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April 13, 2018 | Author: Hasan Cinar | Category: Emanuel Swedenborg, Mysticism, Heaven And Hell (Swedenborg), Agnosticism, Aesthetics
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Hispanic Studies: Culture and Ideas


Jorge Luis Borges was profoundly interested in the ill-defined and shapeshifting traditions of mysticism. However, previous studies of Borges have not focused on the writer’s close interest in mysticism and mystical texts, especially in the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). This book examines the relationship between Borges’ own recorded mystical experiences and his appraisal of Swedenborg and other mystics. It asks the essential question of whether Borges was a mystic by analysing his writings, including short stories, essays, poems and interviews, alongside scholarly writings on mysticism by figures such as William James. The book locates Borges within the scholarship of mysticism by evaluating his many assertions and suggestions as to what is or is not a mystic and, in so doing, analyses the influence of James and Ralph Waldo Emerson on Borges’ reading of Swedenborg and mysticism. The author argues further that Swedenborg constitutes a far richer presence in Borges’ work than scholarship has hitherto acknowledged, and assesses the presence of Swedenborg in Borges’ aesthetics, ethics and poetics.

William Rowlandson is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kent.

William Rowlandson • Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism


William Rowlandson

Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism

ISBN 978-3-0343-0811-3

Peter Lang

Hispanic Studies: Culture and Ideas


Jorge Luis Borges was profoundly interested in the ill-defined and shapeshifting traditions of mysticism. However, previous studies of Borges have not focused on the writer’s close interest in mysticism and mystical texts, especially in the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). This book examines the relationship between Borges’ own recorded mystical experiences and his appraisal of Swedenborg and other mystics. It asks the essential question of whether Borges was a mystic by analysing his writings, including short stories, essays, poems and interviews, alongside scholarly writings on mysticism by figures such as William James. The book locates Borges within the scholarship of mysticism by evaluating his many assertions and suggestions as to what is or is not a mystic and, in so doing, analyses the influence of James and Ralph Waldo Emerson on Borges’ reading of Swedenborg and mysticism. The author argues further that Swedenborg constitutes a far richer presence in Borges’ work than scholarship has hitherto acknowledged, and assesses the presence of Swedenborg in Borges’ aesthetics, ethics and poetics.

William Rowlandson is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kent.

William Rowlandson • Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism


William Rowlandson

Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism

ISBN 978-3-0343-0811-3

Peter Lang

Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism

Hispanic Studies: Culture and Ideas Volume


Edited by

Claudio Canaparo

PETER LANG Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • Frankfurt am Main • New York • Wien

William Rowlandson

Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism

PETER LANG Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • Frankfurt am Main • New York • Wien

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the Internet at A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Rowlandson, William. Borges, Swedenborg and mysticism / William Rowlandson. pages cm. -- (Hispanic Studies: Culture and Ideas ; 50) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-3-0343-0811-3 (alk. paper) 1. Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986--Criticism and interpretation. 2. Swedenborg, Emanuel, 1688-1772--Influence. 3. Mysticism in literature. I. Title. PQ7797.B635Z91635 2013 868’.6209--dc23 2012048394

Cover image: Cameron Adams, Lotus © 2013. ISSN 1661-4720 ISBN 978-3-0343-0811-3 (print) ISBN 978-3-0353-0438-1 (eBook) © Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern 2013 Hochfeldstrasse 32, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland [email protected],, All rights reserved. All parts of this publication are protected by copyright. Any utilisation outside the strict limits of the copyright law, without the permission of the publisher, is forbidden and liable to prosecution. This applies in particular to reproductions, translations, microfilming, and storage and processing in electronic retrieval systems. Printed in Germany

It seemed only proper that a blind man might be able to be my guide to the world of darkness — michael harner, The Way of  the Shaman


Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 Chapter One

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Chapter Two

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


Chapter Three

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Chapter Four

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


Chapter Five

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


Bibliography 243 Index 253


When I was sixteen my Spanish teacher at school, Claire McWilliams, lent me a copy of  Fictions which still sits on my bookshelf. It is a 1985 John Calder edition, which I have never seen for sale elsewhere, with a cover illustration of zany zigzag arrows dancing through a labyrinth towards two expressionless eyes. I thank and blame Miss McWilliams for pushing me down the rabbit hole into the Borges Wonderland, from which I have never returned. If we should meet again, I will happily and gratefully return her book. Thanks to the University of  Kent for granting me study leave of one semester in order to work on this and other projects. Thanks to Claudio Canaparo, series editor of  Peter Lang’s Hispanic Studies: Culture and Ideas. Thanks also to Hannah Godfrey, Mary Critchley and Holly Catling at Peter Lang. My thanks to Jeremy Carrette for his helpful perspectives on William James, Henry James Sr. and the James family’s relationship with Swedenborg. Thanks to Sophia Wellbeloved for her investigation into possible BorgesGurdjieff connections. Thanks also to Patricia Novillo Corvalán for many corridor chats and email exchanges about Borges and for lending me books (which I have returned) from her vast library of  the Borges scholarship. Many of  the ideas set forward in this book were discussed in the former Centre for the Study of  Myth at the University of  Kent. My thanks to those who tolerated my ramblings and who shared their ideas and insights; in particular Geoffrey Cornelius, Maggie Hyde, Vered Weiss, Matthew Watkins, Lyndsay Radermacher and Cameron Adams. Additional thanks to Cameron for the use of his artwork for the cover image. Thanks in particular to Angela Voss, for the constant interchange of memories, dreams and ref lections. Thanks above all to the wonderful and beautiful Eva, Lucía and Blanca, to whom this book is dedicated.


Every time I read something, that something is changed. And every time I write something, that something is being changed all the time by every reader. Every new experience enriches the book. […] People read my stories and read many things into them that I have not intended, which means that I am a writer of stories. A writer who wrote only the things he intended would be a very poor writer. A writer should write with a certain innocence. He shouldn’t think about what he is doing. If not, what he does is not all his own poetry. — Borges, Borges at Eighty I’m sorry to say that people have written fifty or sixty books about me. I haven’t read a single one of  them, since I know too much of  the subject, and I’m sick and tired of it. — Borges, Borges at Eighty They tell me there are some 300 books that have been written about me. But I think the writers should choose a better subject. — Borges: interview with William F. Buckley Todo hombre memorable corre el albur de ser amonedado en anécdotas [‘Every memorable man runs the risk of  being minted in anecdotes’] — Borges, Atlas

Emanuel Swedenborg writes in the Preface of  Heaven and Hell (1758): ‘it has been granted me to be with angels and to talk with them person to person. I have also been enabled to see what is in heaven and in hell, a process that has been going on for thirteen years’ (§1).1 He writes later in


All citations of  Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell are from the translation of  George F. Dole for the Swedenborg Foundation’s New Century Edition, 2000. As is customary

2 Introduction

the work: ‘I have been allowed to talk with some people who lived more than two thousand years ago, people whose lives are described in history books and are therefore familiar’ (§480). He repeatedly claims that ‘I can bear witness from all my experiences of what happens in heaven and in hell’ (§482), and begins many paragraphs with statements such as ‘Angels have told me that …’ (§184, §222, §302, §310, §480). Swedenborg, it would appear, was fully aware that his accounts would constitute a challenge to his readership, and, indeed, he famously writes in Arcana Cœlestia: ‘I am well aware that many will say that no one can possibly speak with spirits and angels so long as he lives in the body; and many will say that it is all fancy, others that I relate such things in order to gain credence, and others will make other objections. But by all this I am not deterred, for I have seen, I have heard, I have felt’ (§68). How is the reader to judge this? What hermeneutic tools does the reader employ in order to judge the literary aesthetic of  Swedenborg’s texts against works of  fantasy or voyages of discovery? Borges admired Swedenborg and wrote extensively about him; indeed the strong presence of  Swedenborg in Borges’ work constitutes a curious absence in the scholarship. Following the lead of  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Borges delivered lectures on Swedenborg which he later transcribed and published and in which he called Swedenborg ‘un místico mucho más complejo que los otros’ (2005: 202) [‘a mystic far more complex than the others’] (my translation). In the lecture and in other writings Borges paid close attention to the otherworld journeys of  Swedenborg, to his communication with angels and demons and with the discarnate souls of  the dead. Whilst uncomfortable with the theological dimension of  Swedenborg’s writings, arguing that his originality and innovation demonstrated a strong degree of  heterodoxy, Borges greatly admired the ethical aspect of  his works. Furthermore, Borges repeatedly defended Swedenborg against charges of insanity, arguing that the man was remarkably lucid, that his accounts were the product of a profoundly intellectual mind, and that his voyages constituted journeys of discovery akin to Swedenborg’s Viking ancestors.

with the Swedenborg scholarship, I will use throughout paragraph marks: §, rather than page references.



‘Swedenborg,’ wrote Borges, ‘es el primer explorador del otro mundo, el explorador que debemos tomar en serio’ (2005: 202) [‘Swedenborg is the first explorer of  the other world. An explorer we should take seriously’] (my translation). Whilst the reader of  Swedenborg is presented with challenges to assumptions about life, death, angelic beings and the divine, the reader of  Borges’ texts concerning Swedenborg is presented with an equally challenging set of questions concerning the relationship between fact and fiction, realism and fantasy, voyages of discovery and poetry, orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Expanding this, it becomes clear that all of  Borges’ writings concerning the ill-defined tradition of mysticism are characterized by equally puzzling questions of  the nature of  the real. I have been reading and encouraging others to read Borges for twenty years, and have taught his works, especially the poetry, at university level for a decade. In a class discussion at the end of a semester’s course, one member of  the seminar remarked that the word that best sums up Borges was ‘unsettling.’ We pursued this, enquiring what exactly is unsettling and what exactly is unsettled. Her response was curious: ‘After reading so much Borges nothing is stable any more. Things are unhinged.’ Another student had suggested that the course ‘is not for the fainthearted’. Over the weeks we had followed a more or less chronological assessment of  Borges’ tales, essays and poems, spending proportionally longer on his later works (1960s onwards) than the prolific era of  the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in the whimsical tales of  El Hacedor [Dreamtigers], El Libro de Arena [The Book of  Sand] and La Memoria de Shakespeare [Shakespeare’s Memory], the meditative lectures of  Siete Noches [Seven Nights], the poem and prose pieces of Elogio de la sombra [In Praise of  Darkness] and Los Conjurados, and the many interviews. We ref lected on the ‘unsettling’ aspect of  Borges. How do things appear ‘unhinged’? Why is the course not for the fainthearted? The class unanimously agreed that not only had the texts been puzzling, challenging, and at times infuriating, but that over the course of  their reading something had changed within them, that their relationship with reality had been somehow af fected by the many questions and conundrums thrown up by the Borges texts. The discussion, with books closed, lasted a full two hours, and following the lead of  the first student, more members of the group felt empowered

4 Introduction

to discuss their personal reactions to the texts and the manner in which the course had af fected them. Some discussed curious dreams of  labyrinthine landscapes; others described sleepless nights or late-night discussions with friends puzzling over the metaphysical riddles crafted by Borges. I myself recalled reading The Book of  Sand at the age of seventeen, and how I had struggled to conceptualize and accommodate such alluring horrors as the infinite book, the monstrous Preetorius, and the meeting of  the young and old Borges on a bench by a river. To this day I still feel the same vertiginous thrill at contemplating the one-sided disc. What could possibly be on the other side? Clearly there is something transformative in the process of close reading of  Borges’ works and spirited group discussion. A word that had surfaced at repeated moments throughout the course, especially when we dwelt on the tales ‘El Aleph’ and ‘La escritura del dios’ [‘The God’s Script’] was ‘mysticism’. Nothing, it was soon revealed, is straightforward about this troublesome term, firstly because the definitions of  the word are strikingly variant and contradictory, and secondly because the terms ‘mysticism’, ‘mystical’ and ‘mystic’ raise some profound epistemological questions about the nature of reality. Furthermore, in relation to the act of interpretation of, for example, the ecstatic episode of  ‘El Aleph’, questions emerged in class discussion about how to reconcile the text with the author and with the reader. Is a ‘mystical’ text necessarily the product of a ‘mystic’? Is ‘El Aleph’ a mystical text? What is a mystical text? Was Borges a mystic? What is a mystic? Can a text itself  be mystical, or is it merely the description of a mystical state? Can there be a mystical reading of a non-mystical text, and vice-versa? If, for example, a reader experiences something profoundly ‘mystical’ in reading ‘El Aleph’, what would be the implications of  finding out that the text were a parody of mystical texts? Is ‘El Aleph’ a parody of mystical texts? Borges was profoundly interested in the ill-defined and shape-shifting traditions of mysticism, writing numerous essays and poems about mystical writers in the Christian traditions: Scotus Erigena, Dante, Meister Eckhart, Jakob Böhme (also written Boehme and Behmen), Angelus Silesius, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, Novalis, and Emerson; exploring Sufi mystical poetry, Buddhist and Zen doctrines of spiritual philosophy, the Kabbalah, and various traditions of  Neoplatonism and



western esotericism. There is, however, an absence in the scholarship concerning Borges’ close involvement with mysticism and mystical texts, especially – as this book explores – Swedenborg. Whilst his interest in religious philosophies and practices such as the Kabbalah and Buddhism has been explored in some excellent books and articles, his relationship to specific mystical writers and texts has received far less attention, and for the most part appears only as oblique and generally unexplored references. This is unsurprising for three reasons that I can identify. Firstly, there is no easily delineated school of mystical writers; the traditions are characterized by heterogeneity. Indeed one of  the central tasks of  the various scholars of mysticism has been to identify precisely what it is that binds historical figures like Erigena, Eckhart, Teresa de Ávila, Böhme, Swedenborg and Blake. Likewise, the concepts of mystics, mysticism, mystical visions and mystical states are dif ficult to define and categorize. This is of crucial importance, as whilst Borges may call Plotinus, Silesius, Swedenborg, Blake and his friend Xul Solar ‘místicos’, and whilst he may claim that Pascal, Teresa de Jesús, Juan de la Cruz and Luis de León were not mystics, it is surprisingly dif ficult to arrive at any clear understanding of what the term means, despite over a century of rigorous scholarship. The scholarship of mysticism reveals countless attempts, pioneered by William Inge and William James, to define mysticism according to key characteristics. However, as I explore in Chapter Two, these defining characteristics are generally themselves vague and dif ficult to define. Furthermore, these terms are often refuted by the proceeding scholar’s defining characteristics (Underhill’s list, for example, is strikingly dif ferent from James’s; Stace’s is very dif ferent from Underhill’s). There is consequently no consensus. Secondly, Borges himself described mystics and mystical texts with a confusing blend of philosophical scepticism, literary awe, metaphysical perplexity and personal fondness. As such, and in tune with the well-known bon mot from ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ that ‘la metafísica es una rama de la literatura fantástica’ (1974: 436) [‘metaphysics is a branch of  fantastic literature’] (1976: 34), it is dif ficult to distinguish between his af fection for the imagined worlds of  H. G. Wells, the fantastical adventures of  Stevenson, the biblical accounts of  the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, Dante’s poetical visions of  the circles of  Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and

6 Introduction

Swedenborg’s visions of  the angelic realms.2 Are all these texts fantasy, or does Borges develop separate textual hermeneutics for fiction, science fiction, mystical, metaphysical and theological texts? In brief, as I explore in Chapter One, does Borges appraise Swedenborg’s angels in the same ontological light as the genies of  the Thousand and One Nights, or do his repeated claims of  Swedenborg’s ‘authenticity’ suggest a dif ferent and curious distinction between fantasy and mystical vision? Thirdly, and importantly, it would appear that Borges scholarship, tied as it is to the Academy, treats the shape-shifting and ill-defined landscape of mysticism and mystical texts with reservation. This, as Kripal (2001) argues, relates to a general mistrust of  the numinous within a scholarly methodology that seeks robust conclusions to robust hypotheses. Mysticism, and the many cognate aspects of anomalous human experience generally appraised under the titles of parapsychology, paraphenomena or the occult, appear to defy such a methodology. This aspect is explored in detail in Chapter Two. Borges is, of course, ideal fodder for academic discourse. The complex literary structures of  the great Ficciones, the meta-textual game-playing, the web of  literary and philosophical inf luences upon his work, his inf luence upon other writers, the rigorous and meticulous scepticism, the interplay of philosophies, theologies and metaphysics, the dazzling intellect – all such attributes of  his work provide limitless scope for further levels of interpretation for research papers and rich material for teaching. There is something academically reliable in Borges, as a judicious choice of  his fictions can illustrate with suf ficient complexity aspects of  literary theory, literary movements, the style of  the short story, the interplay of  literature and philosophy, and so on. His works are studied to illustrate characteristics of modernism and postmodernism, magical realism (however obliquely), Argentine and Latin American literature, and even postcolonialism (see Warnes 2009). However, I feel that something is often lost in the habitual employment of  Borges to illustrate such academic concepts, and it was in response to this that I developed a course dedicated exclusively to the works


See Brescia (2008) for an evaluation of  how Borges (and Bioy Casares) blurred genre distinctions in their anthologies of  the fantastic.



of  Borges in which close reading of  the texts and responsive discussion are encouraged over a teaching of  literary schools and movements, genre buzz­ words or single attributes of  Theory. What, though, is lost? Borges regularly urged the students at his lectures, whether in Argentina or the US, to seek the transformative dimension of  literature, to seek ‘el encanto’ that a text can bring: ‘El encanto es, como dijo Stevenson, una de las cualidades esenciales que debe tener el escritor. Sin el encanto, lo demás es inútil’ (1989: 209)’ [‘Enchantment, as Stevenson said, is one of  the special qualities a writer must have. Without enchantment, the rest is useless’] (1984: 9). He likewise discusses the importance of  the love of  literature: ‘I think that compulsory reading is wrong. You might as well talk of compulsory love or compulsory happiness. One should be reading for the pleasure of  the book. I was a teacher of  English literature for some twenty years and I always said to my students: if a book bores you, lay it aside. It hasn’t been written for you’ (Barnstone 1982: 113).3 As I have discovered through conversations with occasional disheartened readers of  Borges, an over-examination of  his most famous tales – such as ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘La muerte y la brújula’, ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ or ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’ – can lead to a reception of  Borges as cold, scholastic, passionless and claustrophobic, whose texts are mere springboards for further academic displays of erudition. This is a fair reading, especially amongst pressured undergraduates in full lecture theatres; but it is not the only reading, and it saddens me to consider readers who consequently assume that the text ‘hasn’t been written for them’ and who feel dissuaded from exploring further. Reading need not be a purely intellectual exercise. To argue, however, that there is a more numinous aspect to Borges is problematic, owing to the radical scepticism and spiritual agnosticism that characterize his extensive works.


‘I said to my students […] I can’t teach you English literature because I don’t know it. But I can teach you the love of  English literature. […] They all fell in love with some book or another, and that’s the gist, that’s the important thing, yes?’ (Burgin 1998: 209).

8 Introduction

There are striking similarities, for example, between the experience of  the Borges narrator on the basement stairs in ‘El Aleph’ and the dream revelation of  Tzinacán in ‘La escritura del dios’. These two passages may be read in isolation of  their surrounding texts and may with good reason be considered examples of ecstatic mystical writing akin to Eckhart or Teresa de Ávila; indeed they constitute remarkable examples of visionary art. Giskin (1990), confirming this aspect, appraised in particular ‘El Aleph’ as embodying the four characteristics of mystical experience as described by William James: Inef fability, Noetic quality, transiency and passivity. He concludes that Borges was consequently a mystic. However, when the tales are read in their entirety, it is apparent that they are carefully constructed fictions, revealing a radically more sceptical, philosophical and literary quality than the brief isolated passages, and may even be considered parodies of mystical texts. Akin to the uselessness of  Funes’ perpetual rapture, the impossible Aleph serves the narrator only as a means of prying into the private correspondence of  his former lover and her cousin, and serves Daneri only as material for pretentious poetry. Tzinacán’s communion with god serves him only to allay the horrors of  his people’s destruction and his incarceration. So are these texts, in tune with Giskin’s assessment, mystical, or are they parodic critiques of mysticism? One means of addressing this question, in addition to an appraisal of  the scholarship of mysticism, is to consider the textual traditions of mysticism as ‘another branch of  fantastic literature’, and thus to evaluate Borges’ exploration of such traditions and his employment of  them for the purposes of crafting fiction. In this respect one must first consider his intricate engagement with various traditions of philosophy, and his repeated claims that he was not a philosopher himself  but a mere poet/author whose interest in philosophy was for aesthetic aims. Is there a parallel between his use of philosophy for aesthetic purposes and his use of mysticism?



Mysticism for aesthetic purposes The relationship between Borges and philosophy has been extensively analysed; and the heart of many of  these studies is described by Bosteels (2006: 23) as the perennial question from the audience member in the front seat who, ‘with the triumphant smile of an ironist, remark[s] that the Argentine should not be taken so seriously since, after all, he is not a philosopher but a literary writer, that is, someone who merely toys with philosophical ideas for the sake of entertainment and aesthetic pleasure, without implying any systematic philosophy of  his own.’ To put it more simply: was Borges a philosopher? This question has been approached from the perspective that yes, he was a philosopher, if  taking the etymological roots of  the term as a lover of wisdom; that no, he was instead an ‘antiphilosopher’, in that his scepticism of philosophical discourses was itself systematic.4 Other responses to the contrary have been of fered, encapsulated in Victor Lange’s preface to the original English translation of  El Hacedor [Dreamtigers]: The ancestors of  this philosophy of detachment and self-doubt seem present at every moment of  Borges’ ref lections: the voice of  Pascal or Berkeley, of  Hume and Kant join to liberate the spirit of man from the confining reality of  this world; Heraclitus, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche testify to the eternal recurrence in which the single act becomes myth and symbol. Yet there is in Borges’ writings no coherent 4

‘[…] such a rejection of systematic thinking is in itself astonishingly systematic – so systematic, in fact, that it ceases to be astonishing at all. Indeed, the objection that Borges’s own delightful sense of irony defeats any and all attempts to of fer a systematic account of  his thinking falls squarely in line with a longstanding argument according to which all philosophers, in their millenarian love of  truth, sooner or later become prey to an arrogant illusion of mastery, and that the sheer thrill of  happiness, of enjoyment, or of pleasure, though perhaps no less inaccessible to us mere mortals, nonetheless is a worthier object of pursuit than the ever-elusive line of demarcation between opinion and truth that completely seems to absorb the philosopher since at least Plato. The reaction against philosophy as system not only forms a systematic tradition in its own right, but this tradition moreover hides a prestigious genealogy that as a minimum would have to include the likes of  Saint Paul, Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the early Wittgenstein’ (Bosteels 2006: 24).

10 Introduction attempt at elaborating his own or others’ philosophical positions; indeed, his distaste for any supposition of meaning leads him to insist that all systems of  thought, all philosophical or theological speculations are merely evidence of  that desperate compulsion to ref lect upon our own delusions; as such they are instances of  fantastic literature. And it is the agony of philosophical perplexity, those moments at which ‘the scruples and wonders of  thought’ appear at their most illusory, that are the matter of  Borges’ art. (Lange, in Borges 1970: xiii)

Borges himself emphasized that his appreciation of philosophers lay principally in his admiration of  the aesthetic value: the poetic language, the elegance of  the rhetoric and the finery of argumentation. Whilst admiring the aesthetics, he was nevertheless sceptical about the very nature of philosophy and its pretence to eternal truths. And yet, sceptical as he was, he nevertheless delved deeply into philosophy and its histories, exploring with delight the intellectual complexities and conundrums, the claims to truth, the inf luence of social context and the passing of philosophical fashions. He gently exposed what for him was the beautiful futility of philosophy in its attempt to explain the riddle of  the universe: ‘We can go on making guesswork – we will call that guesswork philosophy, which is really mere guesswork. We will go on weaving theories, and being very much amused by them, and then unweaving and taking other new ones’ (Barnstone 1982: 111), and he was keen to address this aesthetic quality of philosophical or theological systems. In the epilogue to Otras Inquisiciones, he argued that ‘Dos tendencias he descubierto [en] este volumen. Una, a estimar las ideas religiosas o filosóficas por su valor estético y aun por lo que encierran de singular y maravilloso. Esto es quizás indicio de un escepticismo esencial’ (1974: 775) [‘the first tendency [of  this volume] is to evaluate religious or philosophical ideas on the basis of  their aesthetic worth and even for what is singular and marvelous about them. Perhaps this is an indication of a basic skepticism’] (1964: 201). He declared to Ronald Christ that ‘I am a man of  letters who turns his own perplexities and that respected system of perplexities we call philosophy into the forms of  literature’ (Alazraki 1988: 31). To Richard Stern he declared: ‘I’m not really a thinker. I’m a literary man and I have done my best to use the literary possibilities of philosophy’ (Burgin 1998: 8). In a 1973 interview with María Esther Vázquez, he asserted that:



No soy filósofo ni metafísico; lo que he hecho es explotar, o explorar – es una palabra más noble –, las posibilidades literarias de la filosofía. […] Yo no tengo ninguna teoría del mundo. En general, como yo he usado los diversos sistemas metafísicos y teológicos para fines literarios, los lectores han creído que yo profesaba esos sistemas, cuando realmente lo único que he hecho ha sido aprovecharlos para esos fines, nada más. Además, si yo tuviera que definirme, me definiría como un agnóstico, es decir, una persona que no cree que el conocimiento sea posible. (Vázquez 1977: 107) [I am neither philosopher nor metaphysician. What I have done is exploit, or explore – a more noble word – the literary possibilities of philosophy. […] I have no theory of  the world. In general, seeing that I have used diverse metaphysical and theological systems for literary objectives, readers have believed that I have professed those systems, when really all that I have done has been employ them for those ends, nothing more. Furthermore, if  I had to define myself, it would be agnostic; that’s to say, someone who does not believe that knowledge is possible.] (My translation)

Lastly, he declared to Michael Palencia-Roth that his interest in all systems of  thought lay in the application of such systems for aesthetic purposes: MP-R: You say you’re not a thinker … Borges: No, what I mean to say is that I have no personal system of philosophy. I never attempt to do that. I am merely a man of  letters. In the same way, for example that – well, of course, I shouldn’t perhaps choose this as an example – in the same way that Dante used theology for the purpose of poetry, or Milton used theology for the purposes of  his poetry, why shouldn’t I use philosophy, especially idealistic philosophy – philosophy to which I was attracted – for the purposes of writing a tale, of writing a story? I suppose that is allowable, no? (Dutton 1977: 339)

From his repeated and emphatic statements, we can suggest that Borges employed a degree of  Kantian logic and Schopenhaurian scepticism in order to expose the frailty of philosophical, theological and metaphysical systems and doctrines. This does not derive from a position of intellectual arrogance, but more from a Jamesian location in which such belief systems are shown to be true only insofar as they relate to provisory human af fairs. Thus the ‘antiphilosophical’ stance of  Borges, which is indeed systematic, is gloriously inclusive, not selective, and celebrates the intellectual and aesthetical splendour of  his treasured artists, philosophers and metaphysicians. It is an agnostic position in its fullest sense.

12 Introduction

‘Being an agnostic’ Borges argued, ‘means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant’ (Shenker 1971).5 Agnosticism here should be appreciated in its etymological sense – not a position of disinterest in matters religious or spiritual, as it is habitually understood to signify, nor as simply not belonging to any particular faith group – but, as Borges describes, an acceptance that ultimate knowledge of  the mysteries of existence is not forthcoming. There are two immediately recognisable characteristics within Borges’ fiction, poetry, essays and interviews that demonstrate this agnostic position. Firstly, numerous texts conclude with a bathetic absence of revelation. For example, the narrator of  the tale ‘Pedro Salvadores’ of Elogio de la sombra concludes with ‘Como todas las cosas, el destino de Pedro Salvadores nos parece un símbolo de algo que estamos a punto de comprender’ (1974: 995) [‘As with so many things, the fate of  Pedro Salvadores strikes us as a symbol of something we are about to understand, but never quite do’] (1975a: 65). Most well-known, perhaps, is the conclusion of  ‘La Muralla y los Libros’ [‘The Wall & the Books’] (1950): La música, los estados de felicidad, la mitología, las caras trabajadas por el tiempo, ciertos crepúsculos y ciertos lugares, quieren decirnos algo, o algo dijeron que no hubiéramos debido perder, o están por decir algo; esta inminencia de una revelación, que no se produce, es, quizá, el hecho estético. (1974: 635) [Music, states of  happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places – all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.] (1964: 4)


Ever mercurial, Borges also recognized that ‘agnostic’ and ‘gnostic’ are vague and mutable words. He humorously def lects the sombre tone of  Barnstone’s question: ‘“Returning to the question of a personal god, are you a gnostic?” “I am an agnostic.” “No, a gnostic.” “Ah yes, I may be. Why not be Gnostics today and agnostics tomorrow? It’s all the same thing”’ (Barnstone 1982: 103).



Secondly, in countless interviews and essays Borges emphasized that this state of agnosticism leads not to despair but to rapt wonder at the mysteries inherent in the universe; indeed there is scarcely an interview in English in which Borges does not express his ‘amazement’, ‘baf f lement’, ‘wonder’ and ‘puzzlement’ confronted with these mysteries. He also repeatedly locates the English word ‘maze’ within ‘amazement’, and consequently perceives the motivation for his lifelong employment of  the maze or labyrinth in his art. ‘Mazes are to be explained by the fact that I live in a wonderful world. I mean, I am baf f led all the time by things. I am astonished at things’ (Barnstone 1982: 36). These many citations of  his late interviews do, of course, reveal a lessening of  the claustrophobic nature of  the earlier labyrinthine tales, such as ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ or ‘La muerte y la brújula’, and a greater sense of joy that the mysteries will remain always mysteries: I think of  them [mazes and labyrinths] as essential tokens, as essential symbols. I have not chosen them. They were given me. I stick to them because I find that they are the right symbols for my state of mind. I am always being baf f led, perplexed, so a maze is the right symbol. They are not, at least to me, literary devices or tricks. I don’t think of  them as tricks. They are part of my destiny, of my way of  feeling, of  living. I haven’t chosen them. (Barnstone 1982: 37)

There is, consequently, a profound paradox expressed in the agnostic position of  Borges. The philosophically-orientated mind seeks to understand a mystery whilst knowing it to be essentially mysterious. If  life’s meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn’t understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer. (Burgin 1998: 241)

This paradox may lead to a Sartrean despair at the absurdity of existence; indeed, two oft-quoted lines from the period of  the great Ficciones may be considered synoptic of  this worldview. The first, from the essay ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkens’ [‘The analytical language of  John Wilkens’] summarizes the conjectural and wholly anti-Platonic nature of categorized

14 Introduction

systems of  thought: ‘notoriamente no hay clasificación del universo que no sea arbitraria y conjetural. La razón es muy simple: no sabemos qué cosa es el universo’ (1974: 708) [‘obviously there is no classification of  the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. The reason is very simple: we do not know what the universe is’] (2000: 231). The other is uttered by the pedantic narrator of  ‘Pierre Menard’: ‘No hay ejercicio intelectual que no sea finalmente inútil. Una doctrina es al principio una descripción verosímil del universo; giran los años y es un mero capítulo – cuando no un párrafo o un nombre – de la historia de la filosofía’ (1974: 449–50) [‘There is no exercise of  the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of  the universe; with the passage of  the years it becomes a mere chapter – if not a paragraph or a name – in the history of philosophy’] (1976: 70). This uselessness, however, need not be the cause of despair, but the perpetual epistemological challenge that maintains our intellectual drive. Indeed, the Borges narrator of  ‘John Wilkens’ qualifies his earlier assertion by stressing the necessity of such provisory systems: ‘La imposibilidad de penetrar el esquema divino del universo no puede, sin embargo, disuadirnos de planear esquemas humanos, aunque nos conste que éstos son provisorios’ (1974: 708) [‘But the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of  the universe cannot dissuade us from outlining human schemes, even though we are aware that they are provisional’] (2000: 213). As such, the deep exploration of philosophical systems inevitably creates a critical distance that allows for conf licting or even contradictory systems not to compete but to combine and enrich the tapestry of epistemologies. In philosophical matters, this critical distance may be seen simply as not advocating any one philosopher or school of  thought over another. In religious and theological matters, this of course implies not placing faith in a particular doctrine.



‘Undr’ and ‘Utopía de un hombre que está cansado’: the tension of wonder and despair This critical distance can become a conundrum. Throughout his writing career, Borges displayed a tension between a radical and deep-rooted scepticism and a fascination with and deep respect for religious, spiritual and mystical aspects of  human experience. This is present in his essays from the 1920s, such as the 1926 ‘Historia de los ángeles’ [‘History of  Angels’] (from El tamaño de mi esperanza), where his examination of angels throughout history provides them with some undetermined ontological status akin to the unconscious archetypes that Jung described, and the 1922 ‘La nadería de la personalidad’ [‘The Nothingness of  Personality’] (from Inquisiciones), in which his deconstruction of  the self – rigorous, rational and to an extent nihilist – has nevertheless been interpreted as a germinating aspect of  his fascination with Buddhism (Barili 1998). The tension is illustrated powerfully in El Libro de Arena, in which opposing forces exert their exacting power over two tales: the devastation, emptiness, meaninglessness and utter bleakness of  ‘Utopía de un hombre que está cansado’ [‘Utopia for a Tired Man’], and the rapt, ecstatic, mystical ‘wonder’ of  ‘Undr’. Borges presented a Gnostic sensibility, akin to Jung’s narrative of  Answer to Job, in which man is empowered by his understanding that he is part of  the divine – that the divine needs man to be whole. He discussed in many interviews his fondness for Shaw’s perspective that ‘God is in the making’ (Burgin 1998: 209). In the dystopian landscape of  ‘Utopía de un hombre que está cansado’ man has lost his sense of  the divinity, and has consequently lost the sense of wonder at the mystery of  life. The old man tells the narrator: ‘Hay quienes piensan que es un órgano de la divinidad para tener conciencia del universo, pero nadie sabe con certidumbre si hay tal divinidad’ (1989: 54) [‘Some people think man is an organ of  the godhead for universal consciousness, but nobody knows for sure whether such a godhead exists’] (1979: 68). Reason, intellect and cynicism have trumped the passion for existence and sense of awe at the mysteries of

16 Introduction

nature. In this Gulliver-esque tale the future is full of old, tired, people, free of earthly trappings but having found no illumination concerning the riddle of existence. The Borges-like narrator and his Borges-like host have abandoned themselves to despondent cynicism, dulled by governments and politics, dulled by nations and peoples, dulled by language and history; indeed the old man sees it as hubris to attempt to gather meaning from existence. Once having lived out their allotted one hundred years, the old folk end their days by voluntarily entering the gas chamber designed by the ‘filántropo’ Hitler. Knowing Borges’ reaction to Hitler and the Third Reich, the irony in this is severe. In the epilogue to the volume, Borges says of  this tale: ‘[…] es, a mi juicio, la pieza más honesta y melancólica de la serie’ (1989: 72) ‘[[it] is in my judgement the most honest and melancholy piece in the collection’] (1979: 93). The opposite polarity is presented in ‘Undr’, a tale brimming with movement, energy and desire, with the narrator visiting strange lands with strange kings and strange languages, searching throughout for the Word – a single word that combines all the mystery of  the poetic craft and as such all the wonder of existence. At end of  tale the narrator recounts his travels to Thorkelsson, an old poet, who responds: ‘A mí también la vida me dio todo. A todos la vida les da todo, pero los más lo ignoran. Mi voz está cansada y mis dedos débiles, pero escúchame.’ Dijo la palabra Undr, que quiere decir maravilla. Me sentí arrebatado por el canto del hombre que moría, pero en su canto y en su acorde vi mis; propios trabajos, la esclava que me dio el primer amor, los hombres que maté, las albas de frío, la aurora sobre el agua, los remos. Tomé el arpa y canté con una palabra distinta. ‘Está bien’, dijo el otro y tuve que acercarme para oírlo. ‘Me has entendido.’ (1989: 51) [‘Life gave me everything as well. Life gives everything to everyone, but most men are unaware of it. My voice is tired and my fingers weak, but listen to me.’ He took up his harp and uttered the word ‘undr’, which means ‘wonder’. The dying man’s song held me rapt, but in it and in his chords I recognized my own verses, the slave woman who gave me my first love, the men I had killed, the chill of dawn, daybreak over the water, the oars. I took up the harp and sang to a dif ferent word. ‘All right,’ the other man said, and I had to draw close to hear him. ‘You have understood.’] (1979: 63)



Both tales construct their narrative upon a foundation of ignorance of  the divine, yet they portray radically contrasting perspectives of  this agnostic position. The narrator and the aged euthanist of  ‘Utopía …’ have followed the trail that Borges beat in ‘La nadería de la personalidad’ of exposing the substancelessness of  the fabric of reality. Politics, nations, language and even the human race have been hollowed out and jettisoned as mere ephemera of endless and useless cycles and repetitions; and suicide is the inevitable cessation of  this meaningless existence. The narrator of ‘Undr’, on the other hand, has no firmer teleological understanding, but is empowered to kiss the joy as it f lies and sing to this glorious meaninglessness. In scrutinising the many interviews that Borges performed throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, it is strikingly clear how both visions are present in his philosophical outlook: his exclamations of delighted baf f lement and rapt wonder come in equal measure to his anticipation of  ‘being blotted out, [of  being] sick and tired of myself, [and] greedy for death’ (Barnstone 1982: 17). Whilst on the one hand this is a polarity of despair and joy, it is a dialectic that can be perceived at many further levels: reason and intuition, intellect and emotion, empiricism and esotericism, the revealed and the occult, fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. These are dif ficult polarities to reconcile. Borges, for example, maintained the same degree of critical distance vis-à-vis mysticism as he maintained with philosophy: ‘Many people have thought of me as a thinker, as a philosopher, or even as a mystic. […] People think that I’ve committed myself  to idealism, to solipsism, or to doctrines of  the cabala, because I’ve used them in my tales. But really I was only trying to see what could be done with them’ (Burgin 1998: 79). Whilst we should be cautious of  leaping to call Borges a mystic, for the reasons that are explored in Chapter Two, nevertheless we need to appraise the deeper ramifications of  this insistence that his interests in all systems of  thought were purely aesthetic. My reading of  Borges over the last five years has accompanied a close reading with weekly group discussions of  the works of  Jung. It has become an increasingly motivating enterprise to perceive the close af finities between Jung and Borges, not at the level of personal connections (although Borges did read Jung and commented on his works, and there are intermediary contacts between them, such as Victoria Ocampo and Gershom Scholem),

18 Introduction

but at the level of  their shared interests.6 Of most concern for us here is the tension of opposites that is central to both their works.

The case of  Jung Jung underwent a period of psychic crisis in his thirties, yet kept secret the harrowing accounts of  his experience with the unconscious entities and the discarnate dead, documenting them in great majesty in the Liber Novus which he never published (it was published in 2009 as The Red Book). He was aware that his experiences constituted a radical discord with the ontological certainties held by himself and the wider public, and he was fully cognizant of  the ridicule that he would face amongst friends and peers if he claimed that he conversed with Old Testament prophets and the dead. Even as late as 1958, his essay on UFOs concentrates almost entirely in evaluating the ‘psychic cause’ and ‘psychic ef fect’ of  the phenomenon, and not the phenomenon itself. Jung was emphatic in the critical distance maintained


There is much to link Borges and Jung at three levels: firstly, as I discuss in Chapter Five, Borges’ engagement with Jung’s psychological works. Secondly, Jung’s and Borges’ debt to William James; their reading of mystics, especially Swedenborg, Dante, Jakob Böhme, Angelus Silesius, Meister Eckhardt, Blake; their admiration of  Schopenhauer and Kant; their reading of  Gnosticism, hermeticism and alchemy, especially Paracelsus; their interpretation of  the Book of  Job; their critical reading of  Joyce; their critique through a mythological prism of  the Third Reich; their interest in the epistemological value of  fantasy, imagination, myth, symbols and dreams. Thirdly, biographical parallels: their association with Gershom Scholem; their connection with Victoria Ocampo (she met Jung and sponsored Ramón Gómez de la Serna to translate Psychological Types [Tipos psicológicos: Buenos Aires 1945], the first Spanish translation). One might object to a comparative appraisal of  Borges and Jung based on the idea that Jung was a psychologist and Borges an artist. I would argue, however, that Jung was manifestly an artist (viz The Red Book) and that Borges was fascinated by the complexities of  the psyche. In this and other respects their projects have far more in common than has hitherto been acknowledged.



through scientific objectivity, which permitted him, like Borges, to explore with great enthusiasm all manner of alchemical, gnostic, mystical, hermetic and occult texts without abandoning robust ‘empiricism’. Whilst Borges may have stressed that his interest lay in ‘the merely aesthetic’, Jung would argue that his interest was in the psychological aspect of  these systems of  thought. Yet it becomes apparent through a scrutiny of  Jung’s work that he felt torn between his desire to be a scientist and his inclination towards philosophy, theology and metaphysics as maps not only of  the human psyche, but of reality itself. That is to say that his concerns were not merely epistemological but ontological also. This is evident in his strident riposte as footnote in his work on UFOs: ‘It is a common and totally unjustified misunderstanding on the part of scientifically trained people to say that I regard the psychic background as something “metaphysical,” while on the other hand the theologians accuse me of  “psychologizing” metaphysics. Both are wide of  the mark: I am an empiricist, who keeps within the boundaries set for him by the theory of  knowledge’ (1958: 328).7 There is so much to be elucidated from this, especially given the arbitrary nature of  the terms employed, such as ‘empiricist’ and ‘theory of  knowledge’. Jung was obviously pulled between intuition and education, and even when he did consider the ontological possibility of  the UFO (in the final chapter


A number of commentators, not least Jung himself, have observed his vociferous appeal to the reader not to consider him anything other than a rational scientific empiricist. Note a later footnote to the text on UFOs: ‘Here I must beg the reader to eschew the popular misconception that this background is “metaphysical”. This view is a piece of gross carelessness of which even professional people are guilty. It is far more of a question of instincts which inf luence not only our outward behaviour but also the psychic structure. The psyche is not an arbitrary fantasy; it is a biological fact subject to the laws of  life’ (1958: 346). It is important to note that this footnote pertains to a paragraph in which he declares: ‘Since the discovery of  the empirical unconscious the psyche and what goes on in it have become a natural fact and are no longer an arbitrary opinion’ (346). Some may suggest that in equating the unconscious to a natural law of physics, he is demonstrating a level of dogmatic faith in his discovery such as he observed in Freud’s defence of  ‘pleasure and its frustration’ (348) being the sole roots of psychic illness.

20 Introduction

of  his investigation) he concentrated not on the phenomenon itself, but on the psychic response to it, the projection of psychic energy upon it. In a similar fashion, Borges would argue that his interests lay in their aesthetic value, as if  that negates any speculation about the actual questions raised in metaphysics, psychology (and parapsychology) and religious and mystical texts. Yet both Borges and Jung were clearly deeply drawn to such liminal, mysterious, levels of  human experience, and their safety lines in these dark caves were literature and psychology respectively. The publication of  The Red Book has inspired a fresh approach to Jung, an approach hinted at since early publications of  Von Franz, Jaf fé, Hannah, Jacobi and others, but rarely stated outright: that Jung did consider such matters at their ontological level. Of f-beat scholars and certain leftfield practitioners have been calling Jung a mystic and a shaman for decades (at least since 1962 when Memories Dreams Ref lections was published in English). Aniela Jaf fé’s essay ‘Was C.G. Jung a mystic?’ (1989) focuses from the opening page on the tension between Jung’s mystic sensibilities and his insistence on principles of empiricism, observing that Jung reacted strongly against any claims that he was anything other than a scientific observer. Gary Lachman’s recent Jung the mystic (2010), as the title suggests, testifies to the mystical nature of  Jung, and he appraises with sensitivity the double nature present in Jung: ‘Jung seemed to have two minds about the supernatural: a public one that wanted to understand it “scientifically,” and a private one that acknowledged ghosts, visions, and premonitions as part of  the essential mystery of  life’ (4). Lachman also cites Anthony Storr, who writes in his book Feet of  Clay: A Study of  Gurus that ‘Jung was a guru’ (in Lachman 2010: 6). Jungian analyst Roger Woolger, in his review of  Jung’s Red Book (Woolger’s final publication prior to his death in 2011), declared outright that Jung displayed all the characteristics commonly associated with shamans, calling Jung ‘the Hidden Shaman’: Now that we have the record of  Jung’s struggles to integrate the polarities of scientistphilosopher versus mystic within his soul we can also see how they urged upon him another mantle that he was very reluctant to wear – because so many have been ridiculed and persecuted for wearing it – that of shaman-prophet. […] The evidence of  the Red Book and of  those who knew him intimately us that Jung was very much



a shaman. […] Perhaps Shamdasani shies away from calling Jung a ‘shaman’ because ‘shamanism’ is not politically correct in academic or conservative professional circles in Britain. (2011: 4–5).

I have no intention of suggesting that Borges was a shaman or guru, terms which have a stricter definition than mystic, though equally problematic. However, the parallel drawn with Jung here is helpful in illustrating a perplexing dialogue between polarities present in Borges. Neither am I assuming that an equivalent Red Book – a secret illuminated manuscript of  Borges’ encounters with the dead – will be unearthed and published to corroborate such a position. I would argue that such a discovery is not necessary; the published work of  Borges – poems, tales, essay, reviews and interviews – is replete with subtle indications that Borges, like Jung, was fascinated with the more anomalous aspects of  human experience at a level beyond the ‘mere aesthetic’. In an appraisal of  his many writings, it becomes evident that he read extensively and sympathetically in the traditions of mystical, spiritual and esoteric texts. My argument is that there is a limit to the capacity of a reader to explore such texts to the extent that Borges did if, ultimately, one is not predisposed towards them. Borges, like Jung, was a reader of alchemical texts, dramatizing, for example, the aged figure of  Paracelsus in one of  his final tales ‘La Rosa de Paracelsus’. One can also identify his inveterate interest in hermetic philosophy (he discusses Ficino and Giordano Bruno in Libro de los seres imaginarios [Book of  Imaginary Beings] with Margarita Guerrero), Neoplatonism (‘Historia de la eternidad’ [‘A History of  Eternity’]), daimonic beings (Libro de seres imaginarios [Book of  Imaginary Beings], ‘Las Ruinas circulares’ [‘The Circular Ruins’]), esoteric societies (‘Tlön’, ‘Los Conjurados’, ‘El Congreso’), Gnosticism (‘Una vindicación del falso Basílides’ [‘A Vindication of  the False Basilides’],8


‘That Borges’ work demonstrates certain Gnostic leanings and concepts is welldocumented, but it is generally ignored in deconstructive criticism’s haste to erase the logos in the name of its own brand of indeterminacy and deferral. It is much fairer to view Borges’ Gnosticism, particularly his af finity for the “malevolent demiurge” who creates an imperfect universe, as his own attempt to work through the concerns

22 Introduction

‘Tres versiones de Judas’ [‘Three Versions of  Judas]), anomalies in time (‘J. W. Dunne’, ‘El milagro secreto’ [‘The Secret Miracle’]), persistence of  the soul after death (‘Diálogo de muertos’ [‘Dead men’s dialogue’]), the many discussions of  transmigration of  the soul, depth psychology (his many citations of  Jung), eschatology (poem ‘Doomsday’), and so on. He was likewise a devoted reader of  Angelus Silesius, and translated Silesius’ challenging Cherubinischer Wandersmann with María Kodama.9 He was a dedicated reader of  Dante, of  William Blake and Sufi poets. He was also a reader of  Theosophy, describing his surprise at being unable to find the works of Swedenborg in Theosophical bookshops, a statement which would imply that he frequented them.10 He made many references to William James, Jung, Rudolf Steiner and the later works of  Aldous Huxley. I would argue that it is dif ficult to make meaningful statements about James, Jung, Steiner, or Huxley without entering their challenging works with energy and sympathy. He cites Ouspensky (‘Historia de la eternidad’, ‘Los conjurados’), a perplexing writer whose works are dif ficult to summarize based on only a rudimentary reading.11 Likewise, as I explore in Chapter One,

9 10


of  theodicy, and his sense of  the inadequacy of orthodox religions’ ef forts to do so’ (Soud 1995: 748). ‘I was translating, with María Kodama, Angelus Silesius’ Cherubinischer Wandersmann and we came to the same statement that if a soul is damned it is forever in hell’ (Barnstone 1982: 8). ‘Yo sé que en la Biblioteca Nacional hay un ejemplar de Del cielo, del infierno y sus maravillas. Pero en algunas librerías teosóficas no se encuentran obras de Swedenborg’ (2005: 202) [‘I know that in the National Library there is an edition of  Heaven and Hell. But you will not find Swedenborg’s works in Theosophical bookshops’] (my translation). Ouspensky is a name generally associated with Gurdjief f, a particularly curious guru figure of  the early twentieth century whose inf luence was felt upon writers, painters, film directors, philosophers and even politicians on both sides of  the Atlantic. The Borges-Gurdjief f-Ouspensky connection is obscure, and whilst I can find no reference to Gurdjief f in Borges’ writing, it would seem likely that Borges’ knowledge of  Ouspensky’s works would guarantee him at least a passing knowledge of  Gurdjief f. James Webb (1987: 492) writes that Borges attended a Gurdjief f group in Argentina though provides no evidence. Likewise Gurdjief f scholar Sophia Wellbeloved (2003: xxvii) attests that Borges attended meetings on Gurdjief f ’s Work in Buenos Aires,



Borges read Swedenborg with great devotion, and died with the project still unrealized of writing an entire book on Swedenborg’s voyages to the heavens and hells. He paid close attention to Swedenborg’s otherworld journeys, the angelic and demonic beings Swedenborg encountered there, his communication with the discarnate dead, and his description of  the process of death, all the while adamant that Swedenborg was not a madman. In defending Swedenborg against charges of insanity, therefore, Borges would appear to defend the possibility that Swedenborg’s adventures were neither fantasy, fiction nor hallucination. This splendidly tolerant attitude, which Borges would correlate with the tolerance inherent in agnosticism, needs to be assessed in light of  Borges’ scepticism – even cynicism – regarding faith. There is a sensitivity and sensibility to such matters visible in Borges’ work that demonstrate something more than mere material for story-telling. Borges, as I explore in this book, investigated mysticism in particular with a series of questions and arguments that reveals a level of deep personal investment. This tension of polarities is likewise visible in the Libro del cielo y del infierno, which Borges edited with Bioy Casares, which contains passages

but provides no evidence that Borges even read Gurdjief f : ‘Jorge Luis Borges is said to have attended meetings in Argentina in the 1950s. By then Gurdjief f ’s inf luence was widespread in South America.’ In email communication with Wellbeloved, she explained to me that this notion derived not from Webb, but from her communication with Gurdjief f scholar Martin Wallace who had, she wrote, met Borges and had asked him whether he knew Ouspensky’s – and by extension Gurdjief f ’s – works. Wellbeloved explained to me: ‘Martin Wallace wrote the introduction to the second edition of my Gurdjief f, Astrology and Beelzeub’s Tales. I asked him by email if  he thought that Borges had been inf luenced by Ouspensky, and he sent me an email recounting meeting Borges and asking him the same question, Borges replied by immediately reciting the entire list of cosmoses from memory, an achievement as you can see, you can find them in In Search of  the Miraculous (1949), which gives and account of  Gurdjief f ’s teaching in Russia before the revolution. Ouspensky was obsessed with theories of  time and also recurrence, this was an aspect of what he taught that was in addition to Gurdjief f ’s teaching’ (private email correspondence). The true extent of  the inf luence or co-interests of  Borges, Gurdjief f and Ouspensky remains to be fully explored.

24 Introduction

from Swedenborg alongside an extract from Bertrand Russell’s An Outline of  Intellectual Rubbish. The brief passage from Russell that Borges and Bioy included comes from an essay in which Russell systematically lambasts all manner of woolly-brained thinking that he detected in religious, spiritual and superstitious texts and practices throughout the ages and across the cultures. It was published in 1943 and much of  Russell’s venom is directed against the Nazis and their political mythologies. It is noteworthy, therefore, that Borges and Bioy chose to include an extract from this essay, as the essence of  the essay would clearly dismiss any notion of  heavens, hells or the afterlife as nonsense; indeed the brief extract concerns Russell’s snide dismissal of  F. W. H. Myers’ claims to have been able to communicate with the dead.12 There is much of  Russell in Borges: the disdain for the dogma of  faith, the baf f lement at the readiness of  the faithful to abandon not only reason but also the authority of experience, the prodigious memory, cruel wit and sharp intellect. Their comments on the Nazis and the Third Reich are equally scornful. However, Russell was keen to dismiss matters of  theology, esotericism, spiritualism, religion, as ‘nonsense’, ‘absurdity’, and ‘rubbish’. Despite their intellectual kinship, the same cannot be said for Borges, whose tolerance would permit him greater warmth to such matters. The appearance of  Russell, therefore, in a book by Borges which claims in its prologue to seek ‘lo esencial, sin descuidar lo vivido, lo onírico y lo paradójico’ (1983: 7) [‘the essential, without overlooking the experiential, the oneiric and the paradoxical’] (my translation) of matters of  the afterlife is therefore particularly arresting, as it demonstrates the presence of radical scepticism and philosophical scrutiny alongside intellectual curiosity, aesthetic appreciation, and metaphysical wonder.


It would be fascinating to find further references to Myers in Borges’ work, as Myers – a close friend of  William James – maintained a strongly scientific methodology, married to a healthy scepticism, in his exploration of  the survival of  the soul after death.



‘Defiéndeme Dios de mi’ Borges writes in ‘Avatares de la Tortuga’ [‘Avatars of  the Tortoise’] of  the dream-like nature of reality, and postulates that the anomalies and vagueries that are encountered might suggest our own participation in the construction of reality: ‘El mayor hechicero (escribe memorablemente Novalis) sería el que se hechizara hasta el punto de tomar sus propias fantasmagorías por apariciones autónomas. ¿No sería ése nuestro caso?’ Yo conjeturo que así es. Nosotros (la indivisa divinidad que opera en nosotros) hemos soñado el mundo. Lo hemos soñado resistente, misterioso, visible, ubicuo en el espacio y firme en el tiempo; pero hemos consentido en su arquitectura tenues y eternos intersticios de sinrazón para saber que es falso. (1974: 258) [‘The greatest sorcerer (writes Novalis memorably) would be the one who bewitched himself  to the point of  taking his own phantasmagorias for autonomous apparitions. Would not this be true of us?’ I believe that it is. We (the undivided divinity that operates within us) have dreamed the world. We have dreamed it strong, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and secure in time, but we have allowed tenuous, eternal interstices of injustice in its structure so we may know that it is false.] (1964: 120)

This is a powerful statement, and deserves to be appraised as more than a mere philosophical reference to Novalis; indeed the fictional nature of reality forms a deep hermeneutic current throughout Borges’ work. Importantly, Borges identifies here the ‘intersticios de sinrazón’ that suggest that not all aspects of reality conform to patterns identifiable with the epistemological tool of reason. Some matters, as Jung argued with regard anomalies of reality, operated acausally. One such anomaly that was of such interest to Jung was the contested phenomenon of  ‘meaningful coincidence’, which he dubbed ‘synchronicity’. It is important to stress that the impact of  Jung’s theory lies not with the idea that a subject can attribute meaning to a series of random coincidences – an idea that bears no ontological inference – but that the psyche of  the individual and the external events are in some undetermined mutual exchange (Main 2004). This, as a scientific rather than a religious theory, is still notably challenging, as it presupposes a conscious dimension to reality. Borges took this matter

26 Introduction

seriously whilst never abandoning his sceptical scrutiny. In an interview with Burgin he described a possible synchronistic event and suggested an explanatory conclusion that displays sympathy with the deeper ontological implications of  Jung’s theory, whilst maintaining a sceptical, almost cynical, standpoint. So illustrative is the episode of  the curious tension in Borges between scepticism and a predisposition to religious experience that it deserves citation in full: Borges: […] I’m on the lookout for symmetries. Burgin: You’ve criticized yourself  before for always looking for the symmetries, the mirrors, the labyrinths in life. Do you really feel that way or … Borges: No, no, I feel that way. But perhaps coincidences are given to us that would involve the idea of a secret plan, no? Coincidences are given to us so that we may feel there is a pattern – that there is a pattern in life, that things mean something. Of course, there is a pattern in the sense that we have night and day, the four seasons, being born, living and dying, the stars and so on, but there may be a more subtle kind of pattern, no? Burgin: Within each individual’s life. Borges: Yes, within each individual’s life, because I find so many coincidences. Of course, as many things happen, coincidences are bound to happen also, but I find very strange coincidences and they are of no use whatever to me except for the fact that they leave a pattern. For example, Bioy Casares and I were working on a translation of  Sir Thomas Browne. That translation never found its way into print, because the editors said there was no interest in that and forgot all about it. Now we found a sentence in Sir Thomas Browne in Spanish, ‘defiéndeme Dios de mí.’ Only he made a mistake and he wrote ‘defiéndeme Dios de me.’ Now where else could he have got that from? Well, of course, we corrected the mistake and wrote ‘defiéndeme Dios de mí.’ A day or so later, I went to Mitchell’s Book Store in Buenos Aires […] and in the basement I found a new translation of  Montaigne into English. I opened one of  the volumes at random and there I found ‘defiéndeme Dios de mí,’ and with the same misprint, ‘de me.’ The editor, of course he had no Spanish, he thought that Montaigne knew all about it. And then, as I knew that Sir Thomas Browne had been a close reader of  Montaigne, there was the clue I had been looking for. He had found that quotation in Montaigne, and the proof  lay in the misprint, no? Well, I felt greatly elated at the discovery and I went that night to see Bioy Casares and I had jotted down where the edition of  Montaigne might be


27 found. And we were working over an anthology of  Spanish verse. He had those books of  Rivadeneyra in a collection, he had a pile of  them on the table. While I was talking to him, he opened one of  the books, and there he found a poem of  Cristóbal de Castillejo, Garcilaso’s enemy, glossing the line ‘defiéndeme Dios de mí.’ I said, ‘Look here, I found it in Montaigne this morning.’ We would have had to have examined thousands of volumes in thousands of years and perhaps never found out these things. And then we felt very proud. Of course, we wrote a short note (in the translation), saying Sir Thomas Browne took this quotation from essay number so and so of  Montaigne where the same misprint is found and so on. […] You see, there you had a coincidence, and the coincidence was of no use whatever. (Burgin 1969: 110–12)13

There is much to glean from this quite remarkable episode. Firstly, and significantly, Burgin does not respond to Borges’ lengthy account, but changes the subject. This demonstrates the unease that such a radical position presented by Borges can occasion in his readers and listeners. Secondly, it is striking how like a ficción this episode is, most of all the parallels with ‘Tlön’: a furtive citation discovered by Borges and Bioy; further discoveries of  the citation in arcane volumes; links through literary-philosophical authors: Castillejo, Garcilaso, Montaigne; and the shadowy presence of  Sir Thomas Brown. Borges’ language is also revealing. He suggests, for example, that ‘coincidences are given to us’, and that ‘there may be a more subtle kind of pattern’. Such statements, whimsical as they may be, nevertheless imply some manner of extrinsic guiding principle upon life – an external authorship – a divine force. Again, I am not seeking the deist in Borges, but I am revealing the Jungian perspective present in Borges of perceiving an interrelationship between psyche and matter. He also twice mentions the uselessness of  the coincidence, emphasizing that the only use was ‘the fact that they leave a pattern’. This, conversely, is a most valuable use as it serves 13

Importantly, Bioy Casares writes of  this episode, presenting it with exactly the same detail as Borges. He titles it ‘un recuerdo’ (2006: 1540). So close is Bioy’s rendition of  the episode to Borges’ that one wonders whether he was using Borges’ interview extract as his basis. Bioy obviously felt the episode to be intriguing enough to warrant its own inclusion in his memoirs, yet he of fers no assessment of  the nature of  the coincidence, nor any examination of  the phrase itself.

28 Introduction

to demonstrate this challenging assumption that there may be a conscious dimension to what is otherwise considered mere non-conscious matter. Furthermore, as any Jungian analyst would immediately do, one must consider the nature of  the mysterious phrase itself, ‘defiéndeme Dios de me/ mí.’ The issue of misspelling is important, as curiously both Montaigne and then Brown write: Defenda me Dios de me. Montaigne includes it whilst discussing the pain to the soul of physical illness,14 Browne, whilst inveighing against the split between spiritual righteousness and bodily desire.15 The phrase itself, as Bioy suggested, originated from St Augustine’s City of  God, in which Augustine pertinently confronts the tension between righteousness and the desire for sin, though why Montaigne selected the Spanish version is unclear. Montaigne, Browne and, by extension, Augustine, are consequently concerned with the tension of opposites, and they summon God to help reconcile these opposites. Yet Montaigne and Brown resort to a misspelt expression in Spanish in order to summon that help, thereby unwittingly entangling themselves in the very human limitations of  language. Borges, in highlighting this episode, appears fully cognizant of its curious nature, yet he appears not to dwell on the phrase itself. Why the curious plea to the divine? Why should Borges call on God to save himself  from himself ? One might argue that the phrase embodies the friction generated between rational, sceptical enquiry and an intuition of  the non-rational. There is far more to be elucidated from this, not least an exploration of  Castillejo. However, this wholly overlooked episode, ignored even by the interviewer, is charged with meaningful relationship with the very tension that I have highlighted in Borges.



‘“Defenda me Dios de me.” I am sorry when I am sick, that I have not some longing that might give me the pleasure of satisfying it; all the rules of physic would hardly be able to divert me from it. I do the same when I am well; I can see very little more to be hoped or wished for. ’Twere pity a man should be so weak and languishing, as not to have even wishing left to him’ (Montaigne 1910: 613). ‘I feel that original canker corrode and devour me; and therefore Defenda me DIOS de me, “LORD deliver me from my self,” is a part of my Letany, and the first voice of my retired imaginations. There is no man alone, because every man is a Microcosm, and carries the whole World about him’ (Browne 2003: 114).



Like Jung, Borges achieved fame and success in his life, travelled widely and met with many well-known figures. Jung describes at the beginning of  Memories, Dreams, Ref lections that none of  these experiences was of  lasting importance in his later reminiscences; instead it was the experience of  the unconscious – of  the numinous – that characterized his life’s work. In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chief ly of inner experiences, amongst which I include my dreams and visions. These form the prima materia of my scientific work. They were the fiery magma out of which the stone that had to be worked was crystallized. All other memories of  travels, people and my surroundings have paled beside these interior happenings. ( Jung 1989: 4–5)

Were Borges to have produced the equivalent of  Jung’s memoirs (beyond the ‘Autobiographical essay’) it is highly likely that his recollections would likewise have concentrated on the more ‘timeless’ aspects of  his life experiences, and not on the more mundane. I would argue, indeed, that the many interviews of  the 1970s and 1980s themselves constitute his oral autobiography, and that his dialogues with Burgin, Barnstone, Enguídanos, di Giovanni, Barili and others inevitably encircle the deep wells of  timeless moments – poetry, dreams, literature, symbols – rather than his encounters with political and cultural figures. Mystical experience, as we will investigate in Chapters Two and Three, was for Borges a sensation of moving beyond the mundane passage of  time into a of state of  timelessness. It is at this level, as Jung also acknowledged, that the ‘intersticios de sinrazón’ are most prone to occur: a conversation with a dead friend, a glimpse of  the future or a moment of deep inspiration.16 Borges paid particular attention to this deeper area of consciousness, suggesting in two particular texts that


‘[Y]ou know there are these peculiar faculties of  the psyche, that it isn’t entirely confined to space and time. You can have dreams or visions of  the future, you can see around corners, and such things. Only ignorance denies these facts, you know; it’s quite evident that they do exist, and have existed always. Now these facts show that the psyche, in part at least, is not dependent upon these confinements. And then what? When the psyche is not under that obligation to live in time and space alone, and obviously it doesn’t, then to that extent the psyche is not subjected to those

30 Introduction

his truest sense of self was that area of  the psyche ‘untouched by time’. He dedicated Historia universal de la infamia to S. D., of fering her [in English] ‘that kernel of myself  that I have saved, somehow – the central heart that deals not in words, traf fics not with dreams, and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities’ (1974: 293). He dedicated the ‘Two English Poems’ (1934) to Beatriz Bibiloni Webster de Bullrich of fering her also ‘that kernel of myself  that I have saved, / somehow – the central heart that deals not / in words, traf fics not with dreams, and is / untouched by time, by joy, by adversities’ (1993: 179). This is the visionary element, the deeper, transpersonal part of  his being, the dark layers of unconscious described by Jung. These are the depths that I seek to explore in this book.

