The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Borges' Use of Metafiction in "The Garden of Forking Paths"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1586

Before the publication of his first collection of short stories, El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan [The Garden of Forking Paths] in 1941, Argentine readers knew Jorge Luis Borges as a writer of poetry and

The publication of his first short stories, however, marked a shift in his reputation. Soon, Borges would achieve an international reputation because of his short stories. By the late twentieth century, critics and scholars listed Borges as one of the most important writers of the century.

Although Borges is widely considered an important writer, not all critics appreciate his work— particularly his short stories. There are those who find his work overly cerebral and erudite, too filled with esoteric allusions and philosophical argument to qualify as literature at all. On the other hand, there are those such as Martin Staab who admire his ‘‘literary gamesmanship, playful philosophizing, linguistic dabbling, and urbane humour.’’ It seems that with Borges, readers feel strongly one way or another.

"The Garden of Forking Paths", first published in 1941 in the collection of the same name, is a typically Borgesian story if there is such a thing. James Woodall, in his book, The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges, maintains that the story ‘‘is the densest, and perhaps philosophically most nihilistic, story Borges ever wrote.''

Moreover, he contends that Borges constructs an elaborate discussion of time, using ‘‘[s]inology, the philosophy of labyrinths and gardens, espionage and premonition’’ to demonstrate the ‘‘essentially fictitious and yet inescapable'' nature of time.

Readers of Borges, therefore, are left with many questions when reading this story. Is it a detective story? A philosophical treatise? Is it about time? About future(s) in potential? To these questions, it is possible to add one more: can "The Garden of Forking Paths" be read as an example of metafiction, fiction that takes as its subject the creation of fiction itself?

Metafiction is an important term in postmodern literature; yet Borges' story appeared some thirty years before the self-consciously metafictional texts of the postmodern era. Thomas Weissert identifies Borges as "a transitional figure between modern and postmodern literature,'' and it is through his use of metafiction that this seems most clear.

Indeed, writers such as Didier Jaén, Weissert, and others explore Borges' use of metafiction. The concept of metafiction may seem at first strange to readers used to reading realistic or mimetic texts, that is, texts that are constructed to reflect or mimic reality. However, by examining first, the characteristics of metafiction, and second, how "The Garden of Forking Paths" illustrates those characteristics, readers can grow in their understanding of both the concept of metafiction and the story itself.

A metafictional text, according to Patricia Waugh in her book Metafiction: The Theory and the Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, is one that "self-consciously and systematically draws attention to itself as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality." "The Garden of Forking Paths" does this in a number of ways.

In the first place, the story opens with a reference to a historical event and a historical text, followed by the statement by Yu Tsun. This clearly calls into question the "relationship between fiction and reality." By suggesting that the statement to follow offers yet another historical explanation for the event referred to in the historical text, Borges undermines the truth of the historical text itself.

In addition, the impersonal narrator mentions that the first two pages of the document are missing. The information serves to remind the reader that what is to follow is a description of a series of events constructed after the fact. That the two pages are missing also serves to remind the reader that the editor of the statement can change and manipulate the material in the statement.

The fact is further emphasized by the inclusion of a footnote early in the story. The unnamed narrator corrects a statement made by Yu Tsun that Richard Madden murdered Viktor Runeberg. The narrator tells the reader that even the name used by Yu Tsun for Viktor Runeberg is incorrect. As a result, the reader does not know which narrator to trust: the unnamed opening narrator or Yu Tsun.

Indeed, the inclusion of the footnote forces the reader to question the reality of the narrator, a violation of the unspoken agreement that readers enter into with writers of realistic texts. Narrators have to at least seem real or they cannot function as narrators.

As this further illustrates, metafictional texts often function at several narrative levels. In other words, there are stories within stories within stories in this text. At the first level, there is the unnamed narrator who instructs the reader to connect Yu Tsun' s statement with a passage from a history text.

At the second level is Yu Tsun's statement describing his journey and conversation with Dr. Stephen Albert. Within this level is the story of Yu Tsun's ancestor who withdraws from the world to write a book and build a labyrinth. At the innermost level is the novel itself, "an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts," according to Yu Tsun, or according to Dr. Albert, a brilliant novel that reveals the labyrinthine nature of time.

By naming the novel at the innermost narrative level The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges calls attention to the fact that there is yet another narrative level above the unnamed primary narrator. That is, the story itself, "The Garden of Forking Paths" contains the first narrator and all of the narrative levels below it.

Therefore, if the novel at the center of the story is a fictional creation of the fictional Ts'ui Pen, then the story "The Garden of Forking Paths" is also a fictional creation. What, then, does this imply about Borges himself? Is he suggesting that the author is a fictional creation, someone constructed by the language and the reader?

Borges violates another unspoken agreement between writer and reader that the text will follow in a linear fashion from start to finish. Storytelling works because of the linear arrangement of the text. Borges, however, introduces the possibility that texts may not be linear.

He does this by revealing the nature of the fictitious novel at the center of the story. The novel, according to Albert, puts forward an infinite number of futures—many of them contradictory. According to Albert, "In the work of Ts'ui Pen, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings.''

Likewise, metafictional texts, because they are texts about texts, introduce the possibility of multiple meanings. As Peter Stoicheff argues, "This is one way of saying that within the finite space of any text are an infinite number of possible meanings, whose hierarchy metafiction refuses to arbitrate."

In other words, in the world of fiction no one meaning has any more connection to reality than any other meaning. Therefore, all meanings and no meanings are simultaneously possible, just as all of the futures in "The Garden of Forking Paths" are possible within the fictional world. However, since it is a fictional world, none of the futures exist in reality.

Furthermore, metafictional texts differ from realistic texts in that they often contain both contradictions and coincidences that force readers to question the "reality" of the universe created by the writer. In a realistic text, there is an agreement between the writer and the reader that the reader will believe the world the writer has created as long as the writer stays within the conventions of that fictional world. In a realistic text, natural law must be obeyed and characters must act as if they were real people.

