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Fall 2010

The Muse of Impossibility

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Alberto Manguel

One day in December 1919, the twenty-year-old Jorge Luis Borges, during a short stay in Seville, wrote a letter, in French, to his friend Maurice Abramowicz in Geneva, in which, almost in passing, he confessed to Abramowicz contradictory feelings about his literary vocation: “Sometimes I think that it’s idiotic to have the ambition of being a more or less mediocre maker of phrases. But that is my destiny.”

As Borges was well aware even then, the history of literature is the history of this paradox. On the one hand, the deeply rooted intuition writers have that the world exists, in Mallarmé’s much-abused phrase, to result in a beautiful book (or, as Borges would have it, even a mediocre book), and, on the other hand, to know that the muse governing the enterprise is, as Mallarmé called her, the Muse of Impotence (or, to use a freer translation, the Muse of Impossibility). Mallarmé added later that all who have ever written anything, even those we call geniuses, have attempted this ultimate Book, the Book with a capital B. And all have failed.

This double intuition stems from literature itself. Somewhere, during the time of our first readings, there is a moment in which we discover that, from the ink-stains on a page, a world emerges fully-fledged and magically real. This is a transformative experience, after which our relationship to the tangible, quotidian world is no longer the same. After having witnessed the creative capabilities of language that allow words not merely to communicate or label but to bring to life what they label and communicate—that is to say, after we have become readers—there can no longer be for us an innocent perception of the world. Once named, a thing is no longer itself, in the Platonic sense that Borges would later delight in elaborating: the thing is assumed by the word that names it, contaminated or enriched by all the ancestry and connotations and prejudices that the word drags along in its wake.

In 1958, in a poem to which I will later return, Borges wrote:

If as the Greek explains in the Cratylus,
The name is archetypal of the thing,
In the letters of rose exists the rose,
and the entire Nile in the word Nile.

If words, in naming the world, become the world, become what we know and can know of the world, then surely the reverse is also true: the conviction that haunts every writer, that we can construct (or reconstruct) the world through words, that we can utter in coherent syllables everything that exists and is available to our senses: that we can in effect accomplish Mallarmé’s Book.

This conviction is an ancient one. In the Jewish tradition it begins appropriately with Genesis, when God presents to Adam His newly created “beasts of the field and fowl of the air…to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Consider for a moment this curious affirmation: that God’s creation was to be whatever Adam called it; that God, in an altruistic gesture most uncommon among authors, was allowing someone else to name his work. Accordingly, from then onwards, every creature existed in the name it was given and every given name was implicitly the creature it named. Leaving aside the Talmudic debate of whether Adam invented names for the animals or recognized in each animal a pre-ordained name, Adam’s task established the basis for the future teachings of Jewish mysticism, for the Kabbalah. The earliest extant Kabbalistic text, the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Creation, lends a peculiar prehistory to this question of names. According to the Sefer Yetzirah, God created from the primal air (or engraved upon it) the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: all beings in the three strata of the cosmos (world, time, and the human body) came into existence through the mere interweaving of these letters. (Approximately three centuries after the Sefer Yetzirah was compiled, Saint Anselm of Aosta argued that God’s original creation was threefold: the primordial matter of the universe, the various angelic hierarchies, and Adam and Eve; everything else was the handicraft of the angels, whose work Adam, their equal before the Fall, was entitled to name.)

This divine generosity has its counterpart in the story of Babel. To curtail the human ambition of building a tower that would reach the heavens, Genesis tells us, God shattered the single tongue spoken until then by all humankind into the myriad tongues we speak today, and Adam’s prerogative to name God’s creation became undermined (or perhaps enriched) by the possibility of lending a thing many names. To the immaculate gift of naming absolutely was added the corollary that this absolute, singular name, the true name of dog, for instance, was in fact the composite of all the names for dog in all languages dead or alive, a monstrous catalogue of synonyms that somehow encapsulates the essential dog of the first afternoon in the Garden. The perfect name of dog is therefore available to our intelligence: all we require to utter it is the knowledge of every language in the universe, past, present, and future, including the speech of angels. According to the Jewish tradition, this absolute name, like that of God Himself, exists in the combination of the twenty-two Hebrew letters, and given enough world and time, we should be able to find it. The God-given language of Adam and his descendants carries both the promised ability to name the essence of things and the near impossibility of doing so.

