In 1995, Bill Gates, the world-renowned founder of Microsoft and personal computing visionary, published The Road Ahead, his study of computing history and examination of the ways in which computers will transform the lives of people all over the world. His enthusiasm for what is now commonly called the Information Age is found on every page, particularly in those where he speaks (almost in a hushed awe) of the ways in which computers will surmount space and time—those two pesky and seemingly insurmountable barriers that humans have tried to dodge since time immemorial. Gates argues that the phrase ‘‘information highway’’ is an inadequate metaphor, since it suggests ‘‘landscape and geography, a distance between points, and embodies the implication that you have to travel to get from one place to another.’’ Gates corrects this metaphor saying: Gates further argues that the speed of computer networks using ﬁber optics will deliver ‘‘streams of information at very high speeds—up to 155 million bits per second at ﬁrst, later jumping up to 622 million bits per second and eventually up to 2 billion bits per second.’’ Thus, video will be as easy to send across networks as the human voice is currently sent along telephone lines. Eventually (as Gates, cheerleader-like, imagines throughout his book), people will live in an age where ‘‘the network will draw us together’’ and ‘‘give us choices that can put us in touch with entertainment, information and each other.’’
‘‘The Aleph’’ was ﬁrst published in 1945, ﬁfty years before The Road Ahead and before the ﬁrst waves of enthusiasm for the personal computer crashed on the shores of the modern world. But who can read Borges’s story and not sense the slightest hint of the embryonic Bill Gates? ‘‘Our twentieth century,’’ Daneri explains, ‘‘had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain: nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.’’ Is this not reminiscent of Bill Gates’s talk of eliminating distance? Consider also Daneri’s vision of ‘‘modern man,’’ alone in his ‘‘inner sanctum . . . supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins. . . .’’ Daneri’s vision of modern man ‘‘as though in his castle tower’’ strikes the modern reader as very much like that of Bill Gates’s modern American receiving his ‘‘2 billion bits per second’’ at his desk or in his living room. Borges (the story’s narrator) dismisses Daneri as a fool, but who among us (like myself, who downloaded a copy of ‘‘The Aleph’’ before composing this essay, which I will then email to my editor) cannot sense in Daneri’s musings a vision of modern life, where we regularly download Mohammed’s mountain from remote servers? If literary taste proves Daneri an awful and pedantic poet, the history of technology and communications has proven him a prophet. The narrator condescendingly calls Daneri’s poem The Earth ‘‘boring’’ attempt to ‘‘set to verse the entire face of the planet.’’ While the poem might be not as clever as its author’s reasons for why it should be admired, it is very much like the ‘‘virtual reality’’ which modern consumers have heard so much about in the media (and in the plots of numerous science-ﬁction ﬁlms, such as 1990’s Total Recall and 1999’s Matrix ). At the time in which the story takes place (1941), Daneri has only partially completed his goal of simulating, in verse, the experience of seeing the whole planet. The reader in 1945 would have laughed nally given in Buenos Aires, he devotes a full chapter to a discussion of The Thousand and One Nights, claiming that the ﬁrst translation of this collection was ‘‘a major event for all of European literature.’’ In Borges on Writing , an edited volume based on lectures he gave at a graduate writing seminar at Columbia University in 1971, he unambiguously acknowledges his attempt at writing in the Arab Islamic tradition. Thus he says of his short story ‘‘The Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths.’’ that he wanted it to sound as ‘‘a page-overlooked by Lane and Burton-out of the Arabian Nights.’’ In his ﬁction, he makes direct references to aspects of Islamic mysticism, as well as demonstrates a familiarity with Islamic esoteric writing that goes beyond superﬁcial, mundane information. That Borges should be familiar with Islam is in no way surprising. He is an extremely erudite writer steeped in metaphysical tradition, but also in the Spanish heritage. That heritage itself reﬂects eight centuries of close interaction with Arabs (the Moors), as Giovanna de Garayalde reminds readers and critics in Jorge Luis Borges: Sources and Illuminations, one of the very few works that foreground a link between the author and Suﬁsm. ‘‘But eight centuries of coexistence,’’ de Garayalde writes: In this essay, I wish to further foreground the Islamic concepts Borges weaves into his writing, by focussing on two short stories, ‘‘The Zahir’’ and ‘‘The Aleph.’’ I will also be referring to other works by Borges, in order to both support my thesis that Islamic references have permeated many of Borges’s stories, and are thus not to be dismissed as haphazard or tangential, and because these various references also reveal the depth of Borges’s knowledge of the Islamic cultural heritage. While I do not seek to suggest that Borges ever embraced the religious aspect of Suﬁsm, I nevertheless would advance that his fascination with that sect’s privileging of layered writing and multiple interpretations is a direct result of his own view that reading and writing are intimate companions, and that the best reading is a rewriting. (This view is best exempliﬁed in ‘‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’’ an analysis of which falls outside the scope of this essay). The ‘‘burden of interpretation’’ is incumbent on the Suﬁs, as I demonstrate below.
