Thursday, August 16, 2007

Seven Nights - Jorge Luis Borges

I recently finished reading the brilliant essays by the great master. Included here are some of my favorable quotes from the book; though I would add that the whole book is a treasure in itself.

Seven Nights – Jorge Luis Borges

In understanding Borges, one should remember that for him, there is no sensible difference between literary and real experience, so when he talks about books and writers, it is like talking of landscapes and journeys.

The Divine Comedy

Chance – except that there is no chance; what we call chance is our ignorance of the complex machinery of causality.

Poetry is, among so many other things, an intonation, an accentuation that is often untranslatable.

Enchantment, as Stevenson said, is one of the special qualities a writer must have. Without enchantment, the rest is useless.

Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.

There are two lines which confirm this. One is in Homer –or the Greeks whom we call Homer – where he says, in the Odyssey, “The gods weave misfortunes for men, so that the generations to come will have something to sing about.” The other, much later, is from Mallarme, who repeats, less beautifully, what Homer said: “tout aboutit en un livre,” everything ends up in a book. The Greeks speak of generations that will sing; Mallarme speaks of an object, of a thing among things, a book. But the idea is the same, the idea that we are made for art, we are made for memory, we are made for poetry, or perhaps we are made for oblivion. But something remains, and that something is history or poetry, which are not essentially different.

It was forgotten that poetry began by being narrative, that the roots of poetry are the epic, that the epic is the first poetic genre. In the epic there is time: a before, during, and after. All of that is in poetry.

Halfway through the afternoon that day,

As I bid you my habitual goodbye,

A vague dismay at leaving

Made me know that I loved you.

There is something that Dante does not say, but which one feels at a distance from the episode and perhaps gives it its virtue. Dante relates the fate of the two livers with an infinite pity, and we sense that he envies their fate. Paolo and Francesca are in Hell and he will be saved, but they have loved and he never won the love of the women he loved, Beatrice. There is a certain injustice to this, and Dante must feel it as something terrible, now that he is separated from her. In contrast, these two sinners are together. 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.

Everyone is defined in a single instant of their lives, a moment in which a man encounters his self for always.

God, as Nietzsche would say, is beyond good and evil.

In some tercet of the Commedia he (Dante) says that no one is permitted to know the judgments of Providence. We cannot anticipate them; no one can know who will be saved and who condemned.


DREAMS ARE THE GENUS; nightmares the species.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves.

For the 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.

He (Sir Thomas Browne) says that dreams give us an idea of the excellence of the soul, seeing the soul free of the body and engaged in play and dreaming. He thinks that the soul enjoys its freedom. And Addison says effectively that the soul, when it is free from the shackles of the body, imagines, and is able to imagine with a freedom it does not have in waking.

Dreams are an aesthetic work , perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form. We are, as Addison said, the theater, the spectators, the actors, the story.

The Thousand and One Nights

”What is time? If you don’t ask me, I know; but if you ask me, I don’t know.” – St. Augustine on time.

“Of the operations of the spirit, the least frequent is reason.” – Fenelon.

Perhaps its not worth it to define something we feel instinctively.


As the vast ocean has only one flavor, the flavor of salt, so the flavor of the Law is the flavor of salvation.

In every moment of our lives we are weaving and interweaving. What we weave is not only our will, or acts, our half-dreams, our sleep, our half-waking; we are forever weaving our karma. And when we die, another being will be born who is the heir of that karma.

To live is to be born, grow old, grow sick, die – not to mention the other sorrows, including the one that was, for the Buddha, the most pathetic: not to be with those we love.

We must renounce passion. Suicide does not help, because it is a passionate act. The man who commits suicide remains in the world of dreams. We must reach the understanding that the world is an apparition, a dream; that life is a dream. But we must feel this deeply, having reached it through the exercises of meditation.

