Prologues and the Idols of Criticism:Borges on Ficciones
Scholars still struggle to characterize, evaluate, and understand the mesmerizing prose pieces of Ficciones that raised Jorge Luis Borges to the first ranks of literary fame. Speaking to Philosophy and Literature, Borges once described his work as "the fiction of philosophy," and the two prologues he wrote for Ficciones leave enticing clues about what this means in practice. I argue that these long-neglected prologues open critical space for Ficciones, slyly mocking three idols of literary cant: that genre informs a work, that epic tomes best represent the real, and that great authors write unprecedented books. Borges knew better.
I am given to understand that the days of prefaces are now quite over, and those who still care to read such things—or even write them—a despised minority.—Robert Lewis Stevenson, preface to The Merry Men and Other Tales1
Ficciones has basked in the sun of critical attention for many years now, and its reflective radiance shows little sign of waning. The collection by Jorge Luis Borges consists of nineteen short works that pose as stories or fables or hypotheses or exercises or fantasies or intellectual experiments. During an interview with Philosophy and Literature, Borges [End Page 272] discussed his writing and the philosophers he admired. To a leading question, he declined to characterize his fiction as a "search for system." Instead, he said, "I would call it, well, not science fiction, but the fiction of philosophy."2 And in the two "Prologues" to Ficciones—in which he calls the works to follow "pieces"—Borges builds a picture puzzle about how to think of his fiction philosophically, by the modest invocation of certain names and certain writerly preferences.
Although Ficciones launched the international Borges phenomenon in 1942, with translations in 1944 and three pieces added by the author in 1956, no one has stopped to engage the two most striking and reflective pieces in the Ficciones miscellany: its two prologues.3 In my reading, the Ficciones prologues act as antiguides, only pretending to offer helpful remarks about the pieces they precede. They do not strive for synchronic coherence or the fixing of a poetic ideal, as some claim that other Borgesian prologues do; rather, they position Borges against long-standing notions of literary worth and critical protocol. His prologues also reject the idea of originality (inside or outside of an author's "system"), and their many allusions to other writers and works do not justify the prose or suggest unity. Instead, I contend that the Ficciones prologues push three idols of the literary tribe onstage, seem to satisfy the specter of reader curiosity about the pieces to follow, while in reality making fun of our common critical habits. As a result, the two prologues are the most important pieces in Ficciones, for they clear a space in the critical forest for the collection's literary play of images and ideas, a play that questions the wisdom of these popular idols. In particular, the prologues question idols that divide the world of the mind from the world we inhabit, affecting how we read and write about Ficciones, Borges, and literature in general.
The three idols of the literary tribe that I claim Borges raises like phantoms in his prologues are (1) that genre categories enable a proper understanding and basis for the evaluation of literature; (2) that long works are superior to short works because they better represent the expansive scope of the real; and (3) that great authors write original, unprecedented works. Borges subtly interrogates and dispels these idols on philosophical grounds—grounds that we can understand by tracing the authors and works to which Borges alludes in the Ficciones prologues. After discussing other treatments of Borgesian prologues, including a piece by Borges himself, my essay will consider in turn each of the three idols that Borges invokes and gently derides in each of the two Ficciones prologues; outline the philosophical positions that underpin [End Page 273] the Borges case against them; and conclude with some thoughts about the significance of understanding the prologues in the way I propose. I also hope to show how Borges blurs the line between his prologues and the remaining pieces of Ficciones, and hence, the line between our fiction making and our lived experience.
