I’m your Fan - A Game of shifting Mirrors

In 1934, two years after having initially published it, a man named Mir Bahadur Ali reedits his original book The Approach to Almotásim. The overwhelming praisal of the local press has led him to it. A Conversation With The Man Named Almotásim is the title of the second edition, “beautifully subtitled” with the words A Game of Shifting Mirrors. I use quotation marks for this banal epithet only to stress that the words are not mine. But from here on I will refrain from using them (for such a purpose) since the message of this text is namely their inevitable erasure. The epithet is in fact from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges where he merely describes a pre existent book.1The book, as the reader might have assembled, is also non-existent. The short story by Borges goes by the name of the first edition of that fictitious book - The Approach to Almotásim. The short story is written in 1935 in Buenos Aires; the book and its second edition are said to have been written in Bombay. The task set by himself for himself by the Argentinean writer is to compare the editions and to “review the reviews” that the book has merited; an inspiring exercise, even if the book doesn’t exist, nor its multiple critics.

He reports that two of these critics coincide in indicating the detective story genre of the book and its mystical undercurrent.2He also states that even if he hasn’t had it in his hands, he intuitively knows that the 1932 version is superior to the reedited one. This has to do with an appendix to the second version, which states that in the 1932 version the “man named Almotásim” is somewhat of a symbol but doesn’t lack idiosyncratic, personal traits. Unfortunately, he says, this good literary habit doesn’t subsist and the 1934 edition decays into allegory.

It is necessary here to describe the story that the story describes that the book tells. The best way to start is perhaps by making another trip into the prologue to The Garden of Forking Paths where Borges goes on to make a shorter synopsis of the plot3. To introduce his new account he describes the mathematical synthesis of yet another plot where the narrator seeks to know if A or C have influenced B. The Approach to Almotásim - he says - is analogical to this structure as it presciences or guesses through B the very remote existence of Z which B hasn’t met.

In less abstract terms the story is about a student who ends up living amongst the most detestable people. Suddenly he discovers, in one of these hateful characters, a mitigation of the infamy, something tender, an exaltation, a silence. It is as though a third speaker had entered the dialogue. The student determines that this expression of decor doesn’t belong to the man that he has in front of him, it has to be the mirroring of a friend of his, or that of a friend of a friend.4Rethinking the problem he soon comes to a mysterious conviction: “In some place on earth there is a man (or woman) from which this clarity proceeds, in some place on earth there exists the man (or woman) that is equal to that clarity”5. The student decides to devote his life to find this person. The general argument is already perceivable: the insatiable search of a soul through the delicate reflections that it has left in others: to begin with, the tenuous imprint of a smile or a word, in the end diverse and growing splendors of reason, imagination and goodness.

Borges addresses the author of that detective-mystic plot and points out his obligations. For the good execution of such an argument, he says, the writer has to give the story a varied invention of prophetic traits, but the hero prefigured by these traits must not be a mere phantasm or convention. The character must not give us the impression of being a sum of disorganized, insipid superlatives.

Since the book doesn’t exist what we have in front of us, when we read these words, is a set of instructions that an author gives to himself for the treatment of a story; to his “self” as the author within the book. The “I” that is an “other”.


In 1963 Godard makes a film about a film about a book. The name of the film is Contempt and it deals with a prominent master text of the Western culture: The Odyssey. A discussion takes place between the diegetic6 director - Fritz Lang, played by himself - and a hardcore American producer played by Jack Palance. In the middle of the discussion stand a pusillanimous French writer (Michel Piccoli), who has been hired to rewrite the script, and his too beautiful wife Brigitte Bardot. The discussion is about translation: how can the text be translated into film; what version will prevail: Lang’s notion of the individual’s fight against circumstance, or Palance’s more frivolous emphasis on Penelope’s infidelity. Like Borges with his invented writer from Bombay, Godard places a director in his place, so that the plot of The Odyssey is separated from us one step further (a text of a Greek bard translated by a French pop play writer, directed by a German director). As with the book about the student that endlessly approaches Almotásim (and its flawed second edition) what becomes the issue, the matter so to speak, is a plot that holds the text itself as its main character; a plot that holds another plot as its protagonist. There is an analogical impulse in Borges’ operation: to show the camera, as Godard does in Contempt is equivalent to setting the story within another book. It means drawing the boundaries of a diegesis so as to be able to refer back to it. The story, as Godard has insisted upon throughout his whole career, is what is least important; it’s what can be done without; it’s the excuse to start speaking about cinema. This mirrors Borges’ desire to simulate that the book has already been written so as to make the story be the engagement with the previous (or non-existent) text, with storytelling, with fiction (and its double). In this sense the beautiful twist of Contempt is that the text reveals itself as it is “translated” through the characters that are searching for it.7 Piccoli and Bardot become the translation of Ulysses and Penelope, the ancient gods are brought back into the scene.8 What is revealed is that the text was always already present; that the performances of the man and woman were already dictated by the text, that they were both basically drawn from it.

Since the film about The Odyssey doesn’t exist what we have in front of us, when we witness the discussion of the characters within the diegesis, is Godard’s conversation with Hollywood regarding the treatment of a master text in film.9 The discussion is about language and it takes place in several different levels. Jerry Prokosch (Palance) sees himself as the 20th Century equivalent of Zeus, as Silverman also points out, and through this he points toward the Hollywood idea of mastering the production of images. This notion implies a meta-language, an idea of completely scripting the film. The production of a highly referential language that over determines, defines, closes in on the matter, offering the illusion of a unilateral direction. It is, at last, the idea of a correspondence between the signifier and the signified, the notion of an absolute control over the discursive direction of an image or a text.


