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Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Jorge Luis Borges

Is reality simply a collection of unconnected moments and impressions? If so, what does it mean for our understanding of the past? For one Argentine writer, fiction was the perfect place to explore such questions.

Head in the clouds: Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo, Sicily, 1984.Jorge Luis Borges’ relationship with the past can seem puzzling. As he admitted in an interview published in 1967, Argentina’s history was in his blood. Born in Buenos Aires, he had been brought up on tales of heroic ancestors who had fought for independence and unity. As soon as he could read, he had been introduced to José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro (1872-9) and had grown to revere the disappearing life of the gauchos as the essence of the Argentinian soul. This underpinned much of his writing. His earliest poems were inspired by his belief that, by conserving the culture and folklore of the criollos – Argentinians of Spanish descent – he could foster a worthy identity for his still-young country. Later, his short stories regularly featured outlaws, assassins and events from Argentina’s history. Even after achieving international renown, he still wrote on the history of the tango and lectured on ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ (1951). 

Yet at the same time, he was continually drawn to irrealidad, to the fantastical and to the extraordinary. Even when he seemed to be at his most ‘historical’ he delighted in mixing truth with fiction. In the articles later collected in A Universal History of Infamy (1935), for example, the lives of great liars, frauds and fiends were embroidered with whimsical untruths. He found it wildly entertaining to write pieces that purported to be scholarly, but which were, in fact, figments of the purest imagination (e.g., ‘Three Versions of Judas’, 1944). Above all, he relished transcending, or even destroying, the rigid linearity of time. In stories like ‘The Other’ (1972), time became circular, twisted, inverted, even irrelevant. 

For Borges, however, there was no contradiction between reality and unreality. Indeed, as he saw it, the vividness of the Argentine past actually depended upon the unreality of everything but the present. 

Achilles and the Tortoise

Borges’ understanding of time arose out of his fascination with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Thought to have been devised by Zeno of Elea in the mid-fifth century BC, it seemed perfectly simple at first glance. One day, Achilles and the tortoise agree to a race. Being the quicker runner, Achilles expects to win easily, but for the sake of fairness, allows his opponent a head start of, say, 10 metres. Yet Achilles is unable to catch the tortoise. After a certain amount of time, he runs 10 metres, reaching the tortoise’s starting position. In that time, however, the tortoise has run a further five metres. To reach that point, Achilles needs to run for a little longer; but in that time, the tortoise will have run an additional two and a half metres. And so on. Whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has previously been, he finds that he has still further to go; and though he gets infinitely close, he can never catch up. 

It seemed patently false. But the task of proving Zeno wrong had vexed philosophers for centuries. Several solutions had, admittedly, been proposed, including those that focused on the indivisibility of motion and the equivalence of different infinities. But Borges – whose horror of the infinite was expressed in nightmarish tales like ‘The Aleph’ (1945) and ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975) – found none of these compelling. In ‘The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise’ (1929), he instead turned to an argument put forward by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753). Pursuing solipsism to its logical conclusion, Berkeley had argued that nothing existed outside of the percipient’s mind and that, by extension, nothing of which the mind could not conceive could exist. This made it impossible for anything to be infinitely divisible. For Berkeley, every ‘particular finite extension’ – be it a piece of string, or the distance between two runners – was merely an idea in the mind of the percipient and could only be divided into as many parts as he could conceive of. But, since the infinite was beyond human comprehension, it could not be divided infinitely. Once this was accepted, Borges argued, the basis of Zeno’s paradox went up in smoke.

Refuting Time

The implications of Berkeley’s argument could be pushed even further. If it was granted that nothing existed outside the mind, then it was clear that the mind itself was nothing more than ‘a system of floating ideas, without any substance to them’. For Berkeley, this suggested that selfhood (or ‘spirit’) consisted of the sequence of different perceptions that appeared before the mind over time – much as the personality of a character in a film is revealed by the sequence of frames in which he appears. But Borges disagreed. In ‘A New Refutation of Time’ (1944, rev. 1947), he argued that, since the mind could only perceive what was before it, only the present moment existed. There was no over-arching ‘self’ beyond each perception; and – for the percipient – there was no over-arching ‘time’ beyond the ‘now’. This did not, of course, mean that one perception did not follow another, but rather that each moment was independent. In itself, it had no intrinsic connection with any other, either past or present: just as, in a film, each individual frame is a free-standing image that, when examined in isolation, provides no information about what any others might show. 

For Borges, the Taoist story of Chuang Tzu’s dream illustrated his point well. One night, the philosopher Chuang Tzu (c.369–c.286 BC) dreamt that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about, without any sense of being Chuang Tzu. When he woke up, he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who was dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu. For Berkeley, the problem was simple. When Chuang Tzu was dreaming, he was a butterfly; and when he was awake, he was a man. But each moment was part of the sequence of perceptions that constituted the spirit of Chuang Tzu. For Borges, by contrast, all that could be said with certainty was that, during the dream, Chuang Tzu was a butterfly and that when he was awake he was a man. There was nothing about either moment that linked it to the other, which was why he was so confused when he woke up. 

If each instant was isolated from every other, Borges reasoned, there was no satisfactory means of locating it in the chronology of world history, either. Since Chuang Tzu’s dream is well known in China, Borges considered the possibility that one of his readers might dream that he was a butterfly. If this dream repeated the master’s in every respect, Borges argued, it would be impossible to differentiate between the two. Indeed, since neither moment had any intrinsic relationship to any other, one might even ask if they were not the same dream. This struck at the very foundations of history. If it was impossible to distinguish between two events, then any attempt to locate either of them in a wider chronological context became arbitrary. Were this to occur even once, Borges argued, it would be enough ‘to disrupt and confound the history of the world’, to reveal that there is no thread of objective truth linking events.

Borges explored this idea in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939). This purported to be a review of the works of an imaginary French writer who had decided to rewrite Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He set out not to tell the same story in different words, nor even to copy it out, but to ‘repeat’ the book, by putting himself in Cervantes’ place and independently writing his own text in such a way that it would coincide with the original word for word. Against all the odds, he had succeeded in ‘reconstructing’ several chapters and some of the story is given over to assessing the relative qualities of the two texts. Although they are identical, Borges’ reviewer finds Menard’s version vastly superior to Cervantes’ original, since what was a commonplace for a 16th-century Spaniard became an ‘amazing’ idea in the hands of a 20th-century Frenchman. It is, of course, ironic. Given that the two texts were the same, the reviewer would have been unable to tell when either had been written from the words alone. This only showed how arbitrary chronological determination really was, and – by extension – how arbitrary history was, too. 

For Borges, each moment, in itself, shines like a brilliant stone. But how moments are threaded together is up to us. We can thread them in a line, the order of which suits our tastes; but we can also tie them in circles, loop them back on one another or scatter them randomly about, should the whim take us. They would all tell stories, just the same. And in Borges hands, what stories they were. 

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