Let's Read: Borges's Stories

by Yuxi_Liu 3mo16th Jun 2019No comments

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Jorge Luis Borges wrote a lot of fictions, some quite mathematical and rational. Other than those, he mainly wrote Argentinian human dramas (he's Argentinian), which are pretty useless in my opinion.

I'm going through his collected fictions, and here are ~100-word-long summaries for each story in it. With these, you might know which one to read and which to avoid.

If you only want my recommendation, here are them, along with the keywords:

  1. The Library of Babel - infinity, meaning, language, combinatorics
  2. The Garden of Forking Paths - multiverse, meaning, time
  3. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius - idealism, language, worldbuilding
  4. The Lottery in Babylon - randomness, meaning
  5. Funes the Memorious - memory, learning, language, representation and reality
  6. On Exactitude in Science - representation and reality
  7. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote - meaning, language, intellectual nihilism
  8. The Immortals - immortality, meaning of life
  9. Three Versions of Judas - theology, morality
  10. Borges and I - personal identity, memory, meaning of life
  11. Shakespeare's Memories - personal identity, memory

A Universal History of Infamy

Dramatized versions of real stories. Nothing mathematical there.

Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv

Introduction to Gnosticism.

Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

A group thought up a fictional universe, Tlön, more orderly than this universe, and wrote a series of encyclopedia to describe it. This turned this universe into Tlön.

Philosophical description of Berkeley's idealism, and a language without nouns.

The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim

Mostly human drama. Muslim allegory: A group of birds tries to find the god of birds and journeys to the end of the world, only to find they themselves have become gods through the journey.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

Menard spends years creating Don Quixote by the hardest way possible. Because he likes that novel, and because he thinks intellectual pursuits are always meaningless and thus he'd rather do something obviously meaningless than something that would be shown to be meaningless centuries later.

Philosophical discussion of authorship, meaning of text in relation to the author, and intellectual nihilism.

The Circular Ruins

A man creates a man by dreaming and imagining him really hard. In the end, he finds himself was also created like this.

The Lottery in Babylon

Everything in the city of Babylon was operated by a giant lottery company who randomly assigns fates to citizens. The company has become invisible and some people wonder if it exists at all.

The philosophical problem is, whether it matters if randomness comes from a human creation (the company), or from the nonhuman universe.

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

Quain wrote weird stories, such as a detective story with a wrong solution, a choose-your-own-adventure going backwards in time,

The Library of Babel

Best introduction to infinity, meaning of language, and combinatorics.

The Garden of Forking Paths

Time, multiverse, and how one might live when all possible multiuniverses exist.

Funes the Memorious

To keep all details makes abstract learning impossible. To learn requires forgetting differences that don't make a difference. Funes can't do that.

A good metaphor for how learning works, and an introduction to learning theory.

See also Neural Networks Are Learning What to Remember and What to Forget

The Form of the Sword

Human drama.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

Human drama.

Death and the Compass

Detective tries too hard to be clever and ignores the obvious solution. He died.

The Secret Miracle

Man sentenced to death, prayed for a miracle, and granted. Time paused for a year, and, he wrote a whole book in his head. He died when time unpaused.

The paused time makes no difference for anyone except himself, nobody knew this miracle and the outside world didn't change (presumably his thinking was purely in the soul, and doesn't require any physical chemistry?)

Three Versions of Judas

Introduction to theological thinking. Judas was the secret savior. God degraded himself fully into human, into Judas, so as to save humans. It is good for a human to be bad because only God is worthy of goodness.

Theological thinking style is interesting. I feel like AI philosophy can learn from them.

The End

Human drama. A man kills another man.

The Sect of the Phoenix

Riddle. Apparently answer is "sex", but I don't find it convincing.

The South

Human drama. Man tries to die with drama than to live with mundane boredom.

The Aleph

The Immortal

Ethics of immortal humans. Every human action can be construed to have meaning and no meaning in an immortal life.

The Dead Man

Human drama.

The Theologians

Introduction to theological thinking. Cyclic time vs linear time. Description of a strange value system ("Histrioni") that tries to be evil in order to be good. Philosophical question: is it possible for two moments of time to be the same?

Emma Zunz

Human drama.

The House of Asterion

The minotaur tells his story from his mildly inhuman (still mostly human) viewpoint .

Deutsches Requiem

Philosophy of the meaning of life, explained by a Nazi martyr. Nazi theodicy. Fate makes everything meaningful, including killing, and being killed for it.

Similar in philosophy to Three Versions of Judas.

Averroës tries to understand what a play is without ever seeing one. It's a bit funny, like Mary the color scientist.

The Zahir

Zahir is a thing that makes anyone who sees it become obsessed with it, losing touch with reality. The narrator saw a coin Zahir, but is happy, since he will simply pass "from a very complex dream to a very simple dream."

Others will dream that I am mad, and I will dream of the Zahir. When all men on earth think day and night of the Zahir, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Zahir?

Includes a story told from the viewpoint of a dragon.

The Writing of the God

Gods created the world. They encoded in the pattern of jaguar a magic spell that grants omnipotence. An imprisoned Aztec priest became enlightened in a dream and deciphered the spell (14 apparently random words), but didn't say it because he forgot himself.

Strange philosophy of enlightenment.

Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth

Human drama. Detective story.

The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths

It's just as easy to be lost in a desert as in a maze.

The Wait

Human drama. Some boring man muses on time and waiting, while hiding from his killers.

The Man on the Threshold

Human drama.

The Aleph

The Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points, where you can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously.

Most of the story is human drama. The only worthwhile paragraphs start at "It was then that I saw the Aleph."