Islam, and devout Muslims everywhere outside of the Arab world recite the Koran not in their own language, but in Arabic. Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, is a case in point: the ofﬁcial language there is Indonesian, with Arabic being the language of religious (Islamic) studies. Indeed, the better non-Arabic renditions of the Koran are appropriately called ‘‘interpretations,’’ for the language of Islam is held to be ‘‘untranslatable.’’ In the case of non-Muslim Arabs, I contend that these are inﬂuenced by Islam, since it is my belief that language and culture are inexorably linked.
Moreover ‘‘zahir,’’ as Borges points out, means visible or apparent, and is one of Allah’s attributes, since Allah is ‘‘apparent’’ in all his creation. Zahir as a concept is traditionally coupled with, and opposed to, batin, thus making up a complete entity comprising thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Batin, another Arabic word, is the antonym of zahir means inner, innermost, concealed. The zahir batin are as inseparable as two sides of a coin, and the Zahir is indeed a coin in the short story by this title.
Who is qualiﬁed to look into the batin is at the root of a dispute in Islam dating back to the late second century A. H. For grasping the batin requires initiation if it is not to be detrimental to the seer. But seeing the batin is also mandatory for those who ‘‘have vision,’’ failing which they would be sinners. And Borges, our narrator, has seen the Zahir, Allah’s apparent aspect. Let us examine his thoughts and feelings upon coming across this threshold to batin: Borges then goes on to say that he is a different man for having seen the Zahir, and that he cannot go back to his ‘‘pre-Zahir’’ state. This closely echoes the assertion of the Islamic thinker and mystic alGhazali that ‘‘there is certainly no point in trying to return to the level of naive and derivative belief once it has been left, since a condition of being at such a level is that one should not know one is there. When a man comes to know that, the glass of his naive beliefs is broken.’’ This level, according to alGhazali, is lost as soon as one has had an insight into divinity.
An experience of the Zahir, according to Borges, leads to ‘‘madness or saintliness.’’ The two terms are also paired, almost equated, in the Koran: ‘‘We know very well how they listen when they listen to thee, and when they conspire, when the evildoers say, ‘You are only following a man bewitched!’.’’ References to Islam and the linguistic aspects of the Koran itself also bound in ‘‘The Aleph.’’ The Koran is most difﬁcult to read because, unlike the Bible, which contains considerable narrative stretches and can be read with the expectations readers bring to narrative texts, the Koran does not offer this familiar pattern: it was revealed as a whole to Muhammad, who merely had it transcribed. As such it is believed to be a pure expression of Allah, and one of his attributes. The Koran recounts universal creation in divine terms, and makes therefore no distinction between past, present, and future. The Aleph, Borges writes is ‘‘the only place on earth where all places are seen from every angle.’’ But Aleph is also the ﬁrst letter of the Arabic alphabet, the language of Islam and its book. Further on Borges adds: ‘‘What my eyes saw was simultaneous, what I shall transcribe is successive, because language is successive.’’ He ﬁnds himself, however, utterly incapable of giving a coherent account of his vision.
Here, once again, we are confronted not with reluctance but with the impossibility of recounting an experience that does not belong to this world, or at least to the quotidian—a feeling most familiar to the Muslim mystics, or Suﬁs. Thus al-Ghazali refers us to Ibn-al-Mu’tazz who, after a mystic experience, told the uninitiated: ‘‘Of the things I do not remember, what was, was,/ Think it good, do not ask an account of it.’’ Nor is it insigniﬁcant, in the context of our study, that Islam alone of the three monotheistic religions is one where a revelation most frequently results in failure to communicate. In Judaism, Yahweh revealed himself to prophets so that they, in turn, might share what they have seen with their fellow-believers. Some Hebraic prophets, such as Ezra and Baruch, were expressly instructed in their mystical vision not to occlude that vision, but this implies that they would have otherwise been able to express it. In Christianity, the emphasis is on ‘‘spreading the word.’’ Moreover, both the Old and the New Testaments, with the exception of the Mosaic laws, are books about God. The Koran, on the other hand, is not a book about Allah as much as it is Allah’s book. It is ‘‘A Book We have sent down to thee.’’ The Koran frequently refers to its own ambiguities, reminding the Muslims that some passages must be read at face value (literally, zahir while others ought to be interpreted by ‘‘those who have been given knowledge in degrees,’’ for the Koran is ‘‘a book whose verses are set clear, and then distinguished.’’
