The Cyclical Night:
Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges

by L. A. Murrilo


Introduction ix

Scheme of References to Joyce's Works xx


1  Mastery of art had been achieved in irony: Stephen Hero 3
2  On the continent as in Eironesia: Dubliners. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 15
3  The irony of the stars: Ulysses 35
4  How paisibly eirenical: Finnegans Wake 61
5  Iereny allover irelands: Finnegans Wake 81


Introductory 119
2  "The Garden of Forking Paths" 135
3  "Death and the Compass.” “Emma Zunz," "The God's Script" 187
4  "The Immortal" 215

Notes 245
Index 265


Somewhere, at a point coincident to their two orbits, Joyce and Borges meet, but this book is not that occasion. At best this study of their irony hypothesizes that event. Perhaps it even brings it nearer to us in time. Consider, for a moment, how their lives and books move on similar, tangential planes. Both have worked on their respective cities, Dublin and Buenos Aires, like mythographers resurrecting from sounds, local sights, houses, and streets, a timeless vision of their inhab­itants. And, although at home in several languages and litera­tures, a shocking parochialism locates the center of their cosmopolis. Both are Daedalian architects of word structures, of labyrinths. Both are exorcists of the shadowy feelings and meanings, the mystery and power of words: literary exorcists of consciousness. Both betray that predilection for compound­ing the erudite and trivial, the esoteric and the oecumenical, implicating, at its most sensitive, our twentieth‑century sensibility. And of course both have pressed an obsession with form, with style and technique, to bounds that dazzle even where they seem familiar. Some of their most brilliant moments are strictly parasitic and parodistic, and even self‑parodistic. There is, moreover, an influence of one on the other, for Borges, in the twenties, was one writer of that vanguardist generation feeling the full impact, the contemporary impact, of Ulysses. His essay on Joyce and a translation of a fragment of the closing monologue comprise a singular event in literary history. [1] Borges' experiments with style, in his poetry of the twenties, reflects a Joycean awareness of a new sensibility in search of expression. Several of the structural ideas of Finnegans Wake acquire a dialectical form in some of Borges' stories, essays, and poems. His poem "La noche cíclica" owes at least the adjective of its title to Joyce. Perhaps the decisive point of comparison is that their interpretative vision of the intellectual, social, and moral world of man is esthetic, and that their attitudes, tastes, literary ends and means are apolitical, frequently hermetical, and heretical. It is this affinity of nonconformists that attracts attention to their use of irony for fusing style to subject. Also, we owe to a similar use of the cyclical view of time, history and personalities, some of their most inimitable and intimate revelations about themselves as writers. And a final point: Borges, like Joyce in his later years, suffers from blindness.

Yet, conceding that their literary worlds have much in common as work of "artists," of practitioners of a fine art, some basic differences between them severely restrict the possibilities of a comparative study of their attitudes, their themes, and their craft. Both are "critical" as well as "imaginative" writers. But Borges takes a genuine pleasure in working upon ideas, and in working out a style for compressing his metaphysical speculations into an exact organization of concepts. He is everywhere clear, concise. The ideas are never obscure; what they point to, what they constitute, often is. Joyce is almost the reverse. His obscurity resides in his means, in his "using" certain ideas "for all they are worth." Once those obscurities are overcome, his meanings leap up at us, self-evident. Borges' early work was poetry, but his critical and speculative interests found more decided expression in the literary essay. Thus, from the literary essay (in the thirties) to the short narrative (in the early forties) provided a decisive line of evolution more like that of a traditional man of letters than Joyce's. And Borges has been creative in more ways and forms. For Joyce, after 1922, literary creation became such an onerous, restricted labor that he was almost incapable of creative expression in any of the conventional forms: narrative, essay, or poetry, even his personal letters. Each of his major books represents a massive advance in complexity and innovation, but also the exhaustion of the possibilities inherent, for him, in each form: the short story, the autobiographical novel, the naturalistic novel. At best only a semblance of this can be traced in Borges, who refused to write novels, from 1922 to 1962.

Thus, although they are brought together here, for critical and theoretical reasons, their works are studied separately. A study striving to focus on their use of irony in narrative prose is, on all accounts, a restrictive enterprise. The similarity of themes, resources, and attitudes becomes tenuous under the weight of the practical demands of a comparative method. Both authors compress enormous amounts of literary material by means of reiterative techniques, but they do so for ends quite as separate and unique as their means. One may say, in theory, and as the basis for bringing them together, that both authors have worked on irony as a mode of apprehension, but to expand on this, to explicate it from various directions, to deal practically with it, one must confront the precise relation of theme to style, of meaning to form, in two sets of works. And each of these works poses its own internal problems and also represents a stage of evolution.

