[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Borges': Writer on the Couch

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'Borges': Writer on the Couch
New York Times Book Review, 4.11.7

A Life.
By Edwin Williamson. Illustrated. 574 pp. Viking. $34.95.

THERE'S an unhappy paradox about literary biographies. The
majority of readers who will be interested in a writer's
bio, especially one as long and exhaustive as Edwin
Williamson's ''Borges: A Life,'' will be admirers of the
writer's work. They will therefore usually be idealizers of
that writer and perpetrators (consciously or not) of the
intentional fallacy. Part of the appeal of the writer's
work for these fans will be the distinctive stamp of that
writer's personality, predilections, style, particular tics
and obsessions -- the sense that these stories were written
by this author and could have been done by no other.* And
yet it often seems that the person we encounter in the
literary biography could not possibly have written the
works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the
bio, the stronger this feeling usually is. In the present
case, the Jorge Luis Borges who emerges in Williamson's
book -- a vain, timid, pompous mama's boy, given for much
of his life to dithery romantic obsessions -- is about as
different as one can get from the limpid, witty,
pansophical, profoundly adult writer we know from his
stories. Rightly or no, anyone who reveres Borges as one of
the best and most important fiction writers of the last
century will resist this dissonance, and will look, as a
way to explain and mitigate it, for obvious defects in
Williamson's life study. The book won't disappoint them.

Edwin Williamson is an Oxford don and esteemed Hispanist
whose ''Penguin History of Latin America'' is a small
masterpiece of lucidity and triage. It is therefore
unsurprising that his ''Borges'' starts strong, with a
fascinating sketch of Argentine history and the Borges
family's place within it. For Williamson, the great
conflict in the Argentine national character is that
between the ''sword'' of civilizing European liberalism and
the ''dagger'' of romantic gaucho individualism, and he
argues that Borges's life and work can be properly
understood only in reference to this conflict, particularly
as it plays out in his childhood. In the 19th century,
grandfathers on both sides of his family distinguished
themselves in important battles for South American
independence from Spain and the establishment of a
centralized Argentine government, and Borges's mother was
obsessed with the family's historical glory. Borges's
father, a man stunted by the heroic paternal shadow in
which he lived, evidently did things like give his son an
actual dagger to use on bullies at school, and later sent
him to a brothel for devirgination. The young Borges failed
both these ''tests,'' the scars of which marked him forever
and show up all over the place in his fiction, Williamson

It is in these claims about personal stuff encoded in the
writer's art that the book's real defect lies. In fairness,
it's just a pronounced case of a syndrome that seems common
to literary biographies, so common that it might point to a
design flaw in the whole enterprise. The big problem with
''Borges: A Life'' is that Williamson is an atrocious
reader of Borges's work; his interpretations amount to a
simplistic, dishonest kind of psychological criticism. You
can see why this problem might be intrinsic to the genre. A
biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but
literarily valuable.** In order to ensure this, the bio has
to make the writer's personal life and psychic travails
seem vital to his work. The idea is that we can't correctly
interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal
and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its
creation. That this is simply assumed as an axiom by many
biographers is one problem; another is that the approach
works a lot better on some writers than on others. It works
well on Kafka -- Borges's only modern equal as an
allegorist, with whom he's often compared -- because
Kafka's fictions are expressionist, projective, and
personal; they make artistic sense only as manifestations
of Kafka's psyche. But Borges's stories are very different.
They are designed primarily as metaphysical arguments†;
they are dense, self-enclosed, with their own deviant
logics. Above all, they are meant to be impersonal, to
transcend individual consciousness -- ''to be
incorporated,'' as Borges puts it, ''like the fables of
Theseus or Ahasuerus, into the general memory of the
species and even transcend the fame of their creator or the
extinction of the language in which they were written.''
One reason for this is that Borges is a mystic, or at least
a sort of radical Neoplatonist -- human thought, behavior
and history are all the product of one big Mind, or are
elements of an immense cabalistic Book that includes its
own decoding. Biography-wise, then, we have a strange
situation in which Borges's individual personality and
circumstances matter only insofar as they lead him to
create artworks in which such personal facts are held to be

