Daily Archives: April 9, 2012

Frye and Borges

In the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism Frye calls the two subconscious elements of association “babble” and “doodle.”  He later gives the two elements more dignified names, “charm” and “riddle.”  I think Borges’ fictions appealed to Frye not because of their charm but because of their riddles.  Like Joe Adamson, I’ve also been fascinated with Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story about “other worlds,” about things that are quite distant from us, things that are strange.  On the first two pages alone we have repeated references to things that are fallacious, vague, ambiguous, nebulous, fantastic, imaginary.  The narrator eventually discovers that Tlön is in fact an “other world”—what he refers to as a “cosmos.”  What we have is a kind of Chinese box: a story within a story within a story.  That is, people invent the country of Uqbar in order to provide a base for the subsequent invention of Tlön, which will eventually become a third world, Orbis Tertius.  As people create fictional worlds within fantastic worlds, they cover their tracks as they go, hiding their fictions in rare editions of encyclopedias.  What is Tlön?  We’re not certain.  In the Uqbar entry of the encyclopedia Tlön is referred to as an “imaginary region.”  In the 11th volume of the Encyclopedia of Tlön it’s referred to as a planet.  The mystery of Tlön is eventually cleared up in the “Postscript,” where we learn that Tlön was an imaginary country invented by a secret society dating back to the seventeenth century.

How strange, how odd all of this is.  It does seem to be another world altogether.  But is it really?  Might Borges be suggesting that this strange, dehumanized, godless world is our world, the world that we’re still in the process of constructing for ourselves?  So, while the fiction of Tlön as conceived by the philosophers and propagated by Buckley’s money is both ridiculous and in some ways deadly to life, the fiction about Tlön as conceived and told by Borges is delightful in its riddling wit and cleverness.  Borges frequently presents us with riddles––intellectual puzzles to be figured out.  It’s interesting to note, for example, that the postscript of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is dated 1943.  Borges says that the story first appeared in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature in 1940.  That’s the truth: it was published in 1940.  So it appears to us that Borges added the postscript three years later.  Why?  Because he felt that readers were puzzled by the story and he needed to clear things up again?  That seems to be a reasonable inference.  The problem is, however, that the 1943 postscript was part of the story when it was originally published.  Another example of Borges’ trickery: some of the books he refers to in the story are real; some are fictitious.

All fiction is about “other worlds,” worlds that have no existence except in our imaginations.  Are Tlön’s philosophy and language and geometry any stranger or any more arbitrary than our own?  In the account of the hrönir, we learn that the ideal influences the real.  Lost objects begin to reduplicate themselves: the idea ends up shaping reality.  And the story seems to end on a moralistic note in the comments on what has happened to people who become fascinated by symmetrical systems.  Fearful symmetry, perhaps?

The appeal of Borges for Frye lay in the dianoia of his fictions, not in their ethos.  We feel little engagement or identification with Borges’ characters.  Frye told David Cayley that when he was writing his short fables for the Canadian Forum back in the 1930s, he knew “more about ideas than . . . about people. If some-body like Borges had been known to me at the time, I would have tried to pick up that kind of tradition.”

Frye owned seven of Borges’ books, all of which he annotated, and there are references to a half dozen of Borges’ ficciones in Frye writings: “The Immortal,” “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Borges and I,” and “The Aleph.”  The scattered references to Borges throughout Frye’s work are collected in what follows.



The realist finds his material in waking experience, or, more accurately, he finds the analogies to his material in waking experience (because he seldom if ever transcribes directly from experience).  It would be silly and misleading just to say that the romancer finds the analogies to his material in dreams, in spite of all the remarks (there’s one by Borges) about how all writing of fiction is really controlled dreaming.  But if we expand the term “dream,” as I do in AC [Anatomy of Criticism], to cover all the conflicts of desire with reality, it would make more sense.  Impenetrable disguises, where the same person is two people at least; metamorphosis of people into animals; anxieties of shipwreck and “falling” (sinking into water); fantasies in which a hero kills an impossible number of enemies—all these are reminiscent of what Freud calls “the dream work.”  It would include conscious fantasy or day-dreaming, where the erotic drive is more controlled and subordinated. (“Notes 56a,” CW 15: 209–10)


For most of my life I have felt that I didn’t have enough to say in the ordinary fiction form to bother turning my full attention on it, when there were so many things as a critic I could say that were distinctive.  But I’ve also had a persistent feeling that if I had the outline of some work of fiction by me, it would be useful as a counterweight or ballast, like a second weight on a cuckoo clock.  I should not think of this as something eventually to be published in any form, merely as something there to be thought about as a mental exercise.  Although for a while I had a novel in mind, set in western Canada, and very naively realistic in style, that was obviously getting me nowhere and I gave it up.  I now realize that my gift in fiction, if I have such a thing at all, would be in one of the “anatomy” genres rather than in the conventional novel or romance forms.  Apart from the small things I printed in my graduate student days, nothing has emerged in a big shape, and isn’t likely to unless I get a revelation out of line with what I’ve so far received.  My early things were based mainly on Richard Garnett’s Twilight of the Gods—if Borges had been available then I might have got further with it. (“The Academic Novel,” CW 25:153)


I keep vacillating between the feeling that there are four areas & the feeling that there’s just one area with variations.  Thus Oedipus seems to be the labyrinth one, but there are labyrinths in Eros too.  Prometheus is the emergence from the labyrinth or cave: it features follow-the-leader games, where (see a passage in Yeats) an ordinary man gains immortality through attaching himself to his shepherd king.  Harrowing of Hell.  Egypt: Book of the Dead.  (Hero as the dead king moving toward identity).  Blake’s picture of Earth in GP [The Gates of Paradise]; Caliban; Borges’ story “The Immortal.” Parodied by Satan’s journey through chaos in P.L.[Paradise Lost], with its Ulysses echoes.  Old Comedy: the Odyssey as a narrative Old Comedy, labyrinth followed by dialectic emergence of identity of Odysseus at Ithaca. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165)


I mention Borges, who seems to me one of the guides, along with the Alice books & Poe.  He says in connection with Quixote that literature not only begins but ends in mythology, & he tells the story of the man who rewrote Quixote—a parable of the way every great work is polarized between meaning then & meaning now [“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”]. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165–6)


[from one of Frye’s pipe-dreams about a 64-section book] Fourteen, Sections 53-56: The new Hermes or Perseus.  Doubles, clocks, mirrors, nympholepsy & alastor figures: growing mechanistic & conspiratorial worlds (Poe, Kafka, Borges); the dystopia; breakup of language as we approach Phase One. (“Notebook 24,” CW 9:306)

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