Death, the Compass and the Symbolic.
The subject exists in three inter-connected orders: the real, the imaginary and the symbolic ("Rings" 90). The Real is the order which precedes the acquisition of language, exists outside language, and cannot be symbolized in any way. While the Symbolic consists of a group of separate elements designated signifiers, the Real contains no differences or rifts. The Real is analogous to matter; it alludes to the material basis of both the Imaginary and the Symbolic, and is thus connected to the biology and physiology of the body. In contrast to the Symbolic Order, which is built upon contradictions, for example the contradiction between presence and absence, the Real contains no contradictions and is always complete.
The Imaginary expresses the image of the ego created through identification with a mirror image, namely a reflection through the eyes of the other, for example the (m)other. Therefore, the order of the Imaginary is characterized by alienation of the subject from the image of himself or herself, which is based on outside mirrors. Thus, what establishes the ego in a subject is his or her identification with the Other. The Imaginary is the kingdom of picture, illusions and magic. The major illusions of the Imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy and similarity.
The Symbolic Order is the expression of culture in contrast to nature. The social world is structured by laws which regulate kinship and exchange relations. Since the very basic form of exchange is communication itself--the exchange of words or signs--and since the terms of law and order have no existent meaning without language, the Symbolic is semiotic or linguistic, and expresses the law which regulates desire. In contrast to the Imaginary, characterized by a dual system of relations, the Symbolic is characterized by triangular relationship structures. The Symbolic is the kingdom of absence and death, because the signifier signifies the death of the Real thing. The Symbolic is never full neither whole, it is always perforated and lacking. The subject of the unconscious is formed in the Symbolic Order, since language structures us from the very beginning.
In the present manuscript we will use Lacan's theory of the three registers of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real as a tool for analysis of Borges's detective story "Death and the Compass" and reveal Borges's stance towards death, while comparing it to the one described in "The Immortal." We will show how adopting an alien symbolic system, the Jewish Kabbalistic symbolic world of the secret names of God, by a non-Jewish adopter, the detective Erik Lonnrot, leads eventually to Lonnrot's death, while the police commissioner, Treviranus, who refuses this alien Jewish symbolic world, playing within the register of the Real, remains living a meaningless life. In general, adopting any symbolic system, i.e. a language that is always foreign to us, forced upon us by culture, and entering into the symbolic register, causes the disappearance of being in the Real Order and creates our own symbolic death. Refusing to enter into the Symbolic Order, refusing to accept public language, enables being, meaningless being, immortality in the register of the Real.
In a lecture on detective stories, Jorge Luis Borges explains: "He intentado el genero policial alguna vez, no estoy demasiado orgulloso de lo que he hecho. Lo he llevado a un terreno simbolico que no se si cuadra. He escrito 'La muerte y la brujula"' (Borges oral 79) ["I have on occasion attempted the detective genre, and I'm not very proud of what I have done. I have taken it to a symbolic level, which I am not sure is appropriate. I wrote 'Death and the Compass'" ("Lectures: The Detective Story" 499, our emphasis)].
Indeed, "Death and the Compass" represents an attitude toward death that can be considered as belonging to the Symbolic Order.
At the very beginning of the story, Borges mentions "la periodica serie de hechos de sangre" (OC 499) ["the periodic series of bloody deeds" ("Death" 147)] as well as "la secreta morfologia de la malvada serie" (OC 499) ["the evil series' secret shape" ("Death" 147)]. A symbolic assumption is hidden under the very definition of any series. Without symbolic assumptions no series could exist. Accordingly, the murder of the delegate from Podolsk to the Third Talmudic Congress, Dr. Marcelo Yarmolinsky, is described as "el primer crimen" (OC 499) ["the first crime" ("Death" 147)].
