Monthly Archives: January 2018

Borgesian Fields

Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap, 191.1 × 561.3 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, prophecies are recast, ghosts live in blades, and the constraints of time are broken. Among this magic, which is distinctly of the era of capitalism, stands an understated image of silent plains. A narrator tells us that one could be like any other: “No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same.”1 The narrator travels to the future, where he speaks to a nameless, elderly man. The nameless man looks upon the plains shortly before he chooses his own death: “The man now turned his back to me and looked out the windows. Outside, the plains were white with silent snow and moonlight.”2 A fog of ambivalent catastrophe hovers. For whom or what was civilization? The story’s future setting does not cast off the troubles of our moment. This failed escape into the future is accentuated by that society’s abandonment of excursions into space: “‘It’s been hundreds of years since we have done any of that traveling about—though it was undoubtedly admirable. We found we could never escape the here and now.”3

In “The South,” a character ventures out of the city in order to enter an “older and more stable world,”4 to ameliorate the strain of being a Modern, for whom the passage of time is a reminder of the task of history. The character instead seeks to live in the ever-now that animals inhabit, outside of human time. Traveling into the country, he seeks the “fact of being,”5 but Nature does not simply reveal itself: “All was vast, but at the same time intimate and somehow secret. […] Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had sunk below the horizon now, but one final splendor brought a glory to the living yet silent plains before they were blotted out by night. Less to keep from tiring himself than to make those things last, Dahlmann walked slowly, inhaling with grave happiness the smell of clover.”6 Dahlmann mistakes animal being as a desirable form of freedom, but the silence of the plains reveals the onlooker’s apprehension. He cannot recreate magic, but he must create his own belief in magic—a path which reason maddeningly blocks.

The plains are silent and homogeneous, but they spoke in the past, each with its own language. This mute presence reflects an irrevocable transformation within humanity’s consciousness. Nature had greeted humans as they expected—mythologically. Borges’s characters express something of this lack: “There is an hour just at evening when the plains seem on the verge of saying something; they never do, or perhaps they do—eternally—though we don’t understand it, or perhaps we do understand but what they say is as untranslatable as music…”7 Nature, which became a category through the development of society now riven through with contradiction, recedes beyond the grasp of reason. A symptom of this reification is anxiety about Nature’s silence. Without a theory that could give historical meaning to this anxiety, the trajectory of Spirit falls into question.

1. Jorges Luis Borges, “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 460.
2. Ibid., 464.
3. Ibid., 463.
4. Borges, “The South,” in Collected Fictions, 176.
5. Ibid., 176.
6. Ibid., 177.
7. Borges, “The End,” in Collected Fictions, 170.