In his story “The Theologians,” Borges conceives of two theologians who were in such perfect ideological opposition that they were seen by God as the same person. As Borges writes in another story, “Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden,” the “obverse and reverse of this coin are, in the eyes of God, identical.”
Borges’ metaphysics are essentially mathematical. His stories are surreal, but their surrealism is not far from the surrealism inherent in quantum physics. His narratives follow rigorously constructed, methodical, if sometimes alien and unfathomable, logic. The logic of Borges’ fictional universes is the logic we see play out in the realm of Schrödinger’s cat, which is to say they are best understood as troubling paradoxes. People are just variables in the equations that describe these paradoxical truths.
Borges called Chesterton a “man of genius, a great prose writer, and a great poet,” and to read Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries is to encounter Borges’ mirror image, for Chesterton’s own universe is similarly dominated by logical paradoxes. Such is the nature of the Catholic universe; the Medieval theologians were resolute in their belief in discernible order. Chesterton’s Catholicism sees the universe as an elaborate and intricate and comprehensive mathematical equation that will one day resolve with ecstatic epiphany.
Chesterton and Borges part ways in their perception of eternity. Chesterton thought God baffling (in The Man Who Was Thursday, he depicts God as something of a benevolent prankster masquerading as a villain), but nevertheless believed in the hope represented by the Christ of orthodox Christianity. In the divine person of Jesus Christ, the concretely human becomes eternal. To Chesterton, the journey from the finite to the infinite suggests joy unending and the ultimate dissolution of sorrow.
Borges has no such faith. His sense of the divine is cold and remote and unfamothable. His fiction and poetry again and again pulls at the threads of theological dogma, perhaps nowhere more concisely than in “Three Versions of Judas,” which postulates the existence of a theologian convinced that the Son of God was Judas (Jesus’ own antithesis). Only in Judas could God be “totally man,” and bear the weight of “reprobation and the Abyss.” Both humanness and divinity kneel to Borges’ Abyss, where infinity overwhelms all.
Chesterton is more directly and arrogantly polemical than Borges, and the more polemical Chesterton gets, the less convincing his intricate paradoxes are. Chesterton is so amused by his own (admittedly astonishing) aptitude for wit, and so smugly believes in the correctness of his own convictions, that he is often unable to sufficiently empathize with his opponents to see beyond himself. A marvelous showman, Chesterton creates elaborate narrative labyrinths with colorful conceits and thematic resolutions that, at their worst, smack of cheap sleight of hand. At their best, they resonate with the anxious euphoria of hopeful mystery; the dream that the inferno is but the shadow of a greater paradise.
Borges is less overt in his polemical posturing (at least in his fiction), but he takes a perverse pleasure in tarnishing visions of paradise. Borges, a self-styled prophet of eternity, proclaims the terrible and wonderous nature of cosmic paradoxes. For Borges, to consider eternity dramatically recontextualizes human experience, history, ideology, and society. Humans are but a part of the intricate cosmic riddle that extends out infinitely like a fractal. Borges, like Chesterton, sets up elaborate queues of bowling pins only so that he might knock them down and observe the way they clatter together to create new patterns, but Borges’ patterns only resolve into new enigmas.
For Borges, his stories’ concluding moments of anticlimactic non-resolution reverberate like cynical, if bitterweet, sighs that dissipate into a dark expanse. Chesteron’s fiction similarly bends towards anticlimax, but his moments of modest narrative resolution gestures towards a greater cosmic reconciliation that exists beyond the boundaries of his text (and the world).