My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök." In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars. Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais.
At first, people applaud and weep. But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."
It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk. Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives. Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line. The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute. A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.
The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals). At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat." Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals.
(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God. Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy. As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)
I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya. Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness. But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong. Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.
That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error. It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight. The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.
Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge: "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel." Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.
If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why.
What is William Makepeace Thackeray talking about, in Vanity Fair, when he asserts:
If a person is too poor to keep a servant, though ever so elegant, he must sweep his own rooms: if a dear girl has no dear Mamma to settle matters with the young man, she must do it for herself. And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can't resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts in the field, and don't know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.
(p. 25 (emphasis in original).)
While Thackeray is frequently an uncomfortably insightful critic on matters of human greed and gluttony, on this issue - the supposed freedom women have to select their own husbands - Thackeray appears to me to be a lunatic.
Never mind the fact that his assertion is utterly contrary to my own experience: times have changed. Vanity Fair predates feminism and, if feminism has proved one proposition, it is that women (with fair opportunities and without absolute humps) awakened to their own power - freed from their beasts-in-the-field likeness, in Thackeray's parlance - are far from assured of marrying whom they like.
No, my sense of Thackeray's lunacy derives from his own depictions of women attempting to marry whom they like. The marital trajectories of Thackeray's own characters contradict his overarching statement. Becky Sharp, for example, begins the novel wanting to marry Jos Sedley. Despite an exercise of her prodigious power, inopportune drunkenness on Sedley's part, followed by an unkind intervention on the part of George Osborne, drown Becky's hopes.
Nor does Amelia Sedley's marital history support Thackeray. Amelia, too, exercised her personal powers to show (more than) a "little inclination" to marry George Osborne, but her own efforts would have resulted in spinsterhood. Nothing short of the extraordinary social pressure exerted by Osborne's long-time friend, mentor and source-of-extra-funds-in-a-pinch, William Dobbin, convinced Osborne to take the plunge with Amelia.
So I return to my original question: what is Thackeray talking about?
One possibility is that Thackeray is just being provocative. At playing provocateur, he excels.
Another possibility is that Thackeray just had one of those human lapses that lead to the fervent espousal of contradictory positions. It happens to all of us, even in print, even when editors are supposed to catch that sort of thing before it goes public.
Yet a third option is that Thackeray is urging us women on to greater heights. Although Thackeray is too much of a realist and a story-teller to be a severe moralist, he does take a firm stand against one sort of immorality: the refusal to grow.
Thackeray can do nothing but frown on Amelia Sedley's steadfast devotion to the unworthy George Osborne; Thackeray has nothing but contempt for Becky Sharp's persistence in her manipulative and degenerative social tactics. However much Thackeray hectors and berates his characters, and punishes their stubborn inertia, they don't change. But perhaps we, the audience, might.
Hence, just as Thackeray shows us what not to do, he tells us what we should do: ladies, he admonishes us, stop being cows and start getting what you want from the men you want. In a word: change.
I appreciate the sentiment. But I also appreciate that Thackeray didn't show us an example of his idealized woman for a reason: she doesn't exist in Vanity Fair - or, since Vanity Fair is a representation of our own materialistic world, she doesn't exist.
Which raises a fourth possible answer to my question of what, exactly, Thackeray is talking about: like most novelists, he too frequently makes things up.
(Image of Romola Garai as Amelia Sedley in Mira Nair's film version of Vanity Fair from Garai's website; image of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in the same film from The New York Times)
In a prior post, I speculated about possible reasons for Roberto Bolaño's propensity to create writer characters whose oeuvres remain opaque to the audience. By depriving these writer characters of an oeuvre, Bolaño isolates them from the possibility of literary dialogue with other authors and texts. I conjectured that Bolaño might conceive of such a writer character as a symbol of mortality.
Now, however, I have a new theory. I think Bolaño's oeuvre-less writers are a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges, after all, is the author who (as I highlighted in another prior post) eschewed composing actual novels in favor of imagining them and then commenting on them. Borges' short stories, moreover, overflow with texts that we don't see (e.g., John of Pannonia's tract against the heresy of the Monotoni in "The Theologians"; Borges' own fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir in "The Zahir"), and with texts that we don't see completely (e.g., Benjamin Otálora's tale in "The Dead Man"; Christopher Dewey's tale in "The Man on the Threshold"). Without too much mental gymnastics, one could truthfully describe Borges as a novelist who, instead of having an oeuvre, merely has a commentary on his own imaginary oeuvre.
By his own account, Bolaño loved Borges. In The New York Review of Books, Francisco Goldman quotes Bolaño saying, "I could live under a table reading Borges."
