Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Everything merges with the night: New Directions renews Borges with Everything and Nothing

Among the most memorable moments in Jorge Luis Borges’ 1939 melancholy story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ is the comparative analysis of a passage from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote with a like passage from the unfinished Quixote written by the recently deceased Menard, a writer who sought not to “compose another Quixote… but the Quixote itself.” The passages in question are, inevitably, identical—or so it might appear. Borges notes a “vivid” contrast in style. He finds Menard’s Quixote “more subtle” than Cervantes’. Each time I revisit ‘Pierre Menard’ I laugh at this masterstroke of absurdity, yet upon consideration the conceit isn’t absurd in the slightest. Borges attests that Menard’s quixotic desire to re-create Don Quixote enriches the art of reading. Time changes words, context changes the nature of literary ambition—what Milan Kundera refers to as the “consciousness of continuity”—and Borges, a great advocate for re-reading, implies that every reading of a text offers us a new text.

The durability, or should we say re-readability, of Borges’ work, not to mention its considerable foresight with regards to the still-unfolding destinies of art and technology, is surely the central reason why there have been so many Borges collections, the latest in English being Everything and Nothing (New Directions, $12.50), one of ND’s ‘Pearl’ series of affordable, sturdy paperbacks with clean, modern designs. The back cover informs us that Everything and Nothing “collects the best of Borges’ highly influential stories and essays,” a claim obviously open to dispute—there is no ‘Aleph’ here, no ‘Funes the Memorious’—yet finally untroubling, since what matters to me at least is that there remain enticing, accessible editions of Borges out there to be discovered by new generations, and for such purposes Everything and Nothing is a welcome new product. ‘Pierre Menard’ opens the book, followed by ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ which describes the contents of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, a book left in a bar by one Herbert Ashe, a deceased English railway engineer. The Encyclopedia offers some of the philosophical notions held by the inhabitants of Tlön, a presumably non-existent planet that nevertheless boasts sophisticated theories of time, views metaphysics as a branch of fantastic literature, and believes that all books are the work of a single atemporal and anonymous author.

The sequencing of these stories is inspired, since there are fascinating and provocative ideas raised in ‘Tlön’—particularly those concerning literature and authorship—that enrich our reading of ‘Pierre Menard’ retroactively. This tactic seems to backfire however in the placement of ‘Borges and I’ just before ‘Everything and Nothing,’ two pieces whose too-obvious similarities discourage the reader from appreciating their disparate characters. A relatively minor offense, of course, and quickly forgiven once we move onto
Everything and Nothing’s final selections, a pair of lectures taken from the elegant and elegiac late collection Seven Nights. In ‘Nightmares’ Borges considers the possibility that dreams are a form of fiction, that life may be a dream and we are all each dreaming each other, that dreams may be our “most ancient aesthetic activity.” In ‘Blindness’ he considers the secret virtues of the titular affliction, comparing his own blindness with that of other authors throughout history, as well as other librarians, noting the irony of his—it turns out, non-unique—situation of being appointed director of Argentina’s National Library just as he was seriously beginning to lose his sight. He ends this moving essay with a phrase from Goethe: “everything near becomes distant.” Typically for Borges, with a minimum of words, Goethe’s words are ruminated upon in such a way that its application to the condition of blindness balloons outward until each of us seem caught up in this sense of all things slipping out of our grasp, the universe expanding and urging us to never forget that we are on unstable ground and must never cease to reach out for new sources of wonder, and warmth.

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