Borges, Joe Sims, and I

The author with Jorge Luis Borges (photograph by Maria Roof, 1985)

In about an hour I’ll need to be on campus for the opening ceremonies of the Conference on Jorge Luis Borges, but at present, having just awakened from a disturbing dream, I stare at this book. It’s a red leather-bound volume on which the title is embossed in gold letters: Primeras inquisiciones. I do not know what to make of it. What I do know, what I intuit, what I feel, is that I need to understand its meaning or I may lose what’s left of my sanity and act rashly. The book gives rise to doubts about my true identity. Let me explain.

I often wonder, am I the same person in my old age as I was when a child or even a young man? I wonder about this because when I visualize the scenes I witnessed in those ancient times and recapture my behavior and that of others toward me, that world seems so different, even alien, to me. Did I actually say that, do those things? I have the feeling that those memories are those of other people whose experiences have somehow been deposited into my memory bank. J. L. Borges has said that our memories do not capture the actual event, but only the imperfect memory of our last recollection of it, and that each time we think back on the original experience, we dredge up only the immediately preceding memory of it, ad infinitum. This would lead to an extremely inaccurate remembrance of the actual event. I wonder how many times one would have to recall, attempt to recall, the occurrence before the memory is entirely falsified, completely fictionalized, so to speak. This also forces me to wonder if the autobiographies of great men and women, and of lesser ones even more so, reflect actual historical fact or the imperfect memories of the self-aggrandizing author.

I see I am rambling somewhat afield. This book, the anxiety caused by this beautiful tome, has scattered my thoughts. In truth, the above comments on memory have little to do with the main thrust of this paper, which deals with the extremely complex problem of authorship, identity, and the source of the writer’s inspiration. In my case, the feeling that scenes, actions, and interactions I “remember” are delivered to me from the minds of other people carries over into my writing.

When I write a short story, I start with two items: a character and a situation. I have no idea how the story will continue from those two components, and certainly do not know how it will end. Once I describe the protagonist and the situation in which he finds himself, the character seems to come alive, to act and react. He seems to take over the task of writing by telling me what will happen next. In other words, he dictates his story and I type it. I am nothing more than a typist working for the personage I have engendered. I know this sounds odd, to say the least, but this is the feeling I have.

Joe Sims, that lost soul, informed me of what would happen step by step in the story, “Going for the Gold,”1 He not only told me what would take place but somehow communicated visual representations of the events to me, so I could see it in my mind’s eye. The poor devil narrated his story as it progressed line by line, speaking to me from what I would call the Other World, wherever that is.

Stepping back from this specific story, let us for a moment consider that there are works of fiction which are actually autobiographies lightly disguised as fiction. At the other extreme are true works of fiction, fruit of the author’s imagination, except perhaps for an emotion felt by the author in the past and transferred to his character. This feeling ordinarily is attached to the fictional personage in a situation that has little or nothing to do with the author’s real-life experience that inspired that emotion in the first place. Perhaps most works of fiction fall somewhere between these two extremes.

I myself remember having been in situations that stirred up strong emotions and that obliged me to make decisions that would affect the rest of my life. And yet, while in the midst of one of those fraught episodes, I was thinking that this dramatic experience would make excellent material for a novel, or at least a short story. And later in life, those occasions did form an important part of my fiction, with certain slight embellishments and suppression of details. This happened because at some point, I determined to put in writing these experiences. But why? For two conflicting reasons. One was to keep a record of an incident seared into my soul so that perhaps it would endure in this world when I have departed. The second reason was to forget the incident. Does this make any kind of sense?

You see, if the event was that soul-searing, that life-changing, it had both a positive and a negative charge. It was often torture to think about. In that case it was necessary to forget that situation. Situation? That word is too cold. Trauma would be more accurate, since it leaves a spiritual scar on the soul. I repeat: paradoxically, then, one writes both to remember and to forget.2 These motives are, to say the least, thoroughly incompatible. Perhaps. I hope I am not rambling.

Again, if it is painful, then why write about that traumatic event? I believe it also serves to produce catharsis. Writing about it opens an escape valve and allows accumulated “steam” to cease its buildup, thereby alleviating dangerous pressure. The writer digs down deep into his soul, which can hurt while this excavation takes place, and then deposits it onto paper or in cyberspace. It accomplishes what colloquially we term, “getting it off your chest,” or “letting off steam,” or “getting it out of your system.” I could add, only semi-facetiously, there is a financial benefit that accrues from this process: it’s less expensive than psychotherapy. Or perhaps it is a cheap, do-it-yourself, but effective form of therapy. Maybe even more effective than reclining on the couch, spilling one’s guts –pardon the expression—to the no doubt bored therapist, since psychotherapy patients almost never recover. Sorry, I’m digressing again. Perhaps even transgressing.