You will not be surprised to learn that Borges once wrote a prologue to a book consisting of nothing but his own previous prologues (Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos ), and this piece has received some scholarly attention. Begonya Sáez Tajafuerce treats the metaprologue, writing that it "stipulates the qualities to which all prologues should aspire" and that, for Borges, the "principal contribution of the prologue . . . is fixing in an indirect manner . . . one's poetic ideal."4 José Miguel Oviedo, meanwhile, explores the prologues in the collection that append the Argentine's poetry.5 (The majority of these poetry prologues were composed in 1969 and often supplant those in the original collections.) For Oviedo, these backward-looking prologues contain "Borges' poetics, as well as a guide for the reader and an intellectual and moral self-portrait." Oviedo further writes that they "tend to represent one of the most creative moments of the book: they invent, for the texts which they precede, a synchronic coherence, and connect them diachronically with the previous texts, claiming the reader's attention for the system that they compose" ("B," p. 130). Perhaps. But Oviedo's account does not address other prologues by Borges, and the Ficciones prologues, written at the same time as the book's other pieces, operate differently from those treated by Oviedo. And while scholars such as Jaime Alazraki, Daniel Balderstein, Gerry O'Sullivan, and Arturo Echavarría have shown that Borgesian art depends, as Echavarría says, on "a vast and complex cultural tradition as a backdrop,"6 it seems that Borges uses the prologues of Ficciones for something more than setting the intertextual scene.
What did Borges himself say about prologues, their history, and their function? The piece that appears first in his anthology of prologues stands as "a sort of prologue," Borges says, "raised to the second power."7 In this short piece of six paragraphs, he traces the history of the form, noting how in One Thousand and One Nights and Montaigne's Essays the prologue forms "an inseparable part of the text," and that "on the Elizabethan stages the prologue was the actor who proclaimed the theme of the drama" (PPP, p. 9). He also writes about the form's common failings: "The prologue, in the sad majority of cases, borders on the oratory of table talk or funereal panegyrics and abounds in irresponsible [End Page 274] hyperboles, which the incredulous book accepts as conventions of the genre" (PPP, p. 9). (This comic personification of a book that must incur a ridiculous prologue out of deference to genre stands in telling contrast to the prologues of Ficciones.) In the end, Borges argues that prologue writing can be no less literary or important than any other arrangement of letters. Thus he concludes that "the prologue, when the stars align, is not a subaltern form of a toast; it is a lateral sort of criticism" (PPP, p. 10).
A prologue that performs "lateral criticism," as I understand it, establishes a work's place in a literary landscape by choosing and calling out to its friends—its compatriots—reading them through its own eyes, and creating newly styled affinities. This implies that a successful prologue will situate a writer's work not before or after the works of others but through specific relations to them, and that the work itself is literary criticism of a special sort because it arises from the reading of other works. This aligns with the Borgesian penchant for allusion, and the two brief Ficciones prologues (six short paragraphs in total) make seventeen references to specific works and writers. That is, Borges creates the family to which he wants to belong, and he means us to see Ficciones as kin to an eccentric clan.
Note first that Borges does not call his two preliminary pieces prefaces. They are prologues. The word preface has Latin roots meaning, literally, "prior speech": pre-(before, in advance of) plus fatum (an utterance, a decree of fate). Prologue, the older word, has Greek roots. It too can mean "prior speech": pro- (before, in time or position; or advancing; or projecting forward or outward; or a substitute for; or more intensely) plus logos (word, speech, discourse, reason). Hence, while preface handles temporal priority, prologue also covers this, but accomplishes far more. Knowing the etymology as Borges does, his title also means: words that project outward, a piece that substitutes for reason, or, to capture something of them all, more intense discourse.
The first literary idol of the Ficciones prologues is genre. After reading a few pieces of the collection, we might flip back to see if the author guides us in understanding these short works. Borges begins the first prologue as follows: "The eight pieces of this book do not require extraneous elucidation."8 This may not satisfy. And yet the prologue continues by beginning to categorize the pieces to come. Lest we court irony too [End Page 275] soon, however, this sentence does not negate what follows; it announces that extraneous elucidation is not required. Scholars will presume that this means "required" for understanding the pieces properly. Hence the first sentence of the first prologue suggests that a guiding prologue is not really necessary.
