Reading and Citation in Borges and Benjamin

Comparative Literary Studies Senior Thesis

Daniel Abbe

Note on Translations and Abbreviations

All translations from Spanish language texts are my own.

Walter Benjamin

AP                Arcades Project

C                Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940

SW        Selected Writings

Jorge Luis Borges

CS                El círculo secreto: prólogos y notas

OC                Obras completas

TR                Textos recobrados

“Don’t try to hold on to the wave

That’s breaking against your foot: so long as

You stand in the stream fresh waves

Will always keep breaking against it.”

                Brecht, Mann ist Mann

Paradise, Citation, Reading

“Everyone imagines Paradise in their own way,” remarks Jorge Luis Borges in a prologue to the catalog of the 1968 Spanish Book Exposition in Buenos Aires. “Since my youth, I have conceived of it as a library” (CS 27). This conception did not change at any point in Borges’ life. The young Borges appears here, just as at every other time in his life, as a reader who finds equal nourishment in entire libraries as in individual books. In a sense, Borges was born in to a library, namely his father’s, where he spent almost all of his time as a child.[1] This formative experience led him to develop a conception of reading that takes a library as Paradise. One could go further and suggest that this experience led him to develop a conception of living as a kind of reading. The library is a place where diverse books come in to contact with each other. It is thus a paradigmatic image of Borges’ technique of reading, because this technique is based on unforeseen combinations of texts. The placement of books in a library may not correspond to logical choices, but rather an arbitrary system of ordering. Borges’ reading is grounded in this type of arbitrariness; in his reading, texts that may have nothing to do with one another come in to contact. In other words, Borges reads them out of context. The deeper one penetrates in to Borges’ paradisiacal library, the more clearly this technique of reading out of context emerges.

Borges’ reading does not concern itself with unearthing occult meanings from the depths of literary texts. It is not a coincidence that the encyclopedia, a book that reflects the structure of the library, was one of his favorite sorts of books.[2] The encyclopedia is a book well suited to the dilettante, but this is not an unkind way of describing Borges’ attitude towards literature. His ideal library leaves a clue as to how the arbitrary quality of Borges’ reading does not lead him on mindless literary excursions.  

“Not like an infinite library, because there is something uncomfortable and enigmatic about everything infinite, but rather like a library made to the specifications of man [hecha a la medida del hombre]. A library in which there would always remain books (and perhaps shelves) to discover, but not too many. In sum, a library that would permit the pleasure of rereading, the serene and faithful pleasure of the classic, and the agreeable shocks of the find and the unforeseen [del hallazgo y de lo imprevisto].” (CS 27)

Borges’ paradisiacal library facilitates a reading whose value is not determined by the text that it apprehends. The text is, instead, secondary to the reader, who may even be secondary to the circumstances of the reading. Each reading and rereading is like an experiment in which the text stays constant but everything outside of it—that is, its context—has changed. Borges was a great admirer of Heraclitus’ saying that a man does not step in to the same river twice. This idea underlies his technique of reading, in which a second reading of a text does not take on the qualities of a deeper exploration, but rather those of the dilettante: rereading a text can still yield “agreeable shocks.” There is no difference between a first and second reading—each one is equally removed from the context of the original.

The premise of Borges’ conception of reading is that each reading is an entirely different experience, because the context of each reading could never be the same. Much like “everyone imagines Paradise in their own way,” a text can be read in an endless combination of ways. Borges applies Heraclitus’ insight to reading, which gives every reading the quality of a unique event: “Each time that a book is read or reread, something happens with that book.”[3] Since the text never changes, it is precisely the context of the reading—its literal “time”—that guarantees its uniqueness. Context is the basis for Borges’ technique of reading. In an early essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges develops a positive conception of Argentine literature based on its position on the margins of Western culture. Borges was able to consider literature out of context because he was reading out of context from the beginning of his literary life—or in other words, from the beginning of his life.

