Jorge Luis Borges —Mind Blowing Stories

In 1938, The Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges while walking bumped into a window and had a severe head injury that almost killed him. When he woke up in hospital, his doctors told him that he had almost died. Prior to this incident he was a writer of short stories, poems and literary articles. And that’s about it. He wasn’t really well-known outside a small circle of literary people in Argentina.

8/28/202313 min read

But while sitting in his hospital bed, he knew he needed to do something about his writing career that wasn’t going anywhere. There, he started writing short stories that were different as a last resort to make something of his writing and his life. This near-death incident was a wake-up call he needed to write short stories that were original and unique. He eventually published these short stories in a collection today called Ficciones and the rest is history. Thanks to these short stories, he became one of the most important literary figures, not only in Latin America, but around the world.

Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1899. If his near-death experience after his head injury wasn’t enough of a misfortune for him, aged 55, he went blind, so he lived without sight for the last 30 years of his life until his death in 1986.

He wrote in Spanish but he was fluent in English as his father was half English. Borges also read in German, French and Italian. He remained agnostic throughout his life, but he had a deep respect for all religious traditions. His philosophical influence was Arthur Schopenhauer, whom I have discussed here in detail.

So today I will tell you about some of those stories he wrote after his head injury to fully understand and appreciate one of the geniuses of the 20th century.

I have divided the video into two sections, Borges the scientist and Borge the artist, so the first 5 stories deal with scientific concepts and the last 5 stories with artistic concepts. Let’s begin.

Borges the scientist

Space: The Library of Babel published (1941)

It’s a story of a librarian who is giving a tour of a very unusual library. It’s hexagonal building that goes infinitely in any direction.

To show the true size of it, he says if he is thrown down after his death he would decompose on the way down, so his tomb will be in the air. However to counter-balance this infinite endlessness of this library, the shelves on each wall, books, pages, lines and words all have fixed numbers. Many have tried to understand and organise the books but it is futile because for every rational thing you find, there are millions of irrational nonsense.

People believe the library has always existed and is complete, containing all books ever written. But the search for the origin of the library has caused a lot of misery among librarians. Some have committed suicide after their futile search, some destroyed books in frustration, some worshipped some books, and many conflicts. Despite the library being infinite, if you travel far enough in any direction, shelves and books are repeated, therefore suggesting that the library is cyclical and periodic.

Borges himself was a librarian so in this short story he has tried to simplify the universe into a library. Reading this felt like when you close your eyes, you are no longer bound by the physical space around you. It feels like you’re floating in the air. Our body decompose as the earth spins around the sun and in a few billion years it will eventually be destroyed either by falling into the dying sun or escaping the sun’s gravity and hurtling in space forever. So the Library of Babel is Borges’s metaphor for the universe or space. But our next story deals with time.

Time: The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

“Time forks, perpetually, into countless futures. And one of them, I am your enemy.”

It tells the story of a Chinese man, named Yu Tsun, who is spying for the Germans. While on a spying mission he tells the story of his grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, who tried to write a novel but never managed to finish it. While on the run, Yu Tsun picks a random name from a phonebook and goes to his house. As it happens there he meets a scholar of Chinese studies who has solved his grandfather’s novelistic puzzle by creating a labyrinth. His attempt to write a novel was to create a labyrinth. Quote: “In all fiction, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others.” But in the novel of Ts’ui Pen his characters choose several futures at the same time. This goes against the Newtonian physics that time is uniform and absolute. You can't be in two places at the same time according to Newtonian physics. But in in Ts’ui Pen’s novel, you can be in many places at the same time. Quote “Then I reflected that all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follow century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.”

Today we know of the Parallel universe theory which says that many universes exist in parallels to one another. We also know that in quantum mechanics some particles can be in two places at the same time. So the Garden of Forking Paths is about time or an infinite series of times that keeps growing into a series of webs and parallels.

But how do we know about space and time? Here Borges tackles the question of knowledge in our next story.

Knowledge: The Aleph (1945)

The narrator meets a poet who doesn't want his house demolished before he can complete his poem. He says in his basement he keeps the Aleph. So the narrator enters the basement, first thinking the poet is trying to kill him. But soon he sees the Aleph. The Aleph is a point in space, perhaps 2-3 centimetres in diameter, but it contains the entire universe within it without reducing its actual size. So the Aleph is a kind of monstrous point that has all the places in the universe, all the sites, from all angles. When you look at it, you can see the whole universe in its entirety. Quote “If all the places of the world are within the aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it too.” The narrator sees everything and then when leaving the house, he tells the poet that he saw nothing. Later he hears that the Aleph has been seen in Egypt in the shape of a pillar that when putting your ears against it, you hear the noise of the entire universe. So Borges’s story poses the question, what if everything in the universe is nothing but only inside our head? Speaking of inside our head, our next story deals with how memory works. The only way we can see it, when it dysfunctions.

