Bodying Forth the Impossible: Metamorphosis, Mortality and Aesthetics in the
continued . . .
Time into Space
In "The Wall and the Books" and "The Garden of Forking Paths," Borges explores the possibility of spatial structures that mirror or concretize temporal structures. Both works revolve around the issue of mortality and corporeality, and in both, acts in space composed through or upon material objects are metaphors for a temporal concept. Borges treats material acts as the manifestation of abstract ideas about time. The aesthetic seems to lie somewhere between the completely abstract and the fully concrete, like something on the verge of becoming visible but always escaping. These two stories thematize the way in which abstract ideas become concretized through art or action.
"The Wall and the Books," like "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote," arises out of Borges's sense of disquiet, a disturbance that emerges from reading. As in "Partial Enchantments of the Quixote," Borges ponders his emotional response to something he has read. In both pieces, Borges moves from specific cases of disquietude to aesthetic theorizing based on his experience as a reader:
The anecdote of Shih Huang simultaneously satisfies and disquiets Borges, and this leads him to inquire further into his reaction. "The Wall and the Books" analyzes the synchronicity and significance of two events, both initiated by the same agentShih Huang Ti. Borges proposes that these deeds are "something more than an exaggeration or a hyperbole for relatively trivial acts" (89); immortality, says Borges, was the Emperor's ultimate goal: "the wall in space and the conflagration in time were magical barriers designed to hold back death" (90). Shih Huang Ti made a grand gesture, attempting to create something that would withstand the inevitable passing of timeand the death of its creator. The burning of books and the building of a wall mark Shih Huang Ti's attempt at immortality, but also his failure; the attempt itself remains as a testimony to the aesthetic act. For Borges, the aesthetic act is what remains of the failed attempt to overcome the limits imposed by mortality and language.
Borges ends "The Wall and the Books" by pondering the aesthetic significance of such futile attempts to overcome the limits of being human:
For Borges, the aesthetic act seems tied to something archaic, primordial, prior to and inexpressible within language, yet something that can nevertheless take shape within art. Like the catalogue in "The Aleph," this list seems random yet informed by some significant underlying principle of selection. According to Borges, all of these things "speak" the same languagethat of the aesthetic; they trace the silhouette of something inarticulable. Borges anthropomorphizes these things, writing that they want to tell us something, attributing to them meaning and intention. That music, faces, sunsets, mythology, places, or states of happiness would want to tell us something, would mean something, is the suggestion of a secret agent at work in those things, or of the anthropomorphic projection of speech or meaning onto those things. However, that secret agent is the absent creator, be it an artist or a deity; death or absence overshadows all of these things; art speaks where the artist is no longer present. The work of art, in the absence of the artist, becomes a substitute, ossifying the creative force behind it.
Ana MarŪa Barrenechea characterizes Borges's idea of "the esthetic fact" as pertaining to the "irretrievable" (Borges the Labyrinth Maker 101), an "insistence on perceived revelation, one which tries to manifest itself but is never made concrete and which, according to Borges, is the essence of the aesthetic act. It is the awaited message, but it brings only anguish because its existence is fragile and its condition dropsied" (102). According to Barrenechea, in Borges's work "[t]he adjective irretrievable . . . [is] applied to color or to events which are erased from memory or to the unknown past which is impossible to relive" (102). Thus, Barrenechea illuminates a link between ineffability and memory, one implicitly present in Borges's work, as in his disclaimer prior to recounting his alephic vision. The "imminence of a revelation that does not take place" is evident in the way that Borges's prose often gestures towards the concrete, towards the physical, sensible world. That realm is an unreachable presence, the reference point towards which his language moves but at which it never arrives.
Similarly, Ts'ui PÍn's labyrinthine book in "The Garden of Forking Paths" takes on the shape of that which it aims to represent but does not mention: time. In this story, the protagonist Yu Tsun must speak a word so that it is heard across a continent, whereas his ancestor Ts'ui PÍn constructs a labyrinthine novel that concretizes time without mentioning it; Yu Tsun attempts to incarnate the word in a corpse, while Ts'ui PÍn alludes to time precisely through his omission of the word "time." Yu Tsun speaks through death, while Ts'ui PÍn manages to speak from beyond death.