September 2011

Nandini Ramachandran

Mystic Myna

Borges & I

Am I these things and the others
Or are there secret keys and difficult algebras
Of which we know nothing?

-- Lines that could have been written and lost about 1922.

I began this essay on a wednesday, 24th August, when the Google doodle informed me it was Borges’ 112 birthday. At the time, I was writing another essay for this month’s column, on the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński and his final book Travels with Herodotus. It is the book in which, nestled between adventures, he is “condemned to India” and goes to China. In it, he talks about the metaphor of the Great Wall, echoing Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (something there is that doesn’t love a wall...).

“The Great Wall of China,” Kapuściński writes, “is also proof of a kind of human weakness, of an aberration, of a horrifying mistake; it is evidence of the ahistorical inability of people in this part of the planet to communicate… Protecting against foreign menaces, it also allows one to control what is happening internally... And thus such a wall is simultaneously a shield and a trap, a veil and a cage.” 

While the sentiment is laudable, the language, rife with prejudice (people in this part of the world?!) annoyed me considerably. Had this globetrotter never heard of Hadrian’s Wall? Thus I opened my Borges, as I do almost daily, for solace and speculation. I was thinking of his essay “The Wall and the Books” where he talks about the Tsin Emperor who ordered not only the building of the Great Wall but also the burning of all books written before his reign. This was hubris to match the conflagration at Alexandria, for Chinese history was millennia old when this king declared it would begin, all over again, with him. Despite this, he doesn’t see his actions as evidence of the “ahistoricity” or irrationality of the Chinese people:

Perhaps the wall is a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti condemned those who adored the past to a work as vast as the past, as stupid and as useless. Perhaps the wall was a challenge, and Shih Huang Ti thought, “Men love the past and against that love there is nothing that I nor my executioners can do, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do, and he will destroy my wall, as I have destroyed the books, and he will erase my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and will not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled his empire because he knew it was fragile, and destroyed the books because he knew they were sacred books, books that teach what the whole universe teaches or the conscience of every man. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the building of the wall are acts that in some secret way erase each other.

Long before I got to this essay in The Total Library, however, I was halted a dozen times by new discoveries and old favourites. Experience has taught me that digressions are inevitable with Borges, and I now ration my reading with an obscure system of post-its and notebooks. But this was his birthday! Surely it was my duty as a reader to indulge. I paused to admire Ramón Llul’s thinking machine and dipped into the history of eternity, of names, of the tango. I honed my skills at verbal abuse (commit sins of syntax, Borges urges, but never those of argument) and learned of this fine insult by Dr. Johnson: “Your wife, sir, under pretence of keeping bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.” Later, I found two more, in a short review of Rabindranath Tagore. One is by Tagore himself, commenting on Baudelaire: “I don’t like your furniture poet!” The other is Borges calling the “venerated and mellifluous” Tagore “incorrigibly imprecise.”

This was, well, the death-knell of my Kapuściński essay. Soon I was reading the short stories, then a small jump led me to the poems, and from that labyrinth no mortal ever returned unscathed. Next thing I knew it was Saturday, and I was trading Kapuściński’s visits to Benares with Borges’s visions of the city of many gods. The empathy of Borges’s imagination, his willingness to engage with humanity, warts and all, is what beguiles me most, even beyond his obvious skill as a wordsmith and his prolific imagination.

Dishonesty -- the manufactured emotion, the falsified event -- is the worst crime any writer can commit. It is also the easiest to detect, and print is rarely forgiving. Borges, too, is emphatic about this: “Words must be conquered, lived, and the apparent publicity they receive from dictionaries is a falsehood. Nobody should dare to write 'outskirts' without having spent hours pacing their high sidewalks, without having desired and suffered as if they were a lover, without having felt their walls, their lots, their moons just around the corner from a general store, like a cornucopia.”

Yet, to write, one often sacrifices on life and exciting experiences. Writing all too easily devolves into loneliness and penury, allowing one neither the time nor the resources to travel or to party. Borges reminds his readers of the variety of human truths, that imagined territory -- whether Benares or Buenos Aires -- can trump blinkered brains, even charged with the biggest of life’s adventures. Sometimes, just sometimes, if you read widely and generously, you see farther than “those fragile instruments, the eyes.”

Little by little it found itself, like us,
caught in the reverberating weft
of After, Before, Yesterday, Meanwhile, Now,
You, Me, Those, the Others, Right and Left.

