The author’s main contention is that Borges’s short story ‘Emma Zunz’ not only includes psychoanalytic themes, but also succeeds in effecting, through the fi ctional text’s form, a reading akin to a psychoanalytic approach to the vicissitudes of truth and meaning. This is an approach named by Bion, after Keats, ‘negative capability’; for example, an openness, not to the (impossible) knowledge of truth, but to its effects. The effect of reading Borges’s story is analyzed as conveyed through three main narrative strategies: (a) the minute description of Emma’s falsities and her fabrication of lies, as processes through which the awareness of internal reality is thoroughly transformed; (b) the subversion of the detective narrative genre making obsolete its conventions; (c) the introduction of a narrator who paradoxically knows and doesn’t know crucial aspects of Emma’s internal and external reality, who is both close to and distant from the reader, and who never decides among the diverse alternatives he proposes. These narrative strategies transform the story into a perplexing playground for the reader’s expectations. Borges’s peculiar way of narrating the story of ‘Emma Zunz’ powerfully appeals to the reader’s capability not to search for the truth, but to allow herself to be affected by it; not to decipher, but to follow the patient’s discourse or the story in the written text.
Keywords: Bion, Borges, ‘Emma Zunz’, negative capability, truth, lies, falsities, reading effect
The word’s power does not consist in its explicit content,—if, generally speaking, there is such a thing—but in the diversion that is involved in it.
(Bialik, 1938, p. 17).
Bion’s conceptualizations of truth, falsity and lies, understanding and misunderstanding are among this author’s most important and enigmatic concepts; these are ideas based on the assumption that any elaboration or formulation of primordial truth will necessarily be a falsity. Elaborating on Bion’s ideas, Green (2000, p. 113) considered this to be the price necessarily paid for thinking. Another great thinker who repeatedly emphasized the inevitability of falsities is Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean poet and philosopher. Basic human truths (e.g. death) are, in Borges’s thinking, unknowable, and can be communicated only as falsities, in the form of legends or mythologies: ‘Reality may be too complex for oral transmissions; legends recreate it in a way that is only accidentally false, and which permits it to travel through the world from mouth to mouth’ (Borges, 1952, p. 373, my italics). These legends or mythologies are fi ctive, but they are also effective in transmitting a substantial truth.
Borges wrote a long series of stories on lies, felonies, false identities, deceitful pacts and perjury (1974). Most of these are transgressions of and on spoken or written words. The short story ‘Emma Zunz’ belongs to this category of stories of transgression, and has been read as a meditation on themes of social justice (Ludmer, 1992), as the story of a kabbalistic heroine (Aizenberg, 1983) that presents an implacable manifestation of the feminine aspects of God’s justice, or as a study on similarities and uncertainty (Moon, 1989). However, ‘Emma Zunz’ is a story unique in its direct evocation of a psychoanalytic perspective on the Oedipus complex, in spite of Borges’s avowed ‘incapacity’ to read Freud (Wardi, 1999). This story has been read as a classic oedipal story masked as a daughter’s alleged revenge of her father’s shame and death (Chrzanowski, 1978), as well as presenting an ironical approach to psychoanalytic oedipal mythology (Wardi, 1999). I would like to suggest that this story’s oedipal allusions are part of a profound and detailed study of the transformations of psychic reality and the blackening effects of lies. Moreover, this story effects in the reader a surprising experience of transformations of truth. After a summary presentation of the story and an outline of Bion’s basic conceptualization of truth, falsities and lies, the main contention of this article will be presented: the very particular way this story is told facilitates a reading experience, a position vis-ŕ-vis truth and meaning that is akin to what Bion named, after Keats, ‘negative capability’.
‘Emma Zunz’ (Borges, 1944) tells of an explicit quest for vengeance and justice. Ostensibly a detective story, it surprisingly does not develop the process leading a detective to the solution of an enigma, but centers on the details of the thoughts and actions leading the culprit to the prospective implementation of a perfect crime. The narration ends with the murderer’s fabricated confession of the crime to the police.
