Borges, the Labyrinth

I do not know which one of us is writing this page—that statement is quintessential Borges.

It is the last line of the Argentinian writer's "Borges and I," a 300-word labyrinth that playfully splits "Borges" into two, presumably the writer and the person: I like hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, the taste of coffee, and Stevenson's prose; the other one shares these preferences, but in a vain manner which converts them into an actor's attributes. Little by little, however, the text seems to spawn a third Borges, the one writing about the other two—and the labyrinth opens before the reader's feet.

"He was not a man of this world," says Robert Lima, a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Penn State. In 1965 Lima edited and translated the first critical work in English on Borges, Borges, the Labyrinth Maker. Last year, he brought out an all-Borges issue of the journal Crítica Hispínica, in one essay of which the writer Paul West encapsulates Borges (who died in 1986 at the age of 88) as "that silvery, dapper Argentine whose favorite word was dim."

"If you brought him down to the mundane level," continues Lima, "he wasn't that interesting. But when you engaged him on an intellectual plane, he was wonderful." The Cuban-born Lima, now silver-haired himself, first read Borges at Fort Dix. "I was an army cook. One recipe fed a hundred people. Sometimes you'd double it." Off-duty, he escaped to the post library, where he came upon a volume of Borges in Spanish.

"His poetry is very mental. It forces you to leave your own reality and enter another construct, to use a modern term. It allowed me to escape the misery of my life as an army cook, to take that wonderful leap out of banality into the esoteric reality that he creates.

"And his stories are very brief. They allow you to concentrate on something and not have to interrupt it to do something else."

Paradox and ambiguity are the stories' trademarks. In 1965, Lima quoted Borges as saying, "I feel that every literary work is a collaboration between author and reader; I feel that the piece is fulfilled only at the moment it is read. Therefore I try to make everything easy for the reader." Yet he had a habit of sprinkling his texts with footnotes, often referencing imaginary authors. "He had a wonderful sense of humor," Lima says. "You'd be looking up his references to other authors, only to conclude that they don't exist—and then you'd find out one of them was real. He enjoyed it when he realized you were in on the joke."

Then there was what Lima calls "his almost picaresque need to shunt the reader off the track."

"Borges' mind is really the mind of a scientist, very methodical, very interested in the point of departure and the point of arrival and how to get there in a systematic way. But to that scientific mind you add his creative mode of thinking. He knows how to get where he's going, but he doesn't want the reader to know it. He really exercises your mind."

It is these shunting devices that Lima focuses on in the Crítica Hispínica volume, titled "Borges and the Esoteric." Lima's own contribution takes on numerology, another brings together feminism and ancient Jewish Kabbalism, a third Sufism.

Contributor Timothy Ambrose, of Maharishi International University, finds parallels between the Vedic tradition of ancient India and Borges' "Las escritura de Dios." In the story, a pre-Columbian magician, imprisoned by the Spaniards, learns to read the markings on a tiger. "The deciphering of that magic writing," writes Ambrose, "bestows upon him a knowledge of infinity, a knowledge which allows him to accomplish anything. Nonetheless, he chooses to remain imprisoned lying in the darkness." Like the Vedic seers, he has "taken his individual mind to the level of cosmic mind . . . and has seen for himself that absolute silence is the creative energy and intelligence of eternal Being.'" At the end, the reader is left to wonder if the events of the story happened only in the narrator's mind, "a mind ultimately uninvolved with the play and display of its own creation."

Penn State professor Julia Cuervo Hewitt, whose contribution is in Spanish, discusses the intertwining of alchemy and Kabbalism in another story, "La muerte y la brujula." "The main character and the reader," she writes in an English abstract, "are led to believe that the solution to the riddles of the text, as well as to the murder with which the story begins, can be found in the Kabbalah. The structure of the text, however, follows a different tradition. . . . In typical Borgesian style, the search for truth in this short story is always a futile effort. At the end, man always finds himself lost and trapped in the labyrinths created by his own imagination."

Notwithstanding, Borges' stories are not bleak or distressing. They mirror the resilience of spirit that allowed him to consider his encroaching blindness (in the terms of contributor Willis Barnstone of Indiana University) his "midcareer gift." As Borges wrote:

There were always too many things in my life;
Democritus of Abdera tore out his eyes in order to think;
time has been my Democritus.

At his first meeting with Borges, in 1968, Barnstone remarks in Crítica Hispínica, "the poet looked lost, a condition he was used to and accepted with interest."

Introduced to Barnstone, Borges launched immediately into an esoteric conversation, quoting the 10th-century philosopher Johannes Scotus Erigena's comparison of "the Bible's infinite meaning to the iridescent plumage of the peacock."

"What kind of bird are you?" asked Barnstone.

"I am the bird egg, in its Buenos Aires nest, unhatched, gladly unseen by anyone with discrimination, and I emphatically hope it will stay that way!"

Through the work of Lima and his colleagues, Borges will, paradoxically, get his wish, while that "Borges" who wrote these lines will become more and more well-known: It is not difficult to admit that he has written certain valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because good no longer belongs to any one person, not even to the other one; instead, it belongs to language or tradition. Therefore, I am destined to be lost—definitely.

Robert Lima, Ph.D., is professor of Spanish and comparative literature, and fellow of the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, N346 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1140. Paul West, M.A., is professor of English and comparative literature and fellow of the Institute; Julia Cuervo Hewitt, Ph.D., is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese. "Borges and the Esoteric" was published as Vol. XV, No. 2 of CH (1993).

Last Updated June 01, 1994