Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Linguistic Finitude as Capability in Borges and Wittgenstein

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Linguistic Finitude as Capability in Borges and Wittgenstein

Article excerpt

Epistemological fantasies were dear to Borges. In a moment characteristic of his short stories, the protagonist and narrator of "La escritura del Dios" ("The God's Script") muses on what he calls the "enigma ... de una sentencia escrita por un dios," which happens to be encoded in the pelt of a jaguar:

   ?Que tipo de sentencia (me pregunte) construira una mente absoluta?
   Considere que aun en los lenguajes humanos no hay proposicion que
   no implique el universo entero; decir el tigre es decir los tigres
   que lo engendraron, los ciervos y tortugas que devoro, el pasto de
   que se alimentaron los ciervos, la tierra que fue madre del pasto,
   el cielo que dio luz a la tierra. Considere queen el lenguaje de un
   dios toda palabra enunciaria esa infinita concatenacion de los
   hechos, y no de un modo implicito, sino explicito, y no de un modo
   progresivo, sino inmediato. Con el tiempo, la nocion de una
   sentencia divina pareciome pueril o blasfematoria. Un dios,
   reflexione, solo debe decir una palabra y en esa palabra la
   plenitud. Ninguna voz articulada por el puede ser inferior al
   universo o menos que la suma del tiempo. Sombras o simulacros de
   esa voz que equivale a un lenguaje y a cuanto puede comprender un
   lenguaje son las ambiciosas y pobres voces humanas, todo, mundo,
   universo. (1)

This description of what we might call an absolute language, free from all the epistemological limits of human understanding, reminds me of what many literary theorists of recent years have demanded of our own undivine language.

Indeed, it is a longstanding assumption in Borges criticism that stories such as this one demonstrate Borges's frustration with the supposed inadequacy of language. Already in 1971, R. S. Mills could write, "To point to Borges's scepticism is by now a commonplace." He goes on to offer a typical expression of that commonplace: language is "an attempt to order reality, and it leads to simplification of experience. Far from exhausting our experience, it represents only facets of it ..." ; as such, it is "arbitrary." (2) A small sampling of other commentators (a comprehensive list might include a majority) will bear out Mills' claim. According to Ana Maria Barrenechea, Borges has "unrecelo radical" about language because "[l]as lenguas son, en ultimo termino, simplificaciones de una realidad que siempre las rebasa...." Thus "nuestra condicion de hombres, imponiendonos la comunicacion mediante palabras, nos impone la metafora y la alegoria, es decir el engano." (3) Similarly, Jaime Rest casts Borges's philosophy of language as a nominalism that "niega la adecuacion entre el mundo y los recursos verbales" and assumes an "antagonismo irreductible entre universo y palabra." (4) Gisele Bickel writes that language, "[c]ondenada a servir de mediadora, debe buscar su significacion (o justificacion) en algo que lees exterior. No tiene la transparencia, la evidencia de la musica que se basta a si misma, es siempre inadecuada en su funcion de instrumento de transmision de la realidad." As she interprets "La escritura del Dios," she explains, "El lenguaje es un mero vehiculo de transcripcion que no aparece mas que despues y cuyo valor es secundario." Echoing Borges's language, she concludes that as a means of representing the world, language is a failure: "La escritura no puede ser mas que un simulacro." (5) A final example is Donald Shaw, who writes that Borges "does not exclude literary endeavour (including his own) from his scepticism about the value of all human endeavour." Indeed, literature "can never tell us anything about the ultimately real, or about life, except that they are unknowable." (6)

Now these are astute commentators who have written intelligently on Borges (I will cite some of them later), and they have reason to suppose that Borges is such a skeptic. After all, many of their formulations of his skepticism borrow Borges's own words, or at least those of certain of his narrators. …

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