Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most imaginative writers I have come across, could have been a mathematician, a physicist, a philosopher or a theologian. I can see his influence on Umberto Eco in the manipulation of text and the blending between fiction and reality. To read Borges’s Labyrinth is immerse myself in a magical world where the concept of infinity manifests in space and time, where the boundary between dream and reality fades, where the past and the future converge into an instant, where levels of texts superimpose on one another, where fiction imitates nonfiction and life is a drama on stage. To read Borges is to become children again, listening to stories of magic and wonder, of unfathomable worlds.

In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges creates a fictional world, where Berkeleyan idealism dominates its inhabitant’s thinking. “The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts.” Through the narrator Borges, we encounter a language without nouns, but with “personal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value.” The author Borges has created an alternative world, where the language and the worldviews differ from our world and from it we learn of our biases and blind spots. And we can begin to imagine new worlds, new possibilities. We can create our own languages, as Tolkien has in his fiction, and as software engineers has BASIC, FORTRAN, PASCAL, and so forth. We see similar blending of fact and fiction in Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.

In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” we encounter an infinitely long book where at every juncture of the story, all possibilities are written and the branches grow exponentially. “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.” When I was younger, I have read stories where the reader can choose one of several actions—the decision tree—and turn to the appropriate page for that choice. The story continues from there until there is another choice. And the story would have several endings. After reading this story, I realize where the idea came from. Perhaps, Borges read about the many world interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that before an observation, a system could be in various states—position, momentum, time, energy—according to a probability distribution and only when someone has observed the system—photons bouncing off the object—would it collapsed into a single state. In science fiction, such as Star Trek, we read about parallel universes but this may be the first story with such a concept.

In “The Library of Babel,” Borges again plays around with the concept of infinity, but this time also with combinatorics and I can imagine Borges as a mathematician or computer scientist. A labyrinth of infinite number of rooms stores books that include all combinations of a 22-letter alphabet plus spaces and the comma and period. Since we know the number of characters in each book, we can calculate the number of possible books (not infinite). Of course, most of them are meaningless. Is this universe of repeated rooms each with five shelves and thirty-five books a mirror of our world? Interestingly, in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the blind monk who oversees the library is named Jorge of Burgos.

I have heard of the argument that Judas betrayed Jesus to force the latter to reveal his divinity and complete God’s work, but in “Three Versions of Judas,” the controversial theologian reinterprets the Biblical text and declares Judas the savior and God’s incarnation. “To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all: He was Judas.” Borges’s fascination with text, whether historical documents or his own creation, dominates much of his stories and Eco certainly inherits that fascination.

In “The Circular Ruins” where a man is only another’s dream figment and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” where a man’s execution for betrayal is part of a drama, Borges again mixes fact with fiction to create worlds as ephemeral as mist.

I recommend Labyrinths to anyone who wants to dream of magical worlds, who wants to reflect on reality and fiction, who wants to analyze the boundary between text and the interpreter, and who wants to contemplate on the nature of infinity.