Painting Borges

Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000, 39.5" x 27.5", pastel on paper.

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000, 39.5" x 27.5", pastel on paper

The traveling exhibition, Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature, consists of a collection of paintings, drawings, etchings, and mixed media works created by 16 artists that interpret twelve stories by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. From 2010 to 2014, the exhibition traveled to nine galleries in Argentina and the United States. The exhibition, curated by Jorge J. E. Gracia, was sponsored by the Samuel P. Capen Chair in Philosophy and Comparative Literature and the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery.

On this page:

Conceptual Puzzles

Twelve stories by Borges are organized according to three topics: identity and memory, freedom and destiny, and faith and divinity. Many of the works in the exhibition were produced specifically for this project. Participating artists: Luis Cruz Azaceta, Alejandro Boim, Miguel Cámpora, Ricardo Celma, Claudio D’Leo, Laura Delgado, Héctor Destéfanis, Carlos Estévez, Etienne Gontard, José Franco, Mirta Kupferminc, Nicolás Menza, Mauricio Nizzero, Estela Pereda, Paul Sierra, and Alberto Rey. 

The book, Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature, written by Jorge J. E. Gracia and published by State University of New York Press in 2012, accompanies the exhibition.

Exhibition and programming support provided by UB’s Samuel P. Capen Chair, University at Buffalo (UB) Art Galleries, Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, UB Humanities Institute, UB’s Department of Comparative Literature, and UB’s Department of Philosophy. 

UB Anderson Gallery is supported with funds from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Anderson Gallery Program Fund, and UB Collection Care and Management Endowment Funds.

The exhibition is part of The College of Arts & Sciences Centennial, celebrating 100 years of excellence in research, teaching and service.

Rompecabezas Conceptuales

Doce cuentos de Borges se organizan de acuerdo a tres temas: la identidad y la memoria, la libertad y el destino, y la fe y la divinidad. Muchas de las obras de la exposición fueron producidas específicamente para este proyecto. Luis Cruz Azaceta, Alejandro Boim, Miguel Cámpora, Ricardo Celma, Claudio D'Leo, Laura Delgado, Héctor Destefanis, Carlos Estévez, Etienne Gontard, José Franco, Mirta Kupferminc, Nicolás Menza, Mauricio Nizzero, Estela Pereda, Pablo Sierra: los artistas participantes y Alberto Rey.

Comisariada por Jorge JE Gracia, Samuel P. Presidente Capen en Filosofía y Profesor Distinguido SUNY.

El libro escrito por Jorge JE Gracia y publicado por la Universidad Estatal de Nueva York Press en 2012, acompaña a la exposición.

Apoyo de Exposiciones y programación proporcionada por Cátedra Samuel P. Capen de UB, Universidad de Buffalo (UB) Galerías de Arte, Consejo de la Herencia Hispana del Oeste de Nueva York, UB Humanidades Instituto, Departamento de Literatura Comparada de la UB, y el Departamento de Filosofía de la UB.

UB Anderson Gallery es apoyado con fondos de la Facultad de Artes y Ciencias, el Fondo Programa Galería Anderson, y la UB Colección Atención y Gestión de fondos de dotación.

La exposición forma parte de la Facultad de Artes y Ciencias del Centenario, que celebra 100 años de excelencia en la investigación, la docencia y el servicio.


The visual interpretation of literature is nothing new. A great part of the history of western art has been concerned with rendering stories, myths, and adventures first recorded in literary genres into visual media. The subject matter of a substantial portion of Greek and Roman art is divine mythology, and in the Renaissance, as many works of art deal with classical topics as with Christian ones. Michelangelo's rendition of the creation in the Sistine Chapel is one of the most dramatic and well known of these. The image of God giving life to Adam, the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the subsequent expulsion from Paradise effectively express the Genesis narrative. The artistic interpretation of literature is so common that it is hard to walk into an art museum and not be confronted with works whose subject matter does not have a literary origin. How many artistic depictions of Dante's Divine Comedy, Cervantes's Don Quixote, and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet have been produced?

In spite of this abundance, the investigation of the artistic interpretation of literature in general is relatively infrequent. Most critics restrict themselves to particular interpretations of literary works, ignoring the broader topics questions that such interpretations involve, such as: how artistic interpretations of literature differ from other kinds of interpretations, their character, and whether it makes sense to call them interpretations when the media of visual art and of literature are so different. To investigate these and many other questions that surface in this is well beyond the boundaries of this exhibition, but I hope the works of art exhibited here serve to raise some of these questions in the audience.

Numerous examples of the hermeneutic phenomenon that concerns us are found in the history of art and could have served our purpose. Why not use Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Goya? One reason is that the variety of literary works these artists interpreted is too large, creating unnecessary complications and distractions. Moreover, the use of religious stories and myths, so common in the history of art, add difficulties that further complicate matters. It is one thing to interpret a literary text that has no religious overtones, and another to interpret one that believers consider a divine revelation. Then there is the exhaustive and numerous discussions of these works by critics throughout history. To pick a work such as Michelangelo's pictorial interpretation of Genesis in the Sistine Chapel would have forced us to deal with many issues that are only marginally related to the core topic of interest here. Not to mention that only reproductions of the pertinent works could have been used.

In short, simplification was needed, and this was achieved in two ways. First, by picking only one literary author and, second, by using recent artists, whose work is not burdened with history and criticism. Because interpretation is a matter of perspective, it was also necessary to use artists whose work manifests different points of view. I searched for artists at different career stages, young and old, women and men, belonging to different social classes, with different ideologies and interests, and even having different ethnic origins, some who live exclusively from their art and some who have to do other things to survive, artists who began to create when they were children and artists who started their careers at a mature age, painters, engravers, and multifaceted and monofaceted artists. In short, I looked for variety as far as posible, although the nature of our topic, and its philosophical bent, favored those whose work is figurative and sensitive to conceptual content.