Precisely because Joyce and Borges match one another in the exactness of a relation of subject to style, are the works of each too exclusive for practical comparisons of the significant, but minute details. Borges' iterative form of compression, for instance, aims at preserving the clear outlines of the conceptual basis of his speculative arguments. As a conveyance for symbolical meanings, his words—their order and syntactical structure—preserve inviolately, almost in spite of oddities, the correctness demanded by Spanish syntax, lexicon, and grammar. The release of their associative meanings is thoroughly dependent on this, and likewise their potential for releasing an ironical meaning. This is a structural necessity, for Borges, with his equipage of antitheses and warring coincidences, is always underway on the cycling motions of imaginative metaphysical conjecture. Compactness, concentration of idea and image, are aimed, as their effect, at immediate conversion into symbol. Borges can condense, and therefore intensify and dramatize, the exposition of massive intellectual and imaginative questions on a few hallucinatory pages. In contrast, Joyce's obsessive need for enlarging the dimensions of one day and night of Irish life and myth has given us the encyclopedic proportions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Joyce expands, elaborates, in his mature styles, by accretions within a simple, unitive pattern, and with a wealth of incidental and referential detail. He took unprecedented liberties with English, and, in Finnegans Wake, with a score of other languages, but his compression of the sensible, imaginative materials he chose to work with is permissibly complicated and involuted because, according to his own words, "the thought is always simple." In Borges the prose surface is always explicit, crystalline, but the thought is often hermetically compressed, even distorted, and charged by the tensions of an imaginative power thrusting for sustained symbolical expression. To put it into the terms of the essays that follow: Joyce, in the evolution of his styles, points the uses of irony toward an encompassing equipoise of myth; Borges, through the techniques of reiterative compression, pivots them on the instability of symbols.

Equally imperative, as a reason for two separate essays, are the demands posed by the critical concept under consideration: irony. If irony, as a full­-bodied concept, is to enjoy the prerogatives of critical legitimacy, it must prove that it is capable of closing in, unaided, on the core of literary works; that is, capable as an independent topic of analysis to go unaided by comparative supports to the core of books. And it must show, moreover, that it is useful to elucidate that core in just this way. Few will argue, in the present state of literary criticism, that irony is a concept in need of justification or proof of its legitimacy. So long as it is treated as an ancillary feature of an author's work the question is hardly important. But irony, it needs saying, is not a concept like tragedy or comedy. These are more self‑subsistent and self‑evident. Irony must be seen as a contingent or intervening thing, as a mode establishing or intervening to convey the unexpressed "ironical" meaning. Tragedy expresses, we may say, the substantive "tragedy," or "the tragic." Irony does not in the same sense express a substantive meaning. Irony is modal, and an ironical meaning is one modally or circumstantially. It is a perceptive mode, a neutral or functional mode, that permits a writer "to say as little and mean as much as possible.” [2] But then irony as a mode can intervene to establish almost any variety or degree of meaning, and moreover intervene in any of various ways, devices, or uses.

The first essay attempts to focus on what, and how, Joyce accomplished by his use of irony. It is to some extent a study of the entire evolution of his narrative styles and a particular study of the involutions of style of his final work. There is general agreement among Joyce's critics about what irony is, and where it occurs in his writings. There would be no need for an essay on irony in Joyce's books if it were only a question of particularizing its being there. My concern and interest is how does it do what it is doing there? Or rather, what is it doing there in such a way that we take it for the thing it is in general and for the thing Joyce makes of it? Questions of this sort are not likely to occur to the critics of Joyce's works so long as they do not assume that the study of an author's irony involves the sustained and systemized pursuit of a critical question to its inherent and necessary solution, and not an analysis, however valid otherwise, pursued under the auspices of collateral concepts. As Joyce moved from the writing of A Portrait to Ulysses and then to Finnegans Wake he was moving, and carrying with him, the art of the novel into the realm of myth. An analytical approach to Joyce's irony and the ironical in his works will need to encompass that complete journey in order to ascertain the layout of the critical problems involved. The whole journey, and only the whole, can furnish the literary critic with the completeness that is requisite to a claim of critical legitimacy. The study of Joyce's irony then becomes by necessity an approach to the total significance of his works. Joyce, in his techniques of imitative form, used irony to establish, not dissolve or destroy, myth. Thus my main interest is to specify the quality or qualitativeness of his irony, that is, to specify in the core‑area between the what (his intended meaning) of an ironical disclosure and how (his techniques of indirection) so as to produce in our perceptions the effect of an opposition of meanings resolvable in and along with the expression of that opposition. This is unique with Joyce, to his strange way of elaborating works of fiction outward from his personal and inner needs to an objectivized and impersonal form or focus. My approach to Joyce's irony, then, has had to differ from those of my predecessors not only in method and scope but essentially in this: that having followed its development and progression through the whole journey from the earliest Portrait to Finnegans Wake, my estimates of what to study as ironical expression and how to proceed would be qualified by the Joycean whatness and howness, the intended meaning and the techniques of verbal simulation establishing that meaning in the final book.