What does it mean to reach Nirvana? Simply that our acts no longer cast shadows. While we are in this world we are subject to karma. Everyone of our acts is interwoven into this mental structure called karma. When we have reached Nirvana our acts no longer have shadows; we are free. St. Augustine said that when we are saved we will have no reason to think about good or evil. We will continue to do good, without thinking of it.


The Irish pantheist Scotus Erigena, said that the holy scripture contains an infinite number of meanings, and he compared it to the iridescent feathers of a peacock’s tail. Centuries later, a Spanish Kabbalist said that God wrote the scriptures for each one of the men of Israel, that there are as many as Bibles as there are readers of the Bible. This is believable if we consider that the author of the Bible and the author of the destiny of each one of its readers is the same. One may think of these two sentences merely as demonstrations of the Celtic imagination and of the Oriental imagination. But I would venture to say that they are both absolutely correct, not only in regard to the Scriptures but to any book worth rereading.

We say that Spanish is a sonorous language, that English is a language of varied sounds, that Latin has a certain dignity to which all the later languages aspired: we apply aesthetic categories to languages. Erroneously we suppose that language corresponds to that mysterious thing we call reality. The truth is that language is something else.

Bradley said that one of the effects of poetry is that it gives us the impression not of discovering something new but of remembering something that we have forgotten.

If you like the book, fine; if you don’t, don’t read it. The idea of compulsory reading is absurd; it’s only worthwhile to speak of compulsory happiness. I believe that poetry is something one feels. If you don’t feel poetry, if you have no sense of beauty, if a story doesn’t make you want to know what happened next, then the author has not written for you. Put it aside. Literature is rich enough to offer you some other author worthy of your attention whom you will read tomorrow.

This is how I have taught, relying on the aesthetic event, which does not need to be defined. The aesthetic event is something as evident, as immediate, as indefinable as love, the taste of fruit, of water. We feel poetry as we feel the closeness of a woman, or as we feel a mountain or a bay. If we feel it immediately, why dilute it with other words, which no doubt will be weaker than our feelings?

What is the death of a man? With him dies a face that will never occur again, as Pliny observed. Each man has his own unique face, and with him die thousand of events, thousand of memories, all of them too human.

Beauty waits in ambush for us. If we are sensitive, we will feel it in the poetry of all languages.

For me, beauty is a physical sensation, something we feel with our whole body. It is not the result of judgment. We do not arrive at it by way of rules. We either feel beauty or we don’t.

The rose has no why, it flowers because it flowers.

The Kabbalah

Today we think of a book as an instrument for justifying, defending, disputing, explicating, or chronicling a doctrine, but in Antiquity a book was seen only as a substitute for the spoken word. (As per Plato) Books are like statues, they may seem alive, but when you ask them something they do not reply.


At that time, I believed that shyness was very important, but now I know that shyness is one of the evils one must try to overcome, that in reality to be shy doesn’t matter – it is like so many other things to which one gives an exaggerated importance.

No one should read self-pity or reproach

Into this statement of the majesty

Of god; who with such splendid irony

Granted me books and blindness at one touch.

When something ends, we must begin something new.

We have a very precise image – an image at times shameless – of what we have lost, but we are ignorant of what may follow or replace it.

I too have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny – that bad things and some good things would happen to me, but that, in the long run, all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness does not need to be transformed: happiness is its own end.

I want to live with myself,

I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven,

Alone, without witnesses,

Free of love, of jealousy,

of hate, of hope, of fear.

A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end.

Everything near becomes distant. Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go off, leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude – except that the supreme solitude is death. And “everything near becomes distant” also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show, speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many – all of them so strange – that fate or chance provide.


Amo ergo sum said...

"The rose has no why, it flowers because it flowers" - that is Heidegger's line... controversial pick to quote him along Jewish religion.


I didnt knew that it was a line by Heidegger and that it is controversial.

I quoted it cos it was a part of Borge's essay on Poetry and has got nothing to do with religion or controversy.