''Borges: A Life,'' which is strongest in its treatments of
Argentine history and politics,†† is at its very worst when
Williamson is discussing specific pieces in light of
Borges's personal life. Unfortunately, he discusses just
about everything Borges ever wrote. Williamson's critical
thesis is clear: ''Bereft of a key to their
autobiographical context, no one could have grasped the
vivid significance these pieces actually had for their
author.'' And in case after case, the resultant readings
are shallow, forced and distorted -- as indeed they must be
if the biographer's project is to be justified. Random
example: ''The Wait,'' a marvelous short-short that appears
in the 1949 story collection ''The Aleph,'' takes the form
of a layered homage to Hemingway, gangster movies and the
Buenos Aires underworld. An Argentine mobster, in hiding
from another mobster and living under the pursuer's name,
dreams so often of his killers' appearance in his bedroom
that, when the assassins finally come for him, he
''gestured at them to wait, and he turned over and faced
the wall, as though going back to sleep. Did he do that to
awaken the pity of the men that killed him, or because it's
easier to endure a terrifying event than to imagine it,
wait for it endlessly -- or (and this is perhaps the most
likely possibility) so that his murderers would become a
dream, as they had already been so many times, in that same
place, at that same hour?''

The distant interrogative ending -- a Borges trademark --
becomes an inquisition into dreams, reality, guilt, augury
and mortal terror. For Williamson, though, the real key to
the story's significance appears to be that ''Borges had
failed to win the love of Estela Canto. . . . With Estela
gone, there seemed nothing to live for,'' and he represents
the story's ending all and only as a depressed whimper:
''When his killers finally track him down, he just rolls
over meekly to face the wall and resigns himself to the

It is not merely that Williamson reads every last thing in
Borges's oeuvre as a correlative of the author's emotional
state. It is that he tends to reduce all of Borges's
psychic conflicts and personal problems to the pursuit of
women. Williamson's theory here involves two big elements:
Borges's inability to stand up to his domineering mother,‡
and his belief, codified in a starry-eyed reading of Dante,
that ''it was the love of a woman that alone could deliver
him from the hellish unreality he shared with his father
and inspire him to write a masterpiece that would justify
his life.'' Story after story is thus interpreted by
Williamson as a coded dispatch on Borges's amorous career,
which career turns out to be sad, timorous, puerile, moony
and (like most people's) extremely boring. The formula is
applied equally to famous pieces, such as '' 'The Aleph'
(1945), whose autobiographical subtext alludes to his
thwarted love for Norah Lange,'' and to lesser-known
stories like ''The Zahir'':

''The torments described by Borges in this story . . . are,
of course, displaced confessions of the extremity of his
plight. Estela [Canto, who'd just broken up with him] was
to have been the 'new Beatrice,' inspiring him to create a
work that would be 'the Rose without purpose, the Platonic,
intemporal Rose,' but here he was again, sunk in the
unreality of the labyrinthine self, with no prospect now of
contemplating the mystic Rose of love.''

Thin though this kind of explication is, it's preferable to
the reverse process by which Williamson sometimes presents
Borges's stories and poems as ''evidence'' that he was in
emotional extremities. Williamson's claim, for instance,
that in 1934, ''after his definitive rejection by Norah
Lange, Borges . . . came to the brink of killing himself''
is based entirely on two tiny pieces of contemporaneous
fiction in which the protagonists struggle with suicide.
Not only is this a bizarre way to read and reason -- was
the Flaubert who wrote ''Madame Bovary'' eo ipso suicidal?
-- but Williamson seems to believe that it licenses him to
make all sorts of dubious, humiliating claims about
Borges's interior life: ''A poem called 'The Cyclical
Night' . . . which he published in La Nacion on October 6,
reveals him to be in the throes of a personal crisis'';
''In the extracts from this unfinished poem . . . we can
see that the reason for wishing to commit suicide was
literary failure, stemming ultimately from sexual
self-doubt.'' Bluck.

Again, it is primarily because of Borges's short stories
that anyone will care enough to read about his life. And
while Williamson spends a lot of time detailing the
explosive success that Borges enjoyed in middle age, after
the 1961 International Publishers' Prize (shared with
Samuel Beckett) introduced his work to audiences in the
United States and Europe,‡‡ there is little in his book
about just why Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is an
important enough fiction writer to deserve such a
microscopic bio. The truth, briefly stated, is that Borges
is arguably the great bridge between modernism and
post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that
his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all
foundations in religious or ideological certainty -- a mind
turned thus wholly in on itself.‡‡‡ His stories are inbent
and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules
are unknown and its stakes everything.

