Kazimir Malevich, Supremus 56, 1916 (detail)

Writers, Singular and Universal

A writer is one who, when we encounter their words, invites us to another use of language. Their words may be our words, but their voice makes them other. A writer, then, walks a tightrope between the singular and the universal, and the best of them are so adept at it that their work may be described simply as ‘singular universal’. It is such writers that I aim to honour in this series.

JORGE LUIS BORGES, POET

Jorge Luis Borges is universally recognized for his imaginative genius and storytelling artistry, as well as for his life-long devotion to upholding the values of literature in a world where language is increasingly debased. The lightness of touch with which he defended both the cult of books and the spoken word has endeared him to many. Yet his poetic genius remains, in my view, insufficiently recognized, at least among English speakers, and this notwithstanding the excellent translators who have admirably served his work. I offer here, then, four Borges poems, in the original Spanish and in English translation.

Kazimir Malevich, Four Squares, 1915 (text added)

JORGE LUIS BORGES, FOUR POEMS

in the Original Spanish and in English Translation

Beppo

 

El gato blanco y célibe se mira
en la lúcida luna del espejo
y no puede saber que esa blancura
y esos ojos de oro que no ha visto
nunca en la casa son su propia imagen.
¿Quién le dirá que el otro que lo observa
es apenas un sueño del espejo?
Me digo que esos gatos armoniosos,
el de cristal y el de caliente sangre,
son simulacros que concede al tiempo
un arquetipo eterno. Así lo afirma,
sombra también, Plotino en las Ennéadas.
¿De qué Adán anterior al paraíso,
de qué divinidad indescrifrable
somos los hombres un espejo roto?

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting, 1918 (flipped)

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting, 1918

Beppo

 

The celibate white cat surveys himself
in the mirror’s clear-eyed glass,
not suspecting that the whiteness facing him
and those gold eyes that he’s not seen before
in ramblings through the house are his own likeness.
Who is to tell him the cat observing him
is only the mirror’s way of dreaming?
I remind myself that these concordant cats—
the one of glass, the one with warm blood coursing—
are both mere simulacra granted time
by a timeless archetype. In the Enneads
Plotinus, himself a shade, has said as much.
Of what Adam predating paradise,
of what inscrutable divinity
are all of us a broken mirror-image?

 

Translated by Alan S. Trueblood

Amorosa anticipacíon

 

Ni la intimidad de tu frente clara como una fiesta
ni la costumbre de tu cuerpo, aún misterioso y tácito y de niña,
ni la sucesión de tu vida asumiendo palabras o silencios
serán favor tan misterioso
como mirar tu sueño implicado
en la vigilia de mis brazos.
Virgen milagrosamente otra vez por la virtud absolutoria del sueño,
quieta y resplandeciente como una dicha que la memoria elige,
me darás esa orilla de tu vida que tú misma no tienes.
Arrojado a quietud,
divisaré esa playa última de tu ser
y te veré por vez primera, quizá,
como Dios ha de verte,
desbaratada la ficción del Tiempo,
sin el amor, sin mí.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1915 (flipped)

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1915

Anticipation of Love

Neither the intimacy of your look, your brow fair as a feast day,
nor the favor of your body, still mysterious, reserved, and childlike,
nor what cornes to me of your life, settling in words or silence,
will be so mysterious a gift
as the sight of your sleep, enfolded
in the vigil of my arms.
Virgin again, miraculously, by the absolving power of sleep,
quiet and luminous like some happy thing recovered by memory,
you will give me that shore of your life that you yourself do not own.
Cast up into silence
I shall discern that ultimate beach of your being
and see you for the first time, perhaps,
as God must see you—
the fiction of Time destroyed,
free from love, from me.

 

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

1964

 

I

 

Ya no es mágico el mundo. Te han dejado.
Ya no compartirás la clara luna
Ni los lentos jardines. Ya no hay una
Luna que no sea espejo del pasado,
Cristal de soledad, sol de agoniás.
Adiós las mutuas manos y las sienes
Que acercaba el amor. Hoy sólo tienes
La fiel memoria y los desiertos días.
Nadie pierde (repites vanamente)
Sino lo que no tiene y no ha tenido
Nunca, pero no basta ser valiente
Para aprender el arte del olvido.
Un símbolo, una rosa, te desgarra
Y te puede matar una guitarra.

Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism, 1916 (flipped)

Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism, 1916

1964

 

I

 

It is not magic now, the world. Alone,
you will not share the clarity of moonlight
or the placid gardens. Now there will be no moon
that is not a reflection of the past,
mirror of solitude, a sun of sorrow.
Goodbye now to the touch of hands and bodies
that love brought dose together. Now you have only
your loyal memories and the empty days.
We only lose (you vainly tell yourself)
what we do not have, what we have never had.
But, to learn the fine art of forgetting,
it is not enough to put on a brave face.
Some sign—a rose—can tear the heart from you
and a chord on a guitar can do you in.

II

 

Ya no seré feliz. Tal vez no importa.
Hay tantas otras cosas en el mundo;
Un instante cualquiera es más profundo
Y diverso que el mar. La vida es corta
Y aunque las horas son tan largas, una
Oscura maravilla nos acecha,
La muerte, ese otro mar, esa otra flecha
Que nos libra del sol y de la luna
Y del amor. La dicha que me diste
Y me quitaste debe ser borrada;
Lo que era todo tien que ser nada.
Sólo me queda el goce de estar triste.
Esa vana costumbre que me inclina
Al Sur, a cierta puerta, a cierta esquina.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism (Football Player), 1915

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism (Football Player), 1915 (flipped)

II

 

I will not be happy now. It may not matter.
There are so many more things in the world.
Any random instant is as crowded
and varied as the sea. A life is brief,
and though the hours seem long, there is another
dark mystery that lies in wait for us
—death, that other sea, that other arrow
that frees us from the sun, the moon, and love.
The happiness you gave me once and later
took back from me will be obliterated.
That which was everything must turn to nothing.
I only keep the taste of my own sadness
and a vain urge that turns me to theSouthside,
to a certain corner there, a certain door.

 

Translated by Alastair Reid

Arte Poética

 

Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
Y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
Saber que nos perdemos como el río
Y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
Que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
Que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
De cada noche, que se llama sueño.

Ver en et día o en el año un símbolo
De los días del hombre y de sus años,
Convertir et ultraje de los años
En una música un rumor y un símbolo,

Kazimir Malevich, Eight Red Rectangles, 1915

Kazimir Malevich, Eight Red Rectangles, 1915 (flipped)

Ars Poetica

 

To look at the river made of time and water
And remember that time is another river,
To know that we are lost like the river
And that faces dissolve like water.

To be aware that waking dreams it is not asleep
While it is another dream, and that the death
That our flesh goes in fear of is that death
Which comes every night and is called sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of the days of man and of his years,
To transmute the outrage of the years
Into a music, a murmur of voices, and a symbol,

Ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
Un triste oro, tal es la poesía
Que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
Vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

A veces en las tardes una cara
Nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
El arte debe ser como ese espejo
Que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
Lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
Verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
De verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

También es como el río interminable
Que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
Y es otro, como el río interminable.

Kazimir Malevich, Airplane Flying, 1915 (flipped)

Kazimir Malevich, Airplane Flying, 1915

To see in death sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold—such is poetry,
Which is immortal and poor. Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the evenings a face
Looks at us out of the depths of a mirror;
Art should be like that mirror
Which reveals to us our own face.

They say that Ulysses, sated with marvels,
Wept tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca,
Green and humble. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of marvels.

It is also like the river with no end
That flows and remains and is the mirror of one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And is another, like the river with no end.

 

Translated by W.S.Merwin

JORGE LUIS BORGES ON METAPHOR

Throughout his life Borges, with the freshness and charm of those who cultivate their intelligence outside of any institution (like Giacomo Leopardi, like Jean-Luc Godard), has offered us his reflections on literature. Here I give a transcript of his talk on metaphor, one of the six Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard University in 1967. For your information, an audio recording of all six lectures is available on YouTube.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details)

As the subject of today’s talk is the metaphor, I shall begin with a metaphor. This first of the many metaphors I shall try to recall comes from the Far East, from China. If I am not mistaken, the Chinese call the world ‘the ten thousand things,’ or—and this depends on the taste and fancy of the translator—’the ten thousand beings.’

