12 May 2007

Chesterton and Borges

In pointing to a recent (and very interesting) discussion about Orthodoxy, Ed declares,
"Let me add G.K. Chesterton (along with Maugham) as one of the most needlessly dismissed writers of the 20th century I’d like to write about sometime. (And, incidentally, he had quite a lot to say about Dickens, which was one of the first critical books I ever read.)"
I've read and loved GKC since I was a kid. One of my favorite literary discoveries over the years has been his influence on Jorge Luis Borges. As an undergrad, I stumbled on Enrique Anderson Imbert's lengthy essay, "Chesterton en Borges," in a copy of El realismo mágico y otros ensayos. In it, he relates how Borges encountered Chesterton’s writing in 1914 while living in Switzerland, and read him so frequently (along with Stevenson and Kipling) that he could recite entire passages off by heart. Borges' earliest reference to Chesterton is found in his 1932 essay, “El arte narrativo y la magia” (“Narrative Art and Magic”), where he praises the strategies of surprise in his short stories.

Borges references Chesterton in “The Book of Sand” where he writes, “Somewhere I recalled reading that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.” This is probably a direct reference to Chesterton’s story “The Sign of the Broken Sword,” where Father Brown says, “Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. [. . .] If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest.”

Borges also specifically mentions Chesterton’s story “The Blast of the Book” in a 1935 essay in which he recommends that this (as well as other works of Chesterton’s) be anthologized. This story shares quite a few themes and elements with "The Book of Sand." While Borges' story relates the dilemma of a man who receives a mysterious book (infinite in that it can never be read the same way twice and seems to have no beginning or end) from a Presbyterian Bible salesman, Chesterton’s tale revolves around a mysterious book that has contributed to the dramatic disappearances of five people. The book's owner is a Scottish missionary who tells the skeptical professor, “I’ve got to tell my story to somebody who knows, because it’s true. And, all joking apart, it’s tragic as well as true.”

Both stories deal with an obsession with pattern and order--the potential for madness due to the illusion of attainable solution. After ceaseless investigation, Borges’ narrator finally comes to the realization that his book “was monstrous. What good did it do me to think that I [. . .] was any less monstrous? I felt that the book was a nightmarish object, an obscene thing that affronted and tainted reality itself.” He had become consumed with systematically attempting to discover some order or pattern to the “devilish” volume. He relates, "A prisoner of the book, I almost never went out anymore. [. . .] I set about listing [the illustrations] alphabetically in a notebook, which I was not long in filling up. Never once was an illustration repeated. At night, in the meager intervals my insomnia granted, I dreamed of the book." He soon intentionally loses it in an immense library, abandoning his need to plumb the depths of its mystery in an effort to attain freedom and preserve his sanity.

Similarly, Chesterton’s professor comes to the point where he is impelled to tell Father Brown “every detail of this monstrous mystery” and the priest reveals the truth of the matter by pointing out how the pattern of “disappearances” was a deception. He tells the professor,
“I suppose the hardest thing is to convince anybody that 0 plus 0 plus 0 = 0. Men believe the oddest things if they are in a series; that is why Macbeth believed the three words of the three witches; though the first was something he knew himself; and the last something he could only bring about himself.”
By being wholly preoccupied with the similarity of the facts of each disappearance, the professor had been trapped by his own rationality--much like Borges' narrator. Although the resolution of Borges’ story does not come by way of outside intervention as does Chesterton's, the abandonment of excessive (obsessive?) order creates freedom in both cases.

Related notes:
  • I love that Borges' story begins with an epigraph from George Herbert's poem "The Collar."
  • Maximus Clarke (aka Mr. Maud) created a fascinating interactive puzzle inspired by "The Book of Sand."
  • A simple search of "Chesterton" via Bud's newly implemented feature at MetaxuCafé brought up six pages of hits. Evidently, there's much more good litblog reading to be found.
  • Meanwhile, A. and I are reading El hombre que fue Jueves. (I love rereading favorite books in their Spanish translations.)

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