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Borges and the Plain Sense of Things

The name of Borges, among readers of modern literature, has always been synonymous with labyrinths, babelic libraries, gardens of forking paths, parallel universes, refutations of time and all sorts of cunning intellectual paradoxes. I want to argue, however, that these are merely the means whereby this profoundly modern writer seeks to make manifest the importance of the ordinary and the contingent in our lives and to remind us that this is the only life we have, that death will bring it to an end, and that every moment of it is infinitely precious. In this he is at one with Proust and Wallace Stevens, Beckett and Nabokov.

In saying this I am not saying anything particularly revolutionary. It is, after all, the message of one of Borges’ greatest stories, the one he chose to place at the head of his finest collection, Ficciones, the story called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

Let me remind you, briefly, how that story goes. With all the circumstantial detail that is the hallmark of his work, he describes, in the first person, how an alternative universe gradually encroached upon our own. It first enters his consciousness when his friend Bioy Casares refers in passing to the opinion of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, ‘that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men’. Asked by the narrator for the source of this, Bioy Casares mentions an encyclopedia entry on Uqbar, but when the two men look up the relevant volume they find no such entry. However, the next day a triumphant Bioy Casares calls him to say that he has found it, at the end of volume XLVI of the encyclopedia he has at home, though the spine of that volume asserts that the contents run only from Tor to Ups and the four pages on that country are found to figure in no other copy. Nor is there any reference to it in any of the atlases and travellers’ accounts in the National Library. A short while later, however, Tlön and Uqbar manifest themselves to the narrator again, this time in the form of an entire volume found in a packet left in a bar, on his death, by a mysterious Englishman. This allows the narrator to put together rather more fully the history and intellectual ambiance of that strange country.

Its culture is strictly idealist, and thus neither causality nor language as we know it exist: ‘The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön’s conjectural Ursprache… The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.’

‘Centuries… of idealism have not failed to influence reality’, the narrator goes on, in a nice double negative. ‘In the most ancient regions of Tlön, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent.’ Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, ‘no less real, but closer to his expectations’. These secondary objects are called hrönir, and these hrönir have little by little been ousting the real, banal objects, so that the world of Tlön is approximating more and more to the expectations of its inhabitants.

The rest of the story tells how this fantastic world has slowly invaded our own, helped on by a secret society dedicated to Tlön and its propagation. This society, we are told, is ‘benevolent’, and included George Berkeley among its founder members. At first there were only isolated examples of infiltration, but these gradually turned into a trickle. By 1944 the trickle has become an avalanche: Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorised re-editions and pirated editions of the Greatest Work of Man flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten yeas ago any symmetry with a semblance of order - dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism - was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?

Our world, it seems, will soon be indistinguishable from Tlön:

Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even that it is false…If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now… English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

At this point the narrator, who has not been much more than a literary device, suddenly takes centre stage: ‘I pay no attention to all this’, he writes, ‘and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne’s Urn Burial’.

It is easy enough to see the ‘point’ of the story: it is an anguished cry in the face of the persuasive ideologies which swept the world in the 1930s, and a kind of stoic refusal to submit to them. There is a puzzle about the dates: the story came out first in the collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan [The Garden of Forking Paths] in 1941, and was reprinted in the larger volume of 1944, Ficciones [Fictions]. Yet the latter part of the story is relegated to a postscript dated 1947. I presume this is a projection forward in time by the author, writing in 1940 or 41. He imagines then a world overtaken by Nazi ideology and dramatises what he would like his reaction to be: not so much passive resistance as a kind of quiet active resistance, the activity consisting of a completely selfless (he has no intention of publishing) translation into Spanish of a minor seventeenth century prose work in English. The voluntary submission to a selfless task, to the carrying over into his native language of an author and a language far removed from him in space and intellectual interests, is the only way this quiet intellectual feels he can avoid being sucked into the idealist world of Tlön, that he can assert what he feels to be fundamental human values in a world rapidly turning into a mirror of our desires and imaginings.

It might be felt that the lumping together of dialectical materialism, anti-semitism and Nazism makes for a rather limp critique of the times, and that to see them all as one thing, and that thing as an example of the idealist world of Tlön suggests a lack of political and historical acumen. Yet other stories – notably ‘Deutsches Requiem’ – as well as remarks he made in interviews, makes it clear that the anglophile and democratic Borges was far from the uninvolved creator of private labyrinths he is often taken to be. On the other hand there is no doubt that the references to current events do seem rather perfunctory and that those stories, such as ‘Deutsches Requiem’, which deal with contemporary matters are not among his most successful. Indeed, one might say they feel slightly false precisely because he assimilates political issues a little too easily to his own concerns with the dangers of the imagination, It may be that Borges’ mode of writing is not such as to engage fully with politics and history, like that of Sartre and Malraux; yet I would suggest that despite this his central contrast of the melancholy and resigned translator and the idealist world of Tlön is more deeply political than Sartre and Malraux could ever be, and that it helps to bring out something that is often overlooked in studies of literary Modernism: that to write about politics without recognising the complicity of forms of writing with the formation of political consciousness is to betray the cause one thinks one is serving, and that writers like Eliot, Stevens, Beckett and Borges may in the end be better guides to the times than Malraux, Sartre, Camus, Silone and the rest.

