Signs of Borges

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Available for the first time in English, Signs of Borges is widely regarded as the best single book on the work of Jorge Luis Borges. With a critical sensibility informed by Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Blanchot, and the entire body of Borges scholarship, Sylvia Molloy explores the problem of meaning in Borges's work by remaining true to the uncanniness that is its foundation.
Borges's sustained practice of the uncanny gives rise in his texts to endless tensions between illusion and meaning, and to the competing desires for fragmentation, dispersal, and stability. Molloy traces the movement of Borges's own writing by repeatedly spanning the boundaries of genre and cutting across the conventional separations of narrative, lyric and essay, fact and fiction. Rather than seeking to resolve the tensions and conflicts, she preserves and develops them, thereby maintaining the potential of these texts to disturb. At the site of these tensions, Molloy locates the play between meaning and meaninglessness that occurs in Borges's texts. From this vantage point his strategies of deception, recourse to simulacra, inquisitorial urge to unsettle binarism, and distrust of the permanent—all that makes Borges Borges—are examined with unmatched skill and acuity.
Elegantly written and translated, Signs of Borges presents a remarkable and dynamic view of one of the most international and compelling writers of this century. It will be of great interest to all students of twentieth-century literature, particularly to students of Latin American literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I can think of no other scholar of Latin American literature who enjoys and amply deserves the reputation of Sylvia Molloy. She is a brilliant reader and an elegant writer, the one scholar who makes Borges accessible without making him simple."—Doris Sommer, Amherst College
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822314202
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1993
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.49 (d)

Meet the Author

Sylvia Molloy, Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University, is the author of numerous books of criticism, including At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America, and a novel, Certificate of Absence. Oscar Montero is Associate Professor of Romance Languages, Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Signs of Borges

By Sylvia Molloy, Oscar Montero

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9994-0


Shadow Plays

To scrawl a brief plot in the ruins of a mask factory. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Lottery in Babylon"

A Double Mistrust

Borges, unlike Plotinus, did not mind sitting for his portrait. Perhaps he could barely make out the blurred features of that other image that was his own. Perhaps he was unaware of them; or perhaps he considered that dwelling on the disjecta membra that made up his image was, like the detailed descriptions he condemned in certain authors, an aesthetic mistake. Perhaps, in order to see himself in that fixed visage, he accepted the possibility of inverting the terms of the epilogue to Dreamtigers: instead of discovering that the patient labyrinth of lines that he had traced coincided with his one and only face, he might discover that his face, which he could only see reflected in the mirror, was an image, the starting point of a careful narrative strategy.

"It is enough to be forced to drag around this simulacrum in which nature has imprisoned me. Should I further consent to the perpetuation of the image of this image?" (OI 60). Borges consents to a portrait of Borges, but he knows, like Plotinus whom he quotes with special emphasis, that, at the very moment it is fixed, such a portrait becomes a reflection. It is the simulacrum of a perpetually moving entity, an ineffective emblem, a coin whose sides never entirely coincide; it is a yearning for a face or a sign that dissolves the moment someone attempts to inscribe it.

Borges's text works assiduously against fixed images, monstrous images that have been classified, images that are monstrous because they have been classified. As such, they do not differ from the pieces that, for Borges, make up "the terrible, immobile museum of Platonic archetypes" (HE 16). Borges's text tries to ignore that fixity—which, because of its imperfection, merely emphasizes the illusion of all classification—and at the same time it hints at the possibility of movement behind the rigidity of simulacra. Indeed, the same terrible, immobile forms are seen as "vivid, powerful and organic" (HE 9) in a second reading of Plato. Summoned and discarded in texts, decried by Borges and at the same time courted by him, so certain is he of the tension that energizes it, the simulacrum, for Borges, may be a metaphor, a character, a plot, literature, an author. It also may be Borges, it also may be the self: "My life is a flight, and I lose everything, and everything belongs to oblivion, or to the other" (L 247).