The case for my essay as a valid piece of Joycean criticism rests on my arguments deriving the qualitative effect produced by his irony from a resolution of the multiple meanings stated or expressed simultaneously. If irony may be said to occur when a writer expresses two meanings simultaneously, one of them explicitly stated, the other implied or concealed, then a similar operation involving more than one pair of opposed, incongruent, or antithetical meanings may similarly be called and be considered irony, or at the very least a kind of irony. The point is delicate, but not really difficult. [3] In my attempt to specify the irony of Finnegans Wake I had perforce to come to grips with the Joycean processes of the multiplicity of meanings and with the simultaneity of their expression. But of course these are inherent in Joyce's techniques of verbal simulation carried out on a large scale—so large a scale that in order to deal with them with any practical aim in mind one must deal with the whole laborious, controvertible question of the structure of the dream book. Irony in Finnegans Wake is operative on so many levels that the only really practical approach to it is to study how on different levels it intervenes to do its part in accomplishing for the reader a total apprehension of the book's themes and structure. It occurs in the simpler forms of verbal irony, as a more complicated irony in the techniques of verbal simulation of Joyce's imitative form, but also as a comprehensive irony of outlook or attitude governing the dramatic situations of his characters. And then beyond these, as an all‑inclusive irony of the cyclical structure with inward and subjective aspects, and outward, impersonal dimensions.

The essay on Borges is equally concerned with a simultaneity of expressing multiple, conflicting meanings. In Joyce it is related closely to his techniques of verbal simulation; in Borges, to his techniques for producing a simulation, a cognitive and intuitive grasp, of reality. If the processes of mythical enlargement in Joyce call for a study of an entire evolution of themes and style, in Borges the reverse is the case. Here the sustained techniques of compression and reiteration call for exhaustive analysis of relatively few pages. And since, to English readers, his writings are not as well known as Joyce's, a close and detailed analysis must be made of his texts. Accordingly, I have analyzed one story, "The Garden of Forking Paths," in detail, and furnished less detailed discussions of four other representative stories.

While we proceed in the two essays by different means of analysis, the unity of the essays rests on the analogy between the reflective act that both authors accomplish through irony. The reflective act, that is, rendered an esthetic act. Here are two writers who intensify our awareness of the intellectual and esthetic phases by which irony communicates an unstated "impersonal" and "objective" meaning. Here irony, as a mode, is inseparable from the significance of works in prose and from the means of our access to that significance. We find here the how of ironical expression increasingly provoking and drawing attention to itself. Increasingly the effect becomes that of provoking the reaction that this how is attempting to simulate both the thing represented and our intellective and esthetic notions arrested by (Joyce) or converging upon (Borges) our apprehension of the thing represented. The more immediately it provokes our awareness of the mechanics of its operation, the more intensified and effective this how. Its aim is both to produce a counter‑reflection through the impulses of the reader and to redirect them in a conspiratorial action between him and author back upon the facets of reality or life represented. In Borges' stories we shall find that our perceptions of the multiple relations between things and persons, and the causal connections between events, constitute the "meaning" of events, of lives and things, their whatness established by the howness of Borgian irony and its quality. The residue of mockery and ridicule in this mode is directed as humor or play at our impulse to attempt and to possess an omniscient view of human events and an infallible understanding of the universal laws of causality. The result of the conspiratorial action, as Part of an impersonal and objective resolution of meanings, is to betray "reality," "fact," "life," into exposing themselves in our perceptions as image, or symbol, or, to use Borges' term, a simulacrum.

