Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Robert Royal

Librarian of Babel

The Gnostic imagination of Jorge Luis Borges.

Discussed in this essay:
Selected Non-Fictions

Selected Non-Fictions

Collected Fictions

Collected Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger (Viking). $40, hardcover; $17, paper; 547 pp.

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, edited by Andrew Hurley (Viking). $40, hardcover; $16.95, paper; 565 pp.

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman (Viking). $40, hardcover; $17.95, paper; 477 pp.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges became a cultural icon in avant-garde literary circles and on American college campuses in the 1960s. Borges's characteristic works were short "fictions," rarely more than a few pages, that described paradoxical realities bordering on the magical and traced labyrinthine flights of reason. The stories were often verbal equivalents of the drawings of M.C. Escher, also popular at the time, who used tricks of perspective to make stairs leading upwards suddenly transform into stairs going down, interiors seamlessly merge with exteriors, and other feats of optical illusion. Like Escher, Borges appealed to a wide segment of young people experimenting with drugs, sex, and alternative life styles because he seemed to undermine conventional reality. Also, it did not hurt that his "fictions" did not require long attention spans; for most readers in those days, it was enough to feel the thrill of disorientation.

Yet the writer who produced this remarkable body of work was the least bohemian of men and, unlike many of his admirers, fiercely intellectual. His family was comfortably middle-class, though not wealthy. The Argentine peso was so strong in Borges's teenage years that it was cheaper for them to live in Switzerland than in Buenos Aires. So they spent seven years in Europe before Borges turned 21, exposing him to a wide world of culture and literature. But except for one other brief European sojourn and a few excursions into the Argentinian countryside, Borges spent the next 40—very productive—years living quietly and frugally in his native Buenos Aires, mostly with his aging mother. He maintained such close daily contact with family and friends that he left behind almost no letters. Borges did not marry until late in life and, that notwithstanding, may have died a virgin. He did not even smoke or drink. It is one of the great modern cultural ironies that an author lionized by the most hedonistic generation in living memory described himself, quite accurately, as un ser victoriano ("a Victorian being").

All this was a far cry not only from the impression his writing gave the un aware, but also from the Borges who, in his seventies and eighties, gained international celebrity by receiving awards from all over North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Borges became one of the first literary jet-setters to lecture frequently around the globe. But until well past middle age, Borges not only lived quietly, he was so shy that he could not speak in public. His lectures were read by friends from prepared texts while Borges sat silently near the podium. In later years he overcame this phobia to good effect. The notoriety spurred him to reflect on the relationship between "Borges" the international figure and the private, real-life Borges. In some late texts, his characteristic paradoxes acquire an additional theme: the burden and mystery of the public "Borges" he must now carry around.

But even this eccentricity only begins to suggest the nature of a man who was an odd amalgam of several contradictory factors. Though born into an Argentinian family with deep political, military, and cultural roots in that nation, Borges's first spoken language was English, owing to the powerful influence of a British grandmother. Among family and friends, his nickname was "Georgie." The first novel he read was Huckleberry Finn; even more remarkably, Borges first encountered Cervantes's Don Quixote in English translation. And though he wrote in Spanish, his deepest literary loves were Chesterton, Stevenson, Kipling, Hopkins, Whitman (whom he first read in German), and Anglo-Saxon poetry. When Borges went blind in his late fifties—from an inherited disease that had also blinded his father—he loved to be read to in English.

There were other large contradictions in his life. For complex political as well as intellectual reasons, Borges was not a practicing Catholic in one of La tin America's most Catholic countries. For most of his life, he could not even decide whether he was a Christian. In stead, Gnostic images and ideas dominated his thought and art. The classical Christian Trinity appeared to him a nightmare of self-mirroring reason rather than the mutual indwelling Love of orthodox theologies. The night before he died, however, he asked a Catholic priest for last rites. Though he loved Argentina, he had chosen to go to die in Geneva ("One of my homelands"), where he had studied at the College Calvin as a boy. On his gravestone are verses in Old Norse from The Saga of the Volsungs and in Anglo-Saxon from The Battle of Maldon. At some primordial level, Borges's imagination was stirred by everything that was seemingly most distant from the immediate physical world in which he peacefully resided for so many years. Fittingly, then, it was only after World War II, when Borges was translated into French, that his reputation started to grow.

