Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism:
Selected References

Compiled & annotated by Ralph Dumain


Estela Cedola, interviewed by María González Rouco. “Estructuralismo Genetico en Borges” (Publicado parcialmente en La Capital, Rosario, 19 de junio de 1988), 19 de Junio de 2000.

Estela Cedola is the author of Borges, o, La coincidencia de los opuestos (1987).  Translations of some comments by Cedola follow.

In this interview, Cedola mentions her Goldmann-derived perspective, and discusses, as Goldmann emphasized, the need for collective and interdisciplinary work. Specifically about Borges, Cedola says:

It is a verification that arises from the structural elements. We can observe, at the beginning of each text, two elements in dialectical exchange; at the end of that text, the opposites coincide. For example, the subjects civilization and barbarism, in the biography of Cruz; or reality and appearance, in “El Aleph”. This shows us that Borgean thinking is not positivist, but binary. It has dialectic structure.

[….]

Yes, they are opposites that Borges worked on all texts. I can also mention the opposition between life and intellect and the confrontation between action and thought. In the Borgean work, this last pair will have a correlation: the action will correspond to the historical time, and the thought to the limit.

[….]

Of course, that of the action. In “Fictions” we found an infinite time, isolated. Let’s think about the total library, in Babel. In “Universal History of Infamy,” however, we see that bandits are protagonists; they are action stories. This is the vision that prevails in the storyteller.

[….]

It is a method of dialectical work, because it tries to see the birth of a form or structure in its constitution process and its possible changes. There is no synchronous cut; it looks for where that form arises […] the approach is diachronic.

[….]

Starting from an object of study, which is the text, I move to a wider context, the set of texts—the book—and then, to the author's production. With this first work, you take a position and see the structure identified—which in the case of Borges is the coincidence of opposites—in its future.

[….]

Because I consider it [“El Aleph”] the most finished and perfect book in the Borgean narrative. The writer ordered the material according to a structural and aesthetic criterion. He altered, for this, the chronological order of the stories.

[…rather than the chronological order.]

As a researcher, I must adhere to the aesthetic system. Borges ordered it so intentionally. We are facing an ordering criterion that is aggregated to the whole. The same goes for the title. “The Aleph” lends its name to the volume because that story opens and closes the organization imagined by Borges. Thought in this way, the study of a set of short texts can be approached as if they were a single text. That makes the task easier; a model that will serve to find the author’s vision is developed. Of course, we are thinking of the writer as a mediator, as the being that shapes the aspirations, needs, feelings of a class or social group.

[….]

I think it provides an approach that tries to reconcile the form with the significance. I sought to break the dichotomy. There are many works, but this is original from the point of view of the methodology.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Fetishism and Form: Erotic and Economic Disorder in Literature.” 14 pp.

[Borges, Wells, Girard, Goldmann, Dostoevsky]

Well, to begin:

Goldmann pointed out the similarity between [René] Girard’s theory of mediated desire and the theory of the ‘degradation’ of values in Lukács’ pre-Marxist Theory of the Novel. Goldmann attempted to explain the underlying unity of these two approaches to the novel in terms of the Marxist category of commodity fetishism. He argued that there is a ‘rigorous homology’ between the position of ‘authentic values’ in the novel and the position of use values on the market: both become ‘implicit’' as they are subordinated to exchange value. The individual who attempts to pursue authentic values in a world where they have become inaccessible is possessed by a demon and lives by illusions that bring about his destruction. Yet his struggle indicates by implication what has been lost in the reification of society. Such an individual is a ‘problematic hero’ because of the contradictions between his aspirations, their expression and society. According to Goldmann, it is the interposition of a debased social relation between the individuals and the objects of their desires that generates the universe of inauthenticity described by Girard and Lukács.

This has never been entirely convincing, but with further development its relevance became more apparent. Feenberg thinks this conception can be applied to literature, so he does so with Borges’s ‘The Zahir’ and ‘The Aleph’ and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. The two Borges stories are similar and show the influence of H. G. Wells’s “The Crystal Egg.”  In both stories the narrator is enthralled by a fetish object imbued with infinity, and is in love (unrequited) with a dead woman. In ‘The Zahir’ the woman Teodelina is in love with fashion, and the object is revealed to be money. In Wells’s story the egg enables Martians and Earthmen to see one another. The Zahir is an ordinary coin; the obsession seems unmotivated, but behind the coin the narrator hopes to find God. Teodelina has her admirers (Sartre is quoted), and thus she is a currency (cf. Michel Aglietta and Andre Orlean, La Violence de la monnaie).

