The notion that Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” – a collection of idiosyncratic short stories, essays, and even parables by the much-acclaimed Argentinian writer, wrangled into English with no little hair-pulling – somehow parallels Voynich research is one that has been floated and repeated for decades.

But is it true now, here in the Fake News world of 2017? Is Borges a harbinger of what we see, or are we all post-Borges?

Describing The Indescribable

What Borges does in his short stories is to gleefully plunder history, not for mere colour (as so many writers now do) but to subvert it and channel it into a secret paradoxical alt.history, which typically forms the conceptual spine of each story’s skeleton.

The twisted steps backwards he takes to go forward again are equal parts erudite and imaginary. These all lead to a creative pyre whose flames are fed by philosophy, religion, esotericism, literature, self-referentiality, dreams, chess, labyrinths, and the numberless ways to cheat (or at least sidestep) the infinities of time, space, and mathematics.

Yet despite the range of references, the setting is predominantly a high-register, sexless, atheistic domain, ruled by stern, darkly logical planets. As a reader, you often feel as though the author is trying to conjure up a paradoxical exit visa from one dark oppressive reality into another.

Borges’ Three Tells

It’s not hard to tell his writing apart from just about anybody else’s.

His first writing trademark is embellished and over-decorated footnotes and references to books and articles which may or may not exist, embedding (if not actually entangling) his narratives in an imaginary textual web. This corresponds to the “falsifying and magnifying” tendency he derides himself (at a remove) for.

His second trademark is inserting himself into his stories, often as an unreliable narrator (not such a modern conceit as some may think).

His third trademark is that his stories almost always reveal themselves to be less than the sum of their parts – the denouement is often little more than a peek behind Oz’s curtain, collapsing the conceit preceding it.

Is Borges Worth Reading?

This is a tough question. Many of the things that are good about his writing would also likely make him completely unreadable to many modern readers. If you are impatient and/or prefer things to be grounded in the concrete, Borges’ concept-heavy counter-factuals are almost certainly not for you.

Yet the bigger problem, I think, is one of style, because Borges writes with a kind of refined, over-polished lightness that somehow never quite becomes levity. I don’t believe that the reading difficulties are translation artefacts: they’d be just as difficult in Hawaiian or Esperanto.

Is Borges a fellow-traveller to Voynich researchers? He certainly sets his readers cerebral challenges, ones which wear cloaks of obscurity, esotericism, and a tight knowingness, yet which he then reveals to be simpler than they at first seemed: and in some ways this is the (idealized) research trajectory.

But in the end, I think the answer is no: his mystification and erudition aren’t his means to knowledge, they are merely the scaffolding he uses to support the canvas behind his all-too-briefly-erected stages. Borges offers only an anagram of research, not research itself: the teasing paranoia of conspiracy, rather than causality.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Borges: but, like fried grasshoppers dipped in Marmite, I can quite see he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. :-/

4 thoughts on “Review of Jorge Luis Borges’ (1962) “Labyrinths”…

  1. Heh, I didn’t know people compare the VM to Borges. I read the “Aleph” bundle long ago (too long to remember much in detail) and I liked it, especially since I assumed what he did was relatively original back in the day.

    Borges’ stories remind me of what happens when you’re brainstorming for short story ideas, come up with something cool, but don’t really develop it. Like “oh, a point in space from where, if you look at it from a certain angle, you can see the whole world”. Or “an infinite library!!” And that’s basically what he writes, without much extra flesh. And there’s hardly any resolution.

    Come to think of it, this may be a bit like Voynich research indeed 🙂

    But it’s really not bad, I wouldn’t mind re-reading it some day.

  2. Sally Caves on July 19, 2017 at 6:10 pm said:

    To Koen: I enjoy the “micro-fiction” quality of Borges’ work. Not every imaginative thought has to be developed into an average-length short story or a novel, and that’s one of the virtues that sets Borges apart from other writers, except perhaps Italo Calvino, especially his Invisible Cities. I really enjoy the collision of fiction and fake history expressed so elegantly by Borges and so concisely. It’s playful and dark and leaves you wanting more. It’s got a high-quotient for mystery and tantalization.

    To Nick: Those are many and complex questions you raise, beautifully posed. in my experience as a medievalist, research in the humanities (especially modern and postmodern literary criticism) is itself interested in being a little mysterious. It wants to promote questions, inspire response and awe, and produce a kind of lyricism and obscurantism (I’m thinking of all that fascination with Derrida, etc. in the eighties and nineties), which, at its worst, dully repeats the phrases of previous critics or misapplies philosophy. I sometimes hate the deliberate obscurities of literary academic language. At its best, it pursues some original observation that it expresses almost poetically, relating what it sees to trending ideologies. Truth about the text often isn’t an issue, and Borges seems to satirize this, never quite “rising to levity.” However. research as a codicologist (i.e., trying to find the source for a medieval translation of something by examining the manuscript, trying to pin down a date or a provenance by examining orthography or archaic language badly copied) is more like what many Voynich researchers are after: the truth of something just out of reach. I think Borges groks that fascination. Fake news? not even close.

    There’s a covert comparison here of Borges’ writings to the Voynich manuscript itself. The VM strikes me as an elegant poseur for something it isn’t (imho): a sustained cipher. This is a pipe dream, but I keep thinking of it as an elaborate family project for half-intellectual, half-serious delight, which mixes nonsense and archaism with what looks like a serious manual about women’s fertility. What uses it served I have no idea. Like Borges it seems playful and dark. It never quite rises to levity. It leaves you wanting more. It has a high-quotient for mystery and tantalization. I’m aware that imposing motivations on it is highly controversial, and enters the realm of fiction. But to me it seems ludic.

    Are scholars post-Borges? I don’t know. But this kind of *fiction* is really taking off, ever since the Codex Seraphinianus and probably well before. I just bought The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spenser Black. Literary criticism that examines “cabinets of wonder” in half-ironic ways is in the minority but it’s there. I clearly have a taste for it and for Borges at the very same time that I’m trying to disprove a proposed source for an unknown medieval translator of a difficult Middle French text.

  3. Sally Caves: it’s always a pleasure when posts land on appreciative ears, so thanks very much for your comment.

    I suppose the fairer – well, broader – summary would be that the more you see the origins of the Voynich as ludic / literary, the more affinity to Borges you’ll feel. 🙂

  4. Sally Caves on July 20, 2017 at 4:26 am said:

    Or the reverse. The more you appreciate the dark (possibly ludic) wanderings of Borges, the more likely you’ll be fascinated by the Voynich. 🙂 Which is what I think you were saying in the first place.

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