Shaping the Word: Repression, Archive, and Dialogical Discourse in Jorge Luis Borges's "La Muralla Y Los Libros"

Article excerpt

While Borges's non-fictions as well as his fictions brought him international fame, (1) in the writer's own words, his style does not change when he composes essays: "Me pregunto si hay alguna diferencia entre el estilo de la narrativa y el estilo del ensayo. En mi caso, no lo hay" (176). (2) My interpretation of "La muralla y los libros" ["The Wall and the Books"] from Otras Inquisiciones [Other Inquisitions] aims to show that this text is indispensable for an understanding of the author's metapoetical ideas, as well as for an investigation of the complex elements of dream-work, history, and artistic expression found in his writings. (3)

I suggest that "La muralla y los libros" can be read as an artistic illustration of Jacques Derrida's concept of archive and his notion of repression as archivization. The contradictory views of history shared by the Argentine author and the French philosopher, in the case of Borges, are probably inspired by Franz Kafka's "The Great Wall of China." In both texts, architectural construction can be viewed as a point of departure for the artistic exploration of aesthetic work, history and dreams as interrelated realms. These three phenomena operate by the common mechanism of displacement which is also required for their interpretation.

Borges's essay revolves around two projects that a Chinese Emperor aspires to accomplish: the building of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books written prior to his own time. Using monstrously cruel methods, the Emperor attempts to gain immortality and to erase all memories of the past so that 'history' could begin with him. His actions and meditations can be interpreted in a dialogue with Derrida's approach to history as an archive, and allow one to relate the notions of repression and archivization.

The French philosopher's vision of history as archive is informed by Sigmund Freud's concept of repression. Considering dreams as a manifestation of the "suppressed material" in his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud observes that displacement, a basic process in the generation of thoughts and dreams, involves repression, which takes place when the fulfillment of wishes provokes a "transformation of effect" (604): it no longer has an effect of pleasure as in original thought but rather the opposite. In his subsequent essay "Repression," this phenomenon is described as operating through the mechanism of displacement, consisting of "turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the consciousness" (147). Freud also develops an interdisciplinary approach to this concept in the book Moses and Monotheistic Religion, where he draws a parallel between repression as a mental mechanism and repression in a historical sense. The life of the individual as a history of humans, according to the father of psychoanalysis, is characterized by "the reappearance of the displaced or repressed" (170).

Derrida, an avid reader of Freud, both uses and displaces Freud's concepts of displacement and repression for his own elaboration of the notion of history as an archive. In his book Archive Fever, the French philosopher explicitly recognizes his debt to Freud when he observes that "with the single but decisive conception of a topic of the psychic apparatus (and thus of repression or of suppression, according to the places of inscription, both inside and outside), Freud made possible the idea of an archive" (91). Derrida distinguishes displacement as an essential characteristic of archive, which is essentially fragmentary. He suggests that one recalls and archives the very thing one represses, and that it is impossible to erase "unconscious" and "virtual" archives. Consequently, Derrida concludes that it is impossible to separate repression and the manifestation of the repressed.

The word "archive," he suggests, evokes both "the commencement," "the principle according to nature and history" and "the commandment," the principle according to the law, "there where men and gods command" (1). …