Jorge Luis Borges and the Congress of the World
All of Borges can be found in his story The Congress. We find the lover of books and the scholar with a classical style whose interest in the fantastic is revealed here in the idea of the congress itself and two prominent images: that of the partially constructed amphitheater for the “Congress of the World”, its skeleton reaching into an endless sky on the vast plains of Alejandro Glencoe’s estate, and the strange image of the unstable man with the red hair who plays with a copper top and goes by the name Twirl. Although more mundane, these images are no less strange or profound than the Aleph or the Library of Babel. Yet, being mundane, they are closer to the abiding tastes of this strange man. We also find in The Congress the mock-documentary stance, as well as his favorite Argentinian concerns: the image of the gaucho, knife fights and the tango. We find a synthesis of form and character—something he admired in Faulkner. We find the handful of questions he explored his whole life: the finite/infinite dyad, the eternal return, the question of limits and its corollary: insignificance (or the “nothing” of personality), a comparison of youth and age, and the mystery of the quotidian.
A glimpse of the infinite is inconceivable without the concrete object, the limited, the mortal. No doubt that is what some readers wish to escape when they enter the fantasies of certain writers. But far from being merely a contrasting device, Borges invests the quotidian with the mysteries of the cosmos. What is truly wondrous—the description of the Library of Babel, or this simple fact: “the space, the period, the comma, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet”? Surely Borges’ marvelous description functions to reveal the wonder of the alphabet. And more than any other of his short fictions, The Congress illuminates the wondrous power of the life around us that we have a tendency to become blind to. For what stands out in The Congress aren’t any fantastic images or weird narrative elements, but the adobe house with its floors of compact earth, the sound of horse hooves on the plains, the silky feel of a certain Chinese volume—consigned to flames—and finally, the mute presence of men who have lost the will to acknowledge one another: from the “Congress of the World” to two men who cannot make eye contact.
For me, the most dramatic moment in all of Borges is when Don Alejandro Glencoe commands, “Start bringing up everything that’s piled down there. I don’t want a book left in that cellar.” I see the scene in my mind: the members of the congress stand around, their boots covered with dust. Glencoe is fierce. Even though they’ve immediately obeyed his order, the next one is a shock. I see Twirl’s pallid face. I hear the tone of Nierenstein’s murmur, like one of the devout being asked to defile a crucifix. I see Irala’s face: numb, flames reflected in his eyes, and his almost inaudible voice, just as numb: “Every few centuries, the Library at Alexandria must be burned.” What is the meaning of this great burning of books in The Congress? For me, it is the most important thing Borges had to say, that how we all live together as a whole depends on how each one of us (even the greatest) faces the fact of our own inevitable and complete oblivion.
To highlight The Congress, published in 1975 when the author was 76 years old, as a representative fiction rather than one of the more celebrated ficciones of the 1940’s runs counter to the common perception of Borges. No less than J. M. Coetzee, in his review of the Collected Fictions of Borges, dismissed the entire volume in which The Congress appeared, saying that it “add[s] nothing to his stature.” But as extraordinary as the work of the forties is, it would be unfair not to take into account the unique relationship of quality to quantity in the case of this writer. Moreover, one cannot disregard so easily Borges’ attitude to his writings. Coetzee points out the contradiction in his character:
Curiously for a writer with an avant-garde reputation, his own reading seemed to stop around 1920…. Reading the essays side by side with the fictions prompts what is perhaps the central question about Borges: What do the operations of fiction offer this scholar-writer that enables him to take ideas into reaches where the discursive essay, as a mode of writing, fails him?
One clue is the taste Borges had for classical form. He may have had the reputation of an avant-garde artist (no one had seen such a merging of critical essay with fantastic tale) but he had no desire to be one, having no taste for it. It is in this sense that the “disparaging” flavor of his 1967 comment, “labyrinths and mirrors and tigers and all that” should be seen: Borges did not lose his creative drive as he got older, as Coetzee would have it, so much as remain firm in his abiding tastes. Once one recognizes and appreciates this, one can see The Congress as representative of the whole of Borges’ complex nature.
Borges’ conservative tastes are revealed in the Selected Non-Fictions. Consider the prologue to his translation of Walt Whitman, published in 1969. Surprising enough are his superlatives, crediting Whitman with the grandest literary experiment in history. Yet, incredibly, he claims that no one since Whitman, other than Joyce, has engaged this particular literary game, which is characterized by making a literary other out of the author and implicating the reader into the game. But of course lots of modern writers have done this, from Beckett and Genet to Borges himself. Perhaps he was not being merely clever when he wrote, in Borges and I, “I do not know which of us wrote this page.”
Throughout the Selected Non-Fictions Borges used the word “strange” as a kind of compliment, applying it, for example, to Melville, Kafka, and above all Henry James, whose The Abasement of the Northmores, he claimed, was the strangest thing he had ever read. That is, stranger than all of the inventions of modernism—assuming he read them, and surely he read enough to know what he liked.
Let us look once again at the peculiarity of Borges’ conservative tastes when viewed alongside his creative innovations and his flair for the fantastic. Borges’ imagination seems to have flown like a strange creature, while his rational mind watched it soar, always bringing it back down to a safe landing on the rough ground. The point is not the fantastic image of the infinite library (although it’s really cool), but that truly amazing thing, that bottomless mystery: the alphabet. Fantasy seems to have been as natural and easy for Borges as waking up and seeing the morning sky. Why strive for it in literature? Like beauty, it is common. The mind will fly all on its own. But bringing it back down to the ground—that is the trick! Perhaps Borges saw the experimenters of modernism as people who labored over inessential aspects of the mind, or over something as natural as dreaming. It’s easy to let the mind go. The question is, how is the rational mind to come to terms with this material? Not to explain it away, to press it into rational forms, not to master it. But what is the best vantage to view the mystery? The best one, for him, was the simplest, soberest one, with both feet on the ground.
The fact remains that even if he was not that kind of reader, he was the kind of writer who fused the classical with the modern, even though he did not do it self-consciously like Anne Carson, or with an emphasis on the modern, like Beckett. He was modern like Whitman in the way he implicated himself and the reader into the literary process, that dynamic event occasioned by the fact of the page, a fact brought into existence first by the writer alone, and then by the reader alone. This might be called his metaphysical orientation. Yet his attitude toward language was thoroughly classical. The idea isn’t so much to get at the wonder, the mystery, the magic (use whatever term you like) of the cosmos by means of the mundane, nor yet to get there by means of the fantastic; it is more to show that the mundane itself is infused with wonder. If that was Borges’ abiding concern, then he said it best in The Congress.
Sergio Serrano‘s Blis, Morgen and Ouroboros belong to a series of etchings based on Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings.
read The Congress
Mark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art out of salvaged wood. His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Jerry Jazz Musician, Unlikely 2.0, Evergreen Review and Connotation Press. Mark is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life and blogs as The Bricoleur.