A double mistrust upholds the nowhere of the Borges corpus. A mistrust of immobility (the fixed simulacrum, the mask replacing the living face), it is also mistrust of movement, of the mobile face that only becomes a mask when named. Early in his work, Borges manifests skepticism before that illusory duality, that occlusive duplicity marking the starting point of so many of his stories: "These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit the real name—presuming there is such a thing as a real name" (UHI 53).

Literature, as conceived and put into practice by Borges, does not differ from that game of plural faces and plural masks. Superimposed texts taint the narratives in which they are inserted; simple words, revitalized in new sequences, seem to question each other. Like those faces and masks, they both harmonize and diverge, in a deliberate, fecund juxtaposition. When discussing the Thousand and One Nights, Borges recognizes in Scheherazade's tales the same duplicity, the same uncertainty, the same playful possibility of exchange and dialogue, that he attributes to the play between a face and its questionable replica. He observes that in the telling of the Thousand and One Nights, "the antechambers blend with the mirrors; the mask is beneath the face; no longer does anyone know which is the real man and which are his idols" (HE 133).

Borges's work is grounded on that mistrust, on that uncertainty. It is a fecund mistrust of the arbitrary, apparently fixed sign, and its reverse, the no less arbitrary and equally fixed metaphor; a mistrust of the elusive face and its wavering mask—the terms are reversible. The confusion of these partial illusions, so clearly intended and adopted by Borges, has nevertheless baffled critics. Thus, for example, the charges of insubstantiality—that is, of lack of "reality"—brought against his fiction: his stories fall short because they lack something. Borges is criticized because "he constructs stories in which ghosts inhabiting geometric spaces or libraries or labyrinths live and suffer in word only." The comment is of course sound since any fiction, any world, any character in a narrative exists in word only. It is intended, however, as a reproach. The absence of realistic mimesis baffles critics; the impossibility of linking a vague extratextual reality with a fixed personal element, a round character that would root that reality in the written letter making it "come alive," causes irritation, an irritation far removed from the fruitful irritation that Borges's work generally propounds.

"A Detailed Web of Theories to Validate the Task" (I 32)

The most detailed weaving of theories concerning character in Borges, and no doubt the most didactic, may be found in the essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Borges suggests that Hawthorne "first imagined, perhaps unwittingly, a situation, and then sought the characters to embody it" (OI 53). Such a method, adds Borges, "can produce, or tolerate, admirable stories because their brevity makes the plot more visible than the actors" (OI 53).

Borges uses Hawthorne's "Wakefield" as an example. Let us suppose, as Borges does, that Hawthorne's starting point is indeed a narrative situation: a man leaves home to play a trick on his wife and, once outside, is incapable of returning. The organization of events, the situation that is the story, as read by Borges, is more important than the man Wakefield, an insignificant, disposable character, a "nincompoop" in Hawthorne's words. Like Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames, Wakefield is the ideally empty, somewhat obtuse character, embodying a narrative situation in order to exist. Yet in his telling of the story, Borges significantly alters Hawthorne's Wakefield; tempted by the author's rhetorical question—"What kind of a man is Wakefield? ... We have complete freedom to shape out the idea we have of him and give him the name of Wake-field"—he reshapes the character. Paring down Hawthorne's loquacious, heavily didactic "shaping out" of Wakefield, Borges reduces the character to a sentence but then adds other details that do not appear in the story. In a word, he reshapes Wakefield as he reads him:

[A] calm man, timidly vain, selfish, given to childish mysteries and the keeping of insignificant secrets; a dispassionate man of great imaginative and mental prowess, but capable of long, idle, leisurely, inconclusive, and vague meditations. (0I 54)

This compact description faithfully corresponds to the facts given by Hawthorne's story but for one detail. Hawthorne conclusively states that "Imagination, in the proper meaning of the term, made no part of Wakefield's gifts" (158). In his reshaping of Wakefield, Borges ignores this impoverishing limitation: Hawthorne's "nincompoop" is sympathetically transformed into a man of "great imaginative and mental prowess."

