Saturday, January 07, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges's "Labyrinths"

There are marvels in Borges's mazes, but there are no monsters, or more precisely, the monster is the maze. The thin line between fiction and fact, the multiplying paths of choice, the confusion of chance and fate, the interdependence of memory and forgetfulness, the regressions of infinity: these are the speculative themes embodied in his short stories, which are ostensibly about secret cabals, German spies, an endless library, ancient sacrifice, murder mystery, theological controversies, and the failure of a medieval Muslim intellectual to understand the Greek categories of comedy and tragedy. Borges takes a popular genre, such as crime thriller or science fiction, and, by exploring and subverting its conventions, exposes our assumptions about reality. My favorite stories in this collection are "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius," "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Library of Babel," "Funes the Memorious" and "Death and the Compass." In these the starting premise is developed to the fullest extent; the mazes are not only complex but shapely.

A few of the stories, such as "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and "Three Versions of Judas," read like essays. I find them unsatisfying as stories, but wonderfully teasing otherwise. This collection does give a selection of Borges's essays written as essays. The two essays that shed the greatest light on his stories are "Avatars of the Tortoise," which is about Zeno's paradoxes, and "A New Refutation of Time" about his idealistic outlook. The essay "The Fearful Sphere of Pascal," which traces the evolution of the image of "a fearful sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere," reads like one of his stories.

In the essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," he argues that the Argentine writer should not limit himself to local or national subjects. Instead, the whole world lies at his feet. "For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate--and in that case we shall be so in all events--or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask." The sentiment here resonates with me. A writer "creates" his own predecessors, as his essay on Kafka argues, and the writings finally create a symbol of a man, like the infinitely sensitive Paul Valéry or the liberating George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in a letter, quoted admiringly by Borges, "I understand everything and everyone and I am nothing and no one."

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