The repeated but insignificant contacts of James Joyce’s Ulysses with The Odyssey still receive - according to Borges – the admiration of all kinds of critics. He claims not to understand why. This dismissal is made as he mentions that The Approach to Almotásim, the book by the Bombay author, has been the locus of much of that kind of critical analysis. He lists the critics that have conjectured what the book behind the book might be. Then he offers his own (humble, he says) hypothesis of a possible precursor: a cabalist from the XVI century that professed that the soul of an ancestor can enter into the soul of a suffering person to comfort him/her. This late mood of the story – its self-analysis in the light of other texts - brings us into the more ample sense of its metaphor: we are getting nearer to a text that leaves traces in other texts. The text is always already there in an indistinguishable form, as in Godard’s film. This is analogical to the student approaching his master, Almotásim, through the reflections of his soul in others. It is also the expression of a recurrent Borgesian idea of the existence of one only author, which implies the death of all authors, or to say it in another way, of their fatherhood and authority over the text. In the fictitious planet Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius no text is ever signed, there is only one author, which is the same as no author. The death of the author is, as Roland Barthes would spell it out much later, the birth of the reader. And the reader cannot withdraw himself ultimately from the responsibility of reading himself, being the subject to be read, being, so to speak, written by the book. The possible identity of the searcher and the searched in the Almotásim story (another conjecture that Borges throws us in a casual footnote of the story) is the expression of this. It is here also that the detective and the mystic fuse: the search ends up revealing, more than anything, the searcher’s faith or his desire. A great paradox happens here, the authors that visit this mysterious site where they seek to annul themselves, end up having to take on their “selves as authors” as the very subject of their investigation: Borges and I by Borges, JLG/JLG (JLGodard par JLGodard), Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. The examples of this are of course innumerable.10 It is just a certain turn that certain ideas have. Homi Bhabba’s project, for example, of a text that tries to find out, in his own particular biography as a farsi in India, what made it inevitable for him to engage in the reflection on cultural hybridity. Godard asks the same question in JLG/JLG: what has driven him to make films? Borges on the other hand revisits a younger self and contemplates his own possibilities and lacks according to the books that he had read at the time, and the ones that he was yet to read.11 This has nothing of narcissism (maybe a little) it is just the inevitable turn of a reflection that states that “it must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” as Raymond Bellour quotes from Roland Barthes in a text about Chris Marker’s cd Immemory. Marker also comes to the same conclusion: “All I can offer is myself”. To consider the world as writing, and to consider the writer as text, that is the question.


The conversation about language that Godard sustains with Hollywood can also be said to mirror what Borges is aiming at when he talks about those parasitic books that situate Christ in a boulevard, Hamlet in the Cannebière or Don Quixote in Wall Street.12 Even if Godard is replacing ships in the Aegean Sea by red convertibles in contemporary Italy he doesn't qualify in Borges' dismissal. Because he is actually introducing the same question of how this "translation" can actually take place in a way that sets forth the metaphor in motion instead of mindlessly repeating its form.


A current that offers it easy navigation is helping the text here. It moves into yet another story of Borges and has a new dealing with Homer. In The Immortal we have to believe that the story has been written by Joseph Cartaphilus who drinks water from the river that gives immortality. He then spends years lying next to a group of lethargic troglodytes. One day, when they are all awakened from their languor by a summer rain; he finds out that they are actually the immortals, which he sought for so long. One of them whom he had tried to teach to talk and had named Argos, after Ulysses' dog was indeed Homer himself. When asked by Cartaphilus about The Odyssey he says that he can remember less of it than the poorest rhapsodist. This story, we have to believe, is written by Cartaphylus, a 20th century antiquarian, who goes on to analyze his own text and finds that something in it is wrong. He determines that he cannot be the author of those words, they clearly belong to another man. Thus he discovers that the text of The Immortal is written by Homer and not by him. “When the end approaches, no images of memory remain, only words subsist. It isn’t strange that time should have confused those that represented me with those that were symbols of the destiny of he who kept me company for so many centuries. I have been Homer, in short I will be Nobody, like Ulysses, in short I will be everyone: I will be dead.” The immortal metaphorically suggests the idea of the one only author. The immortality of Homer is in the very texts that all others ceaselessly repeat; even this one.


In Alphaville Godard quotes Borges: "Time is the substance of which I am made, it is the river that drowns me but I am the river; it is the tiger that mutilates me but I am the tiger; it is the fire that consumes me; but I am the fire”. Then in Germany year 90 he quotes from his own past (the same past of cinema), by placing Lemmy Caution, the character from his early Sci fi mock film, as the man who exposes the new state of the affairs. Lemmy Caution curiously goes on to become the footnote of the personage that he was before. With Caution we visit the nation, through the texts that have constructed it. The text becomes architecture; when referring to the Berlin wall Godard observes that when an idea becomes prevalent in the masses it soon acquires a material form.


The habit of quoting, coming from another text, repeating a gesture, are all acts that perhaps reflect from the same drive of the teenager who tries to reproduce the movements of his idol. It’s a drive that actually doesn’t merely want to reproduce the other’s gesture but to become or incorporate the other, so that the gesture will produce itself naturally. The game may become a bit baroque here: what if one is a fan precisely of those who are passionate fans of others? Those who go on to turn the mirror on themselves when they themselves have become a part of that colossal book of the culture?

On this matter Borges has a short text where he makes a distinction between him and Borges. He notes that his personal tastes are quiet and unpretentious when he experiences them, but turn into an ugly subject of pedantry and vanity when they belong to Borges.

Twin Murders (a Mystical Diagram), 1999
Janus God in Pilatos’ House, Seville.