The Cyclical Night:
Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges

by L. A. Murrilo

The Ways of Irony in the Labyrinth of Consciousness

Analyses of "The Garden Of Forking Paths"
"Death and the Compass"    "Emma Zunz”    "The God's Script"    "The Immortal"



It behooves us to suspect that reality does not belong to any literary genre; it is as risky to decide that our life is a novel as to conclude that it is a colophon or an acrostic.

The first impression Borges' stories make on his readers is most often a sense of uneasy but profound discovery. In many cases a reader may be unable to say what he discovers. In others the sense of a new thing confronted is so immediate that impressions and reactions are attributed to techniques and brilliant intellectual play. But Borges' short narratives are highly representative literary phenomena of the mid‑twentieth century for reasons that go deeper than questions of style and techniques. They are ironical in structure in a way a critic might have predicted fifty or more years ago because they are evolved, with great artistic skill, which is, however, their own, from those tendencies in Western literature that have exploited irony as a mode of apprehension.

On the surface Borges does not make nearly the same demands that Joyce does. Like Joyce, but not in such marked stages, he has undergone over a period of years an intensification and refinement of certain features, propensities, and themes, never betraying, however, a disposition for distorting the structure and meaning of words. Borges disintegrates not words but ideas and the beliefs behind them, their orthodoxy, value, and logic. Like Joyce, he possesses an organizing instinct for relating concrete details to an abstract pattern, and an erudition that seems monstrous because it is so consistent in what it knows and obsessed with how it knows it. The interval of some fifteen years between his early poetry and the first success in the short narrative, roughly the years 1923‑39, served as a period for defining, in the course of an essay, a lecture or book review, his own unorthodox approach to a rather eccentric selection of problems and questions of a philosophical, religious, esthetic, and moral nature; an approach the subsequent twenty‑year period of productivity in the short story was to see refined into something like the perspective of a heretic within the walls of an indiscriminating twentieth century.

The expanse of themes traversed by Borges resembles [119/120] Joyce's in many ways, but where Joyce found the horizon of his world a conciliating dis‑tension between the personal and the archetypal, Borges has created a world sustained by an irresolvable conflict between the same antagonists. Borges provides a dialectical art, subjecting the primordial and the esoteric into new and perplexing forms, while reducing the innovational and the concrete into hallucinatory ghosts without a resting place in either present or past. He offers the reader a form of highly stylized and intellectualized fiction which tolerates equally the categories and hypotheses of ethics, mathematics, and metaphysics, the postulates of mysticism, the incantations of magic, and the fantastic. Detached and noncommittal, he offers an art attempting oecumenical ends by adopting the means of any expedient, attractive heresy. On the surface of his short stories the most venerable literary orthodoxy is reflected. On the surface an imperturbable clarity and an impeccable precision govern. Unlike the Wake, here the directions for losing one's way in the labyrinth of symbols and allusions, paradox and irony, are clearly printed. Furthermore, the stories are elaborated precisely, even painfully, within the standard and traditional norms of the short story or the detective story. Yet the surface effect is a concision of style and a compactness of ideas and themes pressed to a nearly intolerable degree. The amusing disavowal of any but a fictional purport provides the humorous but solitary note of relief.

An art conveying its sense through the tensions of contradiction, parody, and paradox is intrinsically an art aligning and subjecting to the pressures of interaction contraries the content of which is reasonably well established in the reader's mind. It is the predicament forcing conflict on the contraries which assumes importance. In the case of Borges we recognize that the traditional meanings of the contraries are being subjected to the pressures of a conjecture pursuing a course beyond the probable and possible. The conjecture shaping up the predicament, we also recognize, is not the work of a purely [120/121] intellectual impulse; the obvious drift of the speculation toward the imaginative and fantastic exposes the original impulse, a poetic intuition. The peculiar quality of this intuition is that it needs to set up an analytical apparatus and impel it as an intellectual conjecture on a trajectory bearing toward the symbolical and fantastic. The conjecture will maintain a tension shaping the narrative in the interval of our heightened awareness of just what ideas and their orthodox values, and of our personal attachments to them, are being subjected and "annihilated" in the process of dissent. The dialectical drama will differ, to be sure, from a demonstration of, say, a problem in metaphysics, or a mathematical demonstration or "amusement," where our absorption is never more than cogitative.

