October 23rd, 2010 / 11:01 am

The Muse of Impotence, The Muse of Impossibility

Alberto Manguel, badass

Read Alberto Manguel’s killer essay “The Muse of Impossibility” at Threepenny Review. An excerpt:

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. (Read more)


  1. mimi

      Embrace Impossibility and Set YourSelf Free

  2. deadgod

      Borges has the “ambition” to be a writer in spite of his suspicion that he’s already, and only ever will be, a “mediocre maker of phrases”. Is the tension between the ambition and the mediocrity really paradoxical?

      Mallarme calls ‘her’ the Muse of Impotence because she inspires failed attempts at the Ultimate Book.

      Is it true that nothing written is at all ‘ultimate’? What’s paradoxical about being inspired to try to do something one doesn’t have the potency to do? Is every failure paradoxical?

  3. Kyle Minor

      As usual, your questions are smart and provocative. So let us spend a little more time in your brain: Want to take a run at answering them?

  4. Justin RM

      And suddenly I’m hearing what sound like the birth pangs of an existential meltdown.

  5. deadgod

      a) No, “ambition” to write and a sense of one’s limitations (beyond, or added to, the in-built limitations of communicative action) that might lead to a self-identification of “mediocrity” are not at odds with each other. I don’t think making some effort while under the yoke (possibly enabling) of a lack of self-confidence – real or strategic – is “paradoxical”.

      b) It depends (of course) on what “Ultimate” – Mallarme’s word – is ‘ulterior’ with respect to. As I understand Pure Poetry: the Poem that every poem is trying and failing to inscribe stands over against actual poems as an unreachable, inescapable finality: an “Ultimate” inherent contrariety and, therefore, “paradoxical” (considered from the point of view of poeisis as humanly inevitable).

      But I don’t think Mallarme’s existential Platonism is the only, or the best, way to think of “ultimacy”. Things that come into and pass out of existence, while they provisionally exist, have become what they are, and that that being is “ultimate” despite its temporality – what, for that thing, could come ‘after’ its existence? Mallarme’s idea of an exterior, perpetually-tended-towards ‘Finality’ is, to me, not a useful way to conceive of what poems are really written towards.

      c) As with my ‘answer’ to a), I don’t think there’s anything “paradoxical” about inspiration to exceed one’s resources or abilities. That one can imagine, and even see, an ambulatorily unreachable horizon is no argument against imagination or vision – much as they might be ‘contradicted’ in the sense of being ‘unreached’.

      d) That failure be in-built sounds like a “paradox”, in the way (I think) Manguel means. Linguistic competence never results hermeneutically in universality or perfect coherence. It’s a valid, even a strong, albeit common, point: communication that is recognized communicatively both succeeds and fails.

      But is this tension really “paradoxical” in the sense that linguisticality is ‘against’ itself? I don’t think so; I think that the incommensurability of understanding with meaning is a matter of perspectival universality. It’s not that there’s a Perfect Meaning to be gotten in and from the Ultimate Book, but rather, that meaning itself is an inwardly fragmentary – that is, a perspectival – event. I don’t think it’s “paradoxical” that different observers have different perspectives of the same – if it is ‘the same’ – object, and fail to perceive the unity and coherence of the object (even if they each conceive of and project onto the object such wholeness and integrity that they don’t actually see).

      So, Kyle, your sense of “provocation” provokes me to explain why I think Manguel’s use of the exciting term “paradox” isn’t apt. But maybe the “paradox” he spots is there, even in my dull perspective! Want to take a run at working out your view on the excerpt (or its source)?

  6. deadgod

      Justin, what do you “hear” coming from outside your private Idaho? For example: want to take a run at Manguel’s sense of literature being “paradoxically” a vocation to fail?

  7. Kyle Minor

      Sometimes I find it difficult to engage analytically with competing abstractions without taking awhile to roll them around (he says by way of apology for not having the wheels to mount a response this evening.)

