Commentary Magazine


Borges 2.0

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) was original to a degree that should enchant and intimidate anyone who reads his stories and poems. Many authors have pondered the implications of infinity, time travel, parallel worlds, and the persistence or lack thereof of memory—Philip K. Dick creeps to mind—but few have done so as credibly, or as beautifully, as Borges.

New Directions has just rereleased Borges’s Labyrinths in a new paperback edition, with an introduction by William Gibson. In his story “The Library of Babel,” Borges posited a universe “(which others call the Library) . . . composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. . . . I say that the Library is unending. . . . Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact centre in any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.” Fans will recognize this definition, slightly deformed, from another Borges story, called “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal.” “In the sixteenth century,” he wrote, “the last chapter of the last book of Pantagruel referred to ‘that intellectual sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere and which we call God.’”

But . . . was Borges really describing the Internet? That’s the latest footling question mark from The New York Times:

[A] growing number of contemporary commentators—whether literature professors or cultural critics like Umberto Eco—have concluded that Borges uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web. One recent book, “Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds” by Perla Sassón-Henry, explores the connections between the decentralized Internet of YouTube, blogs and Wikipedia—the so-called Internet 2.0—and Borges’s stories, which “make the reader an active participant.” Ms. Sassón-Henry, an associate professor in the language studies department of the United States Naval Academy, describes Borges as “from the Old World with a futuristic vision.” Another work, a collection of essays on the topic from Bucknell University Press, has the provocative title “Cy-Borges” and is expected to appear this year.

In fairness, it’s a potentially intriguing connection—but one can’t help thinking it diminishes Borges’s great achievement. He wasn’t an SF writer. It’s unlikely that he cared to see the future, even though the Aleph was supposed to let him see everything at once. Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia have turned out to be nothing but a load of faddish, privacy-invading trouble, and if you can’t see Borges sub specie aeternitatis, can you see him at all?