Arts & Culture

Borges and the Jews-Part II

In Part I of this series, author Ilan Stavans explored Borges’ self-identification as a Jew. This next section focuses on Borges’ infatuation with Kabbalah. I feel a contentment in defeat. -J.L.B., "Deutches Requiem" I said that Borges was a rara … Read More

By / June 12, 2009

In Part I of this series, author Ilan Stavans explored Borges’ self-identification as a Jew. This next section focuses on Borges’ infatuation with Kabbalah. I feel a contentment in defeat. -J.L.B., "Deutches Requiem" I said that Borges was a rara avis. The intelligentsia in Latin America, particularly the left-leaning one, has never been particularly interested in things Jewish. (It isn’t overtly anti-Semitic either, although since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that intelligentsia has become openly anti-Zionist.) It’s true that Carlos Fuentes has taken up topics in which Judaism is more than tangential, writing on the Nazis in A Change of Skin, on the Arab-Israeli conflict in The Hydra Head, and on Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula prior to 1492 in Terra Nostra. Mario Vargas Llosa, likewise, in The Storyteller, featured a Jewish anthropologist in Lima who becomes a griot among the Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon .More often than not, however, Jews and their contribution to Western Civilization are ignored. Typical is the magisterial oeuvre of Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize winner in 1990, who addressed every single imaginable topic in the world of arts and letters but never addressed Jews, Judaism or JewishnessPaz wrote on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, corruption, art and architecture, the Gulags, the Mexican inferiority complex, and so much more, yet not a single poem of his deals with the Jews in general, let alone those in the Hispanic world. Likewise with Julio Cortázar, and Gabriel García Márquez. Unlike Paz, Marquez, and most of his peers, Borges made  Jews and Judaism central to his sense of self . Yet, Borges was not interested in Jews as flesh-and-bones people, overwhelmed with ideological interests, religious fervor, and personal passions, but as abstractions. He was attracted to Jews as metaphors. I do not mean to imply in the least that Borges did not know Jews himself, or socialize with them. While in Geneva and Spain during World War I, he befriended a number of Jews ofPolish-Jewish origin, among them Maurice Abramowicz (about whom he wrote a poem in 1984) and as Simón Jichlinski. They were "my two bosom friends," Borges wrote in the autobiographical pieces published in The New Yorker. "One became a lawyer and the other a physician. I taught them to play truco, and they learned so well and fast that at the end of our first game they left me without a cent." He also became close to Rafael Cansinos-Assens, a Sephardic author responsible for El candelabro de los siete brazos. But what attracted Borges the writer was the Jew as symbol. Self-Anointed Kabbalist Borges’ Jewish obsession starts with the Zohar, the canonical text in Kabbalah. His knowledge about Kabbalah came from secondary sources, such as Jewish Magic and Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg, The Holy Kabbalah by Arthur E. Waite, and Le Kabbale by Henri Sérouya, as well as texts by Adolphe Franck and Knorr von Rosenroth, and the entry on the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Borges liked the concept of Sephirot, the ten emanations of God; the method of Gematria, a kind of Jewish numerology; and the idea, expounded by Jewish mystics, that language antecedes the creation of the world. While on a trip to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize, Borges was asked what he wanted to see. "Don’t ask me what I want to see because I am blind," he responded. "But if you ask me whom I want to see, I’ll answer, right away, [Gershom] Scholem. I spent a beautiful afternoon in his house. We met a couple of times. A charming person. He speaks perfect English." Shortly after, Borges wrote a poem about the Golem, the mythical Frankenstein of Ashkenazi Judaism, animated by a single word of its human creator. The word "Golem" in Spanish is impossible to rhyme-unless, of course, it is matched with Scholem. Herein the first three stanzas in the translation of Alan S. Trueblood, included in Alexander Coleman’s Selected Poems (1999): If, as the Greek maintains in the Cratylus, A name is the archetype of a thing, The rose is in the letters that spell rose And the Nile entire resounds in its name’s ring. So, composed of consonants and vowels, There must exist one awe-inspiring word That God inheres in-that, when spoken, holds Almightiness in syllables unslurred. Adam knew it in the Garden, so did the starts. The rusty work of sin, so the cabbalists say, Obliterated it completely; No generation has found it to this day. Borges places the myth of the Golem in the kabbalistic tradition. He’s interested in the power of the Hebrew language, which, according to legend, was created by God even before the universe came into being. The Argentine extends this kabbalistic infusion of words with religious magic by adding his linguistic attention to the Saussurian relationship between object and word. But Borges can’t remain serious-in a winking aside to any of us readers who may have missed this deep reading of the Golem as a sign of the power of language, Borges clarifies by linking this medieval monster to the great modern master of Kabbalah: That cabbalist who played at being God Gave his spacey offspring the nickname Golem. (In a learned passage of his volume, these truths have been conveyed to us by Scholem.) Borges had discovered Kabbalah at an early age. In a conversation with Jaime