Borges was born in Buenos Aires and lived through most of the twentieth century, and so was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature. (Argentina, whose national constitution is dated 25 May 1853, was developed by an immigrant population, mostly of European origin, but with a smattering of Turkish and Syrian also. One result of this was the marginalisation of the indigenous Indian population, to the extent that in 1914 (for example) it represented 0.68% of the country's entire population (Yust 1951: vol. 2, 318)).
His fiction is profoundly learned, and always concise. Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text, a man who forgets nothing he experiences, an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe, and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad. The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic, and fact with fiction. In his early career these mixtures sometimes bordered on hoax—and perhaps once or twice crossed that line.
One very notable characteristic of Borges's writing is the breadth of inquiry that informs it, largely European, but not by any means confined to that (his interest in Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, for example, is obvious). Paramount in his intellectual itinerary are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, philosophy, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges's sense of literature as recreation—all these disciplines treated as writers' playthings.
His nonfiction is abundant and worthwhile, including astute film and book reviews, short biographies, longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between. He also explores empirically or rationally many of the themes that are found in his fiction, such as the identity of the Argentinian people. In articles such as "The History of the Tango" and "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights," he writes lucidly on things that surely held a place in his own life. The Book of Imaginary Beings[?] is an thoroughly and obscurely researched modern bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote that "there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition".
In terms of race, with its history of Spanish domination, stock that the Argentine republic was built on was in large part Spanish Creole. After the national constitution, immigrants to Argentina were Italian, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Turkish, Syrian, British, Austro-Hungarian, Portuguese, Polish, Swiss, Yugoslav, North American, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, with the Italians and Spanish forming the largest influx (see Yust 1951: vol. 2, 318). This was quite a melting pot—with the indigenous population all but squeezed out. In Borges himself is the mixed seed of an English grandmother who married into a criollo family. In fact the person she married, c.1870, was Francisco Borges, a man with a military command in a settlement on the border of Indian territory. By the time JL was born, the family lived in what he himself has described as a typical Buenos Aires neighbourhood—Palermo—where he remembered hearing the music of guitars and was aware of the compadritos or knife-men—men who were mythically brave, and became either outlaws or bodyguards to conservative politicians. In the house he grew up in—which was set off from the street by an iron gate wrought into a surrounding colonial architecture—was an immense library of books in English, where as a boy he first met Stevenson[?], Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Don Quixote and The Arabian Nights (see Sarlo[?] 1993: 42-43). These names recur throughout Borges's career, as do those of Baudelaire, Chesterton[?], Poe, Valéry[?], Kafka[?]—to list but few.
Borges completed his education in Geneva between 1914 and 1918. Having literary ambitions of his own, Geneva seemed a more appropriate choice than Buenos Aires, which was then a rural town, and still to become a metropolis. 1914-18 was a period of enormous political, ideological and cultural change in Europe, not to say enormous instability. During this period—1916 in fact—the founding work of modern structural linguistics, Saussure[?]'s Course in General Linguistics[?], was first published. There is no suggestion that Borges was familiar with this work, although it is manifestly the case that in his story 'Funes the Memorious', first published in the collection Ficciones in 1944, Borges proposes his own version of language as a system of signs and significations.
The major work of nineteenth-century Argentine literature was Martín Fierro[?], a gauchesque poem by José Hernández[?], published in two parts, in 1872 and 1880. The poem's central character, Martín Fierro, is a gaucho. Gauchos were of a free, poor, rural population who were never wholly absorbed into the labour market, but as an economic unit were often coerced into primitive exploitation of the pampas, or drafted into the army, whose job was to defend the frontier from Indian incursion. Gauchos eventually disappeared, to be replaced by rural wage-earners, and therefore Fierro, as a symbol of the past (and uniquely Argentine), was held in the highest importance, at least by the kind of intellectual who values national emblems (see Sarlo[?] 1993: 37). Borges, as we shall see, was not one of these.
In fact the evidence of much of Borges's writing suggests that his cultural locus was Europe—more specifically a Europe whose theological authority had palpably dissolved under the pressure and success of science. Tensions inherent in the intellectual climate of that Europe, at that time, one may view as prefigured in the Enlightenment (or slightly before), and fully formed by the fin de siècle (or slightly after). By the time of Descartes (1596-1650), the Church still had difficulties with Copernicus's heliocentric cosmology, first propounded in his De Revolutionibus[?] in 1543 (as a system this was restated by Kepler in the early seventeenth century), and Descartes it was who made possible the remorseless programme of science, as a thing co-existent with the will of God. His celebrated Cogito ergo sum— je pense, donc je suis, 'I think, therefore I am'—was central to his system of knowledge (see Honderich 1995: 138). It is that system which gave rise to Continental rationalism[?], in which the human purview is very much a matter of subject and object—the subjective mind making rational judgements about the objective world. Another name for this is Cartesian dualism[?], which has at its centre the maxim that knowledge of the world is acquired initially through observation of it, then through formulating correctly considered questions, then arriving at answers through rational thinking (see Magee[?] 1988: 78-95). God's role in all this is, on the one hand, as creator of the objective world, and on the other as progenitor of the subjective, human soul, which is an imperfect image of Himself. It was precisely this dualism that allowed Newton (1642-1727) to devise his mechanistic universe, with its implacable laws of motion, and all neatly regulated by an absolute, Time, whilst simultaneously meditating on God. It has been noted by many other commentators that Newton's written output is devoted more to theology than it is to physics. According to Samuel Johnson, Newton began as 'an infidel' (or physicist), but came to be 'a very firm believer' (see Boswell[?] 1909: 172).
It need hardly be stressed that a cognitive dualism has persisted in one form or another ever since, through Hegel's dialectic of the world (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), through Marx's materialism (a class struggle), to those handy juxtapositions beloved of the structuralists[?] (our world of text as a world of binarisms), even through to the presences and absences of post-structuralism. Somehow the case for God has never quite disappeared in all this, despite the fact that in the dulled embers still visible from the Romantic period, it was Nietzsche who officially called a moratorium on the Deity, asking the seemingly innocent question that if nobody actually believes in God, who do we hold ultimately responsible for our actions?
Borges himself, if he doesn't overtly restate that kind of question, certainly knows how to dramatise it (metaphysically, of course). His 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' (Borges 1986: 32) is a revision of Berkeleian idealism[?]. This, a seventeen-page story (long for him), opens as follows: 'I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia'.
Berkeley, who was Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, denied the existence of matter. This was in a reply to Locke (1632-1704), whose conception of the universe was Newtonian and mechanistic, a place where material bodies conformed to a clockwork modus operandi—that is to say, a universe exhibiting solidity, figure, extension, motion or rest, and number. Among other things, these bodies, for Locke, operate on human sense-organs, and on the immaterial substance of human minds—all of which amounts to a conjunction in those minds of ideas. Therefore what we perceive as the world around us is not really the world around us, but only our ideas of it. To Berkeley this was repugnant, not least because, although as a system it allowed that God may have created the world, it did not require God's eternal supervision. (See Warnock 1991: 47.) It was this that led him to deny the existence of matter, maintaining that material objects exist only through being perceived, or to put it another way, through the act of perceiving them. That things don't cease to exist in our absence is Berkeley's proof for the omnipresence of God, who at all times perceives all things everywhere. (See Russell 1991: 623.) It was in this way that for Berkeley the world existed as a divine syntax, through which any well adjusted mortal may commute with his maker.
In Borges's revision of Berkeley, Uqbar is an undocumented region of Iraq or of Asia Minor, one of whose heresiarchs had declared the visible universe either an illusion or sophism, and that mirrors and procreation were abominable because they multiplied and disseminated that universe. As the story develops, it emerges that Uqbar is a region of Tlön, and that Tlön is an invented country, the work of a secret and benevolent society conceived in the early seventeenth century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. As the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate an entire country. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there is no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples is an ascetic millionaire from Memphis, Tennessee, called Ezra Buckley, who scoffs at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposes instead the invention of a planet, and with certain provisos—that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopædia of the imaginary planet be written, and that the whole scheme will have no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ (and therefore none with Berkeley's God either). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. (See Borges 1986: 28, 39-40.) The timing of events in Borges's story is approximately a century after that, when Buckley's encyclopædia is beginning not to be a secret, and as a kind of mirror is beginning to disseminate its own universe.
What kind of encyclopædia that is, and therein what kind of planet we behold, is something we glean at various points in the story. For example it is not a construct of objects in space, with the consequence that one of the languages of Tlön—necessarily a conjectural language—is without nouns. As its central unit are impersonal verbs, inflected by monosyllabic extensions bearing an adverbial value. Borges offers us, for what would be our own the moon rose above the water a Tlönic equivalent: upward behind the onstreaming it mooned (Borges 1986: 33). In another language of Tlön, the prime unit, rather than the verb, is the monosyllabic adjective, which, in combinations of two or more, are noun-forming—therefore for moon read instead round airy-light on dark. We may say further, that because there are no nouns—or because nouns are composites of other parts of speech, and are subordinate to them—there can be no possibility of a priori deductive reasoning (and therefore no telos), and no possibility either of a posteriori inductive reasoning—which renders history void and ontology an alien concept. At this point we understand that we have entered into a Berkeleian idealism[?] with one critical attenuation, i.e., Buckley's removal of the multiple and omnipresent percepts of a deity. It is tempting at this stage to recall Husserl—particularly when Tlön's one cultural discipline is psychology (ibid.)—and to start to think about a phenomenology which does not merely bracket off objective reality, but parcels it separately into all its successive moments. This leads us to the interesting paradox that any citizen of Tlön drawing his present breath, is not the same citizen who drew his previous breath (I speak the chronologised jargon of an Earthling), and will become yet some other citizen in the act of drawing his next. This fantastic and replicating notion bears similarities to the position held by certain contemporary physicists, particularly Julian Barbour[?], who has argued that time as something measured by a clock isn't consistent with a quantum theory of gravity. He has proposed that we may have to consider each moment as an entity in itself, moreover as an entity which does not change (see Smolin 1997: 289). We, who are not of Tlön, believe in time because identifiable objects—persons, texts, the firmament—persist not as an act of mentation, but independently of us, through a succession of equally identifiable moments. Barbour[?] on the other hand conceives of a universe giving rise to its entire stock of moments simultaneously, and what we call time is the approximation of those moments in a sequencing process which we ourselves perform (ibid.: 290)—we, of course, having invented, and having access to, nouns.
What perplexes physicists is the absence of a single overarching structure unifying the macro and micro scales—or Relativity and Quantum Theory[?]. Nor does there seem to be much willingness to accept that these two aspects of our cosmos (though undoubtedly interactive—one might even say 'intertextual[?]') might be irreconcilable. Neither Borges the philosophical writer nor Derrida[?] the philosopher of writing approaches any such centred locus, for example Borges desisting the solemnity of a Russell (op. cit.: 626-633), who having set out the essentials of Berkleianism[?] then proceeds to critique it (Borges merely removes it from its European loci then returns it to an indeterminate world as Buckleianism). Derrida[?] is apt to view formal European schema in terms of the human sciences, and records a privileged place to one in particular—ethnology (Greek ἔθνος, nation). For Derrida[?], ethnology could not approach to the status of a science until European culture had been decentred, change bringing with it the dislocation of metaphysics as a concept of European Being. Here also was the point at which European culture ceased to be the culture of reference (point also at which the reflected image of Berkeley gazes back at us as Buckley). Derrida[?] would like to consider further that this point also is not principally one of philosophical and scientific discourse, but is at once political, economic, technocratic. Ethnology, he says, or implies, arises in discourse, a primarily European discourse, one that for all its liberal pretensions continues to employ traditional concepts. As a consequence of this, the ethnologist (and not just any ethnologist) accepts into his discourse the premisses of ethnocentrism (and the centrist race he has in mind is a European race) while at the same time denouncing them. (See Derrida[?] 1993: 282.) It is this dualism, or dynamic binarism, which in my opinion is the sine qua non of Borges's art, in its character of non-European Europeanness. This rears itself everywhere in Borges, and perhaps never more pointedly than in his short fiction 'The Book of Sand'. That, I will argue, is the Book of all books, and is a monster. Once revealed as such, its owner surreptitiously transports it to the Argentine National Library, and 'slipping past a member of the staff and trying not to notice at what height or distance from the door ... [loses] the Book of Sand on one of the basement's musty shelves'—i.e., a book hidden by many others (Borges 1979: 91). Here already I shall have to cast the fictive Borges into the same blur as his biographical senior, writing as narrator. In a dream of himself, in a dreamed apartment in a dream of Buenos Aires, 'volumes', or books that the wraith called Borges has frequently handled, include encyclopædias, maps, sacred tomes, the world's fantasies concerning itself. Someone very like him, whose domicile is Belgrano St, receives a caller who initially introduces himself as someone selling Bibles. But Bibles aren't the requirement, and so the salesman, who is a Presbyterian from the Orkneys, instead produces an octavo volume, bound in cloth, on whose spine are the words 'Holy Writ', and 'Bombay'. On opening the book, the pages appear in double columns, and ordered in versicles, as is so in a Bible. The bookseller advises a close look at the page, since it will never be found, or seen, again, and goes on to say that he acquired the book in exchange for a handful of rupees and a Bible, from an owner who did not know how to read. It is impossible to find its first and last page, and is called The Book of Sand because it has no beginning or end—its very pages are terms in an infinite series. As to the bookseller's conscience, it is clear: he feels sure of not having cheated the native in exchanging the Word of God for this, a diabolic trinket. Hume is mentioned, as has been George Herbert ('Thy rope of sands', epigraph to the whole destructive rig-up), and the book is sold to the citizen of Belgrano St. (See Borges 1979: 87-90.)
George Herbert (1593-1633), who balanced a secular career with a life of theological contemplation, was ordained deacon c.1624, and was installed as a canon of Lincoln cathedral and prebendary of Leighton Bromswold, near the Anglican Eliot[?]'s Little Gidding[?], in 1626 (see Drabble 1989: 454). Herbert[?] the poet is at all times in pursuit of what Derrida[?] has called a 'transcendental signifier', God's summarising logos, the last syllable of recorded time, as the divine extension of the Book of Genesis (In the beginning, God said ...), suspiration that renders as revealed and knowable everything that has been uttered and written in between—life and the world as a sacred inscription:
Above all, Herbert[?] wants us to see God's revealed truth—which the Presbyterian bookseller believes is written in a book, in the Book, to the point that his evangelism extends to the Hindu caste system in Bombay, where he has found what to him must be the opposite of incontestable writ, what with its textual flickers, its Derridean presences and absence[?]. Note that Presbyterianism occupies an intermediate position between episcopacy (the Church of England is Episcopal) and congregationalism, whose form of worship has been marked by extreme simplicity—this explains its appeal to Cromwell[?] and his Puritan followers (see Yust 1951: vol. 18, 440-444). One imagines that to the average Presbyterian, God's truth is a simple truth. By contrast one can't ever imagine this being the case for Hume (1711-76), himself a son of Presbyterianism, whose 'persistence in irreligion shook the conviction of Boswell[?], and provoked some particularly unpleasant comments from Dr Johnson[?]' (Honderich 1995: 378): 'Hume owned he had never read the New Testament with attention. Here then was a man who had been at no pains to enquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way. It was not to be expected that the prospect of death would alter his way of thinking, unless God should send an angel to set him right' (Boswell 1909: 409). According to Hume, '... evidence ... for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion [whose texts are founded on the testimony of the apostles], it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of their senses' (Hume 1982: 109).
It can be by no means accidental that Borges as author (as author of 'The Book of Sand') has passed into the simplified hands of an evangelical Presbyterian an 'immediate object', the sense of which undermines plain faith in a Christian eschatology. Derrida[?] has pointed out that a structure (we'd describe Christianity more as a superstructure) always presumes a centre, and himself finds only suspect evidence for such a co-ordinate: what we call a 'center ... is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms ... is forbidden ... Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality' (Derrida[?] 1993: 279)—meaning that, paradoxically, the centre is and isn't the centre. Any one page of an infinite book, for that moment while we contemplate it, is the central term of an infinite series, yet is merely engulfed by that infiniteness during those other moments while we don't. I go further and say that this counter-Book posited by Borges is in fact an interpretation of the Book, to whom he has called Herbert[?], Hume and a Presbyterian Bible-vendor as first witness. The Book of Sand is the Book of the basis of Western Christianity, decentred.
So why should the cauldron of a new and appropriated country—Argentina—whose influx was largely European, cast back on to us a quasi-European, such as I am suggesting Borges was? As Homi Bhabha[?] puts it, in the complex wording of an essay I have translated from English to English, called 'Signs Taken for Wonders',
The Bible has to be considered as the first Book of Imperialist propaganda, and being so has paved the way for subsequent European books springing up all over the colonised world, in a similar miraculous aura. The Word as the Word of God, is the Word transmitted by European man, and is a Word that encapsulates a vision of half-made societies everywhere. It therefore becomes not only the Word of God, but of truth, and of art, and as it follows, the basis for founding not only a 'true' and 'artistic' beginning, but a practice of history and narrative. But. Implanting the Word in the wilds is also a process of displacement, and the immediate vision of the Word is therefore freed from the discourse that accompanied or even encumbered it (to echo Derrida). Displacement is therefore what the Word now communicates [and is especially what the Word in the Borges œuvre communicates]. The Word is a hybrid, and of course any hybrid is neither certainly the One nor certainly the Other. Difference and Otherness at that point become a pressure and a presence on the boundary of Authority [an Authority which in Argentina failed to make of Martín Fierro the unequivocal Argentine tradition. Similarly Borges has taken the European Book and turned it into a rope of sand]. Such pressure and presence do not amount to overt opposition (in a political sense), but to a form of resistance. What is resisted is the content of another culture, while at the same time that other culture reinvents its signs and its various discourses to bolster its role as a colonial power. What this results in is an ambivalence towards the rules and dominating discourses of that colonising power [and Borges, being of that power, could not enjoy a relation to European culture in any straightforward way—it was inevitable that the relation was shifted]. (See Bhabha 1995: 29-32.)
One further complication in the case of Argentina is that the colonising power also quickly became the 'native' population, since the Indian presence was almost entirely expunged. The argument though I think is still relevant, if in this instance its relevance is to a transplanted European culture—a culture in opposition to itself.
Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned, Borges increasingly relied on the medium of poetry to make it easier to remember his work in progress. Many of his poems concern the same wide range of possibilities as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, as well as more personal musings. The same continuity extends across his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, the idealism of the fictional "Tlön" that's common to his essay "New Refutation of Time" reaches as well to his poem "Things". Similarly, a common thread runs through his story "The Circular Ruins" and his poem "The Golem". Thus readers who appreciate his fiction and nonfiction may find his poetry especially accessible.
translator into Spanish. At the age of ten, he translated Oscar Wilde into Spanish. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish version of the Prose Edda. Borges also translated (whilst simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, amongst others, Edgar Alan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures Borges assessed the art of translation and articulated his own view of translation. Borges held the view that a translation may improve upon an original, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid, and further that an original or literal translation can be unfaithful to a translation.