Saturday, 7 February 2015

In Which We Serve - a favourite scene

I thought I'd use the 50th anniversary of Churchill's death as an excuse to post one of my favourite moments in film. It's from In Which We Serve, a propaganda film (though an excellent one, and it cheers on the good guys) released in 1942 while the war still raged. The particular scene comes as HMS Torrin, the ship and crew at the centre of the film, disembarks the soldiers it has just evacuated from Dunkirk.

I defy even the toughest cynic not to be a little bit stirred by this:

The soldiers are tired, beaten, and dejected, and the country as a whole is looking pretty knackered too. When the sergeant major gives the order to move out from the dock, however, they straighten themselves and march away in perfect, disciplined order. They will fight on.

What I like about the scene is how it is so burstingly pregnant – it says so much, yet so quietly. The soldiers' resilience and doggedness seem to represent that entire strain of rhetoric and that national mood that define summer 1940 in our imagination – 'Very well, alone', 'All behind you, Winston', 'we shall never surrender' – but it does so almost wordlessly.

It is an intensely patriotic scene, but I don't think it has to be – in its taciturn avoidance of the obviousness and loudness of political rhetoric, it leaves us free to enjoy it simply as a celebration of righteous determination, of the bravery of doing the right and necessary deed. One of the film's themes is the unity between social classes during wartime emergency (and, by extension, this as a human decency worth defending against fascism) and the quiet, unshowy determination of the fighting men to maintain their discipline and not give in feels like a counterpart to the political elite's rhetorical exhortations of 'never surrender'. This is the common soldier's message of defiance and encouragement, and it works – 'if I wasn't so tired I'd give them a cheer' says John Mills when he sees it.

There might seem to be something antagonistic about this – the working men of the army encourage with their actions, as opposed to the mere words of the politicians – but given the rather conservative class politics of the film, this seems unlikely. One strikingly outdated aspect of the film is its emphasis on duty – it exhorts the British to 'do their duty' and fight, rather than asking them to find within their own individual conscience the moral reasons why the war was good and worth fighting. As we tend now to assume the latter was the crucial motivation of those who fought Nazism, this emphasis is doubly striking. As I remember it, there is only one, passing mention of Nazi atrocities.

And it's great as film-making because it says everything indirectly through exemplification, without having to state the baldly obvious or harangue the viewer. In Which We Serve is a great film. Noel Coward directed as well as starred, though I read somewhere that the film-making process soon bored him, leading him to hand over most of his duties to his co-director, maestro-to-be David Lean. I like to think this scene is one of Lean's.

Friday, 6 February 2015

On Borges

[This is a longer version of the review I wrote for Eli Lee's excellent Books of the Year blog]

My book of 2014 is Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions, a work of 1944 containing two collections of short stories: ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘Artifices’. Borges, an Argentinian, wrote in Spanish, but I have made do with Andrew Hurley’s Penguin translation.

In the recent film Birdman, Edward Norton’s character is confirmed as the insufferable pseud that he is when we see him reading some Borges while reclining on a sunbed. This smarted a little – ‘at least you’d never catch me on a sunbed,’ I thought, rather pathetically. But on further reflection – and Borges is a master of making us think again – I became certain the director was dead wrong in making Borges a byword for thin pseudery. His short stories, especially those in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, are probably the most richly imaginative, profoundly thoughtful, bewitching literary works I have read.

If you haven’t read any yet, do it. Today. Borrow my copy – I’ll mail it to you (once I’m done with it).

So to give you an idea of the mental journeys one can enjoy reading Borges (‘mental journeys’ as in ‘voyages of the mind’, but the sense ‘like, totally mental’ fits too) I am going to talk about Borges the anti-realist.

The dodgy encyclopaedia

Borges’ best short stories, in my opinion, are those in the form of thought experiments. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, first published in 1941, was Borges’ first foray into this meditative, philosophically-minded mode, and the collection begins with a story about the discovery of a strange encyclopaedia in which is described an entirely new, unknown world. It’s called ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ – terrible name, but don’t let that put you off as it sets up lots of important Borgesian questions.

