The Circularity of Infinity: In Memory of Borges on His Birthday

I discovered Borges in undergrad around the same time that I discovered the Chuang Tzu and the two are linked in my mind. It’s not just that I came upon them at roughly the same time; they communicate similar concepts in similar ways, and I consider Borges to be perhaps the chief of Taoistic Western writers. Both Borges’ work and the Chuang Tzu address chance and fate (as in Borges’ “The Lottery of Babylon” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”), language as mutable and infinitely subjective (as in “The Library of Babel” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), and the possibility of perceiving the whole of existence in a single, enlightened moment (“The Aleph”). Borges’ work also shares with the Chuang Tzu a love of language-play and a wry sense of humor; both are complex and subtle and require more than just a passing glance. All things I love in literature. I was pleasantly surprised today to see that Google produced a doodle in commemoration of his 112th birthday and decided, in that same spirit, to present some Borges quotes I love. Enjoy!

“Rumor had it that The Secret Mirror was a Freudian comedy; this propitious (and fallacious) interpretation determined its success. Unfortunately, Quain had already reached the age of forty; he was totally used to failure and he did not easily resign himself to a change of regime. He resolved to avenge himself. Toward the end of 1939 he issued Statements: perhaps the most original of his works, doubtless the least praised and most secret. Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species. ‘Every European,’ he reasoned, ‘is a writer, potentially or in fact.’ He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these ‘imperfect writers,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them — not the best — insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them.” (from “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”)

“Heraclitus of Pontica admiringly relates that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrho, and before that Euphorbus, and before that some other mortal. In order to recall analogous vicissitudes I do not need to have recourse to death, nor even to imposture.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

“The faraway king of the birds, the Simurg, drops an exquisite feather in the middle of China; weary of their ancient anarchy, the birds determine to find it. They know that their king’s name means ‘Thirty Birds’; they know that his royal palace stands on the Kaf, the circular mountain which surrounds the earth. They undertake the almost infinite adventure. They fly over seven valleys, or seven seas; the next-to-the-last one is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; others perish. Thirty of them, purified by their labors, set foot upon the Mountain of the Simurg. At last they contemplate it; they perceive that they are the Simurg, and that the Simurg is each one of them and all of them.” (from “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” in a footnote)

“Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.” (from “The Garden of Forking Paths”)

“Once dead, there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the banister; my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air; my body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“I have known what the Greeks did not: uncertainty.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

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What’s your favorite Borges quote?

3 Comments

  1. Rivertrance
    Feb 25, 2012

    “… The task of Art is to transform what is continually happening to us; to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something that will last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer, or any artist, has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to so with working hours. You are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know, but who care for you. And that is an immense reward…” From an interview at his home in San Telmo 1998… Profound, moving.

  2. Rivertrance
    Feb 26, 2012

    Poets and Rivers

    It brightened my day too. I had known of Borges but was not knowledgeable to any extent, so I looked. I like Irving Layton’s poem that begins… “By walking, I found out where I was going…”. I think that what you find sometimes extends beyond fate. There’s an entire philosophical tract by Poincaré that recognizes that for any question there are infinite answers, but from the chaos the universe (or muse) will suggest those that are plausible, and in an artistic sense, elegant. To me there is a mystic (Taoist, if you will) element to this.

    Also in your post, I wasn’t sure if your question was implicitly meant to be “Which is your favorite Borges quote?” That is the question I replied to. Of those quotes you presented, to address the “what” question, I absolutely love his quote “Once dead, there will not lack pious hands to hurl me…”. And counterpoint: “…to recall analogous vicissitudes I do not need recourse to death”. It is so obvious to me that Borges was ‘enlightened’ in the Taoist / Buddhist sense… His other examples: that of the entire universe at a single point; “…and that the Simurg is each one of them and all of them…” have the same smile of recognition.

    And South America, where Borges is from, is a beautiful place; it is almost like a ‘forgotten continent’ to us. In the 18th century when Europeans embarked a boat for the New World, they often didn’t know if they were to arrive in New York or Rio or Buenos Aires, which has a set of sensibilities as unique as New York. If you start to ‘dig’, and also travel a little, you discover that South and Central American countries a hundred; a hundred-and-fifty years ago had beautifully rich cultures… ’still there just below the surface. Nicaragua is fabulously interesting with national hero and poet Ruben Dario. He is credited with founding the Spanish-American modernist literary movement. Spanish is still routinely spoken and written in Nicaragua with seven full verb tenses and immense precision and pride. The cathedral in Leon has twelve priceless paintings of The Stations of the Cross; there are Picasso’s in their art gallery; and show me another country that has a poet on their ‘100’ denomination bank note… We seem to have forgotten all about them… if not for figures like Borges and perhaps a widening circle of invisible friends.

    By walking you find out where you are going I suppose, and very definitely where you have come from. The river flows.

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