Reading the Master

Every few years I feel the call of Borges. I never plan it; something just says it’s time—after a long enough interval that these gems can surprise again. The translations in the compendium Labyrinths, most by James E. Irby, are so beautifully done I don’t even try to plod through the originals in Spanish.

Let me just say, I’m grateful that Borges lived and wrote. To indulge in a Borgeslike conceit, this world would not be the same world, literally, without the record of his mind’s sojourn through it. It would be, for me, a less salvageable world. Living in our current septic tank of public discourse, its randy energy lavished on the divisive, the shallow, the petty, the simplistic, and the banal, we read authors like Borges in the way a suffocating man breathes a rush of cool sweet air. I am not referring to his “greatness”—a bureaucrat word that means I know not what, but to his Borgesness, his entanglement in the wondrous workings of his own mind, the way he simply didn’t see the stupid obvious lowest common denominator reality that most do, but the subtleties, the paradoxes, the riddles, the labyrinths, and sly trap doors that are reality’s true essence, all shared with us via his deep and idiosyncratic erudition, and the playful charm of his style.

When I return to Borges, it doesn’t matter what I specifically remember of the poems and essays and ficciones, it is always an experience of seeing them anew. I have changed; therefore his writing has. Just as Pierre Menard’s identical rendering of passages from Don Quixote are completely different from Cervantes’ version three hundred years earlier—nostalgia-soaked for the former, mundane for the latter—the Borges I read now is completely different from the Borges of ten or twenty years ago. There is no exact line between the text and the mind that perceives it. Yes, the physical symbols are the same, but what they represent is not.

If you are devoted to metaphors you could say that all of the situations in these fictions are metaphors for a mind like Borges’, finding its way through the labyrinth of this world, like a stroll through the suburbs of Buenos Aires, continually, infinitely refusing the reductive, the definitive, encountering no answers, only other questions, and constantly risking losing the real to the dream. Or vice versa. Babylon with a lottery administered by The Company, which, like God, is either capricious or non-existent. A man who sets out to dream a man, then dreads the moment his offspring will realize he is only a dream, as, at the end, he himself does. An infinite library with all possible books, some of which contain truth—which is meaningless because its existence is random, and the seeker has no way of distinguishing it from nonsense. A learned Chinaman who vowed to write a book and create a labyrinth, which turn out to be one and the same, the forking paths of which contain all possibilities (reflecting quantum mechanics, and prefiguring by a few decades interactive fiction).

Where else but in Borges can you be asked to contemplate something as maddening as Ireneo Funes, who remembered everything, and with his mind so laboriously engaged with detail couldn’t form abstractions or conduct the inner dialogue by which we exist? A situation as horrifying as what we’ve imagined for God. If God is all details, is there no whole? We think of the writer terrified of forgetting some passing snippet of arcane minutiae, though he risk with this feverish preoccupation the failure to form a grand narrative to contain it, and end with a page and a half instead. Or the Zahir, seemingly trivial, but with the power to overtake a mind so utterly that its possession gradually displaces reality. All throughout Borges we are reminded of how we become so accustomed to something we, or someone, has contrived, we risk taking it for the real. You might even say, that’s a pretty good thumbnail of the human experience in toto.

Or the world of Tlön, imagined in the imaginary country of Uqbar, which asks us to consider a reality where the subjective is primal, the objective specious. An outlandish extension of Berkeleyan idealism, revolving around the fascinating but futile question of whether, since our experience of reality takes place in our minds, there is any objective reality. (Refute it thus, Sam!) If there is, we can’t reach it, and if there isn’t, then anything goes, and all we get are these absurd and tiresome debates between scientists and divines. The story makes me think of the Urantia book, the idea of which astonished me (because they, whoever they were, did it!) in my youth, but the (unfinished) reading of which bored me to tears. Do we wish to be controlled by chessmasters or angels?

When I was younger I chafed at the idea of being a “southern” writer. It seemed that all around me people were drawing up lists of what should or shouldn’t be proper subject matter and style for such a creature, and holding fêtes to celebrate those who had acceptably done so. I long dreamed of an essay denouncing that bureaucratic tyranny, then read “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and saw that I wouldn’t need to; someone already had.

Just knowing there was a Borges makes life less lonely. Maybe imagining somebody like me a half century later did the same for him. Am I influenced by him? Well, of course, just as I am by everything—but without anxiety. I’m not consciously aware of it. I can see it only by looking back. Yes, it must be so. But then, we all create our own precursors.