What are the implications of the contrast between the narrator and the world of Tlön? And why, if Borges sees Tlön as a dangerous temptation and a fallacy, does he spend so much of his time and ingenuity in the construction of idealist universes? To answer this question it is necessary to understand the critique of traditional fiction that drives Borges’ literary innovation.

Let us go back to the burning cigarette: ‘The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.’ Not in the real world, we retort. But what of the world of fiction? After all, in that world there is no causality, only the semblance of causality, for the smoke is not real smoke, the field not a real field, and the cigarette not a real cigarette. The writer has put these three elements together on paper, but we read it as a story of how a fire was started. We only do that, however, because we know about the real world. The men of Tlön do not read it as a story but as an example of association of ideas, because ‘[t]he world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts.’ In other words, the world of Tlön is the world of literature shorn of its realist illusion.

We can now see why Borges is so fond of detective stories and why detective stories should have emerged out of the crisis of Romanticism with the work of Poe. For detective stories go to the heart of the nature of literature and raise questions about the difference between causality in real life and causality in the imagination: ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’ is the flip side of ‘The Raven’. Were we to find those three elements, the smoke on the horizon, the burning field, the half-extinguished cigarette, in a detective story the deduction that the cigarette caused the smoke on the horizon would figure as the first, obvious, banal explanation, later to be shown up by the detective to be false. It would have to be false because as it stands it is too obvious. Too boring. No reader would bother with a writer of detective fiction who presented us with such a story and left it at that. Thus in Borges’ story, ‘Death and the Compass’, the dull police inspector Treviranus, faced with a number of facts – a dead body in a hotel room, precious stones in the next room - comes up with the obvious explanation: ‘No need to look for a three-legged cat here. We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee owns the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, must have broken in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him. How does it sound to you?’ ‘Possible, but not interesting,’ replies the detective hero, Lönnrot. ‘You’ll reply that reality hasn’t the least obligation to be interesting. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid that obligation but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you propose, chance intervenes copiously. Here we have a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber.’

Lönnrot is of course right. But his intuition leads to his own death, for the murderer is, in this story, one step ahead of the detective, has in fact produced an ‘interesting’ series of crimes precisely because he knows that Lönnrot has a weakness for the interesting. The ultimate victor, though, is the story: Borges has produced a classical detective tale with not one element of chance in it and not one but two twists in the plot, and only the most ingenious reader could have guessed the second one.

Borges’ fondness for detective stories stems from his dislike for the classical novel. For the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic. The novel, on the other hand, is a curious hybrid: it wants to assert at one and the same time that it is dealing with life in all its boring contingency, while at the same time telling a story which implies that life has a meaning, is always more than mere contingency. This is the secret of its hold over us, as Sartre, for one, understood so well. We open a novel, Sartre says in La Nausée, and read about a man walking down a road. The man seems free, the future open before him. At once we identify with him, for that is how our own existence seems to be to us. We too are walking down the road of life, not knowing what is to come. But the pleasure of reading a novel stems from the fact that we know that this man is in fact the subject of an adventure that is about to befall him. How do we know this? Because he is there at the start of the novel and he would not be there if nothing were going to happen to him. Thus, Sartre concludes, ‘the end is there, which transforms everything. For us the guy is already the hero of the story.’ The extraordinary power of the novel lies in this, that it makes us feel that our lives are both free and meaningful. It does not say this, for it neither needs to nor is it fully aware of it, but nonetheless that is its essence, the secret of its power.

Borges, like Beckett, dislikes the novel for two reasons, one having to do with literature and the other with life. He dislikes it because he finds it tedious and uninteresting to imitate reality, and he dislikes it because he feels that it propagates a false view of life which stops us seeing what life is really like.

It is easy enough to understand the first reason: since literature is not tied to causality, why not let the imagination free to discover its own rules and laws? But the way this first reason is tied to the second is, despite the clarity of Sartre’s analysis, rather more difficult to grasp. Let me turn briefly to another writer who may help us do so, Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s great decade of writing took place exactly a century before Borges’, in the years 1840-50. Nevertheless, the problems he explored were almost identical to those of the Argentinian writer. Kierkegaard is concerned with what he calls ‘actuality’, with the stuff of life as it is lived, and with the way narratives about living, whether they be those of novelists or of a philosopher like Hegel, covertly falsify actuality. ‘“Actuality” cannot be conceived,’ he writes in his notebook for the year 1850. To conceive something is to dissolve actuality into possibility – but then it is impossible to conceive it, because conceiving something is transforming it into possibility and so not holding on to it as actuality.… But there’s this deplorable confusion in that modern times have incorporated ‘actuality’ into logic and then, in distraction, forgotten that ‘actuality’ in logic is still only a ‘thought actuality’, i.e. it is possibility.

Everything would be fine if works of fiction and works like Hegel’s Phenomenology presented themselves as hypotheses, but they do not, they present themselves as actuality. And it is the same with history.