In the story Borges and a friend come across a seemingly rogue edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia that contains an entry about an otherwise unattested land called ‘Uqbar’. There are details of its geography, history, language, and more, but no other book mentions it. This proposes immediately the simple terms of the thought experiment: if we obtain our information about the world from encyclopaedias, how could we tell when an encyclopaedia misrepresents it?

As you might have guessed, Uqbar is just the beginning: yet more anomalous volumes arrive, seemingly authorless, describing an even larger, even more complete world called Tlön to which Uqbar was merely the introduction. It is discovered eventually that Tlön is the centuries-long work of a group of scholars, but the discovery is too late – the distinctions between Tlön and the real world have started to dissolve, and the touchstones of reality are out of reach. Our grip on reality is lost. The short story might therefore be called sceptical – and Borges explicitly links the failure to keep a hold on reality to the spread of the debased fictions of Nazism.

Back to the encyclopaedia: it is our normal, first-resort means of assessing claims people make about the world – we encounter problems when we question it, because doing so force us to achieve an even more encyclopaedic knowledge of the world than the encyclopaedia itself. What other source can we fall back on to correct or affirm the encyclopaedia’s picture of the world and its contents?

Borges takes us to this limit of our knowledge, and illuminates the dark scepticism that lies just beyond it – might the tail be wagging the dog? could our supposed knowledge of the world be merely a fiction dreamt up by writers of reference works, safe in the knowledge they cannot be contradicted?

Of course, we can come up with answers to these questions, and work our way back towards certainty. It is almost certainly the case that encyclopaedists have a grasp on the objective real world, because different encyclopaedias all say roughly similar things – the likelihood of them corroborating one another by pure coincidence is vanishingly tiny, as is the probability that there is a league of devious encyclopaedists all conspiring together to pull the wool over eyes (but hold that thought). Instead, it must be the constancy of the real world that causes different encyclopaedias to resemble one another despite having independent origins.

Furthermore, even though the encyclopaedia seems to constitute a vast, unified totality of knowledge, it is not knowledge derived from a single, Archimedean perspective upon the whole world, and we do not need to find such an impossible perspective from nowhere to verify or assess the encyclopaedia’s contents. Encyclopaedias are really composed from networks of testimonies, teams of people all of whom can reasonably trust in the accuracy of one another’s entries even if they themselves cannot individually know the facts behind every single one. Even though the encyclopaedic snapshot of the world is assembled not in one single mind but in the minds of many, there is a reasonably good that chance that its piecemeal entries, all corroborated by the reasoned and tested trust that each contributor has in the testimony of the other, and that the editor has in them all, add up to a true and verified depiction of the objective world.

(Incidentally, the idea of seeing the world-all-at-once is a typical Borgesian conceit of an impossible or unobtainable totality. He will go on to develop it in a later short story ‘The Aleph’, in which a lucky man has in his cellar a small gap through which he can see the entire world in a glimpse.)

I’m not sure, however, that this really does enough to banish the scepticism Borges unleashes upon his reader. Yes, a single view of the world and its entire contents is impossible, and a figure of impossibility Borges likes to play with, and yes, we make do instead with a patchwork of testimonies – but how can I be satisfied leaving the matter like this, when I know in my mind that the world in fact does exist as one single whole even if I cannot perceive this? I am haunted by a shadowy inference of the world-all-at-once, and the impossibility of perceiving it doesn’t banish from my mind the intuited fact of its existence, nor the fact that the encyclopaedia fails to capture it. Here at least is a discrepancy between encyclopaedia and world.