-- The Golem

Borges essays, while short, can be baroque affairs. They are the mark of a “delirious archivist,” as Umberto Eco called him, of a man who lives amidst legions of chattering books. He constructs his essays like a vast puzzle, piling quip upon quote, leading you ever deeper into a thicket of metaphors. Occasionally, they are almost formless, as if their writer has been so carried away by the force of his reading that he has forgotten the point he set out to make. Yet, a careful reading will always reveal the fragile thread between each idea, the links that made Borges not only a consummate reader and thinker but a peerless writer.

In the first essay of the The Total Library, “The Nothingness of Personality,” he argues that personality is little more than the sum of thoughts and emotions any given person is indulging in at any given time. There is no whole self, the essay begins, this has been declared by those men who have truly scrutinised the calendars from which time was discarding them. He then skims the history of ideas from Agrippa to Walt Whitman, concluding, as he does often, with more questions: Is the self a mere logical imperative, invented to allow humanity to discern the “heavy-laden flight of time”? Is there really nothing indelibly “individual” in any of us? Such a conclusion, though, would distort his argument. He doesn’t claim people are never unique, just that they express, through themselves, the world in which they persist: “To try and express oneself, and to want to express the whole of life are one and the same. A strenuous, panting dash between the prodding of time and man, who, like Achilles in the illustrious conundrum formulated by Zeno of Elea, will always see himself in last place.”

In a later essay, “Borges and I,” he kicks this notion of quantum personality up a notch into split personalities, such as between the reader and the writer. Borges makes this point, indeed, time and again, most succinctly in his adaptation of Pascal’s wager: “Perhaps universal history is the history of the various intonations of a few metaphors.” "Borges and I" is an admission of complicity, of recognising that even the most inventive of writers only build upon what they have already read. The writer and reader might inhabit the same body and like the same things (in Borges-fashion, this is accompanied by a list: Buenos Aires, hourglasses, maps, Stevenson’s prose), yet they remain apart.

The other Borges is the one things happen to… The other one likes the same things, but his vanity transforms them into theatrical props. To say our relationship is hostile would be an exaggeration: I live, I stay alive, so that Borges can make his literature, and this literature is my justification… I am fated to disappear, and only a small piece of me can possibly live in the other one. I’m handing everything over to him bit by bit, fully aware of his nasty habit of distortion and aggrandisement… I must remain in Borges rather than myself (if in fact I am a self) and yet I recognise myself less in his books than in many others, or in the rich strumming of a guitar… Thus my life is an escape. I will lose everything, and everything will belong to oblivion, or to the other.

In my attempt to structure this essay, I read Eliot Weinberger’s introduction to The Total Library. It was my first time with this section of the book (I have an aversion to the beginnings of anthologies) and was astonished to find that Borges disowned the first eight essays, all drawn from anthologies published during the 1920s. What on earth did he find so reprehensible in them? I find these early essays representative of the style and concerns of later work. He talks of time, of eternity, of the sultry moon on a solitary night, of literary taste and the purpose of language, of fabulous beasties and libraries capable of reading themselves.

In “The History of Angels” he wonders why angels survive even as other mystical and metaphysical creatures are fading away from the world’s imagination: “I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colours are like memories or premonitions of other colours. We must not be too prodigal with our angels; they are the last divinities we harbour, and they might fly away.” Did he know, already, that he would recover fantastic beings for the 20th century? That his Book of Imaginary Beings, compiled decades later, would become the bestiary that inspired the revival of a genre? It is precisely such prefiguring, this uncanny prescience, that makes it so hard for a reader to figure out why he decided to ignore his earlier work. Was it the ravages of retrospection? No one can read old work without wincing, and Borges was a relentless critic, especially of himself. Was that why he excised these essays entirely?

Perhaps, however, the answer lies in that very first essay. Perhaps he knew that the Borges of posterity would depart radically from his image of himself and his role in the world. Borges believed, strongly, in the transience of the self, that who we become has little bearing on who we are. In his own lifetime, he wanted to be known as the writer of Artifices or The Garden of Forking Paths or the hundreds of essays and poems he left standing. After his death, he trusted, other voices might tango with his to recreate the Borges they wanted them to be. Perhaps this what he meant as he wrote “I trust in the extent of the future and that it will be no less generous than my hope.” Perhaps this was why he wanted his early self to be forgotten -- so he could remembered again, with fresh eyes unburdened by crippling self-doubt. This is not who I was when I died, he is telling us, but this was where I began. This was the person I shed to become an icon, this was the person from whom I evolved. This is the golem of memory.