On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges:
Observations and Questions

by Ralph Dumain

(1) “The Congress” appears in a collection of stories called The Book of Sand (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni; New York: Dutton, 1977; originally published as El libro de arena in 1975). Borges comments on this story in both the prefatory Author’s Note and the Afterword:

If of all my stories I had to save one, I would probably save the “The Congress,” which at the same time is the most autobiographical (the one richest in memories) and the most imaginative. (7)

“The Congress” is perhaps the most ambitious of the tales in this book; its subject is that of an enterprise so vast that in the end it becomes confused with the world itself and with the sum of daily life. Its opaque beginning tries to imitate that of a Kafka story; its end tries, doubtless in vain, to match the ecstasies of Chesterton and John Bunyan. I have never been worthy of such a revelation, but I have managed to dream one up. I have woven into the story—as is my habit—a number of autobiographical elements. (124)

(2) I was introduced to Borges as a teenager and continued to read him into my early 20s, fascinated by his metaphysical puzzles and philosophical thought experiments. I was also aware of his fascination with Argentina’s past, particularly the violent gaucho culture. I’m sure though that I missed out on something, in failing to connect these two dimensions of Borges’ preoccupations in my mind. I retained a number of his themes and erudite references, as well as the sense of metaphysical anxiety permeating many of his stories, and upon occasion over the years, some piece I had read years before would pop into my head, and I might even have needed to re-read it.

(3) Last month I attended a lecture, Borges, Politics and Ethics, by Dr. Bruno Bosteels, as a result of which I instantly became obsessed with Borges. This time, perhaps because of greater absorption of detail, I appreciated Borges’ writerly talent as never before and was thus prepared to discover things I missed when I was younger. Bosteels related Borges’ metaphysics to his politics, which not only stimulated me to think through the socio-historical meaning of his metaphysical obsessions once again, but to relate them to his Argentinean context.

“The Congress” was one of the stories treated at length by Bosteels. It immediately struck me as rich in details and layers. While I found the metaphysical puzzle around which it centers easily assimilable, the detailed account of Argentinean circumstances and the behavior of the characters added an additional layer to the story which presented for me an enigma I want to unravel, for which I solicit your participation.

(4) The story ‘El congreso’ was originally published in 1971. Borges was born in 1899, thus the story was published when he was 71 or 72. Alejandro Ferri, the story’s narrator, is 71-72 years old; he writes his memoir in 1955, concerning events covering the years 1899-1904. Borges makes Ferri the same age as he, but Ferri’s adventure begins the year of Borges’ birth, thus displacing Ferri's life span approximately 15 years further into the past.

(5) A clue to the metaphysical puzzle at hand appears early on: Ferri’s mention of his work titled Short Study of John Wilkins’ Analytical Language. Though this study is fictional, Wilkins was a real person, and Borges gives his take on his work in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (“El idioma analítico de John Wilkins”; see one of the translations linked below). (See also Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. For further background you can consult my Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography.) Wilkins’ work was the summit of a preoccupation of philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries to construct from scratch a logical language based on a systematic classification of all ideas that would facilitate the progress of logical thought and scientific knowledge. As we shall see, a comparable utopian project becomes the metaphysical focus of this story.

(6) The philosophical linchpin of the story is this:

Twirl, who had a farseeing mind, remarked that the Congress involved a problem of a philosophical nature. Planning an assembly to represent all men was like fixing the exact number of platonic types—a puzzle that had taxed the imagination of thinkers for centuries. Twirl suggested that, without going farther afield, don Alejandro Glencoe might represent not only cattlemen but also Uruguayans, and also human great forerunners and also men with red beards, and also those who are seated in armchairs. Nora Erfjord was Norwegian. Would she represent secretaries,  Norwegian womanhood, or—more obviously—all beautiful women? Would a single engineer be enough to represent all engineers—including those of New Zealand?

This problem of representable constituencies leads not only to overlaps but potentially to an infinite regress (which coincidentally parallels the implicit logic of current issues of multiculturalism and identity politics).

This logical problem is further compounded by the personality conflicts among the Congress members, as we see immediately following:

. . . Fermín broke in. “Ferri represents the gringos”. . .

