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Borges on Life and Death




Interview by Amelia Barili

I met Jorge Luis Borges in 1981, when I returned to Buenos Aires from a job at the BBC in London and began working for La Prensa [Buenos Aires]. He received me very kindly, remembering that during the 1920's, when he was not well known, La Prensa had been the first newspaper to publish him. Later I returned to see him frequently. Sometimes he would dictate a poem that he had been composing during a long night of insomnia. After typing it, I would put it in his desk near his collection of Icelandic sagas, a precious gift from his father.

Sometimes we would walk to a nearby restaurant, where he would eat something very simple. Or we would go to a bookstore, searching for yet another book by Kipling or Conrad in an English edition for friends to read to him. People would stop to greet him, and he would jokingly tell me they must have mistaken him for someone else. His fame as a writer seemed to burden him, and he often regretted that he had to go on living so that Borges the writer could weave his literary fantasies.

One morning shortly before he left Argentina in November, we spoke about his recent work, his beliefs, his doubts. I did not know it would be our last conversation before his death last month in Geneva. We started by discussing one of his latest books, ''Los Conjurados'' (''The Conspirators''), in which he calls Geneva ''one of my homelands.''

Where does your love for Geneva come from?

In a certain manner, I am Swiss; I spent my adolescence in Geneva. We went to Europe in 1914. We were so ignorant that we did not know that was the year of the First World War. We were trapped in Geneva. The rest of Europe was at war. From my Genevan adolescence I still have a very good friend, Dr. Simon Ishvinski. The Swiss are very reserved people. I had three friends: Simon Ishvinski, Slatkin, and Maurice Abramowicz, a poet who is now dead. You remember him in ''Los Conjurados.'' Yes. It was a beautiful night. Maria Kodama [ Borges's secretary, traveling companion and, during his final weeks, wife ] , Maurice Abramowicz's widow and I were at a Greek tavern in Paris, listening to Greek music, which is so full of courage. I remembered the lyrics: ''While this music lasts, we will deserve Helen of Troy's love. While the music lasts, we will know that Ulysses will come back to Ithaca.'' And I felt that Maurice was not dead, that he was there with us, that nobody really dies, for they all still project their shadow.

In ''Los Conjurados'' you also speak about one of your nightmares. Do some repeat themselves?

Yes. I dream of a mirror. I see myself with a mask, or I see in the mirror somebody who is me but whom I do not recognize as myself. I arrive at a place, and I have the sense of being lost and that all is horrible. The place itself is like any other. It is a room, with furniture, and its appearance is not horrible. What is atrocious is the feeling, not the images. Another frequent nightmare is of being attacked by beings who are children; there are many of them, very little but strong. I try to defend myself, but the blows I give are weak.

In ''Los Conjurados,'' as in all your work, there is a permanent search for meaning. What is the sense of life?

If life's meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn't understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer. I think Lessing said that if God were to declare that in His right hand He had the truth and in his left hand He had the investigation of the truth, Lessing would ask God to open His left hand - he would want God to give him the investigation of the truth, not the truth itself. Of course he would want that, because the investigation permits infinite hypotheses, and the truth is only one, and that does not suit the intellect, because the intellect needs curiosity. In the past, I tried to believe in a personal God, but I do not think I try anymore. I remember in that respect an admirable expression of Bernard Shaw: ''God is in the making.''

Even though you present yourself as a nonbeliever, there are in your work some references to mystical experiences that have always puzzled me. In the story ''The God's Script'' you say: ''From the tireless labyrinth of dreams I returned as if to my home, to the harsh prison. I blessed its dampness, I blessed its tiger, I blessed the crevice of light, I blessed my old, suffering body, I blessed the darkness and the stone. Then there occurred what I cannot forget nor communicate. There occurred the union with the divinity, with the universe.'' It seems that when you accept your circumstances and you bless them, then you come back to your center, and clarity dawns upon you. In the story ''El Aleph'' too, only when you accept your circumstances do you get to see the point where every act in the whole history of the cosmos comes together.

This is true. It is the same idea. Since I do not think often about what I have written, I had not realized that. Nevertheless, it is better that it should be instinctive and not intellectual, don't you think? The instinctive is what counts in a story. What the writer wants to say is the least important thing; the most important is said through him or in spite of him.

Another idea that appears in many of your stories is that of the union of all creatures. In ''The God's Script'' the pagan priest realizes that he is one of the threads of the whole fabric and that Pedro de Alvarado, who tortured him, is another one. In ''The Theologians,'' Aureliano and Juan de Panonia, his rival, are the same; and in ''The End'' Martin Fierro and El Negro have one and the same destiny.

