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Other Inquisitions

Other Inquisitions
Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms; introduction by James Irby

This remarkable book by one of the great writers of our time includes essays on a proposed universal language, a justification of suicide, a refutation of time, the nature of dreams, and the intricacies of linguistic forms.

Series: Clásicos/Clássicos Latin American Masterpieces in English

January 1964
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223 pages | 6 x 9 |

This remarkable book by one of the great writers of our time includes essays on a proposed universal language, a justification of suicide, a refutation of time, the nature of dreams, and the intricacies of linguistic forms. Borges comments on such literary figures as Pascal, Coleridge, Cervantes, Hawthorne, Whitman, Valéry, Wilde, Shaw, and Kafka. With extraordinary grace and erudition, he ranges in time, place, and subject from Omar Khayyam to Joseph Conrad, from ancient China to modern England, from world revolution to contemporary slang.

  • Introduction
  • The Wall and the Books
  • Pascal's Sphere
  • The Flower of Coleridge
  • The Dream of Coleridge
  • Time and J. W. Dunne
  • The Creation and P. H. Gosse
  • Dr. Américo Castro is Alarmed
  • A Note on Carriego
  • Our Poor Individualism
  • Quevedo
  • Partial Enchantments of the Quixote
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Note on Walt Whitman
  • Valéry as a Symbol
  • The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald
  • About Oscar Wilde
  • On Chesterton
  • The First Wells
  • The Biathanatos
  • Pascal
  • The Meeting in a Dream
  • The Analytical Language of John Wilkins
  • Kafka and his Precursors
  • Avatars of the Tortoise
  • On the Cult of Books
  • The Nightingale of Keats
  • The Mirror of the Enigmas
  • Two Books
  • A Comment on August 23, 1944
  • About William Beckford's Vathek
  • About The Purple Land
  • From Someone to Nobody
  • Forms of a Legend
  • From Allegories to Novels
  • The Innocence of Layamon
  • For Bernard Shaw
  • The Modesty of History
  • New Refutation of Time
  • Epilogue
  • Index

This work, here translated into English for the first time, is Borges' best collection of essays, and forms a necessary complement to the stories of Ficciones and El Aleph, which have made him famous. Otras inquisiciones was first published in 1952, but its pieces had appeared separately (most of them in Victoria Ocampo's review Sur or in the literary supplement of La Nación) over the preceding thirteen years. The title harks back to Borges' first volume of essays, published in 1925, when he was twenty-six. Those original Inquisiciones now seem to him affected and dogmatic avant-garde exercises; he will not have the book reprinted and buys up old copies to destroy them. The present collection's curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. "Other" can mean "more of the same": more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But "other" is also "different," perhaps even "opposite": these essays hardly set forth inflexible dogma, with their sagacious heresies, pursuit of multiple meanings, and dubitative style. In 1925 Borges stated that his title aimed to dissociate "inquisition" once and for all from monks' cowls and the smoke of damnation. After an inquisitorial pursuit of his own work, the effort continues.

Borges' reference to De Quincey in opening the essay on John Donne is typical in its candid confession of influence and also typical in the English and uncommon nature of that influence. For Otras inquisiciones will probably seem no less unusual to the English-speaking than to the Spanish-speaking reader. Traits of nineteenthcentury essayists as little read today as De Quincey--whimsical bookishness, a blend of conversational discursiveness and elevated diction, informal opinion prevailing over formal analysis--combine with the many unfamiliar subjects to produce a kind of alienation effect, a somewhat archaic or even atemporal quality remote from our age of urgent involvements, as well as from current critical modes. This effect is more compounded than mitigated by a very un-nineteenth-century brevity that may seem fragmentary and, with the great heterogeneity of the subjects, make the collection appear arbitrary and without unity. But there is method here; its basic principle is already suggested by the union of diverse and opposite meanings in the title.

