Funes the Dopey

Kant was never in his life in the vicinity of a mountain.

It appears probable that he never saw the ocean either.
David MarksonThis is Not a Novel

In an autobiographical essay, Jorge Luis Borges recounts his first encounter with Rafael Cansinos Assens. He remembers he shyly complimented him on a poem Cansinos had written about the sea and was surprised by his response, “Yes,” he replied, “and how I would like to see it before I die!” In fact, Cansinos died without seeing the sea. Throughout his life, if he ever left the steppe of Madrid, he did so only to visit the aridity of Toledo.[1]

Ten years after that encounter, in 1929, Borges’ other great teacher, Macedonio Fernández, essayed in “Papeles de Recienvenido” a new literary genre, the biographical profile of an unknown person and of whom, therefore, we can say nothing. In a phrase that sums up Macedonio’s paradoxical sarcasm, we read: “If it becomes known that something more may be unknown about him, we will hasten to communicate it; we will not consent to be surpassed in the ignorance that we have patiently carved out for ourselves in connection with him nor in the promptness in spreading it.”[2]

Thus, in contrast to Cansinos, who delves into ways of expressing what he does not know, Macedonio makes the lack of knowledge the object of his expression. Cansinos Assens introduced Borges to the study of the mystical interpretation of sacred texts and Eastern mysticism. He was not simply a metaphysician, he was a megametaphysician. It is significant that the other great contemporary influence on Borges was the antimetaphysical writer par excellence, Macedonio Fernández.

Before delving into the dialectical relationship between megametaphysics and antimetaphysics in Borges, it should be noted that metaphysics is a central theme in his work. All his recurring topics: time, space, language, identity, point to this mismatch between the sensible and the intelligible. But as usual, Borges does not assume this project as philosophical, but explores its narrative possibilities; and the story “Funes el memorioso” offers itself as an ideal laboratory to analyze the particularity that the metaphysical acquires in his fiction.

Contrary to “Papeles de Recienvenido,” a negative space where we delve into and insist on what we do not know, “Funes, el memorioso” is a biographical profile of a life so full of details that to recount a single day would take up an entire day. Borges, the narrator, has not seen Funes more than in three occasions (and when he has seen him it has been from a distance or in the dark); and although he acknowledges that his “testimony will perhaps be the briefest and undoubtedly the poorest,” his descriptions are of a concentration and thoroughness as overwhelming as that which besets the main character. After an accident, Funes awoke to an absolute perception and memory: “He knew the shapes of the southern clouds at dawn on the thirtieth of April eighteen hundred and eighty-two and could compare them in his memory with the veins of a Spanish paperback book that he had only looked at once and with the lines of the foam that an oar raised in the Río Negro on the eve of the Quebracho’s action. […] Funes continually discerned the quiet advances of corruption, of caries, of fatigue. He noticed the progress of death, of humidity. He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world.” This vertiginous and indefatigable world, of pure perception, prevented him from abstraction, “he was almost incapable of general, Platonic ideas. […] To think is to forget differences, to generalize, to abstract.”

Through this literary exploration of the conflict between the Platonic archetypes inferred by reason and the endless and inconstant material world captured by the senses, two opposing but fundamental influences on Borges emerge: Cansinos, the Andalusian cabalist who finds the words to capture an archetypal universe only experienced intellectually, and Macedonio, the anarchist judge whose aporistic knowledge is based on the pure accumulation of ignorance.

In an essay entitled “Borges y Platón: divertimento sobre Funes,” the Italian theorist Adriana Cavarero proposed that Funes constitutes the most formidable attack that the twentieth century mounted on the metaphysical tradition. She was referring, possibly, to the total perception of Funes as a concrete demonstration of the irreducible nature of sensible experience. And in tandem with this attack on the metaphysical tradition, the theme of ineffability is explored in Funes; that is, the inability of all language to express the uncontainable flow of experience. In this sense, it is eloquent that Borges has chosen the genre of the biographical profile as the framework for this story because this gap between experience and general propositions also refers to the challenge of transforming the chaos and contingency of a life into coherent narrative matter.

The problem of conceiving a language capable of articulating the inexhaustible reality, as posed by Funes, refers to that other micro-story by Borges “On the Rigor of Science;” there we witness the contradiction of a map that coincides, point by point, with the territory of an empire. Contradiction, I say, because the disproportionate success of this cartographic project coincides with its failure: “the following Generations understood that this extensive Map was Useless and not without Impiety they surrendered it to the Inclemency of the Sun and the Winters.” This irresolvable contradiction of a map that ends up hiding the territory, finds echoes in that language of Funes that precisely for being infallible ends up being useless. Funes abandons the project: “He was dissuaded by two considerations: the realization that the task was endless, the realization that it was useless.”

