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Ficciones | Context



Idealism is a philosophy in which the highest reality is something beyond the physical world. For idealism the material world is secondary and the ideal world primary. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed ideal forms—such as justice, beauty, and equality—were the most important part of reality. The physical world, Plato taught, was based on the ideal world of forms. He believed people could not have direct physical contact with these forms but accessed them with their minds. In Jorge Luis Borges's "The Babylon Lottery," the narrator refers to these eternal forms: somewhere there is "the Celestial Archetype of the Lottery adored by Platonists."

In some stories in Ficciones Borges carries this philosophy further, even to extremes. The narrator of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" refers to George Berkeley, an Irish idealist credited with the belief material things exist only when someone perceives them. When the perception stops—when the lights go out—the thing stops existing. On Earth Berkeley's ideas are scandalous but not believable, says the narrator of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." But on Tlön, planet of the radical idealists, Berkeleyism makes perfect sense. Material things are not real on Tlön unless a mind perceives them. "At times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater," says the narrator. The animals perceive the amphitheater, maintaining it in existence.

Another well-known idealist was the 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. One of his great systematic works, Phenomenology of Spirit, is about the one ultimate reality, which he called Absolute Spirit. The Spirit comes to know itself, partly through becoming nature. Thus the things of the world are Spirit come down to Earth. Hegel is called an idealist because the Spirit remains the ultimate. When someone objected that facts contradicted his ideas, Hegel is reported to have said, "So much the worse for the facts." Whether he actually said it does not matter. The sentiment expressed is an enchantment with theory and a disdain for actuality. These traits are exhibited by the detective Erik Lönnrot in "Death and the Compass." While investigating a series of murders, Lönnrot is interested in books and especially in his own hypotheses, which have an obligation to be "interesting." Reality, by comparison, is of little interest to Lönnrot. When he reaches the conceptual solution to the murder mystery, he does not concern himself with details like "names, prison records, faces, judicial and penal proceedings." These he dismisses as insignificant, "mere circumstances, or reality."

Many of Borges's stories revolve around a metaphysical premise. Metaphysics refers to the philosophical examination of the universe: how things come to be, what is real and what is not. Examples of such metaphysical premises in Ficciones are a world consisting of an infinite Library ("The Library of Babel"), a planet whose "language presupposes idealism" ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"). In "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain" the fictional Quain follows out a metaphysical notion Borges himself playfully put forward in his essay "A New Refutation of Time," and published in his collection Labyrinths. In the essay Borges sets out to show time is not actually a succession of moments and in fact is not real. In the story "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," Quain believes a repetition can prove time is not a sequence. Thus by committing his stories to philosophical ideas, Borges is something of an idealist himself.


Gnosticism can be defined as "a religious doctrine promising salvation through knowledge of certain mystical truths." Such knowledge is intuited, or it is relayed in esoteric texts and magic formulas. This definition relies on the etymology of the word Gnosticism, which comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning "knowledge."

However, Gnosticism is not simply one religious movement. Rather it refers to numerous religious and philosophical movements in ancient Greece and Rome during the early Christian era. According to some Gnostic beliefs, there are two gods: a higher god, who gives human souls a divine spark, and a lesser god called a Demiurge, who created Earth. Earth is a failed creation, and divine souls have their true home elsewhere. In "Three Versions of Judas" the narrator refers to a similar belief, citing the era when the Gnostic "Basilides was announcing the cosmos was a rash and malevolent improvisation engineered by some defective angels."

In Ficciones Borges often draws a parallel between artistic creation and the botched creation of the Gnostic Demiurge. The narrator of "The Circular Ruins" says the Gnostics tell of Demiurges creating "a red Adam," a failed, feeble Adam who cannot move or think. At first the dreamed-up young man in "The Circular Ruins" is like this failed Adam. He cannot move until he is infused with animating spirit from the god of fire. The dreaming man who creates him in "The Circular Ruins" is a kind of Demiurge. The story is also an allegory in which a Demiurgic creation stands for the perils, despair, and joys of artistic creation. In a typical Borgesian twist, the creator in "The Circular Ruins" discovers he himself is the dream of another creator.

The librarian narrator in "The Library of Babel" also refers to Gnosticism as a fable about failed creation. He says imperfect humankind "might be the work of chance or malevolent Demiurges." An artist, likewise, cannot create a human but only a representation of a human being, a literary character. But in Borges's version of gnostic creation, the fictional or dream can overcome reality. Thus in the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" the secret society of philosophers acts as a Demiurge, creating another world. Like the gnostic "red Adam," the planet of Tlön is flawed and only partially realized, but it exerts a fatal attraction on the world.


Metafiction is fiction that calls attention to its fictional status. It also can be defined as fiction that is aware of itself as fiction. The term metafiction was coined by American novelist William Gass to describe the playful, self-conscious post-World War II works of writers such a Borges. Despite the newness of the term the concept of metafiction is old. For example, in Cervantes's 17th-century novel Don Quixote, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn a book has been written about their adventures and are aware of themselves as literary characters from that point on. Later in the book Don Quixote and Sancho Panza come upon a man reading Don Quixote. Don Quixote looks it over and scorns it as completely untrue. This playfully makes the reader aware of the novel's fictional status. In addition, The Thousand and One Nights is also a metafictional work because it is a vast collection of stories united by a story about storytelling.

Both Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights appear in Ficciones. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" highlights its own fictional status by imitating a learned commentary on an imaginary book. Borges was delighted by fiction's ability to refer to itself because self-referential fiction offers the paradox of a human-made artifact with the appearance of infinity. In "The Garden of Forking Paths," a story about an infinite novel, Borges intensifies the self-referential quality of The Thousand and One Nights. With the authority of a scholar the narrator confidently asserts an untruth about The Thousand and One Nights. He refers to "the night in the middle" of the book when Scheherazade, "through a magical mistake on the part of her copyist, started to tell the story of The Thousand and One Nights." In this intensified version, The Thousand and One Nights contains the story of The Thousand and One Nights. Therefore, this second-order or "meta" level must also contain another story of The Thousand and One Nights, and so on to infinity.

Although the story "The Library of Babel" does not state this, it is possible among its infinite books one contains the story "The Library of Babel." In Ficciones Borges uses this metafictional device several times: the work contains another version of itself. In "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" Mir Bahadur Ali is the author of a novel called The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim. Dr. Yu Tsun's great-grandfather writes an infinite labyrinth of a novel called The Garden of Forking Paths in the story "The Garden of Forking Paths." For Borges the attraction of these metafictional puzzles is the way in which they make the fictional seem real and the real seem fictional. He refers to this literary effect as "the contamination of reality by dream." Summarizing his ideas about metafiction in the essay "Partial Enchantments in the Quixote," published in Labyrinths, Borges asks why it bothers readers "that Don Quixote be a reader of Quixote." He answers if a fictional character can become a reader of such a work, then "we, its readers ... can become fictitious."

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