Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

The Quotable Jorge Luis Borges

The writings of Jorge Luis Borges are so erudite that the reader often feels as if there can be found lurking, just under the surface of any given sentence, reference to and synthesis of entire volumes of obscure and unique encyclopedias (such as, for example, the seventeenth book of Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, or Ivano Bastardo Reyes’ Succinct History of the Peoples of the Southern Cone). He happily admits as much himself, in this, his first quote of the day (taken from the foreword of his amusing The Book of Imaginary Beings), which famously expresses and encapsulates the essence of Borges: “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” Borges, a lifelong bibliophile and polyglot, as well as librarian of the Central Library of Buenos Aires, was afflicted (rather ironically, one must admit) with blindness. He was paid tribute to in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in the form of that novel’s antagonist, the blind monk Jorge de Burgos. Eco also perceived the idealistic (philosophical, if not political or psychological) farsightedness of Borges when he wrote the following: “Though so different in style, two writers have offered us an image for the next millennium: Joyce and Borges. The first designed with words what the second designed with ideas: the original, the one and only World Wide Web.  The Real Thing.  The rest will remain simply virtual.”

It is true that there is to be found in the works of Borges a sort of preternatural sense of the power of seemingly-endless (pre-Internet) hypertextuality. References, whether real or invented (the distinction hardly matters), are hinted at and cross-referenced constantly, so that the reader imagines a macrocosm of metaphysical possibilities existing just beyond the text (and just out of reach). His predilection for subtlety, as well as many tendentious, yet sweeping, remarks allows the reader to conceive of and speculate on, along with the author, two of the most recurrent motifs: universal truths (or Platonic archetypes), and the infinite (often symbolized by a labyrinth).

Without further ado, I present to you, for your own edification, inspiration, and rumination, the results of my unenviable, but rewarding, task of selecting from each of Borges’ nine collections of fiction a mere 21 quotes which I find captivating (for various reasons known only to me–you will find your own reasons as you explore further):

From A Universal History of Iniquity (1935)

I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves…Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing–more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.  (“Preface”)

The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it.  (“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”)

From The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter–if not a paragraph or proper noun–in the history of philosophy. In literature, that ‘falling by the wayside,’ that loss of ‘relevance,’ is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form–perhaps the worst form–of incomprehension.  (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“)

I reflected that all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me…  (“The Garden of Forking Paths”)

From Artifices (1944)

But then, all our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed; perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do everything, know all there is to know.  (“Funes, His Memory”)

I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well.  (“Death and the Compass”)

Apart from a few friends and many routines, the problematic pursuit of literature constituted the whole of his life; like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.  (“The Secret Miracle”)

From The Aleph (1949)

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.  (“The Immortal”)

To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully; battling savage beasts in Ephesus is less difficult (thousands of obscure martyrs did it) than being Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ; a single act is quicker than all the hours of man. The battle and the glory are easy; Raskolnikov’s undertaking was more difficult than Napoleon’s.  (“Deutsches Requiem“)

I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures. Money is abstract, I said over and over, money is future time. It can be an evening just outside the city, or a Brahms melody, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach contempt of gold; it is a Proteus more changeable than the Proteus of the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the hard, solid time of Islam of the Porch. Adherents of determinism deny that there is any event in the world that is possible, i.e., time that might occur; a coin symbolizes our free will.  (“The Zahir”)

From The Maker (1960)

One thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggests. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.  (“The Witness”)

For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.  (“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote)

From In Praise of Darkness (1969)

So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.  (“Legend”)

Forgiveness purifies the offended party, not the offender, who is virtually untouched by it…..The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us).  (“A Prayer”)

From Brodie’s Report (1970)

The craft is mysterious; our opinions are ephemeral, and I prefer Plato’s theory of the Muse to that of Poe, who argued, or pretended to argue, that the writing of a poem is an operation of the intelligence. (I never cease to be amazed that the Classics professed a Romantic theory while a Romantic poet espoused a Classical one.)  (“Foreword”)

The unquestionable if mysterious truth is that the person who bestows a favor is somehow superior to the person who receives it.  (“The Duel”)

It also occurred to him that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.  (“The Gospel According to Mark”)

From The Book of Sand (1975)

Irala, one of literature’s faithful, essayed a phrase: “Every few centuries the Library at Alexandria must be burned.”  (“The Congress”)

I felt what we always feel when someone dies–the sad awareness, now futile, of how little it would have cost us to have been more loving. One forgets that one is a dead man conversing with dead men.  (“There Are More Things”)

From Shakespeare’s Memory (1983)

The Stoics teach that we should not complain of life–the door of the prison is open.  (“August 25, 1983”)

A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St. Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and the caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the more fitting one.  (“Shakespeare’s Memory”)

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5 thoughts on “The Quotable Jorge Luis Borges

  1. Thank you so much for this!


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