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Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges

Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges

by Daniel BalderstonDaniel Balderston
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In Jorge Luis Borges's finely wrought, fantastic stories, so filigreed with strange allusions, critics have consistently found little to relate to the external world, to history--in short, to reality. Out of Context corrects this shortsighted view and reveals the very real basis of the Argentine master's purported "irreality." By providing the historical context for some of the writer's best-loved and least understood works, this study also gives us a new sense of Borges's place within the context of contemporary literature.
Through a detailed examination of seven stories, Daniel Balderston shows how Borges's historical and political references, so often misread as part of a literary game, actually open up a much more complex reality than the one made explicit to the reader. Working in tension with the fantastic aspects of Borges' work, these precise references to realities outside the text illuminate relations between literature and history as well as the author's particular understanding of both. In Borges's perspective as it is revealed here, history emerges as an "other" only partially recoverable in narrative form. From what can be recovered, Balderston is able to clarify Borges's position on historical episodes and trends such as colonialism, the Peronist movement, "Western culture," militarism, and the Spanish invasion of the Americas.
Informed by a wide reading of history, a sympathetic use of critical theory, and a deep understanding of Borges's work, this iconoclastic study provides a radical new approach to one of the most celebrated and-until now-hermetic authors of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822313168
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/12/1993
Pages: 234
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.49(d)
Lexile: 1580L (what's this?)

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Out of Context

Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges

By Daniel Balderston

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8302-4


Introduction: History, Politics, and Literature in Borges

¿Y el muerto, el increíble?

Su realidad está bajo las flores diferentes de él

y su mortal hospitalidad nos dará

un recuerdo más para el tiempo

y sentenciosas calles del Sur para merecerlas despacio

y brisa oscura sobre la frente que vuelve

y la noche que de la mayor congoja nos libra:

la prolijidad de lo real. (29)

And the dead man, the incredible one? His reality lay beneath flowers different from himself and his mortal hospitality will give us one more memory for time and sententious streets in the South to be savored slowly and a dark gust on the forehead that looks back and night that frees us from the greatest anguish: the prolixity of the real.

The hallmark of Borges criticism is provided by the title of Ana María Barrenechea's important 1957 book, La expresión de la irrealidad en la obra de Jorge Luis Borges [The Expression of Irreality in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges]. "Borges," for many readers and critics, means "irrealidad," and the adjectives that have been created from the surname seem to refer to the unreal, the Active, even the Active to the second or third degree. Since Borges positions himself in the essays in Discusión [Discussion] and Otras inquisiciones [Other Inquisitions] in opposition to the social realist mode of narrative fiction that was dominant in Latin America at the time of the composition of Ficciones [Ficciones] and El Aleph [The Aleph], it is perhaps not surprising that readers and critics, eager to have it one way or the other, have embraced his "fantastic literature" or denounced him as escapist, both reactions which assume that the stories have nothing significant to say about reality, history, or politics. To be sure, Sylvia Molloy's notion of a vaivén [movement back and forth] in Borges (here, between reality and fantasy) (Letras 194) and Marina Kaplan and Davi Arrigucci's attention to the grounding of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "Biografía de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz" [Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz] in historical and cultural realities are signs that it should now be possible to reconsider the question of the relation of Borges's fictions to realities beyond the text. Similarly, my Borges index (The Literary Universe of Jorge Luis Borges) and Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes's recent Borges dictionary should quiet those who have been assuming—wrongly—that all of those bookish references in Borges's stories and essays are pure invention.

Perhaps it would be useful to quote a few critics:

In Borges, once the external world has vanished and with it, in consequence, our reality, the only secure possible mooring besides the self, the only term of the relation that is left, is irreality, which, by a simple change of sign, becomes in turn the only Borgesian reality. Thus, then, for Borges—and here we are threatened by paradox—the only reality is irreality. (Ferrer 59, emphasis in original)

Borges takes away the "real" weight of history, situating it in a mythic horizon, negating it. When he places the whole episode (and, we might say, the whole period) in a place outside of the concrete and the factic, outside of the historical, he deprives it of all concrete importance, of every possibility of influencing reality, of forming part of the historical process.... Once again, Borges negates reality. (Borello, Peronismo 180)

Borges has assembled philosophical and literary schools, theologians and poets, murderers and saints, and has endowed them with literary equality. Historical and non-historical events and personalities have shed their traditional myths and taken on new mythical raiment. Borges' allegiance is not to historical truths. The primary purpose of all his motifs is to provide joy for the "fiction maker" and the selected group of seers who will recognize a fictitious web in the no less fictitious history recorded by man. (Sosnowski, "God's Script" 381)

The Borges fiction is ... a context-free paradigm which can be reactivated through reading at any time and under any circumstances. (Franco 62)

Borges trivializes historical study, and this devaluation then becomes a necessary step in the freeing of the fictions from all external determinations. (Franco 69)

We have watched an admirable writer at work at the task of destroying reality and turning us into shadows. We have analyzed the process of dissolution of the concepts on which human beings found belief in their concrete being: the cosmos, personality and time. We have seen besides the horrifying presence of the infinite and the disintegration of substance into reflections and dreams. (Barrenechea, Expresión de la irrealidad 202)