And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that
lives in and through books. This is because Borges the
writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure
allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a
style; and it is no accident that his best stories are
often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have
texts at their plots' centers, or have as protagonists
Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic
reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses
reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one
who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is
essentially -- consciously -- a creative act. This is not,
however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly
disguised critic. It is because he knows that there's
finally no difference -- that murderer and victim,
detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the
same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence
the pontine claim above), but Borges's is really a mystical
insight, and a profound one. It's also frightening, since
the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous,
more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an
artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of
individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a
grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total
effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions
aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd,
ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
This is why, for instance, it is so irksome to see
Williamson describe ''The Immortal'' and ''The Writing of
the God'' -- two of the greatest, most scalp-crinkling
mystical stories ever, next to which the epiphanies of
Joyce or redemptions of O'Connor seem pallid and crude --
as respective products of Borges's ''many-layered
distress'' and ''indifference to his fate'' after various
idealized girlfriends dump him. Stuff like this misses the
whole point. Even if Williamson's claims are true, the
stories so completely transcend their motive cause that the
biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal
way, irrelevant.

*Of course, Borges's famous ''Pierre Menard, Author of the
'Quixote' '' makes sport of this very conviction, just as
his later ''Borges and I'' anticipates and refutes the
whole idea of a literary biography. The fact that his
fiction is always several steps ahead of its interpreters
is one of the things that make Borges so great, and so

**Actually, these two agendas dovetail, since the only
reason anybody's interested in a writer's life is because
of his literary importance. (Think about it -- the personal
lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there
alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill
rides to hear about.)

†This is part of what gives Borges's stories their mythic,
precognitive quality (all cultures' earliest, most vital
metaphysics is mythopoetic), which quality in turn helps
explain how they can be at once so abstract and so moving.

††The biography is probably most valuable in its account
of Borges's political evolution. A common bit of literary
gossip about Borges is that the reason he wasn't awarded a
Nobel Prize was his supposed support for Argentina's
ghastly authoritarian juntas of the 1960's and 70's. From
Williamson, though, we learn that Borges's politics were
actually far more complex and tragic. The child of an old
liberal family, and an unabashed leftist in his youth,
Borges was one of the first and bravest public opponents of
European fascism and the rightist nationalism it spawned in
Argentina. What changed him was Peron, whose creepy
right-wing populist dictatorship aroused such loathing in
Borges that he allied himself with the repressively
anti-Peron Revolucion Libertadora. Borges's situation
following Peron's first ouster in 1955 is full of
unsettling parallels for American readers. Because Peronism
still had great popularity with Argentina's working poor,
the exiled dictator retained enormous political power, and
would have won any democratic national election held in the
1950's. This placed believers in liberal democracy (such as
J. L. Borges) in the same sort of bind that the United
States faced in South Vietnam a few years later -- how do
you promote democracy when you know that a majority of
people will, if given the chance, vote for an end to
democratic voting? In essence, Borges decided that the
Argentine masses had been so hoodwinked by Peron and his
wife that a return to democracy was possible only after the
nation had been cleansed of Peronism. Williamson's analysis
of the slippery slope this decision put Borges on, and his
account of the hatchet job that Argentina's leftists did on
Borges's political reputation in retaliation for his
defection (such that by 1967, when the writer came to
Harvard to lecture, the students practically expected him
to have epaulettes and a riding crop), make for his book's
best chapters.

‡ Be warned that much of the mom-based psychologizing seems
right out of ''Oprah'': e.g., ''However, by urging her son
to realize the ambitions she had defined for herself, she
unwittingly induced a sense of unworthiness in him that
became the chief obstacle to his self-assertion.''

‡‡Williamson's chapters on Borges's sudden world fame will
be of special interest to those American readers who
weren't yet alive or reading in the mid-1960's. I was lucky
enough to discover Borges as a child, but only because I
happened to find ''Labyrinths,'' an early English-language
collection of his most famous stories, on my father's
bookshelves in 1974. I believed that the book was there
only because of my parents' unusually fine taste and
discernment -- which verily they do possess -- but what I
didn't know was that by 1974 ''Labyrinths'' was also on
tens of thousands of other homes' shelves in this country,
that Borges had actually been a sensation on the order of
Tolkien and Gibran among hip readers of the previous

‡‡‡ Labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, doubles -- so many of the
elements that appear over and over in Borges's fiction are
symbols of the psyche turned inward.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S most recent books are ‘‘Everything
and More: A Compact History of Infinity’’ and ‘‘Oblivion:


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