Yet a further digression is necessary here, before I move on to a discussion of Borges’s style, which I shall try to show as a conscious attempt at batini writing. I had referred earlier to the batin/ zahir dichotomy as the cause of a dispute in Islam. Although we cannot speak of a batini school as such, a group of thinkers, heralded by al-Ghazali (1058–1111), believe that with proper training, anyone can reach the batin. Al-Ghazali wrote two seminal books, Deliverance from Error and Attachment to the Lord of Might and Majesty, in which he presents Suﬁsm as the only way to spiritual salvation, and Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of Philosophy), in which he argues that Muslims should not be barred from attempting a batini reading of the Koran since, as he says, this allows for a greater grasp of the truth than philosophy will even make possible. Al-Ghazali supports his argument by citing the sunna: ‘‘There is the saying that the man who is mistaken in independent judgement receives a reward, but the man who is correct a twofold reward.’’ One is rewarded simply for having tried, regardless of the outcome of the attempt. Moreover, the risk of leading a member of the masses astray is moot to al-Ghazali, since interpretation is undertaken by the Suﬁs, who ‘‘are not men of words.’’ The word Suﬁ is believed to come from the Arabic ‘‘souf,’’ meaning wool, since the Muslim mystics wore woollen garments. They traditionally withdrew from society, leading an ascetic, solitary life. Another etymological identiﬁcation is with the root word safa, meaning purity. Some scholars argue that Suﬁ comes from Sophia, for wisdom. This would however imply that Greek ‘‘philosophy’’ inﬂuenced the Suﬁs, an untenable thesis, since Greek philosophy is grounded in the rational, an approach Suﬁsm frequently disregards.
At the other end of the scale, the zahirite school, whose spokesperson is Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–1198), believes that a member of the masses should not attempt to understand the inner ( batin meaning of ambiguous passages in the Koran, since this may lead to disbelief in the zahir —a sin under all circumstances—and will inevitably result in miscomprehension of the batin. For the masses, the Koran tells us, simply cannot understand, since God has not given them ‘‘knowledge in degrees.’’ ‘‘And those who interpret for the layman are calling him to heresy, and they are heretics themselves,’’ warns Ibn Rushd. Thus a member of the masses, a person who has no vision or intuition, no practice in ‘‘learning,’’ is saved if s/he believes in the zahir of the ayah (Koranic verse): ‘‘The Merciful sat upon the throne.’’ But should s/he be told that God has no material body, and can therefore not sit, s/he will stop believing in the zahir, yet will still fail to grasp God’s immateriality. ‘‘As to the one who is not versed in learning, he must take things at face value, for interpretation in his case is heresy, and will lead to heresy.’’
Ibn Rushd was highly disturbed by the growing inﬂuence and popularity of al-Ghazali’s ideas, and set out to write Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of Incoherence), an overt attack on al-Ghazali’s book, in which he repudiates mysticism and batini reading, and The Decisive Treatise, Determining the Nature of the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy, in which he argues that reason, not mysticism, can help clarify the complexities of Islam.
Borges sets up an analogous set of dialectical counterpoints in his various essays on the Platonists and Aristotelians, or the Realists and the Nominalists. Thus, in the short story ‘‘Averroes’ Search,’’ Borges deals with the dispute between the Muslim thinkers, suggesting that Averroes will always fall short of full understanding. Both schools refer to interpretation as the ‘‘rending of the veil,’’ that essential image in Islam, which Borges picks up twice in ‘‘The Zahir.’’
In this story, Borges the narrator has seen a most perplexing and disturbing aspect of Allah: ‘‘There was a time when I could visualize the obverse and then the reverse. Now I see them simultaneously,’’ he says of the coin. Unable to comprehend this phenomenon, he struggles to forget or ignore it, but his attempts are all vain, and he begins to lose his own identity: ‘‘Before 1948, Julia’s destiny will have caught up with me. I shall not know who Borges was.’’ Julia is in a madhouse, for she too has had a vision, leading to ‘‘madness or saintliness,’’ Borges says, to madness saintliness, the Koran suggests. Clementina’s sister Julia— and we shall soon see what these women symbolize— was thought to have lost her sanity: ‘‘Poor Julie! She got awfully queer, and they had to shut her up in the Bosch,’’ laments one of her friends. ‘‘Why, she keeps on talking about a coin, just like Morena Sachmann’s chauffeur.’’
