- Borgean Transpositions From Ear to Eye
Y escucho con mis ojos a los muertos.—F. Quevedo. "Sonnet"
Looking on darkness, which the blind do see.—W. Shakespeare. "Sonnet XXVII"
I. Introduction: Closing the Circle of Mirrors: Borges on Painting Borges (the paradox of self-evident and impossible movement)
It is bad enough to be condemned to drag around this image in which nature has imprisoned me. Why should I consent to the perpetuation of the image of this image?—Plotinus [End Page 161]
Translation is a kind of drawing after the life; where every one will acknowledge there is a double sort of likeness, a good one and a bad. 'Tis one thing to draw the outlines true, the features like, the proportions exact, the colouring itself perhaps tolerable; and another thing to make all these graceful, by the posture, the shadowings, and chiefly, by the spirit which animates the whole. I cannot, without some indignation, look on an ill copy of an excellent original; much less can I behold with patience Virgil, Homer, and some other, whose beauties I have been endeavouring all my life to imitate, so abused, as I may say, to their faces, by a botching interpreter.—J. Dryden. "Preface" to Sylvae
An invitation to discuss visual works derived from a dozen Borgean fictions, most of them reworkings of oral tales or earlier writings, can only be described as a journey into the abyss. The multiplication of derivations, conveyed in the rubric "philosophy interpreting art interpreting literature," not only produces immediate bafflement but, on a more distant examination, risks issuing into paradox, arousing a response that is as contradictory as it is inescapable. For depending on whether we consider the result laid out for us to see or reason through the discrete steps involved in this movement between literature and painting, the task will appear either self-evident or impossible.
True, in this sense at least, in its multiplication of derivations and tendency to paradox, the exercise could strike us as eminently Borgean: it might serve to deepen the abyss of duplications and repetitions created by some of the major obsessions of his work. But is this endlessly unfolding trap a place where we can safely disport ourselves? With his usual irony, Borges warns:
Islam affirms that on the final day of Judgment, any perpetrator of an image of a living thing will be resuscitated with his works and commanded to bring them to life, and will fail, and will be consigned with them to the fire of chastisement. As a boy I knew this horror of a spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but produced by large mirrors. Their unfailing and unending operation, the way they pursued my actions, their cosmic pantomime . . . Sometimes I feared that they would begin to diverge from [End Page 162] my reality; sometimes that I would see my face disfigured in them by strange adversities. I have learned that this fear is, once again, prodigiously abroad in the world.(1989b, 164)1
It is within this abyss of duplications—from childhood fascination and fear in front of the mirror to the replications of identity in another who is yet the same, from the phantasmagoric character of the external world to the possibility that everything is a dream dreamed by itself—that we might place, then, the no less phantasmal derivation proposed here from literature to painting. It is no coincidence that the first fiction portrayed and exhibited is none other than "The Other," aptly and symptomatically subtitled "We Were so Similar and so Different," a synecdoche of the relationship between visual works and literary ones that, like everything in Borges, is by no means the beginning of the chain of duplications: with its reworking, plundering, and alteration of earlier texts; with its repetition and variation of the same obsessions in sometimes identical pages. Borges's own confession is enough: "Well . . . I shall have to repeat myself, I have no choice, since if I do not repeat others I repeat myself, and for all I know I am myself nothing but a repetition" (Borges and Ferrari 2005, 1:149).2
This does not stop here. For, at...