restricted access Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics (review)
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Reviewed by
Floyd Merrell. Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1991. 300 pp. $29.50.

In his Preface Merrell comments on the book's title and its relation to both Borges and science: " 'unthinking thinking' reveals the present inquiry's underlying strain. The title, I believe, is appropriately ambiguous. It implies either the project of unthinking traditional Western thought, or, paradoxically, thinking without there being any accompanying process of thought (an inevitably abortive attempt by sheer intellection to approach a mystical insight). Both interpretations are germane [End Page 502] to the nature of Borges's work. . . ." Merrell's approach is a deductive one, a methodology that he traces to Borges's own writing and to certain scientific traditions beginning with the Greek geometers.

The writings of Borges mark a point for the folding of disciplines and texts, a referent for "intertextuality" between science and the humanities. And, for Merrell, they provide as well a "springboard" to a multiplicity of issues surrounding the postmodern. One of the great strengths of the book is Merrell's careful placement of both Borges and the "new physics" within a larger historical context which we might designate as the history of science and the history of ideas. Thus, Chapter One examines the age-old debate between nominalism and realism and the extent to which Borges participates in this controversy in his metaphysical writings, for example, "The Zahir" and "The Aleph."

Chapter Two on paradox and Three on models of infinity and the problematics of totalization open up the postmodern conflicts full throttle. Merrell works both with Borges's delight in shattering "ideological truths" and with the scientific modalities of chaos theory, taxonomy, and systems theory. Chapter Three is particularly useful in its expositions on mathematics, the end of certainty, and the infinite. Merrell follows these initial metaphysical chapters with an Interlude which summarizes the emergence of the "new physics" and which also draws effective parallels between the fiction-making processes of scientists and writers.

The brief history of science (handled in a self-reflexive postmodern manner) Interlude makes smooth the way for the following chapter on the "universe of Einsteinian physics and quantum mechanics." Chapter Four, "The Universe as Library," maps the relation between Einstein's "thought experiments" which resulted in his conceptualization of a space-time continuum, and Borges's own meditations on the universe in "The Library of Babel." Space merges with Time (and Timelessness) in Chapter Five in which Merrell links "The Aleph" with the new physics phenomena of black holes and singularities. Chapter Six extends beyond Space and Time into the mysteries of quantum mechanics where "reality" dissolves difference and Chance, represented by Borges in "The Lottery of Babylon" and by "broken symmetries" in subnuclear particles, disrupts the Newtonian universe.

Merrell's project reaches its conclusion in the final chapter on Language. It is here within the bounds of Derrida's "text" that science and art, thought experiment and writing blend together in a "totality of intertextuality." This gives us the multiple realities, the thousand plateaus of the postmodern modality and, as Merrell demonstrates, it also creates in Borges's work the "profound conflict" between this postmodern recognition and the nostalgia for a Modernist (or premodernist?) grounding. Of course, this conflict is one of the keys in making Borges's Quixotic struggles a map for our postmodern labyrinths.

John Mitchell
Purdue University
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