by Jon Beasley-Murray
What does it mean to “read Borges”? What are we even endeavoring to read?
“Borges” is a cipher: a proper name that stands in for a set of texts with which that name is associated. It’s a figure or speech or language, a form of metonymy: part stands for whole. The author’s name, printed on the front of each book, stands in for a series of texts from Fervor de Buenos Aires to Libro de arena. Perhaps we know that this proper name is at best a convenience: as Foucault would say, it’s an “author function”; it’s a fiction, or something that arises from fiction. It is “a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize or the exclusions that we practice” (“What is an Author?” 110). The author is, in short, the product of our reading; in reading Borges we also construct the fiction of Borges as author.
This process, by which we make the author’s name stand in for the texts to which it is attached, is, however, a rather useful fiction, which forestalls cumbersome circumlocutions. The name simply helps us classify and identify this set of texts, and to differentiate them from others. Let’s not ask too much of this operation, or hold it to impossible standards. We know that in any case each and every word we use is in some sense a cipher: an arbitrary sound or mark on a page that we customarily agree is associated with a particular concept. That association is undoubtedly tenuous, sustained more by tradition and habit than by logic. There’s always something unstable or partial about any statement we try to make in any language. But for convenience’s sake, and to save time, we say we “read Borges” rather than going into the specificities of our task at each and every mention. If we can never be fully exact, however precise we try to be, then let’s simply accept some imprecision.
And yet the fact that we have chosen to read only texts that bear the name of Borges suggests rather more than a matter of mere convenience; it smacks of obsession. There is something obsessive and perhaps hallucinatory about trying to read Borges. We will inevitably imagine we glimpse traces of some other Borges that is not some mere textual effect: a Borges that is more than a proper name, a placeholder metonymically standing in for something else. The ritualized habit of saying “Borges” has its own effects. We will start to think we see a figure that is rather more substantial than a mere figure of speech.
As so often, Borges anticipates us. His short piece “Borges y yo” is about precisely the way in which a text–textuality–seems to connect a proper name with the traces of another ghostly (if allegedly more substantial) presence. Borges the public figure, the name, the signifier that enables literary categorization and literary classification, conjures up also this other figure who likewise likes “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose” (61; the translation I’m using is Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s, found here). The two Borges overlap but never fully coincide. The one is unimaginable without the other. The schemes of the one justify the existence of the other: “I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature, and that literature is my justification” (61; translation modified).
The twist of course lies at the end the tale: it is just when we think we might have arrived at the figure who lies behind the plot, the Borges that is more than mere proper name, that we discover what could well be merely another literary artifice. For if we assume that the “I” of “Borges and I” is the writer himself, the story’s last line makes us think again: “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know” (62). This forces us to re-read the story: so strong is our impulse to imagine authorial presence, we have no doubt neglected the possibility that the “I” of the story is the convention, the literary placeholder of convenience. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Why would we have imagined that in this story–and this story alone–we should have direct access to some other Borges who lies behind that authorial function? Only because “Borges” directs us to think so, before then pulling the rug from under our feet. Yet it is equally likely (and perhaps more fully Borgesian) that the “Borges” on whom the “I” comments (and about whom he complains) is the writer himself. And why shouldn’t the proper name try to rid himself (itself?) of the referent to which he or it is supposed to refer? The life of a signifier is “a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man” (62).
And in the end our job as readers, as readers of Borges, is to track down that literary artifice, rather than its presumed author. Not that we can easily tell the difference.
Borges’s first book was a collection of poems entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires, published in 1923.
One might expect the title to refer to the “fervor” or the hustle and bustle of a city undergoing rapid expansion in the early years of the twentieth century: thanks to mass immigration, Buenos Aires grew by 75% during this period (Beatriz Sarlo, Una modernidad periférica 18). But Borges’s city is strangely subdued and depopulated. Practically every other poem has a reference to “shadow” (“the bank of shadow” , “fear of the shadows” ) or to “ash” (“a little ash and a little glory” , “between the ashes and the fatherland”), not to mention death (the poems “Remorse for Any Death” , “Inscription on Any Tomb” ), boredom (52), and solitude (67) and so on.
