Friday, July 8, 2016

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

By and large, I agree with Terry Pratchett's no-nonsense heroine Susan Sto Helit: I hate literature. I'd much prefer to read a good book. Right or wrong, that attitude usually keeps me from reading literary fiction, especially twentieth-century stuff.

Jorge Luis Borges's odd and marvellous short stories are a notable exception.

Labyrinths is a collection of the Argentinian author's most well-known stories, as well as some essays and brief parables, translated from the Spanish by a number of different people, but all bearing the same unmistakeable voice. Beyond that, it's difficult to describe them. All of them are dreamlike: Borges writes at a great distance, sounding muffled and detached even when he writes in the first person, and his stories are filled with an alien logic, with paradox, symbolism, and fantasy. Most of them show a wonderful speculative-fiction imagination at work; but where a modern author, having the same idea (a national lottery that determines the events of all men's lives; a city full of immortals; a mysterious land that exists only in one entry of one edition of an encyclopaedia?) would have written a swashbuckling series of science-fiction novels, Borges simply jots down a short story.

Or yet more infuriatingly, jots down his outline for the short story, discussing potential endings with the reader.

And this, of course, is a large part of the point. In The Lottery in Babylon, the narrator describes a world apparently ruled by chance, administered by a secret society; at the end of the story, he admits that one school of thought maintains that there is no secret society, only the abstract workings of chance. In The Circular Ruins, a man dreams another man into existence; at the end of the story he realises, in shock, that he himself is also the product of another's dream. In The Library of Babel, librarians wander the endless galleries of an infinite library, the volumes of which contain every permutation of letters and words and sentences that can possibly exist; it's certain that some of them contain the story of one's future life or the answer to the meaning of the cosmos, but since the books are infinite in number and most of them are either gibberish or false, there's no knowing which of them is true.

What is truth? Even if it exists, could we know it? What is real and what is not? Are we real? Is there meaning in life? Is anyone in control? Are you really you, or are you misleading me about your identity? Borges writes his stories as a series of dreamlike thought experiments, enriched with a startling imagination. I do not pretend to understand everything in them (he is clearly much better read and much cleverer than I am), but I do understand what all this philosophising is in aid of.

In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, for instance, Borges writes a mock-serious work of literary criticism concerning a (fictional) author who sets out to rewrite the Don Quixote - word-for-word with the original. The critic "Borges" writing the essay fulminates at length on the strange and subtle differences between the Cervantes book and the Menard book. The books may be identical, but in the context of their different authors and different times, they mean something quite different... It's a classic postmodern argument that says that "texts" can never be read on their own, but must be understood in the context of their author and their times.

Despite my skepticism on this matter, the essays in the second part of this collection do go a long way toward making some of Borges's intentions a little clearer! The essay A New Refutation of Time (the title is intentionally paradoxical) provides a helpful overview of the philosophy of idealism to which Borges apparently subscribed. According to Borges's explanation in the essay, there is no self or subject, just a neverending stream of perceptions and impressions: quoting Hume, "We are a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity." The material world is basically illusory; the real thing is our impressions of it. The short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius basically presents Borges's arguments in story form: it concerns the discovery of a country no one has ever heard of in an encyclopaedia entry, which gradually begins to come into existence the more folks learn about it and think about it.
"The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?" I conjecture that this is so. We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false."
This seems to be Borges's philosophical conclusion; in hindsight, it's easy to see this underlying all his stories, even the ones I'm still not sure I understand (what on earth is The Garden of Forking Paths about?). Of course, it's not a philosophy I subscribe to or recommend. But in all its logical madness, Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths provides an undeniably fascinating explanation of postmodernism and idealism.

Find Labyrinths on Amazon or The Book Depository

3 comments:

Joseph J said...

I've only read the Garden of Forking Paths. I really enjoyed the somber, dream-like quality of it, like science-fiction film noire, and the way the plot twisted in on itself in harmony with its theme. As speculative fiction goes it was great stuff. I would love to writes stories with such intricate plots and interesting themes.

Borges was apparently a big fan of Chesterton. They both write stories to make a point, to explicate a philosophy, and favour fantasy to do so. The Man Who Was Thursday had a similar, dream-like, enigmatic quality. The main difference is that Chesterton filled his literature with ringing endorsements of orthodox Christian theology and philosophy, while it sounds like Borges preferred to remain in a philosophical twilight world. Idealism makes for interesting literature, but its kind of frightening as a philosophy. It sounds like the kind of system invented by intellectual dilettantes, and probably its biggest practical consequence is the erosion of moral responsibility. I kind of hate intellectual dilettantism. The intellectual life is no hobby. It has serious consequences. But I shouldn't judge till I've read more.

Christina Baehr said...

I thought I understood The Garden of Forking Paths, but now I'm questioning myself...

My mother-in-law once "sat at Borges' feet". I've never quite determined whether this means she actually physically *sat at Borges' feet*, or just that she spent the afternoon with him (which she unquestionably did, due to the Argentine connection).

There's a really bizarre and fun sort of literary game of hot-potato that was played from Chesterton to Borges and then finally Annie Dillard wrote a poem about it: https://bltnotjustasandwich.com/2012/04/04/five-found-annie-dillard-poems-expressed-unconventionally-and-so-explained/

Wouldn't it have been grand if Chesterton and Borges could have sat and talked?


Suzannah said...

Joseph, sounds like you appreciate The Garden of Forking Paths better than I do! Yes, Borges was quite clearly a fan of Chesterton--in fact, GKC is the only storyteller I'm aware of who seems to approach Borges in surreal intellectualism--and at least one of Borges's stories is clearly quite influenced by Chesterton, while another is the outline of a story which he begins by saying it was in imitation of Chesterton.

Borges's postmodernist philosophy makes him much less of a storyteller, of course.

Christina, I remember you telling me that about Lili :). You'll have to ask her about it someday!

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