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)

I’ve often said that if I understand the two Alice books I’d have very little left to understand about literature.  Actually I think the Alice books, while they carry over, begin rather than sum up—a new twist to fiction that has to do with intellectual paradox & the disintegrating of the ego.  Borges especially, along with some Kafka, FW [Finnegans Wake], some conspiracy novels like [Thomas Pynchon’s] The Crying of Lot 49, some elements in detective stories & science fiction, come down from this.  (“Notebook 24,” CW 9:329)


Chapter 7 invites students to put their knowledge together in a consideration of meaning, not only in established and realistic writers such as Porter, London, and Dostoevsky, but in newer, experimental, and “absurd” authors such as Le Guin, Lem, Borges, and Pynchon.  (“Preface” to The Practical Imagination, CW 18:183)


In Borges’s little story, The Gospel According to Mark, we are in a remote part of South America, as far as we can get from all our normal cultural habits and references.  Yet the story which is familiar to us in the Gospels makes its way there, too, in a most disconcerting form.  (“Meaning,” from The Practical Imagination, CW 18:190).


Less dogmatic writers than Bunyan adopt more flexible forms of journeys.  Even Bunyan’s figure is Y-shaped, that is, there is a choice to be made between the right way and the wrong way.  A similar figure turns up in Greek mythology in the story of the choice of Hercules, who chooses between pleasure and virtue in the form of a forking road.  But, of course, the doctrine of original sin, and parallel doctrines in other religions, indicate that every man is on the wrong path to begin with.  Hence the frequency of such themes as that of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, which is based on the fact that every choice excludes every other choice, and that every life is full of roads not taken that continue to haunt us with a sense of possible missed opportunities.  Eliot’s Quartets begin by saying that some rigorously fatalistic cause-effect philosophies may tell us that the phrase “it might have been” is entirely futile, but, as soon as it has told us that, we instantly begin again with “it might have been” fantasies.6 The reason is ultimately that mankind took the wrong way at the fall, and all such fantasies are connected with nostalgia for the unfallen state.  Here again, of course, the same theme can be treated ironically: Borges’ story The Garden of Forking Paths encloses a number of paths within a cycle of unvarying identity.  (“The Journey as Metaphor,” CW 18:412)


Add to doubles in Seven: the mystery of iniquity is Antichrist, and the Iagos of the world are tragic parasites, who can’t exist except in a destructive relation to someone else.  There are also science-fiction doubles, anticipated by Henry James in his time-travel double (The Sense of the Past) and parallel-worlds double (The Jolly Corner).  The Ivan-Smerdyakov relation in Dostoevsky is closer to the Iago-Othello one (someone existing destructively in relation to someone he would otherwise be forced to admire) in the regular “double” form.  I haven’t mentioned the male-female double in Twelfth Night, either: cf. Balzac’s Séraphita.  Borges and I. (“Notebook 44,” CW 5:214–15)


Cave dialogue begins in the womb of the mother and the intense will to identify with animal forms.  Painting as “unborn” and sculpture as “born” arts.  The emergence of the (threatened) son in the “ark” (Noah-Moses-Exodus sequence).  Preservation of original darkness & mystery in the Holy of Holies.  Labyrinths & false directions; world of seeds, most of whom are “lost”–the potential other worlds or paths.  Roads not taken of course consolidate in the fall story.  Manger & ox & ass–I’ve got all that in GC [The Great Code], for God’s sake.  Look up Borges’ story The Garden of Forking Paths–I suspect it may go back to Shelley’s Zoroaster meeting himself in a garden [Prometheus Unbound, 1.1.192–4].  (“Notebook 50,” CW 5:285)


[T]he study of the arrested-flux is a process in which the movement of time is resumed.  Here the flat surface becomes, in Borges phrase, a garden of forking paths. (“Notebook 50,” CW 5:317)


That skit of Borges had something: the Goldberg theme played at the end of the quest or conspectus of variations is not the same thing as the original theme. [This is not a reference to Bach’s Goldberg Variations in one of Borges’s stories.  Frye is referring rather to Borges’s practice of repeating the original theme at the end of his stories, as in “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” which does contain a play.] (“Notebook 50,” CW 5:415)


Borges has several stories, notably The Aleph, which illustrate the principle of interpenetration, everything everywhere at once. (“Notes 52,” CW 6:448)


One of my predecessors in the Norton Lectures, J.L. Borges, says, in a little story called “The Gospel According to Mark”: “generations of men, throughout recorded time, have always told and retold two stories–that of a lost ship which searches the Mediterranean seas for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who is crucified on Golgotha.” The Crucifixion is an episode in the Biblical epic: Borges is clearly suggesting that romance, as a whole, provides a parallel epic in which the themes of shipwreck, pirates, enchanted islands, magic, recognition, the loss and regaining of identity, occur constantly, as they do in the last four romances of Shakespeare. Borges is referring to different episodes of the two complete stories, but he puts his finger on an essential structural problem of criticism.  (The Secular Scripture, CW 18:14)


