Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘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’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

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.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘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’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of 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.
  • 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
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Every Man In His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)

‘O, manners! that this age should bring forth such creatures! that nature should be at leisure to make them!’
(Ned Knowell, Every Man In His Humour, Act 4, scene 5)

When he came to oversee the collection of all the poetry and plays he wished to preserve in a Folio edition of his Works in 1616, Jonson chose to open the volume with Every Man In His Humour, ignoring all the earlier plays he’d written or had a hand in and asserting that this was his first mature play.

He didn’t just tweak the play, but subjected it to a major overhaul, changing the setting from an unconvincing Florence to a vividly depicted contemporary London, anglicising the names of all the characters, cutting speeches, making the thing more focused. Since the earlier version of the play had been published in a Quarto version in 1601, students of the play are quickly introduced to the existence of these two versions and invited to play a game of ‘Compare The Versions’.

The other issue you’re quickly made aware of as you read any introduction to the play, is the issue of ‘humours’. This seems to be simpler than it first appears. The ancient Greeks (starting with Hippocrates, then Galen) developed a theory that the human body consisted of four elements or humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were quickly associated with the four elements which make up the world, as posited by Empedocles, namely earth, air, fire and water – and over the next 1,500 years the theory was elaborated into a system of vast complexity, drawing in the star signs of astrology and much more.

The basic idea is that the ‘humours’ must be in balance for the body to be healthy. All illnesses can be attributed to an imbalance or excess of one or other ‘humour’. If you were ill, doctors would diagnose the imbalance of your ‘humours’ and submit you to any one of hundreds of useless treatments, the most florid being the ‘purges’, or bleeding, which poor King Charles II was repeatedly subjected to on his death bed.

But it wasn’t just illness – human character could be attributed to the excess of a particular humour. Thus blood was associated with a sanguine nature (enthusiastic, active, and social); an excess of yellow bile was thought to produce aggression; black bile was associated with depression or ‘melancholy’, in fact the word melancholy derives from the Greek μέλαινα χολή (melaina kholé) which literally means ‘black bile’. And an excess of phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behavior, as preserved in the word ‘phlegmatic’ i.e. unmoved by events.

Jonson applies the theory to comedy by making the theory of humours into the basis of psychology. The idea is that every person has a hobby horse or leading passion or quirk or obsession. He explains the idea at length in a speech given to a character in the play’s sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour:

ASPER: So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,
By reason that they flow continually
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a humour
CORDATUS: He speaks pure truth; now if an idiot
Have but an apish or fantastic strain,
It is his humour.
ASPER: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.

So the title of the play means something like ‘Every man looked at in the context of his guiding passion or eccentricity’. A really blunt translation might be ‘People as obsessives’.

It is really just a variation on the idea of comic stereotypes or types, which flourished in Roman comedy and has formed the basis of comedy down to the present. Dad’s Army springs to mind with its collection of comic types – the pompous bank manager, the lugubrious public schoolboy, the shady spiv, the weedy mummy’s boy, the excitable veteran, the gloomy Scot and so on.

But for Jonson, as for other Renaissance theorists, mere entertainment wasn’t enough, and his criticism and the plays themselves are full of snarling animosity at poets who churned out haphazard entertainments. In Jonson’s view, the comic portrayal of characters dominated by their humours or obsessions serves a purpose: by showing people behaving ridiculously on stage, comedy should make the audience reflect on their own obsessions, on their own quirky and irrational behaviour, and thus teach them to behave more rationally and charitably.

Hence the hundreds of references to the same basic idea, which is that comedy ‘scourges the follies of the time’ or ‘laughs people out of their follies’, and so on.

I, for one, don’t believe for a minute that watching a comic play for a few hours will change anyone’s behaviour. If so, if satire did change anything, how come there has always been an endless need and market for it? People are people and human nature goes very deep and laughing at a handful of caricatures for a couple of hours is not going to change anyone’s personality or behaviour.

Also there’s a subtler reason. There’s a case for saying that Jonson’s own practice undermines his theories, in the sense that all the prologues and prefaces and dedicatory letters and even characters within his plays certainly repeat ad nauseam variations on the same idea the ‘Comedy Laughs The Age Out of Its Follies’. And yet, when you actually experience the plays onstage, as dramatic experiences, it becomes vividly clear that Jonson loves the follies of the age. They’re what energise and inspire him.

