Parable of the Palace :: J. L. Borges

That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. They left behind, in long succession, the first terraces on the west which descend, like the steps of an almost measureless amphitheater, to a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate juniper hedges already prefigured the labyrinth. They lost themselves in it, gaily at first, as if condescending to play a game, but afterwards not without misgiving, for its straight avenues were subject to a curvature, ever so slight, but continuous (and secretly those avenues were circles). Toward midnight observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a turtle permitted them to extricate themselves from that seemingly bewitched region, but not from the sense of being lost, for this accompanied them to the end. Foyers and patios and libraries they traversed then, and a hexagonal room with a clepsydra, and one morning from a tower they descried a stone man, whom they then lost sight of forever. Many shining rivers did they cross in sandalwood canoes, or a single river many times. The imperial retinue would pass and people would prostrate themselves. But one day they put in on an island where someone did not do it, because he had never seen the Son of Heaven, and the executioner had to decapitate him. Black heads of hair and black dances and complicated golden masks did their eyes indifferently behold; the real and the dreamed became one, or rather reality was one of dream’s configurations. It seemed impossible that earth were anything but gardens, pools, architectures, and splendrous forms. Every hundred paces a tower cleft the air; to the eye their color was identical, yet the first of all was yellow, and the last, scarlet, so delicate were the gradations and so long the series.

It was at the foot of the next-to-the-last tower that the poet — who was as if untouched by the wonders that amazed the rest — recited the brief composition we find today indissolubly linked to his name and which, as the more elegant historians have it, gave him immortality and death. The text has been lost. There are some who contend it consisted of a single line; others say it had but a single word. The truth, the incredible truth, is that in the poem stood the enormous palace, entire and minutely detailed, with every illustrious porcelain and every sketch on every porcelain and the shadows and the light of the twilights and every unhappy or joyous moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons who had dwelled in it from the interminable past. All fell silent, but the Emperor exclaimed, “You have robbed me of my palace!” And the executioner’s iron sword cut the poet down.

Others tell the story differently. There cannot be any two things alike in the world; the poet, they say, had only to utter his poem to make the palace disappear, as if abolished and blown to bits by the final syllable. Such legends, of course, amount to no more than literary fiction. The poet was a slave of the Emperor and as such he died. His composition sank into oblivion because it deserved oblivion and his descendants still seek, nor will they find, the word that contains the universe.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Paradiso, XXXI, 108 :: J. L. Borges

Diodorus Siculus tells the story of a god, broken and scattered abroad. What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?

Mankind has lost a face, an irretrievable face, and all have longed to be that pilgrim — imagined in the Empyrean, beneath the Rose — who in Rome sees the Veronica and murmurs in faith, “Lord Jesus, my God, true God, is this then what Thy face was like?”

Beside a road there is a stone face and an inscription that says, “The True Portrait of the Holy Face of the God of Jaen.” If we truly knew what it was like, the key to the parables would be ours and we would know whether the son of the carpenter was also the Son of God.

Paul saw it as a light that struck him to the ground; John, as the sun when it shines in all its strength; Teresa de Jesus saw it many times, bathed in tranquil light, yet she was never sure of the color of His eyes.

We lost those features, as one may lose a magic number made up of the usual ciphers, as one loses an image in a kaleidoscope, forever. We may see them and know them not. The profile of a Jew in the subway is perhaps the profile of Christ; perhaps the hands that give us our change at a ticket window duplicate the ones some soldier nailed one day to the cross.

Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us.

Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know we saw it.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote :: J. L. Borges

Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king sought solace in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in that valley of the moon where misspent dream-time goes, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

In gentle mockery of himself he conceived a credulous man who, unsettled by the marvels he read about, hit upon the idea of seeking noble deeds and enchantments in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Witness :: J. L. Borges

In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.

Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.

In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

A Yellow Rose :: J. L. Borges

Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But still, the noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last event of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying in a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and, below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:

Purple of the garden, pomp of the meadow,
Gem of the spring, April’s eye . . .

Then the revelation occured: Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.

