Borges is Still Dead. (Or Is He? And Which Borges?)
On the 30th Anniversary of the Death of Jorge Luis Borges
In each of Jorge Luis Borges’s final story collections, The Book of Sand (1975) and Shakespeare’s Memory (1983), the great Argentine fabulist opens by returning to one of his favorite themes, the Doppelganger. In fact, the two stories are damn-near Doppelgängers of each other. “The Other,” from The Book of Sand, describes an encounter Borges had in 1969 with his younger self. The older Borges, the narrator, believes he is sitting on a bench by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the younger Borges is convinced he’s near the Rhone in Geneva, where Borges and his family were forced to live during World War I and where Borges attended school from 1914 to 1921. It is the story of an aging man—who by this point was blind and thus dictated his writing to an assistant—reflecting on his life; he tells his younger self what awaits him in the future, informing him, “When you reach my age, you’ll have almost totally lost your eyesight. You’ll be able to see the color yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.”
The other story, “August 25, 1983,” functions in an almost identical way, except with the roles reversed. Here a younger Borges returns to his hotel room to find that his name has already been written on the daily register. Alarmed, he races upstairs to find an aging Borges already there. Again, each Borges thinks they are in different places, different times, and again, the older Borges informs the younger of future events. Now, though, the tone is one of melancholy rather than acceptance. “The misfortunes you are already accustomed to,” the aging Borges says, “will repeat themselves. You will be left alone in this house. You will touch books that have no letters and the Swedenborg medallion and the wooden tray with the Federal Cross. Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
“The Other” and “August 25, 1983” are twin stories sharing a mirror: a young man fears the unknown future, while an old man accepts the unchangeable past. (In fact many have dismissed Borges’s later work as “geriatrica” too full of nostalgia.) But as I read Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions, his essays and reviews I considered taking him at his word: maybe there are two Borges in the world, existing at the same time. One is the fiction writer we know, the lover of paradox, the trickster, the forger, the artist who describes fantastical events with straight-faced authority, using the syntax and tone of academia; and then there is this other Borges, the critic, who writes reasonably and clearly, companionably and insightfully, about high-brow and esoteric subjects, whose aim is elucidation rather than bewilderment. As I moved through each review and essay of Selected Non-Fictions, I felt a similar shock that the young Borges did upon seeing his own name on the register: this couldn’t possibly be the same Borges, could it?
It is. And moreover, it turns out that Borges was a hell of a critic who saw deeply into any work under his consideration, sometimes in remarkably prescient ways, and who was able—though it sounds like the antithesis to his fiction—to take intricate and confounding ideas and render them comprehensible to a layperson. This is achieved through the clarity of Borges’s intelligence and the directness of his prose, but also through the critic’s insistence on his own ignorance (even though clearly he’s posturing a bit). Borges the critic is a dedicated learner, an earnest lover of literature and ideas.
Before I focus on his criticism, I want to take a moment to briefly mention Borges’s childhood, which foreshadows the methods and styles to come. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Borges was a puny, thickly bespectacled nerd who became the easy target of bullies. It was a culture, as the critic Joseph Epstein points out, “that placed high value on physical prowess and courage.” Lacking both, Borges spent most of his youth sifting through his father’s eclectic library. “If I were asked to name the chief event of my life,” Borges wrote, “I should say my father’s library.” Borges was a classic autodidact, a boy taking shelter from cruelty in the world of literature.
It is no surprise to find this boy—who survived adolescence in worlds of fantasy and adventure and history and poetry—growing up into a writer of pseudo-academic fictions. John Updike characterizes Borges’s style succinctly:
…Borges’s erudition, with its quizzical touchstones of quotation and its recondite medieval and Oriental references, is a parody of erudition wherein the researched and the fabricated lie side by side ironically—a vast but claustrophobically closed system that implies there is no newness under the sun.
He enjoyed, in other words, employing scholarly techniques to subvert scholasticism, to muddy it up and question why we believe the authorities we do. Such an approach has led many, like Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, to note, pejoratively, that Borges’s fiction is “more thinking than feeling.” This is true enough, inasmuch as it relates to things like characters and plot and theme—but in all of Borges’s stories, there is an emotional core, full with joy and delight: Borges’s own unquenchable delight in language, authority and storytelling, alongside the joy of mucking it all up with his own ingenious alchemies. In his prologue to The Garden of Forking Paths (later paired with Artifices for an English version, entitled Ficciones, published in 1962 to immediate praise), Borges suggests that his approach comes from both laziness and a sense of narrative economy:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. 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 résumé, a commentary.
