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Borges on Chesterton: forests, trees

December 12, 2013

Bilingual poets are just fascinating. They live in a world of ambiguities, two worlds. Jorge Luis Borges is one such individual. This week I’m a bit compelled to call him and his language(s) “optimistic.” At the very least, I think I want to make a case that Borges was not pessimistic about language. Yes, he quoted G. K. Chesterton, a lot, and was indebted to him frequently, for the Englishman’s use of and expressions about language.

What I’m pushing back against is a caricature of the view of language that Borges expresses and practices. This week on the Language Log, Mark Liberman quotes George Carlin on language followed by another quotation, “[a] less optimistic spin from G.K. Chesterton” followed by another quotation from “Jorge Luis Borges [who] used this quotation from Chesterton, in Spanish translation.” One commenter, then, asserts further: “It’s obvious that, as Chesterton and Borges said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life.” Well, I’d say from my own readings of Borges (and of his of Chesterton), that the translating poet sees language as much more powerful and positive than the blogger’s and commenter’s assertions would have him see it. Let’s take a second look at this.

If anything ought to be obvious it’s how carefully, and very very very precisely, Borges renders the English of Chesterton into his own Spanish, in this particular case:

He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest […] Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo.

Liberman does link to sources for the quotation, both in English and then in Spanish. When quoting the English from his linked source, nonetheless, he fails to capture what Alberto Manguel says about Chesterton’s quotation, and it is after all Manguel who is quoting Chesterton in his introduction to On Lying in Bed and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton. Immediately following the quotation, Manguel asserts:

Paradoxically, in words like these, written against the power of words, Chesterton raises the reader’s trust in that same questioned power.

Both Liberman (saying Chesterton is making a “less optimistic spin” about language) and also the commenter (saying “as Chesterton … said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life”) fail to see Chesterton’s paradox.

Borges gets Chesterton and all of the nuance as well.

First, as I’ve said, he uses Spanish to say very very precisely, what Chesterton in the quotation has said. It’s not a translation with a “spin”; it’s not Spanish that is either flawed or inadequate for communicating the Englishman’s English. Liberman links to the Borges translation in his essay, “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins.” I’ve also found Borges quoting Chesterton, in translation, in his essay, “De las alegorías a las novelas.” And to introduce and to make conclusions about this quotation, Borges begins: “Chesterton para vindicar lo alegorico.” He is noticing how Chesterton is vindicating allegorical language. Is there pessimism relative to what the comedian Carlin is saying? Is there some expression about flaws in language or its inadequacies for communication? Only if one fails to understand Chesterton’s language, or Borges’s.

Second, just to pick up on allegory and metaphor and so forth, I’d like to turn to how Chesterton (and Borges translating him) uses forest here, and elsewhere, tree.

For Chesterton, the image of “forest” here is a ground for radical variation. Language, in the believer in language that he’s talking about, is to “more” varied, the more being the adjective on the various variations “in the soul” of the language believer, which, are, supposed by this language believer to be “accurately represented” by his language, his words, his utterances, his “grunts and squeals.” The “forest” then is clearly inadequate, from the get go, as a complete analogy to the “soul.” And yet, this is exactly precisely the sort of powerful, optimistic, adequate point of what Chesterton’s astute readers, like Manguel and Borges, are beginning to get. As we all know, the “forest” need not be confused with the “trees.” 🙂 In this particular paragraph, the metaphor is intended to be for the readers (and perhaps this imagined language believer) as something rather invariant (though full of variations upon variations). I’m not trying to run this explanation into the ground, to overexplain. But some the point of a metaphor is how inexhaustible it is, semantically speaking. In other words, to say something like, “A soul is a forest” is to introduce not just one possibility but several. The fun of this little paragraph is that it introduces an argument, as if there can be logic to expose the flaws in the metaphor: “A soul is NOT forest.” 🙂

This little paragraph somehow reminded me of a conversation that Willis Barnstone, also a multilingual poet, had with Borges (reported in several of Barnstone’s works). It was in English. It goes like this:

BORGES:  When you write down the images, those images may not mean anything to you. It’s what you get in the case of Poe and of Lovecraft. The images are awful but the feeling isn’t awful.

BARNSTONE:  And I suppose a good writer is one who comes up with the right images to correspond to the feeling.

BORGES:  To a feeling, yes. Or who may give you the nightmare feeling with common objects or things. I remember how I found a proof of that in Chesterton. He says that we might think that at the end of the world there is a tree whose very shape is evil. Now that’s a fine word, and I think that stands for that kind of feeling, no? Now, that tree could hardly be described. While, if you think of a tree, for example, made of skulls, of ghosts, that would be quite silly. But what we said, a tree whose very shape is evil. That show he really had a nightmare about that tree. No? If not, how would he know about that tree?

BARNSTONE:  I’ve always been puzzled why my tongue moves, why words come out of my mouth or from in my head. These words are like seconds of a clock happening, sounding almost by themselves.

In this conversation, there’s a similar sort of topic. Is language adequate, if representational? What about when I utter things with my mouth? What about when a poet writes?

And then there’s a quotation of Chesterton, by Borges.

Instead of a forest, there’s the mention of a tree. If you know Chesterton, then you know he uses the tree as an image quite a bit. But Borges is keying in on one little particular instance. The concern is whether Chesterton describes it right. There’s the mention of shape. There’s the metaphor of evil. It’s an apocalyptic, end of the world moment.

So, when and where does Chesterton say this? It’s the opener of Chapter VI of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare –

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again. Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

Notice the language here. “Fancy” and “as in” and “fable” and “that if” and the subjunctive “he would find something” and the supposition “say a tree” and the equivocations “was more or less” and the qualification / modification “possessed by a spirit.”

What we don’t find here in Chesterton’s English is anything about a shape of a tree. Rather, the whole description has morphed, by the time we read the word shape, to “a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked.”  And so we find Borges doing more with Chesterton’s language. The “tree” is the “tower.” And “evil” really is “wicked.” And yet Borges is able to move his tongue with a system of grunts and squeals, with un mecanismo … de gruñidos y de chillidos. The imprecision, the arbitrariness, the wonder at whether there’s precise representation, is all beside the point. Or perhaps is the point. Language is image. Powerful imagery. Adequate. Optimistic. More or less. Forests. Trees. And so is the language of Borges on the language of Chesterton.

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