Evelyn Fishburn, Hidden Pleasures in Borges’s Fiction, University of Pittsburgh, 2015, ISBN: 9 780990 729204, $20.00
The most astute twentieth-century comment on representation is also the most terse. It is ‘On Exactitude in Science’ by Jorge Luis Borges. It takes up less than half a page. There was a kingdom greatly given over to cartography. For these distant people map-making amounted to a religion. They were in pursuit of perfection, and so they ended up making a map that coincided point for point with the country it was representing. It is the most perfect map ever made, and is therefore - for worshippers of cartography - the most perfect representation ever fashioned. And, precisely for that reason, it is entirely and utterly useless. Fragments of it can still be found out in the desert, caught now and then by the wind.
A representation is a deliberated distortion. Most details will have to be left out. It retains only that which is most needed, most loved, most hated. The topographic line of a road through a particular terrain, for example; the face of the artist’s beloved; or the latest tank positions of the enemy in the desert. If the representation should ever become truly comprehensive, like the map above, then it must be as large and extensive as the reality represented. And like the map in Borges’ parable, it will then prove itself to be supernumerary.
Every representation enacts a signal-to-noise ratio. We exclude noise so that we may enhance the perception of the signal. If I use a large aperture on a lens I can focus entirely on a face, and make everything in the background a blur. The lens informs us that it is the features of the face we need to see; the lake and mountains framing it are now irrelevant. Deciding on how the signal-to-noise ratio is to be tuned is a matter of aesthetics, science and ethics. If I drive the beggars from my front garden so that I can concentrate on reading King Lear, then I am making a statement about the importance of actual beggars versus their literary representation in Shakespeare. I am choosing between signal and noise. As were Wilson and Peniel back in the sixties when they killed the pigeons they thought were interfering with the signals they were after from the stars. It took a while for them to realise that the noise they were trying to exclude was actually the background radiation of the universe, proof at last of the Big Bang. They turned their signal-to-noise ratio around completely, and tuned in to the noise, now making it the signal. As a result they won the Nobel Prize for physics, though the pigeons remained dead.
Borges re-approached this theme from another angle in ‘Funes the Memorious’. As a result of an accident, Funes can forget nothing. The condition of his mind is a neurophysiological version of the map of the kingdom above, with everything reproduced in its entirety. A glass of wine evokes the history of the vineyard, every grape, every leaf, with every fly that ever landed on it in the summer sun. The representation in memory has in fact become a global reproduction, unrelenting in its universal detail. Like the mapmakers of the kingdom, Funes does not now select but merely replicates. This condition kills him. Overwhelmed by such an encyclopaedic memory, he is crushed to death by the mountainous detail of his vivid recollections. He can no longer breathe beneath the weight of them. He remembers himself to death.
The history of map-making offers us a particular moment which clarifies the distinction Borges was making in these stories. In 1931 Harry Beck created the London Underground Map which the world has subsequently come to know and use. Previous maps had been topographical; they had portrayed the actual routes of the rail lines, in all their windings and sinuosities. Like Funes they seemed to remember everything. But to what purpose? A traveller on the Underground is not interested in the details of the landscape up above; only in getting from here to there while journeying down below. So Beck converted topography to topology. The landscape became vestigial, a mere matter of the points of the compass and the location of the river. For the rest it was simply the relations between the different lines and the different stations that were foregrounded. Reproduction became representation. Funes had learnt how to forget once more. The map of the kingdom had shrunk. It could now fit into your pocket. And you might even be able to find your way around the metropolis.
Between representation and reproduction we enter the kingdom of mimesis, one of the most troublesome words in the critical lexicon. Hamlet advises the players: ‘Hold, as twere, the mirror up to nature.’ But what exactly does he mean? He certainly did not have in mind some plate-glass mirror that might reflect with any exactitude the surrounding landscape. Those were not manufactured in England at the time. They were available only from Venice, cost a small fortune, and would only have been encountered in the richest of men’s domiciles. No, the mirror he would have had in mind was a small one, of a sort that women attached to the belts of their skirts, a small oval that could be lifted up in order to hunt down any facial smuts or imperfections. It would have been convex and imperfect; its image would have distorted radically, the way Parmigianino’s face is distorted in ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. It is even possible that the mirror he meant was a model, rather than a reflecting glass. Shakespeare uses the word mirror in this way in Henry V, Henry VI, and Henry VIII. Hamlet is not so unconditionally keen on nature that he would necessarily have recommended mirroring it; he might have wished to correct it instead.
