Critical Thinking

Donald one will be to remaining trapped and

Donald A. Yates, in The Cardinal Points of Borges (1971: 405),
explains that one way to approach Borges is to see him through four
cardinal points, each representing a core aspect of his identity as a writer.

According to Yates, Borges’s North would be language and more specifically the aesthetic expression that
characterises his literature. This author’s fondness for different literary
forms stems from his childhood memories of his father’s
library of English books, partly explaining why Borges devoted his life to
literature and experimenting with it. The recurring and unique literary tool he
uses is the labyrinth, which appears in the structures, the plots, the
characters and the intertextual references featuring in his short stories.

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However, whereas labyrinths usually solve riddles through space, Borges uses
this literary device as a representation of time in order to change our
understanding of it.

 

In his stories, Borges demonstrates that there is a clear link between
mazes and time. The author himself
(1986: 210) defined a labyrinth as being ‘un sitio en el cual uno se pierde en
un sitio que, a su vez, se pierde en el tiempo; de modo que la idea de un
laberinto que se pierde … es doblemente mágica’. In a labyrinth one gets lost not only in space but also in time because
the longer one stays stuck inside, the closer one will be to remaining trapped
and eventually dying from dehydration and starvation (Angélica and Torrecilla
2017). Additionally, like time, mazes give one a choice of path and direction.

Finally, in both cases, they are meant to be un-escapable. Indeed, the very
first mythological labyrinth built for King Minos of Crete was so complex that
the designer himself, Daedalus, was almost unable to find his way out, meaning
that anyone other than him would be trapped (Matthews 1922: 18-19). Time is, in
a similar way, impossible to escape from, except in God’s case, because no
human is immortal.

 

Labyrinths are explicitly presented as symbols of time in Borges’s works.

In ‘El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’, Ts’ui Pên’s novel is described
by Stephen Albert as being a labyrinth in itself. When Yu Tsun visits him, he
explains: ‘me había preguntado de qué manera un libro puede ser infinito. No
conjeturé otro procedimiento que el de un volumen cíclico, circular. Un volumen cuya última página fuera idéntica a
la primera, con posibilidad de continuar indefinidamente.’ (Borges 1995 : 112). In the unfinished novel written by Yu Tsun’s
ancestor, every choice leads to multiple chapters, which in turn lead to more
chapters. Thus, through this literary piece inserted in the plot, Borges expresses
the simultaneous existence of all possible situations (Campaignolle-Catel 2006:
83-84). Moreover, Albert’s explanation suggests that the image of the labyrinth
reflects time. According to this theory, within a space, there are multiple
universes in which an infinite number of possible outcomes of a single action
may occur. If all possibilities can coexist, the universe- or multiverses- are
infinite because every possibility creates a new one. Ts’ui Pên’s novel is a
way of simultaneously including all these time frames within a single narrative
space (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 88). However, the fact that this text was never
finished –despite thirteen years of work- shows that representing the concept
of multiverses is almost impossible.

 

The plots of Borges’s stories implicitly refer to labyrinths. In ‘El
milagro secreto’, the year of mental time given to Hladik to finish his play
reflects Borges’s idea of timelessness. The instant between the bullets being
fired and them reaching their target should, in theory, last a fraction of a
second. However, if ‘God’ was able to freeze time and give the main character a
whole extra year, the existence of a time within time is proven, therefore
mirroring Borges’s metaphor of the labyrinth (Boldly 2013). This is the same
vision of time that is explored in ‘El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’.

Weed (2004: 176) explains that another way of understanding the latter would be
to compare the story to the labyrinth of Crete, which led to a minotaur located
in a central chamber. Yu Tsun, in the role of Theseus, makes his way through
the labyrinth, here replaced by the paths of the English countryside, turning
left at every crossroads which leads him to Stephen Albert’s garden, which is in
itself a labyrinth of footways also called “El jardín de los senderos que se
bifurcan” (Curto 2017: 43). Yu Tsun reaches the centre, and kills the
sinologist. The plot of ‘the Garden of Forking Paths’ is therefore very much
labyrinthine. Moreover, the train is a recurring reminder of time and
structures the text, just like time structures our lives. Unlike the labyrinth,
however, it follows a continuous line and constitutes the only linear element
of the story (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 77-78). In this way Borges shows the two
opposite faces of time: it is both linear and circular according to the author.

 

The characters in Borges’s stories are also designed to be in some way
labyrinthine and some are even explicitly connected to time. In ‘Funes el memorioso’,
the main character’s mind functions like time.  Indeed, past and future
moments are ordered in a non-linear way, as if the present were eternal (Mosher
1994:56). In the story, Funes reveals that, since his fall from a horse, he
remembers everything in full detail such as the shape of the clouds at any
given time, as if moments could live on forever, thus highlighting the
continuity of time (Boldly 2013: 107-109). In the case of ‘Funes el memorioso’,
time can be compared to a maze because the latter does not necessarily require
a correct order of paths to follow, simply one solution in the end, which in
time is symbolised by death. In ‘El milagro secreto’, the freezing of
physical time by God allows Hladik to complete his play. Similarly to Funes,
Hladik is stuck (in the physical sense) as he cannot bend the laws of space.

