Photo credit: Georgina Gould
Jorge Luis Borges
, the blind Argentinian librarian, liked to quote Arthur Schopenhauer
, who said that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book: “to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream.”
The distinction between dreams and reality must have been especially blurred for Borges, who was blind for most of his career. He relied on disembodied readers’ voices and was forced to compose his letters, poems, and short stories inside his head, memorizing them and then waiting for a willing amanuensis.
He was “a keen dreamer, and enjoyed telling his dreams,” recalls the writer Alberto Manguel
, who was one of many young friends who read to Borges. “In ‘that all-possible realm,' he felt that he could release the hold on his thoughts and fears, and that these could, in all freedom, act out their own stories.”
Dreams recur persistently in Borges’s work, from the “Dreamtigers” he conjures in his literary imagination to the nightmarishly nested dreams within dreams in his short story “The God’s Script." One of his favorite dream stories was the thought experiment posed by the fourth-century BC Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu?
The same mind-bending idea occurs in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass
. Alice comes across the Red King asleep and snoring, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee ask her to guess what he’s dreaming about. “Why, about you!” they exclaim, clapping their hands. Gleefully they explain that she’s only “a sort of thing” in the Red King’s dream and that if he were to wake up she’d “go out — bang! — just like a candle!” Alice is understandably upset when they assure her that she isn’t real.
Borges uses a line from the Red King sequence as an epigram to his most spectacular dream story, “The Circular Ruins." In this story, a mysterious figure in a ruined temple attempts to “dream a man”: he sets out to dream each element of a human being with such precision that the dreamt man will become indistinguishable from reality. For years the magus works on this project until finally, magically he succeeds, only to be granted a vertiginous revelation: that he himself is “a mere appearance, dreamt by another." He is no more real than his own creation.
These elements of circularity, unreality, and confusion are shared by another motif that recurs frequently in Borges’s work: the labyrinth. Labyrinths and dreams are closely aligned: walking a hedge maze can be a dreamlike, even nightmarish experience. In a maze, the world is abstracted to paths, hedges, and dead-ends; logic evaporates as paths coil like corkscrews and deposit you at familiar-seeming junctions. There is a growing sense of claustrophobia and fear, a feeling that the maze may be a trap, a dread of whom or what may be lurking at the center...
In the archetypal myth of the labyrinth, the central chamber of a maze is the scene of a confrontation between a man and a monster, Theseus and the Minotaur. What are we to make of this scene? Is the Minotaur a mere monstrous aberration, or does he represent something more, perhaps an aspect of Theseus himself? Is this a representation of a psychological skirmish, a man wrestling with the monstrous aspects of his own nature, before he emerges victorious, an older and wiser person?
Borges was aware of a split between his individual, internal experience and the name that appeared on his books and in the papers. “The other one, Borges, is the one things happen to,” he wrote in “Borges and I." “Some years ago I tried to get away from him: I went from suburban mythologies to playing games with time and infinity. But these are Borges’ games now — I will have to think of something else. Thus my life is an escape. I will lose everything, and everything will belong to oblivion, or to the other. I don’t know which of us wrote this.”
In a characteristic reversal of the Theseus myth, Borges imagines the Minotaur’s point of view in his story “The House of Asterion." The Minotaur plays lonely games in the labyrinth, running through the stone galleries, pretending there’s an “other” Minotaur, showing this imaginary twin the interminable courtyards, cellars, and corridors. He longs for the arrival of his “redeemer” and wonders what he will look like: “Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?” In the end, when the Minotaur finally meets Theseus, he scarcely defends himself and dies instantly.
In “There Are More Things,” Borges describes a dream of the Minotaur:
I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten — an engraving of a kind of labyrinth....I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. At last I saw it. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming — but dreaming of what, or of whom?
These games of split identities, doppelgangers, and strange meetings became increasingly important for Borges towards the end of his life. In his late poem, “The Labyrinth,” he imagines a figure trudging the “path of monotonous walls” but it’s unclear whether he’s describing the Minotaur, Theseus, Borges (one or the other), or an archetypal expression of the human condition. The speaker knows there is “an Other in the shadows” whom he seeks, and that meeting the other will mean death, but the tortured anticipation is even worse than the event itself, and he yearns for that ultimate meeting to arrive.
Less than three years before he died, Borges published a short story called “August 25, 1983," in which he, as a young man, returns to a hotel room in the town of Adrogué, only to come face to face with himself. “There, in the narrow iron bed — older, withered, and very pale, lay I, on my back, my eyes turned up vacantly toward the high plaster mouldings of the ceiling.” The two Borgeses speak to each other. They realize they are both dreaming, and the Borges in bed knows that he is dreaming his final dream. The younger narrator says:
He stopped talking....I realized that he had died. In a way, I died with him — in grief I leaned over his pillow, but there was no one there anymore.
I fled the room. Outside, there was no patio, no marble staircase, no great silent house, no eucalyptus trees, no statues, no gazebo in a garden, no fountains, no gate in the fence surrounding the hotel in the town of Adrogué.
Outside awaited other dreams.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Follow This Thread: A Maze Book to Get Lost In
(Three Rivers Press, 2019), The Penguin Classics Book
(Penguin, 2018), and with Matt Lloyd-Rose, Curiocity: An Alternative A to Z of London
(Penguin, 2016). He lives in the UK.