Modernist Aesthetics and the Question of Ownership in Borges's "Funes el memorioso" and Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art".
Jorge Luis Borges's "Funes el memorioso" (1942) tells the story of Ireneo Funes, a man who is paralyzed in an accident, becomes incapable of forgetting, and develops a perfect memory. The exploration of the hypothetical and nightmarish scenario of perfect recollection allows Borges to revisit some of his preferred topics, including labyrinths, time, totality, and immortality. (1) Highlighting Borges's penchant for philosophy and focusing on the tale's allusions to John Locke and Friedrich Nietzsche, some scholars have also read "Funes el memorioso" as a philosophical narrative conversant with the works of Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Edmund Husserl, among others. (2 ) Common to most critical approaches to Borges's tale is a tendency to focus on Funes's memory, overlooking-to varying degrees-the fundamental role of the anonymous narrator in the construction of the tale.
Though it is impossible to study this tale without referring to Funes's prodigious memory, first it is important to acknowledge that "Funes el memorioso" is supposed to be a memoir written by an Argentine literato who saw Funes a couple of times and interviewed him only once. Moreover, the narrator is only one of several individuals who, having met Funes, was invited to participate in a collection of essays designed to pay him posthumous tribute. This information is key because, in framing the tale, the narrator reveals a strong bias:
Me parece muy feliz el proyecto de que todos aquellos que lo trataron escriban sobre el; mi testimonio sera acaso el mas breve y sin duda el mas pobre, pero no el menos imparcial del volumen que editaran ustedes. Mi deplorable condicion de argentino me impedira incurrir en el ditirambo -genero obligatorio en el Uruguay, cuando el tema es un uruguayo. Literato, cajetilla,porteno; Funes no dijo esas injuriosas palabras, pero de un modo suficiente me consta que yo representaba para el esas desventuras. Pedro Leandro Ipuche ha escrito que Funes era un precursor de los superhombres, "un Zarathustra cimarron y vernaculo"; no lo discuto, pero no hay que olvidar que era tambien un compadrito de Fray Bentos, con ciertas incurables limitaciones. (519)
Borges's narrator declares himself a dissident. Unlike his Uruguayan peers, he will not simply glorify Funes. Instead, he will try to offer a more impartial portrayal. To do so, he reminds the reader that while Funes may have possessed a prodigious memory, he was also a compadrito, a provincial thug from a provincial nation that the porteno narrator views with derision. (3)
The narrator's conflict with Funes is prominently displayed in the story. In fact, Borges brings it up in the first sentence: "Lo recuerdo (yo no tengo derecho a pronunciar ese verbo sagrado, solo un hombre en la tierra tuvo derecho y ese hombre ha muerto) con una oscura pasionaria en la mano, viendola como nadie la ha visto" (519). Because Funes is now dead, the narrator sets off to dispute the rustic's right to remember; and he seems eager to do so. In fact, each one of the first six sentences of the memoir emphatically proclaim his, the narrator's, right to remember:
Lo recuerdo... con una oscura pasionaria en la mano... Lo recuerdo, la cara taciturna y aindiada y singularmente remota... Recuerdo (creo) sus manos afiladas de trenzador. Recuerdo cerca de esas manos un mate... recuerdo... una estera amarilla. Recuerdo claramente su voz pausada... sin los silbidos italianos de ahora. (519; emphasis added)
The irony is also evident. The narrator seems surprisingly comfortable using the sacred verb that-by his own admission-he does not have the right to pronounce.
"Funes el memorioso" is therefore not only a tale about flawless recollection but is also the site of a metaphorical struggle over the ownership of memory. Based on this premise, this essay argues that "Funes el memorioso" hypostatizes issues that are crucial to twentieth-century aesthetics, an aesthetics that-according to Jean-Francois Lyotard-is marked by a shift in focus from art and the artist to the spectator:
[twentieth-century] aesthetics, the analysis of the addressee's feelings, comes to supplant poetics and rhetoric, which are didactic forms, of and by the understanding, intended for the artist as sender. No longer "How does one make a work of art?",but "What is it to experience an affect proper to art?" (Lyotard 203)
Borges's tale engages directly with this aesthetic conception, further complicating and problematizing the aesthetic experience in a context in which emerging modes of art production, diffusion, and consumption upset old balances. Remarkably, these are the same issues that concerned the Frankfurt School during the 1930s and 40s and that inspired foundational works such as Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) and Martin Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1950). (4)
In order to prove that Borges's tale fictionalizes a series of theoretical concerns about art's future, this essay reads "Funes el memorioso" vis-avis Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art". This comparison shows that Borges's tale challenges some premises essential to Heidegger's project and questions some of the philosopher's main assumptions. (5) Whereas "Origin" attempts to re-appropriate and safeguard art in a context in which the relationship between art, the public, and the intellectual class is being redefined, "Funes el memorioso" proposes a radical case that mocks and distorts dominant aesthetic notions, complicating the problems that Heidegger's essay struggles to elucidate.