Yet Borges now appears to outline a taxonomy of genre for the pieces to follow: one of the eight ("The Garden of Forking Paths") "is a detective story," while "the other pieces are fantasies" (F, p. 15). He then allows that one of them "is not entirely innocent of symbolism" (F, p. 15). Gene H. Bell-Villada duly notes that it "is curious that Borges should so single out this one story, since all his narrative writings from this period have the symbolic aura ordinarily associated with his kind of fantasy."9 Except that Borges writes in jest; by erecting a conflicted set of classifications that will only become more byzantine as each prologue proceeds, he mocks the critic's love of categorizing literature by genre.
The second paragraph of the first prologue offers another taxonomy for Ficciones. Here Borges identifies a single piece ("The Circular Ruins") in which "everything" is unreal, then claims that "what is unreal" in another piece ("Pierre Menard, Author of 'Don Quixote'") is restricted to "the destiny imposed upon himself by the protagonist" (F, p. 15). But if everything is "unreal" in the first piece, then everything is unreal in the second, for both consist of recognizable, worldly elements (how could they not?), shaped into fantastical situations of hypothetical thought. Or, if only one thing is unreal in one piece, then we can as easily select one thing to call unreal in the other. And how would we coordinate these categorical statements with those of the first paragraph, in which all of the pieces are "fantasies"—except for one piece that we may consider "a detective story"? The taxonomical absurdity deepens, and we should laugh at this mash-up of splintered genres.
And still another category blooms: those pieces of Ficciones that exist as "notes upon imaginary books." Borges lists three: "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," and "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" (F, p. 15–16). Of course, "notes" sound like nonfiction, a genre for the student or scholar. But since no books exist for which these pieces are the notes, Borges (nearly) ensures that only he can say anything about them. Thus we glimpse the functional effect of the first prologue: while Borges appears to help the scholar by giving genre details, he instead parodies and forecloses our critical attempts. Notes on imaginary works might even constitute the commentator's absurd fantasy: to be the only interpreter, infallible, unique.10 [End Page 276]
Borges uses another technique to frustrate our attempts to categorize his fiction in the prologues: aligning his works to a varied family of books and authors. In the first prologue, we encounter the following allusions, in order: a "certain page of Number 59 of the journal Sur" (which a quick search indicates to be from the article "The Total Library," by Borges himself),11 Leucippus (the ancient Greek atomist of the fifth century B.C.E., precursor to Democritus), Kurd Lasswitz (a turn-of-the-twentieth-century physicist and father of German fantasy fiction, author of Two Planets), Lewis Carroll (pseudonym of the logician Charles Dodgson), Aristotle (a philosopher of some note from the fourth century B.C.E., most of whose works are lost, possessed of a prose style that Cicero once compared to a river of gold), Sartor Resartus (1833) by Thomas Carlyle (an unclassifiable book that both ridicules and promotes a fictional work of philosophy it presents as real), Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven (1873) (a pretended defense of Christianity by way of the religion's farcical reconciliation to rationalism; a work that fooled many of its contemporary readers, inspiring Butler to write an extra, incredulous preface to its second edition), and The Sacred Fount (1901) by Henry James (a book both unpopular and critically disparaged). This profusion of glancing references in the first prologue has many effects: it embeds Ficciones into the company of these authors and works; it jumbles the taxonomic system once more by mixing fiction, scholarship, and philosophy; it discourages the notion of the author's originality; and it spurs us to consider the cause of this Borgesian mockery of the critic's love for categories.
Reflect now on the philosophical underpinning of the genre concept. Genre is, among other things, the literary critic's urge to systematize. By subsuming a work of art under a universal term, genre orients readers and establishes expectations, allowing a familiar way into an unfamiliar work. But more covertly, genre is a piece of ontology; it rests upon the metaphysical notion of categories. In the case of literature it says, for example: this particular work is a tragic drama; to read it otherwise is to mistake its ontological status. Aristotle famously devised a system by which to categorize all that is, an ontology that he claimed to have discerned in the nature of things. He lists ten categories as foundational: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, being-in-a-position, having, doing, and being-affected.12 But what is the real status of such categories?
