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Borges, Cartographer of Literature

In a 1963 interview in Montevideo, Jorge Luis Borges confessed: «I’m rotten of literature, I wouldn’t be able to give an account of the sun. I’m not used to think about the sun1, but rather about the images, texts and chronicles about the sun.» The sun was a concrete entity was not of his interest, only as a mean of poetical expression. A disciple of Berkeley, Borges beautifully stresses the immateriality of our representations:   

La lluvia es una cosa Que sin duda sucede en el pasado

that, doubtlessly, happens in the past>that, doubtlessly, happens in the past>

Borges assumes literature as the supreme creation of humankind, far more elaborated and mysterious than the immediate universe. Hegel categorized the manifestations of thought, placing philosophy at the zenith, over art and religion. His reasons, we suppose, were mainly personal. Borges would alter this conception, writing in one of his pages than philosophy is but the most ambitious enterprise of literature.

The world, as a physical entity was of his interest only as long as it corresponded to a literary tradition. James Irbi wrote in 1960 about his first meeting with Borges in the US: «He is very enthusiastic about San Francisco, a city that he only knew by the readings of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Norris, Stevenson. 'San Francisco stands out in a remarkable way!' he says. In general, the US raises his admiration.

He cannot wait to see the east: New York, New England… ‘For everything came from there, didn’t it?’ This is the first time than Borges leaves Río de la Plata since 1924. He is like discovering the world for the first time2.» Borges, in fact, would no only discover, but also seduce the US, praising the verses of Robert Frost and declaiming  passages previously memorized of Boewulf.

His poems, his essays, his reiterative conferences and interviews are but an strenuous effort to encompass, or –I would say, to point out the writings that preceded his work. But contrary to what an erudite or a university professor would have done, Borges doesnot limit his work to the description of his readings.

Instead, he recreates them, reinvent them or, to use his own word, rewrite them. The places that he visits and the writers that he rereads are but coordinates of a vast and imperfect topography, badly recalled or forgotten.

Borges’ work is an effort to remember it, to improve it or to accomplish it.

Albeit the literary and stylistic value of his work, Borges guide us trhough a maze of quotes, verses and opoinions, as extense as the maps of the Empire pointed out by his character Suárez Miranda in his book Viajes de Varones Ilustres : «…In that Empire, the art of Cartography achieved such Perfection that the map a single Province used to take over a complete Province. As time went on, those Disproportionate Maps were unsatisfactory, and the Schools of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire that was of the dimensions of the Empire, and coincided punctually with it3

A dazzled Portuguese journalist wrote upon the publication of the complete works of Borges in Lisbon, that only an erudite like Borges was able to quote twenty-six authors per page.

Borges’ literary allusions are continuous, and necessarily evanescent.  Borges, for instance, dedicates three lines to Pilipp Mainländer, a forgotten philosopher who committed suicide after the publication of his Philosophy of Freedom. E. Cioran, an apologist of Mainländer’s work, accuses Borges of eclecticism and tactlessness on that account: «Everything is valid for him as long as he be the center of everything4

One of the characters of Ernesto Sábato’s novel Abbadon, the exterminator, tells us that Nobokov was first fascinated by Borges, until he came to the conclusion that his works were but the façade of an empty house. The most fascinating or revolting trait in Borges is, in fact, his erudition. It is indeed puzzling in his first poems, in which the author struggles to communicate us his emotions as a reader. Were we ignorant of the virtues of his favourite poets we would deplore verses such as:

Hugo me dio una hoz que era de oro

Critics associated Borges’ work to a labyrinth, a direct reference to his short stories, where the maze plays an ultimate role, but also to his craft. Borges announces an idea, just to replace it by another and so on.

When Borges writes about Moll Flanders he assures us that that is the first novel that makes use of the circumstantial traits. Borges propounds his hypothesis, but he does not develop it.

This tantalizing technique is identical when he merges the divergent philosophies of Heidegger and Jarspers in order to refute them in five lines: «The philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers makes of each of us the interesting speaker of a secrete and continuous dialogue with the nothingness or the divinity.

These disciplines, which can be admirable in their form, promote the illusion of the I that the Veda rejects as a capital error. They play with our anguish and despair, but in reality they flatter our vanity.

