I’ve long had a fascination with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer, mostly because of his short fictions. He combined a wild imagination and calm, disciplined, mannerly prose. A particular favourite — and famous — passage is the list of animals that he says is taken from (his invention) the “Chinese Encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”:
- those that belong to the Emperor,
- embalmed ones,
- those that are trained,
- suckling pigs,
- fabulous ones,
- stray dogs,
- those included in the present classification,
- those that tremble as if they were mad,
- innumerable ones,
- those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
- those that have just broken a flower vase,
- those that from a long way off look like flies.
I think of this list every time I find myself caught up in the toils of legal taxonomy and categories on Slaw. Lawyers will particularly love the way in which the catch-all is inserted as item 12 in a list of 14 items.
But, perhaps because his father was a lawyer, Borges makes scan reference, so far as I can tell, to law in his writings. (The “laws” of the universe, yes; laws of human making, no.) So my eye was caught when I saw the lovely cover of a book soon to be released as part of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series.
The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise reprints a number of Borges’ non-fiction writings. The quote that caught my eye — “The English live with the turmoil of two incompatible passions: a strange appetite for adventure and a strange appetite for legality.” — is the first line from his essay “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton.” G. K. Chesterton, a prolific English writer of some stature in the first third of the 20th century, and the creator of the Father Brown detective stories. And, alas, as often happens with Borges, having drawn you in with a line about “A,” he winds up talking to you about “B” and “C.”
In this essay, Borges leads us swiftly from “legality” to the rules that, to him, seem to govern detective fiction. This is fair enough, I suppose, because it is more than likely that the themes that animate crime fiction in English should be visible in its construction as well. There’s little doubt that much of crime fiction is about setting things right, whether via law ultimately or via extralegal devices to reach a “just” solution, i.e. a solution that the law should have engendered. English mystery writer, P. D. James, has recently given interviews in which she, a lot like Chesterton, emphasizes the moral aspects of the genre and, indeed, the rules she believes writers should obey in creating crime fiction. But the genre is nowadays far less confining than the young Borges and the old James might have it. And legality is now more of an adventure than perhaps it was in Borges’ time. Indeed, many of our legal rules, practices, and decisions could easily be categorized in the Emperor’s encyclopedia as “fabulous ones,” if not as among that would make us “tremble as if [we] were mad.”