Cast

KNOWELL, an old Gentleman, laments the old days and jealous of his son’s debauchery
EDWARD KNOWELL, his Son
BRAINWORM, the Father’s Man, looking to curry favour with the son and heir
MASTER STEPHEN, a Country Gull (‘he is stupidity itself’)
MASTER MATHEW, the Town Gull
GEORGE DOWNRIGHT, a plain Squire
WELLBRED, Kitely’s half-Brother, suave and sophisticated friend of Ed Knowell
CAPTAIN BOBADILL, a Paul’s Man, a bragging liar, close relative of Shakespeare’s Pistol in Henry IV
JUSTICE CLEMENT, an old merry
KITELY, a merchant driven out of his mind by obsessive jealousy of his wife
THOMAS CASH, KITELY’S Cashier
DAME KITELY, KITELY’S Wife
MRS. BRIDGET his Sister.
OLIVER COB, a simple water-bearer
TIB Cob’s Wife

Every Man In His Humour

Act one

Old Knowell dotes on his scholar son Edward until he intercepts a letter to him (Edward) from his student buddy, Master Wellbred, inviting him to debauchery. More specifically, the letter is sent from Wellbred who lives in Old Jewry (a street in the City of London) to Ned Knowell who lives in Hoxton, a few miles to the north, telling him not to be a stranger, to evade his controlling father, to pop down and see him because he is being visited by a couple of pompous idiots who will be worth his entertainment.

Scandalised, Old Knowell tells his servant, Brainworm, to pass the letter on to his son, not mentioning that he (the father) has read it. Brainworm delivers it to young Ned alright, but fully mentions that his father has read it and we begin to

During the whole act both Knowells and Brainworm are plagued by Ned’s cousin, the blowhard Stephen who combines idiocy – he has splashed out on an expensive hawk without knowing anything about hawking, and now feebly asks old Knowell if he has a book on the subject – with untimely belligerence e.g. he threatens to get into a duel with the delivery boy who brings the letter from Wellbred and is quick to imagine anyone turning their back on him or muttering is slighting him – but when faced up, quickly and feebly backs down.

Master Matthew pays a visit to the very humble abode of Cob the water carrier to see the braggart soldier, Bobbadil who is lodging with him. All three characters are played for laughs, I like the passage where the captain asks Matthew not to tell anyone where he’s staying, not because it’s too humble and squalid but because he doesn’t want to be inundated with visitors 🙂 And when Bobbadil offers to defend Matthew against the foul insults of Squire Downright, Wellbred’s elder brother, it is very funny the way Matthew praises the captain’s immense martial skill and the captain poo-poohs him while enjoying the praise, before putting him through a farcical rehearsal of sword fighting.

Act 2

At Kitely’s house. Kitely tells Squire Downward he took in a foundling and has made him his cashier and runner and named him Cash. Then he gets on to his main point which is lamenting that he ever allowed Wellbred to come and lodge with him, for he has turned the house into a tavern and brothel with loose company at all hours. Kitely now asks Downward – as Wellbred’s older brother – if he can politely ask Wellbred to leave.

During this dialogue both characters reveal their ‘humours’. Downward is quick to anger and expresses it in a volley of cliches and oldd proverbs. Kitely, for his part, reveals that the real root reason for wanting Wellbred to leave is he is consumed with jealousy about his recently-married wife.

Bobadill and Matthew briefly intrude on the scene looking for Wellbred, giving Matthew just enough time to insult Downward, who goes to draw his sword while Kitely restrains him and the others quickly exit.

Kitely has a long speech about how his doubts about his wife’s infidelity have slowly become his obsession. Two points: 1. It is (arguably) part of Jonson’s didactic strategy to have his humour-ridden characters soliloquise about them – in the sense that their description of their symptoms helps the audience identify (and counter?) them. Here is Kitely giving a vivid description of Jealousy:

But it may well be call’d poor mortals’ plague;
For, like a pestilence, it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the phantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air,
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence,
Sends like contagion to the memory:
Still each to other giving the infection.
Which as a subtle vapour spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensive part,
Till not a thought or motion in the mind
Be free from the black poison of suspect.

2. Martin Seymour-Smith, editor of the edition I read, suggests that Kitely’s envisioning of his wife being debauched is so vivid because, not very far from the surface, Kitely wants his wife to be ravished and wants to watch. Obviously Dame Kitely is oblivious of her husband’s feverish imaginings.

Scene 2 Moorfields, Brainworm is disguised as an army veteran and bumps into Ned Knowell and the idiot Stephen heading south to visit Wellbred. There is comedy when Brainworm tells whopping lies about his army record (mentioning battles which are nearly 100 years old) tries to sell Stephen his rapier and Knowell tries to stop stupid Stephen buying the rusty bit of trash.

