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Borges and the Multiverse: Some

Further Thoughts
Dominic Moran
Christ Church, University of Oxford

Version of record first published: 28 Aug 2012

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Bulletin of Spanish Studies, Volume LXXXIX, Number 6, 2012

Borges and the Multiverse:

Some Further Thoughts
Christ Church, University of Oxford
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In recent years a number of critics have drawn attention to what appears to

be an uncanny foreshadowing of the so-called Many Worlds interpretation of
quantum mechanics, first propounded in the late 1950s, in Borges story El
jardn de senderos que se bifurcan (1941).1 Most of them (Baulch is a partial
exception) either tacitly assume or explicitly argue that this admittedly eye-
catching instance of literary augury is something like a guarantor of the
storys significance or even its literary quality. Whilst recognizing that a
close correspondence between a now a widely accepted scientific theory and
what at the time must have seemed like the purely fantastical scenario
outlined in the story does indeed exist, in this essay I aim to show that both
the aesthetic appeal and the crucial ethical dimension of El jardn are not
primarily dependent on that correspondence. In order to do so, I shall devote
much of what follows to an analysis of hitherto unidentified or insufficiently
explored literary sources of the story, at least one of which casts a significant
light on what Borges may have been hoping to achieve by setting a tale of
occult labyrinths and infinite books against the backdrop of the First Word
War. That same source also appears to inform certain elements of the
slightly earlier Tlon, Uqbar Orbius Tertius (1940), and hence I shall spend
some time tracing a number of suggestive parallels between the two stories. I
shall begin, however, by summarizing the core argument.

Many Worlds
El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan, either an ingenious or a knowingly
rum (depending on how one views it) splicing together of the spy thriller and

1 See especially Floyd Merrell, Unthinking Thinking: Borges, Mathematics and the
New Physics (West Lafayette: Purdue U. P., 1991), 17782; Alberto Rojo, El jardn de los
mundos que se ramifican: Borges y la mecanica cuantica, in Borges en diez miradas, ed.
Osvaldo Ferrari (Buenos Aires: Fundacion El Libro, 1999), 18598; and David Baulch, Time,
Narrative and the Multiverse: Post-Newtonian Narrative in Borgess The Garden of Forking
Paths and William Blakes Vala or The Four Zoas, The Comparatist, 27 (2003), 5678.

ISSN 1475-3820 print/ISSN 1478-3428 online/12/06/000925-18

# Bulletin of Spanish Studies.

the conte fantastique, has commonly been held to follow a ternary pattern,
summed up by Steven Boldy:

[It] start[s] with the brutality of history and historical time, move[s] into
a magical or metaphysical timelessness, both as lived experience and
literary artifice, and end[s] by a return to the brutality of history,
culminating in the murder of a distinguished intellectual.2

The supposedly metaphysical element involves Stephen Alberts discovery

(I place the word in inverted commas because precisely what he discovers is
very much open to question, as we shall see in due course) that Tsui Pens
mysterious labyrinth and his seemingly incoherent novel are in fact one and
the same thing. In two of the most famous passages in the whole of Borges,
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Albert explains how, after unearthing a fragment of one of Tsui Pens letters,
he reached that conclusion, and goes on to account for the novels apparently
nonsensical unfolding:

El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan era la novela caotica; la frase varios

porvenires (no a todos) me sugirio la imagen de la bifurcacion en el
tiempo, no en el espacio. La relectura general de la obra confirmo esa
teora. En todas las ficciones, cada vez que un hombre se enfrenta con
diversas alternativas, opta por una y elimina las otras; en la del casi
inextricable Tsui Pen, opta*simultaneamente*por todas. Crea, as,
diversos porvenires, diversos tiempos, que tambien proliferan y se
bifurcan. De ah las contradicciones de la novela. Fang, digamos, tiene
un secreto; un desconocido llama a su puerta; Fang resuelve matarlo.
Naturalmente, hay varios desenlaces posibles: Fang puede matar al
intruso, el intruso puede matar a Fang, ambos pueden salvarse, ambos
pueden morir, etcetera. En la obra de Tsui Pen, todos los desenlaces
ocurren; cada uno es el punto de partida de otras bifurcaciones.
[. . .]
El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan es una imagen incompleta, pero
no falsa, del universo tal como lo conceba Tsui Pen. A diferencia de
Newton y de Schopenhauer, su antepasado no crea en un tiempo
uniforme, absoluto. Crea en infinitas series de tiempos, en una red
creciente y vertiginosa de tiempos divergentes, convergentes y paralelos.
Esa trama de tiempos que se aproximan, se bifurcan, se cortan o que
secularmente se ignoran, abarca todas las posibilidades. No existimos en
la mayora de esos tiempos; en algunos existe usted y no yo; en otros, yo,
no usted; en otros, los dos. En este, que un favorable azar me depara,
usted ha llegado a mi casa; en otro, usted, al atravesar el jardn, me ha

2 Steven Boldy, A Companion to Jorge Luis Borges (Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2009), 99.

encontrado muerto; en otro, yo digo estas mismas palabras, pero soy un

error, un fantasma.3

The apparently outlandish vision detailed by Albert in these extracts is now

considered by many leading physicists to be a soberly accurate description of
the way in which the universe (or, more accurately, the multiverse) actually
works. As indicated above, the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum
mechanics was initially developed by Princeton mathematician Hugh
Everett in 1957, but was not taken seriously by experts in the field until
decades later.4 Everett, dissatisfied from a purely mathematical point of view
with the prevailing Copenhagen Interpretation, came to the conclusion that,
every time we observe the world (which, in its primordial, subatomic form,
exists as a dizzying superposition of all quantum probabilities), both we and
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the world split, causing reality to branch off into multiple and mutually
exclusive time-lines, each of which contains a different version of us. These
in turn divide, and the process continues indefinitely. As his biographer
Peter Byrne puts it:

Everett saw that . . . the wave function [i.e. all the possible configurations
of a quantum system] of an observer would, in effect, bifurcate [note the
choice of verb] at each interaction of the observer with a superposed
object. The universal wave function would contain branches for every
alternative making up the objects superposition. Each branch has its
own copy of the observer, a copy that perceived one of those alternatives
as the outcome . . . Each branch embarks on a different future,
independently of the others.5

In other words, everything that can happen does, in one or other of the
resulting worlds. An analogy often used to describe this mind-bending

3 Jorge Luis Borges, El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan, in Ficciones (Madrid:

Alianza, 1989), 10116 (pp. 112, 11415).
4 Everetts amplified doctoral thesis, together with a series of commentaries and
explicatory essays, can be found in The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics:
A Fundamental Exposition, ed. Bruce DeWitt and Neil Graham (Princeton: Princeton U. P.,
1973). A less daunting introduction is provided by Peter Byrne in his recent biography of
Everett, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutually Assured
Destruction and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family (Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2010) (see
especially Chapters 918 [pp. 81177]). Everetts theory was later taken up in earnest by*
amongst many others*Oxford physicist David Deutsch, and is summarized in his The Fabric
of Reality (London: Allen Lane, 1997) (see especially Chapter 2 [pp. 3254]). An indication of
just how seriously the theory is now taken is the recent appearance of the collection of essays
on the subject by leading physicists and philosophers Many Worlds?: Everett, Quantum Theory
and Reality, ed. Simon Saunders et al. (Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2010).
5 Peter Byrne, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett, Scientific American (December,
2007), 98105 (p. 91). The Copenhagen interpretation, on the other hand, in an uncanny echo
of the Esse rerum est percipi philosophy of Borges beloved Berkeley, stipulated that an

scenario, and which would doubtlessly have delighted Borges (not to mention
Herbert Quain), is taken from the world of reading:

Its like having an infinite library full of books that start out the
same way on page one, but in which the story in each book deviates more
and more from the versions in other books the farther into the book you read.6

Tsui Pens lunatic but entirely logical enterprise is, to paraphrase his
creator, to attempt to squeeze all of those infinite books into a single volume,
or at least to give the impression of having done so (as Albert says, his novel
is apparently an imagen incompleta, pero no falsa, del universo tal como lo
conceba Tsui Pen [El jardn, 114]). Far from being a crackpot fantasist,
then, Tsui Pen, though he could never have known it, was something like the
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first and indubitably the greatest realist writer, making the likes of Balzac
and Galdos, who could only deal with one universe at a time, look like ham-
fisted amateurs . . ..
That Borges really had foretokened this remarkable idea is reflected
in the fact that DeWitt and Graham chose the second of the quotations from
El jardn as an illustrative epigraph to their critical edition of Everetts
thesis (see note 4). When, the year before he died, he was informed of his
remarkable prescience by Argentine physicist Alberto Rojo, Borges reply
was typically whimsical: No me diga! Fjese que curioso, porque lo unico que
yo se de fsica viene de mi padre, que me enseno como funcionaba el
barometro.7 The reader may make of that what s/he will.

Literary Origins
It turns out, however, not only that Borges was not the first to prefigure the
Many Worlds theory in a literary text, but that he almost certainly pilfered
the idea (though not in a particularly furtive way) from the man who was.
That man was English science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon (18861950),
whose work Borges knew well. He wrote enthusiastic reviews of Last
and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) in the Argentine magazine El
Hogar, and in 1965 supplied a prologue to the Spanish translation of the
latter (titled Hacedor de estrellas).8 Star Maker is the narrative of an

observer was required to collapse the wave function, thereby transforming quantum
probability into concrete actuality. This begs the question (initially posed by an incredulous
Einstein) of how anything managed to exist before there were beings capable of observing it.
In Everetts revised version of the theory, the wave function does not collapse.
6 John Gribbin, In Search of the Multiverse (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 63.
7 Rojo, El jardn de los mundos que se ramifican, 197.
8 The reviews, published on 23 July and 20 August 1937, are collected in Jorge Luis
Borges, Textos cautivos. Ensayos y resenas en El Hogar, ed. Enrique Sacero-Gar and Emir
Rodrguez Monegal (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1986), 15253, 15960; the Prologue can be found
in Jorge Luis Borges, Prologos (Buenos Aires: Torres Aguero, 1975), 15152.

unnamed individual who, one night, is mysteriously whisked off on a journey

to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, during which he encounters and
inhabits a dizzying multiplicity of different worlds. In one of the many
universes in which time is a more fundamental attribute than space:

Whenever a creature was faced with several possible courses of action, it

took them all, thereby creating many distinct temporal dimensions and
distinct histories of the cosmos. Since in every evolutionary sequence
of the cosmos there were many creatures and each was constantly
faced with many possible courses, and all the possible courses were
innumerable, an infinity of distinct universes exfoliated from every
moment of every temporal sequence in this cosmos.9
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The particular borrowing is obvious enough, but there is more. In a slightly

later number of El Hogar (19 November 1937), Borges published a Biografa
sintetica of Stapledon alongside a review of El sueno del aposento rojo (Der
Traum der Roten Kammer), Franz Kuhns heavily abridged and untangled
1932 German translation of Hong Lou Meng (subsequently translated into
English as both The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Story of the Stone),
the famous Chinese novel eventually published in 1792 after a highly
convoluted editorial history (I shall return to this in due course), to which
Yu Tsun refers in El jardn and on which Borges draws, often playfully,
throughout the story (Textos cautivos, 18687, 18788).10 He ends the