The choice of author was not difficult. Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most prominent literary figures whose work is also profoundly philosophical. Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue that he is a philosopher, and that his work should be considered part of philosophy. The philosophical interest in Borges should not be surprising insofar as his stories are filled with conceptual puzzles that prompt the reader to face the most fundamental questions concerning human existence.

Once I chose Borges, the field of artists narrowed to those who had already produced interpretations of his stories, whose creations had been directly influenced by Borges, or who were fascinated by some aspects of Borges' work even if they were not enthusiastic about his style or perspective. Borges is perhaps the most outstanding contemporary literary figure Argentina has produced and so it is understandable that among Argentinean artists his work has had a most evident impact. This is particularly true of artists who are porteños, born and raised in Buenos Aires, for Borges is quintessentially a porteño.

It was not difficult to find the artists. But a variety of perspectives also required the inclusion of non-Argentinean artists. I found the key in José Franco, a Cuban artist who resides in Buenos Aires and had produced works based on Borges' stories. The idea of including him appeared appropriate in that it would reveal how an "adopted Argentinean" would approach Borges. In turn, this led us to other Cubans. Finally, in order to maintain unity and focus, and to avoid difficulties with space and transportation, I restricted the art work to paintings, drawings, etchings, and mixed media, all on a flat format, and so had to leave out pertinent works by such prominent artists as León Ferrari, and artists who, although influenced by Borges such as Guillermo Kuitca, had not directly worked on Borges' narratives.

In consultation with the artists, I chose twelve stories by Borges, which I organized according to three topics: identity and memory, freedom and destiny, and faith and divinity. Two visual interpretations by different artists are given of each story, which add up to twenty four works of art by sixteen artists. Some works had been produced before this project was undertaken and some were produced for this project. Some artists had produced works before, but did not produce any works for this project (Etienne Gontard, Mirta Kupferminc, Nicolás Menza, and Estela Pereda), some had produced works before but also produced works for this project (Ricardo Celma, Miguel Cámpora, Héctor Destéfanis, Claudio D'Leo, Carlos Estévez, José Franco, and Mauricio Nizzero), and some produced works for this project but had not produced works before (Alejandro Boim, Laura Delgado, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Paul Sierra, and Alberto Rey). In addition to the twenty works that constitute the core of the exhibition, I added thirteen others by some of the same artists that had pictures in the core.

The first exhibition of the art was accompanied by a symposium, "Interpreting Borges: Art, Literature, and Philosophy," that took place between June 22 and 25, 2010. It gathered a group of international philosophers, literature scholars, and some of the artists whose work is being exhibited, to explore the artistic interpretation of literature in the context of Borges's work. Some of the papers appeared in the journal CR: The New Centennial Review. From Buenos Aires, the exhibition is traveling to various venues in the United States. My book, Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature (2012) functions as catalogue of the exhibition.

Jorge J. E. Gracia


Filosofía Interpretación Arte Interpretando Literatura

La interpretación visual de la literatura no es nada nuevo. Gran parte de la historia del arte occidental se vincula con la representación de cuentos, mitos y aventuras originalmente presentados en géneros literarios. El tópico de una gran parte del arte griego y romano es la mitología divina, y en el Renacimiento existen tantas obras de arte con temas clásicos como con temas cristianos. La representación de Miguel ángel de la Creación en la Capilla Sixtina es uno de los más dramáticos y mejor conocidos ejemplos. La imagen de Dios infundiéndole vida a Adán, la creación de Eva, la tentación por la serpiente y la expulsión del paraíso expresan efectivamente la narrativa del Génesis. La interpretación artística de la literatura es tan común que es difícil entrar en un museo de arte y no encontrarse con obras cuyo tema no tenga origen literario. ¿Cuántas representaciones de la Divina Comedia de Dante, del Don Quijote de Cervantes y del Romeo y Julieta de Shakespeare se han logrado?

A pesar de esta abundancia, la investigación de la interpretación artística de la literatura en general es relativamente infrecuente. La mayoría de los críticos se restringen a las interpretaciones de obras literarias particulares, ignorando las cuestiones más amplias que tales interpretaciones sugieren, tales como: las diferencias entre la interpretación artística de la literatura y otros tipos de interpretación, el caráter de la interpretación, y si tiene sentido llamar interpretación a una representación artística visual de la literatura cuando las técnicas del arte visual y de la literatura son tan diferentes. La investigación de estas y muchas otras cuestiones que surgen en este contexto está más allá de los límites de esta exhibición, pero espero que las obras de arte que se exponen aquí sirvan para despertar en los espectadores algunas de las inquietudes reflejadas en estos temas.

Los ejemplos del fenómeno hermenéutico que nos concierne abundan en la historia del arte, y muchos de ellos podrían haber servido para nuestros propósitos. ¿Por qué no recurrir a Miguel ángel, Leonardo, o Goya? Una razón es que la variedad de obras literarias que estos artistas interpretaron es muy extensa, lo cual crea complicaciones y distracciones innecesarias. Además, el uso de historias y mitos religiosos, tan común en la historia del arte, añade dificultades que complican la situación. Una cosa es interpretar un texto literario que no tiene ramificaciones religiosas, y otra interpretar uno considerado por los creyentes como una revelación divina. Por otro lado está la discusión exhaustiva y numerosa de estas obras por los críticos a través del tiempo. Escoger una obra como la interpretación pictórica del Génesis por Miguel ángel en la Capilla Sixtina nos habría forzado a tratar una serie de temas que están escasamente relacionados con el meollo de la temática que nos interesa aquí, por no mencionar que sería imposible utilizar las obras originales, y deberíamos contentarnos con reproducciones.

