“It’s the way Borges tells a story. In Borges, it’s not what happens, but how. A lot of times, he’ll tell you what’s going to happen up front, as in [“The Dead Man”] in which we’re told at the beginning that a nobody from the slums will be shot in the head as a leader of his people. All of the interest is in how the story is going to be told.”
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is one of the most prominent writers and intellects of the 20th Century. Although he became an influential Spanish language writer, Borges’ first language was English. In his early life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he nurtured a deep knowledge and love of American and European literature that would later influence his own work. His short stories, poems and translations are considered world classics. Among other things, Borges’ fiction is characterized by fantastical elements; his influence is felt in Wilson’s stories with the presence of ghosts, trips to the past and other magical moments.
Where does Jorge Louis Broges fit into Wilson’s family? Possibly as a learned Latin cousin from whom Wilson has taken lessons in aesthetics. Wilson’s debt to the Argentinian fabulist has been the least explored of the four B’s, but he was no less emphatic about the influence of Borges (see above quote).
Reading Borges has also taught Wilson the ethics of listening which are so important in the black communities in his plays:
“With Borges you’ve got all these wires carrying electrical impulses, but they don’t all connect up. When you encounter one of these little breaks, I think he wants you to stop and say, ‘Now wait a second, how does that connect?’ That’s why so many of his stories are about writing stories.”
WIlson’s interest in storytelling is the basis of his strongest bond with Borges. Mary Lusky Friedman has recently identified a “Borgesean Paradign” that may be usefully applied to Wilson:
“Reduced to its most schematic outline, the fantasy that informs each one of Borges’ tales tells the following story: A mishap sets into motion a protagonist, who responds to the calamity by setting out on a journey. In the course of this journey Borges’ hero travels through surroundings that are progressively more impoverished and irreal until at last he arrives at a structure that walls him in. Immured there, his is privy to a marvelous but blighting experience, an experience that blasts his selfhood and annihilates him.” (6)
This also serves as an apt description of Wilson’s protagonists, each of whom conducts a Borgesean quest to locate or lose a text. So Loomis in Joe Turner ultimately finds his “song of self-sufficiency” rooted in the blues; Levy in Ma Rainey unsuccessfully tries to transcend his father’s revenge tragedy by selling Sturdyvant his own songs, which are not rooted in the blues; Berniece in The Piano Lesson exorcises the ghost of Sutter by locating herslef in the scong of her ancestors; Troy Maxson in Fences invests his legacy for his son in the song of Old Blue; Hambone in Two Trains Running demands a ham instead of a chicken, a quest which is inscribed in his last words, “Black is beautiful.” As with Borge’s protagnoist-narrators, Wilson’s characters express an annihilation which paradoxically creates a narrated self. Like Borges, Wilson presents meta-drama after meta-drama in which the primary self-reflexive topic of the plays is the very creation of text itself.
Many other lines can be drawn from Borges to Wilson: the primacy of myth, the principle of irreality in which magic is viewed in anthropological terms as a complete system, the humor that equips one to face absurdity, and the postmodern stance that all significant human experience is textual.