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

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
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Feb 02, 2010

really liked it

When gods were men, and men wrote books, some of their books were not meant to remain on earth. Some were to ascend beyond the grave to be translated, sealed, and shelved within the innumerable libraries of heaven. These are books of a divine origin, for only the gods can penetrate their depths; mortals are left confused. On occasion, one of these books is left behind on accident, or falls from above as a gift, giving men a poetic taste of eternity and the formidable climb they have yet to make – pleasant for some, and horrible for others. Borges’ Labyrinths is like one of these books: it is extremely esoteric, otherworldly, and makes its readers feel, at times, alienated from a sort of heavenly council or sublime manner of thinking. The entire book, or anthology really, with its emblems, musings, intertextual references, biographical mazes, and capricious transitions, is like trying to unlock an enormous riddle, or parable, whose timeless themes include: meaningful dreams, infinite libraries, mirrors, madness, the space/time continuum, idealism, identity, magic, and the vexing problems of infinity.

Much of the time, Borges challenges the boundaries between fiction and fact, truth and fantasy, levels of reality and unreality, and uses the Lacanian “mirror-stage” to shift between the imaginary and the symbolic, or as Kant would argue, the analytic and the synthetic. After awhile, it becomes difficult to discern whether he is telling correspondent truths about the external world, or whether he is dressing them up, conjuring them ex nihilo, or falsifying them partially – it is up for readers to decide. He recasts the customary notion of truth, expands its breadth beyond scientific concretes, and argues that truth is not merely a relationship between thoughts and existential objects, but embraces both visible and invisible worlds of perception – what literary critics call “metaphorical truth.” Because his characters and plots are often referentially fictional, but spiritually resonate, he shows readers that “the line between real and not-real will become more and more blurred” as time moves forward (Byrne 275).

Through the passage of time, as Borges argues, fantastic ideas manifest themselves in the material world, physical objects are willed into existence by the imagination, the intrusion of the irrational penetrates the scientific realm, and what was once absurd becomes reasonable – for as the scripture states, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17). In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges indicates that through the passage of time, all philosophical and scientific doctrines, once thought immutable, become obsolete; they begin “as plausible descriptions of the universe,” but in time become chapters, if not paragraphs of a name (43). He seems not only to accurately describe the history of scientific revolutions, but also foreshadow the blueprint for Paul Feyerabend’s “epistemological anarchism” – an ideology that prescribes a syringe full of the illogical as a necessary precondition of progress.

In “Deutsches Requiem,” Borges lays the foundations for epistemological anarchism. His belief that things which are currently “exceptional and astonishing, will shortly be commonplace,” mirrors Feyerabend’s inverted, demythological statement in “Against Method,” – “Knowledge of today may become the fairytale of tomorrow and the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science” (Borges 142, Feyerabend 52). Both passages share the belief that there are realities beyond our physical grasp, just like the intangible qualities of numbers and feelings, waiting for us to awaken to them, waiting for us to acquire the eyes to see and ears to hear. There is a reason why Borges has been hailed as a romantic visionary: He understands the power of disembodied ideas and the process by which they become embodied – in “The Circular Ruins,” for instance, a wizard dreams a man into existence, thought by thought, limb by limb. Like all acts of creation, they begin with an idea, or a heaven in mind, and through willpower, exertion, and sufficient material, can be brought into existence; Borges observes, “the effort to mold the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of [is:] the most arduous task a man [can:] undertake” (47). Later in “The Zahir,” he argues that it is only when we perceive less and less of the real world – by which he means our current world – and more of an imaginary world that we begin to awaken the gods within us (164).

In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges promotes the power of ideas to reconstruct the world anew, but laments over how much unfulfilled potential – speaking collectively of the human race – has yet been awakened to. The story details “an unknown planet’s entire history” which exists only in an encyclopedia, but a history which nevertheless stirs wonder, insight, truth, and release within those who read it (7). The planet was once a reality, perhaps like the lost city of Enoch, full of jacks of all trades and industrial workmanship, but its language, however, and perceptions of space, time, and rituals even, are so ineffable, alien, and quixotic that it seems near impossible for anyone to believe in its magic; for “the metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding” (10). This reoccurring primacy of fiction over fact – the uncanny over normalcy – is a major theme throughout Labyrinths, one which by the end of “Tlön…” causes Borges to admit his desire to submit to the irrational; to reclaim, and build anew the lost planet of Tlön – a task he likens unto conquering a labyrinth; for while “a labyrinth is devised by men, a labyrinth is destined to be deciphered by men” (18). The earth, he believes, by degrees, can become Tlön – can become a paradisiacal haven.

