University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Imaginary Constructions


We will attempt to read three stories, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Library of Babel" and "The Lottery in Babylon", analysing their narrative organization through the tropes and rhetorical figures that were outlined in the previous chapter. We should be able to construct some meaning from the model of imaginary worlds these stories develop by describing the form and rules of their fictional order. We will bring together apparently disperse lines of argument into a hypothesis which demonstrates how Borges challenges, through philosophical narrative situations, the very nature of order. The questions that underlie these stories point to one of Borges's most complex problems: how can a chaotic world be converted into an order, although this order could result in a nightmarish organization? By organizing chaos, fictional order displays a utopian (or rather a dystopian) world. [1]


Literary critics [2] have pointed out that the narrative and spatial design of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is similar to a structure en abîme. According to a record in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, Uqbar is a land vaguely located in Asia whose frontiers are marked by rivers and mountains of the same region (of Uqbar). That amounts to not being defined at all because the boundary landmarks are included in the space they should delimit and refer to no other known country (which is an eloquent spatial presentation of a logical paradox). Tlön is an imaginary and mythical region in a land, Uqbar, that later on proves to be also an imaginary geographical and cultural construction. In the development of the plot, Tlön becomes a planet invented by a sect through the means of language alone. Finally Orbis Tertius is the world described in terms of the language spoken in an imaginary planet, Tlön, that, in turn, has been previously described as a mythical region of a dubious country, Uqbar. This closely-knit sequence of non existing lands and regions evoke the en abîme structure. It is easy to recognize in it the presence of multiple images in a mirror that mirrors a mirror.

At the beginning of the story Borges states: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia". [3] The mirror was mentioned by his friend Bioy Casares, when he cited a heresiarch from Uqbar as having discovered that mirrors and copulation were "abominable because they increase the number of men". The quotation begins the search for the Anglo-American Cyclopedia (which, as Borges reports, is a reprint of the Encyclopedia Britannica: an exact, or maybe not altogether exact, copy). Here Borges cleverly brings together two objects, the mirror and the encyclopedia, which can construct en abîme images: the encyclopedia is a conceptual mirror of a world, whose classification may also include the notion of an encyclopedia, that can be thought of as a verbal and alphabetical Aleph.

 The story presents, in a tangled fashion which is rather difficult to follow, the following narrative events (which I have reordered by year):

1935 One evening, Bioy Casares mentions to Borges a land called Uqbar about which he has been reading in a volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. An edition happens to be in the suburban house they have temporarily rented, but after consulting it they find that there is no entry for Uqbar. Bioy Casares insists that he has read about it in the Cyclopedia and some days later he produces a volume which looks similar to the one they had consulted, except that it has a dozen more pages, where Uqbar is registered as an entry. The information given in it is vague and names Tlön as a mythical region of Uqbar.

1937 or 38 Borges finds the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön which was sent to Herbert Ashe, a man that he had met several times in a suburban hotel. This volume, whose first page is stamped with an oval bearing the inscription 'Orbis Tertius', has precious information about Tlön, much of which Borges presents as philosophical narrative situations in the story.

1941 A letter is discovered from Gunnar Erfkord to Herbert Ashe, in which the enigma over Tlön is partially resolved. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a secret society conceived of the task of inventing a land. Each member of the sect had to elect a follower in this, in principle, endless or almost endless enterprise. After two hundred years of silent, or secret or interrupted operations, the society reappears in America. In 1824, one of its members recruits a millionaire who is enthusiastic about the project and proposes the more ambitious plan of inventing not just a land but a planet. At last, in 1914, the society is able to publish the final volume of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön, that would provide the basis for a revision of all the work done, but this time it is written in one of the languages of Tlön. This revision of an imaginary world is given the name of Orbis tertius (the Third World: a phrase which had none of its current resonances when Borges wrote his story). The volume that was sent to Herbert Ashe and was found by Borges in 1937 belongs to this version of the Cyclopedia

1942 Very strange objects, from Tlön, begin to appear, of all places, in Argentina: they are very heavy and Borges and one of his friends find one of them in a remote rural saloon in the pampas.