Borges is obsessed by the mirroring function of the text. In the first and most rudimentary sense, a text mirrors because it is situated in a reflecting forest of other texts. It is born out of textuality. In Borges, some of these texts are actual; some fictional. The mode of allusion can be more important than its ultimate referent. We are indisputably inside the mirrored text. Evelyn Fishburn’s fascinating book of essays points out that one of these forests is The 1001 Nights, a text of inestimable importance to Borges, as it was to Coleridge. And what, we might ask, is being mirrored in that mighty collection of texts? Sheherezade’s wish to survive another night. She gets by solely through narrative inventiveness. She is a textual survivalist, who employs every narrative trick at her disposal to get through another night. We are told at the beginning that she has studied the poets avidly. This is a sequence of stories that exemplify how poetry can help you live.
And so the question is raised: is what the text mirrors an external verisimilitude, or is it the mirroring of something far more complex, involving drives and passions, emotional occlusions and intellectual requirements? After all, Harry Beck’s map switched from verisimilitude (the copying of London’s topography) to need and desire (the simplification into diagrammatic form of the information the Underground traveller needs in order to move efficiently across London). This adjusting of the signal-to-noise ratio, at the aesthetic level, can be seen constantly in the history of art and literature. For example, Turner when he paints Bolton Priory in Yorkshire, or Pembroke Castle in Wales, simply alters the topography to suit his composition. In the case of Pembroke Castle, a glorified pond becomes a little sea thrown into turmoil by a tempest. We value the paintings as examples of Turner’s art, but as topographic records, they are largely useless. The actual topography makes way for his compositional requirements.
Borges is often claimed as the father of magical realism. There is a simple reason for this. In a style employing calm descriptive prose, he writes of the most fantastic situations. His tone is one of quietly-spoken and fastidious verisimilitude, and yet we are introduced to stories where a whole world might be created, as a rich man’s whim or a poor man’s dream. So potent is this world that objects from it, hrönir, invade other worlds, including our own. If this is a fantasy then it is a highly relevant one: the story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, was written in 1941. It has a postscript dated 1947, though that was actually written in 1941 too. The readiness of people to re-make the world according to their own requirements is here reflected upon, with a breathtaking ingenuity. The Nazis were at it, even as the story was being written. And lots of people were losing their breath as a result.
And so the mirroring can be of our own desires, or it can be of what we sometimes call – perhaps a little casually – external reality. Can we in fact ever disentangle our own wishes from external reality? Can we point confidently to one map and say, this is the topographic one, then point to another and say, this is the topological re-arrangement, re-jigged diagrammatically according to our own requirements? In the middle ages maps of the world in the west often situated Jerusalem at the centre not merely of our globe, but of the universe. Here topography and topology were inseparable, one from another. As they are in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. We make or remake the world according to our beliefs and our requirements. One of the most extraordinary examples of this in Borges’s work is ‘Deutsches Requiem’. This is a story to which Fishburn devotes a fair amount of hermeneutic attention.
If one wanted a Satanic inversion of the process of placing Jerusalem at the centre of the cosmos and the world, it could easily be ‘Deutsches Requiem’. Here Otto Dietrich zur Linde situates the Nazi experience and the Nazi philosophy at the heart of all human reality. It does not matter to him that the Nazis have lost the war. He was the sub-director of a concentration camp, Tarnowitz, and was responsible for the death there of a Jewish poet who, as it happens, was called David Jerusalem, and who was of course at the centre of his own scriptural world, as we all are. But zur Linde wishes pity to be extinguished from the world (so did Hitler, as his table-talk makes abundantly clear). The truth of history is embodied in Nazism even if history (this time anyway) has chosen to let the weaker parties win. In discussing this story, Fishburn also examines the function of the footnote in the writing of Borges.
