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Borges' World of Forking Paths
Many of Borges' short fictions deal with the subjects of time, infinity, mystery, deceit, and puzzlement.  His fictional world is one part science-fiction, one part philosophical exploration, one part grandly constructed joke, and one part mystical self-doubt.  Read the following assessment by Robert Royal:

"It may be overly neat to put it this way, but perhaps the most accurate way to characterize classic Borges is that the fictions are intensive rather than extensive. These categories in turn bear some relationship to Descartes' notion of the mind as res intensa and the world as res extensa. In our normal understanding, things are simply what they are, if ultimately of mysterious origin. The usual way of thinking of the self or a story is to put these simpler elements together in a more interesting or complex arrangement. The mind has no extension, but it gathers everything.

"In Borges's fiction, and perhaps in his basic perception of the world, there are no simple extended things. A kind of pantheism bordering on solipsism gathers complexities into the reach of the mind, which is itself intense with multiple modes of meaning. [. . .] Borges's typical story barely acknowledges narrative as possible, the few surface events being the mere scaffolding for the opening up of vast, cavernous universes of knowledge. [. . .] But the intellectual rigor is of a special kind. Borges was never a scholar, though he was a wide and retentive reader. Most of his information came from reference books and encyclopedias. Indeed, this kind of knowledge is dominant in one dimension of Borges's work where works of reference, seemingly so objective and orderly, reveal vast, deep, unsuspected, and mysterious universes. [. . .]

"In this context, Borges is both a triumph and a warning. His Gnostic thesis opened up creativity for him as nothing earlier in his life had. It allowed for some of the greatest literary work in the century just past—great in artistry and imagination if narrow in compass. The sheer weight of the universe of positivism, which Chesterton also felt, has to be lifted before any creativity at all can emerge. Borges's universe is the mirror opposite of that universe, but in its flight from a dead realism it runs other risks. The metaphysicians of Tlön reject systems because "[t]hey know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect." But without such subordination—and the hierarchy of thought, value, and reality it entails—the world becomes very flat indeed. And a literature that has no room for ordering and subordination of that type is ultimately a literature that truly is written for an unreal world."

-- Robert Royal, "Librarian of Babel: The Gnostic Imagination of Jorge Luis Borges"

[Click here to read the entire article.] (optional)

According to Royal, Borges (like Yeats and Stevens) sees the mind as having an infinite kind of power.  One can literally imagine any combination of anything that exists.  This leads to a very playful kind of fiction on Borges' part--a fiction that juggles the philosophical questions of time, self, reality, and freedom of choice, but it is nonetheless a fiction that refuses to draw distinctive claims or make ethical judgments about what is true and false, good and bad, perhaps even beautiful and ugly.  This is, in part, because Borges' world of the imagination does not have a direct relationship with the objective, real world.  Borges' fictions escape the dead-end of a realism that refuses to consider the mystical or metaphysical, yet they do not offer a particularly stable answer.  It is a world of aesthetic surfaces and playful chance rather than one of formal design and aesthetic order and depth.  [For this reason, some critics have called Borges the first postmodernist.  Click here for the characterisitics of postmodernism.]


Labyrinths and Overlapping Doublets in "The Garden of Forking Paths"

Please note the following pattern of overlapping mazes and mysteries in Borges' story:

  • The literal labyrinth that Yu Tsun walks through
  • The labyrinth of a detective story/murder mystery -- Borges names the story after the novel of Ts'ui
  • The labyrinth of Ts'ui's book and his model
  • The labyrinth of history (e.g., Should the editor be trusted? cf. the first paragraph -- the editor is lying: the battle was not postponed nor were there any rains until September.)
  • The labyrinth of time itself
  • The labyrinth of spying
  • The four layers of story: the editor's story, Yu's story, Ts'ui's story as told by Albert, Ts'ui's story as remembered by Yu
  • Ts'ui is murdered by a stranger as Albert  is
  • Albert and Ts'ui both go into solitude to make their great discovery
  • Ts'ui retires specifically to "the Pavilion of Limpid Solitude," while Albert says to Yu, "I see that the pious Hsi P'eng persists in correcting my solitude."
  • In Ts'ui's work there are two versions of the outcome of the battle; in Yu's narrative, we sense that there are two possible outcomes to Yu's plans.
  • Both Ts'ui and Yu are seeking to impart a message: Ts'ui's goes unnamed and is understood to be "time" by one man, Albert.  Yu's message is printed in the paper but is still understood by only one man,.

Question: What is Borges trying to suggest about the nature of time and history by his elaborate fictional construction?  Why use the symbol of a labyrinth?  Is a labyrinth essentiallly a matter of chance or one of predetermined fate?  Read the following three quotes for some ideas:

Three Quotes from Borges' "A New Refutation of Time"

"Time, if we can intuitively grasp such an identity, is a delusion: the difference and inseparability of one moment belonging to its apparent past from another belonging to its apparent present is sufficient to disintegrate it."

"We can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know of each other but in whom the same process works), two identical moments.  Once this identity is postulated, one may ask: Are not these identical moments the same?  Is not one single repeated term sufficient to break down and confuse the series of time?  Do not the fervent readers who surrender themselves to Shakespeare become, literally, Shakespeare?"

"Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.  Our destiny (as contrasted with the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad.   Time is the substance I am made of.  Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.  The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges."

Time, according to Borges, would seem to be an illusion because we only experience things in the present.  Time is broken down when two individuals experience the same moments, which is something like the truly involved reader of fiction.  Yet Borges must still admit that the objective world exists and that such a world defies our attempts at escaping its claims on us.

Questions

  1. In what sense are Ts'ui and Yu the same person?  In what sense are Ts'ui and Albert the same?  In what sense are Yu and Albert the same?
  2. How do the times surrounding Ts'ui and Yu represent identical moments?  What does this suggest about them?
  3. How might Christians respond to Borges' notions of time, history, and the mind?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding