*Borges, Jorge Luis
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Borges, Jorge Luis
Although his fame rests mainly on his production of short stories, Jorge Luis Borges began his career writing poems and essays, and continued to do so throughout his life.
However, there is no separate Borges the essayist, Borges the poet, or Borges the shortstory writer: he continually crossed the boundaries of genre, and could philosophize as a fiction writer or be a poet when he wrote essays. For example, a text such as “Borges y yo” (“Borges and I”) is a story that is also an essay that is also a poem.
Borges’ output of essays as such is not extensive. If we include prologues (a form in which he achieved a mastery of allusion and synthesis), texts from conferences, and short essays included in miscellanies, his work in this genre amounts to no more than a dozen titles. The essays in this body of work appear somewhat disparate, like the browsings of a casual reader: reflections on gauchesco poetry, meditations on the nature of time, the exhumation of a minor poet like Evaristo Carriego—unlikely to be remembered were it not for Borges—or a note on the artificial language invented by John Wilkins in the 17th century. The three key books from this output are Discusión (1932; Discussion), Historia de la eternidad (1936; History of eternity), and Otras inquisiciones (1952; Other Inquisitions).
What strikes the reader immediately is that, in spite of the breathtaking literary knowledge he displays and the precise form in which he manages it, Borges’ tone is almost always cordial and serene, his erudition tempered by self-irony and simplicity of exposition. This was not always the case: the young essayist of the first series of Inquisiciones (1925; Inquisitions) or El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926; The length of my hope) sounds surprisingly baroque, aggressive, and labored to the point of appearing somewhat pedantic. Those were Borges’ avant-garde years, when he placed his revolutionary ardor at the service of a militant and iconoclastic criollismo, of which he was soon to recant.
Perhaps with the exception of Baldomero Sanín Cano, no one in the Americas had written essays like Borges’, because few people had read certain authors in the way he had; still less had anyone written about them with such disconcerting mastery and familiarity. As an essayist, he adopted a literary culture almost entirely alien to Latin American literature and which, thanks to Borges, would become part of its tradition. It is a culture rich in oriental books, ancient philosophers and mystics, Jewish cabbalists and gnostics, forgotten French poets, but above all in English authors. He brought attention to British writers who were little known in the Hispanic world, such as Sir Thomas Browne, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, G.K.Chesterton, John Keats, William Beckford, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as to other writers such as Franz Kafka, Paul Valéry, and Walt Whitman.
What is striking is not only the uniqueness of his literary subjects as an essayist, but also his ability to say something unexpected about them. Like Paul de Man, one can say that these are “imaginary essays,” if we take this expression to mean essays from a personal imagination stimulated by the imagination of others. One of the surprises awaiting a reader who refers to the sources that inspired Borges is to discover that, on reading and interpreting them, the author added as much as (or more than) he took from them, and in this way gave them new meaning. His readings are a form of appropriation and reflected creation; he translates what he reads into his own literary language and his own aesthetic world. This secondhand creativity—of unforgettable suggestion and magic—is characteristic of Borges.
In this way Borges takes possession of all the literature he knows and integrates it into his own system. His books make up a library created by an imagination stimulated by another library. This can be seen especially in the way in which Borges read religious, metaphysical, and philosophical texts; he himself said that in authors such as Spinoza, George Berkeley, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Emanuel Swedenborg he was not interested in the truth of their theories, but rather in their aesthetic value and their ability to amaze. That is, he read them as pure exercises in thought (valid in themselves, not for their objective content) and as fictions conceived in order to explain the world. Whatever their subject (eternity or the metaphor, Homer or the cyclic nature of time, our idea of Hell or Xeno’s paradox), however modest the form they took (book reviews, footnotes, refutations of a thesis), Borges’ essays are above all unconventional propositions, an invitation to think in a new way about something commonly accepted, a quiet intellectual dissidence. What is admirable about these proposals is that they do not impose on us a formula: everything is transformed into a hypothesis that we are free to agree with or not. The skill and seduction of the text is that, however absurd or incredible the hypothesis may appear at first, in the end the temptation to accept it is irresistible.
The major question underlying a study of Borges, essential to any investigation of literature, concerns the limits of language and how to represent the world with a succession of sounds and conventional signs (Borges, quoting Chesterton, writes of “grunts and squawks”). The very nature of language is a sober warning to the writer who wants to create something new: the most language allows us is to reiterate, with
variations, what has already been said. That is, we can achieve success only by working within the tradition, not against it. In this way it is possible to understand why the theorists of modern linguistics and representatives of the French “new criticism” have found Borges’ ideas so stimulating and have added him—to their own surprise—to the list of forerunners of their most sophisticated luminaries.
