Over twenty years ago my colleague, M. Th.
Guilbaud, Professor of Social Mathematics in a Psychology department which I
chaired, mentioned to me an Argentinian writer I did not know at the time. He
said that this writer's short stories, translated into French several years
earlier, were studied with real passion by a small group of researchers interested
in the logical structure of literary works. My friend suggested that I read
them and undertake a psychoanalytic study of these stories. Thus, in 1968, I
went on a summer vacation carrying several books by Borges, among them Ficciones,
The Aleph, and L' Auteur et autres textes ("Pierre Menard, the Author [of
Don Quixote] and Other Texts). It was for me a dazzling experience, since then
constantly renewed. A fresh reading stimulated me to interpret these writings
as a psychoanalyst. As a result my article, "Le corps et le code dans les
contes de Borges," was published in Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse in 1971.
Borges continued writing, publishing, and giving interviews where in he explained details concerning his work. His oeuvre only concluded (save for the posthumous addition of unpublished texts) with this death in 1986. Literary critics have scrutinized his style, the sources of his inspiration, his themes, and the resources involved in the composition of his stories. Borges's humor, or rather his irony, dazzles us like the many facets of a skillfully cut diamond. It is possible now possible to undertake a new psychoanalytic inquiry. Julio Woscoboinik has all the assets for succeeding in such an enterprise. He lives in Buenos Aires, where he practices psychoanalysis. He loves the writings of Borges but has never sought to meet the man personality. He is in possession of important documents that are not available in France. The most interesting writings by the Argentine critics to whom I refer above have led him to new perspectives on some of the short stories. Woscoboinik writes clearly and persuasively yet never seeks to direct the reader's attention toward himself. A good commentator always fades behind the author. He often cites, sometimes at length, fascinating passages from Borges's work. He keeps before his eyes the texts of which critics speak and can thus judge whether or not their comments are well grounded.
The subtitle of Woscoboinik's book, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, signals the respect a psychoanalyst, no matter how talented he may be, must have for the genius of creative writers. We have Freud's own example of such a respectful attitude. The psychoanalyst inquires, Why do these works please me, why do they move, seduce, and disturb me; what is it in my reading that reflects myself? A psychoanalyst who analyzes literature should not be thought to be omniscient, able to dispense gratuitous interpretations concerning one who never lay down on his couch, one whom he knows only through the mediation of texts. Julio Woscoboinik adopts in this respect a method I consider exemplary. He does not interpret, but rather parallels a page by Borges and a page by Freud or by a later psychoanalyst. He places both side by side just as if they were bilingual inscription on an ancient tablet. It is the reader's task to verify the translation -never totally accurate and sometimes nonsensical- which requires corrections and offers variants.
This book on Borges captures both his original creative talent and the psychological processes involved in all literary creation. Woscoboinik shows Borges utilizing childhood memories, erudition, nocturnal dreams; he shows us how he transmutes his quasi-hallucinatory fantasies and phobias into litterary matter that receives a definitive aesthetic form from another labor, the labor of style.
I read The Secret of Borges reordering its rich table of contents into four parts. The first is an overview of Borges's life where the events that triggered a creative regression or provided the plot of a short story are emphasized. His youthful works receive more detailed consideration than the short stories he wrote as a mature man. Julio Woscoboinik particularly underscores the common experiences of Jorge Luis and his younger sister Norah: the fear of mirrors, the horror of incest, imaginary games.
The innovative second part of the book presents and expands several studies, mostly by Argentine critics, on the style of Borges. Which rhetorical figures are utilized, with the intention to produce which linguistic results? Which spatial configurations (rhombus, hexagon, labyrinth, diverse figures of symmetry, structure en abîme), which temporal ones (e.g. circular time) govern the logic of his stories? A fundamental aspect of the Borgean art is shown here, the art of tightly interweaving in the story two different logics, the logic of discourse and that of the spatial forms which I have dubbed "formal signifiers". Here Woscoboinik reviews speculations on proper names and numbers worthy of the Cabbala (well-known by Borges).
In what I term the third part we find the stories presented in chronological order yet with thematic regroupings. This analysis includes sources, structure, levels of signification, and the discussion of previous criticism. The fourth and last part, more diverse, adresses first Borges's relations with women (by whom he felt threatened), then his voice (he was prone to a stuttering of sorts that impeded him when speaking in public), and his dreams. Borges described his dreams each morning to his mother, who in turn told him hers. He jotted down his oneiric experiences and on that basic of sometimes painful personal experiences he wrote a study on the dynamics of the nightmare.
The Secret of Borges then reviews the salient events of the writer's old age: the death of his ninety-nine-year-old mother, his own marriage at eighty seven with Maria Kodama, a forty-year-old woman of Japanese descent, or the recuperation of his poetic creative power. Finally, Woscoboinik attempts to decipher the "Secret" of Borges: uncertainty about his own identity, doubling of the self, the fragile distinction between reality and imagination, the impression that he was but a shadow of his ancestors, who had themselves turned into shadows, or even that he had been dreamed by another and was in his turn limited to dreaming up fictional characters.
The reader should not be misled concerning the secret of Borges. It is not a question of a fact, real or imaginary, hidden by Borges and now at last revealed. It relates rather to what remained a secret for Borges about himself, something that the biographer and the psychoanalyst may dare hypothesize, with the limitations of which Rossolato reminds us when he formulates the "relation of the unknown". The "navel" mentioned by Freud, which engenders a work or a dream, eludes all interpretations. What remains unexplained is the hollow space, the lack, the vacuum around which the work is constructed, that which persists after such construction as the reverse of the work, as the absence of another work which might have been the same work if it had been constructed from the inside out.