However, in a metafictional text like "The Garden of Forking Paths", the coincidental nature of many of the events forces the reader to accept that the story has no connection to reality. For example, Yu Tsun picks a name out of a phone book. The person who has the name is a noted sinologist who has spent years studying a novel written by Yu Tsun's ancestor. Such coincidence calls attention to the fact that in the world of fiction, anything can happen. The writer controls the story because it is a story, not reality.

What a story like "The Garden of Forking Paths" reveals, then, is that all fiction, whether realistic or fantastic, is a product of language. The characters that exist in the pages of the text—no matter how real they seem—are no more than ink on paper. They have no existence before the beginning of the text, and they have no future at the end of the text. They are, pure and simple, creations of language and narration.

Consequently, the implications that a metafictional text like "The Garden of Forking Paths" finally introduce are profoundly disturbing. As the character Yu Tsun tells the reader early in the story, "everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now." Once an event is past, it exists nowhere but in memory and narration.

Likewise, the future exists nowhere but in the imagination and in narration. By calling attention to itself as fiction, the metafictional text also calls attention to the nature of reality itself, at least suggesting that the lines between fiction and the narration of lived experience are perhaps fuzzier than anyone wants to admit.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.
Henningfeld is an associate professor at Adrian College who writes widely on literature for educational publishers.

Irony Grows in My Garden: Generative Processes in Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5228

‘‘We must never forget that [Borges's] at the service of games rather than convictions....The purpose of the game is not to discover incognizable reality; it has an aesthetic aim."

The "aesthetic aim" Jurado refers to suggests that Jorge Luis Borges is concerned with the effect of his work, and that this effect may have something to do with the mental processes that give shape to what is then called reality. To suggest that Borges is concerned with stimulating the creative faculties of his audience appears legitimate; he says his work is a means of "fusing the world of the reader and the world of the book."

This possibility implies an intention similar to Robbe-Grillet's demand for the active participation of the reader in the creation of the work. More than that, it is—as with Robbe-Grillet, or Proust or Coleridge before him—a recognition that "imagination" is precisely that process of constructing significance for oneself. Borges's "games" are designed to extend the "field of play" as far as possible and to make the reader aware that he or she is playing. Borges is aware, too, that the way in which this happens is through the physical changes induced in the brain by the demands made by his text: he states that "what is essential is the aesthetic factor, the thrill, the physical effect brought about by reading."

Looking at what happens when reading a story by Borges, one sees that the work necessarily and openly accepts the commitment made by the reader in entering the fictional sphere. Although the story may ultimately wish to correct the reader's notions about the relationship of fiction and reality, it first of all welcomes the assumption that these spheres are different and similar in the ways in which the reader has conventionally come to believe. The writer welcomes even more the reader's desire to gain something from the reading. This drive may be blocked, deflected, or turned upon itself, but it remains a necessity for reader and writer. The desire rests on assumptions much profounder, perhaps, than even a belief in the ability of language to signify—to say something meaningful about the world. It may reflect the sense that actions move towards some kind of completion, that there is some kind of shape to a succession of lived and willed events. That is, fundamentally, an intuition of order which is aesthetic in nature rather than merely intellectual. Thus the satisfaction gained from reading a book in its entirety has as much, if not more, to do with a grasping of pattern and plan, as with the simple knowledge of "what happens in the end."

A book draws, then, on two kinds of rather crucial awareness—about the nature of reality, and about the way in which relating to it is a matter of perceiving a growth of plan and order. These concerns have perhaps become oversimplified and reduced to superficiality by conventional ideas about reading (both the mental and the physical operations involved) and by the large amount of easily "consumable’’ reading material available. So, in fact, Borges and others may not be making totally new demands, but rather attempting to reestablish the fundamental issues of reading; a "revolution" in the sense of returning to something. That which has been forgotten must be reestablished, and in order for this to happen, the forgotten must be highlighted. The text will, therefore, at first appear extraordinary; indeed it has to appear extraordinary, so that people can see the process of reading as something "new" and worth investigation. Shock tactics may be in order at this stage in the process. Just as Rilke said that poetry needed to respond to the earth's wish to become "invisible," so reading must become a new and strange experience in order for it to register. Readers must be made aware of the fact that they are reading, otherwise they will never perceive the extraordinary richness and importance of this old and familiar process. So Borges's work, like that of Robbe-Grillet and Gombrowicz, hovers incessantly around the borders of the "normal" and the "abnormal," constantly interrelating and juxtaposing the two.

The text needs, therefore, to be doing at least two things at once: inviting and stimulating the sense that something is to be discovered, some "point'' to the reading; and subverting or distorting the over-hasty assumptions that tend to be made about how that point is reached. A title may do the job quite well. Take, for instance, the well-known Borges story, "The Garden of Forking Paths."

The title both seduces and subverts. Like other Borges stories, it offers a prospect of mystery but also suggests the opposite of a closed or simple solution. The garden and the labyrinthine implications have vaguely esoteric, Eastern, or exotic connotations. The detective format of the story (like "Death and the Compass'') is similar not only to G. K. Chesterton, whom Borges certainly liked, but also to Robbe-Grillet (detectives in Les Gommes, La Maison de Rendez-Vous, Labyrinths in Dans le Labyrinthe, Topologie d'une Cite Fontome). Butor (Passage de Milan) and Beckett (Molloy) also have something of the detective formula. Detective stories traditionally play a kind of game with the reader; they also traditionally offer a number of blind alleys, red herrings, spurious "clues," and so on. Whatever the "truth" may be, it will not be reached easily. In addition, the nouveau roman and other post-modernist writing (e.g., new American fiction in works like Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49) often reverses the implicit assumption encoded into the structure of detective fiction and deliberately refuses any single or definitive solution that will ultimately be "revealed'' to the reader. All of these possibilities float about in Borges's title, promising in addition a kind of intimate and bizarre pleasure. Getting caught up in the forking paths is a kind of Baudelairean invitation au voyage, leading readers to engage both narrative and mental processes, and the ways in which they may interact.

