Imagination; it’s something we take for granted and yet it is the key to transforming our lives and the world around us. Beginning with the earliest forms of human expression such as cave painting, storytelling, and shamanistic magic it contains all the dreams and stories that we have told ourselves to build this thing we call reality. “Man passes through a forest of symbols” oftentimes not realizing that we can willfully alter our mental surroundings with the same effort that we put into changing the physical landscape. Most of the tangible objects that we encounter today were once no more than ideas such as the keyboard and word processor I’m using to write this and the money which I’m sitting at this desk to earn. (Don’t tell my boss I’m actually writing for an online magazine.)
Today many are encased in belief systems which they refuse to acknowledge are based primarily on their own prejudices and mental conceptions. The materialist, the churchgoer, the hardworking member of society all see reality through a glass darkly and never realize that they are only seeing it through their own eyes, guided only by their own, woefully limited, expectations. One way these stilted perceptions could be remedied is through mankind’s greatest achievement: art. For it is with art that we are elevated to the level of the angels, shaping our world in subtle and beautiful ways and fulfilling the urge that as Nietzsche tells us all humans have; the urge to create. It would follow then that within works of great art there can be found live cultures, versatile and virile designs that affect us as much as any blow to the head, kiss, or revelation.
One such body of art is composed by Jorge Luis Borges, a writer of no small amount of fame and prestige. Widely read in high school and college literature classes, Borges is considered one of the best writers of the twentieth century and one of the best short story writers of any era. His position is demandingly unique. Borges was an Argentinian with a thoroughly European education who does not fit comfortably with the Surrealists, though his writings are certainly surreal, or the Magic Realists, though I hope to demonstrate that his works are really magic, Borges is in a category occupied only by himself and his circle of friends. It was Borges who laid the foundation for the Latin American Boom that brought writers such as Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and recent Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to prominence. Really Borges’ popularity in the English speaking world began about the time of Marquez’s when his reality warping writings were discovered by the disassociated youth of the Sixties.
With works such as Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Aleph the hippies and their like found someone who understood the mutable nature of the universe that they had discovered, often through the use of psychedelics. Here was a man who understood the power of ideas and the uncertainty of our “human existence” and moreover communicated these concepts in ways that were fantastic and fantastically entertaining. I’ve often thought of Borges as a high minded occultist more than a regular author. However trippy his works may have been, Borges was a stately gentlemen whose conservative views led to him being snubbed by the Nobel Committee, taking away all legitimacy from that “honor.” As the revolutionary fantastic fiction author Michael Moorcock noted on meeting with one of his two main influences during the sixties (the other was William S. Burroughs): “he was just an old man who liked Chesterton.”
Somehow that old man who liked Chesterton, whose theological nightmare The Man Who Loved Thursday is beloved by occultists and romantics including this one, was able to write stories about murders committed according to the qabalistic formula of the Tetragrammaton (Death and the Compass) and the universe convincingly rendered as a vast library (his most famous, The Library of Babel). Borges’ fictions are clever puzzles perfectly self-contained if viewed from one angle, or if one were to shift their perspective, infinitely fascinating brain teasers with no end. Perhaps his most widely anthologized story, The Garden of the Forking Paths, deals convincingly with race relations and the malleable nature of time, reality, and mazes. Annoyingly he is often approached as some sort of pre-Matrix trilogy “what if everybody else isn’t real and I’ve just been dreaming since I was seven” bullshit inspiration but, in reality, he was simply the reading man’s writer. He understood and was able to convey how easy it is to quite literally “get lost” in a good story and encounter difficulty finding one’s way out again. Everyone with an imagination has found themselves living on the rearranged planet of Orbis Teritus at some point during a nocturnal conversation or when staring at the bottom of a stairwell and as Alice would have, simply remarked; “curiouser and curiouser…”
My favorite Borges story is Funes, the Memorious which tells the tale of the titular character, a young man who is unable to forget anything and succumbs under the weight of his expansive observations and “perfect” conception of reality. In the preface to Artifices where the story appears Borges commented simply that the story “was an analogy for insomnia.” This recalled to my mind the famous story told about the Buddha who, when accosted by a disciple or passerby to explain if he was enlightened, merely stated that he was “awake.” The fictions, the surviving fragments of conversation, and the essays of Borges are gateways into a world as bizarre and beautiful as our own. They are skeleton keys into the crystalline constructs of our hidden minds. The view from the unknown dimension.