The Merciful Limitations of Human Perception - "Funes, the Memorious" - A Short Story By Jorge Luis Borges

Funes, The Memorious

This story by 20th century Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, is another characteristic example of his detailed, philosophical short stories which packs a punch in only a few pages. In this story he explores the dichotomy of the human experience of reality which, in one sense, presents an unending complexity of individual details, and yet, on the other, also presents us with a realm of ideas, of non-tangible forms which simply that complexity. Funes, the main character, is someone who must wrestle with this problem after his freak accident which changes the workings of his mind. 

Attached below is the PDF of the story. 

The Short Story

Funes, The Memorious is set in the rural Argentina of the late 1800's. There our narrator meets, through a friend, a young man who lives in the village. This young man is normal except for the fact that he has an exceptional awareness of what time it is. Ireneo Funes was his name. A few years after our narrator's first encounter with Funes he checks back up on him, only to find out that Funes had been thrown from a horse and broken his neck. He was paralyzed. 

After his paralysis Funes began to change. He was said to sit completely still, being transfixed even on the simplest things like a spider's web or a backyard tree. With our narrator's visit, Funes had a note sent to him asking to borrow some of his books, including a Latin dictionary and Pliny's Natural History among others. The narrator gets word that his father is sick and so he goes to collect his books before departing. Upon visiting Funes he finds him sitting in a back room in the complete darkness loudly reciting verses in Latin from Pliny's work. But how? Funes hadn't known Latin a few days earlier before receiving the books. Upon questioning him, Funes began to recall the men who possessed great memories from Pliny's history, taken aback that such a characteristic was lauded. 

Then Funes revealed how his accident changed him ... "He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been - like any Christian - blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. ... For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything - almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible." 

Funes memory had been so augmented that not even the smallest detail of a sensual experience of something was forgotten. He could feel, sense, and reconstruct his whole past. "He told me: 'I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world.' And again: 'My dreams are like your vigils.' And again, toward dawn: 'My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.'" Funes did not forget and did not ignore. He saw every star and every detail of things. In fact, at one point, Funes even began to devise a system or categorization that gave a unique word to each and every individual entity, similar to a project of John Locke in the 17th century. "Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name; Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it." 

Likewise, for Funes, to reason was very difficult because in reasoning one must put aside specific differences and speak about universal characteristics of things. The differences in each thing were so immediate to Funes, such a thing was unpalatable. "He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms..." "I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details." Even sleep was difficult for Funes as he would have to unplug his mind from the vibrant world of details. It was only in thinking of the unknown, the formless and void, that he was able to do it. Nevertheless shortly after this visit ... Funes passed away. 

Complexity and the Human Condition

One of the themes that Borges brings out in his character, Funes, is one of the shocking discoveries of the early 1900's. Science at that time pushed the boundaries of the known world and ended up discovering layers to existence that not previously known. Think of the discover of the quantum world, for example. In so many words, one of the major discoveries of the 20th century as opposed to, say, the 18th century was that reality is unbearably complex. Things may work from universal laws, but reality is not reducible to a machine, it is much more mysterious. Funes has his own awakening to this fact when he is crippled. He awakes from his coma to find that reality is so vibrant and overwhelming in its complexity and detail that he can barely stand it. Even sitting in a purely dark room is an intense experience for Funes. 

On the one hand, there is a beauty to reality that we need to reawaken to, as when we were children. On the other hand, the brain must ignore much of this complexity if we are to ever function in the world. If we noticed every detail of every item, remembered every day minute by minute, we would be crippled like Funes by the complexity. The brain must become accustomed to ignoring most of reality so that we can actually get through the day. 

We Interact With Ideas, Not Things

And this is where another insight from this short story comes in. Funes is not able to reason, not able to abstract ideas because ideas involve the stripping of details to universalize what is common in things. This process if as old as philosophy and was the original philosophical question in Ancient Greece. At one time there is an ever changing flux of material details to things which is always altering them ... yet at the same time there is a constant identity which exists in things by which we know what they are. Funes is bogged down so deeply into the material individuality of things that he cannot cease his perceptions to actually reason regarding the identity of things. He tries to create an infinite set of symbols for each unique things at each unique moment, but such a things exceeds all possibility. 

Related to this is the point that we do not interact with a world of material things. Material things are are mired in particular details. As humans we interact with the world by ignoring 99.99% of these details and penetrating right to the universal identity of things. Functionally, when I go to turn on a lamp, I do not admire the minuscule details of the texture, the particles of dust that have undoubtedly settled on it, the hue of the lampshade. I see those realities very broadly, and mostly I just see "a lamp." I see the immaterial identity of the thing and what it means for me. Plato, who is mentioned in the story, formulated this most clearly. We actually live more in the realm of ideas and immaterial identities than the physical world ... strange when you think about it. 

Subjectivity is a Mercy

This ability to ignore the physical complexity and focus on the immaterial identity of things that we interact with is actually a greatest of blessings. Funes was crippled, mentally paralyzed, and isolated by his overwhelming perceptions. To have reality flood into our brain in its full vigor and complexity would actually kill us like it did Funes. It is the limitations of our subjectivity which allow us to ignore everything except this one issue that I am currently dealing with is pure blessing. Otherwise it would be like trying to quench one's thirst by standing in front of Niagara falls ... rather than filling a simple glass of water to drink.