19 August 2018

The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader

“The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” (1931) by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 1999)

I am not sure which is the most erudite writer: Borges the storyteller, Borges the poet, or Borges the critic. Perhaps the question is moot when it comes to the literary tradition which Borges helped build: the intellectual tradition, a poetic and metaphysical-philosophical bent, the striving for excellence at every imaginative turn of the pen. With Selected Non-Fictions, with its doors and windows opened wide to inquiring minds, Borges is a critical tradition unto himself. The fount of his critical production derives from all the resources available to a librarian. Borges the reader is the most erudite writer.

The superstition in the essay “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” referred to the “superstition about style”. This was a general tendency of readers to look for or characterize a writer’s style (mannerisms) in order to appreciate a literary text. Borges rejected this form of readerly “affectation.” This led him to state that "strictly speaking, there are no more readers left". There are only potential literary critics. He meant this in a most ironical sense.

For our librarian, greatness in a work could exist beyond stylistic flourishes. There could even be an “absence of style” if it comes to that. Don Quixote was sloppy in parts, but it was still great, owing perhaps to its idiosyncratic absence of style. Borges did not consider Cervantes to be a stylist (“in the current acoustical or decorative sense of the word”). Don Q was great not because of its style but because of its other novelistic attributes. A perfect page, our librarian critic suggested, was an “everlasting fallacy” (For this phrase, our critic gave a nudge to Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, but I did not get the reference.). A perfect page to Borges was not immutable:

On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version. Heine, who never heard it read in Spanish, acclaimed it for eternity. The German, Scandinavian, or Hindu ghost of the Quixote is more alive than the stylist’s anxious verbal artifices.

This passage I quote in full because I just realized Roberto Bolaño plagiarized (borrowed/paraphrased) the idea in an interview where he said: A work like Don Quixote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it – bad translation, incomplete and ruined – any version of Quixote would still have very much to stay to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.

Are they (our librarian and his fanboy) saying that one test of a masterpiece is its resistance to translation? Are Helen Lowe-Porter’s supposedly unfaithful translations of Thomas Mann tomes not a hindrance to the perception of the latter as a great novelist?

* * *

The taste of Borges is not always beyond reproach. He does have his personal preferences, but his magisterial coverage of traditions and his wide reading (the reading of a reader’s reader) makes one pay attention.

He is allergic to all-knowing readers. Readers who get ecstatic about style. The superstitious etiquette of readers is to be drawn to the absolute and superlative. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever encountered. This is such a weird novel, such a very strange novel. Such a unique reading experience. The best book of the summer.

Ah, to needlessly elevate a book:

Overstating something is as inept as not saying it at all … [R]eaders sense the impoverishment caused by careless generalizations and amplifications.

I admit I am sometimes guilty of this superstition, this affectation for style, this appeal to a definitive assessment and judgement, this Blurbing Syndrome. One has to recognize the beauty of straightforward and imperfect narratives.

The exhortation of our librarian is simple. Book bloggers have to be, first and foremost, readers. Otherwise they become literary critics.

Posted for Stu and Richard's Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months 2018.


  1. Borges' Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote takes on new shades of meaning in light of his comments about Quixote that you quote above. I wonder about the story Borges might have written, the one in which Menard writes a version of Quixote in which every word has been changed instead of none of them.

    I am sure there are some pretty bad books that resist translation. I'm pretty sure I've read some of them.

    Blurbing Syndrome is a great term. Guilty as charged! - but I'm keeping your second to last line as an aspiration.

  2. Scott, Borges himself perennially breaks his own principle in his short reviews. I suppose it's a matter of how one qualifies his own position/opinion. Some blurbs pasted on books that were taken out of context or taken out of a longer piece of review are a turn off really.

    Coelho's O Alquimista is an example of a bad book that I sampled that is pretty bad, whether in English and Filipino. In the original or in other languages, who knows, but one can guess.

    There was a time when I thought of Menard's task as the task of the translator. But it could simply be the task of the reader. In the act of reading, orally or silently, Menard read the words as they appear. Verbatim. He transmuted the words he read in his mind. The reader as writer. Borges was a mere mouthpiece. Strictly speaking, Borges is the alter ego of Menard (and not the other way around).