It is not difficult at all to imagine Borges as a child, lost in his father’s library, in awe of the magnitude of literature, its intricate enormity, and that his fiction—his whole aesthetic, in fact—is an attempt to recreate that wonder.
So how is it, then, that a loner who seemed suspicious of straight-faced academics became one himself, at least on the page? Why is that, as Eliot Weinberger puts it in his introduction to Selected Non-Fictions, in Borges’s stories and parables, “‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ are notoriously blurred boundaries… but not so in his non-fiction”? Where is the subversion one might expect? For me the answer lies in Borges’s Doppelgangers and in their conviction that they are somewhere else, how the splintering of selves Borges repeatedly enacts represents, for him personally and for people generally, the dualities of time and space that literature induces in us all.
Let’s get to some examples from Selected Non-Fictions. Consider the way Borges handles Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal return” in the essay “The Doctrine of Cycles” from 1936. First he summarizes the idea deftly and succinctly, but also, near the end, beautifully (italics Borges’s):
The number of all atoms that compose the world is immense but finite, and as such only capable of a finite (though also immense) number of permutations. In an infinite stretch of time, the number of possible permutations must be run through, and the universe has to repeat itself. Once again you will be born from a belly, once again your skeleton will grow, once again this same page will reach your identical hands, once again you will follow the course of all the hours of your life until that of your incredible death.
Then he proceeds to refute this idea first with “the superhuman numbers it evokes,” namely, that using only 10 numbers to stand in for atoms, Borges calculates 3,628,800 permutations, so that a universe with billions upon billions upon billions of atoms wouldn’t lead to “any monotony in the cosmos.” But he goes further, unwilling to accept the numbers game as a response, since, after all, eternity is even more mind-bogglingly vast than any numeral. So he brings in Georg Cantor’s theory of sets, which argues, seemingly paradoxically, that an infinite whole “is a collection whose members can in turn be broken down into infinite series,” or, put another way, “an infinite whole is a whole that can be the equivalent of one of its subsets.” The rest of the essay ruminates on the possible motivations Nietzsche had for concocting such an odd notion. 
The point here is that Borges functions as a clear-eyed tour guide in “The Doctrine of Cycles,” refusing to grant intellectual credence to such an illogical notion. Eternal return, though, is the very type of idea upon which much of Borges fiction is based: his stories are preoccupied with teasing out the inexplicable and contradictory aspects of the universe, and they rarely let the reader in on the full extent of their games. that I never thought he could turn his attention so lucidly and accessibly to reality.
Two of his contemporaneous reviews on complex works of art—James Joyce’s Ulysses and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane—are so cogent they could easily work as introductions for college students in need of a little orientation before embarking on such heady endeavors. Three years after Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in 1922, Borges became its first Spanish-language reviewer. Joyce’s massively influential modernist masterpiece is, let us recall, a long and difficult read filled with polyphonic diction and shifting perspectives but very little straight-forward plot, a novel about which Joyce himself said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” Borges, though, is pretty keen to Joyce’s puzzles—or, at least, he’s aware that it is a puzzle—and gets to the heart of the novel swiftly, even if he admits that there are parts that elude his understanding. Here is his initial gloss of Ulysses:
Its life seems situated on a single plane, without those steps that take us mentally from each subjective world to an objective stage, from the whimsical daydream of one man’s unconscious to the frequently trafficked dreams of the collective mind. Conjecture, suspicion, fleeting thought, memories, lazy thinking, and the carefully conceived enjoy equal privilege in this book; a single point of view is noticeably absent.
