segunda-feira, 27 de maio de 2013

The Baroque Conspiracy: Jorge-Luis Borges by Gregg Lambert

In the preface to the first edition of The Universal History of Iniquity (1935), Borges wrote: ‘I often think that good readers are rare kinds of birds, more tenebril and singular than good authors. To read is, for the moment, an act posterior to the one of the writer - the reader comes after the writing, and is therefore more superior, and much more modest and evolved for that reason.’ In this passage, Borges presents writing in the act of reading - as the effect of a résumé - as the ‘musical postulation of reality’.

This is a ‘technique’ that occurs in two distinct stages: first, to create a resume of the important facts or a summary récit; second, to imagine a reality that is much more complex than that previously accounted for, and therefore to interrogate the effects of its absence from the given text. This technique also has a relation to the determination that ‘knowledge’ undergoes in its metamorphosis into literature. Thus, there is first a pastiche of the ‘library’ (of European knowledge) in its transformation into a text (into the various apocryphal texts that Borges constructs by citing them); and this transformation entails a parody of the discursive forms of knowledge and their submission to a status of ‘minor literature’. (164)

The procedures of archivization and critique that an act of reading entails, therefore, constitute the architecture of Borges’ work; the ‘library’ becomes, following the second postulate, a labyrinth. As a result of this transformation, two readers are opposed in a direct confrontation: God, the author, who sees everything at once through a giant telescope and gathers all perception into a central eye, and the reader in the labyrinth who follows a trail that may eventually lead through the labyrinth, but must also necessarily include in his or her trajectory points of impasse, detours, traps, blind alleys, wrong turns and dead ends. This is an important consideration, since ‘knowledge’

(i.e. both the form of its presupposition and the material organization or architecture of the ‘library’ which classifies, separates into distinct locations, and creates a taxonomy of memory traces which have a pure and non-individual repetition to insure that they can always be found by everyone) now must include the points of confusion, misunderstanding and the formal ‘blindness’ that are the result of what the God-reader misses and therefore constitute his ‘non-knowledge’.

The first figure of the reader in Borges fiction appears in the disguise of the detective whose criminal scene is always in the heart of the library itself (‘Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘Death and the Compass’). This also corresponds to the second postulate in that the ‘referent’ is detected only by the ‘effects of its absence from the library’ (for example, in the same way that the word ‘time’ is absent from the garden of forking paths). But what leads the perception of an ‘effect’ to its place in the real, like a trail through the labyrinth, is precisely the signification which expresses its relation as ‘absent’, ‘unknown’, ‘secret.’ It is not essentially unfamiliar but rather ‘occulted’ and ‘kept secret’ by some other who appears as the double of die author (the God-reader).

Therefore, Borges’ declaration of the rarity and superiority of the ‘good reader’ over the author is an expression of power (the possibility of discernment or the decipherment of the position that comes onto the scene of knowledge second as the more superior). This is not without its political designation; the reader begins his detection of the crime scene in the heart of the library and ends by inscribing the plot onto the streets of Buenos Aires.

If philosophy, since Hegel, has developed its concepts in an ‘atmo­sphere’ of crime, it is only due to the inability to determine the identity of a being that tends to withdraw, to displace itself infinitely within itself, or to disguise itself perpetually in every series it inaugurates. Even the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas first develops the significance of the concept of the ‘trace’ by sifting through the residues of a crime scene, only to point out that a crime, in fact, does not disturb the essential order of Being, for even a murder produces something: a corpse, an ‘object’ of the investigation, a livelihood for the police. Rather, a crime scene always bears a strange double-impression, a gesture of leaving traces in the very act wiping them away. The criminal arrives wearing a mask that he must leave behind (even as ‘he’, which is only masks an indeterminate gender), although this does not mean that he first arrives clodied and leaves naked, ‘fleeing into the night’ like die youth in the garden. He simply exchanges masks as the signs of his sudden departure, the furniture or objects he bumped into and knocked over in his hasty retreat become the contours of a new mask he wears. In order to determine the ‘identity of the individual behind the mask’, the law ends up assigning the mask that he left behind as his own property, not as his sole creation, but rather as his assigned role in an eternal game of hide and seek.