      I will say this: I enjoyed the essay despite not having parsed it as you have, and I will also enjoy reading it alongside your reading of it sometime in the next week.

      In general, I enjoy reading your responses to my posts and others, because they are so analytically rigorous, and because there is a precision to them to which I don’t habitually aspire, but maybe I should.

      Do you write and publish essays of the sort that often prompt you to comment? If not, maybe you should. Places like Threepenny Review and American Scholar would likely welcome them, and people like me would enjoy reading them.

  8. Tim Horvath


      I’m not sure whether the paradox is there either, but I think you’re coming at the issue a bit askew. Manguel isn’t delineating, as I read it, the disparity between ambition and limited ability with its concomitant lack of self-confidence (which you rightly note can be empowering in its way). He’s talking about the idea of language not as communicative but as generative, the word as world. In the ideal book the world itself is replicated, hence all of the examples he gives about Borges’s obsessions with redundancy between text and world, where one of the two must cease to exist, the map becoming the territory the most well-known example. In every act of making literature you are trying to make humans while knowing (not suspecting) you will only make Golems. Of course you cannot strive to make Golems or you get nothing. The failure is not a psychological one or even aesthetic but ontological. There are psychological components, though, such as the impression some people have at times that books/fictions/representations are more real than what is outside their frames, i.e. life. Anyhow, whether this is a paradox…I’m not sure. It’s rooted more in Judeo-Christian tradition than Platonism, ultimately, I think, in terms of thinking of the creator as akin to the Creator…the power of the word to bring into being. I tend to think of language from an evolutionary standpoint, so it’s a little hard for me to entertain this picture of it, but it’s a great imaginative conceit.

  9. Justin RM
  10. deadgod

      That’s generous of you to say, Kyle.

      In the essay, Manguel does entertainingly process an interesting “contradictory injunction” – we’re built to explain circumstances to ourselves, often by telling stories, but we’re also built not to make absolutely comprehensive stories nor to interpret them with perfect comprehension. But I don’t think this destiny of hermeneusis [new word?] – which seems, from the point of view of instrumental mastery, to be a paradoxical ‘destiny to fail’ – is actually “paradoxical” from the perspective of becoming.

  11. deadgod

      language not as communicative but as generative

      Yes, that’s an element in disputing (or supporting) Mallarmean ‘Ultimacy’: the Ultimate Book uses us to write our (failed) books. (I’d change “ontological” to ‘gignomenological’ – challenging the absolute privileging of being over becoming.)

      As I say, though ‘failure’ seems built into linguisticality, that’s from the point of view of communication as a perfectly meshing relationship, where signs mean uncontestably and wholly. I don’t think that understanding, even of mechanics itself, works in that mechanical – that schematic – a way.

  12. deadgod

      Ha ha – Pavlov’s “Justin RM”.

  13. Guest

      I like the word “gignomenological,” even though it sounds like a neologism. Kudos.

      I see what you’re saying, and yes, from the standpoint of being versus sheer becoming many a paradox is readily dissolved in Heraclitean rivers. But I just don’t think communication is what it’s all about here. It’s about language as conjurer, bringing into being. We’re talking Golems. If you attempt to forge a human and make a Golem instead, or worse “a pile of dust,” this is not a failure of communication.

  14. Tim Horvath

      fyi dg, that was me, trying to move my comment in reply to you. Failing, without paradox.

  15. deadgod

      That might have been what I would have Guest.

      language […] bringing into being

      A good way to put a strong argument: that breath organizes logos into created-otherwise matter, or names matter into existence (? – this latter sounds neither ‘Jewish’ nor ‘Greek’). But your latter phrase seems less “generative” than gignomenonative – like twisting a kaleidoscope.

      failure of communication

      Rather, that hermeneusis indicates ineluctable immersion in a constant surplus of “communication”, from the points of view of instrumentality and dominion.