Marino achieved this illumination on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

A Problem :: J. L. Borges

Let us imagine that in Toledo someone finds a paper with an Arabic text and that the paleographers declare the handwriting belongs to that same Cide Hamete Benengeli from whom Cervantes took his Don Quixote. In the text we read that the hero — who, as the story goes, rambled about Spain armed with a sword and lance, challenging all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons — discovers at the end of one of his many frays that he has killed a man. At this point the fragment breaks off. The problem is to guess, or to conjecture, how Don Quixote reacts.

As I see it, there are three possible solutions. The first is negative. Nothing special happens, for in the hallucinatory world of Don Quixote death is no less common than magic, and to have killed a man need not perturb someone who struggles, or thinks he struggles, with monsters and enchanters. The second is pathetic. Don Quixote never managed to forget that he was a projection of Alonso Quijano, a reader of fairy tales. Seeing death, realizing that a dream has led him to commit the sin of Cain, wakes him from his pampered madness, possibly forever. The third is perhaps the most plausible. Having killed a man, Don Quixote cannot admit that his terrible act is the fruit of a delirium. The reality of the effect forces him to presuppose a parallel reality of the cause, and Don Quixote will never emerge from his madness.

There remains another conjecture, alien to the Spanish world and even to the Occidental world. It requires a much more ancient setting, more complex, and wearier. Don Quixote, who is no longer Don Quixote but rather a king of the Hindustani cycles, intuitively knows as he stands before his enemy’s cadaver that to kill and to beget are divine or magical acts which manifestly transcend humanity. He knows that the dead man is an illusion, as is the bloody sword that weighs down his hand, as is he himself, and all his past life, and the vast gods, and the universe.

[Translated by Mildred Boyer]

Dead Men’s Dialogue :: J. L. Borges

He arrived from southern England early one winter morning in 1877. Ruddy, athletic, and obese as he was, almost everyone inevitably thought he was English, and to tell the truth he was remarkably like the archetypal John Bull. He wore a top hat and a strange wool cape with an opening in the middle. A group of men, women, and children anxiously waited for him. Many had their throats marked by a red line; others were headless and moved uncertainly, like a man walking in the dark. Little by little they surrounded the stranger, and out of the crowd someone shouted an ugly word, but an ancient terror stopped them at that. Then a military man with a yellowish skin and eyes like firebrands stepped forward. His disheveled hair and murky beard seemed to gobble up his face. Ten or twelve mortal wounds furrowed his body like the stripes on a tiger’s skin. The stranger, seeing him, changed color suddenly; then he advanced and stretched out his hand.

“How it grieves me to see such an honorable warrior struck down by the arms of treachery!” he said roundly. “But what an intimate satisfaction, to have ordered that the acolytes who attended the sacrifice should purge their deeds on the scaffold in Victoria Square!”

“If you are talking about Santos Perez and Reinafes, I would like you to know I have already thanked them,” said the bloody one with measured gravity.

The other man looked at him as if he suspected him of joking or of making a threat, but Quiroga went on:

“Rosas, you never did understand me. And how could you, when our destinies were so different? Your lot was to command in a city that looks toward Europe and will someday be among the most famous in the world. Mine was to wage war in America’s lonely spots, on poor earth belonging to poor gauchos. My empire was made of lances and shouts and sand pits and almost secret victories in obscure places. What claims are those to fame? I live and will continue to live for many years in the people’s memory because I was murdered in a stagecoach at a place called Barranca Yaco, by horsemen armed with swords. It is you I have to thank for this gift of a bizarre death, which I did not know how to appreciate then, but which subsequent generations have refused to forget. You undoubtedly know of some exquisite lithographs, an interesting book edited by a worthy citizen of San Juan.”

Rosas, who had recovered his aplomb, looked at him disdainfully.

“You are a romantic,” he pronounced. “The flattery of posterity is not worth much more than contemporary flattery, which is worth nothing, and can be had on the strength of a few medals.”

“I know your way of thinking,” answered Quiroga. “In 1852, destiny, either out of generosity or out of a desire to sound you to your depths, offered you a real man’s death in battle. You showed yourself unworthy of that gift: the blood and fighting scared you.”