‘Hypotheses that transcend reason are more appealing’ But wait! The reader may cry, the fact that Borges wrote fictions in which anomalous episodes emerge does not mean either that he experienced such matters nor that he gave them any credence. This is a valid point, and indeed we should never forget that Borges was an artist, and therefore a merchant of artifice. The writer of a ghost story need not believe in ghosts; a scholar of religion need not be religious. For example, when Borges writes in Atlas (1985): ‘veo en los sueños o converso con muertos, sin que ninguna de esas dos cosas me asombre’ (1989: 430) [‘Asleep, in my dreams, I see or converse with the dead. None of  these things surprises me in the least’] (1985: 54); or when he writes of a dream, also in Atlas: ‘En un restaurante del centro, Haydée Lange y yo conversábamos. […] De pronto recordé que Haydée Lange había muerto hace mucho tiempo. Era un fantasma y no lo sabía. No sentí miedo; sentí que era imposible y quizá descortés revelarle que era un fantasma, un hermoso fantasma’ (1989: 438) [‘Haydée Lange and I laws, and that means a practical continuation of  life, of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space’ ( Jung 1993: 437).



were conversing in a restaurant in the center of  town. […] All of a sudden, I remembered that Haydée Lange had died a long time ago. She was a ghost and didn’t know it. I felt no fear, but felt it would not be right, and perhaps rude, to reveal to her that she was a ghost, a lovely ghost’] (1985: 67), one can only conjecture what level of personal experience provided the background for such textual creations. We know, for example, that Borges placed great noetic value on dreams and nightmares. What level of communication, consequently, occurred between Borges and the dead Haydée Lange? I argue in Chapter Two, with reference to Jef frey Kripal’s (2001) evaluation of  the key scholars of mysticism, that a level is clearly reached at which thorough exploration of a phenomenon like mysticism cannot be sustained by sceptical, objective, impartiality if it is to succeed with any integrity. A threshold of scepticism is always crossed if  the scholar of mysticism is able to contribute anything of any value to the scholarship. This, I argue, is the case with Borges. And yet, in true mercurial fashion, Borges danced back and forth across this threshold; in his earlier writings demonstrating a more rigorous, intellectual scepticism, in his later works displaying a more world-weary, whimsical acquiescence to the persistence of mystery. Nevertheless, like Jung, he brandished his keen intellect and encyclopaedic knowledge of  texts as the means of preventing credulity or adherence to doctrine. There is not the sense, such as Lachman identifies in Jung, that Borges was determined not to be ‘draped in the unwanted robes of mysticism’ (2010: 4); rather I would argue that his inveterate iconoclasm, mistrust of doctrine, and admiration of  heresy made him defensive of  being taken for credulous. Note that in the essay on nightmares in Siete Noches, Borges criticizes British anthropologist, folklorist, and classical scholar, Sir James Frazer for being ‘muy crédulo, ya que parece aceptar todo cuanto le cuentan los viajeros’ (1989: 222) [‘extremely credulous, as it seems he believed everything reported by the various travellers’] (1984: 28). Borges, it would appear, would be more wary of  being labelled credulous than a mystic. As his numerous interviews and essays testify, Borges appeared to equate belief – whether religious, philosophical or even political – with a surrender of one’s intellect and faculty of critical enquiry. One senses in Borges that believers are somehow gullible. When evaluating a peculiar coincidence of dreams associated

32 Introduction

with Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, for example, Borges displays a similar defensive position observable in Jung: ‘Quienes de antemano rechazan lo sobrenatural (yo trato, siempre, de pertenecer, a ese gremio) juzgarán que la historia de los dos sueños es una coincidencia, un dibujo trazado por el azar, como las formas de leones o de caballos que a veces configuran las nubes’ (1974: 644) [‘Those who automatically reject the supernatural (I try, always, to belong to this group) will claim that the story of the two dreams is merely a coincidence, a chance delineation, like the outlines of  lions or horses we sometimes see in the clouds’] (1964: 16). This may sound a straightforward comment, in which Borges maintains that the narrative similarities across time are merely coincidental and inconsequential. Yet like Lönnrot rejecting Treviranus’s suggestion that the murder of  Yarmolinsky was a blunder, and choosing instead to seek the symbolic, Borges rejects his declared position to explore the more poetic, mysterious dimension of  this parallel. Otros argüirán que el poeta supo de algún modo que el emperador había soñado el palacio y dijo haber soñado el poema para crear una espléndida ficción que asimismo paliara o justificara lo truncado y rapsódico de los versos. Esta conjetura es verosímil, pero nos obliga a postular, arbitrariamente, un texto no identificado por los sinólogos en el que Coleridge pudo leer, antes de 1816, el sueño de Kubla. Más encantadoras son las hipótesis que transcienden lo racional. Por ejemplo, cabe suponer que el alma del emperador, destruido el palacio, penetró en el alma de Coleridge, para que éste lo reconstruyera en palabras, más duraderas que los mármoles y los metales. (1974: 644) [Others will argue that the poet somehow found out that the Emperor had dreamed the palace, and then said he had dreamed the poem in order to create a splendid fiction that would also palliate or justify the truncated and rhapsodic quality of  the verses. That conjecture seems reasonable, but it obliges us to postulate, arbitrarily, a text not identified by Sinologists in which Coleridge was able to read, before 1816, and about Kubla’s dream. Hypotheses that transcend reason are more appealing. One such theory is that the Emperor’s soul penetrated Coleridge’s, enabling Coleridge to rebuild the destroyed palace in words that would be more lasting than marble and metal.] (1964: 16, emphasis mine)

The implications of  Borges’ comments are striking. He would reject a priori the supernatural, and yet the explanation of  the repeated vision of  Kubla Khan he most favours is one of  the transmigration of souls. This appears contradictory, not least when we correlate this assertion with Borges’ other



speculation on transmigration. Reason cannot accommodate the possibility of  transmigration of  the soul, he suggests in the lecture ‘Inmortalidad’ (2005: 185–94), as it is inherently unreasonable for the soul to remember who it has been in previous incarnations. It would require a passage back to the source as each life recalls the previous; and a passage forward to the eschaton, as each life resounds in the next. Furthermore, he argues in the lecture ‘El Tiempo’ [‘Time’], an awareness of such plenitude would overwhelm and annihilate us, and hence whether there is or not transmigration of  the soul, we cannot be aware of it: ‘felizmente no lo sabemos. Felizmente, creemos en individuos. Porque si no estaríamos abrumados, estaríamos aniquilados por esa plenitud’ (2005: 217) [‘happily we do not know it. Happily, we believe in individuals. Because if not we would be overwhelmed, annihilated by this plenitude’] (my translation).17 It is, however, a great theme of  literature and the imagination that persists across the centuries. ‘La transmigración’ he writes in the lecture ‘Budismo’ of  Siete Noches, ‘ha sido un gran tema de la literatura. La encontramos, también entre los místicos. Plotino dice que pasar de una vida a otra es como dormir en distintos lechos y en distintas habitaciones. Creo que todos hemos tenido alguna vez la sensación de haber vivido un momento parecido en vidas anteriores’ (1989: 248–9) [‘Transmigration has been a great theme of  literature. We also encounter it among the mystics. Plotinus says that to pass from one life to another is like sleeping in dif ferent beds in dif ferent rooms. I imagine all of us have had the sensation of  having lived previous 17

Borges returns to this theme in a later interview: ‘William Blake says: “Time is the gift of eternity.” Let’s try to expand on those truly wise words: if all Being were revealed to us – the Being rather than the world – at a single instant, undoubtedly we would be annihilated, killed. Thus, as Blake says, “time is the gift of eternity”; that is to say, eternity allows us all those experiences in succession. Thus, we have days and nights, hours and years. We have memory, we have our present perceptions, and then we have the future whose shape we are ignorant of, but which we foresee or fear. All, absolutely all, is given to us sequentially, and wisely so, I should add, for if it were given to us all of a sudden, it would be impossible for human beings to endure such a terrible vision – the unbearable burden of  the whole Being of  the universe. […] The totality of  Being is unattainable to us. All is given us, but, thankfully, gradually’ (Alifano 1984: 63–4).

34 Introduction

lives’] (1984: 68). Again a dialogue between opposing perspectives is visible here: transmigration of souls is a literary artifice, and yet it has resonance because, he argues, it is an intrinsic aspect of  human experience; indeed he declares outright that it is a feeling that ‘all of us’ have shared. It is, he describes in the essay ‘Quevedo’, a false doctrine, but it is nevertheless enchanting and compelling: ‘Hay en la historia de la filosofía doctrinas, probablemente falsas, que ejercen un oscuro encanto sobre la imaginación de los hombres: la doctrina platónica y pitagórica del tránsito del alma por muchos cuerpos’ (1974: 661) [‘In the history of philosophy are doctrines, probably false, that exercise an obscure charm on human imagination: the Platonic and Pythagorean doctrine of  the transmigration of  the soul through many bodies’] (1964: 38). He qualifies this tension between perspectives further by suggesting that discrediting a priori the notion of  transmigration is the activity of a dry empiricist, resistant to the literary charms of  the concept. He criticizes Quevedo, who being ‘sólo estudioso de la verdad, es invulnerable a ese encanto. Escribe que la transmigración de las almas es “bobería bestial” y “locura bruta”’ (1974: 661) [‘merely a student of  the truth, is invulnerable to that charm. He writes that the transmigration of souls is “bestial foolishness” and “brutish folly”’] (1964: 38). Herein lies the conundrum: Borges would reject the supernatural out of principle, yet he ridicules Quevedo for upholding this very position. He would prefer to call himself a rationalist, a sceptic and a disbeliever, and yet his natural af finities lie with the non-rational, the mysterious, the poetic and those fields of experience beyond the confines of materialist philosophies – the ‘intersticios de sinrazón’. It becomes clear that despite his misgivings on matters of  faith, Borges placed great epistemological importance in the non-causal, the non-rational, the non-logical. In this realm we find dreams, nightmares, fantasy, mystical vision, poetry, otherworld journeys, daimonic beings, communication with the dead, ancestral voices, timelessness and ecstasy. In addition to favouring the supernatural whilst simultaneously disavowing the supernatural, we find numerous instances in Borges’ essays and interviews in which, like Lönnrot, he seeks the anomalous aspect of  human experience before the strictly rational. He writes longingly, for example, about Stevenson’s accounts of receiving inspiration and fully-formed narratives, such as Strange Case of 



Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from the Brownies whom he encountered in his dreams and reveries.18 He cites Bede’s description of  how Cædmon was first amongst poets, ‘porque no aprendió de los hombres sino de Dios’ [‘because he did not learn from men, but from God’], and he indicates that ‘esperemos que [Caedmon] volvió a encontrarse con su ángel’ (1974: 643) [‘Let us hope he met his angel again’] (1964: 16). He writes in absolutely clear terms that he gave great credence to the possibility that nightmares have a demonic origin, writing in the lecture on nightmares in Siete Noches: Ya que hemos visto estas diversas etimologías, tenemos en francés la palabra cauchemar, vinculada, sin duda, con la nightmare del inglés. En todas ellas hay una idea (voy a volver sobre ellas) de origen demoníaco, la idea de un demonio que causa la pesadilla. Creo que no se trata simplemente de una superstición: creo que puede haber – y estoy hablando con toda ingenuidad y toda sinceridad – , algo verdadero en este concepto. (1989: 225) [We also have the French word, cauchemar, which is probably linked to nightmare. In all of  these words there is an idea of demonic origin, the idea of a demon who causes the nightmare. I believe it does not derive simply from a superstition. I believe that there is – and I speak with complete honesty and sincerity – something true in this idea.] (1984: 32)


‘Son hombrecitos serviciales de color pardo, del cual han tomado su nombre. Suelen visitar las granjas de Escocia y durante el sueño de la familia, colaboran en las tareas domésticas. Uno de los cuentos de Grimm refiere un hecho análogo. El ilustre escritor Robert Louis Stevenson afirmó que había adiestrado a sus Brownies en el oficio literario. Cuando soñaba, éstos le sugerían temas fantásticos; por ejemplo, la extraña transformación del doctor Jekyll en el diabólico señor Hyde, y aquel episodio de Olalla en el cual un joven, de una antigua casa española, muerde la mano de su hermana’ (1978: 17) [‘Brownies are helpful little men of a brownish hue, which gives them their name. It is their habit to visit Scottish farms and, while the household sleeps, to perform domestic chores. One of  the tales by the Grimms deals with the same subject. Robert Louis Stevenson said he had trained his Brownies in the craft of  literature. Brownies visited him in his dreams and told him wondrous tales; for instance the strange transformation of  Dr Jekyll into the diabolical Mr Hyde, and that episode of  Olalla, in which the scion of an old Spanish family bites his sister’s hand’] (1974: 32).

36 Introduction

Again we must ask, if  he ‘automatically reject[ed] the supernatural’ then how does one reconcile his inclination towards demons? When he emphasized that Swedenborg ‘recorrió este mundo y los otros, lúcido y laborioso. […] ese escandinavo sanguíneo, que fue mucho más lejos que Erico el Rojo’ (2005: 152) [‘journeyed, lucid and laborious, through this and all other worlds […] that sanguine Scandinavian who went much further than Eric the Red’] (1995: 3), and at the same time compared Swedenborg’s ‘authentic’ experiences with Dante’s ‘poetic’ ones, upon what basis was he making this most radical of distinctions? Reason can be an unwieldy tool, Borges appeared to argue, as it can disprove phenomena that can be experienced as real, such as transmigration of  the soul or Stevenson’s Brownies. Annette Flynn, in her recent meticulous appraisal of  the spiritual quest that dominates Borges’ work, identifies the paradox in Borges’ relationship with God in which reason can be employed to disprove God, but experience compelled him to a recognition that there is nevertheless some divine order, some divine force or presence remaining in this absence. He oscillates between disavowal of  God, and desire for verification of a divine existence. On the one hand he at times intellectualizes God and seems to be dismissing his existence on rational grounds; on the other, he continuously searches for something bigger than himself or the intellect. […] The tension lies in the balance which Borges struggles to strike between his enquiring intellect and a faith reality. (Flynn 2009: 4–5)

In a similar fashion Borges employed logical, reasoned, arguments to disprove the existence of  time, arguing that there is no extension to the present, being the mere conjunction of past and future, and thus it cannot be considered as occupying any time. Accordingly the past, which is the mere congregation of such non-extant moments, can have no extension, and neither can the future. There is, consequently, no time; and yet we experience time. Se ha dicho que si el tiempo es infinito, el número infinito de vidas hacia el pasado es una contradicción. Si el número es infinito, ¿cómo una cosa infinita puede llegar hasta ahora? Pensamos que si un tiempo es infinito, creo yo, ese tiempo infinito tiene que abarcar todos los presentes y, en todos los presentes, ¿por qué no este presente,



en Belgrano, en la Universidad de Belgrano, ustedes conmigo, juntos? ¿Por qué no ese tiempo también? Si el tiempo es infinito, en cualquier instante estamos en el centro del tiempo. (2005: 189) [It has been said that if  time is infinite, how can an infinite thing reach the present? We think that if  time is infinite, and I believe it is, then that infinite time must include all the presents and, among all the presents, why not this present here, in the University of  Belgrano, with you and I together? Why not that time also? If  time is infinite, at any given moment we are in the center of  time.] (2000: 487–8)

The self, Borges argues in ‘La nadería de la personalidad’ is equally devoid of extension or location, and consequently cannot exist; and yet Borges, desgraciademente was Borges and therefore experienced some state of selfhood. Reason and experience are not, therefore, necessarily in concord. In many respects, this dialectic may be considered a fundamental response to the dualist binary developed with Enlightenment thought, in which faith and reason, science and magic, history and myth, are assigned firmly contraposed locations. Borges was sensitive to this catalogue of  binaries, and wrote with admiration of  the ability of  Swedenborg to harmonize his pursuit of  knowledge in material sciences with his explorations of spiritual realities. Repeatedly Borges emphasized that there simply was no epistemological division, that Swedenborg’s immense intellect bore him as deeply into the material as into the non-material. Plato and Socrates, for Borges, likewise did not feel compelled to distinguish one mode of enquiry from another, and were as comfortable exploring the dreamworld as the waking world. Indeed, suggested Borges, it is not only a consequence of modernity that we are unable to treat both with the same lucidity, but only modern man would even assume that a division existed. With Plato, you feel that he would reason in an abstract way and would also use myth. He would do those two things at the same time. But now we seem to have lost that gift. I mean, you have gone from myth to abstract thinking. But Plato could do both at the same time. […] I suppose at that time it could be done. But nowadays those things seem to be in watertight compartments. Either we are thinking or we are dreaming. But Plato and Socrates could do both. (Burgin 1998: 160)

38 Introduction

This harmonising of opposites appears to be the most compelling epistemological attraction for Borges in the varied traditions of mystical texts. Reality is poetic and poetry is reality; Swedenborg’s heavens were as real to Swedenborg as the minerals that he catalogued. As discussed above, Borges’ entire literary career, both as a reader and a writer, was grounded in his fascination with the ‘intersticios de sinrazón’ that have characterized human experience since the earliest texts. Poets, artists, dreamers and mystics have explored such liminal matters, and in this respect the aesthetic – allied to dreams, visions and the imagination – constitutes the avenue of exploration into such mysterious interstices in the fabric of reality. We recall the labyrinth as a perennial symbol in the work of  Borges to signify, amongst other things, the human state of unknowing. Whilst the critical attention to the labyrinth over the years is colossal, of greatest pertinence to our present study is a question that di Giovanni posed Borges in interview, concerning the possibility of mysticism to shine some light into the darkness and to provide some genuine insights into the inherent mysteries: ‘Do you see mysticism as a way out of  the maze?’ Borges replies: ‘For all I know, mysticism is the only way; but my gods, whoever they may be, have not allowed me that particular way’ (Burgin 1998: 129, emphasis mine). This is a powerful response, as Borges suggested that the walls of  the labyrinth may not be as impregnable as imagined, and that the mystic may be capable, through exploring the ‘intersticios’, of increasing our knowledge of reality. Swedenborgian scholar Wilson Van Dusen, whose chapter accompanies Borges’ in Testimony to the Invisible writes that: ‘A mystic is one who experiences God. […] Some might ask, “Don’t all people experience God?” And I would answer yes, but many are not aware of it. The mystic is aware of it’ (1995: 105). In the perspective of  Borges such a statement could be rephrased: ‘Don’t all people experience intersticios de sinrazón? Yes, but the mystic is aware of it.’ Indeed, one may argue, the whole heavenly theology of  Swedenborg constitutes a dazzling penetration into such ‘intersticios’. Hence one can query Borges’ interest in such mysterious matters as being merely ‘for aesthetic purposes’ and merely as fodder for fiction. Flynn addresses this very issue: can we trust Borges’ statement of critical distance?



Certain much-quoted declarations by Borges – which do deserve closer attention – as to the purely aesthetic, intellectual, narratorial and inspirational value of philosophical and theological doctrines, may have to be reconsidered, and the role of the divine assigned a more prominent place than accorded by the majority canon of critics, and not least, as is often held, by Borges himself. His remarks, typically understated and subtle, as to the significance of  theologies and philosophies have been taken as categorical dismissals of  these inf luences, or as admitting to an agnostic outlook. This is a view which is highly contestable. Far from solely driving the story or supplying intriguing, inspirational or outlandish backdrops to the events narrated, the desire for a union with the absolute, a divine, higher order is not only what underlies and drives the story, it also compels Borges. (Flynn 2009: 12)

This is a compelling statement, and an invitation to pay ‘closer attention’ to Borges’ repeated declarations. This book is such a response.

‘Teaching a contemplative methodology that fosters insight’ (Amelia Barili) Kripal (2001: 3) argues that there is a general reluctance within academia to incorporate into the research and teaching methodology the academics’ or the students’ own religious, mystical, numinous, transpersonal or anomalous experiences. There is a sense that the numinous is somehow taboo, and consequently is hidden in the ‘shadows of self-censorship, discretion, and whispered enthusiasms’. Borges himself, as I have argued above, maintained a critical distance that displays a tension between intellect and intuition, reason and faith, fact and fiction. The Borges scholarship, with some notable exceptions, has tended likewise and with good reason to follow Borges’ lead, and explore the areas of  Borges’ interest – Kabbalah, esotericism, mysticism, Buddhism – with the same necessary critical distance. This, I emphasize, is fully commensurate with the critical distance that Borges himself maintained. There is, however, a tendency to treat this scholarly method of critical distance not as a hermeneutic tool to analyse the texts and phenomena encountered, but as a defence to prevent further

40 Introduction

exploration; that is to say, to take Borges on his word and treat these subjects as mere picturesque arcana and entertaining superstitions worthy only of providing thematic for fiction. Academic analysis, I would argue, should in no way prohibit a close, personal, transformative, engagement with Borges’ texts, and an equally close engagement with the texts and philosophies that he explored. Amelia Barili (2009: 47–8), who knew Borges when she was editor of  La Prensa, outlines this pedagogical tension in brave and lucid terms: I have sensed more and more that our times demand that we integrate into our teaching a contemplative methodology that fosters insight. We are in the midst of a content explosion that quickly outdates any instruction based on content alone. Further, students are increasingly anguished, and it is important that they find ways to more deeply understand this vast amount of information, to sort out what matters to them and to their communities, and to create new meaning from what is present to them. […] We need a paradigm shift in education. Universities need to be sources of creative solutions and of engaged citizens. They should be centers of transformation, not just repositories of information. […] For deep learning to occur, there needs to be ref lection about intra- and inter- subjectivity.

Barili perceives a tendency within the academic environment to favour the transmission and recollection of information over the assimilation of  knowledge within a process of personal development. This is clearly a highly generalized statement, but nevertheless such a tendency is visible, especially as – at least in the UK – universities are under increasing pressure to market degree programmes according to a narrative of  ‘employability’ and are thus placing non-vocational courses (the reading of  Borges’ poetry for its own sake, rather than as a tool to learning Spanish or Latin American literatures) under increasing scrutiny. Barili is one of  the few scholars that I have encountered to incorporate the teaching of  Borges texts in a fully integrated environment that encourages uniting discussion of  the texts with attention to transformative processes of  the readers. She seems fully cognizant of  the tension present within modes of critical enquiry between reason and feeling, intellect and intuition, theory and practice. In particular, she concentrates on Borges’ close involvement with Buddhist texts as a rich pathway towards a full engagement with Buddhism itself. Accordingly



there is no disconnection in beginning a seminar of  the course ‘Borges, Buddhism, and Cognitive Science’ with meditation sessions prior to a critical reading of ¿Qué es el Budismo? or Ficciones. Buddhism itself is of  key importance, she suggests, as it chimes perfectly with the mode of critical enquiry present within Borges himself: ‘A characteristic that Borges greatly valued in Buddhism is that its core teachings are more a process of critical enquiry than an assertion of certitude. Borges found this uncertainty very liberating and stimulating, since it frees us to create our own meaning’ (2009: 52). It also, she argues, chimes with Borges’ inherently accommodating views of religion and spiritual practices: ‘Borges attributed the durability of  Buddhism over the centuries to this characteristic of  tolerance, which is naturally related to an emphasis on personal inquiry and verification’ (2009: 52). Barili’s consideration of  the Buddhist sensibilities of  Borges is fully borne out by an evaluation of  his philosophical critical attitude and his wariness to commit to faith. In the lecture ‘Budismo’ of  Siete Noches Borges makes much of  the demands of credulity that most faiths place upon the faithful. ‘Las otras religiones exigen mucho de nuestra credulidad. Si somos cristianos, debemos creer que una de las tres personas de la Divinidad condescendió a ser hombre y fue crucificado en Judea. Si somos musulmanes tenemos que creer que no hay otro dios que Dios y que Muhammad es su apóstol. Podemos ser buenos budistas y negar que el Buddha existió’ (1989: 243) [‘The other religions demand much more credulity on our part. If we are Christians we must believe that one of  the three persons of  the Divinity condescended to become a man and was crucified in Judea. If we are Muslims we must believe that there is no other god than God and that Mohammad is his apostle. We can be good Buddhists and deny that Buddha existed’].19 There is, consequently, a harmonious balancing of opposites in Borges’ relationship with Buddhism; it is a religious path that, for him, places doubt at the heart of  the spiritual attitude. Consequently, one may well argue that his closing comments of  the lecture, in which he professes not to be


Translation Frank Thomas Smith .

42 Introduction

Buddhist, are conversely strikingly Buddhist sentiments: ‘Lo que he dicho hoy es fragmentario. Hubiera sido absurdo que yo expusiera una doctrina a la cual he dedicado tantos años – y de la que he entendido poco, realmente – con ánimo de mostrar una pieza de museo. Para mí el budismo no es una pieza de museo: es un camino de salvación’ (1989: 254) [‘What I have said tonight is fragmentary. It would have been absurd if  I had expounded a doctrine to which I have dedicated some years – and of which I have actually understood little – with the intention of displaying a museum piece. Buddhism is not a museum piece; it is a path to salvation’] (trans. Smith). It is likewise perfectly commensurate with a reading of  Borges’ works on Buddhism to include a meditation session. Borges himself spoke about Buddhism that ‘Lo que nos pide es la meditación, una meditación que no tiene que ser sobre nuestras culpas, sobre nuestra vida pasada’ (1989: 252) [‘What it requires is meditation, and meditation that has nothing to do with our sins, with our past lives’] (trans. Smith). In the pedagogical method described by Barili, therefore, centred on Borges’ relationship with Buddhism, a certain gulf is bridged between theory and practice, reason and faith, text and meta-text; and the tension of opposites described above is tempered and harmonized. In this way Barili would appear to perceive in Borges a greater degree of investment in the mystical, spiritual, religious and metaphysical texts than is customarily af forded him. Here one may see a method developed cognate with the call for transformation outlined by Ferrer (2002: 123): The transformative quality of  the human participation in transpersonal and spiritual phenomena has been observed by a number of modern consciousness researchers (e.g. Grof, 1985, 1988; Harman, 1994) and scholars of mysticism (e.g. Barnard, 1994, Staal, 1975). One needs to be willing to be personally transformed in order to access and fully understand most spiritual phenomena. The epistemological significance of such personal transformation cannot be emphasized enough, especially given that the positivist denial of such a requisite is clearly one of  the main obstacles for the epistemic legitimization of  transpersonal and spiritual claims in the modern West.

I would argue that the ‘participatory turn’ discussed by Ferrer is present in two fundamental levels in Borges: firstly, through a broad reading of  his many tales, poems, essays and interviews, it becomes clear that despite his



oft-proclaimed radical scepticism and his mistrust of  faith and religious doctrine, as a reader he himself was deeply af fected and transformed by the mystical and religious texts that he read. Secondly, it becomes clear that many of  Borges’ texts themselves may be considered deeply transformative texts if  the reader is open to such qualities in the works. Thus, as I explore in Chapter Two, whilst ‘El Aleph’ and ‘La escritura del dios’ may be interpreted as parodies or even satires of mystical texts, they may also be considered profoundly mystical texts in their own right. Such an interpretation, as I explore, is not without its dif ficulties, yet such a quality must be addressed. Both Barili and Ferrer would argue, furthermore, that the personal and transpersonal experiences of  the students may be given greater value than many traditional pedagogical practices would customarily permit. In this work I hope to pursue the avenue proposed by Barili and Ferrer in exploring Borges’ relationship with mysticism as a field of investigation that was of greater significance for Borges than mere exercises in gathering material to craft into fiction and poetry.

‘Borges is our Virgil; only he knows the way’ (Alastair Reid) Borges often suggested that he would like to be remembered as a reader more than as a writer; and in particular as a friend, as someone who happily recommends a book, poem or author, and would then delightedly pass the hours discussing the symbols, allusions, references, narrative twists and literary devices of  the given texts. As such, it is important to assess the relationship between Borges the reader and the reader of  Borges. What terrain does he traverse with us? Into which dark caverns in Dante’s circles of  hells does he lead us? What interpretative tools does he teach us when reading Swedenborg’s dialogues with angels and with the dead? As he explores the ‘intersticios de sinrazón’ that are themselves explored by Dante, Swedenborg, Silesius or Blake, what knowledge does he reveal to us about the nature of  the real? These are also questions that have concerned

44 Introduction

readers and critics of  Borges from his early publications to the present. For example, Garayalde (1978: 27), in her exploration of  the inf luence of  Sufi mysticism upon Borges’ works, addresses the aspect of  Borges as guide in the dark world beyond reason: ‘Once we have lost our faith in reason as a means of seeking truth, Borges does not abandon us but opens up a new range of possibilities by following the path of intuition. […] Borges is trying in this way to familiarize us with intuition, a kind of  knowledge that man no longer takes into account and which he has completely forgotten.’ As discussed earlier, and as Garayalde identifies, Borges demonstrates a shifting balance of reason and intuition, scepticism and tolerance, in such matters of poetic obscurity. The question of  Borges as guide and fellow traveller can perhaps be best illustrated with a literary analogy. In his many writings and lectures about Dante, Borges paid particular attention to the enigmatic figure of  Virgil as guide and close friend of  the poet-narrator Dante. There are many attributes to Virgil in the Commedia which, as Borges notes, the scholarship over the centuries has investigated. What concerned Borges above all other matters was the friendship between Dante and Virgil and the consequent anguish that Dante experienced in acknowledging that Virgil, as pagan, would be forever consigned to the nobile castello and would be unable to achieve union with the godhead: Dante viene a ser un hijo de Virgilio y al mismo tiempo es superior a Virgilio porque se cree salvado. Cree que merecerá la gracia o que la ha merecido, ya que le ha sido dada la visión. En cambio, desde el comienzo del Infierno sabe que Virgilio es un alma perdida, un réprobo; cuando Virgilio le dice que no podrá acompañarlo más allá del Purgatorio, siente que el latino será para siempre un habitante del terrible nobile castello donde están las grandes sombras de los grandes muertos de la Antigüedad, los que por ignorancia invencible no alcanzaron la palabra de Cristo. En ese mismo momento, Dante dice: Tu, duca; tu, signore; tu, maestro … Para cubrir ese momento, Dante lo saluda con palabras magníficas y habla del largo estudio y del gran amor que le han hecho buscar su volumen y siempre se mantiene esa relación entre los dos. Esa figura esencialmente triste de Virgilio, que se sabe condenado a habitar para siempre en el nobile castello lleno de la ausencia de Dios … En cambio, a Dante le será permitido ver a Dios, le será permitido comprender el universe. (1989: 213)



[Dante comes to be the son of  Virgil, yet at the same time he is superior to Virgil for he believes he will be saved, since he has been given the vision. But he knows, from the beginning, that Virgil is a lost soul, a reprobate. When Virgil tells him that he cannot accompany him beyond Purgatory, he knows that the Latin poet will always inhabit the terrible nobile castello with the great shades of  Antiquity, those who never heard the word of  Christ. At that moment, Dante hails him with magnificent words: ‘Tu, duca; tu, signore; tu, maestro …’ He speaks of  the great labor and of  the great love with which his work has been studied, and this relation is always maintained between the two. But Virgil is essentially a sad figure who knows he is forever condemned to that castle filled with the absence of  God. Dante, however, will be permitted to see God; he will be permitted to understand the universe.] (1984: 14)20

As we explore in the following chapter, whilst Borges held Dante in great esteem, he was troubled by the adherence to ecclesiastical doctrine that he perceived throughout the Commedia, and he praised the rebelliousness – even heresy – that he detected in Dante. Borges was no Dante; the agnosticism and the disdain for faith would likewise condemn him to the nobile castello. As Alastair Reid writes in the Introduction of  Seven Nights ‘Borges is our Virgil; only he knows the way.’ Like Virgil, Borges as reader and as poet has descended with Aeneas through Black Avernus into the realm of  the Shades (Aeneid Book VI), and has communicated with the great Classical poets. He leads us through the hellish swamps and the celestial paradise of  Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. He guides us through Blake’s complex mythologies. He describes for us the martial halls of  Valhalla that he discovers in the Icelandic sagas. He reads to us about the song of  Bede’s

20 Dante knows that Virgil is a damned soul, and the very moment that Virgil tells him that he will not be able to accompany him beyond purgatory, Dante feels that Virgil will always be an inhabitant of  that ‘nobile castello’ where the great shadows of  the great men of antiquity dwell, those that through unavoidable ignorance did not accept or could not reach the word of  Christ. […] Dante salutes him with the highest epithets and speaks of  the great love and the long study to which Virgil’s writings have led him, and of  their relationship which has always been constant. But Virgil is sad since he knows that he is condemned to the ‘nobile castello,’ far from salvation and full of  God’s absence; Dante, on the other hand, will see God, he will be allowed to, and he will also be allowed to understand the universe. (Alifano 1984: 97)

46 Introduction

Cædmon and he recounts Stevenson’s relationship with the Brownies. He presents before our gaze oriental celestial dragons, subterranean goblins, elves, hippogrif fs, the Minotaur and the Banshee (see El libro de los seres imaginarios). And yet, like Virgil, he cannot lead us to the divine. That is for the faithful and Borges, I imagine, would be happier to remain with the reader in the pagan castle, engaging in merry dialogue with Homer, Ovid, Lucan, Horace and Virgil, than rising towards the heavenly rose. This book, I hope, is part of  that dialogue.

Chapter One

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg  1

Hay un curioso género literario que independientemente se ha dado en diversas épocas y naciones: la guía del muerto en las regiones ultraterrenas. El Cielo y el Infierno de Swedenborg, las escrituras gnósticas, el Bardo Thödol de los tibetanos (título que, según Evans-Wentz, debe traducirse ‘Liberación por Audición en el Plano de la Posmuerte’) y el Libro Egipcio de los Muertos no agotan los ejemplos posibles. Las simpatías y diferencias de los dos últimos han merecido la atención de los eruditos; bástenos aquí repetir que para el manual tibetano el otro mundo es tan ilusorio como éste y para el egipcio es real y objetivo. — Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero, El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, ‘El Devorador de las Sombras’ [There is a strange literary genre which, spontaneously, has sprung up in various lands and at various times. This is the manual for the guidance of  the dead through the Other World. Heaven and Hell by Swedenborg, the writings of  the Gnostics, the Tibetan Bardo Thödol (which, according to Evans-Wentz, should be translated as ‘Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane’), and the Egyptian Book of  the Dead do not exhaust the possible examples. The similarities and dif ferences of  the latter two books have attracted the attention of esoteric scholarship; for us, let it be enough to recall that in the Tibetan manual the Other World is as illusory as this one, while to the Egyptians it has a real and objective existence.] — The Book of  Imaginary Beings, ‘The Eater of  the Dead’


An earlier version of  this chapter was published as an article in Variaciones Borges: ‘Borges’s reading of  Dante and Swedenborg: Mysticism and the real’, 32 (October 2011), 59–85. Many thanks to the journal editors for kind permission to reproduce the text here.


Chapter One

Borges, as is well documented, subverts genre distinctions between realism and fantasy, declaring in countless interviews, prologues and essays that the joy of  literature is the appeal to the imagination, that history is memory and that a literary experience is as real as any other experience. Furthermore, he famously equates metaphysics with the fantastic, claiming, for example, in a review of a work of  the English theologian Leslie Weatherhead: ‘¿qué son las prodigios de Wells o de Poe […] confrontados con la invención de Dios? […] ¿Quién en el unicornio ante la Trinidad?’ (1974: 281) [‘What, in fact, are the wonders of  Wells or Edgar Allan Poe […] in comparison to the invention of  God? […] What is the unicorn to the Trinity?’] (2000: 255). However, in his reading of  the ill-defined tradition of mystical writing, Borges appears to betray this disdain for genre distinction, and adheres with an odd rigor to a categorical assessment of real versus fictional, fantastic versus genuine, authentic versus inauthentic. Borges wrote passionately about Dante and about Swedenborg, both of whom depicted heaven and the angelic denizens therein. He pursues, as we shall see, a line of enquiry in which he asserts that Dante’s visions were purely aesthetic, purely artistic, and did not hail from genuine experience; whilst Swedenborg’s visions were genuine, authentic and experiential. In this chapter I will appraise Borges’ abiding admiration of  both visionary writers and his critical response to them, and will evaluate the complex and at times paradoxical criteria that Borges employs in his assessment of  the authentic in opposition to the imaginal. My hypotheses can be summed up in three statements. Borges’ writings lead to the erasure of  fact and fiction; however, Borges himself retreats into the very realist-fantasy division that he was at pains to dispel in his fictions and essays when evaluating mysticism and mystical vision. Similarly, for Borges originality is not prized. He does, however, place great emphasis on originality in relation to mystical vision. Lastly, his assessment of putative authenticity is itself an aesthetic judgment based upon his own iconoclasm and mistrust of doctrine. This is the touchstone for his emphatic distinction. Borges’ manifest love for Dante’s Divine Comedy is crystallized in his laudatory lecture in Siete Noches: ‘La Comedia es un libro que todos debemos leer. No hacerlo es privarnos del mejor don que la literatura puede darnos, es entregarnos a un extraño ascetismo. ¿Por qué negarnos la felicidad de leer la

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Comedia?’ (1989: 217) [‘The Comedia is a book that everyone ought to read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of  the greatest gift that literature can give us; it is to submit to a strange asceticism. Why should we deny ourselves the joy of reading the Comedia?’] (1984: 20). The Divine Comedy is also the book that he would choose to rescue from the hypothetical destruction of all books (Cortínez 1986: 87). There is much to say about Borges’ appreciation of  Dante, and whilst the Borges scholarship has approached numerous elements, one central feature prevalent in most of  Borges’ writings of  Dante has been curiously overlooked. This is Borges’ strident af firmation that Dante was not a visionary, but that he was a visionary poet. Borges explains: ‘No creo que Dante fuera un visionario. Una visión es breve. Es imposible una visión tan larga como la de la Comedia. La visión fue voluntaria: debemos abandonarnos a ella y leerla, con fe poética. Dijo Coleridge que la fe poética es una voluntaria suspensión de la incredulidad’ (1989: 211) [‘I don’t think that Dante was a visionary. A vision is brief. A vision as large as the Comedia is impossible. His vision was voluntary: we may abandon ourselves to it and read it with poetic faith. Coleridge said that poetic faith is the willing suspension of disbelief ’] (1984: 12).2 Firstly, therefore, Borges asserts that Dante’s vision was not a vision in the mystical sense, because, rather than being spontaneous and unbidden (i.e. grace of  the divine), it was voluntary. Secondly, Dante was not a visionary because of  the length of  this vision, which, Borges maintains, would be unsustainable. Thirdly, Dante was not a visionary because the 2

This af firmation is reiterated elsewhere. He tells Roberto Alifano: ‘Dante reveals to us in his narrative that at thirty-five (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita) a vision comes to him. I don’t believe that Dante was a visionary; a vision is something more f leeting, something more ethereal. A vision as prolonged as The Divine Comedy is impossible. I think that his vision was voluntary. His vision was the result of his poetic faith – but that would be a theme in itself, a very interesting one which should be pursued’ (Alifano 1984: 95). He tells Willis Barnstone: ‘It is very clear to me that when Dante had his dream of  hell and his dream of purgatory, he was imagining things’ (Barnstone 1982: 95); and he writes in the last of  the Nueve ensayos dantescos: ‘Retengamos un hecho incontrovertible, un solo hecho humildísimo: la escena ha sido imaginada por Dante’ (1989: 374) [‘We must keep one incontrovertible fact in mind, a single, humble fact: the scene was imagined by Dante’] (2000: 304–5).


Chapter One

vision itself was inspired by poetic faith, and was therefore culturally conditioned within established theological and artistic frameworks. Furthermore, argues Borges elsewhere, Dante wrote in verse, and there is no possible way that he could have experienced the various circles of  the Divine Comedy in such an aesthetic language. En el caso de Dante, que también nos ofrece una descripción del Infierno, del Purgatorio y del Paraíso, entendemos que se trata de una ficción literaria. No podemos creer realmente que todo lo que relata se refiere a una vivencia personal. Además, ahí está el verseo que lo ata: él no pudo haber experimentado el verso. (2005: 202) [In the case of  Dante, who also of fers us a description of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, we understand that we’re dealing with literary fiction. We cannot really believe that all that he relates refers to personal experience. Furthermore, there is the verse which binds it: he could not have experienced verse.] (My translation)

The whole poetic cycle is thus, for Borges, resolutely and beautifully a literary fiction, a poetic text, an artifice. At face value this assertion does not seem too problematic, indeed it attunes perfectly to Borges’ love of  fantasy and fiction in all their guises. However, complications begin to emerge when assessing Borges’ discussion of  Swedenborg. The most extensive appraisal of  Swedenborg in Borges’ works is his biographical essay on Swedenborg.3 This text abounds in highly revealing passages in which Borges af firms the authentic, non-fictive, genuine experiences of  Swedenborg, and in which he emphasizes precisely the opposite of what he maintains about Dante, that Swedenborg was a visionary.


Borges’ 1972 essay ‘Swedenborg, testigo de lo invisible’ was published as prologue to a Spanish edition of  The Essential Swedenborg by Sig Synnestvedt: Swedenborg, testigo de lo invisible (1982), translated into English by Richard Howard and Cesar Rennert as ‘Testimony to the Invisible’ in the homonymous volume of essays edited by James F. Lawrence (1995). The original prologue is also found in the section Prólogos, con un prólogo de prólogos (2005, 152–60), entitled, ‘Emmanuel Swedenborg: Mystical Works’. Eliot Weinberger’s English translation of  this prologue/essay appears in Total Library: Non-Fiction (2000a) 449–57.

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


En una epístola famosa dirigida a Cangrande Della Scala, Dante Alighieri advierte qué su Comedia, como la Sagrada Escritura, puede leerse de cuatro modos distintos y que el literal no es más que Uno de ellos […]. Pasajes como Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate fortalecen esa convicción topográfica, realizada por el arte. Nada más diverso de los destinos ultraterrenos de Swedenborg. (2005: 156) [In a famous letter to Cangrande Della Scala, Dante Alighieri points out that his Commedia, like Sacred Scripture, can be read four dif ferent ways, of which the literal way is only one […]. Passages such as Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate (‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here’) reinforce the topographical conviction created through art. Nothing is farther from the ultra-terrestrial destinations of  Swedenborg.] (1995: 9)

The Divine Comedy, he asserts, is the pinnacle of artistic expression, and the fact that Dante outlines modes of reading (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical), testifies to this artifice. The mystical works of  Swedenborg, however, are wholly free from artifice, being the direct account of genuine experience of a man ‘que recorrió este mundo y los otros, lúcido y laborioso. […] ese escandinavo sanguíneo, que fue mucho más lejos que Erico el Rojo’ (2005: 152) [‘who journeyed, lucid and laborious, through this and all other worlds […] that sanguine Scandinavian who went much further than Eric the Red’] (1995: 3). Significantly, Borges maintains that the literal reading of  the Divine Comedy would impoverish the text, as the reader would fail to appreciate the allegorical, moral and mystical levels of meaning.4 It would also betray a stultifying credulity on behalf of  the reader. To illustrate this, Borges makes reference on more than one occasion to the observation that the heaven of  Dante would correspond to no heaven putatively encountered after death. Paul Claudel ha observado que los espectáculos que nos aguardan después de la agonía no serán verosímilmente los nueve círculos infernales, las terrazas del Purgatorio o los cielos concéntricos. Dante, sin duda, habría estado de acuerdo con él; ideó su


Aside, however, from the opening couplet of  the cycle: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura. Es decir, a los treinta y cinco años ‘me encontré en mitad de una selva oscura’ que puede ser alegórica, pero en la cual creemos físicamente’ (1989: 211) [‘That is, at thirty-five I found myself in a dark forest. It may be allegorical, but we physically believe it’] (1984: 12).


Chapter One topografía de la muerte como un artificio exigido por la escolástica y por la forma de su poema. (1989: 344) [Paul Claudel has observed that the sights that await us after dying will not, in all likelihood, include the nine circles of  Hell, the terraces of  Purgatory, or the concentric heavens. Dante would undoubtedly have agreed; he devised his topography of death as an artifice demanded by Scholasticism and by the form of  his poem.] (2000: 268)5

On the contrary, he maintains, it would be dif ficult to read the works of  Swedenborg in any manner other than the literal. This is because, for Borges, Swedenborg’s writings were the genuine expression of experience, and were not written with any attempt at parable, symbol or allegory. He emphasizes Swedenborg’s dry and meticulous Latin prose as being wholly free from f lowery literary technique, especially metaphor: ‘A diferencia de otros místicos, prescindió de la metáfora, de la exaltación y de la vaga y fogosa hipérbole’ (2005: 154) [‘unlike other mystics, he eschewed metaphor, exaltation, and vague, fiery hyperbole’] (1995: 6).6 He examines the 5


Borges also derives this observation from Flaubert: ‘Por eso me parece justo lo que ha dicho Flaubert diciendo que Dante al morir debe haberse asombrado al ver que el Infierno, el Purgatorio o el Paraíso – vamos a suponer que le tocó la última región – no correspondía a su imaginación. Yo creo que Dante no creía, al escribir el poema, haber hecho otra cosa sino haber encontrado símbolos adecuados para expresar de un modo sensible los estados de ánimo del pecador, del penitente y del justo’ (Borges 2002: 205–6) [‘For that reason, Flaubert’s comments seem to me apt, that Dante, upon dying, must have been astonished to see that Hell, Purgatory and Paradise – let us suppose that he reached this final region – did not correspond to his imagination. I believe that Dante did not believe, when he wrote his poem, that he was doing anything other than finding symbols to express in an understandable manner the states of  the soul of  the sinner, the penitent, and the just’] (my translation). The literary style of  Swedenborg intrigues his readers. Henry James Sr. (father of  William and Henry) labels him ‘insipid with veracity’ (in Johnson 2003), which is echoed in his friend Emerson’s comments that Swedenborg ‘remained entirely devoid of  the whole apparatus of poetic expression’ (Emerson 2003: 54). This is then further iterated in William James: ‘But why should he be so prolix and so toneless – so without emphasis?’ (in Johnson 2003) W. B. Yeats comments: ‘And all this happened to a man without egotism, without drama, without a sense of  the picturesque, and who wrote a dry language, lacking fire and emotion’ (1920: 299). Kathleen Raine,

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


objective of such a studious and prosaic language, suggesting that it was the product of an almost mimetic reproduction of  his visionary experiences. La explicación es obvia. El empleo de cualquier vocablo presupone una experiencia compartida, de la que el vocablo es el símbolo. Si nos hablan del sabor del café, es porque ya lo hemos probado, si nos hablan del color amarillo, es porque ya hemos visto limones, oro, trigo y puestas del sol. Para sugerir la inefable unión del alma del hombre con la divinidad, los sufíes del Islam se vieron obligados a recurrir a analogías prodigiosas, a imágenes de rosas, de embriaguez o de amor carnal; Swedenborg pudo renunciar a tales artificios retóricos porque su tema no era el éxtasis del alma arrebatada y enajenada, sino la puntual descripción de regiones ultraterrenas, pero precisas. Con el fin de que imaginemos, o empecemos a imaginar, la ínfima hondura del Infierno, Milton nos habla de No light, but rather darkness visible; Swedenborg prefiere el rigor y – ¿por qué no decirlo? – las eventuales prolijidades del explorador o del geógrafo que registra reinos desconocidos. (2005: 154) [The explanation is obvious. The use of any word whatsoever presupposes a shared experience, for which the word is the symbol. If someone speaks to us about the f lavor of cof fee, it is because we have already tasted it; if about the color yellow, because we have already seen lemons, gold, wheat, and sunsets. To suggest the inef fable union of man’s soul with the divine being, the Sufis of  Islam found themselves obliged to resort to prodigious analogies, to images of roses, intoxication, or carnal love. Swedenborg was able to abstain from this kind of rhetorical artifice because his subject matter was not the ecstasy of a rapt and fainting soul but, rather, the accurate description of regions that, though ultra-terrestrial, were clearly defined. In order for us to imagine, or to begin to imagine, the lowest depth of  hell, John Milton speaks to us of  ‘No light, but rather darkness visible.’ Swedenborg prefers the rigor and – why not say it? – possible wordiness of  the explorer or geographer who is recording unknown kingdoms.] (1995: 7)

Borges admires the intellectual capacity, determinism and exploratory drive of  Swedenborg – the very qualities that had furnished his abilities to write tables of mining and metallurgy, design aircraft and submarines, and create ‘un método personal para fijar las longitudes y un tratado sobre el diámetro de la luna’ (2005: 153) [‘a personal method of  fixing longitudes

meanwhile, calls his writing ‘stilted and voluminous’ (1995: 54). Borges is part of a long tradition of critical reception of  Swedenborg’s language.


Chapter One

and a treatise on the diameter of  the moon’] (1995: 4).7 These accounts of  heaven and hell, Borges maintains, were subject to the same degree of rational scrutiny that Swedenborg employed in his assessment of  the natural world, and consequently were unadulterated by religious dogma.8 Similarly, Borges emphatically defends Swedenborg against the reader’s incredulity, stressing that any of  the arguments commonly employed to discredit Swedenborg – deceit or madness – are invalid. Swedenborg was not attempting to proselytize, because, Borges asserts, ‘A la manera de Emerson (Arguments convince nobody) y de Walt Whitman, creía que los argumentos no persuaden a nadie y que basta enunciar una verdad para que los interlocutores la acepten’ (2005: 155) [‘Like Emerson and Walt Whitman, he believed that arguments persuade no one and that stating a truth is suf ficient for its acceptance by those who hear it’] (1995: 8). Had he been mad, he argues, ‘no deberíamos a su pluma tenaz la ulterior redacción de miles de metódicas páginas, que representan una labor de casi treinta años y que nada tienen que ver con el frenesí’ (2005: 155) [‘we would not owe to his tenacious pen the thousands of methodical pages he wrote during the following thirty years or so, pages that have nothing at all to do with frenzy’] (1995: 8). Herein lies a puzzling feature of  Borges’ admiration of  Swedenborg. Who, we may ask, is this reader that Borges so stridently conceptualizes and answers? Why would he seek to defend Swedenborg 7


Conan Doyle (in McNeilly ed., 2005: 105) suggests that Swedenborg ‘was a great authority upon […] the determination of  latitude’ [2005: 96], whilst Borges asserts: ‘We are indebted to him for a personal method of  fixing longitude’. It would appear, however, that Conan Doyle mistook ‘latitude’ for ‘longitude’, as the title of  the work in which Swedenborg established this nagivational principle is the delightfullynamed Försök at finna östra och westra lengden igen, igenom månan, som til the lärdas ompröfwande framstelles [Attempt to find the East and West Longitude by means of  the moon. Put forward for the examination of  the learned]. I have not seen any attempt to correct Conan Doyle’s (or his editor’s) mistake. Yeats also notes the similarity in style between Swedenborg’s scientific journals and his visionary journals: ‘He considered heaven and hell and God, the angels, the whole destiny of man, as if  he were sitting before a large table in a Government of fice putting little pieces of mineral ore into small square boxes for an assistant to pack away in drawers’ (1920: 299).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


(and himself ) against the charge of  ‘la deliberada impostura de quien ha escrito esas cosas extrañas’ (2005: 154) [‘deliberate imposture on the part of  the man who wrote such strange things’] (1995: 7) if, having included Swedenborg in El libro de los seres imaginarios he had already established his fantastical nature? To address this question, it is first necessary to qualify the statement made earlier that the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, is not present in Borges as writer or reader. Whilst we may assert, as Borges himself repeatedly does, that his admiration of philosophical and theological discourses lay in their aesthetic value, this should not impoverish the aesthetic as mere elegance or literary finery. In the work of  Borges the aesthetic – as related to poesis and imagination – is a pathway to knowledge. Like Lezama Lima’s vision of poetry, in which there is a gnosis in the aesthetic, or Blake’s ‘Imagination’ or ‘imaginative energy’, which is the true path to the divine, or Corbin’s mundus imaginalis, in which the secret nature of  the divine is revealed, Borges places a strong epistemological value to the imagination, the dreamworld, and the aesthetic.9 The aesthetic is neither simply linguistic nor simply the sonorous play of words. Arguments themselves can be the index of aesthetic brilliance, typified by Schopenhauer’s elegant philosophy. Borges professes an admiration for Blake, emphasizing that ‘Blake asimismo afirmará que no bastan la inteligencia y la rectitud y que la salvación del hombre exige un tercer requisito: ser un artista’ (2005: 158) [‘Blake also af firms that the salvation of man demands a third requirement: that he be an artist’] (1995: 13). Such a sentiment is strikingly akin to Borges’ own ars poetica, exemplified in his calm belief in the persistence of literature: ‘I don’t think of  life as being pitted against literature. I believe that art is a part of  life’ (Barnstone 1982: 96). Borges paid close attention to the spiritual power that Blake associated with the aesthetic, and it would seem that this Blakean vision inspired his relationship to Art and Imagination, borne out in his comment


See Mualem 2004. See also Núñez-Faraco (2009: 41): ‘Despite his scepticism and anti-religious stance, there is in Borges a conspicuous interest in mysticism and in its revelation of divine truth. […] Borges’s interest in religion, like his fascination with metaphysics, hinges on an aesthetic perception of  the world’.


Chapter One

to Barnstone (1982: 102): ‘We are creating God every time that we attain beauty’. This moving aphorism could come from the illuminated pages of  Blake’s Marriage of  Heaven and Hell. Borges’ relationship to imagination, to fantasy and to the dreamworld is perhaps the most striking feature of  his poetics, is discussed in the majority of  his interviews, and is illustrated in so many of  his tales. Yet to approach the dreamworld epistemologically is an intriguing endeavour which reveals Borges’ kinship with, amongst others, Blake, Corbin and Jung. Kathleen Raine, whose essay appears alongside Borges’ in Lawrence’s Testimony to the Invisible, emphasizes this path of wisdom: The ultimate knowledge, according to Blake and Swedenborg, is that the universe is contained in mind – a view to be found also in the Gnostic writings, in the Vedas, and in other spiritually profound cosmologies of  the East, but long forgotten in the West with its preoccupation with externality. (Raine 1995: 62)

Blake, it should be remembered, explicitly equated the imaginal world with the eternal, with the space-time the discarnate soul enters after death: ‘This world of  the Imagination is the world of  Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of  the Vegetated body. This World of  Imagination is Infinite and Eternal, whereas the world of  Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite & Temporal’ (in Raine 1995: 70). Likewise, innumerable passages from Borges testify to the power of dreams to grant the dreamer knowledge of  further dimensions, landscapes and times. Borges often alludes to the poetic question of  Coleridge’s f lower retrieved from the dreamworld, and he contemplates whether Chuang Tzu experienced being a butterf ly in his dream or whether the butterf ly experienced being Chuang Tzu. Most well known are the multiple layers of dream creation in ‘Las ruinas circulares’ [‘The Circular Ruins’]. It is therefore striking to note that Swedenborg’s initiation into the heavenly realm lay in his troubled dreams. As is so clear from a reading of any of  Borges’ work, the distinctions between fiction and reality, history and myth, fact and artifice, are hazy: ‘I suppose there is no dif ference between fact and fiction. […] What is the past but all memory? What is the past but memories that have become myth?’ (Barnstone 1982: 117), or, to borrow an expression from Lezama

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Lima: ‘no hay nada más real que la imaginación’ (2001: 133) [‘there is nothing more real than the imagination’] (my translation). Furthermore, and considering the imagination epistemologically, the question of authenticity of experience is problematic. Borges discusses the tale ‘El Congreso’ [‘The Congress’] in the afterword to El Libro de Arena, suggesting that ‘el fin quiere elevarse, sin duda en vano, a los éxtasis de Chesterton o de John Bunyan. No he merecido nunca semejante revelación, pero he procurado soñarla’ (1989: 72) [‘its end tries, doubtless in vain, to match the ecstasies of  Chesterton and John Bunyan. I have never been worthy of such a revelation, but I managed to dream one up’] (1979: 93). This is paradoxical if we follow the very f luidity of  fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, present in Borges. If  he has dreamt one up then he has been worthy of such a revelation. Upon what principles could a distinction be based, if we judge imagination to be itself experiential? Borges repeatedly emphasizes that dreaming and artistic – poetic – creativity are aspects of  the same process: The essential dif ference between the waking experience and the sleeping or dreaming experience must lie in the fact that the dreaming experience is something that can be begotten by you, created by you, evolved out of you […] not necessarily in sleep. When you’re thinking out a poem, there is little dif ference between the fact of  being asleep and that of  being awake, no? And so they stand for the same thing. If you’re thinking, if you’re inventing, or if you’re dreaming, then the dream may correspond to vision or to sleep. That hardly matters. (Barnstone 1982: 29)

Surely one of  the most abiding sensations delivered to the reader of  Borges is that reality is fictional and fiction is real. Is he not declaring at every stage, therefore, that we really are in no position to judge so firmly between an event of  the imagination and one of empirical experience? Borges, for example, makes no distinction between the experience of reading and the experience of  travelling. That is to say, the textual and the meta-textual are epistemologically no dif ferent. He declares to Richard Burgin: I think of reading a book as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love. I think that reading Berkeley or Shaw or Emerson, those are quite as real experiences to me as seeing London, for example. Of course, I saw London through Dickens and through Chesterton and through Stevenson, no? Many people are apt to think of real life on the one side, that means toothache, headache, traveling and so on, and


Chapter One then you have on the other side, you have imaginary life and fancy and that means the arts. But I don’t think that that distinction holds water. I think that everything is a part of  life. (Burgin 1998: 14)

Bioy Casares and Borges dined together regularly, whilst discussing literature, poetry and metaphysics. One conversation could be recorded by Borges in a recollection; another could be recorded at the beginning of  ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. It would be a step into a rigid binary pattern of  thinking to attempt to distinguish between a factual and a fictional conversation between these two. Both are fantastic, both are textual, both are factual and fictional at the same time. ‘I don’t see how things can be unreal’ Borges opined. ‘I don’t see any valid reason why Hamlet, for example, should be less real than Lloyd George’ (Burgin 1998: 77), ‘or why Macbeth should be less real than today’s newspaper’ (Burgin 1998: 85). It is abidingly evident, therefore, that in all matters of  human expression, and in whichever system he was contemplating – whether fantastical, poetical, mythological, theological, philosophical, or political – experience is experience whether it derives from physical or imaginal travel. Memory is creative and thus a fiction, and yet the experience of  fiction is tangible and real. Why, therefore, does Borges draw such a firm distinction between the real experiences of  Swedenborg and the unreal or fictional experiences of  Dante? In order to address this question, it is important to focus on Borges’ assessment of other writers of mystical vision and eschatology, and in particular, on the presence of doctrine that Borges could perceive looming over them. Borges reviewed Leslie Weatherhead’s After Death, and he damns Weatherhead for being a mediocre and almost non-existent writer, for being ‘estimulatado por lecturas piadosas’ [‘stimulated by pious readings’] and for making unconvincing ‘conjeturas semiteosóficas’ (1974: 282) [‘semitheosophical conjectures’] (2000: 255–6). Weatherhead’s poor writing status betrays an aesthetic poverty that is not only clearly indicative of a wholly unappealing metaphysical vision, but is, furthermore, inauthentic, derivative, and, importantly, non-experiential. At the beginning of  his pugnacious review, Borges reasserts the famous declaration of  the narrator of  ‘Tlön’, that metaphysics is but another branch of  fantastic literature. Here

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


he embellishes this with a mention of  his own book of  fantastic literature, and his guilty omission of  the masters of  the fantastic genre: ‘Parménides, Platón, Juan Escoto Erígena, Alberto Magno, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Francis Bradley’ (1974: 280) [‘Parmenides, Plato, John Scotus Erigena, Albertus Magnus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Francis Bradley’] (2000: 255). He then, as if  to confirm his agnostic credentials, compares the fantastic with the religious, mocking the theological discourse that Weatherhead presents: En efecto, ¿qué son los prodigios de Wells o de Edgar Allan Poe – una f lor que nos llega del porvenir, un muerto sometido a la hipnosis – confrontados con la invención de Dios, con la teoría laboriosa de un ser que de algún modo es tres y que solitariamente perdura fuera del tiempo? ¿Qué es la piedra bezoar ante la armonía preestablecida, quién es el unicornio ante la Trinidad, quién es Lucio Apuleyo ante los multiplicadores de Buddhas del Gran Vehículo, qué son todas las noches de Shahrazad junto a un argumento de Berkeley? He venerado la gradual invención de Dios; también el Infierno y el Cielo (una remuneración inmortal, un castigo inmortal) son admirables y curiosos designios de la imaginación de los hombres. (1974: 280–1) [What, in fact, are the wonders of  Wells or Edgar Allan Poe – a f lower that visits us from the future, a dead man under hypnosis – in comparison to the invention of  God, the labored theory of a being who in some way is three and who endures alone outside of  time? What is the bezoar stone to pre-established harmony, what is the unicorn to the Trinity, who is Lucius Apuleius to the multipliers of  Buddhas of  the Greater Vehicle, what are all the nights of  Scheherazade next to an argument by Berkeley? I have worshiped the gradual invention of  God; Heaven and Hell (an immortal punishment, an immortal reward) are also admirable and curious designs of man’s imagination.] (2000: 255)

A beautiful Borgesian conundrum is thus established. Heaven and hell derive from imagination, and yet they are nevertheless real. Herein lie his motives for including Swedenborg’s angels and devils in El libro de los seres imaginarios yet all the while proclaiming the authenticity of  Swedenborg’s visions.10 How real are the angels, and can we detect in Borges any attempt –


One might assume that Borges could well have included a passage from Swedenborg in his Extraordinary Tales (1973). As it is, he and Bioy Casares include a brief  text


Chapter One

however futile it may be – to separate an empirical angel somehow extrinsic to human imagination from an intrinsic, imaginative angel? Borges’ sister, Norah, a painter whose impact on Borges’ writing career has now been fairly deeply studied, painted angels (indeed, one of  her angel paintings hung in the parlour of  Borges’ apartment on Belgrano [Burgin 1998: 100]), and allegedly maintained conversations with angels as a child. Borges develops a strikingly Jungian approach to angels, in that they are creatures of  the imagination, but that consequently they are real. They develop the particular substance of  Jung’s archetypal beings, in that they belong to the psyche, but that the realm of  the psyche extends into transpersonal, timeless dimensions, beyond the control of  the individual ego, and therefore operational, as it were, extrinsic to the individual.11 For Borges, angels, for example, are one more creation of  the imagination, but whose persistence in the human imagination grants them some undefined ontological status. A 1926 essay entitled ‘A History of  Angels’ describes this perspective. Ya estamos orillando el casi milagro que es la verdadera motivación de este escrito: lo que podríamos denominar la supervivencia del ángel. La imaginación de los hombres ha figurado tandas de monstruos (tritones, hipogrifos, quimeras, serpientes de mar, unicornios, diablos, dragones, lobizones, cíclopes, faunos, basiliscos, semidioses, leviatanes y otros que son caterva) y todos ellos han desaparecido, salvo los ángeles. ¿Qué verso de hoy se atrevería a mentar la fénix o a ser paseo de un centauro? Ninguno; pero a cualquier poesía, por moderna que sea, no le desplace ser nidal de ángeles y resplandecerse con ellos. Yo me los imagino siempre al anochecer, en la tardecita de los arrabales o de los descampados, en ese largo y quieto instante en que se van quedando solas las cosas a espaldas del ocaso y en que los colores distintos parecen recuerdos o presentimientos de otros colores. No hay que gastarlos mucho a los ángeles; son las divinidades últimas que hospedamos y a lo mejor se vuelan. (1994: 67)


from ‘The False Swedenborg’ of 1873. I have not been able to locate this source. It might well be one of  their many invented texts. Philemon, for example, was both ‘real’ and ‘psychological’ for Jung. The distinction is, ultimately, irrelevant. It must also be noted that Borges was a sympathetic reader of  Jung: ‘I’ve always been a great reader of  Jung’ (Burgin 1969: 109). He also makes reference to Jung in ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’ (1974: 670), and to Jung’s Psychologie und alchemie in ‘Kafka y sus precursores’ (1974: 710) and in El libro de los seres imaginarios.

