Strategies of Self-Conscious Representation in the Early Essays of Jorge Luis Borges

Strategies of Self-Conscious Representation in the Early Essays of Jorge Luis Borges

Teresa R. Stojkov, Oberlin College, Ohio

Jorge Luis Borges’s international fame as a short story writer has always obscured recognition that he was one of the most productive poets and essayists of Spanish America. His career as an essayist began in 1925 with the publication of Inquisitions and spanned some thirty-five years without interruption until the publication of Dreamtigers in 1960. Borges continued to write poetry until his death in 1986. In comparison, the most famous of his short stories were written in a fifteen-year period from the mid-thirties to the early fifties. These disparities notwithstanding, there is more than just a tenuous relationship among Borges’s three literary vocations. This study is concerned principally with establishing a number of theoretical concerns presented in Borges’s earliest essays as a possible unifying feature for a narrative “oeuvre” that has often been described as self-conscious fiction or metafiction.

To prove that Borges’s essays are as metafictional as his short stories would be a pointless exercise because it is obvious that they are. It seems more useful to explore the true extent to which they may be said to form the preamble to the self-conscious literary practice that followed. Beyond the more obviously meta-fictional features (fictive footnotes, editorial commentary, etc.), Borges’s reflections on the nature of literature and literary studies as they appear randomly in several essays relate directly to formalist principles that underlie many theories of self-conscious narrative. It is sufficient to focus on three specific principles: first, the autonomy of the work of art; second, the notion of “literariness”; and third, the definition and motivation of “literary device.” The formalist component will be drawn principally from the theoretical writings of Victor Shklovsky, spokesman of the Opojaz group, and Roman Jakobson, from the Moscow camp. With regard to Borges’s essays, I refer to several that were written in the late twenties and early thirties, a time span which roughly parallels the development of the Opojaz group and the Moscow Linguistics Circle. I view any similarity between Borgesian thought and the formalist program in terms of affinities rather than influence, since it is highly unlikely that Borges had any contact with post­revolutionary and pre-Stalinist intellectual movements in Russia.

The first issue raised by formalists dealt with the autonomy of the work of art: they claimed that the work of art is self-contained; therefore the critic’s interest should be centered on the work itself rather than the writer. This idea was implicitly shared by Borges as early as 1922 in an essay entitled “La nadería de la personalidad” (The Nothingness of Personality).[1] The essay also explicitly informs his critical approach to writers like Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and numerous others. The practical fallout from this theoretical postulate and critical orientation is the insistent distinction between the writer as a man and as “the other” in Borges’s own writing. Literature which thematizes the double and/or the other as a means of calling attention to autonomy has flourished, of course, during this century, and personal statements have become routine. Borges’s own statement on the autonomy of his art is clearest in his popular essay “Borges and I” in which he states: “It is no effort for me to confess that he [Borges] has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition.”[2]

The basic question, then, is not how to study literature, but rather what the subject matter of literary study is or should be. In their earliest writings, many formalists attempted to put literary studies on independent ground and to make the study of literature a science separate from what they saw as extraneous studies or disciplines. This line of questioning lead eventually to the differential specification with which we are all familiar: literariness. Jakobson had already suggested that the subject of literary scholarship is not literature in its totality, but literariness, or that which makes a given work a work of literature. He followed this statement with what has now become one of his most often quoted remarks: “If literary research wishes to have the status of an exact science, it must adopt the question of devices as its single dominant theme.”[3] Over the years great liberties have been taken with Jakobson’s words. In 1977 it was thought that Jakobson had declared that the science of literature would not be a “real science” until it took “the device” as its “sole hero.”[4] To be a dominant theme and to be the only theme are, I believe, quite different. Regardless of the emphasis chosen, the singular importance of the device remains intact in both versions: the question of how a piece of literary writing was actually constructed was more interesting than the why or by whom. Inasmuch as the object expressed and the means of expression were inextricably united in formalist analysis, the traditional dichotomy between form and content is irrelevant.