We may accept, I suppose, the very conservative estimate of ten thousand. Surely there are more than ten thousand ants, ten thousand men, ten thousand hopes, fears, or nightmares in the world. But if we accept the number ten thousand, and if we think that all metaphors are made by linking two different things together, then, had we time enough, we might work out an almost unbelievable sum of possible metaphors. I have forgotten my algebra, but I think that the sum should be 10,000 multiplied by 9,999, multiplied by 9,998, and so on. Of course the sum of possible combinations is not endless, but it staggers the imagination. So we might be led to think: Why on earth should poets all over the world, and all through time, be using the same stock metaphors, when there are so many possible combinations?

The Argentine poet Lugones, way back in the year 1909, wrote that he thought poets were always using the same metaphors, and that he would try his hand at discovering new metaphors for the moon. And in fact he concocted many hundreds of them. He also said, in the foreword to a book called Lunario sentimental, that every word is a dead metaphor. This statement is, of course, a metaphor. Yet I think we all feel the difference between dead and living metaphors. If we take any good etymological dictionary (I am thinking of my old unknown friend Dr. Skeat) and if we look up any word, we are sure to find a metaphor tucked away somewhere.

For example—and you can find this in the very first lines of Beowulf—the word þhreat meant ‘an angry mob,’ but now the word is given to the effect and not to the cause. Then we have the word ‘king.’ ‘King’ was originally cyning, which meant ‘a man who stands for the kin—for the people.’ So, etymologically, ‘king,’ ‘kinsman,’ and ‘gentleman’ are the same word. Yet if I say, ‘The king sat in his counting house, counting out his money,’ we don’t think of the word ‘king’ as being a metaphor. In fact, if we go in for abstract thinking, we have to forget that words were metaphors. We have to forget, for example, that in the word ‘consider’ there is a suggestion of astrology—’consider’ originally meaning ‘being with the stars,’ ‘making a horoscope.’

What is important about the metaphor, I should say, is the fact of its being felt by the reader or the hearer as a metaphor. I will confine this talk to metaphors that are felt as metaphors by the reader. Not to such words as ‘king,’ or ‘threat’—and we might go on, perhaps forever.

First, I would like to take some stock patterns of metaphor. I use the word ‘pattern’ because the metaphors I will quote will be to the imagination quite different, yet to the logical thinker they would be almost the same. So that we might speak of them as equations. Let us take the first that comes to my mind. Let us take the stock comparison, the time-honored comparison, of eyes and stars, or conversely of stars and eyes. The first example I remember comes from the Greek Anthology, and I think Plato is supposed to have written it. The lines (I have no Greek) run more or less as follows: ‘I wish I were the night, so that I might watch your sleep with a thousand eyes’. Here, of course, what we feel is the tenderness of the lover; we feel his wish to be able to see his beloved from many points at once. We feel the tenderness behind these lines.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details)

Now let us take another, less illustrious example: ‘The stars look down.’ If we take logical thinking seriously, we have the same metaphor here. Yet the effect on our imagination is quite different. ‘The stars look down’ does not make us think of tenderness; rather, it gives the idea of generations and generations of men toiling on and of the stars looking down with a kind of lofty indifference.

Let me take a different example—one of the stanzas that have most struck me. The lines come from a poem by Chesterton called ‘A Second Childhood’:

But I shall not grow too old to see enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.

‘Not a monster full of eyes (we know those monsters from the Revelation of Saint John) but—and this is far more awful—a monster made of eyes, as if those eyes were the living tissue of him.

We have looked at three images which can all be traced back to the same pattern. But the point I would like to emphasize—and this is really one of the two important points in my talk—is that although the pattern is essentially the same, in the first case, the Greek example ‘I wish I were the night,’ what the poet makes us feel is his tenderness, his anxiety; in the second, we feel a kind of divine indifference to things human; and in the third, the familiar night becomes a nightmare.

