UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Borges and Farid ud-Din Attar: The Influence of The Conference of the Birds on the Later Prose of Jorge Luis Borges

José Darío Martínez

I. Introduction
Throughout his life, and continuing even after his death, Jorge Luis Borges was regarded, perhaps rightfully so, as a somewhat strange character in literary history. An avant-garde poet obsessed with local color and national themes, he morphed into an enigmatic writer of short stories drawing on everything from Buddhism to the Kabbalah. This mysterious sage-like image was further enhanced by the fact that Borges was a soft-spoken blind man who lived with his mother until his old age. Aside from his peculiar personal life, Borges also confounded his contemporaries with his choice of subject matter. Although his early poetry dealt mostly with the city of Buenos Aires and other traditional criollo themes, his essays concentrated on little known philosophical topics and paradoxes while his prose texts were of a decidedly unclassifiable genre, filled with a plethora of eclectic allusions and misleading quotes. During his lifetime, he was heavily criticized for how large a role German and Middle Eastern cultures seemed to play in his works. In addition to the unfamiliar subject matter, Borges also broke the mold in terms of genre. Texts such as “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” and “El acercamiento a Almotásim” are literary hoaxes reviewing the imaginary works of imaginary authors, while the stories that compose Historia universal de la infamia are fictional rewritings of the lives of obscure criminals from across different continents. This penchant for “falsification and magnification” as Borges himself describes it in his famous prose text “Borges y yo” led many critics to dismiss many of his allusions, particularly those related to Middle Eastern themes and Islamic theology, as Borges playing yet more literary pranks (Borges 299). Nevertheless, in this study, I will argue that the twelfth-century Persian mystical poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar had a transformational effect on Borges’s narrative devices, plot construction, and philosophy of literature; by using data from Attar’s biography, explicit references to The Conference of the Birds in his works, and stories that implicitly draw on themes from Attar, Borges constantly reminds his readers of the influence of Persian mysticism on his prose.


This disregard for Borges’s allusions to Middle Eastern languages and literature is particularly surprising considering their enormous presence in his biography and how respectfully he spoke of them in his personal life. Arabic literature was a constant in Borges’s childhood. His father’s library contained books about the region by Edward William Lane, Richard Francis Burton and John Payne, in addition to translations of One Thousand and One Nights, a book that seemed to fascinate the young Borges both because of its intricate narrative structure and its exotic, and sometimes erotic, content (Rodríguez Monegal 9). Considering that, when asked about seminal events in his life, Borges would typically respond by mentioning his father’s library, it is clear that these readings had a profound effect on the budding writer. In fact, years later Borges would even dare to write a review of different translations of this work with no knowledge of the original Arabic entitled “Los traductores de Las mil y una noches”. However, his library was not the only way that the elder Borges brought Middle Eastern literature into his son’s life. Surprisingly, the elder Borges was the first translator to render Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyyat into Spanish (Williamson 68). Jorge Guillermo Borges also attempted to write a story in an Arabic setting similar to One Thousand and One Nights (Rodríguez Monegal 80). This familiar predisposition that Borges had for this type of literature was only enhanced during his family’s sojourn in Europe between 1914 and 1921.


Borges’s interest in the Jewish community and its different schools of thought began with his relationship with two Jewish schoolmates in Geneva. According to Edwin Williamson, these two Jewish students were Borges’s first true friends and represented the discovery of a world away from his family (Williamson 59). Borges even maintained a life-long literary correspondence with one of these friends, Maurice Abramowicz. Interestingly, later in his career, Borges was even accused of being Jewish because of his fierce opposition to anti-Semitism during Hitler’s rise. In typical Borges fashion, he responded to these accusations with a brilliantly sarcastic article entitled “¿Yo, judío?” where he embraced the idea of his potential Jewish background and creatively reversed his critics’ insults into a romantic idea of forgotten ancestry. Secondly, during his time in Madrid he was introduced to the intricacies of the Arabic literary tradition through his interaction with Rafael Cansinos Assens, a Spanish writer and critic. In his article “Borges, Al-Mundir de Hira y la lotería de Babilonia“, José Ramírez del Río confirms the influence of Cansinos Assens by explaining that while a young Borges was just beginning to discover the poetic movement known as ultraísmo in Spain, Cansinos Assens served as one of his mentors (Ramírez del Río 70). Cansinos Assens had a deep knowledge of the Arabic linguistic tradition and had even translated some portions of the One Thousand and One Nights himself. Additionally, Borges’s mentor had also discovered his own Jewish ancestry, a revelation that fascinated Borges (Williamson 77). A third factor that could have led an adolescent Borges to become interested in the cultures and literatures of the Middle East was his well-known penchant for encyclopedias. Inside these vast compilations of knowledge, a curious Borges would have found hundreds of mentions of countries, regions and characters from places far from his native Buenos Aires. A trace of this idea can be found in the famous story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where a counterfeit encyclopedia introduces an alternate reality through a country named Uqbar located somewhere in Asia Minor. In summary, it should come as no surprise that in her study of Islamic esoteric concepts in Borges, Nada Elia says: “In his fiction, he makes direct reference to aspects of Islamic mysticism, as well as demonstrates a familiarity with Islamic esoteric writing that goes beyond superficial, mundane information“ (Elia 129).


When taking all of this evidence into account, it is even more startling that this aspect of his fictions has been ignored for so long. Fortunately, during the last two decades, a new trend has arisen in the criticism of Borges’ body of work that places confidence in the author’s erudition and intentions and thoroughly researches all of the author’s references while searching for context and meaning. Andrea Pagni highlights the importance of Daniel Balderston in changing this trend:

Balderston no propone leer a Borges fuera de contexto, sino a partir del contexto y contra toda una línea de crítica que asume que las historias fantásticas de Borges no tienen relación alguna con la realidad, la historia o la política. De lo que se trataría, es de refutar las posiciones “irrealistas“ que ve representadas en autores tan dispares como R. Borello, S. Sosnowski, J. Franco, A.M. Barrenechea, J. Alazraki, o en su propio libro El precursor velado de 1985. [1] (Pagni 6)

This change of opinion has led to many more critics examining allusions made by Borges, especially his constant mentions of the Middle East and Middle Eastern literature. For example, Luce López-Baralt uses her background in Arabic language and literature to reexamine the relationship between Borges and Islamic theology and to unlock a new reading of “The Zahir,” a story that has frustrated critics since its publication because of the complex use of Arabic language and Islamic theology. Prof. López-Baralt highlights the role of other critics such as Erika Spivakovsky, Borges’s widow María Kodama, George Wingerter, and Giovanna de Garayalde in this movement and summarizes the tone of this new school of criticism in the introduction of her analysis of “The Zahir”:

También querría insistir en el hecho de que no nos debe extrañar el que Borges manejara estos términos técnicos islámicos con tanta soltura. Poco a poco sus lectores vamos asumiendo la hondura del conocimiento de la cultura musulmana de que hizo gala el cultísimo narrador hispanoamericano. [2] (López Baralt 3)

