Visual Images: Magical Realism & The New World Baroque

Swords and Silver Rings:
Objects and Expression in Magical Realism and the New World Baroque

Intro | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Notes

Section Two: Borges' Poetic Objects

In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other.
Jorge Luis Borges

In his story "Pascal's Sphere," Borges contemplates the possibility that "universal history is the history of a few metaphors." Given the repeating metaphors in his own work, we have reason to accept the premise. Several of Borges' favorite metaphors and narrative devices are intended to call into question visual perception--the mirror, the labyrinth, the dream, the aleph, the trompe l'oeil, the mise en abîme--and they are also used to signal Borges' great theme, the illusory nature of knowledge itself. In fact, seeing and its related modes of verbal description are often the subject of Borges' essays and stories. His encroaching blindness might account for his particular sensitivity to this matter--certainly it would have--but I also believe that it was his apprenticeship in the avant garde ideas to which I have just referred that caused him, in several essays and stories, to theorize the capacity of language to create visual images in the reader's mind.

Borges' most extended consideration of this question is his 1940 story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". Consider the objects called hrönir in the alternative world described in this story. Hrönir, you'll recall, are the objects in Tlön, but we are told they are "secondary objects" that duplicate lost objects. Like shadows in Plato's cave, they exist by virtue of their relation to prior (lost) entities; they are reflections (reproductions) of something that was once "real" but no longer is. These objects are "secondary" in the same sense that all visual and verbal representations of material objects are secondary, but the narrator tells us that hrönir, themselves replicas, may also replicate themselves endlessly, each copy thus progressively removed from its "real" object. Hrönir are secondary, and thus by definition figurative, not material: we are told by the narrator that, quote: "All nouns (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) have only a metaphorical value" (11). And in Tlön, there is yet another category of secondary objects beyond the hrön: the narrator tells us that "Stranger and more perfect than any hrön is the ur, which is a thing produced by suggestion, an object brought into being by hope" (11). The ur is a conceptual object even further removed from the material world than the hrön, and thus, it seems, more real. Of course "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a hilarious send-up of Berkeleyan idealism, for we understand that in Tlön, "real" objects are non-existent; only ideal objects are real.

Borges, like the idealists in Tlön, is a universalizer who must confront the same problem as they: he must describe universals in the relentlessly specific medium of language. His problem, like theirs, is to express the whole in words that are capable of describing only the parts. But recall that the speakers of Tlön have devised a strategy for undermining the specificity of language: they create "poetic objects" by combining adjectives that circle around the thing itself but do not name it. The narrator explains that "The noun is formed by an accumulation of adjectives. One does not say 'moon'; but rather 'round airy-light on dark' or 'pale orange-of-the-sky' or any other such combination" (9). In Tlön these poetic objects are real objects: we are told that ". . . no one believes in the reality of nouns . . ." any more than in the objects they designate, so they may proliferate and signify without limit. Language has been unanchored from a familiar reality and thus freed to visualize the magical meanings that have been worn away by time.

This same counterrealistic strategy of accumulation characterizes the kenning, the medieval Germanic verbal figure of which Borges was so fond. Recall another of Borges' stories, "The Zahir," in which the narrator tells us he is writing "a tale of fantasy [that] contained two or three enigmatic circumlocutions, or 'kennings': for example, instead of blood it says sword-water, and gold is the serpent's bed . . . " This reference to the kenning is not developed in "The Zahir," but Borges had already written an essay on these "enigmatic circumloctions" in his 1935 collection History of Eternity. He begins this essay by discussing the kennings in the Icelandic sagas of his beloved thirteenth-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturlson, then moves without transition to the Spanish Baroque poet Baltasar Gracián, whose paraphrastic structures he finds similar to Icelandic kennings in their avoidance of naming and its consequent specificity. And in another essay that I have already mentioned, "Metaphor," from the same 1935 collection, Icelandic sagas are again the subject of Borges' contemplation. The question here is whether Snorri Sturlson's composite metaphors--his kennings--arise from the intuition of an analogy between things or between words. We are not surprised to learn that Borges considers that they arise from analogies among words, and he praises them for this reason. In like fashion, Borges invents his own idealizing strategy of engaging adjectives to subvert the substantive nature of nouns: in "The Circular Ruins," to take just one example, we find a number of insubstantial adjectives joined to nouns: the "unanimous night," the "incessant trees," the "propitious temple," the "inextricable jungle," the "vain light of afternoon." At the end of his essential essay, "Narrative Art and Magic," Borges refers to Mallarmé: "Mallarmé is said to have remarked that naming an object outright is to suppress three-fourths of a poem's enjoyment, for the pleasure of reading is in anticipation, and the ideal lies in suggestion." (36)

