- Subtle Reflections of/upon Joyce in/by Borges
“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” . . . [is] the tale of a kind of saint who spreads circles of diminishing splendor all around him, and is finally discovered by somebody who divines him through these many far-flung echoes of his influence. 1
Jorge Luis Borges’ earliest work of short fiction, “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” (1936), like several of the tales he collected for his first volume of stories The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), presents itself as “a commentary” on a book that “already exist[s].” 2 “[B]oth a hoax and a pseudo-essay,” 3 “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” establishes the model for narrative compression that Borges announces in his “Foreword” to The Garden of Forking Paths: “composing vast books” is absurd, Borges asserts, “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one . . . —setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them” (p. 67). In another sense “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” is a model Borges tale, as the author recognizes in his 1970 “Autobiographical Essay.” This story of intense foreshadowing itself foreshadows his subsequent writing: “it now seems to me,” Borges reflects, that “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” [End Page 47] “foreshadow[ed] and even . . . set the pattern for those tales that were somehow awaiting me, and upon which my reputation as a story teller was to be based.” 4 Two stories immediately following “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” in Ficciones (1944) confirm Borges’ observation. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) and “The Circular Ruins” (1940) directly descend from this early model. Their mutual indebtedness, however, does not reside in the “hoax and pseudo essay” strategy for compression, the theme of detection, or the interplay of the real and the ideal that Borges perhaps has in mind in his “Autobiographical Essay”—patterns that these two tales only partially illustrate. Rather, “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” and, most especially “The Circular Ruins” are joined by their common relationship to one of those “vast books” that cast their shadow on Borges’ career: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Borges and Joyce, despite their antithetically compressive and expansive methods of composition, share numerous incidental similarities, as many have noted: both writers belong more to world culture than to their national literatures; both labor heroically and, in their own terms, Homerically in the darkness of blindness; both aspire to represent in their writing the cities of their birth, Buenos Aires and Dublin; both construct Daedelan labyrinths, and so on. Among the several Joycean reflections within Borges’ fictions, the most significant is the sense that Borges, particularly in his early stories, carries on a conversation of sorts with James Joyce, devoting his “five minutes” to the perfect oral relation of, reflection upon, and resistance to, some of Joyce’s central ideas in Ulysses (1922), in accord with yet another model: Harold Bloom’s paradigm of the “anxiety of influence.” 5
Recognizing Borges’ agonistic relationship to Joyce, and most especially his repudiation of what he considered avant-garde excess in Ulysses (and Finnegans Wake as well), will clarify both the younger writer’s conservative Modernism and his particular relationship to modern Anglo-European literature. Although often extricated from the literary milieu of Buenos Aires in the 1920s and 1930s and read as a kind of “proto-postmodernist,” the Borges who would enshrine de Quincey, Stevenson, Shaw, and Chesterton among the writers whom he desired to emulate (p. 130) is more properly a representative voice of the “moderate . . . Argentine avant-garde” that resisted what they saw as “nihilism,” gratuitous iconoclasm, and “bourgeois philistinism” in the excesses of the European high Modernism. 6 Displacing Borges from his cultural context, however, does more than distort his relation to contemporary, and especially Anglo-European, literary movements. The Ultraism that he imported to Buenos Aires from Madrid in 1921 (and the excesses of which he later repudiated), was a direct reaction against [End Page 48...