This obviously begs two questions: how does Borges use his knowledge of Middle Eastern literature and how is it incorporated into his fiction? When examining his corpus as a whole, the Orient is evoked consistently, even in his earliest poems, albeit more as an aesthetic trope than as a deeper theme. One of his earliest books of poems, Cuaderno San Martín, has an epigraph from the famed Orientalist, Edward Fitzgerald. However, when examining the prose elements of his corpus, we can see that references to Arabic, Hebrew and Persian literature, and Middle Eastern settings and characters are abundant in Borges’s fiction, a surprising technique for an Argentine author steeped in European tradition and completely ignorant of any Near Eastern languages. In stories such as “El tintorero enmascarado Hakom de Merv,” and “Abenjacán el Bojarí muerto en su laberinto,” Borges latches on to little known stories in the Arabic and Persian traditions and uses them to develop a fiction characteristic of his style, including lost manuscripts, labyrinths and mirrors. Additionally, in “Las ruinas circulares,” Borges uses a setting evocative of Persia or India in the traditional manner to disorient the reader and place him in an unfamiliar location where magical things can happen. To the reader unversed in the Persian and Arabic literary traditions, these would seem to be one of the many false trails left by Borges, simply another of his patented misquoted epigraphs or citations of an inexistent book. However, as we have discussed, critics learned that not only do all of Borges’s allusions to Middle Eastern literatures have both a narrative and aesthetic function; they are in fact amazingly erudite, displaying a marvelous accuracy and depth of knowledge. In his article on the influence of One Thousand and One Nights in Argentina, Sergio Waisman quotes an incredibly aware Borges as saying: “¿Y cómo definir al Oriente…? Yo diría que las nociones de Oriente y Occidente son generalizaciones pero que ningún individuo se siente oriental.“ [3] (Waisman 359) This should come as no surprise since Borges claimed to have lectured on topics such as Persian Sufism on multiple occasions, most famously when the Peronist government ordered the closure of the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (SADE) in 1952.


However, even with this emergence of criticism that explores and attempts to analyze these allusions as we do to allusions to European literature, certain further aspects of Borges’s repertoire have been neglected. Most amazingly, the influence of the Persian tradition in particular on Borges seems to have been completely discounted. Aside from one article from Prof. López-Baralt, there is no scholarly study of the role of Persian literature in Borges and most studies regarding Middle Eastern literature in his canon only mention it in passing. For example, in his article “El Islam de Borges”, Emilio G Ferrín proposes: “There are eight cornerstones fastening the oriental pages in the writings of Borges: The loneliness of God, The Koran, The world of Thousand Nights and a Night, The empire of Alexander, The poetry of Omar Khayyam, Sinbad the Sailor (the other Ulysses), The Moslem Spain, and some other persian [sic] tales.” (Ferrin 113). Although he does mention Khayyam, the throwaway mention of “some other persian tales”, without even so much as a capitalization, exemplifies the lack of study of this aspect of Borges’s fiction. This neglect probably exists because Persian culture is not as historically intertwined with the Spanish linguistic tradition as Arab and Jewish cultures were throughout the ages. As a result the study of Persian language and literature is therefore significantly less common than that of Arabic and Hebrew in Latin America.
This neglect can also be attributed to the obscurity of the Persian references Borges uses. He does not draw on the most famous Persian poets, such as Rumi or Hafez, but rather makes multiple references to a lesser-known poet, such as Farid ud-Din Attar. The relatively small amount of attention paid to this question is even more surprising considering that one of the stories critics most draw on when examining Borges’s evolution as an artist, “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” is a literary hoax that explicitly mentions its debt to Persian literature and directly acknowledges the influence of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. This story is so emblematic of his fiction that, in his “Autobiographical Essay,” Borges stated: “[El acercamiento a Almotásim] now seems to me to foreshadow and even to set the pattern for those tales that were somehow awaiting me, and upon which my reputation as a storyteller was to be based” (Borges 76). As always with Borges, we cannot put complete faith in any of his words, but the fact that he chose to highlight this one peculiar text instead of one of his more famous stories is at least an intimation that it deserves more research. In fact, the same Emilio G Ferrin that so casually mentioned “some other Persian tales” as a source of inspiration for Borges, also recognized the importance of Persian literature and Attar in particular when he says:

Pero la gran alegoría persa de J.L. Borges consiste en repetidas referencias a los dos grandes poetas de la mitología sasánida Abu-l-Qasim Firdawsi (Firdusi), y Farid al- Din Attar. Con ellos más que en ninguna otra ocasión, el escalpelo borgeano separa y extirpa para ser repartido posteriormente a todo lo largo de su producción literaria. [4] (Ferrín 120)

The Conference of the Birds is a masterpiece in its own right. This poem was composed in the twelfth century by Farid ud-Din Attar, a Sufi poet from northeastern Iran and is made up of over 4,500 individual verses. The highly formal poem narrates the story of a group of birds that, fed up with the anarchy within their society, decide to seek out a king. One of the birds steps forth and tells the tale of a king of the birds called the Simurgh that has allegedly been seen somewhere in China. The birds decide to make the long journey to this far-off nation, passing through different valleys that test their endurance and loyalty to the Simurgh. Throughout his narration of the quest, Attar intersperses didactic stories within the story that instruct the reader in Sufi theology, heavily concentrating on the destruction of the self and the importance of the invisible world in detriment of the immediate material realm. After losing some of their companions to death and desertion along the way, the thirty remaining birds finally arrive at the abode of the Simurgh in China. However, after meeting the king’s gatekeeper, the birds realize that they themselves are actually the Simurgh. This surprise ending relies on a play on words that cannot be translated from the original Persian. Although Simurgh acts as a proper noun throughout the text, the word is actually composed of two distinct words, si meaning thirty and morgh meaning birds. Only after they have completed their cleansing journey can the birds realize that the divinity they seek lies within themselves, and that their travels have transformed them into the Simurgh. When the birds are confronted by the fact that a Simurgh, in the way they previously understood it, does not exist, the narrator explains:

[5] (Attar 426)

This ending implies a pantheism of sorts, but also represents an important narrative theme that will be appropriated by Borges in his later stories, the identity, in the algebraic sense, between the seeker and that which is sought. Attar summarizes this notion of the quest as a type of mirror in one of the last lines of narrative in the poem:

[6] (Attar 427)

I will contend that beginning with the publication of “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” Borges adopts the plot of The Conference of the Birds and combines it with his own personal vision of language and literature to create an aesthetic that alternately parodies and embraces this version of literary pantheism as a way of salvation. I will trace how Borges uses this theme through his first real attempt at fiction, Ficciones, through to his seminal work El Aleph. However before delving into how Borges subtly incorporates these themes into his own fiction, I will examine when and how he deals with The Conference of the Birds explicitly in his texts.

