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Authors: Jorge Luis Borges

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Labyrinths

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Labyrinths

Selected Stories Other Writings

Jorge Luis Borges

 

 

 

 

Edited by Donald A. Yates James E. Irby

Preface by André Maurois

a.b.e-book v3.0 / Notes at EOF

 

  

Back Cover:

Although his work has been restricted to the short story, the essay, and poetry, Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina is recognized all over the world as one of the most original and significant figures in modern literature. In his preface André Maurois writes: "Borges is a great writer who has composed only little essays or short narratives. Yet they suffice for us to call him great because of their wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical style."

Labyrinths
is a representative selection of Borges' writing, some forty pieces drawn from various of his books published over the years. The translations are by Harriet de Onís, Anthony Kerrigan, and others, including the editors, who have provided a biographical and critical introduction, as well as an extensive bibliography.

 

Copyright © 1962, 1964 by New Directions Publishing Corporation

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 64-25440

 

(ISBN:
0-08112-0012-4)

 

All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper,

magazine, radio, or television review, no part of this book may be

reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including

photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval

system, without permission in writing from the Publisher.

 

This augmented edition was first published in 1964.

 

Labyrinths
, Selected Stories Other Writings, by Jorge Luis Barges,

has been translated and published by agreement with Emecé Editores, S, A.,

Bolivar 177, Buenos Aires, Argentina. All selections here included and

translated into English have been taken from the following volumes originally

published in Spanish by Emecé:
Ficciones
(1956),
El Aleph
(1957),
Discussión
(1957),

Otras Inquisiciones
(1960) and
El Hacedor
(1960).

 

  

Contents

 

Preface

Introduction

 

Fictions

 

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

The Garden of Forking Paths

The Lottery in Babylon

Pierre Menard, Author of the
Quixote

The Circular Ruins

The Library of Babel

Funes the Memorious

The Shape of the Sword

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

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

The Zahir

The Waiting

The God's Script

 

 

Essays

 

The Argentine Writer and Tradition

The Wall and the Books

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

Partial Magic in the
Quixote

Valéry as Symbol

Kafka and His Precursors

Avatars of the Tortoise

The Mirror of Enigmas

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A New Refutation of Time

 

Parables

 

Inferno, 1, 32

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Ragnarök

Parable of Cervantes and the
Quixote

The Witness

A Problem

Borges and I

Everything and Nothing

 

Elegy

Chronology

Bibliography

Notes

 

Preface

Jorge Luis Borges is a great writer who has composed only little essays or short narratives. Yet they suffice for us to call him great because of their wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical, style. Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds. It is a sign of his importance that, in placing him, only strange and perfect works can be called to mind. He is akin to Kafka, Poe, sometimes to Henry James and Wells, always to Valéry by the abrupt projection of his paradoxes in what has been called "his private metaphysics."

I

His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound ― he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas ― but it is vast. For example, Pascal wrote: "Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere." Borges sets out to hunt down this metaphor through the centuries. He finds in Giordano Bruno (1584): "We can assert with certainty that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and its circumference nowhere." But Giordano Bruno had been able to read in a twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille, a formulation borrowed from the
Corpus Hermeticum
(third century): "God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." Such researches, carried out among the Chinese as among the Arabs or the Egyptians, delight Borges, and lead him to the subjects of his stories.

Many of his masters are English. He has an infinite admiration for Wells and is indignant that Oscar Wilde could define him as "a scientific Jules Verne." Borges makes the observation that the fiction of Jules Verne speculates on future
probability
(the submarine, the trip to the moon), that of Wells on pure
possibility
(an invisible man, a flower that devours a man, a machine to explore time), or even on
impossibility
(a man returning from the hereafter with a future flower). Beyond that, a Wells novel symbolically represents features inherent in all human destinies. Any great and lasting book must be ambiguous, Borges says; it is a mirror that makes the reader's features known, but the author must seem to be unaware of the significance of his work ― which is an excellent description of Borges's own art. "God must not engage in theology; the writer must not destroy by human reasonings the faith that art requires of us."

He admires Poe and Chesterton as much as he does Wells. Poe wrote perfect tales of fantastic horror and invented the detective story, but he never combined the two types of writing. Chesterton
did
attempt and felicitously brought off this tour de force. Each of Father Brown's adventures proposes to explain, in reason's name, an unexplainable fact. "Though Chesterton disclaimed being a Poe or Kafka, there was, in the material out of which his ego was molded, something that tended to nightmare." Kafka
was
a direct precursor of Borges.
The Castle
might be by Borges, but he would have made it into a ten-page story, both out of lofty laziness and out of concern for perfection. As for Kafka's precursors, Borges's erudition takes pleasure in finding them in Zeno of Elea, Kierkegaard and Robert Browning. In each of these authors there is some Kafka, but if Kafka had not written, nobody would have been able to notice it ― whence this very Borgesian paradox: "Every writer creates his own precursors."

Another man who inspires him is the English writer John William Dunne, author of such curious books about time, in which he claims that the past, present and future exist simultaneously, as is proved by our dreams. (Schopenhauer, Borges remarks, had already written that life and dreams are leaves of the same book: reading them in order is living; skimming through them is dreaming.) In death we shall rediscover all the instants of our life and we shall freely combine them as in dreams. "God, our friends, and Shakespeare will collaborate with us." Nothing pleases Borges better than to play in this way with mind, dreams, space and time. The more complicated the game becomes, the happier he is. The dreamer can be dreamed in his turn. "The Mind was dreaming; the world was its dream." In all philosophers, from Democritus to Spinoza, from Schopenhauer to Kierkegaard, he is on the watch for paradoxical intellectual possibilities.