This is precisely the sort of preparatory info a novice could use before opening the pages of Ulysses, the kind of basic, foundational stuff often absent from later examinations. Borges calls Joyce “a millionaire of words and styles,” and breaks down more specifically Joyce’s technique, namely that “each episode exalts yet another poetic strategy, another private lexicon,” and that, altogether, the episodes are “equal in spirit [to] those events that inform The Odyssey.” Joyce’s polymath epic even induces Borges to wax poetic on its themes (albeit accurately and beautifully):
A total reality teems vociferously in the pages of Ulysses, and not the mediocre reality of those who notice in the world only the abstract operations of the mind and its ambitious fear of not being able to overcome death, nor that other reality that enters only our senses, juxtaposing our flesh and the streets, the moon and the well. The duality of existence dwells within this book, an ontological anxiety that is amazed not merely at being, but at being in this particular world where there are entranceways and words and playing cards and electric writing upon the translucence of the night. In no other book… do we witness the actual presence of things with such convincing firmness.
Borges’s review, like everything he wrote, does so much in so little space. In only three or four pages, Borges not only manages to describe the mechanics of Ulysses but also to effectively characterize its emotional content—and for us, now, nearly a century later, Borges perfectly captures the awe and astonishment Joyce’s novel inspired in critics and writers and scholars at the time, how completely new Joyce’s vision was, a fact that Ulysses’s prodigious influence—like that of so many foundational texts—has obscured.
Borges is just as good on Citizen Kane, and in fact on film in general (until, of course, the mid Fifties when he lost his sight), and shows the same critical range and cultural prescience as he does with literature—and this time his essay is even shorter, a little over a page. He begins by noting that The Citizen (its title in Argentina) “has at least two plots.” “The first,” he writes, is “pointlessly banal” and “attempts to milk applause from dimwits.” This would be the ostensible story of Welles’s pioneering film: Charles Foster Kane, once an idealist, becomes a “vain millionaire” who amasses endless treasure at his enormous mansion, only to realize that “all is vanity” and in his last breathe yearns for the sled he had as a boy. Described thusly, the “plot” of Citizen Kane is reduced to didactic parable, but the second storyline underneath is “far superior.” In this narrative, the audience is shown “fragments of the life of a man” in a kind of “metaphysical detective story” that “invites us to combine them and to reconstruct [Kane].” But Kane is “a chaos of appearances” and ready answers are not forthcoming—even his enigmatic final word, “Rosebud,” offers no meaningful revelation. Borges recalls a story by G.K. Chesterton in which someone observes that “nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center,” and states—high praise from Borges—“This film is precisely that labyrinth.”
Then Borges pretty much accurately predicts the fate of Citizen Kane, in a way unmatched by other critics of the time:
I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have “endured”—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is a work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.
Citizen Kane, with all its bombastic genius and brazen design, has persisted in culture for a long time as “the greatest film ever made” despite the fact people don’t seem to really like watching it that much, at least compared to directors like Capra or Hitchcock or Ford. Even me, I adore that film, but I understand why TV networks opt for reruns of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, or even The Birds. Recently, though, Kane’s standing took its first tumble as iconic artwork: for the first time in its history the top film in Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll was not Citizen Kane but Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Borges, even then, spotted the difference between lasting importance and persistent endurance.
It seems noteworthy that although Ulysses and Citizen Kane take almost opposite approaches—Joyce captures many lives in a single day, while Welles shows how a single person’s whole life can’t really be captured at all—they both employ Borges’s primary technique: formal and parodic verisimilitude.
Ulysses’s radical diversions from Victorian literary standards involved the scrutiny of the everyday (from breakfast foods to fleeting thoughts to taking a shit), which Joyce festoons with numerous real-world touchstones, often with a satirical bent. He lampoons newspaper headlines and toys with musical structures. He finds gentle and not-so-gentle humor in our mundane ruminations, our private self-delusions, and, most notably, the chasm between what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. Kane, for its part, not only based its towering protagonist on real-life figure William Randolph Hearst, but also savagely satirized the various news agencies Hearst owned and on which his vast fortune was based. The famous “News on the March” sequence near the beginning of the film is narrated in a hyperbolic parody of newspeak and editor Robert Wise even dragged the film negative over a cheesecloth filled with sand in order to achieve the grainy, authentic look of popular “March of Time” reels. The bluntness of the documentary form, suggesting, as it does, cold hard facts and at least some kind of “truth,” is juxtaposed with the fundamental mystery of the self. What makes Ulysses and Citizen Kane radical, in other words, isn’t so much their ostentatious irreverence with form but rather the way those experiments, their mimicry and mockery of banality, foreground a fundamental quality of human life: the segmentation and fragmentation of the self.