Because he assumes his readers are as intertextually savvy as he is, Borges often treats the printed page as a maze to explore the inexhaustible, and surely recondite, wormholes of his consciousness – a style that only enhances the meaning of his book’s title. For Borges and readers alike, the book itself is a labyrinth, “a structure compounded to confuse men” but to enlighten the gods within (110). He frequently equates labyrinths with libraries, and libraries with knowledge, and knowledge with freeing the brave, reckless gods within. Thus, for Borges, to know the world is to know it by its constituent books; to know the world is to adopt a read-everything-you-can-get-your-hands-on sensibility in order to learn about the divine, collective unconscious – for we all have the embryonic seeds of divinity within us, waiting to be actualized as Aristotle might argue.

Interestingly, Borges never wrote any fiction until his mid-forties for fear that everything good, beautiful, truthful, and praiseworthy had already been written. There is a certain impulse here – both humble and noteworthy – that readers can discern, even without this biographical information, which reflects Borges’ own fears: plagiarism and God. Much of his fears are trans-personal, inter-subjective expressions that any reader can relate to, whether literally, figuratively, or vicariously. They subsume the inner, deep, primordial anxieties that are character of the human condition, and for Borges, they call for a catharsis. In “The Theologians,” for instance, he expresses the joy he feels when inspired by the muses, but immediately afterwards, is “troubled by the suspicion that it was the work of another” (124). In “Tlön,” he wrestles with the concept of originality; “all books are the creation of one author; plagiarism does not exist in Tlön” (13). His fear of plagiarism also seems connected with his fear of God, or conscience; that is, a fear of being accused or persecuted. In “The Library of Babel,” he admits that he would sooner live in hell and be “outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let [God’s:] enormous Library be justified” (57).

Borges believed that God (the collective unconscious) could be found in the libraries of the world, or rather, the Library of the world, if only that Library was truly justified, held purpose, and was meaningful. Much of the time, he wanders in existential curiosity. He ponders the countless permutations that shape man’s identity, how a chosen path eliminates myriad alternatives, the extent to which man may have been different, the arguments for and against causal determinism, and the degree by which man might seek out the next step in the evolutionary chain. As an active participant in life, Borges is fully committed to creating meaning in a potentially meaningless world. His commitment, however, is no doubt a terrifying exercise for his pseudo, natural self to endure, yet is pleasurable for his higher, real self to embrace: he states, “My flesh maybe afraid, but I am not” (147). This same conflict within Borges – “my flesh” vs. the “I” – is found in “Tlön” when he asserts that all men are really two: the dream-self and the waking-self; “that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men (10).

Every man is conflicted by his inner devil and angel, and readers can taste a glimpse of Borges’ wrestle in “Three Versions of Judas” – for “Judas [much like Borges:] sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him” (98). Hell, for Borges, is two-fold: to remain tied to the earth without frequent exercise of the imagination, and, to transcend into imaginative heights without pragmatic discipline (53). The consequence of the former leads to a sudden and fearful, face-to-face contact with the totally Other, while the latter leads to a nebulous perception, and often socially despondent sentiment, of what the totally Other is. In “The Library of Babel,” he qualifies his belief in the totally Other, or God, with the following warning: the higher one climbs without sufficient knowledge and training, the more incomprehensible the books become (-). Only by gradual degrees, or modified steps, can the books of the gods be intelligibly discerned. By and by, then, those fantastic, impenetrable books – the ones thought absurd by the majority – become lucid in time; they become the norm.

Labyrinths is a collective work of fictions that ironically demythologizes the concepts “fiction,” “fantasy,” “unreality,” and “heaven,” and gives them all pragmatic, earthly underpinnings. It is a book that asks readers to reconsider what they believe truth is, to augment its definition beyond the empirical realm, and to embrace both visible and invisible worlds of perception. Although supernatural events are inexplicable and marvels incommunicable, Borges reminds readers not to dismiss them as mere unreality tales. For it just might be the case, as Feyerabend argues, that the “knowledge of today may become the fairytale of tomorrow and the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science” (52).


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message 1: by DB (new) - rated it 5 stars

DB Excellent review, youve got a very good handle on Borges themes, which can be quite slippery.


Aaron yes great review next step is to learn spanish and read it in the first language. borges would probably support that....at least in my mind.


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