II. Explicit Mentions of Attar in Borges
The first explicit mention of The Conference of the Birds comes in the aforementioned “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” written in 1935 and published as an essay for the first time in Historia de la eternidad in 1936. It was later reclassified as a short story in 1942 when it was collected in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan. Throughout this counterfeit review, Borges hints at the influence of Attar’s poem, but only delves deeper into its plot in a footnote. In this note, he reveals that he is familiar with translations by French scholar Garcin de la Tassy and Edward Fitzgerald and also consulted the tenth volume of Burton’s One Thousand and One Nights and Margaret Smith’s The Persian Mystics: Attar (1932). Burton’s text explains the seven valleys through which the birds travel as the seven stages of contemplative life and sees the final solution as an identity between Man and God. Smith’s book, on the other hand, provides both a brief biographical sketch of Attar, as well as an explanation of his mystical beliefs and selected translations from a number of his works, including The Conference of the Birds. All of the biographical data that Borges presents in the footnote to “El acercamiento a Almotásim” directly draws on the biography written by Smith. However, Borges does make one significant change to Smith’s interpretation of Attar’s mysticism that will have important repercussions when analyzing his fictions. While Smith portrays the quest of the birds inside a theological framework of the Creation, seeking and finally being equal to the whole or the Creator, Borges removes this search from the realm of theology and portrays it in the more functional sense of the seeker searching for and finding himself in what he is seeking.


Additionally, there are two concepts mentioned in the book review itself that Borges will combine with his knowledge of Attar and linguistic theory to produce a very idiosyncratic literary framework. Firstly, in the text, he strongly criticizes the use of allegory in the second edition of the inexistent novel, claiming that it is overly didactic and lacks the details that make fiction believable. From this point forward, we can see that although Borges’s fictions trace his own journey as a person and an author, his texts will never stray into the realm of allegory or didactic fiction. Although he is known for writing metaphysical and obscure fiction, Borges is an intensely personal writer, using exotic images and themes to disguise his own personal crises. Secondly, the narrator ironically criticizes how novels are lauded for their connections with past works, using Joyce’s Ulysses as an example of this trend. This superficial criticism is clearly an ironic parody of his own past as an avant-garde poet attempting to break away from tradition by discovering new metaphors. “El acercamiento a Almotásim” marks the disappearance of this version of Borges, in favor of the more conservative writer who would make rewriting, repetition and allusion central tenets of his style. Relative to how Borges treats Islam and the Islamic tradition as a narrative device, Ian Almond offers this assessment in his article “Borges the Post-Orientalist“:

Islam is no longer a source of entertainment, but an object of information […] Borges’s narrator adopts a tone that is both scholarly and authoritative […] The plot of the Mantiq al-Tayr [is] briefly summarized with the relaxed patience of one who feels at home in his subject. (Almond 445)

In 1957, Borges published the first edition of his whimsical El libro de seres imaginarios. This compendium of mythical creatures is almost an encyclopedia of imaginary beings and urban legends. Among the legendary beasts mentioned in this book is the Simurgh. This entry provides us with a much richer picture of how Borges came about discovering the legend of the Simurgh. As he did in previous texts, he mentions Burton’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights as a source, but also goes on to explain how he also encountered the Simurgh through Robert Southey’s epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer and Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. At one point in Southey’s poem, the protagonist Thalaba seeks out the Simurgh as a part of his quest to destroy the sorcerers that murdered his family. Borges describes how the Simurgh plays a secondary role in Flaubert’s script that is in stark contrast with the original role of the King of the Birds in the Iranian national epic The Book of Kings, or Shahnameh, composed by Ferdowsi between the late tenth century and early eleventh century. From this brief description, we can gather that Borges most probably first encountered the Simurgh through the translations of Richard Burton and the works of Robert Southey and Gustave Flaubert. Additionally, it is clear that Borges thoroughly researched the history of the Simurgh in Persian literature, as he knows that it was not a symbol invented by Attar, but rather a trope that had existed since at least one hundred years earlier with the emergence of the Shahnameh. Furthermore, Borges is familiar with the later legacy of the Simurgh in Persian literature, specifically in the Marvels of Strange Things and Creatures Existing, a book that is surprisingly very similar to El libro de seres imaginarios, written in the 13th century by Persian poet Zakariya al-Qazwini.


There is also another mention of Attar in Borges’s texts in “The Unending Rose,” a poem published in 1975 in his book of poems La rosa profunda. In contrast to the other allusions to Attar, “The Unending Rose” does not explicitly mention The Conference of the Birds, but rather it uses details from Attar’s biography to create an implicit comparison between him and Borges himself. In the narrative of the poem, a blind Attar contemplates the outline of a rose, as the Mongol invasion that would eventually destroy his hometown of Nishapur ominously approaches. In her article, “El coloquio de los pájaros: Borges y Attar de Nishapur,” Professor Luce López-Baralt points out that there is no specific biographical data that would suggest that Attar was blind, but suggests that Borges is drawing on a passage from Attar’s The Book of Secrets where he speaks of a symbolic blindness inherent to the immediate reality of the physical reality (López-Baralt 6). She goes on to analyze the symbolism of the rose in Islamic theology, postulating that the “vaga esfera” [7] Attar holds in the poem is representative of the zahir, the exterior reality that veils the true nature of God. In the poem, Attar hopes to see the true unlimited and multiple nature of the Rose, a stand-in for God, after his impending death at the hands of the Mongols. Although it does not mention The Conference of the Birds directly, the narrative of the Borges poem strongly evokes the plot of Attar’s poem. In the place of thirty birds seeking their king, we have Attar searching for the true nature of the rose. Both sets of pilgrims are striving for the same thing, the destruction of the exterior world in favor of the unseen that cannot be expressed through language. As in Attar’s poem, this conversion can only take place after a process of purification that an older Borges clearly suggests must be death. López-Baralt beautifully summarizes this idea saying:

Attar sostiene el “leve peso” de la rosa, que es imagen o epifanía de la Rosa profunda, anuncio oblicuo de la experiencia directa de Dios, que desea poder mirar de veras […] Ambos poetas son ancianos y se disponen a mirar otra Rosa. El encuentro es inminente, porque tan sólo al morir es que abrimos finalmente-y ya para siempre-los ojos a la visión trascendente. [8] (López Baralt 10)

Within the framework of the poem, it is clear that Borges has adopted the Sufi conception of reality and God as divided betwen the external zahir and the internal baten that can only be reached through the process of unveiling known as kaif. The innovation that Attar presents and Borges adopts is that this process is entirely internal, not only in the sense that it requires contemplation and meditation, but in that the answers sought are innately contained within the nature of the seeker.
The final explicit mention of Attar’s poem is in the essay “El Simurg y el águila” in Borges’s Nueve Ensayos Dantescos (1982). Comparing the symbol of the Simurgh with the eagle composed of pagan kings in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Borges juxtaposes one of the most famous works of the Western canon with a standard of Persian literature. He begins by comparing the notion of a greater being composed of smaller beings throughout European literary history, from the representation of Fame in Virgil’s Eneid to Hobbes’s Leviathan, with detours to Shakespeare, Chaucer and even Francis Bacon. Borges goes on to describe the exact setting in Dante where a similar image is presented, the eagle in Canto XVII that is composed of just kings who speak as one person and act as one entity. Dante engages in a theological dialogue with this celestial creature and is ultimately reminded that God’s methods should not be questioned. In the next paragraph of his essay, Borges lauds Attar of Nishapur as not only having conceived of a similar device one century earlier than Dante, but also for creating a better image, “virtualmente lo corrige y lo incluye.” [9] (Borges 2) Before delving into his analysis of the Simurgh, Borges even finds time for a brief summary of Attar’s life and how he came to be a mystic, clearly a result of his studies of Burton and Margaret Smith. After summarizing the content of The Conference of the Birds, Borges compares the value of Dante’s eagle and Attar’s Simurgh as literary tropes. He synthesizes their main difference by:

La disparidad entre el Águila y el Simurg no es menos evidente que el parecido. El Águila no es más que inverosímil; el Simurg, imposible. El Águila es un símbolo momentáneo, como antes lo fueron las letras y quienes lo dibujan no dejan de ser quienes son: el ubicuo Simurg inextricable. [10] (Borges 3)

Borges castigates Dante’s symbol as too realistic, quite a criticism for a mythical bird composed of the bodies of ancient kings. However, it is clear that Borges is not implying a lack of imagination in Dante’s creation of the creature, but rather in how he conceptualized it functioning. Borges laments the fact that within the eagle, kings maintain their individual characters. Although they speak as one, each one performs a very distinct task to ensure that the eagle can exist as a being. For example, Borges cites the fact that one of the kings is the eagle’s pupil, others serve as the eyebrows. On the other hand, in Attar’s Simurgh the personal identity of the thirty birds is contained and then lost within the larger being. For Borges, this individuality of the kings limits the possible interpretations of the symbol, while the ambiguity of the birds convert it into a symbol of a wider divinity. In fact he says in no uncertain words: “Detrás del Aguila está el Dios personal de Roma y de Israel; detrás del mágico Simurg está el panteísmo” [11] (Borges 4). Since Borges decrees the Simurgh as the superior symbol, we can infer that although these might not be his personal religious beliefs, on a purely aesthetic and literary level, the pantheism represented by Attar’s bird is superior to the limited Christian reality of the eagle from Canto XVIII. Finally, Borges ends by praising Attar’s narrative talents, calling the surprise end of the poem an amazing creative feat that is both imaginative and efficient. He mentions two precedents for this plot device. Firstly, when David is the protagonist of the story that Nathan tells him in the Book of Samuel and secondly, De Quincey’s opinion that Oedipus himself, not humanity in general, is the solution to the Theban Sphinx’s riddle. It is apparent that Borges always had an attraction to both the pantheism that the Simurgh represents and to the narrative device of turning the seekers themselves into that which is sought.

III. Ficciones
Borges makes his first serious attempt at a personal reinterpretation of Attar’s ideas in the stories compiled in his first book of short stories, Ficciones (1944). Three stories in particular stand out as having interesting interpretations of the previously mentioned themes and tropes: “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote,” “La muerte y la brújula“ and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.“ In these three stories, Borges appears skeptical of the true power of Attar’s ideas and treats them more as a curiosity than as a serious philosophical framework. Each story takes the premise to a different, slightly absurd, conclusion.


“Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” is one of the stranger pieces of prose composed by Jorge Luis Borges. It was the first attempt Borges made at writing after a freak accident that almost took his life in 1938. It was also one of the first short stories Borges ever wrote, having focused almost exclusively on essays and poetry up until that point. In the story, the narrator, a fictionalized version of Borges himself, appears to conduct a review of both the “visible” and “invisible” works of a French symbolist author who writes on topics as diverse as the flaws of Paul Valéry to the value of different chess tactics. Nevertheless, Borges is more concerned with an even more eccentric endeavor, Pierre Menard’s attempt to rewrite, word for word, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Borges clarifies that Menard did not attempt to simply copy out Cervantes’s prose, but rather he wished to produce his own version of the novel that would be identical to the original. This seemingly comical literary hoax encapsulates a much deeper commentary on literary theory and in fact foreshadows some of the basic tenets of reader response theory and deconstruction elaborated later in the twentieth century, which are summarized in the passage:

Menard (acaso sin quererlo) ha enriquecido mediante una técnica nueva el arte detenido y rudimentario de la lectura: la técnica del anacronismo deliberado y de las atribuciones erróneas. Esa técnica de aplicación infinita nos insta a recorrer la Odisea como si fuera posterior a la Eneida y el libro Le jardin du Centaure de madame Henri Bachelier como si fuera de madame Henri Bachelier [12] (Borges 847).

However, more interestingly for this study, the plot of Menard’s quest for literary expression shows the influence of Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. Menard is on a quest for a new type of literary expression never seen before, he hopes to update the Quixote, not by placing it in a contemporary context, but by completely possessing the original text. Borges quotes Menard as saying: “Todo hombre debe ser capaz de todas las idea y entiendo que en el porvenir lo será” [13] (Borges 847). This thought clearly reflects a type of literary and linguistic pantheism rooted in the concept of Attar’s Simurgh. Borges parallels the birds’ quest by showing Menard as an author in search of a novel that already exists within the annals of literary history. If we take a more general view, an author firmly grounded in the Western and European traditions is seeking to create a work of art that already exists within those traditions. In spite of this, Borges is not simply transcribing Attar’s idea into a plot of his own invention. He creates a subtle distinction in the type of pantheism that will continue to evolve throughout his prose. Attar describes a universe where a divine essence is present in the pure of heart, not as an external being or concept, but as an innate quality of their existence. Additionally, only by doing away with their relationship to their external world can the pilgrims get in touch with the divinity within them. Borges, on the other hand, proposes a linguistic version of this idea. Borges views language as a shared code that, far from making personal expression a meaningless goal, allows richer personal expression through the recombination of past works. Because Cervantes wrote the Quixote, Menard is allowed to inhabit the text himself, updating and even transforming its meaning. The form he has been searching for already exists, but is radically transformed by his adoption of it. Borges replaces the omnipresent divinity with the inescapable code of language and literature. In “El panteísmo de Borges“ Juan Arana summarizes how the author reworks pantheism:

Precisamente la disolución de lo personal en un acto de reconocimiento que niega sus límites y su fragilidad, al tiempo que salva lo que encierra de positivo y valioso, constituye la clave del panteísmo de Borges…Un solo autor, intemporal y anónimo, detrás del género humano y sus creaciones. [14] (Arana 180)

Authors are simply the tools that a greater literary consciousness uses to express the human experience. Individual identity is erased and all creators become, like the birds, companions in a quest for something that is contained within all of them. Arana says: “El panteísmo, lejos de ser primariamente una concepción teológica, es un modo de entender y de profunidzar en la esencia de lo literario“ [15] (Arana 181). Yet, it is still too early to view this as a definitive statement of Borges’s concept of literature. The story was meant as a literary hoax: the concept of a twentieth-century Frenchman literally reproducing Cervantes’s masterpiece is clearly farcical. Yet, in this text, Borges makes a first attempt at interpreting the effect of Attar’s poem on his literary aesthetic and, like many first attempts at understanding, it points out as many flaws as virtues.


