Books

Borges, a writer in search of meaning

Although the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is best known for his prose: his short stories, his body of poetry is not irrelevant. He published thirteen collections of poetry containing more than 400 poems. Let's investigate the presence of God in Borges' poetry.

Antonio Barnés-September 22, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
jorge luis borges

Jorge Luis Borges

"I would like to survive in the "Conjectural Poem", in the "Poem of the Gifts", in "Everness", in "The Golem" and in "Limits", said the Argentine poet. Well, God appears in four of these poems. In the "Conjectural Poem" an omniscient God appears:

At last I have discovered
the hidden key to my years,
the fate of Francisco de Laprida,
the missing letter, the perfect
the perfect form that God knew from the beginning.

In another of these five poems, the "Poem of the Gifts," we read the following:

Let no one lower to tears or reproach
this statement of expertise
of God, who with magnificent irony
gave me both the books and the night.

[...]

Something, which is certainly not named
by the word chance, governs these things;

God endowed Borges with a great love for books, but at the same time granted him blindness, a contradiction that the poet describes as "magnificent irony"; it is curious: he writes "no one will lower to tears or reproach", that is, no one will cry for this situation of mine and no one will reproach God for this irony. Perhaps in this we can see a certain stoic attitude in the writer.

In another of these five chosen poems: "Everness", we read:

There is only one thing. It is oblivion.
God, who saves the metal, saves the dross
and figures in His prophetic memory
the moons that will be and those that have been.

Here destiny appears, an idea very present in Borges: a destiny that often comes from God or divinity.

In "The golem" we read:  

And, made of consonants and vowels,
there will be a terrible Name, which the essence
encrypts of God and that Omnipotence
and syllables in full letters and syllables.

It is a poem about the cabala in which the name of God is alluded to, and Borges' great concern about what names, words, are.

If we were to draw a sketch of the concept or image of God in Borges' poetry from these four poems alone, we could say that Borges' God is more philosophical than religious, more cognitive than affective, more Hellenic than Christian. But to say "more than" does not mean "absolutely": it means that there is a direction.

God more philosophical than religious. Because Borges has read a lot of philosophy since his youth. He reads Espinoza, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Berkeley and other pre-Christian philosophers. And this will leave him a very strong imprint that will appear in the concept he shows of God, but it does not drown other sources such as the Bible, the Gospel... such as the Christian culture in which he lives.

More cognitive than affective. In other words, God is much more of memory, of intelligence, of intellect, of reason. Love rarely appears in Borges' God. However, this initial hypothesis about Borges' God must be contrasted with other texts.

In his first collection of poems, Fervor of Buenos Aires, of 1923, we find a poem dedicated to the nineteenth-century Argentine dictator Rosas and we read the following:

God will have forgotten by now
and it is less an injury than a mercy
to delay his infinite dissolution
with alms of hatred.

The situation after death is one of infinite dissolution: a tremendous metaphor of what, from a certain nihilism, can be glimpsed in the future of the human being. And this is already in 1923. Borges' ideas about God are very early.

At Opposite moon (1925) we read another poem where it is said:

and I will see you for the first time,
perhaps, as God will see you,
the fiction of Time shattered,
without love, without me.

It is a purely loving poem in which God appears, which is very frequent in literature and poetry. However, that look of God "without love" fills a bit of uneasiness. It shows a very philosophical God, in the style of the Dutch thinker Spinoza.

In another poem of this collection of poems, "My whole life", we read:

I believe that my days and nights are equal in poverty and richness to those of God and of all men.

This equality of mankind with God, from a Christian point of view, can be explained by the incarnation of the Word. Christ assumes all our things and all our pains. But from a philosophical point of view we could also think of a Spinozian pantheism where everything that appears in the end is nothing but manifestations of God.

In another poem by Opposite moon we read:

In this way I am returning to God a few cents
of the infinite wealth that he puts in my hands.

However, here we find a text that is fully consistent with a vision of a beneficent God, as a Father God who bestows his gifts in a superabundant manner. So although a somewhat cold philosophical vision predominates, of some philosophers of modernity who have broken bridges with God, Borges' thought is not stifled by that philosophy and other ideas also emerge.

Later, in The maker, we are already in 1960, we find two sonnets under the title "Ajedrez" (Chess):

God moves the player, and the player moves the piece.
What God behind God the plot begins
of dust and time and sleep and agony?

That a god with a lowercase letter behind God with a capital letter begins the plot is a great irony in the face of the concept of a God who creates out of nothing. One of Borges' fundamental concerns is time, eternity. He is a very philosophical author, a writer who asks himself big questions. And here is that question about the origin of time, about the origin of the world. "The plot begins / of dust and time and sleep and agonies": that is, evil or pain in the world is not as in the Judeo-Christian tradition the product of an original sin, not having been in the initial design of God, but it seems that there is an original destiny in which evil and good are interspersed. Here perhaps we link with a vision of Greek divinity where there is a destiny that is even above Zeus.

In a poem dedicated to Alfonso Reyes we read:

God knows the colors that luck
proposes to man beyond the day;
I walk these streets. Still
very little is reached to me from death.

Borges recognizes that he doesn't have it all together, that he doesn't know exactly what lies behind death.

We are in 1960: he is already a mature poet.

I pray to my gods or to the sum of time
that my days deserve oblivion,
that my name be No one like Ulysses,
but that some verse may endure

In some poems we see how after death there is an absolute oblivion decreed by God; which must be a great contradiction for Borges: a poet so in search of meaning. In this case, moreover, he seems to be asking God, but he does not say "God", but "to my gods or to the sum of time": to the gods in whom I do not know if I believe or if they exist; or the sum of time, which would be like a philosophical version of the explanation about the world. "But let some verse endure", that is, he does not want to die at all, as the Latin poet Horace used to say: non omnis moriar. Art and literature are a way to overcome time and death, to transcend.

In "Otro poema de los dones", from this same collection of poems (The Other, The Self) we read:

Thank you [...] for love, which allows us to see others as divinity sees them.
as divinity sees them,

What is raised here about love is in relation to divinity, and it is marvelous. Love would be nothing other than looking with the eyes with which he looks at God. Love would be a spark of divinity.

In this collection of poems, The Other, the SameBorges is a man fascinated by the four gospels, which he considers a work beyond measure. In this poem we read:

God wants to walk among men
and is born of a mother

Evidently, Borges is glossing a verse of the Gospel, which does not mean that he subscribes to what he is saying, but it is also true that he has chosen that text to comment on it and could have ignored it. It expresses in a simple and beautiful way the mystery of the incarnation, which is ultimately what appears in that verse of St. John, who wrote "the Word became flesh": he wants to walk among men and is born of a mother.

At In praise of the shadow (1969) there is a poem titled James Joyce:

since that inconceivable
day when a terrible God prefixed the days and agonies
God prefixed the days and agonies

[...]

Give me, Lord, courage and joy
to climb the summit of this day.

When writing a poem about the Ulysses James Joyce, which is the story of a single day in the life of the protagonist, Borges brings the metaphor of the day as life. A terrible God appears who can remind us of God in some passages of the Old Testament or a god of Greco-Latin mythology. "I prefix the days and agonies". Once again there is destiny with days and agonies, with labors and days, with goods and evils, and at the end "Give me, O Lord, courage and joy to climb the summit of this day". It may be a distinctly Christian notion or a Stoic thought. It may also be an imitation of the myth of Sisyphus, but it is still ambivalent, which is something very typical of Borges.

(to be continued)

The authorAntonio Barnés

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