(7) Wilkins is mentioned a second time:

I did not overlook universal languages, investigating both Esperanto—which Lugones qualifies as “impartial, simple, and economical”—and Volapük, which, declining verbs and conjugating nouns, attempts to work out all linguistic possibilities. I also weighed the arguments in favor of and against the revival of Latin, a nostalgia for which has endured down through the centuries. I even dwelled on an examination of John Wilkins' analytical language, in which the definition of each word is to be found in the letters that spell it out.

I shall imminently query the significance of the artificially constructed languages Volapük and Esperanto, which unlike the philosophical languages of the preceding centuries (e.g. that of Wilkins), were based on lexical material extracted from existing national languages, systematizing them grammatically and purging them of grammatical irregularities rather than logically ordering their semantic content, with the intention of securing their adoption as a universal second language for international communication.

(8) What is the significance of the time span in which the events of the Congress transpire—1899-1904? Note that projects like Esperanto were very much in the public consciousness as concerns over creating an efficient tool for international communication grew in the 19th century, peaking in the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th. Esperanto was first introduced to the public in 1887 in what in what is now Poland (a few years after Ferri’s birth), and its first world congress occurred in 1905, the year after the Congress terminates. Was this accidental or intentional on the part of Borges? I’ll return to the larger question of the time frame’s significance momentarily.

Note that Twirl and don Alejandro Glencoe both die in 1914. Is there a tie to real-life events of 1914?

(9) What is the significance of the place of the story? Borges is of course from Buenos Aires. But, logically, why would the Congress of the World originate in Argentina? Why is this the brainchild of a politically frustrated rancher on the Uruguayan border?

(10) Note the question of historical memory, legend, and nostalgia. Gauchos are unromantic figures, contrary to legend. Note the recurring images of knife fights in Borges’ tales, his obsession with violence and the disorder endemic to Argentinean life. To a provincial like Ferri, becoming a newspaperman in the big city was romantic. Presumably the discrepancy between fact and romance is an important thematic ingredient of the story. Any thoughts?

(11) So, in sum, what is the significance of time + place? There is an interesting juxtaposition of primitive and modern conditions. Is there some special historical moment, or some special affinity of the periphery for the dream of the modern? Is there a historical moment, or a strategic location, that engenders the utopian dream of the Congress of the World, comparable to the conditions that foster the quest for a universal language?

(12) What is the significance of the contrast between don Alejandro Glencoe’s utopian project and his commandeering role as ranch boss?

(13) What is the significance of the contrast between the utopian collaborative project and the individual personalities, conflicts, agendas, ambitions, diversions, love affairs, etc.?

(14) There is a break in the story—what is the basis for the precipitous decision of don Alejandro Glencoe to abort the Congress?

(15) Don Alejandro Glencoe argues that the Congress already exists, that the project is dilettantish and absurd, and he sells off his ranch as he terminates the Congress. (There is a relation between both these actions, perhaps?) The last night of its common association is a celebration never to be forgotten, a moment of jubilation in the actual world, which is seen at last to be the sought-after utopia. While this reasoning is readily understandable, is it valid?

The final collective act of jubilation is memorable but momentary. The Congress dissolves, the individual members retire to their private lives, and the Congress remains the secret of the chosen few. What does this mean?

(16) A pervasive theme in Borges’ work is the destabilizing danger lurking in the duplication of the world. Borges’ recurrent paradox structures this tale. The Congress of the World tends to an infinite regress of representation; it is impossible to duplicate the world in all its detail and interrelationships, and approaching this limit constitutes a menace. Bosteels asserts that Borges begins many of his stories with a utopian premise, that when carried to its logical conclusion, bears completely opposite results from those anticipated. We see this logic at work here.

In this case, though, the process of duplicating the world is not carried to its logical conclusion, its menace is aborted, and it concludes in a dissolution back into the actual world, into the disjointed particulars of individual lives and circumstances. The story of the Congress remains a secret kept from the world at large, which, we are told, is the real Congress. Not only cannot a finite individual or group appropriate the totality of the world, but the actual world already embodies all the totality it needs, as if it were already utopian. Does this mean then that Borges has added a new ingredient to his customary scenario?

(17) There seems to be an insinuation that public revelation of the Congress (not only its realization) would upset the order of things. Why exactly would this be?

