What is the Borgesian Conundrum?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureA Borgesian Conundrum, as you may have surmised, is a eponym — named after the brilliant Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Before we define the conundrum, let’s place the writer in proper context. Borges is considered one of the most influential writers of all time, writing imaginative short stories that eschew the conventions of modern short fiction. American writer Susan Sontag proclaimed, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.”

If you have never read a Borges short story, you are in for a real treat. As fellow Argentine writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares (he wrote the fantastic The Invention of Morel which greatly influenced the ABC hit series Lost), once noted, Borges’ writings are “halfway houses between an essay and a story.” Borges’ short stories, which often focus on the notion of the infinite, paradoxes, and interconnectedness of all things, are characterized by abrupt beginnings or endings; feature fantastic, complex, intellectual landscapes; lack traditional characteristics like plot, cause-and-effect, and conflict; and present the reader with fascinating, dazzling lessons about arcane topics. Not only was Borges a great writer, he was also an insatiable reader; as a boy he spent a great deal of time in libraries. That lifelong erudition is reflected in his stories and essays.

Knowing something about the writer now places you in a position to better appreciate the definition of the Borgesian Conundrum. In short, the Borgesian Conundrum poses the following ontological question: does the writer write the story, or does the story write the writer? Sounds like a quintessential Borges essay, doesn’t it? According to Wikipedia, the conundrum is alluded to in this passage from Borges’ essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” published in the book Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1988): “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

Not so fast Wikipedia! The discerning, literary-minded folks at Weekly Wonder blog believe this particular passage is not necessarily support the Borgesian Conundrum. One of the editors elaborates: “As much as I appreciate ‘Kafka and His Precursors,’ I do not understand how the philosophers get the Borgesian conundrum from this essay: rather, if there is a question in this essay it is not “does the author create the story or the story, the author?” but “how does a writer create his own precursors?” Touché! The editor suggests a more relevant passage from an essay titled “Borges and I”:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

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Read related posts: A Beautiful Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library
The Power of Literature
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

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