Memory: Funes the Memorious (1942)

Funes after falling from a horse, develops a kind of superpower. He remembers everything he sees, hears or experiences. In a way it mirrors Borges’s own experience after a serious head injury which gave him a superpower to write stories were amazingly original. Funes’s memory only works with details, he is unable to formulate a generalised theory of things. Instead he is perpetually bogged down in details, in small things.

Human memory has two functions, on the one hand it remembers individual detail of things, but on the other hand it also categorise them for speed and simplicity. For example when you see a horse, you notice its details. The second time or third time you see a horse, you already have a category for them, so you don't need to remember detailed knowledge of each individual horse.

But Funes only remembers the details and unable to categorise things into generality. So our ability to generalise allows us to forget individual details about the world. Generalisation or catherization is our shortcut that speeds up our memory of things. We don't need to remember every individual inside a box, but just the box is sufficient. Today there is a debate among scientists whether human consciousness is a computer or something else. Roger Penrose, a Nobel prize winning physicist, argues consciousness is partly computational and partly quantum because the human brain creates its own laws of universe through quantum effect. In other words, consciousness is far more mysterious than a simple computational device. So Funes’s Memory perhaps has a disconnect between the computational and the quantum sides. Or you could an extreme example of autism that fails to connect things and partially lost in details. To understand consciousness, we employ consciousness. In other words, we use the same tool to understand the tool itself, which is a paradox. So our next story tackles paradox of the human rationality, the very tool we use to understand things.

Paradox: Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a detective story about Erik Lonnrot, a famous detective who is faced with three murders. But there is a geographical and temporal precision with these murders. They all happen on the third of each month, and the locations of those murders make a perfect equilateral triangle. Detective Lonnrot is famous for over-rationalising things, thus concludes that these murders must follow an old Jewish Kabbalah pattern.

A little side note, the name Lonnrot might come from Elias Lonnrot, the Finish author who wrote the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland which I have reviewed here.

In Borges’s story, Lonnrot uses his logic that the location of the next murder has to make a rhombus. However, when he shows up at that very spot, he realises that it was a trap set up to capture him. Instead of finding the killer, he traps himself and becomes a victim of his own thinking.

The killer, Scharlach, reveals that the first murder was accidental and it was Lonnrot’s own overthinking the case that brought him right into the hands of a man who wants to avenge the death of his brother who died while in Lonnrot’s custody.

Lonnrot tells the killer that next time they should use Zeno’s paradox, space each murder at exactly the halfway point of the previous murder. In Jewish kabbalah philosophy there is also something called paradoxical coincidences.

I think Borges was killing two birds with one short story. Rationality helps solve problems but when used too much we become victims ourselves. Rational science has given us medicine that cures terrible illnesses but also nuclear and biological weapons. So Borges shows the paradox of thinking, when overdone, it can harm you. In other words, consciousness is an amazing tool for knowing the world, but it also acts as a disease inside the head of an anxious person.

Now I will discuss five stories to show the artistic side of Borges.

Borges the Artist

Reader: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

Quote "I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves."

Pierre Menard is a French writer who decides to write a portion of Don Quixote for the first time. No it is not a joke. He’s very serious about his project. His aim was not to copy Cervantes’s original novel but write word for word the exact copy of it, in a way that is identical to the original but not a copy of the original. It makes no sense, but that’s the attempt anyway. To be able to authentically reproduce the same words and story, he acclimatises himself. He learns Spanish and become a Catholic and engages in all activities, like fighting the Moors as Cervantes did. Quote: “His drafts were endless; he stubbornly corrected, and he ripped up thousands of handwritten pages.” Finally he manages to write it even better than Cervantes. Quote: “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” Menard’s version is also more subtle like two translations of the same text. What was the point of it? So basically by rewriting the novel, Menard shifts the spotlight on the reader, not the author. It’s the reader that completes the work of art. Author alone is not enough. Without readers, novels have no meaning. How readers react if they think it was written by a Frenchman, not Cervantes. Two identical texts appear different simply with the knowledge of who, where and when the text was produced. So the context is as important as the text itself. The readers gives the text its artistic value. The reader is a creative artist here. For Borges reading is a creative act. In many ways reading a novel is re-dreaming the author’s story. So in our next story, Borges tackles the topic of dream versus reality.