In the stories of Borges ... reality is seen "sub specie aeternitatis," that is to say, not the singular but the general, not individual beings but archetypes. Such a vision of reality must perforce be organized in a system; Borges uses systems already established by philosophy and theology. (Alazraki, Prosa narrativa 89)

Fiction [for Borges] is abstract and artificial rather than representational or mimetic. (Balderston, El precursor velado 176)

This catalog could be continued more or less indefinitely, yet it is—to borrow the title of the final book on Bolívar of the Venezuelan historian Vicente Lecuna (discussed in chapter 8)—a "catalog of mistakes and slanders." To refute Berkeley, Dr. Johnson kicked a stone (Boswell 1: 315); to refute the "irrealists," I will need a whole book, but for starters I shall quote the end of Borges's essay "Nueva refutación del tiempo" [New Refutation of Time]:

Negar la sucesión temporal, negar el yo, negar el universo astronómico, son desesperaciones aparentes y consuelos secretos. Nuestro destino (a diferencia del infierno de Swedenborg y del infierno de la mitología tibetana) no es espantoso por irreal; es espantoso porque es irreversible y de hierro. El tiempo es la sustancia de que estoy hecho. El tiempo es un río que me arrebata, pero yo soy el río; es un tigre que me destroza, pero yo soy el tigre; es un fuego que me consume, pero yo soy el fuego. El mundo, desgraciadamente, es real; yo, desgraciadamente, soy Borges. (771)

To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent acts of desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg or the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightening because it is unreal: it is frightening because it is irreversible and ironclad. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that tears me apart, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

To refute the "irrealist" position more fully it will be necessary to examine some of the stories in considerable depth; taking at face value assertions from Otras inquisiciones like the one just quoted has led too often to the creation of an aesthetic "system" (of the kind mentioned—and practiced— by Alazraki) that is then imposed on the stories.

In this book I will study seven stories: three from Ficciones ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote," 1939 [Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote], "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan," 1941 [The Garden of Forking Paths], and "El milagro secreto," 1943 [The Secret Miracle]), three from El Aleph ("La escritura del dios," 1949 [The God's Script], "Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva," 1949 [Story of the Warrior and the Captive], and "El hombre en el umbral," 1952 [The Man in the Threshold]), and one from El informe de Brodie ("Guayaquil," 1970). My readings of these stories will involve the reconstruction of lost or hidden contexts through attention to historical references and "circumstantial details," but first I would like to reexamine the notions on representation and history in a series of key Borges texts and then provide a brief survey of some of the ideas on historical knowledge that seem most important to Borges and to my readings of his stories.

In an essay that is widely considered Borges's most important (albeit extremely dense and arbitrary) statement on narrative theory, "La postulación de la realidad" (1931) [The Postulation of Reality], he argues that one of the methods of creating verisimilitude in narrative "consiste en imaginar una realidad más compleja que la declarada al lector y referir sus derivaciones y efectos" (219) [consists in imagining a reality more complex than the one made explicit to the reader and then to tell of its consequences and effects], and that another involves the use of "pormenores lacónicos de larga proyección" (221) [laconic details that cast long shadows]. Both of these methods involve transgressing what formalist critics of whatever variety would consider the limits of the text and asking the reader to consider its silences and unrealized implications. This is in fact what Borges and his friend and longtime collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, themselves propose in the reported conversation at the beginning of "Tlòn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius":

Bioy Casares había cenado conmigo esa noche y nos demoró una vasta polémica sobre la ejecución de una novela en primera persona, cuyo narrador omitiera o desfigurara los hechos e incurriera en diversas contradicciones, que permitieran a unos pocos lectores—a muy pocos lectores—la adivinación de una realidad atroz o banal. (431)

Bioy Casares had had dinner with me that night and we were engaged in a vast argument about how to accomplish a novel in the first person, the narrator of which would omit or disfigure the facts and enter into various contradictions, which would permit some readers—very few readers—to guess at an atrocious or banal reality.

Indeed, in "Tlön" itself such a horrible or banal reality can be glimpsed at the end of the story, when the narrator proposes to dedicate his days to an improbable Quevedian translation of Urne Buriall instead of attending to a world dominated by fascism, dialectical materialism, and that new faith, Tlönism (443).

What I propose to do here is to show how an imaginative reading of Borges's texts that is attentive to historical and political context can discover implications in those texts that considerably complicate the picture we have had up to now of the "postulation of reality" in Borges. The texts I have chosen have often been used in discussions of the fantastic or of self-conscious textuality. While I do not deny these elements of Borges's fiction, I would argue that the interest of the stories is considerably heightened by attention to the historical and political elements, elements that can then be put in counterpoint to the others.