They are, in that sense, inmoral5.» Borges’ flexibility is evident in several essays, where he quotes Heráclito besides Lulio and a popular song. Nevertheless, Borges does not announce the truth. In another interview, he claimed to have read the complete works of Schopenhahuer, a philosopher that wrote with admiration and scorn: «Where the are contradictions and lies, there is thought6. » Borges does not attempt to persuade us; he wants to provoke us, to oblige us to consult his references.

Only then we will be able to corroborate them, to refute them or to discover their inexistence. Borges himself became aware of the chaotic impression of his inventiveness some years before his death: «I believe that they have abused of the sentence “caothic enumeration”, invented, I believe, by a German critic… I think that the making of many chaotic enumerations would be irresponsible; the reader would not be able to follow them… Obviously the enumeration has to be apparently chaotic, but the fact is that some secrete affinities remain7

Borges’ work invites us to a constant reading or rereading. The storylines of his short stories are admirable indeed. Would we remove their literary references from them, we will see them as mere pastime: detective, horror or science-fiction short stories. His story lines would also appear to be reiterative. It would be enough to mention that the plots of Sur, Las Ruinas Circulares, Los Teólogos y Abenjacán el Bojarí muerto en su laberinto —amongst many other less-known short stories and poems, are alike. They recount the story of a character that discovers that his life was not his own; that his fate was someone other’s fate:

«…comprendió que el tesoro no era lo esencial para él . Lo esencial era que Abenjacán pereciera. Simuló ser Abenjacán, mató a Abenjacán y finalmente fué Abenjacán8

[«…He understood that the treasure was not essential to him . What was essential was the death of Abenjacán. He pretended to be Abenjacán, he killed Abenjacán and finally he was Abenjacán.»[

«Aureliano supo que para la insondable divinidad, él y Juan de Panonia … formaban una sola persona9

<«aureliano learnt that for the unfathomable divinity, he and juan de panonia … were members of the same person.»>

Borges’s main virtue is, I believe, the academic metaphor, which blends the real and the literary world. When he writes «aquel rey de Tebas que vió dos soles10»«That King of Thebes that saw two suns», we think on Oedipus, the most famous of the Theban Kings.

We conjecture that the pair of suns are a reference to the man who took his eyes from his sockets or to the man who threw himself into a crater as scorching as the sun.

His ambiguity is, in any event, is intentional. Borges emulates the pages he has read and invites us to emulate him in a similar way. 

Gérard Genette confessed that to write about Borges is a laborious and annoying task, for Borges’ work incites parodies, a mere imitation of his own discourse. 

But to talk about a Borgesian discourse would be a contradiction of terms. The young Borges may have also believed that his essays were mere scholarship.

In 1959 he still believed «that his little book about Ancient Germanic Literatures was nothing more than the work of an ill-informed dilettante, and that just now he starts to have some clear knowledge on the subject11.» 

Time persuaded him that the errors of his classicist style were far more interesting than his certainties.  

His pages remain as a topography of literature, without precedent in a universal history literature. It is not a referential work, as any encyclopaedia can be.

It would be unfair, likewise, to stress his didactic dimension, for Borges lived with passion each of the pages that was able to write or read, and our educations remains associated with the rigor of the academy.  

In an essay of Otras Inquisiciones, Borges introduces Quevedo as «el literato de los literatos» <«the man of letters of the men of letters».>  Such appreciation –if ever existed, would be better applied to the literary genius of Borges. His pages point out forsaken encyclopaedias, languages and manuscripts.

His erudition might confuse us as readers, but in such a case our confusion would be the fruit of our naivety or ignorance, of our impossibility to follow Borges on his readings or inventions. A cartography eminently aesthetic, inhabited by imaginary writers or inconceivable pamphlets.

It would be vane, in the same vein, to associate Borges to the Argentinean society of his age. His time and his space used to dismay him.  «I believe that reading Berkeley, Shaw or Emerson is an experience as real as seeing London13,» used to say. 

But that London was extemporal. In a TV program recorded in 1980 in New York, Borges said:  «I think on New York according to the words of Walt Whitman, of O. Henry, and, in the same way, as sheer beauty. A  city of skyscrapers that spring out as fountains. It’s a very poetic city14.» 

His praise, though graciously done, was coldly received by his interviewer.

Thirty years back Borges had already made fun of the Argentinean character, always eager to please foreigners: «We were quite surprised to see in the first edition of a journal published in Buenos Aires a photography of the Iguazú Falls, another of the Tierra del Fuego, another of the Andes and another of the Buenos Aires province.

