2 Feb 2010

Forks of Time's Infinity. Borges. "The Garden of Forking Paths."

Forks of Time's Infinity

Jorge Luis Borges

Transl. Donald A. Yates.

[Deleuze refers to this story when speaking of bifurcating or forking paths of time (The Fold, Ch.5/Cinema 2, Ch.3). Consider how when making a decision, we are at a junction. Depending on what we decide, our lives could go down very divergent paths. What if we actually do go down both paths at once, but it happens just that we are the ones on this path, and the other version of us is on the other path? This is the basic idea of forking or bifurcating time, as described in this story. All possible divergences happen at once, and continue to branch, although sometimes converge again down the line of development.]

[The following is summary. You may read the original story here.]

The story opens with an anonymous narrator. Historical accounts say that a British offensive in World War I had to be postponed due the weather conditions. The narrator now describes a document which calls that account into question. It is a letter written by a Chinese professor of English, Dr. Yu Tsun. The first two pages are missing. We pickup in the middle, and the rest of the story is the content of the letter.

From what we may gather, it seems Tsun called the apartment of someone named Viktor Runeberg. The person who answered spoke German, but it was not Runeberg. Tsun hangs-up immediately, we might presume. Only after does he recognize the voice as being Captain Richard Madden's. Tsun regards this as evidence that Runeberg was either arrested or murdered.

Tsun thinks that he too will be either murdered or arrested by the end of the day. Madden works for England's intelligence. Tsun says he will be grateful for attaining the discovery, capture, or perhaps even the death of two German agents.

He goes to his room and locks himself. Lying on his cot, he wonders if really he will die.

Tsun then reflects on the nature of time. Events only happen now. Yet so much historical time has passed. Nonetheless, all that happens occurs presently. Tsun writes:

Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. 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 . . . [emphasis mine]

The recollection of Madden interrupts these thoughts. Tsun considers how Madden probably never suspected that Tsun obtained intelligence regarding the location of British troops. He then imagines German planes bombing those troops, and he wishes that before he is executed that he could pass that intelligence on to Germany. He wonders how he can report the information back to his Chief in Berlin, who knows nothing of Tsun's dealings with Viktor Runeberg.

Tsun is determined to find a way to pass the intelligence to his Chief. He checks his pockets. In them he finds:

an American watch,
a nickel chain and square coin,
a key ring with the incriminating useless keys to Runeberg's apartment,
a notebook,
a letter which I resolved to destroy immediately (and which I did not destroy),
a crown,
two shillings and a few pence [English coins],
a red and blue pencil,
a handkerchief, and
a revolver with one bullet.

There is another person who can transmit the message, and his location is listed in the phonebook. By train it would take no more than a half of an hour to reach his village, Ashgrove.

Tsun confesses he is cowardly. He did not spy for Germany's sake; he has little concern for the country. Rather, he suspected that the Chief feared Chinese people. It seems Tsun thinks that all Chinese men from the past live in him now:

I did it because I sensed that the Chief somehow feared people of my race--for the innumerable ancestors who merge within me. [emphasis mine]

Tsun wants to prove to the Chief that a Chinese person could save Germany's armies.

Tsun is aware that Madden would accost him very soon. He leaves his room and takes a cab to the train station. He buys a ticket and catches his train. From the window he sees Captain Madden try but fail to catch the train too.

Tsun tells himself that he won his first battle with Madden. He also assures himself that he will end victorious. As well he foresees that Madden will go on to commit "more atrocious undertakings." He then advises people who are about to commit such acts to assume that they have already happened.

The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past. [emphasis mine]

He arrives as Ashgrove and gets-off the train. It is dark. One boy asks Tsun if he is going to Dr. Stephen Albert's house. Another boy tells Tsun that "The house is a long way from here, but you won't get lost if you take this road to the left and at every crossroads turn again to your left" [emphasis mine]. Apparently Ashgrove is like a maze. To get out of most labyrinths, one can follow the "left-hand" rule: glide your hand on the left-side wall and never pull it off. Eventually you arrive at the exit. As Tsun puts it: "The instructions to turn always to the left reminded me that such was the common procedure for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths" [emphasis mine]. Tsun then heads-off "down the solitary road. It went downhill, slowly. It was of elemental earth; overhead the branches were tangled; the low, full moon seemed to accompany me."