There is more. Hawthorne's text explicitly points to a gesture made by the character. Leaving his home for the first time, Wakefield closes the door behind him, then opens it a bit and smiles. His wife does not forget that smile, which would feed her fantasies during twenty long, lonely years. And then, when Wakefield finally returns home, before closing the door, he smiles again: "The crafty smile we already know is hovering, ghostlike, on his face. At last Wakefield has returned" (OI 56). The original story and its succint retelling by Borges coincide up to this point. In both, the same smile opens and closes the journey of a man who, according to Hawthorne, "by stepping aside for a moment ... exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever" (169). But Borges does more than just retain that double smile: he expands it. His Wakefield smiles when Hawthorne's does not; when the man, assured of the distance he has created by his departure, reaches the shelter he has prepared for himself not far from home: "He makes himself comfortable by the fireplace and smiles" (OI 54). In that isolated refuge, the emblematic smile that frames Wakefield's adventure becomes a more mysterious, individual gesture: highlighted for an instant, in Borges's rendering of the story, it makes the actor more visible than the situation.

The web of theories presented by Borges in "Nathaniel Hawthorne" to justify his reading is carefully detailed. It is also carefully insidious. One should recall that one of the aims of this essay is to show that Hawthorne's short stories are superior to his novels because in the stories narrative situation takes precedent over character. Yet paradoxically in his reading of this story, Borges draws attention less to situation than to character. Similarly nine years before his essay on Hawthorne, in his prologue to Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, again paradoxically, speaking of a novel (which according to him should exhibit the dominance of character over situation), Borges praises the superiority of plot over individuals. He admiringly compares Bioy Casares's novel to Kafka's The Trial and to James's The Turn of the Screw, texts that certainly do not copy reality's "teeming ways," as Borges says with disdain, nor do they invite the reader to share vicariously in the life of a character. Thus, the boundaries between genres become arbitrary, as does the importance of the elements, character, or narrative situation, which supposedly define those genres. And yet it is Borges himself who has proposed such questionable boundaries from the beginning. It is no wonder that the name of Benedetto Croce, classifier and destabilizer of literary genres, appears rather frequently in the work of Borges. What Borges says of Croce's arguments might be said of Borges's own comments on the short story and the novel, on plot and character: they "serve to cut short a discussion, not to resolve it" (R 30).

Borges's "web of theories" on fiction is unpredictable, contradictory, permanently shifting. The terms of his argument are less important than their blurring, less important than the reciprocal contamination to which he subjects them. Far from setting up rigid categories, his statements create doubt, hesitation; they work against fixed definitions. The theoretical swerves in the essay on Hawthorne, in the prologue to the novel by Bioy Casares, and in both texts when read jointly, are but a few examples of the shifting dynamics of every Borges text. Reassuring binarisms are systematically disrupted, fractured by the possibility of a rift, a fault that disturbs all certainties and finally undoes them. That "fault," so often read as a deficiency by critics eager for clear-cut boundaries, marks from the beginning Borges's process of composition. The text is written and read with no securities, on the edge, where language is articulated and shattered at the same time.

"The Coveter of Souls": A First Step toward Fiction

The shifting dynamics characteristic of Borges are thematically suggested in his early poetry. Fervor de Buenos Aires, Luna de enfrente, and Cuaderno San Martín renew in an odd way the fluctuating perspective of the Benjaminian flâneur, the gaze of an idle stroller in the twilight of a city that is no longer his, or rather that is only his at twilight. It is a city that he discovers alone, grasping the bits and pieces that escaped him during the day and claiming them for his own in a solitary ritual. Flâneur-voyeur: yet physical displacement is not a condition necessary to attentive idleness nor to vicarious voraciousness. Borges's flâneur, isolated in his modest walks through the outskirts of Buenos Aires, resorts, from his very first essays, to literary strolls, to textual voyeurism. He admires William Hudson's The Purple Land as:

[T]he book of a coveter of lives, of someone who takes pleasure in the variants of the "I." Hudson never loses his temper with his readers, never taunts them or scolds them, never doubts this democratic truth: that the other is also an "I," and that for him I am an "other" or perhaps a "would-that-he-not-be." Hudson proposes, and justifies, that each soul he examines is unique, that its virtues, its flaws, even the peculiarities of its mistakes, are irreplaceable. In this way he traces memorable destinies.... Those lives, and the ones in the series of stories called The Ombú, are not eternal archetypes; they are episodic and real, like the ones invented by God. To witness them is to take on new lives— luminous, often noble—and to broaden the "I" into a multitude. (TE 35)