The early formalist notions of literary “art as technique” and the “device as sole hero” were formulated in Shklovsky’s early essay “Art as Device” (1917) and later in Jakobson’s thesis “Problems of Research in Literature and Language” (1928). These essays were virtually unknown in the West until the sixties.[5] Yet Borges had been defending the validity of rhetoric as a discipline of literary analysis in the Argentine journal Sur from the early twenties. In a number of essays written for Sur, he pretends to review or analyze a particular work or writer. However, in a masterful sleight of hand, or usage of device, his discussion often takes up the general matters of the literary act, foregrounding technique and/or device as the principle concern of his literary inquiry. I will cite just three of the many examples available.

In 1924 Borges concluded that the unity and effect of Francisco de Quevedo’s work lie not in its subject matter but in the author’s preoccupation with exploiting the resources and devices offered by the medium: “almost all of his books are ordinary in their plan, but outstanding in verbal workmanship.”[6] In 1935 he describes his analysis of William Morris’s Life and Times of Jason: “My aim is literary, not historical. I deliberately omit any references to the poem’s classical origins.… Morris’s difficult task was to narrate realistically the fabled adventures of Jason, king of Iolchos. Line by line virtuosity, common enough in short lyrical pieces, was impossible in a narrative of over 10,000 lines. What was required, above all, was a strong appearance of factual truth, capable of producing that willing suspension of disbelief which, for Coleridge, is the essence of poetic conviction; I want to find out how.”[7]

After this brief introduction, Borges unravels one his most significant theoretical pieces. Unfortunately, this particular essay went relatively unnoticed by most critics until Gerard Genette used it some thirty-three years later in an article on verisimilitude, further contributing, somewhat belatedly, to Borges’s reputation as a “universal” thinker.[8]

The third example is taken from an equally important essay that first appeared in the April 1933 issue of Sur, entitled “Elements of Rhetoric.” In this example, Borges comments on a milonga (popular Argentine song) that he came across in a country store. It is conceivable, of course, that the origin of the milonga is fictitious, another sleight of hand by the author. Borges observes of the milonga: “To be innocently fond of it or to make fun of it both seem equally pointless. I prefer, at this point, to examine just how it works. As for what is behind it, vague and lost as it certainly is, I leave the final investigation of that to the Last Judgment—or to the brilliant and incisive Spitzer, ‘who works his way through the capillaries of the most characteristic idiomatic forms to the original esthetic impulse which brought them about.’ It is enough for me to explain the effects the lines produce in me.”[9]

Borges then goes on to analyze in six brief paragraphs exactly how the milonga works. After completing the analysis, he continues: “So much for the analysis. I undertook it, not to pretend that the rather ordinary milonga had hidden felicities, but to show what any verbal form can set going in us. That intricate game of changes, of successful frustrations, of enthusiasms, exhaust for me the esthetic act. Those who discount it or gloss over it are ignoring literary particularity.”[10]

In this formulation Borges, in fact, has provided the reader with a gloss for his own work. The essay ends with the following prescription: “The esthetic of the complete works should be put aside, that of its diverse instances should remain. In any case, the one should precede the other, as its justification. Literature is fundamentally a syntactical matter. It is accidental, linear, sporadic and most everyday.”[11]

Borges’s analyses of a milonga, a tango, a verse from Paradise Lost, and a stanza from Cummings are all syntactic-semantic inventories of the surprises that each example imparts to the reader. Therefore, Borges’s literary theory and practice vindicate the “literary fragment” again as a formal and semantic unity. Here, especially, fragment is understood as the parts of a text that, because of their internal configurations, recognize the model of literature. The essay mentioned earlier, “Narrative Art and Magic,” proposes a similar formal consideration of the way in which the device formally combines with a content and determines the outcome and efficiency of an invention.

