First in what I hope to be a long series of rambling commentaries on magic realism, my favoritest genre that is not a genre.
Can one do what any author from any previous era has done? Can a writer be, say, “the Voltaire of his time” for any purpose beyond that of a book jacket blurb? Of course not. Even Pierre Menard, who undertakes the epic task of rewriting the Quixote word for word, begins from the assumption that he can never be Cervantes, and further that if he could it would mean nothing. And he fails utterly. And he himself is no more than a fictional shadow of Borges’ own inadequacy.
But can even Menard, who admits his task’s futility before he begins it, keep from trying? Can Borges keep from trying, who writes not novels, but the fragmented legends of long lost novels by authors who will never exist? No. Nor can I. Why should I?
My second cousin moved when he was nineteen years old to an utterly undeveloped section of forest in Leverett, MA. He began by living in a tent, and built everything he now has himself: cabin, barn, farmhouse, garden, swimming hole. For fifteen years he lived alone without plumbing or power. I can’t even begin to assay what that took. He has lived by some of my highest ideals. Yet as he pointed out to me himself, what is that compared to the same act performed on a thousand times the scale by pioneers on this same land a mere two hundred years ago?
My grandfather constructed a telescope. He spent a year grinding down the lens by hand. He built the casing himself. When I asked him about it he took out a piece of paper and sketched the entire process in ten minutes.
But now I’m just taking unfair credit for my genes, when the object was quite the opposite: to begin, like Menard, at humility, at abjection. The point is made: my grandfather is neither Galileo nor Prospero. My cousin is not John Muir; he is not Eärendil. I am not Borges.
Yet I have no intention to cease my attempts to do what Borges did, no matter how often I am advised to desist for my own sake. Like the Sorcerer, I am ready to die knowing I have been nothing but some other man’s dream–so long as I have been given the chance to create my own lasting illusions.
What constitutes this futile aping of another place and generation’s genius? What is this thing I love in my own writing, the thing so many others justly despise? Call it a willingness to hold a narrative at arm’s length, to evaluate it as one would a historical event or a dirty diaper, from angles unexpected by those whom the narrative immediately involved. Often a fiction of Borges’ takes the form of a memoir or biography. It has the style and feel of an old man recalling the greatest mistakes of his life to his peers. In “The Library of Babel” there is not a single line of dialogue. “Pierre Menard” is written as a literary criticism, not as a story. These are what at Odyssey I learned to call distancing techniques. But “The Library of Babel” depicts a universe composed entirely of a single library the limits of which have never, perhaps can never, be explored. Does a metaphor of such complexity, resonance, pure monolithic immensity, require dialogue to elucidate it? Does it require a story?
But that’s not the question. I’m posturing–pretending to aim an arrow I’ll never let go because I’m not quite fool enough to waste it. The real question is: how does one create such a metaphor, save by living it–to wit, by being Borges? By growing up in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century, by slowly going blind, publishing jounrnalistic writings, criticisms, slipping in the occasional impossibly far-fetched yet somehow plausible fiction into print among the rest.
At the one hand, context, genius. At the other, aspiration. Can an author aspire to honest magic realism without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact, literary and existential slight of hand?
My great friend and cowriter Michael Purpura has drawn around himself such a context. I don’t believe I’ve shared in this venue the glorious tale of the two Michaels and the dream stone. I’m not sure this is the moment to do so, if he’d even permit me to enter such a thing to public record. Let me just say it’s one of my favorite things that ever happened to me. The moment Michael put that stone in my hands possessed one hundred percent of the atmosphere, the trappings, elicited one hundred percent of the emotional responses I associate with a fantastical occurrence (responses I am most commonly acquainted with experiencing in dreams)–while from any rational perspective possessing no fantastical element at all. I’ve had other experiences along these lines–Why I Wandered… is the account of one such–but none to equal that intensity. Michael, I am sure, has had many, though undoubtedly he experiences them in a different way.
So there it is, such as it is: a magic realist context, just for me. An authenticity of experience from which I may postulate real, honest magics. Meager, perhaps. And not exactly the sort of context that sets one on a trajectory towards blind poetude, nor even towards middlingly believable abstract journalistic fictions. But maybe it’s enough. I don’t know enough about the biographies of the other towering figures of my magic realist consciousness to say whether they all had to find those trappings of magic in their own lives before they could proceed with fictions. Those who knew Borges, certainly, had but to interpret what they saw in him. Bioy Casares, Garcia Marquez. Castaneda certainly had some kind of real experience that he made a career of converting into fiction.
Maybe that means I ought to be following Michael around with a palm-frond fan and a notebook. Not that he’s Borges, or Don Juan. But I’m only aspiring to be a little teeny magic realist.
I do believe there are metaphors to be had, perhaps even such monolithic metaphors as might satisfy a reader of Borges, in a space as slim as that between the eye and the computer screen. Metaphors we’ve never seen and may never see unless I sit here and stare at it until my eyes go cross. They won’t be Menard or the Library of Babel. But perhaps they’ll be like them, at least enough for me to respect myself in the morning.
Best way to find out is to get cracking.