Everything and Nothing, Jorge Luis Borges: Summary & Analysis

‘Everything and Nothing’ is a captivating parable penned by the renowned Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Although often categorized as a short story, it transcends conventional boundaries, making it more akin to a philosophical parable. In just a few pages, Borges weaves a tale of a man who lacked a distinct personality of his own but found solace in creating an array of diverse characters through his literary endeavors. Gradually, the narrative unravels, revealing that the enigmatic figure at the center of the tale is none other than the celebrated playwright, William Shakespeare.

Plot Summary

Borges paints a portrait of a man whose written words were imbued with vitality and verve, yet the essence of his own being remains shrouded in mystery. Both his writings and the portrayals of him reveal little of his inner self.

Quest for Identity

The man initially perceived others to be akin to himself, but with time, he came to comprehend the hollowness within his own being when contrasted with his contemporaries. Despite his knowledge of "small Latin and less Greek," gleaned from books, he could not find a remedy for his existential void. In an attempt to fill the emptiness, he even explored intimate relationships, including one with Anne Hathaway, his future wife.

The Chameleon in London

He sought refuge in London, delving into the world of acting—a profession that allowed him to embody a myriad of personas while concealing his own elusive identity. However, once the curtains fell and the applause faded, he was confronted once again with his own ethereal existence. The duality of his nature led him to venture into playwriting, skillfully assuming diverse characters and immersing himself entirely in their personas.

Embracing the Self

For two decades, he reveled in this "controlled hallucination," but eventually, weariness settled upon him, prompting his return to his native village. In the twilight of his life, as he faced mortality, he yearned to discover his true self, having embodied countless others. He beseeched God to grant him this revelation, to be himself for the first time, having been so many others "in vain." To his surprise, God responded that He, too, was a shape-shifter of sorts, embodying myriad forms, akin to how Shakespeare embodied a multitude of characters. In this revelation, the Bard recognized his likeness to God—both being everything and nothing simultaneously.

In this parable, Borges prompts us to contemplate the essence of identity, the masks we wear, and the fluid nature of existence, ultimately evoking the timeless riddle: Who are we, if not an amalgamation of everything and nothing at all?

Critical Analysis

In ‘Everything and Nothing,’ Borges delves into a recurring theme prevalent in his works, the nature of the artist, particularly the writer. This motif can be seen in other Borges' parables, such as ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’ where a poet recreates Cervantes' masterpiece, and ‘Kafka and His Precursors,’ exploring Kafka's influence on earlier writers and philosophers. For Borges, the artist is not confined to one individual but rather serves as a blank canvas on which diverse personalities, characters, and influences converge.

The Divide between Private Self and Public Persona

In another of Borges' celebrated parables, ‘Borges and I,’ the focus shifts to the gap between a writer's private self and the public persona presented through their works. Jorge Luis Borges, the man, shares some similarities with the famous writer, 'Jorge Luis Borges,' but they also possess notable differences. This dichotomy of identities highlights the complexities of an artist's portrayal and existence.

Shakespeare as an Ideal Choice

Borges chooses William Shakespeare as the protagonist of ‘Everything and Nothing’ due to the paucity of information regarding Shakespeare's personal thoughts and emotions. Apart from his signature on legal documents and his surviving poems and plays, little is known about the Bard's inner life. Shakespeare's plays, with their multifaceted characters and perspectives, present a challenge in biographical analysis. Even his sonnets reveal scant details about his personal experiences, leaving scholars uncertain about the true nature of his relationships, such as those with the 'Fair Youth' and the 'Dark Lady.'

The Nature of the Artist

‘Everything and Nothing’ delves into Shakespeare's identity as an actor and playwright, emphasizing the notion that he embodied a multitude of characters, transcending his own time and personality. Borges echoes T. S. Eliot's concept of the impersonal nature of good writers, suggesting that great artists are capable of absorbing diverse influences because they lack a fixed personality of their own.

Themes Echoing Throughout Borges' Works

Borges’ exploration of fundamental plot structures recurring across vastly different narratives is a theme that can be analyzed alongside his longer short story, ‘The Immortal,’ where a Roman soldier named Marcus Flaminius Rufus has lived for millennia and absorbed influences from Homer's poetry. The parallels between various narratives underscore the universality of storytelling and the interconnectedness of literary influences.

In ‘Everything and Nothing,’ Borges offers an intriguing perspective on Shakespeare's ability to transcend time and persona, embodying characters like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The notion that Shakespeare might have been 'empty' even during his lifetime suggests that artistic brilliance often springs from a lack of a fixed personality, allowing the artist to absorb and inhabit a multitude of minds and personalities.

Borges' exploration of the elusive nature of the artist and the interplay of diverse influences invites readers to ponder the complex tapestry of identity and creativity, leaving us with a deeper understanding of the multifaceted world of literary creation.

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