The story advertises its dubious wares clearly enough; it lays them out more fully in the combination of seductive and suggestive settings, themes, and appellations which follow. A summarization of the narrative in linear fashion is unnecessary, but the ingredients are clearly chosen for their effect: a Chinese spy for the Germans; a sinologist holding the key to the labyrinthine work of the spy's ancestor; a plot involving murder, attempted killing, and a message that will result in many deaths; the conjunction of modern (1916) war and Chinese culture; the sending of a secret message. The structure of the narrative is a typical (for Borges, as for Robbe-Grillet) "Chinese-box" affair, moving from the apparent neutrality of the opening paragraph [‘‘On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World War I you will read ...’’ (Labyrinths)] to a statement by the Chinese spy-cum-professor, to the English sinologist Albert's outline of Ts'ui Pen's work, to direct quotation from and involvement in that work. Version is enclosed within version, each narrative with its own range of reference and association, its own standards and horizons of "truth." Borges's fictional composition includes and comments upon the confessions of a spy, the philosophical exegesis of an academic, the traditionally inscrutable joke of a complex mind. The interference of the narratives incites reference back and forth, setting up analogies between contemporary historical events and cultural reflections, betwen the various levels of personal existence of Dr. Yu Tsun, between nationalities, beliefs, and codes.

This interaction is deliberately sought after in the structure and detail of the narratives. It is apparent even at the simple level of names and nationalities, with a Chinese-German spy, an English-Chinese expert, and an Irish-English secret service agent (who speaks German at the outset). The Chinese spy was formerly "professor of English at the Hochschule in Tsingtao" (Labyrinths). The result of his actions in Staffordshire will be understood in Berlin and translated into action in France. This confusion of nationality and identity can suggest various aspects: the complexity of political interaction and its implications for national identity; the increasing difficulty of simplistic notions about culture and genealogy; twentieth-century doubts about the singleness and stability of personality; the issue of how much our behavior is affected by the language we speak.

What happens, in general terms, is that each notation (here and in other Borges stories) works less as an attempt to "clarify" someone's identity and role than as a kind of magnetic field for associations. The stories are so short, and the details so few, that "realistic" character-portrayal is clearly not intended. (The same is true for Robbe-Grillet's longer fictions: "characters" frequently change names, and in La Maison de Rendez-Vous many of the names they adopt are aliases or have theatrical connotations, e.g. "L'Americain," "Lady Ava.") Names (and other details), become a kind of vibratory charge—not so much a definite symbol as a means of calling up associative possibilities (Chineseness, distinguished professorship) which themselves are usually deliberately vague. In this respect, the brevity of Borges' stories produces a highly-charged symbolism of doubt and possibility, which is intensified by many other techniques including the switch between narrative levels—realism and fantasy, for instance, or the confessional and the exegetic. Or the shifting or playing between psychological exploration and fantastic inventiveness; or the typical Borges mixture of genuine quotation and "spurious" scholarship. Uncertainty is produced whichever way you "read" the story, and principally if one manages to read it all ways at once—which is what the labyrinth at the center of the story suggests. It is "a labyrinth of symbols'' (Labyrinths). These symbols point, however, not to some definitive grand interpretative scheme, but to the conjunction of apparently antagonistic possibilities: all four alternative endings, Albert explains, are possible for Ts'ui Pen's work.

Yu Tsun, however, chooses one of the endings and shoots Albert, in order to convey his secret message (the name Albert, as reported in the press, will also indicate the town in France that the Germans must attack). He, by a combination of historical necessity and psychological condition, opts for a single solution, which will inevitably result in his death as a murderer. In Robbe-Grillet and Gombrowicz, as here, and elsewhere in Borges, killing as closure is always suspicious—it is usually heavily ironized, and virtually never achieves the kind of solution it promises.

Murder, then, or sudden death, is a means of presenting one of the two poles between which the story oscillates. Mentioned also is that Yu Tsun's ancestor was murdered, and Albert refers to excerpts from his book concerned with a battle and with the various possible outcomes of a meeting between a man with a secret and a stranger. Albert claims that Ts'ui Pen meant the reader to choose not one alternative outcome, but all of them: the book is intended as a demonstration of what Valery called noeuds and contemporary critical theory describes as generateurs. That is to say, there are points in a text (any point, by implication) where the reader, like the writer, may seize not only upon the self-perpetuating inventiveness of narrative and decide to draw on any prticular association or link to give the text a new twist, but the reader or writer is also aware at that moment of holding within his grasp (in his imaginative or magical power) the secret or possibility of all future developments of that text. He is at the point where the paths fork. Any path is a potential murder/death because it can lead to closure; but the dominating single-mindedness (obsession or terrorism, for Robbe-Grillet) of each textual departure can always be arrested, and hauled back to any point from which the plurality of possibility becomes available again.

Yu Tsun has a secret (Albert's name) that he must encode and transmit. Albert has a secret (the nature of Ts'ui Pen's book and of his labyrinth). The garden is a "secret" kind of location (with medieval, Chinese, mystical, erotic, biblical-genetic connotations). Borges's story teases us with its secretive atmosphere and offers a few clues (some helpful but hidden, others unhelpful and overt) as the reader is put in the position of trying to figure out what Yu Tsun is trying to do. In all cases, the real nature of the secret is generative rather than unitary. (A brief aside to The Sect of the Phoenix, whose aura of arcane profundity and talk of the Secret is a joke on the phoenix's propensities for sex.) Even Yu Tsun's message, when transmitted, has more than one possible outcome, and is important to him in more than one way. As an Oriental, he despises the Western conflict in which he finds himself caught up, but he needs to complete his mission to justify himself (and by implication his family and his race) in the eyes of his narrow-minded German boss (described as a "sick and hateful man—in his arid office"— Labyrinths). The import of the secrets is that in messages, in wisdom, and in all encoded texts (as shown by the successive frames of the story) reside not closed "answers'' but structures of possibility.

