Surviving 2017 with Borges: On the Art of Wonder and Wonder of Art
Considering Good, Evil, Nazis, and All the What-Ifs That Make a Life
In an essay from 1941 on H.G. Wells and Nazism, Jorge Luis Borges expressed surprise that the English writer who had fictively sent worlds to war was not a Nazi. “Wells, incredibly, is not a Nazi,” Borges wrote in “Two Books,” a pensive piece that was at once an exegesis of books by Wells and Bertrand Russell and an explication of how easy it is to fall prey to the very bigotry one may claim to oppose.
“Incredibly,” Borges continued, “because nearly all my colleagues are, though they either deny it or don’t know it.” Even certain groups supposedly focused on combating anti-Semitism turned out, to the Argentine’s frustrated indignation, to share an all too familiar obsession with racialist categorizing. “I . . . remember with some amazement a certain assembly that was convoked to condemn anti-Semitism,” he said, which “swore that a German Jew was vastly different from a German. In vain I reminded them that Adolf Hitler said the same thing; in vain I suggested that an assembly against racism should not tolerate the doctrine of a Chosen People; in vain I quoted the wise words of Mark Twain: ‘I have no race prejudices. . . All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me; he can’t be worse.’”
Aside from the simplistic gendering of such language, Twain and Borges were equally right. What Borges points out is the disquieting way in which we can become the very thing we oppugn, possessed by the very demon we wish to exorcise from another.
Despite such sentiments, and unlike Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, or James Baldwin, Borges isn’t often invoked as a writer we specially need today; instead, like the infinite Book of Sand, like blue tigers, he is immortal, tied to anywhere and anytime. Yet when I began rereading him recently, I realized he was illuming something deep in me. A great writer casts a reflection in a mirror you never knew you had in you, and then, suddenly, you find yourself, too, in this unexpected, perhaps unsettling, glass; Borges, despite the blindness that afflicted him later in life, always saw the reflections. Borges, so long one of my most beloved writers, affirmed something I was beginning to forget and question under the dull gravity of my sadness over world politics: why I was reading, why books were valuable, why a wide, cosmopolitan understanding of the world—as opposed to the narrowness of nationalism—is always the answer.
In this era of disorienting doublethink and gaslighting, extraordinary violence, cruelty, and evil seem to grow more and more banal—such Arendtian normalcy of evil due, in part, to how the distancing effect of being on social media allows too many of us to detach from the complexity of human experience and, instead, treat others as crude ideologies rather than complicated individuals. It feels strange, sometimes, to read even your favorite books when, suddenly, you learn that a policy has been proposed to ban people like you from the military (thankfully blocked), or that yet another neo-Nazi living next door thinks, with the casual yet grandiose mythologizing of a previous century, that someone like me should live in a separate country and whites in their own ethno-state, or that, under the guise of religious liberty, the president seemingly supports the right of companies to hang novel, yet too familiar, signs in their windows: no cakes for gay weddings; no gays or trannies here. Sometimes, you can’t even concentrate on what you’re reading like you used to.
When so much is at stake, reading for pleasure can even come to seem, in our weak hours, an act shadowed with guilt: Why are you in here doing this, while others need you, while the world you want to help build is crumbling around you? At my worst moment, I found myself asking why I was reading and researching at all in a time where so many people want persons like me—women in general, trans women specifically, people of color, people from abroad—to quiet down rather than speak up, to be disenfranchised, if not dead. Yet Borges, when I began to reenter his extraordinary stories, reminded me of the value of reading and the enduring power of art.
Though often considered a “cold,” intellectual writer—cold because love between people rarely enters into his work, aside from atypical stories like “Ulrikke”—there is a deep emotion in Borges’ work. His love is for reading, for learning, for imagining the many paths a garden may take, for exploring that most human of things: what if, and what then, and, too, the curious salvific power of forgetfulness. The narrator of “The Aleph,” upon seeing all the universe in an extraordinary tiny space by the same name, fears that he will never be able to experience surprise anymore, living under the endless moonless night of déjà vu, but is relieved when, “[f]ortunately, forgetfulness. . . began to work me again.” Borges’ work, then, is a testament to contradictory, yet somehow complementary, forces: to memory, and to forgetting. His reflections on WWII are important today—as is his work in toto.
