I remember having a conversation about whether Borges has anything unique to offer as a writer, or whether, being a bibliophile and a frequent interpreter of well-used thoughts and categories, he should be enjoyed for his style and erudition but counted as a minor contributor. I said at the time that he was a key contributor mostly as a critic, like Johnson, even when he was doing fiction. At the time I hadn’t read any Borges in a while, though, and having read him today I imagined a better answer to the question–one that appreciates Borges more accurately.
Borges, more than most writers, makes his interests obvious by cooking them confidently into everything he writes like distinct spices. Senor Borges, didn’t your last story taste like labyrinth? Didn’t we have doppelgangers and extensive lists the last three nights in a row? Many authors are obsessive like this, but most prefer to cover it up and then claim that they’re “just writing about life.” Maybe it is Borges’ formidable literary awareness that allows him to be forthright that he is a three-or-four trick pony in terms of theme. History tells us that writers are too small and too short-lived to open up all life’s boxes, so why be pretentious? Better to find a suitable style and a nagging interest and play variations on that tune until you’re arthritic (or blind) and have to quit. I’ve come to think that Borges writes about his own particular interest with a concision and genius that is actually unique.
I think it is possible to condense a singular “Borgesian interest.” An expert could do it better and maybe I’ll look one up. As an amateur trying it, I’d say Borges writes about the unbearable feeling of overabundance that comes from all thought and imagination. Borges is not a philosopher in that he doesn’t proceed much farther than the feeling. He doesn’t aim to systematize or give much advice, which may be why some want to call him a minor writer (e.g. Didn’t Nietzsche go farther? Didn’t the existentialists do more justice to that kind of problem?) But Borges goes deeper into that feeling by way of observation than many who try to explain it or fix it.
I currently say that the story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is the beginning and the end of Borges’ corpus. It is his most lucid and wonderful depiction of the kind of thing he is haunted and fascinated by. In it, a Chinese Nazi spy goes to hunt down a certain Englishman named Stephen Albert. Albert turns out to be a literary scholar who studies an ancient Chinese novelist named Ts’ui Pen. The spy, coincidentally the great-grandson of Ts’ui Pen, knows that the novelist “renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.” From Dr. Albert, he learns that the tasks are one and the same, that the book is itself the labyrinth; and that what makes it so is its attempt to present, not a chronological narrative, but one that presents parallel accounts based on the potentialities of choice and so “embraces all possibilities of time.” A long quotation will help.
In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses— simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. Here, then, is the explanation of the novel’s contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there are several possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts’ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend.
The last century’s science fiction has given no end of “dimensions” and “alternate realities” (though not without the influential work of Borges himself). Oddly, hard science itself has progressed in the direction of “multiverse” theories that posit the simultaneous existence of infinite variations of physical forces, making the weird existence of our own universe somehow more believable. Borges was certainly interested in such theories, but not in their viability according to physics. More in their inevitability within living experience. An idealism (“western,” “European,” “Christian,” whatever) tells us that time is one necessary link after another, that the way things go is the way they’re supposed to go. But a little thinking causes us to experience it otherwise. If we are walking between two hedges (or “in a yellow wood”) and the path forks right and left, perhaps some set of criteria will cause us to choose left. If we’re in a hurry or we feel strongly about our choice, our mind will essentially erase the very existence of the potential right turn. It will seem as if the hedges or the trees were only there to mark our holy path toward the fated future. But if we are at leisure to consider the choice (or simply lost), the strangeness of the situation floods our minds. If we had turned right instead, what would have happened? There might have been another fork after, with another right and left, and then each might have forked again, with some choices leading to dead-ends while some led to further forks. Meanwhile, none of this even includes the path I have actually chosen to take. The reality of choices forms mentally into a perplexing endless maze–even if the choices are not the literal hedge-lined paths I’ve suggested. The effect is what I have above called “overabundance.” The Chinese spy in the story calls it a swarming feeling: “From that moment on, I felt about me and within my dark body an invisible, intangible swarming…. It seemed to me that the humid garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons.” The various potentialities existing in different versions of time feel palpably present when they are considered.
