LABYRINTHS: SELECTED STORIES & OTHER WRITINGS
By Jorge Luis Borges.
New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964.
Edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby
Comments by Bob Corbett
Labyrinths is a series of very short writings. Short stories open the volume and constitute more than half the book. These are followed by a series essays on various literary topics and the book concludes with a number of very short “parables.” The last few are simply awesome.
Borges is not an easy read. I took notes on each of the stories and essays, but with a number of the stories, I had to simply say: I have no idea what I just read; and that judgment would come often after a second or even third read. Below I have tried to offer some comments or summaries of each of the stories and essays, but again, while I worked hard at these stories and essays, I am not sure I always knew what Borges was getting at.
What is quite notable in Borges’ work is how short it is. Even when I wasn’t 100% sure about the meaning of the content, it was evident that these pieces were written with great care and skill and let me say it loudly: BRILLIANCE. His writing is carefully crafted with an eye to wit, economy, and cleverness. I always had an picture of him working, even slaving over the text striking this image, adding that one, then taking it back out, but always with a bit of a mocking smile on his face.
As the title suggests there are some central theses that bring these many pieces together.
There is the image of the labyrinth, and the word itself must be in at least 1/3 the pieces. These are no labyrinths themselves, but this is his reference to the complexity of coming to know the world and ourselves, something Borges categorically denies we can do with any certainty. We might get close, we might have some insights, and surely he thinks he has some, but his central insight concerns the limits of our knowledge of the world.
A second dominant theme of the work is both metaphysical and scholarly. Borges is a defender of Bishop Berkeley and his version of idealism as the most appealing view of reality. In the essay I found most interesting, “A New Refutation of Time” Borges does criticize Berkeley. Recall that Berkeley argued the “to be is to be perceived,” and this entails the belief that we cannot know that there is any physical external world. Each of us has a world “inside” the world as we perceive it. Further, together we describe a world that each of us can recognize in ourselves (“over there is the red wagon”). But the “there” and “the red wagon” have, for Berkeley and Borges, no KNOWABLE existence beyond the perception of them, nor would the postulation of such a physical reality add anything to our knowledge or to practicality. In his essay on time Borges argues that Berkeley didn’t take this idealism quite far enough and seemed to allow the existence of TIME as something real and independent of perception.
Borges argues that this was a mistake on Berkeley’s part and Borges gives the argument – twice. He wrote this refutation in about 7 pages and published it. At a later time he re-wrote the essay as about a 6 page essay and published that. Here in this collection he offers the two essays together under the title of his new refutation.
These stories, essays and parables are not about the existential world of everydayness. This is a volume on metaphysics, time, space, infinity, idealism, Berkeley and Borges’ conviction that the world is nearly impossible to know, a complex, and puzzling place.
There is a strong affinity on Borges’ part for the mystical, occult and mysterious. Yet Borges laughs at himself all along the way, but never more than in the second last parable of the volume: Borges and I. In this one page piece he makes a bit of fun at the famous Jorge Luis Borges and contrasts him with the simple man who just loves his walks and the world around him. I loved that piece and present it below in its entirety.
Following that parable, I then offer some brief notes on each of the many pieces of the book, even when those notes are simply to admit I couldn’t understand the piece!
I felt like I was in very deep water with this volume, struggling to keep my head above the threatening deep. At times I got my stroke in order and swam with enormous joy. At other times I sort of panicked and felt I was going to drown, but I would touch bottom, and push off with my feet to the next story or essay. Obviously I survived the volume, and will happily plunge back into other Borges’ pools in the future. Despite the very hard work in the weeks I spent with this book, I almost always had a smile on my face at the incredible world of Jorge Luis Borge.
BORGE AND I (P. 246-247)
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I five, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of
myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
- Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Terius. 3-18.
Challenging and creative story of a group of secret writers who, over centuries, have created a coherent account of life on a foreign planet. This is a life in
which physical space doesn’t matter and time doesn’t figure in.
“The metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more that the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect.”
Later on we read the dangers of just how attractive fully rational accounts of human existence are: “Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men.”
The point here is that any numbers of perfectly logical accounts of some alleged reality can be constructed and we must beware since we have no way to know about this so-called notion of “the real.”
- The Garden of Forking Paths. 19-29
This story 10 pages long. I think it could easily take me well over 10 pages to relate the STORY to you, not even attempting to say five sentences as to what it was about. The incomprehensible version:
WWI. France. Asian guy is a spy for Germany, about to be assassinated by
an English agent before he can get word to German of where an important
Allied base is hidden. The Asian guy is on the run in rural France hiding
from the British assassin and trying to get word back to Germany.
He goes to a noble's house. the spy's grandfather was a famous
mystic/genius of China. (Borges) He withdrew from practical life to do
two things: Write a novel about infinity and construct the perfect
labyrinthine garden. He lived in seclusion the rest of his life and
seeming failed at both. The garden was simply never found, and the
novel was utterly and completely unintelligible to every one.