The success of Borges' method, judged by his more original efforts, depends on that problematical degree to which the reader is impelled by the fiction to commit his resources and impulses, and yet react to his alacrity. The "objectivity" of the narrative is coherent with reciprocal, subjective reaction in the reader bringing about the activation and dislocation of its symbolic potential. The imagination, as well as the intelligence, of the author has anticipated the potential responses as a structural element. To exhaust the possibilities of both subject matter and style, to arouse and displace the tensions enforced by contraries compressed and "annihilated," is to anticipate an exhausting of the reader's potential responses. The displacement, the vacuum of the enigma, follows inevitably. To insure that this response is to be that disengaging compulsion toward ironical displacement becomes decisive in the minute ordering of details, from stylistic manner to the ideational or intellectual point of the story.


A dialecti[c]al art attempting transport in such fragile conveyance evolves, necessarily, from the isolation and the reiterative compression of subject matter, themes, conflicts, and [121/122] ideas. Borges' stories are woven with the threads and designs of situations and ideas unwoven or unravelled in his obsessive, personal need for the experience of analytical reading. In fact the attitude of his critical essays may be taken as an example of the sort of close critical reduction a reader should impart to his stories. On one occasion he listed some of his reading subjects: Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Stevenson, Mauthner, Shaw, Chesterton, and Léon Bloy. One could add: Poe, Kafka, Coleridge, Valéry, and Henry James; the Cabalists, medieval philosophers, and recent metaphysical speculators; but a complete list of authors to whom he is specifically indebted would be lengthy. The need behind his predilections is other than an enthusiasm for erudite knowledge or universal literature. The predilections he feels compelled to mention would seem to indicate that his imagination has found release more readily in elaborating stories derived from the stories of others than in attempts at outright invention. It would seem that his imagination, once prompted, could only get under way when faced with the task of relating and re‑elaborating the assimilated literary products of others. The seven biographies of The Universal History of Infamy (1933‑34), owe their stylistic brilliance to the labored preoccupation with certain intellectual and philosophical themes and their effects. In retrospect, the biographies do not evidence an "intellectual" style of narrative quite as much as an imagination feeling out its communicative possibilities. In 1954 that style is termed "baroque." "I would say baroque is that style which deliberately exhausts (or aspires to exhaust) its possibilities and borders on a caricature of itself.” All intellectual endeavor, according to Shaw, he says, is humoristic, and the baroque is an intellectual propensity in which humorism is voluntary or involuntary. What he means by reiterating Shaw is that the intellectual propensity equips itself with an introspective faculty into its own deficiencies. No one, no thinking subject, can possess the whole truth of a given question. To stretch intellectual capabilities to the point [122/123] where they conceal ostensible deficiencies is to expose, humorously, a kind of deferential, gratuitous reiteration. The humor of Borges' art is centered in the contradictory attempt of intellectual conjecture to detonize and to contain, simultaneously, its own exhaustion. It invites the tautology that somehow a story is to displace its own displacement. Erudition, humor, the re‑elaboration of ideas and stories, conducted as a gratuitous metaphysical sport, all involve a large measure of repetition and, invariably, of its counterpart, inversion.

We can turn to Borges' numerous essays and articles and find ideas, situations, or conjectures corresponding to the compressed elaborations of the stories. We find also that same dialectical rhythm of the mind tracing out a conjecture to its displacement. Two essays in particular, "The History of Eternity" (1936), and "A New Refutation of Time" (1944, 1946), are indispensable to an understanding of several basic ideas elaborated in the stories; they are also important for their indirect revelation of subjective concern, a poet's concern, for the concepts of time, eternity, universe, archetype, and personality. Both essays lead the reader to a reconsideration of a personal experience recorded in 1928. The substance of that "experience of eternity" in a shabby section of Buenos Aires, on a street of the "elemental clay of America," recurs in the phrase: "I felt myself dead, I felt myself an abstract perceiver of the world." My purpose here excludes an appraisal of the extent to which the articles and essays comprise an experimental or rehearsal room for the dialectical dramas of the narratives. An outline of a story is tentative occasionally in even the briefest of them, and not infrequently a single sentence suggests or even projects a future story, or recapitulates one already written. The advanced state of a group of articles following The Universal History of Infamy, and preceding "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941), brings them perceptively to the threshold of narrative form. These works are now grouped with "The Garden" as the first part of Ficciones. "The [123/124] Approach to Al‑Mu'tasim" (1935), "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940), are "fantastic" conjectures taking the form of “notes on imaginary books." What these "fantastic" conjectures lack, and others like "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" (1939), is the full mounting on imaginative terms. Without it even the intricately devised conjecture of "Tlön," a fantastic utopian realm displacing our real world, cannot elicit the sense of compulsion inveterate in the stories. However similar the attitude of the essayist and narrator in their ambiguous detachment, a real distinction applies to their esthetic products. Now, considering the product, at what hypothetical point in the Borgian creative process the essayist becomes a narrator and an essay begins to assume the shape of a narrative is decided, I would presume, by the immediacy with which the creative powers can respond to a poetic intuition demanding a dialectical conflict shaped by plot, action, and character. I would say "The Circular Ruins" and "The Library of Babel," published in 1941 with "The Garden," are decidedly fantastic conjectures taking the form of a narrative. The first devises, in imaginary place and time, a magician's hallucinatory exertions to dream and create the real existence of a man, a son, only to discover that his own existence is the dream of another man. "The Library of Babel" conjures up the horror of the universe seen as a classified collection of human knowledge, with all man's enthusiasms and follies nightmarishly catalogued, and God as the Great Librarian. Both narratives involve a minor degree of displacement because they involve, through characterization, a minor alignment of contraries imparting a narrative tension. The fact that their structure is that of a "nightmare" would indicate their execution obeyed an intuition differing discernibly from the one‑sided lucubration of "Tlön." They demonstrate, also, that in the case of Borges, and perhaps contrary to what one would expect in so intellectualized a writer, imagination is a more resourceful factor in the compressing and displacing of contraries by exposure to irony than an analytical intelligence. [124/125]