We would all agree, I think, that an encyclopaedia should not include an entry in which I try to describe the notion I have in my mind of ‘the world and its contents all at once’. We should describe it instead bit by empirically describable bit – geography, climate, fauna, history, etc. – instead of resorting to the purely notional. But this raises another problem, suggesting we have not yet properly dealt with Borges’ sceptical starting point. Abstract ‘facts about’ and ‘facts of’ are not what the world is made of – they are just happenings in our minds, whereas the world is made of concrete stuff. But isn’t the encyclopaedia’s snapshot of the world abstract in a way that puts it at odds with the world it purports to describe? (and I don’t just mean abstract in that anything put in language is abstract). Consider: the writer of the entry of Bhutan knows that the capital of that nation is Thimphu because he has been there, and the writer of the entry on water knows that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen because he has seen as much through a microscope – but no one person can have such first-hand knowledge of every entry, and therefore for every entry-writer, for its compiler, and for the reader the encyclopaedia is a varying patchwork of light and shadow: that Bhutan’s capital is Thimphu is verified true knowledge for one person but it is mere facticity, a mere summary fact for her chemist colleague – the fact of this being the case, which is backed up by the fact that the trained, well-travelled Orientalist has the credentials to speak on this matter with authority.

No one person can verify it all – he would have to rely on trust and the mere fact of things being the case, when facts are abstract and not the stuff the world is made of.

If the contents of the encyclopaedia cannot be sufficiently verified to convince the sceptic that it definitely represents the world as it really is, then it is no wonder Borges and his friend cannot easily dismiss their rogue edition as inaccurate.

Now consider this – the orientalist has been to Bhutan and seen that it contains Thimphu as its capital, the chemist has peered at water through a lens and seen its composition from hydrogen and oxygen. That is one way in which they truly know their objects of study – by knowing the attributes that make up complex entities, and it is in bearing witness to such details that they can claim to describe the world truthfully. But we must be careful not to assume therefore that the presence of complexity and compositeness are themselves trademarks of the real world which would allow us to tell a genuine encyclopaedia from a dodgy one. For Borges and his friend are partly seduced by the sheer thoroughness of their bogus encyclopaedia – it does not seem like a fictional cardboard cut-out created by mere say-so (what’s the name of the attendant second from left in Hamlet 1.2? he doesn’t have a name, he wasn’t given one) because it mimics the dense complexity of real things: again Uqbar has a history, places, a language, etc.

An encyclopaedia, therefore, can mislead by mis-describing the attributes and qualities of what does exist (‘horses have six legs’) and also, as is the case here, mislead by describing the qualities and attributes of what does not exist (‘unicorns have horns’). That second example is all sorts of problematic – it is of course, in some way, a pure fact that unicorns do have horns, just as within a certain way of thinking it is true that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street and false that he lived at 23 Railway Cuttings. It is not merely that non-existent entities can bamboozlingly resemble real entities by being complex – their complex network of attributes are held together by the same bonds of abstract facticity that glue together real things and, as it was noted above, the encyclopaedia itself.

We can chase ourselves into an endless rabbit-hole (or labyrinth, to use Borges’ preferred metaphor) by attaching ever more attributes to fictional things, and then attributes to the attributes (‘and at 221b Baker St there lived James Watson and Mrs Hudson, and Mr Watson was a doctor…’). It might seem obvious that we could stop ourselves from entering into such a dangerous, endless recursion into illusory realities by keeping hold of a touchstone starting premise, a thread to guide us through the labyrinth – unicorns are not real to begin with, and any attributes I attach to them subsequently are equally unreal, no matter how well they hang together. But when we have valid doubts about whether even encyclopaedias can reliably distinguish what is real and what is not in the first place, how much of a touchstone is this starting premise?

The importance of unreality

Borges isn’t actually saying, I don’t think, that we don’t know the real world when we see it, or even that we couldn’t tell a fake encyclopaedia if we saw one. Rather the fun is in entertaining the doubt and then testing how well we could defend our original premise against it – it is like imagining getting ourselves lost, just so we can learn our way home and much else on the way there.

