Literary Theory, Philosophy, Genre, Borges et al Revisited

by Ralph Dumain

“Standing outside the normal process by which intellectual traditions are transmitted, the autodidact may embody the spirit of his age in an unusually direct way. For the same reason, his relation to the past is apt to be distorted: his intellectual roots descend haphazardly, putting down feelers here and there as they happen to find nourishment.”

    — George W. Stocking, Jr.

I have found literary theories of limited use at best in my analysis of most literary works. Generally, what is useful are certain ideas I can pilfer from them. For example, some notions from reader-response theory are of interest, such as Jauss’s notion of the horizon of expectations and Iser’s notion of the reader filling in the blanks in fictional narratives. I am unable to recall at the moment any particular influence of Marxist theories, though I have been exposed to Lukács and Adorno to a certain extent, a bit to Lucien Goldmann, I think to Terry Eagleton though I don't know why, and to various surveys of Marxist aesthetics and literary theory. But generally, what has proved useful to me from any of these theorists and others is specific analyses of authors and/or specific works rather than their theories and alleged applications.

Who are some of the authors or specific works I myself have studied or analyzed at length? The most intensively that come to mind are William Blake, Jorge Luis Borges, Herman Melville, Richard Wright, then, grouping others together: James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Karel Čapek, the Hungarians Sándor Szathmári, Imre Madách, Frigyes Karinthy, and Robert Zend, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Ray Bradbury, with forays into Henrik Ibsen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Macedonio Fernández, Samuel R. Delany, Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed, Hermann Hesse, Italo Calvino ... and of course numerous authors I have reviewed and the countless others I have read.

This is my most recent project in this vein:

Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

In recent years, the theorist I engaged most intensively is Mikhail Bakhtin, related to a specific project:

Dostoevsky’s Underground, Ideology, Reception: A Very Select Bibliography

Specifically, I began with Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky is the author of the first polyphonic novel. I think it was Scanlan who disagreed with the polyphonic interpretation, but I never got hold of his Dostoevsky the Thinker. I also delved intensively into Gary Saul Morson and Victorino Tejera, who draw heavily on Bakhtin.

Notes from the Underground has an unreliable narrator, and in such cases, as with ‘polyphonic’ works, theoretical perspectives on narratives are relevant. I suppose the difference is whether there is sufficient attention to detail vs arbitrarily ingestion of a work in question into the theory industry. There is here, too, no algorithmic (formalistic) way of determining the validity of the application of theoretical perspectives. One must fight out the issue in each individual case.

One might think that the more overtly philosophical the author, the more congenial and amenable to literary theorists and philosophers, and the more relevant the theoretical applications. (The same could be said of more sophisticated specimens of science fiction.) This has certainly happened with Jorge Luis Borges. * I have found much of this useful and some a distraction. I could give examples of both kinds, but first, here is my web guide:

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Note that I have written about Borges. Some of these web pages were produced for actual discussions I led. Later, I summed up my perspective in an essay:

Borges Ironizing Idealism: I Dream Too Much 

I made detailed analyses of these stories:

On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions 

On “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions 

On “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges 

In the process of re-reading these stories, which I had first read as a teenager decades earlier, I noticed that their logical structure was more complex than I had realized, and when you add to this the Argentine backdrop of Borges’ abstract metaphysical conundrums, the genius of Borges’ fusion of these elements astounds. I have not seen anyone map the logical structures of “Pierre Menard” and “The Aleph” as I have. “The Congress” was Borges’ favorite, I believe, and I began this one after attending a lecture by Bruno Bosteels in Washington that blew me away.

Bosteels sought something non-obvious and interesting about Borges’ politics (which were overtly reactionary later in life) from his stories. Bosteels mentioned that he was writing a book on Borges, but alas, it has never appeared. I found Bosteels’ lecture far superior to his actual articles on Borges I subsequently looked up. He has published a lot of drek on other subjects, combining Marxism and French philosophy (Badiou—yuck!). However, he started me on my quest.

