Jorge Luis Borges might well be called a writer's writer, for the subject of his stories is more often the nature of writing itself than actual events in the world. By the same token, Borges should be seen as a metaphysical writer, for his stories most often focus on the fantastic paradoxes that ensnare those who think. Because of Borges' overriding interest in aesthetic and metaphysical reality, his stories often resemble fables or essays.
One of his best-known essay/stories, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," deals with a French writer who decides to write Don Quixote, in spite of the fact that it has already been written by Cervantes. Borges then compares the two versions and finds them identical; however, he argues that the second version is richer, more ambitious, and in many ways more subtle than Cervantes' original. In another well-known story, "Funes the Memorious," Borges presents a character who is unable to forget details of his experience, no matter how small.
If the situations of these two men seem alien to ordinary human experience, it is because Borges is interested in the extraordinary nature of metaphysical rather than physical reality. The fact that Pierre Menard can rewrite the Quixote identical to the original, yet create a more complex and subtle work can be attributed to the notion that one reads a present work with all previous works inscribed within it.
The fact that Funes is condemned to remember every single detail of his experience means that he can never tell stories because he is unable to abstract from his experience. Funes knows that to tell the story of his life would not be a story at all, but an exact recounting of every event and every nuance of every event. Thus, by the time of his death he would have barely finished classifying the memories of his childhood. What the story suggests is the fact that absolute reality in all its specific detail is unlivable: "The truth is that we all live by leaving behind."
Borges is also particularly interested in human reality as being the result of language and game, as well as the result of the projection of the mind itself. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" explores the intellectual productions of an imaginary planet; "The Library of Babel" deals with a library that is infinite in its circular and cyclical structure; "The Lottery in Babylon" deals with a lottery which transforms all reality itself into chance.
Borges' most common technique is to take previously established genres such as the science fiction story, the detective story, or the philosophical essay, and then to parody those forms by pushing them to absurd extremes. Thus, most of Borges' fictions are puzzling, frustrating, sometimes shocking, often humorous, but always profoundly thought-provoking. "Funes, the Memorious" is, in a way, a justification for the fantastic nature of his art, for, as Funes's experience shows, absolute reality is intolerable and inhuman. Only the fantastic is real.
Tomorrow: Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"