Why do unreal potentialities swarm about us and overload our minds when we consider them? Why are we perplexed by mazes and haunted sometimes by–another favorite symbolic prop of Borges’–reflections in mirrors? The reason is that potentialities are, in a way, more real than the idealisms that guide our choices and perceptions. I may believe that left is better than right or even that I must go left, but what is more true is that I may go either way. What exists actually is the labyrinth of possibilities. If given the choice to steal something, I may conceive of myself as definitely a thief or as definitely not a thief, but what is closest to the truth of the situation is that I could be a thief or not; that, at least before I choose (and perhaps after in a sense), I am both. After the fact, I have indeed brought into the tangible world a single outcome. But if I now think that my decision was necessary or inevitable, I am fantasizing, because what is most real is the choice. In other words, the world of potentialities is the world of concrete reality; the world of decisions and the criteria by which we make them is abstract. A mirror shows me an empirically explicable image of myself, but it reminds me unsettlingly that another self is utterly as possible as the self I think I am. That self lurks in every free choice, in every forking of paths.
Hamlet is about this, to a degree. When Horatio doubts the reality of the dead king’s ghost, the prince utters that sublime line–“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet’s distinction is between “things” and “philosophy.” An ideology skeptical of ghostly apparitions may purport to be based in empirical fact, but it is still an abstract notion that interprets the world. It is less real than the world of potentiality, meaning that “Ghosts may or may not exist” is always a more concrete and basic truth that “Ghosts do not exist.” The play is largely concerned with the prince’s inability to make the firm decision to kill his uncle. The hindrance seems to be his tendency to overthink situations, or rather (as I hypothesize) that his sensitivity to potentiality is stronger than his idealism. It is clear vision, not delusion, that keeps Hamlet from either taking revenge or killing himself. He sees the possibilities too clearly, and stands still in his labyrinth, unable to move. There appears in Hamlet an excess of imagination, which accounts for both his elaborate schemes and his irresoluteness.
Of course, there is far more in Hamlet, but it connects at that point. A more complete connection is to Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Popularly quoted as a bit of self-congratulation for being adventurous, the poem really has more in common with the Borges’ explorations of potentiality. In it, the speaker has little grounds for preference of one road over the other. In fact he says he was “sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler,” which reminds of Dr. Albert’s explanation of how the spy is his friend in one reality and his enemy in a parallel one–the same man on two divergent paths. The speaker in Frost’s poem ultimately chooses the road that “wanted wear,” but notes that the difference between the two is trivial:
Though as for that the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Indeed, the poem little emphasizes the difference between the two possibilities–its main concern is the divergence itself. The speaker goes down his chosen path with his mind first on the path he did not take (which gives the poem its title): “I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads onto way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.” The key emotion here is a conflicted wistfulness about having chosen one path and not the other–indeed a vexation about the necessity of even making a choice that excludes other possibilities. Thus it is “with a sigh” that the poem’s iconic final lines are said: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The conclusion is the ambiguous phrase, “all the difference,” often taken to recommend the virtue of taking little-used roads. But the description of how the speaker arrives at the conclusion does not suggest this. Rather, the impression he comes away with is the strange impression of “difference” that arises from considering choices. How he might have experienced “way leading onto way” if he had chosen the slightly-better-used road is entirely unclear. All that remains is the utterly concrete fact that he made a choice–that a whole series of unknowable potentialities would have been opened had he chosen differently. The criteria by which he made his decision were admittedly trivial and abstract by comparison to the vivid reality of the fork in the road.
Granted, the Frost poem precedes the Borges story in composition, so I am not suggesting that Borges introduced a theme that Frost later played with. There many forking paths, including Frost’s, before Borges’ garden of them. Rather, I am overreading Frost in light of Borges. Frost was talking about indecisiveness, but Borges lends a dramatic and accurate way of interpreting the feeling that accompanies decision-making to begin with. For him, strange doppelgangers and unknown ghosts (“more things than are dreamt of”) lurk on every Road Not Taken.
Note: Though I ended before without saying everything that could be said, one interesting thing is the connection between the topic of potentialities and Borges’ tendency to include long lists of concrete objects in his writing (see, e.g., “The Aleph”). Recall how we said that the world of possibility is the concrete, rather than the abstract, world. To consider all possible choices is to expand and enumerate the world, to involve more things. In abstract idealism there are a very few select “things”–present because of their “significance”–while most “things” recede into the periphery. It would be confusing to consider them. This is why, for instance, it is unsettling that a young man flees naked at the arrest of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Why include this in the briefest gospel account, since no prophecy proceeds to it, nor theology from it? Borges is interested in getting as close as possible to universal reality by way of random listing, since this is closest to what we concretely experience.