Some Brief Notes and Queries on Teaching Borges

Sat Mar 11, 2006

I’ve taught some of Borges’s fictions in two out of three of my last classes and am spending this week on “The Immortal,” “The House of Asterion,” “The Zahir,” and “The Aleph.” I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who’ve taught Borges, particularly in an introductory course. How did it go, and how specifically did you handle Borges’s awesome and conspicuous erudition? “Pierre Menard,” which I taught a few weeks ago, is among the commented-upon of all the stories; and I have yet* to read a satisfactory explanation of Menard’s recapitulative bibliography or of the role of the atypical narrator. In a review of Danto’s relevant book here, one philosopher noted that it seemed like an interesting topic–perhaps quixotic–but that he’d live it to the literary scholars to figure out. More important philosophic issues about aesthetics and authenticity were at play, you see.

I think it would be a remarkable thing indeed if Lem’s “Odysseus in Ithaca” from A Perfect Vacuum were written without knowledge of “The Immortal.” The first-order, forgotten geniuses and the immortals are identically outside history and comprehension. I used Escher, Piranesi, and Lovecraft (and Giger if I’d thought of it, though as a negative–perhaps also de Chirico?) as examples for their city, as Xul Solar didn’t seem to fit here. Contemplation as a form of atavism, the logical extension of the ego into the present, also suggests itself. The Cynics, yes, but where’s the “if only hunger could be relieved thus?” Sex is almost entirely absent from Borges’s fiction.** My favorite Heraclitean fragment, “Homer was an astronomer,” is probably relevant to the alien gods of these troglodytes (the etymology of which and its nomenclatural usages are both worth mentioning).

There will be a good explanation for why Asterion’s concept of infinity starts at fourteen, I predict, though it may take some prompting. Theseus as the foretold redeemer teems with interest, esp. in a vaguely Hegelian cast of the hero as unifier of the city-state, deliverer from theriomorphy. Good luck asking a local barkeep for a brandy and orange juice and expecting your check card receipt to be the zahir. It has to be an object with presence, and, besides, people don’t drink brandy and orange juice anymore (though they do blend coffee and orange juice, apparently). Also, none of you are old enough for this bar nonsense.

“Money is abstract […] money is future time.” Pedagogical gold, so to speak. And “The Aleph” is probably the most sentimental of Borges’s fictions that I’ve taught. Argentino’s pathetic subcreation seems a Mundane Comedy. The reference in the afterword to Well’s “The Crystal Egg” is particularly wry.

*Not that I’ve read all of the literature, mind you, and I certainly appreciate any suggestions. **Not teaching “Emma Zunz,” and I’ve yet to get (I think) an untainted answer to “The Cult of the Phoenix.” Am particularly curious for comparisons on this last point.