University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Tropes of fantastic literature


Borges's fantastic fictions are considered as one of his major claims to literary fame. In fact, since the nineteen sixties, his short stories have been read as the ultimate mise en sc ène of many of the problems that interest literary criticism. Both fantastic stories and fantastic essays (by this I mean texts like "The Imaginary Language of John Wilkins" or "Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain") deal with at least three sets of questions which are at once both aesthetic and philosophical: the sources of literary material; the strategies through which plot and formal procedures construct an imaginary world or an argument; the relationship between language and representation. In a sense, Borges has anticipated many of the topics that absorb contemporary literary theory: the referential illusion, intertextual production and the equivocal nature of meaning.

Borges's fantastic short stories can be read from different theoretical standpoints. Some of them have their origins in, or are guided by, Borges's opinions on the art and craft of fiction. Others, which do not contradict these readings but at the same time do not place them at the centre of interpretation, try to understand the meanings of his fantastic fiction in terms of what, very generally, we could call contemporary history. This will be my task in the next three chapters.

Borges constructed his ars poetica on a double basis. On the one hand, there is the need to devise perfect plots which he admired in writers such as Kipling and Stevenson, who served as models for an aesthetic discipline which avoided the chaotic and disorganized nature of reality as imitated by realistic literature. On the other, there is the freedom that fantastic literature enjoys with respect to naturalistic representation, realist poetics and psychological verisimilitude.

Borges always preferred the short story to the novel as a genre, because, in his opinion, unnecessary details always weigh down on the plot of the modern novel that is inevitably haunted by the ghost of representation and referentiality. The novel, Borges thought, cannot free itself from traces, no matter how slight, of the real. The length required by the rules of the genre is one of the causes of its weakness; the length of the novel, if compared to the short story, offers a formal limitation to its perfection. Thus, Borges frequently spoke out against realism and referential verisimilitude and frequently stated his irritation at Russian literature or French realism and naturalism. He wrote that Russian novels present characters that always insist on contradictory and often ridiculous behavior such as committing suicide because they feel happy or killing someone out of love. Here are characters grounded in the sort of complex psychologies that any reader can easily discover in Dostoevsky (and in one of Borges's Argentine contemporaries: Roberto Arlt). Novels, argued Borges, focused on characters instead of plot and thus tended to a disorderly presentation of actions that valued psychological insight at the expense of formal perfection. On the subject of Ulysses, the touchstone of contemporary fiction and a watershed for young writers in the thirties, Borges would state that he valued Joyce's magnificent écriture but that he had not been able to follow it from beginning to end. He had always read parts of it, but never read it through completely. The statement should not be taken at face value, but it has to be considered as an aesthetic position with regard to Ulysses, and more generally with regard to modern and avant-garde literature. We should add, however, that Borges's translation of the last pages of Molly Bloom's monologue is without doubt, the best translation of Joyce ever achieved in Spanish.

Borges had since childhood, loved adventure stories (Stevenson is, in this respect, the name that always comes to his lips together with The Arabian Nights) whose pleasure is derived from a well-wrought plot with no loose threads and little reference to deep psychological motives and impulses. Moreover, adventure novels do not face the problem of 'length', which, for Borges, always led to a weak plot, because they are generally organized into episodes that begin and end within the span of a chapter. Borges' consistent admiration for Stevenson and Kipling can be understood from this perspective, but not from this perspective alone. In his preface to Doctor Brodie's Report, a book published in 1970 when Borges had reached the apex of his fame and universal recognition, he still insists on this admiration and states that he has been inspired by Kipling's form:

"Kipling's last stories were no less tormented and mazelike than the stories of Kafka or Henry James, which they doubtless surpass; but in 1885, in Lahore, the young Kipling began a series of brief tales, written in a straightforward manner, that he was to collect in 1890. Several of them [...] are laconic masterpieces. It occurred to me that what was conceived and carried out by a young man of genius might modestly be attempted by a man on the borders of old age who knows his craft. Out of that idea came the present volume, which I leave to the reader to judge". [1]

A well-constructed plot is a moral imperative in the sense that it does not promise more than what literature should (at least) offer to its reader: the pleasure of perfection with little interference from the lived world. In fantastic literature Borges can outline a perfect order solely by the force of narrativity and, at least apparently, independent of social reality: fantastic fiction offers hypothetical worlds based on the powers of an imagination unfettered by the constraints imposed by representative aesthetics. The fantastic is a mode dependent solely on the inner necessity of the text. Although it could be argued that realistic literature also presents hypothetical worlds that differ from the fantastic only in the probability of their hypotheses, Borges always liked to argue his case against realistic representation as if what was at stake was not merely a literary tradition or a difference between genres of discourse but rather the morals of literature itself.