It is well known that as a child, Borges would spend hours looking through the books in his father’s library. Owing to his father’s Anglophilia, many of these volumes were written in English, and as a result this was the language in which he learned to read. In his “Autobiographical Essay,” Borges relates that, like other books he read as a child, he first encountered Don Quixote in English. “When I later read it in the original, it sounded like a bad translation to me.”[4] It is a coincidence that Borges would have had access to an English version of Don Quijote before a Spanish one, but the experience of his father’s library, itself out of context in Buenos Aires, left its mark on Borges in more than just this irreverent reading. It is the place where he learned how to read in general, but he also learned to value the context of a text over the text itself, even if the text in question is the unquestioned magnum opus of the Spanish language. Borges did not develop his reading technique after a life-changing event of some kind. This later technique is, instead, a simple progression from his earliest readings.

It did, however, take a life-changing event for Borges to begin publishing work based on this technique. In 1938, Borges took a serious fall that left him hospitalized. Lying in bed, he doubted whether or not he would be able to write again:

“I had previously written some poems and dozens of reviews. I thought that if I now tried to write one and failed, this would then mean that I was intellectually finished, but if I tried something that I never would have done before and failed, it wouldn’t be as painful and it could even prepare me for the final revelation. I decided that I would try to write a story. The result was ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote.’” (Cited in Pauls, El factor Borges, 123)

Given that his reading technique never yielded straightforward—or even truthful—results, it was well suited to produce a kind of fictional text. But in order to produce such a work, it would need some kind of fictional text to “read.” With “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote,” Borges took aim at Don Quijote once more: the title character is a French writer who sets out “produce a few pages that would coincide” with those of Cervantes (OC: 1, 478). It is surprising to consider this text a “story,” since in many ways it bears a stronger resemblance to a literary essay; the narrator simply gives a straight-faced reading of Menard’s work. The text’s claim to fiction is certainly tenuous. Its world is not fantastical, but is, rather, the world of literature; there are references to real authors like Valéry, Saint-Simon and Novalis. Borges only has to fabricate one author in order to give himself material for a fictional text. “Pierre Menard” is built on this one fictional gesture.  

The most surprising moment of the text occurs when the narrator compares the results of Menard’s work alongside the original. The two texts are identical, but they produce quite different readings: “Redacted in the 17th Century, redacted by the ‘ingenious illiterate’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical elegy of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes….” (OC: 1, 481) Borges demonstrates that two identical texts can be read differently just by playing with context. The way the narrator moves from Cervantes to Menard is an example of Borges’ playfulness at work: he writes “Menard, en cambio, escribe,” which means literally, if not idiomatically: “Menard, in change, writes.” There is, of course, precisely no “change” in the text itself, but rather one of context: the narrator wrenches this block of text from its original context and reads it as if it were from the early 20th century, as if it had fallen into his lap from out of nowhere, without its immediately recognizable title, even—in other words, as if it were cited.

Reading Don Quijote in this way is without a doubt entirely arbitrary, but this quality is given a positive valuation here. The citation is the ideal vehicle for this, since what it apprehends is always removed from its original context and inserted into a new one. By inventing Pierre Menard to cite a text for him, Borges is able to interpret this technique—his own technique—under the guise of the narrator: “Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched the quiet and rudimentary art of reading through a new technique: the technique of the deliberate anachronism and of erroneous attributions. This infinitely applicable technique urges us to look at the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin de Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier” (OC: 1, 482). With this technique, any reading is arbitrary, but it involves a decisive choice of context. Here, even reading “Le jardin de Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier” must be seen as a deliberate choice.

This technique makes a program out of Borges’ first reading of Don Quijote: even when the reader chooses to read the text “as if it were” written by its own author, that reading takes the form of a citation. All reading is a “deliberate anachronism” by which the reader brings the text in to his or her own context. This “as if it were” opens up the possibilities for reading.  This arbitrary connection is replicated in the library, and also in its catalog, which gives it the appearance of some order. The prologue to a catalog of books is thus the ideal place for Borges to describe his ideal library: it looks out over this confusion and prepares its reader for the “agreeable shocks” of context that it contains.



 “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library. In fact, I sometimes think that I have never strayed outside that library.” (Borges, “Autobiographical Essay,” 209)

[2] Indeed, the relation between the library and the encyclopedia is quite similar. Borges has said: “If I had to live on a desert island, I would bring an encyclopedia.” Cited in Pauls, El factor Borges, 90.

[3] Pauls 71.

[4] Borges, “Autobiographical Essay,” 209. Ricardo Piglia calls this anecdote “without a doubt apocryphal.” (Piglia, “¿Existe la novela argentina?,” 38)