Jorge Luis Borges produced Dreamtigers relatively late in his life; it is a thin collection of poems and short prose that he considered (according to the introduction) “his book, the book most likely, in his opinion, to be remembered when all the rest are forgotten. And the book . . . that would make his earlier works unnecessary, including his two extraordinary collections of stories, Ficciones and El Aleph.” This is quite a claim, since I think it is safe to say that those two exceptional books established Borges on the international literary scene. Yet, reading Dreamtigers, I see what he means: all the themes from those stories are present, along with even more preoccupation with death and the legacy that Borges does or does not leave behind. As with Ficciones, I read and reread these concentrated doses of energy several times to have a chance of following the labyrinthine workings of Borges’ genius.
A good example of the summative nature of this book is “Borges and I.” It starts with a proto–post-modernist Borges problematizing identity and the unified self: “It is the other one, it’s Borges, that things happen to.” Later, a somewhat more modernist Borges emerges, concerned about control of his work and it’s place in the future of culture: “I do not mind confessing that he has managed to write some worthwhile pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because the good part no longer belongs to anyone, not even to the other one, but to the Spanish language or to tradition.” He can feel death’s approach and worries about the futility of his efforts. He wants to rise above it all, but feels trapped by time and his past work. He finds a synthesis of the modern and post-modern at the short piece’s end:
Years ago I tried to free myself from him and I passed from lower-middle-class myths to playing games with time and infinity, but those games are Borges’ now, and I will have to conceive something else. Thus my life is running away, and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to the other one.
I do not know which of us is writing this page.
At this moment in my life, the most striking of Borges’ themes in Dreamtigers is the question of whether we can write down our human experience in full. It is an old question and much has been written about it, especially in our post-modern era, where one camp strongly argues that not only can we verbally express all our experiences, but there is no experience outside the text. Borges—who, as I’ve suggested above, bridges the modern and post-modern eras, both because he was alive as the eras changed and because his works partake of both oeuvres—has this argument in his work, as well as the opposing one. We see it quite clearly in “The Moon”:
The story I have told, although a tale,
Can represent the witching spell
So many of us use when at our craft
Of transmuting our life into words.
The essence is always lost. This is the one
Law of every word about inspiration.
Nor will this summary of mine avoid it
About my long traffic with the moon.
Among all words I knew there is one
With power to record and re-present.
The secret, I see, is with humble intent
To use it simply. Moon.
Now I shall never dare to stain
Its pure appearing with a futile image
I see it indecipherable and daily
And out of reach of my literature.
Is the essence always lost or does “moon” capture it? Can he write it, or is it out of reach? I don’t think Borges has an answer. His frustration is evident in the book’s title piece:
Then I think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.
Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.
While this passage seems to come down more on the side of the modernist assertion that experience is not entirely capturable in language, it is the frustration of both capturing and not capturing the dreamtiger that I see in the lines, and in the book in general.
In the book’s epilogue Borges writes that “a man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.” But which Borges do we see in the tracing? Which face? Perhaps if I reread it often enough I will find out.