Everness: Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges

Everything and Nothing

Everything and Nothing
BY Jorge Luis Borges
BY Various Translators
(New Directions, 2010)

From the Publisher:

Everything and Nothing collects the best of Borges’ highly influential work — written in the 1930s and ‘40s — that foresaw the internet (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), quantum mechanics (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), and cloning (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”). David Foster Wallace described Borges as ‘scalp-crinkling… Borges’ work is designed primarily as metaphysical arguments… to transcend individual consciousness.'”

New Directions has republished a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories and brief essays in Everything and Nothing (2010), a welcome event. Republication in the diminutive Pearl series is a good occasion to remind ourselves of Borges’ extraordinary influence on fiction. He demonstrated new narrative techniques, modeled genre bending and blending, and explored large cosmic questions in small fictions.

Few writers have ever demonstrated so clearly how to combine intellect and humor, or how to engage readers without much attention to conventional emotional, social, or political life. Of course, rising above political life caused many to question Borges’ values when he ignored the catastrophic human rights abuses in Argentina during the eighties. As a much younger man Borges experienced the vibrant Dadaist movement in Switzerland, and he never afterwards lost his taste for virtuosity, intellectual daring, iconoclasm, playfulness, surrealism, paradox, costumed identity, and benign mockery. In particular the Dadaists’ taste for subversive literary hoaxes and their satiric iconoclasm infuse his fiction.

Borges is seldom credited for his talents as a comedic writer. Quite remarkably he crafts comedic short stories without ever using the easiest material, human vanity and relationship foibles. Without ever being mean-spirited or misanthropic, his stories and essays craft humor out of our belief systems, our penchant for self-delusion, and our befuddlement in the face of futility.

Few writers have ever demonstrated so clearly how to combine intellect and humor, or how to engage readers without much attention to conventional emotional, social, or political life.

The least unconventional of the five short stories here is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Readers and critics have long delighted in the absurd premise, that a contemporary writer would aspire to write Don Quixote. Not a Quixote, but the Quixote, word for word, not copying but independently creating an identical work.

Pierre Menard might seem mad, but his character is unimportant compared to his ideas, or compared to the character of the narrator, an obsequious friend of Menard’s. This putative scholar seems fastidious about details and accuracy, but in fact he falsifies his catalog of Menard’s writings. He declines to write a biography in deference to two women patrons with more money than sensibility. He suppresses Menard’s erotic passages out of delicacy. Here Borges, too often seen as a reclusive scholar of arcana, constructs a self-referential satire of scholars.

The finest short story here, and the one that most completely suggests Borges’ epistemology, is “Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius.” It purports to be the account by a bookish man of a fictional world created over many years by a secret society. When an encyclopedia of that fictional world is discovered, or leaked, it so fascinates people that they change our world to emulate Tlon. Perceptions of reality and ideologies are like hats and shoes, fashions always changing at the whim of mass psychology.

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