Borges Revisited (14)

Gracia, Jorge J. E.; Korsmeyer, Carolyn; Gasché, Rodolphe; eds. Literary Philosophers?: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. Contents.

I begin with skepticism about centering interest in Borges around postmodern concerns, but I am on the lookout for analysis relevant to my interests. I have no specific objections to raise here, if only because I can’t remember whatever minor irritations I experienced.

The question of what genre Borges fits into, the differentiation between literature and philosophy, is an interesting one, though it’s more of a conceptual issue of what philosophy is than anything else. The essays on this subject are of interest, but in relation to this general issue, not really important for analyzing Borges himself. . .

. . . That is, as long as one recognizes that Borges’ philosophical content has philosophical as well as literary motivations. Sometimes the postmodern obsession with meta-issues, self-referentiality, etc., tends to distract from the fact that authors from a previous time were interested in more than just commentary on textuality, narrative, etc., themselves, and that this very self-conscious preoccupation was motivated differently than it is now, when we are beyond taking refuge in abstraction from the thrall of the empirical world, as we can’t do anything else, because we live in abstraction, and the empirical world seems more remote than our abstractions.

The essays of greatest interest are “Borges’ Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre” by Lois Parkinson Zamora, and “Mimesis and Modernism: The Case of Jorge Luis Borges” by Anthony J. Cascardi.

Zamora provides a very useful perspective in explaining the transition from Borges’ early avant-garde literary experiments, which he later tried to suppress, and the evolution of his fiction into the 1930s and attainment of his unique approach to fiction in the 1940s, with the context of the problems of Argentine letters in mind. Zamora argues that Borges’ obssession with idealism is a result of his worries over literary form. She provides details to construct a persuasive argument as to how and why this evolved. However, something rebels in me for indefinable reasons, perhaps because I see Borges’ ideological motivations as more than literary.

Zamora sees Borges’ engagement with idealism as the outcome of a struggle between “realistic particularity and universalizing idealism” (57, 68). While I can see this, this should be the stepping off point for a whole new line of inquiry. It is important to see, beyond the scope of this essay, that Borges’ brilliance and originality are intimately, dialectically bound to his limitations, reflecting a lifelong impasse in finding a new way to relate to his society and the world. Borges did something brand new in ironizing idealism, making it useful at last for other purposes by taking it to its logical, absurd conclusions without having to defend the political hegemony from which idealism issues. Yet, the standpoint from which idealism is ironized is not materialism, but rather a mourning over an inability to reconcile nominalism and realism.

Also of great interest is the reconfiguration of the mythic, which also involves Borges’ relation to Ortega y Gasset. I’ve never read a word of Oretga, but now I’m intrigued.

Cascardi’s analysis of mimesis is also quite illuminating, and is directly applicable to the metaphysical anxiety of Borges’ work. But as I’ve been arguing, this metaphysical anxiety over mimesis is also an anxiety over Borges’ relation to social reality, a train of thought inspired by last summer’s lecture by Bruno Bosteels. (reviewed 21 December 2006)

Bosteels, Bruno. “Borges as Antiphilosopher,” Vanderbilt e-Journal of Luso-Hispanic Studies, vol. 3 (2006). [article: HTML] [article: PDF]

This article merits close study, for its general analysis of antiphilosophy, and for its specific treatment of Borges. Here is a summary of my reactions.

(1) Bosteels’ characterization of antiphilosophy is very neat, summing up very well what I don’t believe in. Luckily, he left Marx out of his roster of antiphilosophers: while Marx is accused of abolishing philosophy, he would not fit in very well with this crowd.

(2) If reality is not verbal, what does Borges have to say about it, except negatively?

Thus, speaking of one Quevedo’s most famous sonnets, the one written in his Torre de Juan Abad, Borges asserts in Other Inquisitions: “I shall not say that it is a transcription of reality, for reality is not verbal, but I can say that the words are less important than the scene they evoke or the virile accent that seems to inform them” (40); or as he writes in his essay on Leopoldo Lugones, “reality is not verbal and it can be incommunicable and atrocious” (62). There seems to be, then, a dimension of reality, or perhaps it would be better to say a dimension of the real–whether cruel or not–that forever remains beyond the scope of language.

One might phrase the problem differently, but apropos of Borges’ work: what is real beyond the scope of logical paradoxes? What are the consequences of Borges’ thought experiments for an understanding of reality beyond unworkable metaphysical conceits?

Perhaps Carnap was right: metaphysics is bad poetry . . . which Borges transforms into good poetry.

(3) Aesthetic fact as radical act:

In fact, in this last sentence we can begin to see how the antiphilosophical search for a radical act–in this case an aesthetic one–allows us to redefine truth itself, rather than to jettison it altogether. It is, then, a question of intensity. What matters is the experiential content or effect caused in the subject, particularly as speaking subject.

I’m trying to absorb this, which is different from these other leaps of antiphilosophers.

