Sunday, May 09, 2004

Borges' India: Mystics and Bibliographers

Jorge Luis Borges is one of the great modern writers. There is an immense scholarship on his work, which is fitting, because his stories and poems are themselves the product of his own immense scholarship. I have only scratched the surface of Borges, having read about half of the Collected Fictions, a few of his reviews and non fiction essays, and some poems. I don't read much Spanish. And yet I go ahead with an entry on Borges. Why not?

Many of Borges's stories invoke the middle east and a very stylized kind of reference to Islam. It is highly abstract -- Borges is interested in the Arab world more as the place that produced the 1001 Nights than as a place where people actually live, believe, and think in the present day. This doesn't bother me in the least, and it fits my sense of Borges' obsession with the arcana of the medieval world perfectly. Medieval Arab scholars like Averroes (ibn-Rushd) are interesting to Borges as "men of the Library" -- strange people who devoted their lives to the study of obscure, arcane knowledge. (See the story "Averroes' Search" in The Aleph). It's dangerous to oversimplify Borges, but I might venture this small claim: Borges' passion for modern scholars and bibliophiles is mixed with an equal passion for mystical knowledge.

Borges also has an interest in India, as in the story "The Approach to Al-Mu'Tasim," which appeared in the 1944 volume The Garden of Forking Paths. Here Borges invents a Bombay attorney called Mir Bahadur Ali who wrote a strange novel called The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim. The novel is about a young Muslim protagonist who gets in trouble:

Its visible protagonist, whose name we are never told, is a law student in Bombay. In the most blasphemous way he has renounced the Islamic faith of his parents, but as the tenth night of the moon of Muharram wanes he finds himself at the center of a riot, a street battle between Muslims and Hindus. It is a night of tambours and invocations; through the inimical multiude, the great paper baldachins of the Muslim procession make their way. A Hindu brick flies from a rooftop nearby; someone buries a dagger in a belly; someone -- a Muslim? a Hindu? -- dies and is trampled underfoot. Three thousand men do battle--cane against revolver, obscenity against imprecation, God the indivisible against the gods. In a sort of daze, the freethinking law student enters the fray. With desperate hands, he kills (or thinks he has killed) a Hindu.

The law student flees in terrror of what he has done, as well as of the law. For much of the rest of the "novel," he searches for some sort of redemption. (Borges delights in doing plot summaries of unwritten novels.) But as he wanders all around India he finds nothing that can help him find any understanding. He began as an unbeliever, and finds himself drawn into a kind of evil underworld.

The story, not surprisingly, takes a mystical turn, as the law student has a revelation that will lead him to the truth. Here are the two key paragraphs:

Suddently--with the miraculous shock of Crusoe when he sees taht huan footprint in the sand-- the law student perceives some mitigation of the evil: a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence, in one of the abominable men. 'It was as though a more complex interlocutor had spoken.' He knows that the wretch with whom he is conversing is incapable of that momentary deceny; thus the law student hypothesizes that the vile man before him has reflected a friend, or the friend of a friend. Rethinking the problem, he comes toa mysterious conclusion: Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates; somewhere in the world there is a man who is equal to this brightness. The law student resovles to devote his life to searching out that man.

Thus we begin to see the book's general scheme: The insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others -- at first, the faint trace of a smile or a word; towards the last, the varied and growing splendors of intelligence, imagination, and goodness. The more closely the men interrogated by the law student have known Al-Mu'tasim, the greater is their portion of divinity, but the reader knows that they themselves are but mirrors. A technical mathematical formula is applicable here: Bahadur's heavily freighted novel is an ascending progression whose final terms is the sensed or foreapprehended 'man called 'Al Mu'tasim.' . . . After all those years, the law student comes to a gallery 'at the end of which there is a doorway and a tawdry curtain of many beads, and behind that, a glowing light.' The law student claps his hands once, twice, calls out for Al-Mu'taism. A man's voice -- the incredible voice of Al-Mu'taism-- bids the law student enter. The law student draws back the bead curtain and steps into the room. At that point, the novel ends.

We see this gesture in Borges repeatedly: a character gains access to mystical knowledge, which gives him the ability to order the world that until then is experienced only as chaos. But the shape of that knowledge can't be represented to the reader ("the novel ends"). It's a little like negative theology: God is the knowledge that will always remain just off-stage, just beyond our ability to know. Borges' divine knowledge is the point at which direct narrative progress ends. Instead, what is given is a series of deflections in the form of fictional bibliographic data (immediately following the above passage, Borges enumerates influences on the novel as well as information about the different editions of the book).

I don't say that Borges is a believing mystic, in either the Islamic or the Jewish/kabbalist senses (in his non-fiction essays there are essays dealing with Kabbalah). Rather, he represents mystical knowledge, and surrounds those moments with bibliography that I can only read as ironic. But what is the object of the irony? Is it the mystical knowledge itself, and the scholars and thinkers who seek it in vain? Or is the irony instead irony directed at the bibliographer/narrator figure himself (a figure who is named "Borges" in many of the stories), who reflexively dodges Cosmic Mystery by adducing trivia on the order of footnotes, editions, influences, etc.?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice India Fashion

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Ritwik Banerjee said...

I think it is Borges' scholarship that lends his writings the undeniable and undenied influence of the Arab civilization. The historic flow of culture is evident in his fictional works. For indeed, Europe would have had very little in terms of commerce as well as philosophical diversity if not for the Arabs.

3:16 PM  

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