One of the foremost quests in Otras inquisiciones is for symmetries; two that are rediscovered throughout the book under various guises appear in the first two essays. In "The Wall and the Books" Borges evokes the Chinese emperor who both created the Great Wall and wanted all books prior to him burned. This enormous mystification inexplicably "satisfies" and, at the same time, "disturbs" Borges. His purpose then is to seek the reasons for "that emotion." (Note that the stimulus for the supposedly cerebral Borges is not an idea, that the satisfaction and disturbance are one feeling.) Various conjectures lead him to suggest that the aesthetic phenomenon consists in the "imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced": a kind of expanding virtuality of thought, an unresolved yet centrally focussed multiplicity of views, which the essay's form as discussion, as tacit dialogue, has already reflected. The other essays also display, centrally or laterally, paradoxes or oppositions with analogous overtones. At the end of "Avatars of the Tortoise" the paradoxes of Zeno and the antinomies of Kant indicate for Borges that the universe is ultimately a dream, a product of the mind, unreal because free of the apparent limits of time and space we call "real." But the paradoxical confession with which "New Refutation of Time" ends--"it [time] is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire"--must conclude that "the world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges." Extremes of fantastic hope and skepticism paradoxically coexist in Borges' thought. In "Pascal's Sphere" he examines an image which is not only paradoxical in itself--the universe as an infinite sphere, in other words, a boundless form perfectly circumscribed--but which has also served to express diametrically opposite emotions: Bruno's elation and Pascal's anguish. But the other basic symmetry to note here is Borges' history of the metaphor. Not only paradoxes are found throughout this collection, but also various listings of ideas or themes or images which though diverse in origin and detail are essentially the same. In "The Flower of Coleridge" the coincidence of Valéry's, Emerson's, and Shelley's conceptions of all literature as the product of one Author seems itself to bear out that conception. At the beginning of the essay on Hawthorne, Borges again briefly traces the history of a metaphor--the likening of our dreams to a theatrical performance--and adds that true metaphors cannot be invented, since they have always existed. Such "avatars" point beyond the flux and diversity of history to a realm of eternal archetypes, which, though limited in number, "can be all things for all people, like the Apostle." While the paradox upsets our common notions of reality and suggests that irreducible elements are actually one, recurrence negates history and the separateness of individuals. Of course, this too is a paradox, as "New Refutation of Time" shows: time must exist in order to provide the successive identities with which it is to be "refuted." The two symmetries noted above, if we pursue their implications far enough, finally coalesce, with something of the same dizzying sense, so frequent in Borges' stories, of infinite permutations lurking at every turn. Both are uses of what he calls a pantheist extension of the principle of identity--God is all things: a suitably heterogeneous selection of these may allude to Totality--which has, as he notes in the essay on Whitman, unlimited rhetorical possibilities.

Stylistic uses of that principle are the paradoxical or near-paradoxical word pairs ("that favors or tolerates another interpretation," "our reading of Kafka refines and changes our reading of the poem") and also the ellipses and transferred epithets based on substitution of part for whole, whose possibilities for animation of the abstract and impersonal explain why Borges terms a typical example "allegorical" at the beginning of "From Allegories to Novels." (The classical concept of Literature's precedence over individuals, outlined in the first essay on Coleridge, is analogous to this and to the priority of archetypes. As we shall see, Borges' very personal essayistic manner actually reinforces such impersonality.) In general, the enumeration of sharply diverse yet somehow harmonizing parts that allude to some larger, static whole unnamable by any unilateral means is a common procedure underlying many features of Borges' style and form: the sentences that abruptly rotate their angular facets like cut stones, the succinct little catalogs that may comprise paragraphs and even whole essays, the allusions and generalizations that find echoes of the line of argument elsewhere and project it onto other planes, the larger confrontations of a writer with his alter ego (in himself or in another) or of the essay with its own revision or complement--all those series and inlays, in short, which are so much the curt mosaic design of this collection.

It is even possible to see the miscellaneous range of subjects taken up in Otras inquisiciones as yet another extension of the same "pantheist" principle, as the record of a random series of discoveries in books that variously point to one subsistent order beyond. In Borges' stories (as also in Don Quixote) the turning points, the crucial revelations, are very often marked by the finding of some unexpected text. Otras inquisiciones opens with the words "I read, not long ago . . ." and closes with the author's reflections on rereading his own essays. This ubiquitousness of books and their scrutiny is but one aspect of that ancient topos, with all its Cabalist elaborations, that so fascinates Borges: the world as Book, reality transmuted into Word, into intelligible Sign. All reality, including the symbolic and lived aspects we normally consider separate-the translation of this unity into literary form, as "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote" points out, is the structure of work within work in Cervantes' novel, in Hamlet, in Sartor Resartus, where the boundaries between fiction and life shift and tend to disappear.

