the grinning watch of the Muse of Impossibility


One day in December 1919, the twenty-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, during a short stay in Seville, wrote a letter, in French, to his friend Maurice Abramowicz in Geneva, in which, almost in passing, he confessed to Abramowicz contradictory feelings about his literary vocation: “Sometimes I think that it’s idiotic to have the ambition of being a more or less mediocre maker of phrases. But that is my destiny.” As Borges was well aware even then, the history of literature is the history of this paradox. On the one hand, the deeply rooted intuition writers have that the world exists, in Mallarmé’s much-abused phrase, to result in a beautiful book (or, as Borges would have it, even a mediocre book), and, on the other hand, to know that the muse governing the enterprise is, as Mallarmé called her, the Muse of Impotence (or, to use a freer translation, the Muse of Impossibility). Mallarmé added later that all who have ever written anything, even those we call geniuses, have attempted this ultimate Book, the Book with a capital B. And all have failed.

more from Alberto Manguel at Threepenny Review here.