Borges' "Death and the Compass," the art of the epistemic self-own, and a personal mission statement
“Death and the Compass,” a 1942 short story by Jorge Luis Borges, is one of the most perfectly-constructed pieces I’ve ever read, and I think about it all the time.
At the risk of being reductive, it’s a detective story with a twist: the detective, Erik Lönnrot, thinks of himself as the main character of a detective story.
Lönnrot thought of himself as a pure thinker, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, and even of the gamester.
Auguste Dupin is the protagonist of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and a couple other stories by Edgar Allan Poe, widely considered to be the first detective stories. If you haven’t read them, you can mentally substitute any Sherlock Holmes story, since Doyle ripped off Poe’s formula: Dupin is the brilliant and slightly aloof gentleman detective, the narrator is his somewhat duller-witted and admiring friend, and the police are hapless bureaucrats.
“Death and the Compass” is quite short, and as of this writing you can read it free online, but I’ll summarize it here. Lönnrot, gentleman detective, arrives at the scene of a crime: a rabbi, Marcel Yarmolinsky, is dead. The police commissioner mentions that Yarmolinksy was known to be in possession of valuable diamonds, and suggests that Yarmolinsky was simply killed in the course of a burglary gone wrong. But this mundane version of events doesn’t satisfy Lönnrot; for a dead rabbi, he says, he wants a rabbinical explanation.
So far, so familiar to the detective formula. Lönnrot’s suspicions are validated when he finds a sheet of paper in Yarmolinsky’s typewriter with the words “The first letter of the name has been spoken.” He orders the rabbi’s collection of religious literature taken to his office, and he begins to research Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). And sure enough, in the following days, the words “The second letter of the name has been spoken” appear at another crime scene, and “The last letter of the name…” at a third.
The police receive an anonymous tip, pointing out that the three locations of the crimes are all spaced equally, to form an equilateral triangle. This might suggest that the sequence of crimes is complete, but from his research into Kabbalah, Lönnrot sees a connection to the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God in Hebrew. He deduces that a “third letter” is still unaccounted for, and goes to the point that would form a diamond, in the southern quadrant of the city…
…where it turns out that he’s been set up. The criminal mastermind Red Scharlach was behind everything. The first crime really was a burglary gone wrong, but Scharlach has a vendetta against Lönnrot, and when he learned that Lönnrot was looking for a Kabbalah connection, he saw an opportunity to lure Lönnrot to his death, and set up the remaining two crime scenes accordingly; the anonymous tip was also from Scharlach. The story ends with Scharlach shooting Lönnrot.
What I think is brilliant about this story is that, both in content and in form, it follows to completion the question it poses at the beginning. Namely, what happens if you’re a detective and you think you’re in a detective story?
From the very first paragraph, Borges tells us what will happen, albeit with a full poker face:
It is true that Erik Lönnrot did not succeed in preventing the last crime, but it is indisputable that he foresaw it. Nor did he, of course, guess the identity of Yarmolinsky's unfortunate assassin, but he did divine the secret morphology of the vicious series as well as the participation of Red Scharlach…
The story never explicitly judges Lönnrot. In a purely aesthetic sense, he fulfills the requirements of the detective story that he casts himself in. It turns out to be a tragedy, but even at the very end, he can still play his part, honorably vanquished in a battle of wits.
"In your labyrinth there are three lines too many," [Lönnrot] said at last. "I know of a Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line. Along this line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too. Scharlach, when, in some other incarnation you hunt me, feign to commit (or do commit) a crime at A, then a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B, halfway enroute between the two. Wait for me later at D, two kilometers from A and C, halfway, once again, between both. Kill me at D, as you are now going to kill me at Triste-le-Roy."
"The next time I kill you," said Scharlach, "I promise you the labyrinth made of the single straight line which is invisible and everlasting."
He stepped back a few paces. Then, very carefully, he fired.
Kind of badass, right? It didn’t play out the way you thought, but everything had meaning in the structure of the detective story. Isn’t it worth it, in the end, to live and die aesthetically?
To which I say: no. NO! What?!
