My love for Jorge Luis Borges knows no end. I’ve been slowly digesting his works one by one over the last year and I’m continually fascinated by each short story.
I wrote previously about Borges’ obsession with mirrors and the infinite. This time, after recently reading The Aleph, I’d like to call attention specifically to his love of labyrinths.
In The Aleph, there are three stories about labyrinths that highlight the fascinating ways that Borges employed labyrinths as devices.
Marcus Flaminius Rufus, a Roman soldier, hears about a river whose water gives one immortality and about a city full of immortals. Marcus sets out for them and finds surrounding the city a village of Troglodytes. When he enters the City of the Immortals, he finds it is a labyrinth of stairs with no destination and some even upside down. All the structures within this are pointless, crooked, or warped. They provide no function, but only exist to distract, torment and confuse men. Labyrinths are used to drive men mad and distract them from either power they should not obtain or from truth that must be protected.
The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths
One of my favorite stories, which reads more like a fable, fairy tale or one of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights. The King of Babylon invites and Arab King to try and make his way through his labyrinth which is nearly impossible to solve. The Babylonian King is pleased with himself until the Arab King invites him to someday visit his own labyrinth “which has no stairways to climb, nor door to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.” Borges story then shows that the manmade labyrinths pale in comparison to the infinite labyrinth of nature, the world, the galaxy, and the universe surrounding us.
Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth
In this story, Borges describes a labyrinth used to ward off inevitable or the judgment of God. But ironically, we come to find that this same labyrinth only uses that facade as a lure. The stories and lore surrounding the labyrinth that seem conjured up to scare people away are rather created in the first place to spark curiosity and investigation.
What a brilliant artist! To take the same object and apply different meanings to it again and again. The labyrinth is also an incredible symbol for the flow of Borges short stories. Frequently, he’ll start a story with a variety of details, people, and conversations that may not end up being integral to the story. He also typically ends his stories with a twist or a surprising conclusion that ties everything together. In this way, the readers are all invited to enter a labyrinth with him and try to find our way.