En suma, la simplificación fue necesaria, y la llevé a cabo de dos maneras. Primero, escogiendo solamente a un autor literario y, segundo, recurriendo a artistas recientes, cuya obra no está abrumada por la historia y la crítica. Como la interpretación es cosa de perspectiva, fue también necesario convocar a artistas cuya obra manifestara diferentes puntos de vista. Busqué artistas en diversos puntos de evolución de su carrera, jóvenes y mayores, mujeres y hombres, pertenecientes a diferentes clases sociales, con diferentes ideologías y aun de diferentes orígenes étnicos, algunos que viven exclusivamente de su arte y otros que tienen que hacer otras labores para sobrevivir, algunos que ejercen su arte desde niños y otros que comenzaron su carrera ya maduros, dibujantes, pintores, grabadores, artistas multifacéticos y unifacéticos. En fin, busqué la variedad en cuanto posible, aunque dada la naturaleza del tópico y su dimensión filosófica, predominó la obra figurativa con sensibilidad a un contenido conceptual.

Encontrar el autor indicado no fue difícil. Jorge Luis Borges es una de las figuras literarias más prominentes cuya obra es también profundamente filosófica. En efecto, algunos han llegado a sostener que es un filósofo, y que su obra debería ser considerada parte de la filosofía. El interés filosófico que suscita Borges no es sorprendente cuando se tiene en cuenta que sus cuentos están repletos de rompecabezas conceptuales que fuerzan al lector a encarar las cuestiones más fundamentales de la existencia humana.

Una vez que escogí a Borges, el campo de los artistas se restringió a aquellos que habían producido interpretaciones de sus cuentos, habían experimentado en su obra artística la influencia de Borges, o estaban fascinados por algún aspecto de la obra de este autor aun sin tener entusiasmo por su estilo o perspectiva. Borges es quizás la figura literaria contemporánea más sobresaliente que la Argentina ha producido y por tanto se entiende que su obra haya tenido un impacto evidente entre los artistas argentinos. Esto es particularmente verdadero en lo que toca a artistas porteños, nacidos y criados en Buenos Aires, ya que Borges es esencialmente porteño.

No fue difícil encontrar a artistas, pero la necesidad de diversas perspectivas también me llevó a incluir a artistas no argentinos. La clave fue un artista cubano que reside en Buenos Aires, José Franco, y que ha producido obras basadas en los cuentos de Borges. La idea de incluirlo nos pareció apropiada en cuanto su obra revela cómo un "argentino adoptado" se acerca a Borges. Esto a su vez nos llevó a otros cubanos. Finalmente, para mantener cierta unidad y enfoque, y evitar dificultades de espacio y transporte, restringí el arte a la pintura, dibujo, grabado, técnica mixta y otros géneros sobre superficie plana, lo cual resultó en la omisión de obras pertinentes de artistas destacados como León Ferrari y de artistas que, aunque influidos por Borges, como Guillermo Kuitca, no han trabajado directamente sobre la narrativa borgeana.

Después de consultar con los artistas, escogí doce cuentos de Borges, que organizamos bajo tres tópicos: identidad y memoria, libertad y destino, y fe y divinidad. Cada cuento tiene dos interpretaciones visuales creadas por artistas distintos, lo cual resulta en un total de veinticuatro obras de arte realizadas por dieciséis artistas. Algunas obras se habían creado antes de que este proyecto comenzara y otras se realizaron para él. Varios artistas habían producido obras anteriormente y no produjeron ninguna para el proyecto (Etienne Gontard, Mirta Kupferminc, Nicolás Menza, y Estela Pereda), otros habían producido obras anteriormente y crearon obras para el proyecto (Ricardo Celma, Miguel Cámpora, Héctor Destéfanis, Claudio D'Leo, Carlos Estévez, José Franco, y Mauricio Nizzero), y los restantes crearon obras para el proyecto pero no habían producido ninguna anteriormente (Alejandro Boim, Laura Delgado, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Paul Sierra, y Alberto Rey). A estas obras le añadí otras trece the algunos de los artistas que participan en la exhibición.

La primera exhibición fue acompañada de un simposio que se llevó a cabo entre el 23 y el 25 de junio del 2010. El encuentro reunió un grupo internacional de filósofos, críticos literarios y algunos de los artistas cuya obra se exhibió, con el fin de explorar filosófica y literariamente la interpretación artística visual de la literatura en el contexto de la obra de Borges. Algunas de las ponencias se publicaron en la revista CR: The New Centennial Review. El ciclo de actividades continua con otras exposiciones en los Estados Unidos y con la publicación de mi libro titulado Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature (2012) que funciona como catálogo de la exhibición.

Jorge J. E. Gracia

Topic I: Identity and Memory

Story 1: The Other

The action of the story takes place in February, 1969, in Cambridge, north of Boston. Borges is sitting on a bench by the Charles River when suddenly, under the impression that he had lived the experience before, he hears – for he is nearly blind – that someone has sat at the other end of the bench. The person in question turns out to be a much younger version of himself and Borges engages him in conversation. His former self thinks they are sitting in Geneva, on a bench by the Rhone, and not by the Charles River in Cambridge. Both cannot be right. Either Borges is right or his younger self is right, in which case either Borges is dreaming his other self or his other self is dreaming Borges; one of the two is a dream of the other.

