I can usually tell that I’m enjoying an essay when I think as I read it “I should really blog about this.” And one of the marks of a truly great essay is when, once I’ve decided I’m going to blog it, I think “ahh, here is the perfect part to excerpt” . . . and then, a paragraph later, “ahh, here is the perfect part to excerpt” . . . and then again, and so on.
That was my recent experience while reading Gabriel Josipovici’s essay on Borges (discovered here, available here, collected in this book). The piece is an extended reading of Borges’ seminal story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and it involves literature’s relationship to reality. There’s a paradox in this relationship: a book is a closed system (no matter how many times you read it, everything in it always occurs in the same way every time), which is distinctly unlike life, where each moment can open up to an infinity of possibilities. This paradox means that “chance” and “causality” have completely different meanings in a story and in real life.
This, Josipovici says, explains Borges’ fondness for detective fiction, because detective fiction, “unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic.” From here, Josipovici makes the leap from Borges to the many 20th century authors that are his spiritual kinsmen and -women
This helps explain why so many modern writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. This is not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the world, but on the contrary, out of a deep sense of the wondrous nature of the world and a determination not to confuse the world as it is with the world as we imagine it to be, not to confuse actuality with possibility. Borges is quite clear about this in both the parable and the poem he has devoted to the tiger: ‘Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for’ he writes in the parable. ‘The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.’ And the poem ends by directing us away from poetry to the living beast: ‘I go on/ Seeking through the afternoon time/ The other tiger, that which is not in verse.’ In his stories he invents plots that help bring out the contrast between the indicative and the subjunctive: the man who waits for his killers to come, imagining again and again the moment of their arrival, until he can no longer distinguish reality from his nightmares; the creature lost in the labyrinth of his melancholy life, welcoming with relief the coming of Theseus, who will put an end to his solitude; the Symbolist writer who refuses the pleasures of mere imagination and sets out to write that which is quite other than any of our imaginings. As with Beckett and Stevens, Borges’ imagination keeps trying to imagine the death of imagination, but it is only when the imagination has been given its head that it can be effectively exorcised and so allow actuality to shine through.
I think this “bringing out the contrast between the indicative and the subjunctive” explained why I’ve been so energized by Reality Hunger lately. Essentially this is a book that takes on faith Josipovici’s premise that reality in fiction and reality in the real world mean very different things, and then exhorts writers to find forms that push that fact to the forefront–and, in fact, use that very distinction as a tool for providing a feel of reality in their fictions.
And so I think Josipovici and Shields both have done a fine job of articulating my antipathy for the “true to life” realist novel. It’s not that I want to throw the 19th-century baby out with the bathwater: my life would be so much poorer without without, for instance, George Eliot, but it is so rare these days to read a traditionally realist novel and not end up feeling like the whole time I’ve been missing one very important thing: life.