The stories of Adam and of Babel are not only stories about the magical powers of words and their confusing multiplicity; they implicitly acknowledge the existence of these powers and of this confusion in any single language. This is something we experience every day. Every time we put something into words, we simultaneously pronounce a declaration of faith in the power of language to recreate and communicate our experience of the world and, at the same time, our admission of its shortcomings to name this experience fully. Faith in language is, like all true faiths, unaltered by a practice that contradicts its claims—unaltered in spite of our knowledge that whenever we try to say something, however simple, however clear-cut, only a shadow of that something travels from our conception to its utterance, and further from its utterance to its reception and understanding.

Every time we say “Pass the salt,” we do indeed convey the essence of our request and, also in essence, our request is understood. But the shades and echoes of meaning, the private connotations and cultural roots, personal and communal, referential and symbolic, emotional and objective, cannot, each and every one of them, travel with our words, so that those who hear or read us must reconstruct as best they can, around the core or inside the shell of those words, the universe of sense and emotion in which they were born. Plato famously suggested that our experience of the world consisted of nothing but intimations of meaning and shadows on the wall of a cave. If that is so, what we put into words are the shadows of shadows, and every book confesses the impossibility of holding onto whatever it is that our experience seizes. All our libraries are the glorious record of that failure, a failure Borges described in the poem “Ariosto and the Arabs”:

No one can write a book.
For a book truly to be
You require the sunset and the dawn,
Centuries, weapons, and the cleaving sea.

God’s thaumaturgic gift to Adam, and the postscript of Babel, strangely coexist in the second commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:4-6): “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or what is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This explicitness is what Robert Louis Stevenson, haunted by the words Thou Shalt Not engraved in Gothic script on the grey stone lintels of his native Edinburgh, called an “inverted pleasure”: the interdiction that suggests the otherwise unthought-of sin. In this spirit, the second commandment might read: “You are able to create, like God Himself, the things of heaven or earth, but you are forbidden to do so. So try, and We will do our uttermost to prevent it.”

The second commandment long presented a problem for believers. Did God forbid only the creation of graven images of worship, or did His commandment extend to the creation of any image, any representation, any art by any means whatsoever? Psalm 97 inclines to the first interpretation, and glosses the prohibition: “Ashamed will be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of things of naught.” The celebrated eighteenth-century Hassidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, took the gloss further: “The idol is destined to come spit in the face of those who worship it and put them to shame, then bow before the Holy One, blessed be He, and cease to exist.”

But the question of whether this applies not only to idols but to any creation still persisted.

Rabbinical commentators, and of course artists and writers, have long pondered the problem. To a certain extent, the history of the human imagination can be seen as the history of the debate on this peculiar interdiction. Is creation a permissible endeavour within the human scope, or are we condemned to fail because all art, since it is human and not divine, carries within it the seeds of its own failure? God says He is a jealous God: in spite of his gift to Adam, is He also a jealous artist? According to an early Talmudic commentary, the serpent said to Eve in the Garden: “God Himself ate first of the fruit of the tree, and then He created the world. Therefore doth He forbid you to eat thereof, lest you create other worlds. Because everyone knows that ‘artisans of the same guild hate one another.’”

