Describing the Ineffable

Analysis of dramatic arc and figures of speech used for emphasis in Borges’s short story “There are more things”.

Ancient temple by Piranesi … nothing to fear here.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)


Find the point of impossibility


What hides in the darkness?


With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.

Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?

—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)

A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?


Can you spot all the people walking up the stairs in the background? (click on the picture to enlarge)


In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that  Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.

However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:

  1. figures of speech,
  2. extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).

(Spoiler quotes follow.)

The skill of emphasis—or implying more than is actually said—is integral to persuasion, and was therefore of great interest to Roman rhetoricians. Indeed, we find it discussed as far back as 8 B.C., in what is considered the earliest Latin document on rhetoric, Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium. According to Cicero the figures of speech used for emphasis are:

  • hyperbole (exaggeration),
  • ambiguity (deliberately implying but not stating),
  • logical consequence (e.g. implying the effect by stating the cause),
  • aposiopesis (deliberate omission),
  • analogy (an implied simile).

Borges applies all five figures. But before giving examples of each of them, it makes sense to look at the second point.

According to Gustaf Freytag’s analysis of the five-act drama, the plot arc consists of five parts—exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement—that can be represented as a pyramid.

Most non-experimental short stories follow this pattern, although in a skewed or abridged form. Sometimes the climax, the falling action, and the dénouement are compressed into the last sentence, contributing to the “punchline” effect (for example, as present in the science fiction of Shinichi Hoshi). Alternatively, there are writers like Julio Cortázar, whose narratives frequently contain mystical elements that are hinted at (but excluded from) the story plane, leading the readers to feel like they’ve climbed a fake Freytag’s pyramid while blindfolded.

Borges, on the other hand, cuts the Freytag off at the climax in There are more things. The exposition sets up a mysterious occurrence in the Red House; the rising action describes the urgency of the narrator to find what architectural modifications have been made and who lives there; the climax has the narrator actually visit the house, describe its interior, and then … and then it ends. There is no explanation: we’re left hanging.

My feet were just touching the next to last rung when I heard something coming up the ramp—something heavy and slow and plural. Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes.

Of course, there can’t be any explanation, as the impossible, the foreign, the grotesque brook none.

Now that you have the structure of the story, here are the figures as Borges uses them:

  • Hyperbole: a monster of monsters. (the Minotaur in Piranesi’s prison)
  • Logical consequence: I now recall a long, U-shaped piece of furniture like an operating table, very high, with circular openings at the extremes. It occurred to me that this might be the bed used by the resident of the house, whose monstrous anatomy was revealed obliquely by this object in much the way the anatomy of an animal, or a god, may be known by the shadow it casts. (inference of object from its projection)
  • Analogy: there came to my lips the word amphisbæena, which suggested (though by no means fully captured) what my eyes would later see. (partial, indirect comparison)
  • Ambiguity: something heavy and slow and plural. (your worst fear)
  • Aposiopesis: Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes. (the curtailed Freytag)

After listing the figures of emphasis, Rhetorica ad Herennium switches to discussing a separate concept, that of conciseness (as the expressing of an idea by the very minimum of essential words). But if conciseness, too, is not a form of emphasis, I don’t know what is.

Borges is the magician of the concise short story: There are more things is only eight, sparsely-printed pages long. Eight pages that end with “it’s coming to get you”.

The reader can imagine the rest.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

35 thoughts on “Describing the Ineffable”

    1. Thanks!

      This film?

      It’s gotta be that one given that it’s got your blog’s icon (or rather, vice versa). Did you upload the trailer?

      I haven’t seen the film, though I just glanced through the wiki and spotted a Borges references. Any pointers or recommendations?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The film is absolutely filled with Borges references… I will send you a link to my article on the movie which briefly touches on them…Jagger reads from The South, a gangster reads Ficciones while waiting in a car among other things.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha, brilliant! Do send the link, yes.

