Borges’ ‘The Lottery of Babylon’


Jorge Luis Borges


Photo by Sara Facio

We are thrust into the fictional city of Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges; he creates for us a narrator who having lived in the city has experienced a mystical phenomenon thought to pervade all aspects of life in the Mesopotamian civilisation. In the ‘Lottery of Babylon’[1], through his notable and individual style Borges creates a brilliant fantasy of thought, moving from an imaginable scenario extrapolated into the absurd and barely comprehendible although still retaining a mathematical possibility. The narrator begins by describing the nascent lottery initially starting in a simple manner before branching out and affecting every inch of activity within the city. From the rudimentary parchments and draws grew a desire for more extreme effects to influence the way of life and outwards grew the lottery to include monetary fines, but this did not suffice and still it swelled into negative effects such as imprisonment. It wasn’t long before it became entertainment for the elite of society for which, whatever the rich take pleasure in, the poor envy- the bloodshed that follows is what granted the lottery, now formally known as ‘the Company’, the power to function in secret, determining a draw every 60 days in which being a free man in Babylon would count as tacit consent to be subject to the chance of the lottery. The ‘Company’ can be seen as a replacement God, a non-replacement God and a yearning for adrenaline and excitement in one’s life. It takes on a mythological status and begins to blur the lines from the reality to illusory and whether the existence really affects the way we live or not. It also contradicts the archetypal human rationality in favour of randomness and risk of pure chaos. ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ is a masterpiece of Borges which causes one to question the idea of God, destiny and desire.

The most obvious parallel or metaphor that can be drawn with the ‘Company’ is that of God, Borges himself once said that he believes ‘metaphysics, religion and literature all have a common source’[2]. For arguments sake we shall assume our understanding of God to mean the Abrahamic God gifted with the triple threat of Omni benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience. Whilst the ‘Company’ doesn’t share the same benevolence or knowledge –it enjoys the threshold of control of every man’s luck, although it is a far cry from ‘gods plan’ and the reward from good deeds, it is complete randomness and fortune- for every 60 days you can, no matter how you have lived your life, become superior to others, invisible or even a murderer. Congruous with the idea of a ‘God’ we are told that ‘sages cannot agree’[3] on the ‘Company’ in harmony with religious scholars interpreting holy texts differently. Borges love of metaphors and etymology of words is famed and we cannot deny the similarities one would use when talking of God and the way in which he talks of the ‘Company’. Although, to me it seems, it is an alternative to the common view of God challenging the traditional conception like Hume’s infant deity[4]. The people of Babylon are not idiots; however rather than create for themselves a deity which would provide in accordance to how righteously they execute their actions and good deeds determining fortune shrouded  in ‘Gods plan’-  they would rather have the knowledge of all that is happening to them, even if it is completely indiscriminate. A complete redistribution of the wealth is imaginable and a reshuffling of the classes from ‘Aleph’ to ‘Gimel’[5] every 60 days we can expect a John Rawls’ ‘Original Position’ setting. It can be considered Borges own philosophy here that no man has a more valued ‘intrinsic worth’ and that we all deserve the same probability of fortune as one another[6]. This is man’s creation of God, in the pursuit and possibility of great fortune, willing to take the risk of great misfortune. We are reminded of the ‘imperfect god’ in Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ who is ‘fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror’[7].  With this intrigue in God we can also draw parallels between the inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, whereby a long debate about God is pursued, and rather than God being created in the image of man, it is the devil himself that man has created from his own image[8]– that is our nature. Is this the idea of the ‘Company’ that Borges has created? With unpredictable outcomes and exposure to evil, the people are willing to put their freedom in jeopardy; this will be discussed further on. Towards the end the ‘Company’ engages in very trivial and insignificant drawings such as the replacement of grains of sand on shore. It appears as though they hold panoptic power to the extent that it is disputable as to whether their existence matters or not- for the chaos and randomness is already present without the ‘Company’ and for the infinite draws that they choreograph, Borges creates for us a paradox of ordered chance.

When talking of the Abrahamic religions, there is the belief that we have free will, and as far as we know, the people of Babylon decide their own fate also. So how is it that they come to decide that they would rather have their own fortune taken out of their hands with such an arbitrary and abrupt tool as the lottery? It is not a question of will or voluntarily allowing their destiny to be superseded by pure chance but they force it through protest and bloodshed. Borges is exploring the labyrinth of man’s desire and the popularity of the lottery is seen to enjoy great growth when unfavourable fines, ill luck and imprisonment are introduced. It makes a stark contrast to man’s philosophy and life aim’s in Greek and Western civilisations which would generally consist of organisation, logic and foresight, Borges makes the comment ‘I have known that thing the Greeks knew not–uncertainty.’[9]– the true nature of man may not lie in rationality but the pandemonium of nature and how ironic that the Babylonians have reached a stage where they have to create randomness. The ‘Company’s’ popularity is amplified with the introduction of ‘non pecuniary elements in the lottery’[10] of unlucky instances within the draws. It seems that a positive influence on one’s life was not enough, that more was needed, a danger and risk of something evil happening- all this for the enjoyment of yourself to be able to have an instance just to ‘count yourself lucky’ as you wouldn’t in everyday life void of the ‘Company’. People take pleasure in avoiding misfortune however mockingly this misfortune could’ve been avoided by not taking part- it seems that people choose to forget that they have given all the power to the ‘Company’ in the first place. Transferring the determination of your destiny would only be done in a state where you would believe the circumstances would favour you, albeit in this situation it seems the desire for change outweighs the rationality. An interesting concept if we are to consider the period in which Borges lived and this was written.

