Borges, Labyrinths

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Borges, Labyrinths


Jorge Luis Borges is frequently cited as a source of inspiration by other authors associated with “magic realism.”

The term magic realism, originally applied in the 1920s to a school of painters, is used to describe the prose fiction of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, as well as the work of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia [and many other Latin American writers], Gunter Grass in Germany, and John Fowles in England. These writers interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales. Robert Scholes has popularized metafiction as an overall term for the large and growing class of novels which depart drastically from the traditional categories either of realism or romance, and also the term fabulation for the current mode of free-wheeling narrative invention. These novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic — and sometimes highly effective — experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic. (Abrams 195-196).

“Magic realism” has a striking effect in its deadpan and prosaic acceptance of the supernatural or fantastical. The term is controversial, though, sometimes considered a postcolonial marginalizing of “quaint” fiction away from serious literature. In any case, Borges’ metaphysical fictions open up ways of thinking about texts and textual issues, and they’re enjoyable if you don’t mind a mild conceptual vertigo.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

Philology here takes on the fascination and energy of detective work. The piece begins with investigation into an offhanded quotation from an encyclopedia article regarding a country, Uqbar, no one has heard of or can locate officially. (Most of the acquaintances mentioned were friends, collaborators, disciples, or in-laws of Borges.) Are anamolies or defects clues to anything? Is it possible to get the truth about the real world from texts? If not, then what?
We hear more about the rare text and the critical interpretations of it. The thinking is both medieval (consider Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXX) and modern. And Borges obviously loves paradoxes. He probably does believe that “metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature” (10).

The implied reader is a specialist. Or the implied reader is invited to create a vague fictional would-be specialist and play that role as a reader.

Is there any significance to or philosophy embedded in the absence of nouns on Tlön (8-9)?
There’s no such thing as plagiarism on Tlön (13). Additionally, “Works of fiction contain a single plot, with all its imaginable permutations…. A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete” (13). This idea Borges takes up again in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

“If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön” (18).

Uqbar and Tlön are revealed as invented hoaxes, but the imaginative power of the latter alters earth society (as described in Borges postscript). Thus fiction exercises control over “reality.” “Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account” (17). “Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men” (17-18).

“The Garden of Forking Paths”

Anamolies of text and horticultural design, plus the importance of absence, riddle this short tale of an Asian working as an Axis agent and murdering an arbitrary Sinologist to encode a message (regarding the importance of the city of Albert) to Berlin. Borges plays with the idea of textual labyrinth as an innovation of the agent’s grandfather.

“Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing” (25).

“I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths” (26).

“The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time; this recondite cause prohibits its mention. To omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it” (27).

“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

In 1938, Borges suffered from a serious case of blood poisoning which left him doubting his sanity and creative ability. He wrote this tale to test himself. It ended up representing a turning-point in his career and Borges was encouraged by its success.

Borges generates a fictional bibliography (37-38) for the fictional Pierre Menard. Most importantly, Menard wrote parts of Don Quixote.

“He did not want to compose another Quixote–which is easy–but the Quixote itself” (39).

A comparison between the Cervantes’ classic and the identically composed work — not a transcription! (39) — reveals striking differences in effect and quality and is declared a more significant feat. Reader-response issues arise, or course: does knowing the origins of the work change the read itself?

“He did not let anyone examine these drafts and took care they should not survive him. In vain have I tried to reconstruct them” (44).

“The Library of Babel”

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings” (51). Theoretically, all permutations of the twenty-two letters (plus the comma, period, and space) are provided in the countless but not infinite number of books. Hope is inevitable but futile: where is the central book? “On some shelf in some hexagon (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god” (56).

A “classic dictum” about the Library is offered: “The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible” (52).

“In the vast library there are no two identical books” (54).

“If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope” (58).

See The Name of the Rose starring Sean Connery for a visual display of Borges’ library in Eco’s medieval detective work.

“Funes the Memorious”

Premise: I wish I could remember everything.
The narrator recalls his encounters in the 1880s with Ireneo Funes, an Uruguayan whose fall from a horse has left him paralyzed; but “when he came to, the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant and trivial memories” (63). “In fact, Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it” (65).