Borges also prompts the question about genres, i.e. the relation between philosophy and literature, and to what extent literary works can be classified also as philosophy according to the contemporary division of disciplines. This is actually not merely an academic question. I wrote what I consider to be an excellent treatment of the issue. I had planned to submit it to the journal Philosophy and Literature, but looking it over, the journal seemed to be bogged down in specific issues, missing the central, general and foundational question I had addressed, and I figured, instead of fussing with academics, I would get a broader and more important audience just posting it on my web site:

"‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’: Relationships of Genres and the Frontiers of Thought"

… and see:

Philosophical Style: Selected Bibliography

... particularly the section Philosophy & Literature as Genres. A distinction between philosophy and literature is not mere academic pedantry and turf protection; there are important intrinsic issues involved, not least of all how these genres communicate ideas and how texts are interpreted. There has been a lot of fussing over this, and Borges presents a paradigm case of how to understand philosophical literature. As I recall, Jorge Garcia makes some fine distinctions, and claims that a philosophical text (regardless of its literary/stylistic characteristics) can be paraphrased, but a literary text cannot. Well, you can read up on this yourself if you’re so inclined.

Per the quote from Stocking above, autodidacts who become literary authors have an unusual and perhaps haphazard connection to the intellectual heritage, but as they are not under pressure to further a particular paradigm or initiate a new one, they may be struggling with the entire complex of competing ideas within their socio-cultural world and may burrow right to the core of the tensions of their time. Such were two of my favorite authors, the poet/artist William Blake and the novelist Herman Melville.

Borges, and others who incorporate ideas within certain complex literary structures (Italo Calvino is another), can do things with these ideas in their medium that expository prose cannot. Their logical and conceptual structures may be partially visible, and partially covert, and thus richer (i.e. logically and discursively more complex) than straightforward philosophical arguments. (This may be true of certain writers who write in an elliptical, especially ironic, style, but this is not my focus now.) I found this to be the case with Borges, and it is much more gratifying (for me) to get one’s idealism from Borges than from the philosophies from which he poaches, as he is totally uninhibited in taking them to their most absurd conclusions, which philosophers who really want to promote their ideas cannot.

Stanislaw Lem, himself an exemplar, calls this ‘fantastic philosophy’:

Stanislaw Lem on Borges & genre

Literature is epistemologically quite important, in addition to the traditional ways in which literature is important. Taken to an extreme, such techniques can result in pointless self-referential exercises, which, once successfully introduced into the culture, can become quite trite, trivial, and self-indulgent, but even the imperfections of serious literary writers who may not be up to the standard of more systematic and progressive philosophical approaches can contribute what the ‘correct’ thinkers cannot.

Lukács’ constricted concept of fiction is useless compared to what liberals like fellow-Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy and Czech Karel Čapek could present via fiction. Of course, you get complex content and overt and covert structures in James Joyce, and you get the formal devices of Oulipo, and if you think Nabokov’s Pale Fire is worth reading, good luck to you.

I should also mention that Michael Löwy has written with an expansive view of literature in mind, challenging Lukács. (Most non-Hungarian readers of Lukács engage Lukács’ writings on classics of ‘world literature’ and hence probably know nothing of Hungarian literature and how some Hungarian critics may detest Lukács.) But aside from the ability to depict and reveal social relations, and maybe even to contribute to a satisfactory emancipatory view of the world, literature offers other delights, including the satisfactions of abstraction. Every culture that I know of has its board games, puzzles, word games, etc., and even the least intellectual people are enamored of puzzles. Abstraction itself is deeply embedded in occult, mystical, and esoteric idea-structures as it is in science and mathematics: historically, scientific and occult ideas totally interpenetrated one another, and only with modernity—and not even then—became formally distinguished. (Note that even in the early modern period one finds logicians attempting to prove  all sorts of ideas including religious in a more secular but still naive fashion: think of Leibniz’ arte combinatoria vs. Ramon Llull’s ars magna.  There is also a book now on the occult and paranormal beliefs of leading 20th century scientists and logicians.)

I myself was brought to a number of interests via Martin Gardner’s famous “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American (my name was published with a couple dozen others in a 1968 column), which I discovered in July 1967.

Aside from questions of genre and Borges’ influence on theorists, I find that analyzing a literary work, even Borges’s, usually profits more from concentration on detail rather than just feeding the work into the sausage factory of theory. Interpretation of cultural artifacts remains an art, for which no algorithmic approach can substitute.

Still, Borges is one of those authors for which one must import a broader or more general, relevant theoretical perspective. Borges of course is an irresistible temptation for the theory industry as he influenced what we loosely call postmodernism, but, by the same token, reading him retrospectively as essentially a postmodern author is dodgy, as the animating force behind someone writing in the 1940s is just not the same as one writing in the 1970s, assuming the latter got a much later start. I was once askance to find the cutting-edge jazz musicians of the 1960s (of which the avant-garde was a major fraction and influenced many who held on to more traditional structures), which at the time was called the ‘new thing’, as postmodern in some book on the subject. But the mentality of the time and of that milieu was entirely different. The jazz avant-garde was not pastiche; various genre and musical traditions were assimilated into fairly coherent projects. That time is past, and what was and is to be done henceforth carried and carries with it new dilemmas.