1944 A journalist in Nashville discovers the forty volumes of the First Cyclopedia of Tlön. Borges writes a post-script which ventures the hypothesis that all countries and languages are bound to disappear and that the real world will become Tlön.

These are the 'facts' of the plot, that could be seen as the external history of the discovery of Uqbar. I have reordered and simplified Borges's much more complex sequence of events. Borges orders this material through two of his favourite devices: false attributions to a mixture of existing and invented texts, and the introduction of many of his real life friends. Thus, the limits between what really happened, what could have happened and what could never happen are interwoven through a method of verosimilitude which supports an invention with the name of a real existing person, and attributes to books whose nature is ambiguous (they could exist, they appear to be existing books) the origin of a fabulous situation or a necessary quotation. Needless to say, this method of attribution and verisimilitude questions the status of reality, and also points to the permeable nature of fiction which longs to grasp something that is always escaping it.


Let us turn now to the fictional information about Uqbar and Tlön. The story chooses to present a Tlönic conception of the universe which defines the make-up of its language and the nature of its psychology, the only science deemed possible and worthwhile. Philosophers in Tlön have developed an extreme version of idealism, and the name of Berkeley appears as a fleeting reference before the multiplicity of hypotheses that make up the core and the originality of Tlönic thought are described:

"The fact that every philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des Als Ob, has caused them to multiply. There is an abundance of incredible systems of pleasing design or sensational type. The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect." [4]

Narrative situations can be developed through the use of this 'as if' structure: to conceive the world as if it were a library, fate and destiny as if they were the form of order, as in "The Library of Babel" and "The Lottery in Babylon". The 'as if' allows the deployment of a consistent invention (the kind of rational imagination, or logical form of the fantastic, we find in Borges). In fact, the sages of Tlön, develop 'as if' philosophies, not only to interpret the world but also to modify the way it is perceived and the way it exists for the inhabitants of Tlön. They perceive and judge time, space, substance, identity according to the prevailing tendencies expounded by philosophy. But the 'as if' methodological principle of philosophical invention is a mode that permits the proliferation of versions about 'reality' (given that they do not contradict some very basic laws of Tlön, namely that the universe is "a series of mental processes which do not develop in space but successively in time", that is to say that space, and substance, do not persist in time). These versions are briefly presented by Borges in what turns out to be a central part of the story. In fact, through it, Borges is proving that fiction can be constructed with materials that are not usually thought of as fictional. He constructs his plot through the principles he attributes to the sages in Tlön and, as in their case, the attraction and beauty of systems, their capacity for awakening wonder (that is to say for performing as philosophical narrative situations) is the basis of their value.

This philosophical narrative situation also opens up the problem of the conditions and limits of knowledge and understanding: what can be apprehended is never the Universe or its laws, but rather a discursive pattern constructed by men and by laws invented by them. God's labyrinth cannot be grasped by human understanding (if a God, or gods exist: Borges is agnostic on this matter); only labyrinths build by men can be understood by the human mind. The construction of the imaginary land of Tlön (that is largely made up by a group of philosophical schools) is an exercise in the imposition of an order that, no matter how bizarre it may seem, can be considered by the human mind through its power to accept paradox. That is to say we must consider ideas contrary to the logic of common sense: paradox is an inverted mirror.

 The fantastic order of the planet Tlön is an utopia that criticises the empirical and referential disorder that Borges tries to avoid through the perfect plotting of his fictions. The imaginary order amounts to a fictional response to the philosophical question, but a response couched in aesthetic strategies that adopt some of the forms of this philosophical argument.


Very briefly, the main traits of Tlönic culture can be summarized in the following way: a. Time does not exist. While one Tlönic school of thought affirms that we live in an eternal present, indefinite and not partitioned into past and future, another upholds that all time has already paused and that what we live in is only remembrance. b. Identity, according to this conception, is unimaginable, because no substance extends its being through time: the idea of the Subject, as conceived by modern philosophy since Descartes, is thus profoundly undermined. c. No other general categories could possibly exist in a world where the continuity of time or of substance is denied.