“Scared?” repeated Rosas. “Me, who busted broncos in the South, and later busted a whole country?”

For the first time Quiroga smiled.

“I know,” he said slowly, “that you have cut more than one fine figure on horseback, according to the impartial testimony of your foremen and hands; but other fine figures were cut in America in those days, adn they were also on horseback — figures called Chacabuco and Junin and Palma Redonda and Caseros.”

Rosas listened without changing expression and replied:

“I did not have to be brave. One ‘fine figure’ of mine, as you call it, was to manage that braver men than I should fight and die for me. Santos Perez, for example, who finished you off. Bravery is a question of holding out; some can hold out more than others, but sooner or later they all give in.”

“That may be true,” said Quiroga, “but I have lived and died and to this day I do not know what fear is. And now I am going to be obliterated, to be given another face and another destiny, for history has had its fill of violent men. Who the other one will be, what they will make of me, I do not know; but I know he will not be afraid.”

“I am satisfied to be who I am,” said Rosas, “and I want to be no one else.”

“The stones want to be stones forever, too,” said Quiroga, “and for centuries they are, until they crumble into dust. I thought as you do when I entered death, but I learned many things here. Just look, we are both changing already.”

But Rosas paid no attention and said, as if thinking aloud:

“It must be that I am not made to be a dead man, but these places and this discussion seem like a dream, and not a dream dreamed by me but by someone else still to be born.”

They spoke no more, for at that moment Someone called them.

[Translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Sham :: J. L. Borges

It was one day in July, 1952, when the mourner appeared in that little town in the Chaco. He was tall, thin, Indian-like, with the inexpressive face of a mask or a dullard. People treated him with deference, not for himself but rather for the person he represented or had already become. He chose a site near the river. WIth the help of some local women he set up a board on two wooden horses and on top a cardboard box with a blond doll in it. In addition, they lit four candles in tall candlesticks and put flowers around. People were not long in coming. Hopeless old women, gaping children, peasants whose cork helmets were respectfully removed, filed past the box and repeated, “Deepest sympathy, General.” He, very sorrowful, received them at the head of the box, his hands crossed over his stomach in the attitude of a pregnant woman. He held out his right hand to shake the hands they extended to him and replied with dignity and resignation: “It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done.” A tin money box received the two-peso fee, and many came more than once.

What kind of man, I ask myself, conceived and executed that funereal farce? A fanatic, a pitiful wretch, a victim of hallucinations, or an impostor and a cynic? Did he believe he was Peron as he played his suffering role as the macabre widower? The story was incredible, but it happened, and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors in different locales. It contains the perfect cipher of an unreal epoch; it is like the reflection of a dream or like the drama-within-the-drama we see in Hamlet. The mourner was not Peron and the blond doll was not the woman Eva Duarte, but neither was Peron Peron, nor was Eva Eva. They were, rather, unknown individuals — or anonymous ones whose secret names and true faces we do not know — who acted out, for the credulous love of the lower middle classes, a crass mythology.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Draped Mirrors :: J. L. Borges

Islam asserts that on the unappealable day of judgment every perpetrator of the image of a living creature will be raised from the dead with his works, and he will be commanded to bring them to life, and he will fail, and be cast out with them into the fires of punishment. As a child, I felt before large mirrors that same horror of a spectral duplication or multiplication of reality. Their infallible and continuous functioning, their pursuit of my actions, their cosmic pantomime, were uncanny then, whenever it began to grow dark. One of my persistent prayers to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream about mirrors. I know I watched them with misgivings. Sometimes I feared they might begin to deviate from reality; other times I was afraid of seeing there my own face, disfigured by strange calamities. I have learned that this fear is again monstrously abroad in the world. The story is simple indeed, and disagreeable.

