We’re almost halfway through Jorge Luis Borges’s only novel before it is revealed that the narrator is Moses. Borges perfected this particular technique in the short story The House of Asterion, also about a mythological figure, but Dios1 was written earlier. It’s his longest work, but still a slim volume,2 and like all of his fiction, it thrives on inverting expectations.
Moses tells us of a dream he had, not recorded in the Jewish canon, and this dream serves to give us a whole different perspective on his actions, much like Three Versions of Judas inverts the story of Judas. In the dream, he assumes the role of God, ruler of all things, and he sets about trying to reform the world according to his tastes. The problem is, there are unforeseeable consequences. Moses soon discovers that omnipotence does not imply omniscience, and so he stumbles blindly through possible worlds; every time he attempts to reform the world, to better it, to correct some horrible injustice, something he hadn’t considered happens as a consequence, and the world ends up worse than when he began, and he has to revert time to before the reform and try once again.
Tormented by his conscience as he subjects humanity to disaster after disaster, one worse than the other despite his good intentions, Moses realizes that there is an infinity of worlds worse than ours, just like there is an infinity of worlds better, and it would take an infinite amount of time to try them all in order to find a world that is significantly better; in the process, he would have to subject an infinity of people to an infinite amount of suffering. Discouraged, Moses abandons his omnipotence by creating a rock so heavy he cannot lift it, and then he wakes up.
When Moses later receives instructions from God, it is not the presence of divinity that convinces him to do as he is told, it is the thought that this god has given him the dream in order to show him the follies of deities; he convinces himself that this is a suicidal god, a creature reaching out for help to end its life, because it realizes that whatever it does will make things worse; thus every action takes the world one step closer to the death of God, and Moses, the great prophet, becomes the instrument not by which God instructs humanity in the ways of life but rather by which he relinquishes his control over his subjects, gives them the power to choose ways of life for themselves. The escape from Egypt, the Torah — they all become pieces in a theological puzzle that somehow, by some magical laws of the universe, lead to the death of God. No one is equipped to play the role of god, so God decides his best course of action is to cease to exist. In this way, the entirety of the Jewish and Christian canon is inverted. Every action becomes its opposite.
At times, the book meanders, which might be why the author later chose shorter forms such as the poem and the short story. Still, it presents a remarkable take on mythology: Borges’s erudite reinterpretations of history and myth are always made to seem plausible within the larger philosophical framework he establishes,3 and the message, more so than his later works, seems life-affirming, almost existentialist, warmer and less analytic than later works.
- Written sometime around 1945, between Ficciones and El Aleph, but not published until after his death.
- Some 160 pages, hardly a novel at all.
- See Johnsrud, Karl: Philosophical Coherence in Borges’s Reinterpretation of Mythology in the Novel “Dios”, Oxford University Press, 1987.
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When I saw The Hypothetical Library, all I could think of was Borges. I understand the Hypothetical Library consists of hypothetical books written by actual authors described by the authors themselves, not by lame internet copycats, but still, it’s more fun to imagine hypothetical books for your favorite authors than it is to read about hypothetical books by authors you don’t know. (I encourage you to try, even if you don’t post it on a blog.) In a way, I’m using a famous author as a prop for presenting my own ideas here — but at the same time, this kind of thing is exactly the sort of thing Borges did in his fiction. Somehow I don’t feel like the real Borges, who wrote about fictional Borgeses and invented scholarship by authors real and unreal, would feel all that bad about someone using a fictional Borges to hang an imaginary novel in a piece of imaginary scholarship on.
He was after all the man who wrote:
It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them… A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.