The great Argentine writer Jorge Borges put into the mouth of one of his inimitable characters a line that has never left me: “I have often begun the study of metaphysics but have always been interrupted by happiness.” I cannot remember in which of his many short stories I first read it. I know it was a short story because Borges never wrote, and almost never read, a novel, on the obvious, but still dubious, ground that to devote five hundred pages to something that could be explained in a conversation of not more than five minutes was to forget the importance of time. Borges often spent weeks, if not longer, on a story it would not take more than five minutes to read. I do not know how long he took to write “I have often begun the study of metaphysics but have always been interrupted by happiness.” I remember the line; I do not remember the story. And the stories I do remember I seem not to have remembered the way I thought I remembered them. This may not be my fault. Borges may have done something to make sure that the stories are no longer what they were.
When Borges was a young boy in Bueno Aires, he “used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight.” He may have wondered, when he was older, why he assumed they did not. In at least some of his stories, things go missing, things change, change with time, change with the memories of men, change by accident, or, sometimes, change on purpose. In ‘Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ a story the title of which tells you something is unusual, the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, published in New York in l917, “a literal (though also laggardly) reprint of the l902 Encylocpaedia Brittanica,” is the source of a quote Borges thought memorable: “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.” The quote, he is told by a friend, is from an article on a place called Uqbar. The encyclopedia, however, has no article on such a place. The next day, his friend calls and says he has the article in volume xlvi of the encyclopedia. His volume, they discover, has 921 pages; Borge’s edition has only 917 pages. The four pages contain the article on Uqbar, an advanced civilization somewhere in Asia. The missing article means that for those who rely on one edition of the encyclopedia Uqbar does not exist. In other editions, it does exist. Which is true, which edition is correct? Does Uqbar exist or not?
In ‘The Lottery in Babylon,” Borges replaces, that is to say re-writes, what Herodotus had written more than twenty five hundred years before. Herodotus had written about the method by which Babylon kept itself united, instead of divided between rich and poor. Every year, the men of marriageable age bid on the available eligible women. The most beautiful women brought the greatest amount of money. When no one wanted to bid on the women who were left, the money the rich had paid became their dowries. Not to put too fine a point on it, the least desirable woman made her new husband an extremely wealthy man. The rich got the women they wanted; the poor got their money. Herodotus thought this the best law the Babylonians had. The lottery of Borges’ invention produces a different kind of equality.
The first lottery, which was just a drawing, was not successful, and it was decided to include a few “unlucky draws.” Everyone would have a “twofold chance: they might win a sum of money or they might be required to pay a fine – sometimes a considerable one.” Many of those who lost refused to pay and, given the choice of payment or jail, chose jail. Instead of fines, each losing number now assigned the days spent in prison. This was “the first appearance of non pecuniary elements in the lottery,” and met such great success that “the number of unlucky draws was increased.” There were protests. Certain “moralists” argued that money did not always bring about happiness, and that other forms of happiness were perhaps more direct,” while the poor complained that they did not have the same opportunity as the wealthy to enjoy “all the vicissitudes of terror and hope.” The demand for equal treatment was overpowering and irresistible. A slave stole a ticket, and when the drawing determined the bearer was to have his tongue burned out, it was thought unfair that a thief should be entitled to anything, even mutilation. There were more demonstrations. Yielding to the popular demand, the lottery “was made secret, free of charge, and open to all.”
Everything was subject to the lottery. A lucky draw might bring about elevation to the ruling council or the imprisonment and torture of an enemy; an unlucky draw might result in torture, disfigurement, dishonor and even death. Because the lottery, as it was officially noted, “is an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos within the cosmos,” it seemed only appropriate that “chance intervene in every respect of the drawing.” Not just death, but the manner of death, should be included. A drawing determines someone should die; another drawing how and by whom it will happen. Everything became “steeped in chance.” Purchase a bottle of wine, there was a chance a viper would be inside. Scribes, who “take a secret oath to omit, interpolate, alter,” never write out a contract without including some error, and, like the encyclopedia that does not include Uqbar in all its editions, “no book is published without some discrepancy between each of the edition’s copies.”
Borges, who mentions in his brief autobiography that he once met “a Persian mathematician who had worked out a theory of spherical time that I do not quite understand but hope someday to plagiarize,” takes the auction of Babylonian women described by Herodotus and changes it into a lottery that becomes the cause, or causes, of all the chaos in the universe, a universe that is as much, or more, a fiction than the dream world we mistake for reality. Or, to quote Borges quoting someone else: as “Boileau pointed out, ‘Reality stands in no need of being true to life.’” In ‘The Circular Ruins,’ Borges makes us doubt that the one reality of which we have no doubt – at least since Descartes’ insistence that “I think, therefore I am” – is true.