Borges’s discussion of the literary fragment has some obvious implications for a conception of literary genre as well as the reader’s genre expectations. For Borges, the notion of literary genre is largely dependent upon the internal devices employed in a particular work, hence his most important commentary on the novel begins with an analysis of the devices employed in Morris’s 10,000-verse poem The Life and Times of Jason. In “Chesterton and Detective Fiction” (1935), he further explores the matter of genre, particularly from the point of view of the short story as subgenre. The same ideas are further developed in later essays on Chesterton. Not surprisingly, we find that Shklovsky’s own series of articles on the mystery novel are distinguished by an emerging theory of genre.

Returning to Borges’s analysis of the milonga, the conception of the creative process as a tension between ordinary speech and the artistic devices that shape or deform corroborates the formalist tenet that literature is essentially a linguistic phenomenon, even if the latter’s emphasis was on the phonic. If the difference between literature and non-literature is to be sought not in the subject matter, but in the mode of presentation, then it follows that delimiting “poetic” (literary) speech from other modes of discourse is at stake: the material of poetry is neither images nor emotions, but words. In the individual word, “meaning” could not be separated from sound. This postulate is the logical extension of the indivisibility of the literary work: form and content are inseparable. In 1916 Jakubinskiy had already written: “Practical speech is essentially neutral, amorphous. Hence the phenomenon of casual, ‘sloppy’ speech … in ordinary verbal intercourse a certain discrepancy between the intent and the actual utterance is permissible as long as the listener knows what the speaker is talking about. Not so in poetic discourse; here the sounds are deliberately experienced; they enter the clear field of consciousness.”[12] Poetic language, then, is largely dependent upon phonic textures of the word, rather than on any of the tropes traditionally associated with imaginative literature.

On these major points of language, one can see a good deal of divisiveness in Borges’s stance. For example, in an essay from Discussion (1932), entitled “A Vindication of the Cabala” (which, through a typically Cervantine device, was attributed to the assassinated character Yarmolinsky at the beginning of Death and the Compass), Borges makes a similar distinction between a literary and a non-literary text: “The careless dispatch of an ordinary text—for example, journalism’s ephemeral utterances—allows for a noticeable amount of chance.… In such indications, the length and acoustics of the paragraphs are of necessity accidental. The contrary occurs in the verses, whose usual law is the subjection of meaning to euphonic necessities (or superstitions). What is accidental in them is not the sound: it is the meaning.”[13] This same point is made with minor variations several times throughout the essay. Nevertheless, Borges recants all when he attacks the formalist conception of literature in “La supersticiosa ética del lector” (1930), an essay included in the same collection.

Unlike other formalists, Shklovsky’s inquiry into “Art as Device” also synthesized the role of perception into his theory of prose. Two points he made were not only made contemporaneously by Borges, but are manifested in all three areas of Borges’s literary production. For Shklovsky, “a work may be created as poetry and perceived as prose, or else created as prose and perceived as poetry. This points to the fact that the artistic quality of something, its relationship to poetry, is a result of our mode of perception.”[14] Shklovsky showed that the “poetic value” of an object is not only defined by the device itself, but also by the myriad ways in which a device, and by extension an object, might be perceived. Literary property resides in the power of innovation with respect to known forms.

To perceive anew what the general laws of perception have converted to the habitual became the hallmark of Borges’s earliest essays. In “The Language of the Argentines” (1927), he first formulates the proposition of literature as the diverse intonation of just a few metaphors. As mentioned earlier, the idea had already been planted at the end of “Elements of Rhetoric,” when Borges wrote that “[t]he esthetic of the complete works should be put aside, that of its diverse instances should remain. In any case, the one should precede the other, as its justification.”[15]

Both essays suggest an “authorless” literariness to which Borges persistently claims allegiance. In “The Flower of Coleridge” (1945), Borges speaks of the consubstantial elements of literature: “If the doctrine that all authors are one is valid, such facts are insignificant.”[16] A clever extrapolation leads him to the infamous conclusion that a new metaphor does not exist: “perhaps it is a mistake to suppose that metaphors can be invented. The real ones, those that formulate intimate connections between one image and another, have always existed; those we can still invent are the false ones, which are not worth inventing.”[17] In Shklovsky’s words, “The poet does not create images; he finds them or recollects them.… The task is none other than the accumulation and revelation of new devices for disposing and elaborating the verbal material, and it consists in the disposition of images rather than in their creation.”[18] Later, in his essay on plot construction and style, Shklovsky states: “a work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other preexisting forms.”[19]