The symbolic presentation of Dr. Yarmolinsky as a Jewish figure includes his acceptance of the Hotel du Nord: "lo acepto con la antigua resignacion que le habia permitido tolerar tres anos de guerra en los Carpatos y tres mil anos de opresion y de pogroms" (OC 499) ["with the ancient resignation that had allowed him to bear three years of war in the Carpathians and three thousand years of pogroms and oppression" ("Death" 147)]; as well as "sus muchos libros y sus muy pocas prendas" (OC 499) ["his many books and very few articles of jewelry [or clothes]" ("Death" 147)]. His many books attest to the Symbolic register of the Jewish Kabbalistic world whereas the very few articles of jewelry (or clothes) attest to the Real register of concrete objects.
According to Lacan, death is constitutive of the Symbolic Order, because the symbol, by standing in place of the thing which it symbolizes, is equivalent to the death of the thing: "The symbol is the murder of the thing" ("The Function" 104). Also, the "first symbol" in human history is the tomb ("The Function" 104). It is only by virtue of the signifier that man has access to and can conceive of his own death. Lacan explains:
The symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing, and this death constitutes in the subject the eternalization of his desire. The first symbol in which we recognize humanity in its vestigial traces is the sepulture, and the intermediary of death can be recognized in every relation in which man comes to the life of his history. ("The Function" 104)
Borges relates to the possibility of being free from symbolic death, in "The Immortal": "Ser inmortal es baladi; menos el hombre, todas las criaturas lo son, pues ignoran la muerte" (OC 540) ["There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death" ("The Immortal" 191)]. The prerequisite for being immortal is staying in the Real Order, not entering into the Symbolic Order, being devoid of linguistic capabilities and definition as described by Borges:
[R]esplandecia (bajo el ultimo sol o bajo el primero) la evidente Ciudad de los Inmortales [...] de esos mezquinos agujeros (y de los nichos) emergian hombres de piel gris, de barba negligente, desnudos [...] no me maraville de que no hablaran. (OC 535) the patent City of the Immortals shone dazzlingly in the last [or first] rays of the sun [...] from those wretched holes, from the niches, emerged naked men with gray skin and neglected beards [...] I was surprised neither by the fact that they did not speak. (The Aleph 185-86)
Borges is very specific and elaborative about the link between immortality and the impossibility of linguistic symbolism:
[U]n hombre de la tribu me siguio [...] estaba tirado en la arena, donde trazaba torpemente y borraba una hilera de signos, que eran como las letras de los suenos, que uno esta a punto de entender y luego se juntan. Al principio, crei que se trataba de una escritura barbara; despues vi que es absurdo imaginar que hombres que no llegaron a la palabra lleguen a la escritura. Ademas, ninguna de las formas era igual a otra, lo cual excluia o alejaba la posibilidad de que fueran simbolicas. (OC 538) A man from the Troglodyte tribe had followed me [...] He was lying in the sand, clumsily drawing and rubbing out a row of symbols that resembled those letters in dreams and that one is just on verge of understanding when they merge and blur. At first I thought that this was some sort of barbaric writing; then I realized that it was absurd to imagine that men who had never learned to speak should have invented writing. Nor did any one of the shapes resemble any other--a fact that ruled out the possibility that they were symbols. (The Aleph 188-89)
Entering into the Symbolic Order creates a meaningful universe totally different from experiences in the Real Order of meaningless being, "without memory" and "without time" and without the possibility of carrying a name, an identity:
Le puse el nombre de Argos y trate de ensenarselo. Fracase y volvi a fracasar [...] Pense que Argos y yo particibamos de universos distintos; pense que nuestras percepciones eran iguales, pero que Argos las combinaba de otra manera y construia con ellas otros objetos; pense que acaso no habia objetos para el, sino un vertiginoso y continuo juego de impresiones brevisimas. Pense en un mundo sin memoria, sin tiempo [...]. (OC 539) I gave him the name Argos and tried to teach it to him. I failed over and again [...] I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time.... (The Aleph 189)
In a universe without symbols, without meanings, a personal definition and identity are unattainable nor any other symbolic meaning: "Como Cornelio Agrippa, soy dios, soy heroe, soy filosofo, soy demonio y soy mundo, lo cual es una fatigosa manera de decir que no soy" (OC 541) ["Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world--which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not." ("The Immortal" 191)].