Cut to Knowell making his way south to spy on his son. A soliloquy lamenting how corrupt the times are and how fathers corrupt their sons – the timelessness of this kind of sentiment confirmed when you learn that a lot of it is copied from the satires of Juvenal, written in the second century BC.

He encounters Brainworm in his disguise as a disabled soldier. Brainworm wheedles on and on begging for some alms, Knowell disapproves and asks him if he is not ashamed to be a beggar, and finally tells him to follow him and do him honest service in return for money.

Brainworm soliloquises. His ultimate aim is to ingratiate himself with young Knowell who will be his future. But meanwhile he gleefully tells the audience he will have fun doing his master mischief.

Act 3

Scene 1 Ned Knowell and his gull Stephen finally meet Wellbred, who is with Bobadill, and there is a festival of stupidity. Basically, Knowell and Wellbred are the clever ones, the ones who egg on the stupid gulls – boasting Bobadill, Matthew and Stephen who pretends to have fashionable melancholy – to display their foibles and follies in dialogue while the two smart or superior ones give a running commentary in asides to each other, and to the audience.

They are just discussing the sword Matthew bought off Brainworm, when the latter arrives onstage, still in disguise as the begging soldier. They argue about the sword he sold Matthew, more importantly Brainworm takes Ned Knowell aside and reveals his true identity, explaining that his father has tracked him and is even now putting up at Justice Clement’s house, a little further down Old Jewry, where it turns into Coleman Street.

Scene 2 At Kitely’s house. He has business to attend to but us seized with jealousy, at the thought of what Wellbred and his friends will do to his wife if he leaves the house i.e. rape her. He calls his servant, Cash, and spends a couple of pages telling him he’s going to tell him a secret, but then repeatedly pulling back at the last minute, from extreme paranoid fear, and then ultimately leaves on business for the Exchange, leaving orders to have a message sent if Wellbred shows up.

Cash realises something is up and wonders how he can exploit it. In rolls Cob the water carrier for a scene designed to showcase his dimness and allow a little aside about the nature of ‘humour’:

Cob. Humour! mack, I think it be so indeed; what is that humour? some rare thing, I warrant.
Cash. Marry I’ll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentlemanlike monster, bred in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed by folly.

‘Affectation fed by folly’, there’s a working definition of the the kind of ‘humour’ Jonson sets out to lambast.

Then enter Knowell and Wellbred marvelling at and congratulating Brainworm for his splendid disguise as the begging soldier. This leads into a complicated scene featuring Cash, Cob, Matthew, Stephen, Brainworm, Knowell and Wellbred, in which the fools interact in various comic ways, Bobadill at one point cudgelling poor Cob, apparently because he speaks ill of tobacco after Bobadillo has made a long speech in praise of it (Cob, if you remember, currently being Bobadill’s very humble landlord).

Quite a comic aspect is the way Stephen the fool is impressed by Bobadill’s big oaths but completely garbles them when he tries to repeat them.

Scene 3 At Justice Clement’s house, Cob enters to tell Kitely that a crowd (the gang of lads we have just watched) is arriving at his house, Kitely immediately begins feverishly imagining them kissing his wife and sister and worse, much worse, which puzzles Cob who last saw them all bickering about tobacco in the street.

Kitely exits leaving Cob to vow vengeance on Bobadill for beating him up at which point enter Knowell, Judge Clement and his man Roger Formal. Cob tries to get his attention to punish Bobadill for beating him, but when he explains the reason for the beating, that Cob spoke against tobacco – in a humorous twist, Clement loses his temper and tells Formal to condemn Cob to prison because he, also, immoderately worships the fine pleasures of tobacco and won’t have anyone talking against it.

Act 4

Scene 1 Squire Downright discussing with his sister, Dame Kitely i.e. Kitely’s wife. Kitely’s unhappiness at having gangs of loose livers visiting the house. And at that moment the gang enter, being Matthew, Bobadill, Wellbred and Ned Knowell, Stephen and Brainworm. The two clever ones encourage Matthew to take out some of his verses and read them to Bridget (Kitely’s sister) while they take the mickey, it appears most of them are cribbed from Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Downright disapproves of all this and finally bursts out angrily at Wellbred for keeping such rowdy company, for encouraging braggart soldiers and simpletons, and takes out his sword, at which point Wellbred takes out his and the others start screaming and/or intervening.