Alazraki, which took place at Buenos Aires’ National Library,  Borges suggested his interest in Jewish mysticism was sparked by Dante’s Divine Comedy and by his adolescent readings of the Encyclopedia Britannica: I found it in Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy which he undertook during the Civil War to avoid thinking about the war he was too preoccupied with. There is a three-page appendix in that translation that Longfellow took from a book-I believe it was Rabbinical Literature-by J.P. Stehelin where there is a discussion of the Hebrew alphabet and of the different meanings and values that the Kabbalists attributed to those letters. And the other reference must have come from the Britannica. As a youngster, I used to come here, to the Library, quite frequently, and since I was very shy and didn’t dare ask the librarian for books, I would take a volume of the Britannica, any volume, from the shelf myself. It was not just the American writer, though, who provoked Borges’ curiousity about Kabbalah. Years later, he found Jewish esoterica in, of all places, a German text as well: The first book I read in German, when I was studying German by myself, around 1916, was Meyrink’s novel, Der Golem. I was sent on the study of German by my reading of Carlyle whom I greatly admired. (Now I find his style more intimidating than persuasive.) I started by the same foolish thing many people do, by trying to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in German, a book not even Germans understand, and which very few people comprehend. Then a friend of mine-what was her name?-she was a baroness from Prague, wait, oh yes, Baroness Forschtübber, she told me that a very interesting book had just been published, a fantastic novel entitled Der Golem. I had never heard that word before. That was the first work in German I read through-the first book in prose, since I had earlier read Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo. Many others had read Longfellow and even Der Golem without becoming caught up in Kabbalah. For Borges, part of the attraction was that Kabbalah was Jewish. As he notes in the same interview, "all things Jewish have always fascinated me." There was even more, however, a personal note:  Borges suggests that some of his interest in Kabbalah came from a desire to have some connection to religion even though he could not bring himself to believe in a "personal God." Since I have not been able to believe in a personal God, the idea of a vast and impersonal god, the En-Sof of the Kabbalah, has always fascinated me. Later on, I have found the same, well, in Spinoza, and in pantheism in general, and also in Schopenhauer, and in Samuel Butler, and in Bernard Shaw’s idea of "Life’s force," and Bergson’s "élan vital." All that responded to the same attraction. Borges’ first piece on the Kabbalah is called "Una vindicación de la cabala" ("A defense of the Kabbalah"). It was first published in Discusión (1932). Though Borges had thought of himself as a writer for over a decade, his style at the time was still unformed. Neither the first time it has been attempted, nor the last time it will fail, this defense is distinguished by two facts. One is my almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language; the other, my desire to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it. These procedures, as is well known, include the vertical reading of sacred texts, the reading referred to as boustophedon (one line from left to right, the following line from right to left), the methodical substitution of certain letters of the alphabet for others, the sum of the numerical value of the letters, etc. To ridicule such operations is simple; I prefer to attempt to understand them. He talks about the Kabbalah itself indirectly. His mission is to discuss the divine nature of the Holy Scriptures as understood by Christians and Muslims. He isn’t interested in religion but in the fact that "the Spirit" creates the universe, e.g., turns Himself into a Creator, an exciting prospect for a writer, a creator in words: Let us imagine now this astral intelligence, dedicated to manifesting itself not in dynasties or annihilations or birds, but in written words. Let us also imagine, according to the pre-Agustinian theory of verbal inspiration, that God dictates, word by word, what he proposes to say. This premise (which was the one postulated by the Kabbalists) turns the Scriptures into an absolute text, where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero. The conception alone of such a document is a greater wonder than those recorded in its pages. A book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of revelations lying in wait, of superimpositions of light… How could one not only study it to absurdity, to numerical excess, as did the Kabbalah? Mystical Motifs Throughout his life, Borges used a number of kabbalistic motifs, sometimes overtly, others in a tangential, even subliminal fashion. "The Circular Ruins," for instance, might be read as a tribute to the myth of the Golem. In the story, a magician who has never had a child decides to dream his own son. Night after night he shapes his successor, until the creation acquires its own life. Then there is "The Aleph," arguably Borges’ most emblematic-and famous-tale. While the primary leitmotif in this story is the Divine Comedy, played out by Borges, his deceased love Beatriz, and his rival, Dante Argentino Daneri, the elusive item at the end of the men’s descent is the magical "Aleph," clearly a reference to the Kabbalist’s reverence for God’s beginnings and the universe’s mystic one-ness. Kabbalistic themes also appear in Borges’ poetry. In a sonnet about Spinoza, collected in The Self and the Other. (1964) and translated byWillis