Of Borges’ two retold stories, the Biblical and the romantic, the Biblical story finally ends with the Book of Revelation, in a fairytale atmosphere of gallant angels fighting dragons, a wicked witch, and a wonderful gingerbread city glittering with gold and jewels. But the other story, the ship searching the Mediterranean for a lost island, never seems to come to an end. It may go into the Atlantic looking for happy islands here, or into the Pacific, as in Melville’s Mardi, or into outer space, journeying to planets so remote that light itself is too slow a vehicle. When we study the great classics of literature, from Homer on, we are following the dictates of common sense, as embodied in the author of Ecclesiastes: “Better is the sight of the eye than the wandering of desire.” Great literature is what the eye can see: it is the genuine infinite as opposed to the phony infinite, the endless adventures and endless sexual stimulation of the wandering of desire. But I have a notion that if the wandering of desire did not exist, great literature would not exist either. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18:24)


This attitude [of identification] has recently revived as a form of existential criticism. Its method is brilliantly satirized in Borges’ story of Pierre Menard, whose life’s work it was to rewrite a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, not by copying them, but by total identification with Cervantes. Borges quotes a passage from Cervantes and a passage from Menard which is identical with it to the letter, and urges us to see how much more historical resonance there is in the Menard copy. The satire shows us clearly that nothing will get around the fact that writer and reader are different entities in time and space, that whenever we read anything, even a letter from a friend, we are translating it into something else. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18:105)


But in the second part of the book, Sancho Panza is given an island to rule, and rules it very well: while he is doing so, Don Quixote offers him advice which is surprisingly sensible. Earlier I quoted Borges as describing the story we are calling the secular scripture as a search for some dearly loved Mediterranean island. I suspect that Borges’ island has a good deal to do with Cervantes’ island, a society where Sancho Panza, who is not a Machiavellian prince but one of us, is ruler, and where Don Quixote, possibly the greatest figure in the history of romance, has recovered his proper function as a social visionary. (The Secular Scripture, CW 18:117)


My examples are good: they might include, on the critical side, Borges’ story about the man who wrote Don Quixote. (“Notebook 21,” CW 13:146)


One again: the ultimate authority for law & prophecy being God, individuality & authorship do not exist.  The tape recorder theory of inspiration is the parody of this.  Use the paradoxes of Borges in this chapter, & lead up to hearing the Muse of music in Bach or Beethoven. (“Notebook 21,” CW 13:200)


Re belief: it’s gone into reverse now: Borges says he does not believe in immortality, because he doesn’t want to endorse the Church’s irresponsible teachings on the subject.  In one of his stories [“The Immortal”] he remarks that we believe as though we did believe in it. (“Notebook 11d,” CW 13:268)


Heidegger seems to live in that world of Borges where there are no nouns, only verbs.  (Frye’s marginal annotation to page 202 of his copy of Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought)


Q:  How can you explain that in Latin American cultures or Spanish and so on, there isn’t much criticism?   Octavio Paz   in one of his former lectures, [“On Criticism,” in Alternating Current (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 35–9] berates the Spaniards and the Portuguese for not entering criticism. And yet it seems to me that Latin American writing is very, very lively and quite interesting and speaks to me personally.

FRYE:  I simply don’t know why there isn’t criticism, more prominence given to criticism in Latin American countries. It may be that there is a much lower proportion of young people going to university. And, of course, the university is a great employer of critics. But, on the other hand, I’ve read criticism of Borges, who is one of the few Latin American authors I have looked into and that must have come out of something and there must be a tradition behind that.  (from an unpublished interview with Frye in 1976 at the Thomas More Institute, Montreal)


Cayley: I believe some of your literary productions as an undergraduate were satires. You were attracted to this form of satire?

Frye: I was always attracted to that form, because at that time certainly, like most students, I knew more about ideas than I did 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, I think. (“Northrop Frye in Conversation,” CW 24:938)


In caricature, and to some extent occupationally as well, the humanist seems to resemble that heroic if somewhat confused bird mentioned by Borges [in The Book of Imaginary Beings], who always flies backward because he doesn’t care about where he’s going, only about where he’s been. (“The Bridge of Language,” CW 11:316)


There are all kinds of wonderful things in your essay, including parenthetical remarks (Borges is more cheerful than Kafka because he’s more elegiac), and your suggestion that the real way out is not through remembrance but through creative repetition in a new dimension, as in that little book of Kierkegaard’s that’s always fascinated me so much.  (Frye’s letter to Angus Fletcher, 5 March 1983, published in Selected Correspondence 1934–1991)

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