            Neither thesis is easy to prove, although the older Borges tries hard to prove that he is the real one to the younger. The older Borges seems to have forgotten some things the younger knows, such as that once in his youth he had met an elderly gentleman who in 1918 told him he was Borges. And the younger seems to be very different in some ways from the older; he has ideals about the brotherhood of mankind, while the older Borges is rather cynical. The knowledge the older Borges has of certain facts known only to himself cannot prove that the younger is his dream, because it would be natural for the younger to know these facts if he were the dream of the older Borges.

            The older Borges proposes a strategy to solve the puzzle. He asks the younger to give him a coin and he hands him a dollar bill. In looking at the dollar bill, the younger is shocked by its date, 1964, which presumably indicates that the older Borges is real and they are not sitting by the Rhone in 1918. But we are told that this does not work, because the older Borges was informed months later that dollar bills do not have dates. Further confirmation eludes us in that the younger Borges destroys the dollar bill and the older Borges never keeps the coin he had asked from the younger.

            One solution to the puzzle is that the older Borges is dreaming the younger dreaming himself. After all, the older Borges states at the beginning that at the outset of the encounter he had a sense of having lived the moment before. However, this solution is disputed at the end of the story, when the older Borges tells us that the encounter was real and he was wide awake, having had a good night’s sleep, when he spoke to the younger Borges. The younger, however, spoke to him in a dream, a reason why the older Borges could not remember his encounter with his older self when he was young.

Story 2:  Funes, the Memorious

The story begins and ends with the recollection by the narrator of Funes, “his taciturn face, Indian features, and extraordinary remoteness,” in the third and last time Borges met him. Then the narrator goes back to an earlier time to describe Funes as an Uruguayan tough in contrast with the highbrow, dandy, city slicker Borges in Funes’s eyes. A brief detour gives us to understand that Funes had become a glorified figure in Uruguay, “a precursor of the race of supermen,” according to a well-known writer, and the author has been asked to write his recollection of him for a volume in his honor.

            Borges the narrator encountered Funes first as a boy who could always tell the correct time and remember the names of everyone he met. Later he learned of an accidental fall from a horse that had crippled Funes and changed his life – he remained “hopelessly crippled” and never moved from his cot, where he laid with his eyes fixed on a fig tree or a spider web. Borges saw him twice through an iron-barred window, once with the eyes closed, and another time absorbed in the contemplation of an artemisia, both times immobile. Then he received a flowery letter, in perfect calligraphy, from Funes, requesting to borrow one of the books Borges was using to learn Latin, and a dictionary, for a short time. The presumption that one could quickly learn Latin just with a book and a dictionary sounded like a joke to Borges, but he did comply with the request to disabuse Funes.

            Shortly after, Borges received bad news about his father’s health and, while packing for the trip, realized he was missing the books he had lent Funes. He walked over to his house to recover them, and when Funes’s mother opened the door, Borges heard him reciting parts of the chapter on memory in Pliny’s Naturalis historia. Funes welcomed him and told him his remarkable story through a dialogue that Borges found exhausting and terrifying.   

            When Funes woke up from the unconscious state caused by the accident, he discovered an extraordinarily rich world, very different from the one he had known. Before, he had been, as he thought the rest of mankind still was, “blind, deaf, befuddled, and virtually devoid of memory.” After his accident, “perception and memory were perfect.” The result was not only that he could memorize entire works in different languages of which he had no prior knowledge, but that he could recall every thing he had experienced. Indeed, he did not remember just a dog he had perceived, but every single perception of the dog he had at every instant: “the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile” and “the ‘dog’ of three-fifteen, seen frontally.” This prompted Funes to try to develop a language of numbers that would identify each number with a proper name, and to catalogue every experience he had ever had. Realizing that the tasks would be interminable, and perhaps useless, he eventually gave up.

            The dizzying world in which he lived made sleep difficult for Funes and, Borges suspects, also thinking, for “[t]o think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract.” In Funes’s world, nothing could be forgotten. Borges closes the story with a description of Funes, laying on his cot, “monumental as bronze – older than Egypt, older than the prophesies and the pyramids,” and with a fear that Borges’s presence would add to Funes’s predicament.


Story 3: The South

The story concerns Juan Dahlmann, who works as a librarian in a municipal library. His ancestry is mixed. One grandfather came from Germany and the other had died fighting against the Indians. In the pull between these lineages, Borges tells us that he “chooses the romantic ancestor, or that of a romantic death.” His criollismo is supported with memories and heirlooms, and he dreams of returning to a large country house in the South of Buenos Aires he had inherited and managed to keep over the years. Then he has an accident. He hits his head very badly and develops septicemia. After days of suffering, he is taken to a sanatorium where he undergoes a painful operation. He awakes sick, feeling as if at the bottom of a well, and hates himself, and his self-identity, weakness, and humiliation.

            Ostensibly, he recovers and, after being discharged, undertakes his long-desired return to the house of his childhood memories. The trip to the train station mirrors the trip to the sanatorium, and in the station he encounters a large cat he remembers. Petting the magical cat feels illusory, an encounter between two senses of time. Once in the train he enjoys the passing landscape, and the pleasure of the food served in the shining metal bowls he recalls from his childhood, the trip seems like one into the past. Indeed, he feels as if he were two men: one imprisoned in the sanatorium, and another gliding along through his native land. He dozes off, and when he awakens the car of the train where he travels appears different from the one he took in Buenos Aires.

