Borges & Chesterton

In “The Theologians,” Borges conceives of two theologians who were in such perfect opposition to one another 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, indentical.”

Borges’ metaphysics are essentially mathematical. To say that his fiction is dreamlike would be a woeful misrepresentation. His stories are surreal, but they are rigorously constructed, following careful, methodical logic. That logic is sometimes alien and unfathomable (the logic of Borges’ fictional universes is the logic we see play out in the realm of quantum physics and Schrödinger’s cat), but it’s logic, all the same.

Borges called Chesterton a “man of genius, a great prose writer, and a great poet,” and, indeed, to read Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries is to encounter the Borges’ mirror image for Chesterton’s own universe is mathematical and rigorously logical. 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 mathematical equation that resolves with symphonic epiphany.

Chesterton and Borges part ways in their perception of eternity. Chesterton thought God to be baffling (in The Man Who Was Thursday, he depicts God as something of a benevolent prankster masquerading as a villain), but believed in the incarnate God of orthodox Christianity whose humanity was beyond doubt. In the Christian God-Man 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 as 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), for only then could he be “totally man,” and bear the weight of “reprobation and the Abyss.” Both humanity and God kneel to Borges’ Abyss, where infinity overwhelms all.

Chesterton is more directly and arrogangly polemical than Borges, and the more polemical Chesterton gets, the less convincing his arguments 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 unable to empathize with his opponents sufficiently enough to see and address the weaknesses in his own arguments. 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, if somewhat bittersweet, pleasure in tarnishing visions of paradise. Borges, a self-styled prophet of eternity, proclaims the unfathomable and terrible and wonderous nature of cosmic paradoxes. For Borges, to seriously consider eternity dramatically recontextualizes human experience, history, ideology, and society. In all things human beings can glimpse the great cosmic riddle, extending infinitely like a fractal. Still, a fractal is a sign of order, and so 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.

Both Borges and Chesterton are more often ensnared by their own elaborate, artificial constructs than they are freed by them, and their fictition is, somewhat intentionally, dominated by a sense of anticlimax. For Borges, this is a cynical sigh that dissipates into the dark expanse of eternity. For Chesteron, it gestures towards a greater cosmic reconciliation that exists beyond the boundaries of his text (and the world).