On those days when I began to feel cold myself, he helped me feel a warmth I remembered: the way books, even when we do not realize it, can save us.
In “The Other,” a short story from The Book of Sand, Borges meets a younger version of himself in Cambridge; the other Borges believes he is near the Rhône. Both wonder if they are the dream of the other, like Zhuangzi’s butterfly, or the ending of the most perturbingly bleak draft of Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, where all of life, unceremoniously, is revealed to be a meaningless, evanescent, “grotesque and foolish dream.”
Both Borgeses are real, to the senses, in the moment, even if they may be each other’s dreams; however, the elder Borges realizes that despite their being the same person, they are also not the same, for his age and experience has transformed him. They are almost two different individuals, even if they share the same name and former address. “We were too different, yet too alike,” Borges writes. Bertrand Russell proposed in 1915 that we are different individuals at every moment of life, just as a film strip of an actor can be cut into distinct pieces, each showing what Russell called a “momentary man,” and real people off the screen would, likewise, be “a series of momentary [humans]”; for Borges, we are both always the same person and always shifting, like Heraclitus’s river. “I am the river,” he writes in his ethereal, incantatory poem, “Heraclitus.”
In “Borges and I,” Borges separates identities again: there is the Borges who writes certain kinds of stories and who possesses celebrity, and then there is another, little-known. “I am not sure which one of us it is that’s writing this page,” Borges—or the other Borges—ends the piece, with a crypticness both playful and poignant. Beneath such metafictional games is something simpler and more profound: questions about the reality not only of the life we are living, but of the ones we’ve failed to, and of the versions of ourselves that could have been, or are, but will perhaps never be known by anyone but ourselves, if even that.
The two fictions reminded me of the lives I had not lived, the smoky what-ifs I had dreamt since I was a child, the versions of me I had never become, for better or for worse. The hands I imagined having held in a parallel timeline because I failed to in this one, the women I had fallen in love with and married in other worlds, the men who had loved me on ships that never sailed, the books I wrote with you in another language neither of us will read, the inscrutable yet simple reality in which I was born a cisgender girl rather than a trans girl tormented by fears and mirrors for 20 years, the timeline in which I still said as a child “I want to be evil” like Eartha Kitt without knowing who Eartha Kitt was but this time lacked my oversized angel on a shoulder and let a brimstone piano play in me, the friend who is a lover and a lover friend on other Earths, the timelines where you didn’t say the wrong thing after sex, the alternate realities in which my parents didn’t almost die when a great hurricane with the strength of the old gods destroyed our island last year.
The fragrant what-ifs that never bloomed.
I think, think, then recall the grandmother in Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, who realizes, wisely, that one must never use up time too quickly. The what-ifs in our deep-sunk mirrors show the power of books to help us both remember and forget; in them, we can live, briefly, a life that never was, yet is, because it exists inside us, which lets us live and love a little longer, when a certain kind of solitude threatens to become too loud with a pelagic silence.
I’ve wondered, often, if I would have been happier if I had taken one of those other paths. I’ve wondered if I would really have been me, had I been born cis. Ironically, though I would be a woman either way, I would not, I don’t think, be me, if I wasn’t trans; how could I be, without the depression and pain from decades of dysphoria that made me retreat so far inside myself? For Bradbury, stepping on a butterfly in the age of dinosaurs could alter both language and the outcome of a human election, millions of years later; perhaps we would be unrecognizable to ourselves if we met a version of us that made even small changes to our past. Perhaps not. Yet we are defined by our what-ifs, by our memories of times that never actually happened.