The Maker

The Maker

Human drama. An ancient Greek soldier lived a simple life of sensual pleasures. He was going blind and felt terrible about it, but then vivid good memories came to him, and he understood by some weird reasoning, that death is the next big adventure.

Dreamtigers

Borges loved tigers, and when he lucid dreamed, he tried to make a tiger, but was frustrated that all his dream tigers were worse than real tigers.

Dialogue on a Dialogue

If death is nothing serious, why not die now?

Toenails

Meh.

The Draped Mirrors

Borges is scared of mirrors.

Argumentum Ornithologicum

If I imagined a flock of birds, then the number of birds is an integer, so someone counted it. I couldn't count fast enough, so God counted.

Thus God exists.

The Captive

A boy was abducted and found years later. Borges wonders if he was really the same person anymore.

The Sham

All historical events of the same theme (such as assassination) are really just imperfect reproductions of an original event outside of time.

Platonism of historical events.

Delia Elena San Marco

Borges's friend, Delia, died. Borges obsesses about their last goodbye, and hopes that souls are eternal, and one day they meet again.

Dead Man’s Dialogue

Argentinian human drama.

The Plot

A gaucho (Argentinian legendary cowboys) was betrayed and killed just like Caesar. Borges claims that his death had a higher meaning: he is an actor in a replay of a historical drama.

A Problem

Suppose Don Quixote killed a man, what happens next?

  1. He keeps being deluded, thinking it's no big deal.
  2. He becomes shocked into sanity forever.
  3. He becomes shocked into more delusions to deny that he killed a man.
  4. Actually, the world is an illusion and nothing is actually real. Hinduism!

A Yellow Rose

Descriptions, stories, poems, about a thing, are always worse than the actual thing. Language can't perfectly reflect what they talk about.

we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.

The Witness

A lonely pegan died among a Christianized England. The Saxon peganism culture died with him.

Martin Fierro

Human dramas are soon forgotten.

Mutations

The arrow used to kill. Now it's a symbol. Everything dies and changes. Nobody knows who the future would think of them as. A legend, a symbol, an echo?

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixotes

Cervantes and Don Quixote are both people stuck in a boring world wishing for myths. Then they became myths for the future.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

There are secret messages in ordinary life, and by finding those secret messages, we could find that infinite thing that was lost. (Note how this is similar to delusion of reference and pareidolia.)

Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us. Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know we saw it.

Parable of the Palace

Poets toured the Emperor's giant palace, and were amazed by its beauty. But at the end of the tour, a poet spoke a single word which was the minimal description of the palace. He was killed.

Philosophy of language, and minimal description length. What's the minimal description of the universe? Is it short?

Everything and Nothing

Shakespeare had no own personality so he wrote dramas instead. He told God he just wanted to be himself, instead of so many selves. God replied that, just like Shakespear, He also had no true self, and simply dreamed up all the persons in the world.

Ragnarök

Borges dreamed that he was at a business meeting, then the gods came for a visit. The gods had been in exile for centuries and lived a very hard life, and grown old into petty criminals who would kill for a penny, so Borges shot them.

Inferno, I, 32

Theodicy: there is a meaning to our lives that we are too dumb to understand.

Borges and I

Introduction to the problems of personal identity.

A philosopher analyzed it.

On Exactitude in Science

Just read the whole thing. It's so short.

In Memoriam, J.F.K.

What if all the weapons are really the same, somehow.

In Praise of Darkness

The Ethnographer

Murdock lived among American Indians for his PhD, and learned a secret he didn't want to talk about because it doesn't matter anymore.

Similar to The Writing of the God

A Prayer

Borges might be Christian.

His End and His Beginning

Heaven is terrifying.

Brodie's Report

This book contains only human drama, mostly Argentinian. I did not read much.

Brodie's Report

Description of a half-human social species. Very disgusting. Similar to Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels, and Molochs in The Time Machine.

The Book of Sand

The Other

Borges talks with younger self.

Ulrikke

Human drama.

The Congress

An organization tries to make a congress that represents everyone, then have a problem about how to do it without just inviting everyone. It also tries to keep every printed material, which is too many.

There Are More Things

Bad imitation of Lovecraftian horror.

The Sect of the Thirty

Brief description of a sect that worships both Judas and Jesus.

The Night of the Gifts

Human drama.

The Mirror and the Mask

The king commissioned a poet. He wrote something so awesome that it killed the poet and turned the king into a beggar.

“Undr”

Norse human drama.

A Weary Man's Utopia

Utopia according to Borges. Nothing much happens, as it should. A more boring version of Brave New World.

The Bribe

Human drama.

Avelino Arredondo

Argentinian human drama.

The Disk

Old man claims to have a disk with only one side and that makes him king.

The Book of the Sand

Man bought a book that has an infinite number of pages. He gave the book up because he was afraid of his obsession.

It is as if the Library of Babel was compressed to one book.

Sakespeare's Memory

August 25, 1983

Borges meets himself at the moment of death.

Blue Tigers

Man terrified by some blue stones that shift in and out of existence, defying arithmetic and logic.

The Rose of Paracelsus

Young man wants to become the sorcerer's apprentice, but demands to see a magic trick first. Sorcerer pretends he couldn't. Young man leaves sadly.

Written like a koan. Something like “Faith is more important than rational understanding.”

Shakespeare's Memory

Professor got a Shakespeare's memories transplanted into his brain. He started exploring it but also found himself confused about his personal identity. He gave Shakespeare away to preserve his identity.

Philosophical description of memory and personal identity.

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