More Borges! Funes and Ruins, Asterion and Aleph

This is a review of four more baffling short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, a writer of great power, subtlety, craft and intellect, who was cheated of the Nobel Prize for literature, to the everlasting shame of that corrupt and partisan award.

I adduce these reviews to my previous (first part is here as part of the ongoing effort of the entire New Space Princess literary movement  (  to convince the Secret Masters of Fandom to award Borges a Nebula, which, in my opinion, is an award meriting more prestige and honor than the degraded Nobel Literature Prize.

Since I am not a reader of great power, subtlety, craft or intellect, be aware that these reviews deal only with the most superficial aspects of the tales, that is to say, their science fictional aspects. The deeper meaning of Borges’ meditations on memory and dying, dream and reality, monstrosity and redemption, omniscience and sorrow, I leave to deeper commentators. My only comment along those lines will be to say that to me at least it seems that Borges is portraying with exquisite cruelty the arid implications of modern philosophy, the hollowness of a world without objective metaphysics. Even a magician who could create life from nothingness, or a poet who can capture the cosmos in a glance, omnipotent and omniscient, would be as lost as a beast bewildered in a labyrinth if our universe is one where names mean nothing, and nothing means anything


5. Funes, His Memory

I cannot recall the opening of the tale. It is something like this: “I remember him (I scarcely have the right to use that ghostly verb. Only one man on Earth deserved that right, and he is dead)…”

The tale concerns a crippled prodigy, a poor backwoodsman, whose memory is so vast, perfect, and meticulous that his entire life is present to his gaze in vivid intricacy down to the least detail, so much so that he does not notice he is crippled and bedridden. He can count the leaf on every tree that he has glanced up even for a moment in the corner of his eye, and every vein on every leaf. He is able to teach himself Latin by flipping though a dictionary in an afternoon.

Funes (such is the name of the only man with the right to use the word “remember”) gained this ability due to a head injury suffered when he fell from a horse, which also paralyzed him. The injury improved rather than harmed his mental faculties: unless, perhaps, it did not.

The narrator, who sees him only for an afternoon (and the memories of that afternoon are softened, faded and distorted by the weathering of decades since) on a day of sorrow when his father is dying, soon to pass into memory. As he approached where Funes sits in total darkness, he hears the prodigy repeat words from a Latin text of Pliny so casually loaned to him: ujt nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum. [So that, nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words.]

The narrator learns with wonder of a mind as alien to normal human life as might be an inhabitant of Mars. Funes, for example, invents a different word for each number between one and twenty-four thousand, but the names of the numbers are each individual, with no relation or repetition between them.  

For Funes has not an alien mind like that of a Martian. His is an alien mind like that of a logical positivist. He is an uneducated man, one who can not or will not see the abstract relations between disparate objects. Funes cannot imagine why the word ‘dog’ applies to various specimens of such different shapes, sizes, colors; why the word ‘dog’ applies to the same object between puppy and grown; or why there are not different words for a dog seen in profile or three quarters view as it turns its head. In other words, Funes, more educated than an educated man, better able to perceive the universe in its infinite infinitesimals, adopts Nominalism (the idea that there are no generals nor universals save as arbitrary convention) and takes it to its logical, if unnatural, conclusion.

Funes dies at nineteen years of age, with Egyptian centuries of knowledge and experience graven in perfect recollection in his mind. He wrote nothing down, of course. What need had he to preserve anything, when he lived in a universe, unlike yours and mine, where nothing fades, nothing can be lost, and even the hairs on your head can be numbered?

Those of you who are fans (as I am) of GeneWolfe will recognize the influence of Borges on Wolfe. Funes is Severian the Torturer.

The appeal to a science fiction reader, particular one that is philosophically inclined, is that Borges is performing the central defining act of science fiction: he is taking an unrealistic premise and drawing out the logical implications to an astonishing conclusion. To look at memory, imagine it as perfect, and from that draw a conclusion about nominalism is just as true a speculation as Jules Verne looking at the ballistics of a cannonball in flight and imagining a moonshot.  Science fiction writers whose invented aliens are less unusual than the mind of Funes should be taken aback (with admiration, if not with embarrassment)  that someone outside their field, and so adroitly, outperforms them.

