Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 Funes The Memorious Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, Funes, the Memorious : Artifices | Summary

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Summary

The first-person Argentinean narrator recalls a deceased Uruguayan friend, Ireneo Funes. His written recollections will be gathered with those of others for a kind of memorial book. One writer has called Funes a superman. The narrator points out Funes was "a countryman [peasant] from the town of Fray Bentos."

The narrator recalls his first youthful meeting with Funes in 1884. He and a cousin were returning from a horseback ride. Funes was smoking a cigarette. The cousin asked Funes the time. Without consulting a watch, Funes replied, "In ten minutes it will be eight o'clock." Impressed by Funes's answer, the cousin told the narrator about Ireneo Funes. He was known for his eccentricities, including "having nothing to do with people and always knowing the time, like a watch." He was the son of "an ironing woman," and an English doctor named O'Connor. Others disagreed and named a different father.

In 1887 the narrator's family returned to Fray Bentos, in Uruguay. The narrator asks about news of "the chronometer Funes" and learns he was thrown from a horse and is "hopelessly crippled."

The narrator has begun teaching himself Latin and has brought with him some Latin books, including a volume of Pliny's Natural History (written in 77–79 CE). Funes sends the narrator "a flowery, ceremonious letter," in which he recalls details of their meeting years before. He concludes by asking to borrow any of the narrator's Latin books and to send a Latin dictionary, "for I do not know Latin as yet." Thinking Funes is pulling a prank, the narrator sends a language instruction book, Gradus ad Parnassum, and the volume of Pliny.

Recalled to Argentina, the narrator realizes Funes still has the books and goes to Funes's house before leaving. As he walks to the back where Funes lies in the dark, he hears Ireneo speaking Latin, reading something aloud "with obvious delight." Later he learns Funes was reading a chapter of Pliny's Natural History about memory. The narrator quotes the chapter's last words: "ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum" (Nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words.). Funes welcomes the narrator and recounts "the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis." Funes describes his life before the accident. "He had been ... blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless." The narrator tries to point out Funes already had a remarkable mind and tries to describe the sharpness of Funes's memory. He could remember "the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882." He tells the narrator, "I have more memories in myself" than all of humanity has had "since the world was a world."

Typical people can recall basic shapes, but Funes could recall "the tempestuous mane of a stallion" or "the many faces of a dead man during the course of a protracted wake." He also invented a new way of counting, giving every integer a new name. His name for 7,013, for example, was "Màximo Perez"; his name for 7,014, "The Train." The narrator argues Funes's invention was not a "system of enumeration," but "Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me."

The narrator recalls an invention proposed by the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke: a language with a word for every individual thing. Instead of one noun, bird, every individual bird would have its own word. Coming up with a similar idea, Funes "renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous." For Funes there is the added complication of remembering each time he has seen "or perceived or imagined" each thing.

To the narrator Funes's proposed projects "reveal a certain stammering greatness" and let typical people imagine what it is like to be Funes, who is "almost incapable of general, platonic ideas." He has difficulty realizing "the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms." But he has a further difficulty. He has a hard time believing a dog seen "at three-fourteen (seen in profile)" has the same name "as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)." Further "without effort, [Funes] had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin." But the narrator thinks Funes was perhaps "not very capable of thought." The narrator says thinking means "to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract."

The conversation ends as dawn breaks. The narrator sees Funes's 19-year-old face, but "he seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids." Funes dies at age 21, in 1889.

Analysis

Even before the accident there is a sense Ireneo Funes is ill-fated. Funes bears his mother's last name, not his father's. He is an illegitimate child and thus has had a difficult start in life. The literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada points out the name Funes is similar to several Spanish words meaning "'funereal,' 'ill-fated,' and 'dark.'" Indeed, it is dark when the narrator and Funes first meet; the narrator can make out only Funes's clothes and lit cigarette. Knowledge is usually associated with light—hence the words illuminate and enlightenment. But Funes's strange intellectual gifts imprison him in darkness. He prefers to lie in the dark, the better to shut out the teeming, ever-shifting details of his "intolerably exact" world. He is also metaphorically imprisoned in darkness because he cannot form general ideas. In many ways he cannot think but can only perceive and remember in stunning detail.

The American philosopher Saul Kripke thinks names are a special class of words, calling them "rigid designators." According to this idea, no matter what happens to the bearer of the "designator" Ireneo Funes—whether he grows up to be a rich athlete or a paralyzed savant—the name Ireneo Funes always refers to the same person. In a way names are, therefore, like the general concepts Funes is unable to form. Funes would like to use names in a way opposite to Kripke's; with every change he would like objects to have a new name.

Funes represents an extreme of nominalism, a branch of philosophy that flourished in the Middle Ages. Nominalist philosophers believed there was no real thing behind such universal concepts as "humanity" or "the Good." This belief does not mean nominalists denied the words humanity and good had a meaning. They denied only the existence of something like a Platonic form of "humanity" or "the good." Funes goes further: there are only individual things at specific times. General concepts have no meaning for Funes.

The narrator mentions John Locke "proposed (and rejected) an impossible idiom." Idiom means "language" here, but the emphasis is on individuality: only one group or even one person understands an idiom. Locke's proposal was a language in which "each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name." In his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" Locke rejects this language for two reasons: it is impossible, and it is useless. Such a language is impossible because a name for "every bird and beast men saw; every tree and plant that affected the senses, could not find a place in the most capacious understanding." It would take a "prodigious memory" surpassing all other known examples of prodigious memory. Such a language would also be useless. "Men learn names, and use them in talk with others, only that they may be understood," wrote Locke. "This cannot be done by names applied to particular things; whereof I alone hav[e] the ideas in my mind." This is precisely Funes's problem. He would like a language even more precise than Locke's in which there is a name not just for every leaf but for every leaf as it appeared at the different times Funes saw it. But such a language could be meaningful only to Funes, the one who saw the leaf on those occasions. His numbering "system" is equally incommunicable, a long list of peculiar names, too long for anyone but Funes to learn.

However, Funes does have a desire for simplification, even though he is unable to simplify on a conceptual level. He finds it difficult to sleep because he cannot "abstract [himself] from the world." But when he does sleep, he achieves it by orienting himself toward some "new unknown houses" to the east. He has not seen the houses—which would lock them into unbearable detail. So he is free to imagine the houses as "black, compact, made of a single obscurity." This is another instance of the sadness of Funes's "intolerably exact" world: its only joys are infrequently obtained states of oblivion. As if his "rigid designator" of a name had fated him to it, Funes soon departs for the eternal dark, dying at age 21.

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