There are clear parallels between Shereshevskii and Funes, despite the fact that the former trained his memory based on his synesthesia while for the latter to remember everything was completely natural. It is, however, unlikely that Borges knew of Luria’s work, since Luria published his book (in English) only in 1968, more than 25 years after Borges wrote the story of Funes.
“Funes the Memorious” shows Nietzsche’s influence as well (as Roxana Kreimer describes in an interesting essay);10 in particular, Borges calls Funes “a precursor to supermen, a suburban, incomplete Zarathustra.” In a brilliant piece on the importance of forgetting, Nietzsche writes:
Imagine the most extreme example, a human being who does not possess the power to forget, who is damned to see becoming everywhere; such a human being would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flow apart in turbulent particles, and would lose himself in this stream of becoming; like the true student of Heraclitus, in the end he would hardly even dare to lift a finger. All action requires forgetting, just as the existence of all organic things requires not only light, but darkness as well.11
Borges’s fascination with the mind (in this philosophical context I again use “mind” rather than “brain,” though I make no distinction between the two) probably came from his father, a lawyer and psychology professor who introduced him to authors such as William James, considered by many to be the father of modern psychology. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), one of his fore- most works, James says this about memory:
If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing. . . . “The paradoxical result [is] that one condition of remembering is that we should forget. Without totally forgetting a prodigious number of states of consciousness, and momentarily forgetting a large number, we could not remember at all.”12
The relation to Funes, Shereshevskii, and Nietzsche is fascinating. Luria, for example, writes that Shereshevskii “was quite inept at logical organization.” Borges, in turn, says that Funes
había aprendido sin esfuerzo el inglés, el francés, el portugués, el latín. Sospecho, sin embargo, que no era muy capaz de pensar.
[had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thinking.]
Again: I do not refer to Joyce, Pliny, Luria, Nietzsche, and James so as to question the originality of Borges’s story. On the contrary,
these parallel writings provide a philosophical and scientific foundation in which Borges may have found part of his inspiration. Leaving aside the issue of whether Borges knew of Luria’s studies or not—I believe not—I cannot help noticing the uncanny lucidity with which he treats a topic as complex as memory in the context of a short story.
Going back to Funes and other people with extraordinary memory, we must mention Borges himself, who could quote whole passages in Spanish, English, German, and Anglo-Saxon, among other tongues. Though it is possible that blindness may have con- tributed to his incredible memory (not being distracted by visual stimuli, he could focus, like Democritus before him,13 on his thoughts and the stream of his remembrance), Borges’s youthful realization that he, like his father, would lose his eyesight took him on a monumental quest for knowledge while he could still see. María Kodama [his widow] remembers that, on one of her first encounters with Borges, he asked her to find an excerpt from a book. The fragment, the writer said, was on an odd-numbered page near the middle of the book. Kodama started to read a page at random and Borges, amazingly, guided her to the right page even though he had been blind for many years and—as he jotted on the first page—had read the book in 1916, decades before this encounter with Kodama.