Quixote by Oleg Dozortsev

I return once more to the preface of the The History of Iniquity to clarify Borges’ use of the baroque to name a technique of his fiction, the technique of parody.

I would define the baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature. In vain did Andrew Lang attempt, in the eighteen-eighties, to imitate Pope’s Odyssey, it was already a parody, and so defeated the parodist’s attempt to exaggerate its tautness. ‘Baroco’ was a term used for one of the modes of syllogistic reasoning; the eighteenth century applied it to certain abuses in seventeenth-century architecture and painting. I would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources. The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labour is humorous. This humour is unintentional in the works of Baitasar Gracian, but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne. (165)

On the basis of this passage, we might derive a series of propositions, in a purely artificial manner, to characterize Borges’ use of the term baroque.

• The baroque is a style that exhausts its own possibilities, or at least tries to.

• It can be identified as a form of parody.

• It represents the final stage of all art, a stage of exhaustion or pure expenditure (although, one might also say pure consumption, in the sense that it uses or exhausts all its resources).

• Finally, the baroque is purely intellectual, which is to say humorous.

Both the first and the third of the above propositions can be examined together. What does Borges intend by defining the nature of baroque style by the terms of exhaustion, but also as the last stage of all art-work? In one sense, what Borges may be referring to is the exaggerated and extreme sense of ‘academicism’ that often spells the end of any vital movement of artistic process. Exhaustion is die trait of an academic style that has spent all of its possibilities and begins to turn into a purely formal reiteration of past conventions. Here, one might notice that the extremes of both Classicism and Romanticism share a common fate - a purely rhetorical and intellectual vapidity that is the hallmark of academic periods. So why is Borges so interested in this moment - the end of the Romantic conception of the art­work, die return of classical and academic styles which usually signal a loss of energy, and an exhaustion of knowledge to the point where it becomes ‘merely literature’ or rhetoric?

Earlier on we saw diat Eugenio d’Ors defined the one constant of the ‘baroque eon’ by the opposition ‘classical v. baroque’. Of course, in this schernatization, the baroque completely absorbs the Romantic and d’Ors relays all its energy and enthusiasm according to this new classification. In Borges, on the other hand, the baroque has become completely classical, to an almost hyperbolic degree, and its dominant traits are those oudined above: exhaustion, parody, consumption and intellectual humour. In each of these traits one can find a fundamental character of repetition that will become the hallmark of Borges’ literary process. As Lisa Block de Behar has observed:

Repetition is a phenomenon that lacks novelty, as is known; in any case - and this has also been said - novelty is rooted only in the return, which suggests that the recognition of die quotation is especially appropriate. [...] If, for Borges, quotations reveal that authors are readers who re-write what has been written, those turnings are what found and shape his poetics. (196)

Perhaps the best exemplar of this process is the figure of Pierre Menard, whose affirmation can be read in the context of the following sentence: ‘He dedicated his scruples and his sleepless nights to repeating an already extant book in an alien tongue.’ (167) The principle that governs Menard’s process, which Borges comments on in detail, is neither translation nor copying, but rather corresponds to the creation of what Deleuze calls a ‘simulacrum’. What differentiates the simulacrum from the simple copy or the translation is a principle that returns to the Leibnizian axiom that only what differs can begin to have a resemblance. The ‘difference’ one finds in the tale of Menard is the following: ‘To compose the Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps unavoidable; at the beginning of the twentieth, it is almost impossible.’ However, the difference that governs and determines the undertaking for Menard is defined as ‘impossible’. But, ‘impossible’ in what sense?

The answer to this question is given earlier in the sentence which describes the composition of the Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century as a natural act, perhaps even one that was ‘necessary' and unavoidable’. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, we must determine this act to be something unreasonable, that is, completely avoidable. In other words, Menard’s gesture is an act that runs against the grain of his time - it is impossible a priori. On the other hand, according to Borges, Cervantes’ ‘genius’ was something thoroughly inscribed in the possibility of his time, almost to the extent drat this negates Cervantes’ singular importance as the author of the Quixote, since if he didn’t write it then someone else certainly would have, by necessity. Thus, we can take die comparison of die two passages that Borges gives us to substantiate his claim of their fundamental difference, passages that on first inspection are exactly identical:

[...] truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depositor)' of deeds, witness of
the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and future’s counsellor.


