The Moon :: J. L. Borges

History tells us how in that past time
When all things happened, real,
Imaginary, and dubious, a man
Conceived the unconscionable plan

Of making an abridgment of the universe
In a single book and with infinite zest
He towered his screed up, lofty and
Strenuous, polished it, spoke the final verse.

About to offer his thanks to fortune,
He lifted up his eyes and saw a burnished
Disc in the air and realized, stunned,
That somehow he had forgotten the moon.

The story I have told, although a tale,
Can represent the witching spell
So many of us use when at our craft
Of transmuting our life into words.

The essence is always lost. This is the one
Lay of every word about inspiration.
Nor will this summary of mine avoid it
About my long traffic with the moon.

Where I saw it first I could not tell,
If in an earlier heaven than the teaching
Of the Greek, or some evening when it was reaching
Over the patio fig tree and the well.

As we know, this life being mutable
Can be, among many things, so beautiful
Because it brings some afternoon, with her,
The chance to gaze at you, oh varying moon.

But more than moons of the night I can
Remember those in verse: like that enchanted
Dragon moon so horrible in the ballad,
And then Quevedo with his moon of blood.

Of another moon of blood and scarlet
John spoke in his book about the ferocious
Monsters and their revelries;
And other clear moons with a silver sheen.

Pythagoras (so tradition tells)
Wrote words of blood on a looking glass
That men could read with the naked eye
Reflected in that mirror in the sky.

And there’s the forest of iron where lurks
The enormous wolf whose destiny
Is to shatter the moon and do it to death
When the last dawn reddens the sea.

(Of this the prophetic North is aware
And how on that day the opened seas
Through all the world will be scoured by a ship
Fashioned of dead men’s nails.)

When in Geneva or Zurich fortune willed
That I should be a poet too,
I secretly assumed, as poets do,
The duty on me to define a moon.

Of faraway ivory, smoke, and the cold
Of snows were the moons that lit
My verses, which certainly were not fit
For the difficult honor of reaching print.

I thought of the poet as being that man
Who, like red Adam in Paradise,
Lays down for everything its precise
And exact and not-known name.

Ariosto taught me that in the shifting
Moon are the dreams, the ungraspable,
Time that is lost, the possible
Or the impossible, which are the same.

Apollodorus let me descry
The magical shade of triform Diana;
And Hugo gave me a golden sickle,
An Irishman, his tragic obscure moon.

And, while I sounded the depths of that mine
Of mythology’s moons, just here
At the turn of a corner I could see
The celestial moon of every day.

Among all words I knew there is one
With the power to record and re-present.
The secret, I see, is with humble intent
To use it simply. Moon.

Now I shall never dare to stain
Its pure appearing with a futile image;
I see it indecipherable and daily
And out of reach of my literature.

I know that the moon or the word moon
Is a letter that was created to share
In the complex scripture of that rare
Thing that we are, both manifold and one.

It is one of those symbols given to man
By fate or chance, which one day he
May use to write his own true name,
Uplifted in glory or in agony.

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

Mirrors :: J. L. Borges

I, who felt the horrors of mirrors
Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal
Where there ends and begins, uninhabitable,
An impossible space of reflections,

But of gazing even on water that mimics
The other blue in its depth of sky,
That at times gleams back the illusory flight
Of the inverted bird, or that ripples,

And in front of the silent surface
Of subtle ebony whose polish shows
Like a repeating dream the white
Of something marble or something rose,

Today at the tip of so many and perplexing
Wandering years under the varying moon,
I ask myself what whim of fate
Made me so fearful of a glancing mirror.

Mirrors in metal, and the masked
Mirror of mahogany that in its mist
Of a red twilight hazes
The face that is gazed on as it gazes,

I see them as infinite, elemental
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom.

They prolong this hollow, unstable world
In their dizzying spider’s-web;
Sometimes in the afternoon they are blurred
By the breath of a man who is not dead.

The crystal spies on us. If within the four
Walls of a bedroom a mirror stares,
I’m no longer alone. There is someone there.
In the dawn reflections mutely stage a show.

Everything happens and nothing is recorded
In these rooms of the looking glass,
Where, magicked into rabbis, we
Now read the books from right to left.

Claudius, king of an afternoon, a dreaming king,
Did not feel it a dream until that day
When an actor shewed the world his crime
In a tableau, silently in mime.

