Jorge Luis Borges is anything but easy to accept, absorb, comprehend, and emotionally embrace. It’s not that his poems, short stories, and essays are all hard to read, for some of them have the lucidity and pure tone of a crystal form seen and struck. Others are admittedly trying, especially for those not cognizant of Argentinian history, versed in Anglo-Saxon, comfortable with Bishop Berkeley—to name but a few areas in which he has delved. There is obviously a formidable aspect to Borges. It might not be called a problem, for Borges wrote, “The word problem may be an insidious petitio principii. To speak of the Jewish problem is to postulate that the Jews are a problem; it is to predict (and recommend) persecution, plunder, shooting, beheading, rape. . . Another disadvantage of fallacious problems is that they bring about solutions that are equally fallacious.” Since he is demanding, there is a tendency for some of those who approach his work to treat it as a problem, to be unnecessarily cryptic and vague about it, as if incomprehensibility is an ideal. This has proven to be a particular thicket. As Norman Thomas di Giovanni, a close collaborator of Borges’s and a translator of many of his works, observed, “a lot of the early translators were intimidated by Borges’s reputation for being deep. They equated being deep with being obscure, and they also associated Borges with dreams and a dreamlike, or vague, prose.” Commentators have been worse. It’s indicative of the contemporary madness for inexplicability, or, in Borges’s words, “our modern worship of complexity.” Consider, for example, the case of “The Library of Babel,” a story that opens, “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.” When Borges wrote the story, in 1941, he was employed at a municipal library in Buenos Aires, where he stayed, as he put it, for “nine years of solid unhappiness.” While there, he wrote on his lunch hours and during any other time he could snatch. “The Library of Babel” is—if anything can be so designated—a paradigmatic Borges story. There are clues, ciphers, mirrors, labyrinths found within, indicating his various interests: detective fiction (“The Garden of Branching Paths,” another early composition, received an award from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), Poe, Stevenson, Chesterton, Burton, the Kabbalah, Gnosticism. . . and lists. (Lists are something that he shares with another blind bard, Homer. While that may seem too strong a comparison, one need only consider the other poets and writers who have practiced their art in this century to realize that Borges is truly a rare man of enduring value and so is deserving of praise of the first rank.) Borges, then 42 (born in 1899), hadn’t been writing short stories for long when he created “The Library of Babel,” though he had been publishing poems and essays for 20 years. Being acutely aware of literary influences on writers and recognizing continuity, he has suggested that writers “create” their own predecessors. He calls “The Library of Babel,” a tale of endless wandering through the galleries in search of the one book among the seemingly infinite number that will make all clear, “My Kafkian story.” The Library, like the Castle, is a symbol writ large. Yet some couldn’t be satisfied with that: after all, the story is by Borges, therefore it is a problem. Borges points out, “The number of books and shelves that I recorded in the story were literally what I had at my elbow. Clever critics have worried over those ciphers, and generously endowed them with mystic significance.” What isn’t there they see with complete clarity. A result of the Borges-as-Problem approach is that Borges has been securely tucked away into university filing cabinets.

The before-mentioned difficulty with Borges is that he is really two men: Borges the writer and Borges the private person. Complicating matters (there is nothing easy about him) are the facts that “Borges” appears as a character in stories and poems and that, as in the case of “The Library of Babel,” life and art merge. Still, Borges has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the distinction must be made. About both the writer and the private person, one thing can be said: both are conservative in the largest sense of the adjective. Of course, as the man in question is Borges, nothing is cut-and-dried. His biographer, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, writes:


The man Borges may vote conservative, reject socialism of any kind, and love strong regimes. The text we call Borges does not stoop to that kind of compromise: it is plainly in favor of skepticism, doubts reality has any meaning, and accepts the cruel paradoxes and ironies of the human condition without fear or remorse,


There can be no doubt about Borges’s political conservatism. Indeed, Borges suggested in an interview with Selden Rodman some 10 years ago that “the only hope for South America as a whole” would be for the U.S.  to “conquer it.” While speaking to a group of U.S. college students Borges stated, “I am a conservative, I hate the Communists, I hate the Nazis, I hate the anti-Semites. “Borges added, “But I don’t allow these opinions to find their way into my writing,” which substantiates part of Professor Monegal’s observation. But how can he be considered a non-avant-garde writer? A number of his observations about writing can be cited: “in the long run, to break the rules, you must know about the rules”; “If you are writing in English, you are following a tradition”; “I find it very strange to ignore form.” Borges’s stories are finely crafted, meticulously executed.  He has never written a novel. One reason why is that he feels that even “great novels like Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn are virtually shapeless” and his taste is for “economy and a clearly stated beginning, middle, and end.” While many modern poets drift aimlessly in print, Borges writes sonnets and other definable forms. He never does something new for the sake of newness; he finds the past serviceable. With regard to form, there can be little doubt about his conservatism. However, Prof. Monegal seems to indicate that Borges could be philosophically aligned with Derrida. Certainly Borges doubts. And he intimately understands the cruelty of man’s existence: blindness overtook him when he was elevated to the directorship of the national library in Argentina. Yet, he is affirmative, he thinks and feels that there is purpose in life, though that it may be beyond the understanding of man. He will not stride into the abyss that many modern writers find so appealing; he stands four-square against it while recognizing its existence and probing its parameters. As such, he finds himself among great and true creators of literature who timelessly rediscover the infinity of spiritual and existential confines.