[...] truth, whose mother is history', rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of
the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and future’s counsellor.

Upon first glance, both versions appear identical; however, Menard’s version highlights the importance of history as the mother of truth. In other words, in Menard’s version history is not identified with what happened, but rather what we judge to have happened. As a result of this change of emphasis, the difference between Menard’s passage and that of Cervantes is profound; they don’t even mean the same thing! In other w'ords, between these two statements, something has changed and this change of ‘origin’ is historical, ‘the mother of truth’. What is different for us is that, today, there can be no Quixote without Menard; this could be said to be Borges’ relation to the ‘tradition of all of Western literature’, w’hich is established by the principle of repetition. No Quixote without Menard!! That is, only what differs can begin to have resemblance, but this ‘resemblance’ will only appear from the second instance that repeats die first. Quixote will resemble Menard, more than Menard will resemble Quixote; or ‘Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is infinitely richer’. (169)

In the story ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’, the main character is a scholar who happens upon an amazing discovery, the existence of the young Shakespeare’s personal memory in the personal memory of another critic, one Daniel Thorpe. ‘What I possess,’ Thorpe explains,

are still two memories - my own personal memory and the memory of Shakespeare which 1 partially am. Or rather, the two memories possess me. There is a place where they merge, somehow. There is a woman’s face ... I am not sure what century it belongs to. (170)

later on, the narrator explains:

De Quincy says that our brain is a palimpsest. Even' new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows - but all-powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression, no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus. To judge by the will he left, there had not been a single volume in Shakespeare’s house, not even the Bible, and yet everyone is familiar with die books he so often repaired to: Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Holinshed’s Chronicle, Florio’s Montaigne, North’s Plutarch. I possessed, at least potentially, the memory that had been Shakespeare’s; the reading (which is to say the re-reading) of those old volumes would, then, be die stimulus I sought. (171)

Soon, however, the narrator learns that the magical gift he is seeking will also lead him to his own inimical season in hell. It is already too much of a burden to bear one memory, but to bear die burden of two is an unimaginable torment. ‘The wish of things, Spinoza says, is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be a stone, the tiger a tiger - and I want to be Herman Sorgel again.’ (172) In the end, not able to suffer the ambiguity any longer, he passes the gift (the poison) along to a child he had randomly dialled up on die telephone. Thus, the story ends with this coda:

P.S. (1924) - I am now a man among men. In my waking hours I am Professor Emeritus Hermann Sorgel; I putter around the card catalogue and compose erudite trivialities, but at dawn I sometimes know that the person dreaming is die other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic. (173)

Both the story of Menard and that of Herman Sorgel illustrate a certain mysterium tremendium that has become the hallmark of much of Borges’ fiction. Yet, the anxiety - over personal identity, experience, personality - in each case is haunted by die character of repetition that comes from living their whole lives in the Library. In particular, each character is haunted by an idea of originality, often a figure of genius, that outstrips the protagonist or narrator and leaves his own identity blank and barren, a copy of a copy.

The character of Pierre Menard seems the lightest of these, since in copying the genius of Cervantes, he comes upon a discovery: rather than yoking himself to the impossible idea of originality, which may not exist in the manner it is often imagined, he discovers that by copying the original exacdy and precisely in every detail, he is capable of introducing a maximum degree of difference between the text of Cervantes and his own. Less triumphant characters, however, are more frequent in Borges’ fictions. In ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’, the idea of Shakespeare’s genius is a poison that is poured into Herman Sorgel’s ear, and it is interesting to remark that even in his attempt to rid himself of the phantom of Shakespeare’s unique experience by pouring it, in turn, into the ear of a child, the memory of Shakespeare he possessed leaves an indelible trace (like original sin) that causes him to doubt his own authenticity, whether his dreams belong to him or to ‘the other man’.

Sometimes the character of genius, of a kind of originality that causes everything familiar and known to enter into a process of variation and to begin anew, is analogous to the representation of ‘Absolute knowledge’ in Borges’ work. In another story, the character who lives in the Library exclaims:

In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shell of the universe. [Borges adds the following axiom: ‘it simple suffices for such a book to be possible for it to exist’.] I pray to the unknown god that a man - just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! - may have examined and read it. If honour and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for the others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for just one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified.

