Monday, May 28, 2007

Others on Chesterton - Borges

As I have suggested before - and hinted many times since - the Argentine master, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), is worth noting. Among many other things, he died - June 14, 1986 - fifty years to the day after the passage of Chesterton, the man he loved so well.

In particular, his opinion is worth considering for its relative novelty. We often hear excellent authors praising Chesterton (justly, of course), but there is often more than a little sympathy of worldview between those doing the praising and he that is being praised. His cult (I do not use the term disdainfully) is alive and well among those of a Catholic persuasion, but outside of that broad circle things become more dicey. Many Christians of widely-varying persuasions have discovered how delightful he is, as well, but in the secular world he is not nearly so well-established. The schools, as we know, generally do not teach him; the writer-in-residence at my school this year (one Joan Barfoot, apparently an author of some note to someone) actually sneered with disdain when I mentioned his name.

To Borges, Chesterton was, as I've said, his "master;" a steady and unflagging influence on Borges' writing style, writing subjects, and general thought processes. The remarkable thing about all of this is that Borges was an esoteric Kabbalist, among many other frequently incompatible things. He saucily "refuted" both time and reality (or at least claimed to have done so), finding such vain constructs unsuitable to the maintenance of the world he desired to live in. On the few occasions he quotes from Aquinas it is usually to disagree with him. C'est la vie.

The thing is, though, you can frequently see the Chesterton coming through whether Borges likes it or not - and I suspect that he did indeed like it. Borges delighted in effect and image rather than any particular internal consistency. He derided Dostoevsky's novels - his favourites, in youth - as being overburdened with psychology by which any character could be made to do any foolish thing with enough elaborate sophistry, all of which is just as effective in the end as just having the character do things that you want him to do, whether you provide some elaborate rationale for it or not. It was because of such an outlook that Borges had no qualms whatever with supporting and venerating the work of a man so tidily opposed to his worldview. Within his fiction (Borges', that is) there can be found an almost lurid use of colour - learned, Borges says, from Chesterton. There are enigmatic professors and tragic detectives and impossibly mystic mysteries, and, as in Chesterton, relatively few women. There are ideas and possibilities brought forth in parable rather than the sort of conventional things one would expect from a popular work of fiction (ladies falling in love and marrying, great enemies destroying one another, etc.).

All of which brings me to the following passage, "Chesterton, Writer," which was a part of the larger article, "Modes of G.K. Chesterton," which appeared at the time of Chesterton's death ("he has suffered the impure process called dying," says Borges) in 1936. Other sections include "Chesterton, Church Father" and "Chesterton, Poet," and I may address them some other day, but for now we will stick to the passage at hand:
I am certain that it is improper to suspect or concede merits of a literary nature in a man of letters. Truly informed critics never cease to point out that the most forgettable thing about a man of letters is his literature and that he can only be of interest as a human being - is art inhuman, therefore? - as an example of this country, of that date, or of such-and-such illnesses. Uncomfortable enough for me, I cannot share those concerns. I feel that Chesterton is one of the finest writers of our time, not just for his fortunate invention, visual imagination, and the childlike or divine happiness that pervades his works, but for his rhetorical virtues, for the pure merits of his skill.

Those who have thumbed through Chesterton's work have no need of my demonstration; those who are ignorant of it can look over the following titles and perceive his fine verbal economy: "The Moderate Murderer," "The Oracle of the Dog," "The Salad of Colonel Clay," "The Blast of the Book," "The Vengeance of the Statue," "The God of the Gongs," "The Man with Two Beards," "The Man Who Was Thursday," "The Garden of Smoke." In that famous work Degeneration, which turned out to be such a fine anthology of the writers it tried to defame, Dr. Max Nordau ponders the titles of the French Symbolists: Quand les violons sont partis, Les palaise nomades, les illuminations. Granted that few of them, if any, are provocative. Few people judge their acquaintance with Les palais nomades as necessary or interesting, yet many do with "The Oracle of the Dog." Of course, with the peculiar stimulus of Chesterton's titles, our conscience tells us that these names have not been invoked in vain. We know that in Les palais nomades there are no nomadic palaces; we know that "The Oracle of the Dog" will not lack a dog and an oracle, or a concrete, oracular dog. In like manner, "The Mirror of the Magistrate," which was popular in England around 1560, was nothing more than an allegorical mirror; Chesterton's "Mirror of the Magistrate" refers to a real mirror.... The foregoing does not insinuate that these somewhat parodistic titles indicate the level of Chesterton's style. It means that this style is omnipresent.

At one time (and in Spain) there existed the inattentive custom of comparing the names and works of Gomez de la Serna and Chesterton. Such an approximation is totally fruitless. They both intensely perceive (or register) the peculiar hue of a house, of a light, of an hour of the day, but Gomez de la Serna is chaotic. Inversely, limpidity and order are constant throughout Chesterton's writings. I dare to sense (according to M. Taine's geographical formula) the heaviness and disorder of British fog in Gomez de la Serna and Latin clarity in G. K.
I will say without hesitation that, were it not for Chesterton, Borges would be the light of my literary life, if not philosophically. I have read lines in his prose that have made me cry out to Heaven in gratitude, in a literal and unabashed sense, and this reaction is all too rare from literature nowadays. To borrow the delighted rhetorical exclamation of Eliot Weinberger, "where else can one find Lana Turner, David Hume, and the heresiarchs of Alexandria in a single sentence?" (The sentence itself is found in a frustrated review of a film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which begins with the scandalized declaration, "Holywood has defamed, for the third time, Robert Louis Stevenson;" the film is described as having been "perpetrated" rather than produced.)

There is to be a talk about Borges and Chesterton at this year's Chesterton conference (coming up fast!). I will not be able to be there to see it, alas, but some of you might be. Be sure to give it a shot; hopefully you'll like what you find.

And, should you decide to pursue the shimmering monster that is Borges, there are plenty of good places to start. Labyrinths is an excellent and perpetually-reprinted edition of his short stories, essays and poems, and is certainly worth going to first. Thereafter such offerings as The Aleph or A Universal History of Infamy stand ready.

That's all until tomorrow, which is, as most of you are well aware, a Very Special Day.

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