That is true. But I do not think about what I have already written; I think about what I am going to write - which is usually what I have already written, lightly disguised. Let's see. These days I am writing a short story about Segismund, one of the characters of ''La vida es sueño.'' We will see how it turns out. I am going to read ''La vida es sueño'' again, before writing the story. I thought of it some nights ago. I woke up; it was about 4 o'clock and I could not get back to sleep. I thought, let's use this sleeplessness. And suddenly I remembered that tragedy by Calderon, which I must have read 50 years ago, and I told myself, ''There is a story here.'' It should resemble (but not too much) ''La vida es sueño.'' To make that clear, it is going to be titled ''Monologue of Segismund.'' Of course, it will be quite a different soliloquy than the one in that play. I think it is going to be a good story. I told it to Maria Kodama, and she approved of it. It has been some time since I wrote a story. But that is the source of this one.

What is the source of ''The God's Script''? When the priest says the fact that a prison surrounded him was not an obstacle to his finding the clue to the hidden language, I thought that was similar to what happened with you and your blindness.

I lost my sight some years later. But in a certain way there is a purification in the blindness. It purifies one of visual circumstances. Circumstances are lost, and the external world, which is always trying to grab us, becomes fainter. But ''The God's Script'' is autobiographical in another sense. I united there two experiences. Looking at the jaguar in the zoo, I thought the spots on the jaguar's skin seemed to be a writing; that is not true of the leopard's spots or the tiger's stripes. The other experience was the one I had when, after an operation, I was forced to lie on my back. I could only move my head to the right or left. Then I put together the idea that occurred to me, that the jaguar's spots suggest a secret writing, and the fact that I was virtually imprisoned. It would have been more appropriate to the story for the main character not to have been a priest from a barbarian religion but a Hindu or a Jew. However, the jaguar had to be placed in Latin America. That impelled me toward the pyramid and the Aztecs. The jaguar could not appear in other scenery. Although Victor Hugo describes the Roman circus and says that among the animals there are ''jaguars enlaces,'' that is impossible in Rome. Maybe he mistook leopards for jaguars, or maybe he did not mind that sort of mistake, just as Shakespeare didn't.

Like the kabbalists, you try to find in that story the sense of God's writing. You consider that the whole cosmos could be present in one word. How do you personally conceive the beginning of the universe?

I am naturally idealistic. Almost everyone, thinking about reality, thinks of space, and their cosmogonies start with space. I think about time. I think everything happens in time. I feel we could easily do without space but not without time. I have a poem called ''Cosmogony'' in which I say it is absurd to think the universe began with astronomical space, which presupposes, for example, sight, which came much later. It is more natural to think that in the beginning there was an emotion. Well, it is the same as saying, ''In the begining was the Word.'' It is a variation on the same theme.

Can we find a relationship among the various conceptions about the origin of the universe among the Greeks, the Pythagoreans, the Jews?

Strangely enough, they all start with astronomical space. There is also the idea of the Spirit; that would come prior to space, of course. But in general they think of space. The Hebrews believe that the world was created from a word of God. But then that word should exist prior to the world. Saint Augustine gave the solution to that problem. Let's see, my Latin is poor, but I remember the phrase: ''non in tempore sed cum tempore Deus creavit . . . I do not know what . . . ordinem mundi.'' That means, ''Not in time but with time God created the world.'' To create the world is to create time. If not, people would ask, what did God do before creating the world? But with this explanation they are told that there was a first instant without a before. This is inconceivable, of course, because if I think of an instant I think of the time before that instant. But they tell us that, and we rest content with the inconceivable. An infinite time? A time with a beginning? Both ideas are impossible. To think that time began is impossible. And to think that it doesn't have a start, which means that we are going, in Shakespeare's words, to ''the dark backward and abysm of time,'' is also not possible.

I would like to come back to the idea of the word as origin of the world. For example, in the Hebrew tradition there is a search through cryptographic and hermeneutic methods for that exact word. Yes, that is the kabbala. Not long ago Haaretz, a newspaper in Israel, reported that computer experiments on the Bible had discovered in Genesis a secret clue that had remained hidden up to then and that is too complicated to have been thought of by human beings. The letters that form the word ''Torah'' appear all through Genesis, one by one, in strict order, at regular intervals of 49 letters, perfectly integrated into the words that compose the text.

How strange that the computer would be applied to the kabbala! I did not know that they were making those experiments. It is beautiful, all that.

Is it necessary to prove that the Scriptures are the revealed word of God in order to believe in the existence of God, or is that something that is felt regardless of proofs?

I cannot believe in the existence of God, despite all the statistics in the world.

But you said you believed some time ago.

No, not in a personal God. To search for the truth, yes; but to think that there is somebody or something we call God, no. It is better that He should not exist; if He did he would be responsible for everything. And this world is often atrocious, besides being splendid. I feel more happy now than when I was young. I am looking forward. Even I don't know what forward is left, because at 86 years of age, there will be, no doubt, more past than future.

When you say you are looking forward, do you mean looking forward to continuing to create as a writer?

Yes. What else is left for me? Well, no. Friendship remains. Somehow, love remains - and the most precious gift, doubt.

If we did not think of God as a personal God but as concepts of truth and ethics, would you accept Him?