9 Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (London: Methuen, 1937), 320. Tellingly, in his review of
the novel Borges makes special mention of the worlds described by Stapledon which ignoran
el espacio y estan solo en el tiempo (Textos cautivos, 160 [my italics]).
10 As almost all commentators note, Yu Tsun is himself a character from the Chinese
novel (when we meet him in Chapter 1 of Kuhns version, he is an impoverished student
working as a copyist for the illiterate), and Tsui Pen may well be modelled on the novels
first author, Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsue Kin in Kuhns transliteration), who is said to have
retired to his Nostalgia Pavilion for ten years in order to write the book (Tsui Pen spends
thirteen years on his magnum opus locked away in the Pabellon de la Lmpida Soledad)
though, in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, Borges may have adapted the name from the
character Sa Pan, a thuggish, predatory homosexual with no interest in either books or war
(i.e. the very antithesis of Borges character), who, when we first encounter him at the end of
Chapter 3 of Kuhns translation, has murdered a man whose name turns out to be Fong
(Albert chooses the name Fang in his illustrative example of Tsui Pens theory, which also
involves variations on a murder which foreshadows his own [El jardn, 112]). Here Borges
turns his source on its head, since in the story it is Tsui Pen who is the victim of a murder
which foreshadows that of Albert. The fragment of Tsui Pens letter recovered by Albert is
doubtless written on crimson paper in a nod towards the colour symbolism which runs
throughout The Dream of the Red Chamber, variously connoting spring, youth, good fortune
and prosperity (El jardn, 110). The only critic to mention the fact that the synoptic
biography and the review appear side by side is Haiqing Sun, in his Hong Lou Meng in Jorge
Luis Borgess Narrative (Variaciones Borges, 22 [2006], 1533), though he says only that the
juxtaposition may [. . .] suggest that Borges has read the Chinese novel solely as fantastic
literature (16, n. 4).

review, in which he repeatedly highlights the works imaginative dimension

(the tenth chapter is deemed no indigno de Edgar Allan Poe o de Franz
Kafka) by saying Abunda lo fantastico: la literatura china no sabe de
novelas fantasticas porque todas, en algun momento, lo son (Textos
cautivos, 188). Borges obviously wanted a Chinese-sounding title for Tsui
Pens novel (and his own story), and it may not be fanciful to hear an echo of
El sueno del aposento rojo in his final choice.11 Just three years later, in the
Antologa de la literatura fantastica (1940) that he edited with Bioy Casares
and Silvina Ocampo, he included both the precise extract from Star Maker
cited above and two excerpts from The Dream of the Red Chamber, the
second of which (Sueno infinito de Pao Yu) deals with multiple identities
and recursive dreams within dreams and takes place in an oneiric jardn
that is identical to the protagonists own.12 These, then, would seem to be the
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principal literary ingredients in El jardn, and I shall have more to say about
them presently.

Aesthetic Implications
First, however, I wish to return to the crucial question of the possible
aesthetic implications of Borges having stumbled across what would become
one of the most radical ideas in modern physics via the serendipitous
cobbling together of a now little read piece of English science fiction
and selected highlights from an eighteenth-century Chinese novel. What
might they be? Regarding the question of Borges (or rather Stapledons)
clairvoyance, it might be remarked that if Everetts theory or some
refinement of it turns out to be true, then it was inevitable that not just in
one but in countless universes Borges, or some version of him, should have
written the story prior to the emergence of the theory, just as it was
inevitable that in countless others still he or one of his avatars (and, of
course, of each and every one of us) should have written innumerable
versions which differ by a comma, a full stop, a letter, a word etc. (I could go
on*endlessly) from the one that we have. In other words*and this is one of
the bizarre but strictly logical consequences of a multiverse in which
anything that can happen does*he deserves absolutely no credit for it.
Besides, that an author should have conjured up a purely imaginary scenario
which later proves to be the case does not in and of itself determine the

11 In the text he has Yu Tsun refer to the work in its original Chinese title, Hung Lu
Meng (Borges spelling), perhaps to deflect the readers attention from the resemblance.
12 Antologa de la literatura fantastica, ed. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and
Silvina Ocampo (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1940), 8990, 182, 27677. In the revised and
augmented 2nd edition (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1965), the passages appeared just four
pages apart (pp. 397, 40104). As the editors indicate (Antologa, 89), the Sueno infinito de
Pao Yu is taken from Arthur Waleys Preface to Chi-Chen Wangs radically truncated
translation (London: Routledge, 1929), xixiii. It does not appear in either Wangs or Kuhns
translation of the novel.

literary worth of his creation.13 To assume as much is to confuse truth with

verisimilitude. One only need recall on the one hand those many works of
science fiction anchored firmly in science fact which are all but unreadable as
literature (much of Stapledons work falls into this category, as Borges
himself pointed out) and, on the other, of imaginative works which play fast
and loose with science but which are both compelling and enchanting.14
A prime example of the latter are Calvinos stories in Cosmicomics (for which
Borges was a major source of inspiration), a number of which are fictional
extrapolations of or extravagant glosses on completely bogus scientific
premises, but which use those premises to investigate what, not so long
ago, might have been referred to as human or existential concerns and
dilemmas. In other words, Borges garden of forking paths is like Cervantes
hospital of talking dogs*what ultimately counts are its artificio and
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invencion, not whether it is in any purely empirical sense true.15

The Human Factor

I have just alluded to what might be termed the human factor in El jardn.
This resides principally in the fact that the story is not simply an unwitting
fictionalized exposition of a scientific hypothesis, but rather a drama
whose intrigue and pathos are generated by the constant juxtaposition of
and tension between the potential and the actual, cyclical recurrence
and unrepeatable contingency, seemingly limitless possibility and the
narrowness and meanness of the finite, mortal lives which human beings
inevitably lead, lives in which at every turn those myriad possibilities are
sacrificed in favour of some particular concrete act. Yu Tsun, perhaps a little
obviously, draws our attention to this predicament early in his account
(which, crucially, is written in retrospect, when all but one of the diversos
porvenires has been irretrievably discarded and what remains is a single,
unalterable, linear narrative):

