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Narrative Art and Magic

December 3rd, 2007

Reading the non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges is eerily like reading a blog, despite the fact that the one I’m in the middle of was written in 1932. Like most of his writing, none of these articles get much longer than one or two thousand words. His virtuosity is apparent as always, but the indulgence he allows himself in traversing his vast and esoteric interests, without the enforced structural rigidity of narrative, makes these essays feel like things hammered out in an hour before breakfast and thrown slapdash before the public eye—complete with citations from the five most relevant translations of whatever work upon which he has happened to turn the ponderous focus of his wit. It’s reassuring, in one sense, to see how much the process of human cognition has remained the same from one lifetime to the next, in spite of all this technological fragmentation of focus. On the other hand, the astounding subtlety and unity of purpose in these essays is a humbling reminder of his genius.

Actually, I picked up the Selected Non-fictions hoping that, given how so much of Borges’ fiction carries that dumbfounding air of truth (and at times even presents truth as fiction), the writing he chose to present as fact would operate in similar fashion, perhaps akin to the “non-fiction” of Castaneda. Thus far at least, such is not the case. The non-fictions reveal an entirely different side of Borges, featuring new ideas and profundities, and presenting a new set of tools for understanding Borges as fantasist.

As a young man, Borges seems to have perceived a shockingly clear distinction between reality and fiction—shocking given the grand effort he devoted as an older man to blurring that line, not only in his fiction, but in his public persona. In “Narrative Art and Magic”, he argues that the creation of narrative fiction must be approached as an act of magic, and more specifically, of prophecy. In an example from William Morris’ neoclassical epic, The Life and Death of Jason, he references several moments, prior to the arrival upon the scene of the wise centaur Chiron, in which Morris obliquely prefigures or foreshadows the appearance of this fantastical being, in order, Borges claims, to prepare the reader to accept as fact a figure otherwise inadmissible to reality.

“Chiron appears. We are told that he was a mighty horse, once roan but now almost white, with long grey locks on his head and a wreath of oak leaves where man was joined to beast. The slave falls to his knees. We note, in passing, that Morris need not impart to the reader his image of the centaur, nor even invite us to have our own. What is required is that we believe in his words, as we do the real world.”

–Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”

In one sense, he’s talking about a concept familiar to most genre writers: the necessity of maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief in the reader. What’s unusual is that Borges presents this process as a form of magic. In applying this principle, he makes no distinction between mimetic and fantastic fiction; his examples come from Melville, Chesterton and Joyce as well as Morris and Poe. And perhaps most surprising to me is the fact that he takes his working definition of magic from James Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“This ancient procedure, or ambition, has been reduced by Frazer to a convenient general law, the law of sympathy, which assumes that ‘things act on each other at a distance’ through a secret sympathy, either because their form is similar (imitative or homeopathic magic) or because of a previous physical contact (contagious magic).”

According to Frazer, all ‘magic’ is a form of narrative. The dawn of magic is coeval with the dawn of cognition—indeed, in a sense they are one and the same. The first cro-magnon who painted a deer on the wall of a cave, in drawing a connection between the shape made out of dye and the flesh-and-blood creature, was performing magic. Borges extends this definition to argue that all narrative is magic, that every writer of fiction is a shaman-sorcerer—or else he isn’t doing his job.

Thought about in this light, Borges’ later efforts to conflate the real Borges with the incarnations of him featured in fictions such as “The Other” and “August 25th, 1983” don’t seem so discrepant after all. Likewise, the discrepancy between his fiction and non-fiction, at least insofar as the non-fiction concerns itself, not with narrative, but the theory of narrative, no longer presents a contradiction.

“I have described two causal procedures: the natural or incessant result of endless, uncontrollable causes and effects; and magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.”

For someone like me, a born rationalist, for whom the belief in magic can never be more or less than a transcendent, gripping self-delusion, it is incredibly reassuring to learn that Borges himself, in some fundamental place beneath the labyrinth of fictions that composed him, was also a rational man.

For me, this may be the kernel at the core of magic realism.

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