Monday, July 7, 2014


© Farouk Asvat  

     The forking paths of the labyrinths are the pleasures of the text in Jorge Luis Borges: it is the fantastic conjunction of encyclopedias and silhouettes, of dreams and disguises, of masques and mirrors.  

     Borges' subversive, wry literature creates an imaginary and symbolic world outside time and space - a world of the imagination like no other.  

     Reflecting the extraordinary scope of his reading and the rigour of his craft, the technique of detective fiction and fantastic literature combine in a quest for knowledge, to create a coherent fictional world of the intelligence.  

     Adopting an indirect style that rejects rationalist symbols, his essay-fictions of literary and metaphysical speculation assert a self-confident cosmopolitanism which concentrates on form and intellectual coherence, creating a literature that talks about literature, offering an antidote to 'realism', questioning and subverting the monological perception of the world.  

     The work of Borges is a constant provocation.  In his essays, short stories and poems he is quietly polemical in undermining nationalism and rationalism, the realist novel, philosophical rigour, the academy, regimes and ideologies that purport to explain the world as a totality; questioning with mock seriousness accepted definitions and cultural codes.  

     Borges has created a work like no other.  Perhaps the most striking characteristic of his writings is their extreme intellectual reaction against all the disorder and contingency of immediate reality, their radical insistence on breaking with the given world and postulating another world.  He is sceptical about the ultimate value of mere ideas and mere literature.  But he has striven to turn this sheer scepticism into an ambiguity, to make of disbelief an aesthetic system, in which what matters most is not ideas as such, but their resonances and suggestions, the drama of their possibilities and impossibilities, the immobile and lasting quintessence of ideas as they are distilled at the dead centre of their warring contradictions.  

     Unlike the resolution of detective stories, Borges' narrator-detectives set out to decipher the universe with insufficient information, mendacious clues and without the possibility of reaching a satisfactory solution.  He offers a relentless critique of pure reason, but also cultivates the view that the search itself is rewarding since it will lead from book to book: each forking path of the labyrinth a new and pleasurable text.  

     All his stories have the same self-critical dimension: along with the 'vertical' superpositions of different and mutually qualifying levels, they are also 'horizontal' progressions of qualitative leaps, after the manner of fantasy tales or crime detection.  Unexpected turns elude the predictable; hidden realities are revealed through their diverse effects and derivations.  Borges uses mystery and surprise in literature to achieve a sacred astonishment of the universe.  

     He explores the broadest themes within the strict confines of a few pages, in the framework of the notebook - his miniature forms intense realizations of unity of effect, of brevity, of the exclusion of worldly interests.  

     Eclectic choices are given a new order and a new meaning.  Borges wilfully juxtaposes the most varied readings, often ignoring the canonical texts in favour of his own preferences, always asserting his own traditions and purified themes.  Elevated terms are played off against more humble and direct ones - images joining unlike terms are frequent, and heterogeneous contacts are created by use of colons and semicolons in place of the usual connectives to give static, elliptical, overlapping effects.  Using piled up imperfects, and a arity of adjectives, he deliberately works quotations into the texture of his text, creating a radical 'intertextuality' which has had a profound influence on subsequent generations.  

     There is also a constant clash in his work between his Hispanic and British antecedents, the tension between civilization and barbarism.  The world of the library offered the pleasure of reading in different languages, cultivating … ` and constructing characters as in The Universal History of Infamy, as an elaborate series of masks and disguises.  

     Using the four basic devices of fantastic literature:
          the work within the work,
          the contamination of reality by dream,
          the voyage in time,
          and the double,
he deals with the problematic nature of the world, of knowledge, of time, of the self.  The reader is transported into a realm in which fact and fiction, the real and the unreal, the whole and the part, the highest and the lowest, are complementary aspects of the same continuous being.  The world is the book and the book is the world, and both are labyrinthine, and enclose enigmas designed to be understood and participated by all.  This all-comprising unity is achieved by the sharpest and most scandalous confrontation of opposites.  

     No matter how mysterious they seem at first glance, all Borges' works contain the keys of their own elucidation in the form of clear parallelisms with his other writings and explicit allusions to the definite literary and philosophical context within which he has chosen to place himself.  

     Greater and more important than Borges' intellectual ingenuity is his consummate skill as a narrator, his magic in obtaining the most powerful effects with the strictest economy of means.  

     Borges' stories may seem mere formalist games, mathematical experiments devoid of any sense of human responsibility and unrelated to life, but his idealist insistence on knowledge and insight, which means finding order, and becoming part of it, has a definite moral significance.  It could be asked what such concerns of the total man of letters have to do with our plight as ordinary, bedevilled human beings in our befuddled times.  Borges' fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life, which is not only the central problem of all literature, but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality.  