The valid distinction, then, between a conjecture taking a narrative form and one that does not is that the content of the contraries is referred to us in a conflict of antithetical forces. Again, it is the predicament forcing conflict on the contraries, resulting in the energized charge of the content, which assumes importance. Now, since the tensions activated by that predicament acquire and maintain their intensity due to the compression enforced on the contraries, the Borgian narrative actually assumes its shape and directional sense from the form of iterative compression of the content. The reader, provoked into fathoming the hermetical isolation of plot, characters, and events, ascertains that form initially as a forcible disengagement from reality, a gravitational pull toward the unreal or fantastic. The characteristic form of iterative compression, for its insularity and its suspension of reality, is the dream or a state of consciousness of similar attributes and possibilities: hallucination, revelation, obsessive recalling, incantations and magical spells. The iterative form is automatic in the process reproducing a story within a story, or a dream within a dream, and so on, or a conjecture within a conjecture, etc., in endless progression, as in a game of shifting mirrors or Chinese puzzles. The process arises automatically from the structure of the narrative, which presumably attempts to anticipate its own displacement ad infinitum.

This structure producing the effect of a compulsive engagement of our responses pertains to a mode of apprehending the predicament or antagony of Borges' contraries, and as a structure it is a unity of the substance of his stories and the functions inherent in the apprehension of that substance and its themes. Thus, if the substance before us is a dialectical drama in which certain states of consciousness are being represented by means of an encounter between reality and unreality, the way into and through this structure of consciousness is by means of the functional or operative induc- [125/126] tions of irony. It is this connection between the ideational and cognitive content of the contraries and the mode of their apprehension that gives rise to the compulsive aspect of Borges' effects. What appears to be primarily thematic in the stories—the states of consciousness—is really substantive and structural, and for this reason we shall find it more appropriate to speak of dimensions of human consciousness—personal will, being, and desire, understanding and memory—when it occurs within dimensions of time, than to speak of intellective concepts like reality and unreality, or even some conceptual notions of time and causality. As we shall see, the motives of some of his characters and the exertions of others correspond to motives and exertions to foresee and control events and their causes. The apperception of causality of events in the story is related structurally to the actions and perceptions of his characters, so that what the reader has before him as he goes through a narrative in the first person is a representation, a polarized account, of the occurring consciousness of the character.

In the dialectical drama of some of the more intricate stories the "unreal" states of consciousness invoke and compel their displacement by "reality." An antithesis of dream and reality invariably infers an alignment of contraries involving the concepts of time, infinity, eternity, memory, concepts of the real and the mythical, the personal and the archetypal. A "realistic" Borges narrative like "The Dead Man" ("El muerto"), by inverse direction to the apparent significance of its events, will imply the mythical, the universal. The real in conflict with the mythical, the particular with the universal, indicate that the directional sense of the narrative is toward a forcible conversion of the content of the contraries into symbol. That is, the aroused perceptions of the reader are forced to construe the predicament of the states of consciousness represented on the level of a symbolical meaning. The communicative mechanics of this dialectical art involve, again in the [126/127] stories of more consummate structure like "The God's Script" and "The Immortal," the inference of an absolute symbolical value in the content predisposing its complete and total displacement. The compressed reiteration of the content, we shall see, has the reverbative effect of symbols activated and disintegrated in the process of our perception and displacements. We shall call this process and its effect the Borgian representation of consciousness through the displacement of symbols.

