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Dickens and Borges and My Wandering Mind

Considering my prior dalliance within the realm of the Research Project, I have decided to approach my next topic with an air of conformity. Something a bit more straight-forward; a bit more run-of-the-mill, as it were. No fictional voices or devices; a bit of everyday analysis will be my only aim, I promise.

Jorge Luis Borges played a major role in my first project. He will now be my focus, in as much as he relates to Dickens. In as much as he does not, I must admit that Borges sits very near the top of my personal literary pantheon. The construction of such individual canons is, I think, one of the great joys of being a reader. It is something to love and also defend. I am pretty sure that Borges would agree. In fact, he spent much of his life building his personal library. Dickens, however, never managed to ascend the heights of the Borgesian heavens (from what I can tell). Considering Borges’ love of English literature, especially Victorian literature, this is notable, I think. This is not to say that Borges did not read Dickens, because he did. There are even traces of a certain admiration.

But to return to the matter of personal canons, I would like to begin with a mention of Kafka, a writer equally admired by Borges. In his essay “Kafka and His Precursors”, the Argentine master discusses the way certain literatures have become retroactively Kafkaesque. As Borges writes, Kafka had once seemed to him “as unique as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after spending a little time with him [Kafka], I felt I could recognize his voice, or his habits, in the texts of various literatures and various ages” (On Writing 85). From here, Borges looks to Zeno’s paradox, Kierkegaard’s fables, and even Robert Browning’s (born the same year as Dickens!) “Fears and Scruples” as being reminiscent of Kafka’s own nightmares. What is my point? It is Borges’: “The fact is that each writer creates his precursors” (87). This is the result of the writer’s pantheon of influences. Or so I am telling myself as I attempt to read Borges into the works of Charles Dickens. Before I become completely tangential, I will offer an example. Then I will feel justified in unleashing tangents. Lord help me.

As it turns out, I am not the only person who has read certain Borgesian elements into Dickens. In his essay “Borges as a Reader of Dickens”, found in the Dickens Studies Annual (my Dickensian crutch, apparently), Jean-Philippe Barnabe notes a parallel, and an inversion, between The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle” (I now realize that no one will believe that I also saw the connection before reading Barnabe’s article, but oh well). In Borges’ tale, the playwright Jaromir Hladik is captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death by the Nazis. In jail, he prays to God that he might finish his final play, “which can justify me and justify Thee as well, I need one more year. Grant me those days, Thou who art the centuries and time itself” (Collected Fictions 160). In a dream, Hladik is told: “The time for your labor has been granted” (160). Standing before the firing squad, the final bullets freeze before Hladik’s figure as he is given a year to complete his play, frozen in space and time. Here Barnabe argues that Borges reads Edwin Drood “as the exact reverse of the story” of Hladik (291). With Drood, we have Dickens fitting the role “of a man who, after a long and successful career, is trying his hand at a new kind of novel and thus in some way discovering for himself a new identity as a writer” (290). Instead of being offered the time to complete that work which might “justify him”, he is cut down by God midway through what could have been a masterwork. In one commentary, Borges regurgitates G.K. Chesterton, as Barnabe notes, in saying that “in the end, Dickens resolves to write a novel in which plot is important, and, almost at the exact moment when he is about to reveal who the murderer is, God ordains his death” (289).

At this point, Borges is reading Borges into Dickens. And I am, of course, loving it. Barnabe goes on to also draw a comparison between Drood and Borges’ story “The Approach to al-Mu’tasin” (294). I admit I had not previously seen this connection (but oh well). In this tale, Borges writes of an imaginary novel in which a seeker searches for the titular, and potentially non-existent, spiritual master. After wandering across India, the seeker, who is also a law student, comes to al-Mu’tasin’s room, or what may be his room, and is beckoned in the voice of the master. Borges then tells us: “At that point, the novel ends” (Collected Fictions 85). It is easy to see how Borges as a reader, and we as readers of both Borges and Dickens, could come to read these connections. Or as Barnabe writes: “Borges reads all these imminences and all these failures simultaneously, and with great delight” (294). Of course, Borges can over do these issues. When it comes to intertextuality (or transtextuality?), he is too ready with his idea that all texts are, or can be, fulfilled by other texts. I am not sure that I buy this, but I am quite fond of the notion; hence my obsession with texts within texts within Dickens, not to mention the structure of my first research project. With that being said, let us take a break by visiting my aforementioned tangent.