Emma is a taciturn 18-year-old textile worker at Loewenthal’s textile factory. She leads a lonely and tedious life, has very few girl friends and feels an almost pathological fear of men. Emma seems to fi nd some interest in the cinema and has always been overtly opposed to any violence. On 14 July 1922, as she comes back from work, Emma fi nds a letter from Brazil. The letter, written by a stranger, relates that Manuel Maier has died from an overdose of veronal ‘taken by mistake’. We soon learn that Manuel Maier is a pseudonym and that in reality Emma’s own father, the exiled Emmanuel Zunz, is the one who has died; we also learn that in 1916 Loewenthal had accused the cashier Emmanuel Zunz of embezzlement. Zunz’s property was then confi scated, and he was shamefully exiled. As she reads the letter Emma gradually begins to remember past days:
She remembered summer vacations at a little farm near Gualeguay, she remembered (tried to remember) her mother … she remembered the warrant for arrest, the ignominy … she remembered (but this she never forgot) that her father on the last night had sworn to her that the thief was Loewenthal, Aron Loewenthal, formerly the manager of the factory and now one of the owners. Since 1916 Emma had guarded the secret. She had revealed it to no one, not even to her best friend … (Borges, 1944, pp. 164–5).
We are then told that Emma felt this confession had created a ‘secret pact’ with her father. However, the falseness of the father’s confession is hinted at by the narrator’s speculations that in keeping the secret Emma was ‘shunning profane incredulity’. The narrator also suggests that Emma kept the secret of her father’s innocence because she believed that it ‘was a link between herself and the absent parent’ (p. 165). Moreover, not believing her father’s version of the theft would have made Emma the daughter of an embezzler who ran away to Brazil abandoning her to a life of solitude and poverty. Different aspects of Emma’s reception of the news of her father’s death are carefully described in this short story; this process presents an oscillation between Emma’s perceptions and her denials and distortions. We are told that when she got the letter ‘the stamp and the envelope deceived her at fi rst’ (p. 164). Then, as she opens the envelope, the written lines seem unclear, blurred (borroneadas). Finally, Emma recognizes the content of the letter: ‘Emma read that Mr. Maier had taken by mistake a large dose of veronal and had died on the third of the month in the hospital’ (p. 164). But then, ‘Emma dropped the paper’ (p. 164). As the letter slips from her hands Emma has feelings ‘of blind guilt, of unreality, of coldness, of fear… She realized that … the death of her father was the only thing that happened in the world, and it would go on happening endlessly’ (p. 164). That night Emma weeps ‘for the suicide of Manuel Maier who in the happy old days was Manuel Zunz’ (p. 164). Emma interprets her father’s death as a suicide. This interpretation, or misinterpretation, makes Loewenthal responsible for Emmanuel Zunz’s death. The morning after receiving the letter Emma already has a full-blown plan to avenge the injustice she assumes was done years ago to her father: She is going to kill Loewenthal. She elaborates a plot that justifi es her killing Loewenthal as an act ‘which would permit the Justice of God to triumph over human justice’ (p. 168). Her detailed scheme will convince the police she has killed in defense of her virtue, thus eliminating any doubts about the legitimacy of her actions and avoiding punishment. Emma fixes a private appointment with Loewenthal on the pretext of reporting to him about a strike planned by the factory workers. She then carefully executes an exacting plan to prostitute herself and selects the least attractive sailor she can find among those who will leave port the same night. During her fi rst sexual experience in a tawdry hotel room, the narrator notes that Emma thinks for a moment that her father had done to her mother the ‘hideous thing that was being done to her now’ (p. 167). We are also told about Emma’s atrocious sensations and the narrator’s doubt that she might have thought more than once about her father: if she had indeed thought about him ‘in that moment she endangered her desperate undertaking’ (p. 167). Immediately after this experience, which took place in a ‘time outside of time’, Emma goes to meet Loewenthal: ‘In Aaron Loewenthal’s presence, more than the urgency of avenging her father, Emma felt the urgency of infl icting punishment for the outrage she had suffered. She was unable not to kill him after that thorough dishonor’ (p. 168, my italics). Emma kills Loewenthal with his own gun, making it seem as though he had raped her. Nevertheless, not everything happens as planned. Emma had imagined that Loewenthal would confess his guilt to her, and this would permit ‘the Justice of God to triumph over human justice’ (p. 168). However, she did not manage to deliver her accusation before killing him, and obscenities were the only message he had for her. The doubt about the credibility of Emmanuel Zunz’s last confession to his daughter remains unresolved. Finally, Emma phones the police to tell them that ‘Something incredible has happened … Mr. Loewenthal had me come over on the pretext of the strike … He abused me … I killed him’ (pp. 168–9). The story ends with the narrator’s disconcerting last comment that affi rms the truth of a story which has been presented as an explicit, conscious lie:
Actually the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because substantially it was true. True was Emma Zunz’s tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True was also the outrage she had suffered: only the circumstances were false, the time and one or two proper names (p. 169).
