Text: Maurice J. Bennett, “The Infamy and the Ecstasy: Crime, Art, and Metaphysics in Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Deutsches Requiem’,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 107-123 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 107, unnumbered:]



I’ll join with black despair against my soul

And to myself become an enemy.”

Richard III

Many critics observe in passing that the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is perhaps the most eminent perpetuator of Poe’s pioneering efforts in the detective story and the short tale that turns dramatic narrative into philosophical speculation.(1) Their observations might sufficiently justify the present study, did not Borges specifically cite Poe as one of the authors to whom he is most indebted.(2) Similar temperaments and philosophical interests have led the two “Americans” to identical literary forms, and one can frequently observe in the thematic preoccupations and structural composition of Borges’s work distinct echoes of his North American predecessor. He often takes a theme or a complete story and rewrites it in such terms as to create both a new tale and a striking illumination of his source. Borges cites “William Wilson” as one of the stories he innovates upon in what he considers to be his paradigmatic tale, “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim,”but it is “Deutsches Requiem” that directly confronts the Poe story and extrapolates from it an equally compelling fiction.(3)

Borges states that “each writer creates his precursors” (OI:109),(4) and he immediately establishes a relationship to Poe in the opening sentence of “Deutsches Requiem.” The protagonist’s introductory “My name is Otto Dietrich zur Linde” is an unmistakable echo of “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym,” the opening line of the Poe novel to which Borges repeatedly turns as an example of his taste in fiction.(5) That he is consciously alluding to Poe here is suggested by his choice in the Spanish original of the uncommon and formal “Mi nombre es” (“My name is”) over the colloquial and more usual “Me Ilamo” (“I call myself”) that might be expected in this confessional narrative.(6) The line’s relationship to “Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson” is more oblique and already points to an interpretation. A direct allusion to the beginning of Pym, attached to a plot borrowed from “Wilson,” essentially conflates the two Poe stories. The psychologizing of one is juxtaposed with the symbolic topography of the other, providing Wilson’s seemingly motivationless behavior with a context that begins to [page 108:] expand its significance beyond an apparent focus on mere eccentricity. This broadening of the implications of “Wilson” constitutes a major aspect of the relationship between Poe’s story and Borges’s revision. In their broadest outline, the plots of the two tales are nearly identical, but analogous events consistently diverge toward psychological analysis in one and metaphysical emphases in the other. In part, such divergences reflect the historical moments that produced the two stories. Poe’s focus on the subjective repeats a preoccupation with personal experience that was central to Romanticism. As Lucien Goldmann notes in his essay on Malraux, however, the problem of the mid-twentieth century is precisely the value (or possibility) of such experience in the face of overwhelming historical and technological change.(7) Borges’s response to the general cultural dilemma has been to turn to doctrines that posit an atemporal reality inhabited by a meta-self beyond the vagaries of history. “To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego,” he writes, “. . .are apparent desperations and secret assuagements” (OI:186-187) — an attempt to convince ourselves that “no opprobrium, no calamity, no dictator will be able to impoverish us.”(8)

The two stories not only begin with similar rhetorical flourishes, but they make the same narrative gestures. The suppressed identity indicated by Wilson’s resort to a pseudonym is repeated by Borges through a footnote that reveals Otto’s omission of the prominent Jewish theologian, Johannes Forkel, from the list of his German ancestors. But where Wilson’s gesture appears as a narrative stratagem or genuflection to conventional morality (“The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied by my real appellation,” he writes), Otto’s omission is an act of symbolic self-violence that will be repeated and magnified in the central event of his tale.

Both characters also present their experience from the moral perspective of conventional humanity. Wilson projects himself as the object of “scorn,” “horror,” and “detestation,” having led a life of “unparalleled infamy,” “unspeakable misery,” and “unpardonable crime” (H.3:299).(9) His claim to have surpassed Elah-Gabalus in viciousness suggests that his crimes resembled the sensual extravagances for which the Roman emperor is notorious. As the former sub-director of the Nazi concentration camp at Tarnowitz, Poland, however, Otto’s criminality is presented less as the product of personal excess than as the result of broad political, ideological, and historical extravagances. He presents the problematic case of the “martyr” whose outlaw status derives primarily from the historical defeat of his sect rather than from an innate moral depravity. He, too, assumes the vocabulary of his judges, admitting that he has been a “torturer and murderer” (L:141). But where Wilson at least mouths the rhetoric of repentance, exclaiming at the [page 109:] “dense, dismal, and limitless” cloud that hangs between his “hopes and heaven” (H.3:299), the essential project of Otto’s narrative is the remorseless assumption of the terms of opprobrium and their transformation into the badges of affirmation.