It might be objected that my approach has been philosophical (or, alas, pseudo-philosophical) and not critical, and this isn’t the point of reviewing a book. Well, if these sorts of musings aren’t your thing then you’re probably having a pretty horrific time, let’s not mince words. The fact is, however, Borges is a philosophical writer – allusions to philosophers, explicit and not, are found throughout his stories (and their handwriting is all over the themes discussed throughout – Descartes, Leibniz, Meinong, Russell, Berkeley). More important, the stories are irresistible temptations to speculate. Hypothetical ‘what ifs’ are only ever starting points, and reading Borges without cutting adrift now and again would be like buying yourself a jigsaw puzzle but refraining from disturbing the pieces.

Sod that. Onwards.

As the first work in the collection, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ creates the premise for the explorations in the stories that follow – if we can find no rock-solid grounds for separating fiction from reality, and saying which came first, then all is not necessarily lost. Even if we have to give up on achieving a picture of how the world ‘really is’, there are still open to us the vast expanses of possibility – the world as it can be re-conceived and re-made in our minds, and the infinite potential of hypothetical modes of thinking uncoupled from agonizing questions of reality and falsehood. This is the starting point, then, for the extraordinary thought experiments that make up the rest of ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Artifices’. They take us to some arresting, and entirely unpredictable conclusions.

One particularly thought-provoking conceit Borges likes to entertain is the possibility of counter-factuals (possibilities, things that could have happened but didn’t) existing simultaneously alongside the real things that did happen. In the impossible novel described in the story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Borges conceives of just this:

In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts’ui Pen, the character chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures,’ several times, which themselves proliferate and fork.

A similar kind of novel is mooted in ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’. What is, within the confines of reality, merely ‘modal’ or ghostly and notional (unrealized possibilities e.g.) is raised by Borges to parity with the actual – in this speculative mode of writing, the stranglehold of the real is broken. There are other quintessentially Borgesian features here: the impossible, all-at-once totality of mutually exclusive possibilities simultaneously existing alongside one another; and the prospect of an unreal premise (what didn’t happen) spinning off into an endless recursion of forking paths, leading us well and truly down the rabbit hole.

These metaphysical adventures can be dangerous – I fancy it wouldn’t take many forks in the path before we forgot that the first road we took was the merely ‘possible’ one, not the real one. As with the dodgy encyclopaedia, this is how the real world can disappear from view entirely.

But these metaphysical misadventures can also illustrate the poverty of the real, and our total reliance on the intangible. In ‘Funes his Memory’ (a title also translated as ‘Funes the Memorious’) Borges imagines a man who following an accident is gifted with a prodigious memory – he remembers not just everything he has ever encountered, but every moment in which each thing existed. So he doesn’t just remember the tree outside his window, but the tree as it was on Monday, as it was on Tuesday, on Wednesday etc. His memory (probably another impossible totality) records reality so accurately, so atomistically that he ends up with a mass of fragmented, meaningless details – to have a sense of the tree being the same tree each time we encounter it (i.e. in each of its temporal instantiations) we need to have an abstract notion of it as an abiding thing, to have a higher-level category which groups together all of its different appearances in time, and all the different forms it has taken (sometimes wind-ruffled, sometimes without leaves, etc. but still the same overarching thing).

However, this organizing notion of the tree as a single thing that is identical over time cannot be found and witnessed and remembered through experience of the real world, as it is internal to the mind, intangible and abstract – Funes, for whom knowledge of the world is memory of what he has seen, cannot grasp the metaphysical category ‘thing’. He is also unable to recognize things that are new to him: what commonality could he detect between the past things he knows and the new thing before him, without recourse to a higher-level, abstract idea of identity that encompasses the two? The novel item could not be reconciled or fitted within Funes’s mental database of past things, because they are all crisp, discrete, and fixed to their particular time.