‘Emma Zunz’ has been usually interpreted as a daughter’s successful quest for vengeance and justice, in which Emma frames Loewenthal as he may have framed her father years ago (Wheelock, 1969; Sturrock, 1977, p. 68). Other readings underscore that the enactment of the primal scene and the murder of a father fi gure exhibit the structure of a classic oedipal theme. Wardi (1999), for instance, sees in the story a realization of Emma’s unconscious wishes of incest and parricide. Interestingly, this author noted that this fulfi llment follows the displacement of a father object split into two different fi gures: the unknown sailor and Loewenthal. Emma has sex with the sailor, and she murders Loewenthal. These displacements are insinuated in the reference to ‘one or two’ false names in the story’s closing sentence. Emma’s alibi contains the two split parts of the father as she informed the
police that ‘He abused me … I killed him’ (p. 169). The lack of a causal connection between these two clauses is conspicuous. From Wardi’s perspective, the alibi’s syntax conveys a psychological truth that puts side by side the sexual abuser and the object of her death wishes, without, however, explicitly linking them. It is my contention that this story not only includes classical psychoanalytic themes (primal scene, oedipal complex), but that it also succeeds in producing, through a fi ctional text, a psychoanalytic approach to the vicissitudes of truth and its transformations. Moreover, this story not only thematizes but also dramatizes truth and transformations of truth as concomitant and concurrent. As for the story’s theme, I hope to show that the more or less obvious psychoanalytic contents that appear in ‘Emma Zunz’ are the artful, and sometimes ironic, envelope of a profound meditation on truth, lies and knowledge that is basic to psychoanalytic reasoning, and germane to Bion’s approach to these questions. At the end of the story we fi nd out it is oedipal in the sense that it unfolds the refusal to acknowledge truth, thereby avoiding the pain inherent in the experience of loss and mourning (Britton, 1997). The study of the effects of reading ‘Emma Zunz’ will be undertaken in the framework of reader-response criticism. Reader-response criticism marks out the area of investigation that stresses the reader’s active participation in the creation of the text’s meaning, while meaning is conceived as experience (Iser, 1978). In his article on ‘Literature in the reader’ (1970), Fish substitutes the traditional question ‘what does it (the text, the sentence etc.) mean’ with the question ‘what does it (the text, the sentence etc.) do’ to the reader. Fish defi nes meaning as the effect the text has on its reader. The emphasis is laid on what the text does—on how the text is effective in producing the reader’s response, following Austin’s (1975) distinction between constative and performative linguistic utterance. Since different texts have different degrees of evocative power, Barthes (1970) distinguishes between ‘readerly’ texts, those texts that more or less control the reader’s response and ‘writerly’ texts (mainly literary texts) in which readers fi ll in interpretative gaps, thus ‘writing’ the text. While reader-response criticism aims at understanding how sense is made from a text, the analysis of this process that explicitly centers on the reader’s response inevitably includes the study of the structure of the text—the study of that which stimulates as well as that which resists the production of meaning in the reader. Psychoanalytic studies of the reading processes have shown that literary structures affect the reader’s awareness of mental functions that otherwise remain unconscious (Priel, 1991, 1999). Freud’s analysis of ‘The “uncanny”’ (1919) can be seen as a precursor of this perspective. In this study Freud noted the effect of specifi c texts on the reader’s conscious awareness of the compulsion to repeat, and proposed that ‘whatever reminds us of this inner “compulsion to repeat” is perceived as uncanny’ (p. 238). The reading of texts purposefully structured as permanently ambiguous (such as James’s The turn of the screw) evokes and increases our awareness of the loss of or separation from an omnipotent transformational object (Priel, 1994a). Texts very rich in intertextual allusions have been found to provide a privileged translation of unconscious symmetry and timelessness, creating an increased awareness of identity and unity of things that are otherwise notably disparate (Priel, 1994b). The experience of reading ‘Emma Zunz’ forcefully dramatizes the awareness of the simultaneity of truth and its transformations. The way this story is narrated leads the reader beyond a systematic search for the truth, to a position from which truth is allowed to happen. This position is akin to the psychoanalytic perspective that Bion (1970) named, after Keats, ‘negative capability’. Before developing this other psychoanalytic interpretation of ‘Emma Zunz’, I shall summarize the basic ideas of Freud and Bion about truth, knowledge and negative capability that provide the context for the present reading of Borges’s text.
