Borges, Litlove and I

For the first time I’ve been reading some Borges. So far I’ve been astonished by its complexity, but patience, and the recognition that not understanding has its own power over the imagination, is the only way to proceed. Now that I’m starting to feel more comfortable in the very particular universe that Borges creates for his readers, the universe in which the dramatic play of ideas and possibilities is the most important thing, I’m finding his pieces are starting to insinuate themselves into my mind in hypnotic patterns. I’m especially in love with the cleverest, most intriguing parable entitled ‘Borges and I’, in which Borges explores the self-division that occurs in the process of self-expression. When you write, Borges is implicitly telling us, the ‘I’ on the page inevitably takes on a life of its own, and one that is more coherent, more manipulative, more plausible and more vital than its meagre flesh-and-blood equivalent. Only Borges says it much better than that:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. […] I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition.’

Reading this I couldn’t help but think of my blogging alter ego, Litlove. She is certainly the one things happen to these days. She gets all the best lines. If anything, I feel a little wishy-washy, a little out of focus compared to her well-defined contours. The world gets filtered through her vision so that she can make something out of it, and if I read books it’s in order for her to justify our existence by parcelling up semi-digested measures of other people’s ideas. In this way, any valid pages she may have created have not belonged to either one of us, but to a certain academic tradition, mildly deformed, and to a world of extraordinary literature, imperfectly but passionately explored.

What I’m really appreciating about Borges is the way that his surreal expositions of the world contain so much illogical and yet palpable truth. His paradoxes are so readily open to the experiencing part of the mind which declares unequivocally ‘Yes, I recognise that’ to events that would seem to occur nowhere in objective, quantifiable reality. I suppose what I’m saying is that you can’t read him unless you allow your imagination to undertake any necessary acts of analysis. This is in keeping with Borges’s favoured preoccupations: the relationships between time, space, dreams and the mind. The act of writing literature gave him all kinds of analogies to play with because in his opinion, the universe is essentially the product of our dreams; the world has a hallucinatory quality. Borges believed in Schopenhauer’s proposition that life and dreams are leaves of the same book: reading them in order is living, skimming through them is dreaming. Fantasy, for Borges is not an inferior dimension of reality, but the only place in which we can formulate accurately the enigmas of living. One of which is the essential multiplicity of our writing, reading and experiencing selves.

I am destined to perish,’ Borges writes, ‘definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being: the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.’

I quote Borges at length here because in true Borgesian labyrinthine fashion, his words open up another dimension in the already complex relationship between Litlove and me. The stone finds it much easier to keep being a stone, than either Litlove or I find it easy to maintain our own essences, because stones do not have recourse to language to define them. Language is the great adventure playground that we all get to play in, it’s the superhighway that we are obliged to ride along to get anywhere, and it’s the flexible framework with unexpected cul-de-sacs that determines the route we can travel. There’s no choice but to cling on as tightly as possible and enjoy the journey. But because I am only me through the intervention of language, and language precedes me and belongs to everyone else too, I am equally the product of other people’s language and their ideas. When Borges speaks in my head, he alters something intrinsic but imperceptible, and then I will give that to Litlove and she will transform it in her own words once again. Borges is quite right not to know who writes our pages; it’s a community effort.

But unlike Borges, I cannot think that I am losing myself when I give what intrigues me into Litlove’s surer grasp. Of the two of us, she is by far the better writer, and the clearer thinker too, and I just struggle along in her wake, feeding her raw ingredients in the hope of getting back nourishment. Sometimes we are both of us at a loss for words, but, after all these years, we are getting used to coming to terms with that. No, as long as she lets me, I’ll happily carry on being her parasite, and if it ever does come down to a final decision one day as to who wrote what, I’m more than willing to let her take the credit, and to have the final word.

19 thoughts on “Borges, Litlove and I

  1. Why does this seem like a very Borgesian post? It is amazing what people can do with language. Words on a page. You think it should all be very simple if you can read, but sometimes it isn’t easy at all. It really makes me dizzy sometimes.

  2. Borges certainly makes me dizzy! And you can’t talk about his writing except from a position inside it, somehow. He is the most difficult, fascinating and imagination-firing writer I’ve read in a long time, though.

  3. And this is a dizzying and imagination-firing post! I loved it, and the idea that one’s blogging alter ego is “the one things happen to”. I’m very aware of the manipulative nature of self-expression that happens in blogging, that we can present our better selves or our worse selves or whichever self happens to be most plausible or most interesting at that moment. No wonder blogging’s so much fun.

  4. Borges is my literary hero!

    I used this piece in a freshmen writing seminars class to teach the students first about dual personas (I taught mystery stories, which is all about dual personas!) and second about translation/word choices, showing them three different versions of the essay. Very interesting results.

    You might also be interested in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” also another satisfyingly dizzying embrace and exploration of words and their meaning.

  5. Charlotte – isn’t blogging a wonderfully dangerous thing? But all writing is, really, when we put ourselves in it. Blogging just lends an extra ghostly dimension. LK and Nancy Ruth – thank you! I took the brake off and just had some fun with Borges. He lends himself to that kind of thing. W – thank you very much for the recommendations, both for intriguing teaching possibilities and further reading. Very welcome!

  6. I was having an email conversation with a friend yesterday, after a particularly difficult morning trying to work on my novel, and he said to me, “If writing isn’t fun, don’t do it.” I almost emailed back, “Blogging is great fun, but writing is becoming tortuous.” But then I realized it wasn’t really so, that one difficult day didn’t really mean writing had completely become tortuous, and I still have great fun writing. However, it really made me think about blogging and why I would distinguish it from other writing. I never, ever find blogging tortuous. I love it. Maybe that’s because the blogging Emily is the one who most enjoys life and who manages to focus a wry eye on it?
    The only Borges I’ve ever read is Labyrinth. Must read more.

  7. Pingback: Blogging personas « Of Books and Bicycles

  8. That was brilliant, Litlove. We’re all enriched by your having picked up your Borges at last. And what a brave job you did of carrying on with the complicated 2-Litloves conceit all the way through. It’s a high-wire act without a net, but I didn’t see you sweat. Now that he’s dead, there are even more Borgeses loose in the world, as biography and history refine and redefine the terms of his life and letters. It wouldn’t have surprised him to read who his supposed precursors were, or through whose works his influence can be traced, each time creating another Borges by changing his own work after the fact. Well, nothing about literature would have surprised Borges, I suppose. Thank you for a beautiful read.

  9. “She gets all the best lines. If anything, I feel a little wishy-washy, a little out of focus compared to her well-defined contours.” A very apt description of how I often feel about my blogging self and my real life self. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. Borges is on my eternal list of have to read someday, but your delightful post has made me realize I need to move him to the read soon list!

  10. Emily – those blogging voices just write that bit faster and enjoy their lives that bit more acutely. It’s a bummer in some ways, but at least we get to share with them. Dorothy – I loved your post, so I’m glad you changed your mind! Casey – thank you so much! David – well it means a lot to me that you say that, because I know you’re fond of Borges. And it’s always nice to please you. Stefanie – I would love to hear what you have to say about Borges. Do fit him in if you can.

  11. If you like the fiction of Borges, then you’ll definitely be interested in exploring his essays someday. Penguin offers a nice edition of selected essays where Borges explores many of the same concepts that permeate his stories.

    I also second the recommendation for Paul Auster, who also seems to be very popular here in Buenos Aires….perhaps Argentines just prefer a fantastic style of writing.

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