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A Reading of The Lottery in Babylon

by Russell Stanley Geronimo The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges begins with a self-introduction by a narrator who ruminates about a strange game in his native land. The sentence begins, "Like all men in Babylon, I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave". A particular interest is the repetition of words at the beginning of the clauses. In The God's Script, the author writes, "Gradually, in this way, I subdued the passing years; gradually, in this way, I came into possession of that which was already mine." In The Circular Ruins, again: "No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sinking into the sacred mud". We are interested why Borges is obsessed with the use of ‘anaphora’. For all we know it is a simple verbal habit. Formally, it echoes the notion of repetition as theme and structure of his fiction. The narrator is indeed an instance of repetition, for he practically tells us that he is a recurring variation of man. He invokes the Stoic doctrine of metempsychosis: "Pythagoras remembered having been Pyrrhus and before that Euphorbus and before that some other mortal". But Borges shows no interest in sheer mysticism of the soul. Like the fictional race in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he treats "metaphysics as a branch of the literature of the fantastic". We have an intuition that in this paragraph he is talking about some Platonic mold. In the history of philosophy there has been a great divide between the idea that reality is either One or Many, and Borges has taken the side of monism into its logical (and almost hysterical) extremes. This fictional Babylon is a place "where the lottery is the basis of reality". God, reason or money could be a "basis of reality", but how do we accept the premise that a whole society revolves around a game? We can appreciate the eccentricity by referring to a short story by Franz Kafka, which must have been Borges' model for this work. In The Great Wall of China, Kafka's fictional Chinese empire is so obsessed in building the wall that all fields of knowledge, all activities of men, are bent toward the idea of efficient construction -- e.g. the most important subject in school is architecture, duty to state is possible only by serving in the building of the wall, art must adhere to principles of masonry, and so forth. Borges borrows the idea. He uses the lottery as a similar device. As Kafka talks about human impossibility by employing a parable of an infinite empire, Borges uses a similar technique to talk about the infinite work of chance and fate. The narrator elaborates on the evolution of the operations of the lottery. It begins as something very crude, very simple: "In broad daylight a drawing took place. Those who won received silver coins without any other test of luck". From here we are in for a neat narrative trick. The story takes the pattern of a widening ripple: something very small escalates into something we can no longer comprehend and manage because its scale has far surpassed us. Borges adds a feature to this familiar narrative structure: it has exceeded us in scope that it has already become synonymous with reality. But this reality cannot remain the same; reality is already contaminated by the game. Borges transforms the lottery to such an extent that the Babylonians become confused with the nature of all appearances. The infection of the real by what is invented, dreamlike, illusory and fictional is the reason why most of Borges' characters seem to

This is not psychological paranoia. the narrator lapses into this mood that somewhere behind the ordinary appearances of everyday life there is a conspiracy. It is because of this power that led the lottery to permeate all aspects of life." It is here where Borges introduces a paradox: the more the Company intensifies chance in the world. First. incertitude.exhibit paranoia. there arose a war among the classes regarding who should have exclusive enjoyment of the lottery. A similar thing happens in the story. but paranoia of a philosophical kind -. with an indefinite purpose.the narrator says that institution behind the lottery is so powerful and so subtle in its operations that they command influence "in a bird's call. which is the institution behind the lottery. but "its moral value was nil". To resolve this conflict the Company needed an almost absolute power to manage the lottery's vastness. It became a basis for directing individual men's destinies. Paranoia and mistrust of appearances infect people's capacity for knowledge -. Kafka found despair in this. there was a sacred latrine called Qaphqa. It is the failure of not being able to reckon the thread of order underlying the universe. another. In the beginning the lottery presented little risk of monetary loss. the more the happening is suspect of being the result of a secret plan. its popularity increased in the whole population. that a bird be released from the roof of a tower. a character kills herself believing falsely that she will only wake up. in the shadings of rust and of dust. according to general opinion. The Company had to work in secret because the Babylonians did not like to be reminded that their destinies were the mere result of chance. a secret order being carried out: "There are also impersonal drawings. The Babylonians could no longer perceive . in the half dreams of dawn". the fines were abolished and punishments were introduced. Then there is a change in the rule of the game." Again and again. as a limit of our capacity for knowledge) is the real subject matter of the story. Those who faced fines refused to pay and preferred to be jailed in order to defraud the Company. led to the Company. from love affairs to political relations. The more the Company infuses randomness into a happening. Even the flight of a bird can no longer be read innocently. for it may be the work of "astute and omnipotent" members of the Company. When the people running the game introduced a fine for those who drew a certain lot. but for Borges it is a source of the fantastic. One decrees that a sapphire of Taprobana be thrown into the waters of the Euphrates. Second. the more the world does not seem to be subjected to chance. It was no longer a mere game of chance of rewards and punishments. because without such reckoning the real does not have a claim over the unreal. there were fissures in a dusty aqueduct which. I can only think of an analogy from Christopher Nolan’s Inception: unable to separate dream and reality." This fatal uncertainty (as a human failure.an epistemological paranoia: "I have known what the Greeks do not know. The obsessive concealment of their operations produce a conspiratorial mood among the people: "There were certain stone lions.

However. cannot gain total knowledge of it. The lottery is always ahead of everyone and Babylon becomes a collective and persistent paranoid dream. for they cannot transcend its vastness. eternally trapped within the game. perhaps hoping to separate what is naturally occurring in the universe and what is an artificial consequence of the lottery. for the spirit of inquiry may itself have been rigged by the Company. The players. can be the result of yesterday's lottery or of an age-old lottery. comparable and even identical to an infinite work of fate: such is the paradox at the heart of this piece. for these are interpreted as being part of a scheme: "The buyer of a dozen amphoras of Damascene wine will not be surprised if one of them contains a talisman or a snake." Even scientific investigation cannot go beyond the game. Knowledge itself becomes impossible. the dreamer who awakens suddenly and strangles the woman who sleeps at his side. "The drunkard who improvises an absurd order. Attempts to cleanse reality from the operations of the lottery become impossible. do they not execute. which transcends all. a secret decision of the Company?" An infinite game of chance is reducible. . the operations of the game forbid them this knowledge: "A paleographic document.accidents." There are sages who want to study the history of the Company. perhaps. exhumed in a temple.