Dream: The Circular Ruins (1940)

This story is about a man who goes to a ruin to create a man by dreaming him. Quote: “He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him completely, and in painstaking detail, and imposed him upon reality.” He spends days on it and finally manages to dream the person bit by bit, organ by organ and feature by feature. He finally succeeds in dreaming a son. Once his job is done, he begins to worry what if his son finds out that he is nothing but a dream of someone else. The only way he can find out that he is a dream is if he walks into a fire, because fire only burns what’s real. Dreams cannot be burned. Quote: “He remembered that of all creatures on the earth, fire was the only one who knew that his son was a phantasm.” Since his creation is just a dream, he will not burn, so he will discover that he is a dream, not a real person. Terrified that his secret will be out, he decides to escape this terrible ordeal, he decides to burn himself. Once he is burnt, he doesn't have to face his son anymore. But here is the terrible twist in the story. As he walks into the fire, he doesn't burn. What does it mean? It means he is a dream himself. He is someone else’s dream. Borges asks the question whether we are nothing but dreams of someone else. In simulation theory, scientists believe that everything on earth is mere simulation created by others, just like in computer games. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher argued that dream and reality were part of the same book. Living is orderly while dreams are random. Schopenhauer says, quote: “The Universe is a dream dreamed by a single dreamer where all the dream characters dream too.” Even dreamers are dreams themselves.

The way Borge’s brain works, is beautiful. Speaking of beauty, our next story deals with that very concept.

Beauty: The Zahir (1949)

A man upon buying a drink gets a coin. A coin that by looking at it creates an obsession and drives you mad and as a result reality fades. The Zahir can be different object and person at different times. Quote: “Others will dream that I am mad, while I dream of the Zahir.” He decides to get rid of it by paying it for a drink. But he cannot forget it and his obsession grows more intense. In order to cease the obsession one must give in to the obsession and soon it loses value and meaning. Quote: “In order to lose themselves in God, Sufis repeat their own name or the 99 names of God until the names mean nothing anymore. I long to travel that path.” Here is another quote: Quote: “Time, which softens recollections, only makes the memory of the Zahir all the sharper.” In other words, we cherish things we no longer posses. Our next story deals with possession.

Possession: The Book of Sand (1975)

Quote: “He told me this book was called the book of sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” A man buys a book from a bookseller who claims that it has come from Bombay in India. The book has no beginning nor end, written in a foreign language. Every time you open a page, you land on a new page. Quote: “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way, perhaps it is to give one to understand that the terms of an infinite series can be numbered in any way whatever.” So you can never see the same page twice. The owner is so disconcerted by this book that he tells nobody about it. He is so obsessed that he doesn't leave his house anymore, he doesn't sleep at night in an attempt to understand the book. Then terrified of possessing such a book that contains all knowledge, he wants to get rid of it. He decides to burn the book, but then realises that it would burn forever. Finally he decides that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest so he hides the book in the National library in Buenos Aires and decides to never visit it. There is a saying that no two moments, two experiences are the same. I guess Borges wants to draw our attention that each one of us live a life, and each moment of it is a different page in a book. And when we die, we basically return to the library called nature.

In our next story, Borges tackles the connection between words and what they represent.

Word: Parable of the Palace (1956)

A poet is given a tour of a palace by a Chinese emperor. The Palace is infinitely vast and beautiful. Once the poet understands its vastness, he composes a poem of one line or one word. We don't know what the poem is. In that short poem he captures the entire palace. Every little details small and large, it’s past and present. In that one word or line, it has everything the palace had. And then suddenly puff the palace disappears. Why? Two identical things cannot exist at the same time. “The world cannot contain two things that are identical; no sooner, they say, had the poet uttered his poem than the palace disappeared, as though in a puff of smoke, wiped from the face of the earth by the final syllable.” The emperor witnessing the disappearance of his palace, orders the poet to be executed for stealing his magnificent palace and turning it into a poem. Here Borges tries to ask what words or language can represent. If I say palace, everyone has an image popped into their head that has a physical shape and dimension. Does the word palace contains everything a palace can contain? That’s the question.

Final words

As you can see, reading Borges feels like you enter a dream world, full of wonders and mysteries and possibilities. Borges doesn't give you an answer, but he opens your eyes to new ways of seeing things. He gives you a new pair of eyes to look at the world.

In Borges’s writing, Paradox is one of the main themes of his writing, for example what is the relation between original and its copy-cat as we saw in Don Quixote and Pierre Meinard’s version, between finite and infinite as we saw in the Library of Babel, between dream and reality as in the Circular Ruins, between words and meanings as in the Parable of the Palace, between fiction and non-fiction, between mirror and object shown in the mirror.

"Borgesian conundrum" is in fact this very question: Does the author write the story or the story writes the author? Prior to his head injury, he was a mediocre writer, unknown to the world. But his stories that came after, made him an internationally known author and one the most original in the 20th century. So it is a conundrum, did he write the stories, or did those stories write him?

Borges believed that to tackle life, reason and logic are not enough. Everyone needs some magical thinking or even madness to see things with broader perspectives. He says, quote: “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.”

Thank you for reading.