Friday, February 21, 2014

The Reading List: "Labyrinths"

by Jorge Luis Borges, 1962.
a collection of material published in the 1930s and 1940s.

Labyrinths is a collection of short pieces by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. It consists of around 30 abstruse short stories that Borges calls “Fictions,” 10 literary essays, and a handful of “fables,” very short prose fantasias on literary topics. In all of these pieces, Borges serves up a heady intellectual brew. His fictions, which are less different from the literary essays than one might expect, have whimsical plots that are sometimes on the verge of pulp science fiction. With Borges, though, these plots are generally vehicles for exploring the big questions of philosophy: what is the nature of reality? How do we know what we know? What is the nature of time? And such like that.

Borges' M.O. is a little hard to explain. The way I picture it, Borges in any given tale will pluck at a loose thread in reality and he’ll keep yanking on it and yanking on it, watching the fabric of lived experience unravel with a placid, avuncular smile on his face. More lucidly, here's a book-cover blurb for Labyrinths:
The groundbreaking trans-genre work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been insinuating itself into the structure, stance, and very breath of world literature for well over half a century. Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian.
Well, that certainly sounds pretty awesome.  How does it play out on the page?  Here's an attempt at a summary of the first story of the volume, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"

Two friends discover an entry for a country called “Uqbar” in a single copy of a cheap encyclopedia set. The article mentions that the literature of Uqbar consists only of fantasies set in two imaginary regions, one of which is called Tlön. They look in vain for any other references to Uqbar, but some time later the narrator chances across Volume XI of the Encyclopedia of Tlön, which he learns from context is found on, or is perhaps another name for, the planet Orbus Tertius.
Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy.

Exploration of the encyclopedia is a springboard to short descriptions of the theology, philosophy, and linguistics of Tlön. These are discusussions erudite and increasingly absurd:
There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."
The preceding applies to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (on whose Ursprache there is very little data in the Eleventh Volume) the prime unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. They do not say "moon," but rather "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky" or any other such combination.

Philosophy on Tlön is of an extreme idealist bent – so much so, in fact, that belief that an object exists (for instance looking for a pencil that one believes should be there) is often enough to invoke that object into being.

So, that’s what we get in the main body of the story. Then, there is an afterward explaining that since the “article” was originally published, the author has been able to determine that the Tlön encyclopedia was a secret project commissioned by an eccentric American millionaire. Except that, as knowledge of the encyclopedia begins to spread, artifacts from the Tlön universe begin to manifest themselves on Earth, as people hope or believe them into reality.

Borges and his Postcursors

As you have gathered from the quotations, Borges’ style is professorial and erudite, the very embodiment of the classical man of letters. At one point Mrs.5000 asked me which story I was on, and I read her the first line: “The night of March 14, 1943, in an apartment in the Zeltnergasse of Prague, Jaromir Hladik, the author of the unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity, and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, had a dream of a long game of chess.”

“I don’t remember which one that is,” she said.

“Well,” I pointed out, “they all start kind of like that.”  It's true.

In an essay called “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges looks at works written before Kafka that treat what we would might call “Kafkaesque” elements. He makes the point – I can not tell if it is tongue-in-cheek or not – that we probably read these early works differently because of Kafka’s influence. Similarly, I think that for most people reading Kafka today, our reading of the work is influenced by later writers (including Borges) who were themselves influenced by Kafka; in practical terms, the arrow of influence points both backwards and forwards in time. It is hard for me not to read Borges in implicit comparison with later writers he influenced, specifically Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Jose Saramago. Those three are big influences on [my reading of] Borges.

I saved Labyrinths for the next-to-last Reading List book because I expected to revel in it. I knew the general sort of thing that Borges would be up to, and it sounded great. It's Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive, for crying out loud!  I mean, aren’t I the guy who invented the Forgotten Lands? That was clearly a Borges-inspired project, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Also, I really like a lot of Calvino, Eco, and Saramago. I knew that Labyrinths was a big favorite of Mrs.5000. I thought I’d be an ideal audience for Borges.

Michael5000 Lets Down the Team

Disappointing to relate, the fictions mostly just made me feel stupid. I spent a lot of time reading this short book, and much of that time was spent going back and trying to find the point where I had stopped absorbing the words. I fell asleep a few times. I was, dear reader, often kind of bored. I confess this gives me a real feeling of having let down the team, but there you have it. I may not be smart enough to take my Borges straight. Maybe I just need to come back and try it again when I’m a little older.


Nichim said...

I read a lot of those stories in Spanish class my senior year of high school. My Spanish teacher said we'd never read innocently again, and he was right. I'm still kind of bitter about it.

mrs.5000 said...

I first read these in high school Spanish class also. Since I'm not bitter, I'm wondering if I'd already lost my innocence as a reader by then, or I still haven't lost it, or if my teacher just lacked the philosophical sophistication to point it out. I find his rope-of-sand sentences mesmerizing and, I suspect, much more compelling for that early encounter. There are probably a half-dozen stories that I keep going back to, many more that disappoint, but sometimes in interesting ways.