Let us now take a different pattern: let us take the idea of time flowing—flowing as a river does. The first example comes from a poem that Tennyson wrote when he was, I think, thirteen or fourteen. He destroyed it; but, happily for us, one line survived. I think you will find it in Tennyson’s biography written by Andrew Lang. The line is: ‘Time flowing in the middle of the night.’ I think Tennyson has chosen his time very wisely. In the night all things are silent, men are sleeping, yet time is flowing noiselessly on. This is one example.

There is also a novel (I’m sure you’re thinking of it) called simply Of Time and the River. The mere putting together of the two words suggests the metaphor: time and the river, they both flow on. And then there is the famous sentence of the Greek philosopher: ‘No man steps twice into the same river.’ Here we have the beginning of terror, because at first we think of the river as flowing on, of the drops of water as being different. And then we are made to feel that we are the river, that we are as fugitive as the river.

We also have those lines by Manrique:

Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar
qu’es el morir.

Our lives are the rivers
that flow into that sea
which is death.

This statement is not too impressive in English; I wish I could remember how Longfellow translated it in his ‘Copias de Manrique’.  But of course behind the stock metaphor we have the grave music of the words:

Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar
qu’es el morir;
allí van los señoríos
derechos a se acabar
e consumir

Yet the metaphor is exactly the same in all these cases.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details).

And now we will go on to something very trite, something that may cause you to smile: the comparison of women to flowers, and also of flowers to women. Here, of course, there are far too many easy examples. But there is one I would like to recall (perhaps it may not be familiar to you) from that unfinished masterwork, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston. Stevenson tells of his hero going into a church, in Scotland, where he sees a girl—a lovely girl, we are made to feel. And one feels that he is about to fall in love with her. Because he looks at her, and then he wonders whether there is an immortal soul within that beautiful frame, or whether she is a mere animal the color of flowers. And the brutality of the word ‘animal’ is of course destroyed by ‘the color of flowers.’ I don’t think we need any other examples of this pattern, which can be found in all ages, in all tongues, in all literatures.

Now let us go on to another of the essential patterns of metaphor: the pattern of life’s being a dream—the feeling that comes over us that life is a dream. The evident example which occurs to us is: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. Now, this may sound like blasphemy—I love Shakespeare too much to care—but I think that here, if we look at it (and I don’t think we should look at it too closely; we should rather be grateful to Shakespeare for this and his many other gifts), there is a very slight contradiction between the fact that our lives are dreamlike or have a dreamlike essence in them, and the rather sweeping statement, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. Because if we are real in dreams, or if we are merely dreamers of dreams, then I wonder if we can make such sweeping statements. This sentence of Shakespeare’s belongs rather to philosophy or to metaphysics than to poetry—though of course it is heightened, it is lifted up into poetry, by the context.

Another example of the same pattern comes from a great German poet—a minor poet beside Shakespeare (but I suppose all poets are minor beside him, except two or three). It is a very famous piece by Walther von der Vogelweide. I suppose I should say it thus (I wonder how good my Middle German is—you will have to forgive me): ‘Ist mir min leben getroumet, oder ist es war?’ ‘Have I dreamt my life, or was it a true one?’ I think this comes nearer to what the poet is trying to say, because instead of a sweeping affirmation we have a question. The poet is wondering. This has happened to all of us, but we have not worded it as Walther von der Vogelweide did. He is asking himself, ‘Ist mir min leben getroumet, oder ist es war?’ and this hesitation gives us that dreamlike essence of life, I think.

