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Borges and Plato: A Game with Shifting Mirrors.

Borges and Plato: A Game with Shifting Mirrors

Shlomy Mualem

Frankfurt am Main: Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2012, 246 pp.

Shlomy Mualem's Borges and Plato: A Game with Shifting Mirrors is a frustrating book. It promises a great deal but comes up short, not, however, in terms of scholarship, which is thorough throughout, but in terms of interpretive acumen and depth. This is disappointing and not least because a book dedicated to Plato and Borges is a welcome addition to the Borges archive. In most cases, however, Mualem's reading of Plato is guided by the work of other scholars, principally Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato (1982) and W. K. C. Guthrie's works Socrates (1971) and The Sophists (1971) and, more generally, his magisterial A History of Greek Philosophy (6 volumes, 1962-1981); and, further, Borges and Plato does not go much beyond a superficial mapping of Borges's apparent relation to Plato to what are finally rather traditional readings of the Greek philosopher. In the end, although Mualem highlights several important issues, he fails to produce compelling interpretations of any of them. Nor does he organize his reading of Borges's relation to Plato according to a logic that would govern that relation. For instance, Borges and Plato begins with a discussion of mythos and logos. Although Mualem suggests that Plato did not inherit the quarrel between philosophy and poetry so much as he invented it, very little of substance is done with this insight. According to Mualem's reading, Plato's subordination of mythos to logos and thus of poetry to philosophy, a subordination that effectively consolidates philosophical discourse, depended upon the constitution of a quarrel that did not exist. Consequently, philosophical discourse is grounded upon a myth in order to vanquish myth. Borges and Plato should have insisted on and pursued this "logic" throughout by demonstrating that the Borgesian text works in the same way. In other words, it would have been interesting were Mualem to have read Borges according to a logic derived from Plato and to have read Plato according to a logic derived from Borges. Instead, Mualem's chapters, despite dealing with interesting problems--mimesis, the question of poetic inspiration, the relation of writing to speech, the constitution of the book, the determination of the image of the poet--all take the same shape: first, a survey of the problem in Plato's text, usually heavily indebted to the work of Guthrie and Havelock; second, a reading of Borges in order to determine to what extent his text conforms to or is informed by the Platonic model. Often the upshot of the chapter simply measures Borges's deviation from Plato. Mualem rarely reads the implications of the Borges text back into Plato's and he rarely demonstrates the furthest implications of the presence of Plato in Borges's text.

For example, in the approximate middle of chapter four, "The Broken Mirror: The Crisis of Artistic Mimesis," Mualem remarks that "the question of the relationship between literature and reality preoccupied Borges' thought throughout his life" (139) and then he proceeds to assess this preoccupation "diachronically," that is, chronologically. After developing the Platonic understanding of mimesis as a mirror of nature and as "essentially inferior in the face of its model" insofar as it is incapable of bridging "an abyssal gap between the direct observation of the archetype, the source, and the indirect attempt to create its semblance or to construct its exact mimesis" (137), Mualem turns to his diachronic determination of Borges's mimetic theory. He ultimately concludes that Borges is closer to Aristotle than to Plato; yet, "The core of the [mimetic] crisis is, strictly speaking, Platonic" (146). The crisis is nothing other than "the gap between directly observing the eternal archetype of the rose ... and attempting to express it by means of poetic representation" (146). Mualem then points out that "Borges affirms that ... 'The Other Tiger,' 'Parable of the Palace,' and 'The Yellow Rose'... stand for the same fundamental idea, for the inability of art to cope with reality" (147). Mualem remarks that "The separateness of the world of art naturally leads to the assumption that man's actions and symbols are nothing but an enclosed set of signs that refers to itself, not to reality" (147), and points to what he calls Borges's "esthetics of allusion" (151). Art no longer "expresses" reality, but this incapacity does not lead to despair, but to "the new humble ideal of allusion" (148). Allusion names the "humble"--because oblique--"link" between art and reality. And Mualem claims that "This new link endows art and literature with the quality of the 'modest and secret complexity'" insofar as "It allows art to slightly point at reality" (148-49).

Mualem's suggestion of an aesthetics of allusion sounds promising. Rather than being a form of art for art's sake (see 149), where art would be "an enclosed set of signs that refers to itself, not to reality" (147), Mualem claims that "this Borgesian 'esthetics of allusion' transforms literature, and art in general, into a complex and dialectical sort of minor" (151). It is not "the simple mechanical Platonic mirror that repeats and copies our movements and the appearance of reality" (151); rather, it is an Aristotelian mirror: "Artistic mimesis is, then, a means of exposing the true nature of things" (151). The point, for Mualem, is that on Aristotle's account "artistic representation is ... not a mere low-rated aping of phenomenal reality, but an act that resembles Plato's ideal of 'creating according to a true archetype' (Republic 472d), i. e., creating a semblance that is derived from the eidos" (150). Accordingly, such Aristotelian "[a]rtistic mimesis is a philosophical phenomenon" that is nevertheless "totally liberated from the servitude to phenomenal reality," the aim of which "is the unveiling of essential, implicit truths" (150). The problem is that Mualem does not explain how this happens. Nor does he explain how a philosophical phenomenon can be totally liberated from phenomenal reality and yet still somehow unveil, hence reveal or make appear, the form of such truths to us. The problem stems from Mualem's insistence on the gap between direct experience of the world and the expression of it, where it seems the expression is necessarily inadequate (a mere mechanical copy). No doubt the gap is essential, without, however being anything in itself. The question is, however, how this "direct experience" is constituted in itself. Mualem takes no notice. The gap between so-called direct experience and expression (artistic or otherwise) necessarily inscribes difference and delay such that the expression of the direct experience of reality always comes too late. In Mualem's case, however, direct experience arrives on time. Borges was not so sure. In "El tiempo," a lecture he gave in 1978, he points out that time is delay (demora) and, nearly forty years earlier, in "Dos libros," he wrote that "La realidad es siempre anacronica" (Obras completas 2:103). In short, reality does not coincide with itself. A gap constitutes reality in order for reality to present itself in the first place. This gap does not simply affect the relation of poetic expression to direct experience; rather, it ruins whatever it makes possible: reality, direct experience, poetic expression. They are all "delayed," anachronistic.

Mualem's "aesthetics of allusion" could have--should have--gotten this far, for only a structural anachronism--temporal delay and spatial non-coincidence--makes allusion, or any sort of referral, even if only self-referral, possible.

There are other examples, not least among them Mualem's recognition, in the book's final chapter, that the question of identity cannot be divorced from the problem of time; yet, he does not attempt to spell out the logic of temporality in any way, assuming, like St. Augustine, that we know what time is, so long as we don't try to explain it.

It is possible, though by no means certain, that Mualem fails to think the implications of Borges's response to Platonic mimesis--or to any of the philosophical ideas and problems he identifies in Borges and Plato--all the way down derives from his nearly complete reliance on Borges's own interpretations of his work. Even if Mualem's quotations from Borges's various interviews, dialogues, and lectures do not far outnumber those from the ficciones, poetry, and essays, they in any case govern Mualem's interpretations. There is no extended reading of any ficcion, poem, or essay. This is a mistake, not because Borges's remarks in the interviews, dialogues, and lectures are not interesting, but because they do not necessarily provide the key for reading Borges. Certainly the richer resource for thinking about philosophical problems and ideas in Borges are the ficciones and essays themselves.

David E. Johnson

University at Buffalo

Universidad Diego Portales
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Author:Johnson, David E.
Publication:Variaciones Borges
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:1431
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