Anyway, authors such as Borges themselves prod the development of literary theory. I suppose most authors whose meaning delves way below the surface do the same. In turn, authors become subjected to a series of intellectual fads, in some cases legitimately, in others questionably. Interpretation is always an art, and, like critical thinking, it exists not in general, but only in relation to specific content.

   * As an example of critical literature addressing the epistemological complexity of Borges’ work, here is an abstract I wrote recently:

Borges’ Ironic Metaphysics: The Way of the Same and the Way of Ts’ui Pen” by Hugo Moreno

Borges is compared to Rorty and esp. to Santayana. Also, note the decisive influence of self-marginalized Macedonio Fernández (who lauded William James). Similarities and differences are noted. Also note Deleuze’s take on using history of philosophy. Borges is after artistic truth, not propositional truth. Metaphor is fundamental. Labyrinth is a core metaphor. The stories are embodiments of ironist metaphysics. “The Library of Babel” is a centerless labyrinth. Note the role of the librarian. For the librarian, “the history of philosophy is the history of the intonation of certain basic, perennial metaphors.” The librarian is akin to the metaphysician-artist such as Fernandez. The Library is a closed totality. In contrast, the protagonist in “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” is a mystic, seeking the One. Other short stories provide variations on “the same.” Dream and fantasy become fused, people and objects are duplicated. The “Prologue” to El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan is not as straightforward as it appears. In “The Babylon Lottery” chance or contingency becomes absolute determinism, which has parallels with though the opposite of “The Library of Babel.” Borges’ stories also contain veiled allusions to Buenos Aires and Argentina. The following section is: The Idea of “Bad” Infinity and Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths. The ‘bad infinite’ is an idea from Hegel, and literature has influenced the postmodernists. The idea of the ‘plurality of worlds’ is taken to the extreme in science as well as in literature. Ts’ui Pên’s Garden of Forking Paths suggests that both material and abstract entities are unreal. Pace Deleuze, Borges is the anti-Leibniz. But Borges differs from contemporary many-worlds conceptions with which his fiction has a startling commonality: “Ts’ui Pên is perhaps the single most ardent follower of “the truth of literature.” To dwell in the “truth” of literature means basically to wander in an infinite, pathless, and exit-less labyrinth.” Ts’ui Pên, like Borges, has none of the goals in the objective world that those he is compared with do. Deleuze’s prediction that Borges’ fiction will be the model for philosophy in the future has not come to pass. In other worlds, though, this has already happened.

"‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’:
Relationships of Genres and the Frontiers of Thought
by R. Dumain

Engels, Lukács, utopia, & genre theory
by R. Dumain

Borges Ironizing Idealism: I Dream Too Much
by R. Dumain

Stanislaw Lem on Borges & genre

The First Good Meta-Novel?:
review by R. Dumain

Herman Melville's Moby Dick & the Contradictions of Modernity
by R. Dumain

Witold Gombrowicz confronts (Polish) provincialism

Witold Gombrowicz: Philosophy in 6 1/4 hours (1)

Siegfried Kracauer On History and Non-Simultaneity

Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck & Other Works:
A Select, Annotated Bibliography

Literature, Criticism, and the Theory of Signs (Contents)
by Victorino Tejera

Gary Saul Morson: Genre, Utopia, Sideshadowing, Tempics, Prosaics, Parody,
Misanthropology, Philosophy, Literary Theory, Borges:
Select Bibliography

Italo Calvino: A Select Bibliography

Dostoevsky’s Underground, Ideology, Reception:
A Very Select Bibliography

Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Stéphane Mallarmé, Grand Oeuvre, Le Livre:
Selected Resources in English

James Joyce: Special Topics: Bibliography, Links, Quotes

Hermann Hesse, Esperanto, Klera Utopio, Universala Lingvo /
Intellectual Utopia, Universal Language

Vladimir Nabokov: Science Fiction, Artificial Languages, Ars Combinatoria,
Narrative Structure, Martin Gardner, Play: An Arbitrary Bibliography

Karel Čapek: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation in the Work
of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources:
A Selective Work in Progress

‘World Literature’: A Bibliography

Surrealism: Selected Links

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Charles Johnson, Black American Philosopher & Novelist: Select Bibliography

Philosophical Style: Selected Bibliography

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide


Hans Robert Jauss - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wolfgang Iser - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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