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


[Here we arrive at the near miracle that is the true motive for this writing: what we might call the survival of  the angel. The human imagination has pictured a horde of monsters (tritons, hippogrif fs, chimeras, sea serpents, unicorns, devils, dragons, werewolves, cyclopes, fauns, basilisks, demigods, leviathans, and a legion of others) and all have disappeared, except angels. Today, what line of poetry would dare allude to the phoenix or make itself  the promenade of a centaur? None; but no poetry, however modern, is unhappy to be a nest of angels and to shine brightly with them. I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long, quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colors are like memories or premonitions of other colors. We must not be too prodigal with our angels; they are the last divinities we harbor, and they might f ly away.] (2000: 19)12

It is interesting to note that all the monsters he mentions in this passage later appear in El libro de los seres imaginarios, yet he awards a dif ferent degree of compassion to angels, derived perhaps from his sister’s relationship with them. The hard-lined Kantian logic present in the 1922 essay ‘La nadería de la personalidad’ appears to be able to dismiss angels as creatures of  the imagination, yet unlike Kant, this approach would nevertheless permit such imaginary beings to be more real than simple illusions and, furthermore, to be worthy of philosophical speculation. And yet the paradox runs deeper: he praises Swedenborg’s visions yet derides Weatherhead’s on the assumption that the former’s are genuine whilst the latter’s are merely conforming to dogmatic theology. Borges’ assertion of authenticity is itself a clear ref lection of  his own ‘free-thinking’ or ‘agnostic’ (both terms which he regularly employs) position. His mistrust of  Christian doctrine was such that Carlos Cortínez observes it even manifesting in a distrust of  the treasured dreamworld, when Borges’ 12

Borges was notoriously scathing of  the book in which this essay appeared – El tamaño de mi esperanza: ‘I am thoroughly ashamed of  that book […] I try to forget it. A very poor book’ (Barnstone 1982: 82). The legend (that Borges promoted) was that he gathered any copies of  the book he could find and burned them. He also, though, says the same about Inquisiciones (Barnstone 1982: 110). One cannot help feeling that Borges is actually a canny promoter of  his own works; by claiming in countless interviews that both Tamaño and Inquisiciones should not be read, he is actually encouraging people to read them.


Chapter One

mother claims that her dead father had returned to her in a dream to assure her of  the existence of  God.13 He unpicks the nature of vision of  Swedenborg, and opens (though does not explore) a thorny question that arises regularly in the nebulous scholarship of mysticism: are experiences unique to the individual or are they universal? Are experiences exceptional or culturally conditioned? Or, put in a dif ferent way, did Teresa de Ávila encounter Christ, or did she encounter the same ‘source’ or ‘power’ that non-Christian mystics might encounter, but that she interpreted this power as Christ? Yeats, for example, attributes a strong cultural inf luence upon Swedenborg’s own appreciation of  the angelic realm: ‘Swedenborg because he belongs to an eighteenth century not yet touched by the romantic revival feels horror amid rocky uninhabited places, and so believes that the evil are in such places while the good are amid smooth grass and garden walks and the clear sunlight of  Claude Lorraine’ (1920: 303), and he maintains that


‘En la entrevista con Carlos Cortínez encontramos, por desgracia, muy sintetizada, aquella famosa conversación que tuvieron Borges con su madre acerca de Dios. “No recuerdo cómo la conversación derivó hacia las creencias religiosas de cada cual. Entonces ella me declaró su fe con una simplicidad no exenta de dramatismo … me contó un sueño que ella tuvo cuando murió su padre: él se le acercaba, muy fatigado, y le aseguraba, de un modo que no ha podido olvidar, que Dios existe. … Dos o tres veces fue interrumpido por su hijo que oponía razones de su escepticismo. Era paradójico oír a Borges desconfiar de la seriedad de los sueños, para no dejarse convencer por la belleza del relato de su madre. En una de esas, ella sin molestarse pero con la superioridad del creyente lo hizo callar: – ¡Deja Georgie, tú no piensas en estas cosas …!”’ (Romero 1977: 492) [‘In the interview with Carlos Cortínez we regretfully find that famous conversation that Borges had with his mother about God: “I don’t remember how the conversation moved towards their religious beliefs. She declared to me her faith with a simplicity not lacking drama … she told me about a dream she had when her father died: he, exhausted, had approached her and had assured her in a way she could not forget that God exists. … Two or three times she was interrupted by her son who put forward reasons for his scepticism. It was paradoxical to hear Borges mistrust the seriousness of dreams, in order not to allow himself  to be convinced by the beauty of  his mother’s tale. On one of  those interruptions she calmly and with the superiority of a believer made him silent: Enough Georgie! You don’t believe in such matters!”’] (my translation).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Blake’s outlandish mythologies derived from the absence of established doctrine.14 Raine addresses this perennial question when considering the inf luence of  Swedenborg on Blake: ‘it may be that we also have to conclude that those gifted with the clear vision of  the imaginal world are in essential agreement because describing the same reality’ (Raine 1995: 67). Borges brushes aside the implications of specific doctrinal mystical experiences: ‘Swedenborg, como Spinoza o Francis Bacon, fue un pensador por cuenta propia y que cometió un incómodo error cuando resolvió ajustar sus ideas al marco de los dos Testamentos’ (2005: 155) [‘Swedenborg, like Spinoza or Francis Bacon, was a thinker in his own right who made an awkward mistake when he decided to adapt his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’] (1995: 9).15 Quite clearly, for Borges, the aesthetic power of  14


‘He was a man crying out for a mythology, and trying to make one because he could not find one to his hand. Had he been a Catholic of  Dante’s time he would have been well content with Mary and the angels; or had he been a scholar of our time he would have taken his symbols where Wagner took his, from Norse mythology’ (1903: 174). Borges, it must be recalled, was often reserved about Blake’s complex mythologies, claiming: ‘La obra de Blake es una obra de lectura extraordinariamente difícil, ya que Blake había creado un sistema teológico, pero para exponerlo, se le ocurrió inventar una mitología sobre cuyo sentido no están de acuerdo los comentadores’ (Borges 2002: 215) [‘The work of  Blake is extraordinarily dif ficult to read, seeing that Blake created a theological system, but that, in order to express it, it occurred to him to invent a mythology that none of  the commentators can agree upon’] (my translation). He also at one stage calls Blake ‘generally long-winded and ponderous’ (Barnstone 1982: 26), and he states that one would need a dictionary of  Blake to understand Blake. This is, indeed, a pervasive question. Robert Moss suggests that Swedenborg’s religious upbringing was contributory towards his visions: ‘These encounters [with the dead] also gave him a first-hand understanding of  the conditions of  the afterlife. Previously, his religious faith had convinced him that the spirit survives physical death. Now he could begin to study how it survives’ (1998: 188). Colin Wilson, meanwhile, pursues a line similar to that of  Yeats and Borges: ‘[Swedenborg] lived in a religious age; his father was a bishop; he had studied the Bible since childhood. It was, therefore, natural that his visions expressed themselves in terms of  the Bible. If  he had been brought up on the works of  Shakespeare or Dante, no doubt his ideas would have expressed themselves in the form of gigantic commentaries on Shakespeare’s tragedies or the Divine Comedy. The chief obstacle to the modern understanding of  Swedenborg is


Chapter One

Swedenborg lay in an authentic experience unmediated by doctrine aside from in a few infelicitous moments and despite its Christian clothing, whereas the ‘mediocre’ Weatherhead simply reproduced established dogma. In a similar fashion, Barnstone asks Borges about the Spanish mystics, and about his own mystical experiences: Barnstone: You’ve been immersed in the writings of  the Gnostics, the mystics, in the Kabbalah, the Book of  Splendor. Borges: I’ve done my best, but I am very ignorant. Barnstone: You have been interested in the mystics – Borges: At the same time I am no mystic myself. Barnstone: I imagine that you would consider the voyage of  the mystics a true experience but a secular one. Could you comment on the mystical experience in other writing, in Fray Luis de León … Borges: I wonder if  Fray Luis de León had any mystical experience. I should say not. When I talk of mystics, I think of  Swedenborg, Angelus Silesius, and the Persians also. Not the Spaniards. I don’t think they had any mystical experiences. Barnstone: John of  the Cross? Borges: I think that Saint John of  the Cross was following the pattern of  the Song of  Songs. And that’s that. I suppose he never had any actual experience. In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put in words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experience. And if you have not had the experience you can’t share it – as if you were to talk about the taste of cof fee and had never tried cof fee. Twice in my life I had a feeling, a feeling rather agreeable than otherwise. It was astonishing, astounding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of  living not in time but outside time. It may have been a minute or so, it may have been longer. […] Somehow the feeling came over me that I was living beyond time, and I did my best to capture it, but it came and went. I wrote poems about it, but they are normal poems and do not tell the experience. I cannot tell it to you, since I cannot retell it to myself, but I had that experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it one more time before I die. (Barnstone 1982: 10–11)

that few of us can take the Bible for granted in the way that our great-grandfathers did. This is a sad ref lection on the modern age’ (1995: 100).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Again, his dismissal of  ‘the Spaniards’ lies in his sense of  their doctrinal adherence. Whilst Borges admires John of  the Cross’s poetic craft, he nevertheless perceives the same sense of inauthenticity of experience that he does in Weatherhead. John of  the Cross was merely ‘following the pattern of  the Song of  Songs’ in the same fashion that Weatherhead was merely parroting ‘conjeturas semiteosóficas’ (1974: 282). Furthermore, he derides Pascal for doctrinal adherence claiming that his derision of  Pascal was itself derived from Swedenborg: ‘No es [Pascal] un místico; pertenece a aquellos cristianos denunciados por Swedenborg, que suponen que el cielo es un galardón y el infierno un castigo y que, habituados a la meditación melancólica, no saben hablar con los ángeles’ (1974: 704) [‘He is not a mystic; he belongs to those Christians, denounced by Swedenborg, who suppose that heaven is a reward and hell a punishment and who, accustomed to melancholy meditation, do not know how to speak with the angels’] (1964: 99). Borges’ own mystical experiences, as he describes, were unique and personal, purportedly uninspired by textual sources, and consequently inexpressible. Here lies the nub of  the paradox. Whilst we are all the products of our inf luences, and whilst he repeatedly maintains that all great literature is merely the re-articulation of a few perennial symbols, nevertheless, for Borges the mystical experience by necessity must be somehow free of inf luence in order to shine with authenticity. It is my hypothesis that this opinion of authenticity is a smokescreen, and that what really is at stake is not a metaphysical judgment about the true substance and structure of  heaven, nor of  the ontology of angelic beings. Rather, it is Borges’ inveterate iconoclasm, his mistrust of doctrine, and his love of  heterodoxy, heretics, heresy and heresiarchs. Doctrine, and its constellation as dogma, was, for Borges a denial of individual will and creative liberty. Political doctrine merely entertains people, or, in the case of  Juan and Evita Perón, only entertains the ignorant.16 In the case of  Nazism, its appeal can lead them to outrageous acts


See ‘L’illusion Comique’ (Borges 2000a: 409–11).


Chapter One

of  brutality.17 Philosophical doctrine, he argues, ‘is really mere guesswork’ (Barnstone 1982: 111). Theological doctrine, especially if allied to blind faith, naturally and reasonably, leads to great intolerance.18 Borges even declares that his abiding love for Dante and for the Divine Comedy derives from its aesthetics in spite of  the theology: ‘Lo que menos me ha interesado en La divina comedia es el valor religioso. Es decir, me han interesado los personajes […] sus destinos, pero todo el concepto religioso, la idea de premios y de castigos, es una idea que no he entendido nunca’ (Sorrentino 2001: 144) [‘What least interests me in The Divine Comedy is the religious value. That’s to say, I am interested in the characters […] their destinies, but all the religious dimension, the idea of reward and punishment, is an idea that I have never understood’] (my translation). Swedenborg, conversely in Borges’ view, underwent journeys into imaginal landscapes of  heavens and hells and was so untouched by the pressure of doctrinal adherence that he risked being branded a heretic. Whilst observing the doctrinal geometry of  Dante’s Divine Comedy, it becomes clear that a central thrust of  Borges’ veneration for Dante lies, conversely, in his subtle heterodox, even heretical, dimensions. In the Nueve ensayos dantescos (1989: 339–72), Borges elaborates the degree to which Dante pushes the boundaries of orthodoxy to an alarming degree. There are many facets to this reading of Dante, and many areas that Borges investigates 17


Recall the oft-quoted statement of  the narrator of  Tlön ‘Hace diez años bastaba cualquier simetría con apariencia de orden – el materialismo dialéctico, el antisemitismo, el nazismo – para embelesar a los hombres. ¿Cómo no someterse a Tlön, a la minuciosa y vasta evidencia de un planeta ordenado? Inútil responder que la realidad también está ordenada’ (1974: 442) [‘Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of  Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered’] (1976: 34). ‘No church – whether Catholic or Protestant – has ever been tolerant, nor is there any reason for them to be tolerant. If  I believe I am in possession of  the truth there is no reason for me to be tolerant of  those who are risking their own salvation by holding erroneous beliefs. On the contrary, it’s my duty to persecute them’ (Burgin 1998: 73–4).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


are common to exegetic commentaries on the Comedy; other areas are pertinent, so it would appear, only to Borges. Firstly, Borges identifies in almost every passage that he composed on Dante the essential motivation behind Dante’s vast poetic cycle: the union not with the godhead but with Beatrice. Retengamos un hecho incontrovertible, un solo hecho humildísimo: la escena ha sido imaginada por Dante. Para nosotros, es muy real; para él, lo fue menos. (La realidad, para él, era que primero la vida y después la muerte le habían arrebatado a Beatriz). Ausente para siempre de Beatriz, solo y quizá humillado, imaginó la escena para imaginar que estaba con ella. Desdichadamente para él, felizmente para los siglos que lo leerían, la conciencia de que el encuentro era imaginario deformó la visión. De ahí las circunstancias atroces, tanto más infernales, claro está, por ocurrir en el empíreo la desaparición de Beatriz, el anciano que toma su lugar, su brusca elevación a la Rosa, la fugacidad de la sonrisa y de la mirada, el desvío eterno del rostro. En las palabras se trasluce el horror: come parea se refiere a lontana pero contamina a sorrise y así Longfellow pudo traducir en su versión de 1867:    Thus I implored; and she, so far away,    Smiled as it seemed, and looked once more at me … También eterna parece contaminar a si tornò. (1989: 374) [We must keep one incontrovertible fact in mind, a single, humble fact: the scene was imagined by Dante. For us, it is very real; for him, it was less so. (The reality, for him, was that first life and then death had taken Beatrice from him.) Forever absent from Beatrice, alone and perhaps humiliated, he imagined the scene in order to imagine he was with her. Unhappily for him, happily for the centuries that would read him, his consciousness that the meeting was imaginary distorted the vision. Hence the appalling circumstances, all the more infernal for taking place in the empyrean: the disappearance of  Beatrice, the elder who replaces her, her abrupt elevation to the Rose, the f leetingness of  her glance and smile, the eternal turning away of  the face. The horror shows through in the words: come parea refers to lontana but contaminates sorrise, and therefore Longfellow could translate, in his 1867 version:    Thus I implored; and she, so far away,    Smiled as it seemed, and looked once more at me … And eternal seems to contaminate si tornò.] (2000: 304–5)19


Enamorarse es crear una religión cuyo dios es falible. Que Dante profesó por Beatriz una adoración idolátrica es una verdad que no cabe contradecir; que ella una vez se burló de él y otra lo desairó son hechos que registra la Vita nuova. Hay quien mantiene que esos hechos son imágenes de otros; ello, a ser así, reforzaría aún más nuestra


Chapter One

This immediately evokes a pathetic quality to the cycle that betrays Dante’s earthly, human love over the love of  the divine. Secondly, this aspect cannot be separated from the equally pathetic envy and regret that Borges identifies in Dante’s portrayal of  the lovers Paola and Francesco: Infinitamente existió Beatriz para Dante; Dante, muy poco, tal vez nada, para Beatriz; todos nosotros propendemos, por piedad, por veneración a olvidar esa lastimosa

certidumbre de un amor desdichado y supersticioso. Dante, muerta Beatriz, perdida para siempre Beatriz, jugó con la ficción de encontrarla, para mitigar su tristeza; yo tengo para mí que edificó la triple arquitectura de su poema para intercalar ese encuentro. Le ocurrió entonces lo que suele ocurrir en los sueños, manchándolo de tristes estorbos. Tal fue el caso de Dante. Negado para siempre por Beatriz, soñó con Beatriz, pero la soñó severísima, pero la soñó inaccesible, pero la soñó en un carro tirado por un león que era un pájaro y que era todo pájaro o todo león cuando los ojos de Beatriz lo esperaban (Purgatorio XXXI, 121). Tales hechos pueden prefigurar una pesadilla; ésta se fija y se dilata en el otro canto. Beatriz desaparece; un águila, una zorra y un dragón atacan el carro; las ruedas y el timón se cubren de plumas; el carro, entonces, echa siete cabezas (Transformato così’l dificio santo/mise fuor teste …); un gigante y una ramera usurpan el lugar de Beatriz. (1989: 371) [‘To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible god. That Dante professed an idolatrous adoration for Beatrice is a truth that cannot be contradicted; that she once mocked and on another occasion snubbed him are facts registered in the Vita nuova. Some would maintain that these facts are the images of others; if so, this would further reinforce our certainty of an unhappy and superstitious love. With Beatrice dead, lost forever, Dante, to assuage his sorrow, played with the fiction of meeting her again. It is my belief  that he constructed the triple architecture of  his poem in order to insert this encounter into it. What then happened is what often happens in dreams: they are stained by sad obstructions. Such was Dante’s case. Forever denied Beatrice, he dreamed of  Beatrice, but dreamed her as terribly severe, dreamed her as inaccessible, dreamed her in a chariot pulled by a lion that was a bird and that was all bird or all lion while Beatrice’s eyes were awaiting him (Purgatorio XXXI, 121). Such images can prefigure a nightmare; and it is a nightmare that begins here and will expand in the next canto. Beatrice disappears; an eagle, a she-fox, and a dragon attack the chariot, and its wheels and body grow feathers: the chariot then sprouts seven heads (“Transformato così’l dificio santo/mise fuor teste” {Thus transformed, the holy structure put forth heads upon its parts}); a giant and a harlot usurp Beatrice’s place’] (2000a: 300–1).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


discordia inolvidable para Dante. Leo y releo los azares de su ilusorio encuentro y pienso en dos amantes que el Alighieri soñó en el huracán del segundo círculo y que son emblemas oscuros, aunque él no lo entendiera o no lo quisiera, de esa dicha que no logró. Pienso en Francesca y en Paolo, unidos para siempre en su Infierno (Questi, che mai da me non fia diviso …) Con espantoso amor, con ansiedad, con admiración, con envidia. (1989: 371). [Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante. Dante very little, perhaps not at all for Beatrice. All of us tend to forget, out of pity, out of veneration, this grievous discord which for Dante was unforgettable. Reading and rereading the vicissitudes of  his illusory meeting, I think of  the two lovers that Alighieri dreamed in the hurricane of  the second circle and who, whether or not he understood or wanted them to be, were obscure emblems of  the joy he did not attain. I think of  Paolo and Francesca, forever united in their Inferno: ‘questi, che mai da me non fia diviso’ (this one, who never shall be parted from me). With appalling love, with anxiety, with admiration, with envy.] (2000: 300–1)20

Thirdly, Borges writes with passion of  the abiding love and respect that Dante bore for Virgil, and for Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, and the deep sadness and regret that Dante experienced in acknowledging their banishment to the nobile castello. Dante knows that Virgil is a damned soul, and the very moment that Virgil tells him that he will not be able to accompany him beyond purgatory, Dante feels that Virgil will always be an inhabitant of  that ‘nobile castello’ where the great shadows of  the great men of antiquity dwell, those that through unavoidable ignorance did not accept or could not reach the word of  Christ. […] Dante salutes him with the highest epithets and speaks of  the great love and the long study to which Virgil’s writings

20 He also reiterates this in Siete noches: ‘esos dos réprobos están juntos, no pueden hablarse, giran en el negro remolino sin ninguna esperanza, ni siquiera nos dice Dante la esperanza de que los sufrimientos cesen, pero están juntos. Cuando ella habla, usa el nosotros: habla por los dos, otra forma de estar juntos. Están juntos para la eternidad, comparten el Infierno y eso para Dante tiene que haber sido una suerte de Paraíso’ (1989: 216) [‘They cannot speak to each other, they turn in the black whirlwind without hope, yet they are together. When she speaks, she says “we,” speaking for the two of  them, another form of  being together. They are together for eternity; they share Hell – and that, for Dante, must have been a kind of  Paradise’] (1984: 18).


Chapter One have led him, and of  their relationship which has always been constant. But Virgil is sad since he knows that he is condemned to the ‘nobile castello,’ far from salvation and full of  God’s absence; Dante, on the other hand, will see God, he will be allowed to, and he will also be allowed to understand the universe. (Alifano 1984: 97)21

Fourthly, in composing the cycle, and thus acting as judge in condemning Virgil to the absence of  God, Dante, in Borges’ eyes, was deeply unsettled at his own god-like status.


‘En el caso de Dante, el procedimiento es más delicado. No es exactamente un contraste, aunque tenemos la actitud filial: Dante viene a ser un hijo de Virgilio y al mismo tiempo es superior a Virgilio porque se cree salvado. Cree que merecerá la gracia o que la ha merecido, ya que le ha sido dada la visión. En cambio, desde el comienzo del Infierno sabe que Virgilio es un alma perdida, un réprobo; cuando Virgilio le dice que no podrá acompañarlo más allá del Purgatorio, siente que el latino será para siempre un habitante del terrible nobile castello donde están las grandes sombras de los grandes muertos de la Antigüedad, los que por ignorancia invencible no alcanzaron la palabra de Cristo. En ese mismo momento, Dante dice: Tu, duca; tu, signore; tu, maestro … Para cubrir ese momento, Dante lo saluda con palabras magníficas y habla del largo estudio y del gran amor que le han hecho buscar su volumen y siempre se mantiene esa relación entre los dos. Esa figura esencialmente triste de Virgilio, que se sabe condenado a habitar para siempre en el nobile castello lleno de la ausencia de Dios … En cambio, a Dante le será permitido ver a Dios, le será permitido comprender el universo’ (1989: 213). [‘In the case of  Dante, the matter is more delicate. It is not exactly a contrast, although there is a filial relationship. Dante comes to be the son of  Virgil, yet at the same time he is superior to Virgil for he believes he will be saved, since he has been given the vision. But he knows, from the beginning, that Virgil is a lost soul, a reprobate. When Virgil tells him that he cannot accompany him beyond Purgatory, he knows that the Latin poet will always inhabit the terrible nobile castello with the great shades of  Antiquity, those who never heard the word of  Christ. At that moment, Dante hails him with magnificent words: “Tu, duca; tu, signore; tu, maestro …” He speaks of  the great labor and of  the great love with which his work has been studied, and this relation is always maintained between the two. But Virgil is essentially a sad figure who knows he is forever condemned to that castle filled with the absence of  God. Dante, however, will be permitted to see God; he will be permitted to understand the universe’] (1984: 14).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Otra razón, de tipo técnico, explica la dureza y la crueldad de que Dante ha sido acusado. La noción panteísta de un Dios que también es el universo, de un Dios que es cada una de sus criaturas y el destino de esas criaturas, es quizá una herejía y un error si la aplicamos a la realidad, pero es indiscutible en su aplicación al poeta y a su obra. El poeta es cada uno de los hombres de su mundo ficticio, es cada soplo y cada pormenor. Una de sus tareas, no la más fácil, es ocultar o disimular esa omnipresencia. El problema era singularmente arduo en el caso de Dante, obligado por el carácter de su poema a adjudicar la gloria o la perdición, sin que pudieran advertir los lectores que la Justicia que emitía los fallos era, en último término, él mismo. Para conseguir ese fin, se incluyó como personaje de la Comedia, e hizo que sus reacciones no coincidieran, o sólo coincidieran alguna vez en el caso de Filippo Argenti, o en el de Judas, con las decisiones divinas. (1989: 346) [There is a technical explanation for the hardheartedness and cruelty of which Dante has been accused. The pantheistic idea of a god who is also the universe, a god who is every one of  his creatures and the destiny of  those creatures, may be a heresy and an error if we apply it to reality, but it is indisputable when applied to the poet and his work. The poet is each one of  the men in his fictive world, he is every breath and every detail. One of  his tasks, and not the easiest of  them, is to hide or disguise this omnipresence. The problem was particularly burdensome in Dante’s case, for he was forced by the nature of  his poem to mete out glory or damnation, but in such a way as to keep his readers from noticing that the Justice handing down these sentences was, in the final analysis, he himself. To achieve this, he included himself as a character in the Commedia, and made his own reactions contrast or only rarely coincide – in the case of  Filippo Argenti, or in that of  Judas – with the divine decisions.] (2000: 270)

Lastly, Borges acknowledges with great respect that Dante himself was torn between the need (and desire) to adhere to orthodoxy, and the desire to operate with poetic, aesthetic and, indeed, metaphysical freedom. In almost all the nine Dantesque essays, and in Siete noches, Borges describes the tension apparent in Dante between adhering to doctrine and expressing his own artistic vision. He talks of  Dante’s ‘own invention’ of  the limbo for the pre-Christian elevated souls (the Classical poets): Para mitigar el horror de una época adversa, el poeta buscó refugio en la gran memoria romana. Quiso honrarla en su libro, pero no pudo entender – la observación pertenece a Guido Vitali – que insistir demasiado sobre el mundo clásico no convenía a sus propósitos doctrinales. Dante no podía, contra la Fe, salvar a sus héroes; los pensó en un Infierno negativo, privados de la vista y posesión de Dios en el cielo, y


Chapter One se apiadó de su misterioso destino. […] En la invención y ejecución de este canto IV Dante urdió una serie de circunstancias, alguna de índole teológica. Devoto lector de la Eneida, imaginó a los muertos en el Elíseo, o en una variación medieval de esos campos dichosos. […] Urgido por razones dogmáticas, debió situar en el Infierno a su noble castillo. (1989: 348) [To allay the horror of an adverse era, the poet sought refuge in the great memory of  Rome. He wished to honor it in his book, but could not help understanding – the observation is Guido Vitali’s – that too great an insistence on the classical world did not accord well with his doctrinal aims. Dante, who could not go against the Faith to save his heroes, envisioned them in a negative Hell, denied the sight and possession of  God in heaven, and took pity on their mysterious fate. […] In the invention and execution of  Canto IV, Dante plotted out a series of circumstances, some of  them theological in nature. A devout reader of  the Aeneid, he imagined the dead in the Elysium or in a medieval variant of  those glad fields. […] For pressing reasons of dogma, Dante had to situate his noble castle in Hell.] (2000: 274 italics mine)

These central arguments of  Borges’ appreciation of  Dante reveal a similar element of disdain for the doctrinal that we see manifest in his dismissal of  the visions of  St John of  the Cross and of  the eschatology of  Weatherhead. Beyond the beauty of  the couplets, Borges’ aesthetic appreciation of  Dante lay, precisely, in this tension between doctrine and originality. We can see, therefore, that whilst originality is a quality rarely prized elsewhere in Borges, viz his inclusion of other author’s tales in his tales, his recognition that the ‘Las ruinas circulares’ is a rewriting of  ‘El Golem’, his admission in the prologue to El informe de Brodie [Dr Brodie’s Report] that ‘unos pocos argumentos me han hostigado a lo largo del tiempo; soy decididamente monótono’ (1974: 1022) [‘A mere handful of arguments have haunted me all these years; I am decidedly monotonous’] (2006: 20), and his assertion that all great literature is merely the repetition of certain perennial symbols within shifting cultural contexts; nevertheless, in matters of metaphysics and mysticism, originality is a treasured value due to its resistance to doctrine and dogma.

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


Conclusion The presence of  Dante in Borges has been widely acknowledged. The presence of  Swedenborg has not. It is striking, however, to notice the depth of inf luence of  Swedenborg’s thought upon Borges. This inf luence is visible not least the inclusion of extracts of  Swedenborg’s texts in Historia Universal de la Infamia and in El libro de los seres imaginarios, but through the adumbration of  Swedenborg’s visions in so many of  Borges’ tales, and the manifest af finity to Swedenborg. This forms the basis of  Chapter Five. Similarly, such considerations must be accompanied with an assessment of  Borges’ own considerations of  the landscape of death. Whilst again here is not the space to elaborate, it is worth explaining that throughout his work, in many facets of  his writing, Borges appears pulled by two polarities: the inevitability of oblivion or annihilation and the possibility of continuity. In countless interviews, especially in his later years, he expresses a firm wish for annihilation: I look forward to being blotted out. But if  I thought that my death was a mere illusion, that after death I would go on, then I would feel very, very unhappy. For really, I’m sick and tired of myself. Now, of course if  I go on and I have no personal memory of  having ever been Borges, then in that case, it won’t matter to me; because I may have been hundreds of odd people before I was born, but those things won’t worry me, since I will have forgotten them. When I think of mortality, of death, I think of  those things in a hopeful way, in an expectant way. I should say I am greedy for death, that I want to stop waking up every morning, finding: ‘Well, here I am, I have to go back to Borges.’ (Barnstone 1982: 17)

His reading, however, of  Plato and other philosophers reveals a curiosity about the soul’s persistence after corporeal death, and even the transmigration of souls. The Borges-protagonist of  ‘Delia Elena San Marco’, for example, lamenting Delia’s loss, declares: ‘Anoche no salí después de comer y releí, para comprender estas cosas, la última enseñanza que Platón pone en boca de su maestro. Leí que el alma puede huir cuando muere la carne’ (1974: 790) [‘Last night I stayed in after dinner and reread, in order to understand these things, the last teaching Plato put in his master’s mouth. I read that


Chapter One

the soul may escape when the f lesh dies’] (1970: 32). There are many tales and poems that demonstrate this tension between ‘olvido’ [oblivion] and afterlife, expressed most succinctly in a brief comment in interview: In spite of oneself, one thinks. I am almost sure to be blotted out by death, but sometimes I think it is not impossible that I may continue to live in some other manner after my physical death. I feel every suicide has that doubt: Is what I am going to do worthwhile? Will I be blotted out, or will I continue to live on another world? Or as Hamlet wonders, what dreams will come when we leave this body? It could be a nightmare. And then we would be in hell. Christians believe that one continues after death to be who he has been and that he is punished or rewarded forever, according to what he has done in this brief  time that was given to him. I would prefer to continue living after death if  I have but to forget the life I lived. (Burgin 1998: 240)

The question of  faith here arises. Borges’ position as agnostic is of crucial concern for us, and it is important to note that for Borges agnosticism was not apathy to spiritual matters; on the contrary, it leads to a greater opening to the numinous.22 Faith, in Borges’ worldview, is an indication of  belief in matters about which we have no knowledge, and thus betrays a limitation of one’s imagination. It would seem restrictive, he maintains, to limit oneself  to a particular doctrine of  life after death unless, as in the case of  Swedenborg, one has visited such a realm. His statement that ‘I have never been worthy of such an experience’ is the acknowledgment that in matters metaphysical, he must rely on his reading and his imagination. In both cases, though, no firm conviction can be reached. There are many speculations about life after death. Swedenborg describes in detail hells and paradises. Dante’s poem is also about hell, purgatory, paradise. Where does this tendency of man come from, to try to imagine and describe something that he cannot possibly know? (Burgin 1998: 247)

22 ‘Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant’ (Shenker 1971).

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


In the absence of empirical, experiential evidence, how can we judge Borges’ criteria for appraising authenticity to such metaphysical matters of  heaven or eschatology? Logic, for example, cannot be employed in such matters. An example of  this is that Borges, as mentioned, quotes Flaubert and Claudel in suggesting that Dante would be horrified to see, when dying, that the Otherworld has no resemblance to his poetic vision. Borges also quotes Swedenborg in stating that the dead project a vision of their bidding around them. According to this logic, Dante would justifiably have been able, upon death, to be surrounded by the landscape of  his poetic cycle, in the presence of  Virgil. Logic is an inappropriate system in such matters. James Lawrence, editor of  Testimony to the Invisible, seizes this question of credibility, and suggests that for Borges the criteria for judging authenticity lie within a certain aesthetic integrity. So convinced is Lawrence that Borges is convinced by Swedenborg, he goes so far as to claim Borges as one of  their own – a Swedenborgian: Borges professes his profound admiration of  Swedenborg’s mode of  knowing in this essay, and one quickly discerns that he also feels a kindred spirit to the Swedish mystic. Borges declares that he himself is not a mystic, but that mysticism is an important and fascinating subject for him. When the epistemology of  the knower is of solid pedigree, he believed, then the ensuing perceptions are the most sublime humanity has known. Borges felt that he shared with Swedenborg the same fundamental objectives; they simply traversed the same terrain in somewhat dif ferent ways. […] Borges believed in Swedenborg’s spiritual journeys more profoundly than many artists and poets who have expressed perhaps some admiration or inspiration but who have not been so deeply inclined to explore the same realities with as much conviction and daring as Borges. It is in this sense that Borges is most deeply Swedenborgian. (Lawrence 1995: x–xi)23


‘Swedenborgian’ need not mean being a member of any Swedenborgian church. Eugene Taylor, a scholar of  Swedenborg and his inf luence on Emerson and his companions, writes: ‘Swedenborgianism […] refers to a Christian denomination that follows the biblical interpretation of  Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century scientist and interpreter of religious experience. It can also refer more generally to avid readers of  Swedenborg’s works, such as the New England transcendentalists, who were not members of  the religious movement, but who used Swedenborg’s ideas to corroborate their own interior journey toward self-realization’ (1997: xvii).


Chapter One

This is a powerful assessment of  Borges, and whilst readers familiar with Borges would smirk at Lawrence’s naïveté in assuming that Borges was a believer in a particular theological tradition (albeit heterodox), such a reading is nevertheless fully borne out both in the language of Borges and, as mentioned, in the strong presence of  Swedenborg in Borges. So what is the nature of  this belief ? Clearly, as this chapter has elucidated, there is a paradoxical question at the heart of  Borges’ reading of mystics. Reality and artifice are indistinguishable. The text and the meta-text are both text. Hamlet is as real as Bioy Casares. This, as established, is an abiding element of  Borges. Upon this basis, therefore, an invented text of  heaven is as real as a genuinely experienced text of  heaven. And upon this basis, despite Borges’ acknowledgment that the mystical passage in ‘The Aleph’ was an imitation of mystical texts, it is nonetheless a mystical text.24 If we follow the Borges who maintains that the London of  Chesterton or Dickens is as real as the ‘real’ London and that ‘there is no dif ference between fact and fiction’ (Barnstone 1982: 117), then the Aleph, ‘the Spaniards’, Dante 24 Borges explains the artifice, or the invention, of  this passage: ‘A man in Spain asked me whether the aleph actually existed. Of course it doesn’t. He thought the whole thing was true. I gave him the name of  the street and the number of  the house. He was taken in very easily. […] That piece gave me great trouble, yes. I mean, I had to give a sensation of endless things in a single paragraph. Somehow, I got away with it. Q: Is that an invention, the aleph, or did you find it in some reference? No. I’ll tell you, I was reading about time and eternity. Now eternity is supposed to be timeless. I mean, God or a mystic perceives in one moment all of our yesterdays, Shakespeare says, all the past, all the present, all the future. And I said, why not apply that, well, that invention to another category, not to time, but to space? Why not imagine a point in space wherein the observer may find all the rest. I mean, who invented space? And that was the central idea. Then I had to invent all the other things, to make it into a funny story, to make it into a pathetic story, that came afterwards. My first aim was this: in the same way that many mystics have talked of eternity … that’s a big word, an eternity, an everness. And also neverness; that’s an awful word. Since we have an idea of eternity, of  foreverness in time, why not apply the same idea to space, and think of a single point in space wherein the whole of space may be found? I began with that abstract idea, and then, somehow, I came to that quite enjoyable story. (Burgin 1998: 212)

Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of  Dante and Swedenborg


and Weatherhead are all as authentic as Swedenborg. But if we follow the Borges who maintains that John of  the Cross is simply parodying the Song of  Songs, and Fray Luis de León is simply doctrinally-inspired, then we have a separate order of  hermeneutics, and, despite its numinous glow, the Aleph is simply an imitation and is consequently inauthentic. The judgment, as Lawrence suggests, lies in the ‘solid pedigree’ of  the epistemology of  the author and the text, not in the experience qua experience.25 To complete the circle of  this argument, therefore, we can maintain that the appreciation of mimesis – of a real description of experience unbiased by artifice, is in essence an aesthetic judgment. Borges as reader of mystics does not require empirical proof of  their experiences; what he requires is persuasion that the vision is genuine. If  Swedenborg is convincing, it is because, for Borges, the texts are suitably persuasive, precisely through their lack of rhetorical features, artifice and doctrine. Ultimately it is a question of style. Borges sums this up succinctly in his description of  the mimetic style of  his friend and mystic Xul Solar: ‘I once asked Xul how he defined his own painting, and he told me that he considered himself a Realist painter, since the things he painted were what he saw in his visions’ (Alifano 1984: 120). Thus the riddle unfolds. Realism, for Borges, is a fiction, and yet realism, for Borges, is fully operational in the peculiar and perplexing theory of mimesis of  the imagination. Swedenborg, for Borges, is a Realist of  the Fantastic.


A colleague of mine made this clear to me, stating that reading the paragraph in ‘The Aleph’ in which the narrator attempts to vocalize the vision of  the Aleph af fected her in a profound and ‘spiritual’ manner.

Chapter Two

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?

The range of mystical experience is very wide, much too wide for us to cover in the time at our disposal. — William James, Varieties of  Religious Experience Knowledge of  God, the realization of one’s union with God, in a word, mysticism, is necessary. — Alan Watts, Behold the Spirit

Borges repeatedly denied being a mystic: Many people have thought of me as a thinker, as a philosopher, or even as a mystic. […] People think that I’ve committed myself  to idealism, to solipsism, or to doctrines of  the cabala, because I’ve used them in my tales. But really I was only trying to see what could be done with them. (Burgin 1998: 79)

At the same time, he recognized that he experienced two mystical states in his life: In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put in words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experience. And if you have not had the experience you can’t share it – as if you were to talk about the taste of cof fee and had never tried cof fee. Twice in my life I had a feeling, a feeling rather agreeable than otherwise. It was astonishing, astounding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of  living not in time but outside time. It may have been a minute or so, it may have been longer. […] Somehow the feeling came over me that I was living beyond time, and I did my best to capture it, but it came and went. I wrote poems about it, but they are normal poems and do not tell the experience. I cannot tell it to you, since I cannot retell it to myself, but I had that experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it one more time before I die. (Barnstone 1982: 10–11)


Chapter Two

An important distinction is made here that we will explore in this chapter and the next: a mystic is not necessarily someone who has mystical experiences. Borges, of course, did do his best to capture the experience, describing it in a passage which he labelled ‘sentirse en muerte’ [‘feeling in death’] in El idioma de los argentinos (1928), in ‘Historia de la eternidad’ (1936) and in ‘Nueva refutación del tiempo’ (1952), and referring to it in many interviews. When discussing his two timeless moments, he even compared himself  to his mystic friend: ‘My friend, a mystic, abounds in ecstasies. I don’t. I’ve had only two experiences of  timeless time in eighty years’ (Barnstone 1982: 73). It is highly likely, given his other discussions, that he is referring to Xul Solar in this comment. Estela Canto recalled the mystical spirit of  Borges, whom she did not consider a mystic even though she saw in him a tendency towards becoming one: ‘Cuando se publicó El Aleph, yo lo comenté en una revista (Sur). Allí me refería yo a un estado de ánimo místico; a él le gustó el comentario. El agnóstico Borges no era un místico, por supuesto, pero sí una persona capaz de momentos místicos’ (1999: 13) [‘When The Aleph was published, I wrote about it in the literary journal Sur, referring to a state of mystical rapture. He liked my comment. The agnostic Borges was no mystic, clearly, but he was someone capable of mystical moments’] (my translation). It is significant for this study that Canto declares assertively that an agnostic, por supuesto, could not be a mystic; the implications being that some adherence to religious orthodoxy is a pre-requisite. This, as will be explored, is a problematic assertion. Canto further explains that Borges, many years later, congratulated her on her acuity in the article: Muchos años más tarde, un periodista me preguntó de repente: ‘¿Qué es El Aleph?’ y yo contesté: ‘Es el relato de una experiencia mística’. Cuando mencioné esto a Georgie, me encontré con que él no había olvidado mi artículo, escrito treinta y cinco años antes. Me dijo: ‘Has sido la única persona que ha dicho eso’, dando a entender que podía haber cierta verdad en la cosa. Le gustaba esta apreciación, que se oponía a la difundida idea entre los escritores argentinos, que lo juzgaban un autor frío y geométrico, un creador de juegos puramente intelectuales. (1999: 14) [Many years later, a journalist suddenly asked me, ‘What is the Aleph?’ and I replied, ‘it is the tale of a mystical experience.’ When I mentioned this to Georgie, I realized that he hadn’t forgotten my article, written thirty-five years earlier. He said to me,

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


‘you have been the only person to say this,’ implying that I had been right in my suggestion. He liked my appreciation, which was contrary to the idea circulated around Argentine writers, which depicted Borges as a cold and geometric author, a creator of purely intellectual games.] (My translation)

Importantly, according to Canto, Borges was dismayed that his fellow Argentines ignored the mystic rapture of  his tales in favour of intellectual game-playing. This is a valid perspective; the Borges-narrator of  ‘El Aleph’ does, after all, ridicule the mystical illumination it grants by highlighting the overwrought poetry of  the Aleph’s custodian, Daneri; and by dismissing the Aleph as ‘falso’. Canto further explores this mystical/non-mystical aspect of  Borges, suggesting that whilst not a mystic, he nevertheless strove to achieve the state of enlightenment commonly attributed to mystics: Los místicos hablan de ‘la noche oscura del alma’. ‘¿Quién puede distinguir entre la oscuridad y el alma?’, se pregunta Yeats, un poeta muy admirado por Borges. Y más allá de esa noche están los éxtasis de la liberación. A su manera tenue, pero empecinada, él luchaba por alcanzar esa liberación. Los místicos suelen ser tácitos, a veces escriben, rara vez hablan. (1999: 14) [Mystics speak of  ‘the dark night of  the soul.’ ‘Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?’ asks Yeats, a poet whom Borges admired. Beyond the dark night are the ecstasies of  liberation. In his own tenuous yet tenacious way, Borges strove to achieve that liberation. Mystics are often taciturn, they sometimes write but they rarely speak.] (My translation)

With further reference to ‘El Aleph’, Canto then appears to contradict herself  by saying that Borges was a mystic, albeit an unsuspecting one: ‘La diferencia está en que Borges era un místico sin quererlo. Los místicos buscan el éxtasis y a veces lo alcanzan tras sacrificios, ascesis, renuncias. Borges no renunciaba a nada: el elemento místico estaba en él, funcionaba sin que él lo quisiera, tal vez sin que lo sospechara’ (1999: 211). [‘The dif ference is that Borges was a mystic without wishing to be so. Mystics seek ecstasy and at times they achieve it through sacrifice, aestheticism, renunciation. Borges renounced nothing: the mystical element was in him without him desiring it, perhaps without him even aware of it’] (my translation). Canto, as we shall see, unwittingly enters the perennial debate within the scholarship of


Chapter Two

mysticism concerning bidden or unbidden states of mystical consciousness, the category of mysticism defined by William James as ‘passive’.1 Alicia Jurado cites Estela Canto (from what I assume was the same review to which Canto herself was referring), revealing that Canto went further than suggesting that Borges merely had the potential to be a mystic, but that he was one of  the greatest ‘mystical thinkers of our time’: Pocas personas han advertido las relaciones de Borges con el misticismo; una de ellas fue Estela Canto. Dijo, en una crítica sobre los cuentos de El Aleph, que llamó relatos, ensayos y también leyendas: ‘El universo, su contradicción aparente, sus sentidos ocultos y la angustia del hombre frente a él, aparece de lleno en todos los cuentos de Borges. Una de las características de los pensadores místicos es su afición a expresarse por símbolos. Yo diría que la mejor definición de Borges es la de unos de los grandes – y escasísimos – pensadores místicos de nuestra época’. Pensador místico, desde luego; no místico a secas. (1996: 98) [Few people have noticed Borges’ relationship with mysticism; one of  them was Estela Canto. In a review of  the tales in El Aleph, which she called tales, essays and also legends, she said: ‘The universe, its apparent contradictions, its hidden meanings and man’s anxieties faced with it, are the mainstay of all of  Borges’ tales. One of  the characteristics of mystical thinkers is their inclination to express themselves by means of symbols. I would say that the best definition of  Borges is that he is one of  the greatest – and rarest – mystical thinkers of our time.’ Mystical thinker, obviously, not just mystic.] (My translation)

It is revealing that Jurado’s ‘desde luego’ echoes Canto’s ‘por supuesto’, as in both cases their statements are grounded in the postulate that it is consensually recognized that Borges was no mystic. As we investigate in the following chapter, the distinction between ‘mystic’ and ‘mystical thinker’ is of prime importance in the scholarship of mysticism, with countless scholars, such James, Underhill and Jung denying their own mystical experiences yet manifestly appraising such experiences in their overall evaluation of mysticism.2

1 2

James’ use of  ‘passive’ as a definition of mysticism is problematic owing to his own use of nitrous oxide and ether to activate the mystical consciousness in himself. Kripal (2001) investigates the extent to which the mystical experiences of  James and Underhill inf luenced their scholarship.

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


I would argue that there is no consensus on the matter of whether Borges was or was not a mystic, as I hope to demonstrate in this chapter. J. M. Cohen, translator and friend of  Borges, was likewise curious about the depiction of mystical experiences in Borges’ work, especially in the three tales: ‘El Aleph’, ‘El Zahir’ and ‘La escritura del dios’. Similar to the discussion in the Introduction concerning Borges’ perplexing statements about employing mystical themes for purely aesthetic purposes, Cohen appears similarly suspicious of such simple assertions, arguing that Borges maintained a deep interest in such matters owing in part to his own mystical experiences: It is true that he talked about the mystics, but as writers who recorded certain curious experiences, whose statements concerning time and timelessness, recurrence, cosmology had a great speculative interest for him, but nothing more. He did not admit to any personal concern with such things. Yet so many of  Borges’ stories […] firmly contradict Borges’ defensive denial of personal involvement in this matter […]. His references to Christianity or Buddhism, to Plato, Swedenborg, the Sufis, show a fascination with magic, and particularly with the magical moment, which is identified in his poetry with the moment of déjà vu in which he first saw the pink painted street corner in the Buenos Aires suburb, and to other such moments in childhood or in his nocturnal walking in which things looked dif ferent; moments, one may say, in which ‘time stopped’, as it did for Hladík when he faced the firing squad. We may leave the subject of  Borges’ personal involvement in this area with the remark that he shows an uncanny familiarity with the stages of  the mystic search for one only speculatively interested in such matters. (1973: 78–9).

Cohen judiciously avoids labelling Borges a mystic, primarily in respect to Borges’ insistence that he had no religious or mystical inclination: ‘My own attempts to open the subject in 1953 [with Borges] were brusquely repulsed’ (1973: 78). Consequently he entitles the chapter in which he analyses these matters ‘The “mystical” experience’, where the inverted commas imply a sense of parody or critical distance in the treatment of mysticism in Borges’ tales. Nevertheless it is significant that Cohen cannot accept Borges’ claims and argues coherently that, parody aside, the three tales in particular constitute powerfully ‘mystical’ texts. María Kodama discusses mysticism in the introduction of  her edited volume of  Borges’ works On Mysticism (Borges 2010). Kodama, who


Chapter Two

through her employment of  the terms ‘passive’ and ‘inef fable’ appears in her understanding of mysticism to be inf luenced by both Borges and William James, does an admirable job in making simple a strikingly complex area of  thought, though in so doing she overlooks some of  these complexities. For example, she cites St John of  the Cross’s description of  the contemplative, spiritual path that can lead to the mystical state, yet fails to appreciate that Borges himself denied that St John of  the Cross was a mystic (Barnstone 1982: 11). She concludes her overview of  the essential characteristics of  the mystical state by stating: ‘Once we have determined these characteristics, we can see that they appear repeatedly in Borges’ poems and short stories’ (Borges 2010: viii). Again, this position is more complex than it may appear. The fact that mystical states are represented in poems and stories does not necessarily imply that the author experienced this particular state. And yet this assertion is problematic: as I argue in Chapter One, Borges constantly blurs the division between text and meta-text, and emphasizes the Blakean position that imagination is experiential. Consequently one can argue that the invention of a text describing a mystical state constitutes an experience of  the mystical state. The text is the experience. Kodama appears to intuit this conundrum, suggesting that ‘I believe that we could speak, in the case of  Borges, of a mysticism of creation’ (viii), where, I suppose, she locates the mystical moment in the act of  textual creation. Giskin (1990) considers Borges’ fictions in the light of  the principles of mysticism as defined by William James: Inef fability, Noetic experience, Transiency, and Passivity. Giskin’s analysis has provided a fruitful avenue of enquiry in the Borges course at the University of  Kent, and students find it a helpful guide for orientating themselves through the unnerving texts of  ‘El milagro secreto’, ‘Las ruinas circulares’, ‘La escritura del dios’, and in particular, ‘El Aleph’. Giskin concludes that owing to the fact that certain texts of  Borges embody the defining characteristics of mysticism as articulated by William James, Borges was consequently a mystic. This conclusion, however, leaves many questions unanswered: is a ‘mystical’ text necessarily the work of a mystic? Can an author parody a mystical text, and if so, does that negate the mystical qualities of  the text? What on earth is a mystical text? What on earth is a mystic? These questions are not mere ‘frivolidad escolástica’ [‘scholastic frivolity’] (a term Borges employs in

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


‘Duración del Infierno’) nor specious hair-splitting, as the discussion of mysticism, as we shall see, raises questions that strike at the heart of our understanding of reality and challenge our ontological certainties. It seems, therefore, that whilst Giskin may be praised for his clarity in making the equation: ‘The mystical experience in Borges includes four characteristics which are common to all epiphany, as cited by William James’ (Giskin 1990: 71) ergo Borges was a mystic, his analysis raises far more questions at levels of  literary, phenomenological and ontological analysis than he had perhaps intended. Lastly, Wallace, writing in the New York Times, suggests that Borges was, indeed, a mystic, and he of fers his own brief exposition of  the meaning of such a term: Borges’s stories […] are designed primarily as metaphysical arguments; they are dense, self-enclosed, with their own deviant logics. Above all, they are meant to be impersonal, to transcend individual consciousness […] One reason for this is that Borges is a mystic, or at least a sort of radical Neoplatonist – human thought, behavior and history are all the product of one big Mind, or are elements of an immense cabalistic Book that includes its own decoding. (2004)

There is an evident problem in all these assertions, as the authors avow that Borges was or was not a mystic based upon a rudimentary examination of what the word itself means, and without any exploration of  the long and often contradictory nature of  the scholarship of mysticism, which has for decades grappled precisely with the definition of  this troublesome term. As such, Canto’s analysis almost inevitably trips over itself as her position appears derived more from an ethical and perhaps emotive than an intellectual response to the question in the assumption that agnosticism and mysticism are contradictory enterprises. Kodama does venture away from the James/Borges position to include a Vedantic perspective, but still the reader is left with questions about the nature of experience-author-textreader. Wallace, meanwhile, makes one sweeping comment about ‘one big Mind’ as the determining position, and concludes that Borges fits within this category. Giskin, perhaps the most thorough examiner of  the mystical aspect of  Borges, nevertheless bases his full analysis only on the four characteristics outlined by James, with no exploration either of  the distinction


Chapter Two

between author, text and reader (that is to say, is the text mystical, or is it the reader’s response?), nor of  the many other scholars of mysticism, such as Underhill, Zaehner, Stace, Watts or Staal, who often refuted James and whose salient characteristics are markedly dif ferent. It is doubtful, for example, that Borges’ scepticism, agnosticism and literary game-playing would qualify him as a mystic in Zaehner’s strictly theistic and theological approach to mysticism. Núñez-Faraco (2006: 41) sums up the nature of the problem, indicating that ‘if  the term “mystic” applies to Borges, it becomes necessary to define the precise meaning of such a designation’. Promising as this sounds, Núñez-Faraco pursues this line no further, and so the reader is left in suspense as to how such a designation is, indeed, defined. It becomes clear that we cannot rely on any immediate consensual understanding of  the term ‘mystic’ in order to judge whether a certain individual was or was not a mystic. One can only arrive at such a conclusion by plotting the figure and his/her literary works against a checklist of defining characteristics as determined by a respected scholar such as James. This implies, however, not only an agreement with these characteristics as suitable definitions of mystic and mysticism, but, importantly, an accord over the meaning of  the terms employed in these characteristics themselves. As such, when James suggests ‘noetic’ as one such criterion, we must assume a consensual understanding of  this term. This may sound pedantic, but it is alarming how often one encounters a declaration that a certain poetauthor-theologian was or was not a mystic because their experience was or was not ‘unitive’, ‘extravertive’ or ‘inef fable’. These terms themselves are thorny. Surely the root of  the inef fability of  the mystical state might lie less with the experience than with the linguistic skills of  the experiencer? As we examine in Chapter Four, for over a century readers of  Emerson have battled over whether he was or was not a mystic through arguing, for example, that he may not have experienced God, but that he did experience Nature, and hence he was a ‘nature mystic’ (Quinn 1950).3 Little, I would argue, is clarified in employing God or Nature as distinctive definitions of mysticism, as owing to their inherent arbitrariness they would them3

A new term, indeed, was coined for Emerson based on his particular religious yet anti-ecclesiastical spiritual philosophy: ‘Yankee mystic’ (Hurth 2005: 336).

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


selves require further definition. Bertrand Russell (1961) pays particular attention to these semantic vagaries in his essay ‘Mysticism’, suggesting three definitions of mysticism,4 then enquiring exactly what is meant by, for example, his own definition ‘that time is unreal’. As is customary with Russell’s meticulous method, he takes nothing for granted either regarding mysticism or regarding the many prof fered defining characteristics.

What is mysticism? So how does one judge these textual accounts of mystical experiences against the scholarship? Which of  the many classifications does one turn to in order to qualify or refute the mystical nature of a given author or text? The essential standpoint for many of  the scholars that justifies this array of of ferings is the inherent inexplicability of  the mystical experience. From the early scholarship of  the end of  the nineteenth century through to the present, scholars have identified the initial problem of identifying what exactly it is that they are investigating. William Ralph Inge (known normally as Dean Inge), in his Christian Mysticism (1899) begins his investigation with the assertion that the word itself is semantically slippery: No word in our language – not even ‘Socialism’ – has been employed more loosely than ‘Mysticism.’ Sometimes it is used as an equivalent for symbolism or allegorism, sometimes for theosophy or occult science; and sometimes it merely suggests the mental state of a dreamer, or vague and fantastic opinions about God and the world. In Roman Catholic writers, ‘mystical phenomena’ mean supernatural suspensions of physical law. Even those writers who have made a special study of  the subject, show by their definitions of  the word how uncertain is its connotation. (1913: 3)


‘(1) that all division and separateness is unreal, and that the universe is a single indivisible unity; (2) that evil is illusory, and that the illusion arises through falsely regarding a part as self-subsistent; (3) that time is unreal, and that reality is eternal, not in the sense of  being everlasting, but in the sense of  being wholly outside time’ (Russell 1961: 179).


Chapter Two

However, many years later Inge revisited the designations, this time categorically expunging from his definitions those matters contrary to orthodoxy, such as supernatural, erotic, etc. I cannot accept any definition which identifies mysticism with excited or hysterical emotionalism, with sublimated eroticism, with visions and revelations, with supernatural (dualistically opposed to natural) activities, nor, on the philosophical side, with irrationalism. I suggest that a generation which treats its experience of ghosts with respect ought not to be rude about the experience of  God. I propose to divide my subject into three sections ontological, the doctrine of ultimate reality; epistemological, the doctrine of  knowledge; and ethical, the chart by which the mystic finds his way up the hill of  the Lord. (Inge 1947: 154)

William James, who cited Inge in Varieties of  Religious Experience and who argued like Schopenhauer that the mystical experience is at the heart of all religious experience, maintained that both mysticism and religion are themselves impossible to define: ‘Most books on the philosophy of religion try to begin with a precise definition of what its essence consists of. […] The very fact that they are so many and so dif ferent from one another is enough to prove that the word “religion” cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name’ (1913: 26). Like Inge’s use of  ‘socialism’ James used as analogy the word ‘government’, suggesting that it signifies many dif ferent and at times conf licting things, yet its full meaning relies on a composite of all these disparate meanings. Importantly, and in tune with so much of  Borges’ philosophical outlook, James acknowledged that in so many cases, an investigation into religion or mysticism is in essence an investigation into the language employed to describe these ideas: ‘the question of definition tends to become a dispute about names’ (1913: 30). This linguistic variance, as we shall see later in this chapter when discussing the problem of  textual hermeneutics of mystical texts, is of crucial importance. Frits Staal, in Exploring Mysticism (1975: 8), likewise identified the problem of names, arguing that ‘The study of mysticism [has] tended to deteriorate into enumerations and classifications of a variety of narratives, without any attempt at a critical evaluation.’ Whilst I would argue that there is critical evaluation (as, curiously, does Staal himself in his book),

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


Staal does identify the problem that I will discuss in the following chapter concerning the semantic circularity that can ensue in a debate about mysticism. It is defined according to other terms whose meaning then often needs defining. In some cases this chain of signifiers can lead back to the use of  the word ‘mysticism’ to define one of  these sequential terms. Jaf fé (1989: 12) is, for example, admirably precise in suggesting that mysticism is ‘the experience of  the numinous’, but in this matter one needs to define the term ‘numinous’, a similarly tricky exercise. Staal also identifies the many dif ficulties in studying mysticism; most notable among them is that ‘it is not so simple’ (1975: 124). ‘We call a mystic anyone who for a certain length of  time has mystical experiences’ (125). That is fair enough, but what exactly is a mystical experience? More recently, David Wulf f, in one of  the chapters of  Cardeña, Lynn and Krippner’s James-inspired Varieties of  Anomalous Experience (2000), has argued that: ‘Falling by definition outside the realm of ordinary discourse, mystical experience eludes any precise description or characterization. Furthermore, as relatively recent constructions that serve diverse and even opposing purposes, the terms mystical and mysticism are themselves hard to pin down’ (2000: 397). This emphasis on meaning variance is important, as whilst Canto and Jurado assert that – por supuesto – Borges was no mystic, they of fer little explanation as to why this assertion is so immediately obvious. Were they to have attempted to qualify the assertion with a more thorough investigation into the meaning of  the term ‘mystic’, they would have encountered many choices of definitions, often contradictory. James suggested that the terms can have dif ferent values attached to them depending on the situation in which they are employed. Likewise, he explored the definitions of mysticism according to certain aspects of  human experience that are not mysticism: The words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical’ are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic. For some writers a ‘mystic’ is any person who believes in thought-transference, or spirit-return. Employed in this way the word has little value: there are too many less ambiguous synonyms. So, to keep it useful by restricting it, I will do what I did in the case of  the word ‘religion,’ and simply propose to you four


Chapter Two marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the purpose of  the present lectures. In this way we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith. (1913: 379)

Evelyn Underhill, whose inf luential work Mysticism challenged James’s definitions in Varieties, likewise attempted to define mysticism initially by suggesting some aspects of  human experience that are categorically not mysticism: What then do we really mean by mysticism? A word which is impartially applied to the performances of mediums and the ecstasies of  the saints, to ‘menticulture’ and sorcery, dreamy poetry and mediaeval art, to prayer and palmistry, the doctrinal excesses of  Gnosticism, and the tepid speculations of  the Cambridge Platonists – even, according to William James, to the higher branches of intoxication – soon ceases to have any useful meaning. (1912: 86)

This method of defining mysticism according to that which it is not was pursued also by Walter Stace (1960: 10–12) in his attempt to isolate the specifics of  the term ‘mystic’ from a catalogue of other terms popularly employed interchangeably with mystic: Some Things Which Mysticism Is Not. The word ‘mysticism’ is popularly used in a variety of  loose and inaccurate ways. Sometimes anything is called ‘mystical’ which is misty, foggy, vague, or sloppy. It is absurd that ‘mysticism’ should be associated with what is ‘misty’ because of  the similar sound of  the words. And there is nothing misty, foggy, vague, or sloppy about mysticism. A second absurd association is to suppose that mysticism is sort of mystery-mongering. There is, of course, an etymological connection between ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystery.’ But mysticism is not any sort of  hocus-pocus such as we commonly associate with claims to be the elucidation of sensational mysteries. Mysticism is not the same as what is commonly called the ‘occult’ – whatever that may mean. Nor has it anything to do with spiritualism, or ghosts, or table-turning. Nor does it include what are commonly called parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition. These are not mystical phenomena. It is perhaps true that mystics may sometimes claim to possess such special powers, but even when they do so they are well aware that such powers are not part of, and are to be clearly distinguished from, their mystical experience […]. Finally, it is most important to realize that visions and voices are not mystical phenomena, though here again it seems to be the case that the sort of persons who are mystics may often be the sort of persons who see visions and hear

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


voices […]. What mystics say is that a genuine mystical experience is nonsensuous. It is formless, shapeless, colorless, odorless, soundless. But a vision is a piece of visual imagery having color and shape. A voice is an auditory image. Visions and voices are sensuous experiences.