If this is the modern (or even the modernist) city, more than anything else it reminds one of French photographer Eugène Atget’s famous portraits of deserted Parisian streetscapes. And if Borges is an urban flâneur, he is one who avoids the city-center streets, “unpleasant because of all the crowds and fuss.” He prefers rather to wander the suburbs and indeed the very edge of the city, where the deserted lanes are “full of promise for the man on his own” (37).
And yet Borges has told us that where there is one there are always also at least two. “I am alone and I am with myself” as he puts it here (65). Or even many: his is a “solitude populated like a dream” (69). One is already quite enough of a crowd, because every “one” (or everyone) is divided, split, multiple.
And so it is too with Fervor de Buenos Aires. This is a book that is many, written by more than one. For though it was Borges’s first book, he also continually returned to it: as Kate Jenckes observes, there are at least four versions of the text (from 1923, 1943, 1969, and 1974), all of which are significantly different and none of which can be regarded as fully definitive (Reading Borges After Benjamin 7 and 141n6). The one I am reading is from the Obras completas (though again there are many iterations of Borges’s “Complete Works,” none of which are complete; mine is from 1992). This comes with a prologue dated August 1969 in which Borges admits to having edited some of the poems but claims that he
felt that the boy who wrote the book in 1923 was already essentially–what does “essentially” mean?–the gentleman who now either resigns himself to what it says or corrects it. We are the same; we are both skeptical of failure and success, of literary movements and their dogmas; we are both devotees of Schopenhauer, Stevenson, and Whitman. As far as I am concerned, Fervor de Buenos Aires prefigures everything that I would do afterwards. (33)
It’s worth mentioning, though, that in the original Spanish that final phrase (“todo lo que haría después”) could just as easily be translated “everything that he would do afterwards.” Borges and I (and he): which is which? Which wrote this book, and which wrote what came after?
Equally, if we come to this, Borges’s first book, to understand the origins of his writing career, which version should we be reading? Is what I have read (and quoted), revised in 1969, really the “origin”? Even the order of the collection varies according to the date of publication. Beatriz Sarlo makes much of the fact that the first poem to appear is “La Recoleta,” about the Buenos Aires cemetery of that name (Una modernidad periférica 18). But as Jenckes points out, in other editions (including the one I am reading) this is actually the second poem printed, not the first (140n3). Quite literally, the point of origin is murky and unstable. We are starting our reading of Borges here (if we ignore for the time being the fact that we already started), but we can’t be entirely sure as to where this “here” is. As soon as we reach out to it, it divides and multiplies.
Should this slipperiness be cause for concern? Borges is in some ways essentially slippery. Note above, for instance, that at the very moment that he justifies his editorial interventions by claiming that he and his younger self are “essentially” the same, he also has to question what is meant by “essentially.” He states and undercuts his case at one and the same time. For after all, was the boy ever even “essentially” the same as himself at the time: “I am alone and I am with myself” (65).
For Borges, the true mystery is not this endless division and uncertainty. Time passes, things change, moment to moment everything is up in the air; neither language nor reason can hold things still within their prisons of representation or categorization. I is always another. It could not be otherwise. No, the real surprise is that despite all this mutability and malleability, some things somehow do seem to remain the same. It may be mere illusion or habit (though what could be less illusory than habit?), but we do think–or better, as Borges puts it, feel–that we incarnate some kind of singularity that is more or less the same today as it was yesterday or as it was (in Borges’s case) 46 years previously. Hence then the
wonder in the face of the miracle
that despite the infinite play of chance
that despite the fact that we are but
drops in Heraclitus’s river,
something still endures within us:
This surely is the Spinozan conatus to which “Borges and yo” already made reference: the striving to endure within what is otherwise endless flux, bubbling fervor.
Piece crossposted with Posthegemony