The foregoing may seem to some rather overcritical and to others not really discriminate, since many kinds of literature are susceptible to the same critical exposure. Again, my argument is that the deliberate compression of Borges' stories acts as a charge upon the content and imparts a symbolical meaning. The stories have their peculiar structure, compelling an "inevitable" symbolical interpretation—and this besides the fact that the content itself is already invested with traditional and even esoteric overtones. In an essay on H. G. Wells, to cite but one occasion, we find Borges revealing not only his own conception of what the writer of fantastic fiction does but his own subjective and inferential reactions to it. Speaking of the early scientific romances, which he admires as the best of Well's work, he explains that their superiority over the rest of the literature of scientific fiction is their depth of symbolical possibilities. Take, for instance, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man:

What they narrate is not ingenious only; it is symbolical also of processes in some way inherent to all human destinies. The harassed invisible man who has to sleep somewhat with his eyes open because his eyelids do not exclude light is our solitude and our terror; the seated assembly of monsters, jabbering in their night a servile credo, is the Vatican and is Lhasa. A durable work of literature is always capable of an infinite and plastic ambiguity; it is everything for everybody, like the Apostle; it is a mirror proclaiming the reader's features and it [127/128] is also a map of the world. Moreover, all this must come about in an evanescent and modest way, almost in spite of the author, who must appear to be ignorant of any and all symbolism.

In passing, it can be said that Borges has come a long way from the kind of fantastic fiction original with Wells circa 1900, that he has quite a different concept of its purpose and method, even in a piece like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius." The simplest difference is the brevity of Borges' stories, and this brevity, corresponding to deliberate compression, is a propensity of mind and feeling to convert literary expression to something like a cabalistic symbol or a hieroglyph. It never becomes these because the same mind and intuition, by inverse direction, has construed the critique and displacement of its own creation. Borges compels the reader to respond to his symbolism by activating, as a function of his irony, the impulse to displace it, and thus uncover and experience the "inevitability" of all symbolism. The more inevitable and compelling the displacement and its effect, the more audacious the congruity, ex more ironico, of his symbols.

This, from a certain angle, will explain the "compelling" and "inevitable" nature of his stories, which is a quality Borges strives for as other writers strive for realism or verisimilitude, and which accounts for a large share of the reader's initial reactions of distress or discovery. Now, then, the sequential succession of events in a Borges story, a purely contrived or imagined order of events, acquires the inevitability of temporal succession as experienced by personal consciousness. The sense of inevitability is the axiomatic result of the compact and compressed organization of events and calculated disclosures. The predicament forcing conflict on the contraries is sensed by the reader to correspond to the inevitable, irreversible, and total movement of the narrative. The sense of inevitability communicated in the succession of events and actions of the protagonists arises, discernibly, from the "total- [128/129] ity of compulsion" generated by the structure of consciousness of the narrative. The directional sense of the narrative as a whole is a total compulsion, bringing about the displacement of symbols by the counteraction of irony. The narrative forcibly creates an elusive, illusory "vacuum," and our reaction to a vacuum , real or illusory, is not to tolerate it but to fill it.

The peculiar distillation of this process is that the reader is prevented from resolving the conflict of antithetical forces because his impulses have been directed, engaged, and expended in the activation and displacement of the symbolical charge of the content. I am describing in an abstract, general way what Borges has accomplished in the most skillful of his stories, some of which I shall treat in particular further along. But the reader can verify from his own experience much of what I say here and later. An aspect of some of these stories demands a more detailed analysis than I can provide in this essay: the contrast they offer between the sportive attitude inspiring the conjecture and the seriousness of the ideas involved. The sportive attitude is what appeals initially to our intelligence because its effect is to disengage the imagination from an egocentric concern. The reader is thus attracted by and induced to become involved in the conjecture much as he feels a pleasurable involvement of his imagination and ingenuity in the solution of a mystery, mathematical puzzle, game, or theorem. However, the tensions of which the reader is aware are not the playful tensions of an intellectual game, but the committing tensions of an involvement in the "totality of compulsion.” It is true that his disinterestedness corresponds in a meaningful way to the speculative and abstract beauty of the pattern of ideas in the problem, but this is only one side of the process. Actually, the very seriousness of these ideas is antithetical to an attitude of "disinterested play," a thing not true of a detective mystery or a jeu d'esprit. The reader becomes involved in Borges' stories as he cannot become involved in the solution of a detective mystery or a chess problem or a [129/130] theorem of higher mathematics because the conjecture is about radical questions of human existence, time, personal will, consciousness, and destiny. To appraise them as jeux d'esprit is as injudicious as reading Shakespeare's tragedies as exercises in imagination. Borges' stories have been compared by critics to mathematical games and puzzles, such as problems of chess, but unless such a comparison is qualified, it betrays a most unfortunate misunderstanding. As G. H. Hardy said, chess problems, however intricate and ingenious, are "trivial" mathematics; they are unimportant because their mathematical ideas are unimportant. Borges' stories should be compared to what Hardy called serious mathematical theorems because in his dialectical dramas the predicaments forcing conflict on the contraries are, as problems of life, as serious to the writer and the critic as the significant ideas of the best mathematics are to mathematicians. And only in this sense can the critic claim for Borges' stories an abstract beauty or elegance comparable to the beauty of mathematics.


