- 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...