Tsun explains that he knows something about labyrinths. His great grandfather, Ts'ui Pên quit his job as governor 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 would become lost. Thirteen years he dedicated to these heterogeneous tasks, but the hand of a stranger murdered him--and his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth. [emphasis mine]

Tsun reflects on what the lost maze would have been like.

I imagined it inviolate and perfect at the secret crest of a mountain; I imagined it erased by rice fields or beneath the water; I imagined it infinite, no longer composed of octagonal kiosks and returning paths, but of rivers and provinces and kingdoms . . . I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars. [emphasis mine]

While deeply musing, he says

I forgot my destiny of one pursued. I felt myself to be, for an unknown period of time, an abstract perceiver of the world. The vague, living countryside, the moon, the remains of the day worked on me, as well as the slope of the road which eliminated any possibility of weariness. The afternoon was intimate, infinite. The road descended and forked among the now confused meadows. A high-pitched, almost syllabic music approached and receded in the shifting of the wind, dimmed by leaves and distance. I thought that a man can be an enemy of other men, of the moments of other men, but not of a country: not of fireflies, words, gardens, streams of water, sunsets. [emphasis mine]

Tsun then arrives upon the rusty gate of Albert's house. He hears Chinese music playing from a pavilion. He feels welcomed.

A tall man holding a lantern approaches from inside the house. He says in Chinese: "I see that the pious Hsi P'eng persists in correcting my solitude. You no doubt wish to see the garden?" Hsi is the name of a Chinese consul. Tsun asks, "The garden?" and the tall man replies, "The garden of forking paths" [emphasis mine]. Tsun says this is the garden of his ancestor, Ts'ui Pên. Albert welcomes Tsun in.

They pass through a zig-zagging damp path, until arriving at a library of Eastern and Western texts. Albert explains he was a missionary in China before trying to become a Sinologist.

They sit down. Tsun expects Madden to arrive in about an hour.

An astounding fate, that of Ts'ui Pên," Stephen Albert said. "Governor of his native province, learned in astronomy, in astrology and in the tireless interpretation of the canonical books, chess player, famous poet and calligrapher--he abandoned all this in order to compose a book and a maze. He renounced the pleasures of both tyranny and justice, of his populous couch, of his banquets and even of erudition--all to close himself up for thirteen years in the Pavilion of the Limpid Solitude. When he died, his heirs found nothing save chaotic manuscripts. His family, as you may be aware, wished to condemn them to the fire; but his executor--a Taoist or Buddhist monk--insisted on their publication.
'We descendants of Ts'ui Pên," I replied, "continue to curse that monk. Their publication was senseless. The book is an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts. I examined it once: in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive. As for the other undertaking of Ts'ui Pên, his labyrinth . . ." [emphasis mine]

Albert now shows Tsun Ts'ui Pên's labyrinth, pointing to a "tall lacquered desk."

"An ivory labyrinth!" I exclaimed. "A minimum labyrinth."

"A labyrinth of symbols," he corrected. "An invisible labyrinth of time. [emphasis mine]

Albert explains that the labyrinth was entrusted to him. He notes that Ts'ui Pên said both that he would write a book and that he would build a labyrinth. Albert explains

Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing. [...] the confusion of the novel suggested to me that it was the maze. Two circumstances gave me the correct solution of the problem. One: the curious legend that Ts'ui Pên had planned to create a labyrinth which would be strictly infinite. The other: a fragment of a letter I discovered. [emphasis mine]

Albert shows Tsun the letter, writing by Ts'ui Pên; "these words written with a minute brush by a man of my blood: I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths. Wordlessly, I returned the sheet" [emphasis mine]'.

