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One of Borges’s many obsessions was doubles – the idea of meeting yourself. Borges uses doubles to contrast himself against things and people that he is not or explore the things that he is. Norman Thomas di Giovanni explores it in detail in a chapter (titled “Borges at Play: the Self and the Selves”) of his book The Lesson of the Master: on Borges and his Work1. The double can appear in many forms and used to different effects, but at its core is about the question of self. It is clear that this is an innately human question, as the idea of the double pops up again and again across different cultures and languages. Borges’s readings of other authors are also affected by his thoughts on doubles, specifically Shakespeare and the American transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. While not strictly speaking doubles, alter egos and mirrors are also used to show a different side of a character by comparing them to themself. Four works of Borges’s in particular are singled out – “The South”, “The Other”, “Borges and I”, and “The Watcher”. These pieces are notable because they all use the idea of the double, but each in a different way. Di Giovanni’s analysis of the use of doubles is persuasive, but doesn’t develop some ideas as fully as they deserve.
The double is a pervasive idea across cultures. Borges himself explores this in The Book of Imaginary Beings, describing various forms of the double around the world. There are numerous sayings and words for a double, but the most interesting are the myths. The Scottish fetch and wraith are both said to be doubles that take you to death or seen before death, respectively. The Egyptian ka is supposed to be an exact double in every way, and exist for every living and non-living thing, even the gods. Jewish beliefs put the sighting of a double, far from a omen of death, as a sign that a person is a prophet. Di Giovanni includes this passage from Borges’s book, but fails to analyze what its addition to the original work could mean. The Book of Imaginary Beings was originally published in 1957, before any of the other stories discussed other than “The South” (which uses the concept of the double in a different way than the other three). This implies that Borges was just beginning to explore the idea of the double and how it could be used in literature. The double can either be the same as the original, pointing out things previously unseen, or they can be the opposite, acting as contrast against the original.
Mirrors are used in literature to discuss doubles while including less of the fantastic in the piece. Even some of the language we use to discuss doubles implicitly uses metaphors of mirrors, such as the double being a person’s reflection. While Borges is no stranger to the fantastic, he still utilized mirrors, usually to represent final self-knowledge and death. For example, in his poem “May 20, 1928” Borges used the mirror to symbolize a loss of control by stating that the man in the mirror is the original and the person outside is merely a double copying his actions. Adding another level of abstraction, in “Conjectural Poem” a metaphor compares the night to a mirror in which the protagonist can see who he truly is before he dies. One of his later poems, “In Praise of Darkness”, has Borges reflecting on his upcoming death. He writes, “Now I can forget them. I reach my center, / my algebra and my key, / my mirror. / Soon I shall know who I am.” Again, this uses a mirror as a metaphor for self-knowledge and death. The idea that you see yourself when you die (or that you die when you see yourself), is connected to several of the myths explored earlier, specifically the fetch and the wraith.
Borges was a fan of the American transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in them he saw a part of himself, his wish for a different life. Borges was a very academic man his entire life, and wished that he could be a man of arms like his ancestors. This often turned up in his writings, creating works about a life that he didn’t and couldn’t lead. Borges saw that Whitman did something similar, writing himself in House of Leaves as “outgoing and orgiastic” while in reality being “chaste, reserved, and somewhat taciturn.” Borges saw in Emerson’s writings, particularly his poem “Days”, a dissatisfaction with the way his life turned out. These alter ego are a form of double, but are used as implied literary doubles to the real authors rather than being entirely within the work.
Di Giovanni paints Borges as “a magpie,” taking ideas and themes from all around the world. This presents another sort of double, in that Borges (and, according to di Giovanni, many Argentinian writers) could draw from everything but “was nothing in himself”, to quote Borges quoting William Hazlitt about Shakespeare. Borges felt a similarity to Shakespeare in that sense, having taken so many things from so many places. In writing about so many things and so many people, Borges felt that he lost his own personal identity.
