Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.

4 Comments

Filed under Essay, Literature in Translation, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

4 responses to “Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

  1. I have read many of Borges’ stories a number of times – there is often so much in them. Each one can seem like the work of an entirely different mind!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vishy

    Beautiful review, Melissa! I didn’t know that ‘Labyrinths’ had essays too! Does this collection have ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’? Did you like that story? The first Borges story I read was ‘The Other’. I was on a high after I read that, that I couldn’t sleep that night. Then I went and read his collected stories. I remember that minotaur story – it is so fascinating. I haven’t read his essays yet. After reading your review, now I want to read them soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

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  3. Borges is like no other writer, I think, and I’ve always loved that Umberto Eco paid tribute to him by naming his malevolent librarian in The Name of the Rose, Jorge. If you liked ‘The Library of Babel, you may like to know that someone has built a website which creates its possibilities:

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