Productive Mischief

Michael Wood

‘Not everyone can be Whitman,’ Borges said in an interview in London long ago. He paused, pretending to reflect. ‘Not even Whitman could be Whitman.’ We knew Borges was only pretending to reflect because we recognised the joke and the timing as belonging so perfectly to him, a Borges short story in miniature, a shortest story. And also because, if we were still sceptical, we could find the joke in his writings. In ‘The Simulacrum’, which Andrew Hurley translates as ‘The Mountebank’, a man arrives in a small village in northern Argentina and exhibits a blonde doll in a cardboard box which serves as her coffin. People file by, offering their condolences, addressing the man as ‘General’. He shakes their hands, murmurs a platitude, and they drop their two pesos in a collection box. The time is July 1952. But this ‘funereal farce’, as Borges puts it, is of course not the real thing. ‘The man in mourning was not Perón and the blonde doll was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón either, nor was Eva Eva.’

The implication here, immediately spelled out, is that Perón and Eva were figures in ‘a crass mythology’, and that we know nothing about the anonymous persons who played those roles, a performance only marginally less farcical than that of the man with his doll and his box. But a name is always a role for Borges, an idea of the self, and the interplay between actor and part takes many forms in his writing. In one of his early prose works, The Universal History of Infamy (1935), Borges says of Billy the Kid that he ‘never fully measured up to the legend of himself, but he came closer and closer as time went on’. In a story in the late volume The Book of Sand (1975), a woman makes a remark that is ‘not like her’. ‘But what we say,’ Borges adds, ‘is not always like us.’

‘Not often like us’ is the implication, if indeed there is an ‘us’. ‘Years do not change our essence, if in fact we have an essence.’ But who else would we be, apart from ourselves? Who else could we be? The counterpart of Whitman’s failing to be Whitman is Whitman’s inability to be anyone else, his imprisonment in what his name has come to mean to others. Borges, too, is a figure in a mythology, although certainly not in a crass one, and the man who is also called Borges watches with amazement.

It’s the other one, Borges, that things happen to ... I get news of Borges by mail and I see his name on a shortlist of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hour-glasses, maps, 17th-century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; the other man shares those preferences, but in a boastful way which converts them into the attributes of an actor ... Years ago I tried to free myself from him and moved from mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now ... I don’t know which of us is writing this page.

He doesn’t know as he is writing, perhaps, but we do; and he knows as soon as he has written the page. It’s the other one, Borges. It’s tempting to think that fame, or finding his voice as the inventor of his own form of fiction, turns Borges into Borges, and this trope is very common in discussions of his work. ‘The birth of “Borges” ’, in Emir Rodriguez Monegal’s biography (1978), means the arrival at blindness and celebrity. But the writer in the above quotation is quite specific. The ‘games with time and infinity’ we now associate with Borges, particularly the stories in Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), were written in an attempt to escape from Borges, the author of stories and poems full of Argentinian local colour, and a volume called Fervour of Buenos Aires (1923) especially. It’s writing that creates the other, and in Borges we witness the death of the author from the author’s point of view. Or more precisely the lapse of the person into the author, the birth of the textual play actor at the expense of the mere civilian, who becomes nameless, like the historical Perón and Eva once politics and mythology take them up. But again, it’s not exactly fame that performs this operation. It’s the script of their play which seeks out, as Borges would say any writing does, the lurking unreality of human arrangements, both psychological and social, whatever it is in us and in our world that waits to be colonised by flamboyant or domineering illusions, or even decorous ones.

‘Almost immediately,’ Borges writes in one of his most famous stories, in which historical reality is infiltrated by an immense hoax, the apparent evidence of a world far more ordered and far less solid than ours, ‘reality gave in on more than one point. The truth is, it longed to give in.’ ‘Ten years ago,’ he says, writing in 1947, ‘any symmetry with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-semitism, Nazism – was enough to dazzle mankind.’ Contact with the imaginary world of Tlön, Borges says, ‘has disintegrated this world ... In our memories a fictitious past has already taken the place of the other one, of which we know nothing with any certainty – not even that it is false.’

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