English 1AEssay #4: Jorge Luis BorgesIn Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges attempts to skew the fundamental principlesby which most people govern their lives. He constructs roughly allegoricalworlds that reflect reality in their complexity and scope. By pulling thereader deeper into these labyrinths, Borges’ stories subtly and without mal-intent, demand a reexamination of the way we collectively relate to theworld.
Specifically, Borges questions the reliability of the past -something by which individuals, ethnicities and nations define themselves.In the first story of the collection, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borgessets the precedent for later stories, by describing a completelyfictionalized world that becomes a reality. By writing, “we know nothingabout it with any certainty, not even that it is false,” Borges comments onthe futility of attempting to determine that something is either true offalse, when confronting it through writing. Therefore, the moment an act isrecorded, it becomes an entity of its own – neither fact nor fiction. In”Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” Borges writes, “historical truth,for Menard, is not what took place; it is what we think took place.”History, as Menard understands it, resists commonplace phraseology like”truth” and “fact” altogether – instead, it becomes merely a widelyaccepted account of a lost moment in time. In “Theme of the Traitor and theHero” and “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges presents two individualsstruggling with the realization that our present-day conceptions of thepast may be inconsistent with the actual truth. By undermining thetraditional concepts of hero and traitor, as they are presented inhistorical and religious narratives, Borges calls into question theabsolute faith with which people place their trust in what may amount tojust another story.
picIn “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” Borges assembles a collectionof storytellers, whose variations on the theme of betrayal cast doubt onthe reliability of both literal and literary accounts of history. Thenarrative begins suspiciously, setting the scene as “Poland, Ireland, orthe Republic of Venice.” The generalizing technique immediatelyuniversalizes both the story of Kilpatrick and the experience of Ryan thebiographer. The narrator quickly explains that “although Ryan iscontemporary, the narrative related by him occurred toward the middle orthe beginning of the nineteenth century.
” This comment serves as a subtlereminder that even Ryan’s version of Kilpatrick’s fall is subject to thesame skeptical scrutiny as any historical account. The list of storytellerswithin the historical narrative includes: the historical biographers ofKilpatrick, Shakespeare and the writer/producer/director of Kilpatrick’selaborately staged assassination – James Alexander Nolan. Borges’ notion offalse history reveals itself through these three storytellers: asShakespeare fictionalizes the death of Julius Caesar; Nolan plagiarizes theplays of Shakespeare in orchestrating his plan, and finally, as thegatekeepers of history record only the superficially relevant events of adeeply involved labyrinth of historical value. The interaction between thestorytellers produces a tangled web of correspondences where truth and liesmeld inextricably and the fiction of Shakespeare becomes as factuallyaccurate or inaccurate as a history textbook.
Borges illustrates theblurring of literary and historical value by writing, “that history shouldhave imitated history was already sufficiently marvelous; that historyshould imitate literature is inconceivable.” Borges draws his conclusionson the unreliability of history through this recurring theme of writing asstorytelling. Borges seems to suggest that the act of touching pen to paperimmediately abstracts the conventional notions of fiction and nonfiction -to the point where a conceivable work of fiction exists more tangibly thanan extraordinary account of historical fact.picThe two-way relationship inherent to a piece of writing requires asecond party – the reader. Like reality, in the world of “Theme of theTraitor and the Hero,” the process of historical narration requires allreaders to also be storytellers – they perpetuate this paradoxically-fictional/factual account of history. Through Ryan the biographer, andKilpatrick’s town in Ireland, Borges implicates his readers, as a whole andas individuals, in the sustenance of fallacious history.
By explaining,”Kilpatrick was brought to his end in a theater, but he made of the entirecity a theater, too” Borges indicts people as a community for acting as anaccessory to the manipulation of history. However, by saying, “what theysaid and did remains in the books of history, in the impassioned memory ofIreland,” Borges calls attention to a dangerous aspect of the cyclicalnature of narrators and readers. Memory, only flawless in “Funes, theMemorious,” is deliberately compared to a history book – which must beunderstood as one, which exaggerates each inconsistency with everysuccessive revision. Likewise, Ryan’s daunting transgression at the closeof the story proves to be more dangerous still. Whereas the imperfectionsof collective memory yield passively benign errors, Ryan’s individualomission withholds what would seem to be the final truth behind the legacyof Kilpatrick.
