“The Library of Babel” & “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by Jorge Luis Borges


First Edition Provenance

Borges, Jorge Luis. El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. Buenos Aires: Sur, 1941. Print.

Excerpt Provenance

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Trans. Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Editions, 1964. pp. 19-29. Print. 

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Trans. James E. Irby. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Editions, 1964. pp. 51-58. Print. 

Introduction to the Selection from “The Library of Babel” & “The Garden of Forking Paths,” as they appear in Labyrinths – by Daniel Salomon:

                “Here is Ts’ui Pên’s labyrinth,” he said, indicating a tall lacquered desk.
                “An ivory labyrinth!” I exclaimed. “A minimum labyrinth.”
                “A labyrinth of symbols,” he corrected.

                                                                        —“The Garden of Forking Paths”


One of the least ambiguous aspects of Jorge Luis Borges’ oeuvre, comprising an assortment of fiction, poetry, and essays, is that the scale (i.e., word count) of each piece is consistently and unusually—and to some critics, objectionably—limited. This observation, which can be made, I concede, by an illiterate, is significant nonetheless, especially as one undertakes the vertiginous act of reading and ruminating on his prose. Though Borges repeatedly attributes his brevity to an “incorrigible laziness,” such pretext seems suspect given the extent of his erudition, and the scrupulous, almost algebraic, precision of his craft. Furthermore, the recurrence of such themes as labyrinths, infinity, dreams, time, mirrors, libraries, encyclopedias—all suggests a kind of boundlessness incongruous to his laconic approach. We must assume, then, a basis for this strange dichotomy.

Also, we must take nothing for granted, nor at face value, when reading Borges. Ripening a structure first invented by Poe in the Dupin series, which John T. Irwin terms the “analytic detective story,” Borges engenders mystery in every sentence, every phrase, every word, seducing the inquisitive reader, the lover of logic, into a maze of imaginable meanings with a modesty of means: “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.”  For Borges, a metaphor is this “perfect” apparatus of pith. Whereas a novel, for example, “of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another,” a metaphor is the nexus between one part and another: it is both linkage (combining two) and condenser (into one). While operating within the detective genre, Borges does not provide us one solution to his mysteries; he prefers the multiplicity inherent in metaphor, as he prefers, too, these foreshortened appropriations, which, like metaphors, imply larger frameworks, multiple ideas.

Borges reworks in “The Library of Babel” (1941) a metaphor adopted from Pascal, et al.: “Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.” The story, for Borges, like the Library, has no center, no singular meaning; it is his vehicle, however paradoxical, for exposing language as a vain attempt to establish order in the chaotic universe. Though a seemingly counterintuitive, even nihilistic, stance toward writing’s very enchantment, this ambition to unmask language—hinted at in some of his collection titles (Fictions, Artifices)—might explain John Updike’s position that Borges “proposes some sort of essential revision in literature itself. The concision of his style and the comprehensiveness of his career […] produce a strangely terminal impression: he seems to be the man for whom literature has no future.” Indeed, his stories (“The Library,” in particular) appear to prophesy the end—or, at least, the futility—of writing; but, in truth, their attempts to manifest its illusory nature express, in turn, the unfathomable complexity of the world writing seeks to encompass.

Reviewing, again, Pascal’s adapted metaphor, which shamelessly replaces “Nature” with “Library,” Borges hereby couples the universe with writing to articulate his concept of language. In order to legitimize the translation, as it were, of this metaphor, Borges begins the story by presenting a detailed description of the Library. In all his short fiction, it is one of his most thorough depictions of architectural space:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts in between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upward to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite… Light is provided by some spherical fruit which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue or catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite. I say that the Library is unending. The idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space or, at least, of our intuition of space. They reason that a triangular or pentagonal room is inconceivable. (The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls; but their testimony is suspect; their words obscure.)

Pondering room-shapes besides the universal hexagon, the narrator mentions pentagonal, triangular, and circular, cleverly tiptoeing past square. This is not incidental; it is Borges’ implicit reminder to the reader that we are within the world of fiction: an unreality. Though many scholars argue that such emphatic avoidances of the real represent an outright attack on “realism”—an effort to point to literature’s innate self-containment and division from “reality”—, Robert Scholes contends that his “fictions or inventions move language toward reality, not away from it. Artful writing offers a key that can open the doors of the prison-house of language.” His method of compressing reality, stripped of extravagance, into something light and handheld, like a book (or a model), still maintains the immensity that his unreal “reality” intimates. Since Borges knows that “the quantity of fables or metaphors of which man’s imagination is capable is limited,” rather than exceed that limit, he composes an infinite Library of repeating, selfsame hexagonal rooms, which “can be everything to everyone.”