The difference in Wilson’s and Otto’s reaction to what they both feel is the justified hostility of their fellow men derives from the divergent motivations of their confessions. Wilson’s preoccupations are basically affective: faced with his imminent death, he desires the human connection, the “sympathy,” from which his career in infamy has excluded him. Otto, however, is more philosophically disposed — he merely wishes to be understood in terms of the larger forces for which he has labored: “Those who care to listen to me will understand the history of Germany and the future history of the world. . . . Tomorrow I will die, but I am a symbol of future generations” (L:142). He thus moves immediately from the inevitable futility of personal defiance to the justification available on the suprapersonal plane of Hegelian “history.”

The distinction between Wilson’s personalism and Otto’s more abstract identity is highlighted in the sense of individual singularity they both feel. For instance, Wilson writes that “although temptation may have erewhile existed as great, man was never thus, at least, tempted before — certainly, never thus fell” (H.3:300), and Otto asserts that although he is a symbol of the future, at present “cases” like his are “exceptional and astonishing” (L:142). But the German does not wear his singularity with the American’s bravado; instead, he attempts to eschew all individuality. Comparing the Nazi movement to the early stages of Christianity and Islam, he claims that a “new kind of man was needed” and records his attempt”to reason that we had to suppress our individuality for the lofty purpose which brought us together” (L:143).

It is the nature of the two characters’ criminality, however, that most profoundly indicates the radically personalized focus of the Poe story and Borges’s meta-personal interests. Not only does Wilson cheat at cards, but he is driven to his final extremity when his double interferes with his plans to seduce the beautiful young wife of the Duke Di Broglio. His dishonorableness and his sensuality depend on the official morality of middle-class Victorian respectability for their shock value; today, they appear rather venial when compared with the nature and scale of Otto’s atrocities. In any case, Wilson’s failures are personal and eccentric, and there is no attempt to encourage, or even to allow, the reader to identify with them or to view them as in any way familiar.

Otto’s aberration, however, symbolizes a broad cultural debacle. On a general level, Borges cites the simplicity of Poe’s notions of horror as deriving [page 110:] from the comparative simplicity of the nineteenth century: “Our century is more unfortunate than the nineteenth,” he claims, “to that sad privilege it is owed that the hells subsequently worked out (by Henry James, by Kafka) might be more complex and more intimate than Poe’s.”(10) More specifically, he notes that “Notoriously, the gods have denied the Germans spontaneous beauty,” that they “appear incapable of working without some hallucinatory apprenticeship,” and that where “The men of other lands can be absent-mindedly atrocious, eventually heroic; Germans demand seminaries of abnegation, ethics of infamy.”(11) And in a meditation on the Allied liberation of Paris, he observes:

for Europeans and Americans, one order — and only one — is possible; it used to be called Rome and now is called Western Culture. To be a Nazi (to play the game of energetic barbarism, to play at being a Viking, a Tartar, a sixteenth-century conquistador, a Gaucho, a redskin) is, after all, a mental and moral impossibility. Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hells. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, kill and wound for it. No one in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall hazard a conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is collaborating blindly with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must not have been unaware that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules. (OI: 135-136)

Borges’s conceptions of the twentieth century, of Germans, and of the Nazi enterprise thus combine to provide the contours for the portrait of his protagonist. Otto is a self-conscious “monster,” and his reference to himself as “the abominable” moves him beyond Wilson’s personal sensuality toward a ritual impurity whose very nature valorizes the virtue from which he is excluded. His apostasy from “Western Culture” assumes a religious dimension, and his heresy becomes an inverted affirmation.

Where Wilson’s behavior never rises above the details of his physical and social existence and lacks any consciously held informing principle, Otto’s perversity constitutes a program for salvation. The depth of his “religious” ardor is indicated by a kind of spiritual strenuousness. The amputation of his leg as the result of a wound received in the anti-Jewish riots in Tilsit denies him the direct and palpable exhilarations of action, but his enforced civilianism clarifies for him the spiritual nature of his vocation: “To die for a religion is easier than to live it absolutely; to battle in Ephesus against the wild beasts is not so trying (thousands of obscure martyrs did it) as to be Paul, servant of Jesus; one act is less than a man’s entire life. War and glory are facilities; more arduous than the undertaking of Napoleon was that of Raskolnikov” (L:143-144). [page 111:]

Both tales, then, dramatize the psychomachy of particular kinds of criminal personality, and in each the central event is a symbolic suicide. They generate alter-egos that would connect the protagonists to conventional morality and community. Wilson describes his antagonist as the suggestion of “dim visions of my earliest infancy — wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn” (H.3:311). He proceeds from the period anterior to the differentiation of consciousness into the reasoning and imaginative faculties, before the separation of the moral sense from desire. Wilson’s commitment to imagination and crime forces him to define his double’s moral advice as a “rebellion,” and, although he admits that heeding this advice would have made him a happier man, it would also have made him less singular and removed both the need and the occasion for the present tale.