Of course, this cathartic form of writing, I must admit, leads to mixed results. Ripping the memory from the mind and soul to place it on paper causes pain during the process, but has a salutary effect, as does the extraction of a decaying tooth. However, if the author goes back and reads it after the “extraction,” and most cannot help but do so, it will have an emotional effect, both negative and positive. But we do so because, despite the anguish, it allows us to relive the ecstasy of that moment. Unavoidably, the agony immediately follows or even co-exists with the ecstasy. The agony, in many cases, perhaps in all cases, is caused by the termination of the state of bliss. (Borges, of course, has told me he never reads his own writings once they are published. Perhaps he spoke truthfully.)

(It is, perchance, appropriate at this point to mention that the world-renowned literary critic and psychologist, Hans Ludwig von Schmertzenheim, compares literary inspiration to conception, the hard work of writing and developing literary works to pregnancy and its publication to childbirth, with its pain and its joy, agony and ecstasy. What he did not say, but I will, is that this would explain an author’s post-partum depression once the “delivery” takes place.)

We have here a paradox. The event, because it now appears on paper or in cyberspace, is in a way memorialized, possibly (hopefully), eternalized. This is probably exactly what the writer secretly desires. The original experience is of huge importance to the author who feels it should be recorded for ever, or at least secula seculorum. But, towards what end? On one hand, the author is impelled to fill that human need to share the experience with others. This would mark the fact that he or she once existed, conferring a certain degree of immortality.3 On the other hand, if he himself reads it after publication, the result is that the writer relives the experience, the ecstasy. This produces pleasure. Yes, but the ecstasy is followed inevitably by the agony. I must keep insisting on this.

Schmertzenheim adds that the author who often goes back and reads the trauma-recalling piece he has written exhibits submerged masochistic tendencies. Or, as he so trenchantly states, “Der Schmertz macht Freude” (The pain brings joy). Be that as it may, I have to think that Joe Sims, or whatever this unfortunate soul’s name really is, communicating from whatever mysterious base, has gone through the process of creation, with its joys and pain, employing me as what could ironically be called his ghost writer. Or, perhaps thinking of Dr. Schmertzenheim, the midwife.

Ghost writing (again, ironic) and midwifery aside, Borges might have suggested that the link between Joe Sims and Clark Zlotchew could be the result of the transmigration of souls, both of which are employed by an archetype in the Ideal World attempting to enter this world. Borges might opine that essentially, Sims and Zlotchew are the same person or are momentary faces of God. Or, could it be that, while Zlotchew is the writer, Sims is the pseudonym for the real Zlotchew, that is, the man who experiences life and transmits it to Zlotchew the writer? This is just a hypothesis. A profoundly disturbing hypothesis.

One of the most-often reiterated—reiterated ad nauseam—pieces of advice to students of creative writing is “Write what you know.” At this point I must insist that I am nothing like Sims. I have never worked in an ice-cream plant and never identified with world-famous athletes while watching TV and stuffing myself with fast foods and a half-dozen bottles of the product of the brewer’s art. At one sitting, no less. I am almost the polar opposite of this wife-beater, glutton, alcohol abuser, poor soul, out-of-shape “athlete” and general loser, and…well, I don’t wish to put in a “spoiler” for those who have not yet read “Going for the Gold” but possibly will. And should. Definitely.

The idea that the author, or rather, the person identified by the byline on a story or novel, does not create but rather is the mere recipient of the web of events that make up a literary piece, is not uncommon at all. Borges himself, when in 1984 I asked him about his procedures for writing, how he invents his stories, responded, “The way I write…  I receive a very modest revelation, you know? A mild revelation. Yes, but then in the mild revelation I receive the beginning and the end of a short story, right? The starting point and the goal. But what I don’t know is what happens in the middle, in between. I have to invent that part.” He added, “I believe the author is actually one who receives. The idea of the muse…”4

On this same matter, Marco Denevi, in answer to my question about models and influences on his writing, enigmatically stated (emphasis mine): “Every book proceeds from other books, even from books the author has not read.5

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously revealed that he received his poem, “Kublai Khan,” in an opium-induced dream in which he saw the entire poem written out while simultaneously viewing the structure of the Emperor’s “pleasure dome.” Incidentally, this fact throws light on the origin of the term pipe dream.

