Some Lovecraftian Thoughts On Borges’ “There Are More Things”

Bruce Lord

I had read many of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories several years before discovering Lovecraft, let alone studying the latter seriously, and so the idea of Borges owing any debt to or admitting any influence from HPL was new and somewhat shocking to me when I first encountered it.  While reading "Dreams In The Witch House" for the first time, however, I found it to be quite Borgesian (I didn't have any problem with taking such an anachronistic view of the relationship, as Borges has based entire stories around such errors).  The story of an increasingly alienated and detached academic who becomes lost in his field of study and ends up transcending the known laws of the universe reminded me of the hapless people caught in "The Library Of Babel."  In a similar vein, both authors used the technique of referring to fictional literary and scientific sources as well as legitimate ones (often combining the two in lists of books or thinkers) in order to better facilitate their stories’ fantastic elements.

A more significant common ground between the two can be found in their shared disinterest in humanity as a subject for literature (Lovecraft had a stated loathing for what he termed "the humanocentric pose" [Joshi, 181] in literature) and their focus instead on byproducts of humanity: dreams, in the case of Lovecraft’s ‘dream-cycle,’ and literature in the case of a sizeable portion of Borges’ stories.  While Lovecraft rendered humanity itself to be secondary to the dreams it was capable of, Borges placed humanity below the literature it creates.  In “Kuranes” the titular character dies on Innsmouth’s cliffs, but his dream incarnation achieves its destiny as ruler of Celephäis.  In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” a fictional literary realm consumes Earth. In “The Library Of Babel” God is not made in man's image, but in the image of his books: the inhabitants of an infinite library containing all possible books have visions of “an enormous circular book with a continuous spine…that cyclical book is God.” (Borges, 113)  Often in both authors’ stories the narrator or protagonist is introduced with one or two paragraphs of personal history, yet individual backgrounds or personalities rarely affect the actions and fates of characters who are more often secondary devices than individuated agents.  In Lovecraft’s case this is a direct reflection of his views on the insignificance of humanity on the cosmic scale, whereas Borges’ protagonists are often astoundingly fatalistic and disinterested in their own welfare, almost as if they are perfectly aware of their status as pawns in their creator’s literary labyrinths, moving towards their ends in a mathematic, impersonal and generally unsymbolic fashion.

These general similarities aside, Lovecraftians are more likely to be concerned with Borges’ “There Are More Things,” and Borges’ reasoning behind dedicating that tale in particular “to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft.” (Borges, 437)  I believe that it is the story's attempt at evoking (with trademark Borgesian detachment) a sense of the alien so complete that the human faculties of thought and expression fail that Borges saw as being Lovecraftian.  In this respect, "There Are More Things" stands out in comparison to the abovementioned Borges pieces.  Instead of the crux of the story being a book or scrap of knowledge that alters reality in an impossible fashion, Borges instead presents us with an impossible creature.

Upon crossing the threshold into the creature’s home, Borges’ narrator encounters furnishings unfit for human physiognomy, from which he is able to make some inferences as to the nature of the creature.  “I will not attempt to describe them,” (Borges 441) he says of the house’s contents, a clichéd false preface that Lovecraftians should be well accustomed to.  Indeed, the narrator is “not certain [he] actually saw them.” (Borges, 441)  Instead of leaving these simple lead-ups to the payoff of frightening the reader with blasphemous furniture, however, the narrator instead interrogates what is meant when he says “not certain,” and by extension what all authors of weird fiction imply when they call the senses of their characters into doubt.  By way of relating what he has seen without breaking his promise to not explicitly describe narrator presents a series of analogies:

An armchair implies the human body, its joints and members; scissors, the act of cutting.  What can be told from a lamp, or an automobile?  The savage cannot really perceive the missionary’s Bible; the passenger does not see the same rigging as the ship’s crew.

Bracketing these analogies are two seemingly contradictory observations: “In order to truly see a thing, one must first understand it,” and “If we truly saw the universe, perhaps we would understand it.” (Borges, 441)  This appears to be a clear response to Lovecraft’s most famous encapsulation of his cosmicist views: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” (Lovecraft, 125) 

I have heard an anecdotal quote from Borges on Lovecraft essentially stating that the flaw with Lovecraft’s writing was that it revealed its monsters in too much detail[1].  While this may be true in the case of “The Dunwich Horror” and some other stories, I think Borges has overlooked a key stylistic approach adopted by Lovecraft (consciously or unconsciously) in several stories, but best exemplified in “At The Mountains Of Madness.”  In Lake’s initial description of the frozen Old Ones discovered in Antarctica, Lovecraft bombards the reader with an insurmountable ream of scientific and enumerative data.  Upon first reading the story, I tried several times to read the passage, slowly building a mental image of the Old Ones as I went.  The image would invariably disintegrate midway through the description as I was simply unable to accommodate the amount of information provided by Lake.  A professor of mine referred to the technique as a “surfeit of detail” that adopts the guise of explication, but serves to only confuse and disorient the reader with apparently contradictory anatomic oddities.  The technique is also used to a similar effect in the descriptions of the extra-terrestrial globule in “The Colour Out Of Space.” 

In “There Are More Things,” Borges attempts to avoid a description of the monster by ending the story just as his narrator turns to face it, but too much has already been revealed by the secondary objects (the furniture) after the narrator breaks his promise to not describe them; “a long, U-shaped piece of furniture like an operating table, very high, with circular openings at the extremes” makes the narrator think of “the word amphisbaena” (Borges, 442, italics in original) a Greek serpent with heads at each end of its body.  The narrator claims that the word “suggest[s]…but by no means capture[s]” (Borges, 442) his later glimpse of the monster, but the damage has been done; the reader now has a fixed and entirely conceivable image of what the narrator claims to have not truly seen because he has not truly understood.  A similar fault in Lovecraft’s fiction occurs in “The Dunwich Horror” when Curtis Whateley describes Wilbur’s brother as “a octopus, centipede, spider kind o’ thing’,” (Lovecraft, 197) perhaps the only legitimate flaw identified by Edmund Wilson.  Borges is seemingly obsessed with secondary objects and degrees of abstraction; they are used to describe or in place of original objects or concepts throughout his stories, the main theme of which is often the eclipsing of an original by a simulacrum.  In using these secondary objects and terms (the furniture and the amphisbaena) in “There Are More Things,” Borges is attempting to ‘correct’ a story that is at its core Lovecraftian, but gilded with Borgesian evasive description.  At a personal level, I feel the experiment to be a failed one.  While Borges’ use of abstraction and analogy is used to astounding effect in his other stories (especially while describing already abstract beliefs or philosophies), the creature of “There Are More Things” is simply a conjoined snake to me, whilst the Old Ones of Antarctica remain incomprehensibly alien.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis.  Collected Fictions.  Trans. Andrew Hurley.  New York: Penguin, 1999.

Joshi, S.T. A Dreamer And A Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft In His Time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips.  The Dunwich Horror And Others. Ed. S.T. Joshi. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1963.

[1] I should admit that I haven’t been able to track down a copy of Barton Levi St. Armand’s paper on Lovecraft and Borges, and that in all likelihood St. Armand provides a definitive quote and source in this instance.

Copyright 2004, Bruce Lord.