Thinking aloud about Borges

20 Oct

A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).

Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.

Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:

The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.

The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.

But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:

When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.

This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.

– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.

The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.

Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.

I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.

The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”

I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.

Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?

It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.

But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”

Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.

 

 

 

 

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