Truth, falsities and lies
Following the basically Kantian position of late Freud, Bion defined truth as an unknowable, ultimate reality. In one of the 15 indexed quotations of Kant in the Standard edition, Freud explains that, as Kant warned us about the subjectivity of our knowledge of the external world, ‘so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object’, and concludes that, ‘Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be’ (1915, p. 171). Toward the end of his life, Freud unreservedly expressed the impossibility of knowing unconscious processes in themselves: psychoanalysis only allows us to ‘infer a number of processes which are in themselves “unknowable” and interpolate them in those that are conscious to us’ (1938, p. 197).
Assuming that absolute truth —‘O’ according to Bion’s nomenclature — can never be directly known, this author proposed that only transformations of O are knowable (Bion, 1965; Bianchedi, 1993). Every thought or statement is seen as a transformation of the primordial, emotional, experiential truth, and therefore as a non-truth or falsity. Unconscious defense mechanisms, for instance, can be seen as transformations of an emotionally unbearable truth. Adequate frustration tolerance is the prerequisite for the transformation of absence, loss or the impossibility of knowing absolute truth into new, ‘thinkable’ meanings. As a thinker produces these thoughts, they can be transformed into symbols and mental abstractions, as well as communicated to another thinker. From this perspective, any formulation of thought is already a transformation, while the unknowable truth exists independently of a thinker, and can only be intuited.
Different kinds of transformations of truth derive from changes in the quality of the link between container (thinker) and contained (thought) (Bion, 1970; Bianchedi et al., 2000); the quality of this link differentiates between falsities and lies, a differentiation that is basic to the present understanding of ‘Emma Zunz’. Using metaphors borrowed from biology, Bion defi ned three kinds of link: commensal, symbiotic and parasitic. As defi ned by Bianchedi et al. (2000), commensal is a relation between thought and thinker that, even though scientifi cally false (as when we say ‘We’ll meet at sunrise’), does not do any harm to he who thinks or speaks, or to he who listens to the speaker. Moreover, such a statement may even prove to be important as a vehicle of communication while truth remains untouched. Bion defi ned this relationship as one in which ‘two objects share a third to the advantage of all three’ (1970, p. 95) referring to the speaker, the listener and the truth. When the link between container and contained is symbiotic, there is a mutually advantageous relation of dependency, as when a falsity unconsciously protects the mind from unbearable thoughts and emotions. Bion gives the example of the protective effects of a belief that might be a falsity, such as ‘The world will endure’ (pp. 103–4). Falsities are unconsciously formed, and their aim remains unknown to the subject. In the parasitic container– contained relationship that characterizes lies, however, there is a dependency link that is destructive for the thinker, the thought and the audience. Moreover, lies are consciously directed to another to denude true feelings of the self’s and, mainly, the other’s, minds. Thus, a lie is a transformation of truth that is consciously directed to discard truth from the self and from the other’s mind. It is important to note that Bion (1970) assumed that a lie always implies some previous contact with truth in order to evade it. Bion sees truth as the basic condition for the development of thoughts and thinking; falsities might fulfi ll an important protective function in this process. Lies, however, are seen as destructive or ‘poisoning’, leading to an impoverishment of the internal world and impeding growth. Bion characterizes the liar as resorting to the illusion of extreme omniscience that substitutes for the intuition of truth, and overrides learning from experience. This omniscience is based on the false affi rmation of the self’s moral rightness, which substitutes for the discrimination between true and false (Bion, 1962).