Three volumes of new English translations of Borges have recently appeared in tribute to the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1899: one each of fictions, nonfictions, and selected poems. Though bulky and, at the same time, still not as comprehensive a set of texts as might be desired (e.g., Borges wrote 1500 nonfiction pieces from which 161 are selected here), they present a solid introduction to the full range of his out put together with good notes and references, and should forever put to rest the idea that he was solely the author of fictions. The translations are uniformly smooth, perhaps too uniform and too smooth for a writer whose work reads with a certain angularity in the original. But Borges's genius is clearly perceptible here all the same. He was insightful about himself when he once remarked: "First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader, then as a poet, then as a prose writer."

These three volumes illustrate much of what he meant. Reading itself be comes for Borges a kind of substitute for the exploits of his martial forebears. His range as reader and commentator is astonishing—and telling. Besides his favorite English works, he wrote on Heraclitus the Obscure, Basilides the Gnostic, the authors of the Kabbala, Norse Sagas, and the various translators of the exotic 1001 Nights. Buenos Aires itself took on a mythical quality for him. As he beautifully portrays it in "Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires," which may be his most famous poem:

And was it along this torpid muddy river
that the prows came to found my native city?
The little painted boats must have suffered the steep surf
among the root-clumps of the horse-brown current.

Pondering well, let us suppose that the river
was blue then like an extension of the sky,
with a small red star insert to mark the spot
where Juan Diaz fasted and the Indians dined.

But for sure a thousand men and other thousands
arrived across a sea that was five moons wide,
still infested with mermaids and sea serpents
and magnetic boulders that sent the compass wild . …

… Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning
I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.

That early mythologizing of place led him to write stories about knife fights among people in the barrios and brief accounts of historical subjects. Though imaginative and subtly humorous, these were not successful creations, either artistically or commercially. His 1936 volume History of Eternity sold only 37 copies in the year it was published.

The following year, Borges, then 38, took his first real job. He became a cataloguer at a municipal library where he was not expected to work too much. It made the other employees look bad. So Borges got a modest income along with a great deal of free time to read and write.

It was at this relatively tranquil point in his life that a strange accident caused a turn that led to his real literary contributions and fame. Falling while going up stairs, Borges bumped a pane of glass without noticing. It cut his scalp, which became infected and produced a fever of 105 degrees. After a stay in the hospital, he returned home, still delirious and entertaining doubts about his own sanity. But English literature again worked its paradoxical magic on him. While he was in bed, his mother read C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet to him. "I understand," he commented later. What he understood was both the meaning of Lewis's tale and that he, Borges, would move in a new direction as a writer.

Either that, he later said, or he would have to give up writing all together. The result was entirely unanticipated. Within a year he published two of his most characteristic fictions: "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," and "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." With several other stories, these would become famous in the collection The Garden of Forking Paths, and several would find their way into French and English collections under the title Labyrinths (a title Borges never used in Spanish), which eventually made Borges famous.

The specific nature of these fictions is not easy to pin down. Superficially, they may seem to resemble Latin American Magic Realism in that they sometimes conjoin the marvelous with humdrum reality. But Borges's prose is spare, intellectual, and dry, not luxuriant and tropical like that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other true practitioners of Magic Realism. Similarly, Borges may seem like a postmodern writer before the fact, since many of his most prized fictions seem to undermine simple identity, truth, and traditional storytelling methods. This too, however, is not exactly right because Borgesian categories suffer from a surfeit, not an undermining, of the elements that constitute the self, the world, and narrative.

It may be overly neat to put it this way, but perhaps the most accurate way to characterize classic Borges is that the fictions are intensive rather than extensive. These categories in turn bear some relationship to Descartes's notion of the mind as res intensa and the world as res extensa. In our normal understanding, things are simply what they are, if ultimately of mysterious origin. The usual way of thinking of the self or a story is to put these simpler elements together in a more interesting or complex arrangement. The mind has no extension, but in gathers everything.

