Saturday, April 07, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges: "The Immortal"

By Gisela Giardino
Reading Borges' ficciones is always rewarding in one way or other. I picked up his Collected Fictions one night, guided by I don't know what. Following my own hunch, I turned to the collection of ficciones called The Aleph. In this book one piece was called "The Immortal". This seemed to me the place to dive down that night.

One paragraph I read two times, slowly. In many ways this felt like the summary of the story, the  source of it, in a tone that to me feels like Borges is speaking directly to us, almost without the literary filter. It gives a sense of him stepping out of the role of narrator on the page, and into that of conveyor of depth.

I felt so tempted to type the whole paragraph here that I am actually going to do it, for those of you with patience for more than a poem. I will still put it out for everyone to see. Gems should be shared.

Here goes:

"There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive. In my view, the Wheel conceived by certain religions in Hindustan is much more plausible; on that Wheel, which has neither end nor beginning, each life is the effect of the previous life and engenderer of the next, yet no one life determines the whole... Taught by centuries of living, the republic of immortal men had achieved a perfection of tolerance, almost of disdain. They knew that over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men. As reward for his past and future virtues, every man merited every kindness -- yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities. Much as the way in games of chance, heads and tails tend to even out, so cleverness and dullness cancel and correct each other. Perhaps the rude poem of El Cid is the counterweight demanded by a single epithet of the Eclogues or a maxim from Heraclitus. The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible plan, and may crown, or inaugurate, a secret design. I know of men who have done evil in order that good may come of it in future centuries, or may already have come of it in centuries past... Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; given infinite time, with infinite circumstances and changes, it is impossible that the Odyssey should not be composed at least once. No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world -- which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not."


The narrator in this story is starting out as a Roman soldier. He travels through centuries and almost mistakenly attains immortality. Along the road he meets a man he first takes to be a simpleton, without language or the means of symbolic representation. After a while it turns out this man is Homer. This gives the text at the same time a heavy literary frame as well as a timeless one. Homer is more a mythical figure than that of a real man; no one knows whether he ever existed, or if his name is the expression of a conglomerate of storytellers and writers; you could even say Homer is a personification of human imagination or inventiveness. In a way Homer is something of an archetype, making out a solid brick in our (at least Western) cultural edifice. The ideas conveyed in "The Immortal" have that same quality of timelessness (hooha) and durability or imperishability as its Homeric counterpart, seeming to spring from common human ground.

Borges strays into rich waters here. He is for example touching into the midst of buddhism: The expression "I am not" points directly to the emptiness of phenomena, or doctrine of emptiness (shunyata), which is central especially in the Mahayana direction within Buddhism. I am not suggesting that Borges is hinting at Buddhism as such, but that he seems to be tapping into the same well of truth. And exactly this, that he is looking deeply into himself, and at our history and literature and bringing these theses out with him, which are shared with old and thoroughly worked-through schools of thought and insight gives me the impression of a man with great insight into humanity and the fabric of reality. Perhaps more important still: This passage rings true with me.

The piece gives me a sense of a great balance. In the long run, things even out: "over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men [...] all our acts are just, though also unimportant. There are no spiritual or intellectual merits". A balance is conveyed, between important–unimportant, worthy–unworthy, meaning–emptiness without it leaving me as a reader with the feeling of insignificance. This seems to me to be the truth of things. And, paradoxically, at the same time all we do is immensely important. We are expressions of something deep, we all carry significance in one way or other, just by living and adding to the great web of life in which we are all interconnected. The question lying underneath it all: "what is life?" This will continue to be a mystery to me and no doubt the following generations of humans. A cycle of life, certainly (like the Hindu wheel Borges is referring to), but how does it start, or does it start or end? In a way these questions aren't that important. That we live, and give our lives the meaning we feel is most fulfilling for ourselves and the rest of life around us is certainly a good beginning. 

Rarely have I read a short text that gives me a such a broad scope of existence, also beyond human life.(How can you separate human life from life itself?)

In a way the opening and closing sentences sum up the content of this text. "There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death." And the closing sentences: "No one is someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world -- which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not." Immortality as an idea has at all times been very attractive to humans. But how thoroughly thought through is this wish, I wonder. Reading Borges' The Immortal might alter or purge the urge for it.

Being human is irrevocably linked to mortality. That has its meaning.

By Sturt Krygsman, The Australian


jacques felix said...

Your blogs are little jewels. I don't know if Borges is more famous for his prose or his poems but in recognition of your beautiful comment I offer you the following English translation of one of my favourite poems:
One thing does not exist: Oblivion.

God saves the metal and he saves the dross,

and his prophetic memory guards from loss

the moons to come, and those of evenings gone.

Everything is: the shadows in the glass

which, in between the day’s two twilights, you

have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew

henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.

And everything is part of that diverse

crystalline memory, the universe;

Whoever through its endless mazes wanders

hears door on door click shut behind his stride,

and only from the sunset’s farther side

shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendours

Thank you again for the joy you spread with your blog

Thekla said...

Jacques Felix - thank you very much, both for your comment and the poem by Borges. I suspect it will dig itself deeply into me when I have read it a few times. Did you translate the poem yourself?

I particularly like "And everything is part of that / crystalline memory, the universe". The universe as a huge memory or consciousness. I take Borges' side in this matter.

Thank you!

Jacques Felix said...

No, no, the translator is Richard Wilbur as you have found out in the meantime. Here’s another translation by Alastair Reid:

One thing does not exist—oblivion
God saves the metal, saves the dross
And stores in his prophetic memory
Moons that have still to come, moons that have shone
Everything is there. The thousands of reflections
Which between the dawn and the twilight
Your face has left behind in many mirrors
And those faces it will go non leaving yet.
And everything is part of that diverse
And mirroring memory, the universe;
There is no end to its exigent corridors
And the doors that close behind you as you go;
Only the far side of the sunset’s glow
Will show you at last the Archetypes and Splendors

I prefer by far Richard Wilbur’s translation which is so much more poetic and so much closer in recreating the atmosphere of the Spanish poem.
Thank you for your thorough understanding of the subtlety and the delicacy of this poem

Jacques Felix

omatty said...

Borges was undoubtedly influence by Buddhism.

However, in the Immortals, his conclusions about sunyata and the resulting affect of a human being are quite different from Buddhism. Whereas Buddhism posits compassion and wisdom as pre-existing elements of a consciousness, qualities that are revealed by infinity and immortality, Borges sees immortality leading to what's called extreme "quietism." In this story at least, there needs to be a "reason" to be compassionate, or interested, or believing in "suffering." For Buddhists, the suffering, even when illusory and amongst the immortals, is always the key.

The secret to his "mistake" is revealed in the story, though. So, Borges seems to have figured this out and turned it into a riddle. That's so Borges!