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Borges: Selected Non-Fictions Paperback – Deckle Edge, November 1, 2000
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Jorge Luis Borges was our century's greatest miniaturist, perpetually cramming entire universes onto the head of a pin. Yet his splendid economy, along the wafer-thin proportions of such classic volumes as Ficciones and Labyrinths, has given readers the impression that Borges was miserly with his prose. In fact, he was something of a verbal spendthrift. His collected stories alone run to nearly 1,000 pages. And his nonfiction output was even more staggering: the young Borges cranked out hundreds of essays, book notes, cultural polemics, and movie reviews, and even after he lost his sight in 1955, he continued to dictate short pieces by the dozens. Eliot Weinberger has assembled just a fraction of this outpouring in Selected Non-Fictions, and the result is a 559-page Borgesian blowout, in which the Argentinean fabulist takes on being and nothingness, James Joyce and Lana Turner, and (surprisingly) racial hatred and the rise of Nazism. So much for our image of the mandarin bookworm! The very engagé author of this book seems more like a subequatorial Camus, with a dash of Siskel and Ebert on the side.
Selected Non-Fictions demonstrates just how quickly Borges began wrestling with such brainteasers as identity, time, and infinity. Indeed, the very first piece in the collection, "The Nothingness of Personality" (1922), already finds him fiddling with the self: "I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I." There are many such meditations here, including "A History of Eternity" (in which Borges maps out his own, disarmingly empty version of the eternal, "without a God or even a co-proprietor, and entirely devoid of archetypes"). But it's more fun--and more revelatory--to see the author venturing beyond his metaphysical stomping grounds. Borges on King Kong is a hoot, and a cornball masterpiece such as The Petrified Forest elicits this terrific nugget: "Death works in this film like hypnosis or alcohol: it brings the recesses of the soul into the light of day." His capsule biographies are a delight, his critiques of Nazi propaganda are memorably stringent, and nobody should miss him on the tango. True, the sheer variety and mind-boggling erudition of Selected Non-Fictions can be a little forbidding. But, taken as a whole, the collection surely meets the specifications that Borges laid out in a 1927 essay on literary pleasure: "If only some eternal book existed, primed for our enjoyment and whims, no less inventive in the populous morning as in the secluded night, oriented toward all hours of the world." Oh, but it does. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Reviewing a book that seeks to validate the existence of ghosts through testimony by the upper crust of British society, Borges writes: "the Honorable Reginald Fortescue became a firm believer in the existence of 'an alarming spectre.' As for myself, I don't know what to think: for the moment, I refuse to believe in the alarming Reginald Fortescue until an honorable spectre becomes a firm believer in his existence." In this compilation of nonfiction prose, the third of Viking's magisterial three-volume collection of Borges's complete works, a new, fuller Borges emerges, as the writer becomes a joker; the fabulist shows himself to be a rationalistic skeptic; and the alleged conservative skewers upper-class pretensions. We also find the familiar man of letters in such classic essays as "A New Refutation of Time" and "Kafka's Precursors" (which foreshadows the most interesting ideas of Harold Bloom in a mere two and a half pages). Among the gems to appear in English for the first time are slyly brilliant literary essays, such as an appreciation of Flaubert's enigmatic novel, Bouvard and P?cuchet, and an authoritative critical history of the translations of the 1001 Nights. Other newly available aspects of Borges's oeuvre are trenchant critiques of Argentinean anti-Semitism; contemporary reviews of such works as Citizen Kane, Absalom, Absalom and Finnegan's Wake (Borges finds it incomprehensible); and capsule literary biographies for a woman's magazine. While the translations capture Borges's unfailingly elegant style, the editing at times seems overly academic: certain sentences, even paragraphs, are repeated, and certain topics (particularly time and eternity) are overrepresented, a tendency that makes the book rather difficult to read straight through. Even so, this is a volume of inexhaustible delights. First serial to Grand Street. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was like an imaginary perfect librarian who had read everything, knew what all critics had said about each book over time, knew all writers, knew their lives and opinions, knew where their words belonged in the galaxies of literature, and had pondered the counter-factual books they had not written. This astounding talent made his many prologues to the books of other writers unusually valuable, deep and compelling, such as his prologue for Bret Harte’s Sketches. Whilst reading Borges one marvels at his endless, speculative imagination, his depth, his subtle wit and his fine thinking. He was one of the giants of the 20th century. Reading one piece after another, one wonders how he collated and synthesised so much historic and modern literature in multiple languages without modern aids. He read broadly. He reminds us of Pliny the Younger’s advice that no book is so bad that there is nothing good in it, and reminds us of other literary figures who echoed Pliny. In real life, Borges was the director of the National Public Library, but he was thoroughly imaginative and would surely not have been unhappy to be compared to the imaginary perfect librarian in Neil Gaiman’s book of dreams, The Sandman.
