Everness: Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges

Everything and Nothing

Everything and Nothing
BY Jorge Luis Borges
TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH
BY Various Translators
(New Directions, 2010)


From the Publisher:

Everything and Nothing collects the best of Borges’ highly influential work — written in the 1930s and ‘40s — that foresaw the internet (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), quantum mechanics (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), and cloning (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”). David Foster Wallace described Borges as ‘scalp-crinkling… Borges’ work is designed primarily as metaphysical arguments… to transcend individual consciousness.'”

New Directions has republished a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories and brief essays in Everything and Nothing (2010), a welcome event. Republication in the diminutive Pearl series is a good occasion to remind ourselves of Borges’ extraordinary influence on fiction. He demonstrated new narrative techniques, modeled genre bending and blending, and explored large cosmic questions in small fictions.

Few writers have ever demonstrated so clearly how to combine intellect and humor, or how to engage readers without much attention to conventional emotional, social, or political life. Of course, rising above political life caused many to question Borges’ values when he ignored the catastrophic human rights abuses in Argentina during the eighties. As a much younger man Borges experienced the vibrant Dadaist movement in Switzerland, and he never afterwards lost his taste for virtuosity, intellectual daring, iconoclasm, playfulness, surrealism, paradox, costumed identity, and benign mockery. In particular the Dadaists’ taste for subversive literary hoaxes and their satiric iconoclasm infuse his fiction.

Borges is seldom credited for his talents as a comedic writer. Quite remarkably he crafts comedic short stories without ever using the easiest material, human vanity and relationship foibles. Without ever being mean-spirited or misanthropic, his stories and essays craft humor out of our belief systems, our penchant for self-delusion, and our befuddlement in the face of futility.

Few writers have ever demonstrated so clearly how to combine intellect and humor, or how to engage readers without much attention to conventional emotional, social, or political life.

The least unconventional of the five short stories here is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Readers and critics have long delighted in the absurd premise, that a contemporary writer would aspire to write Don Quixote. Not a Quixote, but the Quixote, word for word, not copying but independently creating an identical work.

Pierre Menard might seem mad, but his character is unimportant compared to his ideas, or compared to the character of the narrator, an obsequious friend of Menard’s. This putative scholar seems fastidious about details and accuracy, but in fact he falsifies his catalog of Menard’s writings. He declines to write a biography in deference to two women patrons with more money than sensibility. He suppresses Menard’s erotic passages out of delicacy. Here Borges, too often seen as a reclusive scholar of arcana, constructs a self-referential satire of scholars.

The finest short story here, and the one that most completely suggests Borges’ epistemology, is “Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius.” It purports to be the account by a bookish man of a fictional world created over many years by a secret society. When an encyclopedia of that fictional world is discovered, or leaked, it so fascinates people that they change our world to emulate Tlon. Perceptions of reality and ideologies are like hats and shoes, fashions always changing at the whim of mass psychology.


The unstable nature of perceived reality was doubtless a more startling premise when the story was published in 1944 than it is today. Borges suggests that we construct worlds not only as individuals, but collectively.

Today anyone with an internet connection can engage in the same activity. Fan fiction websites allow anyone to add chapters to Pride and Prejudice, invent a Second Life, engage in group hypertext fiction, or join a virtual community sharing one bizarre world view or another. Even before the internet, groups of people mentally emigrated from our world to that of Dungeons and Dragons, or joined cults, or embraced short-lived ideologies. It is so, Luigi Pirandello reassured us, if you think so.

The selections in Everything and Nothing handle ideas and belief systems like found objects to be rearranged into amusing new combinations that, like all great art, compel us to re-see, re-experience, and re-think.

In his introduction to Everything and Nothing, Donald A. Yates probably understates this story’s primary observation, as he writes that it is about “our own world being taken over by another,” (p. vii). Yates’ interpretation suggests that a fiction has replaced a reality. In fact, the story suggests that, just like Tlon, there is no factual reality about our own world to begin with, merely one construct that gives way inevitably to another. Human history, and its subcomponents like medical practice and economics, is not “one damned thing after another,” it is one damned paradigm after another.

Borges would have us realize that our theological understanding is constructed by theologians, while elsewhere specialists are working away at explaining the newest temporary version of unalterable psychological principles. In every American presidential election, voters seek to affirm or replace competing economic paradigms and cultural values systems. What world are we in, the one described by John Keynes or the one by Milton Freedman? Ralph Nader or John Bolton?

Borges knows how to play tricks at his own expense. In “Death and the Compass” an erudite detective, much like the Borges we know from his essays, prefers interesting theories to actual boring facts. His delight in cabalistic Hebrew numerology is exploited by a clever criminal, who lets the detective trap himself to be the fourth victim he had cleverly expected. Inspector Plod was right all along. The unsuspecting reader is treated to impressive detective work in the tradition of the mystery genre, yet the story end is utterly original.

“The Babylon Lottery” is also true to its genre, science fiction, and it also moves by its conclusion into the psychology of whole cultures, a recognition of randomness consistent with the chaos theory that would capture imaginations four decades after the story appeared. The fifth short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” is at heart a classic spy story even more attentive to the role of minor events in the path of nearly infinite possible outcomes. Borges ends the story with fatalism in a delicate balance with myriad possibilities, all real, none dominant.

The selection of essays in Everything and Nothing is less satisfying than the selection of fictions, perhaps in part because a small book needs brief selections. The three essays that are largely autobiographical reveal more of Borges’ sense of himself than actual facts of his life. “Borges and I,” “Nightmares,” and “Blindness” seem very very much like his stories, except that in some ways they offer less understanding of their real narrator than the stories offer of their fictive narrators. The remaining three essays attempt understandings of other people with more vigor than Borges applies to himself. In “The Wall and the Books,” “Kafka and His Precursors,” and “Everything and Nothing,” Borges’ erudition is always subordinated to his delight in the effervescence of ideas, the illusions of permanence, and the sheer unreliability of nearly everything except the perception of unreliability.

The selections in Everything and Nothing handle ideas and belief systems like found objects to be rearranged into amusing new combinations that, like all great art, compel us to re-see, re-experience, and re-think. This small collection reminds us of why Borges exercised such a deep and lasting influence on fiction writers.

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