Jorge Luis Borges: On Literary Magic and Garden Labyrinths

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Jorge Luis Borges forged into the realm of literary magic, he led his readers down through the Garden of Forking Paths, wandering the red and tranquil labyrinths in Elegy, growing old in so many mirrors, seeking in vain the marble gaze of statues, compiling regrets of a fantastic nature. Watch the BBC profile on him as an elder of strange destiny who had seen nothing, or almost nothing, but the face of a girl from Buenos Aires, a face that does not want you to remember it.

magical realism, Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges 1949 short story “El Aleph” refers to the first letter of the proto-canaanite alphabet (around 1000 BC) which eventually gave birth to Semitic alphabets (Phoenician, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic). The cabalistic use of this letter has spatial implications and triggers a beautiful literary vertigo. Hamlet: “O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…”

Jorge Luis Borges (24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, born in Buenos Aires. His work embraces the “character of unreality in all literature.” His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (El Aleph in Spanish) (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion and God.

Borges’s works have contributed to philosophical literature and also to both the fantasy and magical realism genres. The genre of magical realism reacted against the dominant realism and naturalism of the nineteenth century.

“One day or one night—between my days and nights, what difference can there be?—I dreamed that there was a grain of sand on the floor of my cell. Unconcerned, I went back to sleep; I dreamed that I woke up and there were two grains of sand. Again I slept; I dreamed that now there were three. Thus the grains of sand multiplied, little by little, until they filled the cell and I was dying beneath that hemisphere of sand. I realized that I was dreaming; with a vast effort I woke myself. But waking up was useless—I was suffocated by the countless sand. Someone said to me:

“You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of the grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.

“I felt lost. The sand crushed my mouth, but I cried out: I cannot be killed by sand that I dream —nor is there any such thing as a dream within a dream.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Writing of the God”

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Borges: Profile of a Writer Presents the Life and Writings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges, Arena, BBC, 1983.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
— Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina literature

“The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time; this recondite cause prohibits its mention.”

On the nature of freedom…

“Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking… Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of Martín Fierro or Don Segundo that individualism is an old Argentine virtue.”

Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

The Library of Babel: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.” Image: La Place Désertée (1979) by Erik Desmazières

On the glaciers of oblivion…

REMORSE

by Jorge Luis Borges

I have committed the worst of sins
One can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Take and engulf me, mercilessly.

My parents bore me for the risky
And the beautiful game of life,
For earth, water, air and fire.
I failed them, I was not happy.

Their youthful hope for me unfulfilled.
I applied my mind to the symmetric
Arguments of art, its web of trivia.

They willed me bravery. I was not brave.
It never leaves me. Always at my side,
That shadow of a melancholy man.

Translated by A. S. Kline

Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

Library of Babel: “Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born.” Image: Exploration (1984) By Erik Desmazières

EL REMORDIMIENTO

He cometido el peor de los pecados
que un hombre puede cometer. No he sido
feliz. Que los glaciares del olvido
me arrastren y me pierdan, despiadados.

Mis padres me engendraron para el juego
arriesgado y hermoso de la vida,
para la tierra, el agua, el aire, el fuego.
Los defraudé. No fui feliz. Cumplida

No fue su joven voluntad. Mi mente
se aplicó a las simétricas porfías
del arte, que entreteje naderías.

Me legaron valor. No fui valiente.
No me abandona. Siempre está a mi lado,
la sombra de haber sido un desdichado.

La moneda de hierro (1976)

Sources…

Jorge Luis Borges in The Modern Word

Borges: Profile of a Writer - Open Culture

The Garden of Forking Paths – Jorge Luis Borges

The Library of Babel - The Funambulist

The Art of Erik Desmazières- John Coulthart

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Jack Eidt

About Jack Eidt

Writer, urban theorist, and environmental advocate, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion - Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com.