The Blind Librarian
By John Weeks
The mysterious and fantastic world depicted by Borges could be called surreal, but it is suspiciously like reality.
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian scholar. He held the position of director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires for almost twenty years, from 1955 to 1973, despite the fact that (like Homer and Milton before him) he had by that time gone blind. He spent his sixty-odd year career writing poems, short stories, and essays, giving lectures, and translating. Borges was an exponent of surreal and fantastic literature, not unlike another prominent South American on our author bank, Gabriel García Márquez; by the mid-1960s he had earned an international reputation.
His life outside of letters was complicated. South American politics were troubled by Communist and militaristic fascist movements, and Argentina was no exception—in fact, when Borges resigned as director of the National Public Library, it was in protest against the return of the dictator (and open Nazi sympathizer) Juan Perón from exile. Borges declared himself opposed to all forms of totalitarianism. He showed a special contempt for anti-Semitism: when enemies spread rumors that he was secretly Jewish, he published an essay stating both that he would be proud to be a Jew and that anyone of pure Castilian Spanish descent probably does have Jewish ancestry.
But Borges is best known for his fiction. Some of his writings take the form of scholarship about imaginary creatures or books, written in a pedantic voice that reminds this reader of J. R. R. Tolkien. One was the Book of Imaginary Beings, an extensive encyclopedia of centaurs, dragons, fairies, manticores, and the like. In another work, the brief essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins (which discusses a real seventeenth-century English author), Borges discusses the problems with trying to establish a universal language by describing an ancient Chinese taxonomy from the imaginary book titled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It includes such fanciful animal categories as “those that tremble as if they are mad,” “those that are painted with a fine camel-hair brush,” and “those that have just broken a vase.”
This fits into a broader motif that runs through much of Borges’ work, that of infinity. Man’s knowledge is limited, but the cosmos we live in has no discernible limits. In some of his stories, characters recognize this as something frightful or sickening. The Book of Sand tells the story of a book collector who obtains a minutely-written volume in indecipherable script, whose pages appear to be limitless and are numbered in a completely random fashion, never repeating. The narrator soon grows to dread the book, and gets rid of it by leaving it in a public library, trying not to notice where exactly he placed it. In other stories, there is something beautiful or even mystical about the infinite. In The Aleph, an otherwise rather dull man has possession of a sacred point in space in his cellar, one that—impossibly, yet actually—contains every other point in space and time. Anyone who looks at the Aleph can see any time and any thing they wish.
But arguably his most inventive and shocking story is another very short one: Three Versions of Judas. It is another piece of fictional scholarship, a brief pseudo-biography of a Biblical scholar, Nils Runeberg. Runeberg first suggests that, as Christ lowered himself to be the victim of human sin, so Judas, who (he claimed) alone understood Christ’s purpose, lowered himself to the role of traitor, in order that Christ’s mission could be fulfilled. Some years later, he produces a different thesis: where other admirable ascetics have forsaken the goodness of the body, Judas went further, sacrificing the goodness of the soul. Then, in a third and final twist, Runeberg comes to a stranger concept still. “God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy … He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.”
On his own showing, Borges rarely allowed his personal views of politics or religion to come through in his fiction. But the present writer cannot help but suspect that in this story, that division slipped a little. Raised in a mostly Catholic nation, Borges himself professed agnosticism, but an agnosticism that allowed mysteries rather than ruling them out. In his own words, “Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity.”
John Weeks is the Associate Director of Operations for the Classic Learning Test.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this author profile of Aeschylus or this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of elements. Or take a look at this essay by one of our top-scoring students on fairy tales and the basis of civilization.