To establish a connection between Borges and Heidegger, I first elaborate on Heidegger's approach to art in relation to "truth," which Borges seems to contest. Later, I discuss the challenges that exhibition, reproduction, and mechanization (technology, in general) posit to Heidegger's project due to his modernist inheritance and I elaborate on the ways in which these forces are represented in "Origin" and dramatized in Borges's tale. Though the question of technology is more extensively discussed in Benjamin's famous essay-which I briefly discuss-I center my analysis on Heidegger's essay, which allows me both to limit the scope of this analysis and focus on the famous painting of Vincent Van Gogh's shoes featured in "Origin". The last part of this essay contends that Borges's tale mockingly recasts the historical anxieties over the right to own art through interpretation as a banal dispute over Funes's shoes.
As mentioned above, Heidegger's "Origin" builds on a certain modernist inheritance. Reproducing ideas that go back to Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme-both of whom saw art as a vehicle to summon essences-Heidegger perceives art as a space where truth can manifest itself. (6) He also rejects the idea of a singular great work capable of containing and exhausting this truth, thus anticipating Matei Calinescu's characterization of modernism as "a major cultural shift from a time-honored aesthetics of permanence, based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendent ideal of beauty, to an aesthetics of transitoriness and immanence, whose central values are change and novelty" (3). In other words, "Origin" is based on the modernist idea that art is "a practice adjacent to and constitutive of the possibility of the truth discourse that occurs on and around it without ever being in or captured by it" (Bernstein 144). (7) In this view, art is intimately linked to the existence of a multitude of works, each with the potential to give momentary expression to something greater that itself, something that remains elusive, constantly escaping representation.
Arguably, "Funes el memorioso" is also heavily invested in some form of truth. As a tale about perfect memory, the story equates truth with accuracy, which entails perfect symmetry between an idea and the thing it represents. This is evident in every description of Funes's memories, e.g.:
[Funes] sabia las formas de las nubes australes del amanecer del treinta de abril de mil ochocientos ochenta y dos y podia compararlas en el recuerdo con las vetas de un libro de pasta espanola que solo habia mirado una vez y con las lineas de la espuma que un remo levanto en el Rio Negro la vispera de la accion de Quebracho. (522)
Funes's ability to accurately summon shapes, colors, textures, and sensations is similar to what Heidegger calls "truth as agreement of knowledge with the facts," one of two forms of truth discussed in "Origin" (28). This particular form of truth is inferior, paling in comparison to the second alternative, which the philosopher dubs aletheia: "This familiar essence of truth, truth as correctness of representation, stands and falls with truth as the unconcealment of beings" (28). Unlike its commonplace counterpart, aletheia remains the exclusive property of art and elicits, through art, the self-disclosure of truth, an "unconcealment" that brings the world into the open without forcing it.
Insofar as Funes's memories can perfectly represent the world outside, they align better with Heidegger's notion of "truth as conformity" than with his notion of aletheia. Thus understood, Funes's memories should be foreign to art and inconsequential to aesthetics, but they are not. In fact, it would be a mistake to reduce Funes's recollection to a simple portrayal of exactitude. The excessive detail of his memories and their vertiginous referentiality give them a depth that goes far beyond accuracy. Funes's recollection of the Battle of Quebracho, for instance, is enriched by the chain of images-clouds, book, river, etc.-that spring around it. As a result, his memory resembles a complex pictorial rebus, an unfamiliar vision that is simultaneously an accurate representation of the natural world and a sophisticated object chiseled in Funes's memory and unwittingly crafted by chance.
These paradoxes appear every time the narrator attempts to describe the contents of Funes's memory: "Nosotros, de un vistazo, percibimos tres copas [de vino] en una mesa; Funes, todos los vastagos y racimos y frutos que comprende una parra... Esos recuerdos no eran simples; cada imagen visual estaba ligada a sensaciones musculares, termicas, etcetera" (522). Disguised as a natural (albeit exceptional) process, Funes's memory embellishes the objects it stores. The intricate associations and the numerous sensations gathered around the fantastic retrieval of the origin of wine quoted above make perfect recollection somewhat transcendental. To Funes, memories are not only mental objects; they also have the power to transport him, as if he were a spectator facing an artwork. This also evokes the way in which Heidegger describes the arresting power of art: "In proximity to the work we were suddenly somewhere other than we are usually accustomed to be" (15). Art, like Funes's memories, has the power to remove spectators from the quotidian and ordinary, placing them in the presence of something greater than the specific things captured in his memory. Borrowing Heidegger's terminology, we can also argue that Funes's memories behave like works: "The work, then, is not concerned with the reproduction of a particular being that has some time been actually present. Rather, it is concerned to reproduce the general essence of things" ("Origin" 16).
