Leanna's Reviews > Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
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Sep 27, 10

This is for a class. I read just under half of the stories; we read the essays next week.

I first read many of these stories as a high-school senior. I remember they absolutely blew my mind. The idea of reality being not what it seems; the idea that any reality can exist if logically constructed minutely enough--all of these brilliant "what-if" worlds and thought-experiments were glorious to me, for, as a teenager, I spent most of my life in a dream world. Nothing at all interesting was happening in my real life, so I was always imagining away, sourly projecting characters from my favorite books and tv shows into my daily life, as a way to combat the zilch that those years were for me. My point--the idea of an alternate reality, just slipped behind this one, was very appealing.

But--ten years later (!) when I read these,I'm not nearly as interested! Maybe because the first mind-fuck is always the best; upon re-reading, I had a vague sense of what was going to happen. Or maybe because my real life has vastly improved since high school, so the idea of alternate realities is no longer so personally important. I also noticed this time how intellectual and emotionless Borges's tone is, which is fine, but without a prior emotional investment (a la 10 years ago), it was hard for me to feel much.

So, what are some main ideas from these short stories?

--primacy of the imagination! In "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a country is invented, and then a literature for that country which only concerns an imaginary planet, Tlon. The only science on Tlon is psychology. So this principal imaginary invention spawns mental invention after mental invention, and even the inventions themselves (a la Tlon) are characterized by primacy of the mind and imagination!

--the sense of alternate possibilities. In "The Garden of Forking Paths," a maze and a book are one and the same, and the book contains every possible outcome of an event. Nothing is left out; all possibilities occur. At the same time, the story ends with an ending that seems inevitable, and the inevibilaty of that event somehow calls into question (for me, at least), the idea (represented by this book) that anything can happen.

--reconceptualizations of the authorial role. "Pierre Menard, Author of 'The Quixote'" is a wild story. It's about how a man wants to rewrite "The Quixote," word-for-word, through his own personal experiences and life! What a wonderful and weird idea. Interesting ideas about what reading does to text, too--two passages, one from Cervantes, one from Menard are compated (they are identical) and the narrator fussily declares that one sounds archaic, while the other bubbles with contemporary verve; moreover, one passage contains a boring idea, and the other one a brilliant idea. In other words, the narrator projects the reader's reaction into the text itself!

--text as universe, text as God. Well, in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius," the creators of this imaginary country/planet/language are seen as God-like. In "The Library of Babel," the library outright becomes a different name for the universe. This library contains every possible book in the world, and thus all the world's knowledge, and thus is like the universe. It made me think of that philosophical question--at what point does a computer become a person? This seemed similar--at what point does knowledge of a thing turn into the thing itself?

--memory. "Funes the Memorious" remembers all.

--names of God and their power. (The power of words, in general! See "Tlon..." and "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "The Library of Babel.") In "Death and the Compass," the idea of God's name is crucial. In "the Zahir," too, God's name becomes important.

Whee! Since I have to do a presentation on something in these stories tomorrow, I'm going to go ahead and outline those ideas below. I love how Goodreads provides such an easy way for me to type up my thoughts.

--I think I'll present on "Emma Zunz." It was so nice to see a woman get a meaty role in one of Borges's stories. Plus, this one seemed much more narrative-based than concept-based, which was a refreshing change of pace. I think I'll present on this final paragraph, p.137:

"Actually, the story WAS incredible, but impressed everyone because substantially it was true. True was Emma Zunz' tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True also was the outrage she had suffered: only the circumstances were false, the time, and one or two proper names."

So. I would argue that this story is more traditional than many of Borges' others. It takes place in a relatable reality. Action actually takes place, and not the more mental activies of some kind of bibliophile detective investigation. Character and plot are relatively simple, and the story is not interested in deviating from a linear chronology. Nevertheless, this last paragraph still shows Borges's conceptual interests in reality--what defines truth? Is it the emotional truth, the physical truth, or the factual truth? Emma Zunz's story has the first two but not the third.

Also, this paragraph brings up the idea of the withheld. I was struck by how the style of the story often seemed pretty "withheld"--it's never spelled out for us that Emma is basically raped by the sailor, but we get it, anyway. Even little things like how Emma "insinuates" to Loewenthal that she wants to talk to him, rather than being more direct. And we aren't told the plan, we just see it unfold. Things are witheld from the reader (the plan, the rape), just as Emma witholds from the police.

That ought to do it for a brief presentation.


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