Disparate Libraries, Erratic Scribes: Borges and Literary History

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Borges is notoriously suspicious of any system presenting itself as authoritative and commanding a single reading, and he is particularly suspicious of "histories." Think of the singular, gently mocking way in which he uses the term in his titles: "A History of Angels," A History of Eternity, A Universal History of Infamy, "A History of the Tango," "A History of the Echoes of a Name," "History of the Night." The titles are excessive, purposefully inappropriate for texts that are fragmentary, casually incomplete, riddled with hiatus and hardly delivering the well-rounded summary or "document" their title announces. Nowhere in this list of "histories" by Borges do we find a history of literature or, for that matter, of any one literature. The closest Borges gets to writing literary history are the books written "in collaboration" with his women friends and he never calls them histories: Ancient Germanic literatures and An Introduction to English Literature (the latter a meager 47 pages long and devoted, mainly, to Borges's favorite authors) are books whose purpose is not so much to offer a historic panorama as "to interest the reader and to stimulate his curiosity ..." (Introduction 1).

Borges's dislike for "histories" is compounded, in the case of national literary histories, by their identitarian pretensions and their teleological bent, by the fact that they didactically propose national representativity and national belonging, two notions that Borges tirelessly questions (except when it suits him to uphold them). A firm disbeliever in national assignations when it comes to literature, Borges disparages Ricardo Rojas's Historia de la literatura argentina as being, he was fond of saying, "mas extensa que la literature argentina," "longer than Argentine literature itself" (Obras completas 279). (1) When asked about works that are representative of Argentine literature he will, more often than not, name The Purple Land, by William Henry Hudson, a book written in English by an Anglo-American writer. Borges believes that the principal goal of all literary texts--including literary histories--is to open themselves to impertinent re-readings and deviant interpretations, to create permanent dissatisfaction, to be not a reservoir of facts, but a stimulus for further literature.

If it is to be seen as patrimony (as Rojas's Historia de la Literatura Argentina is usually read), it is patrimony that must be rethought, challenged, recreated through fanciful recourse to family romance--even replaced.

The need to question conventional views of literary history in relation to national representativity is a constant not only in Borges's writing but in his pedagogical practice. If I may resort to anecdote, Borges, who taught English literature at the University of Buenos Aires in the 50's and 60's, once sent a reader's letter to the daily La Nacion criticizing the way literature was taught and exams administered at the university of Buenos Aires and, in general, throughout the country. He was formally reprimanded for voicing a "negative opinion" by the Dean and his Advisory Council who, true to form, considered Borges's criticism not only targeted the university of Buenos Aires but Argentina itself, "el senor Borges senala no so1o a las autoridades de la Casa, sino al pais," "Mr. Borges points not only to the authorities of this Institution but to the country itself" ("Borges y la Universidad" 143).

In an early review of Valery's Introduction a la Poetique, first published in 1938 in, somewhat surprisingly, the glossy Argentine weekly, El Hogar, Borges praises Valery for setting forth what would become an important part of his own literary practice. He writes:

Valery, like Croce, thinks that we do not yet have a History of Literature and that the vast and venerable volumes that usurp that name are really a History of Literary Authors. He writes: "the History of Literature should not be the history of its authors and the incidents in their careers or in the careers of their works but the History of the Spirit as producer and consumer of literature. …