The sages of Tlön favour an idealistic world view and everything in Tlön's culture presupposes philosophical idealism. Borges pays very close attention to the description of Tlönic linguistic and philosophic theories which, in many cases, conform to his own. The sages have imagined that there is no spatial continuity, that space is by definition discontinuous, and that a place or object in space is never the same if considered from the point of view of time. This also affects the logical principle of identity, and the way we are used to perceiving the world and judging its objects (We tend to think that the pencil we are using is the same pencil we used yesterday, because we find it more comfortable to presuppose this identity).

In Tlön, notions such as cause and effect have no sense at all. If the principle of identity is affected, if there is no spatial or temporal continuity, then no link can possibly be established between signs and events: a lighted cigarette, smoke and fire are distinct moments in a sequence that are not bound together syntactically or hierarchically. As in Tlön, there is no possibility of conceiving abstract notions of identity and causality, sciences, according to our definition, are not possible. Instead, hundreds of philosophies grounded in the als ob principle flourish, beautiful systems that do not claim any link with an external referent. That is to say, they have the basic structure of fantastic literature. The als ob principle is one of the possible strategies of utopian and dystopian fiction, where an "as if" hypothesis launches the invention of a narrative. Thinking of time and space as discontinuous instead of continuous is the basic world view of Tlön and, at the same time, it permits the invention of an imaginary space according to rules that are grounded in an 'als ob'.

Logically enough the two languages in Tlön have no nouns. One of the languages is based on compound adjectives; the other, on compound verbs. Nouns are, in principle, impossible because there is no continuous substance that can provide the empirical/logical basis for a noun. What we consider nouns come about in Tlön from the accumulation of adjectives, that indicate ephemeral states. Of course, this type of adjective can be used only once, because, by definition, no state can repeat itself in time.

The same happens with certain verbs, like 'to find' and 'to lose'. Both actions are inconceivable in Tlön because, if there is no identity between objects and no continuity in space and time, no object can be lost and much less found again. When something that we would consider 'to be lost' happens to an object, a kind of secondary object (vaguely different to the lost one) begins to proliferate. These simulacra are called Hrönir and they can be usefully employed to invent and modify the past, an activity that occupies and fascinates archeology in Tlön. The existence of the Hrönir, which every man in Tlön is used to, is a practical demonstration of the absence of any basis for the principle of identity that sustains our own culture. In an idealist planet like Tlön, a planet constructed by language, to lose means to forget and to find means to remember: both actions serve to produce Hrönir.

In Tlön, to be exactly the same, does not mean to be the same because the principle of identity does not exist. Therefore, Tlönic philosophies have no way of constructing the category of the Subject, which is central to Western philosophy in modern times. Moving on from this non existence of the Subject, some literary critics in Tlön deal with the construction of the author, which is always hypothetical for they attribute different texts to the same author: "They select two dissimilar works -the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say- attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres..." [5] An strategy not unknown to Borges himself when he writes his 'fantastic' critical stories and essays.

In fact, the dissolution of the category of the author and the attribution of very different texts to an invented persona is one of Borges' preferred versions of authorship in literature. Many of his short stories work with the idea that authorship is irrelevant, as we have seen in "Pierre Menard author of the Quixote". Menard's work is superior to that of Cervantes precisely because, since he is not a man of the sixteenth century, Menard is more original and startling than Cervantes, although, at the same time, both texts (the Quixote by Cervantes and the Quixote by Menard) would look exactly the same. Menard's superiority is grounded in a discussion of the principle of identity.

Borges undertakes a similar Tlönic activity when he invents authors and writes short literary essays on them, which are, in fact, fantastic fictions. Such is the case of Herbert Quain, an imaginary writer, whose books Borges describes in detail. Quain's fictions, by the way, are very similar to the fictions in Tlön: they contain all the possibilities present in a plot which are explored in infinite forking paths. For Quain, as for the sages of Tlön, "a book that does not enclose its opposite should be considered incomplete": the ideal in his novel is to deploy every possibility contained in an argument, an ideal which, taken to its limit, makes literature impossible or, at least, highly problematical.