That kind of structure is represented by Albert's proposition (fascinating to Yu Tsun and frequent in Borges) stating Ts'ui Pen's work reveals a conjunction of all time and identity. That is to say, when you actually stand at the point where paths fork, you hold sequence and causality in your power. This bifurcation is the "now'' point of reading in contemporary critical theory, the point where reader and text converge. (Do battle, as in Simon's La Bataille de Pharsale (= la phrase) or Ricardou's La Prise (= la prose ) de Constantinople: hence the battle quoted from Ts'ui Pen, of which two versions are given, and the battle Yu Tsun's act will influence.) It is the location of moral choice, in existentialist theory: the place from which the self is constructed, or—consistent with phenomenology—consciousness wills or intends a new perception and construction of reality.

Borges's games are not trivial, because as L. A. Murillo contends, "The conjecture is about radical questions of human existence, time, personal will, consciousness, and destiny." Such questions are pertinent to the protagonist (Yu Tsun) of "The Garden of Forking Paths," and are mediated through him, and through the structure of interlocking narratives Borges builds around him, to the reader. Thus "The Garden" is a "representation of the very process by acquire their symbolical significance in the consciousness of the protagonist and...reader." The games, then, are centrally "about" the exploration by the reader (where else can the story "take place'' ?) of certain states and procedures in consciousness: those states and procedures that concern the way in which we invest our experience with understanding or significance, by which we arrive at our ability to interact creatively and purposively with our environment. The elements of game play that Borges uses here are for the purpose of propelling the reader towards this exploration.

Murillo, in The Cyclical Night, suggests that Yu Tsun is presented as being in an ethical vacuum: existentially aware of his responsibility in a world whose political, social, and psychological upheaval has negated a priori values, and conscious of his need to locate himself and make a choice that endows being and acting with meaning. Again one sees the confusing intersection of personal, cultural, and historical identities in the story. The "vacuum," also presented to the reader through the mystery, paradox, and symbolic condensation of the narrative, demands to be grasped and developed as text, as another way of pinpointing the source of moral choice.

Yu Tsun takes, perhaps, the easy way out. He opts for the single, deadly solution, though knowing, as his wry admission at the end makes clear, that it is not really so simple. "‘He does not innumerable contrition and weariness."— Labyrinths). The odd adjective indicates Yu Tsun's acknowledgment of the chance of plurality, a chance he passes over.) Yu Tsun tries, by recalling his murder of Albert, to construct around the event a narrative that gives it the status of irrevocability (all incidents seem restrospectively compelling and essential). His "confession" is thus fundamentally spurious. Its format proposes an acquiescence that, in fact, is quite the reverse of the confession's purpose. His narrated version, like his act of murder, seeks to impose a unique and dominant reading.

That uniqueness and dominance is, however, undermined by the multiplicity of narratives within which Borges frames the story. It is, moreover, further placed in perspective by the contrast between Yu Tsun (actually Chinese but betraying his culture and his identity) and Albert (a Westerner who is far more an incarnation of traditional Chinese wisdom). Yu Tsun disregards or distorts Albert's possibilities; he uses him only as a cipher in a code of language and action. Yu Tsun tries uneasily to justify his action as inevitable in terms of historical necessity. Albert is, however, also the sign of many other possibilities, more inclusive than the use to which his name is put as indicating a place to be destroyed. In addition to his grasp of the fluid dynamism of the labyrinth, he seems to Yu Tsun a person of Goethean stature, endowed with wisdom and easy grace. Living within the procreative garden, or labyrinth, Albert is at the junction of East and West, uniting the contemplative and the active, the English and the German, in a harmonious and lively balance, like that of nature and the "sparkling music'' through which he is approached. He is the kind of multiple possibility that Yu Tsun ignores.

Murillo describes the labyrinthine structure by which consciousness is represented as a "metaphysical ground" (The Cyclical Night). The "hesitation" (Todorov's term)—characteristic of postmodernist texts and here instilled by the confusions and paradoxes, the ironic juxtaposition of versions, and so on—produced in protagonist and reader is the moment of absence (of choice, significance) that impels selection of world and action. The existentialist reading suggests that the motive force is an angst, a desperate need to fill the vacuum by projecting anything. That is certainly one factor, and it may be the principal one in Yu Tsun's case. But the contradictions, blocks, and ironic perspectives of the story's structure, together with its repeated indications about the plural significance of secrets, and the balance of forces harmonized in Albert, offer an alternative mode of response.

Such a response is also offered to Yu Tsun. As he moves towards Albert's house, he experiences a kind of detachment combined with a liveliness of perception. The "slope of the road...eliminated any possibility of weariness," and he feels himself to be an abstract perceiver of the world" (Labyrinths). At this point he becomes aware of the "living countryside" and of an "almost syllabic music," which he later realizes is Chinese. Here, as always in Borges, the topology is not realistic scene-setting but directions to a mental state. Robbe-Grillet clearly works in a similar fashion in Topologie d'une Cite Fantome, but the parallel is not quite exact. Robbe-Grillet maps out with ironic geometrical precision the moves of an imagination confined by its own obsessions and by a passion for linguistic symmetry. Borges's landscapes have perhaps more in common with the terrains vagues of Beckett: they present not so much a process as a condition in which a process may take place. Beckett's world, for example, in Molloy, is one in which objects are cherished precisely because they are "en voie de disparition'': the protagonists are in the process of ridding themselves of inherited assumptions about reality and its relationship with language. What we have is a curious kind of precise vagueness, a very persistent and subtle attempt to render a state in which "meaning" is loosening its hold, dissolving the links between word and experience. (Everything dissolves or disintegrates in Beckett: bicycles, limbs, relationships—the onions in Moran's Irish stew in Molloy: "On n'est pas lie?" is what the tramps in Godot ask each other.) Borges's descriptions, though they are in a way more detailed, frequently operate with a similar combination of the vague and the precise. That is to say, they are attempting to pinpoint a condition of increasing "vagueness," or distance from the restrictions of conventional levels of thinking and perceiving.