Hence the paradoxical theme of the story: a man who remembers everything in the world in fact remembers no thing. He has been seduced by the appealing but misleading solidity of the physically real. Funes, to borrow a snatch of T. S. Eliot, suffers from too much reality.

Or take for instance the endlessly rich ‘Library of Babel’. No ordinary library, its books contain random combinations of letters in an incalculable number of permutations:

Each wall of each hexagon is furnished with five bookshelves; each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters.

No one knows how many hexagonal rooms there are – possibly an infinite number. As with monkeys and typewriters, if the library contains every possible permutation of letter sequences, and every possible permutation of sequences of those letter sequences, then the librarians who tend it must be guardians of every true statement that can be made about the world. Somewhere out there, pre-existing in physical form, are all the truths of the universe just waiting to be found.

The problem is, of course, that every fallacy is there too. And every refutation and every defence of every fallacy, and every refutation and every defence of every truth. Located in the library somewhere there must also be books that translate one another – but as the relation will be merely coincidental, could we still call it translation, which entails a determinate relationship of prior original and a subsequent rendering? In fact what would stop us from saying that a book of seemingly random letters is in fact a scholarly work of history, say, but written in a previously unknown language – the letters ‘sfarblem’ are repeated in a consistent pattern and can be taken to mean ‘king’, the small, very commonly repeated sequence ‘yy’ is clearly some sort of function word perhaps meaning ‘of’, and the sequence ‘rhuttem’ follows these two other sequences very frequently and almost certainly means ‘the land’. As long as the book has the same types of patterns of repetition that one finds in Spanish or English, say, what would stop us from attributing meanings to the sequences and, hey presto, discovering a new language?

We wouldn’t call this a new language because languages are used by people to express thoughts, and these sequences belong to no people and have behind them no thoughts. Similarly, refutations and defences and translations are all speech acts made by persons with intentions – these are no more speech acts than Scrabble tiles in a bag waiting to make a word. Moreover, when a human mind produces utterances (however that actually happens) it does not simply spill out random letters in the hope of making sense, as was the case with the mysterious founders of the Library – there is a preceding mental process which is at least as important as the putting together of the letters. The truths found in the library of Babel therefore only look superficially like truths.

What’s more, how would we know when we had found the books that tell truths, and the ones that counter-argue those truth, etc.? We would still be in the position of having to match up the strings of letter with meanings – the randomly generated books couldn’t do this themselves, and we could not presuppose any guiding intentions that make the letter sequences follow the course of logical, coherent discourse. We’d have to do the hard work of imposing a meaning ourselves, because there wasn’t one there in the first place, no meaning mind putting things in place. Similarly, if a librarian sought the one book that proves the existence of God she could only find it by knowing what she was looking for in the first place – by predicting what the proof would look like, and then picking the book that fits her thought.

So we would end up doing so much supplementary mental work in addition to the letters on the page that we would surely question whether the truths were contained in the actual books themselves at all: the physical books contain nothing without mental supplementation. Which gives rise to a paradox similar to the one above: it is conceivable that, if we were guaranteed possessors of every single truth about the world that can be stated, we would still be none the wiser – nothing in the library itself enables the librarians to discover its truths. It is, in essence, merely the world’s biggest Scrabble bag. The mythical Babel is of course the birthplace of language as we know it, the point at which our ancestors realized that languages could be unknown and potentially hold secrets from us, but also, notably, the point at which languages became meaningless to us. Language conceived as purely physical artefact is, Borges seems to be saying, meaningless.

The poor librarians end up like the dupes taken in by the dodgy encyclopaedia – presented with a library that claims to contain the entire world, they choose that over the real version: ‘the certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.’

Problems of discrepancy

I wonder if we could say that the puzzles described by Borges can be categorized, very roughly, according to two types of discrepancy. The first is the discrepancy caused by our over-active minds: because they are not hard-wired into concrete reality, they are able to spin off on wild abstract trains of thought independently of the real world, creating things like fake encyclopaedias.