Of course, it’s not quite so simple. Borges’ construction of a short story with that kind of capacity is expertly orchestrated. Perhaps further insight can be drawn from “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), which employs his favorite architectural motif, the labyrinth. Another apt metaphor for literature, the labyrinth is expressly identified with the book by a central character in the story, Dr. Stephen Albert: “the confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the maze.” Borges here establishes the metaphorical linkage quite explicitly, as he does in “The Library” as well (“The universe (which others call the Library)…”), in order to compound it later. In “The Library,” however, the central metaphor is established at the beginning; in “The Garden” it is provided in, or close to, the center. This observation becomes significant when we consider the architecture of the stories themselves.

The structure of “The Garden of Forking Paths” mimics that of a Chinese box: a story within a story many times mirrored. The first of the two main stories—withholding the mirroring element momentarily—surrounds Dr. Yu Tsun, Chinese spy for Germany during WWI, as he is being pursued, and attempting to evade, counterspy, Captain Richard Madden. The second story, which occurs within the first, takes place at the house of Stephen Albert, Sinologist and bearer of the story’s central metaphor, as he relates to Yu Tsun his epiphany that governor Ts’ui Pen’s thirteen-year venture to write a novel and construct a labyrinth were one-and-the-same enterprise. At the turning point between these two stories, as Yu Tsun follows a labyrinthine road to seek “the only person capable of transmitting [a mysterious] message” to his Chief, the architectural allusion is introduced for the first time:

The instructions to turn always to the left reminded me that such was the common procedure for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths. I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who 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. Thirteen years he dedicated to these heterogeneous tasks, but the hand of a stranger murdered him—and his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth. Beneath English trees I meditated on that lost maze: I imagined it inviolate and perfect at the secret crest of a mountain; I imagined it erased by rice fields or beneath the water; I imagined it infinite, no longer composed of octagonal kiosks and returning paths, but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms… I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars. Absorbed in these illusory images, I forgot my destiny of one pursued. I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world.

Thus, we have Yu Tsun, transitioning between one story and another, between pursued and pursuer, walking a labyrinth and simultaneously imagining one, losing sense of time, sense of self, and seeing the world in the “abstract.” We are also introduced here to the two components of the story’s central metaphor—writing a book and constructing a labyrinth—yet uncoupled; and the narrative pace changes abruptly, from time-stricken to time-less. This modified treatment of time in Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” redoubles at the crux of the second story, when Albert elucidates the philosophy of time hidden in Ts’ui Pên’s The Garden of Forking Paths:

“…The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.”

The literal and figurative repetition of “time” in this passage is markedly close to that of “labyrinths” in the former. Even more, the idea of time forking mirrors the idea of mirroring itself, which, aside from these comparable quotations, pervades the whole story: Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” / Ts’ui Pên’s The Garden of Forking Paths; Richard Madden pursuing Yu Tsun / Yu Tsun pursuing Steve Albert; Ts’ui Pên writing a book / Ts’ui Pên constructing a labyrinth… In fact, if we return to the beginning, an anonymous “Editor” (as we gather from the one-and-only footnote) apposes two (supposedly) historical documents (or documents of time) that make up Borges’ “Garden”: the first, a paraphrasing of “page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of the War in Europe,” detailed in the first paragraph; and a partial “statement, dictated, reread, and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun,” which accounts for everything from the third paragraph on. Further exploration reveals that the Editor’s (or Borges’) rendition of Liddell Hart’s comments is (in reality) manifoldly mishandled: the real Captain B.H. Liddell Hart never wrote a work with this title; he published, in 1930, The Real War, republished in 1934 as A History of the Real War 1914-1918 (republished again, after “The Garden,” in 1970, as A History of the First World War.) In none of these publications does such a statement occur on page 22; however, on page 252 in the first edition (240 in the last), Hart mentions a similar postponement of the same event, but on different dates. Thus, the first part of the Editor’s apposition, a paraphrasing of an historical account, is (though somewhat similar to the truth) wholly false; and the second part is admittedly incomplete (though more than we realize at this point). To make things more puzzling, whereas the translated version of “The Garden of Forking Paths” in Labyrinths opens “On page 22…,” Borges’ original publication in El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan begins “En pagina 242….”

If it is not blindingly obvious at this point, the architecture of the story, “The Garden,” is, in its myriad forkings and mirrorings, a labyrinth, whose center is—as was previously discussed—a metaphor. 


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