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Friday, October 20, 2006

Jorge Luis Borges - Labyrinths

Book cover of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Enough has been said and written about Jorge Luis Borges that you don't need to take it from me. Whatever I can possibly say about Borges's writing will automatically be swept under in the mass of history and commentary attached to him; in the same way that I'd hesitate to directly review Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, or Proust, (except perhaps to offer the heresy of a negative critique) so Borges presents something of a problem: writing this review almost feels superfluous; you probably already know and love his writing. Or maybe not; maybe I'm being falsely modest; maybe this review will be the one that convinces you to run out and buy his books as soon as possible.I hope so, since this is the only reason I'm writing it: to whore out Borges so he can give you the same intensely beautiful mindfuck he just gave me.

Before I picked up Labyrinths, I'd assumed that Borges was one of those writers that everyone else had read, so I didn't need to - in other words, the general outlines of some of his stories were familiar, and his name came up so often as a point of comparison that I felt his influence had seeped into writing to the extent that to go back to the original now would be redundant. If you're harboring the same idea, let me just say that his writing is, to haul out an over-used adjective, inimitable: anyone trying to directly rip this book is going to look stupid, not just because they don't know as much as Borges did, but because - obviously - no one is going to be as good at being himself as he was. That's not to say Borges won't influence you, because every single story in this collection contains something like eighty times as many skull-piercingly brilliant ideas as the average work of 'literary fiction', any one of which would be - if fleshed out more - capable of supporting a novel. In particular, a sharp-eyed science fiction writer could mine some of these stories for years; the possibilities for imaginary worlds inherent in 'The Library of Babel' and 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' (the latter of which is fucking dense; just read the Wikipedia entry on it if you want to understand how a short story can be more tightly crammed with thought than a novel) are suggestive enough to withstand a thorough accordioning out. 'The Garden of Forking Paths' contains the exact ideas (and even uses phrases like 'other dimensions of time') as the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics but actually predates it, meaning it's twice as modern as it feels (it hardly needs to be said that none of these sixty-year-old stories has remotely dated; neither in their subject matter nor Borges's precise, lapidary prose style).

Jorge Luis Borges
Labyrinths is divided into "Fictions," "Essays," and "Parables,"; but you shouldn't be surprised to find that Borges treats all three genres as interchangeable - no division is necessary, since every story here is suffused with the freedom and invention of fiction, executed with the mathematical precision of an essay, and carries the resonance of a parable. If that makes it sound glib, then just replace 'parable' with 'prose-poem' and you'll get the idea. There's a nice symmetry to the collection, in that the reader gets to see Borges forming a work of fiction from a philosophical premise and then dissecting that premise analytically. If that sounds like a magician giving away his tricks, it's not - since the essays include some of Borges' most personal and autobiographical writing, and any possible 'explanation' is always filled with as many paradoxes and points of thought as the fiction.

Over the course of these stories, small motifs and obsessions are repeated: characters and ideas from the Classics, a fascination with Jewish mysticism, the adjective 'vertiginous'; the number fourteen as a symbol of the infinite. Chuang Tzu's 'dream within a dream' is a recurring theme (see: 'The Circular Ruins', where a gnostic sorcerer creates a man from his dreams only to discover that he himself was created in the same way); elsewhere Zeno's paradox goes from being a mathematical metaphor for infinite reduction to an indicator of the fundamental unreality of the universe ('Avatars of the Tortoise'). The things Borges is famous for - games with mirrors, encyclopedias, libraries, and labyrinths - are present in force, but more interesting is just watching his mind work, the turns it takes: reading Don Quixote for him becomes a chance to interrogate the nature of action in the Vedas; a meditation on the first emperor of China morphs into a consideration of the incomplete revelations comprising 'the aesthetic phenomenon.' A Western novel will often remind him of an Eastern philosophy, and vice versa. Essays ramble down back alleys and tangents, unravelling the unexpected connections in Borges' erudition. Even though everything is meticulously composed, the essays and parables give the feel of improvisations, of things Borges discovered in the moment of writing. Amazingly, none of this feels pretentious: Borges never seems especially impressed by himself; and as mentioned, his style is concise, even clipped at times. Instead of wearying of his voice, you end up wanting him to say more, but he doesn't: while everything is clear, nothing is over-explained; the implications are left up to the reader.