Borges himself sees no reason to fear such a destiny, should it befall him too: ‘‘To call this prospect terrible is a fallacy, for none of its circumstances will exist for me. One might as well say that an anesthetized man feels terrible pain when they open his cranium.’’ Indeed, Borges is yearning for a yet greater obsession with the coin, for only then will he be fully anesthetized, self ‘‘unconscious.’’ This he knows is a sine qua non for grasping the batin, and putting an end to his torment.
The Aleph is not as material, as obvious a manifestation of Allah, hence the person who sees it must be closer to selﬂessness, to a total immersion into God’s creation, to a loss of all that is proper to his/her individuality. ‘‘I saw all the mirrors on earth, and none of them reﬂected me,’’ Borges recalls, thus suggesting that, at least while his vision lasted, his individual existence was uncertain. Immediately after this vision of ‘‘the inconceivable universe,’’ Borges manages to ‘‘pick [him]self up and utter: ‘One hell of a—yes, one hell of a—’ The matter-offactedness of my voice surprised me.’’
Borges the narrator and Carlos Argentino, in ‘‘The Aleph,’’ were rivals, competing for Beatriz’s attention. A zahiri reading of this passage would therefore refer to a reluctance on Borges’ part to admit Carlos Argentino’s clear advantage, for the latter is Beatriz’ cousin, and the Aleph was seen under his own roof. A batini reading is much richer: Borges, having experienced a direct vision, grows indifferent to Beatriz, the mediator, the guide (who, moreover, was not sufﬁciently qualiﬁed to guide the visionary Dante through Paradiso, but abandoned him instead at the outer gates of Purgatorio). Borges’ voice, his medium of expression and communication, becomes ‘‘matter of fact.’’ But Borges and Carlos Argentino are also two writers competing for the same literary prize, which the latter wins, because Borges could not put, in ‘‘successive language,’’ his vision of the universe. In this instance too, Borges is indifferent to Carlos Argentino’s material, worldly, and wordly success, and to his own failure.
A very similar change had occurred in ‘‘The Zahir.’’ Borges had gone to Clementina’s house and, while there, inquired about Julia. Upon being told that she had been hospitalized, he reﬂects that this prospect is not terrible. ‘‘Clementina’’ means gentle, complacent, undemanding, yet Borges now thinks of ‘‘the arrogant image of Clementina, physical pain,’’ hence his yearning to be ‘‘anesthetized.’’ Julia, on the other hand, means ‘‘God’s gift,’’ hence ‘‘I long to travel this path . . . Perhaps behind the coin I shall ﬁnd God.’’
But did Borges have a revelation, or was it just a dream, as he seems to suggest at the beginning of ‘‘The Zahir?’’ Again, the Muslims equate both: ‘‘God most High, however, has favoured His creatures by giving them something analogous to the faculty of prophecy, namely dreams. In the dreamstate, a man apprehends what is to be in the future, which is something of the unseen; he does so explicitly or else clothed in a symbolic form whose interpretation is to be disclosed.’’ Borges feels the same way. As the narrator of the ‘‘Zahir,’’ he spoke of the coin as a repertory of possible futures,’’ like a dream. As a nonﬁctional persona, he wrote in Seven Nights: ‘‘In a psychology book I greatly admire . . . Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity—I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error.’’
The Muslim mystics, al-Ghazali tells us, are ‘‘men who had real experiences, not men of words.’’ Yet some of the most beautiful Arabic poetry is written by Suﬁs, probably because of their effort to ﬁnd the words most apt to describe the ineffable. Borges, again, is aware of this: But why is Borges writing at all, if literature contaminates the truth, and if words for him suffer from ‘‘the guilty condition of being mere metaphors?’’ One is tempted to venture a bold and ambitious suggestion. The Islamic mystics believed that they belonged to the elite who ‘‘had vision.’’ They could, to put it in simpler terms, read between the lines of their own writings, and knew that their fellow-mystics could and would do the same. Moreover, as al-Ghazali points out, ‘‘whoever sits in their company derives from them this faith, and none who sits in their company is pained.’’ None is pained because their literature, like the Koran, reads on a number of levels, has a zahir and a batin. Suﬁ writing is, above all, esoteric writing.
David Galens – Short Stories for Students_ Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories (Volume 17)-Gale (2003)