- Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature by Jorge J. E. Gracia
Montaigne said it in the sixteenth century, and Plato's Ion said it long before: we are but interpreters of interpretations. Jorge J. E. Gracia's Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature rests upon the assumption that this somewhat plaintive verdict on the inescapability of interpretation is in fact an occasion for celebration. For various reasons—some of which I will discuss below—Painting Borges is a welcome addition to the field of interpretation theory and will be of interest not only to philosophers and hermeneuts, but also to scholars of Latin American art and literature.
The book's central theme, announced in the subtitle, is the philosophical interpretation of the artistic interpretation of literature, and the questions it raises are keyed to the relationship between these otherwise different modes of expression: what is an "artistic" interpretation of literature? How do such interpretations work? How do they differ from other kinds of interpretation? And what are their limits? Gracia makes it clear from the beginning that his goal is not to answer—nor even thoroughly to investigate—such questions, but instead to "suggest some ways of considering them that should help us understand the general phenomenon and to explore some of the problems that it raises" (2). The strategy of exploration is multilayered and quite ingeniously conceived. Gracia begins with twelve short stories by the twentieth-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and then, for each story, examines two "painted" interpretations by seventeen different twentieth-century Latin American artists. Borges's place at the center of the book owes not only to his status as (arguably) the most important Latin American author of the twentieth century, but also to the philosophical orientation of his literary corpus. The artists, all from Argentina or Cuba, are likewise established figures in Latin America, and many of their "painted" interpretations (plates of which are included in the book) were commissioned especially for Gracia's project.
The book is divided into two main parts. In Part 1, "Painted Stories" (chapters 2-13), Gracia takes up two "painted" interpretations of a single Borges short story. Part 2, "Identity and Interpretation" (chapters 14-17), is the philosophical heart of the book. Here, Gracia examines a series of interpretive [End Page 106] and hermeneutical questions raised by Part 1 and, in the process, sketches the outlines of a full-blown theory of interpretation. Chapters 14 and 15 are largely programmatic. The first examines the relationship among literature, art, and philosophy, and proposes a theory for distinguishing them one from another. The second sketches a general theory of interpretation: what it is, how it works, and what it aims at. In chapter 16, Gracia returns to the artistic interpretations of Borges's stories and examines the various "interpretive strategies" they employ. Finally, chapter 17 considers the "limits of interpretation" and how those limits impinge upon the artistic interpretation of literature.
Part 1 is organized around a series of philosophical themes prominent in Borges's writing (identity, memory, fate, divinity, and so forth), and each of its chapters is devoted to a "close reading" (or perhaps a "close viewing") of two artistic interpretations of a single story. Exemplary of Gracia's interpretive strategy is his treatment of Borges's "Funes, the Memorious," published in Ficciones in 1944 (37-45). "Funes" tells the story of Ireneo Funes, a Uruguayan acquaintance of the narrator who possesses the curious inability to forget anything. He learns ancient languages effortlessly, memorizes large swaths of unfamiliar material at a single go, and recalls with exquisite precision every detail of every experience. So expansive indeed are Funes's powers of observation and recollection that he cannot understand why, for instance, "the generic symbol dog includes so many different individuals of different sizes and shapes," nor even why "the dog at 3:14 (viewed from the side) has the same name as the dog at 3:15 (viewed from the front)."1 Yet such ability comes at a price. Perhaps...