The first symbol, or the first "murder of the thing" according to Lacan's definition, in "Death and the Compass" is Dr. Yarmolinsky, who "hallaron en su pieza, ya levemente oscura la cara [...] una punalada profunda le habia partido el pecho" (OC 499) ["was found lying on the floor of his room, his face by now slightly discolored... a deep knife wound had rent his chest" ("Death" 148)]. The dialogue between the police commissioner, Treviranus, who "blandiendo un imperioso cigarro" (OC 500) ["brandished an imperious cigar" ("Death" 148)], related to the material Real/Imaginary Order, and the detective Erik Lonnrot, who "se creia un puro razonador" (OC 499) ["thought of himself as a reasoning machine" ("Death" 147)], related to the Symbolic Order, which follows Dr. Yarmolin-sky's murder, is illustrative of a Real/Imaginary approach of the former and a Symbolic approach of the latter.
Treviranus is concentrating on Dr. Yarmolinsky's "pocas prendas" (OC 499) ["very few articles of jewelry [or clothes]" ("Death" 147)], related to the material Real Order, while Lonnrot is emphasizing Dr. Yarmolinsky's "muchos libros" (OC 499) ["many books" ("Death" 147)] related to the Symbolic Order. According to Treviranus Real/Imaginary stance, refusing to accept Jewish symbolism, the murderer is an unidentified somebody, not a symbolically identified subject, symbolically connected to the identity of the murdered rabbi. If the figure of the murderer has no symbolic significance, connected to symbolic identity of the murdered rabbi, then the murder can be considered a random mistake. Treviranus says: "Todos sabemos que el Tetrarca de Galilea posee los mejores zafiros del mundo. Alguien, para robarlos, habra penetrado por aqui por error. Yarmolinsky se ha levantado; el ladron ha tenido que matarlo" (OC 500) ["We all know that the Tetrach of Galilee owns the finest sapphires in the world. Somebody intending to steal the sapphires broke in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky woke up, the burglar had to kill him" ("Death" 148)].
Detective Lonnrot, who is both fascinated and trapped by Jewish symbolism, is not content within reality of the Real/Imaginary Order and desires an interesting reality. Thus, he does not allow the play of chance, but concentrates on the symbolic figure of the dead rabbi, seeking a purely rabbinical explanation. He prefers a symbolic solution connected with Jewish rabbinical, Kabbalistic symbolism and ignores imaginary bungling of an imaginary burglar within the Real/Imaginary Order. Lonnrot says:
--Posible, pero no interesante [...] Usted replicara que la realidad no tiene la menor obligacion de ser interesante. Yo le replicare que la realidad puede prescindir de esa obligacion, pero no las hipotesis. En la que usted ha improvisado, interviene copiosamente el azar. He aqui un rabino muerto; yo preferiria una explicacion puramente rabinica, no los imaginarios percances de un imaginario ladron. (OC 500, our emphasis) --Possible, but uninteresting. You will reply that reality has not the slightest obligation to be interesting. I will reply in turn that reality may get along without that obligation, but hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you suggest, here... chance plays a disproportionate role. What we have here is a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary bungling of an imaginary burglar. ("Death" 148, our emphasis)
Treviranus continues to resist symbolic, Kabbalistic, "rabbinical explanations," regarding this foreign symbolic system as "Jewish superstitions," while keeping to his position within the Real/Imaginary Order considering the dead rabbi, Yarmolinsky "an unknown man": "No me interesan las explicaciones rabinicas; me interesa la captura del hombre que apunalo a este desconocido [...] no tengo tiempo que perder en supersticiones judias." (OC 500) ["I am not interested in 'rabbinical explanations', as you call them; what I'm interested in is catching the blackguard that stabbed this unknown man... I can't be wasting my time on Jewish superstitions" ("Death" 148)].
