The Wall and the Books (La Muralla y los Libros)



                        By Jorge Luis Borges                                               


(translation from Spanish and comments by Gaither Stewart)



He, whose long wall the wand’ring Tartar bounds

                                                                                                            Dunciad, II, 76. (1)


I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me and, at the same time, disturbed me. The object of this note is to investigate the reasons for that emotion.

            Historically there is no mystery in the two measures. A contemporary of the wars of Hannibal, Shih Huang Ti, King of Ch’in, conquered the Six Kingdoms and eliminated the feudal system; he built the wall because walls were defenses; he burned the books because the opposition invoked them in order to extol former emperors. Burning books and building fortifications is common task to emperors; the only thing singular about Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he operated. So some Sinologists would have us understand, but I feel that the facts to which I referred are something more than an exaggeration or a hyperbole of trivial inclinations. To enclose an orchard or a garden is common; not to enclose an empire. That the most traditional of races renounced the memory of its past, mythical or true, is no small matter. The Chinese had three thousand years of chronology (in those years, the Yellow Emperor and Chuang Tzu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history began with him.

            Shih Huang Ti had banished his mother as a libertine; the orthodox saw only impiety in his severe justice; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to erase canonic books because they accused him; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to abolish the entire past in order to abolish one memory: the infamy of his mother. (Not unlike another king, in Judea, had all the children killed in order to kill one.) This conjecture is worth considering, but it tells us nothing about the wall, about the second facet of the myth. Shih Huang Ti, according to historians, forbade all mention of the word death and searched for the elixir of immortality and secluded himself in a figurative palace, which had as many rooms as the year has days; the data suggest that the wall in space and the fire in time were magic barriers intended to halt the advance of death. Everything persists in his being, wrote Baruch Spinoza; perhaps the Emperor and his sages believed that immortality was intrinsic and that corruption could not penetrate a closed sphere. Perhaps the Emperor hoped to recreate the beginning of time and called himself The First, in order to be truly the first, and he named himself Huang Ti in order to be in some way Huang Ti, the legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. The latter, according to the Book of Rites, gave things their true names; equally Shih Huang Ti boasted, in enduring inscriptions, that all things in his empire had the name they merited. He dreamed of founding an immortal dynasty; he ordered that his heirs should be named Second Emperor, Third Emperor, Fourth Emperor, and so on to infinity … I spoke of a magic design; it would also be possible to suppose that constructing a wall and burning the books were not simultaneous acts. This (according to the order we choose) would give us the image of a king who began by destroying and afterwards resigned himself to conserving, or that of a disabused king who destroyed what he defended earlier. Both conjectures are dramatic but lack, as far as I know, in historical basis. Herbert Allen Giles (2) relates that those who concealed books were branded by a red-hot iron and condemned to build the outrageous wall until the day of their death. This information favors or tolerates another interpretation. Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, maybe Shih Huang Ti condemned those who worshipped the past to a work just as vast as the past, as stupid and useless. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and I can do nothing against this love, nor can my executioners, but some time there will be a man who feels as I do, and he will destroy my wall, as I destroyed the books, and will erase my memory and will be my shadow and my mirror and will not be aware of it. Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in the empire because he knew it was fragile and he destroyed the books because he understood they were sacred books, or rather books that taught that which the entire universe teaches or the consciousness of every man. Maybe the burning of the libraries and the construction of the wall are operations that in a secret way cancel each other.

            The tenacious wall that in this moment, and in all moments, projects its system of shadows across lands I will not see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered that the most reverent of nations burn its past; it is likely that the idea itself touches us by, over and above, the conjectures it allows. (Its virtue can be in the opposition to building and destroying, on an enormous scale.) Generalizing the earlier matter, we could infer that all practices have their virtue in themselves and not in some conjectural “content.” This would be in agreement with the thesis of Benedetto Croce (3); as already Pater (4), in 1877, contended that all the arts aspire to the condition of music, which is nothing but form. Music, state of happiness, mythology, faces shaped by time, certain twilights and certain places, try to tell us something, or they told us something that we should not have lost, or want to tell us something; this imminence of a revelation, which does not happen, is, perhaps, the esthetic act.