Borges tells us in his second prologue that philosopher Fritz Mauthner is on the "heterogeneous census" of the authors whom "I continually [End Page 277] reread" (F, p. 106). In his principal work, Contributions to a Critique of Language (1909), Mauthner writes about Aristotle's ontology as follows:
The whole logic of Aristotle is nothing but a consideration of Greek grammar from an interesting point of view. Had Aristotle been speaking Chinese or Dakota, he would have had to arrive at a completely different logic, and at a completely different doctrine of categories.
future research will lead to the tragicomical conclusion [that] . . . the ten categories of being which since Aristotle have been regarded as the highest forms of understanding, were simply and childishly taken over from the parts of speech of the Greek language. . . .13
Thus Aristotle has not identified categories of reality, for Mauthner, but elevated arbitrary and human categories of language. For Mauthner and Borges, these categories are no less imaginary than rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches, or infinite libraries. Likewise any genre category you may care to name, like "detective story" or "fantasy." Differences exist between things in language, of course, but language does not foreclose the truth. Mauthner writes that a consequence of his critique of language is that it "does not know what to do with the word truth in the same way as it does not know what to do with many other words" (MCL, p. 289). Likewise, Borges does not know what to do with genre and taxonomy in relation to his "pieces" in Ficciones, so he humorously explodes the subject by invoking numerous classifications that work at cross-purposes.
What, then, is the significance of Mauthner's philosophical position for Borges and Ficciones, undercutting as it does the taxonomy called genre? One consequence is obvious: it frees literature from the critic's systemic urge, which means it frees Ficciones to be read in less reactionary ways. But the ontological critique has also freed literature from the strictures of realist representation. Consider Mauthner once more: "I repeat: epistemology taught us in the last hundred years only what we discerned through linguistic research, i.e., that instead of things we know only their appearances, that in reality there are no substantives" (MCL, p. 152). If so, there are no realities to represent, only images to rearrange. This opens a critical space beyond categories that might inspire us to value images and ideas that converse with one another—rearranging worlds instead of reflecting them. [End Page 278]
The droll confusion of literary classifications and the multifarious set of allusions in Borgesian prologues help create a particular context in which to read Ficciones: beyond system and genre, toward a world formed by our philosophic imagination—a world formed by what Borges called the fiction of philosophy.
The second literary idol of the Ficciones prologues is the significance of scope and magnitude. On the surface it amounts to the idea that, other merits being equal, works of a greater length and grander scale are more worth our praise than shorter ones. This idol may have an even longer history than genre classification. Literary criticism still unfolds in the West under the two Homeric trees of epic poetry in many respects. Never mind that scholars reject the unity of time and author for the Iliad and Odyssey; we still have a history of admiration for the length and breadth of these works, thought to represent entire vistas of the ancient Greek world. But for Borges, literary length is not a wondrous splendor. The third and last paragraph of the first prologue opens as follows: "The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance" (F, p. 15). How so? What richness is wasted? Time is the first answer: "To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!" (F, p. 15). But long books have another flaw for Borges: they contain as many tautologies as there are pages. As we shall see, they are semiotically impoverishing and vain. This might be shown to follow from the philosophical critique of categories above, but Borges specifies his reasons in another way.
After describing the wastefulness of writing "for five hundred pages," we seem to be offered the Borgesian alternative: "A better course of procedure is to pretend that these [epically long] books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary" (F, p. 15). Borges gives two examples: "Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus. Thus Butler in The Fair Haven" (F, p. 15). But before we think that Borges, too, pretends that certain titles exist to which he will offer copious commentary, he continues, "[These works by Carlyle and Butler] suffer the imperfection of being themselves books, and of being no less tautological than the others" (F, p. 15). We see now that composing "vast books" is extravagant not only in laborious time but also in belaboring ideas. A tautology wastes meaning because it communicates what we already know. Borges [End Page 279] continues: "More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books" (F, pp. 15–16).