The second discrepancy is the other way around: sometimes the concrete things that thinking, intending humans create long outlive the thoughts and intentions of their creators, resulting in the presence of anomalous, unexplained artefacts. I’ll argue that Borges describes many such artefacts, but before that I’ll tackle the first discrepancy, between the realities our minds can conceive of and the reality offered by the physical, concrete world.

We saw this discrepancy in the lying encyclopaedia of ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ – despite the real world not containing a place called Uqbar, the writers were able to do a good job of creating it, simply because they knew that readers can conceive realities other than those that exist (or have being) in the world and because the internal relations that structure a fictional object are seductively similar to the relations (of facticity, of mereology) that structure reality. As soon as we lose ourselves amid those internal relations, and forget that our starting point was a falsehood or potential falsehood, we are all at sea.

We see in the story ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ another example of what happens when we lose our starting point. The Babylonians have got themselves into a fix by putting a lottery in charge of all decision-making and all judgements. Once committed to this course, the madness can only deepen: if one decision, e.g. the death sentence, is dictated by chance, then it stands to reason that all the decisions subsequent to it should be dictated by chance too.

Is it not ludicrous that chance should dictate a person’s death while the circumstances of that death – whether private or public, whether drawn out for a century or an hour – should not be subject to chance?

The logic is undeniable – to do otherwise would be arbitrary. But as soon as we prioritize this internal consistency of relations we find that a terrible and absurd idea becomes self-justifying and self-perpetuating, and we lose sight of what should surely be our starting, determining premise – that governing our lives and those of others by mere chance is a crazy idea.

The patterns of many of Borges’ stories act out this runaway-train propensity. Many of them begin with Borges claiming to have found a book, or even just come up with a story, which he then delves into. As it proceeds, the original storytelling frame of the book Borges came across fades and we feel we are in the action itself – we lose our grip on the starting premise that this is just Borges describing a book he has read or, in the case of ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, an idea for a plot that he has come up with, and think of it as a directly narrated story, rather than a story within a story. In ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ we see also a recursion in the opposite direction, a regress suggesting that the starting point isn’t a starting point at all because there is something prior to it still:

In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot – which I will perhaps commit to paper but which somehow already justifies me. It needs details, rectifications, tinkering – there are areas of the story that have never been revealed to me.

The sentence I have emphasized suggests that a fictional story can have no firmly fixed starting point, for any past-tense narration of events implies by inference some ghostly original that preceded and caused the narration. We are in a labyrinth (the quintessential Borgesian metaphor): we always lose our starting point because our tendency to think abstractly over and above what is before us leads us astray from it. We either imagine ourselves back to some presupposed original that never existed, or fling ourselves headlong down the fictional garden path, duped by the image of internal coherence into forgetting the all-important premise that frames the narrative.

The other quintessentially Borgesian figure is the mirror, ‘abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind’, and it too thematizes his philosophy of fiction. Our ability to play around with language and to use pure definitions that don’t match up to real things (i.e. to speak intensionally) can lead us into illusory halls of mirrors, labyrinths in which we get lost amid empty reflections.

Consider this: if I mention Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) there is no way I can avoid the entailments of ‘Indian’, ‘political figure’ as these are determined by the real world, and invoking him commits me consequently to a number of attributes over which I have no choice. However if I begin my still-unwritten novel with the words ‘There once was a man called John Smith’ there is nothing that says he has to be Australian, or that he has to have a limp, even though that is how I go on to portray my character John Smith. Or if I mention Romulus, I can’t do anything to avoid my interlocutor’s inferring the entailment ‘has a brother called Remus’; however if I mention that my limping antipodean protagonist has a brother called Roger, then I have made up Roger just as I made up John Smith. Even though we can treat fictional characters much like real people and write quasi-biographies for them (there are many of these on Wikipedia – fml), the defining attributes narrators give them are really just as ontologically unsound and flimsy as the original ‘John Smith’ I asserted into existence merely by saying ‘There once was a man called John Smith’.

