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Borges and Mathematics

1borges1

Thoughts from reading: The term “math fiction” came up while I was reading a review on Borges in the New York Times. Although I have never heard of it, but as soon as I spotted the phrase I associated to Flatland, a novel, or rather a mathematical essay, written by Edwin A. Abbott, I read in high school. The story itself consists of a two dimensional world (Flatland), in which there are people of assorted shapes. These shapes live regular lives, just as we do. The protagonist (a square), is visited by a sphere, which tries to explain to him the existence of a third dimension. This proves difficult, though, because to the square in flatland, the sphere appears to be nothing more than a circle that can expand, contract, disappear and reappear.

Now I’m in Borges to the hilt, I realize mathematical elements are abundant in his work. Some of the stories even contain small mathematical lessons. Borges is fascinated by infinity theory, recursive objects, symmetry, progression. In most of his works, there exists an essentially essayistic matrix. Borges is a writer who proceeds from a single principle—“in the beginning was the idea,” and conceptualizes his stories as incarnations or avatars of abstractions. There are also fragments of logical arguments in many of his stories. The elements of Borges’s style have affinity with the mathematical esthetic. Even in the passages that have nothing to do with mathematics, there is something in his writing, an element of style, that is particularly pleasing to the mathematical esthetic. When Borges writes, he typically accumulates examples, analogies, related stories, and variations on what he wants to tell. In this way the thrust of the story that unfolds is at once particular and general, and his passages give the impression that his particular examples are self-supporting references to universal forms. Mathematicians proceed in the same way. When they study an example, a particular case, they examine it with the hope of discovering a stronger and more general property that they can abstract into a theorem.

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