What I’m reading lately: Borges, Jung, Hitchcock

The other day I read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) for the first time.

The nations of [Tlön’s southern hemisphere] are congenitally idealist. Their language and the derivations of their language - religion, letters, metaphysics - all presuppose idealism. The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön’s conjectural Ursprache, from which the “present” languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word “moon,” but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate.”

Compare to Steve Yegge’s Kingdom of Nouns (March 2006). I admit I find it impossible to imagine a grammar in which nouns really don’t exist at all; but I wonder if it’s particularly hard for English-speakers, English being a language in which verbing (or vice versa, nouning) is particularly inescapable.

Meanwhile, Tlön’s extreme anti-materialism — the perception of the world as a series of unconnected phenomena, rather than as temporal slices of some underlying material reality — leads to some interesting literary conventions.

Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations. […] A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete.


The concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous. The critics often invent authors: they select two dissimilar works — the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say —; attribute them to the same writer; and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres.

This serendipitously reminded me of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job (1952); not only is Jung concerned with achieving “completeness” through the integration of opposites, but he bases much of Job’s thesis on the psychoanalysis of an essentially accidental character: a conflation of the loving John of the Epistles with the vengeful John of Revelation. Jung writes:

I have seen many compensating dreams of believing Christians who deceived themselves about their real psychic constitution and imagined that they were in a different condition from what they were in reality. But I have seen nothing that even remotely resembles the brutal impact with which the opposites collide in John’s visions, except in the case of severe psychosis.

Anyway, the translation of “Tlön, Uqbar” I found was James E. Irby’s (1961). In the process of looking up Irby’s full name for this post, I came across “Dear Mr. Borges, Which Translation Should I Read?” (Michael Marcus, December 2018), in which it is alleged that Borges himself viewed the process of translation between languages almost as a translation between media — Spanish and English as different as stage and screen.

In the preface to The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges writes: “Working closely together in daily sessions, we have tried to make these stories read as though they had been written in English. We do not consider English and Spanish as compounded sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world, each with a nature of its own. […]”

To Borges, a translation [could] become something just as compelling as it was in its original language, perhaps even in new and slightly different ways.

This serendipitously recalls what Leonard Leff says on the commentary track of the Criterion Collection’s DVD of Rebecca (also, coincidentally, 1940): that Alfred Hitchcock always viewed his source material with a great deal of “ruthlessness.” In Film Weekly (May 1936) Hitchcock wrote:

I believe that I owe much of the success I have been lucky enough to achieve to my “ruthlessness” in adapting stories for the screen.

A book may have the germ of a screen idea in it. This germ may be in the plot; it may be in the characters; it may be in the background; or it may be in certain of the situations. But that does not mean that the book itself would make a good film.

I have always maintained that it is supreme foolishness to take any book and film the whole of it just because one angle of it is really worth screening. There can be no doubt that The 39 Steps is a rattling good book, but I couldn’t see it as good film material.

I found that by taking certain of the characters, part of the plot, and the excellent locales, I had the background for a very good screen story. Therefore I ignored the book as it stood, and developed the story with the screen in mind.

This I always do, and always have done. I never soak myself in a book before starting to adapt it. In fact, before now, I have written a scenario without even completely reading the original book, knowing only the bare plot, the characters, and rough outline. It has been interesting to discover afterwards just where the author and I have hit upon the same developments.

A good original screen plot is very, very hard to find. But if you can see an idea in a published book, why shouldn’t it be developed? It is far fairer to acknowledge the source and pay the original author for his idea than to develop a new story from his plot without giving him any credit (though I have known this to happen in filmland).

Contrast with Roman Polanski’s film of Rosemary’s Baby, where it’s quite possible Polanski didn’t know he was allowed to change anything. (Previously on this blog: “Transcription of All of Them Witches (2019-08-26).)

Posted 2022-09-24