On a visit to Buenos Aires a few years ago I was privileged to spend an afternoon in the library of Jorge Luis Borges. The hours flew by as, completely absorbed, I flicked through the author’s books. None of them were catalogued in any seeming order; rather they were arranged in what, to my eyes, was complete disorder. I observed that instead of underlining passages which had made an impression on him, Borges used to write out whole sections in the blank pages at the back, or in the margins, in tiny, neat handwriting. Most of the books were ancient tomes, quite a few originating, possibly, from his father’s library. Among the newer titles I found, on different spaces on the shelves, two books by Idries Shah: The Sufis and Tales of the Dervishes.
As far as I know, Borges and Shah never met, although they shared a mutual friend, Robert Graves. In Atlas, Borges tells of his last meeting with Graves in Mallorca in 1981. With his mental faculties already seriously decaying, the ageing poet sat still, sightless and speechless, surrounded by his family, who witnessed in awe as the two writers said their farewells. ‘I thought he couldn’t make out who we were, but as we said good bye he shook my hand and kissed María Kodama’s hand.’
References to Sufism abound in Borges’ work. In his ‘Autobiographic essay’ he relates how, in the early 1950s, he was made president of the Argentine Society of Authors, a bastion of anti-Perón sentiment which the government would close down in 1953. ‘I remember the last talk I was allowed to give there. Among the small audience was a diminutive, confused policeman who did everything he could to note down some of my comments on Persian Sufism.’
Despite his repeated references to Sufi authors – such as Fariduddin Attar, Omar Khayyam, and Sir Richard Burton – it isn’t possible to measure the amount of overlap between Borges and Sufi ideas, in the way that Giovanna de Garayalde attempted in her essay Borges, Sources and Illumination. Rather we should place Borges within a tradition of Western writers who have explored and assimilated non-Christian doctrines, people often described as ‘philosopher poets’, neoplatonists, or, as Harold Bloom preferred, gnostics: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, Yeats and, beyond the world of English letters, Dante, Goethe (who wrote poems inspired by Hafiz), and Victor Hugo, among others. It isn’t easy to ascribe a creed or belief system to Borges, who juggled many doctrines and ideas – and always in a playful, flexible and elusive way. He showed a sustained interest in Sufism and also in the Cabbala, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Gnosticism, the philosophy of Schopenhauer (who was influenced by Buddhism) and the above-mentioned poets – sources which he absorbed omnivorously and idiosyncratically, assimilating them into his own literary universe.
Garayalde traces a parallel between Sufi materials – including the body of texts compiled and commented on by Shah – and Borges’ work, revealing a shared sensibility. The common factors include: humour; lateral and intuitive thinking (which in Borges’ work often takes the shape of a detective story); paradoxes; fantasy; an emphasis on story telling (Borges distrusts literary originality); stories within stories, etc. Borges suggests that it is not possible to judge our actions as either good of bad according to their effects: ‘the consequences of an act spread out, multiply and perhaps, in the end, become equal.’ An example of stories within stories can be found in the passage in The Thousand and One Nights (an obsessions of Borges) where Scheherazade tells the king a story about… Scheherazade and the king. As for paradoxes, one of Borges’ notes runs: ‘In Sumatra, someone takes an exam to qualify as a sooth-sayer. The wizard conducting the interview asks if he will pass or fail. The candidate replies that he will fail…’ This micro-tale is meant to emulate a passage in Don Quixote, which in turn is a retelling of a Mulla Nasrudin story.
Borges imagines Moorish Spain as a permeable frontier between two cultures, noting the non-Western origin of Western culture. In his beautiful story ‘Averroes’ Search’, the Andalusian philosopher in confronted by an impassible obstacle: he cannot translate the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ because there is no drama or theatre in Islamic culture.
Borges began his literary career with ambitions to be an avant-garde poet. He gradually moved towards essays, and later – with a certain nervousness, as he himself admitted – to story-writing. That nervousness meant that at times he wrote stories disguised as essays, a terrain he felt more comfortable on. One of his first tales, ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’ was published in a collection of essays in the form of a review of a novel by Indian author Mir Bahaudur Ali, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim. Both the novel and its author were inventions of Borges, a fact which didn’t prevent his friend Bioy Casares ordering a copy of the book from a London bookseller. Borges give a resumé of the apocryphal novel, which we in turn give a précis of here: a student of law in Bombay commits a murder and associates with evil characters. He perceives a kind of ‘mitigation of infamy’ and conceives the idea that souls leave tiny traces on other souls. He begins a long search all over India for a perfect man, called Al-Mu’tasim, following the traces and reflections he has left in other people, in an upward progression. The novel ends many years later back in Bombay, in the antechamber to the student’s meeting with Al-Mu’tasim. It is understood that ‘the identity of seeker and the sought-after’ are the same, that through his long pilgrimage the student has become Al-Mu’tasim. In his ‘review’, Borges points out that the story is not original, that it is, in fact, based on The Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Attar. In the poem, after finding a splendid feather in the centre of China, a group of birds travel in search of their king, the Simurgh, whose name means ‘thirty birds’. ‘Many pilgrims give up along the way, others die. Thirty birds, purified by their efforts, finally reach the mountain of the Simurgh, where they perceive that they are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is each and every one of them.’
One of Borges’ last stories, ‘The Rose of Paracelsus’, tells – as several of Shah’s stories do – of a meeting (or not) between a master and a would-be disciple. The ancient alchemist, who has prayed for an apprentice, is visited one evening by a stranger. The newcomer says he is ready to study under the old man, but first asks for proof of his powers. According to the legend, through his art Paracelsus was meant to be able to reconstitute a rose from its own ashes. The two men have a philosophical discussion in which the alchemist insists that the visible and perishable rose is an illusion, that the real, archetypal rose is indestructible. The visitor burns a red rose in the fireplace. Paracelsus refuses to cooperate and the stranger leaves, disappointed and feeling pity for the old man, whom he considers a fraud. Meanwhile Paracelsus, alone once more, picks up the ashes, murmurs a few words, and the rose is reborn.