What increasing vagueness leads towards is exactly that moment when no single interpretation is dominant and possibility has re-established itself. Yu Tsun is in a kind of suspended animation in which the possibilities of harmony present themselves most fully to him. His state of physical ease matches the time of day (late afternoon) and the surroundings: "the afternoon was intimate, infinite" (Labyrinths); his consciousness is freed from its preoccupation with limited ends—he feels that it is not possible to be the enemy of a country, in the sense that he is now experiencing it. He is integrated with his surroundings, acting spontaneously, and feeling at home (he instinctively accepts the music and does not remember whether he knocks at Albert's gate or rings a bell). He is, in short, in a condition of very lively and expanded awareness in which his doubts about identity are replaced by a kind of oneness with nature as the source of order and mobility—"fireflies, words, gardens, streams of water, sunsets." Yu Tsun's state is what brings him to the center of the labyrinth, and Albert comes to open the gate, holding a symbolic lantern.

Yu Tsun is in fact blinded by the light, and cannot make out Albert's face. That is to say, in this situation where he becomes aware of himself as a center of possibility, an organizing potential, a consciousness which can shape and form, he is not able to pin Albert down as a limited and thus expendable identity. This "awareness of awareness" is both positive and negative, a sense of hesitation in which simplistic single interpretations are found inadequate, and the pluralistic is on the verge of presenting itself.

Thus the two versions of the battle in Ts'ui Pen's book offer as reasons for victory apparently contrary states of mind: the warriors experience situations that make them feel either existential angst or joy. On the one hand, individual identity is felt to be insignificant; on the other it is merged in a communal celebration. In both cases an apparent negation of individual significance leads to a "victory" or fruitful outcome. In a similar way, the postmodernist "negative aesthetic" is a way of continually emphasizing the apparently negative in order to reveal hidden possibilities. Whatever is said also provides a way of not saying everything else: it puts off, conceals, and defers (differer, pace Derrida) all the other possibilities of language. So what is said is frequently contradicted or revealed to be inadequate, in order that it may be seen to have those other possibilities lurking behind or within it, as linguistic history for example, or as association, or as alternative readings.

In the one "direct quote," Borges gives us from Ts'ui Pen's text, the warriors are referred to as "heroes, tranquil their admirable hearts, violent their swords, resigned to kill and to die" (Labyrinths). The line might have come out of the Bhagavad Gita, an epic much concerned with the problems of fighting in the proper way. (Although Borges may not have actually taken it from there, he did use the Gita as one source among many for esoteric references.) Taking a leaf out of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's commentary on the Gita, Borges would probably interpret the quotation something like this: "swords'' refer to the "outer'' organs of action, "hearts'' to the inner state of mind. An apparently contradictory condition here renders the mind still and the body violently active. This condition actually allows the warriors to perform action without attachment to the result (however drastic that may seem), and because of that the action is in fact most successful and the warriors can be classified as heroes. Taking the gloss further, one can see that this kind of neutrality is the mark of being in the state where the possibilities are held in play. "Negative" or "positive" outcomes (apparent surrender or destruction of one "side") are balanced, or perhaps perceived to be equally false. At this point one is the master of the opposites (as Thomas Mann puts it in The Magic Mountain), as is the figure of Stephen Albert and his interpretation of Ts'ui Pen's narrative, and as is Borges with his construction of interlocking versions, and as the reader may be.

This interpretation is not inconsistent with Borgesian practice, but it does suggest a further point: "suspended animation'' may be a more exact term than we suspected. It may be necessary to look further at this condition, since it does seem to be represented both by Yu Tsun and by the warriors. Useful parallels may be drawn between what occurs in reading and in certain states of consciousness closely analyzed in psycho-physiological terms by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His theory, together with experimental evidence derived from scientific investigation, can provide some interesting angles on the nature of aesthetic experience. One of the most crucial conditions for the experience is precisely the one in which stillness and activity appear to be present simultaneously.

What appears to happen is that a kind of neutral expectancy may be produced, as a background against which a variety of possibilities may be generated. I think this happens in "The Garden of Forking Paths'' and in other Borges texts as a result of what Murillo calls "displacement." In a phe-nomenological reading of the story, the narrator is realized via the narrative as a process; that is, as a succession of different vantage points, perceptions, or versions: the various styles and readings are a record of successive states of consciousness. (They move from the "outer" historical account of the war, through the deceptively confessional spy story, to Yu Tsun's more intimate sensations on approaching Albert's house, to Albert's gloss of Ts'ui Pen's work, and finally to the "direct quotation" given above: a graded progression towards the condition described and which Yu Tsun then reluctantly rejects.) The narrator presents this succession as a record of successive locations of his being-in-the-world, much as, for instance, Sartre's Roquentin in La Nausee tries out a variety of styles in an attempt to express the shifts and variations of identity. But just as from the mock-detective perspective, none of the versions offers the whole truth, so too each style is relativized by the next frame that the narrative adopts. Each central symbol, theme, or idea is assimilated into a successively more extensive context, which displaces it from central to relative importance. In this way the reader is gradually pushed into a state in which he or she doesn't totally accept or reject anything. The movement of the narrative into new frameworks takes the reader along, and at the same time serves as a block to any once-and-for-all opting for the previous perspective. One has to take part in the process by which meanings are created, but one is prevented from attributing finality to any one interpretation. The movement is something like closing and opening a pair of nutcrackers, as each possibility is grasped, then released as its kernel is found to be generative rather than final. Murillo neatly explains Borges' semi-invented locality for the 1916 battle in this vein: Serre-Montauhan suggests a tension between "compulsion'' and "freedom''—which is both that of Yu Tsun's moral dilemma and of the reader's progress through the text. Interestingly, Ludovic Janvier describes Robbe-Grillet's narrative as built around the "couple fascination-liberte." This "disengaging compulsion toward ironical displacement" allows the reader both to experience and to judge the progress of the protagonist/narrator. It further allows the reader to locate the source of creative and moral action, but forces him or her to return again and again to its nature as potential, and not to get carried away into one-sided choice.