No wonder Borges was drawn to these narratives. Like Kane’s “News on the March,” Borges adopts the diction of authority, but instead of a journalist’s, that of an historian, or a scholar, or a critic: a disinterested and erudite voice recording true things. Consequently many of Borges’s stories have the feeling of being but one entry in an enormous (or, in more Borgesian terms, infinite) catalogue, a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the past. Ulysses with its exhaustive collection of eclectic and esoteric references, its constant self-mythologizing, and its polyphonic spree is like a Thanksgiving Day parade float version of a Borges story.
Borges, remember, started his career with forgeries and hoaxes—deliberate ones, not the inadvertent kind of Welles’s radio broadcast “War of the Worlds.” Amongst other translations Borges turned in to publishers, a number were simply fake, conceived and written by Borges, who claimed to have stumbled upon them (not unlike many a Borges narrator). His interest in mimicking reality, then, is even more literal than Joyce’s or Welles’s. They only wanted their work to seem real, as a means of heightening the contradictions of the characters; Borges wanted his stories to be real, which in his case doesn’t enhance narrative pulse or human depth but instead flips the entire notion of a conventional arc. In Borges’s stories it is the reader, not the characters, who enacts the drama. For Borges’s is a fiction of the mind, and it does not require a human on the page struggling through a problem. It only needs a mind that will think, and is willing to keep reading, despite not necessarily understanding.
Before we get back to Borges’s non-fiction, let’s look at one of his stories to see how they work, or more importantly how they don’t work. Borges’s stories aren’t broken; they are elsewhere. I am reminded of the words of another confabulatory radical, e.e. cummings, who wrote, “a poet is a penguin—his wings are to swim with.” But in Borges’s world, so to speak, penguins can simply fly, and if you don’t believe him he’s got sources.
Let’s examine one of Borges’s most densely packed tales, and one of his most scrutinized, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The story goes like this: an unnamed narrator—who we understand to be Borges—is talking to a friend about mirrors, and his friend recalls a quotation from a “heresiarch of Uqbar [who] stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.” When pressed for the source, the friend pulls out Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia but can’t locate the corresponding entry. Later, he calls Borges to tell him that he’s found another copy that does contain the entry on Uqbar, and brings it to him. Within they discover an ambiguous but flatly written description of a region of the earth that neither man has heard of before. There are references to real places and people, but also to fictional ones. Search though they do, Borges and his friend are unable to discover any further information.
Then, a man named Herbert Ashe, a friend of Borges’s father, receives a book in the mail shortly before he dies. Borges happens to stumble on it, and it turns out to be the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopaedia of Tlön: Hlaer to Jangr. Tlön is not a region at all, it’s a fucking planet. And the eleventh volume is filled with elaborate details on the denizens of Tlön. Borges’s prose here moves subtly from describing the contents of the encyclopedia to writing about the people and philosophies of Tlön as if they were real. He stops referencing the eleventh volume and writes like an expert who knows the subject intimately. Throughout his lengthy (for Borges) enumeration of the diverse and sometimes incomprehensible schools of thought abounding in Tlön’s intellectual set—though they’re mostly of the subjective idealism variety—Borges intimates that the book has been released to the public and has been read and studied (and plagiarized and pirated) the world over. The wide dissemination of the encyclopedia will have its effects. Namely, that the ideas and even the realities of Tlön begin to materialize on Earth.
Borges—the real one—published “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in 1940 in the Buenos Aires-based literary magazine Sur . Borges, the narrator, closes the story with a postscript dated 1947, which means this final sequence is set in the future. The prose returns to the informative tone it began with, and we’re abruptly informed that a “letter by Gunnar Erfjord came to light” and “cleared up entirely the mystery of Tlön.” Turns out that a cabal (“three hundred in number”) of “master-scholars” in the early 17th century “came together to invent a country.” Over succeeding generations, and via the will of an eccentric millionaire, the secret society’s ambition expanded into the creation of a planet. As news of such an impossible conspiracy spreads and more volumes of the encyclopedia are discovered, and, most strangely, as objects of Tlön—e.g., coins and a die-sized cone—begin to appear on Earth, the world becomes more and more like Tlön—despite the fact that it’s most likely that these events, the new volumes and the odd items, are themselves part of the secret society’s plans.