At which point Kitely arrives home and his servants force them all to put down their swords. Wellbred, Knowell et al all leave the stage to Downright who explains why he was so angry to his brother. The women i.e. Dame Kitely and his sister, Bridget, swear there was one among them who was a true gentleman and showed his parts. They use the word to mean honour and good nature, Kitely takes it to mean sexual parts and is immediately stricken with his morbid jealousy.

Scene 2 Cob bangs on his own front door till his wife answers it. He shows her the bruises he got from Bobadill, briefly describes his encounter with Justice Clement, then makes her swear to lick the door and not let Bobadill in the house.

Scene 3 In the Windmill tavern Knowell and Wellbred agree with Brainworm some cunning plan which the audience does not hear explained, he exits, then  Wellbred teases Knowell that he fancies Wellbred’s sister, i.e. Bridget, and promises he will make her his.

Scene 4 In Old Jewry, the London street, Brainworm in his disguise of the old soldier rejoins Knowell senior, who asks where the devil he’s been – good question, since Brainworm hasn’t exactly been much at his service since their first encounter. Anyway, now we get to hear of the boys’ cunning plan as Brainworm tells old Knowell that his son, Ned Knowell, has discovered that he – Old Knowell – read the famous letter. Anyway, Brainworm spins a florid story about how the gang of them kidnapped him but he managed to escape and overheard young Ned’s plan to go to the house of one Cob the Water Drawer for a rendezvous with a Mistress Bridget. Ha! says Old Knowell, I will go there and catch him red-handed and exits, leaving Brainworm chuckling.

Brainworm then chats to Justice Clement’s servant, a simpleton named Formal who invites him for a beer and to tell him stories about the wars.

Scene 5 In Moorfields, Bobadill swells monstrously and brags to Knowell that he and nineteen hand-picked fellows could hold at bay an army of 40,000. And he swears he will cudgel the rascal Downright next time he sees him – at which point Downright strolls onstage and, when confronted with a real threat, Bobadill piteously says he’s just remembered he had a notice of peace served on him so is not allowed to draw. Downright calls him coward and beats and disarms him, before storming off in disgust. Bobadill makes a further, hilarious excuse, that it was astrology, sure he was struck by an unlucky star that paralysed his sword arm.

In his fury Downright has stormed off leaving his cloak behind. Knowell’s companion, Stephen, picks it up, says finders keepers. Knowell warns him that wearing it might carry a cost.

Scene 6 At Kitely’s house, where he is berating brother Wellbred for egging on the fight, as Dame Kitely and sister Bridget look on. Wellbred makes a throwaway remark to the effect that Kitely’s suit of clothes might as well be poisoned which sets Kitely off in a hysterical terror that his clothes are poisoned – and the other three are all astonished at the power of his imagination, that his thoughts can make him ill. It is this scene which underpins Martin Seymour-Smith’s assertion that Jonson anticipates Freud by 300 years in attributing illnesses of the body to humours (obsessions, neuroses) of the mind.

KNOWELL: Am I not sick? how am I then not poison’d? Am I not poison’d? how am I then so sick?
DAME KNOWELL: If you be sick, your own thoughts make you sick.
WELLBRED: His jealousy is the poison he has taken.

Enter Brainworm disguised as Justice Clement’s man, Formal, who says the Justice wants to see Kitely straightaway. Reluctantly the latter exits. Wellbred sees it is Brainworm and asks how he got the disguise, viz he got the real Formal dead drunk and stole his clothes. Now Wellbred instructs him to go tell Ned Knowell to go to the Tower. He (Wellbred) will bring along Bridget and the pair will get married.

Re-enter Kitely who at some length gets his servant, Tom Cash, to promise to guard Dame Kitely, to note everyone who enters the house and, if it looks like they’re going to a bedroom, to intervene. OK? Got that? He departs.

Wellbred determines to stir up trouble and now tells Dame Kitely, his sister, that Dame Cob keeps a bawdy house and that her husband, Kitely, is often hanging round it. Well, she cries in dudgeon, she will off to catch him in the act and exits, Wellbeing watching her, chuckling at the mischief he’s stirring up.

Then he turns to his sister Bridget and tells her that Ned Knowell loves her and wants to marry her at the Tower. Not surprisingly, she points out this is all a bit sudden, and is surprised that her brother has turned pimp.

At which point Kitely returns, asking after his wife, and is horrified to learn that she’s set off for Cob’s house? What? To cuckold him? And he runs off after her. Come sister, says Wellbred, let’s go meet Ned Knowell. It’s all getting very complicated.

