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Borges and the Idea of Woman

In his introduction to the recently published collection, Critical Essays on Jorge Luis Borges (all reprints of articles written in the late 1960s and early 1970s), Jaime Alazraki outlines the issues that have most preoccupied and polarized critics since Borges burst on the international scene in 1961, the year he shared the International Publishers' (Formentor) Prize with Samuel Beckett. In broad terms the polemics have centered on the implications of Borges' experimental, idealist, self-referential, formalist writing, that is, its postmodern cosmopolitanism—the way in which, in Alazraki's words, "confronted with the chaos of the world, he chose the order of the library, the safety of a decipherable labyrinth" (3).1 Borges has been both celebrated for being "a prose master and a riveting fabulist" (6) and reviled for his indifference to the tragedies of human experience, the materiality of history. In and of itself extreme textualism is not a crime, of course, but when Borges' fiction and nonfiction are seen in a modern Latin American social and political context, its rarefied, solipsistic universe begins to resemble not so much the library as the mausoleum—the implications of which extend beyond one's attraction to a particular sensibility or theoretical position. Indeed, Borges' glorious [End Page 149] reception and reputation among North American critics of all stripes (from Foucault to Updike) have always been slightly tainted by the ambivalence the Latin American literary community feels toward him.2 It remains a fascinating irony, however, that despite a disregard for his own cultural tradition, his pervasive influence upon Latin American literature and his stature within the Spanish-American canon rest unchallenged, that despite his universal appropriation his poetics uncannily reflects a quintessentially Argentine disposition.

Alazraki's editorial stance in this volume is comfortably retrospective; he traces the evolution of Anglo-American Borges criticism through 1982, at which point he notes that "the redundancy of glossing and reglossing [Borges] has reached proportions of abuse" (18) and that the "bibliographic flood" that testifies to the "state of saturation" if not "exhaustion" of Borges criticism is now beyond reasonable citation (17). I am not interested in arguing this point except with regard to one largely neglected aspect of Borges' writing, one given passing but notable mention within the pages of this same collection, in the essay by George Steiner: "Nevertheless, despite its formal universality and the vertigo breadths of his allusive range, the fabric of Borges' art has severe gaps. Only once, in a story called 'Emma Zunz,' has Borges realized a credible woman. Throughout the rest of his work, women are the blurred object of men's fantasies or recollections" (122).

It is the purpose of the present essay to examine the idea of woman in Borges' writing.3 Women and rhetoric have long been linked, from many a feminist as well as masculinist perspective; however different the vision of each, woman continues to be a metaphor for mystery, for the unknowable, for the undecidable. That woman is also a metaphor for difference and for metaphor itself, for that textual signification which is both always and never recuperable—the figure of figuration—needs to be examined still further.4 This essay is written in the spirit of such an [End Page 150] examination: thus I am less interested in the representation of woman in Borges' writing than in the relationship between woman and representation.

My critical approach will differ somewhat from the kinds of significant advances made by feminist literary criticism in Hispanic studies over the last decade. Although a feminist perspective has not yet revised traditional historical paradigms or challenged the basic assumptions of the Hispanic literary canon, feminist literary criticism has substantially contributed to "the study of women characters in mainstream Hispanic literary texts." These studies of female characterization have generally concluded that centuries of literary production in Spanish express "two aspects of a single tendency—misogyny and idealization." Such a binary typology, drawn from myth as much as cultural reality, embodies male projections of woman as perpetual "otherness" (Miller 8).5 To speak of women characters in Borges' work, specifically in reference to the binary typology outlined by Beth Miller...