It ends ruefully, with Borges noting, “Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world,” and that soon “the world will be Tlön.” Borges is unambiguous—even a little didactic—about his contempt for “any symmetrical system whatsoever which [gives] the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism,” and, more interestingly, for humanity’s blind adherence to authoritative texts. An odd conclusion for a former library lounger who took refuge in books—but who better than a book-obsessed autodidact to understand the dangerous power of texts? To see the way “literature” is often presented as truth? And to comprehend that the vital difference between literature and the systems it promulgates is that literature never makes grand claims about truth? In fact, literature acknowledges its fictions, its personal perspectives, its limitations. And what better way to go about making such an important distinction than by employing—playfully, of course—the same presumptuous authority as the texts of religious and political systems?
The final image is one of Borges—indifferent to the spread of Tlön but not to one of its many side effects: the disappearance of English, Spanish, and French—conducting a quiet and futile protest: he’s translating Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial into Spanish, but not, he writes, for publication. It is enough for him, and for this story, that at least one person is still willing to keep the candle burning, and even when the howl of the coming wind cackles like mocking laughter, and the gales loom wide and monstrous, the tiny flame still dances defiantly against the dark.
To begin with, Borges doubles (or mirrors?) his own technique—that of writing about non-existent texts as if they exist—by having the texts in “Tlön, Uqbar, Obris Tertius” also reference and describe fictional books and places and things with academic certainty. His befuddlement—Borges’s, that is, the narrator Borges, not the writer—is a lot like the reader’s, making us a quick ally in solving the problem. But soon Borges steps ahead of us, in literal time, yes (into the future, in fact) but more importantly in terms of narrative knowledge. Borges moves from describing the encyclopedia’s description of Tlön to describing the civilization itself. He carefully drops the perplexed scholar act to replace it with the role of fabricator, thus eliminating the personal story and transferring the burden of understanding (and thus the story’s arc) onto the reader.
Borges the writer, characteristically, doesn’t give the reader much in the way of guidance but instead overloads the piece with sources and references, many of them real, many not, all in the effort of blurring the fiction/non-fiction line, even if only subconsciously. A key to sifting your way through this labyrinth is Borges’s use—or more accurately the degree of his use—of scholarly techniques to validate his authority or move the plot along. Take the footnotes, for instance—not only classic hallmarks of erudition but also highly visible ones. Of the six footnotes, a closer looks shows that four are used to support or comment upon invented stuff, and only two on something real. The two legitimate footnotes are on Bertrand Russell’s Analysis of Mind and the duodecimal system—they function as they are supposed to, i.e., to verify a claim or offer a brief aside, and their veracity lends credibility to the false ones. The invention and elaborate cataloguing of the planet Tlön is at the behest of a rich American named Ezra Buckley who, a footnote tells us, “was a freethinker, a fatalist, and an apologist for slavery.” By sticking this information in a footnote Borges isolates this fact and draws more attention to it. The wonderful irony of Borges’s strategy is that footnotes are ordinarily of secondary or tertiary relevance, lonely little helpers relegated to tiny fonts and squished into the margins, but Borges, “the human as reader,” as Peter Ackroyd called him, figured out a way to dust off those unread words and breathe new life into them.
The most interesting footnote, though, is one on a non-existent text referenced in the Uqbar entry, History of a Land Called Uqbar (1874) by Silas Haslam. The note casually informs us that Haslam also authored a book called A General History of Labyrinths, which obviously sounds like a book Borges would write. What’s so fascinating here isn’t the note itself, or even the note’s function in the story, but the fact that A General History of Labyrinths by Silas Haslam has begun, like Tlönian coins, to pop up in reality. One can find it listed on Goodreads (with ratings!) and even cited in peer-reviewed academic journals (oh, how Borges would have loved that). A Google image search brings up numerous cover designs, including one (pictured below) commissioned by a British art gallery. Now of course these real-world emergences are self-conscious, art and whimsy inspired by Borges’s own art and whimsy, but they nonetheless illustrate, no matter their motivations, the truth of Borges’s point: once ideas are introduced to the world they inevitably become actualized. Haslam’s fake history was produced in homage to Borges; but other ideas, like the philosophies of Tlön or the psychotic plans of Hitler, can come to life through coercion, force, and the complicity of those who aren’t targeted by prejudice or oppression. The “existence” of A General History of Labyrinths is fun for fans of Borges, a fanciful ode to his genius, but it’s also emblematic of humanity’s problematic tendency to bend reality to fit its fictions.