For Otto, Nazism is “an act of morality” that attaches a holiness to evil. It is the twentieth century’s attempt to purge itself of the undesirable sentimentalism and personalism bequeathed to it by the nineteenth. Where the naturalistic environment of the battlefield quickly strips away the veneer of humanist culture, “such is not the case in a wretched cell” — in the close quarters of the private self — “where insidious deceitful mercy tempts us with ancient tenderness” (L:144). Nietzsche is the apostle appealed to, here, for whose Zarathustra “mercy is the greatest of sins” (L:144). But just as Wilson is haunted by the representative of communal order, an externalized conscience, so Otto has his temptation to “ancient tenderness,” the poet David Jerusalem of Breslau, an inmate of his camp. Jerusalem is the singer of joy and love, and Otto confesses the indelible impression made on him by the man’s two great works, the poem Tse Yang, Painter of Tigers and the soliloquy Rosencrantz Speaks with the Angel; he knows them by heart.

Borges footnotes that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the critical study by Albert Soergel to which Otto refers, in any history of German literature, or even in the camp’s records. And Otto explicitly states: “In my eyes he was not a man, not even a Jew; he had been transformed into a detested zone of my soul. I agonized with him, I died with him and somehow I was lost with him; therefore, I was implacable” (L:145). His violence against Jerusalem culminates the violence against himself that first appeared in his suppression of his Jewish identity or in his admission that his early years in the party were difficult because, “although I do not lack courage, I am repelled by violence” (L:142-143). Permitting neither Jerusalem’s “glory” nor his own “compassion” to soften him, Otto drives the poet to suicide and, thus, effectively eliminates the “ancient tenderness” proscribed by his cult of violence. [page 112:]

Self-murder is thus the apparently inevitable climax to careers of almost hysterical perversity in these tales. In particular, Wilson’s murder of his conscience is the event toward which his narrative inexorably moves. Its occurrence returns the tale to its origin: Wilson’s alienation. Thus, the alter-ego’s dying words, “henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope!” (H.3:325), echo those with which the story began: “to the earth art thou forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?” (H.3:299). This narrative circularity provides the structural analog to the Romantic solipsism to which Wilson is condemned.

Otto’s murder of Jerusalem, however, is but the definitive gesture in a series of outrages whose goal is essentially spiritual; it is part of a linear, or vertical, movement toward transcendence. Jerusalem’s death liberates Otto into a sense of fullness that is the actual justification for his narrative; it is a vehicle for the attainment of religious ecstasy. By describing Otto’s spiritual elevation as a “plenitude,” Borges places it within a tradition of the mystical attainment of divine awareness through suffering. “I thought I was emptying the cup of anger,” Otto writes, “but in the dregs I encountered an unexpected flavor, the mysterious and almost terrible flavor of happiness” (L:146). He has attempted the inverse affirmation of happiness, beneficence, and order through a radical pursuit of horror, evil, chaos, so that he can write at the end with a kind of exultation: “If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our dwelling place is Hell” (L:147). Infamy affirms sanctity; hell not only implies but demands heaven.

“William Wilson” and “Deutsches Requiem” end with the vivid image of their narrators staring into mirrors. In “Wilson,” the gesture condenses the essential narcissism represented by the protagonist’s fascination with his personal experience; it is analogous to the encompassing narrative, which is itself but a larger mirror in which Wilson reflects himself. Despite the moral outrage customarily directed at the Nazis, however, Borges’s image conveys a tranquility absent in Poe. The explicit reference to Christianity and to Islam, the biblical allusions and prose rhythms, remind the reader that Otto’s dilemma, however perversely mishandled, is not only human, but disturbingly similar to the enthusiasms that have produced our more received and cherished dogmas. Emile Cioran, observing the homology between the mystic, the saint, and the heretic, writes of the inevitable consequence of their intrusion into history:

Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional. History is nothing but a procession of [page 113:] false Absolutes . . . We kill only in the name of a god or of his counterfeits . . .The ages of fervor abound in bloody exploits: Saint Teresa could only be the contemporary of the auto-da-fé, a Luther of the repression of the Peasants’ Revolt. In every mystic outburst, the moans of victims parallel the moans of ecstasy . . . . Scaffolds, dungeons, jails flourish only in a shadow of a faith — of that need to believe which has infested the mind forever.(12)

It is apparent that Otto has converted “History” into the operant deity in his tale, and it is this basic identity between his spiritual aspirations and historical precedent — his fundamental humanity — that seduces the reader into sharing his sense of losing the personal self in a cosmic enterprise in which all plenitude resides. The tale ends on a note of beatitude: “I look at myself in the mirror to discover who I am, to discover how I will act in a few hours, when I am face to face with death. My flesh may be afraid; I am not” (L:147).