The reader’s negative capability
Issues of truth, falsity and lies are artfully interwoven in ‘Emma Zunz’, and the act of reading the story confronts us with an evolving process of transformation of unconscious truth. Moreover, this text’s main perplexing effect may derive from the form of its questioning the effects of lies and the limits of knowing, a way of questioning, I propose, that facilitates the reader’s ‘negative capability’, the tolerance for, in Keats’s words, ‘half-knowledge’. This is a peculiar reading effect that gradually leads the reader to relinquish—not without effort—the hope of knowing the truth, while following its vicissitudes in the story. This stance vis-a-vis the text is akin to Keats’s defi nition of ‘negative capability’ as the capability ‘of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (Rollins, 1958, p. 193). Keats not only contrasted negative capability with ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’, but also emphasized the contribution of unrestrained imagination to the acquisition of new knowledge (Leavy, 1970; Goellnicht, 1989).
This is the capacity to bear novelty and surprise, to intuitively reach toward truth that is otherwise occluded by habit and consensual assumptions. This is basically a capability to tolerate absence and contain situations perceived as ambiguous or uncertain without actively looking to discover an (always already known) hidden meaning. We can thus say that negative capability implies a capability not to search for the truth, but to allow oneself to be affected by it—not to decipher a dream or a text, but to follow the patient’s discourse or a written story.
Using Keats’s idea, Bion proposed that the psychoanalytic search for truth through its transformations is, characteristically, the interruption of the search and the adoption of a state of mind that is a disciplined ‘suspension of memory, desire, understanding and sense-impressions’ (1970, p. 43). The unknown can to some extent be known only in the measure that the search for it is suspended. A similar position had been taken by Freud when he assumed a necessity to be ‘artificially blind’ when studying issues too obscure to be caught by normal vision; this idea already appears in ancient myths about blind seers of psychic truth (Bianchedi, 1993). Suspension of memory and desire, or artifi cial blindness, might create the conditions for an openness to what is intrinsically unknowable; this is an openness not to the (impossible) knowledge of truth, but to its effects; it is assumed that, if memory and desire prevail, the tendency to identify the unknown with what is already known or wished for overrides this effect. In other words, the suspension of memory and desire allows the analyst to be affected by what she doesn’t know, while the search for truth strengthens tendencies to assimilate the unknown into existing theories or conventional thinking. I would like to underscore the importance of the distinction between knowing (possessing) the truth on one hand, and being affected by it (being possessed by it) on the other hand as basic to the understanding of the ways Borges’s ‘Emma Zunz’ effects a ‘negatively capable’ reading experience. The perplexing reading effect produced by ‘Emma Zunz’ is created along three major narrative strategies: (a) the minute description of Emma’s fabrication of lies as a process through which the awareness of internal reality is thoroughly transformed; (b) the subversion of the detective narrative making obsolete the genre’s conventions and transforming the story into a playground for the reader’s expectations; and (c) the introduction of a narrator who paradoxically knows and doesn’t know crucial aspects of Emma’s internal and external reality, who is both close to and distant from the reader, and who never decides among the diverse alternatives he proposes.
The first strategy relates to the story’s content, while the other two defi ne aspects of the story’s form (i.e. its narrative strategies), and the way they affect the reader’s experience. I will now develop these three points.
The fabrication of lies
From the very beginning the text develops an atmosphere of mendacity and deception. The theme of deception, and particularly self-deception, is reiterated many times already in the first sentences: ‘the stamp and the envelope deceived her at first’ (Borges, 1944, p. 164); the writer of this letter, aptly named Fein or Fain (the writing seemed unclear), is deceived as to whom he is writing about. The narrator’s doubts as to the truth of Emma’s father’s innocence suggest that he might have been for her a lying object (O’Shaughnessy, 1989). Emma furtively hides the letter. Surprisingly, we learn that Emma herself only ‘scarcely believes’ in her own actions: ‘How could one make credible an action which was scarcely believed in by the person who executed it …?’ (Borges, 1944, p. 166).