The inhabitants of Tlön are subjective idealists, a philosophical doctrine dating back to Buddhists Asaṅga and Vasubandhu in the fourth century but generally associated with George Berkeley in the early 18th century, that basically claims that the world around us exists only if our minds perceive it and that our knowledge of our physical surroundings (i.e., metaphysical substances independent of our perception) can only verify them as ideas, not disparate matter. In some ways, Berkeley’s argument seems pointlessly rhetorical—or rather it conflates what is ultimately a semantic point to a grand, sweeping philosophical system—especially since Berkeley doesn’t deny the literal existence of things but rather the empirical claims to corporeality that are made about those things. So he’s not saying that the world is some collective delusion but that because our only knowledge of life (sight, sensation, memory, planning, abstracting) originates, is defined by, and remains in our perceptions—because there isn’t anywhere else for us to be but in our own minds—distinguishing between a real world with real things and a perceived world with perceived things is beyond our capabilities and thus essentially meaningless.
Borges, whose father was an idealist (but, as described by Joseph Epstein, of the “we are living in a dream world” variety), takes Berkeley’s ideas and literalizes them, creates a civilization for whom idealism isn’t semantic or grand but simply the way things are. In fact, in Tlön a philosopher presents an argument for “the doctrine of materialism”—that is, that things are real and exist outside our perception, i.e., our natural way of thinking—that incites outrage and controversy. As esoteric humor, this is pretty on point, but what else is Borges up to? Is he merely satirizing the absurdity of subjective idealism by contrasting it with our own notions? Or is there something else at work? Consider the effect the encyclopedia has on human culture: the ideas and even the language of Tlön creep into our civilization, into schools and books and conversations, eventually “disintegrat[ing] our world.” This may seem like an unambiguous attack on his own father’s beliefs, but I think too that Borges has another intention here, and it relates—finally!—to the way Borges handled non-fiction.
Let us take the specifics of Tlön and the notion of subjective idealism and generalize them into what they basically reduce to: texts. They are, in essence, nothing more than that, and if we think of them as texts we can see a larger, more insidious point to the story. Fictions can be just as, or even more, dangerous and influential as speculation masquerading as truth. The world of Borges’s story didn’t learn about subjective idealism from Tlön; George Berkeley had been dead for nearly 200 years by the time “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was published. No, the reason Tlön’s philosophies found their way into human life was not because of any inherent validity of the ideas but rather the manner in which those ideas were presented. The mystery and the allure of the encyclopedia—its comprehensive inexplicability—makes the notions underlying it all the more effective—way more effective, at least, than Berkeley’s numerous treatises. To a degree this story foreshadows the writing of Marshall McLuhan, whose famous phrase “the medium is the message” is in part what Borges is showing with this story. In his influential Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) McLuhan argued that the form of art is more important than its content and that, consequently, mediums, rather than foundational ideas or even technique, are what should be studied. Borges, though, implies the same idea but does so by degrees. Berkeley’s books are not—and arguably cannot—be as widely read and intellectually instrumental as an invented race of aliens, the implication of which is that it is not ideas that change the world but effective presentations of those ideas. A warning, perhaps, that we can never discount the profound danger of any philosophy because of its packaging and in fact sometimes the more absurd and unlikely a form may seem, the more forceful and ubiquitous it can become.
The initial mystery of this essay was the stark contrast between Borges’s fiction and his non-fiction. So what do the preceding 5,000 words have to do with this contrast? How do they answer the initial question?