Borges’s near-obsession with the kenningar is perhaps the best document of his very early and long-standing interest in the ideas regarding literary device. The kenningar was a device of medieval Icelandic poetry made up of a complex system of equivalencies whose features are “repetition, the connotive passage from one poem to another, surprise and, at the same time, calculated recognition.”[20] Borges discovers in these reiterated metaphors a pure poetic device that reveals its own artifice. Jaime Alazraki has shown that many of Borges’s stories are distinguished by those same verbal games used and abused in the kenningar. Alazraki’s analyses also show that Borges did what the formalists did not do, namely, amalgamate theory and craft by putting his ideas into his creative writing.[21] One could take the point one step further and argue that the distinction between creative and theoretical writing is altogether false and another one of Borges’s dynamic verbal games. Linda Hutcheon insinuates the falseness of the distinction by calling Borges’s essays pseudo-essays and, perhaps by extension, the stories pseudo-literature.[22] She does not, however, recognize the amalgamation of theory and craft which is part and parcel of both the essays and the short stories. Rather, guided by genre expectations and the conspicuous absence of a fictive narrator, Hutcheon and many other readers seem to focus almost exclusively on the more salient characteristics of self-referential thematization. Many of Borges’s earliest essays form an important part of modern metafiction not merely because some may include fictive footnotes, or seemingly editorial commentary, but because they demonstrate more profound strategies of self-conscious representation.

NOTES

[1] To my knowledge, “La nadería de la personalidad” is not yet available in English translation.
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[2] Jorge Luis Borges, Borges, A Reader: A Selection from the Writings of Jorge Luis Borges, ed. Emir Rodrguez Monegal (New York: Dutton, 1981) 279.
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[3] Roman Jakobson, cited in L. M. O’Toole and Ann Shukman, eds., Formalist Theory (Oxford: Holdan, 1977) 8.
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[4] Jakobson, in O’Toole and Shukman 37.
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[5] Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) 11.
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[6] Jorge Luis Borges, Obras Completas (Buenos Aires: Emcé Editores, 1994) 44; my translation.
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[7] Borges, A Reader 34.
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[8] Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography (New York: Paragon House, 1988) 342.
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[9] Borges, A Reader 39.
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[10] Borges, A Reader 39.
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[11] Borges, A Reader 41.
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[12] Erlich 75.
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[13] Borges, A Reader 24.
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[14] Victor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Elmwood Park, Ill: Dalkey Archive, 1990) 2.
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[15] Borges, A Reader 41.
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[16] Borges, A Reader 165.
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[17] Borges, A Reader 217.
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[18] Shklovsky 20.
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[19] Shklovsky 20.
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[20] Beatriz Sarlo, “Borges en Sur: un episodio del formalismo criollo,” Punto de Vista 5.16 (1982): 5; my translation.
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[21] Jaime Alazraki, “New Critical Idiom,” Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts, ed. Edna Aizenberg (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990) 105.
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[22] In her study Narcissistic Narrative (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980), Linda Hutcheon defines the direction in which critical commentary of Borges’s essays has gone in the past several years: “Borges’s pseudo-essays with their fictive footnotes and editorial commentary reveal an intense awareness of the text as text” (100). Hutcheon refers to the essays as an amorphous whole, setting them within a narrowly defined classification as narratives that are self-conscious about their existence “as written or printed words.” Within this classification she further defines a static mode and a dynamic mode, placing Borges’s essays in the former category as texts that are intensely aware of their medium. In contrast, the dynamic variety includes commentary that is not just static knowledge of the narrative’s “textual identity, but also may form an active critique of the text and, possibly, a dramatic dialogue between characters and parts of the text” (100). Unfortunately, Hutcheon takes her analysis of Borges’s essays no further than classification.
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