Say that 10 times fast.
In my article on Borges’ The Congress at Escape into Life, I may seem to have argued that the story is perfect. In fact this most representative of his stories contains a rather glaring flaw. One will notice that the brief passage on Ferri’s involvement with the English woman Beatrice feels out of place. It is the only false note in an otherwise perfect work, and it occurs in one sentence: “Oh nights, oh shared warm darkness, oh love that flows in shadow like a secret river, oh....” [translation Andrew Hurley] The sudden rhapsodic series of “oh’s” interrupts the style of the narrative—but for only one sentence. Is it a flaw? Most certainly. My observation is not keen. The flaw is too ostentatious, and Borges too skilled a craftsman for it to be unintentional. An explanation might go:
‘One must remember that the narrator of The Congress admits to never having attempted narrative prose. Moreover the time that he was recounting was one of immaturity. The future author of A Brief Examination of the Analytical Language of John Wilkins had, at the time, just become acquainted with the verse of Swinburne and thus with the eye-opening knowledge that there were writers in the world better than his best friend. Borges constructed this little flaw to illustrate Ferri’s inadequacies, or at least to make the tender time of his immaturity apparent.’
But a shift in style isn’t necessary to demonstrate Ferri’s immaturity, and it is implausible to suppose that Ferri, in his maturity, slips into the linguistic skin of his immaturity simply by recounting an episode from his youth—unless he is quoting himself. But why should Borges find it important to illustrate his narrator’s shortcoming in this area? Why should he want to mark off, in an unmistakable way, the Ferri of youthful abandon from the Ferri of seventy-plus years—the Ferri who tells us “years do not change our essence”?
In 1948, twenty-seven years before The Congress appeared, Borges had published an essay touching upon another Beatrice. The subject of The False Problem of Ugolino concerns a “deliberate false note” in the Commedia of Dante. Borges concluded that “uncertainty is part of Dante’s design”:
“Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpses, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made. Thus...did Dante dream him, and thus will the generations dream him.”
How are we to dream Ferri? Perhaps Borges’ precise intentions can never be known. Everything in The Congress but this one sentence is exactly what it seems. Before the congress is even described Borges is content to reveal what it is and what its ultimate conclusions are. There is nothing particularly profound about Ferri’s initial comment, “I alone know...” Such considerations do not mark off The Congress from any other amusing tale. But the effect of this irresolvable question is not just to ponder an uncertain quality in Ferri which we are certain Borges wrote into him. We also question the author himself. And why shouldn’t we, since he likes to implicate himself in his designs? We’ve seen him do this before, and its effect is like that of a worm-hole between dimensions: the space of the words on the page, the time of the man who wrote them, the time of the reader who contemplates them. Borges did not invent this paradigm. Indeed it is one of his curious contradictions that he did not care for the types of modern artists who, along with him, developed this genre. But The Congress is one of the most perfectly executed, concise and beautiful examples of it.
If one of the things that makes a work great is the existence of a flaw, a hole, a window, some place granted by the artist through which the viewer/reader can enter and exit the work at will, with his own thoughts and feelings—and if in some instance we cannot determine the precise intentions of the artist—this only means that a work containing such a device will be pondered that much longer by the living.
I have read that Borges disowned some of his early essays* and I have been puzzled by this. After all, apart from being excellent, they express ideas that he returned to time and again. I began to realize that the form of some of the early essays was too univocal for the man that he became. As time went on his mind grew. He seems to have wanted not so much to contain diversity as to construct an aleph of words: a single pair of eyes channeling that famously wide vision onto a sober page of classically ordered words, to be taken up and placed before the eyes of the reader. The importance of the classical style to Borges’ vision cannot be overestimated. It is tempting to see Borges as a philosopher, but this is not the case. Borges does not offer a set of ideas or a system of thought. He offers a type of vision, a way of seeing. Not a set of ideas with which to order reality and structure one’s life. But a challenge to see as much as possible, to let in as much as possible, to put this thing up against that thing, to let them play, to watch the sparks and view the wonders, calm and sober—and all with a concise little device of words.
* This and the quotations from his Dante essay can be found in the Selected Non-Fictions.