One of the most explicit versions of this paradox is the eighteenth-century legend of the Golem. Golem is a word that first appears in Psalm 139: “Thine eyes did see my golem,” a word which, according to the first-century Rabbi Eliezer, means simply “an unarticulated lump,” something that has been brought to life but which lacks proper intelligence. The legend tells of how the Maharal of Prague (an acronym for Morenu Harav Rabbi Loib, “our teacher Rabbi Loew”) created a creature out of clay to protect the Jews from pogroms, a monster able to perform certain tasks but incapable of speaking. On the forehead of the creature, Rabbi Loew wrote the word emet, meaning “truth,” and this enabled it to come to life and assist the rabbi in his daily chores. But the Golem escaped his master’s control and wrought havoc in the ghetto, and Rabbi Loew was obliged to return it to the dust by effacing the first letter of the word, so that emet now read met, meaning “death.”

The Golem has prestigious ancestors. In a Talmudic passage of the San-hedrin, it is stated that, in the fourth century, the Babylonian teacher Rava created a man out of clay and sent it to Rabbi Zera, who tried to converse with it and, when he saw that the creature could not utter a single word, said to it: “You belong to the spawn of wizards; return to the dust.” Immediately the creature crumbled into a shapeless heap. Another passage tells that, in the third century, two Palestinian masters, Rabbi Haninah and Rabbi Oshea, with the help of the Sefer Yetzirah, brought to life a calf every Sabbath eve, which they then cooked for dinner.

Inspired by the legend of Rabbi Loew, in 1915 the Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink published The Golem, a fantastic novel about a creature who appears every thirty-three years at the unreachable window of a circular room without doors, deep in the Prague ghetto. That same year, the adolescent Borges, trapped with his family in Switzerland during the war, read Meyrink’s Golem in German and was enthralled by its haunting atmosphere. “Everything in the book is uncanny,” he would later write, “even the monosyllables of the table of contents: Prag, Punsch, Nacht, Spuk, Licht...” Borges saw in Meyrink’s Golem “a fiction made up of dreams that enclose other dreams,” something that carried, in its very dreamlike imagining, the admission of its own unreality.

More than forty years later, in 1957, Borges included a description of the Golem in the first version of his Book of Imaginary Beings; a year later he told the story of Rabbi Loew in what was to become one of his most famous poems, first published in the Jewish magazine Davar of Buenos Aires, in the winter of 1958. Afterwards, Borges included the Golem poem in his Personal Anthology, placing it before a short text entitled Inferno, I:32 which considers, from a different perspective, the same question. In the Golem poem, Borges has Rabbi Loew wonder why he was driven to fashion this “apprentice of man” and what might be the meaning of his creature; in the text on Dante’s Inferno, both the panther in the beginning of the Commedia and then the dying poet himself learn and afterwards forget why it is that they have been created. Borges’s Golem ends with this quatrain:

In the hour of anguish and dim light
The rabbi looked in awe upon his Golem.
Who will tell us what was felt by God
Looking upon his own rabbi in Prague?

Like the ancient Biblical commentators, Borges pondered again and again these fundamental questions: What are the limits of creation? To what success can an artist aspire? How can writers achieve their purpose when all they have at their disposal is the imperfect tool of language? And above all: What is created when an artist sets out to create? Does a new world come into being or is a dark mirror of the world lifted up for us to gaze in? Borges disbelieved in realism and psychological fiction; for him the world made out of words was the world. But is the world of a work of art a lasting reality or is it an imperfect lie? Is it a living Golem or a handful of lifeless dust? And finally, even if there were an answer to these questions, can we know it? Borges often quoted Kafka’s unappealable dictum: “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing it, it would have been allowed.”