The key to the production of this state is repetition. One reads on and on, and keeps getting blocked. Readers are somewhere between remembering and not remembering, between believing and not believing. They are in one sense getting lost in a labyrinth, and in another discovering that the secret of a labyrinth can be found only in that way. The reader becomes both active—in that she or he continues to read and to weigh up further possible additions and outcomes—and nonactive, in that everything is somehow held in abeyance, given a kind of nonfinite status, its seeming definitiveness undermined in advance by the "let's wait and see" mood established at the center of our consciousness. As a parallel to Yu Tsun's exposition of his state, with its moral and psychological implications, the text operates its own aesthetic procedure upon us. The state which Yu Tsun enters, in the labyrinthine center of Albert's enclave, but never fully explores, is offered as the means by which the thematic and structural development of Borges's tale can be most completely judged.

Irony gives more of a perspective so that more of the game can be judged. And yet one can only judge by being involved as well as detached. "Critical distance,'' so often held up as the aim of literary study, does not mean a kind of owlish glare that reduces a text to the status of a dead mouse. It does not mean the cultivation of a spurious and self-delusive "objectivity'' swathed in biographical detail or critical jargon. It means, and it requires, precisely the kind of participation in the reading of a text on all levels which Borges is here working to produce. The reader must "get lost" in the text. Ts'ui Pen "renounced worldly power in construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost" (Labyrinths). The labyrinth is the text, in the sense of the network of meanings through which people make the world known to themselves. If we go on using this text unthinkingly, we never really own the world at all, and perhaps never really experience it either. We have to make it our text, which means first of all forgetting the one convention dictates, and secondly becoming aware of our own propensity for memory and organization. Yu Tsun discovers his own past where he least expects it. Borges's narratives weave their spell of mystery, symbolic density, suggestiveness, and disruption in order to propel the reader into the area, the kind of mental activity, where dream and memory and imagination operate. But more than this, the narratives offer the chance to be and to perceive that operation in process. The reader must learn to manipulate symbol, metaphor, strange registers, and rhythms; to familiarize himself or herself with the most powerful properties, the generative structures of language.

Reading this story can show us our own linguistic and moral capacity. So "dreaming" is not evasion, but rather (as Borges suggests with inevitable irony in "The Circular Ruins") a very precise kind of work. Playing this sort of game—especially if engaged in repeatedly—could very well serve as useful training for everyday activity, even if authors—and critics—tend to overplay the game for its own sake and forget the application.

Source: Ralph Yarrow, "Irony Grows in My Garden: Generative Processes in Borges's 'The Garden of Forking Paths,'" in The Fantastic in World Literature and the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 73-86.

The Garden of and in Borges "Garden of Forking Paths"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3463

"Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted." — E. A. Poe

"...Magic is not the contradiction of the law of cause and effect but its crown, or nightmare.'' — Borges

Michel Foucault in his magnificent preface to The Order of Things quotes a text by Borges, a taxonomy of animals, which is attributed by Borges to a certain Dr. Franz Kuhn, who in turn attributes it to "a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge." The text reads:

Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the above classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Foucault's exegesis of this passage leads him to conclude that Borges is here creating a "heterotopia,'' a place that is an impossible and frightening non-place, a place of language and of mind which manages to contain words "in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus." This procedure, according to Foucault, "destroys...that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to 'hold together.'" I think it could be argued that what Foucault finds Borges doing with words in general, we find the same writer doing with plots in "The Garden of Forking Paths," a story from the celebrated collection Ficciones. Plot emerges in this story in typically Borgesian fashion as a central symbolic element which embodies the author's subversive metaphysics as much as do the elements of theme or imagery more often discussed in the critical literature on this most sophisticated of contemporary writers.

I. The Frame
The first paragraph of "The Garden of Forking Paths'' acts as a frame to the body of the text, a first-person confessional "document" written by Yu Tsun, a Chinese spy for the German Empire operating in England during the First World War. Ostensibly this framing paragraph serves to ground the confessional narrative in historical fact and provides the question to which Yu Tsun's "deposition" is supposedly an answer. The historical fact is the delay of a few days suffered in the British offensive on the Somme River in July, 1916. Borges (or more exactly, the "editor") cities Captain Liddell Hart's A History of the World War to the effect that "torrential rain caused this delay—which lacked any special significance." The reader assumes that Yu Tsun's "deposition" will prove (a) that "torrential rains" were not the decisive factor in the delay and—perhaps—(b) that the delay did have significance. This seems innocent enough if the reader is unaware, as no doubt he is, that the action on the Somme took place a month earlier than Borges quotes Liddell Hart, falsely, as having stated. He will be all the more surprised to discover that an obscure Chinese spy caused this delay by murdering a man who is, it seems, a reincarnation of his ancient ancestor Ts'ui Pen and that the delay thus had a significance of a most unsettling sort, indirectly and on another plane of "reality."

Yet Borges' intention in introducing us to the story via history is not simply to give his fiction an innocent motivation, that of answering the "official" account of a historical event, of attempting, on the basis of later "documentation," to assert historical "truth," whatever that may be. Rather, this frame is there for the purpose of exploding on itself: it is subversive. History, chronological time, has no place in Borges' universe, and since his universe so often appears as the "Book" or model of our universe, ours is left on shaky ground when he has completed his supposedly innocent operation of ascertaining the "truth." The historical work to which Borges refers is itself a "Borgesian'' work: it is a startling narrative of "real'' events which seem more fantastic than any fiction an author could invent. Borges understandbly likes Conrad's thought "that when one wrote, even in a realistic way about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious." The historian Liddell Hart, who is of a positivistic bent to say the least, admits of his enterprise that "it is difficult to pick out salient features where there are either none, or else so many that they tend to merge into a formless mass." Nevertheless, he plods along, sorting out causes and effects, making judgments, interpolating the various "factors" of chance involved in a given battle (with the thoroughness of an Avalon-Hill war game)—and ends up with a fantastic narrative. Borges takes the model of this fantastic but literal narration of "real events'' as his starting point: he will correct Liddell Hart (ostensibly in the interests of historical truth), outdoing the very concept of cause and effect to the point that it turns on itself, and all notions of history, causal time, and truth are overthrown by the "unfathomable."

