Seven Nights Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Eliot Weinberger). New Directions. $12.95, 128pp.
In Seven Nights, the recently re-released collection of lectures-turned-essays originally given in Buenos Aires in 1977, Borges does not discuss the phenomenon of déjà vu. He does, however, speak at great length about nightmares and dreams, which he describes as “a kind of modest personal eternity.” It is a beautiful phrase. With it, Borges could have just as well been describing déjà vu, because in suddenly recalling a scene or event that has not yet happened, the experience is as close to a waking sense of eternity—that discomforting vertigo against a centering prescience—that a person might ever achieve.
Reading the seven pieces collected in Seven Nights was, for me, an intense and prolonged sensation of déjà vu. At each turn, the phrases felt familiar yet new, as if they had been written for me by someone who knew all that I know about Borges. It was an experience reminiscent of a short story by Borges, “Death and the Compass,” in which the author writes:
Through foyers that opened onto dining rooms and on through galleries, he would emerge into identical courtyards—often the same courtyard. He climbed the dusty stairs to circular antechambers; he would recede infinitely in the facing mirrored walls; he wearied of opening or half opening windows that revealed to him, outside, the same desolate garden from differing angles—inside, the furnishings in yellowing covers, chandeliers swathed in muslin. A bedchamber stopped him; there, a single flower in a porcelain vase; at the first brush of his fingertips, the ancient petals crumbled. On the second floor, on the uppermost floor, the house seemed infinite yet still growing.
Each of the lectures collected here is a window into the same garden: that well-tended garden of Borges’s mind. One sees the same flora and monuments from various angles. As I read them, the overwhelming sense of prescient infinity struck me again and again—the exploration of a house enormous and tangled as a labyrinth; but it was only the experience of déjà vu, that vertiginous familiarity, which allowed it to seem so.
The topics covered in Seven Nights will no doubt reverberate for any reader who has spent time in the company of Borges’s writing, because they are his most intimate themes, his personal obsessions: the Divine Comedy, the Kabbalah, the fear of mirrors, dreams, and nightmares, the Thousand and One Nights, the hidden machinations of existence, his own blindness. They are home notes in the keys we recognize as Borges, the one Alastair Reid describes in his Introduction as “the figure of the other Borges, the writer, to whom the living Borges is chained.” These themes appear and reappear in the essays collected here nested inside each other, like the infinite series of reflections in a room of mirrors.
The living Borges, to whom the other was chained, died in 1986 in Geneva, and it was he who originally delivered these lectures in 1977. Reid’s “other Borges” then retrieved their transcription and revised and polished them, preparing them for print publication. This other Borges is a lucid, brilliant literary and philosophical genius; his existence will remain immediate and contemporary for as long as we have access to the writing. Somehow, this Borges exists in an eternal present, as if he were a living dream, and the lectures contained in this volume are yet another example of his vivid genius, always refreshing and constantly renewed. One does not feel that this is merely a set of essays collected and scrupulously revised; rather it is as if you were sitting and listening to the digressions of a close acquaintance, a generous and lively conversationalist whose interests are varied and fascinating.
The assertion of Jorge Luis Borges’s literary genius is today assumed and completely unremarkable, and since many superior critics have elaborated it, I will refrain from boring you with redundancy. However, it is occasionally overlooked that Borges is also a philosophical genius—philosophical, that is, in that he is completely in love with knowledge, with the pleasure that knowledge for its own sake provides him—and although he is a lover of knowledge, he never declines into reverential pedagogy. Knowledge, to Borges, is not for the knowing, nor for the asserting over and condemnation of others, nor for proving others wrong, but for the pleasure of discovery.
In these lectures, Borges uses his genius to provide that gift of discovery, an experience akin to poetry, “something as evident, as immediate, as indefinable as love, the taste of fruit, of water.” Of the truths themselves, he is always humble. One believes or else one does not; the mind is a malleable thing so that, as he says in the lecture on nightmares, “we may draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we may change our minds.” And besides, most of what is believed is only an illusion, “our ignorance of the complex machinery of causality.” Like Socrates, Borges is most sure only of the fact that we are mostly ignorant, that there are obscure mechanisms imperceptibly at work in our lives. Whether we decide to call these machinations magic, or God, or fate, each explanation is yet another expression of the consequences of unknown acts.
We follow the mind of Borges through these essays as he revises and reconsiders these hidden connections, as he tries to make sense in the very literal way of a craft. The materials are language, imagination, and knowledge; the products are his poetry, fiction, and in this case, his lectures. They each reveal the intricate control of his watchmaker mind.
In his essay “The Thousand and One Nights,” for example, Borges begins the lecture in a discussion of the various ways by which the West discovered the East—the myth of Alexander the Great living on in China; Virgil’s mention of Oriental silk in the Georgics; Pliny’s chapters on China in the Natural History; the gift of an Asian elephant to Charlemagne (and the etymology of the word elephant, from oliphant)—before he enters into a history of The Thousand and One Nights. He marvels at its title, “one of the most beautiful in the world,” and relates the textual history of the book: its foundation in the oral tradition of India and Persia; the first translation by Galland in 1704, in France, and the addition of the tale of Aladdin by Galland; subsequent translations; and its effect on the West as the seed of Romanticism. What I have just related is itself is a remarkable essay, but it doesn’t begin to tell all that is within Borges’ short discussion, for Borges is not just a historian. He is full of imaginings, of imagined connections, of purposeless ruminations, and, to my great delight, an interest in semi-speculative philology. Of the word “Orient,” he writes:
The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, the land of morning. For the West it is Abendland, land of afternoon. You will recall Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of afternoon, or, as it was translated more prosaically, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro, gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to the famous line of Dante: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro.” The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.
It is not only what he can say with assurance, what is based in scholarly fact, but what connections his mind makes freely. It resembles magic because it is a type of conjuring: he thinks of the German for East and West, it conjures the Spanish for gold in the word Orient, which conjures up immediately his beloved Dante in Italian. There is another beautiful essay included, just as rich as this one, or more so, on Dante’s Divine Comedy; there are also essays on Nightmares, Blindness, Buddhism, The Kabbalah, and Poetry. They are all of them magic.
“Poetry,” Borges writes, “is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.” Examining the intricacies of these essays in any greater detail would be robbing you readers, to some degree, of their poetry. “We feel poetry as we feel the closeness of a woman, or as we feel a mountain or a bay. If we feel it immediately, why dilute it with other words, which no doubt will be weaker than our feelings?” Thus I have been condemned in my task before I began and, in that case, will cease my dissolutions and leave you to the poetry of this eternal other Borges.
Daniel E. Pritchard is a poet and essayist living in Boston. He is the founder and managing editor of The Critical Flame: a Journal of Literature & Culture, writes a regular blog titled The Wooden Spoon, and is the managing editor of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. During the day, he is the production coordinator at David R. Godine, Publisher.
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