Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Falling up inside the fugue.

by Ryland Walker Knight

Rooting around inside "Borges & I," identity becomes unfixed and mutable, a liquid temporality. By the end of the single-page, two-paragraph essay, the first-person "narrator" has evaporated. In this diffusion the text moves beyond a simple separation of Author (Borges) and words (I) to a realm where there is no "I" and words fold back to define both Borges & I, enveloping the two in a catch-all network of language outside human being. The distinction, so clear at the outset, does not blur as much as fork, and the text, at the end, blossoms into "a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away—everything winds up being lost...everything falls into oblivion." Each sentence branches off from the previous one, building a latticework of words.

While the first sentence may still ring true at the end, “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” that division is no longer defined by the last line, which reads, “I am not sure which of us it is that is writing this page.” The syntax of the final sentence tells us there are at least two people struggling to claim these words but it also renders that fight moot and misguided. In fact, it could be more than the duality of the title. The word “us” is not limited to Borges & I since the word “I” is a shifting pronoun; instead, it casts a broader net including all readers because when the reader reads the word “I” the reader becomes that “I” as well. So, at the close, its knotted roots overlap and confuse the play between Borges & I. The push-pull give-and-take eventually yields:

It would be an exaggeration to say our relationship is hostile — I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition.

Each movement in “Borges & I” takes the central pair and obliterates them. Here its impetus is Borges “[spinning] out his literature” and not the narrator. But the narrator says not even Borges can claim “those pages” — they belong “rather to language itself, or to tradition.” Therefore, words are forever autonomous, yet still within the grid of traditional language. It’s a limited free play but it’s one neither Borges nor the narrator can control, per se, only build on and contribute to. And yet, they both must let go each branching sentence they render (if, of course, one or the other or either did, in fact, set this text down in words). To spin out literature is not to write but to perform a culling creation — an intricate organization ever expanding. There’s a constant mutation like in a fugue (as referenced above) and the latticework becomes a spider web’s net, a more fragile and fluid framework.

These obliterating movements all stem, ever nimbly, from that initial theme of a duality inside Borges’ character. There’s Borges, the academic literati and there’s “I,” the narrator, on a “walk through Buenos Aires” which stops and starts, “mechanically now, perhaps”. The walk immediately moves the reader through “the arch of an entryway” to a home where the narrator collects mail, then further to an academy where Borges’ name adorns a list, and then at last to a library where you can find Borges “in some biographical dictionary.” The discontinuous list in this second sentence lays the groundwork for the essay, an odd overview of this tour Borges (& his "I") will spin out for the reader.

As readers, we’re paused, somewhat mechanically, scanning the page and the arch of its argument (entryway). This news-history-difficulty of Borges and his other, more intimate “I” reached us through this sheaf of letters (mail). Borges is joined by other academics in this text, if briefly (Stevenson, Spinoza). And the essay itself is a kind of biographical dictionary, delineating the difference between Borges the academic/writer/other and his subjective, narrator “I,” aiming to define the space they both occupy and move through, sometimes together, sometimes apart; however, their world and text are equally riddled with complications that require specificity.

This mechanical pause, to reflect or qualify, comes to define the text. Littered with asides, “Borges & I” takes its time. Sometimes an aside appears an outright tangent, like when Spinoza pops, late, into the first paragraph: “Spinoza believed that all things wish to go on being what they are — stone wishes eternally to be stone, and tiger to be tiger.” What grounds it is the next sentence — a crucial juncture that reads, “I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all).” Borges is eternal and will eternally be Borges. Thus, the “I” cedes power and legacy to the name taking over his life: "Little by little I've been turning everything over to him" so that he is “falling away…into oblivion” where he does not even exist. By the end, no individuals exist. The text, Borges and the narrator are a mosaic as watercolor, a confounded miasma. After leapfrogging through the time and space of Buenos Aires, “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson” the tour’s destination is a curious nothing, an eternal oblivion where identity is lost. When the mass paragraph ends and the next, a one-liner indented underneath, reads “I’m not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page,” it’s an alarming shift. After twenty-six lines of packed-in text, the reader has to jump

to the next paragraph for one sentence, shocking the eye.

It’s another mechanical pause (one similar to turning the page of a book, in fact), an almost flippant aside toying with the reader. The page ends in a lurch, a final move that, at once concludes and confuses the piece. This last offering is an explicit illustration of the text's complicated identity game of diffusion and proliferation. Throughout, the narrator is creating a tangible history with Borges, layering sentence-branch over sentence-branch, spinning webs of words that catch time — briefly and awkward — to distill it, forever as mythology. The world of “Borges & I” is a fluid compound reality that will never cease to re-invent itself in all those who take it up, into their hands and heads, only to wrestle it back down, into sense and sensibility, even when the trellis of words grows only taller, eternally.

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