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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Avatars of the Labyrinth

by Garrett Rowlan

Few writers evoked labyrinths as often as Jorge Luis Borges. He made them a virtual indoor treadmill and a metaphor of the mind and memory. So pervasive did he think of them that, as one of his fictional characters says, “there’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.”

Build them he did, and if we wish to explore their mental blueprint we should begin with Borges’s interest in walking the streets, as evidenced in his early poems. “All the blessed night I have been walking,” he writes in “Street with a Pink Corner Store,” and, in another poem, “Borges and I,” he speaks of “wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.” According to Edwin Williamson’s biography (Borges: A Life), Borges walked incessantly, exploring all sections of the city, the outlying and dangerous suburbs of Buenos Aires, a city to which he returned after living in Geneva and Spain from 1914 to 1921. He shunned no part of the city.

His labyrinths, by extension, were venues meant to be walked, and walked in darkness. His early poetry makes reference to the mystic light of nightfall, and soon another kind of darkness was to overcome him. In his early thirties, Borges began to go blind. He had suffered acute myopia since childhood, and in the late 1920’s had developed cataracts. (He would become completely sightless by the early 1960’s.)

It is my belief that his disability is reflected in the dimness of the labyrinths he created. The library at Babel, for example, has no windows, only mirrors, and light is provided by fruit-shaped lamps whose glow is “insufficient, incessant.” And in “The Immortal” a labyrinth is entered through a pit in the back of a cave, and is only exited when the unnamed protagonist sees a remote light high above that allows him to climb from the “blind region of dark interwoven labyrinths into the resplendent city.” In another story, “Ibn-Hakim al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth,” two men walk through a maze’s “knotted darkness.”

“I have wandered in search of a book,” Borges writes in “The Library of Babel.” That line, which combines perambulation and scholarship, seems to encapsulate the motivation behind Borges’s labyrinths, that is, incessant walking and reading. As a result of the latter, one finds in Borges a predilection for taking a line or some ancient idea and showing it altered and restated through time, as in his essays “Kafka and his Precursors,” “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,” and “Avatars of the Tortoise.” In short, the mind can be a maze too. The more experience we accumulate, the more the twists and turns of life are likely to show us something familiar. In “The Immortal,” Borges writes that, for those who live forever, “Every act (and every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past…” And another story, “I, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” personalizes this tendency, to the point that Menard’s identification with Cervantes becomes a way to “rewrite” Don Quixote word for word, as if it had not been written before. In short, Borges’s scholarship extends, in myopic focus, the twisting of an intellect whose extensive reading has led him to the conclusion that all ideas might be a restatement of others, and the visible manifestation of this belief is the sensation of wandering in a maze.

Even memory can be a labyrinth, or so I take away from a reading of one of his better-known stories, “The Aleph.” In this tale, a man is told that at the bottom of a basement stairwell is an object that contains all the places of the world. When he at last descends the stairwell and assumes the position—the Aleph can only be seen in a recumbent posture—he sees a farrago of things he has lived and read. (The two are interchangeable with Borges.) The interconnectivity and the spiraling of visions suggests a labyrinth, as seen from above. While I have used the terms “labyrinth” and “maze” interchangeably, perhaps “The Aleph” shows a true labyrinth. “Where a maze contains multiple paths and dead ends…” Geoff Nicholson writes in The Lost Art of Walking, “the labyrinth contains just one path. By taking it you inevitably get to the center.” Since the Aleph visualizes all that the protagonist in Borges’s story has seen and read, it is perhaps another way of saying that the soul is a labyrinth.

Or life itself: In one of his last poems, “Elegy for a Park,” he seems to elegize his nearing death, saying, “we are living now the past we will become,” but what most characterizes the approaching endpoint of his life is the opening line, “The labyrinth has vanished.” And for him it did vanish, but it lives for us, his readers.

Garrett Rowlan is a teacher and writer who lives in Los Angeles. His essays "Irrealism and the visual arts, "The waking dream: a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled," "Irrealism and ambient music," and "Irreal expedition: a review of Zachary Mason's Lost Books of the Odyssey" have appeared previously in irreal (re)views.

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