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  • "The Providential Apotheosis of His Industry":Display of Causal Systems in Borges
  • Magdalena Cámpora (bio)

In a 1938 article in which he reviews a mystery novel by J. B. Priestley, Borges states:

Para un criterio cotidiano, el azar interviene increíblemente en esta novela. En su decurso hay demasiadas coincidencias "providenciales." Con igual justicia, un literato puede reprochar a la obra su desanimada (y desanimadora) falta de azar. Abundan las "sorpresas," pero todas ellas son previsibles, y, lo que es peor, fatales. Para el hombre avezado, o resignado, a este género de ficciones, lo verdaderamente sorprendente sería que no sucediera. . . .

(1986, 266)

[For a daily criterion, chance intervenes incredibly in this novel. During its course, there are too many "providential" coincidences. With equal justice, a man of letters can reproach the work for its discouraged (and discouraging) [End Page 125] lack of chance. "Surprises" are abundant, but all of them are predictable and, what is worst, fatal. For someone who has experience in, or is resigned to, this genre of fictions, what would be truly surprising would be that it did not happen. . . . ]1

Thus, the novel has two flaws: there is too much chance, and this chance is predictable. It is particularly predictable, writes Borges, to someone familiar with the mystery novel, since the reader who is "resigned to this genre of fictions" easily guesses scripts and conventional cause-effect chains (patterns such as: "He came back to the crime scene because the murderer always goes back to the crime scene"). The problem lies in the articulation of Priestley's plot, which makes excessive use of two overly apparent resources: on the one hand, chance (which arbitrarily justifies that which intrigue does not sustain); on the other hand, the most elemental scripts of the mystery novel genre, which the reader easily anticipates. In other words: there is neither need nor surprise because—and this is what Borges seems to disapprove of—the threads that causally link events are too easily seen.

The objection is somewhat puzzling if we consider that Borges's writing is strongly marked by the display of causal threads. Some very evident examples come to mind: "Emma Zunz" is a manual on the construction of parallel causalities; "La lotería en Babilonia" ("The Lottery in Babylon") narrates the systematic and apocryphal invention of a causation system (which is chance); "La otra muerte" ("The Other Death") shows at least three types of opposite causalities (fantastic, metafictional, and supernatural2) condensed in the word "destiny," which simultaneously explain the death of one single man. In all of these examples, the causation system that sustains the articulation of the facts—be it called "Company," Emma's "plan," or "destiny"—is a construct that the story advances in a thorough, delighted manner. Why, then, is Borges so displeased with the visibility of causal threads in Priestley's novel?

A first (and a rather obvious) answer is that the way in which they are revealed is very poor. In Priestley's novel, the display of causal threads is a consequence of a weakness in the plot: chance is used to bridge gaps, and contingency accounts for certain facts that would otherwise remain [End Page 126] unmotivated. To put it plainly, the causal system is not intentionally shown to highlight plot structure; it merely palliates its flaws a posteriori. On the contrary, in Borges, and this is one of the central points I will seek to develop in this work, the emphasis on causal systems is justified by the plot; it is born out of the plot itself.

Another reason for irritation may be the lack of purpose in the display. And by "purpose" we should understand the historical purpose, the statement of an aesthetic stance. The texts in which Borges shows causal threads with greatest strength are the fictions of the thirties and forties; likewise, the problem of causality reappears in essays and reviews of the same period, for example, in the 1933 review of 45 días y treinta marineros (45 days and Thirty Sailors) by Norah Lange, where Borges quite categorically holds that "the central problem of the novel is causality" (2001, 77).3 The problem...


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