These fragments of Tlönic knowledge and learning are the philosophical core of Borges' story. But there is more to the philosophical situation presented in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". As we have seen, the planet is a fantastic world invented by a secret sect that acted as a collective writer. The existence of Tlön is based on an als ob presupposition, based in its turn on the power of language to produce a reality, or what can be called a reality from an idealistic point of view. Formed by language, Tlön has its origins in one of Borges' favorite forms of textuality: the Encyclopedia, in this case a pirate copy of Borges's beloved Encyclopedia Britannica. It also emerges from the activity of a sect, which is an organizational form that also fascinated him. The First Encyclopedia of Tlön is a textual utopia, the perfect realm of philosophical fiction. But, at the end of the story, Tlön begins to infect the imperfect reality in which we live: the objects from Tlön cross the very thin line between a world of words, seen as such in the form of an encyclopedia, and a world of words seen as "real" (between ironic inverted commas), real because in that world readers can find mention of Borges, Bioy Casares, and half a dozen of other Argentine writers. The als ob where Tlön originates reveals the strength of the idealistic tenets of Tlönic wisdom, and objects from the als ob world began to invade reality, through a process of silent contamination.


Imaginary languages are at the center of the philosophical narrative situation of this short story. In its original Spanish version, [6] Borges mentions, while describing one of the two languages of Tlön, the imaginary language invented by his friend the painter Xul Solar, which was based on a kind of Esperanto syntax with a criollo and porteñó vocabulary. This language was clearly based on parody. These references, however ironic, allow us to chart Borges's interest in artificial and imaginary languages and systems of representation. These, according to Borges, are more fascinating that real languages because they have no muddled links with a, by definition, chaotic reality. John Wilkins, the invented character of one of Borges fictional essays we have already quoted, has, for example divided up the Universe into forty categories, designated by monosyllabic names that are composed only of two characters or sounds. These categories, in turn, are subdivided into genres designated by an extra consonant sound; genres divided into species are indicated by a vocal sound. Volapuk is other of the artificial languages that Borges discusses: invented by a German priest, its verbs can adopt any one of five hundred thousand forms, which include potential, imperative and subjunctive forms of the type "peglidalod" that means "you should be greeted". Volapuk, in its turn, was replaced by Esperanto, which was based on Latin roots. Imaginary languages, although impossible to use, can be logically accurate because they have been consciously structured. And this gives them supremacy over what we know as natural languages which are, by definition, a product of socio-historical processes.

History, for Borges as for Joyce, can turn into a nightmare. The only antidote against its chaos, which mirrors the chaos of reality, is the activity of invention. Languages of the type found in Tlön do not mirror the world itself but rather an idea of the world. Thus they proceed from a philosophical and not from a social or empirical basis. The languages of Tlön have a transparent relationship to the ideal concept of reality; thus they can never suffer from the disorder of experience. On the contrary, they shape it.

But imaginary languages have other symbolic advantages. They not only prevent the chaos of empiria from being transferred to thought and language. They also resist the social chaos that lies at the heart of any modern society. Real languages bear the marks of demographic mixture, especially in societies like those in Latin American countries such as Argentina, where the Spanish criollo population of colonial origin was replaced (by more than 50%) by immigrants from South and Central Europe. These demographic changes, that Argentine intellectuals in the first third of the century considered dangerous in ideological, cultural, linguistic and political terms, can be symbolically overridden by the abstract discipline of a philosophical and narrative situation.

This is, of course, an ideological reading of Borges' fantastic story, with which he would strongly disagree. Nevertheless, it can be grounded socially and historically, and, what is more important, it can be grounded in Borges's own preoccupations about national culture in the nineteen twenties, his re-reading of the national past and his re-writing of gauchesque literature. Borges, as we have seen in previous chapters, invented an image of Buenos Aires in which he presented a city untouched by migration and demographic complexity. The real Buenos Aires where he was living seemed chaotic and its heterogeneity menacing and un-aesthetic. Although his main response to this experience was his creation of a Buenos Aires myth in "las orillas" it is not out of the question to read fantastic stories such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" as another strategy for establishing an order in a society where old orders, precisely, were vanishing.


