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jorge luis borges

19 december 2016

Twice in my life, I've narrowly missed Jorge Luis Borges. When I was a college freshman, Borges was writer-in-residence at my university for one term. He would hang out at local bookstores and coffee shops, as was his wont wherever he went. I didn't go hang out with him because I was a freshman and stupid, and till that point I'd never heard of Borges or most other great living writers.

Three years ago, we drove into Geneva one afternoon and spent a very pleasant evening dodging rain showers and skipping from café to café; we saw the amazing Jet d'Eau and ran across Rousseau's birthplace. A few blocks away was Borges' grave, but at that point I didn't know that Borges had died and been buried in Geneva (with an epitaph in Old Norse, no less). So once again we failed to cross paths, but one imagines he'll still be there if I ever get back to Geneva.

Borges can seem more than a little elusive, and that's really the theme of Jason Wilson's 2006 "critical life" for Reaktion Books. Wilson's is not an explanatory biography, because Borges' life and works defy explanation. His burial in Geneva, and even his dying there, were deliberate, as was of course the epitaph, and you'd be hard-pressed to explain any of them; "capricious," says Wilson (36). If people thought they had him figured out, Borges would do the opposite of what they expected. He was apparently a very strange human being, and there might have been no point in hanging out with him in East Lansing in the 1970s. Wilson presents Borges as unerringly polite, and as inspiring sympathy (blind, lovelorn, often in political disfavor), but also as very, very distant. He liked to read. He liked to write wry commentaries on what he'd read. He turned wry commentary on vast reading into an artform. As Wilson remarks, there's no reason to write biographies of lives spent that way.

When he was 39 years old, Borges, to that point just another poet and critic on the Argentine literary scene, ran into a windowframe in Buenos Aires. His wounds festered, the ensuing septicemia bringing him close to death. He had only a few years of sight left (which was possibly why he ran into the window), and he devoted them to writing weird and wonderful "fictions" that usually masquerade as feature articles about one literary phenomenon or other, straddling the real world and several of Borges' own devising. Wilson points to "The Aleph," "The South," "Borges and I," "The Circular Ruins," "Emma Zunz," "Death and the Compass," "The Library of Babel," and "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" as centrally important, and most critics would concur.

Wilson also has a high opinion of Borges, as most critics have. He does not rhapsodize about Borges' poetry, early or late; he does not think much of Borges' later fiction, written during his blindness and lacking the taut economy of his great stories. But those great stories are unique, placing Borges beside Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov as archetypal creators of intricately-wound metaliterary masterpieces – so archetypal that they have their own adjectives.

Blindness is a huge factor in Borgesian aesthetics. So is reading, and the capacity of reading to annihilate the self. By contrast, love and sex almost disappear. So does chronology, and so does any commitment to anything that actually happened: for Borges, Wilson suggests, truth and fiction merge and are indistinguishable.

Americans in the fall of 2016 are anxious about a post-truth world. Borges is not only a dead white guy, but one who plays fast and loose with the truth, and in old age was notably conservative when he wasn't (perhaps naïvely) apolitical. He seems an unlikely hero for a progressive reader, and indeed there is little in his works to inspire progressives (unlike Kafka's tremendous sense of justice, and Nabokov's great empathy). Yet Borges remains a hero to most people who love reading and writing. I was going to say "such as Umberto Eco," but then I remembered that "Jorge of Burgos" is actually the villain in The Name of the Rose. Perhaps not "hero" then, but inescapable reference point. Like Piranesi or Escher or Charlie Kaufman, Borges popularized, perhaps invented, many of the paradoxes that shape how we see art and reality.

Those of us who read constantly may be complicit in the breakdown of truth. We let nothing get in the way of a good story; we prefer to live in our stories (movies, novels, video games) – not exactly instead of, but parallel to, the stories we make of our lives. Borges is the patron writer of readers; in Wilson's formulation, he becomes the patron of reading excessively and at whim, of layering story over story, of finding yourself narrated by the kinds of stories you prefer. Hence Borges' manipulation of fantasy and detective fiction, his transmutation of pulp into art and back again.

Life apparently hurt Borges (blindness, an impossible mother, rejection, bullying), and he compensated by retreating into libraries. In turn, Wilson notes, libraries seemed to desiccate his life; The Miguel Cané public library, where he worked before and after his 1938 injury and during the period of his greatest creativity, was apparently a pretty soul-destroying place, and the great metaphors of "The Library of Babel" on one level a satire of the aridness of the library and its bibliographers. As a bit of a bibliographer myself, I forgive the satirist for having given me the metaphor.

Wilson, Jason. Jorge Luis Borges. London: Reaktion, 2006.