(oddly fitting accompaniment to post)
30 years ago, on June 14th, 1986, in Geneva, Jorge Luis Borges slipped into one of his own infinite labyrinths, that terrifying maze without a center: death. The Argentine, one of the great writers of the century whose timespan he almost matched, was just shy of his 87th birthday. On his deathbed, one wonders, did he dream of walking on a riverbank, and coming across his younger self, and talking about the great mystery into which he was entering, treating his death as gently banal, and quoting Chesterton or an obscure Arabic medievalist? And did the younger self somehow have the same dream, that same night?
With Borges, such questions make sense. They are a reflection of his fiction, that great body of short stories, fragments of invented books, reviews of imaginary essays, tattered journals from explorers who never existed wandering lands that fall in the gap between myth and reality. They are tales of gauchos on the pampas and knife fights in dingy bars and Homer being found in the city of the immortals. They are about buying the memory of Shakespeare or seeing the tigers that inspired poets.
And they are about time. They deal with the way history repeats itself, with the same stories playing out time and again, in Greek corridors or South American battlefields. As he said, “It also occurred to him that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.”
Borges, who essentially held his own library of Babylon in his head, was well-suited to make such proclamations. It seems there was virtually nothing he hadn’t read, nor remembered (in an essay about an early film The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov, Borges admits that he has yet to read the book on which it is based; this admission left me shaken for days). This gave him a view of the world, and its literature, that was essentially unsurpassed. And it also, I think, contributed to hi vast modesty, for he could see how he fit into this long human dreamscape, this cycle of human violence and human aspirations, and the way we try to write about it. And it’s why even his most fantastic stories (“Brodie’s Report”; “The Immortals”; “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; “The Lottery in Babylon”; “The House of Asterion”) were all still deeply human. His vast intellect and self-deprecation and essential gentlemanliness didn’t put him at a remove. It showed him that the stories we tell are at the center of the human story.
As I try to write this essay, I feel a bit like trying to recreate the Aleph, that one singular spot which contains the whole universe. There are a million lines I want to type out stories I want to recreate in full. It strikes me that Borges, himself, was the Aleph. All of eternity was in his mind.
So, I won’t try. As Borges said in his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, it is “a laborious madness and impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books”, so he “a more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man” chose to write notes on imaginary books. I feel the same way about trying to write an essay that captures him, and feel similarly inept and reasonable. So this week we’ll look at a few pieces of Borges that I love the most, that I think can grasp at a rudimentary whole. Over the next few days we’ll look at “The Aleph” and, I think, “The Secret Miracle”, as well as his essays on WWII, and some film criticism. Borges the essayist isn’t as well known in America, even though he is equally brilliant at it, and I think Borges the political writer is only known for his flirtation with Pinochet. I’m not saying I wish to correct that, but to give it a more full view. If there is a story you’d rather discuss, please let me know in the comments. In only talking about two, I know I am discussing the dust that dies out through the galaxy.
I do want to reprint, in full the text of the very short story “The Witness”. I think it captures his mythic humanism, and his understanding of the strange mystery of having a memory, and a consciousness of being alive, beautifully. Not to mention his incredible economy of prose, in which a story is told perfectly, a world is recreated, the flow of history streams past us, and ideas are discussed, in a few short, perfect paragraphs.
In a stable lying almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and a gray beard, stretched on the ground amidst the animal odors, meekly seeks death like someone seeking sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, continuously displaces and confounds the shadows in the wretched stable. Outside stretch the tilled fields, a deep ditch filled up with dead leaves, and the tracks of a wolf in the black mud where the woods begin. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The bells calling to prayer awake him. In the kingdoms of England, the sound of the bells is already one of the customs of the afternoon, but the man, while still a boy, had seen the face of Woden, had seen holy dread and exultation, had seen the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, seen the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he would be dead and with him would die, never to return, the last firsthand images of the pagan rites. The world would be poorer when this Saxon was no more.
Things, events that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder- and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, die in each death; unless the universe itself has a memory, as the theosophists have conjectured. There was a day in time when the last eyes to see Christ were closed forever. The battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose? Perhaps the voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a horse in the vacant space at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?