Thursday, November 26, 2015

Borges “The Telling of the Tale”


    In Borges third lecture (from his 1967-68 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) “. . . poetry . . . has fallen asunder; or rather on the one hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale – we have the novel.  One is almost tempted too think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. . .”
    “If we think of the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something.  But I think there is a greater difference.  The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero – a man who is a pattern for all men.  While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.”

    “. . . nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. . . When we read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get inside the castle.  That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and in success.  And this may be one of the poverties of our time.  I suppose Kafka felt much the same when he wanted his books to be destroyed: he really wanted to write a happy and victorious book, and he felt that he could not do it.  He might have written it, of course, but people would have felt that he was not telling the truth.  Not the truth of facts but the truth of his dreams.”

    “In a way, people are hungering and thirsting for epic.  I feel that epic is one of the things that men need.  Of all places (and this may come as a kind of anticlimax, but the fact is there), it has been Hollywood that has furnished epic to the world.  All ver the globe, when people see a Western – beholding the mythology of a rider, and the desert, and justice, and the sheriff, and the shooting, and so on - I think they get the epic feeling from it, whether they know it or not.  After all, knowing the thing is not important.”

COMMENTS: I had to reread these passages.  At first I thought Borges was saying all novels describe a degeneration of character.  I thought of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Not all novels are like that.  Who would read them if they were, and as to Kafka, I read his (unfinished) novels years ago and resolved never to read them again; although my resolve weakened and I attempted to reread The Castle but didn’t get very far.
    But Westerns as he says do, many of them, have the epic feel.  I recall in Boot Camp in 1952, after qualifying at the shooting range at Camp Matthews, we got to sit outside on the grass of a sloping knoll and watch High Noon.  Surely that movie has Borge’s “epic feeling.”  Susan loved Westerns, especially those written by Louis L’Amour.  She also loved Mysteries, but only those in the “cozy” category.  I preferred more action oriented mysteries.
    But I had to admit that while I don’t recall a degeneration of character in mystery or detective novels, they do, many of them, tend to be dark.  One of the most popular series is Michael Connelly’s “Bosch” series.  Bosch is a superb and relentless detective, but he won’t comply with bureaucratic politics and his bosses and coworkers don’t like him.  He doesn’t care.  He is driven to solve the case “for the victim” and won’t be deterred no matter what the threat.  None of Connelly’s novels have happy endings.  Borges said no one believed in happy endings: “Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as a mere pandering to the public, or they think it is a commercial device; they think of it as artificial.  Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and in victory, though they felt the essential dignity of defeat. . .”
    One of the very popular story lines in TV detective series is for the main character to be accused of a murder.  It doesn’t matter if up until this episode he has been the epitome of virtue, the evidence (because he is being framed) points to him as the guilty party; so the character is hounded by bureaucratic officials (often he has to become an outlaw to clear himself) and threatened by criminals before he manages to clear his name.  But I’ve noticed that there is no summing up at the end of these episodes.  It is enough for the writers that the “hero” is cleared.  They don’t make the bureaucrats appear and tell him that they are sorry for doubting him and so there is the “feeling” that he, like Kafka’s Joseph K retains the guilt in the minds of the bureaucrats and others.  The hero escapes punishment, but through some trick perhaps.  They continue to believe him guilty.  
    Westerns, at least the older westerns weren’t that bad.  The hero defeats the bad guys, gets the girl, and often the ranch that comes with her.  He also gets the respect of the town people.  Perhaps by then he doesn’t respect them, but they don’t continue to persecute him.  If they are respectable they are ashamed. 
    I just yesterday ran across this review: It is about Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series.  I had never read any of the novels but decided to try one.  I downloaded the first in the series, The Godwulf Manuscript, written in 1977.  I looked up Parker before I started it.  He acquired a PhD and did his thesis in hard-boiled detective fiction.  He taught only a few years and then wrote novels full time.  I am 73% (according to Kindle) through The Godwulf Manuscript and was reminded a bit of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  The authors are academics and write about what they know.  Albee’s characters remain in academia and Connelly’s remain in his doctoral thesis.  “Why were you fired” Lieutenant Quirk asks Spenser at one point.  “Insubordination.  I specialize in it.” [or words to that effect].  At this point in the novel, no one likes Spenser except for a few sexy women.  The men want to beat him up or kill him.  Why doesn’t Connelly have Spenser try at least a little bit to get along with people?  Perhaps because he wanted to stay in the “hard boiled” genre.  Spenser I suppose becomes a hero, and according to the above review acquires a coterie of people who will help him during emergencies, but he remains, if I understand him “outside.”  He will never satisfy Borges’ requirements for the epic hero. 
    I wondered about Thomas Carlyle.  I read his Heroes and Hero Worship twice, but so long ago that I can’t relate it to Borge’s thesis about the epic hero.  Borge has made some disparaging comments about Carlyle so perhaps there is little commonality of thought here.  Borge elsewhere seems to like Ulysses as a hero, but Carlyle like Cromwell and Napoleon, “heroes” that few would admire today.   Can Ulysses be admired?  Dante after all put him in that Eighth level of Hell for his deeds as a trickster.  

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