These opinions of Borges are well known and he has repeated them time and again ever since the essays he first published in the literary journal Sur and the weekly magazine El Hogar in the nineteen thirties. Borges upholds the independence of fiction with moral and aesthetic arguments. A perfect plot, the avoidance of unnecessary details that entail disorder and impose undesirable local features on the story (although Borges adds many forkings and deviations to his own fictions) and an aesthetic stylisation of the voices of the text - these are the rules that a writer should follow, not only to achieve aesthetic quality but also to be faithful to his duty, which is precisely to respect the means through which he is producing literature.

But we could also see these principles not only according to Borges's own presentation of them in terms of his ars poetica, but also as an aristocratic reaction to a disorderly world that seemed on the border of irrationality in the nineteen thirties. Borges's defence of a rationalist fantastic literature (like his defence of a rationalist detective story whose model is Chesterton) is a creative response to the irrationality into which Western civilization seemed to have fallen: the iraationality of fascism, communism and mass democracy which disgusts Borges as much as authoritarianism. Although Borges himself would not agree with such an interpretation of his fantastic oeuvre, it is nevertheless possible to understand it as a very indirect, coded, and allegorical response to irrationalism (a philosophical point of view that Borges himself never endorsed) and to the state of contemporary culture, which Borges, in an essay on Val éry, described as follows:

"To propose lucidity to men in a lowly romantic era, in the melancholy era of Nazism and dialectical materialism, of the augurs of Freudianism and the merchants of surr éalisme, such is the noble mission Val éry fulfilled (and continues to fulfill)". [2]

Borges is here defining the task that he has set himself, in a world he considers to be out of sorts and inorganic. The order of his fantasy has nothing in common with the surrealist imagination, the Dadaist rejection of aesthetic hierarchy, or the Expressionist use of exasperation and fragmented distortion. On the contrary, he offers worlds that are nightmarish but obsessively complete and organized in a disturbing regularity.

His fictions could also be read as a response (no matter how he tried to preserve literature as a space free from direct political opinion) to processes that are taking place not only in Europe, where the rise of fascism and the consolidation of a communist regime in the Soviet Union gave concern to liberal intellectuals, but also to mass democracy in Argentina. Not that in the nineteen thirties mass democracy was exactly thriving there, after a military coup d'etat had taken place in the early thirties and the Radical Party, that represented the middle classes and fractions of the popular sectors, had been banned. But what would worry Borges and his friends in the intellectual elite was the massification of culture and society, in a country like Argentina that had gone swiftly down the road of economic and social modernization, and had witnessed a process of urban growth that, in twenty years had changed Buenos Aires almost completely, transforming it into a modern city like those of the West.

Borges's response could be seen as the imposition of a principle of order in an world where immigration, multilinguism, the new order constructed by the Radical Party which had governed from 1916 to 1930, the social unrest which followed the crisis of 1929, together seemed to spell the end of criollo hegemony over culture and society. In short, the country and the city where Borges was living in the nineteen thirties and forties was dramatically different to that of his childhood. In the face of these changes he proposed the literary invention of a past, in his first three books of poetry, and the literary reordering of a reality which might become unbearable (as indeed it became for Borges at least, a few years later under the Peronist regime from 1945 to 1955). This historical reading of Borges's fictions has not yet been attempted. However such a reading could shed new light on the role of Borges himself as an intellectual, and not just as a writer. We will return to this point later.


But there are other ways of reading Borges's fantastic literature that seem unavoidable. Philosophical readings here take pride of place. [3] It is possible to see many of his stories as fictions that speculate with philosophical ideas in the same way as other fantastic fictions develop scientific or psychological ideas. In this sense, Borges stories are the narrative mise en sc ène of a question which is not posed overtly but which is presented, in the fiction, through the development of a plot. This does not mean that each story offers the solution to a problem, at least not what is commonly or philosophically considered to be an answer or a solution. Far from it: Borges's stories do not offer a philosophical treatment of an idea, but rather what could be called a philosophical narrative situation.

Borges created a type of fiction in which ideas are not discussed through the characters or presented to the reader as a supplement he should considerate at the same time as he enjoys the development of a narrative plot. On the contrary, ideas are the material out of which the plot is constructed and they shape it from the inside. It could be said that ideas are not only necessary to the development of the plot (as they are, for instance in such different writers as Tolstoy or Joyce) but that they are presented as the plot itself. Fiction is based on the examination of an intellectual possibility presented as a narrative hypothesis. But Borges does not limit the power of the philosophical narrative situation to his stories. Many of his essays also present an idea (or two contradictory ideas) through a strategy that always plays with the border between facts and fiction, by means of false attributions, displacements, open and hidden quotations, parody, the hyperbolic development of a philosophical proposition, the mixture of invention and knowledge and false erudition.