In “La muerte y la brújula,” Borges uses a detective story set in an alternate version of Buenos Aires to examine some of the darker possible repercussions of his first interpretation of Attar’s ideas in “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote.” In this story, Borges follows the deductions of star detective Erik Lonnrot while attempting to solve a series of mysterious murders that seem to be connected with esoteric Kabala mysticism and the secret name of God within the Jewish theological tradition. However, “La muerte y la brújula” is different from most detective stories in that the hero of the story does not solve the crime, – as Borges lets us know in the first paragraph- and is, in the end, defeated by the criminal mastermind he has been pursuing throughout the narrative. In this particular case, Lonnrot deciphers a complicated web of clues based on the geographic points where they occur in conjunction with their revelation of one of the four letters that spell out the name of God in Hebrew, YHWH. However, when arriving at the location where he believes the fourth crime will take place to prevent it from ever occurring, Lonnrot learns that he himself is destined to be the fourth victim and that the complex series of clues left behind at the previous crime scenes had been left behind by his arch-nemesis Red Scharlach to lure him to his death at the phantasmagoric Triste-le-Roi. This may seem like a classic Borgesian inversion of a traditional genre, but when considering the text in light of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds and the previous analysis of “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote,” it is clear that something deeper is at work.


The first element of “La muerte y la brújula” that evokes Attar’s poem is the inversion between the seeker and what is sought. In principle, the detective Erik Lonnrot is the searcher in this relationship, patiently unraveling clues until he can trap his prey at the scene of the final crime. However, by the end of the story it is clear that, throughout the course of the action, the criminal Red Scharlach has been the one pulling the strings, seeking to trap Lonnrot by carefully placing obscure clues at every crime scene. Borges is adding a slight tweak to the dynamic represented by the Simurgh. Instead of an identity between the seeker and what is sought, there is an inversion. Instead of the seeker being exactly what is sought, in this case, the hunter becomes the hunted. This may appear to be a similar, but completely independent, concept from Attar’s, but Borges makes a series of artistic choices to suggest that even while their roles are clearly inverted, there is also an important implication that Erick Lonnrot and Red Scharlach are – on some deeper, perhaps pantheistic, level- the exact same character. On a very basic level, their names are evocative of each other. “Rot” is the German word for red, the same word used for Scharlach’s first name. By choosing these names, Borges, who had studied German since his youth in Geneva, deliberately links the two characters on a level profoundly associated with identity. Secondly, Borges creates a setting that evokes an equivalence between the two characters. When describing the location of the fourth and final crime, the narrator says:

Vista de cerca, la casa de la quinta de Triste-le-Roy abundaba en inútiles simetrías y en repeticiones maniáticas: a una Diana glacial en un nicho lóbrego correspondía en un segundo nicho otra Diana; un balcón se reflejaba en otro balcón; dobles escalinatas se abrían en doble balaustrada. Lönnrot rodeó la casa como había rodeado la quinta. Todo lo examinó: bajo el nivel de la terraza vio una estrecha persiana. [16] (Borges 897)

The astounding symmetry and multiple repetitions within the architecture of the structure again suggest an identity, in the mathematical sense of the word, between Lönnrot and Scharlach. Through the resonance in their names and the symmetry of the setting, Borges portrays Lönnrot and Scharlach as two sides of the same coin. During their final dialogue, Lönnrot asks that Scharlach use a simpler labyrinth the next time they meet, implying that these two characters will duel in different reincarnations for all of eternity. Additionally, the description of the nature of this simpler labyrinth also suggests a unity between the characters: “Para la otra vez que lo mate —replicó Scharlach—, le prometo ese laberinto, que consta de una sola línea recta y que es indivisible, incesante” [17](Borges 899). The philosophical repercussions of this reworking of Attar’s ideas stand in stark contrast to the whimsical theoretical musings of “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote.” The innate unity between the lawful Erick Lönnrot and his delinquent counterpart Red Scharlach create a nihilistic world where morality is simply a binary of amorality and where personal identity is accidental. Scharlach is not condemned by the author, just as Lönnrot is not praised, they are simply opposing forces that futilely attempt to destroy each other. As opposed to the birds rejoicing in the fact that they themselves are the Simurgh, the characters in “La muerte y la brújula” are not comforted by the pantheism apparent in their intrinsic unity. Instead of a world filled with a divine presence, we find an amoral universe where personal identity and function is frighteningly erased. The critic Donald Shaw recognizes the influence of this idea in “La muerte y la brújula“ when he says: “[El cuento encierra el tema de] la inuntilidad de asumir una personalidad ajena, ya que la propia personalidad de cada uno es sólo ilusoria, y en todo caso la muerte destruye indefectiblement la ilusión“ [18] (Shaw 967-968).
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is one of Borges’s most famous short stories. Within the fiction, Borges and Bioy Casares find an encyclopedia entry for a country named Uqbar, a land supposedly located in Asia Minor where all literature is fictitious and set in one of two imaginary planets, one of them being the Tlön of the title. In the story, years later Borges finds the eleventh volume of an encyclopedia, not about Uqbar, already a fictitious creation, but of Tlön, a secondary creation within the story itself. The way Tlön and its language and philosophy are described gives us a powerful insight into how Borges develops his reinterpretation of Attar’s pantheism through a more literary lens. The first element of Tlön that evokes the idea of pantheism in The Conference of the Birds is Borges’s description of the planet’s language: “No hay sustantivos en la conjetural Ursprache de Tlön, de la que proceden los idiomas ‘actuales’ y los dialectos: hay verbos impersonales, calificados por sufijos (o prefijos) monosilábicos de valor adverbial” [19] (Borges 834). The lack of nouns – both personal pronouns and common and proper nouns- suggests a lack of individual identity. As Borges goes on to describe, the world conceived by this language is not spatial, but temporal, with successive impersonal actions following each other periodically. This type of linguistic system equates all objects as implicit subjects and only classifies them by the action they perform. There is no innate difference between the moon and the sun, they simply choose to act differently. However, this is not all Borges has to say about the language of Tlön. Borges says that in the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlön: ” la célula primordial no es el verbo, sino el adjetivo monosilábico. El sustantivo se forma por acumulación de adjetivos” [20] (Borges 835). Here the adjective takes the place of the verb as the central linguistic particle, but nouns are still conspicuously absent. Similar to the languages of the southern hemisphere, this type of nomenclature would still create important ambiguities. Objects, and by implication people, lack a solid essence that defines them in contrast to other objects or people. The excessive description assumes sameness between the set and attempts to reconcile it for practical purposes. Borges also recognizes the poetic possibilities of such a language. If adjectives could be strung together ad infinitum, if enough are strung together, a one-word poem would technically be possible and could evoke a complex image with some measure of simultaneity.


This intricate linguistic picture is further complicated by the fact that the residents of Tlön are radical idealists. As was previously mentioned, action does not take place spatially, but temporally. Nevertheless, this temporal action is conceived to be completely mental. The physical world is considered atemporal because of its transience. In this conception of reality, nothing can exist without human perception. When Borges explains the response to a paradox refuting this idealism, traces of his pantheism are obvious: ” [Un pensador] formuló una hipótesis muy audaz. Esa conjetura feliz afirma que hay un solo sujeto, que ese sujeto indivisible es cada uno de los seres del universo y que éstos son los órganos y máscaras de la divinidad. X es Y y es Z” [21] (Borges 837). This description is almost identical to the theological pantheism put forward by Attar through the image of the Simurgh. All beings are masks of the divinity and innately identical.