The rise of the ‘Company’s’ power, whilst fantasy and to an unimaginable limit- is worth noting in relation to the struggle for political power in Europe in that era. Surrounded by differing ideologies and armies- armies that repressed the people- it seems as though the rise to power of the ‘Company’ could act as a metaphor for the bringing destruction of oneself in Nazi Germany whereby the people sought change and evil entered with it. Just like the rise of Hitler, he was accepted and Germany yearned for someone that would increase their luck within the world- it came at the price of death and destruction. The lottery is elevated to the highest heights by the people and you are considered a ‘pusillanimous wretch, a man with no spirit of adventure’ if you chose to not take part, this ostracizing of the prudent is a feature that it shares with the aforementioned society.

It is very understandable and rational that men would risk ‘copper coins’ for ‘silver minted coins’[11] but the journey then to risk your freedom for fortune, and this was the general consensus- I feel as though Borges is trying to express something to the reader about man’s true nature and what he desires. A masochistic identity within all of us if you will, maybe not that far, but rather that we would risk our ordered and expected ordinary life for a taste of something desirable- shows the lengths that man is willing to sacrifice and the strength of which desire holds over us. From the basic prize of coins to the ascendency of the ‘Company’s’ influence into an impressive systematic and mystical drawing that seems to run repetitively and without a contribution from anyone; it becomes self-sufficient and invisible. From the humble beginnings of goods for goods, the initial trading of mankind in rudimental economics, to an advanced system of intertwining variants that are seemingly mechanical without an operator. A notable point here is the journey that which the ‘Company’ takes can also be a metaphor for the economics of the time and Adam Smith’s capitalism- the invisible hand – by which society and the foundation of trade as we know it seems to seamlessly operate. Just as we saw in the issue with God, we cannot really be sure whether or not the ‘Company’ exists but whether this really matters or the effect of a possibility of something existing is just as important and has a strong effect on the behavioural patterns of the society and people.

Kafka is said to have had a profound effect on Borges[12], in return in this short story we see Borges grant him the honour of mention as a latrine known as the ‘Qaphqa’[13] in Babylon, this latrine is where spies of the ‘Company’ would gain access to said institution. There may be a compliment of being a hidden passage to knowledge or something similar shrouded in there somewhere as the idea explored by Borges is very similar to  the idea of intense obsession and organisation in Kafka’s ‘The Great Wall of China’[14]. The notion of building the great wall and an ever-existing empire becomes a mania for people within the city, in an effort to contain everything that can be contained, an idea echoed also in ‘The Library of Babel’[15], another work by Borges, as an infinite amount of knowledge and literature is stored within this fictional library- in his present story we see the infinite amount of opportunities and chance as becoming organised and enforced. In another one of Borges short stories, he continues this theme, in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’[16] Borges dives into the dimension of time as weaving a never-ending labyrinth of possible situations and scenarios. Borges believed that through language, mankind had a goal of marking the boundaries of the Universe, and adding the phenomenon of finality to its peculiar and scary infiniteness- although he knew that we would always fail in this endeavour[17].  This is the reason that he favours fiction because he is able to toy with the reality and build stimulating worlds which can be ‘contradictory’ and ‘cyclical’[18]. This idea of circularity is mentioned elsewhere by Borges, when actually talking of Saint Augustine and his view of the real city of Babylon as circular in comparison to the linear city of Jerusalem[19] –this idea may stem from, again, Borges concentration on perpetual and boundless history as everything occurring and then, in virtue of infiniteness, reoccurring in an infinite monkey theorem position. In a similar vein of repetition, we see Eugene Ionesco explore absurdity and circularity in his play ‘The Lesson’, with the death of pupil by the professor, and the greeting of a new pupil which begins the cycle again[20].

The narrator himself in Borges story seems to be in somewhat of hurry and exhibits unease and uncertainty when describing the ‘Company’. Borges often had narrators of faltering confidence, maybe a reflection of himself and his various queer fears about the world, we are told that the narrator has a ship to catch and has once lived in Babylon. We must ask ourselves the question why is he no longer in Babylon? Whilst Borges had created the narrator outside of Babylon just because it made for a more believable and fluent read, we can also query into whether it his own reflection on such an undesirable state to live on.

I certainly wouldn’t find it beyond Borges to create such a story with more than one metaphor in mind and he has masterfully planted seeds of different issues all around many of his works.  His broad vocabulary and intensely complex short stories provide refreshing outlooks on different issues when analysed. He writes in a very flowing albeit sometimes complicated manner but it is necessary to achieve the profound and lasting effect that emanates from all his works. His writing is immaculate and flawless- each word playing it’s part perfectly and this is exactly what he was a perfectionist, destroying books[21] when he wasn’t happy with the final product, similar in the way Nikolai Gogol and I’m sure many other writers have. Borges received great credit as a Latin-American writer where others of the same origin struggled to be as accepted by the European writers[22] and had a long career in which he received many awards with, arguably the most prestigious, the Nobel prize in Literature always eluding him. Nonetheless, his mastery of language and metaphors is exhibited in ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ and I hold him in great esteem.

[1] Borges (1941) p.51

[2] Kearney (1982) p. 76

[3] Borges (1941) p.51

[4] Hume (1779) p. 21-22

[5] Borges (1941) p.51

[6] Goodwin (1984) p.202

[7] Lem (1987)

[8] Dostoyevsky (1879) p. 280-281

[9] Borges (1941) p.51

[10] Ibid p.53

[11] Ibid p.52

[12] Flores (1955) p.189

[13]Borges (1941) p.54

[14] Kafka (1931) p.164

[15] Borges (1941) p.65

[16] Ibid p.3

[17] Standish (1991) p.136

[18] Kearney (1982) p.74

[19] Ibid p. 77

[20] Ionesco (1951)

[21] Piper (2001) p. 56

[22] Flores (1955) p. 188


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