6. The Circular Ruins

The Circular Ruins open with eerie and admirable lines:

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink into the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the silent man came from the South and that his home had been one of those numberless villages upstream in the deeply cleft side of the mountain, where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek and where leprosy is infrequent. What is certain is that the grey man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank with pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes. This circle was a temple which had been devoured by ancient fires, profaned by the miasmal jungle, and whose god no longer received the homage of men.

The tale tells of a magician in the jungle approaching antique ruins of some vast temple long ago consumed by flame, who means by dream alone to create new life. As the project continues, images eager for existence become the students of the lectures and studies he enacts in dream, and his interest narrows to a single one, who becomes both his prize and his son. The God of Fire offers the magician a pact that the boy will be brought forth real into the world, or real-seeming, and no man save magician and fire itself will know the magician’s son to be a phantom. The magician hears with pleasure the tale of a man to the south occupying a great temple to the Fire God who can walk through fire unharmed, because this is the work of his son. The story ends with the jungle overswept by a monstrous forest fire, for the son has remembered the immemorial custom that votaries of the Fire must sacrifice their own temples in a holocaust of arson. The magician is overtaken by the forest fire, and, when he finds himself not burnt, realizes that he too must be a phantasm fleshed from the dreams of another. Perhaps the circle mentioned in the beginning of the tale alludes to this Ouroborosine ending, where the serpent of magic eats its own tail, and the tale begins again.

You may read it here:

Stories like this, like ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ and like ‘Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius’ lead me to the belief that the genres of magical realism (if Borges is counted as a member of that genre) or high literature (if Borges counts there) are merely science fiction, fantasy, or weird tales marketed to highbrows.

The basic idea here is nothing we Geeks have not seen countless times, and which may indeed be considered a cliché of scientifiction as old as H.G. Wells, certainly as old as H.P. Lovecraft, that reality is pliant. The execution is given depth and dignity here, or humor, or horror, when the dreamer learns he too is a dream.   

Those of you who are fans (as I am) of Gene Wolfe will recognize the influence of Borges on Wolfe. This same magician, as befits a master of the art of dreaming, manifests an appearance in Wonders of Urth and Sky, the book within the Book of the New Sun, as the father of the Theseus-figure starring in the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in "The Tale of the Student and his Son.”

The theme of a story that endlessly returns on itself appears also in Ted Chiang’s well remembered “Tower of Babylon” and in MK Joseph’s forgotten HOLE IN THE ZERO.  The repeated theme I have seen in the four or five short stories of Borges read so far is one of awe and dismay at the contemplation of an infinite and labyrinthine world which has no metaphysical bottom to it, no foundation, no meaning, merely a dream within a dream dreamt without purpose and without end.

 Again, I cannot tell from the tiny sample of his writing I have sipped so far whether the author means this as an honest portrayal of the emptiness of the world as he sees it, or as an ironic comment on what the world would be like if the world were as empty as the barren wasteland of modern agnostic philosophy makes it out to be.  In other words, I cannot tell (no doubt because I am an innocent yet logical man) whether the author means the absurdity is real, therefore reality is absurd; or whether he means the absurdity is absurd, therefore cannot be real. I know that my readers cannot guess my thoughts from the stories I tell, and sometimes take away points the very opposite of the one I am making. In my case, this is no doubt due to a lack of skill in the writer; by confusion with Borges is no doubt due to my lack of skill in the reader: but the one case has taught me to be wary in readings motives into fictions, which are basically lies told for pleasure.