Clearly, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a new genre for Dickens. It is a mystery novel, and few people have loved mystery novels quite as much as Jorge Luis Borges. He was, in fact, a great defender of mystery and detective fiction, as “the idea that a detective story could also be literary was a new idea in the Argentine” (Conversations 24). He tells us this in a 1967 interview with Richard Burgin where he also discusses his directorship of the mystery series The Seventh Circle. One of the novels he helped publish for the series, in Argentina, was non-other than The Mystery of Edwin Drood, along with books by Wilkie Collins and others (24). In addition to his publishing, Borges also wrote in defense of the genre on a number of occasions. He did so most famously in his essay, quite originally titled, “The Detective Story”. Therein, he traces the genre’s evolution from Poe, through Wilkie Collins, to its perfection by G.K. Chesterton. His ultimate argument is found in his parting shot: “I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful” (On Writing 134). Borges yearns for the order offered by a highly Victorian literary field. Collins, Conan Doyle, and Chesterton (belatedly Victorian) always wrap things up so nicely and to the point (unlike Dickens, regarding the latter), and with so little violence. Borges, as a man who never wrote a novel, is of measured breath. He is sharp and philosophical, which is something he also sees in detective fiction, “an intellectual genre, a genre based on something entirely fictitious: the idea that a crime is solved by abstract reasoning” (132).

But to weave my way out of this tangent, I also mention this article because it contains, as far as I have surmised, the most references to Dickens in any of Borges work written for publication. There are three references, none of them particularly direct. The first is parenthetical and regarding Poe’s influence on the detective novel, which “is minimal, despite having inspired great writers (Stevenson, Dickens, Chesterton—Poe’s most illustrious heir)” (On Writing 127). The second being in reference to Dickens’ influence upon Poe’s “The Raven” (“not one of his good poems”, are there any, Jorge?) brought about by the fact that Poe “was reading Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge at the time, in which the raven figures” (129). Finally, Borges writes that “a few [detective novels] were written by excellent writers: Dickens, Stevenson and, above all, Wilkie Collins” (134). Even though Borges does not go into any real detail concerning Dickens, he clearly admires and respects his Victorian predecessor, considering him to be “excellent” and “great”. Plus, it is nice to see Barnaby Rudge mentioned, even if only in reference to Poe. I believe that this shows a certain amount of familiarity with the works and life of Dickens. Interestingly in comparing Dickens and Henry James, Borges states in his interview with Burgin that “If I think of Dickens, I’m thinking of Sir Pidwick, Pip, David Copperfield. I think of people, well, I might go on and on. While if I think of James, I’m thinking about a situation and a plot” (38). Borges is a situation and plot man. As mentioned, he did not write novels; he wrote crystalline stories, boiled to bare (if fantastical) plot; therefore, the love of the detective novel, and the preference for Edwin Drood. Drood may have not gotten anywhere, thanks to the smiting arm of God, but it was certainly on its way at a more rapid clip than is usually found in Dickens.

Speaking of slow moving stories and detectives, I find it interesting that in Borges’ account of the detective novel’s evolution he does not mention Bleak House. In my Modern Library edition, the endnote to the eponymously titled chapter introducing the detective Mr. Bucket tells me that he is “believed to be the first modern detective depicted in English fiction” (878). Perhaps Borges did have this in mind when he listed Dickens among the greats, I cannot say. However, to return to reading Borges into Dickens, in Mr. Bucket and Esther’s “chase” I find a number of Borgesian themes converging. Obviously the detective is one. Esther’s description reveals further layers, as she writes: “I was far from sure that I was not in a dream. We rattled with great rapidity through such a labyrinth of streets, that I soon lost all idea of where we were” (756). The importance of dreams, especially when the boundary with reality is blurred, is not uncommon in Borges, as we saw with Hladik in “The Secret Miracle”; however, the Labyrinth is the ultimate symbol in the writings of Borges. There are other examples in Bleak House, to which I shall return. First, a few labyrinths from Borges. Just to name a few stories: “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “Ibn-Hakam al-Bhokari, Murdered in his Labyrinth”, and “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths” all deal explicitly with labyrinths. Needless to say, I could not help but read Esther’s word in a Borgesian fashion.