For example, Borges's complex discussions of time have been reduced in much of the criticism to notions of circularity, though his major writings on the subject (including "Historia de la eternidad" [History of Eternity], "Nueva refutación del tiempo," "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan," and "El milagro secreto") assert that ideas of circular and nonlinear time are pleasant metaphysical diversions but that those who interest themselves in these notions are themselves mortal. For instance, it is more interesting to say, as Sosnowski does, that Hladik's "Vindication of Eternity must have been demonstrated to him on 29 March 1939" (Borgesy la cabala 83), holding the notions of temporality and eternity in tension, than to have it one way or the other, as in Alazraki ("In 'The Secret Miracle' Hladik's destiny reaches its culmination, but not within human time, but instead in God's time" [Prosa narrativa 17]). In the case of "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan," it is surprising how often Stephen Albert's theory of parallel universes has been taken as an explanation of the text, a detective story that begins with the news of the death of a German spy and ends with the murder of Stephen Albert a few hours later, and the whole of which is (or at least pretends to be) a gloss on a reference to a history of the Great War; if all things were equal, as Albert would have it, the narrative tension and suspense of the story would vanish.

The phrase from "La postulación de la realidad" that speaks of "a more complex reality" fits a contextual reading of the kind I undertake here in an interesting sense: to get a sense of that greater complexity it is necessary not only to find the "source" of the intertextual reference (the passage in Liddell Hart's History of the World War; 1914–1918 referring to torrential rains in the Ancre region, for instance) but also to open up the reference, to reconstruct it more fully than the older "source study" would find necessary. Any of the chapters of this book will serve as a demonstration of this idea, but perhaps the richest (and most perverse) is chapter 2, the reading of "Pierre Menard." Though the first step in a reading of this kind is to discover the specific sources (William James on "history, the mother of truth," Julien Benda on militarism, and so forth), the real beginning occurs when these referents are woven together into webs or constellations. In this way, a new text (a parallel fiction, perhaps) is proposed, one in which the implicit referents are made explicit. Connections with history and politics are reestablished; the "dialogues of the dead" are heard again.

Of course this is not so different from how the writing of history has been described. When Paul Valéry says that the past and the future are the greatest of human inventions (History 96–97,122), when Michel de Certeau describes the "historiographical operation" as a writing that "places a population of the dead on stage" (99), what is at work is the interplay between mute and inert "facts" and the human imagination that creates stories or pictures. The difference between this book and a work of historiography is that I—like the writer I am studying—take pleasure in mixing references to "reality" and to "fiction." In his essay on Hawthorne, Borges writes: "A Hawthorne le gustaban esos contactos de lo imaginario y lo real" (674) [Hawthorne liked such contacts between the imaginary and the real]. Fictions out of history, history composed of fiction—a principle of confusion seemingly reigns. What I will show in this book is the extent to which a more precise sense of how this cosmic confusion works will deepen our understanding of the stories, particularly those in Ficciones and El Aleph.

In a discussion of the function of reference in metafiction, Linda Hutcheon writes:

It is the metafiction reader's perception of these superimposed levels of reference that directs him/her into, through, and out of the text, the text as language. In other words, in metafiction, the only way to make any mimetic connection to real referents, as I have defined them here, would be on the level of process, that is, of the act of reading as an act of ordering and creating. The encoding within the text itself of the decoder and his/her role acts as a set of instructions to the reader who exists in the real world and who, though implicated directly by the existence of this narratee or surrogate addressee within the text, is actually an existing being, an interpreting, deciphering being, outside the work of art.... If we insist on wanting to speak of fiction's real referents, which by Frege's definition must exist in the real world, metafiction teaches us that it is going to have to be on another level: the process may indeed turn out to be "referential" in this sense, and in a way that the products can not be. (10–11, emphasis in original)

Similarly, de Certeau, in his discussion of the challenges to narrative history within historiography, writes: "If therefore the story of 'what happened' disappears from scientific history (in order, in contrast, to appear in popular history), or if the narrative of facts takes on the allure of a 'fiction' belonging to a given type of discourse, we cannot conclude that the reference to the real is obliterated. This reference has instead been somewhat displaced" (43).

The referential "process" that Hutcheon speaks of, which operates through a "reader who exists in the real world" (whatever one's friends or colleagues may think!), is the one studied by Borges in "La postulación de la realidad," above all in the discussion of the techniques that force the reader to posit absent causes or absent effects not mentioned in the text. Similarly, the "displacement" of reference in the historiographical examples studied by de Certeau suggests that historiography cannot escape the positing of a "lost whole," which is a necessary fiction (and is necessarily a fiction). Suzanne Gearhart writes: "The relationship between fiction and history articulated here is one in which neither term can be reduced to the other because each is part of the process by which the other is constituted" (27). The reading of Borges's fiction articulated here grows out of this sense of mutual implication.


Excerpted from Out of Context by Daniel Balderston. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction: History, Politics, and Literature in Borges,
2 Menard and His Contemporaries: The Arms and Letters Debate,
3 The "Labyrinth of Trenches without Any Plan" in "El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan",
4 Prague, March 1939: Recovering the Historicity of "El milagro secreto",
5 Cryptogram and Scripture: Losing Count in "La escritura del dios",
6 Going Native: Beyond Civilization and Savagery in "Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva",
7 On the Threshold of Otherness: British India in "El hombre en el umbral",
8 Behind Closed Doors: The Guayaquil Meeting and the Silences of History,
9 Conclusion,
Works Cited,

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