The solution is this: in his fiction Borges scrutinized the role of literature on our lives, a perspective about which he knew a great deal, not least because of his obsessive reading during childhood. From those experiences he extrapolated larger observations about texts and ideas in general. He knew, in other words, that for all its greatness, literature and art can be dangerously effective in extolling ideas that don’t really merit attention. Books, for Borges, can stand for any human endeavor. In “The Library of Babel,” a story about an infinite library and its confounded denizens, books stand for the illusive meaning of knowledge and achievement. Literature is the grand vehicle of human wisdom, but it is also contains the very worst of human fallibility. These distinctions, to Borges, are no small matter. One cannot ethically celebrate all forms of literature, lest we watch our world collapse under the borrowed ideas of savage but effective texts.
Thus, when Borges the human being takes as his task the role of a critic—that is, an intermediary between real life texts and the people who may actually read them—he doesn’t fuck around. To Borges this role is vital and comes with great responsibility. Who knows more than him the profound effect books can have on a person? Who has thought more about existence through the prism of literature? Borges wasn’t always being playful, or trickster-y, or satirical in his stories. Underneath the meta-fictions and simulacra is a dedicated thinker and a serious moralist. This has, unsurprisingly, been an overlooked aspect of Borges’s writing. I say “unsurprising” because isn’t this Borges’s very point? That literature has a way of sneaking in deeper (and sometimes more sinister) ideas? And, moreover, that we often don’t fully grasp the import of those ideas?
Although it may seem ironic that Borges often wrote of the potential danger of books, it actually makes perfect sense. Borges loved literature more than anything else, but he did not love it like a child loves a parent, indiscriminately and obstinately, but rather like one loves a spouse, with the conscious understanding and acceptance of flaws, peculiarities, and moral failings. His is a mature and insightful love. Literature, yes, is a gift—one for which Borges would spend his life expressing gratitude—but it can also be a curse. For every statue of David there is a Trojan horse—and we need to be able to tell the difference.
 In one of his famous short stories, “The Library of Babel,” Borges suggests that this sort of belief could provide solace from the absurdities of existence. The narrator notes that while some believe the Library to be infinite and others posit a sudden end to it, he suffuses the two:
I dare insinuate the following solution to this ancient problem: The Library is limitless and periodic. If an eternal voyager were to traverse it in any direction, he would find, after many centuries, that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder (which, repeated, would constitute an order: Order itself). My solitude rejoices in this elegant hope.
 Sur’s founder Victoria Ocampo is a fascinating figure deserving of her own history. She was sort of like the Gertrude Stein of South American lit. She wrote works of literary criticism (notably books on Woolf and T.E. Lawrence) and was a dedicated political activist (even spending time in jail for her opposition to Juan Perón, the president of Argentina from 1948—1955 and again from ’73 to ’74, and husband of Evita), but her role as editor of Sur became her most important contribution, publishing the early work of writers like Borges, Julio Cortázar, Albert Camus, and Ernesto Sabato.
 It is impossible, when writing about Borges—and believe me, I really tried—not to employ all of Borges’s central thematic metaphors—I don’t mean define and discuss them; I mean that Borges’s stories are often about ideas that perfectly describe the stories themselves. Which of course Borges knew and totally did on purpose.
 Because this is really what Borges is up to, right? He’s inventing a library; but because one single person couldn’t possibly write an adequate number of books to fill so many shelves, Borges has settled on creating a world in which a fictional Borges can simply pluck any imaginable volume from the endless rows.
 Although in general it’s hard not to feel when writing about Borges that all you’re doing is contributing to a karmically ironic and deeply superfluous pile of stuffy academic literary critic arcana that simultaneously validates many of Borges’s points while pushing him by association deeper into esoterica—I can’t help but note, for instance, this essay is already longer than the whole of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which clocks in at 5,600 words. Long for Borges! What time we critics waste.
 Donald Trump, anyone?
 Consider, e.g., Hitler’s Mein Kampf, though maybe an even more pertinent example would be something like Nietzsche’s philosophical works, which were interpreted to fit Hitler’s belief in the superior of the Aryan race. Hitler (who some scholars argue didn’t even read Nietzsche, or at least not very thoroughly) took Nietzsche’s assertion that an “ubermensch” with a strong “will to power” would rise to replace the supernatural gods that were no longer relevant—and literalized it according to his concept of Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche, of course, would have found this interpretation (and certainly its horrific application) as appalling and a completely misunderstanding of his writing (and he went crazy in 1889).