Knowing of Bolaño's reverence for Borges, and now having read some of Borges' work, I'm inclined to see the protagonist of Bolaño's novel, 2666, the enigmatic writer, Benno von Archimboldi (a/k/a Hans Reiter), as a Borges-like figure. Like Borges, von Archimboldi is a man with a split identity (see Borges' short story, "Borges and I"); like Borges, von Archimboldi is withdrawn from the world; like Borges, von Archimboldi writes imaginary novels; like Borges, others (especially critics and criminals) see von Archimboldi as a figure of power and redemption; and like Borges, von Archimboldi hasn't won the Nobel Prize.
Goldman interestingly cites Bolaño's observation that, "[his] life . . . has been infinitely more savage than Borges's." Benno von Archimboldi's life, however, has seen its share of savagery. Perhaps, in Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño was offering his mentor - who'd always been cagey about his identity as "Borges" - another identity, one less bookish and less focused on the 19th century, one more infused with the lessons that Bolaño had learned from his own life. In Bolaño's hands, Borges could be everything he wasn't in life: a physical presence, a soldier, a killer, a lover - everything, in fact, but a writer with an oeuvre of novels.
Even a novelist with an extensive oeuvre like Bolaño's, it seems, has some limits.
I didn't know what to make of what Borges makes of Jews. My first
impressions did not accord with the assessment of academic Evelyn
Fishburn, who wrote,
Borges' philosemitism is not at issue here: his credentials in this respect must satisfy all but the most paranoid.
Well call me paranoid.
didn't occur to me when I read the following description of "Aaron
Loewenthal" in Borges' short story, "Emma Zunz" (from his 1949
collection, The Aleph):
Aaron Loewenthal was
in the eyes of all an upright man; in those of his few closest
acquaintances, a miser. . . . The year before, he had decorously
grieved the unexpected death of his wife - a Gauss! who'd brought him
an excellent dowry! - but money was his true passion. With secret
shame, he knew he was not as good at earning it as at holding on to
it. He was quite religious; he believed he had a secret pact with the
Lord - in return for prayers and devotions, he was exempted from doing
Fishburn doesn't quote this rigidly stereotypical character description in her discussion of "Emma Zunz," but she does say:
story is placed almost entirely within the confines of the Jewish world
of Buenos Aires around the year 1922 and includes scenes of
embezzlement, prostitution, lies, betrayal and cold-blooded,
premeditated murder, thus opening up the social and moral range of
Borges' Jewish imaginary.
"Thus opening up the social
and moral range of Borges' Jewish imaginary"? Is Fishburn somehow
suggesting that Borges is immune to common anti-Semitic stereotypes of
Jews that cast them as embezzlers, liars, betrayers, cold-blooded
premeditated murderers (blood of Christian children in the Passover
matzoh), etc.? Without in any way suggesting that depictions of Jews
should be immune from the full range of human behavior in which they
(and all groups of humans) engage, I can't see anything laudatory about
Borges descending to depict Jews consistently with anti-Semitic
That said, I do not think Borges is anti-Semitic. As J.M. Coetzee writes of Borges in The New York Review of Books,
Englishness was one part of Borges's self-fashioning, Jewishness
another. He invoked a rather hypothetical Sephardic strain on his
mother's side to explain his interest in the Kabbalah, and, more
interestingly, to present himself as an outsider to Western culture,
with an outsider's freedom to criticize and innovate.
as Borges might have been an example of the much-loved Jewish
stereotype of the "self-hating Jew," much more likely (in my opinion)
is that he extended to Judaism the same openness, curiosity and delight
that he obviously shows in Islam and other traditions of long lineage
in which he found interesting engagement with large questions of
theology, time, existence and reality.
Rather than being an
expression of anti-Semitism, I think Aaron Loewenthal is simply a
function of Borges' generally weak skills at characterization. In
Borges' quick sketches, readers find many characters capable of grand
action and exhilarating thinking, but very little in the way of deep
psychological and emotional portrayals. (Indeed, Fishburn votes for
Emma Zunz herself as being Borges' most fully fleshed-out character:
"his only moderately developed character is female; also Jewish,
manipulative and murderous; and uniquely pitiable"). This being the
case, I think that when Borges reached for a character description of
Aaron Loewenthal, he defaulted to the "Jewish miser" stereotype. So
ingrained was this stereotype into the world in which Borges lived that
his invocation of its broad form may have seemed "right" to him as a
description of a Jew. I doubt seriously that Borges even recognized in
Aaron Loewenthal an anti-Semitic stereotype.
All the same,
whether Borges was philosemitic or merely interested in Kabbalah (and
even if he was prey to the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his day), I
don't recognize myself, as a Jew, or as a Jewish woman, in Borges.
What Borges makes of Jews, however thought-worthy, doesn't strike me as
In a previous blog post, I focused on the explanation given by Jorge Luis Borges, in his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, about why he hadn't written a novel:
It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness
of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to
pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a
commentary on them
My prior post was occupied with the second half of Borges' remark: that imagining vast novels and commenting on them is better than writing them. But, with extended reflection, I think the first part of Borges' statement may be more revealing: his conviction that novel writing is laborious and impoverishing madness.