            Eventually he arrives at a station where the conductor informs him that he must get off, even though it is not the one Dahlmann intended. He walks to a country store to take a calash to his final destination, but decides to eat there before he leaves. Dahlmann thinks he recognizes the owner, but then realizes it is because he looks like one of the employees at the sanatorium. Three rough-looking young men are sitting at one of the tables, and a small, dark, dried up, old man, living in a sort of eternity, lays motionless on the floor. Dahlmann minds his own business, but clearly stands out as an incongruity in the rough countryside. He notices that someone has thrown a ball of bread at him, and pays not attention to it, but another is thrown. The owner, who strangely addresses him by his name, tells him to ignore it and this makes Dahlmann realize that the provocation now has been identified publicly as directed at him and he cannot let it go. He faces the young men and one insults him and pulls a knife. Dahlmann is not armed, but the old man throws him a knife, and “[i]t was as if the South itself had decided that Dahlmann should keep the challenge.” He instinctively picks up the knife and understands that this commits him to a fight in which he will die. He thinks: “They’d never have allowed this sort of thing to happen in the sanatorium.” As he goes out, without hope or fear, he feels that in contrast with dying in the sanatorium, this death here would be a liberation, a joy, and a fiesta.                                                                             

Story 4: The Interloper

Two brothers live together in harmony and peace in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in the 1890s. They are tall, redheads, and rough, reflecting their mixed ancestry and culture. They stand out from the rest of the population and stick to each other in a very close relationship that perhaps goes beyond brotherly love. One day, the oldest, Cristián, brings home not-a-bad-looking woman, Juliana Burgos. She becomes their servant and he displays her at local parties, “lavishing ghastly trinkets upon her.” Eduardo, the youngest, lives with them, but then he takes a trip and when he returns he brings back with him a girl that he throws out shortly after. It is obvious that he is in love with Cristián’s woman, although he does not want to acknowledge it. But Cristián realizes it and offers her to him: “I’m going off to that bust over at Farías place. There is Juliana – if you want her, use her.”

            This opens up a new modus vivendi in which the brothers share Juliana, but the arrangement does not last. They never mention her, but often find excuses to argue with each other because both want her. Eventually they talk about the situation among themselves – Juliana is not given a say, she is a mere object whose fate is to be decided by them. And so they choose to take her to a bordello where they sell her to the madam. Still, even out of the house, she comes between them; they are unable to get her out of their minds and reestablish their original way of life. They begin to visit the whorehouse separately to see her until one day, per chance, Cristián meets Eduardo there and they bring Juliana back to their place. But this does not resolve the conflict, for Juliana has come between them, souring their original relationship. So Cristián kills Juliana, leaving her body on a field. When he gets back to the house he asks his brother to accompany him to take some skins “over to the Nigger’s place.” On the way there, he throws out his cigar, saying to Eduardo “Let’s go to work, brother. The buzzards’ll come in to clean up after us. I killed ‘er today. We’ll leave’er here, her and her fancy clothes. She won’t cause any more hurt.” Deeply moved, they embrace, closer than ever, having now another source of unity: the sacrificed woman and the obligation to forget her.

Topic II: Freedom and Destiny

Story 1: The Garden of Forking Paths

The story begins with a narrative missing the two first pages and it is self reported in the History of the European War. It is signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, a former professor of English in the Hochschule at Tsingtao. The events take place in England. Col. Richard Madden, a determined Irishman, has discovered that Tsun, a consular official and a spy for the Third Reich, and Runeberg, his associate, have uncovered the location of the new British artillery park on the Ancre and are looking for a way to convey this information to “the Leader,” so the German air force can bomb it. Tsun has found out that Runeberg has either been arrested or killed and he must finish the task by himself. But how is he to convey the name of the town to the Leader? His aim is not the glory of Germany, a nation he considers barbaric. He is merely trying to demonstrate to the Leader – a despicable man whom he hates because he thinks Tsun’s race inferior – that a yellow man can save his armies.

            The solution becomes clear to Tsun, although it is not revealed to the reader until the very end of the narrative. He must kill a man with the name of the town where the British artillery park is located, so that when this is published, the Germans will know where to attack. The name of the city is Albert, so Tsun looks up the address of a person with that name in the telephone book. After he finds it, he searches in his pockets for the gun with one bullet that he will need in order to accomplish his task. Albert lives in Ashgrove, so Tsun takes a train there, although he carefully buys a ticket to a different town to cover his tracks. As the train pulls out, he sees Madden at the end of the platform, but he has gained an advantage. He arrives at his destination and is given directions to Albert’s house: “The house is far away, but you’ll not get lost if you follow that road there to the left, and turn left at every corner.” This is the way, Tsun recalls, to find the center of a certain kind of maze.

            The connection with mazes brings him to the memory of his grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, governor of Yunan province, who gave up his temporal power in order to write a novel and construct a labyrinth. At this point begins the second tale within the tale. For Pen, after spending thirteen years in his tasks, had died presumably without completing them, since no one has been able to find the labyrinth and the manuscript of the novel he left looks like a jumble of chaotic writings.

            As Tsun approaches Albert’s house, he is surprised to hear Chinese music coming from a gazebo. Albert opens the gate and greets him in Chinese. He asks Tsun if he wishes to see the garden of forking paths, which turns out to be Pen’s garden. Tsun is intrigued and decides that he has some time before he kills Albert, who proceeds to tell him that he had solved the mystery surrounding Pen’s labyrinth. No one had found the labyrinth because everyone thought that the novel he had retired to write, and the labyrinth he intended to build, were two different things. In fact they are one and the same; the novel, just like a labyrinth, is full of contradictions. Albert found the key to the puzzle in a letter from Pen in which he had written: “I leave to several futures (not all) my garden of forking paths.” Albert figured out that “The Garden of Forking Paths is a huge riddle, a parable whose subject is time.” This is why the term ‘time’ never appears in the novel, which is an image of Pen’s conception of the universe. In it, all possibilities are revealed. “Time forks, perpetually, into countless futures.” For Pen, time is “a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” That is why in one chapter of the novel the protagonist dies, and in a subsequent one he is alive. The possibilities are infinite, forking into different paths that open up endlessly.

