Friday, June 12, 2015


Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything. ~ Saul Bellow


To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember that time is another river
To know we stray like a river
And our faces vanish like water

To feel that waking is another dream
That dreams of not dreaming and the death
We fear in our bones is the death
That every night we call a dream

To see in every day and year a symbol
Of all the days of man and his years
And convert the outrage of the years
Into a music, a proverb, and a symbol

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
A golden sadness, such is poetry
Humble and immortal, poetry
Returning, like dawn and the sunset

Sometimes at evening there is a face
That sees us from the deep of a mirror
Art must be that kind of mirror
Disclosing to each of us his face

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders
Wept with love on seeing Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
A green eternity, not wonders

Art is endless like a river flowing
It passes, yet remains, a mirror to the same
Inconstant Heraclitus, the same
And another, like the river flowing

~ Jorge Luis Borges

This is an enchanting poem, resplendent with repetitions (yes, I used “resplendent” because of the alliteration; I just had to). The same simple words, repeated just right, create an ecstatic music. My congratulations to the translator, whose name was not given in my online source — an excellent version. It seems to read itself, the words inevitable. 


~ except for the second stanza. The translation of the second stanza troubled me in that the word “sueño” means both sleep and dream in Spanish. Since Borges uses “el sueño” in a later stanza that starts “Ver en la muerte el sueño” — note the definite article — I lean toward “sleep.”

Harold Morland translates as follows:

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.

My thanks to Hyacinth for drawing my attention to that stanza.


So many wonderful lines here, but I love best the first line of the poem — the idea that a river is made not just of water, but of time and water. The river is always beginning and ending, all at the same time. A river is both its hidden spring and its dissolution upon meeting with the sea. And in between — memory.

And memory, strangely enough, has no past tense. It springs back to our mind, simultaneous with  our present life. The old, remembering their childhood, are at the beginning again. They are skipping rope in their hometown while driving to see an orthopedic surgeon about knee replacement.

“It passes, yet remains” — that’s the paradox of river. “Our faces vanish like the water” — yet the river of humanity continues. (It’s interesting that poetry makes beautiful what would otherwise be extremely painful: “our faces vanish like the water.”)

Let’s consider the sheer beauty of that first stanza again (and oh, what a disappointment the second stanza is — mainly because the first one is so wondrous):

To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember that time is another river
To know we stray like a river
And our faces vanish like water


Though it’s not true of geological time, in human time a river is an example of eternity. And there is nothing static about this eternity: it keeps on flowing, and you “never step twice into the same river.”  But you are never exactly the same person as the one who stepped into that river at an earlier time. We are that “inconstant Heraclitus, the same and another.”

Our faces pass away like water, our names are writ in water with extremely few exceptions — yet the endless river of humanity flows on. Is this a consolation for our mortality — what Borges wonderfully calls “the outrage of years”? Only if we gain a great connection to the river of time and humanity thanks to art, especially poetry, able as it is to transform the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” into music and image:

To see in every day and year a symbol
Of all the days of man and his years
And convert the outrage of the years
Into a music, a proverb, and a symbol

In the next stanza we have sunset as a “golden sadness.” The day is ending, but the sunset is so beautiful. Here I am reminded of Plato’s Symposium, where love is the offspring of wealth and poverty. Borges makes poetry the offspring of immortality and mortality. If mortality is our poverty, our wealth is immortality: the continuing river of humanity and art.

Thus, when we see our face in the mirror of poetry, it should be a universal face in that larger sense of humanity. We recognized ourselves in others. No person is an isolated individual; each is a part of humanity. Each story matters because it’s part of the greater story of humanity. Each suicide saddens us; each story of endurance encourages us. That’s because everyone’s story is also OUR story. 


The penultimate stanza is my special favorite. At first it seems to veer away from the main theme of how things are mortal and immortal at the same time. But on closer look, it’s precisely an instance of that phenomenon: it’s ordinary and transient events that add up to immortality, an ordinary island that becomes someone’s Holy Land.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders
Wept with love on seeing Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
A green eternity, not wonders

Here we may protest that poetry sometimes speaks of wonders, of the extraordinary as well as the ordinary. But Borges wants the emphasis on continuity, found in the ordinary, “humble and green,” rather than in  the exceptional.

After this magnificent detour into the Odyssey and “green eternity,” we return to the river “that passes and remains.” The poem returns to its beginning, and we can contemplate the rich symbolism of the river, “made of time and water” again and again, in our own flowing. 


To Heraclitus’s famous saying that you can’t step into the same river twice we need to add another insight: that when you step into the river for the second time, you are not exactly the same person as the one who stepped into it before. Yet if we didn’t maintain some notion of continuity, we’d be unable to carry on, carried off by a tornado of constant change.

Art is endless like a river flowing
It passes, yet remains, a mirror to the same
Inconstant Heraclitus, the same
And another, like the river flowing

Art too evolves, and what is modern today will be old-fashioned fifty years from now, no longer a useful mirror to — and maker of — the new generations.