I don’t remember whether in my last lecture (because this is a sentence I often quote over and over again, and have quoted all through my life) I gave you the quotation from the Chinese philosopher Chuan Tzu. He dreamt that he was a butterfly, and, on waking up, he did not know whether he was a man who had had a dream he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who was now dreaming he was a man. This metaphor is, I think, the finest of all. First because it begins with a dream, so afterwards, when he awakens, his life still has something dreamlike about it. And second because, with a kind of almost miraculous happiness, he has chosen the right animal. Had he said, ‘Chuan Tzu had a dream that he was a tiger,’ then there would be nothing in it. A butterfly has something delicate and evanescent about it. If we are dreams, the true way to suggest this is with a butterfly and not a tiger. If Chuan Tzu had a dream he was a typewriter, it would be no good at all. Or a whale—that would do him no good either. I think he has chosen just the right word for what he is trying to say.

Let us try to follow another pattern—the very common one that links up the ideas of sleeping and dying. This is quite common in everyday speech also; yet if we look for examples, we shall find that they are very different. I think that somewhere in Homer he speaks of the ‘iron sleep of death.’ Here he gives us two opposite ideas: death is a kind of sleep, yet that kind of sleep is made of a hard, ruthless, and cruel metal—iron. It is a kind of sleep that is unbroken and unbreakable. Of course, we have Heine here also: ‘Der Tod dass ist die frühe Nacht.’ And since we are north of Boston, I think we must remember those perhaps too-well-known lines by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These lines are so perfect that we hardly think of a trick. Yet, unhappily, all literature is made of tricks, and those tricks get—in the long run—found out. And then the reader tires of them. But in this case the trick is so unobtrusive that I feel rather ashamed of myself for calling it a trick (I call it this merely for want of a better word). Because Frost has attempted something very daring here. We have the same line repeated word for word, twice over, yet the sense is different. ‘And miles to go before I sleep’: this is merely physical—the miles are miles in space, in New England, and ‘sleep’ means ‘go to sleep.’ The second time—’And miles to go before I sleep’—we are made to feel that the miles are not only in space but in time, and that ‘sleep’ means ‘die’ or ‘rest.’ Had the poet said so in so many words, he would have been far less effective. Because, as I understand it, anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down. Perhaps the human mind has a tendency to deny a statement. Remember what Emerson said: arguments convince nobody. They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. Then we look at them, we weigh them, we turn them over, and we decide against them.

But when something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination. We are ready to accept it. I remember reading, some thirty years ago, the works of Martin Buber—I thought of them as being wonderful poems. Then, when I went to Buenos Aires, I read a book by a friend of mine, Dujovne, and I found in its pages, much to my astonishment, that Martin Buber was a philosopher and that all his philosophy lay in the books I had read as poetry. Perhaps I had accepted those books because they came to me through poetry, through suggestion, through the music of poetry, and not as arguments. I think that somewhere in Walt Whitman the same idea can be found: the idea of reasons being unconvincing. I think he says somewhere that he finds the night air, the large few stars, far more convincing than mere arguments.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details)

We may think of other patterns of metaphor. Let us now take the example (this is not as common as the other ones) of a battle and a fire. In the Iliad, we find the image of a battle blazing like a fire. We have the same idea in the heroic fragment of Finnesburg. In that fragment we are told of the Danes fighting the Frisians, of the glitter of the weapons, the shields and swords, and so on. Then the writer says that it seemed as if all Finnesburg, as if the whole castle of Finn, were on fire.

I suppose I have left out some quite common patterns. We have so far taken up eyes and stars, women and flowers, time and rivers, life and dream, death and sleeping, fire and battles. Had we time and learning enough, we might find half a dozen other patterns, and perhaps those might give us most of the metaphors in literature.

What is really important is the fact not that there are a few patterns, but that those patterns are capable of almost endless variations. The reader who cares for poetry and not for the theory of poetry might read, for example, ‘I wish I were the night,’ and then afterwards ‘A monster made of eyes’ or ‘The stars looked down,’ and never stop to think that these can be traced back to a single pattern. If I were a daring thinker (but I am not; I am a very timid thinker, I am groping my way along), I could of course say that only a dozen or so patterns exist and that all other metaphors are mere arbitrary games. This would amount to the statement that among the ‘ten thousand things’ of the Chinese definition, only some twelve essential affinities may be found. Because, of course, you can find other affinities that are merely astonishing, and astonishment hardly lasts more than a moment.

