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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 80-97
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Literary Truth as Dreamlike Expression in Foucault's and Borges's "Chinese Encyclopedia"
ALTHOUGH THE TOPIC REMAINS MOSTLY unexplored, Michel Foucault had an aesthetic and intellectual attraction towards writers and artists in the Spanish-speaking tradition. For example, at the conclusion of his Histoire de la folie (Madness and Civilization, 1961)—a book which brought him extensive intellectual recognition in France—Foucault drew his readers' attention to José de Goya y Lucientes's (1746-1828) well-known etching, El Sueño de la Razón Produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, Plate 43 of Los Caprichos, 1797). In Foucault's estimation, by revealing a "night which is doubtless that of classical unreason," Goya's work represented a socially removed condition within which people encounter "what is most solitary" and experience what is "deepest" within themselves. With his reference to Goya's imagery, Foucault illustrated a major theme of his history of madness, namely, how people referred to as "mentally ill" experienced a gradual, physical exclusion from participation in public society, and how they were eventually isolated in a more frightening way: within their physical confinement, they were subject to techniques of psychological and spiritual alienation that reduced them to a condition of utter solitude.
In a comparable, if not more central manner, Foucault used as thematic motifs for the preface, first and second chapters of a book for which he is widely known, Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things, 1966), the work of three major writers and artists from the Spanish-speaking world: Jorges Luis Borges (1899-1986), Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), and Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Among these references, the most popular is probably Foucault's discussion of [End Page 80] Velázquez's Las Meninas—a painting which captured Foucault's interest as a perfect exemplar of its time period—and which inspired him to devote the entire first chapter of his book to decoding the mechanics of its perspectival arrangement. And within the community of those who read, write and discuss the interrelationship between Foucault's thought, literary theory and the contemporary emphasis upon the multivocal quality of textual meaning, Foucault's citation of an excerpt from a short story by Borges—the subject of this essay—is also familiar. Foucault introduced his 1966 book, The Order of Things, with the following words:
This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which it is written that "animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies." In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. 1
The short story from which Foucault extracted the above, quasi-cubistic, excerpt was published in Borges's 1952 collection, Otras Inquisiciones (Other Inquisitions), and is entitled, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins." Although this story's entirety is rarely surveyed in discussions of Foucault, appreciating its broader contents helps illuminate why Foucault began The Order of Things with this entertaining and bizarre segment. Borges's original...