Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Borges's Scientific Discipline

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Borges's Scientific Discipline

Article excerpt

One of the fundamental aspects of Jorge Luis Borges's writing has been its tendency to question philosophical and scientific constructions of reality. Ana Maria Barrenechea has noted: "TaI vez la mas importante de las preocupaciones de Borges sea la conviccion de que el mundo es un caos imposible de reducir a ninguna ley humana" (53). Donald Shaw concurs in his study of Borges's Ficdones: " 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' is concerned with the deeply rooted human desire to find in the world some appearance of order and design, and thereby some hope of finality. Borges administers a gentle snub to those who feel this urge" (13).1 This well-known tendency has exercised an important influence on twentieth-century thought. Michel Foucault credits Borges with his own groundbreaking work on the discursive and cultural power structures that underlie scientific thought in the preface to his landmark The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought-our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography-breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other, (xv)

Foucault continues with a description of a passage from Borges's "El idioma analitico de John Wilkins" that mocks the desire to codify and organize by describing an incredibly absurd Chinese taxonomy.2 If this adroit skepticism has rightly given rise to the assumption that philosophical and scientific projects meet sticky ends in Borges's writing, it masks a tendency in his early writings to present and employ scientific theory as a guarantee of meaning and of rhetorical authority. Indeed, in certain early essays, we see science as a discipline that enjoys philosophical prestige precisely because of its ability to interpret a chaotic reality. The purpose of this study is to examine one essay in particular that belies the dismantling of systems of thought that would become one of Borges's favorite themes.

By so doing, I will argue that Borges participates in a nineteenth-century practice connected with positivism in which authors called upon the scientific theory of their time as a cultural touchstone for their political and philosophical arguments. Domingo Sarmiento's use of Alexander Von Humboldt as a guarantee of his politically motivated description of Facundo Quiroga and Juan Manuel Rosas is well documented, as is the influence of that practice throughout nineteenth-century Latin American writing.3 Science became, in many texts, a guarantee of the ideas and ideologies presented by authors who incorporated and imitated scientific discourse as a source of cultural authority for their writing. The practice, which has been called literary "test tube envy" elsewhere, serves as one of the nineteenth century's defining characteristics, as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria has argued so convincingly in his Myth and Archive.* While this literary strategy has been seen to endure in the twentieth century, one would not expect its appearance in the work of an author who inspired Foucault's critical description and concomitant dismantling of the scientific drive towards taxonomy. Indeed, the identification of a literary appropriation of scientific authority in the nineteenth century owes much of its inception to Foucault's work on power and discourse. Nevertheless, as we will see in the early essay "La doctrina de los ciclos" from his 1936 Historia de la eternidad, there is evidence of a practice that would seem to confirm the assertion made in Respiration artificial by Ricardo Piglia's literary alter ego, Emilio Renzi, that Borges was "un escritor del siglo XIX. El mejor escritor argentine del siglo XIX" (130). While Renzi (and Piglia) base their argument on the nineteenth-century paradoxical combination of gaucho fascination with an obsession for Europe that they find equally prevalent in Borges's work, the early appearance of a textual reliance on scientific authority strengthens that connection while simultaneously complicating the image critics have created of Borges as the destroyer of intellectual systems par excellence. …

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