Because time is non-linear, however – like a maze- his mind is free to wander
and finish the play (Mosher 1994: 55).

 

Although some short stories do not explicitly refer to labyrinths, their
structure has labyrinthine aspects. In ‘El jardín de los senderos que se
bifurcan’, the word ‘labyrinth’ itself is repeated twenty-one times,
which emphasizes the omnipresence of the theme. Additionally, the story is full
of redundant details such as the page number of Liddell Hart’s book, or the
fact that there were thirteen British divisions and one thousand four hundred
pieces of artillery. Similarly, the narrator in ‘El milagro secreto’ gives an
overwhelming number of exact dates and times: ‘la noche del catorce de marzo de
1939’; ‘el diecinueve’; ‘el mismo diecinueve, al aterdecer’; el día veintinueve
de marzo, a las nueve a.m’ (Borges 1995:175-176). In contrast, in ‘El jardín de
los senderos que se bifurcan’, Borges uses prepositions, adverbs, nouns and
verbs which express undefined periods of time. For instance, the narrator says:
‘me sentí por un tiempo indeterminado’; ‘algunas veces’; ‘uno de los pasados
posibles’, ‘innumerables futuros’ (Ester Martinez 1983: 17). While ‘El milagro
secreto’ misleads and confuses the reader through its extensive details
surrounding time, it appears that the time frame in the second story is kept
purposefully vague so as to convey Borges’s sense of infinity. Moreover, Borges
purposefully uses very long and complex sentences, often with brackets, like in
the opening of ‘Funes el memorioso’ (Borges 1995:125). The reader could also be
puzzled by the presence of numerous narrators, of which there are four in ‘El
jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’: one whom is not defined, Yu Tsun,
Stephen Albert and Ts’ui Pen. The labyrinthine structure of these works may be
intended to force the reader to go over the story repeatedly in order to grasp
its meaning. Indeed, a maze cannot be completed in one try. This cyclical pattern
recalls Borges’s idea of circular and infinite time explained previously.

 

Intertextuality erases the notion of an original text, thus allowing
Borges to introduce the idea of timelessness in literature. Indeed, G. Curto
(2017: 40) refers to Borges’s work as ‘infinite Chinese boxes’ due to this use
of intertextuality and repeated ‘mises en abyme’. As Curto then points out,
Borges plays on the semantic definition of ‘infinity’ in his works, leaning
towards the Greek sense of chaos and disorder. Like a labyrinth, time is
confusing and one can get lost in it due to its non-linearity. Intertextuality
can be found in ‘El milagro secreto’, for instance. Hladik has a dream, set in
the Prague library of Clementium, which could refer to ‘La Librería de Babel’.

This short story, also in Ficciones (Borges 1995: 87) depicts a universe in the form of a library containing all
imaginable books with every possible combination of letters and pages. Hladik’s
play The Enemies is also a text within a text, therefore recreating
Borges’s idea of infinity and circular time (Boldy 2013: 120). In ‘El jardín de
los senderos que se bifurcan’, intertextuality also plays a major role in
misleading the reader. Firstly, the war is introduced by reference to Liddell
Hart’s The History of the World War, a book which explains why the
British offensive on the Serre-Montauban Line was postponed. This explanation also
happens to be the plot of Borges’s story. Secondly, Yu Tsun’s travels to
Ashgrove may refer to both the ash tree and Herbert Ashe, the sorcerer of ‘The
Circular Ruins’. Lastly, the reference to Ts’ui Pen’s novel, also called ‘El
jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’ emphasizes the short story’s circular
nature (Campaignolle-Catel 2006: 81)  

 

Borges also shows that books in general are essentially labyrinths.

Indeed, both are designed to lose whoever ventures into them whilst
entertaining them (Planells 1991: 204). Moreover, by reading and by thinking,
the reader creates his own maze, just like he creates his own path in time.

Despite the paths and indications given by the narrator, the reader can chose
whether or not to follow them (Weed 2004: 169). If the labyrinth can be interpreted
in different ways, there is also an infinite number of choices and paths
available to us in life. If books, like labyrinths and time, are of circular
structure or in other words infinite, it means that they live on after their
author’s death. Novels therefore become self-referential, independent from time
and space in the present, past and future (Angélica and Torrecilla 2017:
68-69). The comparison between book and maze is also
relevant because the reader himself can get lost in a book just like he can in
a labyrinth, by misunderstanding the main theme for instance. In Ts’ui Pên’s
‘El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan’ the word time does not appear once
but is instead replaced with vague circumlocutions and metaphors. Stephen
Albert, the sinologist, then explains to Yu Tsun that it is the author’s way of
indicating, subtly, that it is the central theme of the text (Borges 1995: 115).

 

Borges, through his playful
–but complex- literary devices and twisted plots, manages to turn his works
into puzzles for the reader to solve. These puzzles, very much labyrinthine in
their structure, are a clever way for the author to convey his vision of
infinite time, an idea which leads onto the concept of multiverses. In the
attempt to grasp the meaning behind Borges’s stories, the reader has to rethink
the way he sees and understands the world –maybe even question his own
existence. Indeed, although he is introduced to a mysterious paradoxical,
hostile and unfamiliar universe, he cannot deny the plausibility of Borges’s
arguments.

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