the end, is the worst denigration one can offer to a writer as careful, as precise, as subtle, and as sophisticated as Borges.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


The Wednesday quotation, part XVI: Stephan Collini from his excellent, if frightening, account of recent UK government policy on higher education:
The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you "want" – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from "the student experience") are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. ("From Robbins to McKinsey." London Review of Books 33.16 [25 August 2011])