  1. Dunciad  by Alexander Pope in which the poet referred to his many enemies as dunces. This satirical poem of 920 lines, in three books, describes the king of dunces and a nightmare world of universal darkness in Pope’s gigantic lampoon of writers, books and booksellers, attacking those who write for pay. At one point there is a sacrifice bonfire of the books. This sort of literary reference and source is used by Anglophile Borges throughout his work.
  2. Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), renowned British diplomat and Sinologist.
  3. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Italian literary historian, critic, philosopher, wrote: “Art is not the addition of form to content, but expression, which does not mean communication but is a spiritual fact, and ethics is conceived as the expression of the universal will, of the spirit.”
  4. Walter Pater (1839-94), English writer, essayist, aesthete and art historian, famous precisely because his life is so shrouded in mystery, whom Henry James called “the mask without the face” and the kind of literary source Borges plants in his strange tales. Here Borges quotes Pater that “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.” I found on line this anecdote which is revealing of the nature of Pater, and thus of one side of Borges:


In 1894, the last year of his life, Pater was invited to meet Mallarmé, who was then lecturing at Oxford. Mallarmé taught English in a lycée; Pater’s French was excellent; but the two connoisseurs of intimation apparently thought it too vulgar actually to speak. According to one account, they “regarded each other in silence, and were satisfied.”


Translator’s note: This typical Borges interpretative chronicle/ historical reflection (neither short story nor essay!) is included in Antología Personal (Personal Anthology), the version I have translated here, the first edition of which was published by Editorial Sur in 1961 and for which Borges wrote in the Prologue that his “preferences dictated this book.” It appeared again in English in Everything and Nothing, New Directions, 1999. I chose to translate this tale/account because it is shorter and, perhaps, less well-known than others; secondly because it is typical of Borges’ works in which he playfully drops unfamiliar names and references in his veiled recounting of people and place and times, which only at first appear obscure or meaningless; and thirdly because of the writer’s prologue to the volume.

As fate would have it and in Borges style, I saw in a May issue of the best of the “NY Times in Italian,” the article “Walls Raised Against the Enemy, A Long History,” which cites the first such wall as Shih Huang Ti’s Wall of China, an article intended to demonstrate that they never work, not in Berlin nor in Israel nor in Baghdad. Nor will it work on the US-Mexican border, I would add.

Tracing the references and my close reading of the Prologue is to elucidate to a limited degree the Borgesian world. If you try to pursue diligently all Borges’ literary pointers you have to be prepared to enter an infinite labyrinth in which one thing leads to another and then another, inexorably and without end, so that you do need the proverbial ball of string to find your way out. Though with contemporary web search engines this labyrinth is only a few clicks away, while I was clicking and longing to exit I imagined Borges instead in one of his libraries, finding, tracing and investigating such sources of inspiration by following his own instincts, pulling down tome after tome from the labyrinthine spaces filled with semi-illuminated shelves that he must have loved and hated.

Toward the end of this exercise, once the translation was finished and the names pinpointed, I returned to his Prologue to the book in which he refers to Benedetto Croce as he does in “The Wall and the Books.” Borges: “Croce opined that art is expression; from this exigency, or from the deformation of this exigency, derives the worst literature of our times…. I at times have also searched for expression; now I know that my gods no longer concede me anything but allusion or account.”

Creative writers can well understand him. On a similar tack Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) says that, “every work of art is a game played out at the worktable. Nothing is more harmful to creativity than the passion of inspiration. It’s the fable of bad romantics that fascinates bad poets and bad narrators. Art is a serious matter. Manzoni and Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal wrote at the worktable. That means to construct, like an architect plans a building. Yet we prefer to believe that a novelist invents because he has a genius whispering into his ear.”

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