But isn’t history actual? Certainly. But what history? No doubt the six thousand years of the world’s history are actuality, but one that is put behind us; it is and can exist for me only as thought actuality, i.e. as possibility. Whether or not the dead have actually realised existentially the tasks which were put before them in actuality has now been decided, has been concluded; there is no more existential actuality for them except in what has been put behind them, which again, for me, exists only as ideal actuality, as thought actuality, as possibility.

I can think of history as actuality, but the very thinking robs it of its actuality. If I am to grasp the actual I have somehow to think against thinking, to imagine against imagination. Already in 1837 – before, that is, he had published any of his books – Kierkegaard had struggled to make sense of this conundrum. He had done so by drawing a contrast between the indicative, the mode of actuality, and the subjunctive, the mode of possibility: ‘The indicative thinks something as actual (the identity of thinking and the actual). The subjunctive thinks something as thinkable.’ The writer sensitive to the gulf between thinking and living will reflect this distinction by choosing the subjunctive, not the indicative, as his mode: ‘One should be able to write a whole novel in which the present tense subjunctive was the invisible soul, as light is for painting.’

This helps explain why so many modern writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. This is not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the world, but on the contrary, out of a deep sense of the wondrous nature of the world and a determination not to confuse the world as it is with the world as we imagine it to be, not to confuse actuality with possibility. Borges is quite clear about this in both the parable and the poem he has devoted to the tiger: ‘Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for’ he writes in the parable. ‘The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.’ And the poem ends by directing us away from poetry to the living beast: ‘I go on/ Seeking through the afternoon time/ The other tiger, that which is not in verse.’ In his stories he invents plots that help bring out the contrast between the indicative and the subjunctive: the man who waits for his killers to come, imagining again and again the moment of their arrival, until he can no longer distinguish reality from his nightmares; the creature lost in the labyrinth of his melancholy life, welcoming with relief the coming of Theseus, who will put an end to his solitude; the Symbolist writer who refuses the pleasures of mere imagination and sets out to write that which is quite other than any of our imaginings. As with Beckett and Stevens, Borges’ imagination keeps trying to imagine the death of imagination, but it is only when the imagination has been given its head that it can be effectively exorcised and so allow actuality to shine through.

For imagination to be exorcised it must be released from the constraints of causality that operates in the real world; by so doing it will make clear what realistic fiction obscures, drive a wedge between imagination and reality. But that is only the first step. The second is to try, by means of the imagination, to reveal the nature of reality. ‘In spite of having been a child in a symmetrical garden of Hai Feng, was I – now – going to die?’ asks the Chinese agent in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, and the story is designed to bring him – and us – to an understanding of what that ‘now’ means, of what, in effect, death means – not in imagination, but in reality.

First of all we must be weaned from our lack of curiosity about ‘nowness’, from our taking it for granted. To do so we must be made to realise how very strange it is that everything that happens to us happens, precisely now. And this can be done by making us grasp that things could have been otherwise but were not. ‘In all fictional works,’ Stephen Albert, the sinologist, explains to the Chinese agent, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fictional world of Ts’ui Pên he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel’s contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts’ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend…

The traditional novel, by refusing to countenance the fact that things could have been otherwise, stops us also from understanding the strangeness of the fact that they are not otherwise, but thus. ‘Thus “now” can never be written, for that would turn [it] from actuality again into possibility.’ ‘Now’ can only be pointed to, not uttered: ‘In a riddle whose answer is chess,’ Stephen Albert asks the Chinese agent, ‘what is the only prohibited word?’ ‘I thought a moment and replied: “The word chess.”’

The classic novel, unaware of its complicity with the forces of falsehood, imagining that it deals with actuality when it deals only with possibility, blithely includes such words in its discourse. The more fastidious writer, aware of what he is doing, knows that his only way of conveying the sense of the word is to construct a riddle or labyrinth whose answer is the missing word. He cannot speak the word, for that will immediately turn it from actual to possible. He must find a way of making that word emerge through the construction of a fiction. That is what the Chinese agent has done, though because he is acting in the real world and not creating fiction, the consequence, for himself and others, is dire. Realising that his human voice is ‘weak’ and cannot rise above ‘the uproar of war’, he has worked out that the only way to send his message to Germany is to murder a man. ‘I have won out abominably,’ he concludes.

I have communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city they must attack. They bombed it yesterday… The Chief has deciphered this mystery. He knew my problem was to indicate (through the uproar of the war) the city called Albert, and that I had found no other means to do so than to kill a man of that name. He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness.

What is the missing word of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius? The answer is ‘the actual’, what Wallace Stevens called ‘the plain sense of things’. A conventional narrative would, like mirrors and copulation, merely double our confusions; Borges’ narrative, recognising that ‘the absence of the imagination/ Had itself to be imagined’, manages to convey the ‘nowness’, the ‘thusness’ of actuality, to which the narrator commits himself at the end. There is no better gloss on it, and on all Borges’ work, than the poem Stevens called The Plain Sense of Things:

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors…

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

-- Gabriel Josipovici (15/03/2006)

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