Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Making Up for Lost Time (Part I)

A Borgesian Pastiche.

As the 20th anniversary of Borges's death draws near, I see essays of praise for the works of the prolific writer, and I hear discussion of his life. I have yet to see anything about his most personal work: The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme. As with a manifold of his other short stories, Borges transcribes an essay on, or an explanation of, an author whose existence consists of naught but the words of Borges. Many of the readers will not have recognized the title of this story. The academia has hidden it well, as its style is incongruous with Borges other works. Therefore, I will divulge the essence of the story.

Borges writes of his correspondences with the Swiss author, Jacques Bonhomme. This name has ample symbolism: Jacques Bonhomme is both the popular name for a French revolutionary, and a reference to a common, simple French peasant. Borges provides only excerpts, yet through them he reveals much. Jacques to the disagreement of his contemporaries feels his best work is the surreal novella, Echo. The story takes place in Geneva, where the protagonist (whose name is inexplicably removed from the epistles) is a watchmaker. As his life progresses, he gains notoriety, yet his actions are exactly identical from one day to the next. At precisely 6:47 every morning (I am convinced that this moment has significance, but I am presently bedeviled by the choice) he awakes; at 7:00 he eats breakfast, stops by a cafe 25 minutes later and arrives at his shop at 10 minutes before 8. He makes the exact same watch, by the exact same process every day. His responses to inquiry and his conversations are no different, in inflection, diction, or gesture from the previous days'. As Borges describes the work to the reader "anyone who has studied Echo will agree that Jacques' ability to create a dynamic world with an utterly static protagonist has no parallel in literary work, past or present." Borges compares the style to that of numerous medieval and ancient writings, none of which are described as equal to Echo, and all of which are fictitious.

Before I continue with The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme, I feel obligated briefly to analyze the exiguous details of Echo, as they are central to the piece. Hardly subsurface, Echo is an expression of dissatisfaction towards the tediousness of life. Quite clearly, the simple, obvious redundancy is analogous to everyday life in the eyes of Bonhomme. What is less obvious, however, is the grain of optimism. More subtly important than the protagonists actions is the knowledge that not every day is actually the same. While the protagonist repeats the same actions, the world moves forward. Although the noticeable parts of life remain the same, the world is ever changing; Jacques places the non-repetitive parts of life among the few aspects of life we should try to remember.

While there are components of The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme that are, from an analytical perspective, more important than Echo, the novella is the literary focal point of The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme. As such it deserves recognition. As with most stories invented by Borges, he pretends they exist so that he can argue the same thesis in far less space. However, with the Dream, Borges ridicules the entirety of Bonhomme's argument.[1]In all of the excerpts from their letters, Borges is condescending Bonhomme. For example, in an excerpt from Borgess third letter, he elucidates his position on Echo: "The novella is extremely well written, with an original approach; however, the subtext of Echo is hardly hidden and Kafka and Sinclair drip from your words like milk from the lips of a nursing calf." This simile, overdone and wordy for Borges, is a not so subtle attack at the literary maturity of Echo. The fourth letter shows a similar attitude, which Bonhomme notices.

The purpose of the letters, which many of my readers still will not know, is a recurring dream Bonhomme had for the first time three years after publishing his novella. After the critics began to silence, Bonhomme had a dream that he was the protagonist in his novella. After six months, he went to Borges hoping for help. To his dismay, Borges could do and say nothing that helped. Luckily, about 1 month after the first letter, the dream became less frequent; however Borges does not declare an end to the dreams. Bonhomme was distraught, because the dreams affected his everyday life. He began to respond to similar sentences the same way every time; he couldnt concentrate on any work because he felt doomed to repeat what he had just done.

What may come as a surprise is Jacques Bonhomme is Jorge Luis Borges. Borges finds himself simple and immature (hence the milk and calf analogy and the name, Jacques Bonhomme), yet slightly revolutionary. Borges uses this story to attack every argument he has ever made in any story, to contradict itself, and finally to say that his work is immature, yet revolutionary and alone.

This essay may seem to have gotten off task, yet I feel everything I have said is necessary. This essay was designed to examine why Borges wrote The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme, so there will be no further suspense. All of Borges's author characters have two things in common: They have one defining work, amidst an amalgam of substandard or modest literature and these works are all semi-autobiographical. The two qualities can be considered the same. Borges has one defining work, one that is relatively hidden. The Dream of Jacques Bonhomme is his ultimate revelation of self: He feels that life is cyclical and repetitive, yet he finds himself ridiculous and immature because of it.

[1]This point can be said of Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote and An examination of the Works of Herbert Quain, but the argument can be countered. In The Dream, any counter-argument to this statement is wholly unsupported.

Post Script: As has been relayed to me by all readers with whom I have conversed, the exact nature of the preceding essay remains unclear; please allow me to clarify:

This essay is both a pastische and analysis of the works of acclaimed Argentinian author and librarian, Jorge Luis Borges. I resolved to compose a work which not only attempted to analyze the style of Borge, but also to repeat it; thus, I resolved to analyze a hypothetical short story written by Borges. In order to invent this story, I determined the elements which epitomize Borges: An author is the central character, the story involves time, and the protagonist can be related to Borges himself. I quickly conceived the dream, which was originally central to the piece. As time progressed, this became a mere foundation. Although a foundation is of utmost importance, it can hardly be comsidered central.

Through a conversation with Mr. Peter Hokanson, I established a firmer foundation, which immediately led me to the plot (if it can so be considered) of the story. This became the content of the epistles and Borges's commentary thereon. As my brain is generally not suited for elaborate planning (and I am often too impatient), I began writing, achieve many of the symbols (such as Jacques Bonhomme) and key elements during my first draft. As I wrote the essay, Borges's story took flight in my head. (I may endeavor to transcribe the work. However, even my best attempt at immitating Borges would be shallow in comparison.) As this story invented itself, I began actually to analyze the story I was imagining. This led to a far deeper and more realistic analysis than I could have ever hoped for. Everything which succeeds the fifth paragraph was written entirely as an analysis of the story which I had read and annotated for hours in my mind.

This essay, which I can only hope is convincing, exceeded even my greatest expectations. Only through the unorthodox process of creation could this esay have turn out as it did. I hope I have clarified it through these last few paragraphs. I also hope the essay can now be more fully appreciated for the work of literature it is, and not merely a dry analysis of an obscure story.

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