j. ergo's Reviews > Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
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Many people will say Ficciones. Others will say The Aleph is their favorite work by Borges. You could hardly go wrong either way. For my money though, it has always been Labyrinths. Perhaps it is because it was my introduction to him. Perhaps I am just correct. Those things do not matter. The only thing that does is that you read this book and everything else the man ever wrote. I suppose he's not for everyone. But he absolutely should be. The truth is, you can talk about his writing with others who enjoy it, or write about it, but reading him is really the only justice that can be done to his work. Here's a couple of passages from Labyrinths...

Out of the darkness, Funes' voice continued.
He told me that in 1886 he had invented an original system of numbering and that in a very few days he had gone beyond the twenty-four-thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought of once would never be lost to him. His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three patriots of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napolean, Agustin de Vedia. In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark; the last in the series were very complicated... I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. I told him that saying 365 meant saying three hundreds, six tens, five one, an analysis which is not found in the "numbers": The Negro Timoteo or side of meat. Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.
Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible language in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch, would have its own name; Funes once projected an analogous language, but discarded it because it seemed to general to him, too ambiguous. In fact, Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. he decided to reduce each of his past days to some seventy thousand memories, which would then be defined by means of ciphers. He was dissuaded from this by two considerations: his awareness of the task was interminable, his awareness that it was useless. He thought that by the hour of his death he would not even have finished classifying all the memories of his childhood.
-from Funes the Memorious from Labyrinths

Centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tloen, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to expectations. These secondary objects are called hronir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer. Until recently, the hronir were the accidental products of distraction and forgetfulness. It seems unbelievable that their methodical production dates back scarcely a hundred years, but this is what the Eleventh Volume tells us. The first efforts were unsuccessful. However, the modus operandi merits description. The director of one of the state prisons told his inmates there were certain tombs in an ancient river bed and promised freedom to whoever might make an important discovery. During the months preceding the excavation the inmates were shown photographs of what they were to find. This first effort proved that expectation and anxiety can be inhibitory; a week’s work with pick and shovel did not manage to unearth anything in the way of a hron except a rusty wheel of a period posterior to the experiment. But this was kept in secret and the process was repeated later in four schools. In three of them the failure was almost complete, in the fourth (whose director died accidentally during the first excavations) the students unearthed- or produced- a gold mask, an archaic sword, two or three clay urns and the moldy and mutilated torso of a king whose chest bore an inscription which it has not yet been possible to decipher. Thus was discovered the unreliability of witnesses who knew of the experimental nature of the search… Mass excavations produced contradictory objects; now individual and almost improvised jobs are preferred. The methodical fabrication of hronir (says the Eleventh Volume) has performed prodigious services for archaeologists. It has made possible the interrogation of and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile as the future. Curiously, the hronir of second and third degree- the hronir derived from another hron, those derived from the hronof a hron- exaggerated the aberrations of the initial one; those of the fifth degree are almost uniform; those with ninth degree become confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of form not found in the original. The process is cyclical: the hron of the twelfth degree begins to fall off in quality. Stranger and more pure than any hron is, at times, the ur: the object produced through suggestion, educed by hope. The golden mask I have mentioned is an illustrious example.
-from Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius from Labyrinths

The occasion for the review is I am finishing up rereading Labyrinths for the third time.
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