Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges)

They don’t get more mind-blowing than this...

Labyrinths is a selection of the short stories, essays and parables of Borges. Although prolific, and often cited as unfairly overlooked for a Nobel Prize, Borges only wrote tiny, minuscule little stories. His longest is 14 pages!

This is how he explains himself:

“The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.”

Borges’s style is tight, utterly compact and full of sweeping themes: infinity, immortality, eternal recurrence, and of course, labyrinths. My Dad described reading his books as the closest thing to playing chess. It’s true. Each story is like a Grand-master opponent. One that will lead you - force you - into completely unexpected places, often paradoxical, contradictory, or just going round in circles as if forced to walk forever on Escher’s stairs.

Borges riffs on labyrinths, using them as an allegory for the mazes in our unconscious mind. And each of his stories - short starbursts of perfection - are themselves little labyrinths, check-mating you into unreasonable, confusing and untenable positions.
“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire

My thoughts

Borges's stories assume complete static and unchanging knowledge of the little world they create. Understanding the start of the story often needs knowledge that is only obtainable at the end. I found this sometimes made the beginnings unintelligible on a first reading, and I required a second parse to gain any understanding. That poses an interesting meta question (could any book need not two, but three re-readings to make sense of it). I found these stories moderately tough going. I would read one and think ‘what the hell was that about?!’. But I’d go back, reread and reliably have my mind blown. Reading Borges is an excellent investment of your time.

Life +

What did I learn from all this head-spinning madness?

Well, perhaps the stable reality we all think we inhabit is not so solid after all. I’m sure it is an obvious point, and the meta-physicians and philosophers have thoroughly chronicled the shifting ground on which our knowledge walks (Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum was designed to provide just one pinprick of certainty - that we ourselves exist. This claim is now disputed). But what Borges does brilliantly is take you on a roller coaster through this maze of doubt. He doesn’t just point out such and such a logical flaw like a scientist. No, his stories let you experience the plot holes in the real world we live in. They are a one way plane ticket to certainty destruction.

So what I took away is this, if you can’t be certain of even the most basic beliefs - the ones that make up the very fabric of our reality - then at the very least humbleness is required in regard to all beliefs. Because they might not (always) be true. Perhaps nothing is...
“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.

In fewer words...

Sublime, unique, confusing, these stories are Kafkaesque in their lack of emotion, timelessness and tight internal logic. Each story seems nothing more than a little snapshot of a character lost in an intricate labyrinth; until the final couple of paragraphs when you realise it is you who is trapped, right in the centre of Borges’s mysterious, swirling paradox.

You can get Labyrinths here.

1 comment:

  1. Love your project! I've read little Borges (sadly), but I'm fascinated by his style. Then again, I like my fiction unclear and challenging :) I'll try to follow in your page-turning footsteps--maybe that'll help me complete my own 50-book goal this year :D Thanks for finding me!