Borges has often pointed out that in Kalfa's short stories (which he himself has expertly translated), the plots have a "terrible simplicity", which he sees as being responsible for the aesthetic impact they produce. This quality (which is not merely formal) defines the story we are now going to consider, "The Library of Babel". Borges has called it a "Kafkian fiction", whose main image, the Library, was inspired by his experience as a librarian in Buenos Aires, which the story describes, in Borges' words, through an "oneiric magnification". [7]

But even if we were to overlook these biographical minutiae and Borges's permanent fascination with the order and physical or ideal arrangement of books, the Library is one of the central motifs in his fictions and poetry. The story begins with this motif, used as a metaphor:

"The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distributions of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two." [8]

This is the first, simple description of the hypothetical world developed as a narrative and as a spatial organisation in the story. The Library is at the same time an ordered space and a labyrinth of a kind that Borges admires. It is geometrical, regular, with no tricks save in its very structure, based on a repetition of identical elements (the hexagon is a regular spatial figure, that has a harmonic symmetrical quality). As Borges himself declared in an interview [9] his first spatial idea for the Library of Babel was to describe it as an infinite combination of circles, but that he was annoyed with the idea that the circles, when put in a total structure, would have vacant spaces in between. He chose the hexagon for its perfect simplicity and its perceptive affinity to the circle.

The Library in Babel is endless and interminable, because a new hexagon can always be added to the open structure. But, as all the hexagons look the same, as they have the same number of shelves, the same type of entrance or exit, and as the books contained in the shelves have exactly the same number on each shelf of each wall of each hexagon, the infinity of the Library cannot be empirically experienced, even if a traveller could be granted infinite time. It can only be conceived and thus challenged intellectually. There is no way to confirm it through practical knowledge: the infinity of the Library is a theoretical hypothesis or a matter of belief. Thus the philosophical question of the story is generated by the narrative mise en sc ène. Furthermore, Borges quotes Pascal without mentioning him. Following Pascal, he writes:

"The Library [Pascal: the Universe] is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons [Pascal: is everywhere] and whose circumference is inaccessible". [10]

Structurally, the Library is also a panoptic, whose spatial distribution of masses and corridors allows one to see every place in it from any of its hexagons. The panoptic design of the Library brings to mind that of a prison where the guards should be able to see any cell from every possible perspective. Foucault has studied this layout as a spatialization of authoritarianism, and as an image of a society where total control is possible and no private place (no private thought) is admitted. The Universe described as the Library lacks any notion or possibility of privacy: all the activities are, by definition, public: "To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities". [11] And, by definition, all the activities must conform to the only possible practice in a Library: the search for a written meaning.

All the books in the Library look exactly the same: each of them has four hundred pages, each page forty lines, each line eighty characters. The inscriptions on the covers of the books do not indicate their content. We know that the number of possible characters is twenty five and that they mostly combine, according to Borges, in a chaotic form. In some regions of the Library, the librarians think that it is absurd to try to find a meaning in these books, and that this activity is based merely on old superstitions. There are also philosophers in the Library that cultivate agnosticism and think that the books do not have any concealed or apparent meaning. Everybody knows that each book has no duplicate, that it is in itself an original. But it is also known that there are in existence an indefinite number of books that contain slight variations.

The hypothesis the story presents through its narrator is that the Library contains precisely everything. Borges offers one of his typical enumerations, combining heterogenous elements and integrating them into a structure en abîme:

"The minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books". [12]

As a consequence of the nature and contents of the books in the Library, Borges states that the solution of the "basic mysteries of humanity" should be found there, but that four centuries have elapsed since men began looking for this solution without ever finding it. Today, adds Borges, "nobody hopes to find anything". The search, which is conducted in an infinite space full of infinite combinations cannot be directed by method but by chance. Borges organises his narrative according to the conflictive structure of the oxymoron: the method the Library requires is by definition the antithesis of method. The logic of the Library is planned in such a way that it cannot be grasped, and, since the Library is the Universe, the logic of the Universe is inaccessible. Everything is in the Library but nothing can be found.

