Before I leave off Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Anthology, I want to, for the benefit of my Future Self, finish listing the works of his I like best and why. Of course, who knows if my Future Self will have the same tastes as my Present Self. Judging by past personal history… he won’t.
I’ve discussed in previous posts several of my Borges favorites, including:
The Aleph (perhaps his very best story of all)
The Zahir (contends with The Aleph for Borges’ best short story)
Borges And I (an essay differentiating between Borges The Man and Borges The Author)
Chess (What if life were but a game of chess between higher beings?)
Limits, the shorter poem by that name
I will, thus, skip over the above-listed works and focus on the best poems and essays of Borges, with some space given to the other good stories of Borges besides The Aleph and The Zahir.
In Averroes’ Search, Borges writes sympathetically of Averroes’ devotion to Aristotle: “History records few acts more beautiful and more pathetic than this Arabic physician’s consecration to the thoughts of a man from whom he was separated by fourteen centuries.” Borges, himself, felt tugs of a similar love toward scholars, philosophers, and literary geniuses of the past. Borges guesses that Averroes would have felt pressure to abandon his dedication to “The Philosopher” by those around him who felt that it was silly, if not sinful, to study “the still waters” of the dead, when the eternal Koran “ran wide” before one’s eyes. But Averroes, as we know, heroically persisted in spite of the obstacles.
Borges was especially struck by the immense gulf of both time and culture that separated Averroes from Aristotle. The example which hit Borges the hardest was the fact that in his culture, Averroes could have hardly grasped the concept of the Greek stage play: “Averroes, who, circumscribed by the compass of Islam, could never know the significance of the words tragedy and comedy.”
Even Averroes, himself, according to Borges, thought that poetry was done; everything had been said and said best in the Koran and by the Ancients. Borges states that Averroes “condemned the ambition to innovate as both illiterate and vainglorious.” Borges disagrees, contending that Averroes’ point is only partially true, since a good poet does not try to create something new so much as to excavate the insights and emotions already present at an unvoiced level in his hearer or reader. “A renowned poet is less an inventor than a discoverer,” says Borges.
According to Borges, a poet only says aloud the things his audience already feels, at least in a nebulous way, in their own breasts. By way of example, Borges tells the story of the poet who could come up with descriptions of nature that no one else could have ever imagined (“only he could imagine that the stars fall down slowly, like leaves”). But Borges says that “if such an attribution were true, it would be evidence that the image is worthless.” In other words, if no one else could identify with the metaphor used by the poet, then the comparison used is trivial, even meaningless.
“There are an infinite number of things on earth,” writes Borges, possibly paraphrasing Averroes. “Any one of them can be equated to any other. To equate stars to leaves is no less arbitrary than to equate them with fishes or birds.” What matters is that a chosen symbol contains the right image described in the right manner in the right context.
The Dead Man
The Dead Man is just a good workaday gaucho story, like Fleming wrote a good James Bond story. The tale allows Borges to explore one of his favorite themes: Identity. We see in the story how the plains of South America are as important to the formation of the character of the locals as the stories they are told.
The Enigma Of Edward Fitzgerald
Borges is intrigued by the fact that English translator of the Rubaiyat never accomplished anything so successful again. For Borges, when Fitzgerald translated the Rubaiyat, it was as if the two poets, separated by centuries and many miles, gave birth to a third poet, who resembled neither the original author nor the translator, but was better than both.
At first Borges tries to credit Fitzgerald’s aberrational work of genius to the fact that “every man who has some music in his soul can make verses ten or a dozen times in his life if the stars are propitious.” By the end of the essay, however, Borges has come to believe that “the case calls for conjecture of a metaphysical nature,” suggesting that Fitzgerald may have been the reincarnation of the author of the Rubaiyat, returning to finish his work. This speculation, says Borges, “would permit us to believe that the Englishman could have re-created the Persian, since both were, in essence, God, or the momentary faces of God.”
Everything And Nothing
Borges’ essay on Shakespeare, Everything And Nothing, is probably more about Borges than Shakespeare. I already mined this work in an earlier post, but I would like to note here my favorite line in the essay: Borges calls Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, “those unfortunate lovers who converge, diverge, and melodiously expire.”
Perhaps my least favorite “favorite” of Borges, it is an inventory poem in the vein of Walt Whitman.
What I like best is at the end of the work when “the Voice” chastises the author for not making use of the bounty he has been given: “All this was given to you and, with it, the ancient nourishment of heroes– treachery, defeat, humiliation. In vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain the sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes. You have used up the years and they have used up you, and still, and still, you have not written the poem.” I’ve heard that same Voice, myself.
A New Refutation Of Time
An essay containing in a small space a large amount of cogitatables. Still, I don’t think the essay is actually very successful, and its conclusions I find disputable.
For example, Borges makes a big deal of the fact that a man can only live in the present. But I feel that his presentation devalues the importance of memories and of hopes. Each life is a train stretching across the railway of Time, from glory days and lost loves and regrets to dreams of better days ahead.
Speaking of the Past, Borges remarks that “not vengeance nor pardon nor jails nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past.” Speaking of the Future, he disparages Hope and Fear as “vain.” I agree that daydreaming and worry can be counterproductive, but on the other hand, dreams and visions and reasonable fears can be spurs to industry and ambition.
I’ve written elsewhere of this essay’s exploration of the themes of Identity and Unified Multiplicities, so I’ll skip that here.