I remember that it was a ‘view of the pampas’…  in plural! A true handbook of geography. Victoria did it to show our Argentina to her European friends, but it was a little bit ridiculous to see it in Buenos Aires15

The informative style of the Buenos Aires newspapers used to dismay him. He preferred instead the orthodox prose and the la pompous and archaic judgements of Gibbon and Herodotus.

The countries where he went to, in other words, were less real than the texts he had preserved in his memory about them: «I hope to travel to China and India. I have been already there, while reading Kipling and the Tao Te Ching… My memory is shaped by books mainly.

In fact, I can hardly remember my own life. I cannot recall dates. I know that I have travel to 17 or 18 countries, but I cannot tell you the sequence of my trips… Everything is a mass of divisions and images… I always quote books, once and again. I remember that Emerson, one of my heroes, used to prevent us against cites.

He said: 'Let’s be careful. Life can become a long cite'16.» He was scarcely concern about the economy of the peoples and nations of the 20th century.

He stated that he used to write for himself, or for his most intimate erudite friends. He prescribed that a lasting literary work should lack political and comical elements, for the laws, as the sense of humour, change from one generation to another.

Blind and weary of living, he used to postulate and refute solipsism, an illusion that hunted him since the writing of Las Ruinas Circulares. Umberto Eco owes to La Biblioteca de Babel the writing of Il Nome della Rosa.

His fascination for Borges’ work contrasts with the sinister personality of his character Jorge Burgos, a blind librarian with a prodigious memory that bitterly hated the good humour of his contemporaries. In Montevideo, again, when asked what was his opinion about hunger, Borges replied: «I never had a relationship with hunger, exception made of the first year of the war.

Thus, I don’t have a great knowledge of it17.» An attitude that exacerbated many Latin-American intellectuals of his generation and that was going eventually to deter the Swedish Academy from granting him the Nobel Prize of Literature.

His apology of the work of Kipling is an apology of himself: «It’s is quite unfair to judge a writer by his ideas18

His tortuous life, however, explains the vitality of his work. 

Cioran saw Borges as a by-product of the Latin-American emptiness, of the cultural asphyxia of Argentina. Borges had already anticipated such judgement, quoting once and again Paul Groussac, who wrote that to be famous in South America it to be famous nowhere.

He used to compare the South American writer to the Jewish intellectual, for their roots take in a culture as imprecise as the universe.  Le’t remember that his master and alter-ego was Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, a Spnaish Jew who spoke fourteen languages, and who translated to Spanish The Arabian Nights, as well as the divergent works of Dostoyevsky and Goethe.

His verses to Alfonso Reyes are, as each of his poems, a meditation about his own experience:

Supo bien aquel arte que ninguno Supo del todo, ni Simbad ni Ulises, Que es pasar de un país a otros países Y estar íntegramente en cada uno

learnt so well, not simbad nor ulises, which is to move from one country to other countries being entirely in each of them>learnt so well, not simbad nor ulises, which is to move from one country to other countries being entirely in each of them>

His literary cartography started with Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). His neighbourhood, Palermo, is meticulously described in Evaristo Carriego (1930). 

This book evinces his aesthetic intention: Borges wants to engage us in Carriego’s work. Persuaded by Plinio, that there is not a bad book without a good page, Borges struggles to point out the virtues of a forgotten author and an awful poetry.

Years later Borges affirmed that the verses of  Evaristo Carriego were so unfortunate that he ended up losing interest in praising them. From then on, he would praise passages of writers more undeservedly forgotten.  

In  Inquisiciones (1925), Borges had already manifested his lack of interest in famed authors, a position that he was going to sustain all his life, in remote countries and diverse languages: «I do not believe in schools, nor in chronologies. I never date my writings. I think that poetry should be anonymous… We are always rewriting what the ancient writers wrote: an indisputable proof19

Cioran regarded Borges’ curiosity as vicious and monstrous. Borges preferred, indeed, worn-out books and obsolete encyclopaedias.  

In another interview he stated that he was only interested on writing about forgotten places.  Accordingly, he talekd about Lugones and Quevedo to the North-Americans, and about Emerson and Jonathan Edwards to the Argentineans: «For in my country writing about Emerson and Jonathan Edwards is like writing about a forgotten corner20

He often challenge firmly established coordinates.