        Can I pass on a counter-recommendation for a film given to me by a fellow blogger? Very different feel to the Performance judging by the trailer, but the absurdist-existentialist-Kafkaesque element is strong. If you haven’t seen it, Tarkovsky’s 1979 Stalker might be worth looking into.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. In the meantime, there’s always the book the film’s based on if you fancy reading. It’s called Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m currently about a quarter of the way into it—good translation and it’s starting to get the Kafkaesque overtones…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I will definitely look it up. Thank you, I like everything with Kafka overtones. I have another counter recommendation, the work of Anna Kavan, especially Ice, probably the best (and still original) of English writers indebted to Kafka… would you believe it but I have a link!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yes, well I’m doing a month long series on Kafka here… just finished his collected shorter works. Trying to process.

        Right, thanks for the reminder—I got Ice and it’s there in the back of my mind, to be read, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Might do so now.

        I didn’t catch that? Link to the author (genealogical), or link to the book or to the post or…? (Do send it whichever.)

        Liked by 1 person

      6. All links welcome (even if you remember at some random time and just want to drop me a line). There’s definitely something to be said about reading books that have been recommended by a likeminded reader.


      7. Yes, definitely the way to go i think. I definitely think you will find the post and the movie interesting. Funny you should have said vice versa as that was the tag line for the promotion of the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. I’m not going to make a deep statement here: most concepts in most (absurdist’s) philosophy must be considered in the mirror and the mirror’s mirror and the mirror’s mirror’s mirror… I feel like this is one of those threads where the longer it goes on the likelier we’re to mention the relevant keywords like vice-versa, like mirror, like reflection, like double-fetch-doppelganger, like impossible, infinite, recursive, cyclical, vanishing, infinity, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Oh, as am I, as am I. It’s a thing. Once you grasp onto the idea it’s fascinating and a source of so many different ideas. It’s also one of those things that you either are fond of or you don’t know what there’s to be fond of.

        (One mirror fantasy from Borges, and one from surrealist Leonora Carrington —don’t feel obliged to read it, just thought you might enjoy the quotes in grey boxes.)

        Liked by 1 person

      10. I suppose it is unavoidable to touch on the elements mentioned, but it strike me as uncanny. As one character said to another in one of my stories…’A sign? Everything strikes you as a sign’

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Ha, yes, well I think we (our sites) have got a certain common thought-basis when it comes to [insert appropriate adjectives] subset of literature and art.

        Or perhaps it really is that when you talk about mirrors you have to ground the discussion in a certain common knowledge before building to a particular point?

        Though, I suppose 3 out of 3 is quite something, so yes, let’s call it a sign of sorts. Signs are good, so long as one doesn’t read too much into them (at least until it becomes apparent what cypher should be applied).

        Liked by 1 person

      12. More bizarre, more dull, but all that falls under avant garde.

        Speaking of which, do you read Baudelaire in the original French? If not, perhaps you could recommend a good bilingual editing? (Rimbaud too…)

        Liked by 1 person

      13. I have an old penguin classics edition of Baudelaire (Joanna Richardson, I think) that is bilingual and the jean Nichols of Rimbaud.

        Bizarre and dull…very avant garde.

        Liked by 1 person

      14. Thanks, will look into those.

        “Bizarre and dull…very avant garde.” — actually very authentic is what comes to mind. But perhaps I’ve been reading too much of Sartwell’s Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality… (And in the sense of that book an authentic life is probably always going to be distinctly avant-garde.)

        Liked by 1 person

      15. I definitely have to check out this book…sounds just like me cup of tea. I always think that my belief that life is an avant garde movie just comes down to my wasted youth that consisted mainly of watching film noir and art house movies.

        Liked by 1 person

      16. I would definitely recommend the Sartwell in that case. He (claims in the book that he) has an dark-unfortunate-“wasted” youth backstory which led him to certain philosophic conclusions. I’m nearing the end of his arguments now, and though the beginning was scandalously radical, it’s softening slowly (unraveling, possibly). Still, a curious and experimental approach. Could be fun to discuss if you ever get around to it.

        Liked by 1 person

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