(4) Happiness via literature or philosophy or neither:

Happiness, as distinct from mere satisfaction, according to these lines would always seem to require, and not interrupt, the active study and agreeable consciousness of the philosopher. But perhaps this is precisely the part of Boswell’s phrase that was improved to the point of perfection by Hudson. For, in the eyes of Borges, between philosophy and happiness there can be no reconciliationat least not at first sight. Borges, like most antiphilosophers, thus typically discredits philosophy’s claims by appealing to the intensity of a subjective experience, the thrill of which alone is capable of producing actual happiness.

And yet, as early as in his youthful essay “Happiness in Writing” (“La felicidad escrita”) from El idioma de los argentinos, Borges reveals his doubts as to the capacity of literature to come any closer than philosophy or metaphysics would to express happiness in the present, as opposed to the mere promise of happiness to come or the elegiacal remembrance of happy times past. “It seems disheartening to affirm that happiness is no less fleeting in books than in real life, but my experience confirms this,” Borges begins by observing (41), only to conclude with the following words in the end:

We usually suppose that literature already has stated the essential words of our lives and that innovation comes only in grammaticalities and metaphors. I dare to assert the opposite: there is an overabundance of minute belaborings but a lack of valid presentations of the eternal: of happiness, of death, of friendship. (47)

Literature, in this sense, is found equally lacking as philosophy when faced with the task of presenting actual happiness.

Because the real eludes literature as it does philosophy?

(5) Note:

In a subtle rephrasing of the myth of Ariadne, the poem “The Fable’s Thread” (“El hilo de la fábula”) from his last book, Los conjurados, actually suggests the possibility of a reconciliation in the final instance:

The guiding thread is lost; the labyrinth is lost as well. Now we do not even know if what surrounds us is a labyrinth, a secret cosmos, or a haphazard chaos. Our beautiful duty is to imagine that there is a labyrinth and a guiding thread. We will never come upon the guiding thread; perhaps we find it and we loose it in an act of faith, in a rhythm, in dreams, in the words that are called philosophy or in pure and simple happiness. (61)

May this final encounter serve by way of a tentative reply to the tiresome and inevitable objection coming from the front row. At the end of this short journey through the purple land of antiphilosophers, there is in fact a form of happiness to be found even in the study of Borges and philosophy. I, for one, like to think that this constitutes one of his more provocative lessons for the twenty-first century.

I do not understand this conclusion. But I am also not convinced by Borges.

Let’s backtrack a second.

(6) Is Borges committed to the same sort of project as other (anti)philososophers?

Borges, I will argue in the following pages, can be situated profitably in the context of this debate: his work will then turn out to have been in large part the work of an antiphilosopher, one who is indeed ironically opposed to the universality claims of truth but one who is also forever in search of a radical gesture that would be able, if not fully to replace, then at least continuously to compete with the prestige of truth in philosophy.

I see this, but Borges seems to be working ironically, on a meta-level beyond Wittgenstein and the rest, because in the end they really are out to prove something, whereas Borges maintains an ironic relationship to his own thought experiments. Your pest in the front row doesn’t realize that this may make Borges much more interesting than all the others.

Incidentally, this vacillation also helps explain the deeply narrative potential involved in the “essential scepticism” that we have come to identify, perhaps somewhat lazily following the author’s own statements, with the case of Borges. By this I mean to refer not only to the fluctuations between nominalism and realism, or between scepticism and mysticism, that can be found from one text to another, but also to the narrativity involved in the comings and goings of certain positions within one and the same story or essay. Following this line of reasoning, we might even be able to come up with a better definition of what really constitutes the logic of a “fiction” or an “inquisition” in Borges’s sense.

Now, do any of these others do what Borges does?

Philosophers, even anti-philosophers, are all on a power trip, so to speak, in that whatever they say, they are out to win in their field.

Borges’ perpetual vacillation–“I, alas, am Borges”–has a twofold character: (1) it is ultimately sterile; (2) as an admitted reductio ad absurdum, it questions its own project, in a way I don’t think applies to Wittgenstein. Borges tries to commit himself to his own idealism, but he cannot, nor can he abjure it. He chases round in a circle forever because he is not professionally obligated to be top dog as a philosopher. Instead, he chooses to live in this hypothetical metaphysical world of his own creation knowing of its impossibility, and speaking of the real world throughout by his constant evocation of Argentine empirical realities. (“The Congress” seems to be the perfection of this technique.) In this way he tilts toward the literary side of whatever mysterious border divides literature and philosophy. He can live in perpetual vacillation between fictional metaphysics and the real, making that his project, even attributing his political conservatism to anti-politics.

Bosteels’ essay outlines the logic of all these antiphilosophers very elegantly. I never would have thought of this because I dislike them all. But Borges is different: in his ironic non-identity he propels us beyond his own sterility and the dead end of idealism. (reviewed 27 December 2006)

There is one other article in English in the same issue of this journal:

Liberato Santoro-Brienza, “Chaosmos of Labyrinths” [HTML] [PDF]

Borges Revisited (12): New Refutation of Time
Borges (1): “Borges, Politics and Ethics” lecture by Dr. Bruno Bosteels
Borges en Esperanto
Bruno Bosteels, Associate Professor of Spanish Literature
Vanderbilt e-Journal of Luso-Hispanic Studies, vol. 3 (2006)