It is a strange dream, and to have mirrors
Where the commonplace, worn-out repertory
Of every day may include the illusory
Profound globe that reflections scheme.

God (I keep thinking) has taken pains
To design that ungraspable architecture
Reared by every dawn from the gleam
Of a mirror, by darkness from a dream.

God has created nighttime, which he arms
With dreams, and mirrors, to make clear
To man he is a reflection and a mere
Vanity. Therefore these alarms.

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

A New Refutation of Time (selections) :: J. L. Borges

Before me there was no time, after me there will be none./With me it is
born, with me it will die.
— Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)

. . . the feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics . . .

. . .

A word on the title: I am not unaware that it is an example of that monster called a contradictio in adjecto by logicians, for to say that a refutation of time is new (or old, for that matter) is to recognize a temporal predicate that restores the very notion the subject intends to destroy. But shall let this fleeting joke stand to prove, at least, that I do not exaggerate the importance of wordplay. In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it.

. . .

He died in exile: as with all men, it was his lot to live in bad times.

. . .

Every instant is autonomous. Not vengeance nor pardon nor jails nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past. No less vain to my mind are hope and fear, for they always refer to future events, that is, to events which will not happen to us, who are the diminutive present. They tell me that the present, the “specious present” of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and the smallest fraction of a second, which is also how long the history of the universe lasts. O better, there is no such thing as “the life of a man,” nor even “one night in his life.” Each moment we live exists, not the imaginary sum of those moments. The universe, the sum total of all events, is no less ideal than the sum of all the horses — one, many none? — Shakespeare dreamed between 1592 and 1594.

. . .

Let us consider a life in which repetitions abound: my life, for instance. I never pass the Recoleta cemetary without remembering that my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are buried there, as I shall be; then I remember that I have remembered the same thing many times before; I cannot stroll around the outskirts of my neighborhood in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details; I cannot lament the loss of a love or a friendship without reflecting how one loses what one really never had; each time I cross one of the southside corners, I think of you, Helena; each time the air brings me the scent of eucalyptus I think of Adrogué in my childhood; each time I recall fragment 91 of Heraclitus, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” I admire his dialectical skill, for the facility with which we accept the first meaning (“The river is another”) covertly imposes upon us the second meaning (“I am another”) and gives us the illusion of having invented it; each time I hear a Germanophile deride Yiddish, I reflect that Yiddish is, after all, a German dialect, barely tainted by the language of the Holy Ghost. These tautologies (and others I shall not disclose) are my whole life. Naturally, they recur without design; they are variations of emphasis, temperature, light, general psychological state. I suspect, nonetheless, that the number of circumstantial variants is not infinite: we can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know each other but in whom the same process is operative), two identical moments. Once this identity is postulated, we may ask: Are not these identical moments the same moment? Is not one single repeated terminal point enough to disrupt and confound the series in time [(or) the history of the world, to reveal that there is no such history]? Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?

. . .

The fifth paragraph of chapter IV in the Sanhedrin of the Mishnah declares that, in the eyes of God, he who kills a single man destroys the world. If there is no plurality, he who annihilated all men wouldbe no more guilty than the primitive and solitary Cain — an orthodox view — nor more global in his destruction — which may be magic, or so I understand it. Tumultuous and universal catastrophes  — fires, wars, epidemics — are but a single sorrow, multiplied in many illusory mirrors. Thus Bernard Shaw surmises (Guide to Socialism, 86):

What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death, you experience all teh starvation that ever has been or ever will be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as hungry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum. . . . Poverty and pain are not cumulative.

. . .

All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.

. . .

. . . [T]he phrase “negation of time” is ambiguous. It can mean the eternity of Plato or Boethius and also the dilemmas of Sextus Empiricus. The latter (Adversus mathematicos XI, 197) denies the past, which already was, and the future, which is not yet, and argues that the present is either divisible or indivisible. It is not indivisible, for in that case it would have no beginning to connect it to the past nor end to connect it to the future, nor even a middle, because whatever has no beginning or end has no middle. Neither is it divisible, for in that case it would consist of a part that was and another that is not. Ergo, the present does not exist, and since the past and the future do not exist either, time does not exist. [ . . . ] Via the dialectic of Berkeley and Hume, I have arrived at Schopenhauer’s dictum:

