Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In a foreword to the publication of Ficciones in 1944, Jorge Luis Borges remarked of “Funes, the Memorious” only that it was “a long metaphor for insomnia.” As such, it is certainly a strikingly apt metaphor, for often when trying unsuccessfully to sleep, one’s memories press insistently to the front of consciousness, and Borges did suffer from insomnia. A poem he wrote around the year 1936 speaks of his mind as “an incessant mirror” which multiplies the remembered details of life around him as he waits for sleep. Critics, however, have been reluctant to consider the story only a “metaphor for insomnia”; some have seen in the work a reflection of Borges’s life at a particularly difficult time when his work as a writer seemed unappreciated, when he may well have considered himself a solitary observer of the world.

There is a second theme in the story, a much more general one whose irony may have appealed to Borges: the nature of thought. For all of Funes’s accomplishments—he had learned English, French, Portuguese, and Latin in addition to his native Spanish—the narrator doubts that he was capable of much thought. As the narrator points out, thought depends on a paradox: The ability to generalize and to abstract requires that one forget the differences between things and concentrate on the similarities. Funes, however, never forgets. Because his memory forces details on him so violently, Funes finds it almost impossible to overlook the differences between things. His memory of the individual moment is so vivid, he is unable to generalize. The narrator states that Funes not only found it hard to understand how a word such as “dog” could represent any member of the species but also was bothered that the same name could be used for the same dog seen from different perspectives or at different times during the day. As the narrator says, “His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion.”

In a short story, it is neither possible nor desirable to present a theory of intellection, yet the theme of “Funes, the Memorious” argues that abstract thought may be hampered by a retentive memory. That generalization, the basis of reasoning, requires that a person step away from the particular and the concrete details of experience.