Besides, the Library is a predestined Universe for the very reason that everything, past, present and future (Borges writes with some pathos: "the story of your death") is written somewhere, in a book that has little chances of revealing its contents. This unhappy prospect does not diminish, but rather emphasises, predestination. Apart from agnostic philosophers and those that have fallen into despair, men know that their destiny is written, and that their lives have been organized by the quest for a meaning that cannot be grasped. Life itself is tautological, because everything that can be performed, thought or said has in the past been written in one of the books of the Library. The fact that this book has not been yet found (or will never be found), does not blot out the certainty that if men's lives are written somewhere, then they cannot be changed. The same process of finding the key to all the "mysteries of humanity", the way to reach that particular book, is also written; and the place of that book is marked in a catalogue. But the librarians know that this catalogue has not (and by definition) could not be found: nothing can be found in an Universe that is boundless and periodic. As Borges states at the end of the story:

"If an eternal traveller were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)." [13]

If this is true, the quest of humanity in the Library-Universe is pointless. But nobody can establish the truth or falseness of an organization whose rules are secret until the moment somebody finds them in a book, and that moment is either impossible (because the books are randomly written and convey no message) or improbable (because the search takes place in the inexhaustible space of a labyrinthine and symmetrical architecture).

In this philosophical and narrative situation life is either predetermined by laws that cannot be identified but which have for ever defined an order that leaves no space for the introduction of change, or society is randomly organized to the point where mere chance, the eccentricity of fortune (somebody, without reason, happens on the key-book), are as strong as a predetermined organization of the world. In both cases, men are unable to change their place and destiny. In both cases, the rules that govern the world are secret and concealed from its subjects. Both cases lead logically to a dilemma.


In "The Lottery in Babylon", [14] the logical and rhetorical tropes (fundamentally paradox and the oxymoron) that reveal the limits of reason in recognising the shape of an order also structure the narrative situation. The story is told by an anonymous voice, perhaps that of an exile from Babylon, somebody that belongs to the city but is not there at the moment he is telling his story, and whose current situation is not explained in the text. He clearly states his nostalgia for the world he has abandoned or was expelled from: "Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs"; and that he is about to embark on a voyage whose destination is not, we conjecture, his native land: "I don't have much time left; they tell us that the ship is about to weigh anchor". This anonymous voice longs for what could be considered an atrocious and inhuman rule, one introduced by the lottery into all the domains of the lived world and experience, or, as he puts it, the lottery is "an intensification of chance, a periodical infusion of chaos in the cosmos". [15]

As in almost any part of the world, the lottery had begun in Babylon as the game we all know about. At the beginning of the century in Buenos Aires, the tickets were sold in barbershops and no major excitement was caused by the drawing of lots and its results. "Their moral virtue", writes Borges, was nil. "They were not directed at all man's faculties, but only at hope". The lottery only adjudicated prizes and money was the only stake. But at some time in the past, somebody put in some unfavourable lots: playing in the game now meant not just the possibility of winning money but also of losing it, through monetary fines. Soon very few people agreed to pay them, and the Company that managed the lottery decided to replace the fines with imprisonment. Every loser chose this second form of penalty. As time went by, and the success of this form of negative betting grew, the Company (which is always named in this way, with a capital letter and with no other details) began to include other types of unfavorable lots: physical punishment of utmost cruelty, such as losing a limb or a tongue or an eye, were added to the possibility of imprisonment. Soon, the new type of lots began to organize every activity in Babylon and, more radically, it became impossible to distinguish between what had came about as a result of drawing a lot and what had come about through other factors. For instance, a slave that had robbed a lottery ticket had to be punished for this act by having his tongue burned, but the ticket he had in his possession had also won him the same punishment. It was impossible to decide if the slave's tongue was burnt for the first reason (robbery) or for the second (his fortune in the lottery game).