There are many more strategies of removedness-from-the-real in Borges' fiction. Consider his Aleph and his sphere of Pascal: they are Tlön-like poetic objects made up of many terms that circle around their object but do not name it. How otherwise to visualize infinity and eternity? And there is Borges' fondness for allegory, that dual narrative structure in which the absent, invisible narrative is more present than the one we read. And there are also the parables of failed removedness-from-the-real. In "The Zahir," it is narrator's fate to be obsessed by a single object: the zahir, a coin that he no longer possesses but cannot forget, an ideal object gone haywire, a mental image that eliminates all others. This character, like Funes the memorious, suffers from a visual dysfunction: his mind's eye is blinded by a single object, as Funes is blinded by an infinite proliferation of objects. If "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" takes idealism to its logical (and absurd) extreme, then these last two stories, "The Zahir" and "Funes the Memorious," do the same with pragmatism. Recognizing this play of extremes, I would suggest--I already have--that it is the impossible, idealizing language of Tlön to which Borges himself aspires, and the utterly specific language of Funes that he works to subvert in all of his fiction. For Borges, the elusive essence of the real must be approached indirectly, through "second degree" objects like hrönir or his own stories, which do not limit the real because they are strategically removed from it. The universe can only be envisioned, not seen: in Borges' stories sight becomes insight only when the visible world is overcome.

What, then, can painting possibly have to do with this writer, for isn't painting a medium more given to representing individuals than archetypes, more given to phenomena than ideas? And why would I ask anyway, when Borges can wax eloquent about the most recondite writer and never utter the words Rembrandt or Velázquez or Goya or Cézanne--much less Otto Dix or Alexander Kanoldt or Henri Rousseau. Nonetheless, there is one painter whom Borges admired inordinately, and whose name he did utter many times; he is Xul Solar, a close friend of Borges from their first meeting in Buenos Aires in 1924 till the painter's death in 1963. I will show you a number of his images in a moment, but let me give you a brief biographical background.

Xul Solar was a pseudonym for Alejandro Schultz Solari--Xul from Schultz, Solar from Solari; Xul was born in Buenos Aires in 1887, twelve years before Borges, of parents who had recently immigrated to Argentina, his father (Schultz) from Lithuania, his mother (Solari) from Italy. Xul, like Borges and many other Latin American artists of their period, spent significant time in Europe--thirteen years, in Xul's case, 1911 through 1924. Kandinski and Klee are often cited as influences, and indeed, Xul spent many years in Germany and thought of his own work as expressionist in this vein. So, he belongs precisely to the artistic world of Franz Roh, but as you will see, Xul is more an Abstract Expressionist than a magical realist.

These are water colors--Xul's characteristic medium--and in small format--rarely more than 3 feet long by 2 feet high.

"Paisaje celestial" (1933)

"Troncos" (1919)

"Fluctúa nave sierpe por la extensión i su cornake," (1922)

“Barrio” (1953)

These images may remind you of the cityscapes of the German "magical realists" that I showed earlier, and indeed many were painted at the same time, in the first half of the 20s, in Germany. Nonetheless, Xul's work veers toward the abstraction that Roh was opposing when he coined the term "magical realism," and this is what we would expect from an artist favored by Borges, for Xul's work too avoids the specificity of objects, and proposes rather to consider their universality.

"Pollo" (1922)

I have spoken of Borges' preference for poetic objects once-removed from their material instantiations, and it seems clear to me that Xul's aesthetic aims and procedures coincide with Borges'. Xul manipulates the conventions of landscape and cityscape in order to subvert the particularities of real space and to present instead the universal space of myth.

Chief of Serpents (1923)

He populates his watercolors with a multitude of human and animal figures, not to mention floating objects, letters, words, symbols, but his paintings strive constantly to overcome their actual space and to create a universalizing perspective on phenomena, motion, metaphysics.

Una Drola (1923)

Another of Xul's strategies for overcoming the specificities of real space is to subdivide and fragment the space of the image.

"Mystics" (1924)

As I have said, virtually all of Xul's work is done in small format. This watercolor, called "Mystics" (1924), measures only 36.5 by 26 centimeters. As in Borges' work, there is an irony of proportion: these are miniature structures that claim to signify the universe. As in Borges' stories, limitation and limitlessness vie for our attention. Xul's world is everywhere and nowhere; it is the symbol of the universe on a miniature plane. It is any wonder that Borges refers explicitly to Xul Solar in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"?

There is a great deal more to say about the analogous visualizing strategies of Borges and Xul Solar, but now I want to move to our third landmark of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

Intro | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Notes