But while Funes gives in to the contradiction, Borges, the author, elevates it to a central rhetorical figure. According to the narrator, these impossible linguistic projects “are foolish, but they reveal a certain stammering greatness.” In contrast to Funes, trapped in an eternal and inescapable becoming, Borges’ fiction is always in suspense between the possibility of ultimate meaning, despite our limitation, and the imminence of ignorance, despite the overwhelming accumulation of information. Here lies perhaps, and not in Funes, the most formidable attack on the metaphysical tradition: in the singularity of the ironic distance that Borges composes, always suspended in a precarious balance between megametaphysics and antimetaphysics.

Funes comments that before the accident, he was like the rest of the Christians: “a blind man, a deaf man, a dull man, a forgetful man.” But Borges, the author, knows that absolute perception is a form of blindness and that total representation is equivalent to obfuscation and emptiness. This contradiction, however, never implies a loss. The utopia of absolute representation and the dystopia of perpetually inadequate representation are not conceived in Borges as antithetical projects. On the contrary, they constitute their mutual and most intimate resignification.

Roberto Alifano, who was Borges’ secretary and collected in a book countless anecdotes, tells that in 1981 Borges met the great Argentine painter Antonio Berni. They exchanged the usual compliments and Berni, being deaf, asked Borges to speak a little louder. Borges replied: “Don’t worry; we make up for each other very well. You don’t hear me and I don’t see you.” This fleeting encounter would have been even more interesting for this exploration of Borges’ poetics if it had occurred between a blind painter and an aphasic writer. In the collaboration between these two inadmissible characters we could finally see the erection of this monument to iconoclasm, a commemoration of the formidable attack that Borges unloads against all tradition, beginning with metaphysics.


Notes:

[1] Despite never having seen the sea, Rafael Cansinos Assens wrote one of the most splendid critical texts on the influence of the sea on poetry; a few pages bearing the title “Influjo del mar en la lírica.” Leaving aside erudition, this small text reveals with unusual acuity “the living, disordered and contradictory soul of the sea.” Reviewing that “enormous music without lyrics,” from the prodigious songs sung by mermaids, “whose breasts rise above the waters,” to the verses that sing the beauty of Galatea, “written on the seashore,” the naval epics of Heredia or the distant hum of the shells of Salvador Rueda. Cansinos Assens celebrates not only the harmonies and enigmas of the sea but also “the treasures it holds […] its marvelous flora […] its silent beings […] its dead […] its aground ships, eternally still.” In dialogue with Osvaldo Ferrari, Borges mentions other poets, such as Rimbaud or Coleridge, who also wrote about the sea (respectively “Le Bateau ivre,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) without having seen it.

[2] “We always ignore if he had a birthday, if he was born in disgust, if he got better from illnesses or died each time; if his life lasted until the end of his days or if science could make it end earlier; if he disputed that his death was premature or if he took the side of the mortuary concurrence that lamented that he took his time; if by extreme punctuality he always appeared at the place of the appointment a quarter of an hour before arriving or on the contrary he had the reputation of being the first to arrive late, at the dentist’s house or other places of distraction; if he was known when he coughed or nobody heard him because he was such a famous stranger […]. The latter and something previous, belongs to what is not known about him and we insert it as a sample of the immense variety of things that we are capable of devising to fill an existence of unknown content.”

PABLO BALER
PABLO BALER
Pablo Baler (b. Buenos Aires, 1967) is a novelist, critic and professor of Latin American literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of the novel Circa (Galerna, 1999, awarded with the Fondo Nacional de las Artes [National Endowment for the Arts] and the Premio Cultura de la Nación [National Culture Award] in Argentina) and the essay Latin-American Neo-Baroque: Senses of Distortion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Baler has edited the international anthology The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013), eleven essays on the aesthetic sensibility that will define thees 21st century. His short story collection La burocracia mandarina [The Mandarin Bureaucracy] was published first in Spanish in 2013 and then in Portuguese in 2017 by Lumme Ed., São Paulo, Brazil. A graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, Baler is also an International Research Fellow of the Centre for Fine Art Research at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom. His next novel, Chabrancán, will be published in 2020 by Ediciones del Camino.

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