            At this point Tsun sees Madden approaching, and so he acts. He asks Albert to show him again the letter where he had found the key to the puzzle, and when Albert turns to get it, he shoots him. Tsun is arrested and sentenced to hang, but he succeeds in the task he had set for himself. The Leader understands the clue and the city of Albert is bombarded. The story ends with Tsun’s expression of contrition and weariness.

Story 2: The Circular Ruins

A sorcerer, gray, taciturn, and ignorant of his name or of any details of his prior life, arrives by canoe at, and drags himself to, a “circular enclosure, crowned by the stone figure of a horse or a tiger, which had once been the color of fire and was now the color of ashes,” a former temple destroyed by fire. His immediate obligation is to sleep, but his supernatural goal is to dream a man.

            He dreams that he is at the center of the circular amphitheater at the center of the ruined temple. He is surrounded by taciturn students from different centuries and locations, to whom he lectures on anatomy, cosmography, and magic, hoping to find one he can insert in reality. Some students are passive observers, but his expectations are encouraged by those who raise objections. From them, he chooses one who resembles himself, and makes amazing progress. But disaster strikes and he is unable to continue dreaming in spite of his efforts. The lucidity of insomnia appalls him and he realizes the extraordinary difficulty of bringing order into the chaotic stuff of dreams.

            Once the sorcerer gives up on his premeditated effort, he immediately begins to sleep again, although he is no longer focused on his dreams. During full moon, he purifies himself, bows to the astral gods, and utters a powerful name. He falls sleep and almost immediately dreams a warm, active, and secret heart. Slowly, the dream progresses to the whole body, but the youth is still lifeless. Frustrated, the sorcerer prays to the god, who now appears to him simultaneously as horse, tiger, bull, rose, and tempest. The god reveals that his name is Fire and that he will bring to life the sorcerer’s human creation in such a way that everyone but the god and the sorcerer will think the dreamed man is real. But he orders the dreamer to send the youth away to the circular ruins down the river once he has been properly instructed, so that “a voice might glorify the god in that deserted place.” The sorcerer obeys the god’s instruction, although it pains him to think of his eventual separation from his creation. Once the son is ready, he erases his memory, so that he does not know that he is a mere simulacrum of the sorcerer’s dreams, and then sends him away, accomplishing the goal he had set out for himself.

            After a few years, the sorcerer hears of a magical man that can walk through fire without being burned in a temple in the north. He knows it is his son, and fears that he might find out he is a projection of the sorcerer’s dreams. But his meditations end suddenly, when a Holocaust that had been predicted consumes the ruined temple. When the Fire does not burn him, he realizes, with relief, humiliation, and terror, that he too, is another man’s dream.

Story 3:The House of Asterion

The story consists of a monologue by Asterion in which he disputes claims that he is arrogant, misanthropic, and mad. Although he never leaves his house, he is not a prisoner, for no doors are locked and anyone can enter it. He does not leave it because of the terrible dread his presence inspires outside it. The house and he are unique, a reason why he cannot mix with ordinary people. He spends his time in multiple distractions and games, of which his favorite is imagining that “another” visits him. He shows the visitor the interminable labyrinth the house is, and laughs with him about the mistakes he makes trying to find his way around it. The house is as big as the world, and is in fact the world. Indeed, it is possible that Asterion created it, along with the stars and the sun, and has forgotten about it.

            Every nine years nine men come into the house to be freed from evil, and Asterion is overjoyed to meet them, but one by one they fall without him ever touching them. He leaves their bodies where they fall to help himself distinguish the interminable number of similar galleries and guide his wanderings. One of these men predicted the arrival of his redeemer, whom Asterion hopes will take him to a place with fewer galleries and doors. Will the redeemer be a man, a bull, or someone like Asterion? The story ends with a line from Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur: “Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.

Story 4:  The Immortal

In London, a princes buys a copy of Pope’s Iliad from Joseph Cartaphilus, an antique bookseller from Smyrna. In the last volume, she finds a manuscript divided into five chapters in which the Roman tribune, Marcus Flaminius Rufus, tells how he threw himself into the quest for the secret City of the Immortals. He first hears about the City from a rider who, bloody and exhausted, dies at his feet asking for the river that purifies all men of death, on the far shores of which the City is located. Ignoring the advice of philosophers who claim that immortality merely multiplies a man’s deaths, Marcus throws himself in the pursuit of the City and its river to quench his thirst for immortality, accompanied by two hundred soldiers. After many disastrous adventures, the soldiers are about to mutiny and kill him, but he manages to escape. He is wounded by a Cretan arrow and finds himself alone, at which moment he sees pyramids and towers in the distance. This is the City of the Immortals, but exhausted, he falls asleep.

            When he wakes up, his hands are tied behind his back and he is lying on an oblong niche scraped on the slope of a mountain. Around him he sees little gray men belonging to the bestial lineage of the Troglodytes, emerging from similar niches. They do not speak. Marcus throws himself down the mountain toward a polluted stream, and is eventually able to free himself. The Troglodytes pay no attention to him or his pleadings.

