Something sort of interesting I came across recently in the course of some of my Walsering, though it isn’t primarily about Walser:
In his recent review of Walser’s The Assistant in the Village Voice, Giles Harvey begins:
In a famous short story, Borges has one of his characters, an obscure author, remark: “I do not belong to art, but merely to the history of art.”
He concludes the review with the line:
If it isn’t already clear, Walser belongs not just to the history of literature, but to literature itself.
Good enough. But then, reading Eliot Weinberger’s essay on Susan Sontag in the August 16, 2007, issue of the New York Review of Books, I see this concluding paragraph:
Arguably the most important American literary figure or force of the last forty years, she may ultimately belong more to literary history than to literature.
Probably just a coincidence, but here’s a few other odd connections or disconnections: the Sontag article doesn’t mention Walser. However, Sontag was one of Walser’s strongest advocates, and Weinberger himself recently shared a glowing opinion of Walser on the NBCC’s blog, Critical Mass. Further, Harvey attributes the quote to Borges, but Weinberger, who never mentions Borges, is the translator of Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions.
And there’s something a bit odd about the quote itself. Did it originate with Borges? The Borges story in question is “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain.” It appears in a Borges collection called Ficciones. The relevant passage occurs in the story’s second paragraph, provided below in its entirely:
“I am like Cowley’s Odes,” he wrote to me from Longford on March 6, 1939. “I do not belong to art, but to the history of art.” In his mind, there was no discipline inferior to history.
In the previous paragraph, Borges makes a passing reference to Samuel Johnson, which reminded me that a) Johnson wrote about Cowley, in Lives of the Poets, and b) the quote actually has some of the architectural qualities of Johnson’s own writing.
Alas, I reread Johnson’s essay on Cowley but couldn’t find a quote like this. I did find similar sentiments, such as this expression of Johnson’s opinion of Cowley’s “Pindaric” odes:
It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
I also enjoyed, in Johnson’s Cowley essay, seeing the Great Cham start a sentence with the very modern and colloquial-sounding, “The thing is, ….”
Anyhow, this little thread ultimately goes nowhere. I don’t know why I told you this story, except to wonder again aloud how these two writers with their odd and not entirely obvious affinities happened to hit upon this quote at the same time.