Scene 7 Matthew and Bobadill are in the street, Bob still explaining why he refused to fight and ran away. They bump into Brainworm, still in the disguise of Justice Clement’s man and ask him to petition the Justice for a warrant for the arrest of Downright. Brainworm/Formal says, Alright, but it’ll cost them ‘a brace of angels’, about a £1. They have no money but Bobbadil takes off and gives him his silk stockings and Matthew gives him a jewel from  his ear. Brainworm comes up with another snag which is that they will need someone to serve the warrant, them both being too scared to give it to Downright directly. So Brainworm says he’ll procure a varlet, a sergeant for them and they approve and leave.

Brainworm cackles with glee. He now has the stockings and jewel which he will pawn, along with Formal’s clothes that he’s wearing, then procure a new suit and pretend to Matthew and Bobadill to be said varlet. Money and fun!

Scene 8 Cob’s house Old Knowell arrives. Now he’s been told this is where his ne’er-do-well son is. Tib opens the door, says she’s never heard of no Knowell, and slams it in his face. Dame Kitely arrives, brought here by Wellbred’s lie that her husband attends this brothel. Knowell sees her arrive and thinks she is his son’s mistress.

Dame Kitely knocks, Tib opens and denies any knowledge of her husband. At that moment Kitely enters, muffled up in his cloak. Knowell, observing, jumps to the conclusion that it is his son, Ned, come to meet his mistress. Dame Kitely recognises her husband and accuses him to his face of coming here to meet his mistress.

Replying furiously to her accusations, Kitely accuses his wife of being a bawd and making him a cuckold with him, and indicated Knowell and accuses him directly of being a shameful old goat for debauching his wife. Knowell of course denies it all and begins to suspect someone has pulled a prank on him. Kitely says he’ll take his wife to find a justice.

At this point Cob comes home and asks his wife what all this fuss is. When Kitely accuses her of being a bawd and permitting adulterous meetings on the premises Cob starts berating and beating his wife. Knowell intervenes and says, ‘let’s all go before a justice comes to sort it out’.

Scene 9 A street Brainworm soliloquises explaining why he is wearing the costume of a city-sergeant. Enter Matthew and Bobadill, and Brainworm tells them that he is the arresting officer hired by Formal. They are pleased to point out Downright as he walks onstage.

Except that it isn’t Downright. Remember how, in scene 5, Stephen picked up Downright’s abandoned cloak? Well, the figure they all think is Downright is in fact Stephen in Downright’s cloak. So there is a moment of mild comedy when Brainworm goes to present his warrant to the wrong man. But fortunately the real Downright enters at that moment. Brainworm serves the warrant on Downright but things start to go wrong. Downright really is downright. He goes to attack Bobadill and Matthew with his cudgel till Brainworm tells him to desist. OK.

At which point Downright spots Stephen and demands his cloak back. Stephen claims he bought it at a market but Downright contemptuously dismisses this as an obvious lie and gives money to Brainworm-as-city sergeant to arrest Stephen and bring him before the justice.

This is getting a bit much for Brainworm who now tries to wriggle out of it by saying Stephen has offered to give the cloak back, all’s well etc. But Downright will have none of it and raises his cudgel, threatening Brainworm, who is now trapped into going reluctantly with the others before the justice.

Act 5

Scene 1 Justice Clement’s house. Enter the first group of miscreants, namely the people involved in the brawl at Cob’s house – Cob and his wife who he beat, Dame Kitely who thinks her husband is being unfaithful, Kitely who thinks his wife is being unfaithful, and Knowell who he thought was her lover.

When they all tell him that one person, Wellbred, told them all to go there, Justice Clement immediately realises they’ve all been had.

Next a servant enters to Clement that a soldier is waiting for him. There’s some comic business as Justice Clement insists on getting into soldier’s armour himself and going down to meet Matthew and Bobbadil, who piteously pleads that he was set upon and beaten in the street. Clements pooh-poohs him for a sorry apology for a soldier.

Next arrive Downright and Stephen and Brainworm in disguise as a city-sergeant. Clement listens to them bickering about whose cloak it is, but more to the point, quickly establishes that the first two, Bobbadil and Matthew, had got his man Formal to raise a warrant against Downright. So where is it?

Realising this is the dangerous moment for him, Brainworm says there never was a written warrant but he was ordered to do it by Clement’s man, Formal. It now emerges that this was all done on Brainworm’s say-so with no authority. Clement terrifies him by brandishing his enormous sword over his head and threatening to cut off his ears. Then tells his servant to take Brainworm to prison.