As would naturally follow, Borges takes this idea to the realm of literature and literary theory. When speaking of the literary environment on Tlön, the narrator tells us: “En los hábitos literarios también es todopoderosa la idea de un sujeto único. Es raro que los libros estén firmados. No existe el concepto del plagio: se ha establecido que todas las obras son obra de un solo autor, que es intemporal y es anónimo” [22] (Borges 837-838). Single authors, if the concept of authorship can even be applied to this type of creation, subvert their personal identities to a larger consciousness outside of time. Much like the birds in Attar’s poem, writers on Tlön lose their individuality as they embark on a quest. In spite of this, all books are not identical, the narrator explains:

También son distintos los libros. Los de ficción abarcan un solo argumento, con todas las permutaciones imaginables. Los de naturaleza filosófica invariablemente contienen la tesis y la antítesis, el riguroso pro y el contra de una doctrina. Un libro que no encierra su contralibro es considerado incompleto. [23] (Borges 838)

The lack of personal identity does not entail a lack of personal expression or a complete homogenous unity of themes, but rather implies that every different book is in some measure a rewriting or reinterpretation of a preexistent concept or experience. Borges makes an important distinction: personal expression is unavoidable, original creation is impossible. Indeed, the stories we have mentioned so far are all rewritings, or about rewriting: “The Approach to Al’Mutasim” is a modern novelistic reworking of The Conference of the Birds, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” explicitly deals with a rewriting of Cervantes, and “La muerte y la brújula” can be interpreted as a parodic inversion or reinterpretation of a classic detective story.
Nevertheless, although the picture Borges paints of literature on Tlön seems positive at first with its unity of the human spirit and freedom of ideas, his overall assessment of Tlön is more ominous. In a postdatum dated from the future at the time of the original publication of the story, Borges explains how objects from Tlön have begun appearing in the real world and that it is only a question of time before the constructed world of Tlön completely superimposes and replaces our own reality. When analyzing why such a seemingly fantastic task occurred so easily, the narrator offers this explanation:

Casi inmediatamente, la realidad cedió en más de un punto. Lo cierto es que anhelaba ceder. Hace diez años bastaba cualquier simetría con apariencia de orden–el materialismo dialéctico, el antisemitismo, el nazismo– para embelesar a los hombres. ¿Cómo no someterse a Tlön, a la minuciosa y vasta evidencia de un planeta ordenado? [24] (Borges 841).

In need of a coherent ideology to explain all of the apparent contradiction in the world, humanity turns to a secondary system that follows human notions of what is logical or acceptable. The narrator believes that the inability to understand inhuman, or divine, laws drives the masses to ideology. Throughout his fiction, Borges avoids making blanket statements and can never be pegged as belonging to a single school of literary thought, but he is too aware not to realize the inherent contradiction in his criticism of ideology in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” His story is simply another one of the “laberintos humanos” used to replace the incomprehensible “laberintos divinos.” [25] Borges’s rejection of Attar’s theological pantheism and his reinterpretation of its narrative structure into a literary pantheism is in fact the rejection of divine faith in favor of human creation, the same error he castigates the world for committing when accepting Tlön as a replacement for the reality they know to be true. Borges definitely recognizes this contradiction within his narrative and uses it to create a sense of irony within the text. If human laws are not the answer, and faith is impossible for a man of reason, what recourse does a man of letters have when seeking explanations about the meaning of life and literature? Although Borges would never formulate a definitive answer to satisfy this question, his later stories provide a subtle change to the skeptical hypotheses put forth in Ficciones.

IV. El Aleph
It is widely recognized amongst most literary critics that Borges reached the height of his storytelling powers in the book of short stories El Aleph. Furthermore, his treatment of the identity between seeker and sought and his development of literary pantheism reach a point of maturity in this collection. He strikes a slightly more positive note in “El inmortal” and “El Aleph,” and more skeptical and gloomy chords in “La búsqueda de Averroes“ and”El Zahir.”


“El inmortal” tells the story of the Roman soldier Marco Flaminio Rufo who happens upon the City of the Immortals, drinking from the stream adjacent to the city and becoming immortal himself. He describes his time among the strange tribe of immortals who rarely speak and rejoice in the rain. As is typical with Borges, the story exists on various metaliterary planes. The first plane of the story explains under what circumstances the manuscript was found, the second is the transcription of that very manuscript, while the third is a defense of the veracity of the story defying claims that it is a forgery. During the story of Marco Flaminio Rufo, the reader learns that the immortal troglodyte that has been following him throughout the story is none other than Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Borges hints at his previous forays into reinterpreting pantheism when the narrator explains the nature of the society of immortals:

Por sus pasadas o futuras virtudes, todo hombre es acreedor a toda bondad, pero también a toda traición, por sus infamias del pasado o del porvenir. Así como en los juegos de azar las cifras pares y las cifras impares tienden al equilibrio, así también se anulan y se corrigen el ingenio y la estolidez, y acaso el rústico poema del Cid es el contrapeso exigido por un solo epíteto de las Églogas o por una sentencia de Heráclito. [26] (Borges 995)

Within this immortal society, all men are capable and responsible for both good and evil. Borges uses his background in mathematics to compare this eternal equilibrium as equivalent to the law of large numbers: the more iterations any event has, the more likely it will tend towards its natural balance. It would naturally follow that personal identity is erased in this system. If every action is, and must be, counteracted by its opposite reaction, there is no merit in good, no difference between the seeker and the sought. The narrator again states: “Nadie es alguien, un solo hombre inmortal es todos los hombres” [27] (Borges 995). By choosing Homer as emblematic of the immortals, Borges makes a conscious choice to associate the narrator’s claims about immortality with literature. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the account of the adventures of Marco Flaminio Rufo is in fact a text produced by him during his phase as an immortal. Furthermore, Rufo’s occupations throughout the ages support a strong connection to literature. He transcribes a copy of The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, acquires a copy of Pope’s translation of the Iliad, and debated with a philosopher named Giambatista, possibly Vico, the existence of Homer as a single historical individual. The permanence of literature when compared to the spoken word is implicitly contrasted with the life of the immortals as opposed to the short life spans of normal humans.
Up until this point, the argument of this story is very similar to what is contained within “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Yet, as Rufo concludes the story of his adventures, he reflects on a perceived falseness he encountered while revising the manuscript. The text seemed to encapsulate the experience of two men, him and his only friend among the immortals, Homer. Rufo notices that he has included quotes from Homer and even refers to certain geographic features in a style matching that of his classical Greek counterpart. He justifies these lapses in consistency by saying:

Cuando se acerca el fin, ya no quedan imágenes del recuerdo; sólo quedan palabras. No es extraño que el tiempo haya confundido las que alguna vez me representaron con las que fueron símbolos de la suerte de quien me acompañó tantos siglos. Yo he sido Homero; en breve, seré Nadie, como Ulises; en breve, seré todos: estaré muerto. [28] (Borges 998)

