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]

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]