Such a strategy is quite typical of Borges. As Ronald Christ, in his excellent book The Narrow Act, states: "On the one hand Borges taints the reality which his sources describe; on the other he corrupts the authenticity of those sources themselves; in both cases the motive is to penetrate the metaphysical world which lies beyond fact and substance." In view of this critic's fine understanding of the meaningful distortion which even the simplest quoted text undergoes in Borges' hands, it is surprising that he completely misses the point of the reference to Liddell Hart in "The Garden..," the opening of which, in his view, "shows Borges operating out of an historical background, grafting his fiction, once again, on the stock of fact." The mechanism of quotation, particularly quotation from an authoritative, non-fictional source, may be used as a device to mark the "factual," as opposed to "fictional," nature of a narrative. This is certainly the overt purpose of the opening paragraph of "The Garden..." (This purpose is further served by the presentation of Yu Tsun' s narrative as a "deposition," i.e., agenuine, if personal, account of an actual event, by its naturalistic fragmentation ["the first two pages are missing"], and by the "editor's note," which cantankerously corrects a supposedly slanderous accusation voiced in the deposition.) But the covert purpose of the opening, which, as we shall see, is more important for the story's total effect, is clearly to lull the reader into a type of false security as regards the status of "real'' events, a security he will be forced to give up—if nothing else, in befuddlement. For the expectation of a "factual" type of narrative which the frame sets up is destroyed by Borges' play with two parallel yet incompatible plots, one of a detective, the other of a metaphysical, nature.

II. The Detective Plot
Into the frame of a historical plot, an effort to sort out the cause and effect of a historical event, Borges inserts a detective plot, a more modest (or usually so) effort to find the hidden order underlying a crime. Borges himself has characterized "The Garden of Forking Paths'' as a "detective story'': "its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand—it seems to me—until the last paragraph'' (Ficciones). The reader learns early in the story that Yu Tsun has a secret—the site of a new British artillery park on the Ancre—to communicate to his Chief, a "sick and hateful man...sitting in his arid Berlin office," and that his message will result in the bombing of the site by the Germans and a consequent delay in the British offensive. The reader also learns that Yu Tsun is being pursued by his arch-enemy, the British secret-service agent Madden, and is desperate, and that he is contemplating, and then has planned, a crime—viz., the emphasis on the "revolver with a single bullet" and his various meditations of the sort, "Whosever would undertake some atrocious enterprise...." Furthermore, this planned crime is somehow connected with his communicating the necessary information to his Chief, but all we learn relative to the means of the communication is that "the telephone directory gave [Yu Tsun] the name of the one person capable of passing on the information." Only in the last paragraph of the story do we learn that the crime is the murder of a man named Albert, whose elimination will signal to the Chief the necessity of eliminating the depot at Albert on the Ancre River. (This is, incidentally, a typical "fantastic'' replacement of the inanimate [the name, a sign] by the animate [the unfortunate person who happens to bear the name].) Thus the name, not the man, is to communicate the spy's secret; the murder is a coded message, the solution of which hinges on a semantic notion, that of elimination, and a key word, the name, to express location.

III. The Metaphysical Mystery Plot
The second plot develops out of a coincidence, namely that the man named Albert, chosen by Yu Tsun as his victim-message, is a Sinologist who has solved the metaphysical mystery of the novel-labyrinth left by Yu Tsun's illustrious ancestor, Ts'ui Pen. The second plot is also a detective plot, though of a literary-critical nature, whose solution is also based on the decoding of a message. This message is Ts'ui Pen's will (just as the newspaper article on Albert's murder is in some sense Yu Tsun's will), which is decoded on the basis of the key word time, which Ts'ui Pen eliminated from his novel (just as the key word Albert was "eliminated" by proxy to insure the success of Yu Tsun's plan). The unique novel left by Ts'ui Pen, considered by posterity to be "a shapeless mass of contradictory drafts'' and decoded by the ingenious Albert, is actually a symbolic labyrinth of time in which the various possible futures of the characters are depicted simultaneously. As Albert puts it:

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts'ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel.

"Fang, let us say, has a secret. A stranger knocks at his door. Fang makes up his mind to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes. Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, both can be saved, both can die and so on and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's work all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations. Sometimes the pathways of the labyrinth converge...."

This novel conception of narrative echoes Borges' own view of time, presented throughout his stories and essays, a view which stresses the cyclical nature of history and the concept of the Eternal Return, resulting in a negation of the concept of "individuality'' and, on the literary side, the radical assumption that all authors are ultimately one, all texts forming the collective text of a universal and eternal Author. Borges' theories of time have been admirably discussed by various critics and need not detain us here, though one could note in passing that certain pronouncements of Yu Tsun are rephrasings of Borges' own statement on the subject. In terms of plot, however, it should be stressed that the metaphysical plot parallels the murder plot in abstract form: both involve messages to be decoded on the basis of the elimination of a key term. The fact that one message relates to a man's life and the other to a literary work immediately suggests a disturbing parallelism between the universe (the "real'' plane) and the book (the "fictional" plane).

IV. The Crossing of the Plots
Coincidence brings the two plots together, and the second is contained in the first just as the first is framed historically. The reader expects the second plot to illuminate the first (or at least have some direct bearing upon it) just as the first supposedly illuminates the historical event referred to in the framing paragraph of the opening. Actually, it does so only indirectly, on a different level, and thus again subversively. Before exploring the devices by which the first and second plot are linked, let us turn briefly to one of Borges' most famous theoretical statements on narrative, which is of relevance for an understanding of the overall structure of "The Garden..."