In this passage from ‘The Library of Babel’, we can detect the cry of a man of faith, even though his place is in hell. He is haunted by the possibility that there is one creature - who may have existed thousands of years ago, or who may not yet exist (although this doesn’t matter, since the library contains all possible times and it is sufficient to posit his existence for all these times, regardless of past or future with regard to the present) - who has read the book and for whom the universe is completely and perfectly known.

All of these examples seem to illustrate an anxiety that is specifically modem, discussed earlier in relation to Foucault and the Baroque, which is the specific anxiety over resemblance. Of course, the idea of resemblance as a baroque problem is clearly announced early on in Calderón’s La vida es suena (Life Is a Dream), where human drama is likened to a play, or later in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where the problem of resemblance, or the fictional nature of reality, is immortalized in the famous line, ‘All the world’s a stage and men and women merely players.’ What is specifically modem, however, about Borges’ adaptation (or repetition, if you wish) of this baroque theme, as well as his use of the baroque emblem or device (mise- en-âbime, or the ‘play within the play’) is that it is stripped of its classical topic of theatricality and inscribed into that most modem and political of narratives: the conspiratorial plot, or the detective genre.

In this sense, the idea of resemblance itself takes on the character of a trap, a decoy or a stratagem invented by an ‘Other’ to conceal the traces of a great crime. The master detective, for example, the figure of Dupin that Borges adapts from the detective stories of Poe, is often ambushed by a fiction created to lead him directly to the place of his death. In ‘Death and the Compass’, the criminal genius of Scharlach devises a cryptic sentence in the series of three murders he performs in order to lead the hapless detective Lonnrott straight to his death, in fact, to the exact spot where the bullet from Scharlach’s gun will enter Lonnrott’s brain.

How’ do we account for the form of conspiracy that Borges employs to renovate the classical baroque problem of resemblance? Of course, conspiracies abound in Borges’ fictions, and there are many different kinds: the conspiracy of the narrator in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, to commit a murder in order to secretly communicate the name of a town that is to be bombed by the Germans during the war; the conspiracy of Scharlach to lead the solitary Lonnrott to his death at Triste-le-Roy; the conspiracy that surrounded the deadi of the Irish revolutionary Fergus Kirkpatrick in a Dublin theatre in 1824, which is later unearthed by his great-grandson in ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’; finally, the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Julius Caesar at the hands of his closest friend, a conspiracy that is frequently referenced by Borges’ various narrators.theatrum mundi, although the figure of the playwright is replaced by the author of a vast conspiracy in which everyone plays an unwitting role. This is most clearly illustrated in a passage from ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ which concerns the conspiracy surrounding the murder of the Irish rebel Kirkpatrick: ‘Kirkpatrick was murdered in a theater, yet die entire city played the role of a theater, too, and the actors were legion, and the play that was crowned by Kirkpatrick’s deadi took place over many days and many nights.’ (175)

Of course, this last conspiracy in some ways functions as the archetype of all the others. In a short fragment entided ‘The Plot’, Borges ponders whether all plots are merely variations upon the same one, as he narrates the story of a gaucho in the streets of Buenos Aires who falls at the hand of his godson. The fragment ends with the statement: ‘He dies, but he does not know that he has died so a scene can be played again.’ (174) Here, we see an adaptation of the earlier baroque metaphor of

The key to the above mystery is Borges’ frequent use of the term ‘plot’ in order to designate both its conspiratorial and literary senses. History is narrated by Borges’ scholarly detectives as a series of plots that always lead to the murder of a God or a hero; likewise, literature can be understood as possibly the limidess number of versions of the same basic plot As Borges writes, ‘The idea that history might have copied history seems mind- boggling enough; that history should have copied literature is inconceivable .. .’ (176) In fact, ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ is itself an ingenious variation on this theme that history copies literature, as the scholar detective discovers that the hero Kirkpatrick himself was the traitor to the revolution and his execution was staged in order to turn the traitor’s execution into an instrument of political emancipation.