At which point Brainworm throws off his disguise (as the city-sergeant) and reveals himself as Brainworm, and is immediately recognised by his master, Old Knowell. Clement is amused by this and asks for a bowl of sack to drink while Brainworm tells his story. Brainworm explains to Knowell how he dressed up as the veteran soldier.

As well as explaining how he told Kitely to go to Cob’s, Brainworm now reveals how both Kitely and Dame Kitely were sent there to get them out the way, so Mistress Bridget could be taken by Wellbred to meet young Knowell.

Clement is so impressed by the elaborateness of the scam, that he sends a man to invite the newly married couple back to his house. But what’s become of Formal? Brainworm explains how he got him dead drunk and borrowed his clothes.

Rather improbably, Justice Clements forgives him and tells all masters present to forgive him also. At that moment Formal arrives dressed in a suit of armour. It was all they had in the bar where he woke up from being dead drunk and almost naked, so he asked the bar staff if he could wear it home! Clements forgives him his folly, also.

Enter the happy couple and friend i.e. New Knowell and his newly married wife, Bridget, and friend Wellbred. Clement welcomes them and toasts them. All are welcome – except for Bobadill and Matthew. Wellbred intervenes for Matthew, saying he is an amusing poet, if packed with prompts.

They rifle Matthew’s pockets and bring out piles of pre-written poetry, Clement is appalled and commands that they make a big pile of it and set it on fire. It blazes up, reaches a peak, then dies down – Sic transit gloria mundi.

Clement says everyone is welcome to the big wedding feast, except these two, the sign of a soldier and the picture of a poet i.e. the two pretenders Bobadill and Matthew. They will be set in the courtyard to meditate on their sins. And Formal in his suit of armour will watch over them.

As to Stephen, the cloak-stealer, Clement says he will have dinner in the kitchen with Cob and his wife who he orders to be reconciled. As must everyone. Clement tells the lead offenders to put off their humours, Downright his anger, Kitely his jealousy and Kitely does indeed give it up, recite some verse about letting it fly away into the air.

So the play ends with three happy newly-made or remade couples: Kitely and Mrs Knowell and Bridget; Cob and Tib.

Jonson’s split morality

The conclusion is fairly brief – the fifth act is by far the shortest – and its judgements seem harsh. Well, not harsh, but unfair. Bobadill and Matthew are only idiots, who boast and brag a bit, and yet they are harshly punished – whereas Brainworm is a cunning trickster, a thief and mocker of the Queen’s justice, impersonator of an officer – you’d have thought he’d be hanged by the law of the day. While Wellbred deceived Kitely and his wife, setting them at loggerheads and almost ruining their marriage.

Surely all of that is worse than being a bad poet and a pretend soldier?

Taking the theory of humours literally for a moment, Justice Clement’s final speeches claim to ‘purge’ the most humour-ridden of the characters, namely Kitely and Downright. But in my opinion, there’s quite a big gap between this purging idea and actual justice for wrong-doing, either moral or legal, according to which, as I’ve said, a different set of crooks should surely have been punished.

That play reveals that the psychological basis of the humour theory – that Jonson’s concern is to purge hobby horses and obsessions – is strangely at odds with conventional legal or moral values. There seems to be a big contradiction here and I’m not the only one to notice it. Seymour-Smith quotes the critic A. Sale as saying that Jonson: ‘is a thoroughly unorthodox moralist; it is the morality of the enemies, not the pillars, of society’.

That seems spot-on to me. The more you consider the way that the fierce Justice, Clement, takes to the crook and impersonator Brainworm as to a lost brother, pardons him his multiple crimes and toasts his health, the weirder it seems. Jonson appears to be celebrating a massive subverter of law and order.

It’s odd. Jonson’s prefaces and prologues ding on about justice and society – and yet his actual fictions are wildly anarchic and throw all their sympathy behind the biggest anarchists.

Seymour-Smith quotes the critic Elizabeth Woodbridge who long ago commented that the demarcation line in the play isn’t drawn between the good and the bad, but between the witty and the dull, and that it celebrates rogues and crooks simply because they’re quick-witted and sympathetic. The witty prevail and the stupid are punished. ‘Such a play can scarcely be called moral.’

This wonky view of justice prepares us for the imaginative thrust of his two most famous plays, Volpone and The Alchemist, in which all the best poetry and imaginative force is given to the topsy-turvy subverters of established order and morality.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Elizabethan art

Restoration comedies

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