The Lottery in Babylon is one of my favorite short stories, a perfect example of the short, quick glances of infinity which Jorge Luis Borges is famous for.
The Company, with godlike modesty, shuns all publicity. Its agents of course, are secret; the orders it constantly (perhaps continually) imparts are no different from those spread wholesale by impostors. Besides - who will boast of being a mere impostor? The drunken man who blurts out an absurd command, the sleeping man who suddenly awakes and turns and chokes to death the woman sleeping at his side - are they not, perhaps, implementing one of the Company's secret decisions? That silent functioning, like God's, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and teaches that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half dreams that come at dawn. Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.
- The Lottery in Babylon, 1941
In the story, Borges describes a system which began as a simple lottery, grown to become almost infinite and so secret that no one can tell whether the Lottery still exists to alter people's fates, or whether the populace's actions are simply determined by chance. This dilemma is, of course, an excellent way of addressing our own existence. The phenomenon of a person who acts, then attempts to justify or explain their action, is common within all societies, not just the Babylon described by Borges. One wonders if Borges sees our own world as the true Babylon, with our actions making just as much sense as the actions of his fictional Babylonian.
This theme of absurdity in our attempts to create order is often noted by Borges, especially in the stories he wrote during and shortly after World War II.
The execution was set for the 29th of March, at nine in the morning. This delay was due to a desire on the part of the authorities to act slowly and impersonally, in the manner of planets or vegetables.
- The Secret Miracle, 1944
Though Borges' writing (especially his poems) tends to be stylistically formal, the stories themselves often poke fun at the belief that life itself has any sort of form. Like many of Borges' stories, The Lottery in Babylon follows the familiar form of an agency attempting to create order. Paradoxically, The Company creates order through their gambling system, a seemingly complete dedication to "well ordered chaos".
Borges draws the obvious parallel between The Company's mechanizations and our own understanding of God in the narrator's opening lines:
About its mighty purposes I know as much as a man untutored in astrology might know about the moon. Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality; until this day, I have thought as little about it as about the conduct of the indecipherable gods or of my heart. Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs, I think with some bewilderment about the Lottery, and about the blasphemous conjectures that shrouded men whisper in the half-light of dawn or evening.
- The Lottery in Babylon, 1941
Though Borges' mindset is always heavily visible within his stories, The Lottery in Babylon is one the best examples of the philosophy behind his writing.
The complete story can be found here: http://www.hfac.uh.edu/mcl/faculty/armstrong/cityofdreams/texts/babylon.html