Describing the Ineffable

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



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.

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