He ranked the work of Henry James over Kafka’s; he regarded Proust and Virginia Woolf as «authors for women»; he said the the Ulises of Joyce was a work «of laborious and useless symmetries»; he tarnished  Goethe’s name by affirming that it was delicate and less interesting than Joyce’s work21; he called García Lorca a charlatan «who had the stoke of luck of being executed22»; he discredited, finally, the aesthetics judgements of Ortega y Gasset: «he didn’t learn English, which means that he was unable to read the best novels in the world23

In face of the intellectual accomplishments of Borges, our only solution appears to be further readings.

He was proud of having lived amongst books all his life. His popularity at the universities is mainly due, I believe, to his enthusiasm for learning.

One of my first discoveries of his work was a commentary of an essay about Swift: «A modest proposal», an irony that, coincidently, I had already read. In it Swift expounded a solution to the hunger of the United Kingdom, cooking Irish children.

I understood Swift’s writing as a political sarcasm, or, on a more contemporary vein, as a chronicle of black humour. Borges, on the contrary, presented it as a nightmare. It would not be daring to affirm, following a Borguesian plot, that Pierre Menard, a scribe, and Funes, a erudite, were the characters that created Jorge Luis Borges and incarnated him.

Borges’ fate, quite contrary to that of so many of his contemporary writers, was not that of innovating literature, but that of recovering it. His blindness prevented him, according to his own words, from studying contemporary writers. He also confessed certain weariness: «because I think on Menard, coming after a long literary period to the conclusion that he does not want to overwhelm the world with more books24

He longed to be known as an English writer from the 19th-century, collegue of De Quincey, Kipling, Chesterton, Stevenson and Bernard Shaw.

It is difficult to reread Borges without becoming infected of his passion or his vice for reading. His prologues, that veneration of so many nations and languages, advocate the study of ancient and remote literatures.

Borges was a master, and remains as such. His pages are, one way or another, a creative compilation without precedent, a map that inspires many other writers from dissimilar nations—so that literature will never endure the indolence of the inhabitants of the Empire: «Less Addicted to the study of Cartography, the Incoming Generations understood that such an extensive Map was Useless, and not without Impiety  they delivered it to the inclemency of the Sun and the Winter. 

The torn-apart ruins of the Map still stand over the West Deserts, populated by Animals and Beggars. In the entire country there is no other relic of the Geographical Arts25.» 


1. Carlos Peralta, “La electricidad de las palabras,” in James E. Irby. Encuentro con Borges (Buenos Aires: Galerna, 1968) p. 107

2. Ibid., p. 9

3. Jorge Luis Borges, “Del rigor de la ciencia,” in El Hacedor (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960) p. 103

4. Cfr. E. Cioran, Oeuvres (Manchecourt: Gallimard) 1995. p. 1607

5. Jorge Luis Borges, “Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw,” in Otras Inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960) p. 221

6. Arthur Schopenhahuer, Sämtliche Werke (Stuttgart: Suhrkamp. 1986) Volume V, p. 20

7. Stelio Cro, Jorge Luis Borges, Poeta, Saggista e Narratore (Milán: Murcia, 1971) p. 258-259

8. Jorge Luis Borges, 'Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto,' in El Aleph (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957) p. 134

9. Jorge Luis Borges, 'Los Teólogos,' in El Aleph (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957) p. 45

10. Ibíd., p. 37

11. James E Irby, Op. Cit., p. 12

12. Jorge Luis Borges, 'Quevedo,' in Otras Inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957) p. 56

13. Richard Burgin, Conversaciones con Jorge Luis Borges (Madrid: Tauros, 1968) p. 43

14. Willis Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982) p. 34. Temporally, I quote my own translation from my 2000 Spanish translation from the original text at the University of Manchester.

15. Napoleón Murat. 'Conversación con Napoleón Murat,' in James E Irby. Op. Cit., p. 72-73

16. Willis Barnstone, Op. Cit., p. 6-7

17. Carlos Peralta, Op. Cit., p. 109

18. James E Irby, Op. Cit., p. 47

19. Willis Barnstone, Op. Cit., p. 9

20. Richard Burgin, Op. Cit., p. 112-114

21. Cfr. Michel Berveiller, Le cosmopolitisme de Jorge Luis Borges (París: Chastrusse, 1973)

22. Richard Burgin, Op. Cit., p. 45

23. Willis Barnstone, Op. Cit., p. 160

24. Richard Burgin. Op. Cit. p. 45

25. Jorge Luis Borges, “Del rigor de la ciencia,” Op. Cit.

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