Essay #4: Jorge Luis Borges

English 1A

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.
In “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.
The 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,