Kant’s Dog: On Borges, Philosophy, and the Time of Translation by David E. Johnson
In this study, David Johnson approaches—in an extremely insightful, rigorous, and well-argued way—Borges’ responses to philosophical problems such as time and identity, original and copy, and undecidability. A central focus is the analysis of logics of temporality, translation, survival, and secret since Johnson uses them as keys to interpreting these problems.
In Chapter 1, “Time: For Borges,” Johnson identifies “the contradiction of time that passes and the identity that endures” as one of Borges’ principal concerns. Following Martin Hägglund, Johnson defines this contradiction as the problem of how to create a synthesis that connects the past to the future and thus provides for the possibility of identity over time “without, however, positing an atemporal instant, which would have the effect of making identity depend upon eternity or immortality” (28). Johnson avoids the contradiction between time and identity by adopting Hägglund’s elaborate account of the tracing of time. He identifies this as the logic of temporality, a key category in Johnson’s interpretation that establishes a guiding thread running throughout the remainder of Kant’s Dog.
In Chapter 2, “Belief in Translation,” Johnson sees the logic of temporality as governing Borges’ understanding of the relationship between an original text and its translation, thus corrupting the traditional conditions of authority. Taking as his point of departure Borges’ essay “The Homeric Versions” (1932), particularly Borges’ claim that “[n]o problem [is] as consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery as the one posed by translation,” Johnson suggests that for Borges language is always a translation since it is never fully present to meaning. Furthermore, Johnson shows the implications of Borges’ notion of language to his notion of translation: if language is never [End Page 399] fully present to meaning, the original does not hold more authority than the translation. Borges makes this clear, among other places, in his prologue to Néstor Ibarra’s Spanish translation of Valéry’s Cimitière marin. Borges refers to Ibarra’s translation as the “original” and to Valéry’s text as its “imitation” that “does not accurately return the entirety of its Latin flavor.” Subsequently, drawing on a passage in Hume’s Treatise suggesting that a simple idea does not necessarily follow from a prior impression, Johnson convincingly shows how Borges uses this very construct in “Pierre Menard” where a “copy” does not follow from an original.
In Chapter 3, “Kant’s Dog,” Johnson shows the logic of temporality at work in “Funes the Memorious.” Central to Johnson’s interpretation is Funes’ inability to reduce manifold-sense-experiences to a single concept: “Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol ‘dog’ took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog at three-fifteen, seen frontally” [Collected 136]. Johnson interprets Funes’ inability to synthesize the sense-experiences under the general concept of dog as “an oblique reference” to Kant’s transcendental schematism. The schemata are rules by which the imagination can construct a general mental image or prototype of, for example, a dog. Thus, to possess the schema corresponding to the concept of “dog” is tantamount to being able to identify or recognize the variety of things to which the word “dog” applies. For Funes, however, the possibility of identity is suspended since he is unable to synthesize the temporal differences of the same. In this chapter, Johnson skillfully shows how the logic of temporality that is at work in Borges’ work challenges the limits of the transcendental just as he cleverly exposed, in the previous chapter, how this same logic challenges the limits of Hume’s empiricism.
In Chapter 4, “Decisions of Hospitality,” through a consideration of the problem of the temporality of metaphor, analogy, and homonymy, Johnson discusses the question of the possibility of decision in Borges, particularly in “Los teólogos” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Based on the latter, Johnson ponders the implications of temporality for decision making. Thus, within the temporal logic of Ts’ui Pên’s novel, which privileges a present in which every possibility necessarily actualizes itself, then all possible futures are in fact necessary and the decision can make no difference. “If everything happens in the present, simultaneously, then … nothing makes any difference” (168). Ultimately Johnson illustrates the problem of the decision in “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.”
In Chapter 5, “Idiocy, the Name of God,” Johnson extends the implications of the notion of translation to Borges’ consideration of the name of God as it appears in “Death and the Compass,” “The Aleph,” and “The Writing of the God.” In the latter, Johnson sees Borges’ protagonist Tzinacán bridging the gap between God (absolute immediacy) and the human (absolute circumstantiality). However, immortality costs Tzinacán his humanity. [End Page 400] “The condition of possibility of becoming ‘todopoderoso’—the effect of saying the Word of God—is the forgetting of the human, even the human that one happens to be” (208). Ultimately, Johnson discusses “The Immortal” and interprets Borges conception of immortality as infinite mortality. Consequently, as Johnson concludes, “what is at stake is not immortality but survival” (209).
In the afterword, “The Secret of Culture,” Johnson discusses the logic of the secret in Borges’ “The Ethnographer.” There, Borges suggests that the evidence allows Murdock some choice in languages, even to the point of allowing him to assign conflicting or contradictory translations to the same sentence. There is no doubt that Murdock is able to technically translate the precious secret of the Amerindians into his Eurocentric categories. After all, we know that he is able to think “in the logic” of these alien people. However, Murdock also claims that he has learned something that he cannot say. Johnson’s contribution here is to interpret the story according to the logic of the secret, which follows from the logic of translation that Kant’s Dog has traced in Borges’ work.
This book is essential reading not only for those interested in philosophical interpretations of Borges’ work, but for all those interested in the central questions of identity and temporality, translation, the original and the copy, that pervade contemporary debates in philosophy and cultural and literary theory.