Startlingly, the French composer, Georges Bizet, bears witness to this same process. Two years ago, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, in the men’s room trashcan, I found a yellowed scrap of paper with a handwritten note in purple ink.6 It was signed, Alexander César Léopold Bizet, which is the real name of Georges Bizet. It said, and here I translate from the French, “It is a miracle!  Last night I dreamed of a beautiful Gypsy girl who described to me the tragic story –perhaps her own?—of a girl who seduces a member of the Guardia Civil and is killed by him when he discovers her brazen betrayal of him with a matador. She even sang some marvelous songs relating to this story. I plan to use the plot and the music for a new opera which I shall entitle ‘Carmen.’”

And, of course, the ancients referred to the “muse” as the source of their inspiration. And the word inspiration, which is an everyday word we use unthinkingly, but, of course, suggests that we breathe in, we inhale, the ideas we use in our writing. Are these ideas floating in the air like viruses?

Well then, I cannot escape the conclusion that Joe Sims is the true author, the sender, of the story in which he appears while I am the recipient, the mere stenographer, so to speak. The question arises, why did Joe Sims choose me to do the writing of his story? I could flatter myself, saying he likes my style. But no, I won’t. I then am obliged to say I simply don’t know. In general, we writers (here I consciously avoid the word authors) like to say we create our fictions. After all, we think we invent the characters, the circumstances and the whole world in which they “live.” We make them jump through all kinds of figurative hoops to weave a story or novel.

Thinking along these lines, an author is the Creator of a fictional world, the god who engendered the characters and controls them. Borges, speaking of the game of chess, wondered if God moves us when we think we move the chess pieces, who might think they themselves are responsible for their moves. Perhaps the characters we invent think they are their own masters. And as Borges suggests, if we are moved by God, might there be gods behind Him, moving Him, and so on into infinity? In the specific case of Joe Sims, wherever he is, did God cause him to tell me Sims’s story?

I confess these musings have led me to a blank wall; I’m not mentally equipped to answer these questions, to delve into a bottomless literary-psychological-theological lake. I believe that were it not for having read Borges, that wiley sorcerer, I would never have considered all these disturbing possibilities. Last night I dreamed I was standing on railroad tracks, facing an onrushing train, feeling happier than I had in a long time. The scene shifted. I was speaking with Borges in—so strange!—the Aramaic language. He flattered me, telling me that he never reads his own works once they’ve been published, and that since I have read his works repeatedly, his stories are more mine than his. Just before I woke, he handed me a book of his that I had never heard of. As he extended it to me, he commented, “Here, I’ve rescued it from the flames just for you.” It was a beautiful tome bound in red leather, the title embossed in gold letters: Primeras inquisiciones. The title page showed the title with the date of publication as 2032.

I awoke in a sweat, but calmed down somewhat and shrugged. Dreams are always weird. I felt a bulk pressing against my ribs, and I pulled back the covers to see what was causing it. There it was: a red leather-bound volume on which was written in gold letters: Primeras inquisiciones. Just as in the dream, as I feared, the first page bore the title and date of publication as 2032!  The author’s name, printed on the same page, was Joseph Sims. Of course. On the following page was the beginning of “my” story, “Going for the Gold.”

I need to clear my head. There is plenty of time before the opening ceremonies of the Borges conference start at Marvel Theatre  I’ll send this article to a few literary journals via Submittable and then take a walk down to the railroad tracks; the scenery is beautiful there. ∎

  1. In my collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort, 2011) and in several literary journals. The story has also appeared in journals under the title of “The Pink Teddy Bear.”
  2. Something about this situation is then, eerily reminiscent of the Jewish celebration of Purim, in which the people are enjoined to “blot out the name” of Haman, the murderous villain. Following this precept, the congregation shake rattles, bang on tin pans, stamp on the floor and make a riotous din every time the name Haman is pronounced by the reader of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther). Although the object is to erase the villain’s name forever, so he will never be remembered, the true effect is ironic, because it seals his name forever in the minds of the congregants.
  3. This sentence, in a previous article of mine, has my word immortality appear as immorality. I do not believe it was a typographical error, but rather the malicious work of my arch-rival, the conniving Gilbert Sullivan Miller, one of the editors of that issue. Viz. “The Author and Motivation” in The Literary Craftsman, Vol. 28, #2, Fall, 2017, p. 64.
  4. My translation of our Spanish conversation. Viz. Voices of the River Plate: Interviews with Writers of Argentina and Uruguay, p. 36.
  5. My translation of Denevi’s statement. Viz. Voices of the River Plate: Interviews with Writers of Argentina and Uruguay, p. 43.
  6. One may ask, “How did a private note written in the 19th-Century appear in a 21st-Century trash can?” Excellent question, one to which I have no answer. I can tell only what I found. I’m sure there is a rational answer to it.