Monthly Marvel: Borgesian Conundrum

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I am revisiting the Borgesian conundrum, which concerns either the way the writing makes the author or the way authors make their precursors.


This week’s idea is the Borgesian conundrum. Jorge Luís Borges (whom I’ve mentioned before now) was an Argentine short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, librarian, and reluctant lecturer who lived from 1899 to 1986. He contributed significantly to the short story as a form, and to fantasy and magic realism as genres. It is also thanks to his work that translations of South American writing became popular in the English literary market. His work is filled with mathematical references (including anything to do with infinity), metaphysical puzzles, and assorted paradoxes.

I think this image is Public Domain, but I might be wrong in this. Let me know if you know that I am and I will remove it.

I think this image is Public Domain, but I might be wrong in this. Let me know if you know that I am and I will remove it.

One of these puzzles is what’s called the Borgesian conundrum, which Wikipedia summarizes as “whether the writer writes the story, or it writes him.” According to Wikipedia the conundrum comes from the essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which Borges observes that Kafka’s works changes how we read those authors who influence Kafka:

If I am not mistaken, the heterogenous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critic’s vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

As much as I appreciate “Kafka and His Precursors,” I do not understand how the philosophers get the Borgesian conundrum from this essay: rather, if there is a question in this essay it is not “does the author create the story or the story, the author?” but “how does a writer create his own precursors?” Personally, for the Borgesian conundrum I might cite “Borges and I”:

It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause—mechanically now, perhaps—to gaze at the arch of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical directory. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor.

In “Borges and I,” of course, it’s the image of an author that the stories create, though this imagined author seems to have real-life force on the human who actually penned these stories. The story is short and quite worth reading. (For a more contemporary example of a person’s relationship to her author-self, I suggest Rachel Held Evans on RHE.) It’s an interesting question, especially as a person who writes and puts his preoccupations out for others to see (even if mostly on Tumblr at the moment), but I think I find the question from “Kafka and His Precursors” more interesting: how do we read a precursor as a precursor, or ought we try to read them as they were to themselves, on the very prow? But how could we even do that?

Posted by Christian H.

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