photo by Irene Lucero
by Daniel Spinks
Jorge Luis Borges’ 1960 collection of short stories, entitled The Maker (El Hacedor, in the original Spanish), is comprised of 25 stories, all of which are under 1,000 words long. The brevity of the stories is augmented by the intricate manner in which Borges takes an idea from history, religion, literature or philosophy and plays with it, shaping it from a simple parable or academic argument into something much more aesthetic. Although his subject-matter is frequently taken from high literature (such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante or Cervantes) or complex philosophical positions, The Maker is more than a collection of intellectual points. Borges is a craftsman, and the ideas that he employs are there in order to capture one fleeting, disturbing, and beautiful sensation.
Indeed, the transitory nature of sensations is a theme which Borges returns to constantly in this volume (and much of his other work). The title story of the collection treats this topic explicitly – with a representation of Homer slowly becoming blind, while the narrator laments that we can never know what the great Greek poet felt as he lost his vision.
In the story ‘Dreamtigers’, the narrator desperately tries to recall the tigers from the encyclopaedias of his youth during his dreams, but finds imperfection in them all. Each tiger – and dreamtiger – must be different, as they stand in a different relation to the subject/narrator. In this story, ‘The Witness’ refers to the subjectivity of sensations; each ‘pathetic or frail image’ belongs to one individual only, and when each individual dies, these things shall never be seen or felt again – consigned forever to oblivion, like the subject himself:
In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes
that looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen
died with the death of one man.
Because each experience is necessarily unique to a single individual, the boyhood visions of ‘The Witness’ cannot be experienced by anyone else. Similarly, no living person, nor anyone who will ever live again, will ever know what Homer felt as he descended into blindness. But experiences are not only unique to a particular individual. Two experiences within the same person are never exactly alike, being situated in different times and places, and each individual is forever changed by each new sensation he experiences. The narrator cannot recall his dreamtigers of old, because they are dreamtigers of a different self. You cannot step twice into the same river, as Heraclitus famously said (whom Borges read – he also wrote a poem which bore the name of the Greek philosopher).
In other stories of The Maker, this theme of the subject’s fleeting experiences of the world is extended into sensations in literature. In ‘The Yellow Rose’, Giambattista Marino has a revelation on his deathbed – concerning a rose which he realised he could only talk about, not truly express: ‘Marino saw the rose, as Adam had seen in Paradise, and he realized it lay within its own eternity, not within his words’. In much the same way, literature cannot express the object itself, only one’s own experience of it, which is temporary, occurring in the ‘now’ which is instantly transformed into the past. Marino realizes that his own books ‘were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents’.
‘Everything and Nothing’ shows a famous author who has no true self – he is a ‘dream someone had failed to dream’ – so he creates characters in order to hide his ‘nobodiness’. The characters which he creates possess many different features, but there is no common, constant characteristic that stems from a true identity. Finally, before or after his death, overwhelmed by existing simultaneously as no man and many men, he asks God if he can be one man with a true self. But God is not one entity either, existing in all men in virtue of having dreamed them up. Borges often returns to the idea of the ‘true self’, and the transient nature of identity. A past version of oneself may have had one characteristic, but now that present self has lost it – are these two incarnations of the one person? Or is there no constant self; only the ‘self-in-the-present’?
Borges demonstrates another recursion involving identity in the story ‘Borges and I’. The author Borges gives his own experiences, beliefs and characteristics to the narrator/character Borges. The author then feels that these traits no longer belong to him, but to his fictional character. Because the author Borges uses a first person narrative, there may be a conflation between the two Borges’, which is pointed out in the story. But in reality, there are an infinite number of possible narrators – Borges creates a narrator named Borges, who, in other stories creates characters, who also tell stories in which they represent characters. Borges (which one?) realises that he isn’t sure if it is a narrator or the author telling this story – the author Borges may have created yet another narrator-Borges to tell a story about the character-Borges.
In the afterword to The Maker, Borges describes the collection as his most personal, because it ‘abounds in reflections and interpolations’. He notes that there are few things he has experienced more worthy than Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and ideas of the German philosopher are touched on frequently in the collection. Perhaps the most prevalent of these influences is Schopenhauer’s insistence of the ‘impossibility of knowing the self’. Schopenhauer was adamant that there exists a recursion within the identity of the self – a recursion similar to those which Borges describes in several of his stories in The Maker. References to philosophical paradoxes such as this appear frequently in the collection, but Borges is principally concerned with how these ideas affect us and make us feel.