The separation of mysticism from other anomalous experiences, therefore, is a mainstay in the scholarship. Yet mysticism can involve much more than a mere transient experience. Such other matters are themselves hard to define and evaluate, and the scholarship here is also large and varied. Whilst James, Underhill and Stace have listed such non-mystical aspects as ‘thought-transference or spirit-return’, ‘sorcery, dreamy poetry and mediaeval art, prayer and palmistry’ ‘visions and hearing voices’, the chapter headings of  Varieties of  Anomalous Experience provide an indication of what, precisely, these matters are: ‘Hallucinatory Experiences, Synaesthesia, Lucid Dreaming, Out-of-Body Experiences, Psi-related Experiences, Alien Abduction Experiences, Past-Life Experiences, Near-Death Experiences, and Anomalous Healing Experiences’ (vii–viii). Importantly, Wulf f ’s chapter, ‘Mystical Experiences’, demonstrates the kinship between mysticism and these other matters, principally because the non-ordinary activities occur to a mystic alongside the more definite ‘mystical’ experiences. Indeed in many cases the category of  ‘mystic’ depends precisely upon these anomalous experiences. The case of  Swedenborg is a pertinent example. Not one of  the many biographies of  Swedenborg, from Wilkinson’s Emanuel Swedenborg: A Biography (1849), which informed Emerson, to Borges’ biographical essay ‘Testigo de lo invisible’ (1995) which was informed by Emerson, to Gary Lachman’s recent Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas (2012) fails to emphasize his dazzling psychic abilities. It may even be suggested that Swedenborg’s enduring reputation lies not so much with his voluminous biblical exegesis, nor even with his accounts of  heavens and hells, but with his well-documented psychic abilities. Conan Doyle, for example, dismisses in one paragraph the entire theological dimension of  Swedenborg’s works, ‘and his tiresome exegesis of  the Scriptures’ (2005: 97), and focuses exclusively on the ‘psychic powers’: ‘Swedenborg’s theology is neither simple nor intelligible, and that is its condemnation. […] Not in that direction does the worth of  Swedenborg lie. That worth is


Chapter Two

really to be found in his psychic powers and in his psychic information which would have been just as valuable had no word of theology ever come from his pen’ (97–8).5 Van Dusen, in his biographical analysis The Presence of  Other Worlds (1974) includes a whole chapter on Swedenborg’s ‘minor miracles’ of clairvoyance and mediumship, in particular the location of  the


In addition to being creator of  Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was a committed researcher into spiritualism and related anomalous matters. Whilst I can find in Borges no mention of  Conan Doyle’s essay on Swedenborg, there are a couple of areas of great similarity with Borges’ essay ‘Testigo’ that might indicate that Borges was familiar with the essay: ‘They may say that the man was mad, but his life in the years which followed showed no sign of mental weakness. Or they might say that he lied. But he was a man who was famed for his punctilious veracity’ (Conan Doyle 2005: 99). ‘Dos conjeturas: La deliberada impostura de quien ha escrito esas cosas extrañas o el inf lujo de una demencia brusca o gradual. La primera es inadmisible. […] La hipótesis de la locura no es menos vana. […] Si se hubiera enloquecido, no deberíamos a su pluma tenaz la ulterior redacción de miles de metódicas páginas, que representan una labor de casi treinta años y que nada tienen que ver con el frenesí’ (Borges 2005: 155) [‘Two assumptions: deliberate imposture […] or the inf luence of sudden or progressive madness. The first is inadmissible. […] The hypothesis of madness is equally unfounded […] If  he had gone mad, we would not owe to his tenacious pen the thousands of methodical pages he wrote during the following thirty years or so, pages that have nothing at all to do with frenzy’ (Borges 1995: 7–8)]. ‘In spite of all his theological symbolism, his name must live eternally as the first of all modern men who has given a description of  the process of death, and of  the world beyond, which is not founded upon the vague ecstatic and impossible visions of  the old Churches, but which actually corresponds with the descriptions which we ourselves obtain from those who endeavour to convey back to us some clear idea of  their new existence’ (Conan Doyle 2005: 104). ‘Swedenborg pudo renunciar a tales artificios retóricos porque su tema no era el éxtasis del alma arrebatada y enajenada, sino la puntual descripción de regiones ultraterrenas, pero precisas’ (Borges 2005: 154). [‘Swedenborg was able to abstain from this kind of rhetorical artifice because his subject matter was not the ecstasy of a rapt and fainting soul but, rather, the accurate description of regions that, though ultra-terrestrial, were clearly defined’] (Borges 1995: 7).

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


lost receipt,6 the knowledge of  the queen’s secret,7 and, most famously, his contemporaneous knowledge of  the fire in Stockholm whilst he was dining in Gothenburg.8 Kant, it is to be assumed, would have paid little attention 6



‘In April or May 1761, a countess de Marteville came to Swedenborg. Her husband, ambassador extraordinary of  the Netherlands, had died in Sweden. He had given her a valuable silver service before he died. Now the silversmith was demanding a payment she could not af ford even though she was sure her husband had paid for it. The matter was urgent to the woman. She had heard Swedenborg could contact the souls of  the departed. Would he contact her husband and ask of  the receipt? Swedenborg said he would. Three days later he returned and said he had spoken with her husband. The receipt was in a bureau upstairs. The woman said she had already searched the bureau. The husband had told Swedenborg that a certain drawer was to be pulled out and a false back removed. The woman and her company went upstairs and found the receipt and other lost papers as directed. This incident was related by eleven dif ferent sources, most of whom agreed on the above account. When questioned on the matter Swedenborg also af firmed its occurrence’ (Van Dusen 1974: 142). ‘Swedenborg met the queen [Louisa Ulrica of  Sweden] [who] lightly asked if  he had a message from her [dead] brother. Swedenborg answered yes and suggested that they speak alone, and he related what he had learned from the queen’s brother. The queen was variously described as in shock, disturbed, or so indisposed that she had to retire. She said later that Swedenborg had reported what no other living person knew’ (Van Dusen 1974: 143). ‘On July 17, 1759, Swedenborg and fifteen others were guests of  the prominent merchant William Castel in Gothenburg at his fine home on Canal Street. At six in the evening Swedenborg appeared quite pale and alarmed. When asked what was wrong, he described a fire burning at that moment in Stockholm, three hundred miles away. He paced in and out of  the house evidently agitated by the fire. His detailed description and evident sincerity upset the guests, many of whom were from Stockholm. Swedenborg described exactly where the fire was burning, where it had started, and when, and was dismayed to see a friend’s house already in ashes. The next day, Sunday, the governor, having heard of  the incident, asked to see Swedenborg and received a detailed report. The news spread through the city. Two days after the fire, messengers arrived and confirmed every detail as Swedenborg had reported it, including when and how it started, what it burned, and where and when it was contained. There were several separate reports of  this incident that agreed on essentials. Even the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was impressed and sent his own agent to check the details’ (Van Dusen 1974: 141).


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to Swedenborg’s extensive theology and his mystical explorations had he not become intrigued by these psychic occurrences. Van Dusen even suggests that Swedenborg himself was aware that without these demonstrated psychic abilities, his readership would remain limited. This statement implies that the acts of mediumship and clairvoyance were themselves miracles for the purpose of  bringing his heavenly theology to public attention. Borges, as is clear from a reading of  his many texts dealing with Swedenborg, was equally unconcerned with the theological works and treated the doctrine of correspondences with tepid reservation, but was fascinated particularly by Swedenborg’s declared explorations of other worlds. This last attribute of  Swedenborg’s – voyages to other dimensions – is rarely one of  the characteristics of mysticism in the scholarship, and would fit more within aspects of anomalous, parapsychological experiences. (In fact, claims of planetary voyages by non-astronauts would normally be considered delusions, and hence psychopathological. We recall that Conan Doyle and Borges insisted on Swedenborg’s lucidity). Furthermore, as is to be expected in such a nebulous field as mysticism, terms merge with each other, despite the attempts to maintain strict divisions. As such Otto’s exploration of  the ‘numinous’, Suzuki’s ‘satori’, Jung’s studies of  ‘religiosity’ and the numinous, Joseph Campbell’s ‘transparent to the transcendent’ (2004), Wilber or Daniels’ ‘transpersonal’, Stanislav Grof ’s ‘holotropic’,9 Huxley’s ‘self-transcendence’, Humphry Osmond’s ‘psychedelic’, Terence McKenna’s ‘shamanic’, Borges’ ‘timelessness’, inevitably embody much that may be integrally related to the mystical.


‘The content of  holotropic states of consciousness is often philosophical and mystical. In these episodes, we can experience sequences of psychospiritual death and rebirth or feelings of oneness with other people, nature, the universe, and God. We might uncover what seem to be memories from other incarnations, encounter powerful archetypal beings, communicate with discarnate entities, and visit numerous mythological domains’ (Grof 1998: 7).

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


The varieties of  taxonomies The eccentric Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos’ [‘Celestial Empire of  benevolent Knowledge’] that Borges describes in ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins’ and that so tickled Michel Foucault demonstrates the possible arbitrariness of systems of classification. Borges would have delighted in the colourful and at times contradictory taxonomies that have been proposed to define mysticism over the last century. Inge, in an appendix of  Christian Mysticism, cites the definitions of mysticism of  twenty-six separate poets and theologians, in a heterogeneous list that includes Goethe and Charles Kingsley. Striking to note that in the time of  Inge, as with today (see Daniels 2003), the most notable feature of any compendium of definitions is the level of contradiction between one definition and another (to say nothing of  the level of passion and invective). William James, the grandfather of  the systematic appraisal of  the mystical traditions, concluded his inclusive analysis with the well-known ‘four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical […] inef fability, noetic quality, transiency, passivity’ ( James 1913: 380). Underhill (1911) dismissed James’s categories, snidely rebuking him for daring to include ‘intoxication’ as a pathway to mystical consciousness, and of fered instead: 1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion. 2. Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. […] 3. This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of  Love; never an object of exploration. […] 4. Living union with this One – which is the term of  his adventure – is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. (1912: 96)

Underhill’s classifications were driven, she argued, by five fundamental stages in the development of  the mystical individual:


Chapter Two (1) The awakening of  the Self  to consciousness of  Divine Reality. […] (2) Purgation [self-knowledge] […] (3) Illumination […] a certain apprehension of  the Absolute, a sense of  the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of  happiness. (4) […] the final and complete purification of  the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the ‘mystic pain’ or ‘mystic death,’ by others the Purification of  the Spirit or Dark Night of  the Soul. […] This is the ‘spiritual crucifixion’ so often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality, and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly passive, and is thus prepared for (5) Union: the true goal of  the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. (1912: 205–7)

Suzuki (1956), a close reader of  Swedenborg and admirer of  James, and the figure widely credited with introducing Zen spiritual practices into the West in the early twentieth century, likened the word Satori to the word mysticism, and thus arrived at his own salient eight characteristics: Irrationality, Intuitive Insight, Authoritativeness, Af firmation, Sense of  the Beyond, Impersonal Tone, Feeling of  Exaltation, Momentariness (103–8). Stace (1961), arguing from a perennialist position – i.e. that there is a commonality in the mystical experience across time and cultures – divided the mystical experience into ‘extrovertive’ and ‘introvertive’, whose characteristics in common are: ‘1. The Unifying Vision – all things are One. 2. The more concrete apprehension of  the One as an inner subjectivity, or life, in all things. 3. Sense of objectivity or reality. 4. Blessedness, peace, etc. 5. Feeling of  the holy, sacred, or divine. 6. Paradoxicality 7. Alleged by mystics to be inef fable’ (1961: 131–2). Zaehner (1961), drawing on a wider field than James or Underhill in including his knowledge of  Buddhist and Hindu traditions, limited the field to three essential characteristics: Nature mysticism, based on all-in-one or panenhenic experience, such as the experience of cosmic consciousness (Bucke, 1901/2001). For Zaehner, nature mysticism is essentially non-religious. 2. Monistic mysticism, based on the absorptive experience of one’s own self or spirit as the Absolute (e.g., Advaita Vedanta). 3. Theistic mysticism, based on the experience of  loving communion or union with a personal God. (Daniels 2003).

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


Pahnke, drawing principally on Stace, added: ‘1) sense of unity, 2) transcendence of  time and space, 3) sense of sacredness, 4) sense of objective reality, 5) deeply felt positive mood, 6) inef fability, 7) paradoxicality and 8) transiency’ (Doblin 1991: 7). In addition to the articulation of defining characteristics, it is characteristic of  the scholars to allow their religious, moral, ethical or ideological assumptions to create a hierarchy of  the mystical experience. In this sense, there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms of mysticism. Daniels, in his informative essay ‘Making sense of mysticism’ highlights this particular abiding feature of  the scholarship: ‘I see no clear grounds for imputing here any moral, spiritual or developmental hierarchy. There is, in my opinion, no rational basis for assuming that god-focused (theistic) mysticism generally represents a higher (lower), better (worse), or more mature (immature) form than that represented in any of  the other contexts’ (2003, no pagination). And yet, despite this levelling perspective, Daniels still does assume some variance of value based upon intensity or ‘increasing involvement with the Real’. Consequently, ‘union’ is greater in mystical value than mere awareness of  the numinous. ‘From this point of view, it seems reasonable to argue, for example, that unitive mysticism is more advanced than numinous mysticism. Thus the spiritual marriage of  St Teresa is a more sublime experience than that of  the presence of  the mysterium because the implied relationship with the Real is closer’ (2003). Daniels proceeds to construct an alarmingly elaborate model in order to locate every type of mystical experience in the literature, east and west, modern and ancient. Such a complex model may be of use in order to locate a particular mystic, as if pinning them to a grid in order to compare them with other mystics, but I cannot dispel the arbitrariness of  Borges’ Chinese encyclopaedia when considering how such an elaborate model can serve to confuse and befuddle rather than clarify. Whilst this simple catalogue of  the scholars’ classifications does not do justice to the depth and breadth of  their research, it must nevertheless be recognized that the scholars themselves engineered their research precisely towards these robust, decisive and portable conclusions, and as such subsequent studies have for many years been fully justified in referring simply to James’s four, or Stace’s seven defining points. In appraising this inconclusive list of classifications, therefore, the vision of  Borges’ Chinese


Chapter Two

encyclopaedia is again evoked. Taxonomies and lists of definitions seek to order and classify the particular elements under scrutiny, and in this respect they may both be considered, in a manner that so appealed to Borges, maps of reality. However, these catalogues of definitions taken individually subvert the pretence to order through employing defining terms that themselves require further definition, such as ‘objective’ or ‘inef fable’; whilst taken as a composite – as Daniels (2003) and I have done – the list becomes wild and unwieldy and characterized by contradiction.

Was Borges a mystic? Therefore, I ask again, was Borges a mystic? Borges himself would answer brusquely – of course not! Yet when we scrutinize the scholarship, we encounter many markers that would, indeed, qualify him for the term; and in order to address this question, one would need to position the reading of  Borges’ texts – including his autobiographical sketches in interviews – alongside the many systems of classification. Underhill’s insistence upon the intuitive approach over and above the intellectual or the theoretical would fit only uneasily with an approach to mysticism concerning Borges, who, as we have seen, praised the intellectual capacity of  Swedenborg and Blake above all other qualities. Williamson (2004: 444) records how Borges was keen to seek the guidance from Shinto monks while in Japan.10 His desire 10

‘During a visit to the Rioan-ji Temple, a centre of  Zen Buddhism, he met a monk, Morinaga Yushoku, with whom he had the most searching conversation of his entire visit to Japan. As with the nun, Borges wished to learn something of Yushoku’s commitment to the contemplative life, but above all he wanted to know whether the monk had ever experienced a mystical enlightenment. María recalled that Borges kept pressing this point, and Yushoku replied that he had twice experienced nirvana but that it was impossible to convey such an experience to someone who had not himself  found enlightenment. All the same, Borges described to the monk an experience he had undergone one night in the 1920s while roaming the outskirts of  Buenos Aires,

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


in particular was to correlate his own timeless moments with the pathways to enlightenment developed by the religious teachings of  Japan. Borges refers to Suzuki in the essay ‘El Budismo’ of  Siete Noches as one of  the leading scholars of  Buddhism in his time, to be applauded furthermore for revitalizing Zen in his own native Japan. Consequently Suzuki’s equation of satori and mystical vision is perfectly in tune with Borges’ meditation on the close af finities between Oriental spiritual practices and western mystical traditions. Schopenhauer, whom Borges acclaimed as the most lucid and sound of all philosophers, argued that mysticism is the origin and also the culmination of all religion, but that, unlike James’s suggestion of noetic value, no knowledge is to be derived from the ecstatic mystical state. Indeed, argued Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation (a book of which Borges was particularly fond), mysticism opposes philosophy and cannot constitute a pathway to consensual knowledge owing its inherently subjective rather than objective relationship with the individual. […] we see all religions at their highest point end in mysticism and mysteries, that is to say, in darkness and veiled obscurity. These really indicate merely a blank spot for knowledge, the point where all knowledge necessarily ceases. Hence for thought this can be expressed only by negations, but for sense-perception it is indicated by symbolical signs, in temples by dim light and silence, in Brahmanism even by the required suspension of all thought and perception for the purpose of entering into the deepest communion with one’s own self, by mentally uttering the mysterious Om. In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness

when the sight of a particular moonlit street had induced a preternatural sense that time was an illusion [‘Sentirse en muerte’ (‘Feeling in Death’)]. Might such an episode qualify as a mystical illumination? That was possible, came the reply, since an illumination could be prompted by any number of  things, such as the ringing of a bell or the sound of water f lowing over a stone, but true enlightenment would entail a complete transformation of  the soul and would change everything in a man’s life. The monk explained that one must dispel the illusion of selfhood in order to experience enlightenment: our sense of personal identity was the product of our conditioning, but otherwise there was nothing within us, not basis for the existence of  the self, and so one must shed all notions of individuality and start again from zero before one could reach nirvana’ (Williamson 2004: 443).


Chapter Two of  that which is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of  this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince. (Schopenhauer 1966: 610)

Borges, as we shall see, would appear to agree with this sentiment with regards his own mystical, ‘timeless’ experiences, and one might argue that the repeated fictional representations of  that state – the Aleph and Tzinacán’s ecstasy – were means of objectifying and thereby abstracting the inef fability of  the experience. Consequently one might suggest that Borges was a mystic in the Schopenhauerian sense. However, Schopenhauer emphasizes the ‘blank spot for knowledge’, which would entail a contrary position to James’s ‘noetic value’. We will explore in the following chapter the degree to which Borges assumed that knowledge may or may not be derived from the mystical experience. Schopenhauer, although rarely cited in the scholarship of mysticism, nevertheless identified a binary division that pervades all approaches to mysticism, what Daniels (2003) labels Essentialism versus Constructivism. This particular division, as we will also see in Chapter Three, is integral to Borges’ understanding both of  the mystical texts that he read, and of  his own mystical experiences. Some definitions of mysticism are complex; others are simple. One of  the most basic definitions I have encountered comes from Wilson Van Dusen, Swedenborg scholar and self-avowed mystic: I use the word mystic in its simplest and most basic sense. A mystic is one who experiences God. There are other associated meanings and very complex analyses in religious encyclopaedias, but they all rest in this – the experience of  God. Some might ask, ‘Don’t all people experience God?’ And I would answer yes, but many are not aware of it. The mystic is aware of it. (Van Dusen 1995: 105)

Compelling as this is, we are nevertheless still in the dark non-consensual waters when we try to establish what Van Dusen means by God. This, as most people would agree, is far from easy. Van Dusen, therefore, falls into the trap of defining one problematic term with another. His perspective,

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


however, is perfectly aligned with Ellwood (1999: 2): ‘For others direct experience of  God is the pinnacle of what religion is all about. Experiences like these are often called mystical experiences’. Did Borges have direct experience with God? Flynn (2009) was only able to identify the ceaseless philosophical search for God, not the encounter. Borges would argue with reference to Shaw that ‘God is in the making’, and hence the divine is immanent, not transcendent, and within the human soul. It is unlikely that such an expression would chime with the more orthodox Zaehner. Ellwood, however, appears fully cognizant of the problem inherent in defining mysticism, poignantly remarking that: ‘What is it that thousands of other accounts of  transcendent experience have or do not have in common? A host of scholars have wrestled with this question in attempting to define mysticism and mystical experience’ (1999: 15). Alan Watts describes the mystical experience as the opposite of  feeling ‘that one is a separate individual in confrontation with a world that is foreign to one’s self, that is “not me.” In the mystical kind of experience, though, that separate individual finds itself  to be of one and the same nature or identity as the outside world. In other words the individual no longer feels a stranger in the world; rather, the external world feels as if it were his or her own body’ (2006: 35). The crucial aspect here in relation to Watts is the notion of  harmony and purpose: ‘It is the overwhelming sense that everything that happens – everything that I or anybody else has done – is part of a harmonious design and that there is no error at all’ (2006: 36). Be that as it may, in tune with Borges, the reason for life need not be necessarily to accomplish any thing directed by a divine will – the purpose may simply to be alive. ‘The mystic has seen that the meaning of  being alive is just to be alive’ (2006: 37). Furthermore, owing to Borges’ inherently ludic quality, he would fit with Watts’ description of  the mystic: ‘The mystic is the person who has realised that the game is a game’ (2006: 39). As identified, these definitions cannot be considered conclusive, not least owing to the contradictions amongst them when read as a body. Likewise, as identified, the practices or experiences that are proposed that are categorically not mystical experiences cannot be considered either so easily identifiable or definable, nor so necessarily removed from the mystical experience. Most of  the features of anomalous experiences that Stace would


Chapter Two

so firmly assert do not constitute the mystical are, indeed, the prominent features of many mystics appraised in the scholarship: Swedenborg, for example, was a dedicated practitioner of  breath control similar to yogic techniques, seemingly with no knowledge of eastern practices (Van Dusen 1974: 19–21). One might argue, consequently, that his mystical experiences were induced and therefore not at all passive in the Jamesian sense. His psychic abilities are described above, and yet they cannot be divorced from his explorations of  the realm of  the dead – indeed such explorations are the psychic abilities. Lastly, his remarkably lucid dreams are of paramount importance, as they both herald the onset of a mystical experience yet also provide the very doorway into these other landscapes. In the case of  Swedenborg, therefore, breath control, psychic abilities and lucid dreaming – added to his meditative constitution, his dazzling intellect, his energy and determination, his vast knowledge of  the Bible and, let us not overlook, his wealth – were all factors that together constituted the mystic. Therefore it would seem pernickety to isolate his talents as being individually not mystic, corporately mystic. The purpose of  this preamble concerning Swedenborg is not to demonstrate that Borges was divested with similar talents, but to give some platform from which to demonstrate that those talents that Borges did have are not so easily consigned to the category of mere ‘mystery-mongering’ (Stace 1960), and may be appraised as manifest mystical attributes.

Borges the lucid dreamer Borges was a remarkably consummate lucid dreamer, appearing fully cognizant of  the dreams whilst dreaming. He discussed a vivid dream to Barnstone, in which the way out of  the ‘dream of  the maze’ is to sit down and wait to wake up – a fascinating position. ‘When I realized it and said, this is the nightmare of  the maze, and since I knew all about it, I wasn’t taken in by the maze. I merely sat down on the f loor. […] I waited a moment

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


and woke up’ (Barnstone 1982: 21).11 This deserves greater consideration than has been hitherto granted, as the ability to take positive, conscious decisions within a dream, to the point of choosing to wake and depart the dream state, is one that few possess and many strive to achieve. Green (1994), in her ground-breaking study: Lucid dreaming: the paradox of consciousness during sleep, notes that the technique of  lucid dreaming has for centuries and in many dif ferent cultures been integrally related to matters of religious experience and spiritual practice, and has been the hallmark of so many accounts of mystical experiences. Borges also remarks in the essay on nightmares in Siete Noches that the experience of vivid dreams of such lucidity that they resemble waking life is an attribute of children (his nephew) and mystics: ‘Todo corría para él en un solo plano, la vigilia y el sueño. Lo que nos lleva a otra hipótesis, a la hipótesis de los místicos […]. Para el salvaje [de Frazer] o para el niño los sueños son un episodio de la vigilia, para los poetas y los místicos no es imposible que toda la vigilia sea un sueño’ (1989: 223) [‘Everything, waking and dream, occurred to him on a single plane. This brings us to another, similar but contrary, hypothesis: that of  the mystics and the metaphysicians. For [Frazer’s] savage and for the child, dreams are episodes of  the waking life; for poets and mystics, it is not impossible for all of  the waking life to be a dream’] (1984: 29).12 It is clear from this and from many other similar assertions of  Borges, that one of  the central features of  the mystical life, that he himself shared, was the vivid, lucid, intense dream.

11 12

He repeats this, almost verbatim, in another interview in the same volume (Barnstone 1982: 73). It must be noted for the record that Weinberger’s translation of this passage is wrong and radically alters the sense of  the text. Borges writes that his nephew, having recounted his dream to Borges in which his uncle had appeared: ‘Se interrumpió bruscamente y agregó: “Decime, ¿qué estabas haciendo en esa casita?”’ (1989: 223). Weinberger translates: ‘I interrupted him sharply: “Stop making things up about my house!”’ (1984: 29). Unfortunately the translation contrasts with the sense of  the passage, as it suggests that Borges was unsympathetic to his nephew’s confusion, when in the original text he is delighted by it.


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Whilst Borges dramatizes the faculty of  lucid dreaming in the fiction of  the mago of  ‘Las ruinas circulares’, a more precise and less dramatic account, which seems less fictional and more autobiographical, is ‘Episodio del enemigo’ [‘Episode of  the Enemy’] from Elogio de la sombra. In this brief  text, the Borges-protagonist is confronted by an ancient rival whom he has evaded for years. At the point in which the antagonist is about to murder him, Borges’ only strategy to save himself is to wake up, which he does. The perennial narrative motif of revealing that it was all a dream, when correlated with Borges’ comments to Barnstone, further demonstrates his vivid experience of  lucid dreaming. Furthermore, and whilst I am aware that we should treat the passages of  Atlas with the same critical scrutiny as one should treat any of  the Ficciones, nevertheless there is a strong autobiographical, reminiscent quality to the pieces. In Atlas, as I remarked in the Introduction, are passages in which Borges recounts dreamdialogues with the dead, in particular with Haydée Lange. Three lines of argument can be pursued. Firstly, as mentioned, one may argue that this is merely a fiction and therefore of no consequence in the meta-fictional world; secondly, that it was not a fiction per se, but was only a dream and therefore likewise of no consequence ‘in the real world’. The third line of argument is of interest to me and was of manifest interest to Borges: that in this mysterious world many things are possible, such as the persistence of  the soul after death, and the possibility for that discarnate soul (Lange) to enter dialogue with an incarnate soul (Borges) through dreams. This last possibility was of great interest also to Jung, and was explored by him in his private accounts that became The Red Book. One question that arises in this work, in relation to Jung’s dream of  his father, was whether he dreamt of  his father, or whether his father visited him in his dream. Answers to this question are unlikely to be forthcoming, but the purpose is to show that such a question was of great concern to Borges, the non-mystic por supuesto; and yet dream encounters of  this nature were the bedrock of  Swedenborg’s communication with spirits of  the spirit-world, and were thus integrally related to those qualities considered mystical. The importance of dreams and dream-creativity in Borges’ poems and fictions is well-documented, and indeed, reading through my extensive notes of  Borges citations that serve as background for this work, I am struck

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


by the hundreds of appearances of  the words ‘dream’ and ‘sueño’. There is scarcely an essay, tale, poem or interview in which Borges does not discuss the creative possibility of dreams, the timeless dimension encountered, the epistemological capacity ( James’s ‘noetic’), the traditional ancient dialectic, from Chuang-Tzu to Calderón and Shakespeare, of  life as a dream, and, importantly, his intuition that dreams and visions are a pathway to the eternal. He declares, for example, in the lecture on the nightmare in Siete Noches, apropos J. W. Dunne’s Experiments with Time: ‘A cada hombre le está dado, con el sueño, una pequeña eternidad personal que le permite ver su pasado cercano y su porvenir cercano’ (1989: 222) [‘Each man is given, in dreams, a little personal eternity which allows him to see the recent past and the near future’] (1984: 28). Borges concludes the lecture with the observation ‘que los sueños son una obra estética, quizá la expresión estética más antigua’ (1989: 231) [‘that dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression’] (1984: 40). He describes in ‘Inferno, I, 32’ (El Hacedor) how Dante was touched by the divine in a dream and was given an image that would crown his poetic cycle (a narrative not dissimilar from ‘El milagro secreto’). He wrote plentifully about Coleridge’s reverieinspired poem Kubla Khan, and he was likewise fascinated by Stevenson’s account of receiving plots fully formed in his dreams from the Brownies, whom Stevenson formally acknowledges and thanks. However, Borges was not merely speculating on the creative power of dreams, nor was he merely illustrating an abstract idea in his fictions. He also described receiving poems and plots fully f ledged in his reveries. For example, he described to Barnstone how the poem ‘El ciervo blanco’ [‘The White Deer’] came to him in its entirety in a dream: ‘I don’t feel that I wrote that poem […]. I physically dictated the words. The poem was given to me, in a dream, some minutes before dawn. At times dreams are painful and tedious, and I object to their outrage and say, enough, this is only a dream, stop. But this time it was an oral picture that I saw and heard. I simply copied it, exactly as it was given to me’ (Barnstone 2000: 30). He recalled to Burgin that El Hacedor was his favourite book ‘because it wrote itself ’ (Burgin 1969: 125). He described in other interviews that sonnets appeared to enter his conscious mind from some apparent source beyond consciousness; he described dreams and nightmares as being given to him


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for the purpose of making poetry; and he repeatedly described the divine or demonic source of dreams and nightmares. So whilst Underhill might boldly assert that mysticism is not a term to be applied ‘to “menticulture” and sorcery, dreamy poetry’, nevertheless we can assess these matters in light of  their collective relationship to what may be considered a mystical nature. We are, consequently, in a dif ficult position with mysticism. Too much worrying about a definition is proscriptive and becomes an exercise of  hairsplitting. Too little concern for a definition allows any experience to muscle in under its banner, and the word becomes meaningless. One solution is to combine together all the defining characteristics as put forward by over a century of scholars. This then becomes a wild and unwieldy shopping list riddled with contradictions, and the selection of one defining category over another becomes either arbitrary or an attempt to match the text with the theory. Another solution is to seek a general term, generous enough to embrace the various scholars’ findings, yet limited enough to guarantee some purchase on the term. This, of course, is what so many scholars have attempted to do, and yet no unified theory has emerged that does not jar with some previous attempt at the unified theory. The only workable solution, therefore, is to enquire exactly why such a definition is required. Is it in order to assess whether one figure was or was not a mystic, as is Quinn’s case with Emerson (see Chapter Four)? If so, the response can only be articulated by stating that, for the purposes of  the present study, the definition of  the term as of fered by, say, Underhill, or James, will suf fice; but that this definition is by no means foundational. The conclusion will be, therefore, that so-and-so was a mystic, according to certain principles of  James, was not according to the principles of  Underhill, equally was not according to the principles of  Zaehner, but may have been according to Stace. Consequently, and notwithstanding its inconsequentiality, in relation to our investigation into Borges, one might suggest that he was a mystic and he was not a mystic. Borges, as we explored in Chapter One, emphasized the authority of  the mystical experience unmediated by doctrine or dogma, which makes the experience somehow atextual. He established a forthright distinction between the ‘authentic’ experiences of  Swedenborg, and the textuallyinspired, and consequently ‘invented’ texts of  Dante. He declared that the

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


visions of  Dante could not have occurred in verse, and that Fray Luis de León was merely mimicking the Song of  Songs. His own ‘mystical’ experiences he described as being ‘genuine’ and therefore likewise unmediated by prior textual assumptions. I suggested that this distinction is itself  highly problematic because it implies that an experience may be free from textual inspiration – a position that appears contradictory to the whole Borges project, where texts inspire experiences, experiences inspire texts, texts are experiences and experiences are texts. The vast scholarship of mysticism concentrates on approaching the mystical experience through a variety of epistemological avenues: historical, theological, psychological (and psychopathological), sociological, philosophical, and phenomenological. Inge, James, Underhill, Zaehner, Stace, Otto, Watts, Staal, and other scholars, in their variegated and thorough approaches to the fields of mysticism, move towards helpful categorical distinctions of  the mystical experience. Yet despite this comprehensive critical approach, few scholars appear to have considered the complex dynamic concerning experience, recollection, textual reproduction of  the experience, and the ensuing act of reading. Where is the mystical moment? Is there a transmission through these levels? Can there be betrayal of  the experience, falsehood, parody? Can the putative mystical experience be invented? If so, and allowing the noetic value of  the imagination as suggested by Blake, Jung, Corbin and Borges himself, can the invention of a mystical text constitute for the inventor a mystical experience? Stace (1960: 9) was emphatic that the mystic ‘always mean[s] a person who himself  has had mystical experience’ and that the word should not be applied simply to ‘anyone who is sympathetic to mysticism’. This would imply that the mystical encounter is between the experiencer (mystic) and the experience (mystical state) and not between the textual account of the experience and the reader or scholar. How do we define the mystical text itself ? William James, for example, defines ‘inef fability’ as one of  the four attributes of  the mystical experience, yet can ef fability be given such a clear category? If  the experience is truly inef fable then both the mystic and the reader of  the mystic’s text rely on a textual approximation of  the experience, not the experience itself; and thus a highly accomplished writer would be capable of crafting a text closer to the experience than one inexperienced in expressive


Chapter Two

writing. That is to say, if a mystic is a poor writer or narrator, does he/she cease to be considered a mystic if  the experience is so poorly related? We recall that Borges dismissed Weatherhead on being a ‘mediocre’ writer. And is not the reader’s response also an indicator of precision of  the text? That is to say, if a text of seeming senselessness is understood by a reader, does the original mystical experience now cease to have been inef fable? If  the experience were truly inef fable, then what does the text describe other than precisely that which was not the experience? I would argue, furthermore, that it is precisely the ef fability – or clarity – of  Swedenborg that Borges enthuses about.

‘Sentirse en muerte’ and the vision of  the Aleph: fiction and reality Thus I wish to emphasize the role of  the text, and in order to do so, and in order to address more fully the position maintained by Stace of distinguishing mystic from scholar, I shall compare two ‘mystical’ texts of Borges – one ‘real’ and one ‘fictional’, allowing for the permeability of  these terms. The first, which he labelled ‘sentirse en muerte’, is a purportedly honest (i.e. non-fictional) account of a moment of eternity that Borges experienced as a young man. It is the experience that he later discussed with Barnstone as one of  his ‘mystical moments’ and which, according to Williamson (2004: 444), spurred him to an exploration of its meaning with Japanese Shinto monks in 1979. The second is the oft-quoted mystical moment in ‘El Aleph’, an invented, fictional account of ecstatic vision which Borges described as based on his ‘reading about time and eternity’ (Burgin 1998: 212). By the standards that Borges himself applied in his appraisal of  Swedenborg and Dante, can we establish that the first passage is ‘authentic’ and the second not so? My first hypothesis here would be that both are real and both are textual – indeed both are real because they are both textual. My second position would be that the text’s mystical qualities can only be judged through

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


an understanding of  the transformative ef fect upon the reader, and that if  this moment of  textual jouissance is somehow impaired by the reader’s assumption that the text is merely fictional, then the text, for that reader, is not mystical. However, as a colleague of mine averred, if  the reading of  the ‘fictional’ ‘Aleph’ constitutes a truly transformative experience, then, for that particular reader, the text is manifestly mystical. No cross-referencing the scholarship of mysticism in order to determine the text’s characteristics will af fect that. Borges’ emphasis on authenticity and fictionality are thus unworkable platforms for an understanding of mystical texts. Furthermore, to muddy the waters even more, I hope to establish that the text of  ‘sentirse en muerte’ reads like one of  Borges’ fictions, and that both his evaluation of  his own mystical experience and the experience itself were inf luenced by Borges’ reading of  James. Consequently, and in tune with Borges’ visions of  the textual nature of experience, I would argue that the ‘non-fictional’ account is, itself, strikingly fictional. As Flynn identifies, Borges was clearly moved by his experiences of  timelessness, motivating him to recount the most profound of  the two in three separate essays; and in the essay ‘Historia de la Eternidad’ to appraise the experience as a corollary of  the many treatments of eternity and infinity that he analyses. The liminal revelation of  the timeless moment in ‘Sentirse en muerte’ recalls the experience of  the nullity of self and personality which Borges had recounted in ‘La nadería de la personalidad’. The fundamental dif ference between the two, despite their shared revelatory character, is that the experience of 1923 is perceived as negative, of annihilating any notion of oneness and plenitude, whereas the experience of 1928 is positive, albeit unsustained, and recounted by Borges as addenda to various other texts over three successive decades. It is what he longs for and yet only ever experiences as a f leeting state of utter contentedness. ‘Sentirse en muerte’ is about the experience of a union with, and at the same time a transcendence of, the material universe; at once becoming one with the material universe, and dissolving its very constituents: time and selfhood. This is reminiscent of  the mystic who, in union with the divine, passes from time to eternity. But is Borges’ ecstatic moment a life-transforming, mystical union with God? It surely is a case of momentary transcendence and may well have been a spiritual moment that was perhaps over analysed and therefore only wistfully remembered and reiterated over decades. (Flynn 2009: 65–6)


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It is important to note that Flynn suggests that the over-interpretation of  the moment somehow diminishes the ecstatic nature of  the experience. This would imply that each level of  textual recreation somehow fictionalizes the original non-fictional moment and thereby falsifies it. This, as we will examine, is a highly problematic assertion, as it implies firstly that an experience may be free of  textual inf luence – something Borges would refute at once – and secondly, that the textual recreation is necessarily less authentic than the original experience – an assumption that would nullify centuries of mystical texts. Borges foregrounds the essay with an idea that remained a key concern throughout his life: that the principle metaphysical problem is time. He postulated, with reference to Plato, that eternity is not ‘una agregación mecánica del pasado, del presente y del porvenir. Es una cosa más sencilla y más mágica: es la simultaneidad de esos tiempos’ (1974: 354) [‘a mechanical aggregate of past, present, and future. Eternity is something simpler and more magical: the simultaneity of  the three tenses’] (2000: 124). He located his experience alongside the textual recollections of  Plato, Plotinus and Augustine of  Hippo. Therefore whilst Borges claimed that Swedenborg ‘cometió un incómodo error cuando resolvió ajustar sus ideas al marco de los dos Testamentos’ (2005: 155) [‘made an awkward mistake when he decided to adapt his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’] (1995: 9), the reader will naturally conjecture how far the ideas of  Borges concerning his experience were adapted to the ideas of  Plotinus. Deseo registrar aquí una experiencia que tuve hace unas noches: fruslería demasiado evanescente y extática para que la llame aventura; demasiado irrazonable y sentimental para pensamiento. Se trata de una escena y de su palabra: palabra ya antedicha por mí, pero no vivida hasta entonces con entera dedicación de mi yo. Paso a historiarla, con los accidentes de tiempo y de lugar que la declararon. (1974: 365–6) [I wish to record an experience I had a few nights ago: a triviality too evanescent and ecstatic to be called an adventure, too irrational and sentimental for thought. It was a scene and its word: a word I had spoken but had not fully lived with all my being until then. I will recount its history and the accidents of  time and place that revealed it to me.] (2000: 137)

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


What was this word, with which he was familiar in theory but not in practical experience? In tune with the essay, the word would be ‘eternity’, but in tune with other essays, it would be ‘mysticism’. Borges makes firm declarations about the nature of  the experience. It was too f lighty to be called adventure, which would chime immediately with James’s decree of  ‘transiency’. We recall that it was the extensive duration of  Dante’s vision, the fact that it was not transient (plus the versification) that led Borges to suggest that Dante was not a mystic. Borges’ experience was also too full of  feeling, too removed from reason, to be called a thought. This would appear perfectly cognate with James’s category of  ‘inef fable’, which James qualifies as ‘[t]he subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. […] its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of  feeling than like states of intellect’ (1913: 380). However, he describes a great many thoughts that he had whilst undergoing this experience; or are these the thoughts that he had when recalling the experience? The passage itself is highly textual, reading like one of  his tales; with familiar symbols that he notes are symbols in his fiction: the dark grasslands of  the South, the lonely streets of  the rough suburbs, the humble houses, the scattered symbols of  the bird and crickets. ‘No quiero significar así el barrio mío, el preciso ámbito de la infancia, sino sus todavía misteriosas inmediaciones: confín que he poseído entero en palabras y poco en realidad, vecino y mitológico a un tiempo’ (1974: 366) [‘I am not alluding to my own neighborhood, the precise circumference of my childhood, but to its still mysterious outskirts; a frontier region I have possessed fully in words and very little in reality, at once adjacent and mythical’] (2000: 137). He feels that he is walking in a landscape already made literature by him. He is therefore the character in a fiction, and everything is being fictionalized by him, either at the point of experience or in its retelling: ‘No habrá manera de nombrar la ternura mejor que ese rosado’ (1974: 366) [‘Tenderness could have no better name than that rose color’] (138). This is qualified by his inability to escape literary allusion in the text: ‘me alejó hacia unos barrios, de cuyo nombre quiero siempre acordarme’ (1974: 366) [‘gravitation pushed me toward neighborhoods whose name I wish always


Chapter Two

to remember’] (2000: 137), and one wonders whether this Cervantine line came to him at the point of  the experience, during a reminiscence, or at the point of writing the text. Pensé, con seguridad en voz alta: Esto es lo mismo de hace treinta años. […] El fácil pensamiento Estoy en mil ochocientos y tantos dejó de ser unas cuantas aproximativas palabras y se profundizó a realidad. Me sentí muerto, me sentí percibidor abstracto del mundo: indefinido temor imbuido de ciencia que es la mejor claridad de la metafísica. No creí, no, haber remontado las presuntivas aguas del Tiempo; más bien me sospeché poseedor del sentido reticente o ausente de la inconcebible palabra eternidad. Sólo después alcancé a definir esa imaginación. (1974: 366–7) [I stood there looking at this simplicity. I thought, undoubtedly aloud: ‘This is the same as it was thirty years ago.’ […] The glib thought I am in the year eighteen hundred and something ceased to be a few approximate words and deepened into reality. I felt as the dead feel, I felt myself  to be an abstract observer of  the world; an indefinite fear imbued with knowledge that is the greater clarity of metaphysics. No, I did not believe I had made my way upstream on the presumptive waters of  Time. Rather, I suspected myself  to be in possession of  the reticent or absent meaning of  the inconceivable word eternity. Only later did I succeed in defining this figment of my imagination.] (2000: 138)

These seemingly innocent expressions of description are deceptively complex. Was he experiencing something that he was fully able to comprehend and assimilate at the time of  the experience? Was it the recollection after the event (prior to the writing) that was now problematic? Or was it the moment of recording the experience in words where its full inef fability is felt? It would appear from these brief descriptions of  his thought processes at the time that he was fully cognizant of  the experience as it was unfolding, and that the words began to fail him only at a later moment of  textual recording. Be that as it may, Borges’ mastery of style would suggest that he was not lost for words, that he was able to capture the experience, and that consequently the experience was not inef fable. It is impossible to say how close the textual description is to the experience. Inef fability is a tricky word. As discussed in the beginning of  this chapter, the impact of  this episode (plus another un-narrated one) upon Borges was tremendous, and

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


motivated him to seek deeper knowledge of  the experience years later in Japan. One would suggest that the experience also fuelled his interest in mystical writers across the world’s literatures. And yet can we consider this episode to have been, as Borges emphasizes with Swedenborg, somehow outside of  textual inf luence? As we have seen, the episode conforms closely to two of  James’s categories: transiency and passivity. Its inef fability is impossible to judge, as without being Borges we are in no position to determine the proximity between the textual reproduction and the experience itself. Its ‘noetic value’ – an arbitrary definition, to be sure – would appear to be codified into Borges’ philosophical perspective regarding the f lexibility of  time. Indeed his inclusion of  this episode in the various essays would demonstrate his consideration of it as an ideal case study to defend his radical theories of  time. The inclusion of  the passage in the essay ‘Historia de la Eternidad’ indicates the relationship with the many philosophical accounts of eternity that Borges encountered in literature, and his own transient experience. As Kripal argues about the scholarship of mysticism, James, Underhill and other writers were only able to explore the nebulous fields of mysticism with such integrity because the texts they read chimed so closely with their own, often unstated, mystical experiences. Would Borges the reader, however, judge his own text as a fiction? This is an important question based, as discussed, on his division of  Dante and Swedenborg into the fictional (poetic) and the non-fictional (authentic). Firstly, this may be merely a question of style: many readers across the decades have been unsettled by the exquisitely realist nature of some of  Borges’ tales in which time’s f lexibility is explored. ‘El encuentro’ [‘The Meeting’] from El Libro de Arena concerns the young and the old Borges sitting by a river each attempting to establish who is dreaming who. Its realism makes it uncanny, and yet we read it as a fiction primarily because, despite its outlandishness, it accompanies a selection of  fantastic tales in the volume. Yet were it to have been included as an episode in one or more philosophical essays (as in the case of  ‘sentirse en muerte’) and were Borges to have discussed it autobiographically in interviews, then our interpretative position would be dif ferent. It is thus the contextual quality beyond the textual that will determine the reader’s judgment of authenticity. The sister tale to El encuentro is ‘Veinticinco de agosto, 1983’, from La Memoria


Chapter Two

de Shakespeare (1980), which has received so little critical attention it could have been written by an unknown writer. This oneiric Swedenborg-inspired tale has only the vaguest pretence to realism, and thus, whilst still haunting and unsettling, nevertheless is evidently fictional. But is it any less mystical for its fictionality? In order to explore this question further, the episode of  ‘sentirse en muerte’ can be appraised alongside the particular ecstatic episode of  the Borges-narrator of  ‘El Aleph’ (a tale, it must be emphasized, included in Kodama’s edited volume On Mysticism). The scholarship on ‘El Aleph’ is too vast to enumerate, and no stone has been left unturned in pursuing the many cryptic, cabalistic, literary and autobiographical pathways and references that are embedded in this perplexing text. Wilson (2006: 46), for example, argues that ‘Borges’s wicked mockery of  Gómez de la Serna as “Alef ” is hidden (few literary critics have noted this)’, and that the tale is a mere ‘study in literary and sexual envy.’ What is of interest here, however, is not to wander in the literary labyrinth of  the tale, but to consider the well-identified uselessness of mysticism that is presented; something Bossart (2003: 146) associates also with ‘El Zahir’ and dubs ‘“failed enlightenment,” [by which] I mean those occasions on which the conditions for enlightenment seem to be present but are not utilized. “The Zahir” and “The Aleph” are two examples of such a situation’. Whilst I find Bossart’s term problematic, for the simple reason stated above that it is not at all clear how we should interpret a putative ‘successful’ enlightenment, nevertheless I would agree with Bossart, Alazraki and others that the tale constitutes an overall sense of  failure and futility. Annette Flynn encapsulates this sentiment in acknowledging that the powerful epiphany depicted in the tale is, essentially, useless: ‘The experience of divine vision is ultimately inconsequential’ (2009: 6). I would argue that a prominent aspect of  the tale is the slightly melancholy mocking of  textual attempts to capture the moment of mystical rapture. Does Daneri have a mystical experience? One would assume so, if  his experience was similar to the Borges-narrator’s. Is he consequently a mystic? Absolutely not, as all he is capable of performing as a consequence is clumsy, verbose and voluminous poetry. But, we must ask, is his poetic output the only measure of  his character, and is the description of  his character the only measure of whether he was or was not a mystic? I doubt a

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


single of  the myriad readers of  the tale could ever have considered Daneri a mystic – his character is too asinine, what Molloy (1994: 54) describes as ‘an af fected middle-brow braggart’ – and thus one must assume that as readers we have already made the basic assumption that a mystical experience does not necessarily make a mystic. This essential assumption forms the basis of another tremendous debate that has dominated the scholarship of mysticism since William James and which fuelled Underhill’s critique of  James: the relationship between drugs (psychedelics) and mystical states (see Huston Smith [2000], Rowlandson [2013]). Cohen (1973: 83) perhaps alludes to this matter when suggesting that ‘“The Zahir” and “The Aleph” describe false ways of inducing vision which, as Borges admits, produce false or partial, and always terrible, experiences.’ Such a statement is reminiscent of so much of  the literature (Underhill, Zaehner, Von Franz) in which psychedelic experiences are described as ‘false’ pathways towards knowledge, or the divine. Núñez-Faraco (2006: 47) is the only critic to my knowledge to have likened the experience of  the Aleph to a drug-induced vision, suggesting that the use of  the words ‘veneno’ and ‘narcótico’ ‘is particularly interesting for its many literary associations, both ancient and modern’; and whilst a case could be made that Borges may have been aware of, for example, James’s description of  the state of nitrous oxide intoxication, this is not my purpose here. It is pertinent, I would argue, simply to highlight the basic postulation, related to Bossart’s ‘failed enlightenment’, that a mystic is characterized as a mystic not for the experiences he has undergone, but for some visible manifestation of  those experiences upon his character and behaviour. Furthermore, such assumptions would not necessarily correlate with the definitions of  William James, who, unlike Stace and Pahnke, did not appraise the legacy of  the experience upon the individual beyond the notion of  ‘noetic value’. Had Daneri composed splendid poetry, like Dante, San Juan de la Cruz or William Blake, would the noetic value be of greater worth here? The Borges-narrator presents a phenomenological problem with his description of  the Aleph which exposes the curious relationship between Borges-author and the Borges-narrator-character. Both identify the Jamesian ‘inef fable’ quality of a mystical experience, and express the problem of inef fability as a linguistic problem based not on the lack of


Chapter Two

consensual understanding of a word, but of  the non-consensual nature of  the experience. The Borges-narrator of  ‘El Aleph’ laments that he is unable to describe fully the experience of  the Aleph because of  the singularity of  the experience: Todo lenguaje es un alfabeto de símbolos cuyo ejercicio presupone un pasado que los interlocutores comparten; […] Los místicos, en análogo trance, prodigan los emblemas: para significar la divinidad, un persa habla de un pájaro que de algún modo es todos los pájaros; Alanus de Insulis, de una esfera cuyo centro está en todas partes y la circunferencia en ninguna; Ezequiel, de un ángel de cuatro caras que a un tiempo se dirige al Oriente y al Occidente, al Norte y al Sur. (1974: 624–5) [All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. […] Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south.] (1971a: 26)

Borges (the Borges-author), meanwhile, many years later, would foreground his exploration of  Swedenborg by identifying the very same phenomenological problem: El empleo de cualquier vocablo presupone una experiencia compartida, de la que el vocablo es el símbolo. Si nos hablan del sabor del café, es porque ya lo hemos probado; si nos hablan del color amarillo, es porque ya hemos visto limones, oro, trigo y puestas del sol. Para sugerir la inefable unión del alma del hombre con la divinidad, los sufíes del Islam se vieron obligados a recurrir a alegorías prodigiosas, a imágenes de rosas, de embriaguez o de amor carnal; Swedenborg pudo renunciar a tales artificios retóricos, porque su tema no era el éxtasis del alma arrebatada y enajenada, sino la puntual descripción de regiones ultraterrenas, pero precisas. (2005: 154) [The use of any word whatsoever presupposes a shared experience, for which the word is the symbol. If someone speaks to us about the f lavor of cof fee, it is because we have already tasted it; if about the color yellow, because we have already seen lemons, gold, wheat, and sunsets. To suggest the inef fable union of man’s soul with the divine being, the Sufis of  Islam found themselves obliged to resort to prodigious analogies, to images of roses, intoxication, or carnal love. Swedenborg was able to abstain from this kind of rhetorical artifice because his subject matter was not the

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


ecstasy of a rapt and fainting soul but, rather, the accurate description of regions that, though ultra-terrestrial, were clearly defined.] (1995: 7)13

Importantly, and as already examined, Borges implies here that Swedenborg was unlike other mystics because his experiences were essentially ef fable. Following the logic of  this argument, if  Swedenborg had no need to resort to symbolic approximations to the experience, this would imply that his language ‘presupposes a shared experience’; a problematic assertion, to be sure, when the reader is confronted with discarnate souls and angels discussing theology. It is apparent that the Borges-author of  ‘El Aleph’ speaks through the Borges-narrator with similar concerns about the textual inspiration behind the description of a mystical experience that we analysed in Chapter One. As with Borges’ claims about Swedenborg’s non-literary textual description of  his otherworld journeys, so the Borgesnarrator of  ‘El Aleph’ consciously chooses not to resort to the poetic symbols employed by Alanus de Insulis (Alain de Lille) or Ezekiel so as to keep his text somehow pure and ‘uncontaminated’ by the inf luence of  their texts. ‘Quizá los dioses no me negarían el hallazgo de una imagen equivalente, pero este informe quedaría contaminado de literatura, de falsedad’ (1974: 625) [‘Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction’] (1971a: 26).


Borges argues this elsewhere, in another essay on Swedenborg from 1978: ‘Hay una diferencia esencial entre Swedenborg y los otros místicos. En el caso de San Juan de la Cruz, tenemos descripciones muy vividas del éxtasis. Tenemos el éxtasis referido en términos de experiencias eróticas o con metáforas de vino. Por ejemplo, un hombre que se encuentra con Dios, y Dios es igual a sí mismo. Hay un sistema de metáforas. En cambio, en la obra de Swedenborg no hay nada de eso. Es la obra de un viajero que ha recorrido tierras desconocidas y que las describe tranquila y minuciosamente’ (2005: 200) [‘There is an essential dif ference between Swedenborg and the other mystics. In the case of  St John of  the Cross, we have very vivid descriptions of ecstasy. Ecstasy referred to in erotic terms or with metaphors of wine. For example, a man encounters God, and God is the same as the man. There is a system of metaphors. In the work of  Swedenborg, on the other hand, there is none of  this. It is the work of a traveller who has explored unknown lands and who describes them in precise detail’] (my translation).


Chapter Two

The Borges-narrator is thus making the same assumptions that we later find in Borges’ many statements about Pascal, Dante, Luis de León, Juan de la Cruz and Weatherhead; that their texts are somehow ‘non-mystical’ or even ‘false’ because they are literary – i.e. textually-inspired. As discussed in the previous chapter, this is a perplexing conundrum, as it implies both the possibility of a non-literary text and, more subtle yet equally Borgesian, the possibility of a non-textual experience. Despite, therefore, his knowledge of de Lille and Ezekiel, the Borges-narrator is suggesting not only that his description of  the vision of  the Aleph in the basement of  Daneri’s house was somehow free of prior textual inf luence, but that the experience itself was somehow free of  this inf luence. As suggested earlier, this division between experience and textual account of  the experience, which can constitute a tremendous gulf, is scarcely addressed in the scholarship of mysticism. It is abundantly clear that the ecstatic passage at the heart of  ‘El Aleph’, ‘[e]l inefable centro de mi relato’, is absurd, and, akin to the absurdity of  Funes’ perpetual ecstasy, constitutes a parodic inversion of possible mystical rapture. Whilst we may assert that Borges was employing a fictional space in order to appraise his own prior experience, so may we justifiably argue that the tale is merely an exquisitely crafted parody of mysticism; and whilst Borges praised Estela Canto for appreciating that the text was mystical, so Borges himself argued that it was nothing more than an invented tale inspired by his reading material. Borges explains the artifice, or the invention, of  this passage: A man in Spain asked me whether the aleph actually existed. Of course it doesn’t. He thought the whole thing was true. I gave him the name of  the street and the number of  the house. He was taken in very easily. […] That piece gave me great trouble, yes. I mean, I had to give a sensation of endless things in a single paragraph. Somehow, I got away with it. Q: Is that an invention, the aleph, or did you find it in some reference? No. I’ll tell you, I was reading about time and eternity. Now eternity is supposed to be timeless. I mean, God or a mystic perceives in one moment all of our yesterdays, Shakespeare says, all the past, all the present, all the future. And I said, why not apply that, well, that invention to another category, not to time, but to space? Why not imagine a point in space wherein the observer may find all the rest. I mean, who invented space? And that was the central idea. Then I had to invent all the other things, to make it into a funny story, to make it into a pathetic story, that came

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


afterwards. My first aim was this: in the same way that many mystics have talked of eternity … that’s a big word, an eternity, an everness. And also neverness; that’s an awful word. Since we have an idea of eternity, of  foreverness in time, why not apply the same idea to space, and think of a single point in space wherein the whole of space may be found? I began with that abstract idea, and then, somehow, I came to that quite enjoyable story. (Burgin 1998: 212)

Such is the power of  the fiction that the man in Spain failed to perceive the artifice and sought the actual Aleph. One must assume, therefore, that fact or fiction, genuine or imagined, the tale clearly is capable of delivering a tremendous impact upon the reader. J. M. Cohen (1973: 81), meanwhile, argued that Borges was attempting to mimic the ecstasies of  Böhme: ‘The idea for the Aleph itself came, I believe, from a passage in the biography of  Jakob Boehme which describes his first illumination in 1599. It is quoted by William James in his Varieties of  Religious Experience.’ This is a powerful statement, as it implies not only a familiarity with the mystical text of  Böhme, but also with James’ scholarship of mysticism, something we will explore in the next chapter. Likewise, whilst it has been suggested that Borges was searching for a fictional text in which to explore his own ‘timeless’ moment (‘sentirse en muerte’), the inef fable centre of  ‘El Aleph’ appears less a reaction to his own personal experience than to the philosophical perplexity caused by the gulf  between personal experience and textual accounts of mystical ecstasy. Countless responses to ‘El Aleph’, from academic articles and book chapters, to biographical accounts and reviews, describe the central episode as being mystical. Canto and Kodama, as mentioned above, both identify a strong mystical dimension to it; Alazraki calls the Aleph a ‘mystic symbol’ (1988: 49); Jason Wilson (2006: 16–17) considers it an extensive ‘Buddhist joke’ ridiculing the inability to capture Nirvana, and qualifying this perspective by suggesting that this is the predicament that mystics encounter. Buddhism also warns that language cannot communicate Nirvana, the void beyond appearances. Truth is not found in words; Borges’s greatest fable, the fiction ‘The Aleph’, is also a Buddhist joke. The vision granted to Borges under the staircase in the story cannot be recreated in sequential words, despite Borges’s lists. Only a mystic outside time can see everything at once, but then cannot communicate it.


Chapter Two

Yet is the text truly mystical? The ecstatic heart of  the tale evokes the visionary raptures of  Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of  Bingen or Teresa de Ávila. In particular, and ref lecting Borges’ familiarity with the poetry of  William Blake, the tale may appear to suggest Blake’s ‘Auguries of  Innocence’: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild f lower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour’. Despite these illustrious antecedents, the tale’s complex intertextuality and its metatextual gameplaying with regards literary figures of  Argentine letters (Williamson 2004) provide a context in which the mystical rapture appears wantonly parodic to the extent of ridicule. It is also the most extreme of images – the vision of  totality. Amidst the mundane context of a basement in a soon-to-be-demolished house belonging to a pompous poet, the narrator appears to experience a vision of  totality that far exceeds even the most sublime descriptions of visionary poets. Whereas Henry Vaughan’s cosmic poem ‘A vision’ (1650) begins ‘I saw Eternity the other Night’, this poem is generally considered a dream-like poetic image rather than the description of a genuine experience. The Borges-narrator, however, is attempting not poetry (that is Daneri’s hapless task) but prosaic description. It is, therefore, by Borges’ own standards, genuine. Borges presents something beyond our most basic powers of cognition. What can it possibly mean to see everything? ‘Everything’ as a word and as a concept becomes meaningless, as there can be no division between one ‘thing’ of totality and another. The vision of  ‘El Aleph’ becomes as harrowingly impossible as Funes’ total memory – it simply cannot be.14 Consequently, the enumeration of  the things that the Borges-narrator does see is ridiculous, as it is like measuring an inch in infinity. It is neither a portion of totality nor any approximation of it. The vision of  the Aleph is a nominalist chaos, where ultimately all we have is a random succession of words and no things in themselves. He may just as well have listed twenty other things, or twenty further things, ad infinitum. Or no things at all. 14

The hyperbolic nature of  the vision of  the Aleph is similar to Douglas Adams’ torture device ‘the Total Perspective Vortex’ from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the victim is annihilated through being forced to see himself in relation to the enormity of  the cosmos.

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


Conclusion As established, it is something of a mainstay in the scholarship of mysticism to produce specific defining characteristics. What had scarcely been addressed until Kripal (2001), however, is the inseparable relationship between the scholar him/herself and the articulation of  the approach to mysticism. Dean Inge’s perspectives on mysticism, for example, are inevitably bound up with his adherence to Anglican orthodoxy.15 For example, he rejects outright the ‘heresy’ of which Borges professed, that of  ‘God in the making’: The common assumption that God is so bound up with the world that it is as necessary to Him as He is to it is incompatible with mysticism. The Supreme, whether we call it God or with Plotinus the One or with Eckhart the Godhead, or with some moderns the Absolute, is transcendent. The notion that God is evolving with His universe, coming into His own, realizing Himself, or emerging, owes its popularity to ‘the last Western heresy,’ the idea that the macrocosm is moving towards ‘one far-of f divine event.’ There can be no process of  the Absolute, no progress, and no change. Exhortations to take time seriously may be in place when we are dealing with history; but to subordinate the Eternal to space and time is a fatal error in metaphysics. (Inge 1947: 154)

William James cannot be separated from his upbringing amidst New England Transcendentalism, Evelyn Underhill is in so many ways herself  the focus of  her whole system of investigation. This is not such an obvious statement as it could appear, as in many cases the philosophical, religious, political or even cultural assumptions and belief systems of  the scholars feed into their scholarship in subtle ways. Sometimes, however,


Note that Russell (1961: 179) mocks Inge’s favouring of  Christian mysticism over the mysticism of other faiths: ‘The chief argument in favour of  the mystics is their agreement with each other. “I know nothing more remarkable,” says Dean Inge, “than the unanimity of  the mystics, ancient, mediaeval, and modern, Protestant, Catholic, and even Buddhist or Mohammedan, though the Christian mystics are the most trustworthy.”’


Chapter Two

such positions are at once visible. Staal, for example, identifies this striking feature of  Zaehner, arguing that his religious beliefs led him to a narrow view of other beliefs and practices. ‘The main dif ficulty with this book as a whole [Zaehner’s Hindu & Muslim Mysticism (1960)] is the author’s own religious allegiance, which clearly prevents a fair and adequate description and evaluation of dif fering points of view and which leads the author to a classification which is nothing but a ref lection of  his own belief ’ (1975: 67). Zaehner similarly weighed into the debate on mysticism and psychedelics with a level of invective that revealed deep-seated moral concerns with the proposal that mystical states are achievable through such means. Zaehner criticized Huxley’s exuberant use of words from Catholic and Hindu traditions, arguing that Huxley had no right to make these bold declarations about ‘gratuitous grace’, ‘Beatic state’ or ‘one-ness’, as these are matters of spiritual practice within established traditions of  faith. The mescaline experience, he argued, aside from specific Native American traditions, lies outside established traditions of  faith. It is clear that Zaehner is arguing not from a phenomenological position – i.e. is a mystical state possible with mescaline – but a theological – is such a state permissible. There is also the tendency present within the whole scholarship of mysticism to reduce the mystical aspect of a text to mere textual markers, and to correlate these textual instances against the check-list of  the scholarship of mysticism, such as James, Underhill or Stace. Whilst this may be a justifiable exercise in attempts to determine whether a text is, for example, a good example of  Modernist or postcolonial literature, there is something slightly disjointed when such textual scrutiny occurs with the study of mysticism, in that the ceaseless attempts to pin it down to the salient characteristics can seem contradictory to the very f luid and mysterious nature that is, itself, mysticism. There is consequently something exasperating in running through endless academic approaches to ‘deistic’ or ‘non-deistic’, ‘extravertive or intravertive’, ‘hot’ or ‘cool’, ‘perennialist’ or ‘essentialist’, as these questions rarely confront actual and pressing ontological questions. The questions, in my opinion, should not concern whether Emerson was a ‘religious mystic’ or a ‘nature mystic’, nor whether Swedenborg’s experiences were ‘hot’ or ‘cool’, ‘structured’ or ‘unstructured’ (Rawlinson 1998: 120), but what are we, as readers, to do with his texts? It occurred to me

Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


that Blake (regardless of whether he was or was not a mystic) would have railed against so much scholastic inactivity. Swedenborg, likewise, was highly critical of scholastic debates that served as mere displays of erudition rather than interrogating the nature of reality,16 and would have been equally dismayed at seeing his moral theology ignored and his own status pinned to a graph of  ‘hot unstructured’, or having his experiences forensically analysed according to whether they satisfy the requirements of  transiency (no), inef fability (no), passivity (no), noetic quality (yes) and so on. Kripal (2001) has bravely attempted to realign the scholars and their scholarship with their own mystic-erotic experiences, but even his study leaves many questions unaddressed concerning the nature of  the mystical experience itself. The fact that James called the debate one of names is of  key importance here, as there appears to be an endless circling above the experience described in the text without the courage to plunge into the very questions that mysticism itself raises. Borges was manifestly astonished by his own experiences of  timelessness, and, whilst he may not have engaged in theological discussions with angels, as Swedenborg did, he nevertheless invested deeply in an aesthetic and intellectual ef fort to understand the full significance of  his experiences. It is consequently of  little importance whether Borges was or was not a mystic. What is certain is that Borges experienced many matters that habitually appear in the repertoire of mystical experiences: a sense of  the numinous and the inef fable, noesis, ecstasy and a sense of moving outside of  time, lucid dreams, possible communication with the dead, synchronicities, awe at the mystery of existence, and other experiences of  ‘intersticios de sinrazón’. These matters delighted and puzzled him, and his encyclopaedic reading of other accounts of mystical and anomalous experience, especially 16

‘If people have loved the academic disciplines only in order to sound learned, without using them to develop their ability to reason, taking delight in their pride at the contents of  their memories, they love sandy areas and prefer them to meadows and gardens because sandy areas correspond to these kinds of study. People who are wrapped up in knowing the doctrines of churches, their own and others’, without applying them to life, love stony areas and live among rock piles. They avoid cultivated land because it is repulsive to them’ (Heaven & Hell §488).


