Stanislaw Lem on Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 16)

UNITAS OPPOSITORUM: THE PROSE OF JORGE LUIS BORGES by Stanislaw Lem, in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (New York: Harvest / HBJ, 1986).

I wish Lem would have elaborated more on his generalizations, because what he locates as Borges’ central weakness may cohere with what I would see as Borges’ limitations. Lem underestimates the brilliance of many of Borges’ stories, particularly the ones I’ve analyzed: “The Congress”“The Aleph”, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. Lem lists four stories he considers Borges’ best; along with “Pierre Menard” they are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “Three Versions of Judas.”

Lem admires the logical, paradoxical structure of these stories. He finds that in each, “Borges transforms a firmly established part of some cultural system by means of the terms of the system itself.” Underneath the comical surface of Borges’ metaphysical play, Lem finds the premises serious, and though fantastic, the stories are rigorously logical and therefore curiously “realistic.”

Here is a telling phrase: “The author therefore has the courage to deal with the most valuable goals of mankind just as mankind himself does. The only difference is that Borges continues these combinatory operations to their utmost logical conclusions.”

Lem finds that Borges operates by way of transformation of conservative premises, and never offers anything new: “Borges is successful because in any single case he never questions the implied premises of the model structure that he transforms. . . . He never creates a new, freely invented paradigm structure. He confines himself strictly to the initial axioms supplied by the cultural history of mankind.”

But Borges cannot place in real history the religious and metaphysical conceits he parodies: these ideas ‘are just “fictitious,” “freewheeling,” “privately invented” meaningful structures. . .’ His twists on philosophical systems are logically irrefutable. “To refute them, it would be necessary to call into question the total syntax of human thought, and thinking in its ontological dimensions.” There is no real causality or progress in the development of human thought.

Lem also finds that the replication of Borges’ basic ideas throughout his body of work diminishes it. Lem boils down Borges’ method to “the unity of mutually exclusive opposites.”

His literary game with its borderline meanings always begins where opposites repel one another with their inherent force; and it ends as soon as they are joined together. But we can see a trivial weakness in Borges’s work in the fact that there is always the same mechanism of conversion (or a closely related inversion).

The final effect is the perceptibility of the limitations of Borges’ imagination: “In its utmost depths, the structural topology of Borges’s work acknowledges its relationship with all mechanistic-determinist kinds of literature, including the mystery novel.” Borges is fundamentally a librarian. But this point of departure is obsolete: “Borges is located near the end of a descending curve which had its culmination centuries ago.” He extrapolates on the cultural heritage of the past, but he has nothing to say about the future. Lem concludes:

His work, admirable though it may be, is located in its entirety at an opposite pole from the direction of our fate. Even this great master of the logically immaculate paradox cannot “alloy” our world’s fate with his own work. He has explicated to us paradises and hells that remain forever closed to man. For we are building newer, richer, and more terrible paradises and hells; but in his books Borges knows nothing about them.

I think Lem is quite perceptive in all this, but still there is something missing. Paradoxically, Lem fails to place Borges himself in history. How does one explain the appearance of a literary avant-garde in Argentina, or anywhere in Latin America, at a particular time? Or to generalize the pattern, how to explain the ideological/artistic manifestations of the evolution of modernity? It seems to me that Argentina, like the USA, historically embodies a peculiar combination of the primitive and the futuristic, albeit with historical differences. This is the very feeling I got from studying “The Congress“. Fleshing out Lem’s perspective with the full dimensionality of Borges’ work and trajectory would refine our explanation of its place in history, and might likely add insight into Borges’ political conservatism. This conjuncture of Borges and Lem excites me.

See also:

Borges Ironizing Idealism: I Dream Too Much by Ralph Dumain

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web


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