And so it was that Nolan (the playwright) conceived a stage plan. [.. .1 He had no time to invent the circumstances of multiple executions from scratch, and so he plagiarized the scene from another playwright, the English enemy Will Shakespeare, reprising scenes from Macbeth and Julius Caesar. The public yet secret performance occurred over several days. The condemned man entered Dublin, argued, worked, prayed, reprehended, spoke the words of pathos - and each of those acts destined to shine forth in glory had been choreographed by Nolan. Hundreds of actors collaborated with the protagonist; the role of some was complex, the role of others a matter of moments on the stage. The things they did and said endure in Ireland’s history books and in its impassioned memory.

In Borges’ account, history is motivated by a single murder that has unfolded in coundess different versions. The conspiracy that resulted in the betrayal and murder of Caesar functions as the original plot, but there are endless variations, including the murder of Christ (in the vast plot arranged by his Father), Kirkpatrick (who, like Christ, turns out to be a willing victim), and even Abraham Lincoln (whose assassination in a theatre is already prefigured by Nolan’s version thirty years beforehand, and by the fact that Booth was an actor playing a role that had already been written for so many others before him). History unfolds, murder by murder, but in the centre of these recorded events is the lonely figure of the reader and scholar, an avatar of Borges himself, who connects these murders together into a vast and overarching design.

In Borges’ baroque design, however, the literary or contrived (and crafted) series of events is set into historical time, although this does not result in History becoming itself fantastic, merely more baroque (that is, more complex, part contrived and the other part made up of a series of pure accidents). It is a truism that the motives for any conspiratorial plot never equal the outcome. There are always errors, unforeseen circum­stances, mishaps, and this is the stuff of Borges’ fiction. Above all, it is important to note that the solution to the mysteries that Borges’ fiction sets out to resolve always obeys one primary rule that Borges himself discovers in the works of Chesterton (‘the inventor of elegant mysteries’), the rule that each solution proposed must never take the form of the fantastic, but must always be comprised of plain historical events and characters. This makes Borges perhaps the most rigorous of materialists, in one sense, since the actors who are discovered at the centre of any secret conspiracy or plot are always human and are driven by common motives (for power and for revenge especially). In fact it usually turns out that the reason that these conspiracies have remained so mysterious for centuries afterwards is that the identities of their true inventors are so little known, and this is partly Borges’ love for the obscurity of the proper names that populate his works. Like the figures of the police in much of Poe’s detective fiction, who often play the roles of idiots and dupes, the reason that mystery has shrouded these figures is that historians and ideologists were always looking in the wrong place, or were deceived by the myth that History was created from the motivations of great men, when, in fact, the opposite is true. In Borges’ work, therefore, history and literature converge in the great European library, where a murder unfolds, even though the plot that runs through the library is only visible from the vantage point of a lonely reader in Buenos Aires named Borges, for whom the true nature of the crime at the centre of the Library is revealed. Perhaps this makes Borges the greatest diviner of conspiracy, even though, as a writer of mere fictions, he would receive no fame for this and his identity would remain concealed and little-known, until perhaps, another reader discovers this mystery as well. In a certain sense, this is already foreshadowed by the ending of ‘The Theme of the Hero and the Traitor’:

In Nolan’s play, the passages taken from Shakespeare are the least dramatic ones; Ryan suspected that the author interpolated them so that someone, in the future, would be able to stumble upon the truth. Ryan realized that, he too, was part of Nolan’s plot. ... After long and stubborn deliberation, he decided to silence the discovery. He published a book dedicated to the hero’s glory; that too, perhaps, had been foreseen. (178)


164. I employ this concept from the work of Deleuze and Guattari. See Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

165. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 4.

166. Lisa Block de Behar, The Passion of an Endless Quotation, trans. William Egginton (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003), pp. 2-3.

167. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 44.

168. Borges, Labyrinths, p. 43.

169. Borges, Labyrinths, p. 42. Appropriately, the above passage is cited from my earlier commentary on Borges, ‘The Baroque Detective’, in The Non- Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 79.

170. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 510.

171. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 512.

172. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 514.

173. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 515.

174. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 307.

175. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 145.

176. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 144.

177. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 145.

178. Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 146.

In: The Return of the Baroque in the Modern Culture. London, 2004, pp.111-119.

Um comentário:

  1. Muito bom. Bela abordagem sobre os rizomas potencialmente infinitos de Borges, em grande estilo. Saudações da Biblioteca, meu caro Galisi. Forte abraço.