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California Literary Review

Borges: A Poet’s Quest for Simplicity

Literary Themes

Borges: A Poet’s Quest for Simplicity

Simplicity requires oneness. If you want to be someone, you are two and you are not simple. If you want to be simple, you are also two and you are not simple.

Simplicity requires oneness. If you want to be someone, you are two and you are not simple. If you want to be simple, you are also two and you are not simple. You are one when you are no one, when you are not in time, when you are dead. Being dead is the apex of simplicity. As a human being, you are the closest to simplicity when you are silent, when you are losing, in the broadest meaning of the word, and come to terms with it, or when you are spell-bound (like when in love). You are also close to simplicity when you are generous without being aware of it or honest in the sense of being modest enough to be true to Something (or Someone) greater than yourself.

Simplicity has a considerable part in the poetry of J. L. Borges, where it is present, explicitly or implicitly, in a variety of moods and approached through many of its possible manifestations. The “house” in the poem “Plainness” (“Llaneza”) is a place of simplicity:

The whole house knows me […] / This is the best that can happen – / what Heaven perhaps will grant us: / […] simply to be let in / as a part of an undeniable Reality, / like stones of the road, like trees.

The “house” may stand for the universe, the gate opening into its garden for the gate of Eden where everything is familiar and nothing ever changes:

[…] our eyes / have no need to dwell on objects / already fixed and exact in memory.

However, even if the “house” with its garden has no metaphorical value, it is obvious that simbolically, it conveys the experience of simplicity, whether in a dream, hallucination or in everyday life. The authenticity and validity of a particular experience is presumably justified by referring it to its objective context, the universe, which possesses being due to its functioning as God’s memory:

Everything is […] / And everything is part of that diverse / Crystalline memory, the universe.

The closing verses of the poem, which go

Whoever through its [= the Universe’s] endless mazes wanders / Hears door on door click shut behind his stride, / And only from the sunset’s farther side / Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors,

prove that Borges understood the experience of simplicity as a contradiction of mystical nature. The universe may be simple, man is not, although he has his moments of simplicity. The past, even our own, is shut from us by Time and although poking in it is used for many a practical purpose, only the (ultimate) future will solve the enigma of our being and restore to us our primitive simplicity which lies burried in human soul and of which we may only catch some occasional glimpse. The poem with a significant title, “Someone” (“Alguien”), claims that all our eternity, our solitary heaven or hell (nuestro solitario cielo o infierno), may once stem from this hidden root.

God, on the other hand, is simple; God of the mystics, who has no attributes. In a similar way, the dead are simple since they are devoid of personality, of everything particular and characteristic. The limits between the universal and the particular being blurred, a dead individual, everywhere no one, is no longer an individual entity but has become one with the death itself as the most general of all the abstracta and equal to God. The dead are nothing but the loss and absence of the world and of what they were. Recognizing and accepting the absolute incommensurability of everything that one is in his lifetime with everything he should be after his disappearance from the earth, Borges, paradoxically, yet makes a poetically interpretative step further: the absence of the dead is shared by the living; it (the dead) interferes with we (the living), and vice-versa. The dead give “us” absence as “we” give them presence; in a way, and quite literally so, “we” are the dead. Just as they are the black hole of being, so are “we”. The dead are absolute simplicity, they are one with everything; “we” are simplicity in the process of fulfilment, which the poet is longing for:

To be forever; but never to have been.

Every manifestation of Time is tragic and contradicts simplicity. In itself, Time is a denial of oneness. Every transfiguration of the succession in time into a subjective experience of ecstatic timelessness is a triumph of simplicity; the experience of time suspended is an experience of perfection:

What is time’s monotony to him, who knew / that fulfillment, that ecstasy, that afternoon?

Like any totally committed and fulfilling activity, achieving heroic deeds can lead to an ecstatic disposition of mind which suspends the experience of succession in time. Art, basically, should bring about similar consequences which, from a subjective point of view, is stated by Borges per negationem:

You have used up the years and they have used up you, / And still, and still, you have not written the poem.

The poem, making the used-up years worthwhile, would suspend them by transcending time, of which the poet’s time-bound (temporal) word is yet incapable. His vocation, like the alchimist’s, would have been to distil the essence of reality in a poem, the poem, which would embrace the entire universe in a timeless moment of ecstatic knowledge:

[…] it must be that the soul / Has some secret sufficient way of knowing / That it is immortal, that its vast encompassing / Circle can take in all, can accomplish all. / Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing / The universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Surely it is impossible for a poem to embrace the universe in its totality, if only for the simple fact that the poet’s tool is language; however magic it may claim to be, language is inevitably based on succession and, therefore, subject to the laws of time. Oneness resides in human soul, words only remind us of it. Its sole medium, however, is silence. The one thing which all the ways of transcending time have in common is askesis: a hero, an artist or a simple man by his death, they all have to lose in order to gain.

Borges tries to be an ascetic poet and he stresses his search for simplicity on several occasions:

I have always tried to use words […] according to their root meanings… Or else:

I have been criticized for the poverty of my vocabulary and rhymes. I have deliberately sought such poverty. It is my belief that only common words can move us …

He visualizes a medieval poet who lived […] in a ceaseless present [and] in an age without history and who probably believed, as l’histoire des mentalités teaches us, that words were organically related to what they expressed. The medieval language – any text from the period would prove it – was closer to Eden than that of the modern man. To the conceit and sophistication, generally typical of modernity, Borges opposes his own quest for simplicity, analogous to the stylistic pursuits of the medieval authors. When the assertion of the author’s identity put an end to the usual anonimity, which few poets of those gone-by centuries would have cared to break, poetry changed as never before – or since. Knowing this, Borges appreciates both the simplicity of medieval poetic style and his personal incapacity of thoroughly immersing his – alas! – modern mind in a sensibility which is no longer his own. It is impossible to write an absolutely simple poem, for such a poem would be perfect and its magic would bring time to a standstill. In this sense, the only Poet is God, absolute simplicity and the ultimate criterion for good poetry! The only flawless poem is silence. But the desire to be silent produces poetry. It is the fate of man to look for the simplicity which is to come and not to draw from that which, perhaps, once was (as did the medieval man). Poetry is a good way of searching the future for this purpose:

[…] the poem is inexhaustible / And becomes one with the sum of all created things / And will never reach its last verse / And varies according to writers…

Succession and diversity answer to the poet’s longing for unity and simplicity. Even if it does not show, there is modesty in this recognition and acceptance. But there is joy in this modesty.

Although human language and being both partake of Mystery, the language cannot express what has no name and our being escapes [us] quite. Man is related to the Mystery beyond his self, which is why he cannot understand himself. However, as every quality (like “being a poet”) is ultimately resumed in the quality of “being human”, he can nevertheless strive to be simple as a human, so the more as he is becoming simple anyway, by getting closer to death. By coming to terms with this fact, by accepting it, he gets as close to simplicity as a man can get. He becomes ascetic not by intention but by acceptance, which is, bizarre as it may seem, spiritually the more rewarding experience. Acceptance includes authentic, natural renunciation of everything “material”, everything that can be put in words, everything “added” to the essence of the world, whatever that essence may be:

[…] I am fated to become lost once and for all […] my life is a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man.

To the other man, to Borges, to the “someone” of the two. To the “someone” that I renounces for not recognizing the self in him. Everybody realizes this when the time comes. But it takes a wise man to know it early enough to tell others:

Space, time and Borges now are leaving me.

It takes a wise man to know that he has been dreaming even before waking up in a new morning.

Quotes from J. L. Borges, Selected Poems 1923-1967, London/New York, Penguin Books, 1985 (1972).

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