7. The House of Asterion

This is a sketch or vignette of the son of Queen Pasiphae of Crete, who speaks of the infinite labyrinth in which he dwells. He regrets he has not the patience to learn how to read, but he speaks of his other amusements, which include charging down the endlessly repeated corridors and atriums of his house, or pretending he is lost. His house (he announces with some indignation) is not a prison—how could it be, since there are no lock nor doors, and anyone may enter who so wishes? He does not depart from it because of the futility thereof. Outside are merely peasants and subjects from which royalty must hide, and, in any case, the world build by the gods is no less a labyrinth than his house built by Daedalus.

Once every nine years nine sacrifices enter and the Minotaur redeems them in a quick but bloody ceremony. The Minotaur is saved from ennui and despair by the knowledge that his redeemer lives, and one day will release him from this infinite house without doors or locks. (Theseus is surprised when the Minotaur submits without protest, even gratefully, to his killing blow.)

Telling the tale from the Monster’s point of view is a recurring theme both in modern literature and in post-Anne Rice science fiction. It is practically its own genre. (I would defend the claim that A. E. van Vogt invented the form, when he initiated the golden age of science fiction with ‘The Black Destroyer’.) The innate desolation of living in a labyrinth, or a universe, where no objective standard rests to distinguish heroes from monsters is a poignant modern preoccupation, briefly and masterfully captured here.

Those of you who are fans (as I am) of Gene Wolfe will recognize the influence of Borges on Wolfe. The image of a labyrinth appears in the Tale of the Scholar and his Son, in the tunnels beneath the Tower of Pain that leads to the Atrium of Time (both in Book of the New Sun), but also in the corridors that termite through the hull of the world-ship called Whorl in Book of the Long Sun, and elsewhere.

8. The Aleph

The narrator, a poet, perhaps Borges himself, mourns for the loss of his beloved Beatrice, and pays calls on her surviving brother Carlos, a pompous and smug minor poet with the absurd aspiration (far outreaching his talents) to write a poem encompassing the whole world. The narrator is put into the uncomfortable position of being asked to introduce the untalented Carlos to a man of letters of some influence, with an eye to getting his grand work published. Later, when Carlos complains that his house (where once the beloved Beatrice lived, and her memory still haunts the air) is about to be torn down to make room for a garish modern bar, he tells the narrator his deepest secret: there is an Aleph in the basement.

An Aleph is a point in space from which all other points in space can be seen with perfect clarity, in infinite detail, with no blurring, overlap or confusion. It was this point that was used by Carlos to view the entire Earth and all its myriads as if in an orbicular looking glass, so as to capture the earth in his poem.

The narrator rejoices to learn that Carlos is mad, because it relieves him of the awkward duty of pretending friendship with him, not to mention the social embarrassment of introducing his poem to men of letters. However, despite his fears that he may be entering a tale of Poe, the narrator accepts the invitation to go into the cellar of the condemned house, lie down in the cold dark damp, and view the Aleph.

There he views the universe at once glance. The passage is moving, and I here reproduce only a fragment (as is but fitting):

I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatrice Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.

After, Carlos greets him with a pointed jibe: “"Feeling pretty cockeyed, are you, after so much spying into places where you have no business?"

Borges decides to have his revenge by pretending that he saw nothing, and that Carlos is hallucinating. (A pretense that in real life I have seen others try to play on me, and which, no doubt, whatever eye rests at the Aleph of the universe has seen many times over.)

In a brief postscript, it is mentioned that Carlos won the Second National Prize for Literature. Borges wonders whether the Aleph destroyed in the condemnation of the house of Carlos was a true Aleph or a false one, because, had it been true, Borges would have seen the other Alephs in the world, which are hidden elsewhere, in the grail of Jamshyd, beneath the pillars of the mosque of Amr in Cairo, in the mirror of Merlin or the Moon of Lucian of Samosa. But his memory of the vision is fading—as is his memory of the face of Beatrice.

To move from the sublime to the graphic novel, I saw an aleph, and the universe reflected in it, perhaps even a false aleph, in the pages of Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING, when he passes beyond the Promethean giants at the uttermost wall of the universe and attempts, with the help of the Moebius throne of Metron, to the Source. The inspiration from Borges was fairly clear.