Jorge Borges: Short Stories

Jorge Borges: Short Stories Quotes and Analysis

The Company, with godlike modesty, shuns all publicity. Its agents, of course, are secret; the orders which it continually (perhaps continually) imparts are no different from those spread by wholesale impostors... This silent functioning, like God's, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things... Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

Borges, p. 106

This closing paragraph of The Lottery in Babylon helps to frame the meaning behind the story of a lottery company that has essentially monopolized the element of chance in Babylonians' lives over time. The comparisons to God here are deliberate: Borges has created a world where the machinery of human business claims responsibility for all which transpires in the world, essentially elevating a mortal enterprise to a metaphysical level. While not an anti-religion argument, this can be seen as an anti-religious-institution argument, given that such institutions claim divine import. It is important to note, however, that this need not only cover religion: Borges' text can just as easily be viewed as a critique of political bodies, scientific organizations, or any man-made assembly which claim supervention on the natural world.

There is no combination of letters one can make - dhcmrlchtdj, for example - that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance. There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god. To speak is to commit tautologies. This pointless, verbose epistle already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five bookshelves in one of the countless hexagons - as does its refutation. (A number n of the possible languages employ the same vocabulary... You who read me - are you certain you understand my language?)

Borges, pp. 117-8

This passage near the conclusion of The Library of Babel underscores the interpretive nature of identity - that is, that anything can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Within the scope of the story, Borges actually proves this based on the fact the the Library, which is the universe, is total, meaning that it contains every possible combination of letters and punctuation, and that all books can be rendered decipherable in multiple languages which share the same alphabet. This message can be interpreted as reflecting on the difficulties of determining original intent, a term referring to what the author of something was trying to express by writing it. It could justly be said that this paradigm of thought is complementary to the meditations of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which Menard tries to reach the exact same text that Cervantes wrote thorough his own experiences - an exercise that demonstrates the difficulty in drawing original intent from a document alone. (It is also ironic to read about the difficulties of understanding an author's meaning in a translated edition, which has necessarily already been interpreted by the translator.)

I imagined a labyrinth of labyrinths, a maze of mazes, a twisting, turning, ever-widening labyrinth that contained both past and future and somehow implied the stars. Absorbed in those illusory imaginings, I forgot that I was a pursued man; I felt myself, for an indefinite while, the abstract perceiver of the world. The vague, living countryside, the moon, the remains of the day did their work in me; so did the gently downward road, which forestalled all possibility of weariness. The evening was near, yet infinite.

Borges, p. 122

This contemplative moment of Yu Tsun during his escape from Captain Madden prefigures the later explanation by Dr. Albert that The Garden of Forking Paths is a riddle for the labyrinthine nature of time. At this moment, Yu Tsun feels almost akin to god insofar as he is outside of time, observing the world as a labyrinth which contains both the past and future. This description of time as a labyrinth ought to remind one of the Library described in The Library of Babel, for its shelves contained books describing literally all possibilities and impossibilities; the feeling of abstract perception experienced by Yu Tsun is what we might expect of a librarian in the Library.

[Emma Zunz] picked up the telephone and repeated what she was to repeat so many times, in those and other words: "Something has happened, something unbelievable... Sr. Loewenthal sent for me on the pretext of strike... He raped me... I killed him..."

The story was unbelievable, yes - and yet it convinced everyone, because in substance it was true. Emma Zunz's tone of voice was real, her shame was real, her hatred was real. The outrage that had been done to her was real, as well; all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.

Borges, p. 219

This final passage of Emma Zunz encapsulates the pain of Emma and the sophistry of the story: her defilement stems from what she sees as the effective murder of her father by Loewenthal. This, in fact, is the very beginning of her misappropriation of agency: though her father literally committed suicide, she views it as a murder because she blames Loewenthal for wrongly putting her father in prison (even this is uncertain: we as readers only have her father's word against Loewenthal's, and no concrete evidence). Given this catalyst for her plan to exact revenge on Loewenthal, it is less surprising that she would equate his actions with a rape (read as "loss of purity") - for, from the beginning of the chain of events, only Emma's sentiments were genuine; their targets were consistently precarious.

We also have knowledge of another superstition from that period: belief in what was termed the Book-Man. On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books, and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

p. 116

Because the Library of Babel is total, all possible books must exist within it. The narrator recounts the historic inference that there is one "master book" which makes sense and reason of all others, a book which is analogous to the philosophical principle of the First Cause, which is infinite and causes the rest of the universe (i.e. God, so to speak). Supposing that someone read this book, that person would be a god among men, or a messiah.