Borges died in Geneva at 7:47 a.m., on June 14, 1986. He had often spoken of Geneva as “my other homeland.” As a special favor, the Admin-istrative Council of Geneva decided to grant his widow permission to have him buried in the cemetery of Plainpalais, reserved for “the great and famous Swiss.” In memory of Borges’s grandmothers, one Catholic and the other Protestant, the service was read by both Father Pierre Jacquet and Pastor Edouard de Montmollin. Pastor Montmollin’s address judiciously opened with the first verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” “Borges,” said Pastor Montmollin, “was a man who unceasingly searched for the right word, the term that would sum up the whole, the final meaning of things,” and went on to explain that, as the Good Book taught us, a man can never reach that word by his own efforts. Glossing John’s verses, he concluded that it is not a writer who discovers the Word, but the Word that reaches the writer. Pastor Montmollin summed up his own version of Borges’s literary credo: that the writer’s task is to find the right words to name the world, knowing all the while that these words are, as words, unreachable without what we must call grace (granted by the Holy Spirit, or the Muse, or, as Borges said, “what the sad mythology of our time calls the unconscious”). Here the Christian view rejoins that of its Jewish ancestors. Words are our only tools to lend and recover meaning and, at the same time that they permit us to discern that meaning, they show us that, even when grace allows us a glimpse of that meaning, it lies precisely beyond our reach, beyond the pale of words, just on the other side of language.

Medieval rhetoricians systematized these two components: the craft of words and their possible accomplishments. They stressed the distinction between grammar, that is to say, the rules and limitations of language as a tool, and poetry, the rules and limitations of language applied. Though most scholars discussed the first of these elements, grammar, a number (mainly in France) studied its application in the work of auctores such as Virgil, whose literature existed in the peculiar tension between the correct use of language and the individual imagination or invention. Hugh of St. Victor, in the twelfth century, noted in the Didascalicon that the question could be applied to all creative arts. “Two separate concerns, then, are to be recognized and distinguished in every art: first, how one ought to treat of the art itself, and second, how one ought to apply the principles of that art in all other matters whatever.” The first enquired into the qualities and capabilities of language; the second, into the possible Golem-like results.

These notions, and the questions they elicit, are almost universal. I don’t mean to compile a trite list of intellectual coincidences, but it is a fact that the fundamental paradox of language is apparent in almost every culture. In Islamic thought, the letters of the alphabet have an independent, divinely decreed will effected before pen is put to paper and over which the scribe has no control; in the sixteenth century, Tulsi Das, the greatest of Hindu poets, argued that the reality of fiction is always other than the reality of the material world, and overrides it; in Zen Buddhism, the instantaneous illumination or satori is always both within and beyond the grasp of words. In all these cases, as in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the writer’s impossibilities appear to be essentially two: to conceive properly and to put the concept properly into words. The writer’s craft is therefore twice constrained: by the limits of the imagination, which require faith to provide “the evidence of things not seen,” as St. Paul had it; and by the limits of language, which require writers to rely on what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief” of their readers and listeners.

All his life, Borges explored and tried out these implacable truths. From his very first readings in Buenos Aires to the final writings dictated on his deathbed in Geneva, every text became, in his mind, proof of the literary paradox of being named without ever quite naming anything into being. Ever since his adolescence, something in every book he read seemed to escape him, like a wayward monster, promising him nevertheless a further page, a greater epiphany at the next reading. And something in every page he wrote forced him to confess that the author was not the ultimate master of his own creation. “Poetry,” he argued in 1972, “is in the commerce of the poem with the reader, not in the series of symbols registered on the pages of a book.”

This double bind—the promise of revelation that every book grants its reader, and the warning of defeat that every book gives its writer—lends the literary act its constant fluidity. And of the many books in which Borges found confirmation of these intuitions, none served him better than the one he called “perhaps the greatest literary work ever written”: Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Dante is essential to the understanding of Borges’s relationship to language. His acquaintance with Dante took place midway on his own road of life, when he turned forty. From the last months of 1939 to the early months of the following year, during his streetcar ride to and from his dreary job as sub-librarian at the Miguel Cané Municipal Library in Buenos Aires, Borges read Dante’s Divine Comedy, “helped until I reached Purgatory,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “by John Aitken Carlyle’s prose translation. After that I continued the ascent on my own.”

Dante’s poem never left him. Jon Thiem has established a sort of annotated catalogue of the many texts by Borges that allude to or are inspired by the Commedia, and Maria Rosa Menocal has explored in depth the most famous of Borges’s Dante stories, “The Aleph,” to show his ambivalent relationship to its shadows. I find it magically moving that Dante was with Borges to the very end: one of Borges’s last projects, never realized, was to write a short story, set in Venice, in which Dante tries to imagine a sequel to his Commedia.