Within this atmosphere, we witness the consequences of Emma’s transformations of her perceptions of unbearable pain. I would like to point to falsities and lies as the two different transformations of truth conveyed by the text. As defined by Bion, lies appear as mainly conscious, however their motivations (oedipal for instance) are not; neither are their effects, masterfully depicted in ‘Emma Zunz’. We found falsities at the beginning of the story in Emma’s denial of doubt regarding her father’s confession, for instance, or in her diffi culty fi rst in recognizing the Brazil letter and then understanding the writing. But as disavowal is not effective and she cannot but acknowledge the letter’s meaning ‘[h]er impression was of a weak feeling in her stomach and in her knees; then of blind guilt, of unreality, of coldness, of fear; then she wished it were already the next day’ (p. 164). The perplexing wish ‘that it were already the next day’ begins a process that is partly conscious and that will lead her to prostitution and murder, a process that makes her act ‘furtively’ and ‘suspect’ the ‘ulterior facts’. Moreover, a total change has taken place at that moment and ‘she had already become the person she would be’. This is the moment Emma begins to lie, that is, she begins to act in order to denude her and the policemen’s minds of possible contact with truth (see Bianchedi et al., p. 224). Hate in the form of the need for vengeance and justice completely substituted for processes of mourning and knowledge. What follows is a detailed chronicle of the fabrication of lies: the evacuation of a painful truth through action, the assumption of omniscience, the general impoverishment of psychic and outside reality, and the fading away of a sense of time; these are all processes that characterize the ‘invention of lies’ (Bion, 1970).
After reading the fateful letter Emma embarks upon frantic action. Emma’s story swiftly evolves within a period of a day or day and a half, during which links and objects are hectically evacuated. Any kind of delay is unbearable for Emma: ‘then she wished that there were already the next day’ (Borges, 1944, p. 164). ‘Impatience awoke her on Saturday’ (p. 165). Action seems to be mainly a relief, a remission, from thinking: ‘No longer did she have to plan and imagine; within a few hours the simplicity of the facts would suffi ce’ (p. 165). From then on, Emma justifi es all her actions on absolute moral grounds, thus evading confl ict and acting with utter moral ascendancy. She intends to make the Justice (in capital letters) of God triumph over human justice (p. 168): she herself will be the instrument of this divine justice (and therefore will not be punished). A moralistic stance substitutes for the emotional experience of the relation with and the loss of her father. By becoming God’s instrument Emma evades truth and the pain of psychical change. As the story unfolds, we learn that Emma’s feelings and memories fade away as soon as they emerge. Any link to them endangers the whole enterprise. For instance, at critical moments in the story, childhood scenes are evoked, such as the window with yellow lozenges (pp. 164, 166), but these scenes are immediately erased: The man led her to a door, then to a murky entrance hall and afterwards to a narrow stairway and then a vestibule (in which there was a window with lozenges identical to those in the house at Lanus) and then to a passageway, and then … (p. 166). The old Lanus home emerges to be immediately disavowed. The same mechanism, where truth fl ashes out to immediately disappear, reappears also in Emma’s perception of the external reality; for instance, ‘She rode through the diminishing opaque suburbs. Seeing them and forgetting them at the same instant’ (p. 167). The narrator explicitly notes the danger that might be involved in thinking: ‘It is my belief that she did think once [about her father], and in that moment she endangered her desperate undertaking’ (p. 167).