            Consumed by the goal of his quest, Marcus can hardly sleep, and it appears as if the Troglodytes, divining his purpose, do not either. He crosses the stream on his way to the City and is followed by a few of the little men, although eventually only one remains. The City is built on an impregnable plateau, but Marcus finds a way in through a cave that leads to a maze through which Marcus eventually emerges in a plaza. The City turns out to be an irrational jumble of buildings with no purpose. Its chaos horrifies him and he finds his way out. There he encounters the Troglodyte that had followed him, clumsily drawing symbols on the sand and erasing them. Suspecting some capacity in the man, Marcus tries to teach him but it is all in vain. He names him Argos, after the moribund old dog of the Odyssey. One day there is rain, and this seems to waken the village, and Argos speaks. He is Homer.

            Marcus now achieves an epiphany, he understands. The Troglodytes are the Immortals. They had destroyed their City nine hundred years before, and built a new one in its place “as a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man.” At that point, thinking that all effort is vain, they decided to live in thought, devoting themselves to speculation. After centuries of living, they reached “a perfection of tolerance,” for they realized that in the long run all things happen to everyone. We are all things, god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world. Nothing happens only once, and nothing is ever lost, and this presumably is immortality.

            Homer and Marcus part in Tangier, and Marcus goes on his way to be many things in many places. The account appears fantastic because, Marcus explains, it is the story of two men while presumably there is only one. But now Marcus is close to his end, when he will be all men, and none. No images from memory are left, only words.

            The story ends with a postscript that refers to a publication entitled, A Coat of Many Colors, in which the author claims that the tale of the rare-book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus is apocryphal because of the texts from other sources it integrates. But the narrator of Borges’s story disagrees, for as he notes, “there are no longer any images from memory – there are only words.”

Topic III: Faith and Divinity

Story 1: The Rose of Paracelsus

In his laboratory, Paracelsus prays to his indeterminate God, any god, to send him a disciple. He forgets his prayer, but a stranger comes to see him who aspires to be his disciple, and offers him all his worldly goods in the form of a bag full of gold, if Paracelsus should let him do it. The famous alchemist and physician (1493-1541) was reputed to be able to produce the stone that turns all elements into gold, so he has no use for gold and tells the student that if this is what he is interested in, he can never become his disciple. The student replies that the gold is only a token of his good will. He wants Paracelsus to teach him the Art, the path that leads to the Stone. Paracelsus answers that the path is the Stone and so is the point of departure. “Every step you take is the goal you seek.” Making sense of these words is the beginning of understanding, although Paracelsus’s enemies say there is no Path.

            Still, the student wants a proof before he begins the journey – which indicates that he has not understood what the teacher has said, confirming Paracelsus’s first impression of him. When the student arrived, he held a rose on his left hand, a fact that had troubled Paracelsus. The sage was famous for burning a rose and making it reappear again through his Art, so the student asks him for this proof. But Paracelsus accuses him of credulity, whereas he requires faith. The disciple disputes this conclusion: he demands proof precisely because he is not credulous. But Paracelsus points out that his credulity lies in his belief that Paracelsus can destroy the rose, for nothing can ever be annihilated. The rose can be burned only in appearance; in itself it is eternal, that is why it would take only a word from Paracelsus to make it appear again. The word in question is found in the science of the Kabbalah.

            The student insists, but Paracelsus replies that if he were to do what the student wants, the student would not believe it. The miracle would not produce faith. After Paracelsus shows signs of impatience, the student forces the situation by throwing the rose to the flames, which turns it into ashes. An unmoved Paracelsus notes that many think he is a fraud; now the rose is destroyed and will be no more. The student feels ashamed for having revealed Paracelsus as a fake. He apologizes and promises to come back after he is ready. They part courteously, knowing that they will not see each other again. Once the student leaves, Paracelsus pours some ashes from one hand into the other, whispers a single word, and the rose appears.


Story 2: The Writing of the God

The story is narrated by the protagonist, a Maya or Aztec priest – interpreters disagree – who is incarcerated in a jail in the form of an almost perfect hemisphere. A wall divides the prison into two halves. On one side, Tzinacán, the priest of the Pyramid that the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado burned, is imprisoned. On the other, the prisoner is a jaguar. A long barred window at the floor level makes possible for the priest to see the jaguar once a day, when a jailer lowers water and meat from an opening at the top of the ceiling. The priest spends his time waiting for the destiny that the gods have prescribed, and remembers the pains he suffered at the hands of his torturers. To pass the time, he tries to recall everything he knew, and once stumbles upon the story that on the first day of creation, foreseeing many disasters and calamities, the god had written a magical phrase capable of warding off those evils, for the sake of his elect. Tzinacán, as the god’s last priest, feels that he is destined to find the secret text. But where could it be written to be able to endure, be accessible, and yet hidden? After many hypotheses, he remembers that one of the god’s names is jaguar, and this leads him to think that the god has entrusted his message to the skin of the animal. This seems to be confirmed by the jaguar’s proximity to him in the prison.

            The priest spends his time trying to decipher the many marks on the jaguar’s skin, the black shapes, the circles, the stripes, the rings, and the red borders. But all in vain. “What sort of sentence,” he asks himself, “would be constructed by an absolute mind?” The idea of a sentence makes no sense to him, and he speculates that it must be a word pregnant with “absolute plenitude,” the word could not be less than the universe as a whole.

            An infinity of grains of sand appears in his dreams and he feels confused and lost, until the hard fact of his circumstances hits him and brings him back to reality. He is a prisoner, and he accepts it. This is the moment of enlightenment: he experiences unity with the deity and the universe, which to him appear to be the same. He has a vision of a wheel of enormous height, made of water and fire, and infinite, although he could see its boundaries. It is composed of everything that has been, is, or shall be, containing all causes and effects. In it, the priest sees everything and understands everything, including the writing on the jaguar’s skin.

