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  • About a Post-Metaphysical Reading of Borges and the Form of Thinking
  • Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

Everybody, I imagine, who has ever read a text by Jorge Luis Borges, especially any of his narrative texts, and who, in addition, works as a teacher of literature, must be familiar with the fear that overcomes me each time that I am expected to say something about this author in public. It just feels so very hopeless, so very unlikely that one could have anything to say but tautologies about somebody as awe-inspiringly cultivated and intelligent as Borges, who, to make things worse for the critic, has also pushed the tone of mildly self-ironic reflexivity to its possible limits. Whenever I mention Borges in a class or in a lecture, therefore, I become obsessed with the nightmare of him walking through the door or appearing at a window only to look at me with that both understanding and desperate smile which wise people reserve for very small children and for complete idiots. Things do not get any better if you check the books available under "Borges" on the on-line catalogue or in the on-shelf presence at your university library. For not only will you find all those (more or less) "definitive" editions of his texts that Borges published during his lifetime, with the clear intention and obvious pleasure of confusing the scholars among his readers; you will also realize that there are more books and articles written on Borges than on probably any other author of the later twentieth century. The knowledge and culture with which Borges' texts abound seem to have produced the impression (or, rather, the confusion) in the average erudite that Borges would have liked to engage in a conversation with her or him, and much of the literature on his work indeed reads as if it had been written in preparation for or in reaction to such private conversations among scholars. A more distant way of describing the same intuition and the effect that this impression produces is to say that it seems very difficult, if not straightforwardly painful or even impossible, to gain an outside position and an analytic perspective once you have developed an intellectual fondness for Borges' work. [End Page 181] Many of his readers feel therefore trapped in their very own, specific mode of Borges-enthusiasm.

This may well be my case, for I can certainly not claim to be thinking and writing about Borges in full awareness of the enormous research bibliography that has accumulated over the past three decades. Rather, I still feel intrigued and provoked by the imagination and the fear of Borges' condescending smile, and this is why, after a number of years in which I have neither taught Borges nor written about his work, I shall try again. And I shall do so from a perspective that is close (if not identical) to what Hans-Georg Gadamer called "application" (307-11). In other words: presupposing that Borges and his work are no longer contemporary to our present, I shall ask the question of what this work can possibly be for us, what it can tell us today —or, a bit more modestly, I shall ask what the Borges whom we may need today could possibly look like. In pursuing this question, I shall not even try "to do justice" to Borges, as we normally promise (or imply to promise) at the beginning of academic lectures or scholarly essays. If Borges were alive, he would above all not need my personal forbearance —but I have to add, more generally, that I have never quite understood what exactly it would mean "to do justice" to an author who died some time ago. Be it as it may, let me finally get over with the preliminary remarks and turn to the basic outline of my argument.

I shall begin by briefly describing the image of Jorge Luis Borges predominant in present-day criticism, which I think is still the image of a "postmodern Borges," and I shall also try to explain why this image was so highly plausible and, as a consequence, why it became so highly institutionalized. Next, I...


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pp. 181-196
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