Wilson’s and Otto’s careers may be explained as an attraction to crime as a kind of self-torture; their tales record the transformation of homicide into suicide, which, in turn, ultimately becomes a self-mortification that leads to transcendence. For both Poe and Borges are interested in crime as an aspect of the aesthetic metaphysic that underlies their work. Poe, for instance, claimed that “beauty” was the sole attribute through which man could apprehend God — and only poets, with “hearts of maddening fervor” and possessing “that divine sixth sense,” approach divinity (H.11:255-256). In his major aesthetic statement, “The Poetic Principle,” he added that the poet, “Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave,” became frustrated to madness by his inability to grasp immediately the Beauty of which art gave “but brief and indeterminate glimpses” (H.14:273-274). The permanent attainment of beauty was possible only by escaping mortality, and such tales as “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” and “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” attempt to portray aesthetic paradises inhabited by the disembodied spirits of the blessed — the realm Poe called “Aidenn.” Thus, “what we call death” is the precondition for transcendence, and crime provokes reprisals that may involve that “painful metamorphosis.”(13) Evil, and madness as a kind of psychological outlawry, impel Poe’s imaginative characters towards a desired consummation; they are the behavioral and mental analogs of the indirection he makes requisite for the vision of truth.(14)

Borges himself repeatedly invokes those sects and religions that incorporate a radical pursuit of evil and abomination as a means of spiritual purification. “The Theologians” directly addresses this kind of search for ecstasy in terms of the heresies of historical Christianity, but his conception [page 114:] of the poet’s necessary exhaustion of the possibilities of being — including crime and alienation — is central to his artistic effort.(15) Any given character’s criminality, then, becomes a means of separating him from a contingent, quotidian existence and moves him closer to its opposite: metaphysical reality. Thus, when Barton Levi St. Armand observes that Borges is the “heir” of Poe’s “occult metaphysics,” he points to both writers’ interest in those beliefs that view evil as a cosmic principle of equal or superior efficacy to virtue as an instrument for man’s triumph over disorder, despair, and death.(16)

The aesthetic aspect of the will to crime derives from Wilson’s and Otto’s profoundly imaginative natures. Not only do they specifically emphasize their writing of their tales, but, in some sense, they actually adumbrate their authors’ conception of the artist-personality. The most noted consequence of Poe’s principle of perverseness, for instance, is irrational, self-destructive behavior adequately illustrated by Wilson’s conduct. But another result is a linquistic obliquity that is the basis of all literary language — of metaphor — and that describes Poe’s own techniques, as he cites the “earnest desire to tantalize a listener by circumlocution” and the exchange of clarity and precision for “certain involutions and parentheses” (H.6:148). Wilson claims to have come from “a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable” (H.3:300), and when he refers to his “passionate energy of mind,” he echoes Poe’s attribution of “hearts of maddening fervor” to lovers of the Beautiful. His gambling at cards points to Poe’s explicit use of card-playing in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a metaphor to describe the creative-critical faculties of the intuitive artist. And the murder of his admonishing conscience is the dramatic enactment of Poe’s exorcism of the “heresy” of the didactic in “The Poetic Principle” — his exclusion of moral consideration from among the central aims of poetry.

The passive, tender, imaginative side of Otto’s sensibility is represented by his attraction to music, metaphysics, and drama-symbolized by the “Germanic” names of Brahms, Schopenhauer, and Shakespeare. “He who pauses in wonder, moved with tenderness and gratitude, before any facet of the work of theseauspicious creators, let him know that I also paused there, I; the abominable” (L:142), he writes. His literary propensities have surfaced in a polemical article against Spengler, and it should be noticed that his conception of Nazism as a creative movement and his participation in it essentially confound him with those other “German” creators he regards with such piety.

Otto is particularly haunted by David Jerusalem’s soliloquy, Rosencrantz [page 115:] Speaks with the Angel, “in which a sixteenth-century London moneylender vainly tries on his deathbed to vindicate his crimes, without suspecting that the secret justification of his life is that of having inspired in one of his clients (whom he has seen but once and does not remember) the character of Shylock” (L:144). This brief passage may be regarded as the tale’s aesthetic center. Otto, himself a Jew and a criminal, also attempts a self-vindication on the eve of his death, equally ignorant that his own value lies not in his historically discredited reasonings, but in his becoming a literary subject. Borges thus calls attention to the parasitic nature of the literary process (the explicit borrowing from Shakespeare) and the essential amorality of a procedure that often finds its choicest inspiration among outcasts. The drama of a sixteenth-century merchant and the testament of a twentieth-century bureaucrat are essentially the same story refracted through the distorting medium of history. In the background is also the confession of a nineteenth-century sensualist, though, and Shakespeare, Poe, and Borges are conflated into a single metapersonal figure — the artist.(17)