Time, as mental holding and as continuity between past and future, gradually fades away during this story. After a precise and realistic beginning—‘January the 14th, 1922’—present time disappears altogether and different orders of time seem to collide. An atmosphere of infi nite time or timelessness and repetition is created as ‘the death of her father was the only thing that had happened in the world, and it would go on happening endlessly’ (p. 164). Timelessness is explicit—the narrator underscores that the story unfolds ‘During that time outside of time … ’ (p. 167)— and he even tells us that ‘The arduous events are outside of time, either because the immediate past is as if disconnected from the future, or because the parts which form these events do not seem to be consecutive’ (pp. 166–7). The story thus follows step by step Emma’s invention of lies. Emma’s initial awareness of her internal reality—her guilt and pain—was evacuated through a process in which acting substituted for thinking, omniscience for truth and timelessness for time.
Detective narratives have been of interest to psychoanalytic discourse from its very beginnings. In her analysis of Poe’s ‘The murders in the rue morgue’, Marie Bonaparte wrote that the source of our interest in narratives of this type lies, as Freud fi rst led us to recognize, in the fact that the researches conducted by the detective reproduce, by displacement onto subjects of a quite different nature, our infantile investigations into matters of sex (1935, p. 292). For Pederson-Krag (1949), the detective’s search evokes the primal scene, with the detective representing the category of the curious child. Eco underscored guilt as the main common focus in detective fi ction and psychoanalytic thinking: In the end, the fundamental question in philosophy (as well as in psychoanalysis) coincides with the question of all detective stories: Who is guilty? To know that (to think that one knows that), one has to assume that every deed has a logic, the logic established by the culprit (1988, p. 653).
Approaching the question from a different perspective, Hutter (1975) compared the structure of detective fi ction to that of dreams and mythical thinking, underscoring the progressive movement from awareness of opposites toward their resolution. In previous work I analyzed processes of disavowal and the reader’s embeddedness (Priel, 1991, 1999) as specifi c reading responses to detective fiction. ‘Emma Zunz’ is the story of a perfect murder that defi es the reader’s basic expectations. As in many classic detective stories, the problems of knowing, deciphering and interpreting are fundamental in ‘Emma Zunz’. These problems, however, are displayed here from a different, rather unsettling, perspective. Since Poe’s police novels, this genre has been described as always including two stories: the first is the unknown story of the crime, or of what happened in ‘reality’, while the second is the narrative of the detective’s deciphering and interpreting in order to reveal what happened. A visible narrative (the detective’s inquiry) hides a secret one, unknown to the detective (and the reader) until the very end. In ‘Emma Zunz’, however, we do not follow the discovery of an unknown murderer, rather we witness the prospective performance of a perfect crime; real actions are determined by the story that is to be told; moreover, we are confronted with the enigma only at the end of the story, when we are asked to make sense of a lie that is ‘substantially’ true. The narrative imitates neither reality nor detective story writing. Reality seems to follow the plot Emma planned: Emma composes a story to tell the police and her actions draw meticulously on this story. As we keep on reading, the relations between reality and fi ction become increasingly symmetrical. This subversion invites the reader to relinquish her dependence on usual perspectives, thus paving the way for the effect produced by the narrator’s peculiar position in ‘Emma Zunz’.
A narrator who knows he doesn’t know
All through the story, Emma’s voice is heard directly only once, at the very end, when she communicates her alibi to the police. A peculiar narrator, who is very close to Emma and seems to know her most intimate experiences, tells the story. At crucial junctures, however, the narrator suddenly distances himself form the character to share with the reader his hesitation and many doubts about what is being told. The reader’s position as an outside observer who knows seems threatened … This peculiar kind of narrator, one of Borges’s main stylistic devices, has been characterized as ‘(somewhat) personal’ (Lyon, 1973), or as displaying a ‘modified omniscience’ (Shaw, 1992, p. 133) and creating uncanny transitions between reality and pure invention. The narrator of another of Borges’s stories, ‘El muerto’, describes this narrative position as follows: ‘I do not know the details of [the protagonist’s] adventure; when these will be revealed to me, I shall have to rectify and expand these pages’ (Borges, 1974, p. 545). The narrator’s doubts and uncertainty are visible to the reader, who learns that whatever the narrator knows might be false and in need of rectifi cation.
