University of Bergen
F. Nietzsche (1874)
It is not unlikely that the celebration of Borges' Centenary aroused—in a manner which might recall the half Millenium of Columbus's first voyage—a sensation of ethical discomfort, of being entrapped by history. Indeed, Borges was the object of much eulogy, as Columbus had been some seven years earlier (albeit with more severe reservations). Still, the almost univocal praise of the writer's powerful inventiveness, his labyrinthine memory and crystalline (and complex) style only confirmed what was being suspected, namely, the overwhelming and even oppressive presence of his writing. Although Columbus' lauded seamanship, his personal courage and inventive geography, initiated a historical chain of events of unfathomable consequences—the "latinization" and "americanization" of the unsuspected fourth continent—I believe that the presence of the Admiral is differently, and less immediately, felt than that of the Author. Columbus's impact on the situation of the "common" citizen has by now been mediated and modified by a vast series of go-betweens, whereas Borges still has a direct influence on the situation of intellectuals and artists.
The most general phrasing of the problem suggested by this observation is quite simply, "how to read and write after Borges"? A bit more specifically, one might ask, "Is it possible to assume the Borgesian heritage (which of course is unavoidable) in a non-submissive manner?" A way of answering these questions is suggested by Josefina Ludmer when she proposes to "sacarlo [a Borges] del presente de las celebraciones oficiales y pensarlo histórica o arqueológica o genealógicamente" (Ciberletras Aug. 2001). What Ludmer implies is of course a recognition of the historicity of a writer who tends to be thought sub specie aeternitatis. Thus one might hope to open up a present—and a future—in which Borges could be made to "sound" differently, modified by our present and future concerns. Yet even so there is a return of the "repressed" when Ludmer finally asks, "[¿]de qué tradiciones Borges se alimentará?" She thereby ends her interrogation, no doubt deliberately, with a truly Borgesian metalepsis. Formally and thematically, Borges seems to be unforgettable. Likewise, Sylvia Molloy proposed a few years ago a "different way" of reading Borges, "como a contracorriente, prestando atención al detalle, a la contingencia," i.e. to everything she had previously discarded, in order to reflect on the radical strangeness of these residues; elegantly, and perhaps inevitably, she inserts the following partenthesis: "(es esta una lección que he aprendido de Borges)" (Clarín 9 May 1999). It should perhaps be added that this strategy of admitting a debt even in the very moment of swerving is also a lesson learnt from Borges.
Apparently, Borges does not have to await "a certain relation" of the heavenly bodies in order to become possible a second time. Each time one speaks of Borges, and especially when it comes to the questions of tradition and influence, there seems to be a kind of "Borges effect"—a (sudden? constant?) imperative or temptation to ward off any suspicion that one has relapsed into a pre-Borgesian poetics and to make sure that nobody believes Borges' own lesson has been forgotten. Herein lies perhaps a crux which makes the situation all the more complicated: Borges is not only an influential author, he is also an author (an artist, a creator) of influences. Borges is—as has been observed not only by Harold Bloom—a supreme theoretician of literary indebtedness. Willingly, and cunningly, he admits, and manipulates, a series of predecessors of (or into?) his own writing. Also, perhaps less overtly, Borges stages and anticipates the impact of his work: Constantly amending his earliest books, he reduces and refines the effects of his juvenilia; embedding the reader's perspective and dismantling her interpretive interventions in his more baroque essays and stories, Borges apparently produces a mature work almost immune to creative misreadings. Finally, the poetics of rewriting emerges as an ultimate weapon against external influences: Borges has become the precursor of Borges. Shortly before his death, he virtually and symbolically seals off his own work ("ce que l'on veut bien appeler mon oeuvre") by the rare gesture of writing a "Préface de l'auteur" to the Pléiade edition, as always insisting on the impersonal and circumstantial character of everything he has written.