Chapter Two

Swedenborg, assisted him in attempting to make sense of such matters. The beauty of  Borges is that no sense is made at all. The mystic may receive some sense of  the divine purpose, but as the experience, in Borges’ view, is inherently inef fable, such revelation can never be transcribed. The universe, Borges repeatedly maintained, is ultimately mysterious. The mystics seize this mystery and, despite the inevitability that ultimate answers will not be forthcoming, devote themselves to this intellectual and intuitive search. Perhaps as the final word on the long scholarship of mysticism, we might, like Underhill and Stace, of fer an explanation of precisely what a mystic is not. It is not, as Borges describes, taking the universe for granted: nonmystics: ‘take the universe for granted. They take things for granted. They take themselves for granted. That’s true. They never wonder at anything, no? They don’t think it’s strange that they should be living’ (1969: 6). This touching aphorism could be taken as Borges’ poignant contribution to the long and contradictory scholarship. From such a consideration, one could suggest that for Borges the mystic is the one who is mystified; the one who enters the mystery; the one who, at the final measure, is aware of  the mystery. As I hope to have demonstrated, there is a tendency in the critical studies of  Borges to make assertions about the mystical or non-mystical nature both of  himself and of  his texts. Such assertions assume a consensual understanding of  the term mystic. However, as I analyse above, not only is there no consensus, but the term itself is immensely complicated. The most thorough attempt to qualify such an assertion seems to be Howard Giskin, with his correlation of  Borges texts with the four categories defined by William James. An analysis as thorough as Giskin’s, though, leaves many questions unanswered about the relationship between a ‘mystical’ text and the text’s author, between the fictionality or potential parodic nature of  the text and its ‘mystical’ attributes, between the wide variety of readers’ responses. It becomes clear that we cannot rely on a simple set of co-ordinates in order to establish whether Borges was or was not a mystic, as so many conf licting avenues of enquiry need to be taken into consideration before any suitable conclusion is reached. This chapter has attempted to consider certain texts of  Borges in the light of a number of these variant enquiries into mysticism. The conclusion is, consequently, notably inconclusive.

Chapter Three

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism

In order to be able to decide if  the prophet is telling the truth or lying, we shall have to investigate the mystical experience for ourselves. This can be done in two ways: from the outside, by studying the biographies and writings of  the saints; and from the inside, by following the instructions they have given us. — Christopher Isherwood, Vedanta for The Western World

Was Borges a theorist of mysticism? As established in the previous chapter, it is characteristic of scholars of mysticism to define the terms ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’ by enumerating the salient features following analysis of  both mystical texts and, in some cases, personal experience. William James’s four principles are doubtless the best known. Borges is not a name generally associated with the long tradition of  the scholarship of mysticism, for the same reason that he is not included, for example, in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of  Philosophy. This is because he always eschewed defining a particular theory or method – whether philosophical, theological or metaphysical – preferring to be considered ‘un mero hombre de letras y no un investigador o de un teólogo’ (2005: 155) [‘a mere man of  letters and not a researcher or theologian’] (1995: 8). He af firms this to Burgin in interview: ‘I’m not sure whether I’m a Christian, but I’ve read a great many books on theology for the sake of  their theological problems – free will, punishment, and eternal happiness. All these problems have interested me as food for my imagination’ (Burgin 1998: 57). Again, therefore, we are presented with the problem that Borges himself would appear to distance himself  from a critical appraisal of  the tradition of mysticism whilst, as


Chapter Three

discussed in Chapter One, making some forthright assertions about his interpretation of certain mystical texts. The question of separating mystic from scholar of mysticism is complicated; and here we can perceive a thread developed by William James, and running through Walter Stace to Frits Staal. How are we to establish a suitable distinction between the mystic and the scholar of mysticism? This may sound self-evident, but if we appraise the question in light of  Borges, then we can perceive some problematic twists to the analysis. Stace (1960: 9), one of  the most prominent researchers into the variegated field of mysticism, was outspoken in separating the mystic from the scholar. By the word ‘mystic’ I shall always mean a person who himself  has had mystical experience. Often the word is used in a much wider and looser way. Anyone who is sympathetic to mysticism is apt to be labeled a mystic. But I shall use the word always in a stricter sense. However sympathetic toward mysticism a man may be, however deeply interested, involved, enthusiastic, or learned in the subject, he will not be called a mystic unless he has, or has had, mystical experience.

Can we suitably distinguish between the mystical experiences and the evaluation of  the experience? That is to say, can we distinguish so clearly between the mystic and what Staal calls the ‘student of mysticism’ (1975: 135)? Firstly, it is unlikely that anyone experiencing a state of consciousness wholly extraordinary would feel inclined not to evaluate the experience; Teresa de Ávila, for example, dedicated many pages of  her autobiography and El Castillo Interior [The Interior Castle] to an appraisal of  the spiritual exercises that led to her states of ecstasy. Swedenborg described his specific breathing and meditative techniques that prefaced his voyages to the heavens. Teresa and Swedenborg are consequently as much students of mysticism as they are mystics. Borges was as keen to evaluate his own two mystical ‘outside of  time’ experiences as he was to discuss Swedenborg, Silesius or his friend Xul Solar. In a similar fashion, it would be remiss to assume that students (scholars) of mysticism are not informed by experience, and are only working at textual analysis. Emerson, for example, correlated his

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


reading of  Jakob Böhme and Swedenborg with his own ecstatic experience.1 William James, like Borges, denied his own mystical nature, yet nevertheless emphasized that his mystical sensibilities predisposed him towards a study of mysticism: ‘I have no mystical experiences of my own, but just enough of  the germ of mysticism in me to recognize the region from which their voice comes when I hear it’ ( James 2003: 210). Indeed, like Borges, he describes in great detail four particular experiences ‘which could only be described as very sudden and incomprehensible enlargements of  the conscious field, bringing with them a curious sense of cognition of real fact’ ( James 1910: 87). It has been argued, indeed, that James was describing himself when describing the ‘divided self ’ that an anonymous Frenchman suf fered, in the chapter ‘The Sick Soul’ of  Varieties.2 Alicia Jurado, we recall from the previous chapter, focuses on Estela Canto’s suggestion that Borges was ‘“one of  the greatest – and they are extremely rare – mystical thinkers of our time”’, and reaf firms the idea of  Borges ‘as Mystical thinker, naturally, not just mystic’ (1996: 98). Again, how are we to distinguish between the terms ‘mystic’ and ‘mystical thinker’? Would we approach this laudatory comment from a dif ferent angle if she had called Borges ‘one of  the greatest mystics of our time?’ Does ‘mystical thinker’ permit the marriage of intellect with spiritual sensibility, i.e. does it imply critical distance, even scepticism, whilst ‘mystic’ would imply abandonment to irrationality or to faith? The subtlety of distinction is important. To pursue a study of mystical texts and scholarly analyses thereof, one must already accept at least the possibility of certain postulates: that the term ‘mysticism’ is worthy of investigation and that something useful may be derived from this study. This would imply that the student of mysticism would take seriously the claims made both by those known as mystics, and 1


‘We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of  the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of  God’. (Emerson 2005: 12) I am grateful to Jeremy Carrette for this information.


Chapter Three

the conclusions drawn by scholars. Ultimately, as with Borges’ defence of  Swedenborg, the student of mysticism would likely be prepared to accept the texts of mystics as not being the ramblings of  the insane or outright lies; and if  they are not fantasy or lies, then there is the possibility that Swedenborg’s accounts of conversations with angels and demons and his voyages to heaven and hell are true. Therefore the student of mysticism will likely be open to the possibility of a mystical state of consciousness him/herself. The diligent student of mysticism is necessarily sympathetic to mysticism, if, indeed only so as to attempt to refute it. This may sound trite, but seeing as the field itself is of an order that can challenge certainties about time, space, life and death, one can assume that in order to investigate this curious area, and in order for the texts to inform the researcher in some measure, the researcher must already be prepared to accept these challenges to his/her ontological assumptions. Such an equation between subject (mysticism) and observer (researcher) is succinctly encapsulated by Kripal (2001), who argues that the scholarship has been driven by the psychic energy bestowed upon the researchers by their own (secret and erotic) experiences: ‘I would go so far as to argue that, without these subjective experiences and the creative energies they release in the psyches (and bodies) of  the scholars who undergo them, there would be no study of mysticism, at least as it has been practiced for the past one hundred years’ (27).3 Furthermore, Kripal argues: It is not just that these experiences are methodologically important because they provide the historian of religions with the energy to carry through a particular project. Second, and more important, they are methodologically significant because they structure, inform, and even determine the hermeneutical choices of  the historians who have undergone them. Which texts are studied, which passages ‘come alive’ and


‘I hope to establish [that] the modern, and now postmodern, study of mysticism, from its early beginnings to its contemporary practice, has been largely inspired, sustained, and rhetorically formed by the unitive, ecstatic, visionary, and mysticohermeneutical experiences of  the scholars themselves. The mystical experiences of scholars of mysticism – no archaeology of  the comparative study of mysticism can justifiably ignore this weirdly beautiful, if ethically ambiguous, source of inspiration, theory, and writing’ (Kripal 2001: 3).

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


so receive hermeneutical attention, which theoretical tool the hermeneut employs, what interpretations are finally reached – all of  these are profoundly inf luenced by the mystical experiences of  the historians themselves. (2001: 27)

Nevertheless, whilst acknowledging the interrelationship between mysticism and the scholarship of mysticism, one should be careful not to assume too close an interdependence. If we follow Stace’s judgment, then we can assume that Borges was, indeed, a mystic, based upon his two related ‘timeless’ experiences; and we would assume that he was not a mystic if we consider only his close and sympathetic reading of mystical texts. Likewise, need we divide the Borges of  ‘Historia de la Eternidad’ into two – the researcher of centuries of  theologians and mystics who have written about eternity, and the narrator of a personal moment of  timelessness? Borges was ‘desgraciadamente’ Borges, and consequently it seems disjointed to separate one aspect from another, especially seeing that he was insistent in claiming that a textual experience was as real as a non-textual one. We recall the Swedenborgian Lawrence writing about the ‘Swedenborgian’ Borges, calling him ‘a kindred spirit to the Swedish mystic’ and suggesting that he ‘shared with Swedenborg the same fundamental objectives; they simply traversed the same terrain in somewhat dif ferent ways’ (1995: x). In that respect a close and sympathetic reading of  Swedenborg becomes itself a certain experience of  Swedenborg’s otherworld experiences. Here we open another question in the thorny scholarship of mysticism, ref lected in Kathleen Raine’s (1995) avowal that Blake’s poetry provides tangible experience of divine bliss rather than merely describing it. This question is integral to the matter that preoccupied William James and Bertrand Russell concerning the epistemology of experience: what is the gulf  that separates knowledge-by-acquaintance from knowledge-bydescription? As discussed in Chapter One, Borges placed such experiential value on the text that the reading of  the content constitutes an experience of  that very content. In this sense, knowledge-by-description is knowledge-by-acquaintance, and in this case, a dedicated student of mysticism is capable of experiencing through the mediation of  the text some aspect of  the mystical reality. Such a position would chime with James’s understanding that, as Eugene Taylor suggests, ‘[r]elations in experience also lie


Chapter Three

at the heart of  James’s epistemology. Since experience is all that exists and all that exists is experience’ (Taylor 1996), and yet would jar with Russell’s emphasis on distinguishing the two modes of  knowledge. Van Dusen suggests that Swedenborg’s writings, beyond describing the otherworld realities, provide direct experience to the dedicated reader, and thus enact a didactic method that can, if read properly, make a mystic of  the reader: If  I had to describe Swedenborg’s spiritual writings and their fundamental purpose in one line, it would be this: the writings are a clear presentation meant to be used by individuals to lead them into the life of  God – as an actual part of  their experience. His writings are rational, but that is their style, not pre-eminently their nature. Their nature and overwhelming purpose are to lead to God, which accounts for many aspects of  their structure. So in this sense, not only are his writings the work of a mystic, they are meant to help create mystics, that is, to lead others to the Divine. (1995: 134)

In this sense the writings of  Swedenborg become sacred texts – texts whose oral transmission enacts a spiritual and numinous reaction in the readers or listeners. This assertion is itself problematic if we follow the comments of  Emerson, Henry James Sr., William James, Yeats, and Borges about how dry and ‘insipid’ was the style of  Swedenborg. From Van Dusen’s perspective, the text is not the narrative of an experience, it is the experience, and thus the sympathetic reader (the student of mysticism) is the mystic. Van Dusen takes this perspective to another level in the essay ‘Swedenborg’s Spiritual Method’ (1991), where he cites his friend, a Swedenborgian scholar named David St Amour, who derives great spiritual solace from Swedenborg’s texts ‘even when he did not understand them’ (original emphasis). In this sense the text is authoritative and somehow above the interaction of critical scrutiny. Whilst Stace would balk at this muddying of  the waters of mystic, text and researcher of mysticism, it is important for a study of  Borges to acknowledge that the distinctions are not so radically distinct. Staal (1975) approaches the question of  the researcher of mysticism from another angle, and whilst recognising the necessary distinction between mystic and scholar, suggests that the examination of  the mystical state requires methodical and dispassionate (i.e. unmystical) approaches to the phenomenon: He also suggests that mystics are probably not the best to formulate theories of mysticism: ‘It is the students of mysticism whose

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


task it is to evolve a theory’ (63). This seems to imply that if  the mystic were the intrepid explorer, then the scholar is the cartographer; the two have a natural symbiosis where the mystic provides the raw data, and the scholar assimilates, contrasts and analyses the material and prepares it for the wider readership. This perspective is again not without its dif ficulties, as evinced by James and Borges, in that the scholar himself may derive his knowledge experientially (that is to say, non-textually, if such is possible) as much as textually. With this distinction established, however, Staal was also keen to emphasize that attempts by the scholar to detach him/herself altogether from the field of study can lead to an impoverishment both of  the scholarship and of  the possible experiences of  the researcher. It is incumbent upon the researcher to have some working experience of  the matters that are under investigation: No linguist would refuse to study sentences because we cannot perceive how they are internally produced. Nor would a physicist be content with mere speculation and refuse to devise experiments to test some part of a hypothesis, on the grounds that such experiments might be dif ficult to carry out, might be of uncertain outcome, or might be time-consuming or expensive. And neither would a person interested in reaching the South Pole, out of  fear that he might not be able to get there, stay at home and refuse even to move in a southerly direction. Yet students of mysticism have, in their field, left all such things undone. Content with mere speculation and talking, they have not even considered the possibility of  traveling themselves that part of  the road that appears to be within reach – even though not very well paved. This can only be understood if it is the outcome of a deep-seated prejudice, for such a negative attitude has in no domain of  knowledge been taken seriously or been expected to lead to results. (Staal 1975: 127)

As established in the previous chapter, there is every indication to suggest that Borges was familiar with many experiences that generally serve the definition of  the mystic. However, like Jung he would have had no truck with any suggestion that he himself was a mystic. Few scholars, despite their personal experiences, would likely declare within their scholarly writing that they themselves are mystics. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, as Aniela Jaf fé describes about Jung, there is a tendency to assume that mystical experiences are non-rational, and that they consequently run contrary to the academic pursuit of  truth.


Chapter Three Jung did not like to be regarded as a mystic: he preferred to be recognized as an empiricist, i.e., a scientist whose research is based on a careful observation of  facts. In this sense, he thought of  himself as a natural scientist. One can understand why Jung disliked being included in the ranks of mystics when one considers that in his time, and essentially also today, to characterize a scientific author as ‘mystic’ casts a doubt on the reliability or validity of  his ideas and his work. (1989: 1)4

This division between truth claims of  the ‘empiricist’ over those of  the ‘mystic’ is a central concern of  the scholarship of mysticism, and forms the central area of concern for the conclusion of  William James’s chapter on mysticism in Varieties, and the central focus of  Russell’s chapter on mysticism in Religion and Science. James would argue that the mystic is empowered with knowledge through the mystical experience, Russell would argue that we have no way of  knowing, if such an experience and such an account cannot be transmitted successfully. The essence of  both arguments, though, as ref lected also in Jaf fé’s comments about Jung, is that scholars are likely to be reticent in suggesting their own mystical nature for fear of accusations of  ‘subjectivity’, ‘irrationality’, or even outright delusion. In the case of  Borges, as discussed in the previous chapter, his desire not to be considered a mystic appears less a fear of academic malpractice than an eagerness not to be considered credulous, nor to have given himself over to statements of  faith. Whilst one may justifiably object to the equation of mysticism with faith, one can perceive in Borges’ many comments concerning the faculty of critical enquiry, and his other comments about the faint and rapt outpourings of mystics, that he was keen to have been seen, like Jung, as a sober and intellectual empiricist. So much value is placed upon the term mystic that derives from the period, culture and environment in which the term is used. As Jaf fé observed, the term had 4

Van Dusen (1995: 129) would reinforce the non-rational aspect of mysticism, though more needs to be discussed in order to determine exactly what ‘non-rational’ means: ‘Mysticism is nonrational; this is again from the layperson’s definition. As a matter of  fact, mystical writings vary across the whole spectrum of clarity and nonrationality. Basically, mysticism, or the experience of  God, is irrational to those outside the experience. It is rational, true, and clear to those in the experience. It informs reason of  higher truths.’

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


implications of unreliability both in the time of  Jung and ‘today’ (1980s). At the time of  Emerson, the term was employed ostensibly to designate a vapid and over-emotional religiously-inclined personality (Hurth 2005). In other times and cultures the term and its cognate expressions can have notably divergent significations.5 This contradiction established between intellectual pursuit and mystical experience is problematic for two reasons: firstly it implies that the scholarly method can only be ef ficacious if all steps of rigorous analysis are both expressed and expressible, and secondly, that epistemological pathways that fall outside of such a scholarly method are somehow inferior. Both assumptions are based on a dichotomy built up since the Enlightenment but made more robust within academic scholarship over the last century of prioritizing to an alarming degree one method of enquiry over another. Borges himself alluded to this division within modernity, arguing, as mentioned earlier, that Plato and Socrates considered reason and myth as similar epistemological pathways (Burgin 1998: 160), and that the Paris of  the Enlightenment worshipped ‘el culto de la razón’ (1989: 235) [‘the cult of reason’]. Similarly, when discussing Buddhism in Siete Noches, Borges dwells on the many binaries that characterize modern western thought and that prevent a full engagement in Buddhist spiritual practice: ‘Nosotros pensamos siempre en términos de sujeto, objeto, causa, efecto, lógico, ilógico, algo y su contrario; tenemos que rebasar esas categorías. Según los doctores de la zen, llegar a la verdad por una intuición brusca, mediante una respuesta ilógica’ (1989: 252) [‘We always think in terms of subject-object, cause-ef fect, logic-illogic, a thing and its opposite. We must go beyond these categories. According to the Zen masters, to reach truth through sudden intuition requires an illogical answer’] (1984: 73). Many scholars, such as Kripal (2001) and Ferrer (2002, 2008), have attempted to redress this radical division, and, in the


Hurth’s mention of  the historical variance of  the use of  the term ‘mysticism’ is of crucial importance here, and we must also consider possible dif ferences between English and Spanish when considering Borges. I have heard ‘él es un místico’ in Spain to refer to a daydreamy man who regularly missed appointments.


Chapter Three

case of  Ferrer, propose a ‘participatory method’ in which the subjectobject division is surpassed. In this sense, a scholar may be more inclined to describe and assimilate within his/her scholarship the life experiences of a transpersonal, mystical or anomalous nature. Yet the term mystic also has ethical implications that would dissuade the scholar from expressing the experiential dimension in clear terms, for fear of  being seen to assume a brazenly superior position. That is to say, most of  the scholarship of mysticism highlights the ethical aspect of  the mystical experience, whereby the mystic gains some moral insight into the nature of  human af fairs. That being the case, to declare oneself a mystic may equate to declaring oneself  ‘better’ than the non-mystic, or to declaring oneself privileged above others, singled out by divine grace. Van Dusen is the only scholar I have encountered to declare unabashedly his own mystical nature; indeed his contribution to Testimony to the Invisible is entitled ‘A mystic looks at Swedenborg’. Rigorous and informative as his chapter is, there is an unsettling self-assurance in the opening pages when he recounts ‘when I first became aware that I was a mystic’ (1995: 106). Clearly he had no intention of implying moral superiority, but it is dif ficult as a reader not to respond with a certain misgiving. Where Borges describes Swedenborg as ‘el elegido’ (2005: 154) [‘the chosen one’] (1995: 6), he implies the special nature with which Swedenborg was endowed, and he pays close attention to Swedenborg’s ethical and admirable nature. In tune with Borges’ widely discussed modesty, therefore, and regardless of  his awareness that his own experiences may have been termed mystical, it is highly unlikely that he ever would have called himself a mystic for fear of presumption. Thus there are many reasons that the scholarship of mysticism is replete with subtle implications and allusions to personal experience with few outright declarations, as the scholars may consider themselves risking the integrity of  their scholarship by drawing too heavily on the personal, experiential nature of mysticism.

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Borges’ varieties of mystical experience Although he never expressed a definitive theory of mysticism, Borges may nevertheless be considered a scholar of mysticism in the tradition of  James, Underhill, Stace and Zaehner. Despite his jocular insistence that he was a man of  the nineteenth century, Borges was a man of  his times. As such, in appraising his views on mystics, mysticism and mystical consciousness, it is pertinent to see him not as a contemporary of  Blake, Coleridge and de Quincey, nor of  Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman, but as an inheritor of  the long shadow cast at the beginning of  the twentieth century by William James. The manifest af finities between William James and Borges have attracted surprisingly little critical research. The most extensive investigation that I have encountered is the unpublished 2008 PhD thesis of  Marcel Fernandes: Borges and Pragmatism: Jorge Luis Borges, William James, and the Destruction of  Philosophy. This exemplary piece of scholarship coherently argues for a Jamesian reading of  Borges’ shifting philosophies, aligned both to Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism, and the religious-philosophical-psychological outlook of  Varieties. In particular, Fernandes argues that whilst Borges himself locates James on the nominalist side of  the historical realist-nominalist divide, as outlined in ‘El Ruiseñor de Keats’ [‘The Nightingale of  Keats’] and ‘La Flor de Coleridge’ [‘The Flower of  Coleridge’], Borges himself would occupy a position alongside James. However, Fernandes proposes, both James and Borges share an ironizing perspective – a pragmatic sensibility that truth is variable – that grants them a more mobile position than that of an outright nominalist: ‘Borges is best described as a pragmatist rather than a nominalist since he is self-ref lexive enough to be aware that such a division is after all itself a Platonic construct, and that nominalism can itself  become a general dogma. Instead, he makes aesthetic use of  the division’ (2008: 23). Fernandes’ insightful and close reading of  Borges’ tales reveals a strongly pragmatic aspect to Borges which allows Borges to explore the aesthetic wonders of  Platonic Idealism against the anarchic chaos of nominalism:


Chapter Three Borges’ stories were to make more obvious use of philosophy than did any of  his previous writing [prior to his head injury], and in a way that pitted one type of  James’s binary firmly against the other: the idealist or pantheistic aspects of  the history of philosophy, from Plato to Plotinus to Schopenhauer, were to be set against the most hard-headed nominalism of  Aristotle, Hume or James himself. Yet, instead of  the agons of dialectic and argument, Borges was to allow realism (in the Platonic, idealist sense) to inspire and structure and inform his short stories, relishing the aesthetic potential of idealism while always holding it in abeyance, checking it with an irony both recalcitrant and def lationary, ludic and nominalist. (2008: 22)

He also highlights the paucity of scholarship into the James–Borges connection, focusing on Borges’ decision to omit from the 1975 Prólogo con un prólogo de prólogos his own 1945 introduction to the Spanish translation of  James’ Pragmatism. Following Nubiola (2000), Fernandes proposes that this omission may derive firstly from Borges’ mistrust of his writings from thirty years earlier. Secondly, and more audaciously, Fernandes proposes that: Borges felt that this prologue to James’s book gave his game away, so to speak; it was too close to the marrow of  his creative praxis. […] If  I am correct in arguing that Borges utilizes a Jamesian pragmatism to engage the history of philosophy for aesthetic ends, and makes pragmatic use of  the nominalist-realist controversy and empiricalrationalist binary that was central to James’s own historiography of philosophy, then it is unsurprising that he sought to avoid any obvious giveaways. Perhaps revealing the intellectual engine of  his fictions was anathema to Borges; he may have viewed such an admission as a kind of self-incrimination. (2008: 32)

Fernandes’ thesis maintains in essence that Borges’ repeated claims to ‘use philosophy for aesthetic purposes’, itself disguises a pragmatic employment of philosophical discourses in a manner that reveals the inf luence of  James. This compelling hypothesis is fully borne out by his analysis of essays, fictions and poems of  Borges. The presence of William James in Borges forms the focus of an exchange of articles in the James journal Streams of  William James. Nubiola (2000) issued a call for further research into the Jamesian inf luence on Borges; Stephens (2000: 1) responded with a suggestion that two of  James’ essays: ‘Does Consciousness Exist?’ and ‘A World of  Pure Experience’ are manifest inf luence upon Borges’ ‘youthful essay entitled “The Nothingness of 

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Personality”’. Nubiola (2001) responded with an insightful investigation into the link between Borges and James provided by Macedonio Fernández, a connection that he explored with great attention in a later article (2005). The only other scholars I have encountered are Stephens (2000: 1), who argues ‘that Borges’s literary style is built on, or presupposes, a foundation of  Jamesian empiricism’, Almeida (2002), who explored the inf luence of  James and Peirce upon Borges, and Bosteels (2007), whose analysis also looks at the inf luence of  Pragmatism upon Borges. Were Fernandes’ thesis to be published, then this would add great substance to this fascinating area. The stream of inf luence in the arena of mysticism, however, has been less analysed. Although Giskin pursues a Jamesian reading of  Borges’ fiction, Báez-Rivera (2004) is the only scholar that I have identified to establish the connection between Borges’ appraisal of  his own mystical experience and his reading of  William James. ‘Borges, the meticulous reader of  William James, did not hesitate to describe his two experiences as mystical whenever urged to speak on it, either by his own initiative or for the insistence of  his audience’ (2004: 85). Báez-Rivera draws on the notion of  Borges not as agnostic but as ‘agnostótico’, which ‘has its root in the term agnostoteísmo, coined by Julián Velarde to properly denote those who, starting from Kant, af firm that God cannot be known, we can only believe in him’ (2004: 87). This ‘agnostótico’ aspect of  Borges is worthy of  further exploration, as it ties in with so much of  the Borges scholarship concerning the ‘imminence of a revelation’, and it bears particular relevance to Flynn’s The Quest for God in the work of  Borges. William James has defined the landscape of scholarly approaches to mysticism more than any other scholar, and his method of examining the traditions of mysticism from an essentially psychological perspective remains inf luential. His analysis of mysticism is found primarily the Varieties of  Religious Experience (1902) and two little-known essays ‘A Suggestion about Mysticism’ (1910) and ‘A Pluralistic Mystic’ (1910). As Fernandes, Nubiola and Stephens argue, Borges inherited a fondness for William James from his father and Macedonio Fernández, and references to James are scattered amongst his work. He pays particular attention to Varieties, stating to di Giovanni how James’ seminal volume inspired his own interpretation of mysticism: ‘except for that one strange experience I had, really


Chapter Three

I can say very little about mysticism personally, though of course I have studied, I have read my Varieties of  Religious Experience, and I have done much reading in the mystics, especially Swedenborg, also Blake’ (Burgin 1998: 130). Cohen (1973: 81), we recall from the previous chapter, also argues that Borges found the inspiration for the Aleph from a biography of  Jakob Böhme, which he found reproduced in James’ Varieties. James, as we also recall from the previous chapter, set a standard that ensuing scholars would inevitably measure themselves against in the production of discrete defining characteristics. In the absence of a list of  the salient characteristics we can work through the Borges’ obra – tales, poems, essays, lectures and interviews – and assemble from these varied texts a working theory that Borges applied when considering mysticism. I will hereby list these characteristics, and then, following James’ model in Varieties, examine them in the light of  Borges’ work in greater detail. Mysticism, according to Borges is: 1) pre-religious 2) original 3) spontaneous 4) revelatory 5) inef fable 6) outside of  time 7) transient 8) transformative Whilst not all these aspects are necessarily articulated by William James, nevertheless my hypothesis, as will now be examined, is that Borges’ understanding of mysticism is inherently inf luenced by his reading of  William James. Pre-religious Borges, as analysed in Chapter One, prized Swedenborg’s critique of  the institution of  the church, and felt that ‘cometió un incómodo error cuando resolvió ajustar sus ideas al marco de los dos Testamentos’ (2005: 155)

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


[‘he made an awkward mistake when he decided to adapt his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’] (1995: 9). I also argued that this is an abiding perspective in the scholarship of  Swedenborg. What lies at the heart of  Borges’ position is on the one hand an iconoclastic commendation of rebelliousness and heterodoxy, but on the other a declaration that the experience of  the Swedish mystic could have somehow occurred in a ‘pure’ state that was coloured a posteriori by the embellishment of religious authority. Like his godfather, Emerson, and like his father, Henry James Sr., William James was a close reader of  Swedenborg. Although Swedenborg is scarcely mentioned in Varieties, and whilst he did not write about him in the same fashion as Emerson, nevertheless, as Eugene Taylor suggests, James’ reading of  Swedenborg was essential to his discussion of metaphysics, religious experience and mysticism. Taylor, indeed, suggests that the ‘Swedenborgian Doctrine of  the Rational and the Doctrine of  Use [were] key inf luences on Charles Peirce as well as William James’ (2003: 4). Taylor also af firms that: ‘the origin of  his philosophy is neither Cartesian, Kantian, nor Hegelian, but rather Swedenborgian and transcendentalist’ (2003: 5).6 Emerson and William James critiqued the ecclesiastical or ‘church-bound’ manner of  Swedenborg, maintaining that the essence of  the mystical experience is transcultural, but that the transmission is both individually and culturally determined. James had said in the Varieties that religious experience could be understood both in terms of what was generic to all human beings and what was idiosyncratic to the individual. From the generic could be derived an understanding of psychological processes common to all men and women insofar as phenomenological accounts of spiritual experience was concerned. What was idiosyncratic to the individual was an expression of  that person’s personal beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality, which might or might not have relevance for anyone else except that one person.


This statement is challenged by James scholar Jeremy Carrette, who, having scrutinized the correspondence of  James in which he openly distances himself  both from his father’s Swedenborgian perspective and from Swedenborg himself, argues that Swedenborg may not have been such a significant inf luence on James as Taylor indicates (personal discussion).


Chapter Three These beliefs held by the individual over and above what was common to all human beings regarding religious experience James called ‘overbeliefs’. (Taylor 2003: 3)

Borges follows the tradition particular to William James and his Transcendentalist forefathers in concentrating not on traditional religion but on the interior religious capacity. This is what Taylor calls ‘the central point of  James’s work: namely, organized religion and personal spiritual experience are substantially dif ferent’ (2003: 2). This perspective, as analysed in Chapter One, is fundamental to Borges’ reading not only of  Swedenborg, but of other writers of  the mystical traditions. For example, he suggests that Luis de León never experienced the poetic revelations that he describes, but merely mimicked the Song of  Songs. He argues that Blake, whom he describes as ‘el gran místico inglés’ (2005: 216) experienced some tremendous revelations which he then awkwardly framed within his own complex mythologies. In this respect Borges demonstrates the same perspective that he maintains for Swedenborg, not so much that the experience is translated into the textual reproduction, which is inevitable, but that the experience may be fundamentally dif ferent from the textual description, as the text demands conformity to certain theological or poetic codes. This would imply that in his readings of  Swedenborg and Blake, certain passages shine through their doctrinal embellishments to represent some pure, essential, experience. I would argue, furthermore, that this position of  the pre-religious is not to be considered perennialist, but should be seen as pragmatic in the manner that Daniels (2003) describes below as the ‘third, middle, position’. Daniels examines the critical position within the scholarship of  the mystical experience that may be viewed as perennialist or essentialist; an approach to mysticism that we already encountered with Schopenhauer’s view that the mystical experience is the prime material of all subsequent religious codes. This position opposes the more modern Constructivist position, which, Daniels argues, sees the mystical experience as being only the product of social and linguistic codes. This particular division is integral to Borges’ understanding both of  the mystical texts that he read and of  his own mystical experiences. Daniels writes:

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


All investigators recognise that there are many varieties of mystical experience. The major debate centres on whether these many forms represent dif ferent interpretations or accounts of what is essentially the same experience (or a few basic types of experience) or whether, on the other hand, the experiences themselves are fundamentally dif ferent. According to the first, perennialist, view (e.g., Forman, 1998; Huxley, 1947; Smith, 1976; Stace, 1960; Underhill, 1911/1995) people everywhere have the same basic experience(s) but they may interpret and describe them rather dif ferently depending upon the personal, social, cultural and linguistic context. If  this view is correct, it makes sense, as Wainwright (1981) has argued, to try to identify the essential cross-cultural characteristics and types of mystical experience (i.e., the characteristics and types that exist prior to any secondary interpretative dif ferences). At the other extreme are the constructivists (e.g., Gimello, 1978, 1983; Katz, 1978) who argue that the experiences themselves (rather than simply their post-hoc interpretations) are profoundly and irrevocably determined by predisposing personal, social, and cultural factors, including religious doctrines and particular forms of spiritual practice. Thus there are, according to Katz (1978), no pure or unmediated experiences. For this reason there can be no true common experiential denominators in mysticism. The implication of  this second view is that there is, in principle, an indefinite number of dif ferent mystical experiences, each one potentially unique to the individual experiencer although there may be identifiable commonalities of experience within particular mystical traditions. (2003 no pagination)

Whilst Daniels identifies this particular polarity in the debate, he recognizes that there is a third avenue of enquiry that seeks the commonality between these positions: A third, middle, position (e.g., Hick, 1989; Zaehner, 1961) argues that while mystical experiences themselves (rather than just their interpretations) are strongly inf luenced by their personal, social and cultural contexts, it is possible to recognise certain crosscultural ‘family resemblances’ among them (Hick, 1989). For Hick, these family resemblances result because the experiences represent various encounters with ‘the Real’ (which Hick believes is an actual ontological reality). For this reason, mystical experiences must ref lect in an important way the qualities that are manifested in human consciousness by the Real (e.g., they will express love, knowledge, understanding and bliss rather than hatred, ignorance, bigotry and pain). (2003)

This is a pervasive division in the scholarship, and it becomes clear that no assessment of mysticism can lie outside of one of  the three positions. I would argue that Borges naturally swings between the twin pole positions


Chapter Three

in a manner that would resemble Daniels’ third way. As Fernandes (2008) identifies, Borges examines nominalist and realist philosophical positions in his fictions, aesthetically evaluating the very dialectic between the Aristotelian and the Platonic that he outlines in ‘Ruiseñor de Keats’ and ‘Flor de Coleridge’.7 This exploration of  both poles, Fernandes argues, may best be described as pragmatic. The perennialist perspective is associated with hermetic traditions, the Aurea Catena,8 Neoplatonism and western esotericism, all of which were of great interest to Borges; whilst the constructivist may be transcribed into the homonymous schools of  thought of  the 1960s, linked to semiotics and structuralism, which would uphold an ultimately linguistic construction of experience. Again, this perspective is close to Borges’ views of  f luctuating linguistic systems and nominalist language structures, and certainly has guaranteed his standing in late twentieth century literary theory. Yet this third way would be the one closest to James and to Borges, as it allows for some stable, empirical experience whilst acknowledging the inf luence of social, literary, cultural, even political systems upon the textual reproduction. Original The temptation is to include the characteristic of  ‘originality’ in the analysis above about the pre-religious aspect of  the mystical experience. However, there are subtle distinctions that demand a separate appraisal. Borges wrote in numerous passages that one of  the most praiseworthy aspects of  Swedenborg was his originality. Swedenborg’s radical theology, for example, in which Man, and not God, is the arbiter and judge of whether the dead soul will inhabit heaven or hell, was the most ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ of all Swedenborg’s visions. He also described Swedenborg’s vision

7 8

Funes may be seen as a nominalist in extremis; Lonrot, as the realist. ‘The Golden (or Homeric) Chain in alchemy is the series of great wise men, beginning with Hermes Trismesgitos, which links earth with heaven’ (Aniela Jaf fé, in Jung 1989: 189).

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


of  heaven and hell as ‘su concepto originalísimo’ (2005: 155) [‘extremely original concept’] (1995: 9). When describing Swedenborg’s vision of  the hermit who through his own asceticism had denied himself  the company of  the intellectually engaged angels in heaven, Borges employed the term ‘innovación’: Ésta es una innovación de Swedenborg. Porque siempre se ha pensado que la salvación es de carácter ético. Se entiende que si un hombre es justo, se salva. «El reino de los cielos es de los pobres de espíritu», etcétera. Eso lo comunica Jesús. Pero Swedenborg va más allá. Dice que eso no basta, que un hombre tiene que salvarse también intelectualmente. Él se imagina el cielo, sobre todo, como una serie de conversaciones teológicas entre los ángeles. Y si un hombre no puede seguir esas conversaciones es indigno del cielo. Así, debe vivir solo. Y luego vendrá William Blake, que agrega una tercera salvación. Dice que podemos – que tenemos – que salvarnos también por medio del arte. Blake explica que Cristo también fue un artista, ya que no predicaba por medio de palabras sino de parábolas. Y las parábolas son, desde luego, expresiones estéticas. Es decir, que la salvación sería por la inteligencia, por la ética y por el ejercicio del arte. (2005: 199) [This is an innovation of  Swedenborg, because it has always been thought that salvation is ethical in its nature. It is understood that if a man is just, he is saved. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of  Heaven’, etc. Jesus proclaimed this. But Swedenborg went further. He writes that this is not enough, that a man must save himself intellectually also. He pictured heaven, above all, as a series of  theological conversations amongst angels. And if a man is unable to follow these conversations he is not worthy of  heaven, and he must live alone. He was followed by William Blake, who added a third means of salvation. He says that we can – that we must – save ourselves through Art. Blake explains that Christ was also an artist, as he did not preach through words but through parables. And parables are, clearly, an aesthetic expression. That is to say that salvation is through intelligence, ethics and Art.] (My translation)

What is particularly striking is that Borges’ judgement itself is both aesthetic and ethical. It is aesthetic because Borges interprets Swedenborg’s provocative and curious narrative as inventive and compelling. Just as with any other literary concern of  Borges, derivative, imitative texts are of  lesser appeal than innovative and original texts. And yet, as Borges was keen to emphasize, mystical texts are no ordinary works of art, seeing that they place curious interpretative demands upon the reader in relation to discerning


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between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ (see Chapter One). It is ethical on two levels: firstly because Swedenborg’s position, as Borges identifies, demands of man a seizure of  his own destiny and an appeal to develop the critical faculty governed by the intellect. Borges emphasized the moral aspect of  this vision: ‘es innegable que la doctrina revelada por Swedenborg es más moral y más razonable que la de un misterioso don que se obtiene, casi al azar, a última hora. Nos lleva, por lo pronto, al ejercicio de una vida virtuosa’ (2005: 157) [‘we must recognize that the doctrine revealed by Swedenborg is more moral and reasonable than one that postulates a mysterious gift gotten, almost by chance, at the eleventh hour. To begin with, it leads us to the practice of virtue in our lives’] (1995: 11). Secondly, it is ethical because Borges perceived Swedenborg’s challenge to tradition and orthodoxy as itself  being a moral declaration of intellectual will and philosophical freedom. Blake also, for Borges, was markedly original, though in Blake’s case the originality implied a concomitant dif ficulty to provide a framework in which to express the visions. Thus the textual reproduction, from an ethical position, becomes the heterodox position of  the writer, and is thus integrally related to power. In this sense, one would even argue that Borges’ view of mysticism is political, in that the mystical authority constitutes a challenge to the hegemony – what Staal (1975: 135) would call the ‘superstructure’ upon which the mystical experience and text are held. This is something Jeremy Carrette pointed out to me in a private conversation in relation to Foucault’s analysis of structures of power, and traditions of mystical writers and the texts to which they may or may not have had access. It is ref lected in the analysis of  Jantzen (1995: 12): The idea of  ‘mysticism’ is a social construction and that it has been constructed in dif ferent ways at dif ferent times. Although […] medieval mystics and ecclesiastics did not work with a concept of  ‘mysticism’ they did have strong views about who should count as a mystic, views which changed over the course of  time. Furthermore, those changes were linked to changes in patterns of authority and gender relations. […] The current philosophical construction of mysticism is therefore only one in a series of social constructions of mysticism.

It becomes clear through an analysis of  Borges’ many comments on mystical texts that part of  their impact for him lay with the challenge to dogma

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


– whether political, social, cultural or theological – present throughout time and place. Here we may therefore agree with Báez-Rivera that Borges’ forthright dismissal of  Juan de la Cruz, Teresa de Ávila and Luis de León as mystics could be considered ‘a joke’ (2004: 86), in order to rock the traditionalist and conservative boat. This is a reasonable assertion, as Borges was ever keen to throw incendiary comments at his audience; yet even its jocular dimension reveals a deep desire to locate the mystical experience not only outside of orthodoxy, religious or otherwise, but, in the best of cases, in opposition to it. Thus for Borges Swedenborg’s ‘innovación’ is an aspect of  his rebelliousness and resistance to canonical authority. However, the matter of originality and innovation is not as clear as it may seem. In his desire to paint Swedenborg as a natural mystic endowed with the innate gift of communicating with the spirit world, free from the inf luence of ecclesiastical dogma, and conforming to Christian teachings only, as it were, as an afterthought, Borges displayed a very selective reading of  the Swedish seer. Not one biography of  Swedenborg fails to emphasize that the boy was born into a notably religious and church-orientated family, that, as Conan Doyle succinctly writes, Swedenborg ‘sucked in theology with his mother’s milk’ (2005: 96). Whilst the matter of  Swedenborg’s orthodoxy deserves far greater appraisal than is possible here, the point must be made that the ‘church-bound’ nature of  his texts, something with which Emerson, William James, Conan Doyle and Borges were uncomfortable, is indicative of  the religious milieu which he inhabited, at least in his early years. In emphasizing the pre-religious, perennial, mystical aspect of  Swedenborg, and in focusing on innovation and originality, Borges appears keen to separate Swedenborg from the theological dimension around which his texts are intimately entwined. Swedenborg’s Biblical exegesis cannot be so easily divorced from his voyages to the heavens and from his psychic abilities. To confuse matters further, neither can we argue, as Borges also did, that Swedenborg’s heterodox nature was so original and free from the inf luence of  tradition and peers. Borges suggested that ‘La doctrina de las correspondencias me ha llevado a la mención de la cábala. Que yo sepa o recuerde, nadie ha investigado hasta ahora su íntima afinidad’ (2005: 159) [‘The doctrine of correspondences has brought me to mention the Cabala.


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No one whom I know of or remember has yet investigated its intimate af finity’] (1995: 14). There are two fundamental concerns of which Borges appears unaware: firstly the Kabbalistic environment in which Swedenborg himself moved and the abiding inf luence upon his thought such traditions imparted; and secondly the long tradition of interest in Swedenborg amongst esoteric societies from his age up to the present. Whilst references to Swedenborg’s esoteric and Kabbalistic practices are referred to in many biographical studies, Schuchard (2006) investigates further than any other scholar Swedenborg’s connection with the Moravian Chapel in Fetter Lane, London, and his participation in their erotic spiritual practices under the leadership of  the eccentric Count Zinzendorf. She explores his association with Kabbalists, Rosicrucian and other esoteric communities across Europe, and paints a picture of a man whose spiritual experiences and religious texts owe much to the inf luence of such traditions. ‘In the early 1730s, while travelling in eastern Europe, Swedenborg began to search in Neoplatonic, Hermetic and Kabbalistic literature for the means of demonstrating scientifically the reality of  the soul. He studied the works of  Comenius, the spiritual father of  the Moravians, who attempted to portray the soul in human form, using “a hieroglyphical signification”’ (2006: 70). Schuchard further explores Swedenborg’s alleged relationship with Freemasonry. However, no biographical study fully bears out the supposition that Swedenborg paid more than a passing interest to the Freemasons or any other esoteric community. By nature, rather like Borges, Swedenborg does not seem to have been interested in joining the inner ranks of secretive organizations, and a more reasonable line of analysis would be that the similarity between his spiritual systems and Masonic and Moravian ideas would be the Kabbalistic and Neoplatonic inf luence upon them all. Although Schuchard paints a Swedenborg fully initiated into the inner circles of  European Kabbalistic, Rosicrucian and Masonic groups, it appears that this may be more of guilt by association. Talbot (2007) published a stinging refutation of  Schuchard’s thesis, arguing that many of  her claims are based upon Swedenborg’s geographical proximity to such circles. Talbot cites numerous other scholars over the past two centuries who have investigated the Kabbalistic claims, and suggests that

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Swedenborg was either merely curious, or was even unsympathetic to Kabbalistic thought. Citing Antón Pacheco (who also wrote about Borges’ reading of  Swedenborg), Talbot suggests that the similarities between Swedenborg’s biblical exegesis and Kabbalistic biblical scholarship does not necessarily mean that they are related: ‘The phenomenology of interpreting the Bible or the Quran according to visionary experiences might be common to Swedenborg, Kabbalists, and Muslim mystics, but, as Pacheco points out, it does not necessarily imply direct borrowing between any of  them’ (Talbot 2007: 187). What is particularly striking about Talbot’s critique of  Schuchard is that amongst the many areas in which he feels she has misinterpreted the biographies of  Swedenborg he feels in particular that she has misinterpreted Swedenborg’s writings themselves. ‘Her biography of  Swedenborg is based on selections from Toksvig’s and White’s biographies (sometimes misinterpreted), each of which have their own prejudices and biases, and she rarely discusses the firsthand sources behind their interpretations’ (2007: 204). Herein lies the most splendid of misreadings that would have delighted Borges: Talbot argues that Schuchard takes Swedenborg’s erotic texts to be descriptions of  this world, when Talbot argues that they are descriptions of  the next one: On a positive note, Schuchard does seem to have documented contemporary accounts of antinomian sexual practices on the part of some Moravians and Jews, which could illustrate accounts in the Spiritual Diary or Spiritual Experiences. However, unlike Schuchard, I think that the vast majority of  these, and probably all of  them, occurred or were presented to Swedenborg in his travels in the next world, not this one. (2007: 206)

Only in the Swedenborg scholarship could such confusion between mundane and celestial descriptions occur!9 9

Continuing this extraordinary dichotomy whereby Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences may be confused with his physical experiences, a similar confusion may also be found in Emerson’s analysis of  Swedenborg. According to Emerson, Swedenborg predicted the discovery of  Uranus: ‘It seems that he anticipated much science of  the nineteenth century; anticipated, in astronomy, the discovery of  the seventh planet


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Of greater importance is the inf luence that Swedenborg’s writings had on many streams of esoteric thought, from Freemasonry to Theosophy, after his death. Of  this matter, Garrett (1984) recounts Swedenborg’s prominent position amongst, in particular, Kabbalistic and Masonic sects: On the continent, in places as diverse as Paris, Avignon, St. Petersburg, and Stockholm, Swedenborg’s imagery was absorbed into the rituals of occultist freemasonry by individuals who recognized its af finity with alchemical and cabalistic conceptions of spiritual reality. […] Throughout Europe, those who dabbled in alchemy, cabalism, and Mesmerism found in Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences one more confirmation of  the existence of  truths beyond the reach of  the five senses. Many of  them were Freemasons, associated with the various occultist and mystical lodges that had sprung up in the eighteenth century. (Garrett 1984: 70 & 74)

Bergquist (2002: 98) similarly acknowledges that the Kabbalistic aspect of  Swedenborg was discussed amongst the ‘Eranos Circle, a group of existentially oriented philosophers, theologians, psychologists, linguists and historians who regularly met in Ascona in Switzerland bringing scholars like C G Jung, Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, Ernst Benz and Gershom Scholem together.’ Borges stated on numerous occasions that his understanding of  the Kabbalah derived from Scholem, whom he once met on a trip to Israel. Therefore it is possible that Borges was aware that other scholars had pursued this angle. In sum, therefore, Borges presented a curiously naïve position when suggesting that he was the first to pursue the connection between Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence and the Kabbalah. The scholarship in this area is large.

[Uranus], – but, unhappily, not also of  the eighth [Neptune]’ (2003: 10). I have not found anyone aside from Emerson claim this, so it could be that Emerson was mistaking Swedenborg’s scientific statements with a visionary one. Swedenborg, after all, did communicate in visions with inhabitants of other planets. It would be astonishing indeed if  Swedenborg described the planets Uranus and Neptune in a manner that would tally with their descriptions by Herschel (Uranus) and Le Verrier and Adams (Neptune).

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Spontaneous I have found no indication that Borges was familiar with the branch of  the scholarship of mysticism concerning psychedelics and the supposed dangers of electing what Indian guru Meher Baba (1966) condemned as ‘short-cuts to the divine’, or what Huxley (1954: 59) called ‘gratuitous grace’. That he was familiar with Huxley is certain from his reviews of  Huxley’s works; that he engaged with the arguments put forth in The Doors of  Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) is less certain. Nevertheless this is an integral aspect of  the scholarship of mysticism, originating a century before James in both scientific and Romantic literature, and reaching its apogee in the 1960s (see Jay 2000, Doblin 1991, Rowlandson 2013). Borges’ misgivings of subversive social movements in the 1960s and his self-proclaimed conservatism in his later decades would imply a rejection of any proposals that mystical consciousness may be experienced through the ingestion of psychoactive substances. Yet without encountering any specific declaration on the matter, we can nevertheless conclude that Borges would posit that such activities cannot constitute genuine mystical experience, as he indicated that the mystical state is spontaneous and unmediated. Describing his ‘timeless’ moment, Borges often suggested that the experience was some manner of divine gift: ‘I had that experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it one more time before I die’ (Barnstone 1982: 10–11). He made no suggestion that the experience was in any way inspired by the subject matter of  his reading material, nor the consequence of  his meditative, trance-inducing strolls; rather that the experience was somehow ‘granted’ to him. When he suggested that ‘el fin [de ‘El Congreso’] quiere elevarse, sin duda en vano, a los éxtasis de Chesterton o de John Bunyan. No he merecido nunca semejante revelación, pero he procurado soñarla’ (1989: 72) [‘its end tries, doubtless in vain, to match the ecstasies of  Chesterton and John Bunyan. I have never been worthy of such a revelation, but I managed to dream one up’] (1979: 93), this would imply an extrinsic, perhaps divine, agency that judges whether an individual may or may not experience mystical consciousness. Borges likewise emphasized that the first profound mystical experience of  Swedenborg came upon him utterly unbidden. Despite the fact that ‘Lo


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precedieron sueños, plegarias, períodos de incertidumbre y de ayuno y, lo que es harto más singular, de aplicada labor científica y filosófica’ (2005: 154) [‘the experience was preceded by dreams, prayers, periods of  fasting, and – much more surprisingly – by diligent scientific and philosophical work’] (1995: 6), the appearance of  the phantom being that bespoke the initiation of  the ensuing decades of mystical encounters was wholly a matter of divine grace, unwilled by Swedenborg. Indeed Borges referred to Swedenborg during this episode as ‘el elegido’ (2005: 154) [‘the chosen one’] (1995: 6), an image that suggests godly agency beyond Swedenborg. He also referred to Swedenborg’s London as ‘la ciudad en que Dios le había encomendado una noche la misión que lo haría único entre los hombres’ (2005: 160) [‘the city in which God had one night entrusted to him the mission that would make him unique among men’] (1995: 15). Likewise, when comparing Swedenborg with Dante, Borges emphasized that owing to the length of  Dante’s vision, it must have been not the product of grace, but of  his own ‘poetic faith’; it was, accordingly, self-willed: ‘I think that his vision was voluntary. His vision was the result of  his poetic faith’ (Alifano 1984: 95). Although Staal (1975) and Zaehner (1961) identify that there are many complications in the correlation of western, Christian, mystical traditions and eastern traditions, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Tao or Zen, nevertheless many scholars have noted af finities in the experience of practitioners across these traditions. Borges wrote extensively about Buddhism, and, like Suzuki, perceived the similarities between the meditative, non-rational aspect of  Zen and aspects of western mysticism. In particular, Borges indicated that whilst the Zen practitioner may engage in many years of arduous training, the moment of sudden enlightenment – satori – arrives unbidden and unannounced: ‘En la zen se ha descubierto un procedimiento para llegar a la iluminación. Sólo sirve después de años de meditación. Se llega bruscamente; no se trata de una serie de silogismos. Uno debe intuir de pronto la verdad. El procedimiento se llama satori y consiste en un hecho brusco, que está más allá de la lógica’ (1989: 251–2) [‘In Zen they have discovered a procedure to reach illumination. It only works after years of meditation. It arrives suddenly: it is not the product of a series of syllogisms. One must suddenly intuit the truth. The process is called satori, and it consists of a

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


sudden event that is beyond logic’] (1984: 72). The mystical experience, therefore, in its brief and rare occurrence for Borges, and in its repeated and sustained occurrences for Swedenborg, is not to be considered the result of will or conscious desire, but as grace of  the divine. Revelatory The matter of revelation is intimately associated with James’ category of  ‘noetic’, but there is a slight variance of meaning. The revelation that Borges would suggest is possible in the mystical experience is not only noetic but is a revelation of matters that are beyond the scope of our normal conscious understanding. In this respect mystics, according to Borges, are privy to matters that non-mystics (the vast majority of us) are only able to comprehend second-hand. This is thus the most important of  the many categories, as it is intimately tied into philosophical, religious and spiritual speculations about death. It is also intimately tied to the category outlined above about divine grace. To begin with, one must evaluate the state of unknowing in which, in Borges’ universe, it is our lot to be imprisoned. The labyrinth, as analysed in so many critical studies of  Borges’ work, is the abiding symbol for this state of inhabiting a universe whose meaning we are forever in ignorance. ‘Mazes are to be explained by the fact that I live in a wonderful world. I mean, I am baf f led all the time by things. I am astonished at things’ (Barnstone 1982: 36).10 Perhaps one of  the closest af finities with Schopenhauer’s thought is the absence of divine purpose – of any knowable telos. As such we are all governed by the impulsive will which drives us ever onwards towards no known place. Just as Schopenhauer rejected Schelling and Hegel’s hope for eventual harmony and reconciliation, so we see in Borges the absence of a knowable end, but the recognition of a will that drives us onwards. During life, as exemplified by the rapt conclusion of  ‘Undr’, a moment of


‘I think of  the world as a riddle. And the one beautiful thing about it is that it can’t be solved’ (Barnstone 1982: 8).


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ecstatic revelation is in relation to the here and now, that ‘a mí también la vida me dio todo’ (1989: 51) [‘life gave me everything as well’] (1979: 63). This is no revelation of divine purpose but only that the mystery itself may be a source of wonder and joy. However, those mystic few – Swedenborg, the Kabbalists – may receive illumination that transcends the mundane and through which they understand aspects both of  human purpose and the future of  the soul after death. Di Giovanni thus struck at the core of  the problem when he asked Borges ‘Do you see mysticism as a way out of  the maze?’ Borges replied: ‘For all I know, mysticism is the only way; but my gods, whoever they may be, have not allowed me that particular way’ (Burgin 1998: 129, emphasis added). It would appear to Borges that divine grace reveals answers to these mysteries to the mystics. Those less fortunate, like Borges, are trapped between disbelief and cynicism and a sense that the mystical texts may be bearers of  truth. However, seeing as the revelation occurred to the mystic and not to the reader, the reader must go on trust if  he is to presume the text to be truthful. As such, Borges read Plato, and consequently Socrates, in order to appraise the condition of  the soul after death. ‘Anoche no salí después de comer y releí, para comprender estas cosas, la última enseñanza que Platón pone en boca de su maestro. Leí que el alma puede huir cuando muere la carne’ (1974: 790) [‘Last night I stayed in after dinner and reread, in order to understand these things, the last teaching Plato put in his master’s mouth. I read that the soul may escape when the f lesh dies’] (1970: 32). Borges similarly speaks to his dead friend not knowing if  his words will be heard: ‘No sé si todavía eres alguien, no sé si estás oyéndome’ (1989: 466) [‘I do not know if you are still someone, if you are hearing me’] (my translation). A 1940 review of  J. W. Dunne concludes with Borges’ sublime sharing of  Dunne’s ultimate thesis on time. ‘[Dunne] nos asegura que después de la muerte aprenderemos el manejo feliz de la eternidad. Recobraremos todos los instantes de nuestra vida y los combinaremos como nos plazca. Dios y nuestros amigos y Shakespeare colaborarán con nosotros’ (2005: 564) [‘Dunne assures us that in death we shall finally learn how to handle eternity. We shall recover all the moments of our lives and combine them as we please. God and our friends and Shakespeare will collaborate with us’] (2000: 219). He cannot deny the possibility of  the immortality of  the

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


soul, something that appears in so many of  his poems, yet he cannot accept it unconditionally. Likewise, and especially in his later poetry, Borges presents death and mystical revelation through a Platonic perspective as the possibility that the true nature of  things will be revealed. In the poem ‘The Unending Rose’ (from La Rosa Profunda) the blind, old, and desert-battered Attar of  Nishapur caresses a rose and lovingly lists its qualities. He wistfully imagines the eternal Rose ‘Que el Señor mostrará a mis ojos muertos’ (1993: 465) [‘the Lord will show my dead eyes’] (Alifano 1984: 137). The poem ‘Elogio de la sombra’ concludes with the poignant hope that the poet’s forthcoming death will be the revelation of  his true identity: Llego a mi centro, / a mi álgebra y mi clave, / a mi espejo. / Pronto sabré quién soy’ (1975a: 126) [‘I reach my center, / my algebra and my key, / my mirror. / Soon I shall know who I am’] (1975a: 127). Borges’ ceaseless search for meaning, though, compelled him to acknowledge that textual descriptions of  the mystics cannot, despite the best powers of imagination, constitute true knowledge or experience. As such the lucid prose of  Swedenborg, in which he reveals his vision and experience of  the otherworld, cannot be construed as empirical proof. Indeed a further aspect of  the Borges obra suggests that even in death, and even with the possibility of  the soul’s survival, the solution to the riddle of existence will not be forthcoming. Death may be neither oblivion and annihilation nor revelation of divine purpose. It may be simply another area of ignorance, and consequently the dead may be no nearer illumination than the living. Jung found the souls of  the dead to be keen for human contact as their own knowledge was lacking, describing in the opening lines of  Seven Sermons to the Dead how the dead came seeking him as they remained frustrated by ignorance.11 Swedenborg found dead wandering aimlessly 11

Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically. It was a bright summer day; the two maids were in the kitchen, from which the open square outside the front door could be seen. Everyone immediately looked to see who was there, but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me! Then I knew that something had to happen. The


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around unable to grasp anything. He also describes the angels as engaging in constant debates and discussions. If death were revelation, then the dead and the angels would have nothing to discuss in the theological disputes that Swedenborg observed in heaven, unless it were simply to pass the time. Many psychopomps throughout the ages have had precisely this role in leading the confused dead into the further realms of  the afterlife; indeed Borges himself writes in Atlas that he was wary of revealing to Haydée Lange that she was dead for fear that it would be ‘rude’. Furthermore, if death did constitute revelation, then the many channels of communication between the living and the dead would, at some stage, have transmitted this knowledge. This, Borges notes, has not happened. Hence we have this predicament built up in the poem ‘Ajedrez’ [‘Chess’]. The chess pieces are unaware that their fate is determined by the hands of  the players; yet even so the players are unaware of  the hand of  God controlling them; yet even so God is unaware of  the hand of a further god – and so on. This god, therefore, could become aware of  the contingent nature of  his own existence, could begin to question the nature of  his reality, and could, indeed, become burdened with existential angst, as could the further gods along this endless trajectory. One reading of  this poem is that existential angst might be an inherent characteristic in Swedenborg’s communities of  the dead as much as it is amongst living humans. This extensive analysis of  the notion of revelation of  Borges inevitably ref lects the position that I identified in the Introduction between reason and intuition, credulity and scepticism. Yet it also demonstrates the notion of  the paradox that James identified in the arena of mysticism: something is learned, yet that something is inef fable. Consequently, how can the mystic transmit the true noetic nature of  the experience?

whole house was filled as if  there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this? Then they cried out in chorus, “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.” That is the beginning of  the Septem Sermones’ ( Jung 1989: 190–1).

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Inef fable Inef fability, as already mentioned, is a thorny question. Borges repeatedly discussed the ability of  language to operate through reference to a consensual experience: ‘In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put in words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experience. And if you have not had the experience you can’t share it – as if you were to talk about the taste of cof fee and had never tried cof fee’ (Barnstone 1982: 10–11). It is noteworthy that the Borges-narrator’s account of  the impossibility to articulate the experience of  the Aleph, and Borges’ description of  the dif ficulty of expressing the timeless moment of  ‘Sentirse en muerte’, are perfectly in tune with James’ explanation of  his defining characteristic ‘inef fability’: The handiest of  the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of  feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self  to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment. ( James 1913: 380)

The sense that Borges developed is that the mystical experience is described only in terms that necessarily fail to describe it, and hence ‘Para sugerir la inefable unión del alma del hombre con la divinidad, los sufíes del Islam se vieron obligados a recurrir a alegorías prodigiosas, a imágenes de rosas, de embriaguez o de amor carnal’ (2005: 154) [‘To suggest the inef fable union of man’s soul with the divine being, the Sufis of  Islam found themselves obliged to resort to prodigious analogies, to images of roses, intoxication, or carnal love’] (1995: 7). Not so with Swedenborg, Borges argued, who was fully able to capture the essence of  his experience through scholarly Latin. Herein one finds the Jamesian angle of  Borges’ comments, as James


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argues that the inef fability of  the experience lies not so much with the transmission from experience to text, but from text to reader: ‘The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment’ ( James 1913: 380 emphasis added). As such, unlike Borges’ Sufis, it is the reader who is unable to grasp the text rather than the text unable to grasp the mystical moment. As I also suggest earlier, if  Borges emphasized the inability of  the Sufi poets to represent their experience, this itself implies not so much the inef fable nature of  the experience, but the limited vocabulary of  the Sufi poets. As such, Swedenborg was unique amongst mystics not for the radicality of  his visions, but for his dazzling command of  Latin. Despite the best ef forts of  both James and Borges to present the category of inef fability as definitive, it is clear that many questions remain. Outside of  time Time, for Borges, is the essential mystery. There is scarcely an essay, fiction or poem in which Borges did not discuss or illustrate the anomaly that is time; indeed for Borges an experience of  the f lexibility of  time is perhaps the primary constituent of  the mystical experience. He described in great detail in ‘Sentirse en muerte’ that the abiding sense was that of moving outside of  time and experiencing eternity. He discussed this matter in interview: ‘Somehow the feeling came over me that I was living beyond time’ (Barnstone 1982: 10–11). Concerning mysticism he stated that ‘I’ve had only two experiences of  timeless time in eighty years’ (Barnstone 1982: 73). Barnstone even cites Borges’ sense of  the mystery of  time as a chapter heading in Borges at Eighty: ‘Time is the Essential Mystery’. This is the chapter in which Borges refers to St Augustine’s legendary baf f lement at the strangeness that is time: I think that time is the one essential mystery. Other things may be mysterious. Space is unimportant. You can think of a spaceless universe, for example, a universe made of music. We are listeners of course. But as for time, you have the one problem of definition. I remember what Saint Augustine said: ‘What is time? If nobody asks me, I know what it is. If  I am asked, I am ignorant, I do not know.’ I think that the problem of  time is the problem. (Barnstone 1982: 111)

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


We recall that the nature of  the vision of  the Aleph is both infinite space and infinite time, and thus no distinction is to be made between the past, present and future. He expressed to Biguenet and Whalen that ‘eternity is supposed to be timeless. God or a mystic perceives in one moment all of our yesterdays’ (Burgin 1998: 212). In this we can understand that the vision of  the Aleph was an attempt – albeit ironic and parodic – to portray such a mystical rapture. The dominant characteristic of  the mystical experience was, for Borges, the transcending of mundane time. Writing about Swedenborg’s angels in El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios Borges declared that ‘En el Cielo no existe el tiempo’ (1967: 63) [‘In Heaven there is no time’] (1974: 137). Ayora (1973: 595) identifies a strongly Gnostic aspect to Borges’ treatment of  time, suggesting that Borges’ views of  the circularity of  time over linearity constitute of a rejection of  the hegemonic Christian worldview, and that ‘Any reader of  Borges’ works will agree that Borges’ whole being rebels against the power of  time as a crucial dimension of reality.’ He discussed with Burgin ‘the idea of dif ferent times. Of dif ferent time schemes’ (Burgin 1998: 39) which he had depicted in ‘New Refutation of  Time’, and he discussed in the same interview ‘Psychological time’, which implies the dimension in which the most synchronistic of  Jung’s psychic phenomena can occur. This irregular pattern of  time, upon consideration, can be considered the mainstay of  his entire fictional and poetic work: Hladík experiences a year in a moment of  temporal stasis; Menard becomes the seventeenth century Cervantes; the younger and elder Borges bend time to meet each other both in ‘El Encuentro’ and ‘Veinticinco de agosto, 1983’; the players in the poem ‘Truco’ are plunged into archetypal time through entering the ludic space; and so on. The instances are too numerous to cover and would constitute a critical study in its own right. In addition to other aspects of  the mystical experience, therefore, the most profound and recurrent characteristic of  the descriptions provided in mystical texts – from Plato and Plotinus through to Blake and Xul Solar – is this sense of  transcending the regular linear pattern of  time.