One contention of Borges in A New Refutation Of Time (one that is convoluted and particularly unconvincing) is his belief, as far as I could tell from his exposition, that a holocaust is no worse than a single murder. I don’t want to misrepresent him where he confuses me, so let me quote him so that he may speak for himself:
“Clangorous general catastrophes– conflagrations, wars, epidemics– are a single grief, multiplied in numerous mirrors illusorily.” And he quotes Bernard Shaw as saying, “do not let yourself be overcome by the horrible sum of human sufferings; such a sum does not exist.” I sense there is a philosophically intriguing argument to be made here, but I don’t think Borges successfully makes it.
Surprisingly, Borges—the man who has often made supposition that life is but a dream, (or a chess game, or a stage play)— ends A New Refutation Of Time by stating: “The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.”
The Secret Miracle
The Secret Miracle is a good, solid story by Borges that put me in mind of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. A man in front of a firing squad asks God for another year of life to finish writing his book. The way that God grants this wish, while still insisting the man die at the determined time and place and in the determined manner, is the “secret miracle” that only the man will ever know.
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More on Borges from Hammering Shield:
Borges And The South American Identity
The Two Best Short Stories Of Borges
Borges And The Ultimate Reality
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In philosophy, the term "metaphysics" refers to universal laws governing the structure of reality. Borges comments on and imagines various fictions of metaphysics in order to compel the reader to more closely examine the fabric of reality.
Labyrinths show up repeatedly in Borges' stories, particularly in his collection The Garden of Forking Paths. These labyrinths are not always literal in their meaning: for example, in A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, the labyrinthine nature of The God of the Labyrinth appears to come more from the structure of the book's false ending than the actual substance of the plot (108).
As a symbol, the labyrinth is ideal for tackling concepts of free will and fate, which Borges is fond of treating. From within a labyrinth, it is virtually impossible to conceive of the maze's overall structure; one can take many different paths which lead to the same place, even if there are some dead ends. It is also unclear when one exits the labyrinth if that was the only exit, or if different paths lead to different exits. These notions of alternate paths with intersections and potentially inevitable outcomes enable one to meditate on what precisely our ability to choose accomplishes, and if free will and fate are mutually exclusive.
How are we able do determine what something is, and distinguish that thing from others? Borges routinely plays with notions of what makes something unique, as exemplified in A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, the plot of which concerns Herbert Quain trying to write Cervantes' novel Don Quixote verbatim from his own life experiences. If two authors come to the same words in different ways, is the product the same or different?
One component of Borges' labyrinth motif is how significant our capacity to choose is, if it exists at all. A prime example of this is The Lottery in Babylon, where a secret society that spawns out of a lottery ends up dictating all events of the lives of Babylonians. If all of our experiences are the results of external agents - be they other people, God, fate, or quantum mechanics --then do we have free will? Or, is the question not even relevant at this point? Borges routinely creates situations posing questions such as these.
The other side of free will, typically seen as its antagonist, is the notion of fate, or the design of events by powers external to the person acted upon by said events. An example of Borges' treatment of fate is the story The Garden of Forking Paths, where all the seemingly unrelated events of Yu Tsun's life - his ancestor's manuscript, his being chased by Captain Madden, the loitering boys directing him to Dr. Alberts house - apparently converge upon a single purpose: the murder of Dr. Albert and consequent postponing of an Allied strike. Like the book of Yu Tsun's ancestor, the events of the story appear to have the organization of a riddle, the inevitable answer to which is the murder of Dr. Albert by Yu Tsun (126-7). Against such implications, did Yu Tsun still have a measure of freedom and agency in the murder?
Borges frequently tells stories which, on one level, can be viewed as allegorical critiques of religion. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius chronicles a secret society that created a world of imagined metaphysics that slowly penetrated the real world and became mistaken for truth. This can be read as a critique of the imposition of religious beliefs on reality under the guise of truth.
Borges is philosophically well-read, having studied Germans such as Schopenhauer and Leibniz; he makes this clear in his work, as he frequently employs various forms of logic, or mathematical paradigms of thought. Using logical constructions to describe fictional or allegorical worlds also enriches his metaphysical commentary: a key example of this is The Library of Babel, in which he describes the universe as a library, and uses a logical system with two axioms (fundamental truths) in order to put forth provocative proofs about the nature of being.
Many of Borges' stories, particularly in The Garden with Forking Paths, revolve around an outsider interacting with an established culture. Herbert Quain is trying to make the foreign Don Quixote familiar to himself; the foreigner in The Circular Ruins is a stranger to the ruins in which he finds himself, and is a stranger to the god upon whom he must rely to complete his ritual; in The Lottery in Babylon, the reader is the foreigner, and the narrator is explaining his culture to us. This thematic element goes hand-in-hand with the theme of identity: something's identity is most clearly articulated when it is challenged by something which is starkly different from itself.
In the foreword to The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges says, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books - setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them" (67). It is to this end that Borges reviews the invented books, or "metafiction," found in The Garden of Forking Paths. In so doing, he is able to powerfully convey complex themes both in the metafiction and his review of the metafiction, without laboring over the finer dressings required in a lengthy novel.
In The Library of Babel, the library that is the universe is infinite; in The Circular Ruins, it is implied that all men are the actuated dreams of other men; and an infinite number of realities are discussed in The Garden of Forking Paths (126-127). Borges, in keeping with his other themes, tackles infinity as the absolute extension of nature and the self. Much of his literature is committed to contriving circumstances in which the infinite quality of all things is revealed.
Mirrors are recurrent in Borges' stories - for instance, Tlön, Urqbar, Orbis Tertius begins with a quotation about mirrors, and the illustrated version of The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim was subtitled A Game with Shifting Mirrors (68-9, 82). This is an ideal symbol for treating the theme of identity because mirrors produce illusory copies of those objects which they reflect.