I shouldn’t even bother with this, but when you write about Borges in the NY Times and make it so boring, what is the point? I love Borges, though not later Borges, and can’t seem to soak up enough articles about him. Still, I want something new and interesting. The article starts out badly, telling us the inadequacies of writing about him. I should have stopped there. Since the writer obviously can’t describe his work, I don’t need to read it.
Little is quite as dull as literary worship; this essay on Borges is thus happily doomed. One finds oneself tempted toward learned-sounding inadequacies like: His work combines the elegance of mathematical proof with the emotionally profound wit of Dostoyevsky. Or: He courts paradox so primrosely, describing his Dupin-like detective character as having “reckless perspicacity” and the light in his infinite Library of Babel as being “insufficient, and unceasing.” But see, such worship is pale.
What the real problem is, though, he writes about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker devoting time to an analysis of the book and Borges’ fascination. Sounds good. I want to hear about his sources. But, alas, he falls short and has to resort to the same generalities he was going to avoid. Borges can be difficult to write about and say something new. But it helps when you put the article into a cogent framework.
In “The False Problem of Ugolino,” an essay on Dante not included in “On Writing,” Borges quotes from an essay by Stevenson that makes the rather Borgesian claim that a book’s characters are only a string of words. “Blasphemous as this sounds to us,” Borges comments, “Achilles and Peer Gynt, Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, may be reduced to it.” Borges then adds: “The powerful men who ruled the earth, as well: Alexander is one string of words, Attila another.” The great deeds of the past may become no more than words, and no more than words are necessary to summon a power as grand and enduring even as Quixote or Achilles.
Among the vast books that do not really exist, and that Borges has commented on, are the innumerable pages of the future. Borges’s work answers the unanswerable weight of his reading, the boyish and the arcane at once. The pages of both what he wrote and what he only traced the shadows of present us with their own wavering interrogations; we are happy and afraid to be lost amid our insufficient and unceasing responses. Borges created his precursors, even Stevenson. We still do not know how to create Borges.