Despues reflexione que todas las cosas le suceden a uno precisamente,

precisamente ahora. Siglos de siglos y solo en el presente ocurren los

13 The amplificatio ad absurdum of this scientific approach to Borges work is surely

William Goldbloom Blochs The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borgess Library of Babel
(Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2008), in which the author treats La biblioteca de Babel and its later
reprise, El libro de arena, as if they were no more than mathematical conundra in
superfluous and perversely obfuscatory literary disguise.
14 Of Last and First Men Borges remarks Lo puramente novelesco de esta novela*
dialogos, caracteres, personalismos*es menos que mediocre (Textos cautivos, 153). In his
Prologue to Star Maker Stapledon himself concedes that Judged by the standards of the
Novel, it is remarkably bad. In fact, it is no novel at all (ix).
15 See El coloquio de los perros, in Novelas ejemplares II, ed. Harry Sieber (Madrid:
Catedra, 1986), 299359 (p. 359).

hechos; innumerables hombres en el aire, en la tierra y el mar, y todo lo

que realmente me pasa me pasa a m. (El jardn, 102)

This focus (whether implicit or explicit) on human finitude and its

concomitant limitations, on the seemingly perverse chasm that separates
what we can imagine ourselves doing from the pitifully little that we ever get
to do, between poetic flights of the imagination and the leaden prose of the
world, is a feature of a number of other works by Borges which might in some
measure be related to this one. These include La biblioteca de Babel, which
ends with its narrator, having spent his life wandering fruitlessly though a
negligibly small section of the vast library, about to die just a few hexagons
away from the place where he was born; La muerte y la brujula, which, like
El jardn, ends with the murder of an extravagant imaginer; El milagro
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secreto, in which Hladiks miraculous gallowss feast of creative imagination

is brought to an abrupt end by the firing squad; the beautiful parable which
concludes El hacedor; and, supremely, Nueva refutacion del tiempo, where
Borges states categorically, Nuestro destino no es espantoso por irreal; es
espantoso porque es irreversible y de hierro.16 Each of these pieces is, in the
last instance, a subtle and melancholic meditation on some facet or other of
human transitoriness, giving the lie to the notion that Borges is all chilly
cerebration.17 Surprisingly, the critics who have argued for the Many
Worlds analogy have failed to comment on this key aspect of the story,
even though it corresponds precisely to the way in which the theory describes
our experience of the world we actually inhabit: there may be innumerable
copies of me in innumerable other universes, many of whom are living lives
richer and more rewarding than mine, but that thought provides scant
consolation, since those universes remain utterly inaccessible to me, and I
only ever experience life as a single, unalterable series of determinate choices
and actions, irreversible y de hierro. In Yu Tsuns case, as he correctly
surmises (El porvenir ya existe, he says), that means murdering Stephen

Of course, as Daniel Balderstons exhaustive if occasionally speculative
investigation of the storys possible sources has demonstrated, the action of

16 La biblioteca de Babel, La muerte y la brujula and El milagro secreto, in Ficciones,

89100, 14763, 16574; Eplogo, in El hacedor (Madrid: Alianza, 1987 [1st ed. 1960]),
15556; Nueva refutacion del tiempo, in Otras inquisiciones (Madrid: Alianza, 1985 [1st ed.
1952]), 17088 (p. 187).
17 Few if any of Borges stories are as crammed with as much minute description and
significant observed detail as El jardn (the train journey, during which Yu Tsun recalls
having seen labradores, una enlutada, un joven que lea con fervor los Anales de Tacito, un
soldado herido y feliz [105], is a good example), and these precisely recorded ephemera acquire
great poignancy when viewed in the light of the storys central philosophical concerns.

El jardn, which it is all too easy to consider only in abstract philosophical

terms, is thrown into acute and pathetic relief by its historical setting (World
War I) and specifically by the fact that Yu Tsun, a Chinese spy working for a
nation he despises (he calls Germany a pas barbaro), fleeing from an
Irishman in the employ of the British, and acting not out of loyalty to the
cause but only to prove that un amarillo poda salvar a sus ejercitos, kills an
English sinophile he comes to revere in order to transmit a message the
successful delivery of which does not significantly affect the outcome of the
struggle.18 Borges, writing while the Second World War was raging, is surely
making a point about the appalling wastefulness of such conflicts, which,
within the modest confines of his story, sees imagination sacrificed on the
altar of a brutal and ultimately futile pragmatism whose purpose is not even
sincere. Borges own imaginative tale is itself a creative response to the
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whole grim business which it details and, as such, it betrays what I believe to
be the clear influence of Stapledon (at least in terms of the latters aesthetic
and ethical objectives; in terms of literary execution Borges far surpasses
his model). Stapledon, a staunch pacifist, had witnessed the horrors of the
First World War when serving as a conscientious objector in the Friends
Ambulance Unit in France and Belgium from July 1915 to January 1919. By
the time he came to pen Star Maker in 1937 the threat of Fascism had
lowered over Europe, leaving the continent in danger of a catastrophe worse
than that of 1914, as he puts it in his Prologue to the novel (Star Maker,
v).19 Like Borges, then, he looked back ruefully on the First World War from
what for him was still the eve of the Second. Rejecting navel-gazing writers
who simply shrug their shoulders and withdraw from the central struggle of
our age, but also politically engaged literature the convictions of which,
however laudable, constantly risked spilling over into blind partisanship,

18 See Daniel Balderston, Historical Situations in Borges, Modern Language Notes,

105:2 (1990), 33150 (especially pp. 33343), and Chapter 3 of his Out of Context: Historical
Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges (Durham, NC: Duke U. P., 1993), 3955.
Balderston makes a series of only tenuously supported assumptions about the extra-textual
life of the characters (a questionable undertaking at the best of times), speculating freely as to
why Yu Tsun was sent on his mission to England, why he was interested in Maddens
quandary (this, he asserts, no doubt has to do with the interesting parallels between the
Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916), and apparently taking it as
read that he has had access to the still-secret details of the court-martial of Padraic Pearse.
Balderston also claims that it is obvious that Stephen Albert is or had been a spy, though
there is no hard evidence in the story to support such a claim (Out of Context, 4345, 48, 153,
n. 29). Similarly, he can provide no proof that Borges had consulted or made use of any of the
supposed sources for what he admits is a whole fictive genealogy for Madden, who makes just
three fleeting appearances in the text and to whose thoughts and speech the reader is never
granted access (Out of Context, 152, n. 21).
19 On the penultimate page of the novel the narrator imagines the young men ranked
together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Fuhrer, and thinks of Italy,
land of memories and illusions, where now the mobs idol spell-bound the young (Star
Maker, 330).