Borges has said that he uses the same procedure as Carlyle in Sartor Resartus, and as Butler in The Fair Haven—but with the significant difference of length. While Borges, Carlyle, and Butler imagine a book and write about it, the latter two write book-length treatments, entire commentaries on their imaginary books. Instead, Borges writes notes. This procedure limits tautology (which makes it "more reasonable"), does not require a sustained imagination (which makes it "more inept"), and does not take years of novelistic labor (which makes it "more indolent"). Hence the short pieces of Ficciones neither impoverish nor luxuriate, and Borges has opened critical room for praising them. And like the prologue, they are what I have called intense discourse; they condense their ideas into works that take only minutes to read, not a month.
The philosophical underpinning to the Borgesian case against epic works of tautology can be derived once more from Mauthner's view that language fails to represent reality: "It is one of the most important points of the Critique of Language that we recognize the coherence, or much better, the lack of coherence between the world of reality and the sounds of language. There has never been anything in the sounds which have had a direct or an indirect relation to a thing in reality" (MCL, p. 180). Since language is not about the world, it becomes for Mauthner a vast network of metaphors that point via words to other words as analogues, for the purpose of drawing human hypotheses and inferences about how things will behave (MCL, pp. 158–59, 189). Thus language cannot say anything more than what it already knows; it concerns only itself—it is tautological. A tautology like "The bachelor is unmarried" is trivially true and semiotically arid. What is predicated of the bachelor (that he is unmarried) is already contained in the meaning of the subject term. Mauthner holds that language, as a fully self-contained system, is an immense case of "The bachelor is unmarried." Borges applies this idea to the prejudice toward epic works, for it stands to reason that a longer book contains even more tautologies than a shorter one. That is, a longer book is a longer delusion about depicting the real world, which is impossible at any length.
Hence what seems at first to be an idol about the critical preference for epic works turns out to concern a fundamental position in the philosophy of language, namely, a deep skepticism of representing the world with words. Language can be beautiful in its recombinant forms, but it cannot be true or false. This means that a longer work that strives [End Page 280] for conclusive insight or a sure-footed realism only makes things more wearisome, because it repeats an impossible grasping for truth by representation. Better to write short pieces. Ficciones, if you will.
The third literary idol that Borges implicitly disclaims in the Ficciones prologues is originality: that great writers invent what is new in ideas, forms, and styles. The myth of originality likewise has metaphysical roots, and appears when we shape history as a linear story. Despite Gen. 1:1 (wherein God begins with something already on stage, a "formless earth"), theologians and others less technically inclined have imagined a moment before creation; that is, affirming an original creation without precedent. Renaissance writers such as Pico della Mirandola conceived of God as an artisan (in "Oration on the Dignity of Man" ), reasoning that if we are made in his image, then we too can create what is new. But David Hume, whom Borges named as one of the philosophers who had "done [my thinking] for me" ("MML," p. 339), describes how even the most fantastical must be composed of ideas and words at hand:
[Though] our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.14
The first philosophic allusion in the first Ficciones prologue underlines this idea, that Borges is not original. He invokes Leucippus, the early atomist, who held that the universe is a vast and eternal series of permutations of already existing elements. Borges also cites Aristotle, who outlines the pre-Socratic cosmology this way:
Democritus and Leucippus posited the shapes and explained alteration and coming to be in terms of them, coming to be and passing away by separation and joining together, alteration by order and arrangement. And since they thought that truth was in appearance, and the appearances were contrary and infinite, they made the shapes infinite, so that through changes in the substrate the same thing appears opposite to one person [End Page 281] and to another, and varies as the result of a small additional element and appears wholly different through the variation of a single element; for tragedy and comedy are composed of the same letters.15
This arresting use of the alphabet as analogous to atomic theory, whereby what appears new and different is "in the substrate the same thing," mimics what Borges shows by his formally endless allusions: that originality is not possible—not in letters, not in the world. And how does he make this point in the first prologue of Ficciones? He alludes to his article from Sur 59, which happens to name Leucippus and Aristotle (and more than two dozen others) as the source material for "The Library of Babel," a piece in Ficciones with the very unliterary and un-Romantic view that there is nothing new under the sun.
