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Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth | The Nation

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Mirror, Mask, Labyrinth

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Borges was drawn to Arab literature, including the imaginary Arabic of Edward Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát and the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, and to mystical traditions, from Sufism to the Kabbalah. Though these works arrived via Spanish culture, he was also shaped by local influences. At least since the duel between Domingo Sarmiento's anti-caudillo and anti-gaucho tract of 1845, Facundo: Or, Civilization and Barbarism, and José Hernández's 1872 dialect masterpiece, The Gaucho Martín Fierro, Argentine writing has been tangled in political struggles between the city and the provinces, between liberal reform and caudillo independence, between the criollismo emphasis on Spanish ancestry and the cosmopolitan fact of the country's immigrant history.

The Sonnets
By Jorge Luis Borges.
Edited by Stephen Kessler.
Buy this book

Poems of the Night
By Jorge Luis Borges.
Edited by Efraín Kristal.
Buy this book

About the Author

Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart
Susan Stewart is the author, most recently, of Red Rover, a book of poems, and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on...

Also by the Author

Pier Paolo Pasolini was a force against the incoherence hiding in every hypocrisy.

Borges knew well the poet Leopoldo Lugones, who in 1913 delivered a series of anti-Sarmiento lectures at the Teatro Odeón in Buenos Aires arguing that the wealthy criollos of Argentina should model their national identity on gaucho culture—a bizarre suggestion, since the rich estancia holders had thrown the native peoples and gauchos celebrated in Hernández's epic off their land. At odds with Lugones for much of his life, Borges eventually grew to admire him deeply. Even as the older poet's nationalism developed over time into outright fascism, Borges dedicated his book of poems El Hacedor (The Maker), from 1960, to him. Another important early influence was his father's friend Evaristo Carriego, killed by tuberculosis at 29 and a bitter enemy of Lugones throughout his short life. In 1930 Borges would write a set of biographical essays celebrating Carriego and his musical poetry drawn from the barrios of Buenos Aires. The varied "poems of the night" gathered here by Kristal continually evoke not only Borges's blindness and reflections on death but also the lively world of Carriego. "Street With a Pink Corner Store," "St. John's Eve," "Almost a Last Judgment" and other poems reveal the insomniac Borges walking the shadowy streets of Buenos Aires all night, bringing news of the dusk to the dawn.

A lifelong admirer of the philosophy of Berkeley and Schopenhauer, Borges had little time for either empiricism or the conventions of realism. As he continually drew on legends, attenuated out of a vanished origin and stating realities that may or may not be true, he also turned to dreams, which at least brought him the paradoxical certainty of not being true—except when they came true, as he so often believed they so often did. He therefore particularly loved legends of dreaming, such as the story of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who dreams he is a butterfly and awakens to find he is himself, and then wonders if in truth he is Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. And he liked to cite the long poem "The Conference of the Birds," by the Persian mystic Farid ud-Din Attar; in it a group of birds traverse seven valleys in pursuit of the Simurgh, king of all birds. They gradually discover "they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each one and all of them." Themes of the inter-relatedness of all beings and all destinies, of the other becoming the self, seemed to both frighten and console Borges throughout his life.

He testified that he was haunted from early childhood by three nightmares: the mirror, the mask and the labyrinth. He writes in "Mirrors," also translated by Reid, of the anxieties of proliferation that such reflections produce:

I look on them as infinite, elemental
fulfillers of a very ancient pact
to multiply the world, as in the act
of generation, sleepless and dangerous.

In a poem from 1942, "Of Heaven and Hell," here in a translation by Reid, Borges describes the terrible overdetermination of the beloved's, and one's own, face:

When Judgment Day sounds in the last trumpets
and planet and millennium both
disintegrate, and all at once, O Time,
all your ephemeral pyramids cease to be,
the colors and the lines that trace the past
will in the semidarkness form a face,
a sleeping face, faithful, still, unchangeable
(the face of the loved one, or, perhaps, your own)
and the sheer contemplation of that face—
never-changing, whole, beyond corruption—
will be, for the rejected, an Inferno,
and, for the elected, Paradise.

Ambivalence toward doubles and reflections, a fear of an end to time, anxieties regarding authenticity: these are the emotions behind his nightmares. But mirrors, masks and labyrinths are also human artifacts—for Borges they are Daedalus-like feats of man that hold the capacity to destroy him.

The sole recurring natural image in these poems is the changing light of the sun and moon. Beyond the blindness he inherited from his father and grandmother, which eventually left him with only a sense of the sunrise and sunset colors of yellow and orange, Borges indeed seems to have been raised in an atmosphere of twilight. His biographer Edwin Williamson notes that the long boulevards of Buenos Aires even today open onto extraordinary vistas of the changing sky, but that at the time of Borges's residence in the city, the pampas were all the closer and the sunsets all the more magnificent. In "Afterglow," thoughtfully translated by Kessler and relying on the English title Borges took from a suggestion by his early translator and champion Norman Thomas di Giovanni, we find the real sunset's capacity for unreality:

The sunset is always moving
however gaudy or impoverished it is,
but even more moving
is that last, desperate glow
turning the plain rust colored
once the sun has at last gone down.
It hurts us to bear that strange, expanded light,
that hallucination infusing space
with unanimous fear of the dark,
which suddenly ends
when we realize it's an illusion,
as dreams end
when it dawns on us we're dreaming.

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