Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1996)
PARTIAL ENCHANTMENTS OF THE QUIXOTE
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899.
While traveling to France and Spain after the war he became acquainted with writers committed to avant garde movements such as Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Dada—and the Ultraists. Three collections, The Universal History of Infamy (1935), The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), and Fictions (1945), established him as one of the greatest universal writers.
It is probable that these observations have been made before at least once, and perhaps many times; their novelty interests me less than their possible truths.
In comparison with other classics (the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Pharsalia,1 Dante’s Divine Comedy, the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare), the Quixote is realistic, but this realism differs essentially from the nineteenth-century variety.
Joseph Conrad wrote that he excluded the supernatural from his works, because to include it would seem to be a denial that the quotidian was marvelous. I do not know whether Miguel de Cervantes shared that idea, but I do know that the form of the Quixote caused him to counter pose a real, prosaic world with an imaginary, poetic one. Conrad and Henry James incorporated reality into their novels because they deemed it poetic; to Cervantes the real and the poetic are antonyms.
To the vast and vague geography of the Amadis, he opposes the dusty roads and sordid inns of Castile; it is as if a novelist of our day were to sketch a satirical caricature of, say, service stations, treating them in a ludicrous way. Cervantes has created for us the poetry of seventeenth-century Spain, but neither that century nor that Spain were poetic for him; men like Unamuno or Azorin or Antonio Machado, whose emotions were stirred by the evocation of La Mancha, Cervantes would have found incomprehensible.
The plan of his work precluded the marvelous, but still the marvelous had to be there, if only indirectly, as crime and mystery are present in a parody of the detective story. Cervantes could not have had recourse to amulets or sorcery, but he insinuated the supernatural in a subtle and therefore more effective way. In his heart of hearts, Cervantes loved the supernatural. In 1924 Paul Groussac observed: "With his cursory smattering of Latin and Italian, Cervantes derived his literary production primarily from pastoral novels and novels of chivalry, fables that had given solace to him in his captivity."[i] The Quixote is less an antidote for those tales than a secret nostalgic farewell.
Every novel is an ideal depiction of reality. Cervantes delights in fusing the objective and the subjective, the world of the reader and the world of the book. In the chapters that consider whether the barber's basin is a helmet and the packsaddle a harness, the problem is treated explicitly; other parts, as I mentioned before, merely hint at it. In the sixth chapter of Part One the priest and the barber inspect Don Quixote's library; astonishingly enough, one of the books they examine is the Galatea by Cervantes. It turns out that the barber is a friend of his who does not admire him very much, and says that Cervantes is more versed in misfortunes than in verses. He adds that the book has a rather well-constructed plot; it proposes something and concludes nothing. The barber, a dream of Cervantes or a form of one of Cervantes' dreams, passes judgment on Cervantes.
It is also surprising to learn, at the beginning of Chapter IX, that the whole novel has been translated from the Arabic and that Cervantes acquired the manuscript in the marketplace of Toledo. It was translated by a Morisco, who lived in Cervantes' house for more than a month and a half while he completed the task. We are reminded of Carlyle, who feigned that the Sartor Resartus was a partial version of a work published in Germany by Dr. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh; we are reminded of the Spanish Rabbi A'loises de Leon, who wrote the Zohar or Book of the Splendor and divulged it as the work of a Palestinian rabbi of the third century.
The set of strange ambiguities culminates in Part Two. The protagonists of the Quixote who are, also, readers of the Quixote, have read Part One. Here we inevitably remember the case of Shakespeare, who includes on the stage of Hamlet another stage, where a tragedy almost like that of Hamlet is being presented. The imperfect correspondence of the principal work and the secondary one lessens the effectiveness of that inclusion. A device analogous to Cervantes' and even more startling appears in the Ramayana, epic poem by Valmiki, which relates the deeds of Rama and his war with the evil spirits. In the last book Rama's children, not knowing who their father is, seek refuge in a forest, where a hermit teaches them to read. That teacher, strangely enough, is Valmiki; the book they study is the Ramayana. Rama orders a sacrifice of horses; Valmiki comes to the ceremony with his pupils. They sing the Ramayana to the accompaniment of the lute. Rama hears his own story, recognizes his children, and then rewards the poet.
Chance has caused something similar to occur in A Thousand and One Nights. That compilation of fantastic stories duplicates and reduplicates to the point of vertigo the ramification of a central tale into subordinate ones, without attempting to evaluate their realities; the effect (which should have been profound) is superficial, like that of a Persian rug. The first story is well known: the desolate oath of the Sultan, who marries a maiden each night and then orders her to be beheaded at dawn, and the courage of Scheherazade, who delights him with fables until a thousand and one nights have gyrated about them and she shows him their son. The need to complete a thousand and one sections obliged the copyists of the work to make all sorts of interpolations. None is so disturbing as that of night DCII, magic among the nights. That is when the Sultan hears his own story from the Sultana's mouth. He hears the beginning of the story, which embraces all the other stories as well as—monstrously—itself. Does the reader perceive the unlimited possibilities of that interpolation, the curious clanger—that the Sultana may persist and the Sultan, transfixed, will hear forever the truncated story of A Thousand and One Nights, now infinite and circular?
The inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art. In the first volume of The World and the Individual (1899) Josiah Royce has formulated the following one:
... let us suppose, if you please, that a portion of the surface of England is very perfectly leveled and smoothed, and is then devoted to the production of our precise map of England. . . . But now suppose that this resemblance is to be made absolutely exact, in the sense previously defined. A map of England, contained within England, is to represent, down to the minutest detail, every contour and marking, natural or artificial, that occurs upon the surface of England . . . For the map, in order to be complete, according to the rule given, will have to contain, as a part of itself, a representation of its own contour and contents. In order that this representation should be constructed, the representation itself will have to contain once more, as a part of itself, a representation of its own contour and contents; and this representation, in order to be exact, will have once more to contain an image of itself; and so on without limit.
Why does it make us uneasy to know that the map is within the map and the thousand and one nights are within the book of A Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
In 1833 Carlylc observed that universal history is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they too are written.
[i] Cervantes was captured at sea by Turks and taken off to Algiers as a slave in 1575. He was ransomed in 1590. He was later imprisoned a number of times, when, as a tax collector, his accounts did not balance. Partial Enchantments of the Quixote