Borges had a fascination with combat and often included knife fights in his stories. In particular, “The South” is about a man much like Borges who ends up in a knife fight, ambiguously ending in his presumed death. This man (Juan Dahlmann, a librarian) is a stand in for Borges and acts as his alter ego. It’s clear that Juan is meant to be an avatar for Borges rather than just a conduit for fantasizing about knife fights by the biographical similarities that he shares with Borges. Borges had an identical injury down to the date when the story was set, a dedicated interest in the book that Juan was reading (One Thousand and One Nights), and the same job as a librarian. “The South”’s use of an alter ego is in contrast to the next three pieces in which the doubles are very explicit within the text. This predilection for knife fights, especially in the work of such a literary author, is explained by di Giovanni and Borges himself as being influenced by the fact that his relatives and ancestors on every side were “men of action” rather than a “bookish kind of person” like Borges was. While this is undoubtedly true, one must account for the fact that the grass always looks greener on the other side and that Borges just wanted something because it was denied to him.
Up until this point in Borges’s stories the doubles have been metaphors and symbolism, but the double that appears in “The Other” is literal – a 70 year old Borges meets Borges at 18 sitting on a bench. The both believe that the bench is in their location in space and time, and they establish that neither is dreaming the other. Di Giovanni includes the passage saying that “each of [them] was a caricature copy of the other “, but fails to analyze what deeper meaning the story holds. “The Other” is about the consistency of “self” – while the younger and older Borges are the same person, they cannot understand each other despite the older Borges having lived through the younger Borges’s life. This raises the question that if we change over time, can people really be considered to be the same person that they were years before?
“Borges and I” takes an approach based on the difference between the public versus the private self. There is a perceived difference between the “Borges” and the “I” in this story, where “Borges” is the author and the “I” is what Borges feels is his true inner self. The “I” feels as if he is drifting away, and when he dies “Borges” is all that will be remembered. Even “Borges”, the public self, will fade away into obscurity, leaving behind his works to literature. Di Giovanni compares this feeling of being overshadowed by your public self to similar sentiments expressed by other authors such as William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and Ernest Hemmingway. Each of these writers dealt with it in their own way, Faulkner by sharply dividing his public and private life, Beckett by avoiding having a public life, and Hemmingway by turning his private life into his public life. In the final line of the piece it says “I do not know which of us is writing this page”, meaning that even though it is being written about Borges’s private self, his public self, the writer, cannot help but influence him. In this way Borges and double, his public and private life, are intertwined.
Finally, “The Watcher” has an even more psychological take on the idea of doubles where Borges is split into two as in “Borges and I”, but where both halves are of his inner self instead of the halves being his public and private life. Alternatively, the split could be interpreted as between the body and the mind, with the body being a constant reminder that the mind is Borges instead of being someone else. Either way, the relationship between the doubles is hostile, seemingly only coming together to write, and doing that reluctantly. The narrator seems to have a resentment of aging, with the only good part being that “he” is aging as well. Additionally, the final line says that this struggle between “I” and “he” will continue even after Borges dies, giving no relief. Borges is quoted talking about the piece, saying that he meant it to be about being “constrained to be a particular individual, living in a particular city, in a particular time, and so on.” However, this interpretation isn’t borne out in the text of “The Watcher”. In particular the line “He thrusts on me the petty drudgery of each day, the fact of living in a body” implies a sense of dissatisfaction with the fact of existing in any life, not just the one he lives. Borges’s double would hound him no matter how many lives he lived.
While many noticed the theme of the double in Borges’s works, it was rarely analyzed because of the need to perform a meta-analysis on the various pieces. Di Giovanni successfully achieves his goal of examining Borges’s use of doubles in The Lesson of the Master: on Borges and his Work, but is hampered by the brevity required by putting the analysis in a single chapter. Borges went back to many topics over the course of his writing career, but none as human as the concept of the double. Infinity, time, and space are all important universal concepts, but often overshadow human lives when discussed in literature.
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