Following a similar path and challenging dominant readings that overemphasize Funes's inability to forget differences, to abstract, and therefore to think, Henry Shapiro proposes to look at Funes not as a victim to his gift, but as some sort of "epistemological deity" (260). This allows him to conceptualize Funes as a figuration of the artist, which leads him to suspect that Funes's constant bewilderment-"Su propia cara en el espejo, sus propias manos, le sorprendian cada vez" (524)-is not only a result of his inability to look beyond singular events, but a response to a greater revelation: "Perhaps his face in the mirror surprised him because it was the face of a particular individual hiding a mind which was impersonal and universal" (Shapiro 263). Though I agree with Shapiro that Funes should not be simply perceived as a mindless machine, and though I am inclined to perceive his memories as equivalent to works of art, two considerations deter me from portraying him as an artist. First, Funes does not create memories in the same way or for the same reasons artists create works; second, his memories do not exist outside of himself. Moreover, if his memories are works, if we perceive them as works, it is because of the admiration and reverence with which the narrator-someone who can only imperfectly evoke them-reports on them. That is, through the narrator we perceive Funes as a contradiction, as someone who is both a genius/artist and an ignoramus. Similarly, we see his memories as simultaneously works and not-works. In the narrator's account, the complex operations of Funes's memory resemble those of a machine that produces endless objects which, paradoxically, behave like works.
"Funes el memorioso" portrays Funes's memories in a way that brings together the two contradictory forms of truth discussed in "Origin." His perfect recollection reduces memories to a simple portrayal of accuracy and simultaneously turns them into sophisticated objects capable of confronting the spectator with something that exceeds common, individual experience. This exceptional component deeply resonates with Heidegger's argumentation. To him, the work is defined by its power to elicit an aesthetic experience, to illuminate what he calls the being of beings: "The artwork opens up, in its own way, the being of beings. This opening up, i.e. unconcealing, i.e. the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the artwork, the truth of beings has set itself to the work. Art is the setting-itself-to-work of truth" (19). Furthermore, Heidegger perceives this opening up as an ongoing process, as truth setting-itself-to-work. This is a struggle that-he suggests-art must bring up but should not resolve.
Throughout "Origin", this lack of resolution is presented as one of art's defining features. In fact, Heidegger characterizes the work as the locus of an unresolved conflict between the self-disclosing impulse of the world and the self-secluding impulse of the earth. The world-which he understands as "that always-nonobjectual to which we are subjects as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse, keep us transported into being" (23)-consists of a network of meaningful relations that encompass human experience, which the work renders visible. In contrast, the earth is a more obscure, primordial principle that nurtures and houses everything, and that cannot be fully explained due to its self-secluding impulse (25). Even though the work allows it to come forward, the earth-Heidegger claims-must remain unclear: "[the earth] shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It turns every merely calculational intrusion into an act of destruction" (25). When Heidegger claims that the work
"moves the earth into the open of a world and holds it there. The work lets the earth be an earth," he is thus arguing that the work opens up a space defined by tension, indeterminacy, and unrepresentability (24; italics in the original). This is a momentary opening that rejects any attempt to analyze, calculate, and dissect the work, which will immediately throw the earth back into seclusion.
Tension, indeterminacy, and unrepresentability are also central to Borges's tale. In fact, the narrator evokes them in his final glance at Funes:
"Entonces vi la cara de la voz que toda la noche habia hablado. Ireneo tenia diecinueve anos; habia nacido en 1868; me parecio monumental como el bronce, mas antiguo que Egipto, anterior a las profecias y a las piramides" (525). Monumental, ancient, and arcane, Funes is the source of a mystery akin to that of pyramids and prophecies. So are his memories, which remain both impossibly precise and alluringly complex. And yet, he is also trapped in a world in which memory dissects its objects, reducing experience to minutiae: "En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no habia sino detalles, casi inmediatos" (524). Hence the paradox: in
"Funes el memorioso," indeterminacy coexists with perfect agreement of knowledge with fact, which is impossible in Heidegger's model. In fact, Heidegger perceives accuracy as one of the defining features of technical, calculative thinking, which is utterly inimical to indeterminacy. As David Laraway puts it:
Our age is defined by what [Heidegger] calls the "essence of technicity." It is important to note that he is not speaking simply of technology per se, but a distinctively instrumental relationship to the world... The triumph of a particular kind of instrumentality in our age has paid us enormous practical dividends even while divorcing us from the earth itself. (297)
Even though Funes's memories are not instrumental to that particular degree, they clearly participate of the essence of technicity because they expose and disclose too much, uprooting humanity from the nurturing, mysterious domain of the earth. In spite of their proximity to the realm of technological, calculative thinking, Funes's memories also possess a certain artistic splendor. Arguably, his memories are purposefully designed to enact this contradiction. They are meant to replicate the mysterious happening of truth through its opposite, through radical accuracy and multiplication. These characteristics become exceptionally subversive if, looking beyond "Origin" and "Funes el memorioso," we take into account the complex relationship between modernist art and technology. (8) After all-as Jay Bernstein claims-modernist art is bound to technology: "the art of the epoch of technology belongs to the end of great art" (144).
