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Three Versions of “BORGES Y YO”

December 1, 2015

Borges, Jorge Luis. “BORGES Y YO.” Obras Completas 1923-1972. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1974. 808. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “BORGES AND MYSELF.” Selected Poems: 1923-1967. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. London: Allen Lane. 282-3. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Borges and I.” Collected Fiction. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998. 324. Print.

 

This is one of the most famous pieces of writing Borges produced. He can be heard reading the original Spanish text at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6TjG2xB6sk. There are many versions circulating online in English and Spanish if you would like to read it. “BORGES Y YO,” was first published in Spanish in the journal Biblioteca (1957), and the collection, El Hacedor (1960) and in English in Dream Tigers (1970) and Selected Poems: 1923-1967 (1972). In the miscellaneous anthology in which it first appeared, “BORGES Y YO,” is the last prose piece before the poetry starts, coming immediately after “Inferno, I, 32,” a parable about Dante, and immediately before his brave, famous reflection on going blind: “Poema de los Dones.”

I have not been able to track the precise date of composition.  It was likely written in the 1950s, some years before it was published. We might guess, since Borges is still able to stop and look at the arch of the old entryway in the first sentence, that it was written before his sight deteriorated drastically in 1955. But he could also be examining the entranceway in memory or even be making it out hazily after the onset of blindness.

Peron’s first government (1946-1955) deeply shaped Borges’s life and work in these years. An outspoken opponent of the regime, he was forced from his post in a municipal library. After undergoing psychoanalysis to help him overcome his fear of public speaking, he made a living travelling the country lecturing on literature. His fame was increasing, both inside Argentine and abroad, especially through the publication of translations of his famous 1940s fictions in French literary magazines. But by all accounts Borges was a deeply unhappy man in his forties and fifties. His long, tortured relationship with the poet, Estela Canto, ended around 1949, apparently unconsummated. Borges still lived with his mother; by 1955 his sight had worsened to such an extent that his doctor advised him to stop reading. “Borges and I,” then, is the work of a lonely, bewildered, middle-aged writer, struggling to cope with the onset of disability and with his increasing fame.

For half a century now, this two-paragraph, one page prose meditation has been the subject of an insane amount of critical commentary. One 2004 critical essay by Kane X. Fausher, in the specialist journal, Variaciones Borges, weighs in at 9970 words (the Spanish text is 315 words).  Fausher proposes three readings: 1. Borges and the narrator are two independent subjects; 2. Borges and the narrator are the same subject – with a split between private and public selves, or body and soul implied by narrative point of view; 3. There are three Borges: the narrator of the story, “I”; the third person diegetic “Borges” or “he”; and a meta-Borges, who is the narrator of the narrator.

I agree with Fausher, that the ambiguity of the authorial I is the central problem posed by the text: “Who is the author?” (160). For me, Fausher’s third “meta-Borges,” reading is most interesting.  It pushes us to consider the unusual narrative strategy’s function. If the narrator is not sure who has written the page, what effect will it have on the reader? Disorientation and uncertainty, no doubt, but also questioning, and reflection. To what end? What is the purpose of this peculiar and radical distortion of conventional narration? What questions does it invite us to ask about authorship, selfhood, fame, and literary posterity?

I think that a third “meta-Borges” is strongly implied by the final sentence of the original Spanish text, but is less evident in both Hurley and Di Giovanni/Borges’s English versions. “No sé cual de los dos escribe esta página” (808), reads the original. My translation of this would be “I don’t know which of the two is writing this page” – which immediately implies a third narrator observing both Borges and I. Both major English translations lose this unsettling implication by maintaining the first person plural pronoun “us”: “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know” (Di Giovanni 283); “I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page (Hurley 324).

Hurley’s translation is inferior over all, as the example above illustrates. He consistently requires more words to say the same thing. However, I actually prefer his translation of the title to Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s. “Borges and Myself,” nevertheless, has the benefit of emphasising the translator’s collaborative role in the composition process. The italicised footnote, immediately following the text, almost encourages us to read the title as “Borges and me, Norman Thomas di Giovanni.” The translator’s ego, too, is invoked, played with, and mocked.

“BORGES Y YO,” continues and intensifies the Argentine’s career-long attack on the enlightenment idea of the unified, coherent human subject. “There is no whole self,” he repeated five times in his most important early literary manifesto, “La Naderia de la Personalidad” from 1923. Here, however Borges’s critique of the individual ego comes from inside and outside simultaneously. Through the mechanisms of narrative point of view, the “I” is shattered. In a 2004 review of Edwin Williamson’s definitive English biography of Borges, the American novelist, David Foster Wallace, notes the paradox underlying the writer’s collapse/transcendence of individual identity. As an artistic program it requires: “a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality.” With this in mind, we can read Borges’s story as a warning of the dangers of solipsism. All the characters in this famous deconstruction of the idea of the individual are avatars of the individual that wrote it. As Foster Wallace observes, Borges’s many obsessions – labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, and doubles – can all be seen as “symbols of the psyche turned inward.”

Without wishing to degenerate into the kind of crude biographical criticism of which Foster Wallace accuses Williamson, I cannot help but think that the extraordinary importance Borges places on literary posterity in this text and many others – even if it belongs to language and tradition rather than the individual – must have some basis in personal circumstances. Reviewing the 1998 Collected Fictions, J.M Coetzee criticised Andrew Hurley’s translation of “The Circular Ruins” for missing the importance of paternity in Borges’s work. Many critics have written about Borges’s own father, particularly his significant intellectual influence on his son, and the possibly traumatic effects of his ill-advised attempt to sexually initiate the young Borges with a Geneva prostitute during WWI. But to my knowledge, there has been nothing written about the effect that not being a father had on the writer. To me, the idea that one must be “justified” by literature: “I shall endure in Borges not in myself,” (Hurley 324) is the sentiment of a man entering his fifties, unlucky in love, coming to terms with the fact he will leave no heir. Childlessness is an important precondition for Borges’s quest for meaning in a meaningless universe. The sense of personal failure, self-reapproach, and spiralling inwardness in “Borges y yo,” has much to do with this.

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