(18) The experience of The Congress, one would think, was transformative. But as compared to other revelations, what exactly has changed in the consciousness, character, or behavior of the participants? Don Alejandro Glencoe’s transformation is the most dramatic, for he was the proprietor and prime mover, and he sold off his property (meaning what?) after he dissolved the Congress. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any dramatically changed life purpose for anyone.

(19) The prefatory quote by the French Enlightenment philosopher Diderot refers to a castle with a sign that reads, approximately: “I do not belong to anybody and I belong to everyone. You were there before entering there, and you are there still when you leave there.” How does this epitomize the story?

(20) If the actually existing world is the Congress, it already embodies the utopian principle. Redolent of certain mystical traditions, this is as if to say: we are already saved, but only the select few know it. But this is a paradox, and not entirely convincing, for (a) it leaves us pretty much back where we started, (b) the impact of the experience and the resulting changes in the participants’ lives and consciousness in this instance seem to be minimal. What then is ultimately the content of the Congress participants’ secret knowledge? And the unchanged violence, brutality, and disorder of the world at large are not the traits of a utopia. Thus, except for the lesson to take pleasure and find value in what actually exists, we are left with an inconclusive situation.

It is also essential to note that Ferri in his old age is a member of the Conservative Party, paralleling Borges’ own politics.

(21) Perhaps, then, it is not within the power of collective conscious activity to perfect the world?

(22) It should be noted that Borges is preoccupied with the disorderly tendencies of Argentineans, and on the other hand, is quite skeptical of statism. Bosteels notes Borges’ hostility to representative democracy, and links Borges’ metaphysics to his politics.

Borges himself leaves no doubt as to his position, in the very first story of The Book of Sand, titled “The Other.” The narrator, who is Borges himself, while teaching in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1969, experiences a chance encounter with his double. He enters into a dialogue with the other Borges.

I asked what he was writing and he told me he was putting together a book of poems that would be called Red Hymns. He said he had also considered calling it Red Rhythms.

“And why not?” I said. “You can cite good antecedents. Rubén Dario's blue verse and Verlaine's gray song.”

Ignoring this, he explained that his book would celebrate the brotherhood of man. The poet of our time could not turn his back on his own age, he went on to say. I thought for a while and asked if he truly felt himself a brother to everyone—to all funeral directors, for example, to all postmen, to all deep-sea divers, to all those who lived on the even-numbered side of the street, to all those who were aphonic, and so on. He answered that his book referred to the great mass of the oppressed and alienated.

“Your mass of oppressed and alienated is no more than an abstraction,” I said. “Only individuals exist—if it can be said that anyone exists. ‘The man of yesterday is not the man of today,’ some Greek remarked. We two, seated on this bench in Geneva or Cambridge, are perhaps proof of this.”(16)

This piece of dialogue crystallizes the metaphysical preoccupations and conservative politics of Borges. (It also confirms the thesis of Bosteels’ lecture.) It is the concentrated essence of Borges’ literary career, and of his inability to find a path beyond the dualism encapsulated therein, and of the dissociation of dream and actuality, and even of his obsession with occult and mystical arcana and his ironic infatuation with philosophical idealism. It’s all here.

What remains is to work out the meanings of the details and their complex interconnections.

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web
(including all the following links)

"The Congress" by Jorge Luis Borges

"Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

Hajkoj kaj Tankaoj de Jorge Luis Borges, tradukis Carlos A. Castrillón [in Esperanto]

La Biblioteko de Babelo de Jorge Luis Borges, tradukis Gulio Cappa [in Esperanto]

On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions
by Ralph Dumain

Borges blog entries [start in old blog]

Borges Revisited (14) [in new blog]

A Taxonomy of Surreal Taxonomists by Prentiss Riddle

"Popes, Kings & Cultural Studies: Placing the commitment to non-disciplinarity in historical context"
by Karl Maton

On the General Characteristic” by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Leibniz on the Universal Characteristic

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges by L. A. Murrilo

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo (includes interlinguistics links)


'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins' (originally 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' ) by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Lilia Graciela Vázquez
   Translated by Will Fitzgerald
    Spanish original & English translation

An Eternal Engine by Wayne Clements
[on Llull, Swift, Borges, & computer-generated writing]

Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Recognition - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jorge Luis Borges - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Borges: Garden of Forking Paths

Borges Center

Borges en Esperanto [blogo Ĝirafo]

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Uploaded 15 August 2006
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