Believing that “every cultured man is a theologian,” Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges spent his life exploring the world’s major religions and philosophies, looking for the answers to some of the universe’s deepest mysteries: the meaning of life, the hidden reality behind superficial phenomena, the mysterious way that multiplicities can form unities (through Space: cells forming an individual; through Time: the child and the grown man being the same person).
While reading Borges’ A Personal Anthology, I found that when Borges looked for God, he looked for a god, any god, someone who could tell him what the hell was really going on down here. He did not search so much for salvation as to satisfy his curiosity. Ultimately, I believe Borges gave up on the idea of salvation. He mentions more than once that he is beyond saving, that he is doomed, consigned to oblivion, that his only hope of an afterlife is to be found in the literature he has created.
Borges early-on seems to have accepted that humanity was on no heroic mission. Instead, he repeatedly plays with notion that this life is but a dream, and not even our dream, but someone else’s. Other times, he considers that life could be a game, and we but pieces on the board, pieces which the beings manipulating us care nothing about sacrificing for the sake of their fun. Borges even toys with the idea that the world really is but a stage on which each must play his part, swaggering proudly one day, crawling abjectly the next—a spectacle full of clowns and hurry, signifying nothing.
In the poem, Chess, Borges imagines life as a game of chess played in multiple dimensions of manipulations. As Stanza Two of Chess is one of my favorite pieces in all literature, I quote it fully below:
“Tenuous king, slant bishop, bitter queen, / straightforward castle and the crafty pawn– / over the checkered black and white terrain / they seek out and enjoin their armed campaign.// They do not realize the dominant / hand of the player rules their destiny. / They do not know an adamantine fate / governs their choices and controls their journey. // The player, too, is captive of caprice / (the sentence is Omar’s) on another ground / crisscrossed with black night and white days. // God moves the player, he, in turn, the piece. / But what god beyond God begins the round / of dust and time and dream and agonies?”
Borges craves explanation, not necessarily reassurance— however depressing that explanation may turn out to be. When he reads in the Rubaiyat (or in Shakespeare) that life is a play staged by God, Borges takes the suggestion seriously. When Shakespeare dies and meets his maker in Borges’ Everything And Nothing, Borges has God say to him, “I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dream was you, who like me, are many and no one.” And in The Circular Ruins, Borges writes of the moment when a man realizes that he is merely a phantom in some other being’s dream: the man absorbs the news “with relief, with humiliation, with terror.”
A game… A play… A dream… Every scenario Borges imagines for the universe’s underlying reality shows life to be ephemeral and ultimately meaningless. He would not be the first (or last) artist who, believing this, takes refuge in his art.
Borges never speaks of an outright fear of death, but he does often demonstrate an immense sadness at the thought. “After forty,” he says, every change becomes a hateful symbol of time’s passing.” In the poem “Limits” (the longer of his two poems by that name), Borges imagines his own version of life after death: “I imagine, in the dawn, I hear a worn/ murmur of multitudes, faltering, fading away./ They are everything that has loved me and forgotten; / Space, Time, and Borges now are leaving me.” And in the shorter poem of the same name, he dwells upon the fact that every passing days robs his life of possibility: “There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time/ There is a door I have shut until the end of the world.” He ends the eight-line poem with the summation: “Death reduces me incessantly.”
Borges’ only hope for a sort of survival –and he considers it a slight one– are the messages he sends to future generations in the form of his books. In Aristo And The Arabs Borges imagines that “in the empty room the silent book / travels into time, and leaves behind / the hours of dawn and the hours of dusk / and my life, that hasty dream.”
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More on Borges from Hammering Shield: