Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Regarding: Borges, Labyrnith:
“Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Labyrnith by Jorge Luis Borges: the short stories “Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Does Borges seek to elicit a profoundly different response in us, his readers, to his various stories? It seems to me that none of us are really capable of telling but one story, singing one song, reciting one poem with a wide variety of names and places and inconsequential details, and Borges is really no different from any of us in this regard. I don’t yet know, but at least, after comparing and contrasting today’s reading, we’ll, perhaps, have a better idea, so let us examine the following four short-short stories and see what there is to see.

In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges posits an author who responds to Miguel Cervantes’ 17th Century classic by rewriting, word for word, that very book. The pivot point here is that Menard is not a copyist, he intends to rewrite Don Quixote by becoming Miguel Cervantes, by knowing now all that Miguel Cervantes knew then, but in today’s world, and thus, due to the critical passage of time, the dawning of a new era, the act of existing as Miguel Cervantes in the modern era will make the exact words written then more powerful, more compelling, more elegant, more meaningful today. Underlying this conceit is the real difference in context. Today’s readers are not the readers Cervantes wrote for, and a Miguel Cervantes writing exactly the same words in this time would necessarily mean something quintessentially different. Thus Borges is forcing the sensitive reader to acknowledge that the perceptions we make and share are unique to our experience and, in essence, untranslatably unique. Similarly the reader may come to acknowledge the criticality of the reader, that the manner in which meaning is created is unique for every reader of every text, that, to paraphrase Borges, each reader erroneously attributes anachronistic meaning to the text they encounter and negotiate.

In “The Circular Ruin,” Borges creates a dream world where a mythic creature, perhaps a man, perhaps the dream itself, or perhaps some form of gendered energy, carefully and deliberately constructs the world of man. “He wanted to dream a man,” the reader is told, to “interpolate him into the world of reality.” In this tale the reader comes to understand that endeavoring to dream the man is arduous and unsuccessful until the protagonist abandons his attempts to dream the man, and then, “almost at once” he dreams “of a beating heart.” Minutely, thereafter, the dreamer slowly crafts the man, and the man, metonymically, the world, in a fashion quite similar to how consensual understanding, or meaning, is created in this world — a laborious and accretive process. This understanding, perhaps the fiery, passionate sense of self we all share, is the fire and “fire was the only one that knew his son was a phantom.” Could Borges be saying that knowledge, meaning, experience are all illusory, that these shared “experiences” are no more then the dreams of the consciousness we singularly tap into and eventually, inevitably withdraw from? Ending, not dissimilarly from “Menard,” we are told: “he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”

Again, diving into the meanings of Borges, let us examine “Funes the Memorious,” where the mysterious and ethereal subject, “Ireneo Funes” — Ireneo inferring peace or perhaps peace between men, consequently linked to Funes, possibly a stand-in for Funesto, meaning mortal or fatal — is the main topic of this tale, despite that the author, Borges, introduced within the text, has only briefly and rarely met him: “I never saw him more than three times.” Their first meeting, which Borges recalls clearly, was no meeting for it was just a viewing as the child, Funes, leapt distantly and precariously overhead “in March or Feburary of the year 1884.” Subsequently, after Funes suffered what would typically be known as a catastrophic injury, Borges lent the paralyzed, uneducated, impoverished child a copy of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, and a Latin dictionary, enough to allow the representative savant access to all of the natural world’s knowledge. Funes was tortured or blessed with the ability to recall, in precise and exacting detail, every experience he’d ever had previous to his injury. Before, like all of us, Funes “lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.” When he awoke from his injury “the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant memories.”

The injured man lives more richly, more completely in the minutia of his past and present than the rest of us live at our most sensory enabled. Funes subsequently goes on to create a vast and intricate system of signs, of signifiers and signified, of semiotics, that acknowledge, that deeply and profoundly see how incredibly (beyond the credible) unique every experience, every object, every sensation actually is if we chose to experience the infinite world we exist within. Funes moves beyond human experience into the totality, the global and universal experience, recognizing both the connections and the discrete aspects of each element of our shared experience. He lives more completely by being withdrawn than the rest of us live immersed in the world, and in doing so escapes both his disability and the world itself, a world composed of the “tranquil advances of corruption, of decay, of fatigue. He could note the progress of death.” We are told that no one “has felt the heat and pressure of reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the hapless Ireneo.” In this sense does not Ireneo escape death? Though death comes for him soon after, he is already immaterial, beyond the grasp of that which can decay. Is this a different story than that which Borges elucidates in “The Circular Ruin,” a creation myth that posits life and awareness as a dream we share? How is this different from “Menard,” where meaning and understanding are posited as infinitely complex and unique, transiting time and space to create a singular moment of incomprehensible complexity?

Lastly, and briefly, let us look to “The Shape of the Sword,” where Borges tells a tale (which also includes the author as a character) that explicitly states that “I am all other men, any man is all men, (even) Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.” One could take this as an oppressive and pessimistic message, for Moon is not a sympathetic character, yet, are we not all cowards at times, but heroes, too, on occasion. Unique as we are, do not we all carry the scars inflicted upon ourselves and upon all others and are these scars no more than the consensual signifiers of our lives and values and loves and hates? “The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite.” We are man, isolate and universal, this hall of mirrors called life simply reflects our shared consensus.

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