"The Analytic Language of John Wilkins" is a well-known short fictional essay in which Borges presents a classification of languages which he assigns to a Chinese Encyclopedia:

"Animals can be classified as: a. those that belong to the Emperor; b. mummified; c. trained; d. small pigs; e. mermaids; f. fabulous; g. astray dogs; h. included in this classification; i. that shake like a fool; j. innumerable; k. drawn with a very thin camel hair brush; l. etc.; m. that have just broken a pot; n. that, if seen from a distance, look like flies". [4]

This strange, uncanny sequence (to which Foucault dedicated a magnificent commentary in his introduction to The Order of Things) combines, in the same way as a fictional fantastic plot, heterogenous elements that do not follow the rules and order of what is considered reality or the reality of known languages. This heteroclite statement of an order that is not really an order according to usual intellectual criteria is a perfect example of what I have called a philosophical situation, and not a classical exposition of a problem or an attempt to solve that problem.

It is, in fact, a presentation, through the very Borgesian fictional device of a false attribution to an unknown or unlikely book, of the impossibility of offering linguistic form to what we call reality. No language mirrors reality, although many attempts have been made to explain why the use of language is posited on its capacity to transfer into words an arrangement of objects in space and time that is, in itself, remote from the very nature of discourse because the order of reality and the order of discourse respond to different logics. In its hyperbolic form, the fake Chinese Encyclopedia mimics other more rational efforts that philosophers and linguists have made to explore the mechanism through which we apprehend reality and the ways in which we divide up the experiential continuum of time and space. All these modes, says Borges under the cover of the Encyclopedia, are conventions, because "there exists no classification of the universe that is not inconsistent and hypothetical. The reason is very simple: we don't know what is the Universe". [5]

In order to show this in its textual form, he chooses to present the most heterogeneous classification that respects no logical principle of exclusion and inclusion, no logical formation of groups, species and genres and that, above all, includes itself in the classification. This textual form is what I have called a philosophical situation.

The same could be said of what Borges calls the Aleph: a point that includes all the times and all the spaces of the Universe, an abstract and at the same time concrete sphere where they are contained. It cannot be grasped through 'normal' perception because it encloses infinity, but it can, instead, be written. The Aleph suggests a philosophical dilemma: if it contains everything and every moment, then it should contain itself, but if it contains itself, then again, it must contain another Aleph that contains the previous two and so on, to infinity. Borges writes: "I saw the Aleph from every point and angle and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph, the earth". [6]

A few years before writing "The Aleph", in 1939, Borges stated:

"I owe to an old tin biscuit box my first notion of the problem of infinity. On one side of that abnormal object a Japanese scene was represented; I can't remember the children or the warriors that were depicted in it, but I do remember that on one corner of that image, the same tin biscuit box reappeared with the same scene on its side, and on it again the same scene and so on (at least potentially) endlessly". [7]

This is one of Borges's preferred visual arrangements of images: the structure en abîme, which is at the same time a narrative structure, a trope and a spatial model. The structure en abîme is another extraordinary example of what I have called a philosophical narrative situation: it poses a philosophical question (about infinity or infinite periodic repetitions) in terms of visual representation or in terms of a pattern for plots. It leads to what Bioy Casares, with reference to "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", describes as a metaphysical fiction. The structure en abîme also engages with a topic of Western classical philosophy, the principle of identity, and it troubles us in a way that no other conceptual pattern does, because it states, to a degree, the superiority of images with regard to reality:

"The inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art: Josiah Royce, in the first volume of his work The World and the Individual (1899), has formulated the following: 'Let us imagine that a portion of the soil of England has been levelled off perfectly and that on it a cartographer traces a map of England. The job is perfect; there is no detail of the soil of England, no matter how minute, that is not registered on the map; everything has there its correspondence. This map, in such a case, should contain a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.' Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? 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 fictions". [8]