The documents composed by Wilson and Otto are compensations for the exile imposed on the artist by his criminal status. The contact with humanity that has been willfully ruptured by the protagonists themselves is reestablished by apologia that appeal for forgiveness or understanding, both of which are forms of sympathy. The narratives are penned de profundis at the symbolic moment of the protagonists’ most extreme moral and existential isolation. They are composed literally at the moment immediately preceding death, so that its imminence becomes both their occasion and their justification. The literary moment is that in which the character-as-author confronts physical extinction; the work originates in crime but takes shape at the intersection of his perverse participation in human existence and his final, definitive exile. As authors, these characters die into their works; their “mortal” existence ends, but they are enshrined in the texts and will exist henceforth as literature.(18)

These tales thus reflect a literary metaphysic implicit in Poe and more explicitly addressed in Borges. Poe’s atomic theory of the cosmos as the dispersed particles of an original essence, and his aesthetic definition of the universe as a divine “plot,” make each fragment a character in a supreme fiction created by the death of God. In so far as Wilson’s narrative results from his self-murder, it becomes a human reenactment of this original divine gesture of creation. In Borges, the voracious subsuming of the objective world by fictive constructs is a persistent theme: Shakespeare exists only in his work; like God and Valéry, he is implicit in his creation but nothing in himself. Borges himself is gradually replaced by the literary figure created by [page 116:] his oeuvre, while the actual earth recedes before the imaginary universe of Tlön. And, finally, Borges describes a man who “peoples a space with images” of the world’s myriad objects only to discover just before his death that “the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”(19) Thus, the death of the biological Otto is the necessary precondition and the inevitable consequence of his literary activity.

In a meditation on Edward Fitzgerald, Borges claims that “every cultivated man is a theologian,” and elsewhere he writes of metaphysics as “the only justification and finality of any theme,” while admitting his own “incredulous and persistent passion for theological difficulties” (OI:76, xiv).(20) He thus provides an explicit thrust for his fiction that is absent in Poe. “William Wilson” merely presents a psychological process that leads to the loss of a contingent, historical identity, but which stops short of transcendence, leaving the protagonist in anguished review of the past and anxious anticipation of death. “Deutsches Requiem,” however, is the immediate vehicle through which Otto attains that self which can confront death with equanimity. His achieved sense of a partnership with “History” removes him from temporal considerations and identifies him with the other literary figures around which his tale revolves and, ultimately, with God.

Poe’s Eureka, however, embodies a theological passion similar to Borges’ own, and it provides a metaphysic that, discretely and cautiously read into the earlier work, illuminates what otherwise appears as gratuitously aberrant. For example, where Wilson merely points to the hypertrophy of his will as the inevitable phenomenon of his moral and intellectual existence, the inexplicable growth of “evil propensities” which no agents of the moral order — least of all his “weak-minded” and similarly “afflicted” parents — could check, Otto finds a philosophical and vindication for his behavior in Schopenhauer:

In the first volume of Parerga and Paralipomena I read again that everything which can happen to a man, from the instant of his birth until his death, has been preordained by him. Thus, every negligence is deliberate, every chance encounter an appointment, every humiliation a penitence, every failure a mysterious victory, every death a suicide. There is no more skillful consolation than the idea that we have chosen our own misfortunes; this individual teleology reveals a secret order and prodigiously confounds us with divinity. (L:143)

His own persecution, the defeat of Germany, and his murder of Jerusalem are thus but aspects of a cosmic drama of which he is both protagonist and author.

Wilson abandons such rationalizing to the reader, pleading for him to [page 117:] “seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error” (H.3:300). In the peroration that closes Eureka, though, Poe explains the import of his theory concerning the apocalyptic reunion of all matter with God in terms nearly identical to those Otto retrieves from Schopenhauer:

In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Justice — of Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more — it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes — with a view — if even with a futile view — to the extension of our own Joy. (H.16:313)

The metaphysic underlying these two stories, then, on some level, assumes man’s complicity in his own fate; the soul attains a sense of universal adequacy that, in its final denial of otherness, obliterates the dichotomy between subject and object that has haunted modern consciousness.

Poe’s conception of the universe as divine literature — as plot — finds an analog in Borges’s preferred metaphor for the cosmos, the labyrinth, which he views as an existential consolation: it suggests a “hidden cosmos,” in which there is a “center, a plan, [and] everything is foreseen.”(21) Such metaphors demand that man be launched on a ceaseless quest for meaning — to identify the plot, decipher the text, discover the center of the cosmos. It is a challenge that Wilson presents directly to the reader when he invites him to discover the “fatal” principle that informs his behavior and, thus, organizes his narrative. Otto attempts to answer this challenge himself with his metaphysical speculations, but with both characters explanation, coherence, meaning is the goal.

