Sunday, July 27, 2008
Borges Takes the Bronze. Is There Partisan Outcry?
Because I’m teaching it in a short story class this fall (advanced undergraduate, but not that advanced), I’ve been re-reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. It has been a long time since I’ve read Borges and it was certainly a pleasure, although how well I’ll be able to get that pleasure across to students is one of the issues I’ve been considering in relation to this book.
It’s clear to me why he’s compared so often to Poe (who I’m also teaching in the class) and Kafka (who I’m not, in this class anyway, mainly because his work doesn’t highlight any key shifts in the development of the short story). As much as I love the work of all three, I think that at least on my personal list, Borges may be third. He’s a much more profound philosopher than Poe, of course, although that has something to do with his writing a century later. He shares with Poe an interest in bifurcations of identity, but doesn’t offer that much insight into character or the social dynamics that might underpin such bifurcations, while Poe’s extreme flights of fancy nonetheless point to real problems in the history of power, wealth, history, love, guilt, and families. Not that Borges doesn’t raise those specters too. But he’s not very interested in character, not that for me he has to be automatically.
Characters, for Borges, when he bothers with them at all, are much more purely part of a philosophical game, one in which opposites are often revealed as two parts of the same thing, or there’s an absolute rift between what is said about an event and what actually happened, or multiple narrative possibilities create instability in any notion of fact or truth. The idea of character is therefore on some level simply deceptive. Any sense we have of our own uniqueness as individuals is mainly illusion.
The literary games that Borges plays are based in a genuine dread of the endlessness of time and space and a wise skepticism, but for the most part that dread happens on the level of ideas and not in the narrative itself as such. Even when Borges’ characters are experiencing or expressing dread, the tone of the story doesn’t create dread. Instead, the dread comes from contemplating the philosophical puzzle the stories present. Although his writing style is often stunningly sensual, in total opposition to Poe he doesn’t allow much in the way of passion into the stories or the characters. In the stories that do more highlight emotion at the center of passionate events, like the need for revenge in “Emma Zunz” and the rage at cowardice in “The Shape of the Sword,” the narratives may be less than fully convincing on the level of emotion. More often though, his characters exist in a state of passive contemplation. I can see why some people might prefer this, and at moments I do too, but the feeling of removal and distance in Borges’ work remains consistent.
And while he shares with Kafka a love of the parable, Borges’ parables aren’t necessarily quite as compact, even while compactness is one of the traits his stories are famous for. The just slightly meandering quality has something with the level of learning that most of his stories display (even when the texts he’s mentioning are game-playing inventions) and which is certainly one of the pleasures of reading his stories, although I imagine it would be a pleasure mainly for other lovers of books and learning. His constant references to books and writers and historical contexts might be tough going for some people. There’s something more insular about a Borges story, even while he’s a much more detailed historian than either Poe or Kafka.
But these are just a few casual impressions as I think about which of his stories to teach and which not. My longtime favorite, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” may not make the cut. One of his most fascinating puzzles, the story definitely relies on the idea that literature itself is fascinating. I agree that it is, of course, but I’m not sure how well the story will work with people who are not yet convinced that there’s any value in literature. The story relies on a belief that literary minutiae is a subject worthy of discussion, even while it shows, of course, the way that literary minutiae can be a gateway to much grander problems of time, history, and identity.
Have any thoughts on Borges? I know the issue of his politics (not in the stories, but as a man in the world) is complicated, but I’m not enough of an expert to have any insights on the subject. Any experiences with teaching Borges, at any level? Is it just possible that in a context like this class, his work might fly like a lead balloon? The other writers I’m teaching are very different (I’m pairing him with Sandra Cisneros in a section on postmodernism and multiculturualism) so I’m not worried about the course overall. But I have the feeling that he may be the toughest sell of anyone I’m teaching this semester, and I don’t want to scare students back into realism before they’ve had much chance to know what else is out there.