Perhaps I am belabouring this point. In brief, this is another explanation of why we shouldn’t be taken in by complexity or compositeness (even though we often are when we read fictional narratives): there is nothing organic about the way a character resolves into the subsidiary attributes that define her, for most of her attributes are mere further continuations of the original pretence that she exists, and not secondary effects of that original pretence. It is, to use a highly Borgesian phrase, a labyrinth of false reflections.

Confounding creations

Are there any aspects of fiction and its philosophy that Borges did not explore? Like the miraculous objects he envisages, he himself is impossibly compendious in his thoughts. For he also touches upon the problem alluded to above – that fictions end up being more than the sum of their parts. But how?

I’m not sure the answer is in Borges, or if it is then I can’t make it out, but as always his weaving exploration of the problem is almost as satisfying as any answer to it. One exploration of it is in the story ‘The Circular Ruins’, in which an unnamed holy man sets himself the task of creating in his dreams a human being. We do that most nights we dream, you might object, but this dream is different – the dreamer wants to build his man from scratch, bit by bit, whereas we everyday dreamers merely dream of a man as a totality whose attributes and bits-and-bobs follow as entailments from the category heading ‘man’. (I wonder, by the bye, if Borges’ inspiration for the story was a question many of us ask – when I dream I am reading a book, does my dream also create an entire book for me to read, or do I dream merely of the fact that I am reading a book?).

The dreamer caps his work by approaching his god and asking for his dream-man to be made real (a bit like Weird Science then). The wish is granted, but soon the dreamer fears that, like Frankenstein’s monster, his son might realize he is merely someone’s artificial creation and not an autonomous being in his own right:

He feared that his son would meditate upon his unnatural privilege and somehow discover that he was a mere simulacrum. To be not a man, but the projection of another man’s dream – what incomparable humiliation, what vertigo! Every parent feels concern for the children he has procreated (or allowed to be procreated) in happiness or in mere confusion; it was only natural that the sorcerer should fear for the future of the son he had conceived organ by organ, feature by feature.

I have italicized the bit where the rub lies. If he knows every composite bit of his son, because he built him, how can he fear the thoughts his son might entertain – surely if he knows how high he can stretch, having made his arms and legs, he should know what thoughts he can have, having made his brain? We’re getting into obvious philosophical territory here, and classic questions of brain vs. mind, and the problem of other minds – the dreamer cannot know his son’s thoughts because the minds of others are always closed to us. I wonder if the title drops a clue (Borges, a lover of detective fiction, seeds his works with clues): the circular ruins the dreamer lives within seem to refer to the idea of mind expressed by F. H. Bradley: 
My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.
This is from Appearance and Reality (1893), a work that Borges quotes elsewhere so an allusion is highly possible. So trapped is the dreamer in his own circle that he doesn’t realize until the very end of the story that he too is just an artifice created by someone else’s dream.

The paradox here is that the dreamer has somehow created something (the mind of another) that is fundamentally alien to himself, unknowable and discretely separate. How can this happen? Is it that he followed the necessary ingredients to create a brain, all of which are pure physical matter, and when he put them together they bonded to create something new, consciousness, which has a life of its own? If so, then we are once again lumbered with the problem that our mental processes must be uncontrollable chain reactions that run away with themselves, our starting points undermined so that we end in ignorance and alienation – despite his absolute control of every bit of the process, the dreamer still ends shut out from the possibility of understanding his son. But doesn’t the creation of entities that are greater than the sum of their parts invoke the fallacy of creation ex nihilo?

Moreover if, as I argued above, mental constructs are essential to being human, and without them we end up like poor Funes or the hopeless librarians of Babel, what do we do with the fact that we can only perceive and know our own, but never other people’s? It is difficult to read the story without verging on profound scepticism.

