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.


tmorange said...


borges is another one whom i've not read closely in probably 20 years. and for all the reasons you mention i can imagine him being very hard to teach. i even wonder if these days the only one's who will laugh aloud while reading "pierre menard" (one of my faves too) are grad students in english.

i wonder tho too if some of the same metaphysical dread and ontological hoaxery in borges could be teased out with recourse to films like the matrix or memento. the latter of course being a kind of detective story told in reverse in which the protagonist suffers from amnesia and must piece together the clues in reverse. and the former, along with the truman show now that i think of it, has that "reality is a constructed illusion"
that students might have more difficulty locating or identifying with in the borges...


Joe Safdie said...

Mark, I taught "The Garden of Forking Paths" to my community college world lit class last spring, and it went over well with the two or three motivated and intelligent students in the class, not so well with the others (I realize you could probably substitute any work at all in that sentence and still retain a high degree of truth value!) But the trappings of the detective story there were what lured people in; for that reason, I'd consider "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" as well -- the idea of tracking down the one encyclopedia with a textual variant has a bit of mystery to it, and makes the big philosophical issues, when they come, go down a bit easier.

You know, the only benefit of being a bit older than most of the poetic blogosphere is having had the ability to actually see Borges, at UCLA, when I was a young pup circa . . . 1973. I asked him to riff on the concept of "ego" (apparently a concern of mine at the time) and he repeated that great line (was it Hume?) "Whenever I look inside, I find nobody home."

skyplumber said...

hello Mark,

I've only discovered Borges recently. I find the concept of the Aleph very interesting, but this is perhaps more of a theoretical subject than a fictional one.

In Labyrinths I noticed there is the recurring theme of the Infinite, for example in the story of the man in prison with the pacing jaguar in the cage next to him. This concept could lead to interesting discussions.

Also I've noticed that some themes appear in one story, then another, but not in a third, but in the third story a theme appears that was in the first. In the Immortals there is a lot of cataloging going on, there is also that in Pierre Menard, but in the Immortals the traveler is looking for a explanation for what he sees and not finding it. This fruitless searching also happens in the story of the SS officer condemned to die. But in the officer's story he tells of the futility of philosophical inquiry, this sentiment is also in Pierre Menard. So maybe Borges arranged these stories as a labyrinth unto themselves, with overlapping "passageways", so to speak?

mark wallace said...
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mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

I'm sure one could indeed use those films, Tom. Of course, this is a short story class, and we'll be reading some actual literature around here for once. I intend to insist on it.

The points both you and Joe made caused me to think again about the strengths of these Borges stories relative to my students, and I came up with two main ones:

1) The stories really are short. Even if I have them read three per class period, that'll be barely 20 pages total.

2) The fact that Borges stories have an "I get it!" twist idea means that their main ideas can be boiled down very easily. Thus, in "Funes, the Memoorius," I could say, "Man has accident on horse and afterwards remembers every single moment of his life and sees every detail in the world as if it's incredibly close up. These abilities exhaust him to the point of death within a few years." So when I can boil down the concept this clearly, that means we can move to a discussion of the ideas in the story.

Joe, did you mean "Death and the Compass"? That's the story that literally has a detective, and I'm teaching it. But I'm definitely teaching "Garden of the Forking Paths" also because of its murder/thriller aspect as well as some hints of detective elements, and you're right that such things can definitely be a draw in Borges. Plenty of mystery, murder, and bloodshed even if there's not a lot of conventional action.

Plumber, it's interesting to think about Borges in terms of the concept of the linked story collection. The idea of stories as both independent and part of a larger whole is definitely something I'll be talking about in the class. Joyce's Dubliners is an earlier book I'll be using that's one of the first examples of that kind of linked story, and actually the Cisneros book that I'm doing in tandem with Borges does the same.

What's different about Labyrinths of course is that it's a compilation put together by editors rather than Borges himself. But it still highlights the interrelatedness of all of Borges' key concerns.

Joe, that's an amazing quote from Borges. Certainly it says a lot about how he treats character and identity. It's a questionable comment too of course, one well worth talking about more. The total denial of subjective identity is always a fascinating one, but it's also clear how Borges is linking this to a profound absence, one that may have a spiritual element that thinks of itself as far beyond identity?

A lot to consider...

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

I imagined, for some reason, Borges and Poe marching Kafka around the streets of Prague, just like the two Stasi-esque agents march around Josef K. at the end of THE TRIAL, until they shank him, do Poe and Borges. All writers do that to Kafka, whether they precede him or follow. It's a minor tragedy, but one I can live with, that you won't be doing "A Fasting Artist," a Kafka story, one of the greats. I think "A Fasting Artist" plus THE TRIAL plus Babel's Red Cavalry stuff (I'm partial to "The End of the Almshouse") plus Celan's Holocaust stuff -- could give one a pretty big glance into the rejection of discipline in favor of aggression, then the lament in the aftermath. What hath we wrought, etc. Kafka / Babel / Celan. Indeed. ----BA

mark wallace said...

That's a very 20s (and maybe through the 40s) dream of these writers, Dan. The 90s version goes something like this: after struggling a bit in Paris, Poe and Kafka go to Argentina to take advantage of the weak currency. Living like kings, or at least more so than ever before, one evening they come across Borges, who seems confused by this economic downturn and doesn't quite know where he is. Later that night, while all drunk, Poe and Kafka shank Borges, and he dies a bloody death. In the morning though, hungover, Poe and Kafka wake up to find that they have both become Borges, and the economies of their own original countries, which had seemed strong the night before, are now also in a shambles.