Funes the Memorious (Funes el memorioso)

by Jorge Luis Borges

We had a lovely, lively and stimulating discussion of ‘Funes the Memorious.’ Our edition is only six pages long and I felt like we could have kept talking about it for another hour at least.

Here’s the piece about ‘Funes the Memorious’ that I shared during class. It includes some of Borges’ own comments about the story, as well as a photo of the newspaper where the story was originally published in 1947.

‘Funes the Memorious’ poses the hypothetical question: What would it be like to have an infallible memory and perception, to notice every detail and never forget anything? Would it be a gift, a disability, a superpower, a curse? How would it affect your identity, your humanity? Would you still be able to think?

Could you have language?

I said no. Some of you pushed back. It comes down to how you define language. That’s why this story is such a great one to read in a class like this.

The language question

On Day 1 of Intro Linguistics we often teach students that language has two basic components:

  • A vocabulary or lexicon, i.e. a list of arbitrary sign-meaning correspondences. These have to be memorized and stored.
  • A combinatorial system that allows you to put vocabulary items together to create novel phrases and sentences. Phrases and sentences don’t have to be memorized; their meanings are compositional, systematic, calculable, predictable.

After his accident, Funes’ brain is capable of remembering anything and everything. He starts to feel ‘discomfort’ with the systematic, combinatorial way that we use words to refer to numbers and instead invents a mini-language where every number has a unique, atomic name: ‘In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Pérez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad… In place of five hundred, he would say nine.’ (p. 152-153)

For us this approach to numbering is ludicrous, impossible. The only rational way for our human brains to name large numbers is with a compositional system: three hundred sixty five is literally the sum of its parts, three hundreds + six tens + five ones. But for Funes, our compositional approach is intolerably inefficient. Why use four words when we could use just one? Language is all lexicon for him: his capacity to memorize and store new words is as limitless as the set of all possible numbers. This is why he’s able to learn ‘the arduous Latin tongue [with] no other instrument than a dictionary.’ (150)

So… is that language?

And that’s not all. Remember that Funes’ perception is also affected. He discerns everything, every leaf, every crevice, every molding. He has difficulty not only with the idea of a general category corresponding to the word dog that includes both dachshunds and rottweilers, but also with the idea that ‘[a] dog at 3:14 (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at 3:15 (seen from the front).’ (p. 153)

Funes can’t generalize or make abstractions; he can’t form categories. His natural inclination is to create a unique word not only for every object, but for every time (and every way) he experiences an object. ‘En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no había sino detalles, casi inmediatos’ (In the jam-packed world of Funes, there was nothing but details, almost immediate).  (p. 154)

Language for such a mind would just be a constant, frenetic act of naming: coining a new label for each instance of each thing he perceives, and—most likely—never using that label again. Is that language?

Moreover, this never-ending labeling activity would be entirely solitary. If I can’t generalize from my view of a dog at 3:14 to my view of the same dog at 3:15, then I also can’t generalize from my experience of a dog to yours. Without this kind of abstraction—the ability to take the leap of faith necessary to believe that someone else’s experiences of the world are fundamentally similar to mine—there’s no way we could establish a set of shared conventions around what words mean.

This reminds me of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: if I decide to write an ‘S’ in a diary every time I feel a particular sensation, is that a language? Wittgenstein suggests that it is not, since I’m not accountable to others or even to myself about what ‘S’ means; there’s no ‘criterion of correctness.’ Funes, arguably, wouldn’t even be able to keep such a diary: if ‘his own hands surprised him every time he saw them’ (p. 153), how could he recognize ‘S’ as the ‘same’ sensation from one day to the next?

Other questions

For such a heady, philosophical and ultra-short story, Borges spends quite a bit of text grounding us in a particular time and place and assigning mundane properties to the two main characters. The narrator is an educated, well-off young man from Buenos Aires who ‘summers’ across the Río Plata in Montevideo or Fray Bentos (Uruguay). Funes lives in Fray Bentos year-round—he’s a local, a townie, working-class: his mom does ironing and nobody’s quite sure who his dad is. The story takes place in the 1880s, but Funes seems strangely obsessed with Uruguayan history: he drops seemingly gratuitous references to ‘our two nations in the Battle of Ituzaingó’ and later to ‘the 33 gauchos of Uruguayan history.’ Why?

Another thing that mystifies me a bit: I never really sympathize with either character. I can imagine a version of the story where we feel deeply, achingly sorry for Funes, but it’s not this version. Funes comes across as odd, fey, grating: he ‘avoids contact with people’ and his voice is ‘shrill, mocking’ (p. 149). The narrator comes across as a pretentious, unfeeling little snot: his narrative voice is stilted and pedantic; when his dad gets sick he feels only the excitement of being at the center of a drama; he’s so stunned to hear an uneducated townie speaking Latin that he almost loses his mind: ‘The Roman syllables resounded…my fear took them to be indecipherable, interminable’ (p. 151).

Why did Borges set this story in this time and place, in these particular characters? I haven’t been able to articulate a response yet. But when I reflect on this question, I’m left with an unsettling sense of instability: the story is showing us that our differences are illusory and temporary, that our alliances are too, that our fortunes are easily reversed, that vanity and puffery are…well, vain and puffed-up.

‘Funes’ is full of gorgeous and haunting imagery. I asked students to write down a few words about the impressions this story left them with, and the responses were wonderful: esoteric, bleak, remote, being trapped, dark, vampiric, dreams, youth, wisdom, anxiety, imaginary numbers, no filter, memory vs. thought

I think mine would be obscurity. My dominant impression of ‘Funes’ is of a world enveloped in storm-clouds, smoke, shadows or nighttime darkness, where the lack of light has the potential to be both frightening and comforting. Here’s the passage that always blows my mind:

‘Before that rainy afternoon when the blue-gray horse [el azulejo] threw him, he had been what all humans are: blind, deaf, addlebrained, absent-minded… For nineteen years he had lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.’ (p. 151)

There’s something profoundly moving about this idea of all of us humans stumbling through our lives in a haze, convinced that we’re seeing reality when we’re really just seeing a vague outlines and shadows. We heard similar messages in ‘Story of Your Life‘ and Frankenstein. It also reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and of St. Paul’s strange, mysterious phrasing in his first letter to the Corinthians:

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

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