By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Borges and I’ is one of the shortest stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, a master of the very short story. In many ways it condenses some of the most distinctive aspects of his work into a very short ‘narrative’. But what is ‘Borges and I’ about, and how should we interpret this little parable?
You can read ‘Borges and I’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Borges and I’: summary
Borges compares himself, the private Jorge Luis Borges, with ‘Borges’, the world-famous writer. There are, in effect, two Borgeses: Borges the man and Borges the writer.
The ‘other one’, the famous author named Borges, is the one to whom things ‘happen’. Borges the man, who narrates the story, tells us that he knows of the other Borges from having seen his name on a list of professors, or mentioned in a biographical dictionary. Both men share the same passions for hourglasses, maps, and Robert Louis Stevenson, but Borges the writer likes them in a ‘vain’ way that recalls the poise and performance of an actor.
Borges the narrator tells us that he continues to live so as to provide a living host for Borges the writer to carry on producing his literature. However, the literature Borges the writer produces belongs truly to neither of them, because it becomes part of the common stock of human achievement.
Borges is giving everything up to ‘Borges’, even though he recognises himself more, or sees himself more clearly reflected, in the work of other writers.
Although Borges the man tried to escape his writer-double years ago, by turning his mind to other things, these things, in turn, became the preoccupation of Borges the writer too, so everything that he is and does becomes part of who Borges the writer is.
Borges the man confesses that he doesn’t know which of them has written ‘Borges and I’: did Borges the man, or did Borges the writer?
‘Borges and I’: analysis
‘Borges and I’ is about the gulf between the private self and the public persona. Jorge Luis Borges the man is a private individual who shares some similarities with ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ the famous writer, but there are also some notable differences between the two individuals.
After all, what the public know of Borges the writer is bound to differ from the private person Borges is when he is at home, out of the spotlight. There are things which the public ‘know’ about Borges, but these aspects do not tell the full story of the man.
Many of Borges’ most celebrated stories are about reality versus perception (or even between reality and illusion): see ‘The Circular Ruins’, in which the protagonist learns a surprising truth about his true origins. And Borges’ work is also often preoccupied with the ways in which we respond to authors and their work differently depending on the context in which we encounter it.
A good example here is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, in which the title character has managed to write several pages of Cervantes’ Don Quixote word-for-word – but without consciously copying the original. Borges’ narrator argues that although the words on the page are identical when Cervantes’ Quixote and Menard’s Quixote are placed side by side, we read Menard’s differently from the way we engage with Cervantes’ seventeenth-century original.
So it is with the two men named Jorge Luis Borges: biologically speaking, Borges the man is Borges the writer, but they are perceived quite differently – including by Borges himself.
This idea that there is a world of difference between the man who lives and the writer who writes is not unique to Borges, of course. In his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which the well-read Borges had certainly read, T. S. Eliot argued that ‘the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates’.
This not the same as suggesting that the artist puts nothing of themselves into their work, but rather to argue that the true artist transmutes or transforms what they experience before turning it into art.
However, ‘Borges and I’ does not stop at making a straightforward distinction between Borges the man and ‘Borges’ the well-known writer. Another common feature of Borges’ fiction is his love of paradox, and his enjoyment in playing with seemingly impossible knots of meaning.
Although Borges the person and Borges the name on the bookshelves are not one and the same, because writers do not simply transfer themselves wholesale onto the pages of whatever they write, Borges’ narrator nevertheless confides that Borges the person is becoming Borges the writer: ‘Little by little, I am giving over everything to him.’
And of course, this leads us to ponder the central paradox of ‘Borges and I’, to which Borges (which one?) draws attention in the story’s closing sentence: which of them wrote ‘Borges and I’? Should we ascribe the story to Borges the man, or Borges the writer?
The paradoxical truth is that it is impossible to choose: since ‘Borges and I’ appears in a collection of stories by Borges the writer, it is clear that it is the product of the world-renowned author known as ‘Jorge Luis Borges’. And yet the narrator tells us that he is not Borges the writer: that’s ‘the other one’.
‘Borges and I’ remains such a rewarding story because its central theme can be extrapolated and applied to our modern obsession with celebrity, particularly in the age of social media. A well-known author ‘likes’ one of their fan’s tweets praising their latest book. But how does the fan know that it was the author themselves who ‘liked’ the tweet? What if it was their publicist or even their social media assistant who monitors and runs their Twitter account for them?
This problem doesn’t necessarily go away if we know that a particular author personally runs their own social media account. Did ‘Joe Bloggs’ the world-famous author like the fan’s tweet, or did ‘Joe Bloggs’ the man like it? Is there a difference? Were they tweeting/liking in a professional capacity or a personal one?
This is a metaphysical puzzle, but one which has become all the more relevant (as so much of Borges has since his death: see the way his ‘The Library of Babel’ takes on new significance since the invention of the worldwide web) since the culture of celebrity became altered by the internet and social media, which made it possible for readers to feel as though they somehow personally ‘know’ the people whose books they read. But the issue of (im)personality in relation to authorship is far older, and is at the heart of ‘Borges and I’.
In some ways an update of the Edgar Allan Poe story of the double (and it’s worth remembering that Poe was an important precursor to, and influence on, Borges’ short fiction), ‘Borges and I’ explores the troubled and paradoxical relationship between private self and professional persona. And that relationship has only become more fraught in the last few decades.