Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

In the Mirror of the Dream: Borges and the Poetics of Kabbalah

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

In the Mirror of the Dream: Borges and the Poetics of Kabbalah

Article excerpt

Dios (he dado en pensar) pone un empeño

En toda esa inasible arquitectura

Que edifica la luz con la tersura

Del cristal y la sombra con el sueño.

Dios ha creado las noches que se arman

De sueños y las formas del espejo

Para que el hombre sienta que es reflejo

Y vanidad. Por eso nos alarman.

Borges, "Los espejos"1

The crucial role that Kabbalah has played in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges has been the focus of a considerable number of academic studies.2 George Steiner offers a lucid summaiy of the view espoused by various scholars when he describes Borges as the "third modem Kabbalist" along with Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem:

We can locate in the poetry and fictions of Borges eveiy motif present in the language mystique of Kabbalists and gnostics: the image of the world as a concatenation of secret syllables, the notion of an absolute idiom or cosmic letter-alpha and aleph-which underlies the rent fabric of human tongues, the supposition that the entirety of knowledge and experience is prefigured in a final tome containing all conceivable permutations of the alphabet. Borges advances the occult belief that the structure of ordinary time and space interpenetrates with alternative cosmologies, with consistent, manifold realities bom of our speech and of the fathomless free energies of thought. The logic of his fables turns on a refusal of normal causality.* * 3

My purpose in this essay is not to review the previous literature or even to present anything resembling a comprehensive analysis of the topic. Nor am I interested in tracing the influences on Borges, most notably the works of Scholem and Joshua Trachtenberg, to explain how he amassed his knowledge of Jewish mysticism, magic, and folklore. Instead, I will concentrate on three themes that run as threads through his short stories, essays, lectures, and poems: the image of the dream, the symbolic nature of the real, and the linear circularity of time. The appearance of these motifs in Borges's oeuvre certainly reflects an eclectic array of sources, but it seems to me that the kabbalistic inspiration in each instance is especially noteworthy.

Any discussion of Borges and the Kabbalah must begin with the obvious fact that he was not equipped to deal with this material historically or philologically, a point that he often emphasized on his own. Thus, he embarks on the subject in "A Defense of the Kabbalah" (1932) by confessing "almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language."4 S. Similarly, he commenced the lecture on Kabbalah delivered in 1970 at the Sociedad Hebraica Argentina by reminding the audience once more of his igno- rance of Hebrew and noting his perplexity over the various books on the subject that he had read over the years.5 It was not false modesty, therefore, when he said in another lecture on Kabbalah, delivered in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Coliseo in 1977, "I have almost no right to be discussing this,"6 or when he responded to Jaime Alazraki in an interview conducted (together with Willis Bamstone) in April 1980, "But really, since I don't know Hebrew I wonder if I have any right to study the Kabbalah."7 Here it is apposite to recall a remark of Scholem that Edna Aizenberg recounts from a private letter (June 22, 1980) to the effect that Borges does not portray Kabbalah as "historical reality" but rather offers the reader "an insight into what the Kabbalists would have stood for in his own imagination."8 Notwithstanding the basic soundness of this observation, I would tweak it by insisting that the chasm between the historical and the imaginative can be narrowed-indeed, Scholem's own historiography is at times based on documents that must be deemed fanciful reconstructions of what allegedly took place in time, a point that has not commanded sufficient scholarly attention.9 I readily grant that Borges set out primarily to depict how the kabbalists stood in his imagination; however, in the process, he displayed a startlingly intuitive grasp of some of the rudimentaiy principles of Jewish esotericism that not only rivals but on occasion even surpasses the formulations of specialists in the field. …

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