In Borges's fiction, and perhaps in his basic perception of the world, there are no simple extended things. A kind of pantheism bordering on solipsism gathers complexities into the reach of the mind, which is itself intense with multiple modes of meaning. Thus, in "Funes, His Memory," a great work of short fiction, a simple man named Funes—as a result of being thrown from a horse—has acquired a capacity to store in finite memories of everything he has encountered: the shifting shades of every sunset, the different angles of every leaf on every tree, and so forth. In "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" a protagonist pursues an enigmatic person by the evanescent traces he leaves on those he has met; in "The Circular Ruins" a man believes he is constructing a whole world at night in his dreams, only to learn, in the end, that he himself is a dream; and in "El Aleph," such paradoxes are fulfilled when a character, named Borges, is introduced to an object of the mystical Kabbala that in an instant reveals all times, places, and things. Postmodern fictions usually undermine narrative by denying stable identity and meaning. Borges's typical story barely acknowledges narrative as possible, the few surface events being the mere scaffolding for the opening up of vast, cavernous universes of knowledge.

Borges's work displays an odd combination of seemingly contradictory pairings. On the one hand, for example, he is fiercely intellectual, and it has been remarked that, stylistically, his spare and precise language adds something new to Spanish. But the intellectual rigor is of a special kind. Borges was never a scholar, though he was a wide and retentive reader. Most of his information came from reference books and encyclopedias. In deed, this kind of knowledge is dominant in one dimension of Borges's work where works of reference, seemingly so objective and orderly, reveal vast, deep, unsuspected, and mysterious universes.

At the same time, however, knowledge and writing appear quite often in Borges as terrifyingly literal. "The Library of Babel" portrays a vast science-fiction-like archive in which every book that can be produced from the random permutations of the letters of the alphabet is neatly bound and shelved. Of course, this means that enormous hallways of texts are nothing but mere gibberish, myriads of volumes show a few intelligible lines, a very few are what we would probably think of as a book. In this particular story, Borges is playing with a literary device. But there is something in his sensibility that crops up again and again, and that suggests a nightmarish universe in which infinity is just random and meaningless—a trap, an infinite labyrinth, in other words—rather than an opening out to another order of being.

A second feature of Borges's interests, however, is a more typical romanticism. In addition to the hardier British authors like Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, and others, Borges read and studied the 1001 Nights and Persian poetry in various translations and steeped himself in the Northernness of the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sagas. He also appreciated at a critical distance (apparently to avoid the stock literary responses in his native country) gaucho literature. Given his sheer intellectual power and constant metaphysical intuitions, even what we might think of as simply colorful narrative material is often transmuted into something more golden. Just as the more intellectual, almost science-fiction tales possess a robust romance, the more romantic elements are attracted, perhaps even sometimes beyond Borges's intentions, into a modern or postmodern vision.

Perhaps the best way to get a flavor of Borges is to look closely at what surely is one of the very greatest of his stories, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." The three regions designated in this title represent stages in a fictional effacement and ultimate overthrow of what we normally consider reality. The narration starts in a house in Buenos Aires, where Borges and his real-life friend Adolfo Bioy Casares (with whom he co-wrote several detective stories in a broadly Chestertonian mode) are talking when the sight of a mirror in a hallway reminds Casares that he had just read in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia that one of the Gnostic-like "heresiarchs of Uqbar" pronounced mirrors and copulation abominable, "for they multiply the number of man kind." This fecundity, which more or thodox theologies regard as a good, will show itself to be, in the view of the narrator, an inescapable nightmare.

To begin with, Uqbar exists in no reference work, not even the Cyclopaedia mentioned, except for four strange additional pages found only in Casares's copy. One of the few remarkable features of this seemingly nonexistent Uqbar is that its literature never refers to reality, but only to two imaginary regions: Mle'khnas and Tlon. Things might have remained at this level of mystery except for a British railway engineer named Herbert Ashe. The narrator's father had formed one of those distant English friendships with the enigmatic Ashe: "In his lifetime, he suffered from unreality, as do so many Englishmen; once dead, he is not even the ghost he was then." But a package left for Ashe at a men's club contains a shocking discovery: A First Encyclopedia of Tlon. Vol. XI. Hlaer to Jangr, published at "Orbis Tertius" (i.e., Third World), no date. This work about an imaginary world that exists solely in the literature of a country that never existed raises the mystery to the second power.

