Borges’s Monsters & Ars Combinatoria

Lois Parkinson Zamora

Monsters inhabit at once the realms of nature and artifice—they are man-made species, so to speak. Because monsters slip suggestively between nature and culture, between real and imagined, they often open up the way to chaos, deformity, and dream. Their combinatory capacity, their “infinite” possibility, makes them volatile, unpredictable, and fortuitous. Perhaps it is this kind of creative possibility that Wallace Stevens has in mind when he asserts that writers probe fortuitously.

Borges’s interest in ars combinatoria—its disjunctions and permutations—might have led him to ally himself with the European surrealists, but it did not. At precisely this time, the surrealists were surrendering themselves to related principles of juxtaposition—recall the famous example of the umbrella and the sewing machine. However, to assume that Borges’s combinatory monsters were a predictable outcome of avant garde poetics of juxtaposition is to impose European ideologies upon Argentine practice. Borges’s ultraísmo did not engage combinatory tactics as a creative principle, nor did any other Latin American avant garde movement, for that matter. There was no call to create metaphors out of disparate elements, as in European surrealism, nor any investment in psychic automism, as there would have been if metaphors were to be created out of sheer unlikeness. Borges would have viewed such arbitrary juxtapositions as invention without discovery and, indeed, in a list of the century’s ills, he includes “traffickers in surréalisme.” [36] Borges was not seeking to transcend the real by means of disjunctive combinations, as were the surrealists, but rather to use disjunction to amplify the real, and to discover and develop expressive capacities commensurate to the task. The result is not surrealism but magical realism, or what I will eventually call Borges’s magical idealism.

The ars combinatoria or, rather, ars disjunctoria of Borges’s monsters has more to do with T. S. Eliot than the surrealists. I have already mentioned Eliot’s recovery of certain seventeenth-century poets on the basis of their poetics of disjunction. Recall the eighteenth-century English critic Samuel Johnson’s depreciation of Donne and Herbert as “metaphysicals”: Johnson charged that their metaphors “yoked by violence together” the “most heterogeneous ideas.” [37] To which Eliot, almost two centuries later, responds that heterogeneity and incongruity are necessary to poetry: “a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.” [38] The poet’s task is to synthesize in his literary structure what resists synthesis in the world. This is not juxtaposition for its own sake but rather a movement from separation to integration. Borges’s monsters may well be considered in Dr. Johnson’s terms as “metaphysicals” “yoked by violence together,” and also in Eliot’s terms, as “amalgamating disparate experience” in the whole of the literary structure.

Indeed, Borges stresses the yoked nature of his heterogeneous monsters. As early as 1926, in an essay entitled “A History of Angels,” published in the second of his three self-banished collections, Borges writes about the proliferating meanings of monsters, among which he included angels. Angels are, after all, an unnatural combination of human and bird [. . . .]

In a lecture on the detective story, Borges raises the question of whether literary genres exist. Responding to his own musing, he says: “A fitting reply to this would be that although all individuals are real, to specify them is to generalize them. . . . To think is to generalize, and we need these useful Platonic archetypes in order to say anything.” [52] For Borges, literary genres are like his monsters: “useful Platonic archetypes.” Like the child who has “already seen the tiger in a primal world of archetypes” and thus recognizes a tiger in the zoo, so too the reader recognizes literary works in relation to their generic type. Both imaginary beings and works of literature involve the relation of particular instances to overarching categories, the relation of singularity to universality. If, as I have argued, Borges’s monsters unsettle these relations by means of combinatory devices, so, too, his generic experiments during the 1920s and 1930s reflect Borges’s ars combinatoria. His literary forms are metaphorical monsters by his own definition: they are unexpected combinations of disparate parts from fiction, myth, philosophy, theology, bestiaries, travel narrative, folktale, epic, allegory, and from a vast array of historical periods and world cultures, combined to create narrative structures whose “ends are unknown to us.” In Borges’s generic transformations, we come close to the Greek sense of the word “dynamism”—power realized in form—but it is “morphology” that I will engage to describe his project.

I have suggested that the dynamic structures resulting from Borges’s ars combinatoria may be considered in terms of baroque aesthetics. If Borges early abandoned what is frequently referred to as his baroque style, he nonetheless remains a baroque writer in his engagement of mutation, anomaly, and disjunction in the service of a universalizing vision. He also remains baroque in his narrative structures, which are exercises in balance, counterbalance, contradiction, compensation, and sustained ambiguity. His characteristic metaphors—labyrinths, libraries, gardens of forking paths, circular ruins—may seem hermetic and enclosed but they are, in fact, structures of universal inclusion, baroque structures.


35. Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, with Margarita Guerrero; trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author (London: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 14. Originally published as Manual de zoología fantástica in 1957, this collection was amplified in El libro de seres imaginarios in 1967. See Adriana González Mateo’s interartistic discussion of the Mexican painter Francisco Toledo’s illustration of Borges’s monsters, “Borges y Toledo: zoología fantástica,” in Poligrafias: Revista de literatura comparada, No. 1 (1996), pp. 151-162.

36. Borges, “Valéry as Symbol,” Other Inquisitions, p. 74. The entire quote is as follows: “The meritorious mission that Valéry performed (and continues to perform) is that he proposed lucidity to men in a basely romantic age, in the melancholy age of Nazism and dialectical materialism, the age of the augurs of Freud’s doctrine and the traffickers in surréalisme."

37. Cited by Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History, p. 665. Recall that Dr. Johnson was embroiled in a crucial neoclassical debate about the relative nature and value of the general and the particular.

38. T S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” in Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), p. 243.

39. Borges, “A History of Angels,” originally published in El tamaño de mi esperanza, 1926); trans. Esther Allen in Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fiction, pp. 18-19.

52. Borges, “The Detective Story,” collected in Borges oral, 1979; trans. Esther Allen in Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fictions, p. 491.

SOURCE: Zamora, Lois Parkinson. “Borges’s Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre,” in Literary Philosophers?: Borges, Calvino, Eco, edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Rodolphe Gasché (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 47-84. Excerpts: pp. 58-59, 65-66, 71, 82, 83.


I read the Borges-related essays in this book several years ago, but aside from my focus on Jorge J. E. Gracia’s essay “Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard’: Philosophy or Literature?” retained no memory of my reading. I went on to develop my own ideas about Borges.  I made much of the notion of ars combinatoria, whether mentioned in specific works I analyzed or not. Now I see that the importance of the idea, as well as my contention of Borges’s divergence from European surrealism, is confirmed by this essay, which I am certain did not influence me even unconsciously. (R. Dumain, 12 November 2014)

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Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Philosophical Style: Selected Bibliography

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe Study Guide

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes:
Selected Bibliography

ars combinatoria @ Studies in a Dying Culture


ars combinatoria @ Ĝirafo

Borges’s Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre
by Lois Parkinson Zamora

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Uploaded 12 November 2014
2 excerpts added 18 December 2014

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