Literature thus becomes an embodiment of the identifyingly human acts of construction and exegesis. Man, however, undertakes these tasks only under the inspiration of crime and alienation, with which, on one level, they are synonymous. Poe writes that true intellectual and moral greatness would be confused inevitably with their opposites: madness and depravity. Thus, in order to uncover real genius, one should ignore canonical figures and, instead, “search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows” (H.14:166). Similarly, Borges approvingly quotes Shakespeare’s observation that “sweet are the uses of adversity,” although adding: “all writing comes from unhappiness.”(22) With these writers, infamy, madness, and crime (especially the symbolic suicides recounted in the present tales) are the moral, psychological, and gestural equivalents of [page 118:] the conceptual paradox and verbal oxymoron that are essential to their artistic method.(23) Just as paradox confounds ordinary logic and oxymoron offends habitual linguistic expectations in order to achieve extraordinary perception, so crime dislocates the artist from conventional existence and sets him upon that paradigmatically human search whose goal is order — whether personal, as with Wilson’s psychological case history, or cosmic, as with Otto’s treatise. “The tools of my art are humiliation and anguish,” confesses the unknown poet of a Borges poem.(24) Crime deflects the aesthetic sensibility into that suffering which is the inspiration, methodology, and price of artistic creation.

Ultimately, both the similarities and the differences between the Poe and Borges stories are the result of a shared project: they can be read as dramatizations of separate stages of a single movement of consciousness — the Romantic quest for transcendence. Harold Bloom describes these stages as the “Promethean” and the “Real Man” or “Imagination” stages, where the one represents the initial rejection of conventional modes of being and the other describes the imaginative freedom that the artist seeks.(25) The first stage necessarily involves the destruction of the purely social self, the rejection of ties with ordinary human community, but its inevitable danger is the failure to escape the restrictive focus on the now isolated self that the movement entails. It is haunted by the spectre of solipsism. The real goal, however, is the disconnection not only from convention but also from the natural, historical self that produced the original rupture and the attainment of an enlarged, intensified consciousness that produces a self commensurate with the universe, not merely alienated from it. From “A sordid solitary thing” who feels himself “his own low self the whole,” the Romantic artist shared Coleridge’s desire to become one with “Supreme Reality,”

When he by a sacred sympathy might make

The whole one self! self, that no alien knows!

Self, far diffused as Fancy’s wing can travel!

Self, spreading still! Oblivious of its own,

Yet all of all possessing!(26)

“William Wilson” presents the first stage in this process, as Poe emphasizes the inextricable combination of imagination and libido in his protagonist’s career. His rebellion produces an alter-ego that, complete with the symbolic, up-raised, admonishing finger, can only represent the social connection that Wilson must deny. Wilson fails to complete the progress toward transcendence, however, and is ensnared by the sterile, asphyxiating solipsism that the Romantics feared. At the last, his rebellion has only led to a [page 119:] desire to recover the human community he has lost: “I long, in passing through the dim valley,” he writes, “for the sympathy — I had nearly said for the pity — of my fellow men” (H.3:299-300).

Otto, however, achieves the necessary second stage; having disconnected himself from convention, he also escapes mere sensuality. Where the double that Wilson generates, and destroys as the primary obstacle to imaginative freedom, represents the ethics of human community, Otto’s double is the very sensual, imaginative, isolated creature that Wilson himself becomes. The opprobrium and obloquy that Wilson earns are shared by David Jerusalem, who has himself been “persecuted, denied, vituperated” (L:144). More importantly, as the poet of “joy,” Jerusalem is a kind of Whitmanesque caresser of sensuous detail who is attracted to “each thing, with a scrupulous and exact love.”(27) Thus, Otto’s murder of Jerusalem as a symbolic elimination of a “detested zone” of his soul is more complex than a mere Nazi rejection of humanist values. It liberates him from any connection to nature, to “things,” and allows the attainment of ecstasy in the word’s root sense of ec-stasis — an escape from the self unavailable to Wilson.(28) Otto thereby completes the process that Wilson inaugurates by rejecting Wilson’s sensuality and its attendant solipsism. Between them, the two characters offer a unified portrait of the Romantic sensibility in pursuit of a transforming reality, the “plenitude” and peace that Otto experiences during his final hours. Thus, when Borges claims to have rewritten “Wilson’s” essentially “ethical” emphasis, he is pointing to the incompleteness of the psychic and spiritual drama that Poe has undertaken to write. “Deutsches Requiem” is a specific response to that inadequacy, and Borges becomes the reader to whom Wilson has successfully appealed for an interpretation of his tale.