Stapledon nevertheless wanted to create literary works that would serve as

an urgent defence of civilization against modern barbarism. To that end he
advocated the adoption of a more dispassionate critical spirit in an
endeavour to see mans life as a whole in relation to the rest of things. As
he urged, Perhaps the attempt to see our world against a backdrop of stars
may [. . .] increase, not lessen, the significance of the present human crisis. It
may also increase our charity to one another and instil in us a kind of piety
toward fate (Prologue to Star Maker, viiviii) (that last notion seems
particularly applicable in the case of El jardn). Put simply, he wanted to
write literature of unchecked imagination which might yet serve ethical and
socio-political ends. The result was a deliberately detached, cosmopolitan but
sweepingly ambitious form of science fiction in which, by placing human
history and its woes in the context of that of the unimaginably vast cosmos
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and thereby showing it to be an insignificant drop in the universal ocean,

Stapledon repeatedly exposes the pettiness, destructiveness and ultimate
futility of all religious and political dogmatism, nationalism, tribalism,
racism and all the desperate isms by which mind seeks to blur the
severe outline of truth.20 What holds for whole societies and their
organization applies a fortiori to individual human beings, whose lives are
viewed as a single flicker between the teeming gulf of the never-more and
the boundless void of the not-yet (Last and First Men, 251). On his journey
through the heavens as part of a collective super-personality the narrator of
Star Maker becomes painfully aware of the constraints of human mortality,
describing them in terms not dissimilar to those used by Yu Tsun (see above):

For only in his own life as a native in some world had each of us actually
fought, so to speak, in lifes war as a private solider at close grips with the
enemy. It was the recollection of this fettered, imprisoned, blindfold,
eager, private individuality, that enabled us to watch the unfolding of
cosmical events not merely as a spectacle but with a sense of the
poignancy of every individual life as it flashed and vanished.
(Star Maker, 167)

Stapledons approach provided Borges with both a lucid justification and a

template for writing about the horrors of war in apparently fantastic mode.
He achieved this in El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan by setting the
sorry tale of Stephen Alberts murder against the teeming backdrop of what
would later become known as the multiverse, but I suspect that Stapledons
influence is already detectable (perhaps even more so) in Tlon, Uqbar,
Orbius Tertius, another wartime story in which Borges contrived
to write about the rise of the most sinister twentieth century isms
(el materialismo dialectico, el antisemitismo, el nazismo) by providing a

20 Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (London: Methuen, 1930), 276.

summary of life and thought in an imaginary world.21 Some of the

descriptions of modes of experience and expression on Tlon seem to echo
passages from Star Maker, such as the following:

Many ideas which terrestrial man has reached by way of sight, and which
even in their most abstract form bear traces of their visual origin, the
Other Men conceived in terms of taste. For example, our brilliant, as
applied to persons and ideas, they would translate by a word whose
literal meaning was tasty. For lucid they would use a term which in
primitive times was employed by hunters to signify an easily runnable
taste trail. To have religious illumination was to taste the meadows
of heaven. Many of our non-visual concepts also were rendered by means
of taste. Complexity was many-flavoured, a word applied originally to
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the confusion of tastes around a drinking pool frequented by many kinds

of beasts. Incompatibility was derived from a word meaning the disgust
which certain human types felt for one another on account of their
flavours. (Star Maker, 38)

Compare this to Borges:

Las naciones de ese planeta son*congenitamente*idealistas. Su

lenguaje y las derivaciones de su lenguaje*la religion, las letras, la
metafsica*presuponen el idealismo. El mundo para ellos no es un
concurso de objetos en el espacio; es una serie heterogenea de actos
independientes. Es sucesivo, temporal, no espacial. No hay sustantivos en
la conjetural Ursprache de Tlon, de la que proceden los idiomas actuales
y los dialectos: hay verbos impersonales, calificados por sufijos (o prefijos)
monosilabicos de valor adverbial. Por ejemplo, no hay palabra que
corresponda a la palabra luna, pero hay un verbo que sera en espanol
lunecer o lunar. Surgio la luna sobre el ro se dice hlor u fang axaxaxas
mlo o sea en su orden: hacia arriba (upward) detras duradero-fluir
lunecio. (Tlon, 21)22

Stapledons views on the role of the writer in barbaric times may also be
subtly reflected in the enigmatic ending to the story, in which the narrator
seems to turn his back on a world gradually being taken over by Tlon in order

21 Jorge Luis Borges, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius, in Ficciones, 1336 (p. 21).
22 Perhaps significantly, Borges singles out the sections of Star Maker which deal with
a world governed by the sense of taste in his review (Textos cautivos, 160). As Humberto
Nunez-Faraco points out, the purely linguistic hypotheses in these passages are traceable to
the philosophy of George Santayana, almost certainly via Borges friend, the painter Xul Solar
(who makes an appearance as translator just after the passage cited). However, the idea of
another planet or counter-world governed by different modes of perception and cognition may
well owe more to Stapledon. See Nunez-Faraco, A Note on the Sources of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius
Tertius by J. L. Borges, BSS, 88:1 (2011), 8399 (pp. 8687).