On an island where, “Nobody saw him come ashore in the encompassing night…where the Zend language is barely tainted by Greek and where lepers are rare,” a man wanted to dream a man “down to the last detail and project him into the world of reality.” For years, he worked on his project, and when his son was finally ready to be born imbued him with “total oblivion,’”so the “boy would never know he was a phantom, the creation of another man’s dream.” His purpose achieved, he lived on until he was told about a magic man in a temple “who walked on fire without being burned.” He worried that his son would, through this experience, discover that he was not a man but “the projection of another man’s dreams.” Then, he himself was encircled by fire, and when the flames did not burn him, “understood that he, too, was an appearance, that someone else was dreaming him.”
The dreams of one man become the histories of others. ‘The Other Death’ is the story of Pedro Damian, who managed to die a hero in the same war in which he “had handled himself like a coward.” For forty years he tried to make himself into a battle ready soldier; ready, if destiny were to bring another battle, to stand and fight and not run away. Forty years he waited, “waited and waited, and then, in the end, at the hour of his death, fate brought him his battle. It came in the form of delirium, for, as the Greeks know, we are all shadows of a dream. In his final agony, he lived his battle over again, conducted himself as a man, and in heading the last charge he was struck by a bullet in the middle of the chest. And so, in l946, through the working out of a long, slow moving passion, Pedro Damian died in the defeat of Masoller, which took place between winter and spring in l904.”
Borges is not entirely convinced that his story is wholly imaginary. Through his endless reading of ancient writers, he remembers that at least some of the early Christians were certain that what had happened had been foretold in the luminous pages of Rome’s greatest poet, and, remembering that, thought it possible that the same thing had happened again: “A few years from now, I shall believe I made up a fantastic tale, and I will actually have recorded an event that was real, just as two thousand years ago in all innocence Virgil believed he was setting down the birth of a man and foretold the birth of Christ.”
Pedro Damian, it should be noted, really had been a hero in the battle of Masoller. Those who heard his deathbed rendition of what he had done, forty years ago in a war few of those still living still remembered, had no reason to doubt the only eye witness account they had ever heard, an account that no doubt makes up the better part of his biography in at least some of the editions of the usual encyclopedias.
Letters that may or may not change their places inside the closed covers of a book, encyclopedias that in some editions leave out what is included in the others, the paid for chances that deprive the world of all order, the dreams we have and the dreams we are, may make us start to wonder whether reading Borges is itself part of a strange labyrinth in which what we thought unforgettable is not what we thought it was. A story Borges wrote, a story about a place where no one ever died, a story only Borges could have written, has stayed with me, especially one scene, a scene as vivid in my mind as if I had been there myself. Led by a guide into the mountainous territory where the land of the immortals is hidden, the narrator hears the screams of a man impaled on a sharp rock in a ravine hundreds of feet below the narrow path they are following. He insists they stop and rescue the poor unfortunate who is calling out in agony. The guide suggests there is no hurry. The man may have been there for seventy years, but what is that for an immortal in the infinity of time. I reread the story a few days ago. The scene is not there.
In ‘The Immortal,’ as I find it now, a man has fallen into an ancient quarry and is left there for seventy years before he is thrown a rope. He is not impaled, or injured in any way. His only discomfort is that for seventy years he has burned with thirst. Was my memory this bad, did I only imagine – rewrite, if you will – this story that had made such a strong and, as I had thought, lasting impression? Then I remembered Borges, and what he had written, and wondered whether the story had been changed, changed in the different editions in which I had read it.
There are two stories: ’The Immortal’ and ‘The Immortals.’ In The Collected Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, published by Viking in l998, the publisher claims that, “This edition at last brings together all of Borges’ magical stories.” It includes ‘The Immortal’; it does not include ‘The Immortals.’ The former, ‘The Immortal,’ is the one I had read and thought I remembered; ‘The Immortals’ is a story about science replacing all the mortal parts of human beings and keeping only the mind of each person in a small glass container. Though not included in the edition that contains every story Borges ever wrote, ‘The Immortals’ can be found in The Aleph and Other Stories, published by E.F. Dutton in l978. It is there, in an afterward, that Borges makes the interesting remark, which may be taken as his confession, that, “Since our only proof of personal death is statistical, and inasmuch as a new generation of deathless men may be already on its way, I have for years lived in fear of never dying.”
The two stories, one of which, according to the publisher of Borges’ collected fiction, does not exist, have the same title but for one letter, which is the difference between one and all the other, infinite, numbers there are. For those who often begin the study of metaphysics, this suggests the possibility that because, like everyone else who has died, Jorge Borges has not become aware of it, he is still making changes in all the stories he has written. Those whose lives are often interrupted by happiness can only hope that Jorge Luis Borges continues to write his changes through all the endless days of time.