            The writing is a formula of fourteen random words – a number Borges often uses to refer to an infinity and was the sacred number of the jaguar divinity – and forty syllables, a number also pregnant with symbolism. To speak the formula would make him omnipotent, but he will never speak it, as  he has forgotten who he is. He is no one, because he has glimpsed the universe and its designs. Now he lies in darkness, allowing the days to forget him.    

Story 3: The Secret Miracle

The story takes place in Prague during the occupation of the city by the forces of the Third Reich. It begins on March 14, 1939, the day before the invasion occurs. The protagonist is Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish playwright author of various works including an incomplete drama entitled The Enemies. Jaromir is dreaming of a long game of chess whose players are two illustrious families, and he wakes up at the moment in which the armored cars roll into Prague. On March 19, an informer accuses him and he is arrested. He cannot deny that he comes from Jewish blood and has written on Jewish subjects. He is summarily condemned to be executed by firing squad on March 29. This terrifies him and he relives the moment of his death repeatedly, some times hoping that this could prevent it, and at other times thinking that his imaginings could be prophetic.

            As the day of his execution approaches, he impatiently begins to yearn for the shots that will kill him. But on March 28, his thought runs back to his play, The Enemies. As a writer he measures others by their work, and he regrets that he has not left any book that lives up to his expectations. This leads him to think that perhaps he could redeem himself by finishing The Enemies, but he does not have the time. The incomplete play has a convoluted plot which ends where it began, suggesting that the play has not taken place.

            In a moment of hope, he asks God to give him one year to complete the play. That night, he dreams that he is at the Clementine Library in Prague and hears a voice that tells him: “The time for your labor has been granted.” In the morning he is taken to the front of the firing squad. A heavy drop of rain grazes his temple and rolls down his cheek. The sergeant gives the order to fire, and the universe stops. Everything is frozen, including Jaromir, with the exception of his thoughts. He wonders whether he is dead or mad, or whether time has stopped. But this last possibility could not be, since he is still able to think. In time he realizes that his prayer has been answered favorably. A miracle, secret in that it is known only to him, has occurred. He works from memory and completes the play by the time, March 29 at 9:02 am, at which he dies. He hears himself cry, shakes his head, and the bullets kill him.

Story 4: The Gospel According to Mark

The protagonist of the story is Baltasar Espinosa, whose last name means thorny and was also the name of a most celebrated Jewish philosopher in the seventeenth century, Baruch Spinoza. Baltasar’s father is a freethinker and his mother a devout Catholic. He is characterized by a typical gift of oratory and “an almost unlimited goodness.” He is, like Christ, thirty-three years old when the events narrated in the story happen, and also like Christ, he had accomplished nothing of note to that point.

            He accepts an invitation from a cousin to spend the summer in a ranch in the pampas. The bailiff is named Gutre, which we are told later is a corruption of Guthrie, signaling a long forgotten family origin in Inverness. He lives with his son, who is particularly uncouth, and a girl of uncertain paternity. Their dwelling is not far from the main house.

            Baltasar’s cousin has to leave for Buenos Aires, but Baltasar remains in the ranch. A heat wave breaks in a colossal storm that isolates the ranch. The roof of the Gutres’ place is threatened by a leak and Baltasar allows them to move into a room in the main house, close to the tool shed. This brings him and them together. They have common meals and Baltasar tries to engage them in conversation, but with limited success. To pass the time, he attempts to read them passages from a famous book about gauchos in the pampas, a copy of which he finds in the small book collection of the ranch – the Gutres can neither read nor write. But the bailiff, experienced in cattle ranching, finds the romanticized narrative inauthentic.

            Baltasar lets his beard grow and speculates about what his city friends will think when he returns to Buenos Aires. One day, exploring the house, he finds an old Bible, in English, with the Guthrie family history. The present Guthries had emigrated to the New World in the early nineteenth century, but had intermarried with Indians and had now forgotten both their origins and language. To try his hand at translating and see if he could get them interested, he reads the Gutres some passages from the Gospel According to Mark, and is surprised to find that they are fascinated by it. From then on, the Gutres anxiously look forward to the reading after dinner.

            After Baltasar successfully treats the wound of a little lamb that was the girl’s pet with standard medications, the Gutres show him extraordinary gratitude. They pamper him, follow him around the house, and obey his orders immediately. One day he catches them discussing him in respectful words. After finishing The Gospel According to Mark, Baltasar tries to read them a different Gospel, but the bailiff asks him to read Mark again, so that they can understand it better.

One night Baltasar dreams of the Flood and wakes up at the sound of the hammering of the building of the Ark, but imagines it is thunder. The second storm takes place on Tuesday and, on Thursday, the girl comes into his room, naked and barefoot. She is a virgin.

            The next day begins as usual, but the bailiff asks Baltasar whether Christ had undergone his death to save all mankind, including those who nailed him to the cross. Baltasar answers affirmatively, although he is not quite sure of the details of the Christian doctrine. Then they ask him to read the last chapters of the Gospel after lunch. Baltasar takes a siesta which is interrupted by insistent hammering. Toward evening, the Gutres kneel on the floor in front of him and ask his blessing. Then they curse him, spit on him, and the men drive him to the back of the house, while the girl cries. When they open the door to the shed, Baltasar sees the sky and hears the cry of a goldfinch. They had taken the roof of the shed off and built “the Cross.”