When we trace allusions we enlarge the work that alludes, and its source. The Sur article that Borges cites, his paean to unoriginality, concludes this way: "I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god" ("TL," p. 216). And why does Borges hide his own name in his prologue's first allusion? Because it serves the goal of allusions and lateral criticism itself: to efface the author in favor of the writing, the ideas, the images.
The other way for Borges to subvert the fiction of originality, of course, is to mark the books and figures that inform him as a writer. The allusions in the second prologue begin once more with an unnamed reference to a work by Borges himself ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"), then consist of Martín Fierro (1879) (the epic national poem of Argentina by José Hernández), Arthur Schopenhauer (the nineteenth-century German philosopher who held art to be our saving grace), Thomas De Quincey (the nineteenth-century English writer who both praised and decried opium), Robert Louis Stevenson (the nineteenth-century manifold writer from Scotland), Mauthner (the Bohemian philosopher, theater critic, satirist, and skeptic), George Bernard Shaw (author of perhaps more prefaces than any human being in the history of letters), G. K. Chesterton (the detective novelist, and another nineteenth-century omnibus writer of the British Isles), and Léon Bloy (the marginalized nineteenth-century, self-tormenting French writer). Yet again, Borges challenges us to see Ficciones as belonging to this family, while its members become more clever because Borges is among them. By his allusions, Borges denies that literature is a story of original genius; it is instead a conversation among works, and the invention of one's literary parents and peers. [End Page 282]
The Ficciones prologues are not all idols and games, however. In the second prologue, Borges does something remarkable to suggest a positive program that lies behind the ludic derision of the literary idols we have discussed. In the prologue's first paragraph of presumably nonfictional discourse, Borges embeds knowledge of a fictional object from Ficciones, part 1. He recalls the eleventh volume of an "illusory encyclopedia" (from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius") that he says has shown up now in a hotel—The Triste-le-Roy—that exists in a part 2 story ("Death and the Compass") (F, p. 105). But only the prologue's persona creates this piece of extrafictional information; it has no place in either of the fictional pieces. This effectively erases the line between the prologues and Ficciones, and performs the idea that the "nonfictional" things we use to understand the world (like prologues) are essentially artifice, while the "fictional" things we create (like philosophy and literature) also happen to constitute our world.
Thanks to his citation of De Quincey in the second prologue, this surreal conflation of truth and imagination by Borges can remind us of a moment in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater when the author likewise blurs the real to accord with the experience of fiction. Here, De Quincey's autobiographical recollection crosses over into something else: "When I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do, and furthermore, out of my shilling returned me what seemed to be a real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself."16 Like De Quincey—or from De Quincey, Carroll, Lasswitz, Mauthner, and the rest—Borges learns to blur the categories of word, thought, and experience. He thereby denies all metaphysical categories that could be said (fictively) to underpin existence. Hence we live in a shadow play of intricate appearances, calling out to each other with words, words, words. [End Page 283]
Whatever be the consequence of this my solemn protestation, I declare myself infinitely delighted by a Preface. . . . It is the odor of the author's roses; every drop distilled at an immense cost. It is the reason of the reasoning, and the folly of the foolish. I agree with the Italians, who call these pieces La salsa del Libro; the sauce of the book.—Isaac Disraeli, preface to Miscellanies; or, Literary Recreations17
To my mind, prologues are a threshold literature that exists between two worlds: the world outside the work (called reality, a supposedly non-fictional genre), and the world of the work (called imaginary, a fictional genre). A preface or prologue, whatever else it may do, straddles both our real and imaginary worlds of experience because, first, it refers extrafictionally to the writer's position (creating a critical distance from which to reflect on the fictional world it precedes), and yet it exists in the work as written language, thus remaining a piece of artifice. A prologue, then, is a threshold between two planes of understanding, neither altogether real, neither altogether imaginary, with each shaping the other.
