A Summary and Analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Everything and Nothing’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Everything and Nothing’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), although it is usually classified as a ‘parable’ rather than a ‘short story’ per se. Over the course of just a couple of pages, Borges gives us the life of a man who had no personality himself but created many different personalities through his work. It gradually becomes clear that the man is William Shakespeare.

You can read ‘Everything and Nothing’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Borges’ parable below.

‘Everything and Nothing’: plot summary

This parable doesn’t in fact have a ‘plot’ as such, but this is what Borges sketches out for us.

Borges describes a man who wrote words which were full of energy and life, but the man behind those words remains largely unknowable. Both the words he wrote and the portraits painted of him reveal little of his own personality.

We are told that this man initially thought that everyone else was like him, but he slowly began to realise how empty he was, compared with his contemporaries. The ‘small Latin and less Greek’ which he could read helped him to try to find the answer in books, but they couldn’t ‘cure’ him of this ‘emptiness’. He even tried sexual relationships – with Anne Hathaway, the woman who would become his wife – to see if that would help.

He went to London and became an actor: the perfect profession for a man who could inhabit many other roles but had no strong personality of his own. But after the performance is over, he realises once again that he himself, as a man, is somewhat unreal. He took to writing plays as well as acting in them, and as playwright he took on many different characters and inhabited them completely.

He engaged in this ‘controlled hallucination’ for some twenty years, but one day he tired of this, and retired back to his native village. Around the moment when he died, Borges tells us, he asked God to let him be himself for the first time, having been so many other people ‘in vain’. But God replied that he, God, was similarly nobody, and he dreamt the world into existence much as Shakespeare dreamt his work. Like God, Shakespeare is many people and, at the same time, no one.

‘Everything and Nothing’: analysis

We might regard ‘Everything and Nothing’ as a variation on a theme we find elsewhere in Borges’ work: the nature of the artist, and specifically the writer. In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, a nineteenth-century French poet is able to recreate several pages of Cervantes’ classic novel; and in ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, the twentieth-century Kafka can be seen to have ‘influenced’ much earlier writers and philosophers. The artist is rare reducible, for Borges, to one man: he is, rather, a blank slate on which other writers, and other characters, can assert their personalities.

This is also apparent in another of Borges’ most celebrated parables, ‘Borges and I’, which concerns itself with the gap between a writer’s private self and his public persona. Jorge Luis Borges the man is a private individual who shares some similarities with ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ the famous writer, but there are also some notable differences between the two individuals.

But ‘Everything and Nothing’ focuses not on Borges, but on William Shakespeare. Given the nature of the parable, Shakespeare is the ideal choice, since we know so little about Shakespeare’s private thoughts and feelings: aside from his signature on various legal documents, including his will, the only specimens of his writing which have survived are his poems and plays. Plays are notoriously difficult to analyse biographically, since they showcase a range of different characters with differing perspectives. But even Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal little about his own likes and dislikes.

Indeed, where other Elizabethan sonneteers drew on their own personal experiences for their subject matter – Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella grew out of his failure to marry Lady Penelope Devereux when he had the chance, and Edmund Spenser wrote Amoretti for his wife – we cannot be sure whether Shakespeare the man really did have a relationship with the ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets, or whether he is merely using these figures to stage a sexual psychodrama and to explore Elizabethan poetic conventions (overturning romantic clichés in ‘My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun’, for example).

In ‘Everything and Nothing’, Borges focuses on Shakespeare the actor and playwright rather than Shakespeare the poet, but even if we consider his Sonnets, the idea that Shakespeare was everybody and nobody, ‘everything and nothing’, still holds true. Borges is saying something about the nature of the artist, something which T. S. Eliot, in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, had already said: that good writers are impersonal.

As Gene H. Bell-Villada points out in his persuasive study of Borges’ work, Borges and His Fiction, we might analyse ‘Everything and Nothing’ alongside one of Borges’ longer short stories, ‘The Immortal’, in which a Roman soldier named Marcus Flaminius Rufus, alive during the reign of the emperor Diocletian, turns out to be a man who has lived for millennia; he even once knew Homer the poet, and has absorbed Homer’s influence in creating his own narrative.

And Borges, too, has learned from Rufus/Cartaphilus, the narrator of ‘The Immortal’, in writing the story himself: Borges’ tale suggests that fundamental plot structures repeat themselves in very different narratives, so Homer’s story of Odysseus’ wanderings are similar to Sindbad the Sailor’s voyages from the Arabian Nights, and both share some qualities with Rufus/Cartaphilus’ own narrative.

So, Borges says in ‘Everything and Nothing’, Shakespeare was similarly able to transcend time and personality by ‘becoming’ Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and all of the many other characters he wrote about. But Shakespeare the man himself doesn’t merely appear as a void to us: perhaps, Borges suggests, even when he was alive he was curiously ‘empty’. Only something empty can be filled with new influences: somebody who is already full of personality (and ‘personality’ both in the sense of ‘character’ or ‘life’ but also ‘personal qualities’) cannot accommodate outside influences to the same extent. This is the secret to being a great artist: to inhabit so many other minds and personalities, one must lack a personality of one’s own.

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