Both acknowledging and moving away from the complexities of the link between art and technology, "Origin" pivots away from the making of the work and subordinates its materiality to the aesthetic experience and the happening of truth. (9) Despite his best efforts, Heidegger cannot avoid coming back to the question of technology when he addresses the art collection, the catalog, and the exhibition:
Official agencies assume responsibility for the care and maintenance of the works. Art connoisseurs and critics busy themselves with them. The art dealer looks after the market. The art-historical researcher turns the works into the objects of a science. (19)
Transporting, storing, organizing, and displaying (operations that define the collection, the catalog, and the exhibition) are specialized, calculative actions that reduce the work to its utmost materiality; but the work survives them. In other words, the art industry and the art market are unavoidable and their uncomfortable intrusion in Heidegger's meditation underscores a growing concern with the changes they introduced in the realm of art, particularly during the first decades of the twentieth century. (10)
In a metaphoric manner, the art industry and the art market also emerge in Borges's tale. As memories continue to accumulate, overwhelming Funes, it becomes necessary for him to classify and organize them:
En efecto, Funes no solo recordaba cada hoja de cada arbol, de cada monte, sino cada una de las veces que la habia percibido o imaginado. Resolvio reducir cada una de sus jornadas preteritas, a unos sesenta mil recuerdos, que definiria luego por cifras. Lo disuadieron dos consideraciones: la conciencia de que la tarea era interminable, la conciencia de que era inutil. (524)
Much like a warehouse manager or an art collector, Funes deals with his memories as if they were objects, striving to organize them efficiently. This mechanistic attitude prompts a contradictory response in Borges's narrator. He simultaneously describes Funes's memory as a somewhat banal collection of things, but he cannot resist its allure.
If the precondition of the work is its ability to make truth manifest, which can only happen in the absence of calculative thinking, Funes's memories cannot bring truth forward, at least for him. From Funes's viewpoint memories have no mystery. To make matters worse, the narrator suspects that Funes is neither capable of producing general ideas nor reasoning (524). This means that Funes can only deliver unadulterated facts without being able to either argue or interpret them; he cannot grasp aesthetic notions and remains unaware of any aesthetic experience. To some extent, Funes is always in the presence of artworks that he cannot perceive as such due to his excessive proximity. Overwhelmed by endless succession and excessive detail, Funes sees each memory as the sheer manifestation of something singular-so singular and so indefinable that singularity itself vanishes. The narrator offers the reader a counterpoint. For him, Funes's perceptions can have some artistic value. He can see them from a safe critical distance that Funes cannot attain. If, in Heidegger's model, art allows the spectator to witness the happening of truth, Funes's perceptions enact the drama of a frantic and meaningless disclosure. That is to say, his memories dramatize a hypothetical state of affairs in which the otherwise exceptional manifestation of truth has become the rule.