Concentric structures of this kind abound in Ficciones and El Aleph, as do direct premonitions and echoes of those stories' themes in Otras inquisiciones. It is easy to see, for example, that the literary games of Tlön that attribute dissimilar works to the same writer and conjecture upon the apocryphal mentality thus obtained, like Pierre Menard's art of "the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution," are only somewhat more extravagant applications of the scrutinies practiced in the essays. In fact, Borges' entire work, filled with recurring variants of the same interlocking themes, is a cento of itself, a repeated approximation of archetypes like those he glimpses in others. But a more intriguing comparison between his essays and his stories can be posed in this question: what is the difference for him between one genre and the other? Are his many fictions that masquerade as essays, such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" or "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," distinct from the "real" essays of Otras inquisiciones simply because the stories have invented books and authors as their subjects? But the fiction entitled "Story of the Warrior and the Captive" (in El Aleph) contains no invented element, save the speculative elaboration upon the scant facts of its real characters' lives, and the germs of this are found also in an essay like "The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald," with the same weighing of conjectures, bipartite structure, and final identity of figures greatly separate in time and place. The real difference seems to be one of emphasis or degree: fiction and fact, imagination and critique, are aspects of the same continuum throughout Borges' work, both within genres and among them. Hence, in these essays, he can use historical deeds to investigate the aesthetic phenomenon, to remark that the "inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art," to find in his own work a tendency to "evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth," and to add epilogues and afterthoughts that are the beginnings of those Chinese-box structures where literature devours and extends itself without limit.

Borges' major world-pictures have already been noted here in passing: the world as Book, the idealist and pantheist notions of the world as idea or dream, either man's or God's. (The Gnostic image suggested in the essay on John Donne--the world infinitely degraded, infinitely remote from God's perfection--is but the exact obverse of pantheism. As Borges observed in his earlier book Discusión, "what greater glory for a God than to be absolved of the world?") That these conceptions also coalesce is shown by the remark "we (the undivided divinity that operates within us) have dreamed the world" in "Avatars of the Tortoise," by the concluding sentence of "From Someone to Nobody," which suggests that all history is a dream of recurrent forms, and by the entire essay "The Mirror of the Enigmas," with its "hieroglyphic" interpretation of the universe that Borges claims most befits "the intellectual God of the theologians," the infinite mind that can instantly grasp the most intricate figure in space and time (a nightmare of ars combinatoria, of pure chance) as a harmonious design. Borges' world-pictures all seem to join in postulating that the world is a supreme mind about to emerge from its symbols and reveal the unity of all things and beings sub specie aeternitatis.

But does Borges believe in such incredible cosmologies? Clearly not: the alternative of infinite chaos is also always about to emerge. The word "believe" here takes on the same uncertainty as "fiction" and "reality." His cosmologies are like hypotheses, cherished but also incurably problematical, as the whole tentative, self-critical cast of his style, at its most elaborate in "New Refutation of Time," indicates. Such flexibility of mind he finds lacking in his former idol Quevedo, who is immune to the charm of fantastic doctrines that are "probably false," and relishes in the atheist Omar Khayyam, who could interpret the Koran with strict orthodoxy and invoke in his studies of algebra the favor of "the God Who perhaps exists," because "every cultivated man is a theologian, and faith is not a requisite." Any theme set forth by Borges will be refuted by him somewhere else: the concept of autonomous pure form espoused in "The Wall and the Books" and "Quevedo" is rejected in the first paragraphs of the essay on Bernard Shaw. Self-refutation has, besides the virtues of probity, its advantages, its "apparent desperations and secret assuagements." One could suspect that Borges' nature, like Chesterton's, is a discord, and see these essays simply as its testimony, but it seems more accurate to consider Otras inquisiciones as a mask, as consciously projecting the image of a "possible poet," after the manner he has noted in Whitman and Valéry, those poetic personifications of fervor and intellect, each of whom is a counterpart of Borges' creative self (the former fully as much as the latter, contrary to widespread belief).