Around 1927 I met a sombre girl, first by telephone (for Julia began as a nameless, faceless voice), and, later, on a corner toward evening. She had alarmingly large eyes, straight blue-black hair, and an unbending body. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were federales, as mine were unitarios, and that ancient discord in our blood was for us a bond, a fuller possession of the fatherland. She lived with her family in a big old run-down house with very high ceilings, in the vapidity and grudges of genteel poverty. Afternoons — some few times in the evening — we went strolling in her neighborhood, Balvanera. We followed the thick wall by the railroad; once we walked along Sarmiento as far as the clearing for the Parque Centenario. There was no love between us, or even the pretense of love: I sensed in her an intensity that was altogether foreign to the erotic, and I feared it. It is not uncommon to relate to women, in an urge for intimacy, true or apocryphal circumstances of one’s boyish past. I must have told her once about the mirrors and thus in 1928 I prompted a hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now, I have just heard that she has lost her mind and that the mirrors in her room are draped because she sees in them my reflection, usurping her own, and she trembles and falls silent and says I am persecuting her by magic.

What bitter slavishness, that of my face, that of one of my former faces. This odious fate reserved for my features must perforce make me odious too, but I no longer care.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Other Tiger :: J. L. Borges

And the craft that createth a semblance
MORRIS: SIGURD THE VOLSUNG (1876)

I think of a tiger. The gloom here makes
The vast and busy Library seem lofty
And pushes the shelves back;
Strong, innocent, covered with blood and new,
It will move through its forest and its morning
And will print its tracks on the muddy
Margins of a river whose name it does not know
(In its world there are no names nor past
Nor time to come, only the fixed moment)
And will overleap barbarous distances
And will scent out of the plaited maze
Of all the scents the scent of dawn
And the delighting scent of deer.
Between the stripes of the bamboo I decipher
Its stripes and have the feel of the bony structure
That quivers under the glowing skin.
In vain do the curving seas intervene
And the deserts of the planet;
From this house in a far-off port
In South America, I pursue and dream you,
O tiger on the Ganges’ banks.
In my soul the afternoon grows wider and I reflect
That the tiger invoked in my verse
Is a ghost of a tiger, a symbol,
A series of literary tropes
And memories from the encyclopaedia
And not the deadly tiger, the fateful jewel
That, under the sun or the varying moon,
In Sumatra or Bengal goes on fulfilling
Its rounds of love, of idleness and death.
To the symbolic tiger I have opposed
The real thing, with its warm blood,
That decimates the tribe of buffaloes
And today, the third of August, ’59,
Stretches on the grass a deliberate
Shadow, but already the fact of naming it
And conjecturing its circumstances
Makes it a figment of art and no creature
Living among those that walk the earth.

We shall seek a third tiger. This
Will be like those others a shape
Of my dreaming, a system of words
A man makes and not the vertebrate tiger
That, beyond the mythologies,
Is treading the earth. I know well enough
That something lays on me this quest
Undefined, senseless and ancient, and I go on
Seeking through the afternoon time
The other tiger, that which is not in verse.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Mutations :: J. L. Borges

I saw in a hall an arrow pointing the way and I thought that this inoffensive symbol had once been a thing of iron, an inescapable and fatal projectile that pierced the flesh of men and of lions and clouded the sun at Thermopolae and gave Harald Sigurdarson six feet of English earth forever.

Some days later someone showed me a photograph of a Magyar horseman. A coiled lasso circled the breast of his mount. I learned that the lasso, which once whipped through the air and brought down the bulls of the prairie, was now nothing more than a haughty trapping of Sunday harness.

In the west cemetery I saw a runic cross, chiseled in red marble. The arms curved as they widened out, and a circle encompassed them. That limited, circumscribed cross represented the other one, the free-armed cross, which in its turn represents the gallows where a god suffered, the “vile machine” railed at by Lucian of Samosata.

Cross, lasso, and arrow–former tools of man, debased or exalted now to the status of symbols. Why should I marvel at them, when there is not a single thing on earth that oblivion does not erase or memory change, and when no one knows into what images he himself will be transmuted by the future.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Martin Fierro :: J. L. Borges

Out of this city marched armies that seemed to be great, and afterwards were, when glory had magnified them. As the years went by, an occasional soldier returned and, with a foreign trace in his speech, told tales of what had happened to him in places called Ituzaingo or Ayacucho. These things, now, are as if they had never been.