Chapter Three

Transient There is a beautiful paradox exposed in this matter of time and the mystical experience. The mystic, for both James and Borges, experiences a radically altered perspective of  time, and yet this vision can only be transient, not persistent. Eternity, in this sense, can only be experienced in an instant. James describes the essence of  this transience: Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance. (1913: 381)

We recall Borges’ assertion that Dante’s vision could not have been truly mystical: ‘I don’t believe that Dante was a visionary; a vision is something more f leeting, something more ethereal. A vision as prolonged as The Divine Comedy is impossible’ (Alifano 1984: 95). He also described his own mystical experiences as mystical in part because of  their transiency: ‘It may have been a minute or so, it may have been longer. […] Somehow the feeling came over me that I was living beyond time, and I did my best to capture it, but it came and went’ (Barnstone 1982: 11). Despite the regularity of  Swedenborg’s visions, Borges likewise emphasized their transiency, examining in ‘Testigo’ how dreams and daylight visions would occur to Swedenborg in brief and illuminating spells, rarely of any duration. Whilst one may pursue the lasting legacy of  the mystical vision – James’ category of  ‘noetic’ – the vision itself in both James’ and Borges’ assessment is necessarily of a transient nature. Transformative As established, it is clear that Borges’ own transient, timeless, mystical moments were of such transformative power that they constituted the prime motivation for his abiding fascination with mysticism, the anomalies of 

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


time, exploration of consciousness, studies of religious texts and anomalous human experiences. It is thus particularly important to consider his desire as an octogenarian to spend a sustained period in retreat in Japan in order, precisely, to correlate his own experiences with those engraved in eastern spiritual traditions. That the experience was transformative is one matter; that it constituted a source of  knowledge of  the structure of reality is of  far greater significance. In this respect, one can appraise what for Borges was the epistemological value of mysticism, a perspective that may be aligned closely with James’ category of noetic quality: Although so similar to states of  feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of  knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of  truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time. ( James 1913: 380–1)

The central thesis of  James’ chapter on mysticism in Varieties is that the mystical experience grants the mystic ‘authority’ in his understanding of reality that stands beyond analytical scrutiny. This, clearly, is the chief rationalist concern with the mystical experience, something present in Kant’s dismissal of  Swedenborg’s theological authority in his dense, bewildering and under-studied Dreams of a Spirit-seer, and present in Russell’s critique of  the alleged authority of  the mystic. In Borges’ analysis, Silesius, Swedenborg and Blake gained true insight into the mysteries of existence through the intuitive, experiential pathway of vision. This, he emphasized repeatedly in discussion about Swedenborg, was neither falsehood, madness, delusion nor hallucination, but a perspective on the real as epistemologically valid as any rationalistic discourse. Indeed one senses that for Borges this mode of enquiry into the nature of existence was of greater epistemological worth than any other discourse because, in its pre-religious, perennial nature, it transcends the limitations of orthodox structures of  thought, whether, as discussed, philosophical, theological, cultural or political. James concludes his exploration of mysticism with the strikingly pragmatic summary of  the authority that the mystical experience confers:


Chapter Three (1) Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come. (2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of  them to accept their revelations uncritically. (3) They break down the authority of  the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of  truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith. ( James 1913: 422–3)12

That Borges’ perspective is Jamesian is at once evident, although we cannot at this level determine whether James was the prime inf luence upon Borges in this matter. That James’ pragmatic conclusion is strikingly Borgesian avant la lettre might also be argued. 12

‘Once more, then, I repeat that non-mystics are under no obligation to acknowledge in mystical states a superior authority conferred on them by their intrinsic nature. Yet, I repeat once more, the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe. As a rule, mystical states merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness. They are excitements like the emotions of  love or ambition, gifts to our spirit by means of which facts already objectively before us fall into a new expressiveness and make a new connection with our active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized. It is the rationalistic critic rather who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there never can be a state of  facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view. It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be such superior points of view, windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world. The dif ference of  the views seen from the dif ferent mystical windows need not prevent us from entertaining this supposition. The wider world would in that case prove to have a mixed constitution like that of  this world, that is all. It would have its celestial and its infernal regions, its tempting and its saving moments, its valid experiences and its counterfeit ones, just as our world has them; but it would be a wider world all the same. We should have to use its experiences by selecting and subordinating and substituting just as is our custom in this ordinary naturalistic world; we should be liable to error just as we are now; yet the counting in of  that wider world of meanings, and the serious dealing with it, might, in spite of all the perplexity, be indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of  the truth’ ( James 1913: 427–8).

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


Conclusion As established in the previous chapter, in addition to the articulation of  the defining characteristics of mysticism, which I have now performed for Borges, there is no way that the hierarchical judgement of value of  the mystical experience can be divorced from the scholars’ own theological, moral, ethical, assumptions. One might argue that if a scholar has tabulated the defining criteria for mysticism, then, in order to determine whether a particular figure was or was not a mystic, a simple cross-referencing of  the texts/biography against the criteria would suf fice to determine the mystical status of  that figure. Yet, as I have argued, we are not dealing with a scientific matter of clear classificatory divisions – vertebrate/invertebrate, mammal/ reptile – but a deeply personal, f luid and mercurial set of determinants that defy rigid categorisation. As such it is inevitable that the personal preferences of  the scholars should be immediately inf luential upon the scholarly investigation, and it is to be expected that no two approaches to mysticism will be in perfect accord. Furthermore, owing to the f luidity of  the whole field, one scholar may be able to align a particular poet or religious figure with the defining characteristics of, say, James, whilst another will deny that this figure fits these criteria. This, as established, has been the case in the scholarship of, amongst others, Blake, Emerson, Yeats and Borges. In appraising Borges’ perspectives on mysticism and mystics, it becomes clear that there is nothing objective – that is to say removed from the subject and unbiased by personal will, desire or experience – in his views; and neither should there. As such, the evaluation of mysticism is in every sense an evaluation of  Borgesian mysticism. Swedenborg, here, is not Swedenborg, but Borges’ Swedenborg – Swedenborges. In his biographical studies of  Swedenborg, Borges emphasized those characteristics that were closest to his own philosophical perspectives: the prodigious intellect, choice of  literature,13 studious and solitary existence, disdain for orthodoxy, interest 13

‘Dejó buenos hexámetros latinos y la literatura inglesa –Spencer, Shakespeare, Cowley, Milton y Dryden– le interesó por su poder imaginativo’ (2005: 153) [‘He wrote good


Chapter Three

in original texts over translations, relationship with the Kabbalah, measured and sober prose, etc. J. M. Cohen is the only critic I have encountered to notice the kinship between the figure of  Swedenborg depicted in Borges’ poem ‘Emanuel Swedenborg’ and Borges himself, arguing that the poem is in some respects ‘a self-portrait of  the private Borges, disguised under the name of  Emanuel Swedenborg’ (1973: 95). In the same way, one must suppose that Borges’ dismissal of  Pascal, Luis de León, Juan de la Cruz and Teresa de Ávila has less to do with a full evaluation of  their supposed mystical attributes, and more in relation to Borges’ desire to mock sacred cows, upset Catholic traditionalists, and choose his cultural heroes from the northern climes. Thus his love for Swedenborg cannot be separated from his love of  Icelandic sagas, Anglo-Saxon poetry and his own Northumberland ancestry. He contrasted Swedenborg both with those mystics one may consider apart from ‘las circunstancias y urgencias que llamamos, nunca sabré por qué, la realidad’ (2005: 152) [‘removed from the circumstances and urgencies we call […] reality’] (1995: 3), and those characterized by ‘el éxtasis del alma arrebatada y enajenada’ (2005: 153) [‘the ecstasy of a rapt and fainting soul’] (1995: 7). As such, in his few comments about Teresa and the Spaniards, one may suggest that Borges would judge Teresa to be pious, orthodox, ecstatic and removed from worldly concerns. Whilst she may have been both pious and ecstatic, one cannot judge her to be either docile or obedient to church authority, nor anything other than deeply involved in the political ecclesiastical machinations of  her time. Thus it would seem that Borges conducted a fairly selective reading of  those mystics he contrasted with Swedenborg owing to his own personal af finities and inclinations. A selective reading, though, is inevitable. Borges constructed a narrative in which Swedenborg was only Christian by default – i.e. not by intellectual choice – whose very experiences were of an order both beyond and superior to the orthodox teachings of  his day. This, as discussed, is a familiar feature in the Swedenborg scholarship, as each critic or biographer

Latin hexameters and was interested in English literature – Spenser, Shakespeare, Cowley, Milton, and Dryden – because of its imaginative power’ [1995: 5]).

In the shadow of  William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


concentrates on those biographical matters most dear to him/herself. Conan Doyle, for example, eschews Swedenborg’s theological works in favour of  his spirit mediumship. James, like Borges, emphasized the dialectic apparent in Swedenborg between orthopraxy and heteropraxy. Schuchard pays great attention to the erotic and esoteric world in which she portrays Swedenborg as inseparably enmeshed. Her critical reviewer, Talbot, a dedicated Swedenborgian, refutes such erotic claims both with substantial evidence and, it appears, with personal moralistic disgust, and proposes that Swedenborg’s piety would have prevented him being drawn into such dubious occult practices. In sum, therefore, it is clear that Borges paid great attention not only to the aesthetic and imaginative nature of mystical texts, but to the ontological and epistemological challenges that the texts engendered. Like James he correlated his own experiences (though not induced by nitrous oxide) with his profound reading of  the wide and varied literature, and from this twin reading synthesized a series of defining characteristics of  the mystical experience. However, unlike James, Borges claimed to be no theorist or philosopher, and consequently he never articulated these defining characteristics in a simple enumeration. From a reading of  his many essays, tales, reviews and interviews, it is possible to establish the theoretical platform from which he based his interpretation of  the mystical texts. As I hope to have demonstrated, the figure of  William James and his work in Varieties is manifestly present.

Chapter Four

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges

The Arabians say, that Abul Khair, the mystic, and Abu Ali Seena, the philosopher, conferred together; and, on parting, the philosopher said, ‘All that he sees, I know’; and the mystic said, ‘All that he knows, I see’. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of  the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their f light? For an augury of good or evil? A phrase of  Cornelius Agrippa f lew through his mind and then there f lew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the correspondence of  birds to things of  the intellect and of  how the creatures of  the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of  their life and have not perverted that order by reason. — James Joyce, A Portrait of  the Artist As a Young Man

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a powerful presence in Borges. He is referred to in many essays, interviews, tales and poems. Borges dedicated a sonnet to him and listed him amongst his enumeration of  treasures in the poem ‘Elogio de la sombra’. He also translated Emerson’s Representative Men into Spanish. Far too many to list here, the many references to Emerson in Borges’ works are invariably employed as herald for an exploration of a particular literary or philosophical theme.1 Most importantly and most frequently, Borges


‘Emerson, lector de los hindúes y de Attar, deja el poema Brahma’ (1974: 251) [‘Emerson, reader of  the Hindus and of  Attar, left us the poem Attar’] (my translation); ‘Esa misma intuición de que el universo es una proyección de nuestra alma y de que la historia universal está en cada hombre, hizo escribir a Emerson el poema


Chapter Four

refers to Emerson’s notion of  the One Book in which all books are written, citing (and translating) Emerson in ‘La Flor de Coleridge’: ‘“Diríase que una sola persona ha redactado cuantos libros hay en el mundo; tal unidad central hay en ellos que es innegable que son obra de un solo caballero omnisciente”’ (1974: 639) [‘“I am very much struck in literature by the appearance that one person wrote all the books”’] (1964: 9). It is significant that Borges quotes from this particular essay of  Emerson ‘Nominalist and Realist’ in the very essay in which he presents the historical polarity of nominalists and realists; indeed one can see ‘La Flor de Coleridge’ in many respects as a condensed edition of  Emerson’s essay.2 Borges was ef fusive about his own admiration of and debt to Emerson, stating: ‘I like to be indebted to Emerson, one of my heroes’ (Barnstone 1982: 67), and ‘I greatly admired Emerson’ (1975b: 717), calling Emerson ‘un caballero y un clásico’ (2005: 44) [‘a gentleman and a classic’] (my


que se titula History’ (1974: 679) [‘That same intuition that the universo is a projection of our soul and that universal history is within every man, compeled Emerson to write the poem entitled History’] (my translation). ‘Emerson dijo que una biblioteca es un gabinete mágico en el que hay muchos espíritus hechizados’ (1989: 254) [‘Emerson said that a library is a magic cabinet full of  bewitched spirits’] (my translation). ‘Emerson dijo que el lenguaje es poesía fósil’ (1989: 440) [‘Emerson said that language is fossil poetry’] (my translation). We find this in Borges at Eighty: ‘I remember what Emerson said: language is fossil poetry. He said every word is a metaphor. You can verify that by looking a word up in the dictionary. All words are metaphors – or fossil poetry, a fine metaphor itself ’ (Barnstone 1982: 165). ‘Emerson wrote that “arguments convince nobody” and that it is suf ficient to state a truth for it to be accepted’ (1971b: 26). This line also appears in Borges’ essay on Swedenborg: ‘A la manera de Emerson y de Walt Whitman, creía que los argumentos no persuaden a nadie y que basta enunciar una verdad para que los interlocutores la acepten’ (2005: 155) [‘Like Emerson and Walt Whitman he [Swedenborg] believed that arguments persuade no one and that stating a truth is suf ficient for its acceptance by those who hear it’ (1995: 8)]. In the essay that Borges cites, ‘Nominalist and Realist’, Emerson writes: ‘I am very much struck in literature by the appearance, that one person wrote all the books; as if  the editor of a journal planted his body of reporters in dif ferent parts of  the field of action, and relieved some by others from time to time; but there is such equality and identity both of judgment and point of view in the narrative, that it is plainly the work of one all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman’ (2005: 270).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


translation), and praising his intellectual poetry: ‘I love Emerson and I am very fond of  his poetry. He is to me the one intellectual poet – in any case, the one intellectual poet who has ideas. The others are merely intellectual with no ideas at all. In the case of  Emerson he had ideas and was thoroughly a poet’ (Barnstone 1982: 5). There are many ways of assessing this debt that Borges owes Emerson. To begin with, one can start from the outside and acknowledge the innumerable occasions Borges praises the large body of nineteenth century writers from the East Coast of  the US: ‘Literature would not be what it is today had there been no Edgar Allan Poe, no Walt Whitman […] no Herman Melville, no Thoreau, and no Emerson’ (Barnstone 1982: 5); to whom one would add other of  Borges’ prized authors: Longfellow, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson (‘perhaps the greatest lady writer and the greatest poet that America – I’m thinking of our America also – has yet produced’ (Barnstone 1982: 5)), and, though of a younger generation, William and Henry James.3 All these writers were to a greater or lesser degree inf luenced by Emerson as the leading figure in a literary, philosophical and social movement known as Transcendentalism. The af finity between Borges and this movement is visible in Borges’ own description of its history and genesis: The roots of  transcendentalism were multiple: Hindu pantheism, Neoplatonic speculations, the Persian mystics, the visionary theology of Swedenborg, German idealism, and the writings of  Coleridge and Carlyle. It also inherited the ethical preoccupations of  the Puritans. Edwards had taught that God can infuse the soul of the chosen with a supernatural light; Swedenborg and the cabalists, that the external world is a mirror of  the spiritual. Such ideas inf luenced both the poets and the prose writers of  Concord. The immanence of  God in the universe was perhaps the central doctrine. Emerson reiterated that there is no being who is not a microcosm, a minuscule universe. The soul of  the individual is identified with the soul of  the world; physical laws are mingled with moral laws. If  God is in every soul, all external authority disappears. All that each man needs is his own profound and secret divinity. Emerson and Thoreau are now the most prominent names in the movement, which also inf luenced Longfellow, Melville, and Whitman. The most illustrious individual example of  the movement was Emerson (1803–1882). (Borges 1971b: 24–5)


Mark Twain must also be mentioned, though he was from Missouri.


Chapter Four

Quite clearly, noting these inf luences upon Emerson and his group, and noting the inf luence of these dif fering streams of philosophical and religious thought upon Borges, one must readily conjecture that Borges’ membership in the Transcendentalists was only prevented by time and geography.4 Barnstone identifies the Emersonian aspect of  Borges, employing a peculiarly problematic judgment of  ‘secular mystic’: So, along with the mathematician of  time and the cerebral master, intensely passionate and despondent, there is the exquisitely calm and wise man who is reconciled to human limitations, and to a godless world that will forever suggest yet disguise its mystery. There is the Borges of  Emersonian transcendence, the secular mystic, and […] there is the man waiting in the ghetto of  his earthly blindness, free from the tyranny of metaphor and myth. (Barnstone 2000: 47)

There are many similarities between Borges and Emerson at the level of  literary taste, style, poetics, secular religiosity, af finity to mysticism, and a philosophical outlook coloured by Stoicism, Idealism, Puritanism and Americanism.5 The debt that Borges owes to Emerson’s particular style can



That is, despite the assertion of  Holditch: ‘Any attempt to make a case for Borges as a Transcendentalist in the Emersonian sense would be foolish and futile, but what is apparent from the evidence of fered above, incomplete as it may be, is the fact that Borges feels for that “tall gentleman” of  Concord both an admiration and an af finity. The value of  finding and analyzing such a relationship is the evidence it of fers for the value of  tradition and the relationship of  that tradition to poets and poetry, and the insight which such a study can af ford readers to the writings of  two great “intellectual” poets, one of  the nineteenth century, one of  the present; of  two – as Borges himself might express it – “amanuenses” of  the one great Spirit that connects all literature of  the past and present and – if  human beings continue to read – of  the future’ (1986: 206). Borges also attributes his dislike of newspapers to Emerson: ‘Borges: La crucifixión de Cristo fue importante después, no cuando ocurrió. Por eso yo jamás he leído un diario, siguiendo el consejo de Emerson. Sábato: ¿Quién? Borges: Emerson, que recomendaba leer libros, no diarios’ (Borges & Sábato 2002: 18). [‘Borges: The crucifixion of  Christ was important afterwards, not when it occurred. That’s why I have never read a newspaper, following the advice of  Emerson. Sábato: Who? Borges: Emerson, who recommended reading books, not newspapers’] (my translation).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


be appraised by a comparison of  these two passages, the first from Emerson’s 1841 essay ‘The Transcendentalist’, the second from Borges’ essay on Keats: What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism. […] As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of  the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses gives us representations of  things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of  Thought and of  Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. (Emerson 2005: 98) Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The latter feel that classes, orders, and genres are realities; the former, that they are generalizations. For the latter, language is nothing but an approximative set of symbols; for the former, it is the map of  the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is somehow a cosmos, an order; that order, for the Aristotelian, can be an error or a fiction of our partial knowledge. Across the latitudes and the epochs, the two immortal antagonists change their name and language: one is Parmenides, Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Francis Bradley; the other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, William James. In the arduous schools of  the Middle Ages they all invoke Aristotle, the master of  human reason (Convivio, IV, 2), but the nominalists are Aristotle; the realists, Plato. The English nominalism of  the fourteenth century reappears in the scrupulous English idealism of  the eighteenth century; the economy of  Occam’ formula, entia sunt multiplicanda praetor necessitatem, permits or prefigures the no less precise esse est percipi. Men, said Coleridge, are born Aristotelians or Platonists; one can state of  the English mind that it as born Aristotelian. For that mind, not abstract concepts but individual ones are real; not the generic nightingale, but concrete nightingales. It is natural, it is perhaps inevitable, that in England the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is not understood correctly. (Borges 1964: 129)6


For ease of comparison I have placed the translation first. Herewith the original: ‘Observa Coleridge que todos los hombres nacen aristotélicos o platónicos. Los últimos sienten que las clases, los órdenes y los géneros son realidades; los primeros, que son generalizaciones; para éstos, el lenguaje no es otra cosa que un aproximativo juego de símbolos; para aquellos es el mapa del universo. El platónico sabe que el universo es de algún modo un cosmos, un orden; ese orden, para el aristotélico, puede ser un error o una ficción de nuestro conocimiento parcial. A través de las latitudes y de las épocas, los dos antagonistas inmortales cambian de dialecto y de


Chapter Four

For further and more detailed appraisal of this inf luence, see, Christ (1969), Coleman (1972), Golobof f (1977), Holditch (1986). It is Emerson, indeed, whom Coleman refers to as ‘at the heart of  Borges’ Aesthetics’ (1972: 359). The avenue of enquiry that is of interest to us here, though, is the particular relationship to mysticism, and in particular to Swedenborg, that links Emerson to Borges. Borges suggests further that it was thanks to Emerson that he, as a young man in Geneva, first encountered Swedenborg: Lo conocí por Emerson. Porque Emerson tiene un libro: ‘Representative Men’. Ese libro está escrito un poco a la manera de ‘On Heroes Heroworship and the Heroic In History’, de Carlyle, que fue de algún modo su maestro; entonces, él toma distintos tipos humanos. Recuerdo que son: Montaigne o el escéptico, Swedenborg o el místico, Shakespeare o el poeta, Napoleón o el hombre del mundo y Goethe o el escritor. Yo comencé leyendo ese libro. Ese libro lo leí en Ginebra en el año 14 ó 5; y luego, mi padre tenía un ejemplar de ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Caelo et Inferno’; él lo tenía en una edición de la Everyman’s Library. Bien, yo leí ese libro y encargué a Inglaterra los otros tres publicados por la misma editorial. Publicaron cuatro libros de Swedenborg de acuerdo con la Sociedad Swedenborg de Londres. Y luego en francés conozco solamente una versión de Caelo et lnferno’. Swedenborg fue a Inglaterra porque quería conocer a Newton, y finalmente no pudo lograrlo, qué raro, eh? Yo he hablado mucho sobre Swedenborg con el pintor y místico argentino Xul Solar, yo era muy amigo de Xul, iba a casa de él en la calle Laprida 1214, y leíamos a Swedenborg, leíamos a Blake, leíamos a los poetas alemanes, leíamos al poeta inglés Swinburne y muchos otros textos. (Wildner 1991)

nombre: uno es Parménides, Platón, Spinoza, Kant, Francis Bradley; el otro, Heráclito, Aristóteles, Locke, Hume, William James. En las arduas escuelas de la Edad Media, todos invocan a Aristóteles, maestro de la humana razón (Convivio IV 2), pero los nominalistas son Aristóteles; los realistas Platón. El nominalismo inglés del siglo xiv resurge en el escrupuloso idealismo inglés del siglo xvii; la economía de la fórmula de Occam, entia non sunt multiplicanda, praeter necessitatem permite o prefigura el no menos taxativo esse est percipi. Los hombres, dijo Coleridge, nacen aristotélicos o platónicos; de la mente inglesa cabe afirmar que nació aristotélica. Lo real, para esa mente, no son los conceptos abstractos, sino los individuos; no el ruiseñor genérico, sino los ruiseñores concretos. Es natural, es acaso inevitable, que en Inglaterra no sea comprendida rectamente la Oda a un ruiseñor’ (1974: 718–19).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


[I encountered Swedenborg through Emerson, through his ‘Representative men’, a book written somewhat in the style of  On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Carlyle, who was in some sense his master. Emerson, as such, used the model of distinct human types. I remember who they were: Montaigne or the Sceptic, Swedenborg or the Mystic, Shakespeare or the Poet, Napoleon or the Man of  the World, and Goethe or the Writer. I began to read this book in Geneva in 1914 or 15. Later my father had a copy of  Heaven and Hell (Caelo et Inferno) in the edition of  Everyman’s Library. Well, I read this book and ordered from England the other three of  his works published by the same publisher. They published four Swedenborg works in collaboration with the Swedenborg Society in London. In French I know of only one edition of  Caelo et Inferno. Swedenborg went to England because he wanted to meet Newton, and yet in the end he never did meet him. Strange, eh? I have spoken on many occasions about Swedenborg with the Argentine painter and mystic Xul Solar, who was a good friend of mine. I would go to his house on Calle Laprida 1214 and we would read Swedenborg, we would read Blake, we would read the German poets, we would read the English poet Swinburne and many other texts.] (My translation)

McNeilly, in the introduction to Emerson on Swedenborg: introducing the mystic, perceived the legacy of  Emerson’s essay on Borges: ‘Jorge Luis Borges, some 50 years later, indicated its continued importance by utilising its premise as a counterpoint for his own essay on Swedenborg’ (Emerson 2003: viii). McNeilly refers to Emerson’s Representative Men, which Borges translated and whose centrepiece, for Borges, was the essay on Swedenborg. The particular ‘premise’ is not specified, but as we shall now analyse, Emerson’s essay served as something of a blueprint for Borges’ biographical essay of  Swedenborg, ‘Testigo de lo invisible’; indeed Borges pays respects to Emerson’s essay in the opening lines: ‘En su admirable conferencia de 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson eligió a Emanuel Swedenborg como prototipo del místico’ (2005: 152) [‘In his famous lecture of 1845, Ralph Waldo Emerson cited Emanuel Swedenborg as a classic example of  the mystic’] (1995: 3). Borges also referred elsewhere to Emerson’s essay as ‘aquella espléndida conferencia que dio Emerson’ (2005: 201) [‘that splendid address that Emerson delivered’] (my translation). What is of crucial concern in charting the trajectory of inf luence is that both Emerson and Borges based much of  their overall principles of mysticism and mystics on their reading of Swedenborg, and thus their respective essays constitute their


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essential theoretical model of  the enigmatic phenomenon. The inf luence of  Emerson on Borges thus becomes a determining factor in Borges’ understanding of mysticism.

Emerson and Borges on Swedenborg It is important to stress the impact that Swedenborg had on Emerson and his companions, many of whom as we have seen, were favourite authors of  Borges. Colin Wilson (1995: 90) considers the reasons behind this, examining the dif ficulty of  those nineteenth century writers who were sceptical of  the church yet profoundly religious: Swedenborg belonged to an age of  faith, when the majority of people believed in angels and devils; now, the new German critics insisted that the Bible was merely a piece of imaginative fiction, and that Jesus never existed. Intellectual men began to look back on the ‘age of  faith’ with nostalgia. Many of  them – like Carlyle, Tennyson, Emerson, Melville – were men of religious feelings who were totally unable to accept traditional Christianity; they felt stranded in an emotional wasteland.

Wilson’s comments are strangely reminiscent of so many of  the descriptions of  Borges: mistrustful of orthodoxy – whether religious, political or even literary – yet invested with an intense respect for the numinous. Emerson’s essay on Swedenborg was delivered as a series of public lectures; he only submitted the manuscript for publication a number of years later. This also is reminiscent of  Borges, who delivered a series of  lectures on Swedenborg, most famously at the University of  Belgrano, Buenos Aires. In both cases, furthermore, their essays are biographical sketches with interpolated philosophical commentaries. Both Emerson and Borges wrote short poems on Swedenborg which were included alongside the essays in later publications. There are striking similarities in the poems, not least their peculiarly bombastic and unemotive style, what Borges would praise in Emerson as ‘intellectual’. Note, for example, Emerson’s line: ‘In spirit-worlds he trod alone, / But walked the

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


earth unmarked, unknown’, and Borges’: ‘Más alto que los otros, caminaba / Aquel hombre lejano entre los hombres’ [‘Taller than the others, this man / Walked among them, at a distance’]. Or Emerson’s line: ‘Through snows above, mines underground, / The inks of  Erebus he found’, and Borges’: ‘Lo que no ven los otros terrenales: / La ardiente geometría, el cristalino / Laberinto de Dios y el remolino / Sórdido de los goces infernales.’ [‘That which earthly eyes do not see: / The fierce geometry, the crystal / Labyrinth of  God and the sordid / Milling of infernal delights’]. That Borges found inspiration for his laudatory sonnet in Emerson’s verse is at once evident. There is much to compare between the two essays, and there are many identifiable hooks that link the two. Borges, for example, mimics Emerson in the equation of  Swedenborg’s voyages to the otherworld with his Viking heritage and the legacy of epic voyages. Emerson writes that Swedenborg laboured ‘with the heart and strength of  the rudest Viking that his rough Sweden ever sent to battle’ (2003: 15). Borges writes: ‘No one was less like a monk than that sanguine Scandinavian who went much farther than Erik the Red’ (1995: 3).7 Emerson writes: ‘This man, who appeared to his contemporaries a visionary, and elixir of moonbeams, no doubt led the most real life of any man then in the world’ (2003: 7).8 Borges writes: ‘The word [mystic] runs the risk of suggesting a man apart […] No one is less like that image than Emanuel Swedenborg. […] No one accepted life more fully, no one investigated it with such passion, with the same intellectual love, or with such impatience to understand it’ (1995: 3).9 Emerson writes: ‘Having adopted the belief  that certain books of  the Old and New Testaments were

7 8 9

‘Nadie más distinto de un monje que ese escandinavo sanguíneo, que fue mucho más lejos que Enrico el Rojo’ (2005: 152). Borges repeats this line of  Emerson’s in the lecture ‘Emanuel Swedenborg’ (2005: 195). ‘Esta palabra, aunque justísima, corre el albur de sugerir un hombre lateral, un hombre que instintivamente se aparta de las circunstancias y urgencias que llamamos, nunca sabré por qué, la realidad. Nadie menos parecido a esa imagen que Emanuel Swedenborg, que recorrió este mundo y los otros, lúcido y laborioso. Nadie aceptó la vida con mayor plenitud, nadie la investigó con igual pasión, con idéntico amor intelectual y con tanta impaciencia de conocerla’ (2005: 152).


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exact allegories, or written in the angelic and ecstatic mode, he employed his remaining years in extricating from the literal, the universal sense’ (2003: 29). Borges writes: ‘it was thought that the lord had written two books, one of which we call the Bible and the other of which we call the universe. […] Swedenborg began with the exegesis of  the first’ (1995: 14).10 Whilst we may suggest that Borges owes much of  his essay to Emerson, it is of greater importance to scrutinize the essential concepts of mysticism that derived from their studies of  Swedenborg and which they presented in their essays. Both Emerson and Borges recognized that the Doctrine of  Correspondences was at the heart of  Swedenborg’s mystical theology. However, neither was comfortable either with the dazzling complexity of such a system, nor with the implicit reduction of human existence into mere functional modules of a divine matrix. Emerson, in particular, criticized this doctrine as being arbitrary yet harrowingly deterministic and at odds with the inherent f luidity of nature: This design of exhibiting such correspondences, which, if adequately executed, would be the poem of  the world, in which all history and science would play an essential part, was narrowed and defeated by the exclusively theologic direction which his inquiries took. His perception of nature is not human and universal, but is mystical and Hebraic. He fastens each natural object to a theologic notion: – a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith; a cat means this; an ostrich, that; an artichoke, this other; and poorly tethers every symbol to a several ecclesiastic sense. The slippery Proteus is not so easily caught. In nature, each individual symbol plays innumerable parts, as each particle of matter circulates in turn through every system. The central identity enables any one symbol to express successively all the qualities and shades of  the real being. In the transmission of  the heavenly waters, every hose fits every hydrant. Nature avenges herself speedily on the hard pedantry that would chain her waves. She is no literalist. Everything must be taken genially, and we must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. His theological bias thus fatally narrowed his interpretation of nature, and the dictionary of symbols is yet to be written. But the interpreter, whom mankind must still expect, will find no predecessor who has approached so near to the true problem. (2003: 30)


‘Se pensó que el Señor había escrito dos libros, el que denominamos la Biblia y el que denominamos el universo. Interpretarlos era nuestro deber. Swedenborg, lo sospecho, empezó por la exégesis del primero’ (2005: 159).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


Emerson’s ecstatic and romantic vision of nature would clearly dif fer from Swedenborg’s meticulous cataloguing of all aspects of material and spiritual reality, an approach cognate with the Enlightenment spirit of  his intellectual powers. Eugene Taylor pays attention to Emerson’s misgivings on this matter: ‘Emerson rejected as too absolute the so-called Swedenborgian dictionary of correspondences, which required the reader to accept as gospel the exact spiritual meaning Swedenborg himself  had placed on each object in nature’ (1995: 153). Borges, like Emerson, was uneasy with this notion of correspondence, and, like Emerson, his description of it bears something of  the absurdity of  taxonomy that we famously encounter in ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkens.’ Borges continues in ‘Testigo’: Swedenborg […] llegó a elaborar un vasto sistema de significaciones ocultas. Las piedras, por ejemplo, representan las verdades naturales; las piedras preciosas, las verdades espirituales; los astros, el conocimiento divino; el caballo, la recta comprensión de la Escritura, pero también su tergiversación por obra de sofismas; la Abominación de la Desolación, la Trinidad; el abismo, Dios o el Infierno; etcétera. […] no hay un solo ser en la tierra que no perdure sino por el inf lujo constante de la divinidad. […] Esa perturbadora sospecha de que somos cifras y símbolos de una criptografía divina, cuyo sentido verdadero ignoramos, abunda en los volúmenes de Léon Bloy, y los cabalistas la conocieron. (2005: 159) [Swedenborg […] prepared a vast system of  hidden meanings. Stones, for example, represent natural truths; precious stones, spiritual truths; stars, divine knowledge; the horse, a correct understanding of  Scripture but also its distortion through sophistry; the abomination of desolation, the Trinity; the abyss, God or hell; etc. […] There is not a single creature on earth that does not owe its continued existence to the constant inf luence of  the Divine Being. […] The disturbing suspicion that we are ciphers and symbols in a divine cryptography whose true meaning we do not know abounds in the volumes of  Leon Bloy, and the Jewish Cabalists knew of it.] (1995: 14)

Borges appears to derive from this aspect of correspondences the uncanny notion of predetermination, as this ‘disturbing suspicion’ might relate to the interplay between divine will and free will, where humans are led to believe that they have free agency in choices, all the while ignorant that


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these choices are predetermined by divine plan.11 This is a theme we encounter in many of  Borges’ tales and poems. One might see ‘El muerto’ [‘The Dead Man’] as allegorising this predicament: ‘Otálora comprende, antes de morir, que desde el principio lo han traicionado, que ha sido condenado a muerte, que le han permitido el amor, el mando y el triunfo, porque ya lo daban por muerto, porque para Bandeira ya estaba muerto’ (1974: 549) [‘Otálora realizes, before dying, that he has been betrayed from the start, that he has been sentenced to death – that love and command and triumph have been accorded him because his companions already thought of  him as a dead man, because to Bandeira he already was a dead man’] (1971a: 99). The protagonist only understands at the point of death that his imagined freedom to choose had been an illusion carefully orchestrated by his omniscient chief, Bandeira. In ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’, chaos and order are unnervingly harmonized in an infinite, labyrinthine, library in which one book must contain all books. In the oppressive atmosphere of  this tale there is infinite choice but all choices are limited by the vertiginous infinite order of  the library. Borges comments that in Swedenborg’s visionary world the soul is free (unlike in Dante’s) but that all souls are nevertheless within the gravitational orbit of  God: ‘En la Divina Comedia de Dante – esa obra tan hermosa literariamente – el libre albedrío cesa en el momento de la muerte. Los muertos son condenados por un tribunal y merecen el cielo o el infierno. En cambio, en la obra de Swedenborg nada de eso ocurre. Nos dice que cuando un hombre muere no se da cuenta de que ha muerto, ya que todo lo que lo rodea es igual’ (2005: 196) [‘In 11

Need Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence necessarily equate to predestination? Kathleen Raine would argue that this is cognate with the Hermetic tradition of interrelationship between the heavens and the earth, the subtle paths of communication that connect the spirit world to the material, and not stern paragraphs in the book of destiny: ‘It is the poets’ and painters’ task to perfect a language of correspondences – the word is Swedenborg’s but the concept is Plato’s and goes back to the famous saying in the Timaeus that the world is “a moving image of eternity.” Correspondence is the secret of all poetic imagery’ (2007: 25). José Lezama Lima, in his discussion of metaphor, likewise assumed that the poets and painters need to seek this subtle language in order to harmonize the material and spirit forms (see Rowlandson 2007).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


Dante’s Divine Comedy – that beautiful literary work – free will ceases upon death. The dead are tried by a tribunal and deserve heaven or hell. None of  this occurs in Swedenborg’s work. He tells us that when a man dies he is not aware that he has died because everything that surrounds him is the same as before’] (my translation). This dimension of  free will was another of  the significant heterodox claims of  Swedenborg, and was one of  the litany of accusations (alongside his rejection of  the Trinity, his belief  that Christ was God on earth, not the son of  God, his critique of  St Paul, his belief  that direct experience of  the divine could be achieved without the medium of clergy) that led to his censorship and publication prohibition in his native Sweden: ‘Swedenborg radically departed from the orthodox Christian belief in an individual and final judgment. The spirit, not God, ultimately decided where to spend eternity’ (McDannell & Lang: 189. See also Bald 2006: 16–18).

‘The excess of inf luence’ (Emerson 46) Emerson, like Borges, perceived in Swedenborg a disquieting yearning to accord his experience of interconnection with these doctrinal traditions: ‘Swedenborg and Behmen [Böhme] both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of  to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom’ (Emerson: 45). Hurth (2005) examines the degree to which Emerson rejected such schematized visions of nature in both Swedenborg and Böhme: ‘Emerson did not accept the too literal and rapt approach to allegorical truth by mystics like Swedenborg and Böhme, and he incisively criticized that the literary presentations of  their mystical visions were too narrow and their symbols too schematic and rigid. They thus established a fixed formula of symbols to render human experience’ (2005: 335). As discussed in previous chapters, it was Swedenborg’s heterodoxy, to the point of  heresy, married to his accounts of direct experience of otherworld realities, that particularly


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appealed Borges: ‘Swedenborg, como Spinoza o Francis Bacon, fue un pensador por cuenta propia y que cometió un incómodo error cuando resolvió ajustar sus ideas al marco de los dos Testamentos’ (2005: 155) [‘Swedenborg, like Spinoza or Francis Bacon, was a thinker in his own right who made an awkward mistake when he decided to adapt his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’] (1995: 9). The full impact of  both Emerson and Borges’ reference to the Viking ancestry is, consequently, striking, as despite Swedenborg’s lengthy tomes of scriptural hermeneutics, they considered him the opposite of a theologian. He was an intrepid explorer of other worlds, not a purveyor of  ‘scholastic frivolity’ (‘Duración del Infierno’). Borges was explicit about this matter, explaining in interview: ‘los místicos, tienden a escribir de un modo vago; él no. La obra de él es …, yo no diré prosaica, pero sí precisa. Es un poco …, como si él hubiera ido a la China, o hubiera ido a la India y describiera lo que ha visto’ (Wildner 1991) [‘Mystics tend to write in a vague way. Not Swedenborg. His work is … well I won’t say prosaic, but I will say precise. It is as if  he had gone to China or India, and had described what he had seen’] (my translation). His religious arguments, Borges writes, were based upon experience and from a system of morality derived from that experience. Crucially, in Borges’ judgment, that experience was not mediated by ecclesiastical authority and neither did all of  Swedenborg’s proclamations conform to orthodoxy. It is, though, a problematic point that both Emerson and Borges raise here, and concerns the boundary between experience and textual reproduction. Where Emerson suggests that Swedenborg was ‘narrowed and defeated by the exclusively theologic direction which his inquiries took’, it is unclear whether these ‘inquiries’ refer to the specific mystical experience (the voyage to heaven and hell), or to the subsequent ref lection, interpretation and textual composition of  the experience. This is to say, it is unclear whether Emerson is implying that Swedenborg’s direct experiences were theologically compromised a priori, which would suggest that he was interpreting his surroundings with adherence to doctrine at the point of experience; or whether his outlandish and ‘original’ (Borges 1995: 9) experiences were later ‘narrowed’ and distorted by Swedenborg’s conscious desire at the point of ref lecting and writing. This is a question that we will find ref lected in many dif ferent contexts in our study of  Borges. The tale is tangled further,

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


however, when we appreciate that Emerson detects a fictional dimension to Swedenborg’s angelic landscapes, based upon Swedenborg’s own idea that we project our own will upon the heavenly realm. Emerson, it would appear, criticizes Swedenborg’s inability to create interesting, individual, characters. This would appear a purely aesthetic judgment of no ontological import, as Emerson is making a firm assumption about the literary invention that is Swedenborg’s account: The universe, in his poem, suf fers under a magnetic sleep, and only ref lects the mind of  the magnetizer. Every thought comes into each mind by inf luence from a society of spirits that surround it, and into these from a higher society, and so on. All his types mean the same few things. All his figures speak one speech. All his interlocutors Swedenborgize. […] Only when Cicero comes by, our gentle seer sticks a little at saying he talked with Cicero, and, with a touch of  human relenting, remarks, ‘one whom it was given me to believe was Cicero;’ and when the soi disant Roman opens his mouth, Rome and eloquence have ebbed away, – it is plain theologic Swedenborg, like the rest. His heavens and hells are dull; fault of want of individualism. (Emerson 2003: 44)

The ontological implications of  this statement are profound when we correlate it with other statements of  Emerson and Borges about the ‘reality’ of  Swedenborg’s visions. If  Emerson detects a distinctly Swedenborgian language of  the characters then the author of such visions is not God but Swedenborg. Consequently his angels inhabit the same fictional space as H. G. Wells’ Morlocks, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Tolkien’s Hobbits. This is the question that concerned us in Chapter One, in which Borges repeatedly separated mystics (‘When I talk of mystics, I think of  Swedenborg, Angelus Silesius, and the Persians also’) from non-mystics (‘Not the Spaniards. I don’t think they had any mystical experiences’ [Barnstone 1982: 11]) based upon, precisely, the non-fictional quality of  the mystics’ texts. We recall that he opined that Dante could not have experienced his vision in verse. This is of crucial concern. Borges argued that Dante, in his letter to Cangrande Della Scala, proposed an allegorical reading of The Divine Comedy: ‘Nothing is further from the ultraterrestrial destinations of  Swedenborg’ (1995: 9); they are real, not fictions. Emerson appears to share Borges’ view about Dante, but here applies the notion to Swedenborg, further emphasising


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the a priori nature of  Swedenborg’s visions and making a brief equation with Dante: The parish disputes, in the Swedish church, between the friends and foes of  Luther and Melancthon, concerning ‘faith alone,’ and ‘works alone,’ intrude themselves into his speculations upon the economy of  the universe, and of  the celestial societies […] He is like Michaelangelo, who, in his frescoes, put the cardinal who had of fended him to roast under a mountain of devils; or, like Dante, who avenged, in vindictive melodies, all his private wrongs. (Emerson 2003: 46–7)

Emerson’s essay on Swedenborg is significantly longer than Borges’. As such, we can perhaps consider Borges’ brief comment that Swedenborg ‘cometió un incómodo error cuando resolvió ajustar sus ideas al marco de los dos Testamentos’ (2005: 155) [‘made an awkward mistake when he decided to adapt his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’] (1995: 9) a synoptic, concise, response to Emerson’s lengthy diatribe. Emerson, indeed, dwells to a significant degree on a critique of  Swedenborg’s dense theologisation: ‘The vice of  Swedenborg’s mind is its theologic determination. Nothing with him has the liberality of universal wisdom, but we are always in a church’ (2003: 45), a sentiment that is perhaps best summed up by Borges: ‘Los incalculables cielos de Swedenborg están llenos de amor y de teología’ (2005: 158) [‘The incalculable heavens of  Swedenborg are full of  love and theology’] (1995: 13). Emerson’s invective culminates in his oft-proclaimed dislike of  Swedenborg’s passionless tone: These angels that Swedenborg paints give us no very high idea of  their discipline and culture: they are all country parsons; their heaven is a fête champêtre, and evangelical picnic, or French distribution of prizes to virtuous peasants. Strange, scholastic, didactic, passionless, bloodless man, who denotes classes of souls as a botanist disposes of a carex, and visits doleful hells as a stratum of chalk or hornblende!12 He has no


This is the aspect of  Swedenborg that Yeats (1920: 299) famously equated to his work as a mineralogist: ‘He considered heaven and hell and God, the angels, the whole destiny of man, as if  he were sitting before a large table in a Government of fice putting little pieces of mineral ore into small square boxes for an assistant to pack away in drawers’, and that Garrett (1984: 68) describes as: ‘an odd, dry precision to his descriptions of  Heaven that suggests the engineer far more than the mystic’.

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


sympathy. He goes up and down the world of men, a modern Rhadamanthus in goldheaded cane and peruke, and with nonchalance, and the air of a referee, distributes souls. […] Behmen is healthily and beautifully wise, notwithstanding the mystical narrowness and incommunicableness. Swedenborg is disagreeably wise, and, with all his accumulated gifts, paralyzes and repels. (2003: 53)

Borges, however, of fers a slightly more sympathetic appraisal of  the persistent biblical, theological tone of  Swedenborg’s many volumes, suggesting that, despite the ‘unfortunate mistake’ of adapting his visions to doctrine, Swedenborg would inevitably have experienced such an ecclesiastical vision of  the otherworld reality, as this was his vision of  the mundane reality also. ‘[…] el padre de él era obispo, obispo evangélico, luterano. El tiene que haberse criado en un ambiente muy piadoso. […] él pensaba naturalmente en el espíritu de la Biblia’ (Wildner 1991) [‘His father was an evangelical Lutheran bishop. He must have been brought up in a very pious environment. […] He must have considered the spirit of the Bible quite naturally’] (my translation).13 In this respect, Borges would appear more forgiving of  Swedenborg’s ecclesiastical tone than Emerson; and just as Emerson and Borges were troubled by the presence of orthodoxy in Swedenborg, Emerson was greater troubled by the translation of  Swedenborg’s visions into doctrine: ‘These books should be used with caution. It is dangerous to sculpture these evanescing images of  thought. True in transition, they become false if  fixed. It requires, for his just apprehension, almost a genius equal to his own. But when his visions become the stereotyped language of multitudes of persons, of all degrees of age and capacity, they are perverted’ (2003: 43). Emerson railed against the perversion of  Swedenborg’s ‘evanescing images of thought’ into something quotidian and mundane, arguing that this would remove the mystery and the moral truth of  Swedenborg’s texts. This again is a sentiment fully visible with Borges, who paid close attention to the ‘original’ experiences and unorthodox theology of  Swedenborg, but was at no stage prepared to accept the constellation of such accounts into doctrine or articles of faith. For both Emerson and Borges, this predicament 13

This is similar to Conan Doyle’s comment that Swedenborg ‘sucked in theology with his mother’s milk’ (2005: 96).


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was at the heart of  their strained relationships with orthodox religion: mystery lies at the heart of  the religious experience, and yet the conversion of such mystery into matters of  faith is the erection of a rigid belief system bereft of  the transformative power of mystery.

Intelligence over piety As Quinn (1950) identifies, Emerson placed the intellect in high esteem, and was vexed by ‘“a very good woman with much light in her heart but no equal light in her mind. Well I weary presently of  these quiet souls if  they cannot rouse me with a thought”’ (in Quinn 1950: 402). In another letter, Emerson writes: ‘“Strange strange it seems that I should nowhere find that goodly marriage which everywhere I seek of  holiness & genius in one mind, which shall be majesty. Goodness will always be suspicious to me & only half goodness until it attains to become sight, and apprehends Chemistry, for example”’ (in Quinn 1950: 403). Such a position would chime immediately with Borges, who enthused at Swedenborg and Blake’s praise of  the intellect above simple uncritical piety. We recall that Borges writes that for Swedenborg, intelligence is of more worth in heaven than righteousness. ‘Al requisito de ser justo, Swedenborg añade otro, antes no mencionado por ningún teólogo: el de ser inteligente’ (2005: 158) [‘To the requirement of righteousness, Swedenborg adds another, never before mentioned by any theologian: intelligence’] (1995: 13). Emerson likewise prized Swedenborg’s dazzling intellect above all righteousness, communion with God or religious fervour. As Quinn suggests, for Emerson, Swedenborg was ‘a kind of inspired scientist. […] Nowhere in this essay does Emerson dwell on Swedenborg’s holiness or estimate the degree to which he realized spiritual perfection’ (1950: 406–7). Quinn then concludes that Emerson’s judgment of mysticism was essentially that of magic, associated not with the striving to perfection (‘mysticism’, in Quinn’s terms), but with ‘the pursuit of power which this supernatural reality is thought to contain. It is the art

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


of getting at that power so as to make use of it in the natural world’ (1950: 401). The mystic, in Quinn’s analysis, does not crave this power: ‘He is not interested in wielding supernatural force. In his transaction with the supernatural he is seeking only for union with God. It is his instinct to adore what the magician would use’ (1950: 401). Borges repeatedly emphasized the intellectual aspect of  Swedenborg as the very quality that made possible his intrepid exploration and cataloguing of  the angelic worlds, indeed he praised Swedenborg as the epitome of intellectual potency: Yo escribí un prólogo a un libro sobre Swedenborg a instancias del Sr. Spiers, de la Fundación Swedenborg. Y tengo en proyecto (claro que a mi edad los proyectos son un tanto aleatorios) un libro sobre las tres salvaciones; la primera es la de Cristo, que es de carácter ético; la segunda es la de Swedenborg, que es ética e intelectual; y la tercera es la de Blake, discípulo rebelde de Swedenborg, que es ética, intelectual y estética, que se basa en las parábolas de Cristo, que él dice que son obras de arte. (Wildner 1991) [I wrote a prologue for a book about Swedenborg upon the request of  the Swedenborg Foundation. I have a project in mind about a book of  the three salvations: the first is that of  Christ, which is ethical in its nature; the second is that of  Swedenborg, which is ethical and intellectual; and the third is that of Blake, rebel disciple of  Swedenborg, which is ethical, intellectual and aesthetic, and which is based in Christ’s parables, which he calls works of art.] (My translation)

There are aspects of  the language of  Borges’ essay on Swedenborg that reveal profound admiration for Swedenborg’s mighty intellect; indeed his intellect in many respects supersedes his heavenly visions in Borges’ esteem. ‘No le bastaron las versiones latinas; investigó los textos originales en hebreo y en griego’ (2005: 153) [‘He always preferred the study of sacred scripture to that of dogmatic theology. Latin translations were not good enough for him; he studied the original texts in Hebrew and Greek’] (1995: 5). Borges, as we recall, likewise ‘preferred the study of sacred scripture to that of dogmatic theology’, and in many places describes reading Schopenhauer and Kant in the original German so as to appreciate their authentic style. One might conclude, therefore, that on matters of  the intellect, Borges indeed, as Lawrence suggests, felt himself  ‘a kindred spirit to the Swedish mystic’ (1995: x).


Chapter Four

Emerson and Borges mystics manqués Emerson is commonly considered a literary critic, poet, philosopher and religious thinker. He is also known – sometimes polemically – as a mystic. ‘But despite their notorious imprecision, mystic and its related words are often used by the commentators on Emerson. Indeed it may be said that references to Emerson as a mystic are as common in studies of  Emerson as they are rare in studies of mysticism’ (Quinn 1950: 397, original italics). As with the assessment of  Borges’ mystical attributes, the label ‘mystic’ is applied to Emerson based often on only a scant understanding of  the complexity of  the term and the disagreements within the scholarship. Similarly, as with Borges and William James, the term may have dif ferent tones depending on how it is applied: Emerson the mystic and Emerson the scholar of mysticism. Quinn coherently argues that Emerson’s use of  the term ‘mysticism’ is itself problematic due to his casual and conf licting use of  the term. In particular, Quinn looks at the celebrated passage in Nature – almost too well known to need quoting – which reads: ‘“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of  the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of  God.” On the face of it, this would appear to demand interpretation as a mystical document’ (in Quinn 1950: 408). Quinn argues, however, that Emerson’s ease of expression, his ‘almost glib’ attitude concerning the mystical state, makes Emerson’s ‘mysticism, if  this be mysticism, sound[s] suspiciously easy here’ (409), and he questions Emerson’s relationship with God prior to this description as a means of demonstrating that he had not fulfilled the requisite steps along the spiritual path. Quinn ref lects a century of scholarship and biographical studies which scrutinize the poetic and critical works of  Emerson and, as with the Borges scholarship, which assert that Emerson was or was not a mystic. Hurth (2005) suggests that the term that was employed to describe Emerson best by his contemporaries was the ‘Yankee Mystic’ a term which allowed for his radical departure from Christian orthodoxy, and his assimilation of  the democratic new

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


principles of  his county at that period in history; a spirit that later informed his godson William James in his depiction of pragmatism: ‘As a “Yankee mystic” Emerson was a pragmatic mystic to the core’ (Hurth 2005: 336). Hurth also concisely addresses the central arguments of  this controversy over Emerson’s mystical credentials. In 1942 Henry B. Parkes launched an aggressive attack on the allegedly ‘mystical’ features of  Emerson’s thought. According to Parkes, Emerson’s epiphanies and visionary moments had no biographical basis. He was only a ‘pseudo-mystic’ who had ‘no true mystical experience. His mysticism was founded on those moments of exhilaration, caused by a feeling of  harmony between oneself and the external world, which everyone occasionally experiences’. Emerson’s contemporary critics were ready to label Emerson a ‘mystic,’ but to them ‘mysticism’ was mostly a term of reproach and equivalent to ‘misty’ or ‘occult’. (2005: 333)

Parkes’ essay is vitriolic against both Emerson and any critic foolhardy enough to call him a mystic. This is familiar in the scholarship of mysticism, for example in Zaehner’s refutation of  Huxley, and demonstrates, as I mentioned in Chapter Two, the degree of reliance that many scholars place on one or other of  the defining categories of  the term ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’. In Parkes’s case mysticism cannot be a common-or-garden sensation of  harmony, but is something far more closely aligned to religious orthodoxy. What is visible in Quinn’s firm assertion is a bias of  the work ethic that we encounter with Zaehner’s rejection of  Huxley’s ‘gratuitous grace’ and Meher Baba’s God in a Pill? Apotheosis does not come cheaply. One cannot take a shortcut to the divine. It is the perennial argument concerning ‘dif ficult’ or ‘easy’ spiritual paths, characterized (and satirized) by Alan Watts’ division of  the easy approach to satori: ‘Beat Zen’ and the dif ficult approach: ‘Square Zen’ (Watts 2006). Quinn qualifies his assertion with a definition of what the ‘true’ mystic is: ‘For the mystics we know of, in the East as in the West, dedicated years to the spiritual exercises by which they might become united with God. Emerson would have this rare phenomenon take place almost instantaneously. It is obvious that whatever we may call this theory of  Emerson’s, it will hardly do to call it mysticism’ (1950: 411). Quinn would doubtless reject Watts’ ‘Beat Zen’.


Chapter Four

Both Quinn and Hurth evaluate the many scholars who have assessed Emerson’s works, in particular the famed passage from Nature, and argue that most scholars agree not only on the literary quality of  Emerson’s text, but that the text was inspired by other texts, in particular Böhme: ‘Emerson welcomed Böhme as someone who was taught directly by God through his own intuitions, not by book learning – a mystic in the most exact sense’ (Hurth 2005: 337). Emerson’s theoretical position concerning mysticism, therefore, is strikingly close to that of  Borges’ in the emphasis on the unmediated mystical vision. Hurth also points out that ‘since Emerson did read the Aurora shortly before the publication of  Nature, one may guardedly assume that Böhme’s work was a possible inf luence for his most famous passage. Emerson may also have noticed that Böhme often used the physical eye as a symbol for the communion between soul and God’ (2005: 339). Whilst this is a position taken by many of  the scholars she mentions, Hurth does allow for the originality of experience which was later framed in a style inf luenced by Böhme: ‘But while on the surface Böhme’s descriptions of mystical experience are largely in accord with the mysticism of the “transparent eye-ball” passage, the underlying beliefs and assumptions are quite dif ferent, and the Aurora is thus a source for Emerson only in the sense that it provided him with a vocabulary for his own ideas’ (2005: 339). Quinn, meanwhile, suggests the Jamesian principle of inef fability: ‘As a rule, most mystics find it exceedingly dif ficult to describe their mystical experiences. Words fail them. But words do not fail Emerson. He, indeed, is almost glib’ (1950: 409). Quinn goes on to suggest that Emerson’s language may be borrowed from Plotinus. This needs emphasising, as it is related to the views of  Borges concerning Swedenborg and Dante’s mystical texts. What emerges, quite ironically, is that an unliterary description of  the experience would testify to a failure of  language to accommodate the experience, and would thus testify to the experience’s inef fability, which would thus testify to its genuine mystical aspect. In brief, therefore, the better the poet, the worse the mystic. As we assessed in Chapter Three, Borges is also polemically described as a mystic, a ‘mystical thinker’, an almost-mystic, a non-mystic, etc., and as discussed the term can only have meaningful value if determined according to one or other of  the theoretical positions that define mysticism. What is

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


interesting to note, nevertheless, is that both Emerson and Borges approach Swedenborg with the assumption that his prime mystical experiences may be somehow divorced from his church-bound experiences or from the church-bound textual recounting. As such they both assume a phenomenological experience somehow unculturated and thus antecedent to the cultural-religious embellishments. But this approach to Swedenborg is derived from their own experiences of mystical consciousness which they would both propose as unmediated by doctrine – religious, cultural, aesthetic or otherwise. Thus one can perceive with Emerson and Borges a desire to correlate their misgivings of  the church with their enthusiasm for the radical experiences of  Swedenborg, set against personal unitive experiences. It would appear, furthermore, that this unease of church-bound mysticism also prevented both Emerson and Borges from a more profound reading of  the texts of mystical traditions. Quinn describes how Emerson, in truth, knew precious little of  the canon of western mysticism: ‘To read Emerson […] is to be struck by the fact that he seems to have known very few of  them [mystics], even by repute. He does not refer to such standard instances as those represented by Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, John of  Ruysbroek, St Teresa of  Avila, St John of  the Cross, or Catherine of  Siena’ (1950: 408). It is likewise interesting to note that Borges invests in Swedenborg with a zeal as powerful as Emerson’s, and yet rarely discusses other canonical mystics, aside from brief mentions of  Angelus Silesius and Jakob Böhme, and dismisses Pascal and ‘the Spaniards’ as not even being mystics. Again, the mark of  Emerson is visible on Borges. We can perceive how both Emerson and Borges were keen to evaluate their own ‘mystical’ experiences (‘timeless’ for Borges, ‘transparent eyeball’ for Emerson) in light of  their reading of  Swedenborg. Again, the tension visible in Emerson’s Nature and in Borges’ ‘Sentirse en muerte’ is between the experience and the cognitive powers that attempt to seize, conceptualize and recount the experience.


Chapter Four

Conclusion Analysing the cross-currents and intersections of readers of  Swedenborg shows a true web of encounters, friendships, correspondences, inf luences, antagonisms. Delightfully, one can perceive a direct line of  figures which links Borges with Swedenborg, and it runs through William James and his godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, indeed, is a vital link in this chain. Borges was a close and admiring reader of  William James, whose psychological works Borges’ father taught. Macedonio Fernández, Jorge Guillermo Borges’ friend, and friend and ‘mentor’ to Georgie, corresponded with William James.14 William and his brother Henry the novelist were deeply inf luenced by their father, Henry James Sr. and his fascination with Swedenborg. James père was close friends with J. J. Garth Wilkinson (after whom he named his third son), chief  translator of Swedenborg and friend of  Carlyle, who first introduced Emerson to Swedenborg’s works. Wilkinson was friend of  C. A. Tulk (Deck 1977: 217). Tulk was friend and correspondent with S. T. Coleridge. Coleridge was friends with De Quincey, who read Swedenborg owing to his friendship with John Clowes.15 Tulk met William Blake in an early congregation of  the London New Church,

14 15

Borges discusses this in ‘Autobiographical Essay’. Nubiola (2005) explores the veracity of  this claim and locates the correspondence. ‘an Anglican clergy [sic] and Swedenborgian preacher who was a good friend and a frequent visitor in the De Quincey household. […] Clowes even lent copies of  Swedenborg’s works to De Quincey [who] is known to have given Coleridge the works of  Boehme years later’ (García 2007: 64) ‘In his translation of  Immanuel Kant’s Abstract of  Swedenborgianism, De Quincey found the Kantian framework for interpreting mystical dreams and divine states compelling enough to translate and publish. Kant argues that Swedenborg’s prophecies are a product of a disorder in the faculty of sensibility; and that in communicating with spirits, Swedenborg is simply echoing his inner ideas within himself, projecting what is in the mind outward. For Kant, these mystical visions are therefore a form of madness’ (García 2007: 65).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


a Swedenborgian sectarian church in Eastcheap.16 Tulk also introduced the elderly Blake to Coleridge.17 Blake was born into a family deeply versed in Swedenborg, and Blake remained a close and often antagonistic reader of  Swedenborg throughout his life.18 It is delightful to imagine the young Blake meeting the elderly Swedenborg, and indeed this legend appears in poetic form in H. N. Morris’ Flaxman, Blake, Coleridge, and other men of genius inf luenced by Swedenborg (1915: 76): ‘During the first year of  his apprenticeship it is probable that on his [Blake’s] way to and from work he often met or walked beside the great Emanuel Swedenborg, then an old man of eighty-four.’ This legend is coherently refuted, however, by David V. Erdman (1953). Blake’s mother became interested in Swedenborg initially through the exposure of  Swedenborg’s works in the at the Fetter Lane Moravian congregation, an Episcopalian denomination active in London in the eighteenth century which she and her first husband (Thomas Armitage) and second husband ( James Blake) attended.19 Swedenborg was for a while a registered attendee. It is possible, therefore, that there was personal contact between Blake’s mother and Swedenborg himself. 16

17 18 19

‘Toward the end of  this decade, Blake began to read Swedenborg’s works, and in 1789 he attended the First General Conference of  the New Church, which was held at Eastcheap from April 13 to 17, 1789. Here we might speculate on a “first meeting” of  Tulk and Blake’ (Deck 1977: 218). See also Rix 2007. ‘We can then combine this evidence with Crabb Robinson’s statement about Blake and Coleridge to conclude that this meeting occurred in 1825 or very early in 1826’ (Deck 1977: 224). ‘Blake must early have been acquainted, inasmuch as his father was a dissenter interested in Swedenborg and sympathetic to his teachings if not, like William’s brother Robert, actively associated with a Community’ (Schorer 1938: 157). ‘From May 1744, Swedenborg lodged with his Moravian friend John Paul Brockmer. Together they attended Moravian services, and Swedenborg became so attracted to Fetter Lane Chapel (to which Blake’s mother was later connected) that he considered formal af filiation’ (Rix 2007: 51). Ankarsjö (2009: 32) is more forthcoming in suggesting a personal connection between Blake’s mother and Swedenborg: ‘Swedenborg’s af filiation with the Moravians […] coincided with the period when Blake’s mother Catherine and her first husband Thomas Armitage and Blake’s possible uncle John had their most active years in the church. Particularly, Catherine seems to have been a devoted Moravian member at the time.’