The nature and purpose of that projection are implied in three passages from scattered essays of Borges. In 1927 he called metaphysics "the only justification and finality of any theme." In 1933 he spoke of Icelandic kennings that produce "that lucid perplexity which is the sole honor of metaphysics, its remuneration, and its source." And in 1944 he admired the "dialectical skill" of a fragment from Heraclitus, which insinuates part of its meaning and "gives us the illusion of having invented it." The themes of Otras inquisiciones, as such, matter less than the state of awareness their immediacy and strangeness and scope can induce. In Borges' sense, metaphysics is not an abstruse specialty, but the quotidian acts of all our thought, pursued to their consequences and revealed as the wonders they are. All ideas are arbitrary, fantastic, and useful. They should be remembered if forgotten or obscure, subverted if sacred (another form of oblivion), made absurd if banal--all for the sake of intelligence, of perceptibility. Borges' curious erudition, plausible paradoxes, and restless scrutinies serve those functions, as does his very readable style (that worn epithet must be revived and used here). Taut and effortless, transparent and mannered, deeply true to the genius of the Spanish language yet heterodox, his rhetoric is also a silent parody and extension of itself. For even certain excesses, the abruptness of certain transitions, the dubiousness of certain obviously sentimental attachments, seem a willful demonstration of the limits of his writing and thought, as if to invite the reader, once he is sufficiently initiated (Borges' work is never hermetic and is always intended for the reader), to "improve" upon these somewhat Socratic schemes. The activation of thought, shared by author and reader, miraculously effected over fatal distance and time by words whose sense alters and yet lives on, is the real secret promise of the infinite dominion of mind, not its images or finalities, which are expendable. This is the "method" of Borges' essays, the process both examined and enacted in them, received and passed on, as part of a great chain of being. Hence the essay on Whitman, hence the final epigraph from the seventeenth-century German mystic Angelus Silesius:

Freund, es ist auch genug. Im Fall du mehr willst lesen,
So geh and werde selbst die Schrift and selbst das Wesen.

Friend, this is enough. If you want to read more,
Go and be yourself the letter and the spirit.

James E. Irby

On September 20, 1792, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who had accompanied the Duke of Weimar on a military expedition to Paris) saw the finest army of Europe inexplicably repulsed at Valmy by some French militiamen, and said to his disconcerted friends: "In this place and on this day, a new epoch in the history of the world is beginning, and we shall be able to say that we have been present at its origin." Since that time historic days have been numerous, and one of the tasks of governments (especially in Italy, Germany, and Russia) has been to fabricate them or to simulate them with an abundance of preconditioning propaganda followed by relentless publicity. Such days, which reveal the influence of Cecil B. De Mille, are related less to history than to journalism. I have suspected that history, real history, is more modest and that its essential dates may be, for a long time, secret. A Chinese prose writer has observed that the unicorn, because of its own anomaly, will pass unnoticed. Our eyes see what they are accustomed to seeing. Tacitus did not perceive the Crucifixion, although his book recorded it.

Those thoughts came to me after a phrase happened to catch my eye as I leafed through a history of Greek literature. The phrase aroused my interest because of its enigmatic quality: "He brought in a second actor." I stopped; I found that the subject of that mysterious action was Aeschylus and that, as we read in the fourth chapter of Aristotle's Poetics, he "raised the number of actors from one to two." It is well known that the drama was an offshoot of the religion of Dionysus. Originally, a single actor, the hypokrites, elevated by the cothurnus, dressed in black or purple and with his face enlarged by a mask, shared the scene with the twelve individuals of the chorus. The drama was one of the ceremonies of the worship and, like all ritual, was in danger of remaining invariable. Aeschylus' innovation could have occurred on but one day, five hundred years before the Christian era; the Athenians saw with amazement and perhaps with shock (Victor Hugo thought the latter) the unannounced appearance of a second actor. On that remote spring day, in that honey-colored theatre, what did they think, what did they feel exactly? Perhaps neither amazement nor shock; perhaps only a beginning of surprise. In the Tusculanae it is stated that Aeschylus joined the Pythagorean order, but we shall never know if he had a prefiguring, even an imperfect one, of the importance of that passage from one to two, from unity to plurality and thus to infinity. With the second actor came the dialogue and the indefinite possibilities of the reaction of some characters on others. A prophetic spectator would have seen that multitudes of future appearances accompanied him: Hamlet and Faust and Segismundo and Macbeth and Peer Gynt and others our eyes cannot yet discern.

