My continuing devotion to The New York Review of Books probably signifies nothing so much as my being an archaic throwback, born out of sync with my time. In a way, it seems to me that NYRB has become countercultural in part simply by just staying the same. The world has passed it by–who has time, after all, for a thought that requires an argument?–but in so doing I wonder whether we won’t long at last for just its kind of sober and articulate seriousness that tries to comprehend our troubles, tiring finally of the jokey popculturism of the web that seems mostly content to glide glibly along our surfaces, troubles merely another occasion for self display.
NYRB seems to revel in this archaic status, reprinting as it does forgotten masterpieces through its press and classic articles for it’s archives, apparently insisting pugnaciously that literature and thought really do remain news against the ephemera of what passes for the hot things of the moment.
Of course, it does this on the web now too, like everyone else. Most recently I picked up “A Modern Master by Paul de Man” off the Facebook page that I have “liked.” A good “classic” essay on Borges, though as with a lot of deconstructionists it becomes impossible to know whether I am supposed to appreciate what de Man is saying or the prolix way in which he goes about saying it. And, of course, it’s sometimes hard to know with these guys whether I’m learning something about Borges or about Paul de Man reading Borges. De Man is primarily interested in the thesis that villainy becomes in some sense a poetic and aesthetic principle for Borges, one that he explores and unfolds throughout his career.
It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.
A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.
So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.
The line “the poet is of the devil’s party” stood out to me, even though de Man’s “All of us know” sets it up sniffily as a throwaway line that demarcates the star-bellied sneeches from their know-nothing cousins. In part I think I seized on this line because it suddenly struck me that it really is the case that everyone I’ve know has mostly assumed that poet’s were of the devil’s party. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a very long time, maybe for as long as I’ve engaged literature. As I wrote in my book, encountering literature has been, for me, always been fraught with the question of whether or not I was encountering the devil’s party in some metaphorical sense or another. From the time my parents forbid me to go to see The Great Gatsby with friends, or the year I was not allowed to read The Catcher in the Rye along with all my classmates. In some longer range and more significant way, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s restriction of the poet from the Republic in the belief that poets served merely to inflame the passions, the devil’s party for the rationalist Greek. In my literary theory and other classes, I’ve often invoked the authority of Augustine’s notion of the felix peccatum, the happy fall, to suggest the notion that literature depends on the fact of fallenness, the fact of evil. If the poet is not of the devil’s party, he is at least secretly glad–along with all his readers–that the devil had his way if only for a moment.
An unsettling notion, that our pleasures, even our highest intellectual and aesthetic pleasures depend in some deep sense upon our and the world’s brokenness and violence. At the deepest level, I think this speaks to something unsettling about literature and art in general, something that goes beyond the question of offensiveness, and may go deeper than PLato’s concerns with the surface manifestations of inflamed aesthetic passions. Literature–perhaps other arts, but literature especially–unsettles because it depends so thoroughly and obviously and completely on brokenness and struggle and conflict and, yes, sometimes, violence as a condition of its existence. And it is most unsettling in that it makes takes these and makes them pleasurable, moving, beautiful. I think this is unsettling not on the simple level that we feel moralistically that literature shouldn’t do this, but the fact that it does do this has the force of revelation, showing us something about how we are built to experience the world. We exclude the poet from the city walls because by her fictions she shows us the fictions of our virtues.
As tiresome as I often find the deconstructionists–the tendency to find an infinity in a phrase often being nothing more than making a mountain our of a molehill–it still seems to me that this conundrum is something they troubled over endlessly and rightly.