In my article "Le corps et le code dans les contes de Borges", I attempted to balance the roles in this author of the physical and the intellectual, narrative and logic, narcissistic problems and Oedipal fantasies. Now, having read The Secret of Borges, I cannot disprove the evidence: the narcissistic is at the same time predominant, natural, and authentic. I can see that Borges resorts to Oedipal topics more infrequently, in a more forced, more factual manner. I am not referring just to the narcissistic folding back upon oneself and the overinvestment is the very content of Borges's work, which offers us an inventory of its figures, beliefs, and typical ways of reasoning. I must however make some qualifications, for the narrative texts by Borges are representations of masculine narcissism. It is not therefore surprising that they are read by men more than by women. With which feminine images (prostitute, submissive servant, naïve young girl) could these male readers identify? Yet this is not the place to develop a comparative analysis of masculine and feminine narcissism. As I reread Borges in the light of Julio Woscoboinik, I perceived in the characters' speech, in the psychological laws governing their interactions, and in the operational signs underlying progressions and regressions of the action, symbolism, enunciations, emotions and singular ideals pertaining to the large modalities of psychological narcissistic dynamics in the scenarios.
Borges's fascination with mirror images, a point of departure for narcissism, is symbolized by the figures of the double, the reflection, the echo, reversed symmetry, and the horror of mirrors which distort or demultiply the image of the self, which make an individual their captive, just as do a tiger in a cage or the minotaur in his labyrinth, which confuse the self-image with the images of others, and which, to sum up, are as prone to folding back upon themselves as they are to turning around. Another figuration of narcissism is the circle ("circular ruins," circular time) turning around upon itself and claiming to be the center of the world. The statements made by the main character or by the narrator are equally characteristic of a narcissistic stance. For one to live the other must die; one man is every man; there is a place which condenses all places. "Everything is everywhere and everything, no matter what, is all things". Differences are often denied.
On the other hand, the feelings and emotions of the characters are more narcissistic than Oedipal. These are: defiance, shame, humiliation, spite, laziness, submission, irony, revenge, coldness. Characters act like puppets, concerned only about their self-image. They ignore the emotions that might be considered natural love and the fear of death, which they gamble on in the lottery.
Finally, the ideal of narcissistic omnipotence runs like a thread through the stories: creating a new language (so as to be the only one speaking it), manufacturing other societies, other worlds, gathering in a single library all the books -those that have been and those that will be written- avoiding coitus and generation in order to engender onself... To have known so well such a subjective dimension of the human gives Borges's oeuvre, by virtue of a paradox that would have delighted him, its universal scope. Let us thank Julio Woscoboinik for allowing Borges's readers to draw this conclusion.
Borges in Two Metaphors
The Blind Minotaur
From: "The Secret of Borges"
Among the engravings of the Vollard suite
at the Picasso Museum in Paris there is an 1934 aquatint by Picasso entitled
"The Blind Minotaur Guided by a Young Girl at Night" (El Minotauro
ciego guiado por una joven niña en la noche). I was surprised when I
could see in this wonderful work the image of Borges. With hesitating steps
that he measures and supports by means of a stick or staff, the Minotaur moves
forword, with that vague alertness of the blind, as if he were gauging the void
by listening into it. A young girl whose face looks mature holds his hand, and
turning to look at him, moves ahead. In her arms is nested a white dove that
spreads its wings.
The tenuous light of the moon in a starry night illuminates this dramatic scene. Yet the figures appear to have a magic light of their own. On the right, two fishermen pull a net just beginning to show on the surface. On the left a young sailor or beautiful adolescent countenance observes the scene. He seems to be awed, as are the fishermen, by the powerful and controlled bestiality of the Minotaur. A spurious son of Queen Pasiphae and the marvelous white bull of Minos, the Minotaur, a symbol of orgiastic drives, walks here bent over himself, in the solitary night. He is like a strange oneiric condensation: in the cruel majesty of the labyrinth, he might represent both Asterion and Oedipus -the wretched figure of Oedipus holding Antigone's hand. While the sailors, midwives of the sea, pull out the net and the white dove rests in the girl's fragile arms, the Minotaur moves forward, blind and defeated, as if he were praying to the heavens.
Borges's image imposes itself. It takes residence precisely at the fractious ridge that separates the blooming from the faded; the lavish from the needy; it stands on the thin line between glory and disdain, between power and castration, between Narcissus and Oedipus.
Don Quixote, Don Borges
From: "The Secret of Borges"
... You must known, then, that the above-named
gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave
himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardor and avidity that he
almost entirely neglected the pusuit of his field-sports, and even the management
of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that
he sold many an acre of tillage-land to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought
home as many of them as he could get.
... Over conceits of this sort the poor gentleman lost his wits, and used to lie awake striving to understand them and worm the meaning out of them... and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits.
... In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honor as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armor and on horseback in quest of adventures, and to put in practice himself all that he had read of...
I find the beginning of Don Quixote pertinent as I begin this study of Borges, for if Don Quixote went out to the world in order to live the books, Borges made of the books his world. The citation is also suitable because, if Don Quixote goes, as he puts it, "in quest of adventures, and to put in practice himself all that he had read of," Borges remains in the solitary adventure of rewriting, recomposing, deforming and transforming the adventures he has read. Don Quixote read the world so as to demonstrate the books; Borges reads the books to justify his life.