As a counterpoint to his reading of Dante, Borges appended his reading of Kafka, discovered a few years earlier. For Kafka, following the Talmudic commentators and the Hasidic masters, the task of the writer is not to accept the divine verdict but to negotiate with God, to find convincing arguments that will allow the writer to create, knowing that the result, no matter how great the effort or the talent, will always be a Golem.

For Dante, following the medieval reading of Aristotle and, above all, of Aquinas, the poet, in certain moments of inexplicable grace, is commanded by Love to write—as Dante says in his dialogue in Purgatory with the poet Bonagiunta—since Love is the divine force that moves everything, even the universe itself. To stress this, later, in Paradise, Dante will echo a verse in the 45th Psalm, “my tongue is the pen of a ready scribe,” and reaffirm his obedience to this dictating force, asking his readers to bear witness that he has done his best to put into words what has been commanded to his poetic intellect:

Here is your food, for I can do no more.
Because the matter of which I’ve been made scribe
Now draws to its own self all of my care.

And yet, even then, in this God-given moment of grace, the poet’s best is not enough. Having reached the top of Mount Purgatory, after crossing into the Garden of Eden, when Beatrice finally turns her unveiled Christ-laden eyes towards Dante, he has to confess that no one, no poet, however favored by the Muses, can possibly express what is shown so clearly “in the splendor of eternal living light.” Even at that instant of illumination, human memory and human language fall short of telling the truth, a truth revealed only in part, since no creature can know God’s enormous truth in its fullness. And over and over, throughout his journey from the dark forest to the godhead itself, Dante cries out that what he has been commanded to say is ineffable, since it is the fate of every artist to stop before the uttermost reach.

But now it’s best that I put here an end
To pursuing her beauty, writing verse,
As every artist must reaching his last.

Someone (I don’t know who) summed up Dante’s lament in one line: “A poem is never completed, only abandoned.” Borges agreed. For him, the tragedy of the Commedia is that Dante attempted, and failed, to create a universe of words in which the poet is absolute master: a world in which he might enjoy the love of his adored Beatrice, converse with his beloved Virgil, renew his relationship with absent friends, reward with a place in heaven those he deemed worthy of reward, and take revenge on his enemies by condemning them to Hell. The ancient dictum Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, “words are the fruit of things,” should work both ways, he thought. If words exist because they correspond to existing things, then things might exist because there are words to name them. For Dante, for Borges, this must be the poet’s credo.

And yet...

“Each literary work entrusts to its writer the form that it is seeking,” Borges wrote in the preface to Los conjurados. “Entrusts,” he wrote: he could have written “commands.” He could also have added that no poet, not even Dante, can fully accomplish the command. For Borges, the Commedia, that most perfect of human literary endeavors, was nevertheless a failed creation, because it failed to become that rhetorical archetype invented by Aquinas: what the author intended. The Word that breathes life (both Borges and Dante realized) is, alas, not equivalent to the living creature who breathes the word: the word that remains on the page, the word that, while imitating life, is incapable of being life. Plato made Socrates decry the creations of artists and poets for that very reason: because art is imitation, never the real thing.

If success were possible (and it is not), the universe would become redundant. Several texts by Borges describe this resolution: among them, the long story “The Congress,” in which a man dreams of compiling a complete encyclopedia of the world and in the end realizes that the encyclopedia already exists, and is the world itself. Also, the “Parable of the Palace,” in which a Chinese Emperor shows a poet his extraordinary palatial estate with its many buildings and gardens; in response, the poet composes a short poem that perfectly captures the whole palace, causing it to disappear. No two identical things can occupy the same space in the universe. One must always be lost.