The intimate relationship between writing, reading, and rewriting is one of Borges’s major subjects and a fundamental aspect of his style.(29) Characteristically, his work reveals literature in the dialectical process of criticism and revision. By taking Poe’s psychological tale as the basis for his own heretical parody of the tradition launched by Augustine, he provides an indirect commentary on the nature and implications of his source. Otto’s theodicy both reveals the limitations of Wilson’s psychological and ethical conception of his dilemma and indicates the essential direction of his actions — something of which Wilson himself remains ignorant. “Deutsches Requiem” thus undertakes the critical task of salvaging the covert metaphysical implications of the Poe original. “Fate takes pleasure in repetitions, variants, symmetries,” Borges claims, in which terms Otto becomes Wilson interpreted in the twentieth century, and Wilson a nineteenth-century Otto. They provide but another instance of those “tautologies” he identifies as the [page 120:] “business” of his life. Thus, if Poe writes that “The human mind seems to perform, by some invariable laws, a sort of cycle, like those of the heavenly bodies” (H.8:266), it is fitting that Borges should echo across years, continents, cultures: “Perhaps universal history is the history of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors” (OI: 9).(30).

[page ???:]


1.  No extended study of Borges can avoid the spectre of Poe, so that his name appears repeatedly in critical studies of the Argentine’s work. But for specific notations of identities in form and content between their work, see Gérard Genette, “La Littérature selon Borges,” Jorge Luis Borges, L’Herne (Paris, 1964), p. 324; Robert E. Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York, 1979), p. 8; and Barton Levi St. Armand, “‘Seemingly Intuitive Leaps’: Belief and Unbelief in Eureka,” Poe as Literary Cosmologer: Studies in Eureka: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1975), p. 14 n. 13.

2.  Borges’s most extensive tributes to Poe are contained in “Elarts narrativo y la magiaDiscusión (Buenos Aires, 1957), pp. 86-91; and in “Edgar Allan Poe,” La nación, [Buenos Aires], 2 October 1949, Section 2, p. 1 . A few of the briefer notations of his awareness of, debt to, and appreciation of Poe occur in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969, trans. Norman di Giovanni (New York, 1970), pp. 237,273; The Book of Sand, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York, 1977), pp. 7-8; Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (New York, 1964), p. 86; and, with Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York, 1980), p. 12.

3.  The Aleph, p. 266.

4.  Reference to Borges’s works frequently cited here will be included in the text by abbreviation and page number: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald Yates and Frank Irby (New York, 1962), cited as L, and Other Inquisitions cited as OI.

5.  One half of Borges’s essay on the nature of narrative is devoted to the Poe novel (Discusión, pp. 86-91), and his interest in the symbolic nature of the tale’s opening line is indicated in a discussion of Poe’s contribution to the detective story in Borges Oral (Buenos Aires, 1979), pp. 69, 77.

6.  Ronald Christ interestingly observes Borges’s tendency to compose in several languages simultaneously. Particularly relevant here is his habit of searching out Latinisms that he then uses in their English rather than their root sense. Borges’s prose frequently gives the impression of being a spare English translation of some Spanish original. See Christ’s “A Modest Proposal for the Criticism of Borges,” The Cardinal Points of Borges, ed. Lowell Dunham and Ivar Ivask (Norman, 1971), pp. 11-12.

7.  Lucien Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel, trans. Alan Sheridan (London, 1975), pp. 29-30, 64, 79. [page 121:]

8.  Borges concludes “El tiempo circular” with the observation that “In times of growth, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant quantity, invariable, can sadden or irritate; in times of decline (like these), it is the promise that no opprobrium, no calamity, no dictator will be able to impoverish us” (“En tiempos de auge la conjetura de que la existencia del hombre es un cantidad constante, invariable, puede entristecer o irritar; en tiempos que declinan [como éstos], es la promesa de que ningún oprobrio, ninguna calamidad, ningún dictator podrá empobrecernos”), Historia de la eternidad, my trans. (Buenos Aires, 1971), p, 103. See also, OI:19, 166, 175.

9.  All citations of Poe’s work will be included in the text by volume and page number from H.

10.  La nación, 2 Oct. 1949, Section 2, p. 1.

11.  From a review of Gilbert Waterhouse’s A Short History of German Literature:Los a lemanes parecen incapaces de obrar sin algún aprendizaje alucinntorio [. . .] Notoriamente, los dioses han negado a los alemanes la belleza espontánea. [. . .] Los hombres de otras tierras pueden ser distráidamente atroces, eventualmente heroicos; los alemanes requieren seminarios de abnegatión, éticas de la infamia.” — Discusión, my trans., pp. 170-171.

12.  Emile M. Cioran, “Directions for Decomposition,” A Short History of Decay, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1975), pp. 3-4.

13.  See Poe’s letter to James R. Lowell of 2 July 1844 — O.1:57.

14.  Poe’s central metaphor for the proper interrogation of reality is a star beheld indirectly; for this recurrent image, see H.4:166; 7:xxxix;14:189-190; 16:164. For an excellent discussion of Poe’s aesthetic of the oblique and the arabesque, see David Ketteter, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Garden City, 1974), pp. 55, 57-58.