Barnstone, Borges imagines the philosopher polishing a crystal lens which gives him access to "the infinite/Map of the One who now is all His stars." Likewise, in the second Spinoza sonnet, titled "Baruch Spinoza" and collected in The Iron Coin (1976) again translated by Barnstone, Spinoza is figured as a kabbalist, summoning God from words: The magician moved Carves out of his God with fine geometry; From his disease, from nothing, he’s begun To construct God, using the word. No one Is granted such prodigious love as he: The love that has no hope of being loved. The persistence of the kabbalistic imagery can be traced in the story  "Death and the Compass," where the Hebrew alphabet serves as both literal and figurative map. It was published in the magazine Sur in 1942 and later gathered in Artifices (1944). It became part of Ficciones (also 1944). In his forward to Artifices, translated by Andrew Hurley in Collected Fictions, Borges writes: Two of [the stories], perhaps, merit some comment: "Death and the Compass" and "Funes, His Memory." The second is a long metaphor for insomnia. The first, in spite of the Germanic or Scandinavian names in it, takes place in a Buenos Aires of dreams: the twisting "rue de Toulon" is the Paseo de Julio; "Triste-le-Roy" is the hotel where Herbert Ashe received, yet probably did not read, the eleventh volume of an imaginary encyclopedia. After this fiction was written, I thought it might be worthwhile to expand the time and space the story covers: the revenge might be bequeathed to others, the periods of time might be calculated in years, perhaps in centuries; the first letter of the Name might be uttered in Iceland, the second in Mexico, the third in Hindustan. Is there any need for me to say that there are saints among the Hasidim, and that the sacrifice of four lives in order to obtain the four letters that the Name demands is a fantasy dictated by the shape of my story?
Inspired by Spinoza,  "Death and the Compass" takes place in a European city much like Amsterdam.The genre is the detective story, but here, with a geometrical plan. The detective is Erik Lönnrot and his nemesis is Red Scharlach. (Notice the redness of the names.) Lönnrot is invited to exercise his intelligence by sorting out a series of four murders, each committed within symmetrical coordinates of time and space (December 3rd, January 3rd, February 3rd, etc., in northern part of the city, the western part, etc.). The victims are all Jews: Dr. Marcelo Yarmolinsky, Daniel Simón Azevedo (the last name is Borges’, too), Ginzberg or Ginsburg, etc. He comes across a book by one Lausden called Philologus hebræogræcus (1739). The victims are at times Hasidim-one of them has an octavo volume about the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tov-, or simply others taxi drivers. Lönnrot gets information from a journalist of the Yiddische Zeitung about the Tetragramaton, the four-lettered divine name: YHVH. After each murder, a sign appears: "The first letter of the Name has been written." Red Scharlach, also known as Scharlach the Dandy, was a criminal who"had sworn upon his honor to kill Lönnrot, but Lönnrot never allowed himself to be intimidated. He thought of himself as a reasoning machine, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, even something of the gambler." Eventually Lönnrot realizes a fourth murder is to take place in a precise time and place: March 3rd, at the abandoned Villa Triste-le-Roy. He has suspected that maybe Red Scharlach might be the last victim but then dismisses the idea. When he arrives, he sees Scharlach. Lönnrot asks: "Scharlach-you are looking for the secret name?" Hurley’s translation: Scharlach stood there, impassive. He had not participated in the brief struggle, and now moved only to put out his hand for Lönnrot’s revolver. But then he spoke, and Lönnrot heard in his voice a tired triumphance, a hatred as large as the universe, a sadness no smaller than that hatred. "No," he said. "I am looking for something more fleeting and more perishable than that-I am looking for Erik Lönnrot." Scharlach explains how he carefully executed each and every one of his crimes. Lonnrot realizes he’s about to die. He considers the three symmetrical crimes: "There are three lines too many in your labyrinth," he said at last. "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. When you hunt me dawn in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and halfway between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy." "The next time I kill you," Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless." He stepped back a few steps. Then, very carefully, he fired. The ending is intriguing: is the Greek line more desirable than the impenetrability of the kabbalistic quadrants? Or do they both, for Borges, ultimately lead to the "invisible and endless," the unutterable mystery of life and death? Stay tuned for Part III of Borges and the Jews next Wednesday! Sign up for Zeek’s RSS feed or our facebook page for a reminder!

Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement. His work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995) and comic strips in the case of Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000). Stavans is editor of several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998). A selection of his work appeared in 2000 under the title The Essential Ilan Stavans. In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been the recipient of international prizes and honors, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction.

The illustration of Borges was drawn by Zeek’s online art editor, Maya Escobar. The image of Death and the Compass is a still from the film of that title, directed by Alex Cox and based on the Borges story.