The Garden of Forking Paths

"The Garden of Forking Paths" PDF - Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

Early ideas about hypertext were freighted with the possibilities that had already been explored in literature and logic, in particular the idea that a linear path must only be one of many, because of the way that a path unfolds over time, representing a continuously unfolding sequence of choices between mutually excluding options.

The garden of forking paths shares its interest in time with possibilist history: the history of the futures that did not come to pass. Cinema historian Thomas Elsaesser describes this as "capable of thinking into history all those histories that might have been or might still be, conjuring the ghosts that shadow the living, and not unlike the cinema, peopled as it is by all the undead: Greta Garbo forever young, and James Dean's Porche never hitting the delivery truck on the road outside San Luis Obispo." (in Bal & Gonzales, The Practice of Interdisciplinary Analysis, p 66)

The Garden of Forking Paths also has something to say about ghosts: the idea that we are haunted by the contingency of identity itself.


The explanation is obvious: The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts'ui PĂȘn conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.

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In this story there's a brief glimpse of the Chinese Encyclopedia of everything, that would become the substance of his later mock historic essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins". link