13 January 2014

Borges' Theme

Last year, I wrote about Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, and I tried to express the impression that I'd had of his fascination with a single idea.  For years, I'd been thinking about it, and I'd always settled uncomfortably on the notion that he wrote about various forms of infinity:
Another aspect of Borges' work that is made clear by a single unbroken experience is his utter devotion to the idea of infinities. From start to last, he wrote of unending libraries, perfect memories that encompass every shade of color in every day, and loops of time that mirrored each other in eternal regression. I'd noticed the pattern before, but I'd thought that it was a theme of the collections. Instead, it seems as though Borges was singularly fascinated by infinity: his stories almost invariably describe people, places, or objects that have some aspect of boundlessness.
Even as I wrote this, though, I was aware that it was somehow not exactly correct.  In "The Garden of Forking Paths," there was an element of the infinite to be found in the titular book, but there was also a clever hooking twist to the story's conclusion that is only tangentially related to that sort of boundlessness.  The book within the story is a representation of infinite times, but that book is only described and becomes a plot element - you couldn't use it as synecdoche for the whole story, because there's more there.

The same construction is found in "The Theologians," where infinite recursiveness is once again the subject of the plot (via the heresy of the Monotoni), but the story itself is resolved in a neat twist.  If we picture the shape of "The Theologians," it could only resemble a pretzel or Möbius strip, in which identity is twisted around on itself.  Likewise do we picture the mediocre "The Shape of the Sword," when courage and narratorial reliability become tangled in each other.  These and other stories all do touch on the infinite, and some aspect of the unending appears within them, but their plots revolve around a trick or quibble.

Still other stories, like  "Three Versions of Judas" or "Man on Pink Corner," don't really dwell on boundlessness at all.  I'd considered them outliers.  "The Three Versions of Judas" concerns the compact Hegelian spiral of a Swedish heretic, whose three contemplations eventually lead him to the conclusion that Judas was Christ: it is a story of paradox and shock, but not a story of the infinite.  And "Man on Pink Corner" is the story of an Argentine knifeman, one of several clever stories about this breed of outlaw.

It was not correct for me to say that Borges wrote of the infinite from "start to last."  But even as I reflected on this mistake, I considered that I still felt that there was a unifying quality.  Infinity was a major theme - the dominant theme, certainly - but there was a larger pattern of monomania in Borges' work.  He wrote about one single thing, I was sure of it.  And after long thought, his theme might have been this: extravagance.

The swaggering knifeplay of the Argentine gaucho, the breadth of heresy in making Judas into Jesus, the spite of a coward towards himself, and the fiery denunciation that burns the speaker... these are all extravagances, and metaphorically akin to the infinities of the Library of Babel or the perfect memory of Funes.

It seems to me that this is the central theme of Borges' work, to the extent that there is a central theme.  Time and time again, he probes the idea of meeting the limits of the mundane and exceeding them - not just slightly, but to the height of his imagination.  He goes beyond expectations.

This is really a pretty workaday insight, if I can even call it that.  But the tension between my articulations of Borges' work and the unspoken feeling I'd been off the mark had been bothering me like a sore tooth.

Next week, I'll probably decide I'm wrong again.

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