The Meaning of Longing in Borges and Proust

In memoriam William Ferguson, Fergu.

“The ball I threw while playing in the park / Has not yet reached the ground.”

Dylan Thomas

The distinction between trifle and matter of importance is a teleological one and in so far as it deals with time spent, it interrogates it with a rather mundane question, a trifle, if you will: for what? For what or in what was time spent? The answers that the trifle offers is “nothing important”… a wasted time, a loss of time. In contrast, the answer that important matters offer is “in necessary thing… for great things, for their sake” and declares a fruitful time, a day seized. I will return to Horatius later.

Matters of importance are the substance of stories and they make up the history of a resolution or, if one prefers, the history of an end. These premises, necessities disguised sometimes as contingencies, move reasons in the direction of a conclusion where ultimately they will find justification another true relevance will be revealed. It is particularly true of the children of Poe, who following the demiurgic pupil of the good Dupin are committed to offer soteriologies for everything and anything even if that demands the deduction of a marauding Orangutang in Paris. No work since the Rue Morgue has been so perfectly capable of showing the intellectual ineptitude of the genre and of its offsprings.

The failure of the matter-of-importance in literature is not reserved to the unfortunate emergence in Anglo-American narrative projects (particularly those beyond literature) of the simiae ex machina. Perhaps much more insidious is the unabashed proliferation of the crucial. Indeed, the soteriological compulsion has meant that the relevance of minutiae is revealed by its mere presence on the page. The proverbial Chekhov gun–beloved by American instructors in writing programs–hangs from the wall for many days and pages in different lights, under different glances to justify those pages, those lights, those glances and those shades in a final death. The hanging, inert, gun is in that narrative compulsion a promise and belongs to an economy of reasons in which the shot, the blood, the body justify its presence and make the mere mention of the object an event that the narration registers.

Nobody, in my view, has been more successful than Borges in unveiling these architectures of practical reasons that constitute the skeletal anatomy of the tale. Borges made of literary vivisection a thing of beauty. For instance, in Tema del Traidor y del Héroe, an imperfectible expression of this project, Borges presents that story as the summary of a plot. As the construction of the plot solidifies, the narrative mostly stripped of literary adornments progressively takes the force of the summation of an historical unfolding. In the end, the short piece boasts a type of mathematical elegance, which seems refractory to the conventions of literary etiquete. The traitor is the hero and the hero is the traitor.

It is, however, another and much shorter piece of prose of the same author that can be more economically used to illustrate the point. The title of the two paragraphs is The Plot, which in Spanish as in English can mean both the argument and the conspiracy. Here is my translation:

To make his horror perfect, Caesar, accosted at the foot of the statue by the impatient daggers of his friends, discovers among the faces and the steels that of Marcus Brutus, his protégé, perhaps his son, and he no longer defends himself and exclaims: You too, my son! Shakespeare and Quevedo record the pathetic cry.

Fate likes repetitions, variations, symmetries; nineteen centuries later, in the south of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos and, as he falls, he recognises one of his godchildren and says to him with gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words should be heard, not read): Pero, che! They kill him and he doesn’t know that he dies so that a scene can be repeated.

Like in Tema del Traidor y del Héroe, the imminence of death is sufficient to afford the reader strong atmospheric cues but just as in the other piece, Borges dispenses with the minutiae. The splendour of both pieces has much to do with the traces of what the author has omitted. In both cases as in much of his fictions, Borges is offering quick and nimble sketches not merely of the greatness of the novel without incurring in what he took to be its sins but, more importantly, of the vastness of history without indulging in the profusion of time. Indeed, in La trama, pithy narrative time encompasses a broad historical arch in which two acts of treason–one renowned, the other reputed–stand at either end of a span of two millennia. But even in this frugal account the evocation of overwhelming sensations breathe between the lines. Perhaps the power of La Trama consists in not just preserving but nestling the ineffable horror of the betrayal of the son in the delicate elegance of the mathematical purity of vastly complex symmetries. But it is really the frugality of the narrative exercise that relies almost exclusively on the concatenation of events that serves to draw out of what might have been two millennia of tedium, a dense and compact tale.

The density of experience and the scarcity of the momentous

During an interview Maria Kodama said that Borges was not fond of novels. She explained that he thought that novels tended to become “populated by little pillows, candle holders, meals…” This reprobation of the minutiae of daily life Borges had often raised against Proust.

“Hay páginas, hay capítulos de Marcel Proust que son inaceptables como invenciones: a los que, sin saberlo, nos resignamos como a lo insípido y ocioso de cada día.”