The form of the appearance of the will is only the present, not the past or the future; the latter do not exist except in the concept and by the linking of the consciousness, so far as it follows the principle of reason. No man has ever lived in the past, and none will live in the future; the present alone is the form of all life, and is a possession that no misfortune can take away. . . . We might compare time to an infinitely revolving circle: the half that is always sinking would be the past, that which is always rising would be the future; but the indivisible point at the top which the tangent touches, would be the present. Motionless like the tangent, that extensionless present marks the point of contact of the object, whose form is time, with the subject, which has no form because it does not belong to the knowable but is the precondition of all knowledge. (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung I, 54)

A fifth-century Buddhist treatise, the Visuddhimagga, or The Path to Purity, illustrates the same doctrine with the same figure: “Strictly speaking, the life of a being lasts as long as an idea. Just as a rolling carriage wheel touches earth at only one point, so life lasts as long as a single idea” (Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy I, 373). Other Buddhist texts say that the world is annihilated and resurges six billion five hundred million times a day and that every man is an illusion, vertiginously wrought by a series of solitary and momentary men. “The man of a past moment,” The Path to Purity advises us, “has lived, but he does not live nor will he live; the man of a future moment will live, but he has not lived nor does he now live; the man of the present moment lives, but he has not lived nor will he live” (I, 407), a dictum we may compare with Plutarch’s “Yesterday’s man died in the man of today, today’s man dies in the man of tomorrow” (De E apud Delphos, 18).

. . .

And yet, and yet . . . To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe, appear to be acts of desperation and are secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not terrifying because it is unreal; it is terrifying because it is irreversible and iron-bound. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

. . .

Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,/Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
— Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)


[From Selected Non-Fictions]

Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Odd :: J. L. Borges

The wheeling of the stars is not infinite
And the tiger is one of the forms that return,
But we, remote from chance of hazard,
Believed we were exiled in a time outworn,
Time when nothing can happen.
The universe, the tragic universe, was not here
And maybe should be looked for somewhere else;
I hatched a humble mythology of fencing
walls and knives
And Ricardo thought of his drovers.

We did not know that time to come held a lightning bolt;
We did not forsee the shame, the fire, and the fearful
night of the Alliance;
Nothing told us that Argentine history would be thrust
out to walk the streets,
History, indignation, love,
The multitudes like the sea, the name of Córdoba,
The flavor of the real and the incredible, the
horror and the glory.

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

To Luís de Camoëns :: J. L. Borges

Without lament or anger time will nick
The most heroic swords. Poor and in sorrow,
You came home to a land turned from tomorrow,
O captain, came to die within her, sick,
And with her. In the magic desert-wastes
The flower of Portugal was lost and died,
And the harsh Spaniard, hitherto subdued,
Was menacing her naked, open coasts.
I wish I knew if on this hither side
Of the ultimate shore you humbly understood
That all that was lost, the Western Hemisphere
And the Orient, the steel and banner dear,
Would still live on (from human change set free)
In your epic Lusiados timelessly.

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

The Borges :: J. L. Borges

I know little — or nothing — of my own forebears;
The Borges back in Portugal; vague folk
That in my flesh, obscurely, still evoke
Their customs, and their firmnesses and fears.
As slight as if they’d never lived in the sun
And free from any trafficking with art,
They form an indecipherable part
Of time, of earth, and of oblivion.
And better so. For now, their labors past,
They’re Portugal, they are that famous race
Who forced the shining ramparts of the East,
And launched on seas, and seas of sand as wide.
The king they are in mystic desert place,
Once lost; they’re one who swears he has not died.

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

Referring to the Death of Colonel Francisco Borges (1835-1874) :: J. L. Borges

I leave him on his horse, and in the gray
And twilit hour he fixed with death for a meeting;
Of all the hours that shaped his human day
May this last long, though bitter and defeating.
The whiteness of his horse and poncho over
The plain advances. Setting sights again
To the hollow rifles death lies under cover.
Francisco Borges sadly crosses the plain.
This that encircled him, the rifles’ rattle,
This that he saw, the pampa without bounds,
Had been his life, his sum of sights and sounds.
His every-dailiness is here and in the battle.
I leave him lofty in his epic universe
Almost as if not tolled for by my verse.

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