Borges’ Undr

Emil Cioran (1911-1995) poet and prophet of pessimism, an existentialist, but one who abhorred meaning-making, whose philosophy focused on the tragic and meaningless, the despair in existence. He wrote

‘I have seen one man pursue his goal, another that one; I have seen men fascinated by disparate objects, under the spell of dreams and plans at once vile and indefinable. Analyzing each case in isolation in order to penetrate reasons for so much fervour squandered, I have realized the non-meaning of all action and all effort. Is there a single life which is not impregnated with life-giving errors, a single clear, transparent life without humiliating roots, without invented motives, without myths emerging from desires?’

But, for one so full of the improbability of life, someone so acutely aware of the absolute meaninglessness of existence, paradoxically still exuding the desire for something else, something different and revelatory

‘I have dreamed of distant springs, of a sun shining on nothing but seafoam and the oblivion of my birth, of a sun opposed to the earth and to this disease of finding nothing anywhere but the desire to be somewhere else’ 

And he concludes ‘I want to suppress in myself the reasons men invoke in order to exist, in order to act.’ Cioran objects to literary and philosophical projects as these projects aim to cast a spell that is both illusion and illusory. So, I assume that the stories and fancies of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) would not appeal to Cioran, or if they did, he would dismiss them as little more than a form of prostitution

‘Detached from everything and open to everything; espousing her client’s mood and ideas; changing tone and face on each occasion; ready to be sad or gay, being indifferent; lavishing sighs out of commercial concern; casting upon the frolic of her superimposed and sincere neighbour an enlightened and artificial gaze – she proposes to the mind a model of behaviour which vies with that of the sages. To be without convictions in regard to men and oneself, such is the high lesson of prostitution […]’

Yet, I love the otherworldliness of Borges, his constructed puzzles, his cleverness and intricate storytelling just as I love literature of all kinds too. It is true that there is in literature the erection of a façade to obscure the reality of existence and this façade is the more effective the more powerful it is in diverting us from the brutish and bleak aspects of existence. Nonetheless, literature also offers up an attitude, a proposition, to make the truth and indifference of the universe more bearable.

In Undr Borges creates an imaginary place. This is along the lines of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius but my comments about Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius are for another day. We learn 

‘Of the peoples who live on the edge of the wilderness that stretches away on the other shore of the Barbarian Gulf, beyond the land where the wild horse breeds, the worthiest of mention are the Urns’.

What is remarkable is that the poetry of the Urns consists of a single word. Now, it is incomprehensible, is it not, that poetry can consist of a single word? And out narrator is himself a poet, who wrote drapas, a heroic laudatory Icelandic verse form. When he met the king, Gunnlaug, he ‘intoned the drapa in a low voice. There was no lack of rhetorical figures, the alliterations, and the stresses that the form demands.’ Later 

‘A man took my place before the king but did not kneel. He plucked the harp as if tuning it, and in a low voice he uttered the word that I had come in search of and had not yet fathomed […] I saw tears. The man raised or modulated his voice, and his scarcely varying chords were monotonous or, still better, infinite. I would have liked this song to go on forever and to be my life. Abruptly it stopped’.

Since our narrator had heard the word, his life was in danger. This danger led him to flee and to face shifting fortunes, to suffer captivity, and live a life that was as treacherous as memorable. All the while, our narrator continued to search for the word.

In the course of time I have been many men; it was a whirlwind, a long dream, but all the while the main thing was the Word. From time to time I disbelieved in it. I kept telling myself that to renounce the beautiful game of combining beautiful words was senseless, and that there was no reason for a single, and perhaps imaginary, word. Such reasoning was vain’.

Our narrator eventually returned to Urns and went to meet with Thorkelsson the poet. And talk turned to the single word and this following exchange shone a light on the singular word

  ‘The first woman you had – what did she give you? he asked.

‘Everything,’ I said.

‘Life gave me everything as well. Life gives everything to everyone, but most men are unaware of it. My voice is tired and my fingers weak, but listen to me.’

He took his harp and uttered the word ‘undr’, which means ‘wonder’. The dying man’s song held me rapt, but in its chords I recognized my own verses, the slave woman who gave my first love, the men I had killed, the chill of dawn, daybreak over the water, the oars. I took up the harp and sang to a different word.

‘All right,’ the other man said, and I had to draw close to hear him. ‘You have understood.’

Borges’ fiction, his diversionary illusion unmistakably takes us outside of our own time and space. It works its wonder by forcing us to encounter a different world, the possibility of a language where one word would suffice, even for a poet. The possibility that a single utterance might hold the key to all our experiences, empirically impossible but for a brief moment, an enchanting idea, a dream that is beautiful whilst we are enthralled by it.

To return to Cioran, who despite his despair and his ennui, valorises the poet. He is, himself, nominally a philosopher but reading him, what is clear is that he is foremost a poet. He says of the poet

‘This is how I recognize an authentic poet: by frequenting him, living a long time in the intimacy of his work, something changes in myself, not so much my inclinations or my tastes as my very blood, as if a subtle disease had been injected to alter its course, its density and nature […] For the poet is an agent of destruction, a virus, a disguised disease and the gravest danger, though a wonderfully vague one, for our red corpuscles. To live around him is to feel your blood run thin, to dream a paradise of anaemia, and to hear, in your veins, the rustle of tears…’

That’s me paying homage to Borges using Cioran’s words!

Photos by Jan Oyebode. Images courtesy of Stewart Brown’s Babel.

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