Language above time and space
''In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.''
I come from India. When I first read the beginning sentence of the Fourth Gospel in Christian scripture, I wondered if St. John the Evangelist had in mind the principal theme echoed in the Indian Vedas, that speech is the creation of the Divine; that it permeates all creation and is one of the fundamental ways in which the Divine saturates human life. This idea is pursued intensively in Sanskrit literature. The revelatory power of language, how it conveys and reveals meanings, is an end in itself.
The uniqueness of Sanskrit poetry and prose lies both in its intellectual and formal linguistic structure, and in its goal to transcend the level of the intellect in order to reach a higher realm of intuitional truth. This is in contrast to Western literature which, since Aristotle's time, has been governed by literary definitions requiring a rational plot, realistic characters, artful metaphors, strong, individual style, all placed within a symmetrical, temporal world.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered Borges. Juan Luis Borges belongs to a third literary universe that, while originating in Western traditions, has developed a sensitivity for Eastern poetics. An Argentine, a writer of poetry and short stories, Borges has flooded the world with a unique literary vision in which art assumes its primacy over the everyday world. In his short stories he discourages readers from analyzing the ''meanings'' of his tales and, instead, directs them to pay more careful attention to aesthetic themes and the technical devices used to reinforce those themes. Sanskrit writers have been saying this since the sixth century, and it is only recently that Western students of world poetics have begun to accept this kind of approach. Certainly, apart from Borges and Nabokov, no Western writer has dared abandon the conventional relation between the structures of art on the one hand and of the ''real'' world that surrounds them, on the other.
Today we're in a late stage of linguistic and formal civilization in which the achievements of the past seem to weigh heavily on the possibilities of the present. Borges, for instance, no longer focuses on social problems, as did the writers of the nineteenth century, such as Balzac, Tolstoy, and Dickens, but on literary problems. He is concerned more with the structure and pliancy of literature than with its substance. He does this because he senses that the connection between language and reality is being disrupted. He believes that language and literature contain all reality, in contrast to the ''real'' world, which, to him, contains none. In the sixth century an Indian grammarian, philosopher, and poet named Bhrtrhari based his concepts of truth on this same metaphysics of language. He too claimed that there is no reality outside language and that therefore it is the ultimate basis for the discovery of spiritual truth.
The exhaustion that Borges senses in Western literature makes him turn away from the traditional elements of fiction, such as rounded, developed character, plot, metaphor, and meaning. He uses the world, instead, as an intellectual proposition, he attacks literary realism, and argues that literature should be concerned only with itself. He fabricates a nontemporal art because time, for him, is the basic constituent of the rational world. Memory, too, is problematic , since its possibilities admit reality. Ditto with the past. And since symmetry (of any kind) implies limitation and the exhaustion of possibilities, it is replaced by the theme of infinity. Finally, his highly contextual style emphasizes that art is artifice and not a reflection of reality.
In India, this tradition of contextual art goes back to ancient times.
In ''Pierre Menard, Author of the Don Quixote,'' the short story that introduced me to Borges' work, we catch a glimpse of nontemporal fiction. The story suggests that if a man living in a later century can exactly reproduce Don Quixote,m then the originalm version by Cervantes cannot be linked in any way to its historical era. If this sounds confusing, Borges plays fair by concealing keys in his story. He tells us that Pierre Menard, a twentieth-century citizen of Paris, reproduces the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of the Don Quixote.m If you do some checking you'll discover that the ninth chapter mentions Benegali the Arab, to whom Cervantes attributes his work, and the thirty-eighth contains a discourse on writers who imitate other writers. These sections are thus literature about literature and we can now understand that the reference in ''Pierre Menard'' is to literature about literature about literature. As Borges himself is known to have said about his collection Ficciones: ''I wonder if there is a single original line in this book. I suppose a source can be found for every line I've written or perhaps that's what we call inventing -- mixing up memories. I don't think we're capable of creation in the way God created the world.''