Borges has created a humanized narrator who avows his own weaknesses and uncertainty (Lyon, 1973), and is doubtful about himself, thus conveying a feeling of uncertainty regarding any knowledge he might have. Moreover, this narrator presents different plausible interpretations of the events without any certainty; ‘it is my belief that she has thought once …’ (Borges, 1944, p. 167); ‘perhaps she believed that the secret …’ (p. 164, my italics). This narrator subtly expresses multiple coexisting alternatives also by means of double negations: ‘She thought she was unable not to think that her father had done to her mother the same thing that was being done to her now. She thought of it with weak amazement’ (p. 167); or ‘she was unable not to kill him after the thorough dishonor’ (p. 168). The double negations in ‘Emma Zunz’ produce a powerful paradoxical effect of both negation and affi rmation, leaving all possibilities open.
Nothing is excluded’ neither are clear hierarchies among the diverse possibilities proposed. Moreover, while double negations are logically an affi rmation, they have a paradoxical and confusing effect on the reader that can be understood as the annulling of the effects of negation, as defi ned by Freud (1925). In his paper on ‘Negation’ Freud ascribed to it a double function: a restrictive and evasive function on one hand—negation as defense—and, on the other, a creative, innovative function—negation as enriching thinking: ‘[T]he content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed’ (p. 235). Laplanche and Pontalis underscored that for Freud, negation indicates ‘the moment when an unconscious idea or wish begins to re-emerge whether during the course of treatment or outside it’ (1973, p. 263, my italics). Also Green has defi ned negation as an intellectual substitute for repression (1993, p. 271). The paradoxical and confusing effects of the double negations in ‘Emma Zunz’ can be understood as resulting from their making way for a content that, as it begins to emerge, is immediately aborted (‘she was unable not to kill’).
The detailed account of the transformations of truth and the subversion of the story’s genre by ‘Emma Zunz’s uncertain-omniscient narrator, delineates a picture in which deception not only has the appearance of truth but also is defi ned as ‘substantially’ true. True is the effect that Borges’s story has on its readers and that Emma’s confession has on the police (‘the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone …’). This confession is a story within Borges’s story, a paradigm of the effects the way a story is told can have: Emma’s confession is substantially true, the lie lingers in the conscious and intentional way in which Emma tells her story. Borges’s story is substantially true in the sense that Britton (1998) defi ned the truth of fi ction: it involves profound psychic truth. In an essay entitled ‘The truth of lies’, Vargas Llosa, another Latin-American writer, proposed a similar perspective on literary fi ction: such works are lies in the sense that they do not depict real events, but express our most profound desires, fears and fantasies. Moreover, according to this author, while the truth of a historical account resides in its closeness to reality, the truth of a literary fi ction is inherent in its persuasiveness, and the ‘ability of its magic’ (2002, p. 20). Persuasiveness and magic stand for the effects of the literary text on the reader. While psychic truth is apprehended, mostly, through its effects on the listener, the truth of a literary text is apprehended through the way it affects the reader. The way ‘Emma Zunz’ is narrated allows for a state of mind in which the search for the solution of the enigma retreats into the background while we follow the vicissitudes of truth and lies, justice and vengeance, love and hate. In the case of ‘Emma Zunz’, a systematic application of psychoanalytic theory leads us to decipher the primal scene and oedipal contents. However, as we allow ourselves to be surprised and perplexed by the story’s telling process, we may read in it the fascinating chronicle of the transformations of psychic truth, the adventure of falsities and the devastation of lies. The reading of Borges’s ‘Emma Zunz’ is, most of the time, like the understanding of psychic truth, not a focused process leading to the discovery of the hidden meaning, but the following of the text that both transforms and points to truth. This is a Borgesian way of telling the truth of the story as well as the story of truth. Finally, a reading of the story as a repetition of a real or fantasized primary scene and a displaced parricide assumes that this is a mimetic narration, as if the story were an imitation of reality or of psychoanalytic theory. However, the way the story of Emma Zunz is told does not imitate reality but creates an experience. This is the experience of the presence of an absent truth (Green, 1993) that makes psychical reality accessible. The reader, as a perplexed observer of the intercourse between Emma’s self-deception and the narrator’s self-doubt, is given a glimpse of both the limitations and the richness of what might be known.
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