Fight with cudgels, Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823
by Jon Beasley-Murray
If Borges continually returned to his first book of poetry, endlessly tinkering with it and republishing it in slightly different form so that it would truly prefigure “everything that he would do afterwards” (Obras completas 33), his approach to his first book of prose was quite different. He refused to allow Inquisiciones (“Inquisitions,” 1925) to be reprinted, and indeed the story goes that he bought up old copies so that nobody else could get their hands on them. This book, and the two following collections of essays that Borges treated with equal disdain, circulated in grubby photocopies, passed between fans like underground Samizdat. It was only after the author’s death that his widow permitted their official republication.
So Borges seemed to want to expunge these early essays from his literary career. And yet he named his most famous book of essays, published over a quarter of a century later, in 1952, Otras inquisiciones: “Other Inquisitions,” a title that alludes to the existence of the earlier book, however much he had tried to repress its memory. As James Irby notes, the later collection’s
curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. “Other” can mean “more of the same”: more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But “other” is also “different,” perhaps even “opposite.” (“Introduction” to Other Inquisitions)
Why would Borges want to turn his back on these initial forays into prose? They are, perhaps, too florid and baroque for the mature author’s taste. The language employed is formal, complex, and often almost archaic. But I don’t think it’s merely a matter of style–which could in any case be amended, as with the early poems. I suspect it’s more a matter, as Rose Corral argues, of Borges wanting to distance himself from his early “criollismo,” that nationalist strain within his work that sought “to recover and at the same time transform the great Argentine tradition of oral literature, that is, the gauchesque” (“Acerca del ‘Primer Borges'” 158). In the 1930s and 1940s, Borges will transform himself into the great cosmopolitan intellectual, best-known for his “games with erudition, his mix of authentic and apocryphal citations, his astonishing mosaic of allusions, his universalism as an imaginative strategy, his literary fabrications” (158). Such a transformation required the suppression of his initial Inquisitions.
Yet Borges never completely abandons the criollista strain in his work (we will see the continued obsession with violence and primitivism in a story such as “El Sur,” for instance), and equally it is not as though the other, cosmopolitan and erudite, Borges is missing from this early collection. Far from it. So if there are two Borges (“Borges and I”), it’s not so much a matter of a split between “early” and “late,” but more a tension that is present throughout his career. We can trace a constant play between on the one hand what we might call the “materialist” Borges whose avatar is the tight-lipped gaucho and, on the other, the rather more familiar “deconstructionist” Borges whose figure would be the labyrinth of linguistic signifiers in constant flux.
Of course, this divide is immediately complicated (and to some extent undone) by the fact that the gaucho is very much a literary creation, a mythic apparition, and that Borges is always fascinated by the possibility of giving solidly material form to his verbal jeux d’ésprit.
Meanwhile, another (and perhaps not unrelated) characteristically Borgesian tension becomes visible within Inquisiciones: the presence of a strikingly singular tone or “voice,” which articulates a series of arguments that withdraw any claim to that voice.
To put this another way: it’s quite remarkable how fearless Borges is in these literary “inquisitions.” He covers a huge swathe of cultural territory, from the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo or the relatively obscure seventeenth-century English author Sir John Browne, to paragons of European modernism such as James Joyce, Miguel de Unamuno, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as Argentine and Uruguayan writers Hilario Ascasubi or Fernán Silva Valdés. In each case, the young Borges is unwavering in the self-confidence of his own critical judgments and achievements: “Quevedo is, above all, intensity” (48); “I am the first Hispanic adventurer to have reached Joyce’s book” (22); “Silva Valdés [. . .] is the first young poet to bring together Hispanic culture as a whole” (69).
And yet if, in these somewhat swashbuckling (some might say pompous…) raids on the literary canon, Borges is happy to talk about “Hispanic culture as a whole” (“la conjunta hispanicidad”), elsewhere, and no less stylishly or unremittingly, he undercuts the notion that we can speak even of “the self as a whole” (“el yo del conjunto,” 93). Borges categorizes, judges, dissects, and dispatches: he puts other writers in their place. But the “I” that makes these judgments is always somehow out of reach. It’s no longer, it seems, even a matter of “Borges and I”: Borges may remain, a literary figure associated with a series of definitive judgements; but the “I” fades away or, better, fails ever to coalesce in the first place.
The clearest instance of this tension is perhaps found in “La nadería de la personalidad” (“The Nothingness of Personality”). Here, like a refrain, Borges repeatedly claims that “There is no such coherent I” (93, 94, 96, 98, 103) and that “The I does not exist” (102). And yet these adamant declarations can only be made by an “I” that insists on the coherence of the case that it is making. The first three sentences, for instance, all begin with verbs in the first person singular: “I want [. . .]. I think [. . .] I want [. . .]” (92). The self is nothing, but this essay–and indeed the entire collection of essays–only finds coherence precisely in the presumption of an articulate self defined in terms of stylistic brillo and argumentative panache.
And does this second tension map onto the first? Is it not the essence of the Argentine criollo to perform his individuality with brillo and panache, even as he argues that such individuality is necessarily a fiction?
Caricature of ‘The Tichborne Claimant’ (Arthur Orton). Caption read “Baronet or butcher”. From Vanity Fair, 10 June 1871
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.
Piece crossposted with Posthegemony