And perhaps there is something to praising a person for dying just at the right time — though of course we can’t control it. But for me there is some consolation in thinking that as the world I loved ends for me, it just begins for another little girl somewhere, transfixed with wonder as she sees mountains or the ocean for the first time. And there will be pain too, the same eternal discovery that romantic love must end, its spell broken — and we are changed, we go on like a river.

“Here lies one whose name was writ in water” could be the inscription on any tomb.


Speaking of inscriptions on tombs, here is another Borges poem I treasure:


Let not the rash marble risk
garrulous breach of omnipotent oblivion,
in many words recalling
name, renown, events, birthplace.
All those glass beads are best left in the dark.
Let not the marble say what men don’t speak about.

The essentials of the dead man’s life —
the trembling hope,
the implacable miracle of pain,
the wonder of sensual delight —
will abide forever.

Blindly the willful soul asks for length of days
when its survival is assured by the lives of others.
You yourself are the embodied continuance*
of those who did not live into your time
and others will be (and are) your immortality on earth.

~ Jorge Luis Borges, tr. W.S. Merwin

* Borges: tu mismo eres el espejo y la réplica

= “you yourself are the mirror and the reply”

I don’t know why Merwin chose to “explicate” the poetry of that line in the original. He made it the meaning more clear, but at the cost of abstraction.

Willful soul is in Borges “arbitrary soul” — which carries the connotation of “accidental.” 

This poem presents a profound answer so often missing in poetry,  much of which deals with mortality, but not in a very satisfying way. We'd like to be immortal, but the old religious answers are not credible anymore. In any case, it's high time to be rid of the cruel archaic god whose power rests on the fear of hell, and whose heaven, let's face it, is utterly unattractive (a reminder: no internet there).

Borges provides a secular answer, and it's not the cosmic union. He does not warble that "we become stardust again.” After the richness of being human, that's not terribly attractive either. Even being ecologically buried in a biodegradable shroud so that we can efficiently feed the plants is not terribly satisfying, especially now with the drought and the prospect of becoming part of a prickly pear cactus rather than a rose bush.

Borges disregards the whole idea of “returning to nature” or the vague spirituality of “going home.”  He says that our immortality is the lives of those who come after us, just as our ancestors continue in us. It may not be exactly what we want, but that's what we get. There is a senses of honesty here that's exhilarating in itself. It’s like a former pastor (Ryan Bell) realizing that a “relationship with reality” is more rewarding than a relationship with an imaginary omnipotent being who for some perverse reason won’t answer his prayers or give the slightest sign of his existence.

Or — trust me, this will bring us to Borges again — it’s like Milosz admitting in a late poem that for decades he prayed for a sign of the supernatural: namely, that a statue in church would move its hand. In the end Miloz admits his disappointment: the statue would remain motionless forever. But people outside the church would shake hands with him, talk with him, smile at him. This, he decides, is the sign of the divine. To me, it’s the sign of the human, and that is enough. Borges, too, finds being human sufficiently rich. When we have the affectionate interaction with others, an imaginary “Lord” is neither needed nor missed. 



Borges was such a “singular” man (I mean it in the sense of unusual, exceptional — but the word insists on its most common meaning) that it’s striking how he doesn’t buy “individualism.” He does not insist on his “exceptionalism.” He does not announce that his verse will be immortal, or will make anyone immortal. No, we are all destined for “ominipotent oblivion.” But . . . simply because we are human, we are not isolated individuals; we are humanity. We pass as the water in the river passes, but the river remains.

Forget the particulars of a person’s life; they will be forgotten anyway. They are the worthless “glass beads.” What matters is the treasure of continuity, of being part of humanity. No one is just an isolated person, but a portion of humanity.

This realization may have come to Borges in part from his life among books. He realized that his mind is a tapestry of the endless volumes he’s read, influences he’d absorbed. From there it’s only a step to seeing oneself as part of the larger human community across time, and of the human continuum.

His acceptance of the collective mind set Borges apart from those writers in his generation who insisted on the cult of the artist as “separate, different, and superior” — alienated from the culture at large, and basically from all others. But Borges communed not only with his peers, but also, to a great extent, with great writers of the past, and knew he was part of a continuum.

It reminds me of Rilke’s idea that we love not just a single person, but, within that person, multitudes of others who’ve gone before — mothers and fathers, those crumbled mountains and dry riverbeds who shaped the landscape of the beloved.

This is not to deny the uniqueness of each of us, something we bring to the universe only once: “there will never be another you.” That’s astonishing too; we tend to celebrate the uniqueness of an individual, those aspects that stand out as different. This individualism can make us forget how typical we are in most ways, children of our age and culture. In the West in particular, almost everyone has had at least moments of feeling so different from others that loneliness threatens to overwhelm: no one really knows me, so how can they love the “real me.” Never mind that the “real me” is so elusive, so . . . non-existent. Even our memories are not fully ours, but a collage of we absorbed in all kinds of ways, including books and movies and the stories we heard, eventually conflating them with our own.