The footnote permits the text to be multi-planar; it lets the text exist in more than one dimension, and thereby opens it up to more than one method of interpretation. The footnote is often a different voice commenting on the voices in the body text. It allegorises meaning by approaching it from different hermeneutical angles. Borges the writer can critique his own text; a character in a story can dispute the representation of his actions. It is this use of the footnote, along with his sense of the inescapability of textuality as our ontological domicile, that have led some to call Borges a postmodernist. Borges would presumably have been as amused at the argument as to whether he was or was not a postmodernist as he claimed to be about the Falklands War: two bald men fighting over a comb, he called it.
Mirrors and labyrinths, as Fishburn points out, are at the heart of the Borges world. They both appear to reproduce possibilities endlessly. And there is no more resoundingly literal use of the mirror than the text ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’. Here a modern author, Menard, recreates word-for-word certain sections of the text of Don Quixote. This text might be a verbatim mirror of the original, but of course the world which is being mirrored has changed; changed so radically in fact that the new text (materially identical to the old one) now means something entirely different.
If the text really is a mirror, Borges seems to be saying, then we had better think carefully about what a mirror is and what precisely it does. If, along with St Paul we reckon we are only seeing through a glass darkly, it is a fair possibility that the mirrored surface was either a piece of polished stone or a chunk of reflective metal: a speculum. A surface at least as distorting as Hamlet’s. When John Dee and his rapscallion assistant Edward Kelley gazed into their reflective surface in Prague and waited for the spirits to appear, what they were looking into was a piece of polished obsidian, originally used by the Aztecs for purposes of haruspication. We still use mirrors to gaze into the future and the past. They are the most polished surfaces on earth and they are installed in the Hubble Telescope. What they reflect back to us is not only traces of the birth of galaxies, but the present state of our knowledge. However bright they may be, we would still appear to be seeing through a glass darkly, if only because dark matter does not appear on any of these surfaces, and we now reckon that most of the universe might well be made out of it.
We tend to hunt for mimeses of one sort or another, whatever the nature of the representation. We stare so avidly at the film footage of the Third Reich, searching for what aspects of ourselves might still be mirrored in it. After all, these people were our own species; we came out of the same womb of time along with them. As Esau found himself asking of Jacob, what is that brother of mine up to now? We often look so alike. And so the mirror, as Borges knew, and as Fishburn points out, opens up a labyrinth. And if the labyrinth is textual, then it is a palimpsest. Borges shared with De Quincey the belief that the mind itself is a palimpsest in which the originary words never entirely go away, but become invisible or illegible as they are covered over and over by superscriptions. When astronomers first looked at the images provided by the Hubble mirrors, they saw no dark matter. Now it sometimes seems as though that is all we see. This is what Wallace Stevens called ‘the nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is’.
Borges the fabulist reckoned that metaphysics was a branch of fantastic literature. Taking him at his word, this means that ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is one of the greatest pieces of metaphysical literature of the twentieth century. All idealism (and that includes extreme forms of materialism) can unmake the world before it, take it apart like a puzzle. Eschewing any ponderous academic jargon, this story illuminates the extraordinary possibilities of thought, together with its extraordinary dangers. Borges’s writing is shaped ultimately by a certain ennui, a vast existential disaffection. He never stays long enough to bore us, and for that we can surely be grateful. He is our greatest miniaturist in prose. He learned early how vast topics can be compressed into a tiny compass, if the writing and thinking (the two being inseparable) are economical enough. Part of the pleasure of reading Borges is our growing understanding that he is a supreme logician, as fastidious and concise as Wittgenstein. In ‘Three Versions of Judas’ Runeberg realises that the ultimate salvific abasement might be found, not in the life of Jesus Christ, not even in hell, but in the life of the traitor Judas. His logic is impeccable, and immediately brings about his worldly ruin. The same logic is displayed when Borges considers the argument of Philip Gosse’s Omphalos. Gosse argued that no present can exist without a past to support it, so if God created a present he must at the same time have gifted it with a past. Adam may not have a navel, but – look – there are fossils in the verdant grounds of Eden. These creatures may never have actually lived, but their remains are invaluable in supporting our chronology.
It seems that Borges did not believe in anything much, in the sense of dogmatic belief. What he did believe in was the textuality of everything. Every object in the world, whether it is a hrön or not, tells the story of itself.
Fishburn’s book provides a fascinating guide through some of Borges’s most tantalizing texts. Her essays are a welcome enlargement on the short entries contained in the invaluable A Borges Dictionary, which she co-wrote.