English 1A
Essay #4: Jorge Luis Borges
In Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges attempts to skew the fundamental principles
by which most people govern their lives. He constructs roughly allegorical
worlds that reflect reality in their complexity and scope. By pulling the
reader deeper into these labyrinths, Borges’ stories subtly and without mal-
intent, demand a reexamination of the way we collectively relate to the
world. Specifically, Borges questions the reliability of the past –
something by which individuals, ethnicities and nations define themselves.

In the first story of the collection, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges
sets the precedent for later stories, by describing a completely
fictionalized world that becomes a reality. By writing, “we know nothing
about it with any certainty, not even that it is false,” Borges comments on
the futility of attempting to determine that something is either true of
false, when confronting it through writing. Therefore, the moment an act is
recorded, it becomes an entity of its own – neither fact nor fiction. In
“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” Borges writes, “historical truth,
for Menard, is not what took place; it is what we think took place.”
History, as Menard understands it, resists commonplace phraseology like
“truth” and “fact” altogether – instead, it becomes merely a widely
accepted account of a lost moment in time. In “Theme of the Traitor and the
Hero” and “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges presents two individuals
struggling with the realization that our present-day conceptions of the
past may be inconsistent with the actual truth. By undermining the
traditional concepts of hero and traitor, as they are presented in
historical and religious narratives, Borges calls into question the
absolute faith with which people place their trust in what may amount to
just another story.

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picIn “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” Borges assembles a collection
of storytellers, whose variations on the theme of betrayal cast doubt on
the reliability of both literal and literary accounts of history. The
narrative begins suspiciously, setting the scene as “Poland, Ireland, or
the Republic of Venice.” The generalizing technique immediately
universalizes both the story of Kilpatrick and the experience of Ryan the
biographer. The narrator quickly explains that “although Ryan is
contemporary, the narrative related by him occurred toward the middle or
the beginning of the nineteenth century.” This comment serves as a subtle
reminder that even Ryan’s version of Kilpatrick’s fall is subject to the
same skeptical scrutiny as any historical account. The list of storytellers
within the historical narrative includes: the historical biographers of
Kilpatrick, Shakespeare and the writer/producer/director of Kilpatrick’s
elaborately staged assassination – James Alexander Nolan. Borges’ notion of
false history reveals itself through these three storytellers: as
Shakespeare fictionalizes the death of Julius Caesar; Nolan plagiarizes the
plays of Shakespeare in orchestrating his plan, and finally, as the
gatekeepers of history record only the superficially relevant events of a
deeply involved labyrinth of historical value. The interaction between the
storytellers produces a tangled web of correspondences where truth and lies
meld inextricably and the fiction of Shakespeare becomes as factually
accurate or inaccurate as a history textbook. Borges illustrates the
blurring of literary and historical value by writing, “that history should
have imitated history was already sufficiently marvelous; that history
should imitate literature is inconceivable.” Borges draws his conclusions
on the unreliability of history through this recurring theme of writing as
storytelling. Borges seems to suggest that the act of touching pen to paper
immediately abstracts the conventional notions of fiction and nonfiction –
to the point where a conceivable work of fiction exists more tangibly than
an extraordinary account of historical fact.

picThe two-way relationship inherent to a piece of writing requires a
second party – the reader. Like reality, in the world of “Theme of the
Traitor and the Hero,” the process of historical narration requires all
readers to also be storytellers – they perpetuate this paradoxically-
fictional/factual account of history. Through Ryan the biographer, and
Kilpatrick’s town in Ireland, Borges implicates his readers, as a whole and
as individuals, in the sustenance of fallacious history. By explaining,
“Kilpatrick was brought to his end in a theater, but he made of the entire
city a theater, too” Borges indicts people as a community for acting as an
accessory to the manipulation of history. However, by saying, “what they
said and did remains in the books of history, in the impassioned memory of
Ireland,” Borges calls attention to a dangerous aspect of the cyclical
nature of narrators and readers. Memory, only flawless in “Funes, the
Memorious,” is deliberately compared to a history book – which must be
understood as one, which exaggerates each inconsistency with every
successive revision. Likewise, Ryan’s daunting transgression at the close
of the story proves to be more dangerous still. Whereas the imperfections
of collective memory yield passively benign errors, Ryan’s individual
omission withholds what would seem to be the final truth behind the legacy
of Kilpatrick. However, according to Borges’s model of narration, even this
supposed truth must be scrutinized. Ultimately, Ryan, finds himself trapped
in a familiar labyrinth, where the promulgation of either account fails to
produce anything other than another story.