If we were words, each person would be an oxymoron. We are both individual and collective. A single individual has no meaning apart from his social context. As Christian Wiman said, “Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others.”

Pondering how deeply I agree with this reminds me that it wasn’t always that way. At some point in my late teens and early twenties I felt a deep alienation and wanted to be as independent and unconnected as possible, not needing others. That is of course not infrequent in early youth, this wanting to be a lone hero — I’ve definitely seen it in others, especially young men. The culture enshrines the apparently self-sufficient frontiersman who  builds his own house, grows his own food, hunts, and so on. It may seem humbling to realize how dependent on others we are. Even the lone frontiersman has the benefit of tools designed and produced by others.

And experience quickly shows us that a lot more can be done by cooperating with others. As for writers, they may say it’s between them and the language, but that’s true only during the creative process. Writers needs readers, and they need their peers. And even the most reclusive of them (think of Emily Dickinson) rely on the collective psyche, that “greater mind” that resides in the language and culture. And that greater mind is so rich that even a recluse has enough to write about — especially an educated recluse surrounded by books.

So, in the most radical sense, there should be no inscription upon any tomb. This was once a human being; that is enough. And yet, and yet . . . I confess I love to read inscriptions on old tombs, the little that remains of that “individual” part. Now, however, cremation followed by the scattering of ashes is becoming standard, so the dead live only in our memory, as well as in the anonymous ways in which the words they said, the pain and delight they felt, are now said and felt by others. We are both mortal and immortal, individual and collective, Borges says. In this poem, his emphasis is on the collective. This is quite striking coming from Borges, who seems deeply “individuated,” as Jungians would say. Perhaps that’s why he feels completely at ease insisting on the collective dimension as the one that’s more essential. 

And indeed, treasured reader (I say this without a grain of irony or condescension; I am touched that people want to read my posts), the very fact that you are reading these words on an electronic screen is testimony of the collective human genius that creative the great collective mind known as the Internet. And before the Internet could come into being, countless developments in science, mathematics, and civilization as a whole had to happen. 


I won’t go through yet another poem by Borges, but the post would be incomplete without mentioning it. It’s “The Iron Coin.” It describes two sides of a metaphoric coin. Here is an excerpt:

On the upper sphere are interwoven

The fourfold firmament borne up by the flood

And the unalterable planets.

Adam, the young father, and the young Paradise.

The evening and the morning.
God in every creature.
In this pure labyrinth is your reflection.

Let us toss again the iron coin

Which is also a magic mirror. 
Its reverse side
Is no one and nothing and darkness and blindness.

That is you.
The two faces forge a single iron echo.

Your hands and your tongue are unfaithful witnesses.

God is the ungraspable center of the ring.
He neither praises nor condemns.
He behaves better: he forgets.

The “god in every creature” on the paradise side of the coin could be interpreted as “immanent divinity” of the sort that Spinoza proposed. Or he could be seen as the young, active, interested god of Genesis — not the silent, sullen, hidden god of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, eventually transformed by the Enlightenment thinkers into a creator who made the world, then abandoned it to its own workings. The god who neither praises nor condemns is the indifferent god of the Deists. It is the universe. It is nature.

Every coin is just one coin — but it has two sides. One side of the coin shows the young Adam in the “young Paradise.” The other side, “no one and nothing and darkness and blindness.” (Su reverso / es nadie y nada y sombra y ceguera. Eso eres.)

Eso eres: You are that — no one and nothing and darkness and blindness. Borges does not write “inspirational” verse. He doesn’t spare us the news: you have already lived in paradise. No other paradise awaits.

Great writers don't shrink from staring at the abyss (which, as Nietzsche observes, stares back at you).

(A shameless digression: did Dostoyevski shrink from the abyss after all? Through Ivan Karamazov, Dostoyevski condemned god as evil. But even Dostoyevski did not deal with “no one and nothing and darkness and blindness.” Perhaps it can be done only in poetry because the beauty of the language is a redeeming affirmation.)

(Another shameless digression: Borges did not really have a relationship with nature. Hence also his limitation as a poet and thinker. It’s extremely important to have a connection with humanity, but it’s also important to have a connection with trees and flowers and stars and birds. Borges gives us a start in one area; we must venture into more connectedness on our own; we must dance with the wolves.)


This reminds me of [Talmudic?] wisdom says that in one pocket we should carry a note that says something like, "You are a magnificent being for whom the world was created," and in the other pocket a note that says, "You are nothing." And we should reach for whichever note/reminder is right for the occasion.

Two sides of the coins, or two pockets, each with a different note in it. Sometimes it’s very important to remember that we are mortal — there is only so much time in which to be happy and productive. “If not now, when?”

And at other times it’s important to glory in the continuity of the human culture and progress. Since Jesus is never coming back, it’s entirely up to us to keep on building a more compassionate, humanitarian society.

It’s up to us the living to help shape the kind of immortality we will have.

Photo: Maja Trochimczyk; the opening image is also by Maja Trochimczyk