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Arts & entertainment

Jorge Luis Borges: The necessity and paradox of memory

11 Apr 2022 | Written by By Chris Guiton

Once you’ve read a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges your world will never be the same again.

Borges is a key figure in modern literature. And his enigmatic stories are perfect miniatures, which usher you into a parallel universe of labyrinths, paradox and mystery.

They often seem to pose more questions than they answer. And don’t always follow a traditional narrative path. But there’s always a central idea that holds them together. And as writer William Trevor once noted, ‘You don’t have to have a plot in a short story but you do have to have a point.’

 

Drawing out the essence of things 

The role of memory in our lives was one of Borges’ key themes. He explores it to excellent effect in “Funes the Memorious”. A story about a peasant, Ireneo Funes, who, thrown by a half-tamed horse, sustains a serious head injury. On recovering consciousness, he discovers that he is paralysed but also has an infallible memory. 

Whether the latter was a blessing or a curse is the subject of the story as Borges riffs on the nature of memory, how we use it to locate ourselves in the world and the consequences of not being able to forget things. 

As the narrator (a version of Borges himself) notes:

 

We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April 30 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding cover he had seen only once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Río Negro on the night before the Quebracho uprising.

 

Earlier in the narrative, Funes had enumerated ‘the cases of people with prodigious memory recorded in the Naturalis historia’. Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic work listed ‘Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered the law in the twenty-two languages of his empire; Simonides, inventor of mnemonics…’

Pliny considered an excellent memory a necessity in life. But he also understood that we could lose it through disease or injuries. And ‘that very often the memory appears to attempt, as it were, to make its escape from us, even while the body is at rest and in perfect health.’ 

Borges went further than Pliny, suggesting that there might be a downside to a perfect, all-encompassing memory. The narrator notes, ‘I suspect however that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.’ 

For Funes, ‘his memory was like a garbage heap.’ And attempts to classify his vertiginous memories as he sought to order his thoughts were of no avail. Surely, this is the central theme of the story. Precisely because Funes can recall physical objects with such clarity, he is largely incapable of abstract thinking.

 

Unearthing the secrets of the past

But while the story highlights the impact of a hyper-active memory, it also invites us to reflect on the purpose of memory generally. 

As Maya Ganguly notes in her fascinating blog post, memory is an essential human function that allows us to recall past events and retrieve pre-existing knowledge. It is this recall of our past that helps shape who we are, ‘remember our own personal history, the history of our society, and thus come to terms with our place in society.’ 

Memory allows us to both tell stories and understand stories. It underpins our sense of individual identity. 

Stories also have a very clear social purpose, providing a transmission belt between the past and the present. As German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin noted in his essay “The Storyteller”,

‘Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation…’. The art practised by the storyteller, ‘starts the web which all stories together form in the end. One ties onto the next, as the great storytellers have always shown.’

Think of Scheherazade in The One Thousand and One Nights, who always comes up with a fresh story whenever her tales come to an end.

Unsurprisingly, storytelling played a major role in the development of humankind. Since the early days of our species, we’ve been hard-wired to like stories precisely because they improved our ability to survive. They become part of our collective memory and provide a sense of shared heritage. 

 

Remembering and forgetting

But before the invention of writing, storytelling was only possible because of the power of memory. Borges understood this. And, steeped in literary tradition himself, was renowned for his prodigious powers of recall. Which may well have been stimulated by his recognition that he probably had a hereditary condition that would cause him to lose his sight prematurely. (He started to go blind in his thirties and had completely lost his sight by the age of 55.)

But, as we’ve seen, the relationship between remembering and forgetting is not always straightforward. In his Textbook of Psychology, the American philosopher William James (quoting French psychologist Théodule-Armand Ribot) reflected on the dynamic relationship between the two:  

 

We thus reach the paradoxical result that one condition of remembering is that we should forget. Without totally forgetting a prodigious number of states of consciousness, and momentarily forgetting a large number, we could not remember at all. Oblivion, except in certain cases, is thus no malady of memory, but a condition of its health and its life.

 

Funes’ memory had dramatically changed its character because of an accidental fall from a horse. And in Borges’ hermetic world, accidents are reminders that we may be unable to order our existence as we wish because the world has a hidden order of its own. But our very humanity impels us to continue the search for meaning, despite the obstacles we might encounter along the way. 

Borges confronts us with this paradox. And as a master storyteller, his reflections on memory remind us of the redemptive (and truly marvellous) ability of the human brain to access our unconscious mind, recover sensory experiences from our past and use them to comprehend our current world. 

As the editor of Labyrinths, James E. Irby, noted in his introduction to this lovely collection of Borges’ stories and essays:  

His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.


Have you read this or any other stories by Jorge Luis Borges? Share your thoughts on his writing with fellow members of The Joy Club in the comments below.

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