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Nathaniel Tarn reviews

Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Eliot Weinberger (editor and translator),
Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine (translators)

Hardcover - 576 pages (September 1999), Viking Pr; ISBN: 0670849472 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.73 x 9.60 x 6.67


Eliot Weinberger's introduction to this marvelously rich and elegantly constructed book kicks off with a striking point: "JLB never wrote anything long, and so it is often assumed that he never wrote much. In fact he was a man sworn to the virtue of concision who couldn't stop writing." In Latin America, he also points out, Borges's essays are often considered to be the best of Borges. This volume reveals Borges the scholar as none other has before and revels in the intimate links between his fiction and non-fiction while carefully distinguishing between them: "his fictions may often resemble non-fiction . . . but his non-fictions never . . . include information that is not independently verifiable."

Jorge Luis Borges
Perhaps it is true of most scholars that they are totalizers: scholarship beckons - ever further from one locus on the map of knowledge to another - toward a utopian whole. Knowledge is like a circular fan whose bones are the medians (as in acupuncture's view of the body): touch any one point and others will be affected and conjured up. Essayists (Weinberger, the best essayist now writing in American English, makes clear how rich a genre the essay is in almost any literature but our own) have a lighter touch than the professional scholars: they can bring in insights from the totalization without bodying forth its appalling weight. They can, like Borges, deal with the primary texts without ever wakening the secondary ones. Borges's touch: modest, succinct, as astoundingly light as any other writer's one could name, yet almost always profound and wide-ranging up and down the cultural scale from elite to popular, is also of bodhisattva-like generosity ("For me to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate." p.482). In fact one question raised for this reader here is why Buddhism "is not for me" when Borges is so clearly kin to Buddhist thought in regard to basic concepts of non-self, time, eternity and so on. You should not think however that there is no bite in Borges. He can be devastating. "The United States has not fulfilled the great promise of its Nineteenth Century" (p.212). Period. Nothing more. How's that for a hit?


At the same time, Borges is the creator of a world of his own. Its sources, acquired early in life, remained faithful to, and elaborated on, endlessly - a series of themes and variations which, as Weinberger points out, give full value to the possibilities of repetition without lapsing into redundancy, are not, despite the extraordinarily rich erudition, limitless: we are inside a recognizably homogeneous creation, a world image in a class of images conjured up by only the greatest masters. And the heart of it is, as for every writer, language. Yet it needs saying that everywhere in Borges, there is a clear need to conjugate intellect and heart in creation - that without emotion sourcing literature, with stress alone on the signifier and the fabrication of writing, his loving kind of lucidity will be irretrievably lost. Borges is wonderful at crucial distinctions in the field: compare for example his immense admiration for «Ulysses» to his respectful doubts concerning the «Wake». Many who play games with language today, provoking a true crisis of the signified, plunging ever deeper into disjunctivitis and losing dozens of readers a day both for themselves and for literature in general, might take note.

A responsibility to the whole universe of writing: author, reader and enveloping polity, is the mark of a disappearing species: the person of letters. It is hardly surprising if this book's editor is one of the few surviving members of that species in this country today. Known as a major translator and promoter of foreign literatures (roles usually down-played and unrewarded by critics and reviewers), Weinberger is also, at a time when responsible publishing seems to be disappearing with the speed of light, a deeply serious and faithworthy editor. The job of selecting 161 pieces from thousands of pages of non-fiction while managing to ensure that two thirds of the book had never appeared in English before (he also states that "almost a third of the texts cannot be found in the Spanish-language «Complete Works») must have entailed months of grueling labor. His decisions as to new translations; the annotations; the arrangement of texts in sections; the treatment of Borges's use of foreign language quotes; the restoration of the semi-colon to Borge's long sentences, etc., etc., are all masterly.

Other reviews have given some sense of the range of subjects touched on in this cornucopia. Playing the game of favorites can easily lead to easy pickings. I cannot resist, however, selecting out the "Notes on Germany and the War" in which a very conservative man - in addition to ravaging manifestations of fascism in the Argentine bourgeoisie of 1937-44 - suffers the matter of Germany: desperately trying to keep distinct his great love of German culture and his recognition of Germany's misery after Versailles from his absolute horror of Nazi racism and anti-Semitism. It is not surprising that such a man was humiliated by the likes of Peron.

photo of Eliot Weinberger, New York City, 1999
Eliot Weinberger, New York City, 1999
photo copyright © John Tranter, 1999

My great love would be the "Nine Dantesque Essays" of 1945-51. Borges's reading of the almighty Commedia is full of illuminations. His views on Dante's strictly accurate "geographical" and psychological topography; his problem in masking his own role as justicer in a poem where the Deity alone is supposed to hold that part; his fearful love of the great doomed pagan poets in this respect; his defence of indeterminacy in the "false problem of Ugolino" are among Borges's many successes. Above all I found greatly moving Borge's attention to Dante's incurable sadness in relation to Beatrice. He thinks of her when seeing Paolo & Francesca together as he and Beatrice had never been. He recognizes that he loved her more than she loved him - if indeed she ever did - in the dream encounter of Purgatorio XXXII (indeed he may have dreamed the whole poem, Borges suggests, in order to engineer a re-encounter). He receives her smile at the end of Paradiso only to see her turn away from him forever. But Dante has gained the poem - and I cannot help thinking of Borges's long-developing loss of sight, finalized in 1955, ironically bringing him the Directorship of the National Library and the beginnings of international fame. He carries on, as lecturer - the "oral Borges" - with the hope he had already found in 1927: "But the best immortalities - those in the domain of passion - are still vacant. There is no poet who is the total voice of love, hate, or despair. That is, the greatest verses of humanity may still not have been written. This imperfection should raise our hopes."

This work is inexhaustible. It would require a book to do it justice. We need to be deeply grateful to its author and to the superb translations by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Weinberger himself who, as editor, mined the hidden treasure.


Nathaniel Tarn's latest publication is "I Think This May Be Eden," a CD of selected poems from Spoken Engine (Memphis/Nashville). Recent poems are in «Hambone», «First Intensity», and «Conjunctions» among others (obtainable from Small Press Distribution, Berkeley). You can read more about Tarn
in issue # 6 of Jacket.

You can read Martin Johnston's illuminating introductory essay on Borges in Jacket # 1


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