August 24: On this day in 1899 Jorge Luis Borges was born. Borges’s Ficciones (1944), his breakthrough collection of “essays,” is regarded as one of the essential postmodern texts, brimming with what the Jorge Luis Borges Center in Denmark calls the “transversal epistemologies” which make his writing so unique. One famous example is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which Menard’s enterprise to re-imagine Don Quixote culminates in a book that makes perfect postmodern sense: “Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” The following aside in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” an essay which stirs the real (the 17th-century British polymath Wilkins) and the unreal (Kuhn and the encyclopedia) into one head-spinning mix:
These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
“That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time,” said Michel Foucault, “though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off.”
Borges himself seems as elusive and labyrinth-hidden as his writing, but the biographies offer fascinating glimpses. Much is made of the fact that, except for his brief first marriage, Borges lived with his mother until he was in his seventies, and that even after his mother’s death, the housekeeper tells us, Borges maintained his habit of pausing each evening at her bedroom door to tell about his day. Willis Barnstone’s With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires tries to counter the popular “caricature of the erudite and prankish bibliophile” with snapshots of his warm humanity, this perhaps more evident in the poetry than the detached, cerebral prose. One late poem entitled “Things That Might Have Been” speculates on “…The Unicorn’s other horn. / The fabled Irish bird which alights in two places at once. / The child I never had.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.