Detective Lonnrot rejects Treviranus's Real/Imaginary meaningless approach to Yarmolinsky as an unknown person, and focuses on Rabbi Yarmolinsky within the Symbolic Order, signified by his books and works on the Kabbalah, Hasidim, and the secret name of god:
No tan desconocido [...] Aqui estan sus obras completas [...] una Vindicacion de la cabala [...] una Historia de la secta de los Hasidim; una monografia (en aleman) sobre el Tetragramaton [...] Quiza este crimen pertenece a la historia de las supersticiones judias. (OC 500) Unknown? Here are his complete works: A Vindication of the Kabbalah... A History of the Hasidim; A Monograph...on the Tetragrammaton... This crime may, however belong to the history of Jewish superstitions.... ("Death" 148)
The unfinished declaration found on a slip of paper on the little typewriter: "La primera letra del Nombre ha sido articulada" (OC 500) ["The first letter of the Name has been written" ("Death" 149)], obviously hints at Lonnrots hypothesis turning the plot in the direction of the Symbolic Order. Thus, one might predict that the first letter in the murdered Yarmolinsky, Y, is the first letter in the secret name of God.
This piece of evidence supports the symbolic hypothesis of Lonnrot. Therefore "Lonnrot se abstuvo de sonreir. Bruscamente bibliofilo o hebraista, ordeno que le hicieran un paquete con los libros del muerto y los llevo a su departamento. Indiferente a la investigacion policial, se dedico a estudiarlos" (OC 500) ["Lonnrot resisted a smile. Suddenly turned bibliophile or Hebraist, he ordered ... to wrap up the dead man's books, and he took them to his apartment. Then, indifferent to the police investigation, he set about studying them" ("Death" 149)]. Similarly, the writer from the Yiddische Zeitung "queria hablar del asesinato; Lonnrot prefirio de los diversos nombres de Dios" (OC 501) ["wanted to talk about the murder; Lonnrot preferred to talk about the many names of God" ("Death" 149)].
In fact, any symbolic world, any meaningfulness is entrusted upon us not from within but from outside, from the other. Entering into the symbolic play of signifiers is described by Lacan as accepting meaning while losing being at the signifying event:
[T]hat first signifying coupling ... enables us to conceive that the signifier appears first in the Other, in so far as the first signifier, the unary signifier, emerges in the field of the Other and represents the subject for another signifier, which other signifier has as its effect the aphanisis of the subject. Hence the division of the subject--when the subject appears somewhere as meaning, he is manifested elsewhere as "fading," as disappearance. There is then, one might say, a matter of life and death between the unary signifier and the subject, qua binary signifier, cause of his disappearance. ("The Subject" 128)
Kaja Silverman emphasizes that:
This fading or "aphanisis" represents the most extreme and permanent of the alienations by means of which the Lacanian subject is constituted. Not only is the subject thereby split off or partitioned from its own drives, but it is subordinated to a symbolic order which will henceforth entirely determine its identity and desires. It will from this point forward participate in the discourse of the Other, and regards itself from the space of the Other. (Silverman 171-72)
Thus, Lonnrot is in fact created as a significant symbolic identity--a Hebraist, by the Other: by Dr. Yarmolinsky's foreign symbolism, his books, his Hasidic ideas, the Kabbalah, the names of God. Entrapped by this foreign, new symbolic world, Erik Lonnrot studied the map and letter received from "Baruch Spinoza":
Los tres lugares, en efecto, eran equidistantes. Simetria en el tiempo... simetria en el espacio, tambien... Sintio, de pronto que estaba por descifrar el misterio. Un compas y una brujula completaron esa brusca intuicion. Sonrio. Pronuncio la palabra Tetragramaton (de adquisicion reciente) ... (OC 503) The three locations were indeed equidistant. Symmetry in time... symmetry in space... Lonnrot sensed, abruptly, that he was on the brink of solving the riddle. A drawing-compass and a navigational compass completed that sudden intuition. He smiled, spoke the word Tetragrammaton (a word he had recently acquired) ... ("Death" 152)
This symbolic word and world of meaning chosen by Lonnrot and, at the same time, determining him as a subject of meaningfulness, realizes his disappearance from being, from the Real Order. In the split between the registers of the Symbolic and the Real, Lonnrot is on the symbolic side: "Virtualmente, habia descifrado el problema; las meras circunstancias, la realidad... apenas le interesaban ahora" (OC 504) [He had virtually solved the problem; the mere circumstances, the reality... had very little interest for him now..." ("Death" 152-53)]. Being immersed in the symbolic, in fact in the symbolic Jewish world of the Hasidim, a symbolic alien world, similar to any symbolic register, Lonnrot becomes aware of, in fact discovers, death, his own death.