Perhaps reacting to both Heidegger's ideas and to the burden of truth in modernist aesthetics, Borges's tale simultaneously idealizes and trivializes art. Though Funes's memories have the potential to allow for the happening of truth, their very proliferation forecloses interpretation and dismantles hermeneutics, which makes Borges's narrator furious. To his despair, Funes inadvertently creates elaborated pieces that, framed by endless multiplication and uncontrolled reproduction-some of technology's attributes-undo the aesthetic experience. Thus seen, Funes embodies some of the anxieties that haunt Heidegger's meditation. He puts forward questions that the philosopher tried to dispel from the realm of aesthetics by dismissing the materiality of the work and the ancillary operations of the collection and the catalogue. Making explicit the problematic role of technology in twentieth-century modernist aesthetic, "Funes el memorioso" touches on an issue that another contemporary philosopher, Walter Benjamin, addressed in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
In his 1936 essay, Benjamin famously argued that the historical shift from cult value to exhibition value eroded the artwork's "aura" (234).'' As understood by both Heidegger and Benjamin, the catalogue and the collection are also responsible for this erosion: "Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception" (Benjamin 244). Mechanical reproduction only precipitates this decline. It creates and fuels an art market in which official agencies, art collectors, and dealers thrive. Overcoming the limitations that the work's materiality originally imposed upon the gallery and the salon, mechanical reproduction exponentially multiplies exhibition and brings works even closer to the masses. To extrapolate the problem of mechanical reproduction to Borges's tale, it suffices to say that Funes's memory can be seen as a machine that multiplies and mechanizes art production while remaining oblivious to the happening truth. Furthermore, Funes can also be seen as a figuration of the uneducated masses that now have access to works they are unfit to comprehend. (12) Echoing the concerns about this land of unbecoming spectator, Borges opens his tale with an image of Funes mindlessly absorbed in contemplation:
Lo recuerdo (yo no tengo derecho a pronunciar ese verbo sagrado, solo un hombre en la tierra tuvo derecho y ese hombre ha muerto) con una oscura pasionaria en la mano, viendola como nadie la ha visto, aunque la mirara desde el crepusculo del dia hasta el de la noche, toda una vida entera. (519)
Given the narrator's simultaneous contempt and admiration for Funes, it is possible to claim that the passage both celebrates the marvel of Funes's memory and renders its shortcomings evident: Funes's memory makes the flower eternal, removing it from the flow of time (much like art does), but it is also a machine-like contraption that eternizes absolutely everything that enters it, even a simple flower. (13) Unable to see the flower as nothing other than itself, unable to distinguish between the frivolous and the important, Funes makes the mundane unfathomable and trivializes the transcendental, making it factual.
In a sense, Borges's protagonist is an absent-minded spectator whose behavior exemplifies current modes of consumption. (14) His experience can thus be contrasted with the deep revelation that comes upon Heidegger during his encounter with Van Gogh's work:
It is this [painting] that spoke... The artwork let us know what the shoes in truth are... if there is anything questionable here it is only this: that in the proximity of the work we have experienced too little, and what we have experienced has been described too crudely and hastily. (15-16)
The passage refers specifically to a painting in which Van Gogh depicts a pair of shoes, a mundane object whose simplicity evokes the flower held by Funes. Unlike Funes, though, Heidegger is a capable spectator, receptive to the work's aura and attentive to its modulations. To further focus on the experience, Heidegger isolates the work, removing it from the domain of the gallery, the exhibition, and the art market. Outside of this circuit, the work fully shines as something greater than a thing. This is perhaps the reason why Heidegger is reluctant to address the effects of the art market, technology, or reproduction in his essay. These instances, as Benjamin also explains, bring the work into proximity but also undermine its singularity.
Given Benjamin's and Heidegger's shared concern with the work's exceptional nature and given that "Origin" and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" are essentially coeval, Heidegger's avoidance of the topic of reproduction and his calculated allusions to the work's materiality are telling. In fact, Heidegger alludes to the "thingly element in the artwork" approximately nineteen times throughout
"Origin," only to postpone the issue every time. This recurrence suggests that, while Heidegger is mindful of the work's materiality, he is also concerned with the possibility of said materiality obscuring the work's aesthetic function. In an attempt to avert the risk, he commits to rescuing art from the manipulations of the emergent art industry and the whims of the mindless masses, both of which are prone to get caught in the work's materiality. Confronted with the impossible task of controlling how exhibition, circulation, reproduction, and serialization may affect art,
"Origin" offers an alternative: theorizing, defining, and perhaps controlling the aesthetic experience. Facing a similar issue, Borges uses his tale to challenge this aesthetic turn. That is, "Funes el memorioso" complicates and mocks Heidegger's attempt to privilege the aesthetic experience over the material object prompting it.
As stated at beginning of this essay, "Funes el memorioso" opens with a dispute over the ownership of memory, which sets the narrator on a quest to reclaim his right to remember, to own memory; and he does so by undermining Funes. To him, Funes's relationship with memory, which is simultaneously superficial and profound, remains uncomfortable and indefinable even in death. Metaphorically, Funes's memory is a paradox, a machine that serializes a unique land of product, namely extremely accurate memories that resemble artworks. As such, Funes can be seen as both the mindless spectator of something exceptional, and as someone having a unique experience through a mass-produced object. These contradictory possibilities take the form of a dispute over ownership that, from a postmodern standpoint, Borges and Lyotard would consider both unresolvable and characteristically post-modem. Taking this connection one step further, Lyotard suggests that it is possible to contend that modernism and the avant-garde operate under a different set of rules that open up space for alternative possibilities: "with the advent of the aesthetics of the sublime, the stake of art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to be the witness to the fact that there is indeterminacy"-and later he adds-"sublimity is no longer in art but in speculation on art" (206, 210). (15) Though Heidegger's "Origin" would reject the possibility of anything transcendental happening in the mechanistic realm of art speculation, the idea resonates differently with "Funes el memorioso." (16)
In Borges's tale, we can argue, Funes is constantly facing indeterminacy. He is also facing something akin to the manifestation of the sublime that Lyotard locates in art speculation. In Funes's case, excessive detail does not elucidate but instead clouds the mind and suspends speech: "[Funes] era el solitario y lucido espectador de un mundo multiforme, instantaneo y casi intolerablemente preciso" (524). Overwhelmed by an endless succession of details, Funes cannot find enough distance for reflection nor sufficient time for determination and is thus confined to the absolute present:
No solo le constaba comprender que el simbolo generico perro abarcara tantos individuos dispares de diversos tamanos y diversa forma; le molestaba que el perro de las tres y catorce (visto de perfil) tuviera el mismo nombre que el perro de las tres y cuarto (visto de frente). (524)
While Funes's recollection makes his experience ineffable, he cannot sense such happening because he exists almost at the same level as the objects that could prompt the aesthetic experience. In other words, if Funes's memories are equivalent to artworks, he stands in a hypothetical position between the spectator and the work, in the very threshold of the aesthetic experience. He is suspended right before-in the edge of the very awe of-the sublime, always unable to experience it and always unfit to overcome it.