Whether because of the imperfection of our tools or the imperfection of ourselves, whether because of the jealousy of the Godhead or His concern with our indulging in redundant tasks, the ancient prohibition of the Decalogue continues to serve as warning and as incitement. The dusty and unsatisfactory Golem that still haunts our dreams through the alleyways of Prague is, after all, the highest achievement to which our crafts can aspire: bringing dust to life and having it do our bidding, however clumsily, however dangerously. When the Weitzmann Institute at Rehovot built its first computer, Gershom Scholem suggested that it be named Golem I.

Our creations are, at best, something that suggests an approximation to a copy of a blurry intuition of the real thing, itself an imperfect imitation of an ineffable archetype. This achievement is our unique and humble prerogative. The only art that is synonymous with reality (according to Dante and Borges and the Talmudic scholars) is that of God. Gazing upon the pathway to Eden, sculpted by God Himself in the Purgatory of the Proud, Dante says that “he saw not better than I saw, who saw the scenes in real life.” God’s reality and God’s representation of reality are identical. Ours are not.

As would-be creators, as poets, sometimes we find that the result of our best labors fills us with shame. One of Borges’s most celebrated texts, to which he gave the English title “Dreamtigers,” has Borges dreaming, and realizing that he is dreaming, and since in that state of semi-consciousness we are the masters of our dreams, he decides to dream up a tiger, a real tiger, in all its regal and savage glory. But even in dreams the dreamer cannot achieve his purpose. “The tiger appears,” Borges says, “but shriveled up, or rickety, or with impure variations of shape, or of an inadmissible size, or far too fleeting, or looking more like a dog or like a bird.”

Sometimes the failure of our craft allows us to understand our own imperfect nature, as in Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins,” in which a magus dreams a man into being, only to realize in the end that he too is a dream. Or in “Everything and Nothing,” where Shakespeare, after his death, asks God to restore to him his own unique identity. “I,” says Shakespeare to God, “who have been in vain so many men, want to be only one and myself.” To which God’s voice answers from a whirlwind: “Neither I am I; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream there was you, you who like Myself is many and no one.”

This particular theme is made explicit in the conclusion of the story “The Search of Averroës” (whose title, in the original Spanish, holds the ambiguity between of and for). “In this story,” Borges writes, “I wished to tell the process of a defeat. First, I recalled that Archbishop of Canterbury who decided to demonstrate the existence of God; then, the alchemists who sought the philosophers’ stone; then, those who vainly attempted to trisect the right angle and to square the circle. Later, I thought that more poetic was the case of a man who intends a goal that is not denied to others, but only to him. I recalled Averroës who, locked within the confines of Islam, could never have known the meaning of the words tragedy and comedy. I told the story; as I went further, I felt what that god mentioned by Burton must have felt, who wanted to create a bull and created a buffalo. I felt that my work was mocking me. I felt that Averroës, trying to imagine what a drama was without having an inkling of what a theatre might have been, was not more absurd than me, trying to imagine Averroës, without anything more definite than a few crumbs of Renan, Lane and Asín Palacios. I felt, on the last page, that my story was a symbol of the man I was while I was writing it and that, in order to put my story into words, I had to be that man, and that, in order to be that man, I had to write the story, and so on into infinity. (The moment I stop believing in him, ‘Averroës’ disappears.)”

So it is that the writer, who imagines a man and is only capable of putting him into words as a poor Golem, is himself made to play the role of the Golem, imperfectly created and capable only of imperfection, an incompetent creature casting in turn blasphemous doubts on the competence of his Maker. In this game of shifting mirrors, the faulty Golem becomes our modest, faulty, all-embracing literature, and literature becomes the Golem, destined to fall to dust. Yes, Borges might answer, but an immortal Golem, because even when the first letter of the writing on its forehead is effaced, and emet becomes met, a word still stands to name for us yet another unnamable: death itself, the end of all creation. In this sense, the end is not an act of destruction but the recognition of the construction that precedes it.

