Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths (1964)
I was beginning to get the feeling that almost everything I've ever read might either be traced back to Borges or else somehow prefigure his writing, but I never actually located any of his writing in the usual book stores and, in any case, probably wasn't in a huge hurry to do so due to a niggling fear of finding myself way out of my depth. Almost everything I've ever read is admittedly something of an exaggeration here, when really I mean certain things I've read which have made a significant and particular kind of impression on me - Philip K. Dick and certain looser strains of science-fiction, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and a few other comic strip authors. Borges seems either an originator or an otherwise significant name in the history of books within books, seemingly self-aware narratives reflecting  the readers' existence as potentially no less a fiction than that which appears on the page. His central point seems to be that reality is a function of language, or something of the sort, and he illustrates this over and over in a series of surprisingly succinct short stories and essays. Curiously, the dividing line between what constitutes fiction and what constitutes an essay in Borges' oeuvre is ambiguous as he tends to employ each form towards similar ends, whether it's an analysis of Cervantes' Don Quixote, or the fiction of the writer who strives to rewrite the same.

He did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Peculiarly, there are points at which Borges reminds me of Woody Allen, specifically the absurdity of Without Feathers.

Do I believe in God? I did until Mother's accident. She fell on some meat loaf, and it penetrated her spleen. She lay in a coma for months, unable to do anything but sing  "Granada" to an imaginary herring.

Compare, for example, the tone of the above with that of Borges' The Library of Babel:

The mystics claim that their ecstacy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words, obscure. This cyclical book is God.

This actually reminded me of laughing until my sides hurt over an article in an old issue of Brian Moore's Head football fanzine presenting a fictitious history of the introduction of football to colonial Africa: our Livingstonian narrator arrives at the remote village and realises that the locals have failed to grasp the point of the game once he sees their circular pitch with its single set of goalposts erected at the centre. I'm not trying to denigrate Borges here so much as illustrate his finely-tuned sense of the absurd, albeit in an informally Surrealist or Symbolist context, and how this renders some seriously headachey philosophical points as entirely more readable than they probably have a right to be, even compellingly so.

Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1883, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.

Which would be more or less the same as the point at which Grant Morrison has Animal Man look out of the page at his reader and exclaim 'I can see you!', except Borges states his case in
clearer terms which are much more difficult to refute - I would argue - not least in the essay in which he more or less proves - at least in philosophical terms - that words constitute reality; unless I imagined that one.

There's much more in Labyrinths than I could hope to summarise, even had I understood all of it, so I'll close by stating that it has depths within depths and yet remains mostly as clear as an unmuddied lake. His reputation seems entirely warranted.

1 comment:

  1. I first read Borges, in the sixth form, as a sort of recommendation (along with Italo Calvino who's 'invisible cities' and 'castle of crossed destinies' I'd already read off my own bat) from a substitute teacher. Labyrinthes is great!