Borges cites Lewis Carroll in the first prologue to Ficciones, so consider an example from the English fantasist to exemplify what I mean by calling prologues a threshold. At a key introductory moment, Alice contemplates the world on the other side of the mirror above her mantle in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871): "Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass—that's just the same as our drawing-room, only the things go the other way."18 This imagines the nature of mirrors in a strange manner. Alice does not look at the mirror and see a reflection of the room around her; she looks at the mirror and sees another (similar) world on the other side of the polished plane. That is, Carroll's mirror functions as a threshold object, not a representational one. And just as Alice proceeds in the story to step through the threshold, so the Borgesian prologue would have us step into Ficciones. Also like Alice, we should expect to find things eerily similar on the other side.
The prologues of Ficciones differ and do not differ from the other pieces of the collection. We distinguish them typographically and by critically ignoring them when discussing the work, but they are also no different from the seventeen other pieces in conjuring a hypothetical world that is, likewise, no different in kind from the hypothetical world [End Page 284] we happen to live in today. And like the rest of Ficciones, the two prologues exist beyond the reach of veracity. Not because they are dreamy in an opium eater's way, but because they clear a space for themselves and the rest of Ficciones through a critique of language, a subverting of essentialist categories, a reduction of tautology, and a rejection of originality. Borges has thereby identified and embedded a fiction in our present world. But his prologues also differ from the rest of Ficciones. By their position and nature they function as intense discourse, the philosophic distillation of a writer who knows whence he comes, and who projects his words outward as so much example and lateral reading to those who write after him, before him, and around him.
I have identified three literary idols that Borges plays with in his Ficciones prologues, but should conclude by asking if there are corresponding Borgesian gods. I am tempted to name them as an unceasing world of appearance (as against natural kinds or taxonomies), the concision of the mortified (as against the epic apprehension of truth), and the ceaseless dependency on forebears (as against the idolatry of the new)—but I resist. For when you discard one half of such binaries, it makes no sense to keep the remainder, as its coherence depends on its other term, now deceased. Thus the prologues maneuver Ficciones beyond the categories of truth and appearance, beyond elucidation by taxonomy, beyond the rationalist scholar's grasp and evaluation. This allows them to become pieces in the infinite library, and we might try to read them accordingly.
Yet the three idols do share something that helps explain their allure to scholars and critics. They intend to act as idols of insight—of ontology, of explanation, of unprecedented truth. The three ghostly idols also have this in common, that they stand doomed for a certain term to walk the night. And what has this essay done but systematize a slew of allusions that happen to rue the system? All fictions of philosophy will one day share this fate, but they create meaning, like Ficciones, so long as we speak with them.
Borges speaks to idols, unafraid. His prologues acknowledge that we grasp for order, for grandeur, for new origins, but imply that these idols draw succor from a substance that philosophers call timeless and whole but is instead the stillness of the dead and decomposed. Any piece of art that would fulfill its genre, or grasp the absolute, or pretend an immaculate conception—all such works, and critical praise, are built on philosophical sand. Borges has it right. Instead of staking out theoretical territory or unifying his work or guiding the reader or stipulating [End Page 285] anything about poetic ideals, the prologues of Ficciones underscore that art is contingent, incomplete, and enmeshed. And by announcing their own fictional performance and that of the pieces to come, Borges's prologues enact our perennial life of letters by showing how no art is distinct, no writing is new, and all literature is prologue—a threshold between the world of the mind and the world we inhabit, even when these turn out to be somehow the same.