Chapter Four

Should Catherine Blake and Swedenborg not have met, then a path can be traced from Blake to Robert Hindmarsh, one of  the original founders of  Swedenborgianism and friend of  Tulk’s father, John Augustus Tulk, whose gatherings Blake attended with his friend and supporter John Flaxman (Rix 2007: 53–5). Hindmarsh’s father, James Hindmarsh, was one of  John Wesley’s preachers, and was trained by Wesley in London. Swedenborg corresponded with Wesley in 1772, inviting the Methodist minister to visit him in London (Synnestvedt 1977: 33).20 John Wesley and his brother Charles were also members of  the Fetter Lane Moravian Church at the same time as Swedenborg (Ankarsjö 2009: 37). As such, and allowing any number of variant trajectories and alternative figures, there is direct person-to-person contact that links Swedenborg to Borges via Emerson. As established in the previous chapter, Borges adopted a curiously contradictory stance in his evaluation of  Swedenborg. His repeated emphasis on the heterodox aspect of  the Swedish seer resulted in a judgment about originality of experience that is problematic. It is striking to note, as scholars such as Quinn and Hurth have done so, that Emerson presents an equally problematic and at times inconsistent approach to his evaluation of  Swedenborg and Böhme. It is therefore of concern for this study to appraise the strong kinship that Borges felt for Emerson, to note the similarities and the dif ferences in their outlook, and to chart the visible marks of inf luence. As indicated, both Emerson and Borges delivered lectures on Swedenborg which they later published, in which they presented biographical material alongside a critical evaluation of  his work. Emerson and Borges paid particular attention to the magnitude of  Swedenborg’s intellect. This is of great importance to both, and, as discussed, it becomes clear 20 A word of caution for the scholar approaching Swedenborg for the first time; these three names can be confusing: Toksvig, Signe (1948) Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (New Haven: Yale University Press). Sigstedt, Cyriel (1952) The Swedenborg Epic: The Life and Works of  Emanuel Swedenborg (New York: Bookman Associates,) Synnestvedt, Sig (1970) The Essential Swedenborg. Boston: Houghton Mif f lin Co. (The Spanish-language edition of  this latter volume is what Borges was invited to contribute to).

Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


from appreciating Borges’ close attention to Swedenborg’s scholastic and linguistic achievements that he felt personal admiration of  the skills that were also present in himself. The emphasis on the intellectual dynamic of  Swedenborg ref lects both Emerson and Borges’ particular critical focus on the curious relationship between spontaneous, unconscious, mystical experience and the sharp, sceptical, analytical approach to the mystical experience that accompanies the intellect. Swedenborg, Borges suggested, would have been equally prominent in history as a scientist and inventor had he never embarked on his voyages to the otherworld; and yet, Borges stressed he was no retiring monk, nor fainting saint, nor ecstatic holy man. Borges seized on Swedenborg’s intellect – and not his faith – as the vehicle that bore him to these fantastic locations. Hurth charts the evolving relationship that Emerson maintained with the texts of  Böhme and Swedenborg, and remarks that he was increasingly troubled by the contradictions thrown up between faith and intellect, and how they are reconciled (though not always) in the two mystical writers. In particular, as Emerson grew older, he came to view the critical apparatus as an impediment to genuine mystical insight, and as a result he viewed Böhme’s experiences as increasingly unattainable, and Swedenborg’s as a unique and challenging harmony between the forces of  faith and reason: Mystical experience was of fset by the sudden inf lux of skepticism. Böhme’s mysticism appeared to Emerson to leave no room for such doubt and skepticism. Emerson acutely sensed the simple sincerity and piety of  Böhme and was sure that with this ‘sentiment of piety’ Böhme experienced ultimate reality as indubitably present. Böhme was aware of  this reality with a vividness and vitality that the aging Emerson could only long for. (Hurth 2005: 349)

This touching account of  Emerson evokes Williamson’s description of  Borges’ eagerness to gain some tangible understanding whilst in Japan of  his own previous experiences (Williamson 2004: 444). It similarly relates to the mood that typifies so much of Borges’ work and that forms the focus for the study of  Flynn (2009) concerning the absence of a revelation, or, as in the final words of  Pedro Salvadores: ‘Como todas las cosas, el destino de Pedro Salvadores nos parece un símbolo de algo que estamos a punto de comprender’ (1975a: 64) [‘As with so many things, the fate of  Pedro


Chapter Four

Salvadores strikes us as a symbol of something we are about to understand, but never quite do’] (1975a: 65). It is therefore with similar critical eyes that Emerson and Borges appraised the doctrinal, religious, aspect of  Swedenborg’s works. This is a strong link between them and accords with their understanding of  the relationship between intellect, faith and religion, a tension manifest in Emerson’s 1842 lecture ‘The Transcendentalist’. Borges inherited from Emerson this profound awe and respect for religious-inspired texts coupled with a critical and at times cynical regard for religious doctrine and dogma. As such Borges ref lected Emerson’s stern critique of  Swedenborg’s adherence to certain orthodox codes, although Borges granted him far more freedom from orthodoxy than did Emerson. A brief comment made by Barnstone can now take greater prominence than Barnstone perhaps anticipated: ‘There is the Borges of  Emersonian transcendence, the secular mystic’ (Barnstone 2000: 47). This comment, whilst not without its dif ficulties in relation to the recurrent ambiguity of  the term ‘mystic’, is wholly appropriate in this context not only for describing Emerson and Borges, but, importantly, for describing their approach to Swedenborg. If we were to contrast the term ‘secular mystic’ with ‘religious mystic’ (again, not without its problems), then we can perceive that what fascinated Emerson and Borges about Swedenborg was precisely the secular, perennial, universal, ancient quality of  his recorded experiences; and in this respect Swedenborg belongs to a noble lineage stretching back to pre-Christian epochs. Where they both stumble in their reading of  Swedenborg is in his adherence to Scripture and the adaptation of  ‘his ideas to the framework of  the two Testaments’ (Borges 1995: 9). This reading of  Swedenborg, however, may not be appropriate, whose entire theological/mystical project was deeply religious. What lies at heart of  Emerson and Borges’ reckoning is not so much the ‘secular’ quality but, as established in the previous chapter, the relationship between institutional religion and personal transcendence.

Chapter Five

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges

No pasa un día en que no estamos, un instante, en el paraíso. [Not a day passes in which we are not, in an instant, in Paradise.] — Borges, Los Conjurados oathiose infernals to Booth Salvation, arcane celestials to Sweatenburgs Welhell!! — James Joyce, Finnegans Wake Durante los últimos veinticinco años de su estudiosa vida, el eminente hombre de ciencia y filósofo Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) fijó su residencia en Londres. Como los ingleses son taciturnos, dio en el hábito cotidiano de conversar con demonios y ángeles. — Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero, Libro de los seres imaginarios [For the last twenty-five years of  his studious life, the eminent philosopher and man of science Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) resided in London. But as the English are not very talkative, he fell into the habit of conversing with devils and angels.] — Book of imaginary beings

As discussed in Chapter One, Swedenborg constitutes a far richer presence in Borges’ work than the scholarship has hitherto acknowledged. Rodríguez Risquete (2005) enumerates 95 references to Dante in Borges’ work, dividing his bibliography into five sections. For my own part, I have identified the following appearances of  Swedenborg in Borges, some as critical assessments or biographical studies, others as mere references. The list is doubtless incomplete: ‘Testigo a lo invisible’, the poem ‘Emmanuel Swedenborg’ (El otro, el mismo), the poem ‘Doomsday’ (Los Conjurados),


Chapter Five

the poem ‘Otro poema de los dones’ (El otro, el mismo), ‘El espejo de los enigmas’ (Otras Inquisiciones), ‘Nueva refutación del tiempo’ (Otras Inquisiciones), four tales of  El libro de los seres imaginarios: ‘El Devorador de las Sombras’, ‘El Monstruo Aqueronte’, ‘Los Demonios de Swedenborg’ and ‘Los Ángeles de Swedenborg’, ‘La duración del infierno’ (Discusión), ‘Historia de la Eternidad’ (Historia de la Eternidad), ‘La memoria de Shakespeare’ (La Memoria de Shakespeare), ‘Veinticinco de agosto, 1983’ (La Memoria de Shakespeare), ‘Laprida 1214’ (Atlas), ‘Sobre Oscar Wilde’ (Otras Inquisiciones), ‘Pascal’ (Otras Inquisiciones), ‘Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw’ (Otras Inquisiciones), ‘Sobre el Vathek de William Beckford’ (Otras Inquisiciones), ‘Prólogo de prólogos’ (2005: 13), ‘Dos interpretaciones de Arthur Rimbaud’ (2005: 315), ‘Emanuel Swedenborg: Mystical Works (2005: 152), ‘Personality survives death, de Sir William Barrett’ (2005: 361),1 ‘William Blake. Poesía completa’ (2005: 554),2 ‘Leon Bloy: La salvación por los judíos. La sangre del pobre. En las tinieblas’ (2005: 544),3 ‘Leslie Weatherhead: After Death’ (Discusión), Prologue to Xul Solar, Catálogo de obras del Museo (Borges 1990). He also reproduces a number of Swedenborg texts: ‘Un teólogo en la muerte’ (Historia universal de la infamia and Antología de la literatura fantástica), ‘Un doble de Mahoma’ (Historia universal de la infamia), two passages of  El libro de los seres imaginarios: ‘Los Demonios de Swedenborg’ and ‘Los Ángeles de Swedenborg’, seven passages of  El Libro del cielo y del infierno: ‘Correspondencias arcanas’, ‘El hombre elige su eternidad’, ‘Las formas del infierno’, ‘Infiernos ruinosos’, ‘Los ricos en el cielo’, ‘Un réprobo en el cielo’, ‘Camino de perfección’ [although this latter piece is authored by El Falso Swedenborg]. For the following interviews in which he discusses Swedenborg, please consult bibliography for full details. Salas (1976), Bourne (1980), Enguídanos (Barnstone 1982), 1

2 3

This is a fascinating brief review, as he recounts Barrett’s communications from the other side, and remarks that Barrett’s post-mortem experiences corroborate Swedenborg’s. The implications of  this are the reinforcement through consensus of  Swedenborg’s heavenly theology. ‘recorrió, como Swedenborg, las regiones de los muertos y de los ángeles’ (554). He also talks of  Blake’s homemade mythologies. He calls Bloy ‘profeta y visionario’ (544) and he likens him to Swedenborg.

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


Hughes et al. (Cortínez 1986), Sábato (2002), Barili (Burgin 1998), Christ (Burgin 1998), Yates (Burgin 1998), Enguídanos (Burgin 1998). He tells Miguel Enguídanos at Indiana University in March 1976 that ‘I also intend to write a book on Swedenborg’ (Barnstone 1982: 97); he tells Barnstone: ‘I would like to write a book on Swedenborg’ (Barnstone 1982: 109); and he says to Hughes et al. ‘I’m writing a book on him [Swedenborg]’ (Cortínez 1986: 16). The book was never written, or at least never published. This volume of references cannot indicate by deduction necessary inf luence, but it certainly demonstrates the perpetual presence of  Swedenborg in Borges’ mind whilst he composed tales or poems, reviewed the works of others, or analysed a particular field in a critical essay. In particular, Borges appraised accounts of  life after death, heavenly voyages, communication with the dead or with angels, anomalous experiences with time and heterodox theologies with reference to Swedenborg. It becomes quite clear that for Borges Swedenborg is the yardstick of such mysterious matters against which other accounts are judged. This is most manifest by the proportion of  Swedenborg passages that fill the pages of  Borges’ and Bioy’s Libro del cielo y del infierno. Not only are there seven texts of  Swedenborg, but the authors make specific reference to Swedenborg in the prologue. It is clear that on matters eschatological and of  the afterlife, Swedenborg constituted the greatest authority for Borges. When did Borges first write about Swedenborg? How did he initially come across his works? Borges relates his introduction to lecturing on Swedenborg in his ‘Autobiographical Essay’: So, at forty-seven, I found a new and exciting life opening up for me. I traveled up and down Argentina and Uruguay, lecturing on Swedenborg, Blake, the Persian and Chinese mystics, Buddhism, gauchesco poetry, Martin Buber, the Kabbalah, the Arabian Nights, T. E. Lawrence, medieval Germanic poetry, the Icelandic sagas, Heine, Dante, expressionism and Cervantes […]. Not only did I end up making far more money than at the library, but I enjoyed the work and felt that it justified me. (1971a: 245)

This question of where and when he first encountered Swedenborg, however, is not easily answered, as one must evaluate the profound impact that Swedenborg had on so many of  the writers that Borges read with af fection:


Chapter Five

Goethe,4 Blake, Coleridge,5 De Quincey, Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Strindberg, von Schelling,6 Tennyson, William James, Henry James, C. S. Peirce, W. B. Yeats,7 E. A. Poe, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac,8 Baudelaire, Valéry, George Sand, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, G. K. Chesterton,9 Conan Doyle, Schopenhauer, Kant,10 Jung, Henry Corbin, Rudolf Steiner, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,11 Carl Sandburg, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Bertrand Russell,12 C. S. Lewis, Joyce, H. P. Lovecraft. Of other writers who were favourites of  Borges, I am unable to determine whether they were readers of  Swedenborg: Wilde, Kipling, Stevenson, Conrad, G. B. Shaw,13 Dr Johnson, Wordsworth,

4 5 6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13

‘Goethe once said that only by reading Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell was he enabled to finish his masterpiece, Faustus, which he had put aside in frustration for a decade’ (Lawrence 1999). See Lawrence 1999. As a reader of  Schopenhauer, Borges would likely have been aware of  Schelling. ‘Of course I delight in Yeats’ (Barnstone 1982: 87). His novel Serafita, is an exposition of  Swedenborgian spiritual theology. There are only brief mentions of  Swedenborg in Chesterton, yet the fact that he wrote a book on Blake indicates his knowledge of  him. Borges makes no mention that I can find of  Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit Seer, in which Kant investigates Swedenborg, but he discusses in Autobiographical Essay reading Kant as a young man. He also declares to Christ (1967): ‘I tried my hand at Kant’s Critique of  Pure Reason. Of course, I got bogged down as most people do – as most Germans do’. ‘Like the discovery of  love, like the discovery of  the sea, the discovery of  Dostoevsky marks an important date in one’s life’ (Borges 2000: 517). Russell wrote about Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit Seer. Borges declared that Russell’s History of  Western Philosophy would have chosen as his desert-island book (Sorrentino 2001: 230). ‘Shaw, que yo sepa, no habló nunca de Swedenborg; cabe suponer que escribió bajo el estímulo de Blake, a quien menciona con frecuencia y respecto, o, lo que no es inverosímil, que arribó a las mismas ideas por cuenta propia’ (2005: 155–6) [‘Shaw never, so far as I know, spoke of  Swedenborg; it might be supposed that he wrote under the stimulus of  Blake, whom he mentions frequently and with respect’] (Borges 1995: 9).

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


Mark Twain, Unamuno, Lewis Carroll, T. S. Eliot, Frost, Ezra Pound, Faulkner, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, Keats, H. G. Wells, Kafka. Swedenborgian scholars, such as Eugene Taylor, Wilson Van Dusen and James Lawrence have attempted to demonstrate that Swedenborg is a far greater inf luence upon streams of intellectual, artistic and spiritual thought – principally in the West but also, viz Suzuki, in the East – than has hitherto been acknowledged. It would appear that Swedenborg constitutes a far less pervasive presence in Hispanic artistic traditions than in the English-speaking world. There are many reason for this, the most immediately apparent being the twofold nature of  Swedenborg’s relationship to the Enlightenment at a time when the Catholic authorities in Spain were resistant to such secular inf luences; and secondly his Protestant, non-conformist, anti-ecclesiastical and heterodox religious dimension. Chadwick (2003: 2–3), Swedenborgian scholar and translator, is the only scholar I have encountered to address the issue of  Swedenborg’s impact (or lack of ) in the Catholic world: The Vatican maintained an Index of prohibited books, and I had always assumed that Swedenborg’s theological books appeared on it. […] The Vatican Library, which includes the library of  the Inquisition, has no copies of  the original editions, other than Volume I of  the Principia. Similarly the Library of  the Institut de France in Paris reports only The Apocalypse Revealed among the major works of which it has first editions. From this I deduce that the educated public of  Catholic countries were almost totally unaware of  these books when they were published in London and Amsterdam.

As discussed, it is precisely his innovative and anti-ecclesiastical qualities which endeared Borges to Swedenborg. In searching through the extensive articles in Swedenborgian denomination church publications, one finds many references to Borges as a close and sympathetic reader of Swedenborg – we recall Lawrence describing Borges as ‘Swedenborgian’. This fact alone stands as testimony to the fact that Borges’ admiration for Swedenborg outshone his anti-ecclesiastical critical bias in general. Indeed the dissenting, sceptical, critical and yet generously accommodating nature of so many of  the published articles by Swedenborgian scholars demonstrates


Chapter Five

the spirit of  free enquiry typified by such denominations; a far cry from the Argentine Catholicism of which Borges was so critical. However, beyond the many references, and beyond the employment of  Swedenborg in his ref lections on mysticism, to what extent was Borges’ poetic and fictional aesthetic inf luenced by Swedenborg? In this chapter I concentrate on the narrative space of  the tales and poems in order to investigate the abiding presence of  Swedenborgian ideas of  heavens and hells, the persistence of  the soul after death, the landscape of  the visionary world and the symbolic aspect of dreams. Importantly, and surprisingly given Borges’ seeming disdain for the moral aspect of  theological works, I intuit in Borges’ work a strong ethical dimension that bears visible hallmarks of  the heavenly ethos of  Swedenborg. Rarely does the question of ethics in Borges’ work appear in the scholarship, but I propose that a ethical dimension present in his many interviews and essays demonstrates the inf luence of  Swedenborg. An example of  this is his description of a ‘moral law’ to Amelia Barili: ‘I feel that we all know when we act well or badly. I feel ethics is beyond discussion. For example, I have acted badly many times, but when I do it, I know that it is wrong. It is not because of  the consequences. In the long run, consequences even up, don’t you think? It is the fact itself of doing good or doing bad’ (Burgin 1998: 245). As we will explore in this chapter, such a statement reveals the Swedenborgian perspective that heavens and hells are states of  the soul that surround us even in life, and that the ethical instinct within us encourages us to choose those pathways most appropriate to our moral state. Borges also discussed the natural ethical nature of man in the preface to Elogio de la Sombra, exclaiming somewhat provocatively, that the Protestant mentality privileges this ethos more than the Catholic: ‘Una de las virtudes por las cuales prefiero las naciones protestantes a las de tradición católica es su, cuidado de la ética’ (1974: 975) [‘One of  the virtues for which I prefer Protestant countries to Catholic is their regard for ethics’] (1975a: 10). This Protestant/ Catholic aspect with regards Swedenborg is discussed later in this chapter. The earliest mention of  Swedenborg that I have encountered in Borges’ work is the 1929 essay ‘La Duración del Infierno.’ What is curious about this piece is that whilst he refers to Swedenborg only in a footnote, never­theless the whole trajectory of  his analysis leads to a conclusion of

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


a uniquely Swedenborgian perspective. With an anti-ecclesiastical vision that is characteristic of  Borges’ entire critical work, the essay considers the theological implications of  the notion of  hell’s eternity, suggesting that the ultimate aim of  the church in proposing the eternal nature of  hell was that of enforcing obedience, and he appraises the various contradictions inherent in the theological arguments. ‘Ahora se levanta sobre mí el tercero de los argumentos, el único. Se escribe así, tal vez: Hay eternidad de cielo y de infierno porque la dignidad del libre albedrío así lo precisa; o tenemos la facultad de obrar para siempre o es una delusión este yo’ (1974: 237–8) [‘Now the third argument looms over me. It may, perhaps, be written thus: Heaven and Hell are eternal because the dignity of  free will requires them to be so; either our deeds transcend time, or the “I” is a delusion’] (2000: 51, original italics). This powerful statement demonstrates firstly the similar consideration for the transiency of  the state of  ‘I’ that is developed in the essay of 1922 ‘La nadería de la personalidad’, and secondly, a Swedenborgian vision of  the states of  heaven and hell as being selected not by divine judgement but by the human soul. Indeed, without mentioning Swedenborg, Borges presents the argument so heretically maintained by Swedenborg that ‘nos concede el atroz derecho de perdernos, de insistir en el mal, de rechazar las operaciones de la gracia, de ser alimento del fuego que no se acaba, de hacer fracasar a Dios en nuestro destino, del cuerpo sin claridad en lo eterno’ (1974: 238) [‘we given the terrifying right to perdition, to persist in evil, to reject all access to grace, to fuel the eternal f lames, to make God fail in our destiny, to be forever a shadow’] (2000: 51). Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell contains ample descriptions of  this state of choice that human souls are given over whether to reside in heaven or in hell: ‘even while we are living in our bodies, each one of us is in a community with spirits as to our own spirits even though we are unaware of it. Good people are in angelic communities by means of [their spirits] and evil people are in hellish communities. Further, we come into those same communities when we die’ (§438). Importantly, Swedenborg suggests that such conditions are states of  the soul that are already present in our daily lives: every day we project around us our own heavens and hells, love being the guiding principle of 


Chapter Five

heaven.14 Borges’ ethical position can be demonstrated as deriving from his reading of  Swedenborg, as he articulates this perspective in the essay on Swedenborg ‘Testigo de lo invisible’: El Infierno es la otra cara del Cielo. Su reverso preciso es necesario para el equilibrio de la Creación. El Señor lo rige, como a los cielos. El equilibrio de las dos esferas es requerido para el libre albedrío, que sin tregua debe elegir entre el bien, que mana del Cielo, y el mal, que mana del Infierno. Cada día, cada instante de cada día, el hombre labra su perdición eterna o su salvación. Seremos lo que somos. Los terrores o alarmas de la agonía, que suelen darse cuando el moribundo está acobardado y confuso, no tienen mayor importancia. Creamos o no en la inmortalidad personal, es innegable que la doctrina revelada por Swedenborg es más moral y más razonable que la de un misterioso don que se obtiene, casi al azar, a última hora. Nos lleva, por lo pronto, al ejercicio de una vida virtuosa. (2005: 157) [Hell is the other face of  heaven. Its exact opposite is necessary for the balance of creation. The Lord rules over it as he does over heaven. Balance between the two spheres is required for free will, which must unceasingly choose between good, which emanates from heaven, and evil, which emanates from hell. Every day, every instant of every day, man is shaping his eternal damnation or his salvation. We will be what we are. The terrors or anxieties of agony, which usually occur when a dying person is frightened and confused, are of  little importance. Whether we believe in the immortality of  the soul or not, we must recognize that the doctrine revealed by Swedenborg is more moral and reasonable than one that postulates a mysterious gift gotten, almost by chance, at the eleventh hour. To begin with, it leads us to the practice of virtue in our lives.] (1995: 11)

This is a theological and ethical thread that runs throughout Borges’ works. In this early essay he evokes Shaw’s Man and Superman alongside 14 ‘There is infernal freedom and there is heavenly freedom. It is from infernal freedom to think and to will evil, and so far as civil and moral laws do not hinder, to speak and to do it. On the other hand, it is from heavenly freedom to think and to will good, and so far as opportunity is granted, to speak and to do it. Whatever a man thinks, wills, speaks and does from freedom he perceives as his own; for all the freedom which everyone has is from his love. Therefore those who are in the love of evil perceive only that infernal freedom is freedom itself, while those who are in the love of good perceive that heavenly freedom is freedom itself and consequently the evil and the good perceive the opposite to be slavery’ (Divine Providence, §43).

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


Swedenborg’s works as one of  the more compelling aesthetic and ethical depictions of  hell. In repeated interviews of  his later decades, he continues to draw on these two writers as portraying hell in a manner that champions the human seizure of destiny over either the reward of  faith or the arbitrariness of divine will. Importantly, Borges draws from Swedenborg’s vision of elected afterlife locations an ethical position that emphasizes the state of rapture at the mystery of existence, and the fulfilment gained from following one’s own particular destiny. He returns to these two positions repeatedly in the interviews compiled in Borges at Eighty: I think that one is dying all the time. Every time we are not feeling something, discovering something, when we are merely repeating something mechanically. At that moment you are dead. Life may come at any moment also. If you take a single day, therein you find many deaths, I suppose, and many births also. But I try not to be dead. I try to be curious concerning things, and now I am receiving experiences all the time, and those experiences will be changed into poems, into short stories, into fables. I am receiving them all the time, although I know that many of  the things I do and things I say are mechanical, that is to say, they belong to death rather than to life. (Barnstone 1982: 13)

The ethical instinct, he argues, lies in understanding that right and wrong are aspects of  following or not following one’s appropriate life pathway. Consequently, the states of  heaven or hell are neither for Borges nor Swedenborg exclusively states of the soul after death, but are present around us throughout our life: ‘At the very moment of our lives we know whether we’re acting the right way or the wrong way. We might say that doomsday is going on all the time, that every moment of our lives we’re acting wrongly or rightly. Doomsday is not something that comes at the end. It’s going on all the time. And we know, through some instinct, when we have acted rightly or wrongly’ (Barnstone 1982: 19). Note how this statement echoes Borges’ description of  the states of  the soul that are Swedenborg’s heavens and hells: ‘El cielo y el infierno de su doctrina no son lugares, aunque las almas de los muertos que los habitan, y de alguna manera los crean, los ven como situados en el espacio. Son condiciones de las almas, determinadas por su vida anterior. A nadie le está vedado el paraíso, a nadie le está impuesto el infierno. Las puertas, por decirlo así, están abiertas’ (2005:


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156) [‘The heaven and hell of  his doctrine are not places, even though the souls of  the dead who inhabit and, in a way, create them perceive them as being situated in space. They are conditions of  the soul, determined by its former life. Heaven is forbidden to no one; hell, imposed on no one. The doors, so to speak, are open’] (1995: 10). Borges’ statements thus chime with Swedenborg, and consequently one can allow greater room for manoeuver within Lawrence’s claim that Borges was himself  Swedenborgian. It is also a position that informs Borges’ reading of  Dante. As discussed, whilst Borges’ praises the Divine Comedy as being the pinnacle of poetic vision, he rejects outright the theological basis of reward and punishment that he perceives in the structure of  the poetic cycle. He repeats his gnostic and Swedenborgian credentials in recognising that hell is a state in the present, not a future punishment: You know, Dante was wrong about hell, wrong about the meaning of  that inscription on the gate of  the Inferno in the first lines of  Canto 3: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate (Abandon every hope, you who enter). Hell doesn’t begin down there. There is no entry to the afterlife. Hell begins here, and here is where we should abandon all hope. Then we have the possibility, the hope, of some momentary happiness. (Barnstone 2000: 31)

As I hope to have demonstrated, there is an ethical attitude present in Borges that clearly derives from his reading of  Swedenborg and which informs his reading of  Dante, Shaw and other writers. Swedenborg, it must be emphasized, inscribed a strong ethical dimension to his writings – indeed an ethos of portraying divine love against demonic vice purveys his works. He explains this repeatedly in Heaven and Hell: ‘All this has been presented to encourage people to examine themselves and to identify their dominant love on the basis of  their pleasures, so that according to their grasp of  the knowledge of correspondences, they may know their state of  life after death’ (§487). I would argue that such an ethical position is visible in Borges, and that it is a position that he defends in interview on many occasions and that, as we shall now see, is presented in many of  his poems and fictions. The work of  Swedenborg that appears to have been of greatest impact upon Borges is Heaven and Hell, which he cites on numerous occasions, and

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


which he describes as ‘el más conocido y hermoso de sus tratados’ (2005: 155) [‘the best known and most beautiful of  his treatises’] (1995: 9). This work is commonly considered the most accessible of  Swedenborg’s many spiritual volumes, being his most articulate and unambiguous account of  his journeys to the angelic realms and his many conversations with angels and the dead. Borges considered this book particularly noteworthy precisely because Swedenborg’s clear and lucid descriptions of an otherworld reality are such that this reality appears normal and commonplace, rather than fantastic or fictional. Upon this basis, as discussed in Chapter One, rests so much of  Borges’ confusing hermeneutics of mystical texts.

‘Los ángeles de Swedenborg’ As is to be expected with Swedenborg’s extensive and thorough volumes, there is no easy way to summarize the vision of this other world, nor its complex structure of  hierarchies of angels. Whilst Borges’ essay on Swedenborg, which we have appraised earlier, is of great synoptic value, one of  the most concise précises of  this perplexing landscape is a brief  Borges text in Libro de seres imaginarios (with Margarita Guerrero), called ‘Los ángeles de Swedenborg’. Borges also includes other passages from Swedenborg in the same work and in Antología de la literatura fantástica (with Silvina Ocampo and Bioy Casares).15 Of particular importance here, is the selection of a passage from Swedenborg’s Arcana Cœlestia, which Borges entitles ‘Un teólogo en la muerte’ and which he includes in Historia universal de la infamia and Antología de la literatura fantástica. This brief  tale serves as a blueprint both for Borges’ fictional depiction of otherworld realities, which we will explore below, and as the clearest exposition of  the tension


Antología de la literatura fantástica (1940) was originally translated by Anthony Kerrigan as Extraordinary Tales (Herder & Herder 1971c). It was then republished with no translator identified by Viking (1988) with a foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin.


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between faith and experience, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, pride and humility, that we find throughout Borges’ critical work. I have been unable to ascertain whether Borges transcribed the passage from Swedenborg’s Arcana Cœlestia directly from a Spanish translation, or whether he translated it himself  from an English (or perhaps other) translation. Borges’ self-confessed poor Latin would indicate that it is unlikely he translated it directly from Swedenborg himself.16 The passage itself, as one would expect in a piece that Borges chose to incorporate in two of  his many anthologies, is arrestingly Borgesian. To begin with, as with so many tales of  Borges, whether from the period of  Ficciones or the later Brodie, the text is itself second-hand, as Swedenborg remarks that his account had been told him by the angels. Regardless of  the ontological question of angels, as a narrative strategy this provides layers of  fictionality over the account, inviting the reader into the textual space. This is reinforced by the rendition of  the passage in a collection of  Borges in which fiction and historical legend are juxtaposed. ‘I have been allowed to talk with some people who lived more than two thousand years ago, people whose lives are described in history books and are therefore familiar’ (§480). Swedenborg recounts the activities of  the theologian Melanchthon (who, I conjecture, is Philipp Melanchthon, the German reformer and collaborator with Martin Luther), who upon dying is unable or unwilling to acknowledge that he is dead and continues with his theological entreaties concerning faith as of greater value in heaven than charity. Over a period of  time (though as Borges indicates elsewhere, there is no time in Swedenborg’s heaven) he becomes entrenched in his dogmatic doctrine of  faith, and distances himself ever 16

One can only conjecture whether Borges was really familiar with all the eight volumes of  Swedenborg’s Arcana Cœlestia (or more, depending on the edition; Borges refers to the nine volumes of  Arcana Cœlestia in ‘Testigo’). Judging by his review of  Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, for example, which is merely a biographical sketch about Hesse, with one empty brief paragraph about the novel, and which thus suggests that he did not read the novel (2005: 512), and by his confession that he could not finish Joyce’s Ulysses, it is perfectly likely that he skimmed Arcana Cœlestia (as I confess to have done), selecting the passages relating to the situation of  the souls of  the dead, the angels and the demons, and hurrying over the extensive biblical exegesis.

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


more from divine love and wisdom. His pride and obstinacy eventually drive him into consort with magicians and demons and exclude him forever from heaven. This passage demonstrates the severe critique – to the point of  heresy – that Swedenborg maintained concerning doctrines of  faith, perfectly encapsulated in Swedenborg’s damning sentence in Heaven and Hell: ‘I can bear witness from all my experiences of what happens in heaven and in hell that people who have confessed faith alone as a matter of doctrine and have engaged in evil as regards their lives are all in hell’ (§482). Repeatedly in Arcana Cœlestia and in Heaven and Hell he depicts the astonishment of newly-dead upon realising that faith alone serves them no purpose if not justified by love and charity – a position resonant of  St Paul. Faith, Swedenborg argues, must be borne out by manifestation of  love, and whilst a cruel heart may be disguised on earth, there is no hypocrisy possible in heaven, as the individual’s true nature is visible.17 Furthermore, writes Swedenborg, believers and non-believers alike share the afterlife with no distinction. As I argued in the Introduction, whilst Swedenborg was demonstrably a man of  faith, this heterodox theological position would chime at once with Borges’ intellectual dif ficulty with the exhortation to treat matters theological or metaphysical as matters of  faith. Experience and imagination, not adherence to faith, are the epistemological bases of  Borges’ philosophical outlook, and thus he would have found great accommodation within Swedenborg’s vision.

‘Diálogo de muertos’ The extract ‘Los ángeles de Swedenborg’ also provides the substance for a strikingly Swedenborgian tale, ‘Diálogo de muertos’ [‘Dead Men’s Dialogue’], a brief  tale from El Hacedor, which, like many of  Borges’ more


‘In heaven no one can conceal his interiors by his expression, or feign, or really deceive and mislead by craft or hypocrisy’ (§48).


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enigmatic shorter pieces, has generated scarcely any critical response. As with Swedenborg’s account of  Melanchthon, in Borges’ tale, the two central characters of  the tale, former caudillo Rosas and the general Quiroga, are both initially unaware that they are dead, and are both made aware, over the course of  the text, of  their predicament and of  the need to adapt to the new circumstances. The narrative concerns the return of  Rosas to Argentina from his burial place of Southampton in 1877, where he is greeted by a crowd of soldiers and by his former comrade-in-arms Quiroga. Borges revisits two historical characters who figure largely in his work, granting them thus a post-mortem arena in which to reconcile themselves both to their prior lives and to their current existence in death. Both Rosas and Quiroga constitute important aspects of  Borges’ ancestral history (see Williamson 2004), and both are subjects of early poems: ‘Rosas’ (Fervor de Buenos Aires [1923]), and ‘El General Quiroga va en coche al muere’ (Luna de enfrente [1925]). A sense of squalor and putrefaction pervades the tale, and, like a condensed version of  Pedro Páramo, the reader is only made aware that the characters are dead once the narrative is truly established.18 Rosas may be seen as embodying aspects of  Swedenborg’s Melanchthon, in that his pride and haughtiness whilst alive dominate his character whilst dead; whilst Quiroga, who died a hero’s death at the hands of  the treacherous Rosas forty years earlier, allows himself  to learn and develop in the realm of  the 18

It needs emphasising that Borges paid particular attention to the squalid landscape of  hell depicted by Swedenborg. ‘Ahora, ¿qué son los infiernos? Los infiernos, según Swedenborg, tienen varios aspectos. El aspecto que tendrían para nosotros o para los ángeles. Son zonas pantanosas, zonas en las que hay ciudades que parecen destruidas por los incendios; pero ahí los réprobos se sienten felices. Se sienten felices a su modo, es decir, están llenos de odio y no hay un monarca de ese reino; continuamente están conspirando unos contra otros. Es un mundo de baja política, de conspiración. Eso es el infierno.’ (2005: 198) [‘So, what are these hells? Hells, for Swedenborg, have various aspects: one for us and one for the angels. They are swampy places in which there are cities that seem destroyed by fire. But the damned feel happy there. They feel happy in their particular way, that’s to say, they are filled with hatred, there is no monarch, and they are continually plotting against each other. It is a world of  lowly politics, of conspiracy. This is hell’] (my translation).

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


dead. This putrid landscape is at once resonant of  the landscapes of  hell described by Swedenborg: In some hells you can see what look like the ruins of houses and cities after a fire, where hellish spirits live and hide out. In the milder hells you can see crude huts, sometimes grouped in something like a city, with alleyways and streets. There are hellish spirits in these homes, with constant quarrels, hostility, beating, and violence. The streets and alleys are full of  thieves and robbers. In some hells there are nothing but brothels, foul to look at and full of all kinds of  filth and excrement. (Heaven and Hell: §586)

Borges writes about Swedenborg’s works that ‘Quienes mueren no saben que están muertos; durante un tiempo indefinido proyectan una imagen ilusoria de su ámbito habitual y de las personas que los rodeaban’ (2005: 156) [‘People who have died but fail to realize they are dead project, for an indefinite period of  time, an illusory image of  their customary ambiance and of  the people who surrounded them’] (1995: 10). From the imagery of  this tale, he presents the characters Quiroga and Rosas as inhabiting a world of projection, and consequently they are recently arrived in the world of  the dead. In Swedenborg’s account of  Melanchthon, as the theologian persists in his drive for authority and in his adamant refusal to accept his own death, his surroundings slowly begin to evanesce: ‘los muebles empezaron a afantasmarse hasta ser invisibles’ (1974: 335) [‘the furnishings in his room began to fade away and disappear’] (1988: 258), and a group of obsequious admirers gravitate towards him, ‘pero como alguna de esas personas no tenía cara y otros parecían muertos, acabó por aborrecerlos y desconfiar’ (1974: 336) [‘but since some of  the visitors were faceless and others seemed dead he ended up hating and distrusting them’] (1988: 258). Swedenborg writes in other passages both of  Heaven and Hell and Arcana Cœlestia that like f lock to like both in heaven and in hell, and thus souls filled with divine love are attracted towards the angelic realms, and may eventually become angels, whilst hateful and proud souls gravitate towards the demonic realms, and may eventually become demons. One can immediately perceive how Borges’ reading of  Swedenborg informed his conception of  the historical re-enactment of  Rosas and Quiroga. He writes, for example, that in Swedenborg’s accounts ‘Los réprobos no tienen cara o tienen caras mutiladas y atroces’ (2005: 156) [‘the damned are faceless or


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their features are mutilated, atrocious’] (1995: 10). In the tale ‘Diálogo’, these faceless or ghoulishly disfigured souls gravitate towards Rosas clearly drawn to his still manifest mundane power. Rosas, like Swedenborg’s theologian, likewise seems gravely resistant to abandoning the power and authority that had been his during life. Swedenborg writes in Heaven and Hell that souls filled with hatred and malice naturally are attracted to the regions of  hell rather than heaven: There is no way that people who are engaged in carnal love can live in heaven’s warmth, because heaven’s warmth is heavenly love. They can live in hell’s warmth, though, which is a love of cruelty toward people who do not support them. The pleasures of  this love are contempt for others, hostility, hatred, and vengefulness. When they are absorbed in these they are in their very life, with no knowledge whatever of what it means to do good for others out of sheer goodness and for the sake of  the good itself. All they know is how to do good out of malice and for the sake of malice. (§481)

Borges, perhaps referring to this passage or any of  the many similar passages in Heaven and Hell and Arcana Cœlestia, writes of  ‘los réprobos’ [‘the damned’] that ‘El ejercicio del poder y el odio recíproco son su felicidad. Viven entregados a la política, en el sentido más sudamericano de la palabra; es decir, viven para conspirar, mentir e imponerse’ (2005: 156) [‘for them, happiness lies in the exercise of power and in mutual hatred. They devote their lives to politics, in the most South American sense of  the word: that is, they live to scheme, to lie, and to impose their will on others’] (1995: 10). It is clear that his depiction of  Rosas is of a soul defiantly unwilling to relinquish such political power, and who is consequently guiding himself  towards the demonic regions of  hell. Emerson, in his chapter on Swedenborg, concisely describes this desperate nature depicted by Borges in Rosas: ‘The ghosts are tormented with the fear of death, and cannot remember that they have died’ (2003: 34). Quiroga appears like the brothers Cain and Abel in ‘Leyenda’ (Elogio de la sombra), Borges’ brief and Swedenborgian account of  the dead brothers meeting in the next world, in that, like Cain, he has forgiven Rosas through his oblivion. Quiroga is consequently fully cognizant of  his status, and fully prepared to move on into the further regions of  the dead, whereas Rosas, puf fed up with pride for his life achievements, wishes to remain Rosas even in death, believing

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


‘Será que no estoy hecho a estar muerto’ (1974: 792) [‘It must be that I am not made to be a dead man’] (1970: 35). In the poem ‘Rosas’, the youthful Borges considers the tremendous presence of  Rosas upon contemporary Argentine society. Again, ref lecting his abiding interest in the dialectic of memory and oblivion (‘olvido’), Borges concludes the poem with the ref lection that to maintain hatred for Rosas is to keep him alive ‘Ya Dios lo habrá olvidado / y es menos una injuria que una piedad / demorar su infinita disolución / con limosnas de odio’ (1972: 16) [‘Even God has forgotten him, / and to delay his eternal extinction / for a pittance of  hatred / is to turn our contempt into charity now’] (1972: 17). The poem ‘El General Quiroga va en coche al muere’, meanwhile, presents a proud Quiroga defiantly rejecting his forthcoming death, proclaiming his integral power and importance with the world and the living: ‘Ya muerto, ya de pie, ya inmortal, ya fantasma, / se presentó al infierno que Dios le había marcado, / y a sus órdenes iban, rotas y desangradas, / las ánimas en pena de hombres y de caballos’ (1972: 40) [‘Now dead, now on his feet, now immortal, now a ghost, / he reported to the Hell marked out for him by God, / and under his command there marched, broken and bloodless, / the souls in purgatory of  his soldiers and his horses’] (1972: 41). These early poetic musings on the deaths of  Rosas and Quiroga also present a Swedenborgian vision of  the complex web of relationships between the souls of  the dead, the people they had been when alive, and their persistent presence in the memory of  the living. Rosas, it would seem both from the poem and the tale, is prevented from any development of  his soul in the realm of  the dead partly because of  his towering pride, but partly because of  the sustaining force of  hatred that the living (Borges, for example) thrust upon him. Quiroga, perhaps as a result of  his premature death four decades previously, appears to have overcome the pride that characterized his death, indicated in the poem, and would seem keen to find a passage away from these infernal regions: ‘Yo pensaba como usted cuando entré en la muerte, pero aquí aprendí muchas cosas’ (1974: 792) [‘I thought as you do when I entered death, but I learned many things here’] (1970: 35). In the case of  both figures, the thoroughly Swedenborgian approach to the conscious choices that the souls of  the dead have is developed; and consequently the hell which the figures inhabit is not one of punishment,


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such as depicted by the mediaeval theologians that Borges discusses in ‘Duración del Infierno’, but one of  the ongoing squabbles and battles that characterized the lives of  these figures. As is typical of  Borges, even with such a brief and seemingly simple piece as this, an intriguing narrative device is delivered at the end of  the tale – a seemingly innocuous statement that strikes at the heart of complex aesthetics of  Swedenborg. As discussed throughout this book, the fictional/ poetic space for Borges constitutes far more than mere fiction or mere poetry, as it can be considered of an epistemological order akin to Blake’s ‘Imagination’ or Corbin’s mundus imaginalis – the imaginal. Whilst this is a dominant aspect of  his philosophy of aesthetics, nevertheless Borges muddies the hermeneutic waters by emphasising the ‘reality’ of  Swedenborg’s visions against the ‘poetic unreality’ of  Dante’s (see Chapter One). Borges anticipates the expected reader reaction to the works of  Swedenborg when he defends him against charges of madness. This is because when we read certain passages in Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, the voice of our education tells us that he must be delusional because the alternative is so hard to conceptualize: ‘When I have been allowed to be in the company of angels, I have seen what was there exactly the way I see things in our world, so perceptibly that I did not know I was not in our world and in the court of some king here. I have also talked with angels just as one person here talks to another’ (§174). The alternative to delusion, hallucination or poetic fancy is that Swedenborg’s angelic realm is of an order equivalent to an undiscovered island in the Pacific, or a tribal community hidden in the rain forest – de carne y hueso. Borges, synthesizing numerous passages from Arcana Cœlestia and Heaven and Hell, assures us that this is not so, and that ‘El cielo y el infierno de su doctrina no son lugares, aunque las almas de los muertos que los habitan, y de alguna manera los crean, los ven como situados en el espacio. Son condiciones de las almas, determinadas por su vida anterior’ (2005: 156) [‘The heaven and hell of  his doctrine are not places, even though the souls of  the dead who inhabit and, in a way, create them perceive them as being situated in space. They are conditions of  the soul, determined by its former life’] (1995: 10). The location (for want of a better word), therefore, of  Swedenborg’s heavens and hells is neither ‘real’, as the New World was for Columbus, nor ‘merely fictional’, as Mordor or

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


The Shire were for Tolkien and his readers. They are, as Borges suggests ‘conditions of  the soul’ and thus correspond to the Imagination of  Blake and Coleridge, to Corbin’s imaginal, to Jung’s dreamworld, as liminal spaces neither one nor the other. Kathleen Raine lucidly describes this liminal state: ‘For the landscapes of poetry, the landscapes of  the great painters are not to be found in nature at all. […] They are landscapes of  the soul, and the imagery is not an end but a means – a language for discoursing upon realities of  the intelligible world, not of  the physical world. The theme of imaginative art is not physical but metaphysical’ (2007: 25). It must be emphasized that Swedenborg did not walk out of  his door and into a parallel universe populated with angels and demons, but neither was he ‘making it up’ in the sense that a novelist might create a fiction.19 This is a dif ficult idea to conceive of, let alone describe, and yet Corbin succeeds in defining the imaginal as, precisely, this liminal landscape that has characterized religious and mystical experience (both in Christianity and Islam), poetry and art, across time and cultures; and Swedenborg was for Corbin of supreme importance, in the same way that he was for Borges, as ‘recorrió este mundo y los otros, lúcido y laborioso. […] ese escandinavo sanguíneo, que fue mucho más lejos que Erico el Rojo’ (2005: 152) [‘(he) journeyed, lucid and laborious, through this and all other worlds […] that sanguine Scandinavian who went much further than Eric the Red’] (1995: 3). This 19

Perhaps, however, his voyages were of such a physical order. Swedenborg writes in Heaven and Hell: ‘As to being carried away by the spirit to another place, I have been shown by living experience what it is, and how it is done, but only two or three times. I will relate a single instance. Walking through the streets of a city and through fields, talking at the same time with spirits, I knew no otherwise than that I was fully awake, and in possession of my usual sight. Thus I walked on without going astray, and all the while with clear vision, seeing groves, rivers, palaces, houses, men, and other objects. But after walking thus for some hours, suddenly I saw with my bodily eyes, and noted that I was in another place. Being greatly astonished I perceived that I had been in the same state as those who were said to have been led away by the spirit into another place. For in this state the distance, even though it be many miles, and the time, though it be many hours or days, are not thought of; neither is there any feeling of  fatigue; and one is led unerringly through ways of which he himself is ignorant, even to the destined place’ (§441).


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whole dimension of  the imaginal is dif ficult to apprehend cognitively, as it can only be described in terms that create a sense of contradiction – neither real nor fantasy yet both real and fantasy. Czeslaw Milosz, another contributor to Lawrence’s Testimony to the Invisible examines the complex nature of  the imaginal with regards Dante, Blake and Swedenborg: Blake’s The Marriage of  Heaven and Hell is modeled on Swedenborg, and he would have been amused by an inquiry into whether he had ‘really’ seen the devils and angels he describes. The crux of  the problem – and a serious challenge to the mind – is Blake’s respect for both the imagination of  Dante, who was a poet, and the imagination of  Swedenborg, whose works are written in quite pedestrian Latin prose. Dante was regarded by his contemporaries as a man who had visited the other world. Yet Jaspers would not have called him a schizophrenic, because the right of  the poet to invent – that is, to lie – was recognized in Jaspers’s lifetime as something obvious. It is not easy to grasp the consequences of  the aesthetic theories which have emerged as the f lotsam and jetsam of  the scientific and technological revolution. The pressure of  habit still forces us to exclaim: ‘Well then, Swedenborg wrote fiction and he was aware it was no more than fiction!’ But, tempting as it is, the statement would be false. Neither Swedenborg nor Blake were aestheticians; they did not enclose the spiritual within the domain of art and poetry and oppose it to the material. At the risk of simplifying the issue by using a definition, let us say rather that they both were primarily concerned with the energy that reveals itself in a constant interaction of  Imagination with the things perceived by our five senses. (1995: 25–6)

Swedenborg’s first profound experience in such altered states of consciousness occurred as a result of dreams and visions, and waking trances brought on by breath control and meditation. His journeys were thus likewise ‘conditions of  the soul’ in the manner in which Borges considered dreams to be, and in the manner in which Jung describes the ‘Transcendental Function’.20 There is therefore a relationship between the landscape of  Swedenborg’s visions and visionary or numinous dreams; indeed Robert Moss (1998), author of many books about dreaming and lucid dreaming, writes that Swedenborg’s were dreams of  the most ecstatic and potent form.

20 He later renamed this ‘Active Imagination’, an aesthetic, contemplative exercise that he pursued in his own visionary quests that led to the composition of  the Red Book (see Jung 1997).

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


Swedenborg’s visions have also been appraised as correlating with NDEs (near death experiences) and OBEs (out of  body experiences). Raymond Moody, researcher into such experiences, writes in the foreword to Van Dusen’s Presence of  Other Worlds (2004: xi): ‘Swedenborg’s reports of  his out-of-body experiences resonate well with the legions of contemporary reports of people who find themselves out of  their bodies and who are perplexed about the situation.’ Swedenborg himself describes this distinction between the solid, concrete world of reality, and the visionary dreamworld of  the spirits: ‘But it must be remembered that a man cannot see angels with his bodily eyes, but only with the eyes of  the spirit within him, because his spirit is in the spiritual world, and all things of  the body are in the natural world’ (Heaven and Hell: §76). With this in mind, we return to the tale. Quiroga explains to Rosas that nothing can persist forever, not even in death, and that even as they speak, ‘Fíjese bien, ya estamos cambiando los dos’ (1974: 792) [‘Just look, we are both changing already’] (1970: 35). The response of Rosas is curious: ‘Será que no estoy hecho a estar muerto, pero estos lugares y esta discusión me parecen un sueño, y no un sueño soñado por mí sino por otro, que está por nacer todavía’ (1974: 792) [‘It must be that I am not made to be a dead man, but these places and this discussion seem like a dream, and not a dream dreamed by me but by someone else still to be born’] (1970: 35). The tale then concludes with the equally mysterious commentary of  the anonymous narrator: ‘No hablaron más, porque en ese momento Alguien los llamó’ (1974: 792) [‘They spoke no more, for at that moment Someone called them’] (1970: 35). The tale is set in 1877. Borges was born in 1899. The tale was published in 1960. Following the argument of  the parallels between dreams, visions and poetic imagination, one might suggest that there is no dif ference between Swedenborg’s account of  Melanchthon and Borges’ account of  Rosas and Quiroga. Why would we assume one to have genuinely (i.e. non-poetically) experienced such an account (although recounted via angels) and the other to have merely invented it? These are the wrong questions. Rosas and Quiroga did engage in this dialogue of  the dead, as we have testimony of it in the tale, and they were themselves witness to the dream crafting of  the poet – Borges – who was yet to be born and yet to witness them. Who, consequently, is this ‘Alguien’? Could it be


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Borges, summoning the dead warriors into his dream/fiction, or could it be the reader, engaging in the poetic act of  textual dialogue with these warriors? Or could it be God or an angel, drawing them onwards, as Quiroga declares, towards ‘otra cara y otro destino’ (792) [‘another face and another destiny’]? No answer is to be expected, and neither should it. As Corbin argues, we tend to approach these imaginal matters with the wrong epistemological tools, seeking concrete answers to mercurial concerns. Borges appears to intuit the same liminal question, and consequently challenges our already challenged critical faculty by provoking this most labyrinthine relationship between fiction and reality, the living and the dead, dream and waking, madness and sanity. ‘Diálogo de muertos’, reading like a page from Swedenborg although in a Latin American climate, challenges our most essential ontological certainties and raises questions about the nature of  the real.

‘Fragmentos de un evangelio apócrifo’ [‘From an apocryphal gospel’] As I have suggested above, the theological, visionary, works of Swedenborg constituted a powerful presence within Borges’ works. I have also argued that Borges’ inclusion of  the passage entitled ‘un teólogo en la muerte’ is significant as numerous Swedenborgian elements in the brief extract are present in Borges’ later tale ‘Diálogo de muertos.’ There are further works of  Borges that deserve consideration, even if it may be less thorough than the analysis of  ‘Diálogo’. As I have also suggested, the briefer pieces of  Borges’ later works tend to receive lesser critical attention than his earlier fictions. In Elogio de la sombra, Borges confronts much of  his contemplation about the nature of death and the dead that his reading of  Swedenborg and other mystics would have fuelled. There is scarcely any critical attention given, for example, to a peculiar and oddly-numbered list of  thirtyseven proverbs entitled ‘Fragmentos de un evangelio apócrifo’ [‘From an

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


apocryphal gospel’]. Whilst it would be rash to ascribe all or even most of  these proverbs to a Swedenborgian source, nevertheless, these proverbs are a clear articulation of  the central ethical position, inf luenced strongly by Swedenborg, that we find Borges discussing in his many later interviews. That they have been so overlooked is a shame, as they truly embody all that is most Borgesian: iconoclastic, ironic, humble, wise, ethical, humorous, whimsical and, importantly, practical. Borges would balk at being called a spiritual teacher, but a perusal of  these proverbs reveals a deeply measured and insightful counsel; some proverbs barbed like a Zen kōan, others revealing the presence of  Swedenborg. Without the space to discuss each one, for the purposes of  this study I will appraise the Swedenborgian aspect of a brief selection. ‘3. Desdichado el pobre en espíritu, porque bajo la tierra será lo que ahora es en la tierra’ (1975a: 106) [‘Wretched are the poor in spirit: for what they were on earth, so shall they be in their graves’].21 Recounting it in his biographical sketch on Swedenborg, Borges took obvious relish in Swedenborg’s account of  the hermit who had renounced all worldly goods and activities, who then found himself woefully unfit for heaven. This first proverb appears as a direct allusion to this matter, indicating the position that Swedenborg maintained that full engagement with life and with the world are the essential drives of  the living that can only be denied at a price. Swedenborg explains this in detail in Heaven and Hell. I have spoken with some after death who, while they lived in the world, renounced the world and gave themselves up to an almost solitary life, in order that by an abstraction of  the thoughts from worldly things they might have opportunity for pious meditations, believing that thus they might enter the way to heaven. But these in the other life are of a sad disposition; they despise others who are not like themselves; they are indignant that they do not have a happier lot than others, believing that they have merited it; they have no interest in others, and turn away from the duties of charity by which there is conjunction with heaven. They desire heaven more than others; but when they are taken up among the angels they induce anxieties that disturb the


In this chapter and the ensuing Conclusion, all translations of  texts of  Elogio de la sombra are by Di Giovanni and are from the bilingual edition entitled In Praise of  Darkness (1975a).


Chapter Five happiness of  the angels; and in consequence they are sent away; and when sent away they betake themselves to desert places, where they lead a life like that which they lived in the world. (§360)

‘11. Bienaventurados los misericordiosos, porque su dicha está en el ejercicio de la misericordia y no en la esperanza de un premio’ (1975a: 106) [‘Blessed are the merciful: for their happiness is in showing mercy, not in obtaining reward’]. ‘12 Bienaventurados los de limpio corazón, porque ven a Dios’ (1975a: 106) [‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they already see God’]. Countless passages in Heaven and Hell testify to the nature of mercy being a natural attribute of divine love, and that to perform acts of mercy or charity for the aggrandizement of  the constitute selfish acts: […] the angels refuse all thanks for the good they do, and are displeased and withdraw if any one attributes good to them. They wonder how any one can believe that he is wise from himself or does anything good from himself. Doing good for one’s own sake they do not call good, because it is done from self. But doing good for the sake of good they call good from the Divine; and this they say is the good that makes heaven, because this good is the Lord. (§9)

‘28. Hacer el bien a tu enemigo puede ser obra de justicia y no es arduo; amarlo, tarea de ángeles y no de hombres’ (1975a: 108) [‘To bless thine enemy may be righteous and is not dif ficult: but to love him is a task for angels, not for men’]. Many passages from Heaven and Hell testify to the biblical entreaty to love thy neighbour, and that this, as with the matter of mercy detailed above, is commonly misapprehended as a means of garnering heavenly favour. The reader may consult paragraphs 13–20 for Swedenborg’s lengthy account of  how true love of  the neighbour is an act of such self lessness that, as Borges encapsulates in his brief maxim, only the angels are truly capable of performing. ‘30. No acumules oro en la tierra, porque el oro es padre del ocio, y éste, de la tristeza y el tedio’ (1975a: 108) [‘Lay not up for thyself  treasures upon earth: for treasure is the father of idleness, and idleness of  boredom and woe’]. Again this resonates strongly with Swedenborg’s highly unorthodox perspective on the church teaching that the rich man will not enter heaven. The danger, as Swedenborg writes, is that the riches may constitute

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


a distraction from the true purpose, and that the rich man may become tempted by the temptations of  the money system and so neglect his true self. Borges writes in ‘Testigo’ that wealth is no obstacle for entrance into heaven in Swedenborg’s theology, unless it is the cause of greed or sloth. Wealth per se is unimportant. The full exposition of  this highly unorthodox revelation appears throughout a series of paragraphs of  Heaven and Hell: Out of a great deal of conversation and living with angels, I have been granted sure knowledge that rich people enter heaven just as easily as poor people do, and that no one is shut out of  heaven for having abundant possessions or accepted into heaven because of poverty. There are both rich and poor people there, and many of  the rich are in greater splendor and happiness than the poor. (§357)22 […] One person can live like another in outward form. As long as there is an inward acknowledgment of  the Deity and an intent to serve our neighbor, we can become rich, dine sumptuously, live and dress as elegantly as befits our station and of fice, enjoy pleasures and amusement, and meet our worldly obligations for the sake of our position and of our business and of  the life of  both mind and body. So we can see that it is not as hard to follow the path to heaven as many people believe. The only dif ficulty is finding the power to resist love for ourselves and love of  the world and preventing those loves from taking control, since they are the source of all our evils. (§359)

This sentiment is also ref lected in Borges’ maxim number 47: ‘Feliz el pobre sin amargura o el rico sin soberbia’ (1975a: 110) [‘Happy is the poor man without bitterness, and the rich man without arrogance’]. Whilst there are further proverbs that echo a Swedenborgian sentiment, it is perhaps of greatest worth to consider the final two proverbs which, in their simplicity, evoke Swedenborg’s works with greatest power: ‘50. Felices los amados y los amantes y los que pueden prescindir del amor’ [‘Happy are the lovers and the loved, and they that can do without love’]. ‘51. Felices los felices’ (1975a: 110) [‘Happy are the happy’]. Not only in Arcana Cœlestia and Heaven and Hell, but importantly his work Conjugal Love, Swedenborg goes to tremendous lengths to describe the nature of conjugal love as being the terrestrial portion of divine love, and that true lovers may 22 This is the very passage that Borges and Bioy reproduce as ‘Los ricos en el cielo’ in Libro del cielo y del infierno. Their brief passage is a composite of sentences from §357 and §361.


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remain together in the next world, a matter to which Borges pays attention in his essay ‘Testigo’. Beyond the matter of  lovers, Swedenborg’s entire heavenly opus is dominated by a perpetual return to the idea of  happiness as the ultimate state of divine love. Again, as with other matters described above, there are innumerable passages in Heaven and Hell that describe the happiness of the angels, the happiness of those souls that dwell in the angelic realms, and the absence of  happiness for those who reside in the hellish regions. Amidst detailed descriptions of  heavenly joy, Swedenborg writes that ‘the angels have everything that is blessed, delightful, and happy, or that which is called heavenly joy’ (§286); ‘Those that are in heaven are continually advancing towards the spring of  life, with a greater advance towards a more joyful and happy spring the more thousands of years they live’ (§414). We recall Borges in the poem ‘El remordimiento’: ‘He cometido el peor de los pecados / que un hombre puede cometer. No he sido / feliz’ [‘I have committed the worse sin of all / That a man can commit. I have not been / happy’] (Burgin 1998: 140), and that in his many interviews he writes that whilst sadness, loneliness and suf fering are the source of art, happiness is a good in and of itself, and requires neither cause nor objective. Whilst we would be exaggerating to claim that such a sentiment springs directly from his reading of  Swedenborg, we can nevertheless determine that amidst so many references to Swedenborg, so many allusions to his heavenly landscape, and so many ethical considerations that echo Swedenborg’s ethics, we may determine a respectful thread concerning happiness that Borges identifies in Swedenborg. Such a presence of  Swedenborg is not limited to these two texts. Elogio de la sombra contains another brief and wholly under-studied tale titled ‘His end and his beginning’ (the original title is in English), which relates the activities of a man who has recently died and, in a manner reminiscent of many narratives in Heaven and Hell, begins a process of  learning the nature of death. Following the Swedenborgian dimension, one must first identify the curious relationship within the anonymous protagonist between sleep and death. The tale begins: ‘Cumplida la agonía, ya solo, ya solo y desgarrado y rechazado, se hundió en el sueño’ (1975a: 116) [‘After death, after the wrench and the stark loneliness, he dropped into a deep sleep’]. Swedenborg recounts in numerous passages of  Heaven and Hell

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


that discarnate spirits, like living people, wake and sleep and even dream whilst asleep. Indeed, as with the living (as with Swedenborg himself ) the dream of  the dead can constitute a journey of discovery into the realms of  further mystery. ‘Some spirits who were not evil settled down into a peaceful state, rather like sleep, and in this way were taken into heaven in respect to the deeper levels of  their minds’ (§411).23 Whilst Swedenborg’s narrative of  Melanchthon which Borges reproduced concerns a man whose pride prevents his admission into heaven, in the brief  tale ‘His end and his beginning’ the man is destined to heaven, yet is simply unable to comprehend this most cognitively challenging of matters. Now dead, he returns to work and attempts to maintain the life that he had. Like Melanchthon, however, the material objects surrounding him begin to evanesce and disappear, whilst his former colleagues fail to perceive him. One of  the most important matters of  this tale for our present analysis is the matter of  the protagonist’s dreams. He is made aware that he is dead through the sudden realisation ‘que no podía recordar las formas, los sonidos y los colores de los sueños’ (1975a: 116) [‘that he was unable to recall the shapes or sounds or colours of  his dreams’]. He is made suddenly aware that his reality is now a dream. This immediately brings us back to the discussion above about the nature of dream, vision and death. Swedenborg, again in Heaven and Hell, recounts in many passages that whilst alive he has been granted entry into the land of  the dead through dreams and visions, and that the soul of  the dead, upon death, moves into the same dream landscape that he may have experienced once alive. Indeed Swedenborg recounts in §449 that his visions into the land of  the dead were of great profundity precisely because his material body was capable of such inactivity (minimal heartbeat and breath) that he ef fectively was both dead and dreaming. Whilst on the one hand this evokes the metaphor that so intrigued Borges, and which he identified in poets throughout the ages including, obviously,


Conan Doyle writes of  Swedenborg’s works: ‘Death was made easy by the presence of celestial beings who helped the newcomer into his fresh existence. Such newcomers had an immediate period of complete rest. They regained consciousness in a few days of our time’ (2005: 100).