However, Borges has gone through various stages before arriving at what now seems to be a postmodern, gay science of "being influenced." This prehistory might even reveal a less benevolent undercurrent in his work, which has only occasionally been brought to light, and according to which influence appears as a more severe and unwanted phenomenon. Again, Borges seems to have anticipated his own critics in denouncing this tendency in his writings. In El Hogar (26 Feb. 1937), he recalls how he, himself, and other Ultraists loudly and in public ridiculed the "modernista" aesthetics of Leopoldo Lugones in a kind of defense against the impact of the precursor's poetry: "Yo sé que nos defendíamos de esa belleza y de su inventor. Con la justicia, con la denigración, con la burla. Hacíamos bien: teníamos el deber de ser otros." Borges inserts this apology in a context where it obviously is meant to function as a caveat, directed primarily against the "new generations" of his own times, dissuading the continuation of such rituals of poetical parricide. (Ironically, the first full-length book on Borges was precisely a "generational" attack by one of his detractors: Adolfo Prieto's Borges y la nueva generación.) However, according to Noé Jitrik ("Sentiments complexes sur Borges"), Borges' apparently self-critical revaluation of Lugones could well be seen as part of a more abstruse scheme whose primary objective was to belittle Macedonio Fernández—the most "Borgesian," and anti-Lugonian, of his precursors, and the one who "lui ouvrit la voie […] de l'écriture"—in order to conceal his own debts.
More recently, some of Borges' less malevolent "misreadings" of other Argentine precursors (such as Hernández and Güiraldes) have been studied by Beatriz Sarlo (Borges, un escritor en las orillas) and Ivonne Bordelois (Ciberletras Aug. 1999)—but even here the public image of Borges' emblematic theory of indebtedness is corrected by a more violent and assertive practice. It might, therefore, be possible to understand Borges' present influence in a more historical (archeological) fashion, a kind of genealogy of literary power, retracing the dialectics of influence which underlies the official Borgesian ideology of openness and impersonality.
I shall propose Friedrich Nietzsche, a writer discovered by Borges during his first European "exile," as a touchstone for a brief review of the prehistory of Borges' ideas on influence. Perhaps it is not superfluous to recall, as a backdrop for the following remarks, Borges' lasting loyalty to Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche first admired and subsequently detracted. To be sure, Borges dislikes Nietzsche—and he has a particularly low opinion of his opus majus, Also sprach Zarathustra. The main reason why Nietzsche appears in quite a few of Borges' writings seems at first sight to be rather circumstantial. In "La doctrina de los ciclos" (Sur May 1936), the context is the discussion (and refutation) of the idea of the eternal return; the same is true of "Tres formas del eterno regreso" (La Nación 14 Dec. 1941). The latter also enters a series of texts on German letters published during the Second World War in order to "de-nazify" some of the principal references of the "germanófilos." In the same vein, "Algunos pareceres de Nietzsche" (La Nación 11 Feb. 1940) presents a series of quotes, mainly from the posthumous Unschuld des Werdens, which effectively debunks the image of Nietzsche as a German nationalist and anti-Semite; "El propósito de 'Zarathustra'" (La Nación 15 Oct. 1944) is primarily concerned with an aesthetic explanation of Nietzsche's misunderstood prophesies. Yet perhaps Borges' most intriguing rewritings of Nietzsche are those which fail to recognize their literary antecedents. To study Borges' appropriation and rewriting of Nietzsche is thus to consider an intricate network of relationships.
Let us return to what might resemble an origin: "El retorno eterno de Nietzsche es un verbalismo sin importancia," writes the young Jorge Luis Borges from Buenos Aires in a letter to his friend Jacobo Sureda, whom he had left behind in Mallorca. This opinion, which is as blatant as it is out of place in the context of the letter, is repeated throughout Borges's writings on Nietzsche. Almost forty years later, he admits to Richard Burgin that
In "La doctrina de los ciclos," Borges raises the question why Nietzsche, himself an erudite Hellenist, apparently omits every reference to the precursors of his own thinking. "Nietzsche sabía," he answers, "que el Eterno Recurso es de las fábulas o miedos o diversiones que recurren eternamente, pero también sabía que la más eficaz de las personas gramaticales es la primera." According to Borges, in other words, a stylistic-rhetorical feature precluded Nietzsche from admitting the ancient sources of his most fundamental thought—since quotation marks and learned references do not pertain to the speech-act of prophesy. What was only a circumstantial obervation in the 1936 essay is amplified to become the main theme of "El propósito de 'Zarathustra'":
There is a great deal of irony involved in this apparently concessive gesture. The idea of the eternal return itself tends to return eternally; the philosopher of the eternal return is himself framed by a circular, recurrent structure. Borges also suggests a more somber explanation of the Nietzschean amor fati: Himself an incurable insomniac, Nietzsche desperately wished to be a Walt Whitman, a man profoundly enamored of his own destiny. He therefore sought out the most intolerable of nightmares—the Greek doctrine of eternal repetition—in an heroic attempt to turn it into an occasion for unconditional affirmation. Arguably, just as the principal force of the stylistic apology of Zarathustra resides in its aesthetic pleasure, the main attraction of this argument ad hominem is its "quasi-literary" paradox of inclusion and exclusion, of involvement and distance, of irony and tragedy.
