One day in December 1919, the twenty-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, during a short stay in Seville, wrote a letter, in French, to his friend Maurice Abramowicz in Geneva, in which, almost in passing, he confessed to Abramowicz contradictory feelings about his literary vocation: “Sometimes I think that it’s idiotic to have the ambition of being a more or less mediocre maker of phrases. But that is my destiny.”
As Borges was well aware even then, the history of literature is the history of this paradox. On the one hand, the deeply rooted intuition writers have that the world exists, in Mallarmé’s much-abused phrase, to result in a beautiful book (or, as Borges would have it, even a mediocre book), and, on the other hand, to know that the muse governing the enterprise is, as Mallarmé called her, the Muse of Impotence (or, to use a freer translation, the Muse of Impossibility). Mallarmé added later that all who have ever written anything, even those we call geniuses, have attempted this ultimate Book, the Book with a capital B. And all have failed.
This double intuition stems from literature itself. Somewhere, during the time of our first readings, there is a moment in which we discover that, from the ink-stains on a page, a world emerges fully-fledged and magically real. This is a transformative experience, after which our relationship to the tangible, quotidian world is no longer the same. After having witnessed the creative capabilities of language that allow words not merely to communicate or label but to bring to life what they label and communicate—that is to say, after we have become readers—there can no longer be for us an innocent perception of the world.
“The Muse of Impossibility”, Alberto Manguel, The Threepenny Review