This bring us to the point where Borges's story radically departs from Heidegger's essay. If "Origin" tries to elucidate the ineffable experience that takes place around art, Borges's tale challenges our historical understanding of the aesthetic experience. "Funes el memorioso" can thus be read as an attempt to problematize the way in which twentieth-century aesthetics conceptualized the connection between art and truth and to challenge the possibility and the purpose of discoursing on the ineffable. Funes's memory contests, trivializes, and dismantles Heidegger's notion of unconcealment (aletheia), thus making aesthetics and sublimity banal. In that sense, Funes is the embodiment of Borges's challenge to modern aesthetics in general and to Heidegger's aesthetics of presencing in particular. Funes is an artifact meant to upset the narrator of Borges's tale, the art critic, and the philosopher. Placed in an impossible space beyond art reflection and beyond the aesthetic experience, Funes acts as the hypothetical embodiment of that which we deem ineffable in art. (17)
There is yet another dimension to Borges's take on modern aesthetics, which is reflected on the way in which Funes portrays himself. Against the gravitas that "Origin" attributes to art and to the aesthetic experience, Borges's protagonist perceives his memory as both elevating and degrading. Midway through the tale, the narrator quotes Funes claiming that "[m]as recuerdos tengo yo solo que los que habran tenido todos los hombres desde que el mundo es mundo" and, immediately after, "mi memoria, senor, es como un vaciadero de basuras" (523). Despite his greatness and uniqueness, Funes dies a senseless, pathetic death caused by an insalubrious accumulation that-originating in his memory-takes over his body: "Ireneo Funes murio en 1889, de una congestion pulmonar" (525). Such a scornful death is yet another instance in which Funes appears as both gifted and undeserving.
The intellectual exercise of using Funes to explore loaded concepts such as sublimity, truth, and essence is of course tendentious, but it is also validated by the tale. After all, Funes is consistently represented as a simpleton endowed with a great gift that eventually destroys him. If we see the narrator as a figuration of the sophisticated modern philosopher or art critic, Funes emerges as a direct challenge to his privilege. From the narrator's standpoint, Funes is monopolizing something that he should not own; and the narrator cannot suffer it. As argued earlier, this undertaking begins with the tale itself, as the narrator accuses Funes of certain incorrigible limitations and readily judges his social standing. Though the narrator promised a fairly impartial account, he does not hesitate to present Funes as the lower-class, uneducated, and provincial son of an ironing woman and an unknown man. He is also depicted wearing peasant footwear: "Recuerdo la bombacha, las alpargatas, recuerdo el cigarrillo, en el duro rostro, contra el nubarron ya sin limites" (520). The dispute over the ownership of memory is then tied to Funes's alpargatas (straw-soled cotton slippers), which are subtly displayed as the material sign of his inferiority. This characterization allows the narrator to insinuate that Funes is unworthy of his flawless memory because he is a nobody who cannot even afford decent shoes. From then on, his memoir will attempt to pin Funes down, returning him to his place and to his alpargatas. Enabled by Funes's death and by the tale, the narrator recovers in the end something that Funes should not have ever had: he regains the right to use a stolen ability, a purloined verb.
Though Borges's allusion to Funes's shoes is not critical in itself, it is noteworthy because it points to another pair of shoes that are essential to contemporary aesthetic disquisitions. (18) It evokes the famous dispute over Van Gogh's shoes, which, coincidentally, began with "Origin." Meditating on the shoes depicted by Van Gogh, Heidegger concludes:
"This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth and find protection in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself" (14; emphasis in the original). Later, in a 1968 essay titled "The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh," historian Meyer Schapiro challenges Heidegger's conclusion, arguing that Heidegger uses Van Gogh's work to romanticize rural life, projecting a personal fantasy on an inexistent peasant woman. The shoes-Schapiro shows-were painted at a time when Van Gogh was an emigre and a city dweller and are "clearly pictures of the artist's own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant woman" (297).