I found another historic day in the course of my reading. It occurred in Iceland in the thirteenth century; let us say in 1225. For the instruction of future generations, the historian and polygrapher Snorri Sturlason, at his estate in Borgarfjord, wrote about the last exploit of the famous King Harald Sigurdarson, also called the Implacable (Hardrada), who fought in Byzantium, Italy, and Africa. Tostig, the brother of the Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson, coveted the power and had obtained the help of Harald Sigurdarson. With an army of Norsemen, they landed on the eastern shore and subdued the castle of Jorvik (York). South of Jorvik they were confronted by the Saxon army. Snorri's text continues:

Twenty horsemen joined the ranks of the invader; the men and also the horses were covered with mail. One of the horsemen shouted, "Is Earl Tostig here?"

"I do not deny that I am here," said the Earl.

"If you are really Tostig," said the horseman, "I come to tell you that your brother offers you his pardon and a third part of the kingdom."

"If I accept," said Tostig. "what will the King give to Harald Sigurdarson ?"

"He has not forgotten him," replied the horseman. "He will give him six feet of English sod and since he is so tall, one more."

"Then," said Tostig, "tell your king we shall fight to the death."

The horsemen galloped away. Harald Sigurdarson asked pensively, "Who was that man who spoke so well?"

"Harold Godwinson."

Other chapters tell that before the sun set that day the Norse army was defeated. Harald Sigurdarson died in the battle and so did the Earl (Heimskringla, X, 92).

There is a flavor that our time (perhaps surfeited by the clumsy imitations of professional patriots) does not usually perceive without some suspicion: the fundamental flavor of the heroic. People assure me that the Poema del Cid has that flavor; I have found it, unmistakably, in verses of the Aeneid ("My son, from me learn valor and true constancy; from others, success"), in the Anglo-Saxon ballad of Maldon ("My people will pay the tribute with lances and with old swords"), in the Chanson de Roland, in Victor Hugo, in Whitman, and in Faulkner ("the single sprig of it (verbena] . . . filling the room, the dusk, the evening with that odor which she said you could smell alone above the smell of horses"), in Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries," and in the "six feet of English sod" of the Heimskringla. Behind the apparent simplicity of the historian there is a delicate psychological game. Harold pretends not to recognize his brother, so that the latter, in turn, will perceive that he must not recognize him either; Tostig does not betray him, nor will he betray his ally; Harold, willing to pardon his brother but not to tolerate the meddling of the Norse King, proceeds in a very comprehensible manner. I shall say nothing of the verbal skill of his reply: to give a third of the kingdom, to give six feet of sod.

Only one thing is more admirable than the admirable reply of the Saxon king: that an Icelander, a man of the lineage of the vanquished, has perpetuated the reply. It is as if a Carthaginian had bequeathed to us the memory of the exploit of Regulus. Saxo Grammaticus wrote with justification in his Gesta Danorum: "The men of Thule [Iceland] are very fond of learning and of recording the history of all peoples and they are equally pleased to reveal the excellences of others or of themselves."

Not the day when the Saxon said the words, but the day when an enemy perpetuated them, was the historic date. A date that is a prophecy of something still in the future: the day when races and nations will be cast into oblivion, and the solidarity of all mankind will be established. The offer owes its virtue to the concept of a fatherland. By relating it, Snorri surmounts and transcends that concept.

I recall another tribute to an enemy in one of the last chapters of Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The author praises the valor of a German detachment and writes that for the first time in the campaign he was proud of the men who had killed his brothers. And he adds: "They were glorious."

Buenos Aires, 1952