The narrator of Borges’ story cannot, of course, be described as economically interested in money. He is engaged in a kind of metaphysical thesaurization rather than in the ordinary accumulation of wealth. Similarly, it is difficult to believe that his passion for Teodelina was ever consummated. In both cases, the narrator is fixated on the sacred function of mediation and cannot pass beyond to what is mediated by the sacred. He cannot free himself from the intermediary in order to transact the business of living. His is a case of arrested circulation.

Well, maybe this perspective works for “The Zahir,” but Feenberg simply assumes it applies to “The Aleph” as well. I don’t believe it. Feenberg immediately segues to a protracted analysis of The Gambler, to Girard’s analysis in particular. Here too, the relationship to money is not merely pragmatic and realistic. Feenberg goes on for several pages, concluding:

Why should the mixing of economic and erotic orders of desire produce such radical disorder? The answer lies in the obscure origins of the one system of exchange in the other, as is made clear in Aglietta and Orléan’s analysis of the Marxian theory of monetary exchange in terms of Girard’s mimetic theory of desire. The authors note the puzzling complexity of Marx’s explanation of barter, which is usually seen as a self-explanatory exchange for mutual benefit. They argue that Marx’s theory becomes comprehensible if exchange is seen as arising from an original relation of doubles. On these terms, the bizarre events of Dostoevsky’s story may be explained as boundary problems in the transition between the two forms of relationship.

Feenberg proceeds to explicate Marx’s theory of barter. At last we come to Goldmann:

In an interesting article on The Theory of the Novel, Ferenc Feher argues that Goldmann’s thesis of a homology between novelistic form and market structure is most persuasive in pointing to the ‘fortuitous’ character of modern individuality both in literature and society. Capitalism destroys the organic communities that preceded it and the social differences on which they were based. Social status is no longer a destiny prior to individual experience but rather emerges from the encounters of free individuals, who circulate in society according to the laws of chance. In the novel, as in life, the individual has the task of converting these accidental circumstances into a destiny through the labour of building an identity. Feher writes that individuality is ‘ambivalent’ under capitalism, where it can mean “two entirely different things: . . . that individuals realize themselves or fail to do so through the accidents of competition and struggle; but also. . . that an individual’s place in a given order or class . . . is no longer a personal quality of his, but the result of his own activities.

Feenberg says that such an account omits the erotic struggles that accompany the social struggles.  The concluding paragraph begins:

Although Goldmann suggested that Girard’s theory could explain the degradation of the problematic hero’s search for authentic values, he never worked out the connection. The analyses presented above offer several approaches to concretizing Goldmann’s suggestion.

Had Feenberg limited himself to analysis of Dostoevsky’s work, he would have had a more solid essay. Goldmann’s contribution to this analysis seems rather thin. The application to Borges is a stretch but at least plausible in the case of ‘The Zahir’, but is preposterous in explaining ‘The Aleph’.

Gane, Mike. “Borges/Menard/Spinoza,” Economy and Society, vol. 9, no. 4, November 1980, pp. 404-419. Reprinted in Ideological Representation and Power in Social Relations: Literary and Social Theory, edited by Mike Gane (London; New York: Routledge, 1989), chapter 5, pp. 137-151.

Gane begins with an imitation of Borges’s “Pierre Menand,” recasting the imitative logic of Borges’s story as a found manuscript of contemporary literary criticism. He next outlines Borges’s actual story, then ponders the possibility of its author as someone other than Borges, comparing this with the logic of other literary authors. He then summarizes the readings of this story by other scholars—David Silverman (reading Carlos Castenada!), Pierre Macherey, George Steiner, John Sturrock, Alicia Borinsky (hostile with a class analysis viz. Argentine conditions with echoes of Péronism), Emir Rodríguez Monegal, and David Lewis (who is actually the fictional character created by Gane in this essay). Gane refers to Lewis’s as “my own reading” :

I suggest that the positions of Menard and the critic are not identical and the differences between them should be made the focus of a reading of the story. Menard’s letter fragments, if read together, reveal a striking position: the first implies that the product of his labour is God, the second that his project is only possible if he becomes immortal, the third that Cervantes had the collaboration of the devil, and the fourth that he intends or understands (Sturrock) that in the future everyman will ‘be capable of all ideas’. Clearly a theological position. What the critic does with these fragments is to turn them into their opposite, to secularize them.

