Funes the Memorious
|"Funes the Memorious"|
|Author||Jorge Luis Borges|
|Original title||"Funes el memorioso"|
|Published in English||1954|
"Funes the Memorious" (original Spanish title: "Funes el memorioso") is a fantasy short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. First published in La Nación in June 1942, it appeared in the 1944 anthology Ficciones, part two (Artifices). The first English translation appeared in 1954 in Avon Modern Writing No. 2. The title has also been translated as "Funes, His Memory." (The Spanish "memorioso" means "having a vast memory," and is a fairly common word in both Spanish and Portuguese languages. Because "memorious" is a rare word in modern English, some translators opt for this alternate translation.)
"Funes the Memorious" tells the story of a fictional version of Borges himself as he meets Ireneo Funes, a teenage boy who lives in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1884. Borges's cousin asks the boy for the time, and Funes replies instantly, without the aid of a watch and accurate to the minute.
Borges returns to Buenos Aires, then in 1887 comes back to Fray Bentos, intending to relax and study some Latin. He learns that Ireneo Funes has meanwhile suffered a horseback riding accident and is now hopelessly crippled. Soon enough, Borges receives a note from Funes, requesting that the visitor lend him some of his Latin books and a dictionary. Borges, disconcerted, sends Funes what he deems the most difficult works "in order fully to undeceive him".
Days later, Borges receives a telegram from Buenos Aires calling for his return due to his father's ill health. As he packs, he remembers the books and goes to Funes's house. Funes's mother escorts him to a patio where the youth usually spends his dark hours. As he enters, Borges is greeted by Funes's voice speaking perfect Latin, reciting "the first paragraph of the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book of the Historia Naturalis" (by Pliny the Elder).
Funes enumerates to Borges the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis, and adds that he marvels that those are considered marvellous. He reveals that, since his fall from the horse, he perceives everything in full detail and remembers it all. He remembers, for example, the shape of clouds at all given moments, as well as the associated perceptions (muscular, thermal, etc.) of each moment. Funes has an immediate intuition of the mane of a horse or the form of a constantly changing flame that is comparable to our (normal people's) intuition of a simple geometric shape such as a triangle or square.
In order to pass the time, Funes has engaged in projects such as reconstructing a full day's worth of past memories (an effort which, he finds, takes him another full day), and constructing a "system of enumeration" that gives each number a different, arbitrary name. Borges correctly points out to him that this is precisely the opposite of a system of enumeration, but Funes is incapable of such understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal "a certain stammering greatness". Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls "every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him".
Borges spends the whole night talking to Funes in the dark. When dawn reveals Funes's face, only 19 years old, Borges sees him "as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids".
Borges later finds out that Funes died from "congestion of the lungs."
Borges explores a variety of topics in the text, such as the need of generalization and abstraction to thought and science.
Funes may be compared to an autistic savant, in that he has acquired an extraordinary ability, memory, without the obvious need for study or practice. The story raises the unresolved question of how much unfulfilled potential the human brain truly contains.
The very existence of eidetic memory is controversial, although hyperthymesia, now known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), the ability to recall one's past day-by-day, has been confirmed to exist by some neurologists (Parker et al. 2006).
The early death of Funes echoes the idea of unfulfilled potential, the wasted miracle of a plainsman with phenomenal abilities who lives and dies in obscurity. The unheeded marvel is a common theme in Borges's writing.
Funes claims to have invented a system of enumeration which gives every numeral (up to at least 24,000) its own arbitrary name. The narrator argues that a positional number system is a better tool for abstraction.
The narrator mentions that Locke postulated then rejected an impossible idiom "in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch would have its own name; Funes once projected an analogous language, but discarded it because it seemed too general to him, too ambiguous" since it did not take time into account : given that physical objects are constantly changing in subtle ways, Funes insisted that in order to refer to an object unambiguously one must specify a time.
Because Funes can distinguish every physical object at every distinct time of viewing, he has no clear need of generalization (or detail-suppression) for the management of sense impressions. The narrator claims that this prevents abstract thought, given that induction and deduction rely on this ability. This is stated in the line "To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details."
Funes sits in a dark room and goes over the events in his past. As narrative this can be seen as extended version of insomnia. It is a fantastical presentation of a common human complaint.
Actual persons with similar conditions
The real-life case of Daniel Tammet (b. 1979), an autistic British savant, bears a certain similitude to fictional Ireneo Funes: he had epileptic seizures that may have a part in his unusual talents; his memory for numbers is prodigious (on March 14, 2004 - 'pi day', Tammet correctly recited 22,514 digits of the irrational number), and finally, he has explained that he has synesthesia, which allows him to "see" numbers as shapes, some of which are more pleasant than others.
Solomon Shereshevskii, a stage memory-artist (mnemonist) with a condition known as "hypermnesia", is described by the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria in his book, The Mind of a Mnemonist', which some speculate was the inspiration for Borges's story. Luria discusses explicitly some of the trade-offs — hinted at by Borges — that come with supernormal memory power. (Further Skywriting on this topic.) American neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks cites Luria's book as the inspiration for his own book, Awakenings, which is dedicated to Luria.
Jill Price, along with 10 others, can remember with great accuracy most days of their lives starting from the average age of 11. The scientific term for their unique condition is "hyperthymestic syndrome" now more recently known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Price has stated that she, like Funes, views her memory as a curse.
In cinema and literature
- Borges, Jorge Luis (2000). Labyrinths. Trans. James E. Irby. London: Penguin Classics. p. 93.
- T. Verberne (September 1976). "Borges, Luria and hypermnesia--a note". The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry (Aust N Z J Psychiatry) 10 (3): 253–5. PMID 1071003.
- Малеькая Книжка О большой Пяти by Alexander Luria (Russian)
- Oliver Sacks (2008-04-16). "Life-changing books: The Mind of a Mnemonist". New Scientist.
- "The woman who can remember everything" The Telegraph, 9 May 2008
- "A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering" Psychology Press, 2006
- Summary and analysis - From the Literature, Arts, & Medicine Database, an annotated bibliography of prose, poetry, film, video and art.