May 23, 2013

Literature with cosmic ambition

I have often written about how one of my favorite poems,T. S. Eliot's The Four Quartets seems to encompass the whole world in it and can be read and re-read and studied all your life and yet you would not be able to consume it all. So, T. S. Eliot's poem is what sprung to mind immediately when I read this description by the author Aleksander Hemon about the writings of the Argentine author and poet, Jorge Luis Borges.

The work of Jorge Luis Borges belongs to the tradition of literature with cosmic ambition: the Bible, the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Ulysses, etc.—the works that strive to convey complete universes, containing everything. They’re contingent upon (and thus imply the belief in) the totality of language: all of history, all of memory, all of current cosmology and/or theology, all the unbreakable continuity of human experience can be deposited and narrated in language. Indeed, in such works language seems to be able to cover the perpetual entirety of the past, present, and future and involve the real, the imagined, and all that is in between. They offer crucial evidence that it is utterly impossible to conceptualize humanity without literature. Their philosophical/ethical/aesthetical ambition demands total commitment from the reader—an ideal reader would devote his/her entire life to the exegesis of, say, Joyce’s Ulysses, thereby erasing all the nonreaderly aspects of his/her existence. Such a reader, of course, would be a perfect Borgesian character, for whom the experience of life is unavailable outside literature.

Incidentally, just last night I finished reading James Wood's excellent and at times raving essay about Hemon's writing. So it is quite a coincidence of sorts that I ran into this today morning in a book I picked up at the library yesterday - Object Lessons - The Art of The Short Story, a book of short stories from the Paris Review magazine, with the stories introduced by other famous writers. A longer excerpt of Hemon's introduction to a Borges short story, I now find, can be read here. However, even if you, like me, are not too familiar with Borges work, I recommend you try to find the book and read the entire essay in its entirety.

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