Jorge Luis Borges

I happened on a few short stories by J.L. Borges a few days ago. I would now term it as a fortunate chance, given that the name of the writer had been mentioned to be ages ago but only a second confirmation (now from The Economist, of all things!) actually made me look something up and read them.

The two short stories had an instinctive aura to themselves — indeed, the first one touched upon the subjects of mapping and cartography and I appreciated it very much. Check it out (*):

On Exactitude in Science
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

Indeed, this story brings up one of the largest human mistakes that one can think of: the desire to do greater, build greater, be greater, even if there is no reason to do so. We are shown what mindless following of something that might be good can cause — and yet, given that the pursuit is here of cartography, an art which does not damage anything (one might argue, except resources in this instance) then it is harmless. It also reminds me of the stories of the old kings who looked to the dead and their valiant deeds instead of the living and their problems: a very small connection, but still something similar.

Inferno, I, 32
From the half-light of dawn to the half-light of evening, the eyes of a leopard, in the last years of the twelfth century, looked upon a few wooden boards, some vertical iron bars, some varying men and women, a blank wall, and perhaps a stone gutter littered with dry leaves. The leopard did not know, could not know, that it yearned for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing flesh and a breeze with the scent of deer, but something inside it was suffocating and howling in rebellion, and God spoke to it in a dream: You shall live and die in this prison, so that a man that I have knowledge of may see you a certain number of times and never forget you and put your figure and your symbol into a poem, which has its exact place in the weft of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you shall have given a word to the poem. In the dream, God illuminated the animal’s rude understanding and the animal grasped the reasons and accepted its fate, but when it awoke there was only an obscure resignation in it, a powerful ignorance, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of a savage beast.

Years later, Dante was to die in Ravenna, as unjustified and alone as any other man. In a dream, God told him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, astonished, learned at last who he was and what he was, and he blessed the bitternesses of his life. Legend has it that when he awoke, he sensed that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would never be able to recover, or even to descry from afar, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of men.

I quite like both the tone and capacity of the second one as well. Despite referring to greater powers, Borge does it in a way which differs completely from many “mainstream religious writers” (likely no one would even think of putting Borge into such a category) but it still has the well-placed sense of mystery and humbleness when in touch with such powers. I am somewhat biased though for the reason of the first paragraph speaking of a wonderful leopard — and leopards are magnificent creatures (much like all large cats): I do like the few stories where A.C. Clarke uses tigers a bit more than the others as well. Coming back to this one here, it is hard to say much more — I guess it has more to do with the feelings and sensations and thoughts that cannot be singularly described.

In any instance, I will do my best to look further into Borge in the near future.


(*) Referencing: Both of the short stories are taken from this link here where we’ve got a third one as well (which I incidentally liked less than the other two and therefore did not post).

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  1. The difference that you notice in the way how Borges writes about religion is that, although writing about religion, he wasn’t religious himself. He wrote about religion for various reasons.One of them is that Borges loved ancient literature, and ancient literature is religious. The other is that he believed that, as he said in a book of essays or an interview, theology is the first genre of fantastic fiction. He and his friends called what they did and the genre that they enjoyed “fantastic fiction” because it made it wider than any of the genres that wasn’t bound by realism. This genre ha existed since early recorded history, but we count it as many, such as the epic poem, religious text, folk tales, science fiction, or magical realism. If you have that mentality, writing about gods using the proper forms is not reverential, but a correct literary method.

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