This equivocal nature of events seized the imagination of the Babylonians and popular revolts brought about the right for everybody to participate in the lottery without paying for the tickets that, from then on, were to be distributed equally and for free. The Company was established as the supreme government and authority of the city. This democratization of the right to gamble can clearly be seen as an ironic commentary on the extension of civil rights in modern societies. The social upheaval that brought about universal and free rights to the lottery tickets, a sort of ironic French Revolution, guaranteed that any free man in Babylon had the right to participate in what was now considered the sacred ceremony of drawing the tickets that took place every sixty nights and determined the fate of the participants until the next draw. Life organized this way also became sacred, because destiny was openly the ruler of the city. Nevertheless, nobody could possibly decide which events in his own life originated in the draw and which were a result of his own action or will. The draws were complicated, they used a system of multiple possibilities and mistakes were often made by the sages that drew up the lots. But the Company defended its operation as the introduction of chance into the world order and stated that "to accept errors is not to contradict chance: it is to corroborate it".

After this basis summary of the plot, we are faced with the question of what kind of fictional society is produced by it. It is a utopian order (if we accept that the longing of the narrator for Babylon is sincere) that, in fact, could be read as a dystopian condition. As the anonymous voice recalls, the lottery had the effect of establishing a society that was at the same time authoritarian and equitable because the social fate of every man was determined by chance and not by birth or by merit:

"Like all men in Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, a slave. I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium,imprisonment. Look: the index finger on my right hand is missing. Look: through the rip in my cape you can see a vermilion tattoo on my stomach. It is the second symbol, Beth. This letter, on nights when the moon is full, gives me power over men whose mark is Gimmel, but it subordinates me to the men of Aleph [...] During a lunar year I have been declared invisible. I shouted and they did not answer me; I stole bread and they did not behead me. I have known what the Greeks do not know, incertitude." [16]

This dystopian order is sustained by a number of tropes and stylistic devices. In the first place there is the oxymoron, the trope that blends contradictory elements, through which meaning is challenged or modified by its combination with another meaning. In the case of Babylon, the oxymoron (that gives a structure to the narrative) establishes that the principle that establishes society is chance: order is ruled by the principle of disorder.

This oxymoron is sustained by a paradox: in its final state, the lottery needs infinite draws to take place in order to decide events that should occur in a limited period of time. The time for the draws should be infinitely divisible, as (in the famous paradox of Zeno) the time needed by the tortoise to win its race against Achilles. The most terrible or irrelevant actions require the proliferation of draws. If a man is to be killed, this has to be established by a draw. Another man is his murderer, this is also decided by the lottery. The circumstances of the murder also have to be settled by the draw as do the conditions that determine this act, and so on endlessly. This forking is potentially interminable, and requires a temporal lapse that can be divided infinitely.

These tropes (the oxymoron of an order established by chance, and the paradox of the infinite division of time in a determined lapse of time) organize the text and construct a hypothetical world, based on a philosophical dilemma: chance has been abolished by chance. Where everything is attributed to chance, chance becomes the natural and social order and chance is no longer chance but necessity. This implies that all attempts to interrupt the course of chance should be also attributed to chance. This rule has no limit and repeats itself en abîme. Babylon has produced an oxymoron as the pattern of social order: universal organized chance, that abolishes all possibility of free will and of self-determination.

It is not difficult to read this story allegorically, not only as a presentation of destiny, but as a presentation of totalitarianism in the order of everyday life. The name of Kafka is disguised in the text: Borges remarks in an aside that Babylonians that had complaints against the Company used to leave letters in a sacred latrine called Qaphqa (the phonetic transcription of Kafka's name in the form of an Arabic word).

As in Kafkian nightmares, the order of the world cannot be grasped by its subjects and one questions not only the legitimacy of that order and but also its very existence. This is precisely what some conjecture in Babylon: that the Company has never existed and will never exist. Or that, although the Company is all-powerful, it decides only on minor issues and leaves the rest to a different and unknown chance which is not the chance of the lottery. For example, writes Borges, the Company has influence only over "a bird's call, in the shadows of rust and of dust, in the half dreams of dawn". Or it organises impersonal draw for secret reasons: "One decrees that a sapphire of Taprobana be thrown into the waters of the Euphrates; another, that a bird be released from the roof of a tower; another, that each century there be withdrawn (or added) a grain of sand from the innumerable ones on the beach". [17] These last heretical hypotheses are more terrible than the empire of fortune, because the consequences of such apparently minor acts cannot be foreseen or calculated.