The story grants Lönnrot the honor of one single, unbroken line of truth. But his truth sucks! His truth is essentially narcissistic - it bears out specifically because the villain is playing into his theory. If Scharlach hadn’t used the opportunity to set up the following crimes, Lönnrot would have been completely off base. He demands that the universe obey his desire for an elegant puzzle, one with no extra pieces, and the only reason it does is that someone else sees this desire and takes advantage of it. (It’s almost like an adversarial Gettier problem.)
The joke, which the story plays entirely straight, is that the raw truth-values line up. He believes a fourth crime will take place - check. It will take place at a certain location - check. But insofar as the function of truth-seeking is to learn something new about the world, to understand why things happen, these “truths” are not really of value. Near the beginning of the story, the police commissioner, Treviranus, points toward a more practical notion of knowledge:
"It's possible, but not interesting," Lönnrot answered. "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest need to be of interest. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber."
Treviranus answered ill-humoredly: "I am not interested in rabbinical explanations; I am interested in the capture of the man who stabbed this unknown person."
All this is what I love about “Death and the Compass”: because it is perfectly constructed as a detective story, because it is perfectly aligned to serve Lönnrot’s internal narrative, it brings the idea of a self-identified “detective” to its complete conclusion. He lives by the sword and dies by the sword. The form of the story lets us see what’s compelling about Lönnrot’s vision by placing us inside it. But in its content, it leaves the door open to a second examination, where we might decide his results aren’t all that great.
This may all sound like very heady, meta-literary stuff, but it usefully illustrates a type of mistake that people make in real life. I swear I started writing this essay last fall, but last Wednesday’s events — Trump supporters storming the Capitol — provide a striking public example of a group completely poisoned by the shape of their own narrative.
I said earlier that Lönnrot is “validated” not because he is essentially correct, but because someone else sees the form of his narrative and takes advantage of it. In the story, this is just something that happens to one pattern-obsessed and arrogant detective, perpetrated by one exceptional criminal mastermind; on the Internet, this is a practical danger (to a greater or lesser degree) for anyone. You may not be targeted as uniquely as Lönnrot is, but the dizzying array of forms on offer casts a pretty wide net — step inside, I’m sure we have something that’ll catch your eye.
“I’m not like those QAnon losers,” you say, and maybe you’re not, but people also make these mistakes at a smaller scale all the time. Someone feels unvalued by their social group, lashes out in an offensive way, and gets ostracized — see, they were right all along! Someone becomes convinced they’re undateable, and resorts to increasingly desperate and embittered (and so self-sabotaging) behavior. Someone finds themselves with a certain goal or lifestyle, and decides that they’re just not committing hard enough. In all these cases, you can either try to genuinely assess (?) the content and adjust the form of your narrative (hard), or just find a way to jam the content into the existing form (easy). And today, if you opt for the latter, someone somewhere online will be happy to smooth away any unease, for the low, low price of $5/month, or perhaps just a like & subscribe.
What “Death and the Compass” describes is a devil’s bargain: you can have the certainty and comfort of having a system that makes sense of everything, and that system will even work consistently, until the day you die…but it won’t mean that your system actually explains the world at a deep level, and it won’t get you a happy ending.
The trick, then, is to simply not do that. Which, um. Problem is, I don’t know exactly how. Therapy? Meditation? Experience and intuition? Peer feedback? How do you know if any of these are working?
If I’m honest with myself, I feel like I’ve lucked into it so far. My adolescence (like many) was not a very fun time, and like many adolescents I did some shitty and embarrassing things. Not that I’m perfect or invulnerable now, but abstractly, it’s not hard for me to imagine scenarios where I really went off the rails in young adulthood. I’d like to believe that I have some inherent goodness that steered me true and led me to wise friends who helped me become a better person, but…I’m not sure that’s what happened.
I guess that’s why I’m writing this. Last spring, someone in a community I’m in sent a series of harassing messages to one of my close friends. When she publicly called him out (long story), he completely imploded on Facebook, offending and pushing away even the most open-minded people. I think I was one of the last people that kept trying to persuade him to turn back, but frustratingly, I couldn’t do it — I couldn’t reach through and get this dude to see the world differently. Ultimately, he became my first (and so far only) social media block.
I don’t feel, like, tortured about this dude, but that experience still feels like a failure, and that failure still gets at me. At least, it really makes me want to understand why I think the way I think.
So look, I’m going to read some more stuff, and write about it here, and maybe we’ll figure this shit out. I’ll keep you posted.