As Italo Calvino (another god-level writer, who I will discuss some day) points out, Borges's stories "often take the outer form of some genre from popular literature, a form proved by long usage, which creates almost mythic structures." "Death and the Compass" is a detective story after Poe or Christie, in which both detective and criminal are compulsively brilliant, manipulate Kabbalistic symbols at will, and maneuver each other into place until the inevitable labyrinth in time and space ensnares them both. "The Immortal," about a Roman general who discovers a ruined and geometrically impossible city hidden in a remote desert, almost feels like something out of Lovecraft before it veers off into characteristic Borges speculation on the temporal and spatial oneness of humanity viewed through the prism of infinity. 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' is, among other things, a conspiracy theory, with its cabal of cartographers and metaphysicians devising an alternate earth based on the principles of Berkeleian Idealism. You get the feeling entire writers - Paul Auster, for example - came into existence solely because of stories like this. Other stories read like pulp serials written by a medieval philosopher; there are knife-fights, shootouts, and chases interrupting the furious progression of ideas. But Borges never confines himself to a single genre or country; despite portraying his native Buenos Aires with ease, his themes and characters are truly international. One story will be set in Nazi Germany, the next among a sect of Middle Eastern heretics in the Dark Ages, the next will have a Chinese protagonist. This freedom of genre and setting is a corollary of his erudition, in that he realizes the intellectual history of the world is its most cosmopolitan feature.

In 'Avatars of the Tortoise', when considering F.H. Bradley, Borges remarks: "He transforms all concepts into incommunicable, solidified objects. To refute him is to become contaminated with unreality." "Contaminated with unreality" is a great phrase, and one which just as aptly describes the experience of reading Borges: no matter how well a science-fiction writer details his premises, he's never going to be quite as convincing as Borges, who uses precise philosophical reasoning to demonstrate absurd or fantastical conclusions. The essay-story "A New Refutation of Time," for example, returns to Berkeley's Immaterialist thesis, this time extending it to its logical conclusions: if there is no real self, no physical matter, and no objective space, then there can be no time either. His reasoning is presented as an extension of that in Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge, but mid-essay, Borges breaks with Berkeley and Leibniz and relates his own experience of temporal illusion during an afternoon walk in Barracas, in which he finds himself both in the present and his childhood at once:

The street was one of low houses and though its first meaning was one of poverty, its second was certainly one of contentment. It was as humble and enchanting as anything could be. None of the houses dared open itself to the street; the fig tree darkened over the corner; the little arched doorways - higher than the taut outlines of the walls - seemed wrought from the same infinite substance of the night. The sidewalk formed an escarpment over the street; the street was of elemental earth, the earth of an as-yet unconquered America. Father down, the alleyway, already open to the pampa, crumbled into the Maldonado. Above the turbid and chaotic earth, a rose-coloured wall seemed not to house the moonlight, but rather to effuse an intimate light of its own. There can be no better way of naming tenderness than that soft rose colour.
I kept looking at that simplicity. I thought, surely out loud: this is the same as thirty years ago...I conjectured the date: a recent time in other countries but now quite remote in this changeable part of the world. Perhaps a bird was singing and for it I felt a tiny affection, the same size as the bird; but the most certain thing was that in this now vertiginous silence there was no other sound than the intemporal one of the crickets. The easy thought "I am in the eighteen-nineties" ceased to be a few approximate words and was deepened into a reality. I felt dead, I felt as an abstract spectator of the world; an indefinite fear imbued with science, which is the best clarity of metaphysics. I did not think that I had returned upstream on the supposed waters of time; rather I suspected that I was the possessor of a reticent or absent sense of the inconceivable word eternity.

Jorge Luis BorgesThe private and the universal have collided; there is no longer any distinction between Borges personally experiencing the psychological collapse of time and time's abstract destruction in the Berkeleian system, itself considered obsolete by modern philosophy. This is about as 'post-modern' (a term I hate and use reluctantly) as it gets; Borges' synaesthetic prose thoroughly Modern while echoing the eternal recurrence of its subject.

The only negative remark I can make is that Borges is sometimes too concise. "The Lottery in Babylon" is just an idea: a city where social positions and everything else are determined by chance, through a lottery. Having read that sentence, you don't even really need to read the story, since it consists of the explication of the idea and nothing more. In some cases, you almost wish he'd taken his ideas out to greater lengths; the stories feel almost like plot summaries rather than stories themselves. 'Theme of the Traitor and the Hero' expounds a complex assassination plot to make history mirror literature (prefiguring the assassination of Lincoln in the process) but is, again, just an outline of sorts. In my earlier review of Donald Barthelme's short stories, I said something to the effect that, although I admired Barthelme's writing greatly, I wished less people had tried to imitate it. I can say the same for Borges, since while he's mostly able to get away with the flaws I've just pointed out, people who decide they like his style and want to pull it off themselves usually aren't (and - again - they're not likely to be able to manipulate references and transpose themes and ideas as deftly as he does). I feel like these books should both be stamped with "Don't try this at home." on the covers.

Still, these objections are fairly pathetic. This book has true crystalline perfection; I'd give it a ten out of ten easy. Reading Borges has the feeling of reading a detective story in which what is uncovered is not the identity of a murderer but arcane metaphysical knowledge. If you like comics like The Invisibles and know that 'sefiroth' refers to something other than a Final Fantasy character, you'll probably love these stories.