I wish to thank the members of the spring 2011 philosophy and literature seminar at Westminster College who discussed Ficciones with me and inspired this essay. Thanks also to Erika Rodríguez Hernández for thoughts on drafts and for her translations (as cited below), to Anne Louise Brings and Craig Waterman, to Westminster College for a Gore Course Release Grant in fall 2011, and especially to Teresa Knight for all things thoughtful.
1. Robert Lewis Stevenson, preface to The Merry Men and Other Tales (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925), p. xiii. He continues: "A preface then is like the top of a high mountain, seemingly a spot of much publicity, truly as private as a chamber; where a person of defective ear may stand up in view of several counties and sing without reproof."
2. Jorge Luis Borges, ". . . Merely a Man of Letters: An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges," Philosophy and Literature 1, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 340; hereafter abbreviated "MML."
3. The monograph on Ficciones by Donald Leslie Shaw treats every piece of the collection but makes no analysis of the two prologues, which are mentioned only in passing; see Donald Leslie Shaw, Borges: Ficciones (London: Grant and Cutler, 1976). Naomi Lindstrom likewise pays the prologues no mind in Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1990). Ficciones has two parts, and Borges wrote a prologue for each. The first accompanies the 1942 collection of eight pieces, entitled El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). In 1944 this work (and its unchanged prologue) became part 1 of Ficciones (retaining its original title). The second prologue appeared before an added part 2 (which is entitled "Artificios" [Artifices]). The final form of Ficciones appeared in 1956 when Borges added three stories to part 2, appending a postscript to its prologue that marked the change. This essay treats the final form of the prologues from the 1956 version of Ficciones. (By counting the prologues, I take Ficciones to consist of nineteen pieces, not the seventeen of conventional understanding; I return to this point in section 5 above.)
4. Begonya Sáez Tajafuerce, "Borges: Las estética y ética del prólogo" (Borges: The aesthetics and ethics of the prologue), Espéculo: Revista de Estudios Literarios, no. 14 (2000) (translated by Erika Rodríguez Hernández). [End Page 286]
5. José Miguel Oviedo, "Borges: The Poet to His Prologues," in Borges the Poet, ed. Carlos Cortínez (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986), pp. 121–33; hereafter abbreviated "B."
6. Arturo Echavarría, "Borges, Henry James and the Europeans," MLN: Modern Language Notes 125, no. 5 (2010): 1129.
7. Jorge Luis Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos (Prologues with a prologue of prologues) (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1998), p. 7 (translated by Erika Rodríguez Hernández); hereafter abbreviated PPP.
8. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan, trans. Kerrigan et al. (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 15; hereafter abbreviated F.
9. Gene H. Bell-Villada, Borges and His Fiction, rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), p. 109.
10. Søren Kierkegaard, writing as Nicolaus Notabene, once published a book of nothing but prefaces for books he had no intention of writing; see Prefaces: Light Reading for People in Various Estates According to Time and Opportunity (1844), in Kierkegaard's Writings, 9: Prefaces: Writing Sampler, ed. and trans. Todd W. Nichol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
11. Jorge Luis Borges, "The Total Library," in The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922–1986, ed. and trans. Eliot Weinberger (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 214–16; hereafter abbreviated "TL."
12. Aristotle, Categories, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1, ed. Jonathan Barnes, trans. J. L. Ackrill (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 4, 1b25–2a4.
13. Fritz Mauthner, Contributions to a Critique of Language, passages translated by Gershon Weiler in Mauthner's Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 143; hereafter abbreviated MCL.
14. David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), sect. 2.5, pp. 15–16.
15. Aristotle, De generatione et corruptione (On Generation and Corruption), in The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus—Fragments, trans. C. C. W. Taylor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 69, 315b6–15.
16. Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, ed. Alethea Hayter (London: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 70–71.
17. Isaac Disraeli, Miscellanies; or, Literary Recreations (London: Cadell and Davies, 1796), p. v.
18. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 140. [End Page 287]