     Modernism in art and literature occurs at a very specific socio-political conjuncture, and Borges became acquainted with the modernist movements in Europe at a time when all the conditions applied to Argentine too.  But critics who see in Borges a precursor of structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructionalist models convey only part of the story.  

     Borges' modernist ideas have been extremely influential in the development of prose fiction in the twentieth century, and extremely responsible for the boom of magical realism in Latin America - influencing Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Alejo Carpentier - : they are among the many indebted to Borges, and we associate much of their brilliant short fictions with him.  The techniques used by these writers are frequently compared to those of Borges; so that Jorge Luis Borges has the same role as an originator of fictional and critical prose, in the way Pablo Neruda has had for poetry, and Pablo Picasso for the visual arts.  

     With Borges it is we who dream the universe: we see in what it contains, the deliberately constructed interplay of the mirrors and mazes of his thought - difficult but always acute and laden with secrets.  In all these stories we find roads that fork, corridors that lead to nowhere except to other corridors, and so on as far as the eye can see: an image of human thought, which endlessly makes its way through conjunctions of causes and effects without ever exhausting infinity, and marvels over human chance.  His stories are parables, mysterious and never explicit, the 'plots' remaining entirely intellectual.  

     In these narratives, the analytical and imaginative functions previously kept separate in his essays and poems curiously fuse, producing a form expressive of all the tension and complexity of Borges' mature thought.  His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; at times achieved gradually, and at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.  They are tales of the fantastic, of the hyperbolic, but they are never content with fantasy in the simple sense of facile wish-fulfillment.  The insight they provide is ambivalent, dismal even: a painful sense of the inevitable limits that block total aspirations.  

     Master of labyrinths and of mirrors, Borges was a profound student of literary influences; and as a sceptic who cared more for imaginative literature than for religion or philosophy, he taught us how to read such speculations primarily for their aesthetic value.  

     In 1938, at 39, Borges, took to writing Kabalistic and Gnostic essay-parables, perhaps under Kafka's influence, and from there his characteristic art flowered - overtly absorbing and then deliberately reflecting the entire canonical tradition - becoming the foremost inaugurator of modern Latin American literature - his aesthetic universalism, his sophisticated aggressiveness; and his political anarchism refreshing - even to revolutionaries who desire to be innovative.  

     The stories in Labyrinths, for instance, have a wonderful intelligence, a wealth of invention and a tight, almost mathematical style.  They are unforgettable exercises in the art of astonishment.  In Borges we find the very perfection of the cosmopolitan spirit and one of the most extraordinary expressions of modern man's anguish of time, space, and the infinite.  

     []  Pierre Menard, Author Of The "Quixote", gives a sensation of tiredness and scepticism, of "coming at the end of a very long literary period," as Borges himself said of the story.  

     []  In his early story Death and the Compass, Borges remarks that to Gnostics, mirrors and fathers are alike abominable, because they multiply the numbers of men - (perhaps, a reflection on the The Brothers Karamazov?).  It is intensely literary: it knows and declares its late arrival, and the inevitability that governs its relationship with previous literature.  

     The story is an instance of what is most valuable and most enigmatic about Borges.  It traces the conclusion of a blood feud between a detective and a gangster chief (mortal enemies and antithetical doubles) in the visionary Buenos Aires that is so frequently the context of Borges' characteristic phantasmagoria.  The intricate plot turns upon the three images the gangster has used to ensnare the detective's mind: mirrors, the compass, and the labyrinth in which the detective has been caught.  Confronting his death the detective shares in the gangster's impersonal sadness, and coolly criticises the labyrinth as having redundant lines , while urging that in the next incarnation, he be killed again by his enemy with a more elegantly designed labyrinth.  

     []  Narratives like Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius might be called pseudo-essays: mock scrutinies of authors, books and learned subjects quite often of Borges' own invention - that in turning upon themselves make the 'plot' an intricate interplay of creation and critique.  

     Borges begins the story with the direct statement, "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."  

     Tlön is the history of an unknown planet, complete with its architecture and quarrels, the terror of its mythologies and the uproar of its languages, its emperors and seas, its minerals and birds, its algebra and fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies.  Almost unconsciously we come to accept the world of Tlön because it has been so subtly inserted into our own reality of the imagination.  

     The impersonal and hereditary product of a secret society of scholars and scientists, the invention of the new world of Tlön is a Berkleyan and Kierkegaardian world where only inner life exists: on Tlön everyone has his own truth, a new world where external objects are whatever each person wants them to be.  

     The press leaks the story, and very soon the world of Tlön obliterates our world.  An imaginary past takes the place of our own: a group of solitary scientists have transformed the world -all this is mad, subtle food for endless thought.  

     Tlön is no figment of the imagination: the stimulus which prompted its formulation is stated with clarity and irony in the story itself.  Borges' metaphysical fictions, his finest creations, all elaborate upon the varied idealist possibilities outlined in the 'story' on Tlön.  

     To demonstrate an impossible discovery, he adopts the tone of the most scrupulous scholar, mixes imaginary writings with real and erudite sources.  Rather than write the whole book, he analyses books which never existed.  

     Of the metaphysicians of Tlön, Borges writes: "They seek neither truth nor likelihood; they seek astonishment.  They think metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy." - words that define Borges himself.  

     []  In The Theologians two learned doctors are rivals in refuting esoteric heresies; where the less gifted and therefore more resentful Aurelian is obsessed with John, so that "Aurelian did not write a word which secretly did not strive to surpass John."  Aurelian instigates the burning of John at the stake on a conviction of heresy, and then dies himself in an Irish forest set ablaze by a lightning bolt - God, Aurelian and John being one single person.  

     []  In Three Versions of Judas, we live in a phantasmagoria, a distorted mirror-image of eternity, which Borges conveys with considerable gusto.  "The lower order is a mirror of the higher order; the earth's aspects correspond to those of heaven; the blotches of the skin are a map of the incorrigible constellations."  In it a Danish theologian works out the theory that Judas was the Incarnate God, somehow a reflection of Jesus (and perhaps Borges himself?), thus adding to the complexities of evil and misfortune.  


     Borges is ruefully consistent: in the labyrinth of his universe we are confronted by our images in the mirror, not just of nature but also of our selves.  

     Borges is the literary metaphysician of the age.  A sceptical humanist, Borges interpreted Schopenhauer as insinuating "that we are fragments of a God who, at the beginning of time, destroyed himself in his desire for nonexistence."  A dead or vanished God, or an alien God, withdrawn from his false creation, is the only trace of theism left in Borges.  

     In all of Borges' fiction a mirror and an encyclopaedia come together, because for Borges an encyclopaedia, existent or surmised, is both a labyrinth and a compass.  

     The labyrinth is Borges' central image, the convergence of all his obsessions and nightmares.  His literary precursors, chiefly Kafka, are drawn upon to furnish this emblem of chaos, for almost anything at all can be transmuted into a labyrinth by Borges, above all ideas and libraries.  In Borges the maze is an essentially playful image, but its implications are as dark as in Kafka.  If the entire cosmos is a labyrinth, then Borges' favourite image is linked to death, and the myth of the death drive.  

     The particular delight of Borges on literature is its reversal of the older chronicles of influences, of the burden of its own ancestry.  He is a marvelous writer sworn to obliterate reality as we have come to accept it, and convert the universe, including mankind into a shadowy silhouette.  

     Jorge Luis Borges' burlesque paradiagm on the nature of reality ridicules the inadequacy of ponderously inflated theoretical systems, so that Borges' dreamtigers are alive in Borges' ingeniously conceived short fiction, in his labyrinth of encyclopaedias and silhouettes, mirrors and masques, dreams and disguises. 

© farouk asvat

[] composed: August 1987 (Amsterdam) to August 1989 (Berkeley).

[] Acknowledgements:

     Weapons of Words (kindle, 2016);
     Weapons of Words (amazon paperback, p67, 2016).

the NOVEL Sadness In The House Of Love by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $15 & kindle @ only $5

the NOVEL The Gathering Of The Storm by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

the anthology I Dream In Long Sentences by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

the anthology The Wind Still Sings Sad Songs by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

the anthology A Celebration Of Flames by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

the anthology The Time Of Our Lives by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

the anthology Bra Frooks … by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $7.50 & kindle @ only $5

the collection of literary essays Weapons of Words by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $10 & kindle @ only $5

© farouk asvat.  All rights reserved.

Farouk Asvat asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means whatsoever, or transmitted in any form or any means whatsoever, mechanical or electronic, including recording, printing, photocopying, or via any computerised means or media, including the internet.  This publication shall also not be stored in a retrieval system.  And the writing shall not be sold, lent, hired, resold or circulated in any form or binding or cover other than that in which it is published,
without the prior permission of the author in writing.
Permission to publish or reproduce the writings in any format can be obtained from the author.
Reproduction of this work without permission, except for scholarly & nonprofit purposes,
is liable to a payment of 10, 000 ren men bi or US$ 1,500.

farouk asvat can be contacted at:

[] please check out my blogs @:

books by farouk asvat:

[] also link up on:

amazon kindle author @

the NOVEL Sadness In The House Of Love by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $15 & kindle @ only $5

#love #literature #fiction #novel #poetry #latin america # #books #classics
#magical realism #jorge luis borges #borges #neruda #marquez #fuentes
#faroukasvat #weapons of words #literary criticism #comparative literature