According to Schapiro, determining the ownership of these shoes is crucial, for they speak to the presence of the artist within his own work. Elaborating further on this discussion, Jacques Derrida aptly notices that Schapiro is not simply recovering those shoes for Van Gogh. In The Truth in Painting (1978), the French philosopher maintains that Schapiro's essay
"discharges a debt and a duty of friendship by dedicating his 'Dead Nature' to his dead friend [Kurt Goldstein]" (271). Goldstein, an exiled German whom Schapiro met in New York in 1934, endured imprisonment in Nazi Germany during the same years that Heidegger was working on his lectures on "The Origin of the Work of Art." That is to say, snatching the shoes from Heidegger, Schapiro restores them to Van Gogh and to Goldstein, by proxy. According to Derrida, such restitution is legitimized by an implicit connection between Van Gogh and Schapiro's friend. (19 ) Operating on the assumption that Goldstein deserves those shoes more than Heidegger, "The Still Life" compensates Goldstein for his suffering and chastises Heidegger for his complicity with Hitler's regime.
The troublesome itinerary of Van Gogh's shoes underlines the importance of the question of ownership in the realm of art. Personal and professional ownership-which are interlaced in these shoes-elicit questions pertaining to art itself: (20) does he who is now in possession of it (the shoes, memory, art) have the right to possess it? Who can be said to be the rightful owner? Any effort to settle said dispute will be a pretentious attempt to propose a final, unquestionable interpretation that Borges's tale ultimately refuses to provide. Instead of venturing an answer, Borges presents "Funes el memorioso" as just one commentary in an ongoing dispute that will take-according to the narrator-the form of a volume of essays about Funes. The book in which Funes's acquaintances talk about him functions, metaphorically, as any collection of critical essays would. As such, it would be composed of critical pieces trying to interpret Funes. As it would happen in any intellectual debate, there would be agreement and disagreement. One can expect one article to correct, rebuff, and/or augment others-just as Schapiro did when he disputed Heidegger the ownership of Van Gogh's shoes. However, just as in the dispute over Van Gogh's shoes, the debate is impossible if Funes (or the shoes or Van Gogh) are still speaking. For it to be an artwork, the work and the artist must remain silent and must let the critic speak. The same goes for Funes: Borges's mysterious protagonist-a liminal creature between the work and the artist-must be discussedbut cannot be given a voice. In fact, Funes is already irrevocably silent when Borges's tale begins-he is dead. But the question remains: If Funes is already silent, why is he still a problem? The answer puts us back in Funes's shoes. Perhaps the problem is that he wears alpargatas, not shoes.
In March 1936, shortly after the publication of Benjamin's essay, Theodor Adorno addressed him in a personal letter. In his missive, Adorno fears that his colleague may be romanticizing mechanical reproduction and may be attributing to the masses a critical insight they do not possess (578). Adorno recognizes that Benjamin's celebration of cinema as a revolutionary medium devoid of "aura" entails a criticism of the nonpurposiveness of art and sanctions it as an elitist and bourgeois endeavor. Simultaneously critical and conciliatory, Adorno proposes looking at both autonomous art and dependent art as the "torn halves of an integral freedom" (578). He concludes:
It is not bourgeois idealism if, in full knowledge and without mental prohibitions, we maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do-the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution. (579)
It seems feasible to conclude that Funes is a proletarian wearing proletarian footwear and that the narrator is a representative of the bourgeoisie, but such a conclusion would be far too simplistic. It would be more accurate to say that, if the problem is one of ownership, ownership is never limited to the possession of capital, works of art, or fair (nice/fancy?) shoes. Those are excuses to dispute the ownership of speech and to preserve the right to interpret. This is also the purpose of the metaphorical possession of the sacred verb ("to recall") that opens Borges's tale. This particular land of ownership sets a new landmark in the process leading to the erosion of the work's aura. If the work's aura passed from "cult value" to "exhibition value," there emerged later, after the rise of artistic modernism, something we might risk calling "interpretation value."