Quain would often argue that readers were an extinct species. "There is no European man or woman," he would sputter, "that's not a writer, potentially or in fact." He would also declare that of the many kinds of pleasure literature can minister, the highest is the pleasure of the imagination. Since not everyone is capable of experiencing that pleasure, many will have to content themselves with simulacra. For those "writers manqués," whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories of Statements. Each of them prefigures, or promises, a good plot, which is then intentionally frustrated by the author. One of the stories (not the best) hints at two plots; the reader, blinded by vanity, believes that he himself has come up with them. From the third story, titled "The Rose of Yesterday," I was ingenious enough to extract "The Circular Ruins," which is one of the stories in my book The Garden of Forking Paths.

Borges, p. 111

Borges here describes Herbert Quain's belief that people would rather design ideas and stories themselves than appreciate such a story; this is what is meant by the notion that there are no readers left, but only potential or actual writers. Yet, because many people lack imagination in spite of this tendency, Quain decides he must design stories which give the reader the illusion of imagination, where they believe that they are out-smarting or mastering the stories even though Quain designed them that way.

Note Borges' comment about drawing The Circular Ruins from the third story of Quain's collection. The Circular Ruins is the fourth story in Borges' collection The Garden of Forking Paths, which, like Statements, has eight stories. This implies that Borges may have created his entire collection by unwittingly replicating Quain's Statements. The message here is a suggestion that our vanity leads us to mistake for inspiration our tendency to absorb and reinvent ideas from sources external to ourselves, a notion aligned with the Platonic belief that there are perfect abstract Forms and Ideas which are crudely represented on earth as imperfect copies of themselves.

The ruins of the sanctuary of the god of Fire were destroyed by fire. In the birdless dawn, the sorcerer watched the concentric holocaust close in upon the walls. For a moment he thought of taking refuge in the water, but then he realized that death would be a crown upon his age and absolve him from his labors. He walked into the tatters of flame, but they did not bite his flesh - they caressed him, bathed him without heat and without combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he realized that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him.

Borges, p. 100

The conclusion of The Circular Ruins sheds light on the title of the story by explaining how the ruins are symbolically circular: each man is the manifestation of the dream of another man. Fire, representative of the light of creation, can also be a wild, destructive force; yet because the man was forged in fire, he cannot be hurt by it. The combination of relief, humiliation, and terror which he feels are the result of a moment of recognition that his identity is the product of something external to himself, and that the fact that he is an idea means he cannot be destroyed.

From time to time, [the man] was disturbed by a sense that all this had happened before... His days were, in general, happy; when he closed his eyes, he would think "Now I will be with my son." Or, less frequently, "The son I have engendered is waiting for me, and he will not exist if I do not go to him."

Borges, p. 99

Perhaps the most poignant passage in The Garden of Forking Paths regarding the art of creation, this excerpt from The Circular Ruins describes the precarious nature of giving life to something: a process of paramount importance to a writer like Borges, who brings people to life on a page, and to the reader, who reimagines life into these characters. The imaginative process can lead one to question how reality can be underpinned by anything besides belief and imagination, as described by the disturbing deja vu referenced by the narrator; so, too, does the imagined object depend upon the imagining agent for its creation. Presumably, unless its creator can convince others to also imagine or believe in it, it will fade out of existence without the action of its creator.

There are distressing details: A black Jew from Cochin, describing Al'Mutasim, says his skin is dark; a Christian says that he stands upon a tower with his arms outspread; a red lama recalls him as seated "like that image which I carved from yak ghee and worshipped in the monastery at Tashilhumpo." Those declarations are an attempt to suggest a single, unitary God who molds Himself to the dissimilarities of humankind. In my view, that notion is not particularly exciting. I cannot say the same for another idea, however: the idea that the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a yet superior (or perhaps simply necessary, albeit equal) Someone, and so on, to the End - or better yet, the Endlessness - of Time.

Borges, p. 85

Borges uses this portion of his review of The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim to imply the source of divinity in the infinity of time, as opposed to divinity as a singular point. If true moral goodness (as represented in Al'Mu'tasim) is divine, and the divine is infinite, than the search for this goodness must too be timeless and infinite.

"Thinking, meditating, imagining," [Menard] also wrote me, "are not anomalous acts - they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some doctor universalis thought, is to confess our own languor, or our own barbarie. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be."

Borges, p. 95

This perspective offered by Pierre Menard in this passage reflects the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the "doctor universalis" referenced. The welcoming of thoughts not our own into our consciousness humbles us and makes us aware of our place in the universe. Menard also treats ideas in a doctrine similar to Plato: that is, that Ideas exist in the abstract and are only manifested as imperfect copies in reality. Thus, we should all be able to access all ideas using our own psyche, thereby transcending the artifice of ownership.