Two tyrannies had their day here. During the first some men coming from the Plata market hawked white and yellow peaches from the seat of a cart. A child lifted a corner of the canvas and saw unitario heads with bloody beards. The second, for many, meant imprisonment and death; for all it meant discomfort, a taste of disgrace in everyday acts, an incessant humiliation. These things, now, are as if they had never been.

A man who knew all words looked with minute love at the plants and birds of his land and described them, perhaps forever, and wrote in metaphors of metal the vast chronicle of the tumultuous sunsets and the shapes of the moon. These things, now, are as if they had never been.

Here too the generations have known those common and somehow eternal vicissitudes which are the stuff of art. These things now, are as if they had never been. But in a hotel room in the 1860’s, or thereabouts, a man dreamed about a fight. A gaucho lifts a Negro off his feet with his knife, throws him down like a sack of bones, sees him agonize and die, crouches down to clean his blade, unties his horse, and mounts slowly so he will not be thought to be running away. This, which once was, is again infinitely: the splendid armies are gone, and a lowly knife fight remains. The dream of one man is part of the memory of all.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Plot :: J. L. Borges

To make his horror complete, Caesar, pressed to the foot of a statue by the impatient daggers of his friends, discovers among the blades and faces the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his protege, perhaps his son, and ceasing to defend himself he exclaims: “You too, my son!” Shakespeare and Quevedo revive the pathetic cry.

Destiny takes pleasure in repetition, variants, symmetries: nineteen centuries later, in the south of the Province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos. As he falls he recognizes an adopted son of his and says to him with gentle reproof and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read), “Pero che!” He is being killed, and he does not know he is dying so that a scene may be repeated.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Delia Elena San Marco :: J. L. Borges

We said goodbye on a corner in Once. From the other sidewalk I turned to look back; you too had turned, and you waved goodbye to me.

A river of vehicles and people were flowing between us. It was five o’clock on an ordinary afternoon. How was I to know that the river was Acheron the doleful, the insuperable?

We did not see each other again, and a year later you were dead.

And now I seek out that memory and look at it, and I think it was false, and that behind that trivial farewell was infinite separation.

Last night I stayed in after dinner and reread, in order to understand these things, the last teaching Plato put in his master’s mouth. I read that the soul may escape when the flesh dies.

And now I do not know whether the truth is in the ominous subsequent interpretation, or in the unsuspecting farewell.

To say goodbye to each other is to deny separation. It is like saying “today we play at separating, but we will see each other tomorrow.” Man invented farewells because he somehow knows he is immortal, even though he may seem gratuitous and ephemeral.

Delia, we will take up again–beside what river?–this uncertain dialogue, and we will ask each other if ever, in a city lost on a plain, we were Borges and Delia.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Captive :: J. L. Borges

The story is told in Junin or in Tapalque. A boy disappeared after an Indian attack. People said the Indians had kidnapped him. He parents searched for him in vain. Then, long years later, a soldier who came from the interior told them about an Indian with blue eyes who might well be their son. At length they found him (the chronicle has lost the circumstances and I will not invent what I do no know) and thought they recognized him. The man, buffeted by the wilderness and by barbaric life, no longer knew how to understand the words of his mother tongue, but indifferent and docile, he let himself be led home. There he stopped, perhaps because the others stopped. He looked at the door as if he did not know what it was for. Then suddenly he lowered his head, let out a shout, ran across the entrance way and the two long patios, and plunged into the kitchen. Without hesitating, he sank his arm into the blackened chimney and pulled out the little horn-handled knife he had hidden there as a boy. His eyes shone with joy and his parents wept because they had found their son.

Perhaps this recollection was followed by others, but the Indian could not live within walls, and one day he went in search of his wilderness. I wonder what he felt in that dizzying moment when past and present became one. I wonder whether the lost son was reborn and died in that instant of ecstasy; and whether he ever managed to recognize, if only as an infant or a dog does, his parents and his home.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]