In ''The Library of Babel'' Borges reveals why he creates literature primarily about literature. The library in the story oppresses a viewer because of its regularity: it's made of hexagonal cubicles, five shelves on each wall, thirty-two books on each shelf, four hundred ten pages in each book, forty lines on each page, eight letters on each line. This library is the universe and the books mean nothing substantive. The only meaning in the universe derives from its relentless order, in other words, its artifice.m
Borges' range of allusion and his erudition stagger a reader. His references are not the sort one picks up from Bartlett's. For example, in one story, ''Up from Ultraism,'' where he lists comparisons between women and flowers, he cites the Bible, the story of Math, fourth branch of the medieval Welsh tales known as the Mabinogen,m the Nibelungenlied,m Ariosto, Tasso, Malherbe, Shakespeare, Swinburne, Stevenson, Milton, and Dario. After this display of knowledge one tends to believe him when he says ''this list may go on without end.''
One technique I particularly enjoy in Borges' work is that he uses a reader's attachment to factual data to demonstrate the boundaries of reality. In many stories he mentions himself in the third person and the presence of apparent facts which make the story seem like an essay. There are references to common reading materials such as the Britannica, but the references themselves are fictive. We can only discover this by looking up the reference, and then we are derailed. We begin to doubt the reality of categories. I would urge all his readers to do some detective work with his stories; that's half the pleasure.
Along with Cervantes' Don Quixote, The Thousand and One Nightsm is one of Borges' favorite sources of inspiration because it deals with a storyteller who uses art to defeat death by defeating time. (The distant origin of this collection is, coincidentally, Indian.) ''The Secret Miracle'' is his response to Scheherazade's skill. In it, the hero attempts to refute the sequential nature of time and actually stops time - while being shot at -- in order to write a play. Bullets, suspended for the duration of the time it takes to write the play, strike their target the instant the last line of the last act is put down on paper.
Symmetry is the target of another story. In ''Death and the Compass'' a bookish detective sees a symmetrical pattern in a series of murders. Lonnrot, the detective, anticipates three more murders in order to fill out the arrangement in an equilateral triangle imposed on a map of the city. When his vectors of space and time converge, he goes to catch the criminal at a house ''abounding in pointless architectural symmetries.'' But it turns into an elaborate trap laid by enemies who knew his obsession with symmetry and brought him to their lair to kill him. It is a geometrical story, but it says that one can complete a symmetry in only a finite number of ways which will exhaust all possibilities. This makes symmetry anathema to Borges' fiction.
''The Circular Ruins'' is the most famous of Borges' fictions. The ruins represent infinity. The dreamer dreaming another dreamer begins an infinite regression. Borges wants to say that literature dependent on dreams has more possibility than literature dependent on reality.
There are three recurrent images in Borges' literature. The labyrinthm is an image of inherent complexity. Something, usually with a hidden answer, reveals the hidden answer of his story: regressus ad infinitum. A character in a Borgesian labyrinth must exhaust all possibilities of choice before he can reach the center. For Borges, successfully dealing with a labyrinthm is to reach one's literary goal. Mirrorm is an image that contrasts with labyrinth.m It does not distort, but represents reality by reproducing and imitating existing objects. It is a symbol for the imitative powers of classical literature: see Aristotle. Thus to substitute the mirror with a labyrinth is not only to complicate reality but to propose a whole new system of aesthetics. The third image, a circlem , like Borges' art, has the virtue of self-containment, but at the same time it is repetitious and finite, like realism and other depleted types of literatures.
Borges' style eliminates all adornments, all sermonizing, every form of poetic filler. His spare style contrasts with his erudition and immense vocabulary to create an eerie tension. In fact, the very first thing you notice in his stories is this immense tension in every word.
No other contemporary writer invites, inspires, perhaps even demands, such analysis and interpretation as does Borges. He employs language as an aesthetic end in itself and is preoccupied with the techniques of literary style. He personally works with his English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, to sculpt, control, and hone the English version as finely as he does the Spanish.
Although the traditions of Asian literatures have gradually been eroded or overcome by Western styles and subject matter, here in Argentina lives a 90 -year-old poet and storyteller who has resurrected, without being aware of what he is doing, an ancient Eastern craft -- the aesthetician of language.