Of course he did not start as a giant, but from the start of his life-long career, Borges was extraordinary. By twenty he was already well-read in most of the authors that would influence him. His early persona is already literary and comparative. Sometime in the thirties, during the war, his non-fictions start to address his main themes more substantially: infinity, reflection, unrealness, labyrinths, adumbrations and so on.
Borges is an enchanting writer. His words trigger sheer pleasure and take you with them, be it his compelling titles, his vocabulary, his exactness, his playful asides about the process of his writing (e.g., “I first wrote… but then I noticed that…” p337), or his unpredictability about whether a sentence will be neutral, light or serious. Borges’ style is rich, interwoven, multi-faceted and literary. He makes his points with simple precision: “Croce’s words are crystalline. I need only repeat them: …” (p337). He makes his points with understated majesty: “I have visited some literatures of the East and West; I have compiled an encyclopaedic anthology of fantastic literature; I have translated Kafka, Melville and Bloy; I know of no stranger work than that of Henry James.” (p248). Borges’ appreciation of literature is classic and anglophile. He gives a masterful explanation of the incorrectness of the modern theory that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him. When discussing a style or technique, Borges gives examples from many works great and small, classic and modern, and then adds his own, such his addition to a list of equivocal or two-pronged syllogisms: “In Sumatra, someone wishes to receive a doctorate in prophecy. The master seer who administers his exam asks if he will fail or pass. The candidate replies that he will fail.” (p250) He embeds riddles, such as referring to the couple, neither of whom had a navel (who else but Adam and Eve). His experience reading the poetry of Walt Whitman is “bedazzlement and vertigo”. Borges is not afraid to reach for the superlative; Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is the most wide-ranging and audacious experiment that the history of literature records (p447). Emanuel Swedenborg was the most mysterious Swede and the “most extraordinary man who had ever lived on earth” (p449).
His critiques can be subtle or direct: “… should art be a political instrument or not? … those who bludgeon us (or amuse themselves) with such a foolhardy inquiry forget that in art nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions.” (p250). “… in reality, as Whistler said, ‘Art happens.'” (p502) With honesty, Borges the rails against the oppressive dominance and assumed superiority of the “psychological novel”, which unlike the adventure story has little or no plot (1940, p241). “The Russians and their disciples [of the psychological novel] have demonstrated, tediously,” the formlessness of the genre. He writes: In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of verisimilitude. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day.
Borges had strong moral convictions, as he shows in his stance against Hitler and Peron. Borges was an agnostic who wrote of God; what else should one expect from such a subtle thinker? He does not explicitly spell out his religious beliefs in this book – what would that mean for such a dreamy poet –, but he does delineate them. He jokes that many philosophical heavy-weights, including Plato, should be considered the “major masters” of fantastic literature because they “invented God” and religious concepts (p255). He explicitly states that he does not believe in an “ultraterrestrial” world (p256). He is nonetheless fascinated by religion and religious issues. In “Biathanatos” he takes up Donne’s thesis that not all suicides are sinful and points out that both Samson and Christ chose to die. One advantage of being agnostic, he said in an interview, was that it makes one more tolerant.
When describing his favourite book, The Divine Comedy, Borges reveals more of himself. In 1945-51 he wrote nine essays on this poem that has much to do with the number nine. He gives unusually unsubtle praise to the poem. “What was, is, and shall be, the history of past and future things I have had and those I will have, all of it awaits somewhere in this serene labyrinth…” (p267) “… not one word of [Dante’s] book is unjustified.” (p268). “The novels of our own day follow mental processes with extravagant verbosity; Dante allows them to glimmer in an intention or a gesture.” (p268). Dante’s is “the best book mankind has ever written…” (p281) with “… the most moving lines literature has achieved.” (p302). It is “infinite” (p285). It is no wonder that Borges is so compelled by this work where the main character, Dante, is simultaneously real and literary and a dream.
There may be another reason why Borges is moved by Dante: identification. As he points out, Dante’s unrequited, unconsummated, idolatrous infatuation for Beatrice Portinari was both real for Dante (p300) and a tool that the poet used in his personal literary ambition (p282, p303 – “I hope to say of her what has never been said of any woman.”) A ruffian would say that Dante was a sexual loser who hid in his books. Harold Bloom, who loves Freud, did not like the fact that Borges was so critical of Freud. In his “Canon of Western Literature”, Bloom claims that Borges’ dislike of Freud was that of a man who had always lived with his mother until his very late and unsuccessful marriage.