Certainly, I agree with him. Writing novels has consumed the better part of five years of my life; the work wholly exhausts me; I don't think anyone who knows me intimately would argue too strenuously that I'm sane; and I'm teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, having succeeded in never having earned a dime from my fiction writing.
Still, my guess is that Borges was referring to some other "laborious," "impoverishing" and "mad[dening]" aspects of novel writing. I take my cue from this passage in his story, "The Writing of God":
[T]here is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say "the jaguar" is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth.
Here Borges offers an extraordinary conception of a word, one that departs from our common currency. Each "Borges word" has almost unimaginable weight and resonance. The more "Borges words" one strings together, the more propositions one advances, the heavier and more unwieldy the work becomes, the more the universes conjured by each word clang against one another, creating cacophony and undecipherable complexity.
To write a vast tome from such components is truly laborious; hauling each "Borges word" into place must be on par with positioning the stone blocks that comprise a pyramid. And the task is also impoverishing - to the language. The vibrancy of each word is overshadowed, damaged and cramped by the presence of so many other words, by the weight of so many other universes. Borges was not exaggerating to say that composing a novel with "Borges words" would be maddening.
And, although Borges didn't mention this corollary, to read a novel composed of "Borges words" might be a similar laborious and impoverishing madness. Reading a Borges short story is so demanding that I read each of his stories twice . . . before I go back and "reread" them again. The weight and resonance of an entire Borges novel might very well reduce me to my atomic constituents.
Luckily - however much Borges described his choice as that of an "inept" and "lazy" man - Borges knew both his power and his métier. He spared me atomic disintegration and gifted me untold hours of pleasure in his stories, a balance that I can only describe as a prudential and laudatory use of "Borges words."
Explaining why he'd never written a novel, Jorge Luis Borges remarked,
It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Not just books, or imaginary books, either. Borges is a compulsive summarizer and commentator. No text, real or imagined, seems too short to merit this treatment. He opens his six-page story, "The Dead Man," by saying, "I do not know the full details of [Benjamin Otálora's] adventure; when I am apprised of them, I will correct and expand these pages. For now, this summary may be instructive."
Nor does he restrict his commentary to a sentence here and there. More than half of his barely five-page page, "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden," is commentary on an anecdote about a barbarian who switched sides while sacking Rome. And while Borges' commentary constitutes the story in the foregoing example, his commentary seems to reverse the meaning of the story in the case of "Averröes' Search," transforming the tale from one of discovery into one of failure.
Borges offers a potential rationale for his inveterate commenting in, "The Immortal," at the end of which he appends a "postcript" [sic] to a text allegedly slipped into the last volume of Pope's Iliad. Acknowledging that the text's veracity has been questioned because it quotes or plagiarizes from other texts, Borges remarks:
To my way of thinking, that conclusion is unacceptable. As the end approaches, wrote Cartaphilus [the author of the text found in Pope's Iliad], there are no longer any images from memory - there are only words. Words, words, words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men - those were the alms left him by the hours and the centuries.
What else is commentary but "words taken out of place and mutilated, words from other men"? To quote the words of other men (or the imagined words of other men) and "mutilate" them by placing them in another context, arguing with them, juxtaposing them against other words, complicating their meaning, burnishing or adding to their facets, is to engage in the act of commentary. And for Borges, the raw materials for that commentary - the words - were "the alms left him by the hours and the centuries": his inheritance from history.
At this juncture, I'd like to offer my commentary on Borges' habit of commenting: his impulse is not so much like that of a fiction writer, but of a blogger. Fiction writers are interested in stories: plots and characters. Borges is interested in analysis. Borges - because he's Borges - manages to make stories out of analysis, but his success doesn't transform his approach from one of a commentator into one of a fiction writer. Nor does that fact that Borges is sometimes commenting on or analyzing imaged texts make his methodology suitable for fiction: just as a law student arguing a moot court case is practicing legal techniques, not fiction writing, so Borges is acting the part of commentator, not author.
As Rivka Galchen says in her New York Timesessay on Borges,
he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading. . . . To love a text: isn't that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?
"[W]riting . . . [as an] intensely engaged way of reading" - that's why I blog about books. When I finish a book, I want to deepen, heighten, round-out and complete the experience by writing about it. "[H]elplessly casting about for something to say in return" to a book is a good description of my blog.
In this light, Borges' stunning innovation is that he appears to have invented book blogging before blogs existed. Not that this technological gap really matters. If Cartaphilus can chat with Homer eleven hundred years after he wrote the Odyssey, then Borges can blog before blogs - or the Internet, or even personal computers - were invented. In my analysis, Borges' stories, properly understood and contextualized, are blog posts. Likewise, Borges' books are compilations of his posts - he may be the world's first blogger to have landed a publishing contract.
And in this post, I am imagining Borges' blog and (imaginarily) hyper-linking to it. Check it out, folks: once you read his posts, you'll want to leave a comment.