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Borges Walker Wessells

This post on the CF Forum takes the form of a brief self interview by Wendy Walker and Henry Wessells, on the subject of the writings of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (with citations from his work).

What aspects of the writings of Borges are most relevant to the critical fiction?

Wessells : Extreme concision, erudition and the certainty that careful scrutiny of the written text is both meaningful and revelatory.

Walker : Besides the ones you mention, which are basic, I would add (with the caveat that the first two do not appear in every critical fiction: a) the recounting of scholarship as a series of magical mini-narratives and forms of imagination; b) a juxtaposition of the target text with texts outside the western tradition, especially Chinese, Indian, and Arabic ones, and c) the use of metaphysical questions (about death, the soul, time, eternity) to move from scholarly disquisition and criticism towards story, in the form of parable, tale and critical fiction, or combinations thereof.

Borges : “but ambiguity is richness” 1

Which particular texts illuminate the form?

Wessells : “Kafka and His Precursors”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “Death and the Compass”.

Walker : “A Problem” (on Don Quixote), “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald,”  “The Dream of Coleridge,” and “Kafka and His Precursors” would make a good start. Most of the pieces in Other Inquisitions illuminate the form of the critical fiction in some way.  It is significant how often Borges wrote about Don Quixote, itself perhaps the longest and greatest critical fiction, which takes as its target the entire chivalric tradition.  If you compare “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” Borges’ essay about the metafictional aspects of Don Quixote, and “A Problem,” a critical fiction on the same book, the difference between an essay and a critical fiction immediately becomes clear. In both pieces Cervantes’ book has been scrutinized deeply, but in “A Problem” Borges moves beyond what normal literary criticism can do.

Borges : “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” 2

Does the work of Borges help to identify distinctions between  the metafictional and the critical fiction?

Wessells : Are you looking at the teacup or the world of which the teacup is part?  For me, metafiction implies a narrower, reductive purpose, whereas the critical fiction intends not only to illuminate a particular work (or body of work) but also to place that work in a wider context.

Walker : The particular comparison I indicated above certainly helps to identify such distinctions.  In “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” Borges discusses Cervantes’ metafictional strategies, showing how he makes the text echo within itself by using himself and his readers as characters in the story that the author continues to write and the reader continues to read, even as the story depends upon their presence inside it. The echoes operate within the immediate reading/writing area. In “A Problem” Borges orchestrates echoes among Don Quixote and other texts and landscapes that Cervantes himself probably did not know, because they were so remote or chronologically unavailable, any better than the reader. The echoes operate within an enormous, almost cosmological space, as though they were taking in all the books ever written and all the landscapes ever seen, as well as the implicitly included space of writer and reader.

Another way of distinguishing between metafiction and critical fiction is to say that in metafiction, it is not necessary to refer to another particular text, although this can be done (see Flann O’Brien); but in a critical fiction such a reference must be made as it constitutes a crucial pole around which the fiction is built.

Borges : Other things are making it seem larger: the dim light, the symmetry, the mirrors, so many years, my unfamiliarity, the loneliness. [ALL ITALICS] 3

Walker : How do you read “The Garden of Forking Paths” as a critical fiction?

Wessells : I read Forking Paths as a critical fiction of spy stories (Buchan and Chesterton), of the literature of WWI, of orientalism and chinoiserie, and of inevitability; and, like Borges at his best, of the writings of Borges himself. But more importantly, I read Forking Paths as a landscape architecture of the critical fiction, that is : a practical application of the architectural theory of the form. Carefully selected citations (to make a distinction between real and imaginary texts is largely beside the point here), attention to narrative form, and the collision of seemingly incompatible notions. I would also add the effect of suddenly altering the scale, as in the formal perfection of the frame created by the first and last paragraphs of the story.

Borges : Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing. 4

Walker : Do you see (and if so, how?) the critical fiction as related to the tale about a magical, unknown or lost book, considered as a genre in itself?

Wessells : The motif of the mysterious book — lost, dangerous, unknown, magical — is powerful enough to define a vast and sprawling genre (the delineation of which is wonderful fun but outside the scope of this forum). It is surprising how many imaginary books appear in critical fictions (the enumeration of these titles is within the scope of this forum and will be great fun*), or, rather, it is not surprising, as the form is inherently suited to comment upon this genre. This relates directly to the primacy of the book in the writings of Borges.

Borges : In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they also are written. 5

Walker : How do you understand Borges’ intention in writing critical fictions?

Wessells : To me, his work is all about reading in the broadest sense: about attention and comprehension. So that the exploratory aspects of his writings are the flowering of a reader’s thought. The critical fiction, for me, is a mode of thinking about books and writings, of answering the questions that persist after essays and lectures have been completed or exhausted.

Borges: “later I understood why” 6


Sources of the passages from Borges :

1 : “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

2 : “Kafka and His Precursors”

3 : “Death and the Compass”

4 : “The Garden of Forking Paths”

5 : “Partial Magic of the Quixote

6 : “Story of the Warrior and the Captive”

* a descriptive catalogue of imaginary books in critical fictions will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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