It's not a blog that interests everyone, which is why I was trying to get 1up to just e-mail this, but here's my paper on Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" and how it relates to postmodernism because 1up is being douchey with mail atm.
30 November 2009
Postmodernism and “The Garden of Forking Paths”
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” can be associated with the literary movement of postmodernism not only because of the time it was written (1941, marking its inclusion with WWII-era postmodern literature), but also because of its metafiction, questionable (i.e. possibly dubious or misremembering) narrator and philosophical commentary on the idea of multiple existences and the meaning behind those existences for each individual person.
Of course, to understand the postmodern implications of Borges’ work, one must understand how postmodernist literature is defined. This can itself be difficult when one understands how broad the definition of postmodernism can be, as much like the terms “art” and “literature” its meaning often seems more eloquently discussed than it is defined amongst scholars and laymen alike. As per its name, postmodernism is usually defined by its relation and reaction to modernist literature. In the book The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, in the section “Postmodernism and Literature”, Barry Lewis refers to the difference between modern and postmodern handlings of playfulness in the narrative. “Playfulness is present in many modernist works (Joyce's Finnegans Wake or Virginia Woolf's Orlando, for example) and they may seem very similar to postmodern works, but with postmodernism playfulness becomes central and the actual achievement of order and meaning becomes unlikely.” (Lewis, 123). In other words, where modernist era literature would likely use playful narrative tricks like metafiction, a questionable narrator and/or fragmentation and subjectivity to achieve its central purpose, postmodernism’s central purpose lies in its playfulness itself. Even more so than modernist literature, postmodernism is obsessed with bending and expanding the limits of reality.
Given this admittedly broad definition of postmodern literature, we can sense some of its implications regarding the reliability of reality. As Professor John Lye states in “Some Attributes of Post-modernist Literature”, postmodernist literature often results in “a sense of discontinuity, of the world as a field of contesting explanations, none of which can claim any authority” (Lye). This implication resonates throughout the central concept of Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”, indeed it practically is the central idea behind the work. The title of the piece itself refers to its own concept of multiple forking paths of human lives, the decisions and actions taken in those lives and their beginnings and endings allegorically or perhaps literally branching in every possible direction they can be taken for the totality of eternity. Furthermore, Borges not only offers the reader the notion of never ending reincarnation, but brings into question the meaning of past, present, and future when all that can be experienced by an individual is that which happens to them in their current state. As the narrator of “The Garden of Forking Paths” states, “Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me” (Borges, 2415). Thus, Borges’ piece seems interested not merely in the fantastic (and depending on one’s particular religious or secular leanings, the highly unlikely) possibility of a multitude of reincarnations, but also in tackling the meaning or lack thereof in the concept of time, which many would consider an unquestionable facet of reality. Here, Borges is not necessarily explaining his position on the concept of time, but rather implementing a postmodern playfulness towards this portion of the narrative. He is toying with the reader’s lack of direct perception of past and future in order that the reader might contemplate and be frightened by his lack of certainty.
He furthers this playfulness with the concept of time by introducing characters in ironic situations given their nationality and what country they are working for during World War I. For instance, one central character, Captain Richard Madden is an Irishman at the service of England, a country long thought of as oppressors of the Irish. Madden’s motives in this situation are apparently to prove himself a worthy soldier. As the main character says of him, “a man accused of laxity and perhaps of treason, how could he fail to seize and be thankful for such an opportunity: the discovery, capture, maybe even death of two agents of the German Reich?” (Borges, 2414). The narrator himself claims to be spying for Germany for similar ulterior motives. He states “I didn’t do it for Germany no… I did it because I sensed the Chief somehow feared people of my race… I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies.” (Borges, 2415).
Of course, perhaps the most important technique employed in the story is that of metafiction. After all, the story’s title is a reference not only to the central theme of the work itself, but also to the actual work of the garden of forking paths not fully completed by the character Ts’ui Pen within the novel. In the story, Stephen Albert serves the purpose of the scholar who has dedicated his life to understanding the work. If the narrator who refers to himself as Yu Tsun is to be believed, its author is the narrator’s grandfather, a man who “renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men become lost” (Borges, 2416). The work had long confused Yu Tsun due to the fact that characters who die in one chapter will suddenly reappear in the next in Ts’ui Pen’s work. Of course, also confusing was the fact people thought of Ts’ui Pen as setting out to construct both a labyrinth and a novel, but Stephen Albert notes that the work he set out to construct is a labyrinthine novel: a story with a never ending supply of characters and their various decisions under differing circumstances, times and lives. Thus, the concept of Ts’ui Pen’s fiction is applied to Borges’ fiction. Yu Tsun and Stephen Albert discuss the garden of forking paths as though its reincarnation concept is completely true, and the reader of Borges’ fiction is left wondering if this philosophy is one he subscribes to or simply a construct of his novel that he believes entirely implausible.
Another example of this self-referencing metafiction in the piece is the fact Borges provides his own footnotes as the “editor” of his work. After the piece has opened with a copy of some paragraph from what the story insists is a historical document, Lidell Hart’s History of World War I, the reader is thrust into the thoughts of Yu Tsun who has just discovered a man named Runeberg must have either been captured or murdered. Borges’ footnote calls this “A hypothesis both hateful and odd” (Borges, 2414), and goes on to describe the manner in which Richard Madden killed Viktor Runeberg.
Furthermore, this footnote suggests yet another postmodern strategy in giving the reader reason to doubt the trustworthy of the narrator. The reader is left to wonder if the narrator understands the events he describes as they happen, especially when the “editor” of the novel is describing his conclusions as “hateful and odd”. Then again, the reader must be unsure the editor is being entirely truthful either. Perhaps the editor is editing the story which he wrote himself. The options for what motives and perspectives the narrator and editor truly have then become a garden of forking paths in and of themselves. Again, Borges does more to toy with the reader than to ensure the reader he or she is reading a coherent and trustworthy account of the overall plot.
Postmodernism represents a challenge of earlier perspectives, especially those of modernist literature. One of the ways postmodernism challenges modernism, according to Professor John Lye, is in its “reconceptualizations of society, history and the self as cultural constructs, hence as rhetorical constructs” (Lye). Borges achieves this in his work, “The Garden of Forking Paths” by providing the reader with dubious historical accounts, characters representing different cultural constructs and introducing a philosophy which challenges the meaning of time and tackles the possibility of reincarnation. Various postmodern tricks such as metafiction and a questionable narrator challenge a modern style of writing that would employ these methods to achieve a plot with a definite purpose by instead allowing such playfulness to become the focus of the story, with meaning and relevance for the most part being left up to the reader. In doing this, Borges has created a masterful example of postmodernist literature.
Borges, Jorge L. "The Garden of Forking Paths." The Norton Anthology of World Literature,
Vol. F The Twentieth Century, 2nd Edition. Second ed. Vol. F. Boston: W. W. Norton &
Company, 2003. Print.
Lewis, Barry. "Postmodernism and Literature." The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism
NY: Routledge, 2002, p. 123.
Lye, John. "Department of English Languages and Literature - Courses." Brock University,
Niagara Region, 500 Glenridge Ave., St. Catharines, Ont. L2S 3A1 Canada. Web. 30
Professor comments: "I don't know if his speculation on time and multiple existences implies reincarnation" (line drawn to paragraph 3, sentence 5)
"Also to doubt recieved history though" (Near beginning of second to last paragraph)
"good discussion + research, good distinction of modernism + postmodernism"
Other comments are "good", checkmarks, minor punctuation errors and that "trustworthy" in 2nd to last paragraph should be "trustworthiness".