I spent a considerable portion of my recent leisure reading time recently with one of three recent American collections of Jorge Luis Borges in fresh translations (by Eliot Weinberger). The Selected Non-Fictions, according to the volume proper, are relatively less well-known than his fiction writing.
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In “The Total Library,” he traces the genesis of his most famous image, the infinite library. Presented without contextual notes, it’s not apparent to me if this essay predates or follows the appearance of the image in Borges’ fiction. He identifies Aristotle as the inventor of the idea of the infinity of conjunctions (in a passage on his theory of atoms) and cites a passage from Cicero’s De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) which will ring familiar to all:
I do not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that certain solid and individual bodies are pulled along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of these particles produces this beautiful world that we see. He who considers this possible will also be able to believe that if innumerable characters of gold, each representing one of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, were thrown together onto the ground, they might produce the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could possibly even create a single verse to read.
Cicero is directly citing the Aristotelian idea and dismissing it. When I saw that passage, it was a shock to see the legendary Shakespearean monkeys peering back at me from ancient Rome. Already they are hard at work on their typewriters as Gutenberg’s type literally spills onto the floor of the Pantheon, an argument to resist the godless.
The theme of coincidence and prefiguration is wound throughout the essays in the book, and the next series of examples that Borges introduces which struck me with similar startlement is his investigation of the naissance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s famous, often cited poem, Kubla Khan. The essay’s title is “Coleridge’s Dream.”
Coleridge famously smoked some opium, snoozed, and experienced a literal moment of ingenuity in which the “stately pleasure dome” entered his mind, apparently full-formed. As he sat down to transcribe this inspiration, he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor.
He was never able to reconstruct the missing portion of the poem.
The dream hit Coleridge in 1797 or 1798; the resultant fragment emerged in print in 1816.
Borges claims that twenty years later, in Paris, “the first Western version” of a fourteenth-century Persian universal history, the Compendium of Histories by Rashid al-Din, was published. He quotes the following:
“East of Shang-tu, Kublai Khan built a palace according to a plan that he had seen in a dream and retained in his memory.”
He then interprets these curiosities.
A Mongolian emperor, in the thirteenth century, dreams a palace and builds it according to his vision; in the eighteenth century, an English poet, who could not have known that this construction was derived from a dream, dreams a poem about the palace. Compared with this symmetry of souls of sleeping men who span continents and centuries, the levitations, resurrections, and apparitions in the sacred books seem to me quite little, or nothing at all.
He continues by noting that he, personally, sees these events as evidence of an executor, and predicts another dream with a similar periodicity and effect.
In “Dialogues of Ascetic and King,” Borges directly recounts literary incidences of the form described in the title, where a poor, usually unknown outsider is brought before a ruler and court, and a conversation ensues. He presents the following, without direct source citation.
In the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted in England to the faith of Christ, an old man arrived one night, dressed in a dark cape with the brim of his hat over his eyes. The King asked him if he knew how to do anything; the stranger answered that he knew how to play the harp and tell stories. He sang some ancient airs, told of Gudrun and Gunnar, and then spoke of the birth of Odin. He said that three Fates came, that the first two pronounced great happiness, but the third, in a rage, said, “You will not live longer than that candle burning by your side.” His parents put the candle out so that Odin would not die with it. Olaf Tryggvason didn’t believe the story; the stranger, insisting that it was true, took out a candle and lit it. As others watched it burn, he said it was late and that he had to leave. When the candle was consumed, they searched for him. A few steps from the King’s house, Odin was lying dead.
In the last section of the book, a selection of edited transcriptions of extemporaneous lectures from late in Borges’ life is presented. One is entitled “Immortality.” He examines, at leisure, not the theme of immortality, but of death, dwelling with languor on Socrates’ last moments.
In essence, however, this supremely metaphysical writer holds forth a philosophy of death which is purely, austerely materialist. While acknowledging the essential unknowability of what happens to consciousness or the soul at death, he states his personal desire in a sentence with which I must say I concur:
I don’t want to continue being Jorge Luis Borges; I want to be someone else. I hope that my death will be total; I hope to die in body and soul.
He expresses this as a sort of interest disclaimer, so that his listeners will understand his orientation as his stately examination of theories of and attitudes toward death proceeds from Socrates to Schopenhauer and Shaw.
Some of his final sentences in the lecture reflect my own belief system with a precision that, if odd, is only appropriate.
To conclude, I would say that I believe in immortality, not in the personal but in the cosmic sense. We will keep on being immortal; beyond our physical death our memory will remain, and beyond our memory will remain our actions, our circumstances, our attitudes, all that marvelous part of universal history, although we won’t know, and it is better that we won’t know it.