II

There are to be found in Valéry's notebooks many notes such as this: "Idea for a frightening story: it is discovered that the only remedy for cancer is living human flesh. Consequences." I can well imagine a piece of Borges "fiction" written on such a theme. Reading ancient and modern philosophers, he stops at an idea or a hypothesis. The spark flashes. "If this absurd postulate were developed to its extreme logical consequences," he wonders, "what world would be created?"

For example, an author, Pierre Menard, undertakes to compose
Don Quixote
― not another Quixote, but
the
Quixote. His method? To know Spanish well, to rediscover the Catholic faith, to war against the Moors, to forget the history of Europe ― in short, to
be
Miguel de Cervantes. The coincidence then becomes so total that the twentieth-century author rewrites Cervantes' novel literally,
word for word,
and without referring to the original. And here Borges has this astonishing sentence: "The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer." This he triumphantly demonstrates, for this subject, apparently absurd, in fact expresses a real idea: the
Quixote
that we read is not that of Cervantes, any more than our
Madame Bovary
is that of Flaubert. Each twentieth-century reader involuntarily rewrites in his own way the masterpieces of past centuries. It was enough to make an extrapolation in order to draw Borges's story out of it.

Often a paradox that ought to bowl us over does not strike us in the abstract form given it by philosophers. Borges makes a concrete reality out of it. The "Library of Babel" is the image of the universe, infinite and always started over again. Most of the books in this library are unintelligible, letters thrown together by chance or perversely repeated, but sometimes, in this labyrinth of letters, a reasonable line or sentence is found. Such are the laws of nature, tiny cases of regularity in a chaotic world. The "Lottery in Babylon" is another ingenious and penetrating staging of the role of chance in life. The mysterious Company that distributes good and bad luck reminds us of the "musical banks" in Samuel Butler's
Erewhon.

Attracted by metaphysics, but accepting no system as true, Borges makes out of all of them a game for the mind. He discovers two tendencies in himself: "one to esteem religious and philosophical ideas for their aesthetic value, and even for what is magical or marvelous in their content. That is perhaps the indication of an essential skepticism. The other is to suppose in advance that the quantity of fables or metaphors of which man's imagination is capable is limited, but that this small number of inventions can be everything to everyone."

Among these fables or ideas, certain ones particularly fascinate him: that of Endless Recurrence, or the circular repetition of all the history of the world, a theme dear to Nietzsche; that of the dream within a dream; that of centuries that seem minutes and seconds that seem years ("The Secret Miracle"); that of the hallucinatory nature of the world. He likes to quote Novalis: "The greatest of sorcerers would be the one who would cast a spell on himself to the degree of taking his own phantasmagoria for autonomous apparitions. Might that not be our case?" Borges answers that indeed it
is
our case: it is we who have dreamed the universe. We can see in what it consists, the deliberately constructed interplay of the mirrors and mazes of this thought, difficult but always acute and laden with secrets. In all these stories we find roads that fork, corridors that lead nowhere, except to other corridors, and so on as far as the eye can see. For Borges this is an image of human thought, which endlessly makes its way through concatenations of causes and effects without ever exhausting infinity, and marvels over what is perhaps only inhuman chance. And why wander in these labyrinths? Once more, for aesthetic reasons; because this present infinity, these "vertiginous symmetries," have their tragic beauty. The form is more important than the content.

III

Borges's form often recalls Swift's: the same gravity amid the absurd, the same precision of detail. To demonstrate an impossible discovery, he will adopt the tone of the most scrupulous scholar, mix imaginary writings in with real and erudite sources. Rather than write a whole book, which would bore him, he analyzes a book which has never existed. "Why take five hundred pages," he asks, "to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?"

Such is, for example, the narrative that bears this bizarre title: "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." This concerns the history of an unknown planet, complete "with its architectures and quarrels, with the terror of its mythologies and the uproar of its languages, its emperors and seas, its minerals and birds and fish, its algebra and fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies." This invention of a new world appears to be the work of a secret society of astronomers, engineers, biologists, metaphysicians and geometricians. This world that they have created, Tlön, is a Berekeleyan and Kierkegaardian world where only inner life exists. On Tlön everyone has his own truth; external objects are whatever each one wants. The international press broadcasts this discovery, and very soon the world of Tlön obliterates our world. An imaginary past takes the place of our own. A group of solitary scientists has transformed the universe. All this is mad, subtle, and gives food for endless thought.

Other stories by Borges are parables, mysterious and never explicit; still others are detective narratives in the manner of Chesterton. Their plots remain entirely intellectual. The criminal exploits his familiarity with the methods of the detective. It is Dupin against Dupin or Maigret against Maigret. One of these pieces of "fiction" is the insatiable search for a person through the scarcely perceptible reflections that he has left on other souls. In another, because a condemned man has noticed that expectations never coincide with reality, he imagines the circumstances of his own death. Since they have thus become expectations, they can no longer become realities.

These inventions are described in a pure and scholarly style which must be linked up with Poe, "who begat Baudelaire, who begat Mallarmé, who begat Valéry," who begat Borges. It is especially by his rigor that he reminds us of Valéry. "To be in love is to create a religion whose god is fallible." By his piled-up imperfects he sometimes recalls Flaubert; by the rarity of his adjectives, St. John Perse. "The inconsolable cry of a bird." But, once these relationships are pointed out, it must be said that Borges's style is, like his thought, highly original. Of the metaphysicians of Tlön he writes: "They seek neither truth nor likelihood; they seek astonishment. They think metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy." That rather well defines the greatness and the art of Borges.

ANDRÉ MAUROIS

of the French Academy

Translated by Sherry Mangan

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