Albert explains how he tried to imagine what an infinite book would be. Would it be circular, a "book whose last page was identical with the first, a book which had the possibility of continuing indefinitely"? Albert then seems to suggest infinitely nested stories within stories: "I remembered too that night which is at the middle of the Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade (through a magical oversight of the copyist) begins to relate word for word the story of the Thousand and One Nights, establishing the risk of coming once again to the night when she must repeat it, and thus on to infinity." He also considers a hereditary story. When the son becomes a father, he passes it on to his own son, and so on infinitely, but each time the next son adds a new chapter.

But none of these possibilities explained "the contradictory chapters of Ts'ui Pên." His clue is the letter that read: "I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths." He realized that the garden does not fork through space, like an actual labyrinth does. Rather, it forks through time. Instead of there being only one course that the narration follows, it instead follows all diverging lines of development at once.

“Almost instantly, I understood: 'the garden of forking paths' was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'the various futures (not to all)' suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses— simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork. [emphasis mine]

Albert gives an example. He also explains how divergent paths can converge, although in a way that contracts diverging narrative tendencies.

Here, then, is the explanation of the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger calls at his door; Fang resolves to kill him. Naturally, there areseveral possible outcomes: Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they both can escape, they both can die, and so forth. In the work of Ts'ui Pên, all possible outcomes occur; each one is the point of departure for other forkings. Sometimes, the paths of this labyrinth converge: for example, you arrive at this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another, my friend. If you will resign yourself to my incurable pronunciation, we shall read a few pages. [emphasis mine]

Tsun notes that although Albert's face looked old, there was "something unalterable about it, even immortal" [emphasis mine]. Albert then reads two versions of one same chapter.

In the first, an army marches to a battle across a lonely mountain; the horror of the rocks and shadows makes the men undervalue their lives and they gain an easy victory. In the second, the same army traverses a palace where a great festival is taking place; the resplendent battle seems to them a continuation of the celebration and they win the victory.

The last sentence in both chapters is the same: "thus fought the heroes, tranquil their admirable hearts, violent their swords, resigned to kill and to die."

Tsun then feels something 'swarming' within himself. Is it perhaps the swarms of divergent fates awaiting him?

Albert explains that the novel often deals with a philosophical problem, "the abysmal problem of time." But then he asks Tsun why does Ts'ui Pên never use the word 'time' at all in the novel.

They discuss Tsun's suggestions. Then Albert notes that in chess, there is only one prohibited word, "chess." So because the Garden of Forking Paths is a riddle or parable about time, the one forbidden word is time: "to omit a word always, to resort to inept metaphors and obvious periphrases, is perhaps the most emphatic way of stressing it." Albert continues:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts'ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost. [emphasis mine]

Tsun thanks him for reconstructing the garden. Albert replies that he does not re-create it in all possible times. He explains: "Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy" [emphasis mine].

Tsun feels that swarming feeling again. The swarm is the multiplicity of Albert's and Tsun's gathered around them simultaneously. Yet as this vision of multiplicity fades, there stands the real image of Captain Richard Madden. Tsun then says to Albert: "'The future already exists,' I replied, 'but I am your friend'" [emphasis mine]. Tsun asks for the letter again. As Albert turns his back to get it, Tsun shoots him with his revolver: "I fired with extreme caution. Albert fell uncomplainingly, immediately. I swear his death was instantaneous—a lightning stroke" [emphasis mine]. Tsun ends by explaining his murder: the information he needed to pass-on was that the British army is in the city of Albert. Getting Albert's name in the papers was his only means to convey it. Tsun explains:

The rest is unreal, insignificant. Madden broke in, arrested me. I have been condemned to the gallows. I have won out abominably; I have communicated to Berlin the secret name of the city they must attack. They bombed it yesterday; I read it in the same papers that offered to England the mystery of the learned Sinologist Stephen Albert who was murdered by a stranger, one Yu Tsun. The Chief had deciphered this mystery. He knew my problem was to indicate (through the uproar of the war) the city called Albert, and that I had found no other means to do so than to kill a man of that name. He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness.

Jorge Luis Borges. "The Garden of Forking Paths." Transl. Donald A. Yates. Online text available at:

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