Games With Infinity
The Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges
This piece is 11,000 words or about thirty printed pages long. It first appeared in Cunning Exiles — Studies of Modern Prose Writers, ed. Don Anderson and Stephen Knight, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1974, pp. 36-61. It was reprinted in Martin Johnston — Selected Poems and Prose, ed. John Tranter, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, Australia, 1993.
Introduction by John Tranter
On and off for many years, and most energetically in the mid-1970s, Martin Johnston made his living as a “man of letters”, writing poetry because he loved it, and writing essays and book reviews because he had to pay the rent. He reviewed books on topics ranging from chess to surfing, from Bob Dylan to the Hell’s Angels, from witchcraft to science fiction, and he wrote for a wide range of publications and occasions. His wide reading and extraordinary memory made him a natural. Everything he had ever read was available at a moment’s notice, and he had read more widely than most people. As Martin Duwell notes, he was “a superb reviewer, marshalling erudition not to smother the books he reviewed but to illuminate them’.
Along with poetry and chess, speculative fiction was one of Martin’s passions. For him the gap between Astounding Science Fiction magazine and The Name of the Rose was simply the breadth of the genre. The magical realm of the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges lay at the centre of that map. Martin was one of the first Australian writers to discover and trace the work of writers like Borges, Calvino, and Cortázar, as their books first began to appear in Australia. The essay on Borges, “Games with Infinity”, was written in the early 1970s, when Martin was in his twenties. At that time Borges was just becoming known in Australia, and the essay was designed partly to introduce his work to a new audience.
— John Tranter
The misfortune is that no sooner has one discussed something than he is the thing himself. — Kierkegaard, Papier I A 333
First, from his Epilogue to his collection of critical and philosophical essays, Other Inquisitions (Otras Inquisiciones, Buenos Aires 1952; translated 1965):
As I corrected the proofs of this volume, I discovered two tendencies in these miscellaneous essays. The first tendency is to equate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular or marvellous about them. Perhaps this is an indication of a basic skepticism. The other tendency is to presuppose (and to verify) that the number of fables and metaphors of which men’s imagination is capable is limited, but that these few inventions can be all things to all men, like the Apostle.
Second, from the short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in Ficciones (Buenos Aires 1935 — 44: translated 1962). Borges is here describing the philosophical systems ofthe doubly imaginary world oftibn, a world run on Berkeleyan idealist principles in which esse est percipi is literally true:
The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them...
Third, from the interview with Borges in the Paris Review, Winter-Spring 1967. The interviewer has suggested that “Some readers have found that your stories are cold, impersonal, rather like some of the newer French writers. Is that your intention?” And Borges replies:
No. If that has happened, it is out of mere clumsiness. Because I have felt them very deeply. I have felt them so deeply that I have told them, well, using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical. The stories were all about myself, my personal experiences. I suppose it’s the English diffidence, no?
Wittgenstein and P. Sraffa, a lecturer in economics at Cambridge, argued together a great deal over the ideas of the Tractatus. One day (they were riding, I think, on a train) when Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form”, the same “logical multiplicity”, Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: “What is the logical form of that?” Sraffa’s example produced in Wittgenstein the feeling that there was an absurdity in the insistence that a proposition and what it describes must have the same “form”.
Borges, I feel certain, would be with Sraffa, only more so. It would be nice if he could be persuaded to write that long overdue reply to R.P Blackmur, Gesture as Language.
Nor is there any reason, if reality is timeless, why the later parts of the progress should embody higher categories than the earlier parts — unless one were to adopt the blasphemous supposition that the Universe was gradually learning Hegel’s philosophy.
The pragmatist philosopher F.C.S. Schiller, in “A Commentary on the Snark” (Mind, December 1901):
Now, Lewis Carroll, as a man of sense, did not believe in the Absolute, but he recognised that it could be best dealt with in parables.
Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Captivated, by its discipline, humanity forgets and goes on forgetting that it is the discipline of chess players, not of angels. Now, the conjectural “primitive language” of Tlön has found its way into the schools. Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing with any certainty about it, not even that it is false. Numismatics, pharmacology and archaeology have been revised. I gather that biology and mathematics are awaiting their avatar ... A scattered dynasty of solitaries has changed the face of the world. Its task continues. If our foresight is not mistaken, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Then, English, French and mere Spanish will disappear from this planet. The world will be Tlön. I take no notice. I go on revising, in the quiet of the days in the hotel at Androgué, a tentative translation into Spanish, in the style of Quevedo, which I do not intend to see published, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.
The intrusion of Tlön does not signify the conversion of one world or the other into something somehow more “real”; it only emphasises the unreality — the epistemological unreality — of the world into which it intrudes. The artist, meanwhile, gets on with his work.
(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (h) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (c) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification [Borges, I think, must have particularly enjoyed that touch], (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
I would have believed this to be one of Borges’s inventions had I not read the Mediaeval Chinese novel Monkey, by Wu Ch’eng-en, with its almost unbelievable accounts and catalogues of the heavenly bureaucracy.
Obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is. “This world”, wrote David Hume, “...was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors; it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity, and ever since his death has run on...” We must go even further; we must suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense inherent in that ambitious word. If there is, we must conjecture its purpose; we must conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonymies of God’s secret dictionary.
Clearly, on this basis, our perceptions and consequently our ideas are absolutely contingent; we have no way of knowing what, if anything, the meaning of any of our actions may be; indeed, in a number of Borges’s short stories (notably “Death and the Compass” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”, which I want to look at in some detail later) the characters create, or think that they create, elaborate schemes to achieve some specific purpose: when the schemes come to fruition, they find them to mean something quite different.
Superficially, this attitude would seem to imply in Borges a Pyrrhonistic view (Pyrrho: the third century B.C. Eleatic philosopher whose scepticism was so radical that he maintained that there could never be rational grounds for preferring one course of action to another; not an appealing philosophy), but Borges’s view is complicated by the factor of Time. Whether or not Time is in any real sense “actually there”, it acts, or appears to act, upon all of us: we forget, are forgotten, dream, die. Borges’s most extraordinary essay, ‘A New Refutation of Time”, ends with the following passage:
And yet, and yet ... To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe, are measures of apparent despair and secret consolation. Our destiny (in contrast to Swedenborg’s hell and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful because it is unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironbound. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
All arts aspire to the condition of music which is nothing but form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights, certain places, try to tell us something, or they say something that we ought not to have lost, or they are about to tell something: this imminence of a revelation which is not produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic act.
In the tenth book of the Republic, Plato propounds the idea that the artist is invidious because all he can hope to produce is the metaphor: an actual table is only an imperfect metaphor of the Form or Idea of the table, the archetypal Table, and a representation of a table in art is only an imperfect metaphor of that. Borges, while naturally disagreeing with Plato’s contempt for the artist, and with the ontologically absolutist concept of the Forms, does agree with the proposition that metaphor is all one can achieve; and not much of that.
Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But the still, noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last act of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying on a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:
To illustrate the autobiographical nature of that parable, I quote from Borges’s Prologue to A Personal Anthology (Antologza Personal, Buenos Aires 1961; translated 1967):
Sometimes I, too, sought expression. I know now that my gods grant me no more than allusion or mention.
...The tango spawns a turbid
Again, the story which he claims as his favourite among his own writings, “The South”, deals with a literary, retiring man, Juan Dahlmann, who enters a knife-fight with a drunken thug in a country inn, although “rationally” he need not, and although he knows that “the weapon, in his torpid hand, was no defence at all, but would merely serve to justify his murder”. They go out to fight in the open air: “Firmly clutching the knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain”.
Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer’s thought or the music of England’s words.
A dagger rests in a drawer.
Thus the dagger is imbued with energy by the purposes of men. The tiger, on the other hand, is something like pure energy in itself; selfseeking, self-defining, dependent upon no-one, it is metaphoric of the Ding-an-sich (und fur-sich), the impossible thing-in-itself of Kant which Schopenhauer, Kant’s follower and Borges’s precursor, did away with and, worse, replaced with the omnipresent and malevolent (if somewhat ill-defined) Will. For Borges the tiger is emblematic of the idea he puts into the mouth of Pierre Menard, that “there is no intellectual effort which is not ultimately futile”; it symbolises the final failure of his, Shakespeare’s and everyone else’s art. In Dreamtigers the title story and the poem “The Other Tiger”, the ironic epigraph to which is William Morris’s “...and the craft that createth a semblance” , both directly express this idea. The nineteen-line “Story”, “Dreamtigers” ends:
And so, as I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know that I am dreaming. Then I think: this is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.
It is not licit to speak of the shape of the moon or of its colour; the shape and the colour are the moon; nor can one speak of the perceptions of the mind, since the mind is nothing more than a series of perceptions. The Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” is invalidated. To say “I think” is to postulate the ego; it is a petitio principii. In the eighteenth century Lichtenberg proposed that instead of “I think” we should say impersonally “it thinks”, as we say “it thunders” or “it lightens”. I repeat: there is not a secret ego behind faces that governs actions and receives impressions; we are only the series of these imaginary actions and these unreal impressions. The series? If we deny spirit and matter, which are continuities, and if we deny space also, I do not know what right we have to the continuity that is time.
And in “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote” we find:
Why does it make us uneasy to know that the map is within the map and the thousand and one nights are within the book of A Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the character in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
If you accept, and act according to, a set of conventions or constructs about the world, you are liable to find it awkward when the world obdurately refuses to accommodate itself to your system; but if, like Borges, you choose to jettison the lot, you can never be free of the fear that you are being dreamed. Dreamed or written: the freedom and power of dreaming, as Dreamtigers implies, is the freedom and power of art; and so with the limitations. We can find precursors of this conception in Berkeley, whose universe is being dreamed by God — everyone knows the relevant limericks — and in Schopenhauer’s strange suggestion that we are all fragments of a scattered God, who dissolved himself at the beginning of time because he didn’t want to exist; also in Schopenhauer’s statement that life and dreams are pages from the same book; to read them in order is to live, and to scan them at random is to dream. Those roles are in turn inverted in F. and G. Hoyle’s provocative October the First is Too Late. And of course there is the Red King’s dream in Alice.