Once again, too, Borges marks himself out as an anti-totalizing thinker. The dreamer’s attempt to make himself master creator of a human in its entirety only reveals to him what he cannot know (his creation’s mind), and what he knows he cannot know. So too Borges’ own narratives create implied blindspots that we can never investigate but whose blank existence we are tantalizingly aware of (the missing ‘originals’ behind Borges’ stories, for instance); and so too ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, discussed above, aims to reveal all the discarded possibilities that hide beneath each path chosen, but in doing so merely makes us aware of another unrevealable and unknowable blindspot (what on earth would such a novel look like? it is impossible to conceive). Revelation is always accompanied by ignorance. We can never satisfy ourselves that we have achieved a totality of knowledge, because we can always infer and be aware of the fact that something exists outside of our knowledge, even if the thing itself and its qualities eludes us (a ‘known unknown’, in the words of philosopher Donald Rumsfeld). Damn facticity again. We can deal with having incomplete knowledge, but having then to be incomplete in our ignorance too is just plain bad luck.

Monstrous monuments

I’ll finish off by addressing the second discrepancy mentioned above: artefacts can become separate from, and outlive, the intentions that created them and thus seem anomalous. We’ve already seen this with the dreamt man. It also underpins Borges’ sense of the uncanny and monstrous: the lottery of Babylon, the library of Babel, the dodgy encyclopaedia (at first) are all huge and inhuman both in their sheer magnitude but also in the sense that whatever intention created them is inscrutable and alien to us. We have an uneasy sense of a category confusion, of artefacts and institutions that are so alien, so anomalous as human creations that we feel they are simultaneously inhuman too.

The reason for this, I think, is because we have lost sight of their human origins, of the thoughts and intentions and faculties that made them. Once this happens, once we can no longer conceive of meaning as something exchanged between fellow, mutually comprehending humans, we become very lonely indeed.

We return, then, to Borges’ anti-realism and his insistence that we resist the siren call of the merely concrete, the merely physical. Even though intention, or intended meaningfulness is so often invisible, Borges asks us to fight to salvage it. In a famous thought experiment, much beloved by philosophers of literature, Borges hypothesizes an author, Pierre Menard, whose magnum opus is his rendering of Don Quixote. He doesn’t translate it, however, or reimagine it – he rewrites it, word for word. It is therefore the same work – same words, everything. And yet it can’t be – Cervantes’ Quixote was not a rewrite, it was an original. Cervantes wrote in the contemporary language of his time, whereas Menard is writing in now archaic golden-age Spanish. We are tauntingly aware that different intentions, different relations to the world make Cervantes’ work and Menard’s work two separate things – but we must always feel contradicted by the physical proof in front of us, which shows them to be the same. The abiding dominance of the concrete, the materialistic squeezes out the important human elements that made the concrete artefact in the first place.

So although our minds distort the world too much, or depart it altogether on wild goose chases, they also sometimes leave too little a footprint and show their workings insufficiently.


Do the short stories then offer no more than a jumble of scepticism? I don’t think so. They speak clearly against dehumanization, and for the precious but fleeting value of the human. Words without minds that think them are not human, and creations that lack creators are monstrous. In the first story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ the fake encyclopaedia stands for a debasement of the real, and leads ultimately to the depravity of fascism. And it would be difficult to say that the Babylonians are happy. Despite these admonitions, there is much playful joy in following the fallacious helter-skelters our minds can take us on once they are decoupled from the real world.

Borges presents us with challenges to the false certainties that arise when we take the world for granted. He does not come up with definite answers, but that is not the point – his purpose is to offer a style of fiction, of speculative thought, that can set us on the road to finding some good premises from which to start our thinking. The puzzles and paradoxes with which he torments his reader are ultimately good medicine – inoculation against the debased false certainties of fanaticism, against the siren call of materialism, and against anything that tries to deny the wondrous weirdness and complexity of human minds.