However, nobody can judge the truth of these suppositions and rumours. The Company gives only vague explanations about its rules. The heretical thinkers have ideas that cannot be proved. The institution of social order is unknowable and it lies beyond the limits of experience. And in what is a more terrible conclusion, it could be seen that societies obey no rules other than that of arbitrary fortune.


In his prologue, written in 1941, to the first edition of the book where these stories were published, Borges writes that  "The Lottery in Babylon although fantastic, is not altogether innocent of conveying a symbol". [18] In one of his typical asides, he points us in the direction of reading the story in terms of political fiction. Fascism was at its zenith, and European democracy and its party system had not been able to offer a political alternative to the rise of authoritarianism in the thirties. Both facts posed an open question, although the world war appeared as a violent resolution to the problem of Fascist expansionism. Namely, what is a society? What is the form through which order can be established without entirely eliminating freedom? Is there any way of combining the self-determination of individuals with a reasonable regulation of society?

I must agree that these do not sound like very Borgesian questions. Nevertheless, "The Lottery in Babylon", no matter how obliquely, deals with them, not only because they were on the agenda of the thirties. I would refute any suggestion that Borges was working with a public agenda, although he was preoccupied by authoritarianism. Yet the question about social order can be considered not only from a political point of view, but also from a philosophical perspective. In fact, in the great tradition of Western thought this question has occupied philosophers and writers. It is at the basis of novels like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, both loved and quoted by Borges. Since society is not a natural fact, it presents problems that affect the central nucleus of philosophical thought. Such topics include the definition of the subject, the necessary limits placed on to the relationship between individuals that choose to live in a social order, the conflict between freedom and obligation, the moral dimension of politics and the moral basis of social institutions.

"The Lottery in Babylon" (and also, although it is more openly metaphysical, "The Library of Babel") could be read not only as philosophical but also as political-philosophical fictions. As we have seen in the analysis of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", this does not mean that they discuss a philosophical problem in a systematic manner, but rather that they present it in a narrative situation. Political philosophy is not what we can learn from reading Borges. But he does invent plots where a philosophical question is confronted through fictional devices and processes. There is no answer to the question. What we find, instead, is the literary development of the problem in the form of a plot built around fictional hypotheses that describe a utopian order, that is, in fact, dystopian.


[1] . On the topic of order and chaos in Borges, see: Ana María Barrenechea, La expresión de la irrealidad en la obra de Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires 1967; and Jaime Rest, El laberinto del universo, Buenos Aires 1976; Sylvia Molloy, Las letras de Borges, Buenos Aires 1979.

[2] . In particular, Arturo Echavarría Ferrari, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Revista Iberoamericana, 100-1, 1977.

[3] . "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Labyrinths, Penguin 1970, p.27-43.

[4] .       ibid p.34

[5] .       ibid p.37

[6] . Describing one of the languages in Tlön, Borges writes: "There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the 'present' languages and dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word 'moon', but there is a verb which in English would be 'to moon' or 'to moonate'. "The moon rose above the river' is hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or literally: 'upward behind the onstreaming it mooned'. After this, the missing part in Spanish reads: "Xul Solar translates briefly: upa tras perfluyue lunó. Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned". J.L.Borges, Obras completas, Buenos Aires 1974, p.435.

[7] . Borges worked in city libraries during the forties and fifties and became the director of the National Library after the fall of Perón in 1955.

[8] . "The Library of Babel", Labyrinths, Penguin 1970,pp.78-86.

[9] . Cristina Grau, Borges y la arquitectura, Madrid 1989, p.74.

[10] .      'Babel' op. cit, p.79

[11] .      ibid, p. 78

[12] .      ibid p.81-2.

[13] .      ibid, p.83-4.

[14] ."The Lottery in Babylon", Labyrinths, London 1970,pp.55-61.

[15] .      All quotations ibid, p.55-7.

[16] .      ibid, p.55

[17] .      Both quotations ibid, p.60

[18] . Prologue to El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Buenos Aires 1941, reprinted in Obras completas, Buenos Aires 1974, p. 429.




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


© Borges Studies Online 14/04/01

How to cite this chapter:

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 5. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: (