Several of Borges's real-life friends in Buenos Aires and France are woven into the story at this point and said to have proposed various solutions to this exponentially growing enigma. But we push even further into a blurring of the real and the imaginary when it be comes clear what the primary culture of Tlon is like. In that culture, there is no continuous world of time and space, merely "a heterogeneous series of in dependent acts." Its main languages, thus, have no nouns but impersonal verbs modified by adverbs or monosyllabic adjectives sometimes strung into long chains that constitute an entire object or poem. As a result of this conception of the world, there is no real discipline other than psychology, and even the thinkers we would call metaphysicians seek not truth but the astounding. Since past present and future are not thought of as linear successions, thought itself can modify the past or anticipate the future. All men and things seem part of a solipsistic pantheism.

Yet even at this fantastic limit, another element arrives. Borges breaks off the narration and says everything he has just written down was reproduced from an article in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature. Further research has uncovered that a secret society, starting in the seventeenth century, decided to invent a country, but that the project languished for a few centuries after its beginning. Then Ezra Buckley, a Tennessee atheist and millionaire, pledged his fortune to the project with two stipulations: it should get more ambitious and invent a whole planet, and "The work shall make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ." Forty volumes were produced and a revision in one of the languages of Tlon was to follow, entitled Orbis Tertius. But as the story breaks off, objects from Tlon are beginning to appear in the real world, the real past of the real world is disappearing, and the author predicts that in 100 years the "world will be Tlon."

Even this bald account shows how much Borges is able to squeeze into the mere 14 pages of the story. There is even a mild political commentary to ward the end that after dialectical materialism (i.e., Marxism), anti-Semitism, and fascism, "reality was ready to yield." The point presumably is that fantastic unreality had already overcome large parts of the earth. Borges's predecessor G. K. Chesterton had made similar points earlier in the century, but with an illuminating difference. GKC had solved the dilemma of the deadly literalness of modern reason on the one hand, and the flight into pure fantasy on the other, with the paradoxical nature of real Christianity. The infinitely forking paths, clueless labryrinths, Achilles-and-the-hare problems, libraries of Babel, Kabbalistic numerologies, and Gnostic mysteries that held Borges's attention all his life were for Chesterton a "false infinity." When Chesterton made the movement towards sanity that brought him to Christianity, he regarded all those unconcludable journeys on which the mind could embark as not worth the true infinity of the concrete objects in God's Creation. Borges finds the everyday world a sorrow to escape by em bracing infinite mind; Chesterton finds the everyday world a delight too large to be encompassed by our poor senses and weak wits.

Again and again, Chesterton writes a metaphysical story or essay to say that, should you forsake the sanity of the every day, there is a nightmare world that awaits you behind what you mistake for the moment as liberation. Borges, though mildly troubled by the world his imagination reveals to him, has no such sharp recoil from the abyss, perhaps because he had none of Chesterton's deep concern for the public and private welfare of human beings. Borges seems merely to say: this is the labyrinth we enter when we begin to reflect, and there is no remedy for it except to savor its intellectual vistas.

Oddly, though, this bent in his own writing does not make Borges unfit to appreciate much differently structured universes. For example, Borges studied Dante carefully, and he wrote a series of Dantesque essays included in the volume of his Selected Non-Fictions. These reveal Borges to be an exact and imaginative reader, of unflagging intelligence, and attentive to philosophical and religious as well as literary nuances. That study may have been responsible for one of his most famous poems, "Of Heaven and Hell," which argues that God will have no need at the end of time for Dante's conception of the two realms with their elaborate details. Instead, he says:

In the clear glass of a dream, I have glimpsed
the Heaven and Hell that lie in wait for us;
When Judgment Day sounds in the last trumpets
and planet and millennium both
disintegrate, and all at once, O Time,
all your ephemeral pyramids cease to be,
the colors and lines that trace the past
will in the semidarkness form a face,
a sleeping face, faithful, still, unchangeable
(the face of the loved one, or, perhaps, your own)
and the sheer contemplation of that face—
never changing, whole, beyond corruption—
will be, for the rejected, Inferno,
and, for the elected, Paradise.