to work on an indecisa traduccion quevediana [. . .] del Urne Burial de

Browne which he has no intention of publishing (Tlon, 36).23 Various
more or less plausible explanations have been adduced for this unexpected
conclusion. Williamson sees in it (and in the story as a whole) a camouflaged
Oedipal drama which evinces Borges fears of ending up as a reflection of
his father*disengaged from the world around him and overwhelmed by a
sense of unreality from which writing itself could no longer offer any
salvation.24 Boldy, meanwhile, picking up on the reference to Browne, views
the narrators determination as a defence [. . .] of individualism, anarchism,
and perhaps his most treasured virtue, lucidity, freely exercised in the
paradox which characterizes this story.25 Curiously, neither critic mentions
Quevedo, one of Borges favourite poets (much of Borges finest poetry is
decisively quevediano). Quevedo was, of course, the great Golden-Age
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prophet of desengano, who repeatedly and mercilessly exposed the vanity

and folly of all worldly striving, and in particular the quest for power, wealth
and fame, by viewing fragile and fleeting mortal life sub specie aeternitatis.
Brownes famous tract (and indeed Stapledons novels) echo the Spaniards
views, so in a sense Borges is deliberately over-egging his stoical pudding to
wry, even quasi-comical effect. That much seems clear enough, but two
further points follow. The first is that to highlight, in however sombre and
scatological a fashion (as was Quevedos wont), the futility of earthly
ambition is not itself a futile act. Quevedo and his fellow Neo-stoics were
appalled at the horrors committed in pursuit of material and political gain,
the awfulness of which was only magnified by the transience of the ends in
pursuit of which they were perpetrated. Dramatically foregrounding this in
their writings had a clear moral purpose. Given the bleak global context
of Borgess story, the invocation of Quevedo makes it difficult to agree
with Shaw, who claims that at the close the narrator goes on indifferently
pursuing his own particular brand of literary futility, still less with
Balderston, who says that the narrator proposes to dedicate his days to an
improbable [sic] Quevedian translation of Urne Buriall instead of attending
to a world dominated by fascism, dialectical materialism and that new faith,

23 That the ending takes the form of a Postdata dated 1947 but penned along with the
rest of the story in 1940 may itself owe something to Stapledon. Both Last and First Men and
Last Men in London (London: Methuen, 1932) are narrated in chastened retrospect from a
distant future, long after humankind has vanished from the face of the earth. Tlon was the
first of Borges fictions to make use of such a narrative device.
24 Edwin Williamson, Borges: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 239.
25 Boldy, A Companion to Borges, 86. Boldy provides compelling supporting references
here to the essays Dos libros and Valery como smbolo (Otras inquisiciones, 7678, 12529),
in the latter of which Borges praises the French writer for championing lucidez in la era
melancolica del nazismo y del materialismo dialectico (8687, notes 38 and 39).

Tlonism.26 But surely, it might be objected, the narrator has no intention of

publishing his translation, making his response to the encroaching debacle
one of pure resignation? To which it may be answered that whilst it is true
that the narrator chooses not to commit to print, his creator, Borges, does (in
the form of the story itself), effectively publicizing what would otherwise
have remained a clandestine act and thereby turning it into a gesture,
however modest, of literary resistance. By writing about one of those writers
who, in Stapledons words, merely shrug their shoulders and withdraw from
the central struggle of the age, Borges makes his own contribution to that
struggle. Such a contribution may seem excessively oblique, but it too is in
keeping with Stapledons views concerning the way in which sceptical
intellectuals might address a crisis which concerns us all:
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Yet I have a lively sympathy with some of those intellectuals who

declare that they have no useful contribution to make to the struggle,
and therefore had better not dabble in it. I am, in fact, one of them. In our
defence I should say that, though we are inactive or ineffective as direct
supporters of the cause, we do not ignore it. Indeed it constantly,
obsessively holds our attention. But we are convinced by prolonged
trial and error that the most useful service open to us is indirect.
(Prologue to Star Maker, vi [my italics])

That is perhaps as eloquent a summary as any of both the ethos and the
aesthetic which inform and underpin stories such as Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius
Tertius and El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan.

Although Borges insisted that his fundamental aim as a writer was to
distraer y conmover and not persuadir, critics have rarely taken him at his
word, especially when it comes to stories such as El jardn.27 Yet even here,
where he is clearly dealing with serious matters, he does not always treat
them in a wholly serious way, and we should beware of taking anything in
the story, including its supposed presaging of the multiverse, at what might
appear to be face value. The story is full of traps for both the unwitting but
also for the more seasoned reader. Some of these are relatively obvious, such
as the fact, mentioned earlier, that Yu Tsun is a character lifted from a novel
to which he himself refers. Then there is the seemingly erroneous reference

26 D. L Shaw, Borges: Ficciones (London: Grant & Cutler, 1993), 17; Balderston,
Historical Situations in Borges, 332 (my italics).
27 Prologo to El informe de Brodie (Madrid: Alianza, 1990 [1970]), 10. This is despite
the fact that in the Prologo to El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan (the first part of what
later became Ficciones) he refers to the story only as a piece of detective fiction with what he
clearly thinks is an ingenious twist in the tail (Ficciones, 12).