picIn “Three Versions of Judas,” Borges logically proves Judas to be the
Son of God as a hyperbolic way to debunk dogmatic adherence to accepted
interpretations of the Gospel Story. Whereas “Theme of the Traitor and the
Hero” examines storytelling as it relates to literature and history, “Three
Versions of Judas” addresses the relationship between storytelling and
interpretation in Scripture. The story’s narrator, Nils Runeberg, begins
with a parochial and fundamentalist principle in assuming that “to suppose
an error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is it to admit
that there was a single haphazard act in the most precious drama in the
history of the world.” This statement places Runeberg in a twentieth
century religious context, where many faiths condemn slight digression from
doctrine as heresy. By the logic of “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,”
such blind faith in the infallibility of a narrative referred to as “The
Greatest Story Ever Told,” signals an immediate refusal to read Biblical
history skeptically. However, Borges sets Runeberg against his time period,
citing it as a mere turn of fate that “God assigned him to the twentieth
century, and to the university city of Lund.” Whereas Runeberg’s
contemporaries fail to see Scripture in the light of Kilpatrick’s
fictional/factual biographies, Runeberg works within the restrictions of
his faith-based belief system to find alternative interpretations supported
by textual evidence. Initially, Runeberg’s subscription to the notion of
the malleability of textual analyses appears to supercede his reliance on
religious doctrine. However, his interpretation of Scripture proceeds from
the accepted doctrines of Christ’s humanity, Christ’s sacrifice and the
idea that God created Christ and Man in His image. Therefore, Runeberg
employs sound reason in paralleling Judas’s spiritual descent into Hell and
Jesus’ physical sacrifice on the cross. By assuming that God “could have
chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of
history,” Runeberg’s logic implies that God could have chosen all
destinies, including Alexander, Pythagoras, Rurik, Jesus and Judas.

Runeberg, however, never reaches this final step. Instead, he commits a
fatal error by essentially producing an interpretation of the Gospel Story
that is as rigid and incontrovertible as the one from which he proceeded.

picRuneberg’s regression into unyielding assertions creates new problems
for examining Borges’s theory of truth and untruth in historical
narratives. Runeberg begins rationally, with impressive, general
comparisons between Judas and Jesus, and Heaven and Earth. It requires a
commendable sort of mental reprogramming to regard Judas and Kilpatrick as
both traitors and heroes in equal parts. However, his logic leads him to
conclude definitively that “Jesus was Judas.” This single declarative
sentence pulls Runeberg from the abstract world of textual interpretation
into Ryan’s world of narration. In three words, he succeeds in writing his
own narrative of the life of Christ. Seamlessly, Runeberg traverses the
line between positive rethinking of history and a rewriting of history. By
this, Borges seems to suggest that, within the reader/writer organic
relationship, the reader inevitably forces an interpretation to the point
where that interpretation reinvents the details of the narrative. The
“impassioned memory of Ireland,” in “Themes of the Traitor and the Hero,”
now acts more like a critical reader of Shakespeare than the collective
minds of a town – taking in the scenes, hearing the actors, interpreting
and drawing concrete meanings. As readers becomes narrators, the cycle
continues – with the infinite revising and rewriting of the same events,
none of which being more true or untrue than any other.

picThis intentional undermining of conventional “truth” emphasizes the
value found in the story, rather than the story’s basis in fact. Borges
seems to find merit in the notion that a single event in history, much like
both of these stories, can be manipulated and contorted to fit a dozen
interpretations. The craft of writing, historical or literary, carries with
it the intimate relationship between writer and reader, which facilitates
the cyclic morphing of reader into narrator. As Pierre Menard teaches us,
history serves well as the mother of truth, rather than a truth unto
itself. Through the progression of history, the readings, interpretations
and rewritings of narratives create a thousand different meanings – where
history, religion and literature twist and turn in Borges’ labyrinth and
everything becomes just another story.