I remember that I have forgotten quite a good example of the dream-and-life equation. But I think I can recall it now: it is by the American poet Cummings. There are four lines. I must apologize for the first. Evidently it was written by a young man, writing for young men, and I can no longer claim the privilege—I am far too old for that kind of game. But the stanza should be quoted in full. The first line is: ‘god’s terrible face, brighter than a spoon.’ I am rather sorry about the spoon, because of course one feels that he thought at first of a sword, or of a candle, or of the sun, or of a shield, or of something traditionally shining; and then he said, ‘No—after all, I’m modern, so I’ll work in a spoon.’ And so he got his spoon. But we may forgive him that for what comes afterwards: ‘god’s terrible face, brighter than a spoon, / collects the image of one fatal word.’ This second line is better, I think. And as my friend Murchison said to me, in a spoon we often have many images collected. I had never thought of that, because I had been taken aback by the spoon and did not want to think much about it.

god’s terrible face, brighter than a spoon,
collects the image of one fatal word,
so that my life (which liked the sun and the moon)
resembles something that has not occurred.

‘Resembles something that has not occurred’: this line carries a kind of strange simplicity. I think it gives us the dreamlike essence of life better than those more famous poets, Shakespeare and Walther von der Vogelweide.

Of course, I have chosen only a few examples. I am sure your memories are full of metaphors that you have treasured up—metaphors that you may be hoping I will quote. I know that after this lecture I shall feel remorse coming over me, thinking of the many beautiful metaphors I have missed. And of course you will say to me, in an aside, ‘But why did you omit that wonderful metaphor by So-and-So?’ And then I will have to fumble and to apologize.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details)

But now, I think, we might go on to metaphors that seem to stand outside the old patterns. And since I have spoken of the moon, I will take a Persian metaphor I read somewhere in Brown’s history of Persian literature. Let us say it came from Farid al-Din Attar or Omar Khayyám, or Hafiz, or another of the great Persian poets. He speaks of the moon, calling it ‘the mirror of time.’ I suppose that, from the point of view of astronomy, the idea of the moon being a mirror is as it should be—but this is quite irrelevant from the poetic point of view. Whether in fact the moon is or is not a mirror has no importance whatever, since poetry speaks to the imagination. Let us look at the moon as a mirror of time. I think this is a very fine metaphor—first, because the idea of a mirror gives us the brightness and the fragility of the moon, and, second, because the idea of time makes us suddenly remember that that very clear moon we are looking at is very ancient, is full of poetry and mythology, is as old as time.

Since I’ve used the phrase ‘as old as time,’ I must quote another line—one that perhaps is bubbling up in your memory. I can’t recall the name of the author. I found it quoted by Kipling in a not-too-memorable book of his called From Sea to Sea: ‘A rose-red city, half as old as Time. Had the poet written ‘A rose-red city, as old as Time,’ he would have written nothing at all. But ‘half as old as Time’ gives it a kind of magic precision—the same kind of magic precision that is achieved by that strange and common English phrase, ‘I will love you forever and a day.’ ‘Forever’ means ‘a very long time,’ but it is too abstract to appeal to the imagination.

We have the same kind of trick (I apologize for the use of this word) in the name of that famous book, the Thousand and One Nights. For ‘the thousand nights’ means to the imagination ‘the many nights,’ even as ‘forty’ used to mean ‘many’ in the seventeenth century. ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,’ writes Shakespeare; and I think of the common English expression ‘forty winks’ for ‘a nap.’ For ‘forty’ means ‘many.’ And here you have the ‘thousand nights and a night’—like ‘a rose-red city’ and the fanciful precision of ‘half as old as Time,’ which of course makes time seem even longer.

In order to consider different metaphors, I will now go back—inevitably, you might say—to my favorite Anglo-Saxons. I remember that very common kenning which calls the sea ‘the whale road.’ I wonder whether the unknown Saxon who first coined that kenning knew how fine it was. I wonder whether he felt (though this need hardly concern us) that the hugeness of the whale suggested and emphasized the hugeness of the sea.

