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Lost In a Maze of Borges (Shorties Pt. III)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Jorge Luis Borges

Borges is a perfect addition to the Shorty series — it’s literally all he ever wrote.

“Why take five hundred pages,” he asks, “to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?”

Fair enough, except that five hundred pages give the reader a certain amount of mental time and space to ponder complex and unfamiliar ideas; when instead, in this regard, what you’re dealing with is a six page short story the literary equivalent of a can of sardines, there are times where your brain just gives up and you find your eyes floating over the text without really reading it.  Hence the quite apt title of the book, and also the title of this post.

Yes, I sometimes found myself wayward in Borges’s constant onslaught of erudition and scholarship.  The opening passage of The Sect of the Phoenix provides a good example:

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origins in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restorations following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Obviously I had to read this a few times before I could get somewhat of a grip on it.  I didn’t find it annoying, though — more like tiring.  Some famous writer once said (forgive me for being unable to remember whom — might have been Gertrude Stein, or maybe Alice Munro) that short stories should be read singularly; that is, read one and then put the book down and do something else.  I’ve never quite followed that rule, but with Borges you have to, otherwise you’ll either have an aneurysm or fall asleep.  Once you get used to him, however — once you see his tendencies and patterns — reading him actually becomes (mostly) enjoyable.

Those tendencies are, or I should say, his one main tendency is, as described in the preface by André Maurois, to ‘(revel) in and (live) for intellectual and philosophical paradox(es).’  Basically, each story is built around and hinges on an intellectual conceit, which more often than not contains some essence of the paradoxical.  The first story in the collection, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is a good example, and also one of his most famous.  Basically, an ancient civilization creates an encyclopedia for a world that does not exist, but over time people become so enamoured of that world that they change the real world to resemble it completely (kind of reminds me of the current online gaming phenomenon, actually — in a metaphorical way, of course).  Another famous story, The Library of Babel, has Borges envisioning the universe as an infinite library of books, with the meaning of it all written in one of those books, somewhere, and people spending eons trying to find it (basically a philosophical way of getting at the nature of the universe and humanity’s quest for meaning — no basis in reality, obviously, but interesting as an idea).

Actually, the more I read through the stories, the more I came to feel that the term ‘mental masturbation’ was the best way to describe them.  They mostly seem like deliberate attempts to bring together disparate moments in history and literature into one text in a clever and, for Borges, intellectually amusing way; I’m not trying to say this is bad, for I don’t think it is, and it’s certainly not lazy, but, after a while, it does become a bit tedious (hence only being able to read one at a time), and, unfortunately for Borges, easily co-opted; for you see, the nub of many of his stories — and whether there is a direct relationship here or it’s just coincidence I’m not sure — ended up becoming some of the worst clichés and tropes in modern sci-fi and fantasy (or worse, he was co-opting those tropes himself, although I don’t think that’s the case).

A story like The Circular Ruins is a good example.  Please go here to read the short plot summary (I don’t see the need of typing it all out again).  It’s that kind of ending, where a character realizes ‘he was actually imaginary too!’ or ‘it was all a dream after all!’ that I’m talking about as becoming a horrible cliché in genre fiction, and it makes me wonder if it was Borges’s stories which helped to promulgate such patterns and structures in modern writing, for something similar also happens in The Shape of the Sword.  Now, I’m not trying to say that story was just about creating a circular plot for the sake of leading the reader through a circular plot; as the Wiki mentions, there’s obviously an overarching theme to it: “The story also seems to symbolize writers as creators who engender one another and whose existence and originality would be impossible without their predecessors . . .”  Fair enough.  But you see the possible detriment I mentioned earlier, about trying to shove such complex ideas into such a short space: it either becomes mentally exhausting, or, in this case, contrived and somewhat silly.  He begins Theme of the Traitor and the Hero saying “. . . I have imagined this story plot which I shall perhaps write someday . . . ”  The story is two pages long, which means reading the summary of it here is basically the equivalent of reading the actual story; I have to wonder: would any writer really find that desirable?  Borges seemed to.  There’s another story of a Roman soldier who sets out across an African desert to find a fabled ‘city of Immortals;’ when he gets there he finds the city abandoned, with a herd of troglodytes living in caves around it; these creatures are actually the Immortals, and one of them happens to be Homer, and so they chat about things for a while; then the story becomes a narrative of two or more men, recording history as they witness it, and it brings up all sorts of questions about the nature of narration and identity, ending with the one man becoming all men at death . . . Tolstoy would take hundreds of pages to tell such a tale; Borges does it in thirteen-and-a-half (actually quite long by his standards).

I’m not trying to sound malicious — attacking Borges for his brevity or chosen subject matter is like pillorying a duck for having webbed feet; to wit, some of the criticism directed against Borges was in that sort of vein and just plain stupid.  No, for me, to point out these points is more of a lament — I’m saying I would have loved to see what could have been done with these ideas in a longer, more narrative form; of course, in this day and age of pastiche and homage and plain and simple re-makes, I suppose I always could embark on such a task if I wanted to, but, well I know of one instance where it’s been done already (by Paulo Coelho) . . . not to mention Borges has already written a story about it.

How Borgesian of him.

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