“Our purpose in life,” wrote Stevenson, “is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits.” Failure then, as writers understand it, is not just the only possible outcome of a literary endeavor, but its goal, its supreme achievement. Distinguishing between the classical narrative, in which the hero reaches his objective, like Jason winning the Golden Fleece, and the modern one, in which K never reaches the castle, Borges observed that in the latter case, the very fact of not attaining the desired objective, of the adventure remaining apparently unfinished, is not a weakness of the author’s imagination but, on the contrary, its strength and purpose. Dante, in the first verses of Paradiso, notes that precisely when we find ourselves on the verge of attaining the desired quarry, “our intellect sinks so deep that memory cannot go back.” That is to say: when poets come close to reaching their imagined goal, then articulation of what that ideal form is must fail, and memory of what it was must falter.

Every work of art, every work of literature that offers an always-receding horizon of comprehension, which allows us to call it great, is in this sense incomplete, because it must allow for the questions about its essence to remain open and the intuition of its whole to be uncertain; it must admit cracks and crevices in which the reader can protract the limits of interpretation and exploration. The mortal conclusions of epic tales never put an end to the eternal battles in which their heroes engage; the tragedies of Oedipus and Orestes remain ultimately unresolved after Colonus and Delphi; Hamlet’s father and Banquo’s ghost continue to roam in our imaginaire, unappeased, after the death of the opposing protagonists; Dickens’s happy endings are endurable because they stand on a myriad of unresolved characters who continue their quests long after the book is closed. The only absolute conclusions are those of the stories made up of nothing but surface, narratives without width or depth, perfectly crafted and sterile objects of consumption that crowd the best-seller tables of our bookstores. “Stupidity,” noted Flaubert, “consists in the desire to conclude.”

Utopian models of the world and statistical charts that measure our reality have an appeasing neatness about them. In literature, however, things do not work out that way. Literature follows rules that override the rules of fantasy and the rules of reality. Literature is neither wishful thinking nor documentary science, neither Arcadian illusion nor catechistic dogma. In spite of Dante’s desire, Beatrice (as Borges points out in a masterly essay) escapes Dante in the end; following the poem’s overarching logic, Virgil, source of Dante’s craft, must prove to be fallible; friends and enemies must sometimes occupy unexpected places in the eternal afterlife. And even the poem itself, the meticulous, astonishing, enlightened and enlightening Commedia, must finally self-destruct: in the end, words must fail Dante, refuse to bear witness to the ultimate glory, leave the reader dazzled by the closing light, when will and desire turn over like an even-keeled wheel, and with the wordless knowledge that, whatever this crowning revelation was and is, it also moves the sun and the other stars. And as always, even in the case of such a triumphant close, the use of similes and metaphors confesses the defeat of language: we must compare because we cannot say. The most to which we can aspire, as readers, is that inexpressible epiphany where, Dante confessed, “high fantasy loses its power.” This is the epiphany that Borges memorably put into words in “The Wall and the Books”: “the imminence of a revelation that does not take place.” That constant expectation must be our sole reward, though we are never to see it fulfilled.

We live in the grip of this immemorial and contradictory injunction: on the one hand, not to build things that might lead to idolatry and complacency; on the other, to build things worthy of memory—“to put into verse,” as Dante says, “things that are hard to conceive.” In Biblical terms, this means rejecting the serpent’s temptation to aspire to be gods, but also to reflect God’s creation back to Him in luminous pages that conjure up His world; in rationalistic terms, to accept that the limits of human creation are hopelessly unlike the limitless creation of the cosmos, and yet to strive continuously to attain those limits by making full use of our gifts. This is the paradox of all our arts and crafts, performed under the grinning watch of the Muse of Impossibility. Between these two mandates we exist, like Golems, in this often miserable and sometimes blissful and always privileged human condition.

Alberto Manguel is the author of The Library at Night, A History of Reading, and many other books. Born in Buenos Aires, he now lives in France. This essay of his was originally delivered as the Finzi-Contini Lecture at Yale.


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