to Liddell Hart (though there may be various explanations for this, perhaps
the most apposite of which in the context is Baulchs, namely that in many
universes the reference is in fact accurate), the angry and ludicrously
jingoistic footnote from the anonymous editor, challenging Yu Tsuns account
of Vicktor Runebergs murder (one wonders what else he might have edited
without telling us), the outrageous coincidence which sees Yu Tsun choosing
a name from a telephone directory which happens to be that of a Sinologist
who has devoted his life to working on his ancestors notorious novel (though
again, in the multiverse there is no such thing as coincidence*if a series of
events is physically possible it is bound to happen, thereby rendering
redundant all classical notions of verisimilitude), and the hardly negligible
fact that the first two pages of Yu Tsuns narration are missing.28 Either we
dismiss this latter detail as a mere narrative tick on Borges part (in which
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case its arbitrariness must be considered an aesthetic defect of the story),

or we take it seriously, in which case we ought to reserve judgment on
everything we are told, since we are conscious that a key piece or pieces of
the narrative jigsaw may well be missing (vital information is, after all,
routinely provided at the beginning of an account). If we recall the
wholescale havoc which the misreading of an only minimally incomplete
book of Augustines Civitas Dei causes in Los teologos, the latter course
would appear to be the more prudent.29 Yet perhaps the most compelling
evidence that we should take the story with at least a pinch of salt is
provided by Stephen Alberts description of his activities as self-appointed
editor of Tsui Pens acervo indeciso de borradores contradictorios (El
jardn, 109), which led to the startling discovery to which I referred at the
outset. In order to prove his thesis (that the novel and the labyrinth are one
and the same) he needs to show (or so he claims*the validity or otherwise of
his conjecture is never confirmed) that the word tiempo has been
strategically omitted from all the papers. Here is his proof:

He confrontado centenares de manuscritos, he corregido los errores que la

negligencia de los copistas ha introducido, he conjeturado el plan de ese
caos, he restablecido, he credo restablecer el orden primordial, he
traducido la obra entera: me consta que no emplea una sola vez la
palabra tiempo. (El jardn, 114 [my italics]).

28 Baulch, Time, Narrative and the Multiverse, 64. As Balderston argues, in our
universe the error is more likely to be a consequence of discrepancies between both different
editions of the Liddell Hart and those of Ficciones itself (Out of Context, 151, n. 5).
29 Jorge Luis Borges, Los teologos, in El aleph (Madrid: Alianza, 1989 [1st ed. 1949]),
3748. In the story religious fanatics embrace a doctrine which Plato was only preaching
para poder mejor confutarla, something they would have known had the text reached them
intact (37).

These are hardly the working practices of a conscientious editor. Alberts

only methodological tool appears to be wishful thinking. It is abundantly
clear that he has decided the outcome of his labours in advance and, via a
series of guesses, dubious corrections and unfounded assumptions, made the
facts fit his theory*that the apparent mess left behind by Tsui Pen is really
a work of breathtaking, infinitely complex order. There is a glaring (perhaps
too glaring) irony here, in that it is Albert himself who points out that the
alleged mise-en-abyme in the 1001 Nights which makes it too into an infinite
book (in the recursive sense) only came about because of una magica
distraccion del copista (El jardn, 111)*precisely the sort of negligencia
which he has had to expunge from Tsui Pens novel in order to make it
work! Nor should we forget that this entire series of conjectures is based on
his interpretation of a mere fragmento of a letter, from which essential and
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perhaps conflicting information might well be missing. The dubiousness of

Alberts procedure becomes all the more evident if we consider Tsui Pens
imaginary novel in the light of the chaotic editorial history of The Dream of
the Red Chamber, on which it appears at least in part to be modelled. The
Chinese novel had five different working titles, at least two authors (as well
as several incorporated commentators, whose remarks and criticisms pepper
the margins of early editions), no definitive ending, and for many years
existed primarily as a series of often wildly variant manuscript copies.
Indeed, new copies and parts of copies are still coming to light.30 However,
the more or less marshalled caos of The Dream of the Red Chamber neither
veils nor points to some secret order; rather it is a consequence*as such
things invariably are*of the vagaries and contingencies of history. Might
not Tsui Pens unruly heap of manuscripts be so too? I certainly do not think
Borges wants us to dismiss the possibility.31
Borges mischievous game-playing is not merely a diverting addendum to
the story, as those critics eager to get to the gist of the tale seem to assume,
but rather part and parcel of its narrative strategy, producing a modern
equivalent of the eutrapelia prized by Borges literary mentor Cervantes, a
concept which fruitfully conflates the twin Horatian principles of prodesse

30 For a summary of the editorial history, see the Introduction to the first volume of
David Hawkes English translation of The Story of the Stone (London: Penguin, 1973), 1546.
31 In fact, the much simplified German translation of the novel which Borges reviewed
in 1937 has a broadly circular structure, ending with the hermit Schi Yin, whom we first
encounter in Chapter 1 (where in a dream he overhears a Taoist and a Buddhist priest
discussing the story that is about to unfold), offering to tell Yu Tsun the story of the stone (Der
Traum der Roten Kammer [Wiesbaden: Insel Verlag, 1932], 776). Interestingly, when
pondering the question of how Tsui Pens novel might be estrictamente infinito, Stephen
Albert considers the possibility of a volumen cclico, circular, but then rejects it (El jardn,

and delectare, instruction and entertainment.32 The sort of reader who would
lock intellectual horns with and take pleasure from a text such as El jardn
de los senderos que se bifurcan is not, one imagines, someone likely to
murder a Stephen Albert. By the same token, the persistent tricksiness and
artful undermining of the texts reliability do not, or at least should not, lead
to the collapse into colourless relativism or generalized scepticism which
characterizes so many postmodern readings of Borges. Indeed, if we are
seeking some sort of literary paradigm (other than that of postmodernism)
within which we might profitably situate El jardn, Yu Tsun gives us a
helping hand. Early in the story, before the reader has sufficient information
to make sense of the comment, Yu Tsun ruefully remarks, Yo se de un
hombre de Inglaterra*un hombre modesto*que para m no es menos que
Goethe. Arriba de una hora no hable con el, pero durante una hora fue
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Goethe . . . (El jardn, 104). We later realize that he is referring to Albert. As