Borges' attribution of the thought of the Eternal Return to Nietzsche is, one might suspect, primarily a pretext for his further literary operations on the subject. Having identified the protagonist(s) of this "idealistic" drama, the German philosopher and his Oriental double, Borges can more easily stage the second act of his "deconstruction" of Nietzsche's main thought. His mise-en-scène is probably an intentional misreading. How does this Borgesian misreading work? It ascribes to Nietzsche the view that the universe is made up by a finite number of components (atoms) which in an infinite span of time must necessarily exhaust their combinatory possibilities, after which they will have to return to a state which is the exact reproduction of an earlier configuration. Thus Nietzsche's philosophy is explicated as though it were a matter of scientific dispute on the physical constitution of the universe. Although Borges somewhat modifies this picture by rightly citing Nietzsche's disavowal of the idealistic fiction of the atom, which he replaces by the notion of power or force, the refutation takes on a decidedly mathematical character.
Borges argues as follows: Nietzsche's thought owes its force of evidence entirely to the axiom that the number of combined elements which constitute the universe is limited. Therefore, any verifiable contention that the universe is not a calculable set of fixed and finite entities will undermine Nietzsche's version of the cyclical structure of time. To sustain such an objection, Borges introduces a third figure, the German mathematician Georg Cantor. The number of points in any fraction of the universe is strictly infinite, Cantor and Borges object to "Nietzsche"; whenever one thinks that an in-dividual a-tom has been established, there is actually nothing that prevents a further division of space. Granted the logical possibility—or, indeed, the necessity—of postulating a transfinite number of points in space, there would be an infinite variety of particles to be combined. These permutations would in their turn have to exhaust the strictly unlimited amount of different positions according to which the configurations might be arranged. Borges thus draws the following conclusion:
Characteristically, the argument referred to above has been nicknamed "Cantor's dust." As interpreted by Borges, it proves fateful to any thesis of cosmological circularity or recurrence. These narratives of influence therefore rely on two figures which somehow defy the very figurality of narrative: Zarathustra's eternal circle, which is interesting but ultimately untenable as a refutation of rectilinear time, and Cantor's infinitely divisible ensembles, which apparently dismantles both time and eternity. Of course Borges will know how to invest these (non) narrative schemes in order to achieve a more immediate aesthetic effect.
For Borges, then, Nietzsche's thought is motivated by his own psychological inadequacies. It rearticulates an age-old doctrine whose novelty is simply a question of rhetorical conventions, whose essence is of a logical and mathematical order, and which is easily debunked by way of the latest achievements of transfinite mathematics (developed well after Nietzsche wrote his last readable sentence). Thus Borges refrains from considering Nietzsche's involvement with the fundamental questions of philosophical thinking, replacing it by a static scenario of idealist metaphysics. A contemporary reader will probably find nothing in these writings that reminds her of "our" Nietzsche—a Nietzsche modified by Martin Heidegger's profound understanding of his attempt to think through and beyond nihilism, by Michel Foucault's emphasis on his genealogy of power, by Paul de Man's identification of a rhetorical matrix even for his critique of metaphysics, or by Jacques Derrida's insistence on a "feminine" and affirmative Nietzsche. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, Borges' reading of Nietzsche could be cited as an example of those "childish hypotheses" which understand "the eternal return as the return of a particular arrangement of things after all other arrangements have been realised" (Nietzsche et la philosophie).
For similar reasons, I believe that the "roce" between Borges' interpretation of Nietzsche and that of Martin Heidegger (Die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen) would be "mortal" to Borges. As Borges' essay "Tres formas del eterno regreso" (1941) reasserts with sufficient clarity, for him the doctrine of eternal return is basically a "structural" scheme: the affirmation that time must be circular since "un número n de objetos […] es incapaz de un número infinito de variaciones." This is surely a strange limitation of what Heidegger calls "the domain of the thought of return"—to account for nothing but a mathematical principle of exhaustion.