15.  See, in particular, the sketches “Everything and Nothing” and The Maker,” A Personal Anthology, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York, 1967).

16.  Poe as Literary Cosmologer, p.14 n.13. In the same volume, Perry F. Hoberg discovers in the mystical heresy of Sabbatianism “A more fully articulated conception of this idea of the holiness of sin.” Borges’s attraction to Gnosticism is well known, which sect, in some of its versions, believed that man could void himself of sin only by committing it. Both heresies are applicable to the ethical and moral dramas that Poe and Borges address in their fiction. See pp. 34-36.

17.  Borges’s sketches “Everything and Nothing and The Maker,” as well as his story, The Immortal,” address this idea. See, also, Gerard Genette, “L’utopie littéraire,” Figures (Paris, 1966), 1: 124-126, 127, 131.

18.  In the Nación article, Borges writes: It would also be just to say that Poe sacrificed his life to his work, his human destiny to immortality (También cabriá decir que Poe sacrificó la vida a la obra, el destino mortal al destiny pósthumo”), my trans. This is precisely the drama enacted by Wilson and imitated by Otto. For contemporary expressions of this idea, see Roland Barthes, “The Death of the [page 122:] Author,” Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Glasgow, 1977), pp. 142-148, and Michel Foucault,”What is an Author, Language, Counts-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. and trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY, 1977), pp. 116-118.

19.  A Personal Anthology, p. 203. See, also, Tlön, Uybar, OrbisTertius” and “Borges and I,” L:3-18; 246-247; “From Someone to No One,” A Personal Anthology, pp. 118-121; and “Valéry as Symbol,” OI:73-74.

20.  In the “prólogo” to Discusión, Borges writes of his “afición incrédula y persistente por las dificultades teológicas” — my trans, p. 9.

21.  “The labyrinth is a hidden cosmos although the world is nothing more, perhaps, than chaos, illusion. In the labyrinth, there is a center, a plan, everything is forseen” (“Le labyrinthe est un cosmos caché tandis que le monde n’est peut-être que le chaos, que l’illusoire. Dans le labyrinthe, il y a un centre, un plan, tout yest prévu”) — from an interview with Jean Montalbetri in a Borges issue of Magazine Littéraire, 148 (1979), 22.

22.  Richard Burgin, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (New York, 1968),1). 140, and La nación, loc. cit.

23.  For Borges, see, for instance, Jaime Alazraki, “Oxymoronic Structure in Borges’ Essays,” and Ronald Christ, “A Modest Proposal for the Criticism of Borges,” The Cardinal Points of Borges, pp. 7-15,47-52; Christ’s The Narrow Act: Borges’ Art of Allusion (New York, 1969),pp.15,60-70;William Gass, Imaginary Borges and His Books,” Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York, 1970), pp. 120-133; and Lloyd King, “Antagonism, Irony, and Death in Two Stories by Jorge Luis Borges,” CLAJ, 23 (1980), 399-408. For Poe, see Robert Daniel, “Poe’s Detective God,” Furioso, 6 (1951), 46, 47; James M. Cox, “Edgar Poe: Style as Pose,” VQR, 44 (1968), 67-89; Alan Golding, “Reductive and Expansive Language: Semantic Strategies in Eureka,” PoeS, 11(1978), l-5; Roman Kakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” The Structuralists: From Marx to Levi-Strauss, ed. Richard T. and Fernande M. De George (Garden City, 1972), pp. 102, 107; and Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, 83 (1968), 288, 295.

24.  “The Poet Tells of His Fame,” Selected Poems, 1923-1967, ed. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York, 1972), p. 239.

25.  “The Internalization of the Quest-Romance,” Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1970), pp. 10-18.

26.  The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Morchard Bishop (London, 1954), p. 69. The poem: “Religious Musings,” II. 119-157.

27.  Borges takes pains to distinguish Jerusalem from Whitman, but this may be considered as but another of his many subtle uses of allusion. He not only repeatedly acknowledges his own admiration for and early imitation of Whitman, but his meditations on the American poet refer to him in precisely the same terms as he uses to describe Jerusalem, especially as the poet of joy (OI: 68,73). tenderness (OI: 68), and the rich gift of a fluid, contingent reality (Discusión: 54). Thus, the negative reference evokes the very poet-figure that Borges wants associated with Otto’s double. [page 123:]

28.  I am indebted for this distinction to John Sturrock’s discussion of Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi in his Paper Tigers; The Ideal Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (Oxford, 1977), pp. 36-39.

29.  See Genette’s excellent summary of this aspect of Borges’ work in ‘L’uiopie litéraire, in Figures.

30.  A Personal Anthology, p. 15.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - The Infamy and the Ecstasy: Crime, Art, and Metaphysics in Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson and Jorge Luis Borges's Deutsches Requiem (Maurice J. Bennett, 1986)