There are other examples as well. The description of the Dedlock’s library is one. Dickens’ description is straightforward enough, but my mind wanders (into a labyrinth) when I read “the little library within the larger one”, which contains a “book of Fate” (701). I immediately read this as “Russian doll”: a library containing a smaller library, on and into infinity. The Russian doll is a form of labyrinth, especially an unending Russian doll. My mind turns the corner and there is Borges’ “The Library of Babel”. The story famously begins: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of galaxies” (Collected Fictions 112). Herein lies all learning, all books, the whole of everything. The narrator has spent his life “in quest of book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs” (112). Ah, a book of Fate! Now add a little detective, and I can think of nothing but Borges.

Working my way back a little further in Bleak House, yes I am flipping through it backward, I find more labyrinths and labrynthine readership. One of the scenes that struck me most in my obsessive quest to find texts in Dickens was Esther and Ada’s visit to Richard. Upon entering the young man’s quarters, the ladies find him “poring over a table covered with dusty bundles of papers which seemed like dusty mirrors reflecting his own mind” (681). As a reader, I immediately see doubling mirrors here. Mind and text mirroring each other, and what do two mirrors create? They create a labyrinth. A few paragraphs further (I am reading forward now), we have Richard proclaiming that his benefactor “can’t be expected to know much of such a labyrinth”, referring to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce paperwork (681). There we have it: the text as a labyrinth (the catalog of catalogs), and the mind and text as labrynthine mirrors.

If I may be allowed a bumpy transition, Borges also wrote an essay on Chesterton entitled “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton”. Borges’ was particularly impressed by the Father Brown story “The Blast of the Book”, which he describes as concerning “a tattered book supernatural book that causes the instantaneous disappearance of those who foolishly open it” (On Writing 117). I will not belabor the reasons for Borges’ finding this striking. They are, I think, obvious. What I wish to do now is borrow from Chesterton, in regards to the labyrinth of Bleak House. In his introduction to Everyman the Edition, Chesterton says of the novel:

“It returns upon itself; it has recurrent melody and poetic justice; it has artistic constancy and artistic revenge. It preserves the unities; even to some extent it preserves the unities of time and place. The story circles round two or three symbolic places […]. People go from one place to another place; but not from one place to another place on the road to everywhere else” (vii).

It returns upon itself like a labyrinth. It circles around a couple of symbols, much like Borges. One can never make it to the road to everywhere else when they are inside a labyrinth, can they? One can see why Borges loved Chesterton so much. And it keeps going, as Chesterton further says:

“Dickens begins in the Chancery fog because he means to end in the Chancery fog. […] In this Bleak House beginning we have the feeling that it is not only a beginning; we have the feeling that the author sees the conclusion and the whole. The beginning is alpha and omega: the beginning and the end” (viii).

This is truly beautiful; Chesterton never ceases to wow me.

In this I see the Kabbalistic symbol of Borges’ “The Aleph”. The Aleph contains all things, is the ultimate labyrinth, is alpha and omega made clear. This is Chesterton’s reading of the Dickensian fog seen through my Borgesian reading of that reading (said five times fast). As Borges writes:

“Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. […]. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside” (283).

For me, as reader, this is the same window of fog we step through to enter Bleak House. Or any great work.

The greatest thing about being a reader is entering such a world. This is why I love literature, and labyrinths, and books and labyrinths in literature. And the strange way my mind connects them, doubling them as its own mirror placed before those other mirrors. I do not know how clearly I have connected Borges and Dickens. I hope I have in some degree. More so, I hope I have offered a glimpse into my own readership. I feel like this class and blog have been one big labyrinth which I did not think I’d come out of. And then, sometimes freedom is sad; at least when it means the reading is over (for now).

 Work Cited

Barnabe, Jean-Pillipe. “Borges as a Reader of Dickens”. Dickens Studies Annual. Vol. 36. New York: AMS Press, 2005.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998.

—-. Conversations. Ed. Richard Burgin. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

—-. On Writing. Ed, Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Chesterton, G.K. “Introduction to Bleak House”. Bleak House. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1972.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Notes by Jennifer Mooney. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

 

 

 

 

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