I discovered the work of Jorge Louis Borges about a year and a half ago in a college course, one in which I read a few basic works of his and subsequently went out and bought all of his works and am now in the process of plowing through them. So, I thought I’d share a few basic thoughts on their works and what for me is some of the most amazing prose of the 20th century. Enough hero worship, here are some thoughts.
These are some thoughts on the first three stories from his Labyrinths collection. Some basic themes I noticed foremost are those of human construct and idea blurring the edges of reality, and those very constructs supplanting God through the paradoxical explanation of complex ideas such as fate, time, and history.
In terms of images, the foremost is the most obvious, the labyrinth. The collection is named as such, and in each piece he uses specific vocabulary to describe specific labyrinths. The nature of these labyrinths becomes more important though. The labyrinth, in its nature is a human made object. Because of this, the focus of each of these pieces is the creation of a construct created by humanity, in two cases by an anonymous society of sorts, and in the third by a reclusive intellectual. The nature of the constructs is also common between the three. In each of the stories, the labyrinth that is created acts as an intermediary between reality and a conceptual field, in each case a field that the labyrinth’s creators are attempting to gain control over.
Tlot, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
The first of these, that of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is about the discovery of an otherworldly history in the form of an encyclopedia which later becomes known to be falsified by a secret society in the 18th and 19th centuries. The world of Borges, in the 20th century though is beginning to accept the culture and histories of Tlon as truth and even the narrator states that is nearly impossible for it to have been falsified because of the intricacy with which it was created. In the end we learn that the encyclopedias are in fact false and that now reality is beginning to alter itself to take on the form of an idea. Effectually, the hubris of the men that created the encyclopedia is going unpunished, not only being accepted as a truth, a whole creation as it was envisioned on par with earthly gods, but beginning to infiltrate the reality of those gods.
The Garden of Forking Paths
In “The Garden of Forking Paths”, Ts’ui Pen creates a labyrinth of time, in literature. In this format Borges seems to be playing with metafiction to explore some of the same ideas of the first story. The purpose of the convoluted work of Ts’ui Pen being to create an endless story that cannot be singly defined. Borges uses the construct of the labyrinth for this very story though and explores, though Stephen Albert’s words, what would happen if the circumstance were different. And they very well could be. The only conflict the reader is aware of is the conflict that the narrator has with Madden, an abstract pursuer. The fact that Albert is the key to relaying the message to the Germans or that he has the work of the narrator’s ancestor are made into conscious choices, that could have alternate possibilities. The themes of Ts’ui Pen’s novel overflow into the themes of our short story thus, and blur the lines between the narrator’s reality and the fiction of his ancestor.
The Lottery in Babylon
This becomes interesting in another manner in the final story, “The Lottery in Babylon”. The story tells of a simple lottery that snowballs into an all encompassing system of chance deciding the fate of everyone. The lottery at the beginning is a very simple human construct, easily understandable. Later, it changes, altering from a simple form of entertainment into an metaphor for the role of chance in everyone’s life. The lottery is so prolific, or possibly obsolete, that it becomes invisible, blending into the reality of everyday life and the role of chance. The labyrinth of choices that are presented in infinite drawings directly parallels the infinite possibilities of Ts’ui Pen’s novel and the concept of a divinity by having the control over those various aspects. In this regard, this story blends the human construct with reality as well as with divinity.