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Memory and making meaning through Borges

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.

-Jorge Luis Borges

IT IS WITH THIS QUOTE, and this particular lens on memory, that we began our first major assignment in English class. The quote comes from the short story, “Funes the Memorious,” by Jorge Luis Borges. Bores, a staple of Argentine culture, is famous for being a pioneer of magical realism, a truly South American genre of literature, where he explored the themes of memory, dreams, and infinity.

The goal of this lesson had two parts. The first was to help students truly understand Borges complex theme where the thought process of a character with a perfect memory is explored through conversation. The character, whose memory is so perfect, he can create new symbols for every number, learn languages perfectly from simply reading a book, and reconstruct entire days perfectly in his mind. However, after much conversation, it becomes apparent that, according to our narrator, “he [was] not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.”

In true Borges fashion, the perfection, memory, becomes an infinite perfection, leading the reader to ponder the many possibilities and tragedies associated with an infinite memory. In doing so, Borges leads readers to consider how we should remember our pasts, with what type of lens and with what level of perfection. This question is one that we will constantly reconsider as we learn about Argentine culture and past through literature.

 

“My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”

The second goal was to help students become better readers and writers of complex sentences. Borges used very complex sentence structures throughout his work to emphasize his themes and create tone, and although these sentences make his work difficult to read, they created a perfect learning opportunity for us.

To achieve these learning goals we set about to write our own Borges style stories, stories where a narrator comes into contact with a character with an ironically tragic perfection. Additionally, to prove their mastery of complex sentence structures, students were required to include examples of sentences using appositive phrases.

Lucky for us, the actual café where Borges used to write is only four blocks from our school! How could we pass up an opportunity to write our stories in the same setting as the famous author himself. The café, La Biella, even has a life-size statue of Borges himself sitting in the café.

 

We began our first day at the café with a conversation on why Borges may have used so many long sentences in his work. Students were able to determine that it must have something to do with his theme. They worked through the first paragraph noticing that he uses repetition of the word “memory,” a work that he states, he “has to right to utter.” Why would he repeat this? After throwing around some ideas and gaining input from me, they were able to conclude that he does it to reveal that the narrator has been affected in some way by his meeting with Funes, the character with perfect memory. The narrator is attempting to capture Funes’ style of memory within his own narration of this meeting. Also, the narrator uses long sentences with appositive phrases as a structure to include as many details as possible, similarly to the way in which Funes may have remembered events. Additionally, students noted that Borges creates a “dramatic” tone with his constant use of punctuation to break the sentences’ flow.

After some practice with appositive phrases, we set about to work on our own stories, stories that began, as Borges did with, “I ____________________ him (I have no right to utter this sacred verb, only one man on earth had that right and he is dead),” and ending by revealing the tragedy of this perfection by stating, “I suspect though, he was not very capable of ____________________.”

Below you will find links to the original in addition to the student voted, best stories from the 9th and 10th grade classes. In their own way, the students themselves are doing as Borges suggests, by forgetting his original story and molding their own stories to fit his format, they are thinking. They are forgetting the original and making a new meaning from the memory of his work. I hope you like them as much as I did.

Jorge Luis Borges’ original work

“Funes the Memorious”

10th Grade

Yuan Yuan — The Dreamer; The Invention of Heaven”

Alejandro — Listen

Hannah — Maurice the Imaginary

9th Grade

Paul — Guillermo the Calculator

Cameron — Caleb

Sydney — Plato the Brave

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