Our lives would lose much, if not all, of their meaning if we did not fail to make those what-ifs bloom. Borges relishes those maieutic questions, and, in his fictions, those alternate paths and choices, impossibly, become real. The fire of art can make a rose crumble to ashes, then bloom, somehow, again, as in his story, “The Rose of Paracelsus.” The efflorescent garden that once had a single path now forks, again and again.
In this, there is a special beauty—and, as Blake knew of tigers, something fearsome, as well.
We all have a piece of hell in us, a bit of brimstone kindling that catches and burns, red then blue, sulfurous then sumptuous, every so often. We all have something in us that grins and, at the spark of the flame in that night-hearth within, wishes to sit somewhere inside us and play a dark tune, with Paganiniesque flair, along the keys of a piano that usually sits silent in that room with the hearth. Even those of us, like myself, who lack a religion altogether sometimes hear the keys of something terrible. Some hear it more often, are indeed more demon than angel; none of us, however, is entirely one or the other, and defining the parameters of each is subjective at best.
That all of us have this is a partly why Borges was so surprised Wells was not a Nazi. “Nazism suffers from unreality,” he wrote three years later; anticipating their heirs today, he described the cognitive dissonance of Nazism supporters “behaving incoherently” and “no longer aware that their incoherence need be justified.” Such bigotries are ancient songs, even if their titles change, which makes them all the scarier.
Naively, I tend to believe both that we are inclined to nastiness and brutishness, à la Hobbes (both philosopher and tiger), and that we are also generally good; but we often want to believe only one is the truth, and when we find our monsters shopping in our supermarkets or eating in our favorite restaurants or extolling the virtues of our most esteemed books, we feel scared, because a line we had drawn has begun to break down, and, perhaps, because even the most selfless of us hears the tigrine night-music sometimes, and wonders, not why, but just wonders.
The incredible thing, Borges knew, was choosing, if not to forget the music, to shut the door to the piano room, if that is what our heart tells us to do. The music will still be there and yet not there, like Tlön or Uqbar or Schrodinger’s poor immortal cat, but we will be better for having chosen.
The universe is the library, Borges says in “The Library of Babel”; the library, then, is also the universe, or a map towards its grand Escherian staircase. When the world around me feels flustering, even futile, there’s a revivifying power in being reminded, as Borges’ art does, of the beautiful and eerie mystery of the cosmos, as well as of the worlds, perhaps as infinite as Lucretius’s atoms, in a text.
As a tween, I loved pondering the big what-if: what if we are here, on this planet, just because, and isn’t that something, in of itself. As an adult, Borges’ infectious curiosity restores that sense of wonder to me, even in my sad hours. I feel, again, I can close my eyes and climb the star-steps into a vast labyrinthine hall of doors to who-knows-where, and walk through the first, and, near the hall’s end, my end, anyway, when the hours have outlived all their clocks, I hear the handle of a dust-endragoned door begin to black-hole-buzz. Borges reminds us that even finite books seem to contain a piece of infinity, some simultaneous proof and refutation of Zeno beyond words, in them. Wonder heals; it gives us something to look to, to live for. Even if art cannot heal the incarnadine, all-too-real scars of the world, it can give us the strength to begin to do so ourselves, by making us yearn again.
Borges was not entirely convinced that time repeated itself, à la Nietzsche’s Eternal Return or Marcus Aurelius’s notion that the present always contains all human possibilities, but in 1941, faced with the pestilential surge of Nazism, he took solace in the idea that what has come before will, one day, end, as such horrors have always ended before, interminable and insurmountable though they seem in the moment. “In times of ascendancy,” he wrote in the essay “Circular Time,” “the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.”
A lovely little solace, indeed, for the twin winters of the year and our hopes, as we enter 2018, reminding us that this, too, shall pass, somehow. We need Borges, as we need all the art that inspires us, now, so our good fires don’t dim away, and we with them.