In her book The Antigone Complex, Cecilia Sjoholm suggests that:
Lacan's engagement in what we have chosen to call The Antigone Complex begins a question as simple as it is intriguing: what is the beauty of Antigone? [It occupies] a central position in his Seminar entitled "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" (Lacan, 1960) ... What we find in her dialogue with Ismene is the wish to die with honor, die beautifully... Antigone brings us straight into the landscape that Lacan calls the zone between the two deaths... Her figure is experienced as beautiful because she makes visible the finite existence in the zone between two deaths... It is when passing through that zone that the beam of desire is both reflected and refracted till it ends up giving us that most strange and most profound of effects, which is the effect of beauty on desire. (101-02)
Captured by Red Scharlach, trapped by the Symbolic Order in the zone between two deaths, Lonnrot "Miro los arboles y el cielo... Sintio un poco de frio y una tristeza impersonal, casi anonima... considero por ultima vez el problema de las muertes simetricas y periodicas" (OC 507) ["looked at the trees and the sky... He felt a chill, and an impersonal, almost anonymous sadness... For the last time Lonnrot considered the problem of the symmetrical, periodic murders" ("Death" 156)]. Immersed in the Symbolic Order, in search for a perfect labyrinth of death, Lonnrot suggests to Red Scharlach:
--En su laberinto sobran tres lineas--dijo por fin--. Yo se de un laberinto griego que es una linea unica, recta... cuando en otro avatar usted me de caza, finja (o cometa) un crimen en A, luego un segundo crimen en B, a 8 kilometros de A, luego un tercer crimen en C a 4 kilometros de A y de B, a mitad de camino entre los dos. Aguardeme despues en D, a 2 kilometros de A y de C, de nuevo a mitad de camino. Mateme en D, como ahora va a matarme en Triste-le-Roy. (OC 507) --There are three lines too many in your labyrinth... I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line... When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives... I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy. ("Death" 156)
Lonnrot, through his immersion in the symbolism of the symmetrical, periodic murders and his being trapped in the zone between two deaths, is now attuned to the function of the beautiful in his relationship to his own death. In Lacan's phrasing:
I wanted to show you how the function of the signifier in permitting the subject's access to his relationship to death might be made more concrete than is possible through a connotation. That is why I have tried to have you recognize it... in an aesthetic form, namely, that of the beautiful--it being precisely the function of the beautiful to reveal to us the site of man's relationship to his own death... (Ethics 295)
In his lectures on immortality, Borges elaborates on another type of immortality, not that of the Real/Imaginary Order, of the animal world, which is devoid of the awareness of death, but an immortality defined as symbolic:
Dire que creo en la inmortalidad: no en la inmortalidad personal, pero si en la cosmica. Seguiremos siendo inmortales; mas alla de nuestra muerte corporal queda nuestra memoria, y mas alla de nuestra memoria quedan nuestros actos, nuestros hechos, nuestras actitudes, toda esa maravillosa parte de la historia universal, aunque no lo sepamos y es mejor que no lo sepamos. (Borges oral 41) I would say that I believe in immortality, not in the personal but in the cosmic sense. We will keep on being immortal; beyond our physical death our memory will remain, and beyond our memory will remain our actions, our circumstances, our attitudes, all that marvelous part of universal history, although we won't know, and it is better that we won't know it. ("Lectures: Immortality" 491)
This symbolic or cosmic immortality that exists beyond our "I" is further elaborated by Borges according to his "fractal" geometrical, which is based on principles of bounder-less self-similarity ("Bifurcations" 2001).