When faced with death, Rufo is forced to rely on language, a medium that easily confuses our own personal creations with phrases we have heard or read. Through his interaction with immortality, and by proxy literature, Rufo communes with his predecessors and mixes his identity with theirs. The editor of the manuscript states it even more clearly when defending the veracity of the text:” Palabras, palabras desplazadas y mutiladas, palabras de otros, fue la pobre limosna que le dejaron las horas y los siglos” [29] (Borges 998). After so many years, Rufo, now known as Joseph Cartaphilus, can only resort to borrowed words because of the nature of language as a common medium. Since the goal of language is to enhance communication between more than one person, a truly personal language would have to sacrifice intelligibility in favor of uniqueness. When expressing himself in language the user is doomed to use “palabras de otros.” [30] Nevertheless, as opposed to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “La muerte y la brújula“ where the dissolution of personal identity creates a frightening reality, the picture painted in “El inmortal” is not negative or positive, it simply presents the narrator’s ideas without value judgments. Borges seems to be becoming more comfortable with his conception of literary pantheism, being at peace in a world where the expression that an author seeks is simply a recombination of structures that already exist due to the nature of language and literary production. Borges himself summarizes this idea to a certain extent in a famous passage from the epilogue to El hacedor:

Un hombre se propone la tarea de dibujar el mundo. A lo largo de los años puebla un espacio con imágenes de provincias, de reinos, de montañas, de bahías, de naves, de islas, de peces, de habitaciones, de instrumentos, de astros, de caballos y de personas. Poco antes de morir, descubre que ese paciente laberinto de líneas traza la imagen de su cara. [31] (Borges 346)

The same way an older Borges would find that his quest for fantastic universes and complicated labyrinths simply revealed his own face, the narrator of “El inmortal” would perhaps modify this statement to say that these creations reveal our own faces, referring to a collective of authors and artists, those who deal with immortality.


“El Aleph,” belonging to a collection of stories of the same name, epitomizes Borges’s reputation in the literary world. It is a well-known story both in Latin America and abroad, but its plot is difficult to summarize, no central theme is readily apparent, and a final postdatum seems to undermine any message the story may have attempted to convey. The text itself tells the first-person narrative of the protagonist Borges – who although fictional is clearly a direct representation of the author – who continues to visit the house of Beatriz Viterbo, an unrequited love from his past. When visiting the house, Borges is forced to interact with Beatriz’s obnoxious cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, a would-be poet the narrator constantly ridicules and derides. Some critics have suggested that Daneri is a parody of Dante Alighieri, the author of The Divine Comedy about whom Borges wrote extensively in his Nueve Ensayos Dantescos. This interpretation is based on the fact that the character’s last name, Daneri, appears to be a combination of Dante and Alighieri, that the name of his love interest is identical to Dante’s; and that his goal is to write a highly formal epic poem. However, although his name may evoke the Italian bard and the choice of Beatriz Viterbo as a name cannot be coincidental, it is unfair to associate Daneri himself with a caricature of Dante. As the reader learns more about Daneri’s work, the object of Borges’s satire becomes clearer. When examining Daneri’s goal, it is clear that he has no intention of summarizing the heavens as Dante did, but was much more concerned with synthesizing the entirety of the Earth. When speaking about Daneri’s foolish enterprise, the narrator tells us: “El poema se titulaba La Tierra; tratábase de una descripción del planeta, en la que no faltaban, por cierto, la pintoresca digresión y el gallardo apóstrofe” [32] (Borges 1062). Far from a parody of The Divine Comedy, the narrator is directly parodying Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, a poem that attempts to summarize the entire experience of Latin America. Borges’s dislike for Neruda, both on a personal and literary level, is well-known; it should come as no surprise that he chose to immortalize the Chilean author through the bombastic Carlos Argentino.
However, the crux of the story lies in the Aleph. After hearing that his house is set to be demolished, Carlos Argentino, panicked, calls Borges to say: ” para terminar el poema le era indispensable la casa, pues en un ángulo del sótano había un Aleph. Aclaró que un Aleph es uno de los puntos del espacio que contienen todos los puntos” [33] (Borges 1066). The Aleph evokes Attar to a certain extent in that it is one point, or concept, that contains all other points, or concepts. The Simurgh is to the birds what the Aleph is to the entire world. Nevertheless, the Aleph is a much more complicated symbol. Aleph is the name for the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, by nature associated with origins and beginnings. Borges calls it “la primera letra del alfabeto de la lengua sagrada” [34] (Borges 1069). Within the story Borges himself tells the reader that in Kabala mysticism, the Aleph is known as the number that contains all numbers, a concept similar to that of the Simurgh: “Para la Cábala esa letra significa el En Soph, la ilimitada y pura divinidad” [35] (Borges 1069). Yet, the idea of a visual Aleph draws on Persian mythology even older than Attar. Ferdowsi, the same poet that introduces the Simurgh in the national epic The Book of Kings, also mentions an artifact named the Cup of Jamshid. In Persian mythology, this cup contained a magical elixir that would reveal all of the seven heavens to viewers. Essentially, the whole world could be seen in the cup, a description extremely similar to Daneri’s explanation of the Aleph. In fact, Borges mentions this cup under a different name, “Kai Josru”, in the epilogue to the story where he provides an entire history of similar objects in literary history from Jupiter’s lance to Merlin’s mirror. The author Borges could have encountered descriptions of this cup in Ferdowsi’s The Book of Kings, as well as later mystical poets such as Rumi, Hafez and even Omar Khayyam, whom his father translated from English into Spanish. It is most likely that Borges combined his knowledge of the Kabbalah and Persian Sufi mysticism with his memory of the legendary Cup of Jamshid to create the famous Aleph of Calle Garay.


However, Borges does not simply combine these various elements into a interesting, but somewhat shallow, metaphysical curiosity. After observing the Aleph for himself, the fictional Borges denies its existence to Carlos Argentino. This may be interpreted as a last act of cruel revenge on the man who, the Aleph revealed, had an illicit relationship with the girl of his dreams. Nonetheless, the postscript suggests a deeper reason for denying the existence of the visual Aleph in Daneri’s basement. The narrator quotes Burton speaking of the various other Alephs mentioned in literature and history:

Pero los anteriores (además del defecto de no existir) son meros instrumentos de óptica. Los fieles que concurren a la mezquita de Amr, en el Cairo, saben muy bien que el universo está en el interior de una de las columnas de piedra que rodean el patio central… Nadie, claro está, puede verlo, pero quienes acercan el oído a la superficie declaran percibir, al poco tiempo, su atareado rumor… [36] (Borges 1070)

In this quote, Burton claims that all of the previously mentioned Alephs have two flaws. Firstly, they do not exist. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they are nothing more than optical illusions. The true Aleph is an aural Aleph located within a column in a mosque in Cairo. Burton, and by proxy Borges, denies the possibility of a visual Aleph, and asserts that if something could contain all other things, that something must be language itself. Within Borges’s fiction, the idea of pantheism and the coexistence of a whole and its parts in one being is inextricably linked to the concept of language.