There is another metaphor—a Norse one, about blood. The common kenning for blood is ‘the water of the serpent’. In this metaphor, you have the notion—which we find also among the Saxons—of a sword as an essentially evil being, a being that lapped up the blood of men as if it were water.

Then we have the metaphors for battle. Some of them are quite trite—for example, ‘meeting of men.’ Here, perhaps, there is something quite fine: the idea of men meeting to kill each other (as if no other ‘meetings’ were possible). But we also have ‘the meeting of swords,’ ‘the dance of swords,’ ‘the clash of armor,’ ‘the clash of shields.’ All of them may be found in the ode of Brunanburh. And there is another fine one: þorn aeneoht, ‘a meeting of anger.’ Here the metaphor is impressive, perhaps because, when we think of meeting, we think of fellowship, of friendship; and then there comes the contrast, the meeting of anger.

But these metaphors are nothing, I should say, compared to a very fine Norse and—strangely enough—Irish metaphor about the battle. It calls the battle ‘the web of men.’ The word ‘web’ is really wonderful here, for in the idea of a web we get the pattern of a medieval battle: we have the swords, the shields, the crossing of the weapons. Also, there is the nightmare touch of a web being made of living beings. ‘A web of men’: a web of men who are dying and killing each other.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505 (details)

There suddenly comes to my mind a metaphor from Góngora that is rather like the ‘web of men.’ He is speaking of a traveler who comes to a ‘barbara aldea’—to a ‘barbarous village’; and then that village weaves a rope of dogs around him.

Como suele tejer
Bárbara aldea
Soga de perros
Contra forastero.

So, strangely enough, we have the same image: the idea of a rope or web made of living beings. Yet even in those cases that seem to be synonyms, there is quite a difference. A rope of dogs is somehow baroque and grotesque, while ‘web of men’ has something terrible, something awful about it.

To end up, I will take a metaphor, or a comparison (after all, I am not a professor and the difference need hardly worry me), by the now-forgotten Byron. I read the poem when I was a boy—I suppose you all read it at a very tender age. Yet two or three days ago I suddenly discovered that that metaphor was a very complex one. I had never thought of Byron as being especially complex. You all know the words: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night’. The line is so perfect that we take it for granted. We think, ‘Well, we could have written that, had we cared to.’ But only Byron cared to write it.

I come now to the hidden and secret complexity of the line. I suppose you have already found out what I am now going to reveal to you. (Because this always happens with surprises, no? It happens to us when we’re reading a detective novel.) ‘She walks in beauty, like the night’: at the beginning we have a lovely woman; then we are told that she walks in beauty. This somehow suggests the French language—something like ‘vous êtes en beauté,’ and so on. But: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night.’ We have, in the first instance, a lovely woman, a lovely lady, likened to the night. But in order to understand the line, we have to think of the night as a woman also; if not, the line is meaningless. So within those very simple words, we have a double metaphor: a woman is likened to the night, but the night is likened to a woman. I do not know and I do not care whether Byron knew this. I think if he had known it, the verse would hardly be as good as it is. Perhaps before he died he found it out, or somebody pointed it out to him.

Now we are led to the two obvious and major conclusions of this lecture. The first is, of course, that though there are hundreds and indeed thousands of metaphors to be found, they may all be traced back to a few simple patterns. But this need not trouble us, since each metaphor is different: every time the pattern is used, the variations are different. And the second conclusion is that there are metaphors—for example, ‘web of men,’ or ‘whale road’—that may not be traced back to definite patterns.

So I think that the outlook—even after my lecture—is quite good for the metaphor. Because, if we like, we may try our hand at new variations of the major trends. The variations would be very beautiful, and only a few critics like myself would take the trouble to say, ‘Well, there you have eyes and stars and there you have time and the river over and over again.’ The metaphors will strike the imagination. But it may also be given to us—and why not hope for this as well?—it may also be given to us to invent metaphors that do not belong, or that do not yet belong, to accepted patterns.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems
Edited by Alexander Coleman

Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse
Edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu

Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library
Non-Fiction 1922-1986

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2017 | All rights reserved

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