JOSÉ MIGUEL OVIEDO
translated by Richard Shaw
Born 24 August 1899 in Buenos Aires. Lived with his family in Europe, 1914–21.
Studied at the Collège Calvin, Geneva, 1914–18. Cofounding editor, Prisma, 1921, Proa, 1922–26, and Sur, 1931; literary adviser, Emecé Editores, Buenos Aires; columnist, El Hogar (The hearth) weekly, Buenos Aires, 1936–39. Municipal librarian, Buenos Aires, 1939–46: fired by the Perón regime. Poultry inspector, 1946–54. President, Argentine Writers Society, 1950–53. Lost his sight, 1955. Director (after Perón’s deposition), National Library, 1955–73. Taught at the University of Buenos Aires, 1955–70. Married Elsa Millán, 1967 (divorced, 1970); married María Kodama, 1986.
Awards: many, including Argentine Writers Society Prize, 1945; National Prize for Literature, 1957; Prix Formentor, 1961; Ingram Merrill Award, 1966; Jerusalem Prize, 1971; Reyes Prize, 1973; Cervantes Prize, 1979; Yoliztli Prize, 1981; honorary degrees from seven universities. Member, Argentine National Academy; member, Legion of Honor (France);
Order of Merit (Italy), 1968; Order of Merit (German Federal Republic), 1979; Honorary Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire (KBE).
Died (of liver cancer) in Geneva, 14 June 1986.
Essays and Related Prose
El tamaño de mi esperanza, 1926
El idioma de los argentinos, 1928; enlarged edition, as El lenguaje de Buenos Aires, with José Edmundo Clemente, 1963
Discusión, 1932; revised edition, 1976
Historia de la eternidad, 1936; revised, enlarged edition, 1953
Otras inquisiciones, 1937–1952, 1952; as Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, translated by Ruth L.C.Simms, 1964
Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, 1975
Siete noches, 1980; as Seven Nights, translated by Eliot Weinberger, 1984
Nueve ensayos dantescos, 1982
Textos Cautivos: Ensayos y reseñas en El Hogar (1936–1939), edited by Enrique Sacerio-Gari and Emir Rodríguez Monegal, 1986
El aleph borgiano (book reviews), edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda and Martha Kovasics de Cubides, 1987
Borges, el judaismo e Israel (selected essays on Judaism), 1988
Biblioteca personal: Prólogos, 1988
Other writings: many short stories, poetry, a screenplay, and works on literature. Also edited anthologies of stories (including Antología de la literatura fantástica [The Book of Fantasy], with Silvana Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940; Cuentos breves y
extraordinarios [Extraordinary Tales], with Bioy Casares, 1955); translated works by Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Thomas Carlyle, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Collected works editions: Obras completas, 9 vols., 1953–60, revised edition in 1 vol., edited by Carlos V.Frías, 1974; Obras completas, 2 vols., 1989.
Becco, Horacio Jorge, Jorge Luis Borges: Bibliografía total, 1923–1973, Buenos Aires: Casa Pardo, 1973
Foster, David William, Jorge Luis Borges: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography, New York and London: Garland, 1984
Alazraki, Jaime, “Borges: Una nueva técnica ensayística,” in El ensayo y la crítica literaria en Iberoamérica, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1970:137–43
Alazraki, Jaime, “Oxymoronic Structure in Borges’ Essays,” Books Abroad 45 (1971):421–27
Hahn, Oscar, “Borges y el arte de la dedicatoria,” Revista Iberoamericana 43 (1977):691–96
Omil de Piérola, Alba, “Jorge Luis Borges: Del ensayo a la ficción narrativa,” in El ensayo y la crítica literaria en Iberoamérica, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1970:155–60
Phillips, Katharine Kaiper, “Borges as Concomitant Critic,” Latin American Literary Review 3 (1973):7–17
Piérola, Raúl Alberto, “Temas de Jorge Luis Borges, ensayista,” in El ensayo y la crítica literaria en Iberoamérica, Toronto: University of Toronto, 1970:109–15
Rodríguez Monegal, Emir, “Borges essayiste,” L’Herne (1964): 343–51
Stabb, Martin S., “Utopia and Antiutopia: The Theme in Selected Essayistic Writings of Spanish America,” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 15 (1981):377–93
Xirau, Ramón, “Borges refuta el tiempo,” in his Antología personal, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1976:36–42
Zalazar, Daniel E., “Los conceptos de ‘instante’ y ‘eternidad’ en la obra de Borges,” in his Ensayos de interpretación, Buenos Aires: Crisol, 1976
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