However, according to Borges’s model of narration, even thissupposed truth must be scrutinized. Ultimately, Ryan, finds himself trappedin a familiar labyrinth, where the promulgation of either account fails toproduce anything other than another story.picIn “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges logically proves Judas to be theSon of God as a hyperbolic way to debunk dogmatic adherence to acceptedinterpretations of the Gospel Story. Whereas “Theme of the Traitor and theHero” examines storytelling as it relates to literature and history, “ThreeVersions of Judas” addresses the relationship between storytelling andinterpretation in Scripture.
The story’s narrator, Nils Runeberg, beginswith a parochial and fundamentalist principle in assuming that “to supposean error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is it to admitthat there was a single haphazard act in the most precious drama in thehistory of the world.” This statement places Runeberg in a twentiethcentury religious context, where many faiths condemn slight digression fromdoctrine as heresy. By the logic of “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,”such blind faith in the infallibility of a narrative referred to as “TheGreatest Story Ever Told,” signals an immediate refusal to read Biblicalhistory skeptically. However, Borges sets Runeberg against his time period,citing it as a mere turn of fate that “God assigned him to the twentiethcentury, and to the university city of Lund.” Whereas Runeberg’scontemporaries fail to see Scripture in the light of Kilpatrick’sfictional/factual biographies, Runeberg works within the restrictions ofhis faith-based belief system to find alternative interpretations supportedby textual evidence. Initially, Runeberg’s subscription to the notion ofthe malleability of textual analyses appears to supercede his reliance onreligious doctrine. However, his interpretation of Scripture proceeds fromthe accepted doctrines of Christ’s humanity, Christ’s sacrifice and theidea that God created Christ and Man in His image. Therefore, Runebergemploys sound reason in paralleling Judas’s spiritual descent into Hell andJesus’ physical sacrifice on the cross.
By assuming that God “could havechosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web ofhistory,” Runeberg’s logic implies that God could have chosen alldestinies, including Alexander, Pythagoras, Rurik, Jesus and Judas.Runeberg, however, never reaches this final step. Instead, he commits afatal error by essentially producing an interpretation of the Gospel Storythat is as rigid and incontrovertible as the one from which he proceeded.
picRuneberg’s regression into unyielding assertions creates new problemsfor examining Borges’s theory of truth and untruth in historicalnarratives. Runeberg begins rationally, with impressive, generalcomparisons between Judas and Jesus, and Heaven and Earth. It requires acommendable sort of mental reprogramming to regard Judas and Kilpatrick asboth traitors and heroes in equal parts. However, his logic leads him toconclude definitively that “Jesus was Judas.” This single declarativesentence pulls Runeberg from the abstract world of textual interpretationinto Ryan’s world of narration. In three words, he succeeds in writing hisown narrative of the life of Christ.
Seamlessly, Runeberg traverses theline between positive rethinking of history and a rewriting of history. Bythis, Borges seems to suggest that, within the reader/writer organicrelationship, the reader inevitably forces an interpretation to the pointwhere that interpretation reinvents the details of the narrative. The”impassioned memory of Ireland,” in “Themes of the Traitor and the Hero,”now acts more like a critical reader of Shakespeare than the collectiveminds of a town – taking in the scenes, hearing the actors, interpretingand drawing concrete meanings. As readers becomes narrators, the cyclecontinues – with the infinite revising and rewriting of the same events,none of which being more true or untrue than any other.
picThis intentional undermining of conventional “truth” emphasizes thevalue found in the story, rather than the story’s basis in fact. Borgesseems to find merit in the notion that a single event in history, much likeboth of these stories, can be manipulated and contorted to fit a dozeninterpretations. The craft of writing, historical or literary, carries withit the intimate relationship between writer and reader, which facilitatesthe cyclic morphing of reader into narrator. As Pierre Menard teaches us,history serves well as the mother of truth, rather than a truth untoitself. Through the progression of history, the readings, interpretationsand rewritings of narratives create a thousand different meanings – wherehistory, religion and literature twist and turn in Borges’ labyrinth andeverything becomes just another story.