Jorge Luis Borges at 100: A Lecture by Carlos Fuentes

18 October 1999
92nd Street Y, New York
Unterberg Poetry Center
Notes by Allen B. Ruch

Some writers seem to carry a map of their work inscribed upon their own face, written into the lines of their body, and coded into their very manner and movement. Carlos Fuentes is such a man, and seeing him, one can imagine the whole of Mexican history has come together to produce a single spokesman. Like his fictions, he seems to encompass a totality of disparate parts, varied threads woven together into a startling fullness. The proud and elegant bearing of Spanish nobility mingles with the assertive stance and penetrating gaze of a revolutionary. He radiates the suave charm of some roguish Latin heartbreaker, and yet there is something of the Aztec eagle in his face: stony, mysterious and impassive as the idols of the twilight Indians. He could be almost any one of his own characters; or perhaps he is one of the many reflections of Artemio Cruz, an alter-ego that chose a different, wiser path. In fact, he could even be the writer of "Borges in Action" or any one of a dozen or more works penned by the author named Carlos Fuentes. . . .

As Borges once famously remarked, every writer creates his own precursors, and it was in this spirit that Carlos Fuentes arrived to discuss his own literary hero and precursor to a veritable library of Latin American writers. For the next hour and a quarter, Carlos Fuentes held the sold-out house spellbound, creating his Borges through a lecture that interrogated the nature of reality itself, and positioned Borges firmly at the center of modern literature.

The Lecture

After a short welcome by Karl Kirchwey, the Director of the Unterberg Poetry Center, Mr. Fuentes was formally introduced by Barnard professor Alfred Mac Adam, the editor of Review: Latin American Literature and Arts and the translator of The Death of Artemio Cruz. Mr. Mac Adam, who has also written on Borges himself, provided a warm introduction, indicating that he was not just introducing Carlos Fuentes the writer, but Carlos Fuentes the noted literary critic as well. Indeed, Fuentes has written extensively on Borges, Latin American literature, and the topic of the "open work," and many of the topics he would discuss during his lecture appear in his book of essays, Myself with Others.

Mr. Fuentes entered the hall to great applause, and it was soon evident that there were just as many Fuentes enthusiasts present as there were fans of Borges. (In fact, I overheard many people who had only begun reading Borges in anticipation for this event.) Mr. Fuentes began with some personal history, indicating that he first stumbled across Borges' writing at the age of 16, during his youthful "year of grace" in Buenos Aires, some time off from school which was memorable for three reasons: the Tango, the women, and Jorge Luis Borges. Having spent his early years and education in America, Fuentes was proficient in both Spanish and English; and though he had wanted to be a writer, was unsure which language to adopt. This first exposure to Borges -- through A Universal History of Infamy -- came as a welcome revelation, and made the young Fuentes realize that he wanted to be a writer in Spanish, the language in which he "loved, dreamed, and insulted." But perhaps more profound than this was what he learned from Borges as a writer, as a literary visionary, and as a fellow Latin American; and here Mr. Fuentes introduced the two themes that would comprise the main body of his lecture. First, that Borges pointed the way to a new style of literature, a style that avoided mimetic realism and epic individualism (called by Fuentes "The Literature of Waterloo") and pointed to an alternate tradition, one of "verbal exuberance and intellectual ingenuity." Descended from Cervantes, these "Children of la Mancha" included Diderot, Sterne, Joyce, and of course, Borges. Secondly, the literature of Borges was the first writing that seemed to be truly Latin American in character as well as potential. Rather than artificially reconstructing a vanished past, the writings of Borges were all-inclusive, and showed a literary imagination that incorporated all cultures relevant to modern thought. Stories like "Averroës' Search," "Emma Zunz," and "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" depicted Western and Arab culture not just coexisting with the other's influence, but displaying a synergy, a plurality that could provide a groundwork for a new kind of fiction.

The elaboration of these two themes and the eventual relationship between them provided the main body of the lecture, which was essentially divided into three subsequent sections: a development of the alternative literature theme, a development of the Latin American theme, and remarks on a "Borges Constitution" with implications for writers and readers alike.

The Children of la Mancha

To begin his discussion of Borges' fiction as an alternative to mimetic realism, Fuentes commented that he had never wanted to actually meet Borges. In fact, he didn't even want to know what Borges looked like. It seemed proper that only the work should exist, that Borges was his work, and that by reading it, one became the blind Argentine, much in the way that Borges himself once wrote: "All men who repeat one line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare." This provocative idea is central to the idea of the "open work," a conception of literature that sees each book as a work forever in the process of being written. Given that each reader engages a work with a different set of preconceptions, notions, and cultural biases, the real nature of the book is inextricably bound to the creative act of reading it, and is therefore never truly a contained universe. (It was a point Mr. Fuentes would reiterate several days later in a short lecture about Italo Calvino at Cooper Union.) Borges is particularly appropriate here because he does not utilize mimetic or historical realism: his works are primarily about the workings of the mind itself. They are carefully structured to engage the reader, to make the reader into an active participant. Fuentes compared Borges to the writer of detective stories where the true mystery is the thought process of the detective himself, as if "Poirot were investigating Poirot, or as if Holmes discovered that he himself is Moriarty."

Thematically, Borges is always concerned with the mystery of absence vs. presence, a mystery that may be resolved differently for each reader. As a chess player might say, "The moves we do not make are as important as the moves we do make." This is indeed an apt metaphor for reading Borges, where each reader may take a different branch in a garden of forking paths. Fuentes drew upon the story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" to further illustrate this point. The Don Quixote of Cervantes means something different to the Don Quixote of the later Menard, even though the text is identical: times have changed; language has changed; readers have changed. As Fuentes would restate again throughout his lecture, a book is never finished, for it belongs to the future.

Although he would later return to this theme of the open work, Fuentes set it aside for a brief discussion of "Borges the Fantasist." This was the only part of the lecture that seemed a bit rough, a professorial detour into a by-numbers dissection of Borges' oeuvre. There was no questioning his enthusiasm and fondness for Borges and his work, but he assumed a working knowledge on part of his audience that many did not possess, and he had the tendency to leap from story to story and back, only briefly touching upon their content or connection to the point at hand. Additionally these elements were left fairly undeveloped or unsupported, although their relevance in questioning the nature of identity would surface later in the lecture.

In brief, Fuentes outlined four components to the "Fantastic Borges": The dreamer, the metaphysician, the time traveler, and the double. The "Dreamer" aspect of Borges concerns the basic uncertainty regarding the nature of reality. Are we ourselves the dreamers, or are we being dreamed? Where does "identity" lie in the world of writing, which projects so many characters, including the "persona" of the narrator or even the author himself? This question, central to the story "The Circular Ruins," also emerges in Fuentes' own "Borges in Action," and is also linked to the idea of the double, as outlined below. Secondly, there is the metaphysical idea of "Books within Books," signifying the recursive nature of writing, of a work containing, or alluding to, other works. The whole contains many other wholes; and it is illusion to believe in absolute totality, in complete originality, or in the existence of a hermetically sealed work. (Here we can hear echoes of Gödel and Derrida.) Fuentes further remarked that "Metaphysics should never degenerate into a system -- we must be perpetually astonished." Thirdly, there is the "Voyage in Time." By allowing free play with linearity, we can see a true garden of forking paths, where the choices are "A, B, C, and D." This of course relates to engaging the reader as an active participant in the creation of meaning. And finally, there is the theme of the "Double." In "Borges and I," the writer Borges speculates on the persona he has created via his work. Is that the "real" Borges? Indeed, is there a "real" Borges? This "double" theme would later recur during Fuentes' discussion of Latin America and her literature, where it would be expanded to symbolize the reflections of choices not made and paths not taken. Indeed, this is a theme mirrored throughout Fuentes' own great novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

Borges and Latin America

The second main segment of the lecture concerned Borges as a Latin American writer, emphasizing his special character as a writer from Buenos Aires.

Making a case of the uniqueness of Latin America based on the coexistence of opposites (Two nations in one: urban vs. agrarian, city vs. outskirts) and the tremendous influx of cultures (Indian, Black, several European nations), Fuentes then depicted Argentina as being an entity more unusual still. Contrasting Borges' Argentina with his own Mexico, Fuentes repeated an epigram also found in his essay: "Mexicans descend from the Aztecs, and Argentinians descend from ships." Devoid of a rich history, situated between the endless Atlantic and the vast Pampas, the literature of Buenos Aires has grown around the concept of emptiness, of absence. In Buenos Aires, this "city of cities," the central conflict of Latin America is played out in microcosm: so much intensity in one city; so much emptiness around it, an emptiness that simply begs, "Put me into words." Here Borges created the Aleph, that point of infinite space fixed below an Argentine staircase that contained the whole universe. Here he wrote "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," haunting the void with the ghosts of recursive cities. In this manner, in this "verbalization built on absence," did Borges create a new literature, a literature for Buenos Aires, where absence takes on incarnations both metaphysical and literal: as parallel reality, as physical space, as political mendacity, as sudden disappearances in the night. Fuentes maintained that the most poetic vision of Buenos Aires is found in "Death and the Compass," where even the name of the city is absent. Lacking so much of the gaudy "realism" of Borges' earlier "fevers" of BA, it emerges as his most truthful depiction: as "a city that had to dream itself to be authentic."

The Borges Constitution

In the final part of the lecture, Fuentes brought his two theses together into some degree of harmony. Having suggested that Borges' remarkable fiction was in part an outgrowth of his Argentinean nature, Fuentes closed by discussing how these revolutionary tropes had overturned naturalism and opened the door for a new kind of literature, one especially suited for Latin America.

Largely freeing his stories of human protagonists and "giving a leading role to the mirror and the labyrinth, the book and the garden, time and space," Borges "redefined what is real through literary and imaginary traditions." Fuentes then delivered his "Borges Constitution," a manifesto stating that there was no closed system of knowledge, an idea prefigured by James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and Werner von Heisenberg. Time and space are declared relative, as is language, an entity already heavy with the burden of being founded in time and space. This new freedom, this embrace of relativity, removes Borges from the European Bourgeois tradition, opening up all cultural experiences, all times and spaces -- and one of them is called Latin America. A new literature must reflect the "real" Latin America, that crossroads of cultures, that bastion of paradox and relativity.

Fuentes ended with a discussion of the ironies in Borges' fiction, and how those spaces between apparent unity and relative plurality allow the reader to enter the work. Many of Borges' stories begin by postulating a mystical totality, only to frustrate and destroy it, the human protagonists trading the chimera of enlightenment for simple human experience or even madness. Totality is a pervasive illusion, a projection of our subconscious desires for a golden age, a state of unbroken grace and wholeness before some tragic Fall. Indeed, a writer cannot even represent totality, as his very act of using words poisons the concept, opening the work to relativity -- a reader will always "subvert any attempt at unity." Perhaps it is better to focus on the individual perceptions, on the things in front of you, or even on emotional spaces such as love. In a story like "The Aleph," when given a glimpse of inconceivable wholeness, the narrator (another "fictional" Borges) prefers the simple bodily presence of his beloved. Concrete defeats the abstract.

As Fuentes reminded his audience, Borges remarked that a new reading of a book is also a new writing of that book. Stories are eternal only in that they are always being read, and that we the readers, we the plurality, over many times and spaces, we are the generators of meaning. Or, to recall his closing sentence, "The meaning of books is not behind us, but ahead of us."