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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1143-1148
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Jorge J.E. Gracia, Carolyn Korsmeyer, and Rodolphe Gasché, eds., Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. 248 pages.
Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco, edited by Jorge J.E. Gracia, Carolyn Korsmeyer, and Rodolphe Gasché, explores the relationship between literature and philosophy, addressing the central question of what such literary works have to offer in philosophical terms or, as Korsmeyer puts it in her introduction, whether "philosophy [can] be done in or through or by means of fictional literature" (3). Many of the contributions contained in this disparate but illuminating collection arise from a conference held at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1999. As Korsmeyer notes, many of the essays in the collection take as their point of departure Borges' story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote": "'Pierre Menard' is repeatedly invoked in these essays, more than any other single work" (6). Even Calvino and Eco themselves, Korsmeyer tells us, "acknowledge a debt to Borges" (2). This indebtedness is evident throughout the collection; of the eleven essays, five focus exclusively on Borges, three on Calvino and one on Eco, while the remaining contributions treat some mixture of the three. Borges' work, as Lois Parkinson Zamora notes in her essay, "is routinely invoked to illustrate a vast array of theories and critical positions," from Michel Foucault to Harold Bloom (47). Throughout this collection, contributors address the very ambiguity that defines "Menard"; just as the story blurs the distinction between story and essay, these essays explore the erasure or question of boundaries between disciplines raised by such fictional works. [End Page 1143]
The essays approach this central issue from a variety of perspectives. In "Intersections" Deborah Knight discusses questions elicited by Borges' work in particular—namely, the problem of discerning the identities and boundaries distinguishing literature and philosophy from each other. The question Knight poses—"whether literature can be an alternative avenue to philosophical truth" (17)—leads to a similarly ambiguous answer—"yes and no"; Knight argues that while literature is one of many "avenues" to philosophical truth, the two remain "different practices" that, even so, become "intertwined" (17). Having established Borges' role in raising such questions, Knight discusses how various philosophers, such as Booth and Nussbaum, have approached the practice of ethical criticism. As her title suggests, Knight points out that ethical criticism mainly addresses realist works "with basically Aristotelian plots and richly developed psychological characters engaged in courses of action that are serious and demand second-order reflection from the characters as well as from readers" (23). Ethical criticism, and more generally philosophy of literature, Knight argues, is often at a loss to account for the "self-conscious and self-reflexive metafictions written by Borges, Calvino, and Eco" (23). According to Knight, philosophy of literature is limited in its capacity to address kinds of literature other than those that easily lend themselves to ethical readings. Looking ahead to Wladimir Krysinski's essay at the end of the collection, Knight concludes by suggesting that in order to read Borges, Calvino, and Eco we need a "philosophy of metafiction" rather than a "philosophy of literature" (25).
In "Philosophy and the Philosophical, Literature and the Literary, Borges and the Labyrinthine," William Irwin approaches the problem from a different angle, adapting Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance to clarify the relationship between literature and philosophy. Having concluded, not surprisingly, that Borges' ficciones are indeed literature or literary, Irwin poses a more challenging question: are Borges' stories philosophy? Focusing primarily on "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Irwin decides that the story is indeed philosophical "in that it raises issues and asks questions that are of concern to philosophers" (41). He then asks whether "Menard" is "an instance of philosophy" and concludes that although "Menard" "raises interesting and important philosophical issues, but it neither argues for, nor provides answers" (41); the story is philosophical, though not philosophy per se.
Lois Parkinson Zamora's essay "Borges' Monsters" addresses these questions differently, examining the parallels between Borges' hybrid genres and his imaginary monstrosities. Zamora provides a historical-biographical context...