In an essay on "Narrative Art and Magic,'' first published in Spanish in 1932 (i.e., before Borges began writing the stories in Ficciones) and only recently translated into English, Borges outlines a primitive typology of narrative alternatives. His statements refer primarily to the genre of the novel, but are actually of little critical use in approaching that domain; they read more like a manifesto for the future poetics of the short stories in Ficciones. The main problem of the novel for Borges is that of cause and effect, or the motivation of fictional events. He sees two possible approaches. The first, which typifies fiction of "the slow-moving psychological variety," is grounded in character and depends for its success on a chain of cause and effect which may be termed "naturalistic": it is "the incessant result of endless, uncontrollable [psychological] processes." This approach Borges finds wholly unacceptable: as he puts it, citing Mallarme in his support, "the pleasure of reading is in anticipation, and the ideal lies in suggestion." The psychological novel succeeds through a consistency of motivation which, for Borges, is as tiresome as it is predictable. The second approach he discusses is based on "magic," and in it, "—clear and defined—every detail is an omen and a cause." In defining magic, "that craft, or ambition, of early man," Borges quotes the general principle formulated by Sir James Frazer, "the Law of Sympathy, which assumes that 'things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy,' either because their form is similar (imitative, or homeopathic, magic) or because of a previous physical contact (contagious, or contact, magic)," or in more contemporary terms, through association based on similarity or contiguity (respectively metaphoric or metonymic relations). According to Borges, ‘‘the only possible integrity'' for the novel is to be found in "narrative magic." The novel should be "a rigorous scheme of attentions, echoes, and affinities." "Every episode in a painstaking piece of fiction," Borges writes, "prefigures something still to come."

It is not surprising that Borges supports his argument with references to the adventure novel, the detective story, and the "endless spectacular fictions made up in Hollywood." The first two, despite the primitiveness of many of their practitioners, offer manifold possibilities for intricate plotting, in which characters act as "functions" (much as they do in the folk tale) rather than as determiners of the action. The suppression of the psychological element in Borges may be regarded not merely as a philosophical and aesthetic reaction against "the psychologism bequeathed to us by the last century,'' as he puts it, but also as a reflection of a more general poetics of narrative. The emphasis on plot entails a reduction in the importance of character and necessitates a concomitant increase in embedded, structurally significant details of description which prefigure the action and thus form a sort of "secret plot," to use Borges' term.

In returning to "The Garden...," one can see clearly how essential a role details play in cementing the two plots together in line with Borges' aesthetics of "anticipation" and "prefiguration." It is precisely the undercurrent of signification, the "secret plot" formed by connecting links between the two plots, which renders neither plot adequate in explaining the action and results in the disorienting "heterotopia" typical of Borges. The role of detail is most obvious on the level of imagery, where the emphasis on the circle reinforces the theory of cyclical time advanced in the metaphysical plot; as Ronald Christ has pointed out, "cyclical time is evinced in the portentous detail." On the level of plot Yu Tsun's meditation on his ancestor's labyrinth before meeting by "accident" the man who has solved its riddle—a meditation which would seem initially to be a mere "digression"—motivates the meeting with Albert, which does not in the least surprise Yu Tsun. Furthermore, as E. Rodriguez Monegal has shown, Yu Tsun's meditation actually anticipates on an intuitive level the intellectual solution later offered by Albert: "I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars" (italics mine). The details embodied in Albert's discussion of Ts'ui Pen's novel also serve to link the detective and metaphysical plots. In describing the novel's structure, besides the rather portentous example of the character Fang, a stranger, and a murder, Albert has recourse to an illustration based on the present situation, Yu Tsun's appearance at his house: "Sometimes the pathways of the labyrinth converge. For example, you come to this house; but in other possible pasts you are my enemy; in others my friend." And further:

...your ancestor...believed in an infinite series of times in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time—the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries—embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.

Yu Tsun replies: "In all of them...I deeply appreciate and am grateful to you for the restoration of Ts'ui Pen's garden." Albert's response, his last words before being assassinated by Yu Tsun, seem to reveal an intuition of his death at the spy's hands: "'Not in all,' he murmured with a smile. 'Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures and in one of them I am your enemy.'" In terms of the metaphysics of repetition, Albert's death may be interpreted as a reenactment of Ts'ui Pen's "assassination by a stranger'' centuries before. Yu Tsun experiences the "pullulation" of past and future identities, a state in which he becomes an "abstract spectator'' of his own life, which seems directed by a will other than his own. His last words to Albert, "The Future exists now...," seem almost ironic. We are abruptly returned to the detective plot by the sudden appearance of Madden, whom Yu Tsun sees coming through the garden (as if emerging out of his vague hallucinations) to arrest him. The spy's enactment of his plan, the murder of Albert, occurs simultaneously on the level of the mundane causality of the detective plot and on that of the inscrutable causality of the metaphysical; the moment of the murder is on the borderline between the "real’’ and the "fantastic."

The use of two plots, of a murder mystery and a metaphysical mystery which runs imperceptibly parallel and counter to it, is motivated by Borges' desire to upset any notion of plot understood as simple chronological causality, as well as the conception of reality which underlies such a notion. The disjunction of the two plots, the impossible distance which separates the realms to which each pertains, is so startling precisely because of their apparent and less obvious parallelisms. The two plots are connected with history through the framing device and make it (a potential model for plot in general) seem as fantastic as the time of Ts'ui Pen's labyrinth. The "delay" Yu Tsun has caused becomes more significant as having been the cause of his primal reenactment of Ts'ui Pen's assassination than it was in "real" history, and the total significance of the story is caught up in the unfathomable metaphysics of repetition. As one critic temptingly formulates it: "The labyrinth and the book are one and the same. But they are also something else as Borges insinuates—the universe."

Source: Stephen Rudy, "The Garden of and in Borges' 'Garden of Forking Paths,'" in The Structural Analysis of Narrative Texts, edited by Andrej Kodjak, Michael J. Connolly,

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Critical Overview