At the center of the analogy between Joyce and Borges are the effects each produces by redirecting the representation of certain states of consciousness onto the perceptions of their readers. Yet here precisely lies the cause for proceeding on two separate essays. The analogy results from their techniques for attaining a simultaneity of expression and multiple equivalences of form to subject. The underlying contrasts are harder to trace to their source. A basic one is the central position held by metaphysical speculation in Borges' dialectical designs. Or we could compare the dreaming consciousness of Finnegans Wake with the hallucinatory ordeals of some of Borges' heroes. Both, as dream structures, are labyrinthine and cyclical. But the verbal obscurities of Joyce's dreamer-­narrator are controlled to work their way from the irrational inconclusiveness of a sleeping mind toward coherent resolutions of rational statement; whereas in Borges style and idea impel his rational disquisitions out to fantasy, non‑reason, and hallucination. In more conventional terms, we may say that in Joyce's verbal patterns we have a "stream," in Borges' compact, conceptual ones, a "structure" of consciousness.

The states of consciousness in Finnegans Wake, however verbally obscure, appear transparently evident in their linear and sequential movement because they are conceived in the dream as states of nonviolence. They are inner reflections of the human mea culpa taking place or projected upon a glass of innocency. The Borgian states of consciousness, nearly always scared by acts of violence, are radical conflicts between the subjectivity of will and illusion and their objectivization in time, conflicts between dimensions of being and the process of their impersonalization that gives rise to archetypes and symbols. Thus Borges furnishes what I call "total" conflicts because the progression and movement of their warring tensions build up and impart to us through reiteration and recapitulation (a horizontal and vertical compression of themes) a total opposition between all of their components as that dichotomy of symbolical realities that is human consciousness, both personal and collective. The effect is to heighten the reader's perceptive awareness of his own consciousness, so to speak, as a counterpart to that antagony of irresolvable forces and symbolical dissonances. The Joycean effect is then quite unlike the Borgian because, although both authors impel the inductions of ironical readings to a highly logical and, stylistically, logistical point of resolution, the tensions of the Joycean ironies which I call dis‑tensions neutralize their opposition at this point to provide entry into the myth that Finnegans Wake enacts; whereas in Borges' stories the conflict of tensions remains irresolvable in order to produce, in their mutual annihilation or effacement, the effect of a predicament of consciousness compounded, localized, and centered in the reader's intellective and emotive response.

The over‑all unity of my presentation, then, and the interconnections between chapters and analyses, is to guide my reader to a "total" apprehension of the contents of Finnegans Wake and then to bring him to an analogous understanding of salient features of Borges' narratives. [—> Contents]


1  “El Ulises de Joyce," and "Traducción de James Joyce, La última hoja del Ulises," published in Proa (Buenos Aires), no. 6, January 1925, pp. 3‑9. An introductory note on Borges appears in the Notes, p. 245. [—> main text]

2  The quip is from an introductory page in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 41). My conception of irony as a perceptive mode does not of course fit neatly into (even less does it derive from) Frye's theories. I am not conscious of any decisive contradiction between his theory of modes of fiction and categories of plots (where irony occupies the fourth, wintry, position) and my efforts to deal, at close quarters, with the "circumstances" of irony in narrative prose. [—> main text]

3  Our textbook conceptions of irony have scarcely recognized, much less provided for, the literary practice of a simultaneous expression of multiple and opposed "ironical" meanings conveyed by techniques of prose to a reader's perceptive resources as a simulation of that meaning they are designed to establish by the totally indirect means of the techniques which convey it: the what identified and identifiable by the how of the verbal, metaphorical or conceptual simulation of it.

The unity of my two studies rests on the application of a concept that considers irony a comprehensive mode for conveying and fixing a resolution as well as an opposition of meaning. My appraisals of the irony of Joyce and Borges are concerned with our perception of the multiple or total means for establishing that resolution and the full bounds of its "meaning." They are not concerned with classifying or analyzing the different species of irony these authors employ, but with specifying the frame of meaning which any of these ironies may convey and establish. Irony, according to my conception of it, and the sense in which the term appears in the title of this volume, is a comprehensive mode, assimilating the various forms or types of irony, and providing for their relations to the form and content of an entire work of literature. [—> main text]

[—> Contents]

SOURCE: Murrilo, L. A. The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968. Pp. vii, ix-xix. (Footnotes converted to endnotes for easy reference.)

The Cyclical Night: Borges—Introductory by L. A. Murrilo

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web
(including all the following links)

Irony in Philosophy, Romanticism, and Criticism: Selected Bibliography

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

"Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

"The Congress" by Jorge Luis Borges

A Taxonomy of Surreal Taxonomists by Prentiss Riddle

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography


Jorge Luis Borges - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Borges: Garden of Forking Paths

Borges Center

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