In his lecture, Borges explains:
Nuestro yo es lo menos importante para nosotros. Que significa sentirnos yo? En que puede diferir el que yo me sienta Borges de que ustedes se sientan A, B o C? En nada, absolutamente. Ese yo es lo que compartimos, es lo que esta presente, de una forma o de otra, en todas las criaturas. Entonces podriamos decir que la inmortalidad es necesaria, no la personal pero si esa otra inmortalidad. Por ejemplo, cada vez que alguien quiere a un enemigo, aparece la inmortalidad de Cristo. En ese momento el es Cristo. Cada vez que repetimos un verso de Dante o Shakespeare, somos, de algun modo, aquel instante en que Shakespeare o Dante crearon ese verso. En fin, la inmortalidad esta en la memoria de los otros y en la obra que dejamos. Que puede importar que esa obra sea olvidada? (Borges oral 38-39) Our "I" is the least important thing for us. What does it mean for us to feel ourselves as an I ? In what way can I differ that I feel myself Borges than that you feel yourselves A, B, or C? Absolutely not at all. That I is what we share, it is what is present, in one form or another, in all creatures. We could say that immortality is necessary--not the personal, but other immortality. For example, each time that someone loves an enemy, the immortality of Christ appears. In that moment he is Christ. Each time we repeat a line by Dante or Shakespeare, we are, in some way, that instant when Dante or Shakespeare created that line. Immortality is in the memory of others and in the work we leave behind. What does it matter if that work is forgotten? ("Lectures: Immortality" 489)
Eventually, Borges defines this shared, cosmic immortality as the future of the world: "No importa mi opinion, ni mi juicio; no importan los nombres del pasado si continuamente estamos ayudando al porvenir del mundo, a la inmortalidad, a nuestra inmortalidad" (Borges oral 40) ["My opinions do not matter, nor my judgment; the names of the past do not matter as long as we are continually helping the future of the world, our immortality" ("Lectures: Immortality" 490)].
Borges, Jorge Luis. Borges oral. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1979.
--. "Death and the Compass." 1944. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1998.
--. "The Immortal." 1949. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1998.
--. "Lectures: The Detective Story." 1978. Trans. E. Allen, S. Jill Levine and E. Weinberger. Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. E. Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 1999.
--. "Lectures: Immortality." 1978. Trans. E. Allen, S. Jill Levine and E. Weinberger. Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. E. Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 1999.
--. Obras completas. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1974.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. Vol. VII. Trans. D. Porter. Ed. J.-A. Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992.
--. "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" 1966. Jacques Lacan: Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. A. Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.
--. "The Subject and the Other: Alienation." 1973. Trans. A. Sheridan. Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. J.-A. Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1981.
--. "Rings of string." 1975. Trans. B. Fink. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Vol. XX. Ed. J.-A. Miller. New York: W. W. Norton 8c Co., 1999.
--. "Knowledge and truth." 1975 Trans. B. Fink. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Vol. XX. Ed. J.-A. Miller. New York: W. W. Norton 8c Co., 1999.
Schreiber, Gabriel, and Roberto Umansky. "Bifurcations, Chaos, and Fractal Objects in Borges' Garden of Forking Paths and Other Writings." Variaciones Borges 11 (2001): 61-79.
Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.
Sjoholm, Cecilia. The Antigone Complex: Ethics and the Invention of Feminine Desire. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004.
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
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|Title Annotation:||Jorge Luis Borges' "Death and the Compass" through Jacques Lacan's theory|
|Author:||Schreiber, Gabriel; Schreiber, Ephraim; Avissar, Sofia; Halperin, Demian|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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