The Burden and Lightness of Choice in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Garden of Forking Paths is a ‘garden’ created by P’engs’ great grandfather, Ts’ui Pen, who renounced a life of science and politics to write a novel and construct a labyrinth. Stephen Albert, the keeper of the Garden, enlightened P’eng (and us): that they were the same task. “Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same.” It is a story of infinity.

The Garden of Forking Paths is the life of choice. It is a story that describes the endless possibilities of a single choice; it tells us all the conceivable outcomes. In one regard, it leads to dread and anxiety and in another, it leads to acceptance: this is just the way things are.

Simultaneously, you should feel the burden of choice an the lightness of surrender. The burden is knowing that you will never be able to have another chance to enact an exact sequence. It is the case that:

a) A -> B -> D  and
b) A -> C -> E  and
c) A -> C -> B -> F

Even if you try to go choose C, after you realized B was not the way, you cannot erase that you took B; you will never get E and only ever get F. Too bad. Our folly lies in the remorse for the option not taken. Take the lightness of surrender.

Reader, draw the garden. You will marvel in its truth and futility. You should be left with something that resembles the roots of a tree–the perennial symbol of life–and a visual metaphor for the unattainable infinite (you will eventually stop drawing but you could go on forever).

When you look at the drawing you should see its (possibility of) infinity and realize that the forking paths is, have always been, and will always be. This is the lightness: the course taken is perfect; it is the perfect choice; the present is perfect.

“Everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries and centuries and only in the present do things happen. After this thought, Tsun saw the entirety of his decisions and resolve. He committed to visit the Garden but along the way encountered Madden sitting in the same train as him. Borges creates his character out of itself: T’sun frets in the most literary ways–he understands his own stream of consciousness, he looked for symbols “it seemed incredible to me that the day without premonitions or symbols should be the one of my inexorable death”, imagines conversing with dead writers: “I talked with him for scarcely an hour, but during that hour he was Goeth,” and sees his present circumstance as sure indication of the future: “I argued that this slightest of  victories [sitting in the same train as the man trying to arrest him] foreshadowed a total victory.”

This is but one way that strikes the reader of Borges’ brilliance as a master writer. If the topic of the title is infinite, so is its craft. Borges weaves in an out of the logic that drives the story: the self-referential character (aforementioned), the parallelism (the story ends and begins in the same way)and its primary conflict: T’sun’s death, already foretold. In the beginning, T’sun tells us he will die, in the middle, it is sealed, and in the end, it is actualized.

T’sun’s fate is sealed through his own words and the author’s knowledge. T’sun had not known the truth of the forking paths and yet he consoled himself of its ending: “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.” At first, we assume this is the steady will of resolve, but we learn otherwise. He had no choice, by his very own words. A person whose future is as closed as its past is already dead. Again, Borges’ brilliance and construction reveals itself.

The final brilliance, as great as the death of a star, takes place in the final scene in the conversation Albert has with T’sun. After defining The Garden of the Forking Path as “an incomplete image of the universe…an infinite series of times…in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times..embracing all possibilities of time.” T’sun states that in all these times, he is forever grateful for Albert’s tending to The Garden, but Albert smiles “in one of [the futures] I am your enemy. (DID HE KNOW?) T’sun responds: “The future already exists, but I am your friend.” Albert stands tall and gives his back to T’sun; T’sun shoots it; Albert immediately dies; Madden arrests T’sun. T’sun is sentenced to death.

In an interview with Borges titled “Literature as Experience” Borges is asked if it is futile to try and write something original, Borges responds: “I see it as something living and growing. I think of the world’s literatures as a kind of forest, I mean it’s tangled and it entitles us but it’s growing. Well, to come back to my inevitable image of a labyrinth, well it’s a living labyrinth, no?

“The Garden of Forking Paths” is in itself the garden of forking paths.

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