Jorge Luis Borges, lauded everywhere as one of the greats of short fiction, rarely gets his due as an essayist. But his essays can be every bit as intriguing as his stories—and, in fact, are haunted by the same suspicion that haunts his fiction: the suspicion that there is an order of some kind just beyond our reach, and an elusive significance always on the verge of manifestation. Both of these suspicions emerge in the wake of Kantian and post-Kantian thought on the meaning of the beautiful.
Consider “The Wall and the Books,” in which Borges speculates about the motives of the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti in ordering the building of the Great Wall and decreeing the burning of all books. Borges is, of course, aware of simple historical explanations for the phenomena. “Historically,” writes Borges, “there is no mystery in the two measures…. he built the wall because walls were defenses; he burned the books because the opposition invoked them in order to extol former emperors.” But that’s just too plodding and dull for a mind like that of Borges, who soon turns to questions about a larger meaning for the emperor’s actions. Noting that those who were found preserving books were sentenced to work on the wall, Borges begins speculating:
Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, maybe Shih Huang Ti condemned those who worshipped the past to a work just as vast as the past, as stupid and useless. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and I can do nothing against this love, nor can my executioners, but some time there will be a man who feels as I do, and he will destroy my wall, as I destroyed the books, and will erase my memory and will be my shadow and my mirror and will not be aware of it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in the empire because he knew it was fragile and he destroyed the books because he understood they were sacred books, or rather books that taught that which the entire universe teaches or the consciousness of every man.
That’s a pretty freestyle set of hermeneutic principles Borges is employing, isn’t it? “Perhaps it means this, perhaps that…” But Borges isn’t much interested in precise or authoritative interpretation, here. Rather, as he says a little later, he thinks it is likely that the grand idea of the wall and the burning of the books “touches us by, over and above, the conjectures it allows.” The wall and the books are valuable to Borges precisely because they conjure possible interpretations: they seem meaningful, but render up no precise meaning.
Indeed, thinking about the wall and the books in this way leads Borges to conjecture that “we could infer that all practices have their virtue in themselves and not in some conjectural ‘content’” and that this emphasis on the form or pattern that hints, but only hints, at significance would be in accord with the thinking of Walter Pater, who “contended that all the arts aspire to the condition of music, which is nothing but form.” Music, after all, is like mythology, or “certain twilights,” in that all of these things “try to tell us something… or want to tell us something.” For Borges, this is an “imminence of a revelation, which does not happen” and “is, perhaps, the aesthetic act.”
The idea of a pure form that does not connect to utility—the wall as metaphor, rather than as defense—haunts Borges, and pushes into his mind despite his grasp of simpler, more material explanations for the wall. And the haunting is specific to the Kantian and post-Kantian eras, in that it was Kant who told us that the aesthetic experience involves a sense of “purposiveness without purpose”—of form with no necessary connection to function. Moreover, it was Kant who spoke of genius as a capacity for creating images that function exactly like the wall and the books in Borges’ essay. Here’s the relevant passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgment:
Genius is, in short, the faculty of presenting aesthetical Ideas; an aesthetical Idea being an intuition of the Imagination, to which no concept is adequate. And it is by the excitation of such ineffable Ideas that a great work of art affects us.
For Kant, the products of genius cannot be reduced to any single concept or meaning. Rather, they give rise to a plethora of possible significances. Both the notion of purposiveness without purpose and the notion of genius irreducible to concept lie behind Borges’ speculations about the wall and the books: Borges is fascinated by the possibility of something that can be “nothing but form,” and by the notion that a formal pattern “hints, but only hints, at significance.” Borges mentions Benedetto Croce and Walter Pater in his essay—and neither figure would exist in recognizable form without Kant. But another figure derived from the German Idealist tradition comes to mind in connection with Borges’ idea of the “imminence of a revelation, which does not happen” as central to aesthetics: Carl Gustav Jung. Jung, in his great essay “On the Relation of Analytic Psychology to Poetry,” argues that the most significant forms of art give us not specific meanings per se, but “a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are true symbols because they are ... bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore.” Meaningfulness without meaning, we might say, is the gist of Jung’s theory, here: and it is certainly a theory in accord with Borges’ fascinations.
Borges' concern with pure form and “imminence of a revelation, which does not happen” informs his best-loved fiction every bit as much as it informs his essayistic thinking. Consider “The Lottery of Babylon, ” in which all of the arbitrariness in the world just might be the result of a secret, carefully administered lottery—a pattern or form behind the apparent randomness of life, a purpose or meaning we can almost detect. Or consider the famous “Library of Babel,” in which a vast library of books, each unique, combine to present all possible combinations of letters. In this strange universe, men seek not only the revelation of meaning, but absolution through that revelation:
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness…. At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors, proferred dark curses, strangled each other on the divine stairways, flung the deceptive books into the air shafts, met their death cast down in a similar fashion by the inhabitants of remote regions. Others went mad ... The Vindications exist (I have seen two which refer to persons of the future, to persons who are perhaps not imaginary)…
The imminence of these most personal of revelations, though, never really manifests: “the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, ” we read, “can be computed as zero. ”
“The Garden of Forking Paths,” is perhaps the best example of Borgesian fiction haunted by Kantian aesthetics. It is in this story that we see our protagonist escape from the anxieties of his situation—he is in a hostile country, pursued by an implacable foe—by contemplating a labyrinth created by an ancestor:
I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost. Thirteen years he dedicated to these heterogeneous tasks, but the hand of a stranger murdered him—and his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth. Beneath English trees I meditated on that lost maze: I imagined it inviolate and perfect at the secret crest of a mountain; I imagined it erased by rice fields or beneath the water; I imagined it infinite, no longer composed of octagonal kiosks and returning paths, but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms . . . I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars. Absorbed in these illusory images, I forgot my destiny of one pursued.
The labyrinth, a structure purposive but without purpose, is an object of contemplation that lifts him above his self-protective anxieties, and takes him into a different state of mind. Indeed, it takes him into something like disinterest, the condition in which we contemplate without thought of our ourselves and our needs—the very state Kant says we enter with aesthetic contemplation.
As it turns out, the labyrinth is not a physical maze, but a book—a seemingly incoherent book that, in fact, has a pattern to it. But the pattern is infinite, and the full meaning of the book can never be made manifest: it is a text pregnant with meanings, a bridge thrown out to an unseen shore.
The ghost of pure form, of a purposiveness beyond purpose; and the haunting sense of a meaningfulness that refuses to resolve into definite meaning—these are the specters behind many of the lines Borges wrote, fiction and nonfiction alike. They are, I think, the central principles of his aesthetics—and the product of a long tradition in Western philosophy.