Balderston, citing Romain Rolland, comments, Goethe, with his contempt for
all national hatreds, belongs to the whole of humanity, representing a
fraternal ideal destructively betrayed at every turn in Borges story.33 Given
the context, the irony that Goethe was German is hardly lost on the reader,
but perhaps more important when it comes to finding a helpful generic frame
of reference for El jardn is the fact that it was Goethe who conceived the
idea of Weltliteratur, which is surely the sort of literature*global and
eclectic in perspective, suspicious of and ironic with regard to all forms of
cultural and political parochialism and puritanism*that Borges was
endeavouring to write both in El jardn and elsewhere. The reference to
Goethe seems all the more significant if we recall the particular cultural
encounter which inspired the coinage, an encounter of which, as the story
itself suggests, Borges was surely aware:

Within the last few days, since I saw you, said [Goethe], I have read
many things; especially a Chinese novel, which occupies me still and
seems to me very remarkable. Chinese novel! said I; that must look
strange enough. Not so much as you might think, said Goethe; the
Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that
we are perfectly like them, except that all they do is more clear, pure, and
decorous, than with us. [. . .] But then, I said, is this Chinese novel
perhaps one of their most superior ones? By no means, said Goethe, the
Chinese have thousands of them, and had when our forefathers were
still living in the woods. I am more and more convinced, he continued,

32 For an excellent introduction to the concept of eutrapelia, see Colin Thompson,

Eutrapelia and Exemplarity in the Novelas ejemplares, in A Companion to Cervantess
Novelas ejemplares, ed. Stephen Boyd (London: Tamesis, 2005), 26181. Many of Borges
postmodern narrative techniques (stories within stories, missing pages, unreliable narrators,
questionable editorial intrusions etc.) are, of course, Cervantine in origin.
33 Balderston, Out of Context, 152, n. 17.

that poetry is the universal possession of mankind . . . the epoch of

world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its

In sum, Borgess miniaturized literary Welt may seem less ambitious than
Tsui Pens projected textual multiverse, but, avoiding the desvaro laborioso
y emprobrecedor of the latter, it distils its hopelessly anarchic jumble into a
few crystalline and poignant pages, the significance of which is no less far-
reaching and, dare one say it, timeless.35

This essay began with a piece of fortuitous clairvoyance, so it is perhaps
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fitting that it should end with one. Kuhns serviceable but conservative
German translation gives little idea of how just self-consciously playful and
multi-layered a novel The Dream of the Red Chamber/The Story of the Stone
is. Indeed, though its author(s) could never have imagined it, many of its
narrative techniques directly anticipate those which Borges would make
famous in his fictions nearly two centuries later. The ending, supplied by the
books second author, Gao E, and considerably fleshed out in more recent
translations, is a case in point. It sees a rather pedantic Taoist Holy Man,
referred to variously as Reverend Vanitas or Reverend Void, whom we
initially encounter in the opening chapter (though not in Kuhns version),
where he first comes across the stone of the title, transcribe the story of the
entire novel from the stone itself and take it to none other than Yu Tsun for
verification. Yu Tsun, whose name means fictitious words or rustic fiction
(i.e. extravagant tales to which we ought not to lend too much credence),
instructs him to take his manuscript, many generations later, to the books
first author, Cao Xuequin.36 This he solemnly does, receiving the following,

34 Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, trans. John Oxenford, revised
ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1909), 21113 (my italics). Goethes tutelary presence is also
suggested by other details, such as the references to the moon throughout the story (Goethe
commented on the fact that there is much talk of the moon in the novel in question
[Conversations, 211], as indeed there is in The Dream of the Red Chamber) and the fact that
when Yu Tsun enters Alberts study he sees a biblioteca de libros occidentales y orientales (El
jardn, 108) (Goethe published the complete, twelve-book version of his Westostlicher Divan
[the title is surely echoed in Borges text], his last great poetic cycle, in 1827).
35 The reference is taken from the Prologo to El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan,
where Borges outlines his famous aesthetic stratagem of avoiding writing cumbersome tomes
of quinientas paginas by pretending that those books already exist and offering instead un
resumen, un comentario (Ficciones, 12). El jardn is a perfect illustration of the technique.
36 Manuel Ferrer (later cited by Balderston) is wrong to suggest that Yu Tsun is a
personaje importante who esta detras de todo el desarrollo y la urdimbre de la novela
(Borges y la nada [London: Tamesis, 1971], 181). True, he appears at the beginning and the
end, but he barely figures in the rest of the narrative. The (humorous) significance of his name
is more important than the role which he plays in the work.

distinctly unsolemn response from Cao, who has a walk-on part as a


Since this is a fictitious, rustic tale [Jia Yu Cun Jan], provided it contains
no clerical errors or perverse contradictions [errores que la negligencia
de los copistas ha introducido], it will serve to while away the time with a
couple of friends after wine and food, or to dispel loneliness some rainy
evening under the lamp by the window.

And Reverend Voids response?

The Reverend Void threw back his head and laughed, then tossed him the
manuscript and left saying to himself, So its all hot air*fantastic!
Neither author, transcriber nor readers can tell what its all about. It is
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nothing but a literary diversion to entertain readers.37

In other words, though telling a complex and sometimes tragic story, it

offers a hearty slice of eutrapelia, something of which Borges would surely
have approved. Which leads to a final thought. Borges was, of course, a
fervent Anglophile (El jardn itself is set in England), and his English near
native. Whilst the Spanish title of the story is clearly supposed to sound
Chinese, it is hard not to imagine that, in choosing it, he also had a rather
less lofty English expression in mind, one which perfectly sums up the
readers disorienting experience as s/he attempts to negotiate his/her way
along and around the twists and turns of this slipperiest of tales: being led up
the garden path*a process which, as I hope this essay has gone some way
towards demonstrating, is not without its uses.

37 A Dream of Red Mansions, trans. Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang, 3 vols (Beijing:
Foreign Languages Press, 1980), III, 58586.