A less varied eternity than Dante imagined, but Borges here sees something that the great Italian would not have denied.

Yet despite such gifts of imaginative sympathy, despite the brilliantly imaginative flights of his justly celebrated stories, when we start to take Borges in large quantities we find there is something finally slight and narrow about his overall work. In a late interview, he confessed: "I have always come to things after coming to books." And the bookish character of his world may be gin to weary even the most sympathetic of his readers.

The effects show up in the kinds of subjects that Borges is able to handle in his fictions. Though he includes many things that no other fiction writer has attempted, he leaves out the things most people think make up the core—or at least a substantial part—of human life. Romantic love has no real presence in Borges's fictions, though he was a documented romantic in his personal life, nor do the relations between parents and children or revered masters and students. The thick problems of everyday life—earning a living, getting along with the neighbors, struggling with sickness and death—barely exist in his world. Borges understands, at times better than any writer who has ever lived, the gift that a writer may make to a reader. But almost no other kind of human contact and interaction seems to enter into his creative imagination.

The other odd human lacuna in Borges is the almost total absence of moral struggle. Almost all struggles in his work are intellectual or cosmological puzzles. In this, he differs markedly from a figure like Kafka. In The Castle or The Trial we may not be able to tell whether the mysterious forces of injustice are cosmological or ideological, but in Kafka there is still a sense that certain things are right or wrong. By contrast, right and wrong are virtually excluded from the Argentinian's imaginative universe.

Borges the man was not insensible to right and wrong in the real world. His essays against Hitler, for example, are a sparkling example of clearsightedness in the sometimes murky atmosphere of World War II Argentina. In various noble statements, he makes clear what everyone can see in retrospect was at stake: civilization versus barbarism. And he locates the origins of civilization where, beyond all historical dispute, they exist—in Christianity. Brilliantly defining the confusions of the Germanophiles who place all blame for the war on England and France, for having imposed the harsh Treaty of Versailles on Germany after World War I, he points out: "they apply the canons of Jesus to the actions of England, but the canon of Zarathustra to those of Germany." Nietzsche's Zarathustra, it will be recalled, looked for a superman who would justify the powerful: for the pro-German party, might was right—but only when Germany was winning, not England. And Borges lost no opportunity to denounce the fascist-like cult of Peron in Argentina.

Most of us have been catechized by writers and critics to believe that art has a life all its own beyond criticism and perhaps beyond good and evil. Literary creation is a mysterious process and writing to a thesis may be the surest way to strangle it. On the other hand, Dante, Chaucer, and Milton seem to have had no problem holding together the creative process and a strong thesis. Our age may be peculiar in its conviction that strong views are potentially overwhelming to the imagination. Whether this is a result of the weakness of contemporary imagination or the power of ideas at the moment is probably undecidable. But it is undeniable that what may be thought of as a spiritual weakness in Borges limits his literary value as well.

In this context, Borges is both a triumph and a warning. His Gnostic thesis opened up creativity for him as nothing earlier in his life had. It allowed for some of the greatest literary work in the century just past—great in artistry and imagination if narrow in compass. The sheer weight of the universe of positivism, which Chesterton also felt, has to be lifted before any creativity at all can emerge. Borges's universe is the mirror opposite of that universe, but in its flight from a dead realism it runs other risks. The metaphysicians of Tlon reject systems be cause "[t]hey know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect." But without such subordination—and the hierarchy of thought, value, and reality it entails—the world becomes very flat indeed. And a literature that has no room for ordering and subordination of that type is ultimately a literature that truly is written for an unreal world.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith and Reason Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture in Washington, D.C. He is the author most recently of Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (Crossroad).

NOTE: For your convenience, the following products, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase:

Selected Non-Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Eliot Weinberger
Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Andrew Hurley
Selected Poems, by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Alexander Coleman

Most ReadMost Shared