Something of Everything


The last story in The Book of Sand, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges, is itself called "The Book of Sand". It is a story about the discovery and disposal of a book whose pages never remain the same from one reading to the next. The book is in effect infinite, it contains every book. It is a Total Library; which is also the title of a new, luxurious selection of Borges' non-fiction.

Titles like these are often glib and pretentious. (Not in the US however, where the book appeared as "Selected Non-fictions"). They allude to the promise of a secret we might allude to knowing first by reading, then by displaying on our shelves, but whose content actually provides us with the comfortable retreats of popular storytelling: beginning, middle and end.

Borges' stories follow that comforting course yet "The Book of Sand" referred to in the story of the same name could also be the book we are reading - the very book disposed of in an obscure library's musty shelves by the story's desperate narrator. The collection's title is not arbitrary. If you are the kind of reader who wants the end of a story to be the end of the matter this would not be an issue. You would put the book down and get on with your admirable life. But if you are not, then its resonance might provide you with (almost) infinite curiosity; albeit a concerned curiosity. The narrator of "The Book of Sand" shares such concern. He tells of his torments in owning the infinite book. He feared it might be stolen, so he guarded it jealously. Then he worried it might not be infinite, so he studied it at length: "A prisoner of the book" he says after the event "I almost never went out anymore". Soon he came to believe the book was monstrous: "a nightmarish object, an obscene thing that affronted and tainted reality itself." Looking back, he asks "what good did it do me to think that I, who looked upon the volume with my eyes, who held it in my hands, was any less monstrous?"

Right away one is tempted to see a comparison here with our own beloved World Wide Web: infinite and still expanding; but a total library of what: uncensored possibility or endlessly proliferating non-things to keep us away from reality? "The Book of Sand" indicates its irresistibility and leaves a quiet warning.

Born too early to witness the internet ('experience the internet' is perhaps an inaccurate phrase) Borges was, despite the warning, one of the great celebrants of the literary universe. He believed that "a book brings us the possibility of happiness" although he said he didn't quite know why. "But I am truly grateful for that modest miracle" he added. The Total Library is packed with Borges' particular enthusiasms; his possibilities of happiness: "The Thousand and One Nights", mysticism of all kinds, Dante Alighieri, northern European epic literature (including Iceland!), "Don Quixote", Argentine identity, the philosophy of self, Schopenhauer, and, perhaps above all, English poetry. Each short piece is studded with writers' names and references to long-forgotten belief systems. One is grateful the hyperlink had not been invented because one begins to believe one should actually read each volume of Fritz Mauthner's Wörterbuch der Philosophie (1924) despite not having any German. But the essays are not merely distracting; they meditate on the themes revealed in a literary grain of sand: God, language and death, waking dreams, time, the original and the copy, everything and nothing.

Aged 23, Borges announced that "all literature, in the end, is autobiographical." Yet there is almost nothing here that could be said to 'reveal' the true Borges in our tabloid newspaper understanding of the word. This is not to say that Borges has erased himself in his writings; only that the questions that preoccupy him in the essays include the nature and form of the self. In the opening pages in this 560-page book there are four paragraphs beginning with the same phrase: "There is no whole self." And there is no single word to do it justice. Borges denies, in uncharacteristically polemical fashion, the unity of word and thing. In the mature works, subtlety and synonyms for 'perhaps' predominate. Still, the central themes are there right from the start. He spurns the "romantic ego-worship and loud-mouthed individualism that is wreaking havoc on the arts" (then and now, of course: think of Tracey Emin) because it assumes the self is in its personality or in its bodily senses or in its activities or in its consciousness. Borges quotes others to suggest the self is "without qualities of its own from individual to individual." The ramifications of this possibility leads to the idea that all books are present in one, and one in all, and lead, in turn, to the problems of "The Book of Sand". However, the comparison with the internet is deceptive. The modest miracle of happiness emerges in the promise of narrative rather than in an immediate dispersal in an infinite freedom. The promise of narrative is actually the promise of an escape from freedom into certainty. It is a promise that cannot be kept. If it was, it would be monstrous like the owner of "The Book of Sand". The internet, going in the opposite direction, tempts the infinite book's monstrosity . A book of worth mediates between its promises and the freedom it moves away from; its mediation is precarious. The monstrousness of "The Book of Sand" and its reader is always close.

The sense of regret for the necessity of mediation is brought into poignant relief in the last of nine consecutive essays on Dante's Divine Comedy (for me, the best possibility of happiness when I opened the volume). "The Meeting in a Dream" proposes the 100 cantos of the poem were written in order to insert Dante's meeting in Paradise with his great love Beatrice - the Lolita of the 14th Century. The meeting includes grotesque creatures out of place, it seems, in Paradise; they are symbolic, Borges suggests, of Dante's unrequited love. One might say the essay hints at the source of Borges' literary destiny and his struggle against its monstrousness:

"Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante. Dante very little, perhaps not at all, for Beatrice. All of us tend to forget, out of pity, out of veneration, this grievous discord which for Dante was unforgettable. Reading and rereading the vicissitudes of his illusory meeting, I think of the two lovers that Alighieri dreamed in the hurricane of the second circle and who, whether or not he understood or wanted them to be, were obscure emblems of the joy he did not attain. I think of Paolo and Francesca, forever united in their Inferno: 'this one, who never shall be parted from me'. With appalling love, with anxiety, with admiration, with envy."


The Garden of Forking Paths: a dedicated Borges site

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