Jorge Luis Borges’ Message to Torontonians

Note the two updates to this post at the bottom.

I happened upon an interesting blog post on the Toronto Public Library website this afternoon.

The gist of it is that a staff person at the Agincourt branch of the TPL found a card inside an older edition Plato’s Republic.  (The blog writer actually says it was in Symposium, but shows a photo of Republic.)  The card appears to be a letter from 1978, signed by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), thanking the library for a pleasant reception.

According to “Louis,” the TPL staffer who found the card and who wrote the post about this letter, letters and numbers written below the signature correspond with Dewey numbers for three books: a collection of the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas Carlyle‘s Sartor Resartus, and “books on axiomatic set theory.”

I spent about an hour this evening searching the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail for any indication of Borges having been in Toronto in 1978, but to no avail.  I am not clear from the post by “Louis” whether this particular book has only ever been at the Agincourt branch, or if there is any chance that it could have been at another branch.  “Louis” assumes that the book has always been at Agincourt, although points out that in 1978 the Agincourt branch was located in the Agincourt Mall.  There is, of course, the possibility that Borges left the card somewhere else and that it was either deliberately or accidentally left in the book by somebody else; the alternative requires one to believe that nobody has read this book for thirty years, or that library patrons had seen this card in the book before but not bothered to remove it.  Assuming that Borges actually made the card, of course.  Although it appears to have his distinctive (but illegible) signature, it is worth mentioning that Borges went completely blind in the 1950s.

It seems that the mysteries here are numerous.  Why would anybody bother forging a banal card from Jorge Luis Borges and then hide it in a book in a Scarborough library branch where, even if discovered, it is unlikely that anybody would recognize the signature?  Was Jorge Luis Borges actually at a reception in the Agincourt Mall in 1978?  And if so, what is the meaning behind his cryptic message?   What was he trying to tell us?  Why did he want (Metro) Torontonians to learn about axiomatic set theory?

While my newspaper search revealed nothing, the Wikipedia page on Borges mentions his interest both in Schopenhauer and in Carlyle, with specific reference to Sartor Resartus.  The final paragraph on Borges’ Wikipedia page also mentions his familiarity with set theory, and refers to some of the principles of set theory being present in Borges’ 1975 story “The Book of Sand.”  At least within the context of Borges’ work, mentoning these three books make some sort of sense.

Hopefully, “Louis” will learn some more about this and provide an update.  In the meantime, though, if you recall seeing Jorge Luis Borges in Scarborough in 1978, why not get in touch with the Toronto Public Library?

UPDATE – 02/17/2012

This story has been picked up by the Toronto Star.  Near the bottom of this piece you’ll see some comments from me, which I gave to the reporter.

Although I definitely gave the quote included, I don’t know that I would say it is “probably not” a hoax; I am still not sure which way I am leaning in turns of this item being a genuine letter from Borges.  While it is indeed an odd thing to forge, the idea that it could have spent over thirty years undiscovered seems to me equally fantastic, not to mention the whole thing about a blind man choosing to write a letter in cursive, complete with a cartoon.  And if this letter was dictated, then his amanuensis had terrible penmanship.

I do find this to be a fascinating find, however, and I’m glad that more people are going to see it.

UPDATE – 02/19/2012

The Toronto Star is now reporting that Louis Choquette, the author of the initial post at the Toronto Public Library blog, made the whole thing up.  As I “quite reasonably” noted, “why would anybody bother to forge such an item?”

Well, people are strange.

According to the Star article, this was intended in the spirit of Borges and his love for blurring fact and fiction, although I’m not exactly sure in this case what the point was in doing this.  As a historian, I spend quite a bit of time trying to separate fact from fiction as I generally find the two to be extensively blurred already.  Of course, I get a kick out of historical fiction (our heritage is ours to use and manipulate, although I admit I get uneasy about works which use real people as major characters), and greatly appreciate hoaxes which make significant points, such as the work of the Yes Men.

This, maybe, proved to be more of an exercise in critical thinking.  Historians rely on primary sources all the time, and have to make critical judgements as to how reliable the available material is.  In this case there was very little to go on and, as indicated above, there were many reasons why this “discovery” looked suspicious.  The chief reason why I thought that it could possibly be real was that it seemed like such an obscure and unlikely thing to fake.

Still, then, I’m glad I didn’t come down too confidently on one side or the other until more information became available, which is essentially how history works (or is supposed to work).  And it’s nice to be reminded about the value of scepticism and critical thinking when doing research, as seemingly impartial librarians or archivists might have their own agendas!