Yes, as ethics. There is a book by [ Robert Louis ] Stevenson in which we find the idea that a moral law exists even if we don't believe in God. I feel that we all know when we act well or badly. I feel ethics is beyond discussion. For example, I have acted badly many times, but when I do it, I know that it is wrong. It is not because of the consequences. In the long run, consequences even up, don't you think? It is the fact itself of doing good or doing bad. Stevenson said that in the same way a ruffian knows there are things he should not do, so a tiger or an ant knows there are things they should not do. The moral law pervades everything. Again the idea is ''God is in the making.'' What about truth? I don't know. It would be very strange for us to be able to understand it. In one of my short stories I speak about that. I was rereading ''The Divine Comedy,'' and, as you will remember, in the first canto, Dante has two or three animals, and one of them is a leopard. The editor points out that a leopard was brought to Florence in Dante's time and that Dante, like any citizen of Florence, must have seen that leopard, and so he put a leopard into the first canto of the ''Inferno.'' In my story, ''Inferno, I, 32,'' I imagine that in a dream the leopard is told it has been created so Dante can see it and use it in his poem. The leopard understands that in the dream, but when he awakens, naturally, how could he understand that he exists only so a man could write a poem and use him in it? And I said that if the reason he wrote ''The Divine Comedy'' had been revealed to Dante, he could have understood it in a dream but not when he awoke. That reason would be as complex for Dante as the other one was for the leopard.

In ''The Mirror of Enigmas,'' you say, quoting Thomas De Quincey, that everything is a secret mirror of something else. That idea of the search for a hidden sense is in all your work.

Yes, I think so. It is a very common human ambition - is it not? - to suppose everything has an explanation and to think we could understand it. Let's take as an example the various conceptions about the origin of the world, of which we spoke a while ago. I cannot imagine an infinite time, nor a beginning of time, so any reasoning about that is barren, since I can't conceive of it. I haven't arrived at anything. I am just a man of letters. I am not sure I have thought anything in my life. I am a weaver of dreams.

Since we have spoken about the kabbala, that is, about the studies to decipher the word of God, let's speak about the Bible. What do you think about the inspiration of the Bible?

What I find very strange is the fact that the Hebrews did not take into account the various authors or the different epochs when the books were written. It is strange to see everything in the Bible as a creation of the Spirit, which inspires those who write it, through different epochs. It is never thought, for example, that the works of Emerson, Whitman and Bernard Shaw have the same author. But the Hebrews took writers that were many miles and centuries apart and attributed their work to the same Spirit. It is a strange idea, is it not? Nowadays we think of authors, even of entire literatures, as consecutive. But they didn't. They saw everything as written by one author, and that author was the Spirit. Maybe they thought the circumstances of the writing do not matter, that the circumstances are trivial, that history is trivial. ''The Bible'' - the name is plural - comes from ''the books'' in Greek. It is a library, really, and a very heterogeneous one too. It is evident that the author of the Book of Job cannot be the author of Genesis, nor can the Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes and the Book of Kings have the same author. It is as if the individuals did not matter, nor the epochs, nor the chronological order. All is attributed to only one author, the Spirit. One of the fundamental books of the kabbala, the ''Sefer Yezirah'' (''Book of Creation''), deals with the 10 Sefirot. That term means ''numbers,'' and they are taken to be an emanation from God, the Ein-Sof. Should we think, then, that the First Being is a cipher, that He is abstract?

I feel that the First Being, the Ein-Sof, cannot be defined. It cannot even be said that He exists. Even that is too concrete. Then you cannot say that He is wise or that He knows. Because if He knows, then there are two things - the known and the One who knows. And that is too detailed for God. He should be an indefinite divinity. And then from there spring forth the ''10 emanations,'' or Sefirot, and one of them creates this world. It is the same idea as the Gnostics had, that this world was created by a subaltern god. [ H. G. ] Wells had that idea also. That way you explain imperfections such as evil, diseases, physical pains, so many things. Because if an absolute God had made the world, he would have done it better, no? Instead, He has made our bodies, which are very liable to err, decompose and become diseased; the mind also decomposes, and it fails with age, and, well, there are so many other objections.

In the ''Zohar'' (''The Book of Splendor''), which Gershom Scholem considers the most important literary work of the kabbala, there are many speculations about life after death. Swedenborg describes in detail hells and paradises. Dante's poem is also about hell, purgatory, paradise. Where does this tendency of man come from, to try to imagine and describe something that he cannot possibly know?

In spite of oneself, one thinks. I am almost sure to be blotted out by death, but sometimes I think it is not impossible that I may continue to live in some other manner after my physical death. I feel every suicide has that doubt: Is what I am going to do worthwhile? Will I be blotted out, or will I continue to live on another world? Or as Hamlet wonders, what dreams will come when we leave this body? It could be a nightmare. And then we would be in hell. Christians believe that one continues after death to be who he has been and that he is punished or rewarded forever, according to what he has done in this brief time that was given to him. I would prefer to continue living after death if I have to but to forget the life I lived.