Borges's voyeurism, in spite of its apparently expansive enthusiasm ("to broaden the 'I' into a multitude"), introduces a doubt affecting not only "the variants of the 'I'" but the "I" itself reading the text: "the other is also an 'I,' and ... for him I am an 'other' or perhaps a 'would-that-he-not-be'." In any event, the doubt cast over being—being self, being other, not being at all—de-centers. It is from this ontological hesitation, this "would-that-it-not-be," that one must look at Borges's fiction. In his 1925 essay, "La nadería de la personalidad" [The Nothingness of Personality], Borges had already written: "I aim to prove that personality is a chimera sustained by habit and conceit, with neither metaphysical support nor intrinsic reality. Therefore, I want to subject literature to the consequences flowing from those premises. On those premises, I wish to elaborate an aesthetic principle that will oppose the psychologism left to us by the last century" (I 84).

"There is no such thing as an 'I' capable of sustaining its unity," adds Borges. Taking the text a small step further, one could add that there is no sustained unity. In this early essay, Borges merely registers doubt. The subject of narration (one may temporarily call it 'character' since it arises from a reflection on personality), is as elusive as the fragmented, slippery "I."

Greedy Sequels: Evaristo Carriego and the "Infamous Biographies"

That one person should wish to arouse in another memories relating only to a third person is an obvious paradox. To pursue this paradox freely is the harmless intention of all biographies. The fact of my having known Carriego does not, I contend—not in this particular case—modify the difficulty of this undertaking. I have in my possession memories of Carriego: memories of memories of other memories, whose slightest distortions, at the very outset, may have increased imperceptibly at each retelling. These memories preserve, I am sure, the particular flavor that I call Carriego and that allows us to pick out one face in a crowd. Be that as it may such a store of inconsequential memories—his tone of voice, the way he walked, the way he idled, the expression in his eyes—is that part of my information about him which least lends itself to the pen. (EC 51)

The harmless intention of all biographies: how would Evaristo Carriego, a book "which is less documentary than imaginative" (EC 34), fit within the genre? Presented as an attempt to capture an "unforgettable destiny" the book is anything but that. The harmless biography turns out to be a wily, edgy text. The second chapter, which might have been considered central, "A Life of Evaristo Carriego," presents only a shadowy outline of a character, deliberately chosen for his provincial quality, his modesty; indeed, when other voices advised Borges to write about a more central poet—say, Lugones—Borges persisted in his election of a second-rate bard. Borges's narrative theories notwithstanding, there are very few enduring traits, like Wakefield's smile, which would make Carriego "come alive." The narrator's "disjointed work ... should be to make ... information visual" (EC 55); yet "A Life of Evaristo Carriego" boils down more to reports about the man than to visual images of him.

The error lies in assuming that "A Life of Evaristo Carriego" is necessarily the central chapter, the real biographical core of a text that should make unequivocal sense of someone's life. In a later essay, "About William Beckford's Vathek," Borges recalls the witticism attributed by Wilde to Carlyle, the project of writing "a biography of Michelangelo that would omit any mention of Michelangelo's works." And Borges adds:

Reality is so complex, history is so fragmented and so simplified, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, and almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each of which would emphasize different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same man.... A history of a man's dreams is not inconceivable; or of the organs of his body; or of the mistakes he has made; or of all the moments when he imagined the Pyramids; or of his traffic with night and with dawn. (OI 137)


Excerpted from Signs of Borges by Sylvia Molloy, Oscar Montero. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Shadow Plays,
2 Textual Rubrications,
3 Fragments and Greeds,
4 Postulating a Reality, Selecting a Reality,
5 Converting the Simulacrum,
6 Pleasure and Perplexity,
7 The Buried Foundation,
Abbreviations of Works by Borges Cited in the Text,

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