We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leatherbound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho...
And what does Funes do with these abilities? He engages upon two projects of a monolithic grandeur and stupidity. Firstly:
He had devised a new system of enumeration ... The first stimulus to his work, I believe, was discontent with the fact that “thirty-three Uruguayans” required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant 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 Train; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine... I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis that does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.
He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically.
The point, one comes to realise, is that Ireneo Funes, unable to generalise, is unable to create. True, he is free from the crippling weight of constructs under which we, less gifted, have to peer out at reality; but art is artifice, art, too, is construction: it is a question of positively asserting one’s limitation. The only difference is one of self-consciousness and of volition. In other words, with Borges you lose both ways.
Because of his past or future virtues, every man is worthy of all goodness, but also of all perversity, because of his past or future infamy. Thus, just as in games of chance the odd and even numbers tend towards equilibrium, so also wit and stolidity cancel out and correct each other ... The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible design and can crown, or inaugurate, a secret form ... Seen in this manner, all our acts are just, but they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey, if we postulate an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible thing is not to compose the Odyssey, at least once. No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.
During the telling of this tale Flaminius Rufus becomes Homer, whom we have met as a naked immortal troglodyte, and later Joseph Cartaphilus, an antique dealer of Smyrna. Eventually he finds the compensating river which confers death, and drinks from it. He wants to persist in his being, part of the essence of which is its impermanence. The story, appropriately, seethes with allusions to, and quotations from, other writers, a few acknowledged, most not, on the principle that one hardly need bother ask permission of oneself.
Borges the librarian and Borges the maker are not separable. On the personal, emotional effect upon him of the written word, he gives in The Aleph this anecdote:
A fellow-academician once took me aside and said in alarm, “What do you mean by publishing a poem entitled “Embarking on the Study of Anglo-Saxon Grammar?” I tried to make him understand that Anglo-Saxon was as intimate an experience to me as looking at a sunset or falling in love.
As a corollary, his erudition is nothing less than staggering. The only analogies I can call to mind are with people like Bacon, Browne, or Montaigne for whom it was not impossible to encompass all the knowledge of their time. An example: When I first read “The Library of Babel” I was struck with the feeling that I’d seen something like it before. After a great deal of fossicking I disinterred the not unarcane Clifton Fadiman anthology Fantasia Mathematica, which contains the story “The Universal Library”, written in 1907 by the minor German philosopher and even more minor writer Kurd Lasswitz. Thinking that this was a nice piece of evidence for Borges’s theory that the same things are thought and written over and over, and feeling also a little self-congraulatory at probablybeing one up on him, I left it at that. A year later I read an essay by Borges, innocently purporting to be on George Bernard Shaw, which contained not only an acknowledgment to, and critique of Lasswitz’s one-dimensional and sententious tale, but a full account of Lasswitz’s predecessors, starting with Raymond Lully in the thirteenth century. I slunk off to pick on somebody my own size.
Borges has, however, labyrinths very much more sophisticated than the straight line — the entire imagined world of Tlön is one:
Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet? It is useless to argue that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws — I translate: inhuman laws — which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
The city of the Immortals in the eponymous story is a labyrinth; in “Death and the Compass”, the detective Lönnrott thinks that he has followed correctly the twistings of a mental labyrinth that will lead him to the murderer he seeks; at the end he discovers that it was the murderer who created the labyrinth, or rather, the data from which Lönnrott would himself construct it, and that its end (in both senses) was Lönnrott death. There is in Borges’s work only one labyrinth from which a man emerges having accomplished the purpose for which he entered it; the man is Theseus, and the story is told, significantly, from the point of view of the Minotaur.
The work is made up of thirteen chapters. The first reports the ambiguous dialogue of certain strangers on a railway platform. The second narrates the events on the eve of the first act. The third, also retrograde, describes the events of another possible eve to the first day; the fourth, still another. Each one of these three eves (each of which rigorously excludes the others) is divided into three other eves, each of a very different kind. The entire work, thus, constitutes nine novels; each novel contains three long chapters (The first chapter, naturally, is common to all.)
It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar, best known for having written the short story upon which the film Blow-up was based has written, in Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963) a novel not unlike “Quaids”, although schematically both more complex and more diffuse. In so doing he has joined Borges and Bioy Casares in what one could call the neo-metaphysical style of Latin American fiction, as opposed to the realismo magico of Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez. End of digression.
That esse est percipii, to be is to be perceived.
(Poetic Nature) all of whose forms and beings are ultimately but acts of the mind, these acts being dearly determined and preserved by their names. In this fashion they (artists) construct worlds perfect in themselves.
There is no riddle.
Jacket 1 — October 1997
This material is copyright © Roseanne Bonney and Jacket magazine 1997