We can choose to see Funes as a figuration of the artist, as the embodiment of the artwork, or even as the sole witness of truth and sublimity. However, as long as he wears alpargatas, he will not own the right to interpret. In that sense, one of the most interesting features of "Funes el memorioso" is Borges's ability to expose and ridicule the structures that sustain the hold that aesthetics has over art. The tale shows us that, after the modernist shift, the "thingly character of the work" (availing ourselves of Heidegger's vocabulary) is simultaneously a need and an annoyance, and that every time a critical discourse attempts a restitution, it simultaneously verifies its right to possess. Both Heidegger and Schapiro are blissfully unaware of this problem. Borges and Derrida are not. In 1942, Borges wove his tale around this issue, turning the question of ownership into a battle over the shoes of a young dead peasant. In 1978, in The Truth in Painting, Derrida realized that the dispute was not over. Trying to undermine the tyranny of a single authoritative voice, and perhaps trying to defer the impossible problem of ownership that haunts interpretation, the French philosopher set several voices to talk about ownership. Symptomatically, these voices ended up inquiring once again about the ownership of someone's shoes.
Jose J. Alvarez
South Dakota State University
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(1) Robert Folger sees memory as a dominant theme throughout Borges's writing; Stephen Weber sees "Funes el memorioso" as another figuration of the labyrinth.
(2) See Edmond Wright, David Laraway, Alberto Rojo, Jorge Martin, and Roxana Kreimer.
(3) A compadrito is a young gaucho who has become a city dweller. The word comes from lunfardo, a lower-class urban dialect appropriated by Argentinean-Uruguayan upper classes through tango lyrics. Calling Funes compadrito therefore implies a power play.
(4) "The Origin of the Work of Art" was drafted between 1936 and 1937, but remained unpublished until 1950. Heidegger's essay is thus contemporary with both Benjamin's essay and Borges's tale.
(5) "Origin" is based on a series of lectures delivered during the 1930s, which Borges may or may not have known when he was working on "Funes el memorioso." Even if Borges was not familiar with "Origin", he was well acquainted with the intellectual debates of the time. The tale may not be a direct response to Heidegger, but it is a meditation on the intellectual debate in which "Origin" took part.
(6) Mallarme argued: "Why should we perform the miracle by which a natural object is almost made to disappear beneath the magic waving wand of the written word, if not to divorce that object from the direct and palpable, and so conjure up its essence in all purity?...When I say: 'flower'...something different... arises... the flower which is absent from all bouquets" (127).
(7) For a discussion on Borges's and Heidegger's modernity and/or postmodemity see Barbara Bolt, Julian Young, Graciela Reiser, and Jaime Alazrald.
(8) Since the late nineteenth century, technology and mechanization both fascinated and troubled modernist artists. See Leticia Otero.
(9) The first part of "Origin" ("Thing and Work") deals with the material aspect of the work, its use, and function, but subordinates them to the happening of truth. The rest of the essay deals mostly with truth. Barbara Bolt observes that "Even those essays that are specifically concerned with art, for example 'The Origin of the Work of Art' (1935-36), seem to be an excuse to take up and explore the theme of the being. Heidegger is not concerned with the artwork perse but rather how, through the work of art, the Being of beings is revealed" (5).
(10) Processes such as selection, removal, transportation, and placement are related to techne and technology. They systematize and organize aiming to material goals such as preservation and profit.
(11) "Aura" is a complex construct. Benjamin links it to both authenticity and authority as well as to spatial and temporal tensions: "By virtue of its 'aura' an object remains distant, however close it may be" (243).
(12) Borges does not cite Benjamin, but it is likely that he knew of his work. As early as 1940, Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares had been interested in questions of technology and reproducibility. See Borges's prologue to Bioy Casares's La invencion deMorel (1940).
(13) Since Funes cannot perceive the continuity of a given object through time, he cannot see decay. The selection of a passion flower is particularly meaningful because most members of the genus passiflora only live for a day, which makes their charm inseparable from their fleetingness. Funes's memory robs the flower of its transitoriness, devaluing it.
(14) Funes reminds me Benjamin's moviegoer: "The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one" (141).
(15) Lyotard's "aesthetics of the sublime" compounds what Kant perceives as two distinctive manifestations: "judgment of the sublime," which produces a certain agitation of the mind, and "aesthetic judgment," which takes the form of restful contemplation (Kant 251).
(16) Heidegger's views on technology change later in "The Question Concerning Technology" (1954).
(17) David Johnson analyses the presence of Kantian themes, time in particular, in Borges's tale.
(18) For methodological reasons, this essay only looks at a few of many studies of Van Gogh's painting. See also Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism and Jacques Lacan's The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.
(19) According to Derrida, Schapiro also equates Goldstein's exile to Van Gogh's experience as emigre and city dweller.
(20) The question may be pre-critical-as Derrida claims-but has serious implications: Who was right, Heidegger, Schapiro, or Derrida? Do the shoes belong to art or philosophy, to art criticism or to literature? According to Bernstein, Derrida uses the shoes to explore the connection between art and history, turning the inquiry into a question about "the 'ownership' of history" (136).
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|Title Annotation:||Jorge Luis Borges, Martin Heidegger|
|Author:||Alvarez, Jose J.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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