Our approach to Borges' art from the angle of how it communicates its meaning is a way of emphasizing the correlation between what it says or means and how it says it. In other words, a way of emphasizing the extent to which the initial impulse shaping the content has determined also the compulsive nature of the communicative mechanism. The objection that I have overworked the notion of inevitability and compulsion would certainly be in line if the question were not one of the irreducible nexus between form and content in Borges' stories. I am well aware that they are, after all, quite apart from the seriousness of their contents, stories like other stories. Furthermore, regardless of the demands Borges imposes on the reader; there is little justification, or need, to consider what he has to say as more compelling in itself than the content of the books of other authors. [130/131]

The art of Borges conveys its sense through compelling reiteration because it assumes as the axis of its meaning and form a radical predicament of consciousness. Borges' own view of man and his being is a conception of fallible powers compelled to attempt infinite or transcendental ends. In human consciousness, for Borges, this fatal opposition is nuclear. In consciousness, as if in mirrors juxtaposed a single image were doubled, then tripled, and so on, we have the reiterated awareness of awareness, experiencing its fallibility as a protracted, inexorable awareness of itself. Every effort to break out of the radical predicament becomes its reiterated persistence. Every attempt by man at transcendental action will find its betrayal in the roots of consciousness. Consciousness knows itself most profoundly in anguish and anxiety, the effects of past failures enduring as presentiments of future ones. But despair and anxiety and other aspects of the existential condition may be thought of as a means of survival of individual consciousness, confronted not only with the knowledge but immersed in the experience of its own integration and disintegration in time. The approximation to human consciousness we find in Borges is an antithetical structure subjecting the fragility of symbols to the inexorable disintegration of time. Yet the integration of symbols obeys the same inexorability on a cosmic scale that man experiences as temporal succession. The gestation of symbols signifies the annihilation of others: “. . . all novelty is but oblivion," we read in the Baconian epigraph to "The Immortal." This antithetical sense of the structure of consciousness is conveyed in the predicament of individual man who finds himself (or who may not find himself so, but is) a fallible being compelled to will and attempt actions presupposing an infallible doer. The first part of this antithesis (enforced by the verb "compel") is the context in which irony intervenes in the reading or interpretation of the stories, and the second is the context of the action invested, variously from story to story, with symbolical value.

The total inevitability of displacement which I stress, [131/132] then, is a structural consequence of Borges' intellectual and fantastic conjectures, doomed by an inexorable law to trace their trajectories within the motions of consciousness. We find the most radical (because the most subjective) formulation of this inconsolate knowledge in the personal "failure" to refute time, in the finality of despair and resignation of the phrases: El mundo, desgraciadamente, es real; yo, desgraciadamente, soy Borges. The final passage of "A New Refutation of Time," a contradictory effort in more than one sense, may serve here as a transition to the analyses of the stories.

And yet, and yet . . . To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe, are visible despairs and secret consolations. Our individual destiny (unlike Swedenborg's inferno and the inferno of Tibetan mythology) is not terrifying because it is unreal; it is terrifying because it is irreversible and of iron. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river wresting me away, but I am the river. Time is a tiger crushing me in its jaws, but I am the tiger. Time is a fire consuming me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

SOURCE: Murrilo, L. A. The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), part 2, chapter 1, "Jorge Luis Borges—The Ways of Irony in the Labyrinth of Consciousness," pp. 119-132. (Endnotes not reproduced here.)

The Cyclical Night: Contents & Introduction by L. A. Murrilo

Leon Trotsky on H. G. Wells as Philistine

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web
(including all the following links)

Irony in Philosophy, Romanticism, and Criticism: Selected Bibliography

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

"Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

"The Congress" by Jorge Luis Borges

A Taxonomy of Surreal Taxonomists by Prentiss Riddle

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography


Jorge Luis Borges - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Borges: Garden of Forking Paths

Borges Center

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