Jorge Luis Borges, for a weirder perspective . . .
In a biography of one of my favorite writers Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) (simply titled Jorge Luis Borges, by Jason Wilson), I encountered this quote from the Argentine storyteller, then in his 20s and under the spell of Walt Whitman:
Unexpected and elusive is the world, but its very contingency is a richness, as we cannot even determine how poor we are, given that everything is a gift.
Is Everything a Gift?
Besides the grace of this sentence, the amazing breadth of Borges’s concision, we may be startled to hear the elusive, unsettled autodidact express a cliche so exhaustively aphorized: “everything is a gift.” This is the sort of phrase we’d expect from an inspirational tweet, but not a budding (and aesthetically prickly) genius.
What does Borges mean exactly, and is it true? Is everything really a gift? What about all of life’s unforeseeable unpleasantness that we hope to avoid? Surely some things are gifts, like meeting a future lover by happenstance, while others, like the death of a close friend, are something more akin to punishments or sacrifices.
A Weirder Perspective
But Borges, I think, is looking from a much weirder perspective. In one of my favorite Borges short stories, ‘The Aleph’ (1945), our hero (a thinly disguised Borges), rife with petty grudges and forlorn regrets, approaches a strange object hidden in the cellar of a despised acquaintance: an Aleph, described as “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.”
Borges as protagonist encounters the Aleph and struggles to find words to describe the deluge of visions, resulting in the longest sentence in Spanish literature. He has, in other words, a mystical experience, and yet, when he recovers from the storm of majesty known as “the unimaginable universe,” Borges himself is much the same. The Aleph doesn’t remove his jealousies or bitterness, nor his desires for approval or revenge. In a devastating post-script, our narrator even surmises that the Aleph was a fake, one of many “mere optical instruments.”
The Personality Remains
I don’t know exactly what Borges meant with this post-script, as his theme crumbles from redemptive unity to distorted loss, but I do think it has something to do with human nature. The hero is not saved from himself, and this is Borges’s radical and idiosyncratic form of acceptance. The personality remains, as if destined to live out its own quirky yearnings. “Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in.”
Borges, again and again, defies resolution. He embraces paradox and uncertainty, distorting our notion of ‘gifts’ in an unfathomable jumble. We no longer know what’s good for us, what’s bad for us, who we are, or why. The limits of identity are confounded and reborn, implying that we never had control over them in the first place. Borges’s gifts are sometimes insidious, always inscrutable, and mysterious beyond our wildest imagination.
Ross J Edwards
- Borges (1899–1986) ( uncredited)
Eric Desmazieres for The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
- Borges (uncredited)