Words of Wisdom from Jorge Luis Borges

As 2012 gets underway, I’m turning to Jorge Luis Borges for advice for this new year. I’ve never been one for resolutions; I find that no sooner have I made one, circumstances change, priorities shift, and what seemed of utmost importance on December 31st has become irrelevant by May.  But as true as that may be, there is no denying that just as much as the close of one year brings about a mood of reflection, the start of a new one evokes a sense possibility, and that sense of possibility invariably gets one thinking about hopes and plans for the upcoming year.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” -Borges

With that on my mind, I lay in bed last night reading Borges. As I read and read, I came across two poems that seemed to fit my mood and thoughts perfectly. The first,
spoke to hindsight and thoughts of all the different ways that things could have gone, but didn’t… and God knows I’ve feeling a lot of that lately. The second spoke to the desire to live a life of meaning and joy. Taken together, these two poems form the kind of resolution that I can embrace.

Things That Might Have Been

I think of things that weren’t, but might have been. 
The treatise on Saxon myths Bede never wrote.
The inconceivable work Dante might have had a glimpse of,
As soon as he’d corrected the Comedy’s last verse.
History without the afternoons of the Cross and the hemlock.
History without the face of Helen.
Man without the eyes that gave us the moon.
On Gettysburg’s three days, victory for the South.
The love we never shared.
The wide empire the Vikings chose not to found.
The world without the wheel or the rose.
The view John Donne held of Shakespeare.
The other horn of the Unicorn.
The fabled Irish bird that lights on two trees at once.
The child I never had.

I think its part of our nature to look at our past and wonder about the myriad paths that our lives could have taken. In and of itself, it’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing to do. But becoming mired in what may have been can be stunting and paralyzing if we allow it to take our focus on what we do have and on what actually is. This, I think, is one of those things that is easier said than done, and I know without a doubt that I’m struggling with it. But I’ve known people who live like this, and their lives seem clouded by a regret that never quite dissipates. 

The Just

man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

Here Borges gives us glimpses of a well-lived life, snippets of contentment, of generosity, of tenderness. He shows us a life whose meaning comes from simple pleasures, gratitude, and kindness; a life not defined by the external, such as wealth or position, but rather by what occurs in our minds and hearts. I know that this is the life that I want.

I had these poems on my mind when I woke this morning, and went on an internet search for more Borges. As I was clicking through various sites, I came across this. It’s an excerpt from an autobiographical documentary titled Images of Absence/ Buenos Aires, meine Geschichte (1998) by German Kral, an Argentinian filmmaker. This excerpt (I have not seen the entire film) includes an incredibly touching remembrance of an encounter with Borges, followed by words from the author himself. It’s from the filmmaker’s recollections of Borges that I found the third bit of sage advice for this new year.

Borges, who had so intensely loved books, and for whom literature was alive, advised us not to read any book we didn’t enjoy. He told us that morning that if we didn’t like a book, it was better to leave it for some other time. Reading it by force did no good to the book, the author, or ourselves.

Don’t dwell on what may have been and focus on what is. Live a life full of simple pleasures and with a gentleness of spirit. Read those books that you can truly enjoy. Thank you Mr. Borges, these are words of wisdom, indeed.

For more on Borges, watch Buenos Aires: Las Calles de Borges, a short documentary by Ian Ruschel, influenced by the German Kral documentary mentioned above. If you have a little more time, watch Jorge Luis Borges: The Mirror Man, a longer documentary that’s “part biography, part literary criticism, part hero-worship, part book reading, and part psychology.” 

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The Marriage of Heaven and Hell… Revisiting Blake

Title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ...

This past week’s theme in regards to my reading seems to be the revisiting of old favorites from my “formative years” (early 20s) – Huxley’s  Island, Hume’s Inquiry,  Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (post coming soon), and after last night’s post, and in keeping with the trend, I went back and reread Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This work is Blake’s attempt at presenting to us, in true Romanticist fashion, an argument against the dualist, Manichaean, view of good and evil which characterized Christian Europe.  Deliberately upsetting the common understanding of those very definitions of good and evil, and dark and light, Blake begins by blurring the lines.  He writes,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

And just a few lines later he adds,

 Energy is Eternal Delight.

He opens this work by presenting the argument that humans are, and should be, both angels and devils, both reason and passion.  To deny either part is to deny our humanity. It is in these contradictions, and it is in these grey areas that we find our humanity.

The entire work, which often mimics the structures of biblical passages and prophecies, fuses the sacred and the profane, the divine and the fallen, and the spiritual and the material; in effect,  a “marriage” of heaven and hell.  Blake, unlike Dante (who also uses the literary device of imagining himself visiting hell) presents hell as a place of poetry, energy, and exuberance – a place the speaks to our passions and our physicality.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of reason, restrained passions, and “unacted desires.”  For Blake, neither is inherently evil nor inherently good.

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.

Blake beautifully express the Romantic desire to recapture the irrational element in man, something that the Enlightenment had effectively, according to Blake, killed off (he regarded the philosophes as “unimaginative killers of the human spirit”). Echoing this idea, in another poem, “A Little Girl Lost,” Blake writes,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet love! was thought a crime.

Isaiah Berlin, in his book The Roots of Romanticism, in Proustian fashion, attempts to define Romanticism.  He writes,

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence. . . It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. . . It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy. . . It is energy, force, will, étalage du moi. . . It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul.’ It is, in short, unity and multiplicity.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Blake illustrates this definition eloquently and elegantly.  By “marrying” heaven and hell, by blurring our perceptions of what is base and what is sacred, Blake shows us that our very souls exist in this “unity and multiplicity.”  He is a true spokesman for his age when he calls our attention to the inherent “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) of human experience.

Also in true Romantic style, Blake not only blurs the lines between good and evil, but also between man and God.  He writes,

And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

Which is reminiscent of this quote by Sagan, from his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, although one of his earlier works, captures the spirit of Romanticism beautifully.  But more than that, he truly articulates what it means to be human, with all of our contradictions and inconsistencies. We are both of the spirit and the flesh, and of the mind and the body. We are both reason and passion, intellect and lust.   He confirms and condones this as he closes the work, liberating us to embrace our entire selves,

Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.