The point, however, is not to "correct" Borges' conception of Nietzsche's thought of the Eternal Return—a vain and somewhat anachronistic exercise. Moreover, I do not believe that Borges' version of Nietzsche actually suffers from these shortcomings. The "algebraic" interpretation of eternal recurrence should rather be seen as a necessary and creative misreading. Borges reads Nietzsche in the fashion which is most attuned to his own concerns as a writer, more or less irrespectively of what might be the empirical and immanent "truth" about his thinking. His essays should therefore be considered as more than quasi-serious philosophical documents: They represent decisive steps towards the innovative structure of his narrative fictions. In this scenario, the 1936 "La doctrina de los ciclos" is of seminal importance since it is the first of Borges' Nietzschean writings—and since it is strictly contemporary with "El acercamiento a Almotásim," the first Borgesian ficción (whose bibliographic destiny is nevertheless rather confusing). This latter text stages a series of revisions and misreadings, and its plot line is interwoven with uncanny, and essentially counter-narrative, figures of circularity and infinite division.
In Borges' writings, circularity and infinity appear as figures which oppose the notion of a unified and "narratable" time. The former maintains that the history of the universe—which is undoubtedly a narrative of sorts—is but the mechanical permutation of a limited set of narratable terms. There is apparently no place for other designs or intentions than those which determine the circular form; and from a sufficiently elevated and detached viewpoint, even the most insignificant event forms part of this geometrical figure. The latter version (based on Cantor's conception of transfinite numbers) is more radically non-narratable, insofar as it figures the world as a continuum of infinitesimal terms in which time hardly progresses. There is an excess of space. This figurative form implies that even the most standardized sequence is infinitely divisible. No succession would ever be capable of reaching the final term, or even of departing from its initial condition. Thus, whereas the doctrine of the cycles derives its conclusion from a vision of the world as essentially limited—as too "poor" for there to be any unheard-of event—the doctrine of infinite divisibility bases the impossibility of narrative on an over-abundance of terms—the very construction of any sequence would be totally arbitrary. On the one hand, then, Borges poses the simplicity of the circle; on the other, the complexity of the infinitesimal. These fascinating yet hazardous figures will emerge in his fictional narratives where they produce the effect of a frustrated narrative project which nevertheless allows the narrator (and the reader) to experience, however furtively, the frontiers of reality (or unreality), of the world, and of the text.
Another "prophetic" aspect of Borges' writings on Nietzsche is their staging of an impossible dialogue between Nietzsche and Cantor—i.e. between an ontological approach to the problem of time and being, on the one hand, and the abstract, technical science of mathematics, on the other. One result of this meeting is the phantasm of an anachronistic philosopher ("Nietzsche") who—by reinventing, as it were, the monadology without being able to postulate any preestablished, divine harmony—appears as a belated version of Leibniz: a truly Borgesian figure! Yet the most transcendental outcome is probably the very juxtaposition of these opposing "philosophical" tendencies. In Borges' later writings, this conflict reappears, with varying outcomes, as a narrative scheme. Sometimes the protagonist's reasoning more geometrico is undermined by a sudden reminder of man's temporal, finite "Being-towards-death" (Nietzsche's revenge over Cantor); on other occasions, his very existence turns out to be an illusion: an abstract scheme is revealed as the ultimate and "inauthentic" truth about the universe (Cantor is again one up). The most explicit example of the first version is probably the final paragraph of Nueva refutación del tiempo ("And yet, and yet…"), but it also surfaces in stories such as "La muerte y la brújula"; the second scheme is found in several of Borges' "historical" essays (cf. for example the end of "El sueño de Coleridge"), and in narratives such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."
In retrospect, Borges' "mature" narratives somehow reveal the intentionality of his Nietzschean's misreadings—the will to fictionalize not only the history of metaphysics but also its philosophers—and to "narrativize" the strategies of revisionism and influential relations in order to forge his own textual labyrinths. Even Borges' own reductive interpretation of Nietzsche has been transformed into the subject of a story, "Deutsches Requiem," whose protagonist believes he surpasses Zarathustra in his relentless preparing for the advent of the "Übermensch." Significantly enough, his ethical remedies include not only a self-sacrifying use of violence (a somber, parodical correction of Zarathustra's compassion) but also a translation of Nietzsche's ontology into what appears to be a metaphysical determinism gone awry.
At the same time, there seems to be a genuinely Nietzschean impact on some of Borges' earliest essays on literary issues. In "La postulación de la realidad" (1931), for instance, he approaches the question of mimesis in a manner that recalls Nietzsche's critique of the fictionality of thinking and perception. Borges writes that
Curiously enough, the story addresses aspects of Nietzsche's thinking which Borges never explicitly ascribes to the philosopher, such as the "rhetorical" character of perception and the "unfinished" nature of the world. Moreover, these qualities are embodied by a "vernacular" Zarathustra, the Uruguayan Ireneo Funes, and hence they are implicitly related to the thought of the eternal return. Such a reciprocity reveals a different understanding of Nietzsche, more attuned to his ontological critique of metaphysics, and closer to the influential 20th century readings of his work. Why did Borges silence these insights in his essays on Nietzsche? Is it possible that he has perceived the intimate relationship between becoming, circularity, and the end of metaphysics, yet displaced them—on aesthetical grounds—from his essayistic discussions in order to elaborate them ironically and fictionally in a story? Is Borges' profoundest understanding of Nietzsche only expressable in literary terms? If this is true, this might perhaps be Borges' most Nietzschean moment, yet also the most Borgesian one, insofar as he has taken care to transform everything into his own "porteño" idiom.
In the end, then, after having conceded the misunderstood idea of the eternal return to Nietzsche, Borges appears as the true author of a series of Nietzschean preoccupations. Through the figurality of Funes' memory and perceptions, even the transfinite paradoxes which according to Borges' misreadings should belong to "el hermoso juego de Georg Cantor" and not to that of Nietzsche now become associated with Nietzsche's phenomenology of consciousness. Yet only for the split second of an allusion: They immediately acquire an unmistakably Borgesian tinge. Quid pro quo: this seems to be the subterranean yet simple logic of Borges' narrative of influence.
As a literary figure, Borges has appropriated an unhistorical persona, foreign to the preoccupations of personal debts, belongings, fame, ambitions, etc. Yet he also shows a profoundly historical—not to say "temporal"—character in the construction of this figure, negotiating (more or less furtively) with those who represent, for him, the access to literature's true domain. Is there any use to be made of this duplicity when it comes to the more pressing questions regarding the relation between "Borges and us"? At least two possible strategies may be inferred, the one drawing on the subjacent historical side of Borges, the other on his professed unhistoricality.
In a series of readings over the last few years, Daniel Balderston has sought to reconstruct the often overlooked historical contexts in Borges, which is one way of making him sound a bit differently. And indeed, this might be the moment to insist on a discursive and dialectical thrust even in the more textual moments of Borges' oeuvre. What should also be recognized, however, is that contextual concerns are not what constitute the essential Borges and least of all when it comes to his dealings with philosophical and literary issues. In order to retrieve these questions and contexts, one has to read Borges differently; it is not merely a matter of "getting it right." Borges must somehow be read "contre Borges"—or else it will be impossible to situate historically "le moins historique des hommes."
"There is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether a man or a people or a culture," writes Nietzsche in the second of his Untimely Meditations. The official mode of reading Borges amounts to an exercise of rumination, be it in the fashion of the celebratory "alephization" of the Author which culminated with the Centenary—or in that of a more theoretical (structuralist, deconstructivist, postcolonialist) endeavour to turn Borges into a precursor of the newest trends—thus suggesting that it was all, always, already there. This is perhaps the Borges which should now be forgotten, if only temporarily and for curative purposes. As readers and writers one might, as Nietzsche implies, need a period of unhistoricality to delimit a horizon of one's own, to exclude the most unbearable part of the burden of the past. If Borges belongs within this domain, it will be in the form of the most unrecognized and non-canonical elements of a radically fragmented Borgesian figure.
And yet, and yet… Is the frequent "return" of Borges whenever one tries to discuss and delimit the effects of his work—however rhetorically employed—also an indication that history is not so easily turned into a project? How is one to achieve a proper admixture of forgetfulness and remembrance, of history and ahistory, so as to move beyond both the monumental and the excessive critical delimitation of the figure of the past? Is it really granted to modern readers, as historical beings, to realize exactly when and how something happens with our relation to Borges which might produce a figure comparable to the incredible Nietzsche, reduced by Cantor, whom Borges has by now immortalized? If we, for a brief moment bracket the obvious necessity of supplementing the Borgesian concerns with some of those, he either overtly criticized or silently neglected, is it not possible that Borges' heterogeneous stance towards history, tradition, and influence once again turns out to be the anticipation of any attempt to think beyond the limits which he, like every other historical being, was unable or unwilling to surpass?
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