Magazine article New Criterion

Jorge Luis Borges & the Plural I

Magazine article New Criterion

Jorge Luis Borges & the Plural I

Article excerpt

It was ironic of fate, though perhaps predictable, to allow Jorge Luis Borges to develop over a long life into his own Doppelganger. In a 1922 essay entitled "The Nothingness of Personality," Borges asserted that "the self does not exist." Half-a-century later, an international personality laden with acclaim, he had to depend on wry, self-deprecating quips to safeguard his precious inner nullity. "Yo no soy yo" ("I am not I"), wrote Juan Ramon Jimenez; this was a proposition that Borges not only endorsed but also made a fundamental axiom of his oeuvre. In his story "The Zahir," written in the 1940s, he could state, "I am still, albeit only partially, Borges," and in "Limits," a poem from the 1964 collection aptly entitled The Self and the Other, he ended with the line (as translated by Alastair Reid), "Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me." By 1980, however, to an interviewer who said, "Everyone sitting in this audience wants to know Jorge Luis Borges," he would reply, "I wish I did. I am sick and tired of him." On the lecture circuit, Borges, playing Sancho Panza to his own Quixote, perfected the sardonic stratagems that would keep his huge prestige at bay. Not fortuitously perhaps, his renown grew as, after 1955, his final blindness deepened: fragile and vaguely Chaplinesque in his rumpled linen suit, he emanated a prophetic aura, a shy Tiresias enamored of the tango.

It had not always been thus. The prim and diffident mama's boy whose idea of a date, well into middle age, was to bring a girl home to sit dumbfounded before his overpowering dowager of a mother while she rehearsed the martial glories of "Georgie's" military forebears; the indolent librarian for whom a day of work at the Miguel Cane Municipal Library meant slipping off into some secluded nook to study works by Leon Bloy, Paul Claudel, or Edward Gibbon (a combustible menage a trois!); the awkward intellectual so self-conscious that he could appear in public only by hunching down behind the lectern while a friend read his words to the audience--all these tentative and inchoate identities (along with many others) coalesced to fabricate "Borges," that self-shaped golem of audacious erudition who accompanied, and often eclipsed, Borges himself on the triumphal peregrinations of his last three decades.

If the nullification of personal identity exists in his work side by side with a sort of wonder at the profusion of selves even the most ordinary life entails, this must be viewed in the context of Borges's larger obsessions. For he was haunted by infinitude. A horrified fascination with the limitless in space and in time animates all his finest works. The horror arises not because of immeasurable magnitude as such, but because of the fact that the unbounded is infinitely divisible. This is why Borges returns so frequently in essays and fictions to the ancient paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. For Borges, infinity is always serial; it demands replication ad infinitum. One of his favorite figures for infinitude is the mirror image, that vertiginous repetition of the same mute yet glimmering reflection. Hence, too, his related horror of mirrors: "I have been horrified before all mirrors," he wrote in the poem "The Mirrors": "I look on them as infinite, elemental/ fulfillers of a very ancient pact/ to multiply the world."

In "Averroes' Search" the narrator speaks of the "dread of the grossly infinite," by which he means "mere space, mere matter." The Borgesian infinite, by contrast, is filled, and its images are all ultimately double. Every identity, like the commonplace but magical coin in "The Zahir," possesses its obverse: each side both negates and reaffirms the other.

The library, whether the Library of Babel in his great "fiction" of the same name or the National Library of Argentina where Borges served as director for some eighteen years, is a fitting metaphor for infinitude. The fact that Borges was almost completely blind during his tenure as national librarian must have strengthened his sense of boundlessness. …

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