The noble greets the spy and the noble is a French Cinoist (Chinese
specialist). He has this guy's grandfather's novel. The spy is shocked
and disappointed, since the books is regarded as the world of a mad man
and makes no sense. The Cinoist, however, has figured out the old man's
secret. People looked in vain for a PHYSICAL garden in the form of
a labyrinth. And they though his novel was filled with contradictions and
was unintelligible. But the secret is that the NOVEL is what it is since IT
is the labyrinth. At teach turn in the novel, as in a labyrinth, one must
make choices, and choice leads to choice and often one choice contradicts
another which is precisely why people get lost in labyrinths.
The point is that life is life this. There are an billions of people
choosing at every imaginable crossroads, while others choose differently
and the UNIVERSE gets constructed out of these contradictory choices.
The story is called The Garden of Forking Paths.
I was so shaken by the story I sat stone still in the coffee shop after
breakfast just staring out the window and drank three extra cups of
coffee. I was trying (unsuccessfully) to comprehend (in words and
explicit explanations) the meaning of this all. I simply couldn't.
Yet intuitively I understand it completely, I just can't expressing.
I know for sure that if I asked Borges to EXPLAIN THIS TO ME he would say:
I'd be happy to. And then he’d recite the story to me, word for word,
and if I asked for more explanation, he'd recite it again. The story
IS the message.
- The Lottery in Babylon
Social organization is the (perhaps) fictional Babylon begins in lies and deceptions. However, the notion of the a lottery at each choosing juncture, which is at the center of this government, soon becomes internalized by the people as the real and true method. Over the centuries it metamorphizes with input of the masses whose wishes are driven by basic fundamental of human psychology.
An awesome alternative look at the fundamental structure of human society.
- Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
Pierre Menard, a 20th century writer, wants to rewrite the story of Don Quixote. However, he wants to know the mind and times of Miguel Cervantes. He does the research so incredibly well that he sees and understands Cervantes mind just as Cervantes himself did.
This leads him to write the exact same book (or at least significant sections of it), word for word as Cervantes wrote it. It’s important to underscore the notion that Menard did not COPY Cervantes’ Quixote. Rather, he rewrote it just as Cervantes wrote the original, given Menard’s understanding of Cervantes and 17th century Spain.
Yet it is not the same book even though the words are the same. Borges quotes a passage form Cervantes’ work and he comments:
“Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history.”
However, of Menard’s IDENTICAL sentence Borges comments: “History, the mother of truth: the idea is astonishing. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what happened: it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases – “exemplar and advisor to the present and the future’s counselor” – are brazenly pragmatic.”
Thus the facts of Menard’s history and psychology help elucidate his version of the Quixote as different from Cervantes.
- The Circular Ruins
A beautiful occult story of a magician who, in his old age, dreams a child into existence over a period of years. There is only one real sign that the boy is not a real human but a dreamed phantom. It is that sign which, in the old man’s death, reveals that he, himself, was the dreamed phantom of another.
- The Library of Babel
The author discusses an endless (perhaps infinite, perhaps not) set of library shelves of works created with an orthography of 25 symbols (22 letters, comma, period and space).
It is hypothesized that the library contains all the possible combinations of letters with the limits of what is called “a book” (definite number of pages, lines and letters per page).
A fantastic logical system.
- Funes the Memorious
The story is in the form of a memorial to one Ireno Funes, a man of prodigious memory. Actually the story seems to me to be the most thought provoking essay on the question of the relationship between individual sensory experience and the notion of a “the general” or “universal” in language and thought.
Funes has absolute total recall of all experiences. Given this – what? skill, talent or curse? it is not clear – he desires to construct an ideal language in which every individual object experience has its own name.
He once began such a numbering system and finished up to his equivalent of the number 24,000 and knew each number’s name just as we know the meaning of “twenty-four thousand.”
The author points out that John Locke had conceived an ideal language in which every individual thing had its own name (thus no general or common nouns). Locke rejected any such language, presumably on the grounds of practicality. Funes rejects it as too vague! Is “Chicago” actually an object?
Borges rejects the language of Funes: “With no effort he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.”
I hope to get the rest of my notes on the items below typed up as soon as I can
- The Shape of the Sword
- Theme of the Traitor and the Hero 72
- Death and the Compass
- The Secret Miracle
- Three Versions of Judas
- The Sect of the Phoenix
- The Immortal
- The Theologians
- Story of the Warrior and the Captive
- Emma Zunz
- The House of Asterion
- Deutsches Requiem
- Averroes' Search 148
- The Zahir 156
- The Waiting 165
- The God's Script 169
- The Argentine Writer and Tradition 177
- The Wall and the Books 186
- The Fearful Sphere o f Pascal 189
- Partial Magic in the Quixote 193
- Valery as Symbol 197
- Kafka and His Precursors 199
- Avatars o f the Tortoise 202
- The Mirror o f Enigmas 209
- A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw 213
- A New Refutation of Time 217
- Inferno, I, 32 237
- Paradiso, XXXI, 108 238
- Ragnarok 240
- Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote 242
- The Witness 243
- A Problem 244
- Borges and 1 246
- Everything and Nothing 248
- Elegy 251
CHRONOLOGY AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
- Chronology 253
- Bibliography 257