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Shakespeare and Calderón, that life is a dream,24 in this Swedenborgian tale we may perceive an accompanying metaphor: that death is a dream. The nature of  this dream/death world in which Borges’ protagonist finds himself is further reinforced by the similarly Swedenborgian motif, also present in ‘Un teólogo en la muerte’, that the narrator has been, during this immediately post-death period, creating the world that surrounds him: the of fice, the people, their faces. He understands, like Quiroga and unlike Rosas, that he must move on: ‘De algún modo sintió que su deber era dejar atrás esas cosas, ahora pertenecía a este nuevo mundo, ajeno de pasado, de presente y de porvenir’ (1975a: 116) [‘Still, he somehow felt it his duty to be rid of everything. He belonged to another world now, detached from past, present, or future’]. This is a painful process, as it demands of  him an abandonment of all that had constituted his identity once alive. Again we recall how Rosas is wholly unable to relinquish being Rosas, as Melanchthon cannot abandon being Melanchthon. Both are denied heaven. Swedenborg describes in Heaven and Hell with numerous examples how the angels, acting as psychopomps, assist the dead in adjusting to their new environment and state, and that if  the individual resists with suf ficient force, then eventually the angels will abandon this soul to his own demonic fate. Angelic identity, in a manner that strangely evokes some of  Borges’ concerns for the status of  the ‘I’ developed in ‘La nadería de la personalidad’, ‘Borges y yo’ and his lectures on Buddhism, is universal, not particular. At the end of  the brief  tale, the man, having relinquished his past and his self, has attained divine grace: ‘desde su muerte había estado siempre en el cielo’ 24 ‘Cuando Shakespeare, por ejemplo, equipara la vida con un sueño, él, en lo que insiste, es en la irrealidad de la vida, en el hecho de que es difícil fijar una diferencia entre lo que soñamos y lo que vivimos. En cambio, en el caso de Calderón, creo que la frase tiene un sentido teológico: la vida es sueño, en el sentido de que nuestra vida, nuestra vigilia, no corresponden a la realidad, sino a una breve parte de la realidad, el sentido de que lo verdadero son el cielo y el infierno’ (Sorrentino 2001: 133). [‘When Shakespeare, for example, equates life with a dream, he refers to the unreality of  life, in the fact that it is dif ficult to establish a division between what we dream and what we live. With Calderón, on the other hand, I feel that the phrase Life is a dream has a theological sense, in that our waking life does not correspond to reality, but to a brief part of reality, the sense that heaven and hell are the true reality’] (My translation).

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


(1975a: 118) [‘from the moment of death he had been in heaven’]. ‘Diálogo de muertos’ and ‘His end and his beginning’, therefore, can both be considered remarkably Swedenborgian, and published in the same volume, may be considered synoptic treatments of  Swedenborg’s heterodox theological perspective on the soul’s ability to choose his angelic or demonic environment. Rosas, like Melanchthon, chooses hell; the anonymous man of  the other tale chooses heaven.

Conclusion What I have hoped to demonstrate in this study of certain Borges texts is the pervasive presence of  Swedenborg that informs the many narrative of death and the afterlife. Whilst it would be remiss to af firm that these texts are conscious reworkings or even respectful parodies of  Swedenborg’s text, it can be established that Borges’ close and af fectionate reading of Swedenborg provided essential substance for his own fictional world. Neither are such matters limited to the few texts outlined above; throughout Borges’ works, from the early essays to the Ficciones of  the 1940s, through to the later essays, poems, fictions and interviews, Swedenborgian imagery, landscape and, importantly, ethics, pervades Borges’ work. For example, few critical studies have considered the curious academy of  heavenly students from which the magician of  ‘Las ruinas circulares’ initially attempts to select his future son. This perplexing image of concentric levels of studious discarnate souls eager to be incarnated resembles the many perplexing descriptions of communities of angels and spirits in Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. The magician in this case clearly has the ability, like Swedenborg, to enter this spiritual landscape through dreams and meditation in his quest for progeny. In his later (and also under-studied) work Atlas, Borges presents an uncanny episode in which he enters into dialogue with the dead soul of  Haydée Lange through a dream vision, and decides not to reveal to her that she is dead. In this case, the Borges narrator chooses not to act as


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psychopomp – that is to say he decides not to help her move further into the heavenly realm – resolving, one would assume, that angelic guides would perform that function. One final text may be selected to draw to a close this chapter. The text, entitled ‘Abramowicz’, from Borges’ final published volume before his death, Los Conjurados, bears the hallmarks of  Swedenborg’s visions of  the afterlife with which Borges was so familiar. I deem this text to be of great importance for an understanding of  the whole of  Borges’ work, as it can be seen to constitute a state of genuine revelation about the mysteries of death that do not stem from books but from immediate experience. Through a Jamesian Radical Empiricist method, Borges, it would appear, received confirmation about the persistence of  the soul after death that he had read with such attention and for so many years in Swedenborg. Maurice Abramowicz (1901–1981) was Borges’ friend from his youth in Geneva with whom he maintained correspondence. In this brief piece (which he describes to Amelia Barili)25 Borges becomes suddenly and delightedly aware that his dead friend is still, in some way, present: ‘Esta noche, no lejos de la cumbre de la colina de Saint Pierre, una valerosa y venturosa música griega nos acaba de revelar que la muerte es más inverosímil que la vida y que, por consiguiente, el alma perdura cuando su cuerpo es caos’ (1989: 467) [‘Tonight, not far from the top of  the hill of  Saint Pierre, a courageous and happy Greek music has just revealed to us that death is more implausible than life and that, therefore, the soul survives when its body is chaos’].26 Borges intuits not only that his dead friend is still present, but, like Swedenborg’s depiction of  the communities of discarnate souls, he is surrounded by the souls of  the departed: ‘Contigo estaban las 25


‘It was a beautiful night. María Kodama, Maurice Abramowicz’s widow and I were at a Greek tavern in Paris, listening to Greek music, which is so full of courage. I remembered the lyrics: “While this music lasts, we will deserve Helen of  Troy’s love. While the music lasts, we will know that Ulysses will come back to Ithaca.” And I felt that Maurice was not dead, that he was there with us, that nobody really dies, for they all still project their shadow’ (Burgin 1998: 241). Translation Frank Thomas Smith .

The Inf luence of  Swedenborg on Borges


muchedumbres de las sombras que bebieron en la fosa ante Ulises y también Ulises y también todos los que fueron o imaginaron los que fueron’ (1989: 467) [‘With you were the throngs of shadows who drank before Ulysses in the grave and also Ulysses and also all who were and all those imagined by those who were’] (trans. Smith). In tune with much of what we have discussed in this chapter about the relationship between mystical vision and imagination, it is important that neither Borges nor his companions see Abramowicz as a fully present ghost, as some material entity on the same plane of existence as them, but simply imagine him witness to their gathering. This is thus further exploration of  the liminal space defined by Corbin as imaginal, neither mere fantasy nor material reality, but a third way in which imagination and reality are in some curious interrelationship. Borges published this volume only months before his own death, and it is therefore of great poetic beauty to read of  this wisdom that he gains through his dead friend concerning the future joyous realm of death: ‘Esta noche me has dicho sin palabras, Abramowicz, que debemos entrar en la muerte como quien entra en una fiesta’ (1989: 467) [‘Tonight you have told me without words, Abramowicz, that we must enter death like one who enters a party’] (trans. Smith). Again and again Borges would have read in his beloved Swedenborg of  the persistence of  the soul, and of  the joyous aspect of  the angelic communities. It would appear that sitting at dinner with friends and good wine and evoking the memory of  his dead friend, the words of  Swedenborg suddenly and rapturously rang true. ‘Estabas ahí, silencioso y sin duda sonriente, al percibir que nos asombraba y maravillaba ese hecho tan notorio de que nadie puede morir’ (1989: 467) [‘You were there, silent and no doubt smiling when you perceived that we were amazed and marveled at the notorious fact that no one can die’] (trans. Smith). If  this moment did, indeed, constitute an epiphanic realization of  Swedenborg’s teachings, then, as readers of  Swedenborg and of  Borges, we may justifiably intuit that Borges and his friend Abramowicz are now sitting together, conversing, as Borges decribes in ‘Elegía’, about ‘los dos sueños que se llamaron Laforgue y Baudelaire’ (1989: 466) [‘those two dreams called Laforgue and Baudelaire’] (my translation) and merrily engaging the angels in theological debates.

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’1

Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives. — Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss An art that does not heal is not an art. — Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Way of  the Tarot I’ve always been a great reader of  Jung. — Borges, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges

Borges’ later fictions have received far less critical attention than his wellknown publications of  Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949). Bell-Villada (1999: 260), for example, dismisses El Informe de Brodie as ‘rather slight’, suggesting that: ‘Because none of  the material in Dr. Brodie’s Report even approaches the level of  the Ficciones or the stories in El Aleph, there is little reason to discuss any one piece in detail’. The prose pieces of  Elogio de la sombra and the tales of  El libro de arena and La Memoria de Shakespeare are, with notable exceptions, often overlooked. This can be explained partly by the enigmatic and at times pseudo-realist character of  these later fictions, which may fail to evoke the labyrinthine complexity and literary puzzles of  his earlier pieces. This to me is a scholarly oversight, as I feel that


An earlier version of  this conclusion was published as an article in Journal for Romance Studies: ‘Confronting the Shadow: The Hero’s Journey in Borges’ “El Etnógrafo”’, 12/2 (summer 2012), 17–32. Many thanks to the journal editors for kind permission to reproduce the text here.


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Borges’ later works – poetry, fiction, essays and interviews – demonstrate a creative mind grappling with equal intensity with the philosophical and metaphysical questions as his earlier work, only with a style that employs fewer devices and strategies to catalyse the particular puzzle-solving detective faculty in the reader. An example of  this is the brief (just over 600 words) and deceptively simple tale ‘El Etnógrafo’ of  Elogio de la sombra, which has received curiously little scholarly attention. Brevity in Borges generally betrays deep currents, and a close reading of  this tale opens many avenues implicit in the text. In particular, the tale embodies crucial elements of  the hero’s journey as extensively examined by C. G. Jung, a journey that analogizes the process of psychic healing expressed by Jung as Individuation. In this final conclusive chapter I appraise ‘El Etnógrafo’ alongside other fictions of  Borges that represent aspects of  the hero’s journey. In particular, I evaluate the particular dynamics ref lected in the tale of  the stages of  the journey as articulated by Jung scholar Joseph Campbell as the ‘Monomyth’, which he observed in mythological tales across time and cultures: the summons away from home, the confrontation with the shadow, the dialogue with the senex (wise old man) figure, the death and resurrection, the magical knowledge and the return home. Psychopathology, Jung argued, arises commonly through an individual’s inability or unwillingness to assess the distinction between ego and persona and to explore the ego’s relationship with unconscious complexes and archetypal figures. The hero’s journey thus expresses the ego’s inner journey into the unconscious to acknowledge and integrate these areas which, through being ignored, block psychic energy (libido), and being contemplated, release this energy. In this sense, Murdock, the protagonist of  ‘El Etnógrafo’, can be analysed as engaging in this process of psychic healing, gaining wisdom and a deeper understanding of  his own psyche. He can also be seen as embodying a collective psyche that confronts a collective shadow and gains deeper understanding of unconscious processes. This analysis corresponds to a larger project in which I evaluate the shifting oeuvre of  Borges in the light of  Jung’s process of individuation – the journey towards the self, often depicted in literature and mythology as the hero’s journey. This is not, however, a psychoanalytical appraisal of  the tale, rather it follows the amplification analysis customary to Jung’s depth psychology which reveals an archetypal mythic pattern

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


apparent within both ‘El Etnógrafo’ and other tales of  Borges. By such an evaluation I hope to depict within the tale an implicit search for psychic wholeness – the voyage into the unconscious and the confrontation with the shadow – analogized by the hero’s journey. There is a rich tradition in the Borges scholarship of  binding his work to his biography through a psychoanalytical perspective, most notably Freudian, but also, in the case of  Rodríguez Monegal (1978), through a Lacanian and Kleinian lens. Characteristic of  the psychoanalytical reading are the Oedipal, Narcissicistic and parricidal elements of  his life and work, described by Rodríguez Monegal (1990: 129) in a later article: ‘Educated by his father in the writer’s calling, he had practiced it as a son; in so doing he avoided parricide. But on the death of  his father in 1938, and after an accident on Christmas Eve of  the same year, Borges committed symbolic suicide in order to conceal the parricide and to be free to begin writing his most important fictions.’2 This interpretation, which Woodall described as ‘an obsessively psychoanalytical view of  the man’ (1997: xxi), remains inf luential, with parallel arguments concerning the failed writer-father, the overbearing mother, the consequent troubled relationships with women and the clues of  this dynamic implicit in the literary works, forming the central narrative of  Williamson’s Borges: A life (2004). There are limitations, however, to the psychoanalytical reading of  Borges, as it can limit the artistic creation to a mere cipher of this dominant Freudian dynamic of psychological trauma. This is highlighted by Earle (2000: 100) in his review of  the starkly Freudian analysis by Woscoboinik (1998): ‘In this psychoportrait our model is cornered by the ghosts of  Oedipus and Narcissus – the mother-obsession and the self-obsession, that is – and never escapes.’ Furthermore, Borges himself was critical of  Freudian psychoanalytical 2

Molloy (1994: 78) questions whether Borges was consciously alluding to Freud in his examination of das unheimlich – the uncanny – in his review of  Beckford’s Vathek. Tcherepashenets (2008) approaches Borges’ interest in dreams in relation to Freud’s dream analysis. de Costa (2000: 47) appraises the humour in ‘Death and the Compass’ in light of  Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. A number of articles, such as Portugal M. Saliba (2001), also appraise Borges through a variety of psychoanalytical perspectives.


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analyses establishing too rigid a bond between artistic creativity and childhood, family and sexuality. His scathing comments to Burgin about Freud’s obsession are well known: I think of [Freud] as a kind of madman, no? A man laboring over a sexual obsession. Well, perhaps he didn’t take it to heart. Perhaps he was just doing it as a kind of game. I tried to read him, and I thought of  him either as a charlatan or as a madman, in a sense. After all, the world is far too complex to be boiled down to that all-too-simple scheme. (Burgin 1969: 109)3

His views of  Freud chime closely with those that Jung expressed later in his life concerning Freud’s obsessive desire to maintain his theories of sexuality,4 and, indeed, in the same interview Borges expressed his respect for Jung: ‘Jung I have read far more widely than Freud, but in Jung you feel a wide and hospitable mind’ (Burgin 1969: 109). Borges was an engaged reader of  Jung, citing his work on numerous occasions.5 However, his 3



Borges jokingly called Freud ‘not my favourite fiction writer’ (Barnstone 2000: 111), and Jason Wilson reminds us that Borges was ‘as anti-Marxism or anti-pyschoanalysis (merely gossip) as he was anti-Hitler’ (2006: 119). Kristal remarks on the irony that Borges presented a lecture on Spinoza 1981 at the Freudian School of  Buenos Aires, ‘given his skepticism about Freud, and his sometimes disparaging remarks about psychoanalysis’ (2002: 144). ‘There was no mistaking the fact that Freud was emotionally involved in his sexual theory to an extraordinary degree. When he spoke of it, his tone became urgent, almost anxious, and all signs of  his normally critical and skeptical manner vanished. A strange, deeply moved expression came over his face, the cause of which I was at a loss to understand. I had a strong intuition that for him sexuality was a sort of numinosum’ ( Jung 1989: 150). ‘When, then, Freud announced his intention of identifying theory and method and making them into some kind of dogma, I could no longer collaborate with him; there remained no choice for me but to withdraw’ ( Jung 1989: 167). Some notable examples of  his references to Jung, in particular to Psychologie und Alchemie, are: ‘Nota sobre Walt Whitman’ (1974: 249–53), ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’ (1974: 670–85), ‘Kafka y sus Precursores’ (1974: 710–12), ‘El Verdugo Piadoso’, of  Nueve Ensayos Dantescos (1989: 357–9), ‘Los Conjurados’, of  Los Conjurados (1989: 501), ‘William Beckford. Vathek’ (2005: 533), and El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios. He also refers to Jung in many interviews.

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


familiarity with Jung’s works should not be considered here as grounds for perceiving a necessary Jungian inf luence on his writings, such as one might find, for example, a conscious inf luence of  Freud upon certain Dadaist artists. Rather I hope to demonstrate that the archetypal narrative of  the Hero, as indicated by Jung and illustrated by Campbell, is apparent in Borges’ art as it is apparent in dreams, myths and art across time and culture.

‘El Etnógrafo’6 In a customary fashion, Borges author and Borges narrator are conf lated in the opening lines of  the tale: ‘El caso me lo refieron’ (1975a: 46) [‘This story was told me’], and the narrative is located in the temporal and spatial distance. In this way, as with many of  the tales of  El Informe de Brodie, it is given a mythological, timeless dimension by the implication of anecdote, suggesting that the narrator Borges is not author but mere storyteller recounting a tale that he was told some time ago, the events of which took place even further ago. This is an important aspect of  this and other tales, as the narrative assumes a collective nature, becoming the creation not of a lone artist, but of  tradition. Pursuing this avenue, one can perceive the protagonist of  the tale as everyman, embodying aspects of a collective psyche in addition to that of  the author. This is at once visible in ‘El Etnógrafo’ both in the fact that Murdock is also the thousands of characters ‘visibles e invisibles, vivos y muertos’ (1975a: 46) [‘seen and unseen, living and dead’], and by the fact that Murdock is depicted with only the barest of defining characteristics. He is credulous and naïve, unquestioning of authority, harbouring an underdeveloped critical faculty which would prohibit him from engaging in any philosophical, metaphysical or psychological exploration. Murdock’s ingenuous character dramatizes the radicality of  his transformation during the narrative, positioning the 6

Di Giovanni translates the tale as ‘The Anthropologist’.


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initial lack of consciousness against the later position of  heightened consciousness. Jung depicts this character type as in ignorance of  the unconscious and consequently living in peril of neurotic fear of  the unknown: ‘A man who is unconscious of  himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections’ (1983: 335). This state of passivity sets the scene for the development of ego-consciousness in relation to the unconscious, a process analogized in the journey of  the hero. Whilst numerous passages of  Jung’s extensive work elucidate this psychic process, it is summarized cogently by Joseph Campbell as the prototypical sequence of steps pursued by mythic heroes across time and cultures, illustrated dramatically in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell borrowed the term ‘monomyth’ from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to describe this process: ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man’ (1949: 30). Importantly, through his passivity, Murdock embodies a collective ego that is likewise not in tune with the deeper dimensions of  the unconscious. This becomes apparent when Murdock leaves the security of  home and its nurturing environment and plunges into the unknown represented by the prairie. The narrator reveals that one of  Murdock’s ancestors had died in hostility with the Indians and that ‘esa antigua discordia de sus estirpes era un vínculo ahora’ (1975a: 46) [‘this old family bloodshed was now a link’]. A link to what? The relationship here is immediately apparent with Borges and his ancestral heritage (Williamson 2004: 24), and as such Murdock confronts a personal shadow in the guise of ancestral strife, and his trip to the prairie could indicate a step towards redemption or vindication of  this historical enmity. Murdock certainly prepares himself  for such an encounter, aware that in order to learn the language of  ‘los hombres rojos’ (1975a: 46) [‘the red men’] he would need to be accepted by them: ‘Previó, sin duda, las dificultades que lo aguardaban; tenía que lograr que los hombres rojos lo aceptaran como unos de los suyos’ (1975a: 46) [‘No doubt he foresaw the dif ficulties that were in store for him; he would have to do his

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


best to get the red men to accept him as one of  them’]. Murdock is also symbolically bound to the Indians by the curious facial description of  ‘de perfil de hacha’ (1975a: 46) [‘hatchet face’], which evokes the mythologized Native American hatchet. Amplifying Murdock to the embodiment of collective psyche, however, his experience expresses a collective confrontation with the traditional ‘other’ represented by the Indians. Campbell describes this archetypal encounter and its significance: There’s a lot in you that’s neither being carried into this persona system nor into your ego, as part of what you perceive as ‘you.’ Just opposite to the ego, buried in the unconscious, is what Jung calls the shadow. […] The nature of your shadow is a function of  the nature of your ego. It is the backside of your light side. In the myths, the shadow is represented as the monster that has to be overcome, the dragon. It is the dark thing that comes up from the abyss and confronts you the minute you begin moving down into the unconscious. It is the thing that scares you so that you don’t want to go down there. (2004: 73)

Two streams are developing together, therefore: Murdock as individual confronting his personal shadow tied to his ancestry; and Murdock as westerner confronting the shadow of  the Indian. Jung wrote plentifully about the conf lict between westerners and indigenous Americans as a projection of  the European shadow content upon the radical ‘other’. Projection implies lack of conscious awareness of such a process, and thus the Indian who is labelled savage and barbarous ref lects the savage and barbarous nature of  the European/American: ‘I have frequently observed in the analysis of  Americans that the inferior side of  the personality, the “shadow”, is represented by a Negro or Indian’ (1956: 183). Jung perceives in individual psyches the centuries-old conf lict across the Americas concerning civilization and barbarism, a debate repeatedly ref lected in Borges’ writing. It is important to note that I am not embarking on a fresh evaluation of  the matter of civilization and barbarism in Borges, primarily because such a complex issue requires a deep assessment of  Borges’ relationship with his soldier ancestors, his depiction of  the caudillo Rosas, his interpretation of  Martín Fierro, gauchos, Indians, knife-fighters and hoodlums, Perón and Evita, the Third Reich, communism, hippies (see Guibert in Burgin


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1998: 51), and the military junta of  the Dirty War. The conf licting polarities of civilization and barbarism are ref lected in his appreciation or dislike of novelists and poets, philosophies, theologies and cosmologies, and in his interpretation of such philosophical dialectics as William James’ ‘tough-minded’ or ‘tender-minded’, Jung’s shadow complex, or Nietzsche’s articulation of  the cosmopolitan Apollonian and the barbarian Dionysian. The debate is central to the Argentine national character and is central to Borges and his readership. For wider analysis see: Balderston (1993), Ulla (2002), Williamson (2004), and Orrego Arismendi (2007). Importantly for Borges, however, the time-worn debate evoked in the sixteenth century by Las Casas and Sepúlveda and rearticulated by Sarmiento cannot be reduced to a simple binary. As indicated by the enumeration above, barbarism is visible in Borges’ work in many guises beyond the mythical Indian, and indeed constitutes an essential characteristic of  the individual psyche. In this way one can see Dahlmann’s journey into the unconscious in the tale ‘El Sur’ [‘The South’] leading him to confrontation with his shadow projection, the gauchos. In this tale the gaucho represents the brutish opposite of  Dahlmann – uncultured, instinctive, dealing not with abstraction but tangible reality – but also, conversely, what Dahlmann most desires. Such an interpretation is reinforced by the idea that Borges himself supported, that Dahlmann’s whole adventure into the pampa was a dream, and hence a compensatory vision of unconscious desire.7 The integration of  the shadow, in this case through the ritual death with the assistance of  the senex figure who throws him the knife, is one of compen-


‘It [“The South”] can be read in two ways. You may read it in a straightforward way and you may think that those things happen to a hero. Then, you may think there’s a kind of moral behind it – the idea that he loved the south and in the end the south destroyed him. But there’s another possibility, the possibility of  the second half of  the story which is hallucination. When the man is killed, he’s not really killed. He died in the hospital, and though that was a dream, a kind of wishful thinking, that was the kind of death he would have liked to have – in the pampas with a knife in his hand being stabbed to death. That was what he was looking forward to all the time. So I’ve written that story in order that it would be read both ways’ (in Burgin 1998: 8).

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


sation, and brings about symbolic psychic wholeness. Similarly, in the tale of  Brodie ‘El evangelio según Marcos’ [‘The Gospel according to Mark’], the protagonist Espinosa and the rustic Gutre family (who themselves are of  ‘civilized’ Scottish ancestry) enact a symbolic union of compensation – the civilized embodying the barbarous and vice versa – through Espinosa’s ritual crucifixion. The ‘indio de ojos celestes’ [‘Indian with blue eyes’] of ‘El cautivo’ [‘The Captive’] is both barbarous and civilized, unable to remain rooted to one polarity. Lastly, as Bell-Villada (1999: 158–9) discusses, the tale of  ‘Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva’ [‘Story of  the Warrior and the Captive’] concerns the double characterization of  the Lombard barbarian warrior who becomes civilized and the civilized Englishwoman who turns savage, but also the pairing of  the cautivas – the Englishwoman and Borges’ grandmother, one civilized one savage, both captive; and consequently the double guerrero – Droctulf and Colonel Borges. These multiple and subtle pairings in Borges’ fiction evoke a strongly Jungian alchemical vision of  the twin polarities within each individual psyche: light and dark, civilized and barbarous, ego and shadow. It is interesting to note that both Jung and Borges were fascinated by Stevenson’s tale Strange Case of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Jung equating Mr Hyde with our shadow (Fordman 1953: 49), Borges acknowledging that his tales ‘Borges y yo’, and ‘El otro’ were adaptations of  Stevenson’s tale (Borges 1982: 166), and that ‘Las ruinas circulares’ was a retelling of  his tale ‘El Golem’, which itself  follows Wilde’s Picture of  Dorian Gray, which itself was a retelling of  Jekyll and Hyde (Barnstone 1982: 82). In brief, therefore, Borges repeatedly evokes the confrontation with the barbarous other, often depicted as fetch, doppelgänger, gaucho, Indian or knife-fighter, who evokes a powerful psychic drive within the ‘civilized’ protagonists and whose integration is often evoked by a ritual death. Borges’ position is strikingly akin to Jung’s in this perspective, and importantly can be understood within a framework of  the process of individuation, the journey towards psychic wholeness. Just as Dahlmann integrates the shadow of  the barbarous in his journey south, so Jung writes of  the ‘savage’ or the ‘primitive’ within us whose integration likewise propels the individual or the collective towards wholeness: ‘Indeed, for a wide-awake person, the primitive contents may often prove to be a source of renewal’ (1993: 195). And just


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as Borges recognized the cult of violence that lay within his psyche hidden beneath layers of  language, literature and culture, so Jung recounts in his memoirs a ‘primitive’ figure who appeared in a dream and who led him to conclude that: ‘The small, brown-skinned savage who accompanied me […] was an embodiment of  the primitive shadow’ (1989: 181). Murdock endures the arduous separation from home, friends, family, customs and even his language over his two-year encampment on the plains. He confronts a deeper aspect of  the ‘barbarous’ shadow, both on a personal and collective level, with the great challenge to the deep-set epistemological certainties that his culture had instilled in him: ‘llegó a pensar de una manera que su lógica rechazaba’ (1975a: 48) [‘he came to see things in a way his reason rejected’]. This is the result of  his many months of apprenticeship, his dialogue with the tribal ‘sacerdote’ [‘medicine man’], his rigorous moral and physical exercises and his awakening understanding of  the language of dreams. It is at this level that the most profound transformation occurs with Murdock, discernible in his realization that ‘en las noches de luna llena soñaba con bisontes’ (1975a: 48) [‘on nights when the moon was full he dreamed of  bison’].8 This insight, which he relays to the medicine man, signifies the conclusion of  his sojourn on the prairie and he returns home. Importantly, Murdock has engaged on the hero’s journey – a narrative encountered in countless myths (Campbell) and dreams ( Jung) – allegorizing the journey inward into the unconscious (Campbell 2004: 111–33). Having heeded the herald (his professor) and headed out to the prairie, having undergone trials and training, he encounters in his dreams the tribe’s totem animal, the bison. The bison represents another shadow projection of  Western history, as they were slaughtered en masse during the final decades of  the nineteenth century in order to drive the nomadic tribes into the reservations and make way for cattle. Campbell explored the importance of  the buf falo in Native American myths, discussing the impact of  the slaughter in depth with Bill Moyers: ‘That was a sacramental violation. […] The frontiersmen shot down whole herds, taking only the skins


Di Giovanni mistakenly translates ‘bisontes’ as ‘mustang’. I am unable to determine how that mistake arose.

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


to sell and leaving the bodies there to rot. That was a sacrilege. It turned the buf falo from a “thou” to an “it”’ (Campbell 1988: 78).9 The slaughter of  the bison was not simply a strategy to assist ethnic translocation; it was also, as Campbell observes, an attempt to erase the animal nature from within the Euro-American psyche, concomitant with a refusal to acknowledge the shadow. Jung intuited that such acts of extreme aggression arose from a fear of  the unconscious content: ‘When I see a man in a savage rage with something outside himself, I know that he is, in reality, wanting to be savage toward his own unconscious self ’ (1993: 16). Murdock has thus passed through a threshold from one mythic order represented by ‘razón’ [‘reason’] and ‘ciencia’ [‘science’] into another represented by dreams, the full moon and the totem animal. Everything has changed for Murdock. He had set out on the adventure at the behest of  the professor in order to study indigenous languages and later to present the thesis. After radical separation from home and a new vision of reality, he returns home and, like the captive of  the eponymous tale, he feels homesick for the prairie. He returns to the professor and informs him that he will not present the thesis. What has changed? There are many aspects to this question. Firstly, on an individual basis, Murdock has atoned for his ancestor who died in a skirmish with the Indians. This family lineage is symbolic of a collective need to atone for the brutality of colonialism. However, the tale is not a discourse in postcolonialism, and atonement for colonialism is a loose interpretation. Murdock has learned to harken to his dreams. Here the aesthetics of  Borges and the psychology of  Jung come together in harmony. A central pillar of  Jung’s entire life’s work rests on the importance of dreams, in brief, as messages from the unconscious: 9

Campbell also quotes the famous 1852 letter Chief  Seattle wrote to the US President: ‘Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buf falo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of  the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of  the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of  living and the beginning of survival’ (1988: 34).


Chapter Five In the end, we have to ask what the aim of  the dream is from a teleological point of view. Why does this person’s unconscious wish to show him an image like that? […] The dream is a product of  the imagination, a gallery of images, images of protection from some blow that is threatening; the function of  the dream is to compensate the conscious attitude. I believe that what dreams show us in vivid and impressive images are our vulnerable points. (1993: 143)

Dreams are cognate with the epistemological value of active imagination and are the fundamental portal for an exploration of  the unconscious; they manifest archetypal images and mythic narratives; are habitual factors of synchronicity and as such can operate outside of ego-consciousness, time and space; are pertinent to the psychic and physiological state of  the individual; and consequently are of absolute importance for the process of psychic healing. It is in our dreams that the body makes itself aware to our mind. The dream is in large part a warning of something to come. The dream is the body’s best expression, in the best possible symbol it can express, that something is going wrong. The dream calls our mind’s attention to the body’s instinctive feeling. If man doesn’t pay attention to these symbolic warnings of  his body he pays in other ways. A neurosis is merely the body’s taking control, regardless of  the conscious mind. (1993: 49)

Borges, as I argued in Chapter Two, likewise pays attention to dreams, recognizing their importance in his own literary production, observing their perennial importance in artistic creativity across cultures, puzzling over their oblique relationship with linear time, and acknowledging that they reveal much of  the psychic state of  the individual. Borges refers to Jung’s deep analysis into dream symbolism, suggesting in ‘El verdugo piadoso’ [‘The Pitying Torturer’] (one of  the Nueve Ensayos Dantescos) that ‘La segunda [conjetura] equipara, según la doctrina de Jung, las invenciones literarias a las invenciones oníricas’ (1989: 357) [‘The second conjecture, following the doctrine of  Jung, equates literary and oneiric inventions’] (2000: 284). This equation of  literary and dream creativity is a constant throughout Borges’ work, and indeed, like Jung, attention to dreams and nightmares

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


forms a mainstay of  his philosophical discourse.10 ‘Los sueños son una obra estética, quizá la expresión estética más antigua. Toma una forma extrañamente dramática’ (1989: 231) [‘Dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form’] (1984: 40). Borges places a strong epistemological value on the dreamworld and the aesthetic, and innumerable passages testify to the power of dreams to grant the dreamer knowledge of deeper aspects of  the self and further panoramas of  landscapes and times. Dreams are crucial, both for Borges and for Jung, in pursuing the path towards psychic well-being. Murdock has thus travelled deep into the unknown, and has released the powerful psychic energy represented by the dream of  the bison. This is the energy of  healing, the vital force that is essential to the shaman in tribal societies and was essential for Jung. The medicine man himself would have had to walk the similar path of physical and psychological separation, arduous training and attention to dreams prior to gaining the power to heal. Such a process of  trauma is documented in the literature concerning shamanism (Eliade 1972, Halifax 1982, McKenna 1991), encapsulated by Campbell: ‘In primal societies, the shaman provides a living conduit between the local and the transcendent. The shaman is one who has actually gone through a psychological crack-up and recovery’ (2004: xviii). In this respect, the medicine man acts as psychoanalyst for Murdock, guiding him on his exploration of  the unconscious, supporting him in the darkness. So strong is that association between shaman and doctor that Campbell’s explanation of it deserves quoting in full: Psychoanalysis, the modern science of reading dreams, has taught us to take heed of  these unsubstantial images. Also it has found a way to let them do their work. The dangerous crises of self-development are permitted to come to pass under the protecting eye of an experienced initiate in the lore and language of dreams, who then enacts the role and character of  the ancient mystagogue, or guide of souls, the initiating medicine man of  the primitive forest sanctuaries of  trial and initiation. 10

Borges, whilst recognizing the importance of dreams in psychology, is critical of what he feels is scant attention to nightmares: ‘I have read many books on dreams, volumes of psychology, but I never found anything interesting on nightmares’ (Barnstone 1982: 7).


Chapter Five The doctor is the modern master of  the mythological realm, the knower of all the secret ways and words of potency. His role is precisely that of  the Wise Old Man of  the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of  the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of  the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night. (1949: 9–10)

Murdock returns home radically transformed from the naïve and uncritical student that he was prior to his voyage of discovery, and informs his professor that he intends not to publish. This interchange – also a symbolic confrontation – is of particular importance for an understanding of  the psychological processes of  the narrative. Murdock has changed but the academy has not. He has activated a powerful force of psychic energy through his journey, and yet the wisdom gained lies beyond the strict measures of academic discourse. His professor is visibly displeased with this judgement and snidely alludes to the fact that Murdock has abandoned his culture and language, that he has gone native. But Murdock does not intend to return to the prairie; he has integrated the psychic force represented by the shadow figures of  the Indian and the bison, and has returned to his cultural home. The westerner, Jung argued, cannot pretend that his roots lie elsewhere and that his psychic constitution is other than its particular cultural formation. Jung, perhaps problematically from our twenty-first century outlook, perceived certain people, such as the Taos Pueblo Indians or the eastern Africans, operating with a more direct, unconscious and less ego-orientated psychic structure than the Europeans ( Jung 1989). He consequently advised against an abandonment of  the ‘storm-lantern of  the ego’ (Von Franz 1975: 41), not allowing it to be engulfed in the dark seas of  the unconscious. For this reason, as documented in his memoirs, he broke up a festive nocturnal drum and dance ceremony in the Sudan as he felt threatened by the overwhelming forces of unconscious energy: ‘At that time I was obviously all too close to “going black”’ (1989: 271);11 11

‘I was not to recognize the real nature of this disturbance until some years later, when I stayed in tropical Africa. It had been, in fact, the first hint of  “going black under

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


and, as Schlamm (2010) discusses, he was unwilling to meet Hindu gurus whilst on his trip to India in 1938, erroneously believing them to advocate ego abandonment. This also explains his fears over the use of psychedelic drugs (Von Franz 1971: 41). Murdock has not turned his back on his culture, nor has he abandoned ego-consciousness, but has chosen to return with the shadow energy fully integrated. The hero must always return. Here a further dynamic is established between Murdock’s journey and the process of individuation. Borges, as established, was a close reader of  William James (as was his father and Macedonio Fernández). In particular, Borges’ evaluation of mysticism owes much to the four characteristics of mystical states articulated by James in Varieties (1902: 380): inef fability, noetic quality, transiency and passivity. Borges’ reading of  Angelus Silesius, Meister Eckhart, Emmanuel Swedenborg and Blake (all of whom Jung also read) demonstrates his employment of  these four terms in navigating the ontologically challenging texts. His own two mystical experiences, as I analysed in Chapter Two, furthermore, conform to these characteristics. The noetic and the inef fable are of crucial importance in our evaluation of  Murdock’s experience, as he has acquired wisdom, yet is unable to express it in arid academic prose that lacks the vocabulary of  the experience. Murdock, like Borges, experienced something mystical, noetic yet inef fable, instructive yet beyond language. This has a further relationship with Jung, for whom the process of individuation – the hero’s journey – will constellate archetypal images which are endowed with numinosity. In a 1945 letter, Jung accredits his work as a medical doctor as healing through the numinous – a potent statement that binds him with the shamans and medicine men of  tribal cultures: I know it is exceedingly dif ficult to write anything definite or descriptive about the progression of psychological states. It always seemed to me as if  the real milestones were certain symbolic events characterized by a strong emotional tone. You are quite right, the main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact that the approach to the

the skin,” a spiritual peril which threatens the uprooted European in Africa to an extent not fully appreciated’ ( Jung 1989: 245).


Chapter Five numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology. Even the very disease takes on a numinous character. ( Jung, in Hollis and Rosen 2003: 120)

Within Jung’s dynamic process, therefore, one cannot separate healing from the numinous, or, as Campbell expresses it, healing is made possible by becoming ‘transparent to the transcendent’ (2004: xvii). Thus Murdock’s journey and the revelation it af fords him is a voyage of  healing. But what was Murdock’s (psycho)pathology prior to his journey? Here, as described above, it is important to consider Murdock embodying a collective psyche. In response to his professor, Murdock declares that ‘la ciencia, nuestra ciencia, me parece una mera frivolidad’ (1975a: 48) [‘science – our science – seems not much more than a trif le’]. Whilst on the prairie, ‘llegó a pensar de una manera que su lógica rechazaba’ (1975a: 48) [‘he came to see things in a way his reason rejected’]. Logic and science, the quintessence of  the western dream of civilization, led Murdock’s ancestor to die fighting the Indians, and led his collective ancestors to slaughter the buf falo and herd the Indians into reservations. Logic and science deny the epistemological value and validity of  fantasy, imagination, mythology and the dreamworld, the very lifeblood of  the Indian community with whom Murdock resides and the very source of  Borges’ and Jung’s aesthetic and psychological project. The numinous is taboo, and nowhere more than the university; and the professor is the stalwart representative of  his institution. Murdock’s professor advised him to head out to the prairie and to observe the rites and ‘que descubriera el secreto que los brujos revelan al iniciado’ (1975a: 46) [‘to uncover the medicine man’s secret’],12 an eccentric research proposal for one studying ‘lenguas indígenas’ [‘aboriginal languages’]. He is then irked by Murdock’s later decision not to publish. Orrego Arismendi, one of the few scholars to have scrutinized ‘El Etnógrafo’, suggests that the professor is a likely analogue of  Borges, ‘ansioso por saber lo que pasa por la mente nativa como solo podría estarlo el mismo Borges’ (2007: 49) [‘eager, like Borges himself, to know what goes through the native mind’] (my translation), owing primarily to his thirst to know these 12

Di Giovanni’s translation is here also imprecise.

Conclusion – Confronting the shadow: The hero’s journey in ‘El Etnógrafo’


hidden secrets. This is a possible interpretation, if, for example, we correlate it to Borges’ desire whilst in Japan to examine his own mystical experiences with Shinto monks. However, another angle would be to view the professor, ‘un hombre entrado en años’ (1975a: 46) [‘a man getting along in years’], as one who has failed to engage in the process of individuation, nevertheless knowing that something is missing that he wishes to recover. Like the bride-snatcher depicted by Campbell (2004: 118), he is unwilling to venture on the journey himself; or, like the mythical King Mark, who entrusts Tristan to bring back his bride Iseult, unconsciously willing that Tristan does fall in love with her; or King Arthur, who unwittingly invites Lancelot and Guinevere to love, the professor seeks to seize the treasure by proxy, all the while unconsciously resigned to the understanding that the journey is the treasure. Murdock tells him as much: ‘El secreto, por lo demás, no vale lo que valen los caminos que me condujeron a él. Esos caminos hay que andarlos’ (1975a: 48) [‘The secret, I should tell you, is not as valuable as the steps that brought me to it. Those steps have to be taken, not told’]. Murdock here acts the same role as Bjarni Thorkelsson in Borges’ tale ‘Undr’, who, when exhorted by the narrator to reveal the secret word, declines, stating that: ‘He jurado no revelarla. Además, nadie puede enseñar nada. Debes buscarla solo’ (1989: 50) [‘I have sworn not to divulge it. Besides, nobody can teach anything. You must find it out for yourself ’] (1979: 61). The professor’s psychic state corresponds to that described by Jung as exhibiting critical conf lation of ego and persona and a pathological denial of unconscious content (see, for example, his essay ‘Does the World Stand on the Verge of a Spiritual Rebirth?’ [1993: 67–76]). The professor represents the state of psychic disharmony that would be harmonized by the journey of  the hero – the process of individuation – and as such his character is crucial for an understanding of  the development of  the tale. Murdock is empowered by his experience. He has undergone a physical and spiritual adventure, has encountered the shadow, has learned from the senex, has experienced the numinous, and has returned enriched. And his adventure does not end there; the final words of  the tale can be interpreted as his experience of  the anima (for explanation of animus/a see Kast 2006) in the figure of  his wife; and, as with the shadow figure, he assimilates rather than becomes this figure, symbolized by divorce. He then finds


Chapter Five

work in the library, a location depicted symbolically by Borges as the vault of  human memory and knowledge, and thus Murdock inhabits a psychic state representing perennial wisdom. Murdock’s journey thus constitutes an archetypal voyage of  the hero, illustrated in its perennial stages by Campbell’s Monomyth. In this way this tale and other tales of  Borges reveal an unconscious prevailing force towards psychic wholeness, towards the self. It is at this level that Borges as poet/ author can be traced along the pathway of individuation, seeking the elusive centre of  the mandala-labyrinth. Importantly for this book, however, is the evocation both by Jung as psychologist and Borges as artist of a dynamic process that underscores an individual’s search for selfhood and knowledge, described by Jung as individuation, and depicted by Borges as the search for God, the ‘god in the making’ (Burgin 1998: 209, 241; Barnstone 1982: 109), his poem ‘Elogio de la sombra’: ‘Llego a mi centro, / a mi algebra y mi clave, / a mi espejo’ (1975a: 126) [‘I reach my center, / my algebra and my key, / my mirror’], or his perennial search for the true identity of  ‘Borges’. Such a process is portrayed in numerous tales and poems and is ref lected in his reading matter, such as Sufi mystics, Swedenborg and Dante. ‘El Etnógrafo’, an understudied tale, exhibits characteristics germane to the hero’s journey, a quest for knowledge integral to a process of  healing. What Murdock learns out in the desert heals his soul. And what does he learn? We must go to the desert to find out.


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Abramowicz, Maurice, 222–3 Alanus de Insulis (Alain de Lille), 117 anomalous human experience (parapsychology, paraphenomena, the occult, etc.), 6, 21–30, 91–4, 101–23, 134, 156–9, 195 Aristotle, 136, 169 Augustine, St, 28, 110, 156 Baba, Meher, 149, 185 Barili, Amelia, 15, 29, 39–43, 195, 198, 222 Bioy Casares, Adolfo, 6, 23–8, 58–9, 76, 195, 203, 217 Blake, William, 4–5, 18, 22, 33, 43, 45, 55–6, 63, 84, 98, 107, 115, 120, 123, 129, 135, 138, 140, 143–4, 157–61, 170–1, 182–3, 188–196, 210–12, 239 Borges, Jorge Luis aesthetic value of philosophy, 6, 8–14 agnosticism, 7, 12–13, 23, 45, 74, 85–6 ethics, 198–203 Hitler, Nazis, Third Reich, 24, 16, 228 in Japan, 98–9, 108, 113, 159, 191, 241 psychoanalytical reading of, 227–9 teaching Borges, 6–7, 39–43 as Virgil, 43–6 Borges, Jorge Luis, texts discussed or referred to: ‘Abramowicz’ (Los Conjurados), 222–3 ‘Ajedrez’ [‘Chess’], 154 ‘El Aleph’ [‘The Aleph’], 4, 8, 43, 76–7, 80–4, 100, 108–20, 138, 155, 157

‘Los ángeles de Swedenborg’, 194, 203–5 Antología de la literatura fantástica [Extraordinary Tales], 59, 203 Atlas, 1, 30, 104, 154, 194, 221 ‘Autobiographical Essay’, 29 ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ [‘The Library of Babel’], 7, 13, 176 ‘Borges y yo’ [‘Borges and I’], 220, 233 ‘El ciervo blanco’, 105 ‘El Congreso’ [‘The Congress’], 21, 57, 149 Los Conjurados, 3, 21–2, 193, 222, 228 ‘Delia Elena San Marco’, 73 ‘Diálogo de muertos’ [‘Dead men’s dialogue’], 22, 205–14, 221 ‘Doomsday’, 22, 193 ‘Duración del Infierno’, 85, 178, 194, 198, 210 Elogio de la sombra [In Praise of Darkness], 3, 12, 104, 153, 165, 198, 209, 214–42 ‘El Encuentro’ [‘The Meeting’], 113, 157 ‘La escritura del dios’ [‘The God’s Script’], 4, 8, 43, 83–4 ‘El Etnógrafo’ [‘The Anthropologist’], 225–42 Ficciones, 6, 13, 41, 104, 204, 221, 225 ‘Flor de Coleridge’, 142, 166 ‘Fragmentos de un evangelio apócrifo’ [‘From an apocryphal gospel’], 214–23 ‘El General Quiroga va en coche al muere’ [General Quiroga rides to his death in a carriage’], 206–7

254 Index Borges, Jorge Luis (cont.) El Hacedor [Dreamtigers], 3, 9, 105, 205 ‘His end and his beginning’, 218–21 ‘Historia de la eternidad’ [‘A History of Eternity’], 21–2, 80, 109, 113, 129, 194 ‘Historia de los ángeles’ [‘History of Angels’], 15, 60 ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkens’ [‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkens’], 13, 15, 175 El Informe de Brodie [Dr Brodie’s Report], 3, 72, 204, 225, 229, 233 ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’ [‘The Garden of Forking Paths’], 7 ‘Leyenda’ ‘Legend’, 208 El Libro de Arena [The Book of Sand], 3, 15, 57, 113, 225 Libro del cielo y del infierno, 195 Libro de los seres imaginarios [Book of Imaginary Beings], 21, 46–7, 55, 60–1, 73, 157, 193–4, 203, 228 La Memoria de Shakespeare [Shakespeare’s Memory], 3, 113, 194 ‘El milagro secreto’ [‘The Secret Miracle’], 22, 84, 105 ‘La muerte y la brújula’ [‘Death and the Compass’], 7, 13 ‘El muerto’ [‘The Dead Man’], 176 ‘La muralla y los libros’ [‘The Wall & the Books’], 12 ‘La nadería de la personalidad’ [‘The Nothingness of Personality’], 15, 17, 37, 61, 109, 199, 220 ‘Nueva refutación del tiempo’ [‘New Refutation of Time’], 80, 194 Nueve Ensayos Dantescos, 49, 66, 228, 236

‘Pedro Salvadores’, 12, 191, 192 ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’ [‘Pierre Menard, author of the The Quixote’], 7, 14 ‘Sentirse en muerte’ mystical experience, 80, 94, 99–100, 108–20, 123, 129, 149, 155–9, 187 Siete Noches [Seven Nights], 3, 31, 33, 35, 41, 48, 69, 71, 99, 103, 105, 133 ¿Qué es el Budismo?, 41 ‘Quevedo’, 34 ‘El remordimiento’, 218 ‘La Rosa de Paracelsus’, 21 ‘Rosas’, 206–7 ‘Las Ruinas circulares’ [‘The Circular Ruins’], 21, 56, 72, 84, 104, 221, 233 ‘Ruiseñor de Keats’ [‘The Nightingale of Keats’], 135, 142, 169 ‘Swedenborg, testigo de lo invisible’ [‘Testimony to the Invisible’], 36, 38, 50–5, 63, 75, 91–2, 110, 117, 125, 134, 139, 143–6, 150, 155, 162, 166, 171, 173–5, 178–80, 182–3, 192, 196, 200, 202–3, 207–12 ‘Un teólogo en la muerte’, 194, 204–7, 213, 219–21 ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, 5, 7, 58 ‘Tres versiones de Judas’ [‘Three Versions of Judas’], 22 ‘Two English Poems’, 30 ‘Undr’, 15–18, 151, 241 ‘Utopía de un hombre que está cansado’ [‘Utopia of a Tired Man’], 15–18 ‘Veinticinco de agosto, 1983’, 113, 157, 194 ‘Una vindicación del falso Basílides’ [‘A Vindication of the False Basilides’], 21 Borges, Norah, 60


Index Böhme, Jakob (Boehme or Behmen), 119, 127, 138, 177, 186–7, 190–1 Bruno, Giordano, 21 Buddhism, 5, 15, 33, 39–43, 83, 99, 119, 133, 150, 195, 220 Zen, 98–9, 133, 150, 185, 215

Fernández, Macedonio, 137, 188, 239 Ficino, Marsilio, 21 Flaubert, Gustave, 52, 75, 196 Flynn, Annette, 36–9, 101, 109–10, 114, 137, 191 Freud, Sigmund, 19, 227–9

Calderón de la Barca, Pedro, 105, 220 Campbell, Joseph, 94, 225–42 Canto, Estela, 80–2, 85, 89, 118–19, 127 Castillejo, Cristóbal de, 27–8 Cohen, John Michael, 83, 115, 119, 138, 162 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 105, 135, 142, 167, 169–70, 188–9, 196, 211 Conan Doyle, Arthur, 54, 92, 94, 145, 163, 181, 196, 219 Corbin, Henry, 55–6, 107, 148, 196, 210–11, 214, 223

Grof, Stanislav, 42, 94 Gurdjieff, George Ivanovich, 22–3

Daniels, Michael, 94–100, 140–2 Dante Alighieri, 4–5, 11, 18, 22, 36, 43–6, 47–77, 105–18, 150, 158, 176–80, 186, 193, 195–6, 202, 210, 212, 228, 236, 242 dreams, 4, 18, 29–38, 56, 62, 68, 74, 102–6, 123, 150, 158, 188, 198, 21–3, 219, 221, 223, 227, 229, 234–7 lucid dreams, 91, 102–4, 123, 212 nightmares, 31, 34–5, 68, 103–6, 346–7 Dunne, John William, 22, 105, 152 Eckhart, Meister, 4–5, 8, 120–1, 187, 239 Eliade, Mircea, 148, 237 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 2, 4, 52, 54, 57, 75, 86, 91, 106, 122, 126–7, 130–5, 139, 145, 147–8, 161, 165–92, 196, 208 Transcendentalism, 75, 121, 139–40, 167–9, 192

Huxley, Aldous, 22, 94, 122, 141, 149, 185 Inge, William Ralph (Dean Inge), 5, 87–8, 95, 107, 121 James, Henry, 196 James, Henry, Sr, 52, 130, 139, 188 James, William, 5, 8, 11, 18, 22, 24, 52, 79, 82–91, 95–102, 105–15, 119, 121–4, 125–63, 167, 169–70, 184–8, 196, 222, 232, 239 Varieties of Religious Experience, 79, 88–91, 95, 119, 127, 132, 135–9, 159, 163, 239 Jodorowsky, Alejandro (Alexandro), 225 Juan de la Cruz, San (St John of the Cross), 5, 64–5, 72, 77, 84, 115, 117–18, 145, 162, 187 Jung, Carl Gustav Answer to Job, 15 the hero, 225–42 individuation, 226, 233, 239, 241–2 Memories Dreams Reflections, 20, 29 as mystic and guru, 20–1 The Red Book, 18, 20–1, 104, 212 Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, 153–4 the shadow, 225–42 synchronicity, 25–8, 236 transcendental function (active imagination), 212, 236 UFOs, 18–19

256 Index Jurado, Alicia, 82, 89, 127 Kabbalah (Cabala), 4–5, 17, 39, 64, 79, 145, 148, 162, 195 Kant, Immanuel, 9, 11, 18, 59, 61, 93, 137, 139, 159, 169, 170, 183, 188, 196 Kodama, María, 22, 83–5, 114, 119, 222 Kripal, Jeffrey, 6, 31, 39, 82, 113, 121, 123, 128, 133 Lachman, Gary, 20, 31, 91 Lange, Haydée, 30–1, 104, 154, 221 Lezama Lima, José, 55–7, 176 Luis de León, 5, 64, 77, 107, 118, 140, 145, 162 McKenna, Terence, 94, 237 Milosz, Czeslaw, 212 Montaigne, Michel de, 26–8, 170–1 Myers, Frederic, 24 Neoplatonism, 4, 21, 85, 142, 146, 167 Novalis, 4, 25 Ocampo, Victoria, 17–18 Ocampo, Silvina, 203 Ouspensky, Peter, 22–3 Pahnke, Walter, 97, 115 Paracelsus, 18, 21 Parmenides, 59, 169 Pascal, 5, 9, 65, 118, 162, 187, 194 Pedro Páramo, 206 Plato, 9, 13, 34, 37, 59, 73, 83, 90, 110, 133, 135–6, 142, 152–3, 157, 169, 176 Poe, Edgar Allan, 48, 59, 167, 196 postcolonialism, 6, 235 psychedelic, 94, 115, 122, 149, 239 Quiroga, Facundo, 206–14, 220

Raine, Kathleen, 52, 56, 63, 176, 211 Reid, Alastair, 43, 45 Rosas, Juan Manuel de, 206–14, 220 Russell, Bertrand, 24, 87, 121, 129–30, 132, 159, 196 Scholem, Gershom, 17–18, 148 Schopenhauer, Arthur, 9, 18, 55, 88, 99–100, 136, 140, 151, 183, 196 Schuchard, Marsha Keith, 146–7, 163 Scotus Erigena, 4–5, 59 Shakespeare, William, 63, 76, 105, 118, 152, 161–2, 170–1, 179, 220 Shamanism, 20–1, 94, 237, 239 Shaw, George Bernard, 15, 57, 101, 194, 196, 200, 202 Silesius, Angelus, 4, 5, 18, 22, 43, 64, 126, 159, 179, 187, 239 Cherubinischer Wandersmann, 22 Socrates, 37, 133, 152 Staal, Frits, 42, 86, 88–9, 107, 122, 126, 130–1, 144, 150 Stace, Walter, 5, 86, 90–1, 96–7, 101–2, 106–8, 115, 122, 124, 126, 129–30, 135, 141 Steiner, Rudolf, 22, 196 Stevenson, Robert Louis, 5, 7, 57, 196 ‘Brownies’, 34–6, 46, 105 Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 34–5, 233 Sufi mystical poetry, 4, 22, 44, 53, 83, 116, 155–6, 242 Suzuki, Daisetsu Teitaro, 94, 96, 99, 150, 197 Swedenborg, Emanuel Arcana Coelestia, 2, 203–10, 217 reception in Catholic countries, 197–8 doctrine of correspondences, 94, 145, 174–6, 188, 202


Index Heaven and Hell, 1–2, 22, 45, 47, 54, 56, 59, 123, 128, 143, 170–1, 178, 180, 196, 199–221 as heterodox or heretic, 63–6, 77, 94, 106, 123, 178, 181, 187, 192, 199 Melanchthon, 204–7, 213, 219–21 Moravian Chapel, 146, 189–90 psychic or extra-sensory powers, 91–4 as Viking or as Eric the Red, 2, 36, 51, 173, 178, 211 Teresa de Jesús (Teresa de Ávila, St Teresa), 5, 8, 62, 97, 120, 126, 145, 162, 187 Thousand and One Nights, 6 Underhill, Evelyn, 82, 86, 90–1, 95–6, 106–7, 113, 115, 121–4, 135, 141 Van Dusen, Wilson, 38, 92–4, 100, 102, 130, 132, 134, 197, 213

Von Franz, Marie-Louise, 20, 115, 238–9 Watts, Alan, 79, 86, 101, 107, 185 Weatherhead, Leslie Dixon, 48, 59, 64–5, 72, 77, 108, 118, 194 Wellbeloved, Sophia, 22–3 Wells, H. G., 5, 48, 59, 179, 197 Western esotericism, 5, 17, 24, 40, 142 Whitman, Walt, 54, 135, 166–7, 196, 228 Wilson, Colin, 63, 172 Woolger, Roger, 20 Xul Solar (Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari), 5, 77, 80, 126, 157, 170–1, 194 Yeats, W. B., 52, 54, 62–3, 81, 130, 161, 181, 196 Zaehner, R. C., 86, 96, 101, 106–7, 115, 122, 135, 141, 150

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Antonio Sánchez Postmodern Spain. A Cultural Analysis of 1980s–1990s Spanish Culture. 220 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03910-914-2

Vol. 2

Geneviève Fabry y Claudio Canaparo (eds.) El enigma de lo real. Las fronteras del realismo en la narrativa del siglo XX. 275 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03910-893-0

Vol. 3

William Rowlandson Reading Lezama’s Paradiso. 290 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03910-751-3

Vol. 4

Fernanda Peñaloza, Jason Wilson and Claudio Canaparo (eds) Patagonia. Myths and Realities. 277 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03910-917-3

Vol. 5

Xon de Ros Primitivismo y Modernismo. El legado de María Blanchard. 238 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03910-937-1

Vol. 6

Sergio Plata Visions of Applied Mathematics. Strategy and Knowledge. 284 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03910-923-4

Vol. 7

Annick Louis Borges ante el fascismo. 374 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-005-6

Vol. 8

Helen Oakley From Revolution to Migration. A Study of Contemporary Cuban and Cuban-American Crime Fiction. 200 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-03911-021-6

Vol. 9

Thea Pitman Mexican Travel Writing. 209 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-020-9

Vol. 10

Francisco J. Borge A New World for a New Nation. The Promotion of America in Early Modern England. 240 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-070-4

Vol. 11

Helena Buffery, Stuart Davis and Kirsty Hooper (eds) Reading Iberia. Theory/History/Identity. 229 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-109-1

Vol. 12

Matías Bruera Meditations on Flavour. Forthcoming. ISBN 978-3-03911-345-3

Vol. 13 Angela Romero-Astvaldsson La obra narrativa de David Viñas. La nueva inflexión de Prontuario y Claudia Conversa. 300 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-100-8 Vol. 14

Aaron Kahn The Ambivalence of Imperial Discourse. Cervantes’s La Numancia within the ‘Lost Generation’ of Spanish Drama (1570–90). 243 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-098-8

Vol. 15

Turid Hagene Negotiating Love in Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua. The role of love in the reproduction of gender asymmetry. 341 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-011-7

Vol. 16

Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez The Dutch Revolt through Spanish Eyes. Self and Other in historical and literary texts of Golden Age Spain (c. 1548–1673). 346 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-136-7

Vol. 17

Stanley Black (ed.) Juan Goytisolo. Territories of Life and Writing. 202 pages. 2007. ISBN 978-3-03911-324-8

Vol. 18

María T. Sánchez The Problems of Literary Translation. A Study of the Theory and Practice of Translation from English into Spanish. 269 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-326-2

Vol. 19

Aino Linda Rinhaug Fernando Pessoa. A Ludicrous Self. Forthcoming. ISBN 978-3-03911-909-7

Vol. 20

Ana Cruz García Re(de-)generando identidades. Locura, feminidad y liberalización en Elena Garro, Susana Pagano, Ana Castillo y María Amparo Escandón. 259 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-524-2

Vol. 21

Idoya Puig (ed.) Tradition and Modernity. Cervantes’s Presence in Spanish Contemporary Literature. 221 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-526-6

Vol. 22

Charlotte Lange Modos de parodia. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Jorge Ibargüengoitia y José Agustín. 252 pages. 2008. ISBN 978-3-03911-554-9

Vol. 23

Claudio Canaparo Geo-epistemology. Latin America and the Location of Knowledge. 284 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-573-0

Vol. 24

Jesús López-Peláez Casellas “Honourable Murderers”. El concepto del honor en Othello de Shakespeare y en los “dramas de honor” de Calderón. 321 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-825-0

Vol. 25

Marian Womack and Jennifer Wood (eds) Beyond the Back Room. New Perspectives on Carmen Martín Gaite. 336 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-03911-827-4

Vol. 26

Manuela Palacios and Laura Lojo (eds) Writing Bonds. Irish and Galician Contemporary Women Poets. 232 pages. 2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-834-2

Vol. 27

Myriam Osorio Agencia femenina, agencia narrativa. Una lectura feminista de la obra en prosa de Albalucía Ángel. 180 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-893-3

Vol. 28


Vol. 29

Soledad Pérez-Abadín Barro Cortázar y Che Guevara. Lectura de Reunión. 182 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-919-6

Vol. 30

Gonzalo Pasamar Apologia and Criticism. Historians and the History of Spain, 1500–2000. 301 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-920-2

Vol. 31

Victoria Carpenter (ed.) (Re)Collecting the Past. History and Collective Memory in Latin American Narrative. 315 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-928-8

Vol. 32

Geneviève Fabry, Ilse Logie y Pablo Decock (eds.) Los imaginarios apocalípticos en la literatura hispanoamericana contemporánea. 472 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-937-0

Vol. 33

Julian Vigo Performative Bodies, Hybrid Tongues. Race, Gender, Sex and Modernity in Latin America and the Maghreb. 391 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-03911-951-6

Vol. 34

Heike Pintor Pirzkall La cooperación alemana al desarrollo. Factores condicionantes de su transformación en la década de los noventa y su impacto en América Latina. 374 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-0343-0107-7

Vol. 35

Arturo Casas and Ben Bollig (eds) Resistance and Emancipation. Cultural and Poetic Practices. 419 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-0160-2

Vol. 36


Vol. 37

Guillermo Olivera Laboratorios de la mediatización. La experimentación con materiales mediáticos, la teoría y la crítica cultural argentina, 1965–1978. 364 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-0201-2

Vol. 38

Guy Baron Gender in Cuban Cinema. From the Modern to the Postmodern. 334 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-0229-6

Vol. 39

Claudio Canaparo El imaginario Patagonia. Ensayo acerca de la evolución conceptual del espacio. 576 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-0287-6

Vol. 40

Inmaculada Murcia Serrano Agua y destino. Introducción a la estética de Ramón Gaya. 220 pages. 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-0251-7

Vol. 41

Bill Richardson Borges and Space. 266 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0246-3

Vol. 42


Vol. 43

Ann Frost The Galician Works of Ramón del Valle-Inclán. Patterns of Repetition and Continuity. 241 pages. 2010. ISBN 978-3-0343-0242-5

Vol. 44 Milagros López-Peláez Casellas What About the Girls? Estrategias narrativas de resistencia en la primera literatura chicana. 265 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0264-7

Vol. 45

Bill Richardson and Lorraine Kelly (eds) Power, Place and Representation. Contested Sites of Dependence and Independence in Latin America. 268 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0710-9

Vol. 46

Patricia D’Allemand José María Samper. Nación y cultura en el siglo XIX colombiano. 177 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0288-3

Vol. 47


Vol. 48

Emilio Rosales Baroja. La novela como laberinto. 163 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0774-1

Vol. 49

Kristine Vanden Berghe Las novelas de la rebelión zapatista. 171 pages. 2012. ISBN 978-3-0343-0779-6

Vol. 50

William Rowlandson Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism. 267 pages. 2013. ISBN 978-3-0343-0811-3

Vol. 51 Elena Rodríguez-Guridi Exégesis del “error”. Una reinterpretación de la praxis de escritura en Libro de la vida, Novelas ejemplares y Desengaños amorosos. 175 pages. 2013. ISBN 978-3-0343-0817-5

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