This gift becomes a curse of multiplicity, as Funes is unable to ignore precise differences between entities and thus is “incapable of ideas of a general Platonic sort” (65). The narrator realizes that “To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence” (66). “He thought that by the hour of his death he would not even have finished classifying all the memories of his childhood” (65).
Funes, the narrator reports, died of a “congestion” (66).

“The Secret Miracle”

Jaromir Hladik, sentenced to death by German firing squad in 1943, undergoes psychological extremes as he awaits in prison:

he reflected that reality does not usually coincide with our anticipation of it; with a logic of his own he inferred that to foresee a circumstantial detail is to prevent its happening. Trusting in this weak magic, he invented, so that they would not happen, the most gruesome details. Finally, as was natural, he came to fear that they were prophetic. (89-90)

Hladik wistfully prays to God that he be granted one year to complete a labyrinthine dramatic work. In the fraction of a moment prior to his execution, “The physical universe came to a halt” (93). Time and possibility expand unto the discovery of the perfect final phrase. One frame can be timeless. In his mind he completes and polishes his dramatic work during the course of this metaphysical year.

Here’s what Nate Hettick says:
“‘The Secret Miracle’ is a remarkable short story. Borges begins with dream imagery and then (much like dreams themselves) blends the transitions into adjacent experiences in a way that is painless for the reader. His language is direct, yet he controls the diction, therefore adhering to the feel of moving throughout the spider web channels of a dreamscape. From a timeless, unreal chess match the text flows to an effortless sprint through a “rainy desert.”
Borges also plays with the notion of time in this story. Not only is this achieved experientially throughout the writing style as noted above, but also as a philosophical dialogue. This is most resounding in the gripping final page or two as the condemned man is awaiting execution. The transcendence into spiritual conversations via prayer, the slipping into dreams, planning of a script, and wrestling with an aborted life, all melt together into the sort of scene-flashing blur that one would expect within such circumstance. Finally, I was shaken by the final paragraphs of the story with Borges’ literary restraint. Like shutting off the warp drive he slams on the breaks of his words to experience, along with the protagonist, the full year given by God that passes in a moment — but only in the man’s mind. Like slow motion in the Matrix movies, the drop of water splashing…then rolling down his cheek…then freezing, and the symbolic shadow of the bee (sharply depicted yet only a shadow, nonetheless, and of a creature made miniscule in his physical surroundings) make the experience both agonizing and peacefully surreal for the reader. The final irony of the year given by God that really doesn’t make the difference that the man had hoped, is staggering, and opens a black hole for reflection on the irrelevancy of time. The magic of Borges is that his abstract philosophy is experienced in such a palpable way while reading these stories, yet the intellectual/academic sharpness of his questions are not convoluted by the plot, setting, or characters.”

“Three Versions of Judas”

Theological examination of the enigma of Judas paradoxically renders his sacrifice superior to Jesus’, according to Nils Runeberg’s heresy. Runeberg, the narrator mentions, died of a ruptured aneurysm in 1912. (A footnote in this piece refers to a published work by the doomed man in “The Secret Miracle.”)

“He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas” (99).

“The Zahir”

The narrator fatally encounters a numismatic version of the Zahir — an object or feature that possesses “the terrible quality of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad” (161). At one point he wishes he had had the relative luck of another victim of another Zahir: “How easy it would be not to think of a tiger!” (163). He tells himself that his only hope is to wear away the Zahir “simply through thinking of it again and again” (164).

“The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”

Historical/textual variations on the assertion that “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” suggests to Borges that “It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors” (192).

“The Mirror of Enigmas”

The Paul quotation, 1 Corinthians 13:12, is translated variously and is shown ultimately, in the annotations of Léon Bloy, to head towards heresy.

“A New Refutation of Time”

Borges seems serious about this denial that there is one “time” linking experiences. He recycles some quotations from philosophical idealism that he’s used elsewhere: Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer. Borges negates the idea of time as succession in a series, and of synchronism in two different series.


Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1999.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. NY: New Directions Pub. Co., 1964.

Christie, Kari. Jorge Luis Borges. Created April 2010.