The structure en abîme, by means of a baroque organization of space, establishes an order that is in itself a visual paradox; it compels us to imagine spatial infinity in a non infinite space. According to the principle of endless inclusion, it modifies our belief in the truth of our perceptions and sets up a tension between what can be conceived logically and what can be concretely or materially or sensorially perceived. It corrects what Borges would describe as the imperfect nature of the world apprehended through human senses. Like a well-drawn labyrinth, it is endless and, like a labyrinth, it sets up against the order of the world, which is impossible to discern, the conceptual order of a trope that corrects the imperfect notions that 'realistic' thought has fostered. The notion of endless circularity is present in labyrinths as well as in mirrors and in dreams that include other dreams or the dreamer. These mutually dependent structures that have no resolution, as logical dilemmas have no answer, exert a critical effect (they are methodological) on a metaphysical dimension. Thus the dreamer in "The Circular Ruins", is wounded in his being by the circularity of dreams that, in a structure en abîme, include each other. Thus in the Chinese story that Borges quoted many times: "Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfuly and he did not know when he awoke if he was a man who had dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly that was now dreaming of being a man". [9]


We have already mentioned that Borges upholds the perfection of the plot as one of the principal rules of short fiction. He finds in the work of Kafka an example of this perfection, in its simplicity and in the nightmarish accumulation of minor and uncertain details and of repetitions. In essays written in the late thirties, Borges analyses Kafka's novels. He argues that The Trial and The Castle obey the same logical mechanisms as Zeno's paradoxes, especially the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, which Borges loved and has quoted many times:

"Achilles runs ten times faster than the tortoise and gives the animal a headstart of ten metres. Achilles runs those ten metres, the tortoise one; Achilles runs that metre, the tortoise runs a decimetre; Achilles runs a decimetre, the tortoise runs a centimetre; Achilles runs a centimetre, the tortoise, a millimetre; Fleet-footed Achilles, the millimetre, the tortoise, a tenth of a millimetre, and so on to infinity, without the tortoise ever being overtaken". [10]

In Kafka's novels the paradox is posed in terms of the impossibility of reaching the castle or of acquiring some knowledge which is vital to the protagonists. No matter what the characters in the novel try to achieve, there will always be another obstacle to overcome. Kafka organizes the fictional events in a sequence that can be infinitely divided and, for this reason, is spatially and temporally endless.

In fact, Borges admires paradoxes not for their incongruity with regard to experience but for their ironical demonstration of the force and limitations of logic. Paradoxes do not deal with inconsistencies or contradictions, but rather, through flawless formal consistency, they display how limited the mind is when it tries to apprehend the nature of reality, on one hand, and to organize an ideal pattern which could conceivably to correspond to that reality on the other. Paradoxes have the virtue of displaying the limits against which literature (or philosophy) are constructed.

Paradox affects the principle of identity and, even more radically, the logical structure of our reasoning, demonstrating its possibilities (for anything can be logically demonstrated) and its strange mixture of strength and weakness in the face of reality (because what is demonstrated goes against notions grounded in common sense). In fact, paradox criticises common sense and empiricism. The question, which perhaps cannot be answered, is whether paradox upholds the power of logic against the power of common sense, or, on the contrary, shows up the hollow nature of our reasoning, while pointing at the same time to the unavoidable belief that reality can be grasped neither through preception nor through the formal structure of logic. I think that both these answers are present at the same time in Borges's philosophical stories, whose power resides in the way he moves between two different requirements, the splendour of logical constructions and the despair aroused by a formal perfection that, by definition, cannot translate the unknown structure of the real world.


Paradoxes offer excellent material for the construction of fiction. Borges uses this logical trope along with others, which help him to demonstate the infinite possibilities of different logical and formal combinations, which do not pretend to offer a mimetic link with reality. On the contrary, formal and logical tropes are independent of the order of reality which cannot be grasped in itself, but only presupposed by and in thought. On several occasions Borges quoted from the Spanish thinker of the thirteenth century Raimundo Lullio, who had invented a thinking machine (not a machine that was able to think, but a machine that could be used for thinking). Borges states:

"It [the machine] does not work, but that, to my mind, is a secondary matter. Nor do the machines that attempt to produce continuous movement, whose plans add mystery to the pages of the most effusive encyclopedias; metaphysical or theological theories do not work either (....), but their well-known and famous uselessness does not reduce their interest". [11]

However, Lullio's machine has, for Borges, what could be called as aesthetic productivity. And here we should remember that Borges, like the sages in Tlön, [12] judges metaphysical systems from the standpoint of their formal consistency and intellectual beauty. Lullio's machine is, symbolically, a sort of oxymoron or contradiction, because it was conceived to work out the solution of any problem through the methodical application of chance. Thus the conception of the machine is in itself an oxymoron, as it contradicts the idea of the 'machine' (which is opposed to haphazard results) and the idea of progressive stages towards the solving of a problem (although science today recognizes a more powerful impact of chance in the logic of research).

The machine consists of three revolving and concentric disks with fifteen or twenty divisions on each. The divisions can be engraved with symbols, words, numbers or colours. Let us imagine, says Borges, that we want to know the true colour of tigers. We proceed to assign to each symbol or number on each disk a colour and, then, turn the disks in order to arrive at an arrangement given by chance (or, if you like, destiny).  The signs on one disk will correspond to the signs on the others, establishing a kind of arbitrary syntax where we should be able to decipher that the true colour of tigers is, let us say, blue, yellow and gold, or yellowy blue and goldenly yellow or bluey gold, etc. This extreme ambiguity is one more virtue of the machine, a virtue that could be multiplied if more than two machines were combined and put to work together. Borges concludes that for a long time, many believed that, if patiently manipulated, the disks could yield all the answers to every problem and "the sure revelation of the arcane nature of the world". [13]

What fascinates Borges is, the oxymoronic nature of Lullio's invention, which I have already pointed out. He is also fascinated by the hyperbolic combination of haphazard responses, which, in their disparate union, mirror the chaotic nature of reality, which can only be reordered by form, without the vain hope that this order can manage to represent or reproduce the real. The accidental responses we can get from the operation of the machine, unmotivated and produced by chance, are, at the same time formally exact. The machine is precise, although its precision has nothing in common with scientific method or with common sense and experience. It works according to the rules, unknown to man, of destiny, and its results should be read without violating the conventions accepted before the disks were set in motion (for example, without changing the conventional meaning of the letters or symbols painted on the disk's divisions).

Perhaps inspired in Mauthner, one of the philosophers he often quotes in the thirties, Borges's description of Lullio's machine recalls Mauthner's definition of a rhyme dictionary: a machine for thinking, where the rhymes of a word lead to other words which come to be combined in a hypothetical poem only by phonetic necessity and semantic chance, chance that belongs to an order which is required by form. And such a necessary chance is, in all events, an oxymoron.

These type of machines produce a formal proliferation that has to be respected and whose rules (how to operate the machine and read its results) have to be followed. In the face of what seems a chaotic reality, literature should work with the same precision and severity as Lullio's machine: "Every episode, Borges wrote, in a well-crafted story, has an ulterior projection", as every movement of the disk modifies the elements present in the other three disks, and this modification should never be overlooked. No matter how strange the events told in a story, they should appear as if order were possible in the realms of the text.


In a remarkable parable, "Inferno, I,32", Borges has written:

"Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much to complex for the simplicity of men". [14]

The tropes of reason, the logical imagination, the rhethorical figures that point to the unavoidable contradiction between thought or discourse and reality, these were the ways in which Borges's fantastic fictions staged his despair in the face of Dante's illumination. But, at the same time, they are tools of reason which are opposed to an irrationality that could be felt not only in the texts of philosophers but in the fabric of modern life itself.


[1] . J.L.Borges, Doctor Brodie's Report, London 1976, p.11.

[2] ."Val éry as Symbol", in Labyrinths, London 1970, p. 233.

[3] . An excellent study of Borges's philosophical sources can be found in: Jaime Rest, El laberinto del universo, Buenos Aires 1976; on the topics of Borges's fantastic literature, see the seminal book by Ana María Barrenechea, La expresión de la irrealidad en la obra de Borges, Buenos Aires 1984.

[4] .       'The Analytical Language of John Wilkins'

[5] .'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins', Otras inquisiciones, in Obras completas, Buenos Aires 1974, p. 708.

[6] .       'The Aleph', in Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969, Picador, London 193, p.21.

[7] .       "Cuando la ficción vive de la ficción", in Textos cautivos; Ensayos y reseñas en 'El Hogar' 1936-1939, Barcelona 1986, p.325.

[8] . "Partial Magic in the Quixote", Labyrinths, pp.230-1.

[9] . J.L.Borges y Adolfo Bioy Casares, Cuentos breves y extraordinarios, Buenos Aires, p.27.

[10] ."Avatars of the Tortoise", Labyrinths, p.237.

[11] .      Jorge Luise Borge, "La máquina de pensar de Raimundo Lulio", in Textos cautivos; Ensayos y reseñas en 'El Hogar' 1936-1939, Barcelona 1986, p.177.

[12] . For a reading of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" see next chapter.

[13] .      "La máquina de pensar de Raimundo Lulio", in Textos cautivos; Ensayos y reseñas en 'El Hogar' 1936-1939, Barcelona 1986, p.177.

[14] . Labyrinths, p. 273.

Former published as: Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. London: Verso, 1993.


© Borges Studies Online 22/07/01

How to cite this chapter:

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 4. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: (