Borges contradicts the criticism that the Comedy is antiquated by citing historic commentaries that consider it an allegory of the state of the human soul: bad, penitent or good. (p270) More important for Borges is to rebut Nietzsche’s description of Dante as “the hyena that poetizes on graves”, a description that Borges finds “more emphatic than ingenious.” Borges replies: “There is a technical explanation for the hardheartedness and cruelty of which Dante has been accused. The pantheistic idea of a God who is also the universe, a god who is every one of his creatures and the destiny of those creatures, may be a heresy and an error if we apply it to reality, but it is indisputable when applied to the poet [Dante] and his work. The poet is each one of the men in his fictive world…” (p270). Coming from Borges, a great admirer of Spinoza, these words on “a heresy and an error” should probably not be understood too simply.
In some essays Borges gives philosophy issues a go. He makes a modest disclaimer of making a “feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics.” (p317). If one might consider Borges a dabbler for any given subject, he is always a well-read and well-versed dabbler, for example in philosophy. I particularly liked his essay “From Allegories to Novels” (p337), which deals with allegories being “out” and novels being “in” for metaphysical reasons. Dante’s Comedy is a good example of an allegory: it has an immediate and literal sense—Dante, guided by Virgil, reaches Beatrice—and a figurative sense—man finally attains faith guided by reason. If one believes that the word “faith” is too limited to express reality, one could argue that the allegory communicates a richer, more powerful sense of the reality behind “faith”; Beatrice is a sign of the valiant virtue and secret illumination of faith. In the Middle Ages the fundamental thing was not people but humanity, not individuals but the species, not the species but the genus, not the genera but God. Whereas the allegory was once enchanting, today it is out. We “feel it is stupid and frivolous” to use this form of cryptography. One might think this is simply because tastes have changed, but Borges connects the move from allegory to the modern novel to Platonism/Realism moving to Aristotelianism/Nominalism. The Platonists sense intuitively that ideas (abstract objects, universals, ideal forms) are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are just words, nominal generalisations that do not exist in reality, unlike individual artefacts. This is not just wordplay and philosophical distraction; the two hypotheses correspond to two ways of intuiting reality. “Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists.” Plato’s team includes Parmenides, Spinoza, Kant and Francis Bradley; Aristotle’s includes Heraclitus, Locke, Hume, and William James. Today, writes Borges, we are all nominalists. “The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.” (p332) The move started in the Middle Ages under various names and flavours. Abelard considered it the move from antiquity to modernity. Borges playfully pinpoints the ideal date as 1382 when Chaucer wrote that Knight’s Tale and thereby translated a Latin line from Boccaccio from “And Betrayal with hidden weapons” to “The smyler with the knyf under the cloke.”
His final lectures are increasingly personal, but always literary and historical, such as his touching lecture on blindness. In the last two decades of his life he plunged in to ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry. The irrelevance of this activity to hard times in Argentine coupled with Borges’ giant status were criticised, but he was an ageing artist and he had already done much fighting for Argentine against dictatorships. He was glad that there is no immortality of a soul and its memories. He said that he was tired of being Borges and often in his life had wished to have been someone else. The fact that he never won the Nobel Prize may have been coupled with his anti-communism or his acceptance of an honour from Pinochet. He quipped: "Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.” He disliked envy, hatred and malice, but not sloth. He must have been charming as a person, someone you would love to have a chat with: proud yet modest, critical but a gentleman, a giant among writers but a self-effacing librarian, and above all imaginative.
I can muster few criticisms of this book. His non-fiction, like his fiction, was almost exclusively about men. Some pieces treat obscure subjects but this makes them special. A small number of pieces are dated, such as film reviews, but are entertaining. Some ideas and texts appear similarly or identically in more than one essay, but this is normal for such a collection and shows that Borges was consistent. He joked that his blindness led him to plagiarise himself. He refers to G.K. Chesterton, Benedetto Croce, Thomas De Quincey and Spinoza often, but that’s because Borges was moved by them and it is not a bad thing that he introduces these lesser known but important writers and thinkers to his readers.
I end by quoting the first words of one of Borges’ last works, the prologue to a collection of 75 books called “A Personal Library”: Over time one’s memory forms a disparate library, made of books or pages whose reading was a pleasure and which one would like to share. The texts of that personal library are not necessarily famous. The reason is clear. The professors, who are the ones who dispense fame, are interested less in beauty than in literature’s dates and changes, and in the prolix analysis of books that have been written for that analysis, not for the joy of the reader. This series is intended to bring such pleasure. … I don’t know if I am a good writer, but I think I am an excellent reader, or in any case, a sensitive and grateful one. I would like this library to be as diverse as the unsatisfied curiosity that led me, and that continues to lead me, in my exploration of so many languages and literatures.
It's well worth reading: Borges always gives you something to think about.