The sentiment was presented to me first by William Ferguson in considerably more memorable terms during one of our directed reading sessions in the mid 90ies somewhere in central Massachusetts . “According to Borges” said Bill, “the problem with certain types of literature is that they can be as boring as life itself.”

In my early and mid twenties my world was mostly populated by long stretches of tedium punctuated by the great excitement of expectations. Youth is a strange land “always distracted by expectations” as Rilke charges. I remember those years as a very long meanwhile, which, I had hopped, would be resolved in the euphoria of some form of joy or enjoyment. I remember, albeit ambiguously, an indeterminate stretch of time, which seemed then impossibly long and seems now quite short, plagued by toothbrushes, plates, bathtubs, ballpens, chairs, magazines and doorknobs. Mundane conversations nestled in a vast collection of courtesies offered to an intractable humanity, which I know impossible to retrieve. Who would dare to fathom the vastness of all the goodmornings of the world and then once counted, even then, what would such a accumulation of courtesies amount to?

Subjecting an interlocutor or a reader to the full list of trivialities that are contained in a lifetime would amount, one would imagine, to the most excruciating tedium, the most hellish of tortures.

Rather, noblesse et décorum oblige. Succinctly, we provide the date of birth immemorial, the elipsis in which one’s education can be held, the date the paternal home is abandoned, the name of a memorable face, the first or the last sight of snow, the color of a car, the first glance of Rome, the name of the first child and of the last wife, the shape of treason, a murder among the columns of the Curia Pompeia, a pulperia deep underneath the blue translucence of the boundless Pampean skies, the province of Buenos Aires, a dagger, the hands, the blood, the illustrious corps, etc… Things.

We astutely organised in curricula fabulae these things to capture the disperse attention of our interlocutors and we do so in a manner that spares them not just the tedium but, more importantly, the loss of precious time that the plethora of trivialities that dwells in the interstices between them entails. In Borges’ repetition of the murder plot, the magnitude of the symmetry is only understandable by granting Borges’ elipsis an intractable breath and depth brimming with the dense and uniform substance of which experience is made.

The substance of memory

Since my father died, I often look for him and it is mostly in memory where I find him or his semblance. Neither what I ask of memory nor what memory offers are the vignetes that his obituary listed. Perhaps because of its depth, my longing, instead, searches a greater form of my father that the ones that can be contained in a fact. I ask memory to provide a form of my father capable of resisting the domestication of memory. At times, memory heeds the demand in the spontaneous granting me my father in the guise of a vast profusion of minutiae. What I ask of memory is the shapes of a molecular intimacy that is bound to triviality and repetition. I. ask memory to grant me the tonal movement of his voice, the movement of his hand reaching for toasts or holding his cup of coffee at the breakfast table, the pleading grin in the wake of his bad jokes, the position of his watch. on his wrist, the few unruly white hairs, the rather awkward way in which the kippa hanged from the back of his head as he looked over my mother lighting shabbat candles, his tired stride. All these gifts of memory are offered in the form of little pillows, candleholders and meals.

In 1960, Borges himself, measuring the density of the past in a sonnet titled The Rain, makes poetic allowances for the importance of the trivial, which bring him back forms of old happiness and among them the voice of his father, who has not yet died.

Suddenly the afternoon has cleared
Because the minutiose rain is already falling.
It falls or fell. The rain is a thing
That doubtlessly happens in the past.

Whoever hears it fall has recovered
The time when venturous luck
Revealed to him a flower called rose
And the curious colour of the red.

This rain that blinds the crystals
Will gladden in lost suburbs
The black grapes of a grapevine in a certain

Courtyard that no longer exists. The wet
Afternoon brings me the voice, the desired voice,
Of my father who returns and who has not died.

The afternoon occluding the past has been cleared and the past in its minutiae makes itself present in the minutiose touch of the rain. My very old aversion to enjambments was more than compensated by the treasure that the second line of the poem bestowed me. Of course, the minutiose rain belongs also to the catalogue of Borges magnificent elipses but in this case, the mention of the four object that the rain has touched bringing them out of their narrative ignominy into the light of experience also amounts to the transformation of the insignificant (the pillow, the chandelier, the meal) into the essential. The red rose, the extinct courtyard, its grapevine and the vine’s grapes are recovered as disperse elements that cling tenuously to memory but as the absolute touch of the rain makes their form more visible, they allow the courtyard of a house in Palermo to emerge intact, where all these minimal impressions resolve themselves in the returning voice of the father, who in the rain as in the past, has not died. Perhaps La lluvia can be read as the temptation of Borges who in search of his father finds in his own succinct way a road of reconciliation with Proust and his universe of splendid insignificances, which demands not so much a curriculum vitae as La trama does but a form of deambulatio vitae, where the idle time in which proximity germinates can be retrieved.