The argument is rather lengthy; I will just provide a few more revealing snippets of his dense but intriguing argument:

“Much of the evident interest which Borges has evoked stems from the fact that his project seems to involve an extra-literary element. All of the readings I have quoted have argued that the Menard story provides commentary on tradition, time, translation, dialectics, God, reading, or politics, etc. In this sense Borges is taken as providing the instance of fictional theory, either beyond literature or, most notably reflexively on literature—writing.”

“The literary mode is for him the chosen mode of the imagination, since the force of the imagination is necessary to speak at one level removed from its object: the image is the product of a censor. A paradox is apparent at this point since Borges appears a pedantic realist or documentor. The aim of this referential illusion is to produce a literary effect, an intellectual aesthetic and indirect philosophy. It would entirely ruin the Menard story as literature had the theoretical knowledge attained by Menard been presented.”

The argument eventually morphs into a discussion of Parsons, Weber, Mannheim, and ideal types, and finally Goldmann’s sociology of literature. Goldmann has apparently been applied to Don Quixote, but nothing is said about such a Goldmann-inflected reading of Borges. Foucault’s heterotopia is invoked to explain Menard.

The heterotopia of the Menard story concerns the relation: author—text—reader—context. The (religious) utopia-myth of reading, which is conventional, postulates the effect of the creative writer and the consuming reader, where the text retains its ‘external’ message. The dialectic at work here in Borges’ critique suggests textual ‘identity’ under changing conditions becomes ‘difference’. (The logic of this dialectic in Borges in uneven and complex (heterotopic): for ‘who is Borges?’ is a fundamental issue. For Borinsky he is a confused antidemocrat. For some others the fact of Borges’ right-wing political affiliation is sufficient reason for censorship: not reading his works.)

“Lewis”’s paper ends, and the article reverts to the Menard-esque narrative with which it began.

A few Borinsky references:

Borinsky, Alicia. . “Repetition, Museums, Libraries: Jorge Luis Borges,” Glyph 2 (1977): 88-101.

_____________. “Rewritings and Writings,” Diacritics 4.4 (1974): 22-28.

_____________. Theoretical Fables: The Pedagogical Dream in Contemporary Latin American Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. See chapters 1: An Apprenticeship in Reading: Macedonio Fernández, pp. 1-16; 2: Taming the Reader: Jorge Luis Borges, pp. 17-33.

Alicia Borinsky (A Job for Superman blog).

Katra, William H. “The Political Commentary of David Viñas: The “Resemanticization” of a “Borgean” Reality,” in PCCLAS Proceedings [Proceedings of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies], vol. 14, no. 2, Fall 1987.

[Borgesian Dirty War, Goldmann]

The third stage of Viñas’ writing “can be characterized as Viñas’ acceptance of a ‘Borgean’ cultural and political discourse in that it sometimes develops in entirely independent ways which cannot be related to changes in society’s socio-economic and productive structures.” Evidently, the Contorno group had directly correlated reactionary elitists like Borges with their literary productions. Viñas’ discourse was always more dialectical than vulgar Marxist or Lukácsian. It has been argued that his second period was in accord with Goldmann’s genetic structuralism, but transcending Goldmann’s limitations. [Skipping a whole lot of the article, which incorporates various poststructuralist thinkers….] With regards to current Argentine politics,: “. . . in order to ‘explain’ the bizarre phenomena of contemporary Argentine culture, Viñas often defers to Borges instead of Marx.” The nightmarish political order of the 1950s on is then reviewed. Borges is reintroduced in the essay’s concluding two paragraphs. The Argentine cultural environment has ironically taken on Borgean characteristics. Although Borges is associated with political reaction, he can’t be said to have endorsed the violence of these reactionary regimes, and in any case, his writing does not embody a specific ideological tendency. However, there is a curious resemblance between the literary and philosophical world depicted by Borges and the bizarre, irrational national culture during the ‘Dirty War’. Borges has been the anti-realist bête noire for writers like Viñas, but “a Borgean spirit now casts its shadow over the nation’s institutions and social discourse.”

I have no idea what this means. Hopefully, a familiarity with Viñas’ body of work would help, but perhaps not. Anyway, this essay does not explain Viñas’ application of Goldmann’s ideas, and there is no direct connection drawn between Goldmann and Borges. 


Witold Gombrowicz vs Lucien Goldmann

On Goldmann, Lukacs, Heidegger, and Adorno
by Ralph Dumain

Marxism & Totality & Gramsci & Della Volpe
by Ralph Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Philosophical Style: Selected Bibliography


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