The more I read Borges’ Labyrinths, the more I appreciate how deeply unsettling and even scary its stories are. These are stories of ideas — “The Library of Babel”, for example, has no obvious plot — and characterization is oftentimes minimal. But the architecture of such stories suits Borges’ purpose just fine, which is not to create a compelling narrative but rather explore a compelling idea.
Ideas which often have unsettling implications.
It’s not an accident that one of Borges’ most unsettling tales, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”, is Labyrinths’ first. In this story, we read of an Illuminati-esque conspiracy, Orbus Tertius, engaged in a holistic, centuries-long worldbuilding exercise with the goal of overwriting our existence with their fictional one. When Borges was writing, he likely had Mormon “archaeology” in mind, and at its most surface level this story seems a parody of archaeological attempts to vindicate the Book of Mormon (usually with questionable methodology).
Yet in recent years, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius” has taken on a keener edge, at least in the United States. The growing realization that American politics are now governed by two oppositional worldviews, neither of which considers the other reality-based at all, hones concepts like Borges’ hrönir. Suddenly we have become aware that a compelling fictional world can overwrite our own … a lesson people under totalitarian regimes have long known. The story becomes more topical in subtly unsettling way, a creeping horror.
Similarly unsettling themes pervade Labyrinths. “Three Versions of Judas” almost prophesied the Gospel of Judas’ unearthing, where the Gnostic community who wrote it argued that Judas’ actions were preordained by the divine Plan and hence could not possibly have been sinful, for sin implies a deviation from divine Will, and it was His will that Jesus be crucified (indeed, there’s a suggestion that Jesus and Judas co-orchestrated his arrest, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly-style). It is a theme, however, that couldn’t have been explored had it not been there at all, and Borges is a master at drawing out the inevitable consequences of thematic ideas.
“The Circular Ruins” turns on hermetic irony: just as the guru inhabiting the fire god’s temple dreams the valley’s hero into being, so too does the fire god dream the guru into being. Are we real, then, or figments of another’s imagination? This is a tale that anticipates postmodern metacommentaries on text, such as the characters’ realization, late in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, that they are, in fact, characters in a book. But “The Circular Ruins” takes it one step further — what if the dreamer himself is dreamt up? What if God is, in fact, a novelist, and we are just His playthings? The suggestion unsettles.
Just so, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is another commentary on writing, this time on the limitations of originality. I’ve seen commentaries on it allude to the idea of writer as “perfect reader”, but it goes further than that. For Pierre Menard to perfectly reproduce passages of Don Quixote — reproductions with greater depth due to the self-consciously literary act of the reproduction itself — calls into question both our claims to originality — perhaps someone else can arrive at the same words but through different methods? — as well as the depth of meaning these words carry, and how important context is in establishing this depth. “Pierre Menard’s” message is couched in humor — “History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding” remains one of the funniest punchlines in all of literature — yet it is there nonetheless, and it is unsettling.
Such themes pervade all of Labyrinths’ tales. “A New Refutation of Time” concatenates Berkeley and Hume, philosophers whose worldviews could not have been more different, to arrive at something that seems like a reductio ad absurdum on the outside yet makes its own kind of queer logical sense inside, especially in light of e.g. general relativity, where time is seen as an extension of (or extra dimension attached to) space. Stranger still, the essay is presented in two separate drafts … an artfully crafted déjà vu.
“Death and the Compass” investigates the idea of a detective who creates the narrative the serial killer follows — an idea Eco’s The Name of the Rose further elaborates on — while “Averroes’ Search” plays with the concept that one’s existence does not matter anymore once they’ve fulfilled their essential cause — in Averroes’ case, translating Aristotle, and in the context of his Poetics, understanding the idea of theater. “The Zahir” (“Zahir,” incidentally, brings to mind the Legend of Korra character “Zaheer”) explores the idea of an idea object imbued with such obsessive power that it inevitably brings those who come into contact with it to ruin. “Funes the Memorius”, which I regard as Labyrinths’ weakest work, is an exploration of hyperthymesia. “The Garden of Forking Paths” plays again with hermetic themes and illusory time. “The Library of Babel” uses its extended conceit to play with themes revolving around the limitations of knowledge, and how knowledge, when pushed to its edge, breaks down into contradictions. And so on.
All of these stories share this same unsettling quality. It is an unsettling-ness that becomes stronger, too, the more you read Borges.
In a way, it’s the exact opposite of Lovecraft’s horror. Lovecraft’s horror is fundamentally a fear of the unknown, which means that if you’ve read “The Rats in the Walls” a few times, say, it ceases to be scary. You can start to critique stories of his like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for rambling too long for their own good, sometimes, once you’ve gotten used to how Lovecraft develops his themes, while you’re reading the work for the first time. Lovecraft is not a very subtle writer — “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” biggest problem is that he can’t just let the last horror be inferred, that he has to hit you over the head with what he had already embedded in the text.
Yet, strangely enough, Lovecraft and Borges are allied writers. “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” last horror — the secret contained within the narrator’s own bloodline — is, as I’ve pointed out, a subtle horror, an embedded horror, a horror of the uncanny. And it is this latter that Borges specializes in. He creates the uncanny. This is why so many of Labyrinths’ stories — even ones that end in heroic exultation like “We drew our heavy revolvers (for suddenly there were revolvers in the dream) and exultantly killed the Gods” (“Ragnarök”) — fill us with a deep sense of unease. This is what I’ve come to think of as metaphysical horror — horror embedded in ideas themselves.
This is why Borges’ stories become stronger the more you read him while Lovecraft’s become weaker. Most of Lovecraft’s dénouements are essentially — gimmicks. And when the horror starts to last, it’s because he’s tapping into concerns which discomfort him (a big obsession of his being tainted bloodlines). So much of Lovecraft’s plots involve confrontation with secrets that ought to be left well enough alone and in so doing drive the the narrator, not infrequently, insane; even in the way he writes you can tell this sense of forbidden knowledge is one of his driving thematic obsessions.
Borges actually explores hidden knowledge — not secret or apocryphal knowledge — but the hidden logical consequences of the everyday and from them mines the uncanny. Borges’ horror is the culmination of Lovecraft’s program. Lovecraft needs to couch his narrators as academics in a decidedly non-academic narration. Borges uses academic narration to establish his (characters’?) academic credentials. And by doing so, Borges manages to tap a horror Lovecraft could never find: the horror lurking within things themselves.