The final paragraph in “The Aleph” suggests a more positive view of literature and the creative process than we have previously seen in Borges. If an Aleph – meaning a pantheistic submergence of the self in a more holistic reality – can only occur through language, and not as previously thought through other senses, the composition of literature is a way to tap into that Aleph, a point that is simultaneously all points. However, Borges was constantly reexamining his thoughts about literature and he weaves an intricate parodical response to the theories developed in “El inmortal” and “El Aleph” in the enigmatic short story “La búsqueda de Averroes.“
“La búsqueda de Averroes“ tells the story of how Averroes (Avicenna or Ibn-Sina, in English) is incapable of translating a portion of Aristotle’s writing because he has no idea of how to convey the concepts of comedy and tragedy, in part because he has never seen a theater, in part because there is no equivalent word in Arabic:

La víspera, dos palabras dudosas lo habían detenido en el principio de la Poética. Esas palabras eran tragedia y comedia. Las había encontrado años atrás, en el libro tercero de la Retórica; nadie, en el ámbito del Islam, barruntaba lo que querían decir. [37] (Borges 1031)

The story proceeds to describe some of the philosophical ideas espoused by Avicenna against Persian ascetics such as Ghazali. The primary fictional plane ends as the narrator tells how Avicenna completely misinterprets the meaning of tragedy and comedy: “Con firme y cuidadosa caligrafía agregó estas líneas al manuscrito: Aristú (Aristóteles) denomina tragedia a los panegiricos y comedias a las sátiras y anatemas” [38] (Borges 1035). After this crass misinterpretation, the primary plane of fiction disappears and, again in an undermining epilogue, Avicenna fades away as the narrator comes to the realization that just as Avicenna cannot imagine what comedies and tragedies are because of his lack of familiarity with Greek language and the concept of theater and performance, the text the narrator is creating is impossible because as an Argentine author grounded in the Western tradition he has no idea how to represent a devout Muslim living in Islamic Spain. Ian Almond has interpreted this as an anti-colonialist argument recognizing that Western representations of the Middle East are more reflective of European reality and ideology than they are representative of any objective Middle Eastern truth. In his article “Borges the Post-Orientalist”, Almond even goes as far as saying that Borges “stumbled upon Edward Said’s main point”(Almond 451). Nevertheless, this study is more concerned with how language in particular affects Avicenna’s own quest to understand Aristotle.


Throughout the course of the action, Avicenna is presented with two prominent examples of comedy and tragedy, firstly a few boys jokingly imitating the Muslim call to prayer, and secondly, the first-hand account of a theater from a friend who had traveled to the Far East. The rationalist philosopher is oblivious to these clues and, as previously mentioned, in concluding his commentary makes a significant mistake in his interpretation. The two direct examples of comedy and tragedy only further highlight the fact that Avicenna’s quest for understanding is stifled, not enabled, by language. This permutation stands in stark contrast to the previously discussed stories where language and literature were vehicles whereby an author could tap into a larger cultural consciousness, becoming one with a higher collective being. “La búsqueda de Averroes” displays a much more pessimistic view of the literary pantheism present in other stories in El Aleph. Borges who narrates “La búsqueda de Averroes” does not accept a concept of world literature or any unity between authors. Instead, he is a seeker that cannot recognize that he already knows, or has already seen, exactly what he is looking for: a comedic inversion of the story of Attar’s thirty birds.


In addition to Avicenna’s inability to understand Aristotle’s descriptions of comedy and tragedy, Borges also encodes one other significant allusion that helps us to understand this story’s views on literature as it relates to a higher collective divine experience. Near the end of the story the narrator tells us: “Los muecines llamaban a la oración de la primera luz cuando Averroes volvió a entrar en la biblioteca. (En el harén, las esclavas de pelo negro habían torturado a una esclava de pelo rojo, pero él no lo sabría sino a la tarde)” [39] (Borges 1035). This small mention of the harem is completely unrelated to the rest of the text and stands out as an unusually inefficient usage in an accomplished stylist like Borges. In her article “Borges entre Averroes y Argacel,” Prof. Luce López-Baralt decodes this brief, but important, anecdote. López-Baralt reminds the reader that Arturo Echevarría has already pointed out the significance of the colors black and yellow in Borges as representing literature and written language, evocative of the image of ink on parchment (López-Baralt 24). In this episode, a black haired slave, obviously symbolic of written language and literature, is torturing a red-haired slave. Apart from being naturally exotic, red hair in Borges has a number of significant resonances, but within the context of the story it reminds us of two elements of the story: a red mask used in the representation of tragedy that Avicenna fails to recognize and an ideal red rose containing the verses of the Koran on its petals, discussed at the beginning of the text. This rose represents the idea of the incomprehensible divinity supported by the ascetic Ghazali and attacked by the rationalist Avicenna who attempts to use the tools of reason and language to enrich a theological and philosophical understanding of God. López-Baralt postulates:

Pero lo que importa aquí no son los pruritos etimológicos, sino lo que Borges dice entre líneas: Averroes no alcanza nunca a aprehender el simbólico rojo puro, que lo evade tanto cultural como metafísicamente, y queda pues como un pálido, desvalido “hijo rosáceo” del carmesí y del encarnado. [40] (López Baralt 26)

As opposed to the aural unity of reality through language in “The Aleph,“ Avicenna’s failure shows that language cannot be used to understand the divinity and that these attempts are, in fact, a type of violence as evidenced by its association with the torture of the red-headed slave.


Borges again reinterprets this concept in the mysterious story “El Zahir”. In many ways this text is a mirror image of “El Aleph.“ A fictional narrator Borges is still smitten with a deceased woman, but his love is quickly replaced with an encounter with an all-consuming mystical object. In this case, Borges discovers a strange coin that he later finds to be a zahir, an object that can take the form of any object in Islamic mythology that consumes the minds of those who encounter it, leaving them oblivious to reality. In Arabic, “zahir“ denotes that which is visible and apparent, in addition to being one of the ninety-nine names of God. Because of the construction of binaries in Arabic, and to a certain extent Persian, it also directly evokes its opposite, the “baten“, the invisible and incorporeal divinity represented by the rose in “La búsqueda de Averroes.” Curiously, Borges even mentions Attar when explaining the consequences of seeing the zahir:

Un comentador del Gulshan i Raz dice que quien ha visto al Zahir pronto verá la Rosa y alega un verso interpolado en el Asrar Nama (Libro de las cosas que se ignoran) de Attar: el Zahir es la sombra de la Rosa y la rasgadura del Velo. [41] (Borges 1042)

This verse attributed to Attar can be interpreted in two different ways. Firstly, it is possible to say that the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose in the same way that visible reality flows from God and is to some extent a shadow of his existence. The more relevant interpretation, however, says that the zahir that Borges encounters is the shadow of the Rose and the unveiling in that it is a direct literary descendant of the trope Persian Sufis would use to substitute for an inexpressible divinity. Therefore, the multiplicity of the object becomes clearer: if the zahir is in fact an inexpressible encounter with God, every individual author would find his own visual symbol to represent it in his writings. The ending paragraph can provide a clue for exactly how Borges sees these different symbols working within a literary and spiritual framework:

Para perderse en Dios, los sufíes repiten su propio nombre o los noventa y nueve nombres divinos hasta que éstos ya nada quieren decir. Yo anhelo recorrer esa senda. Quizá yo acabe por gastar el Zahir a fuerza de pensarlo y de repensarlo, quizá detrás de la moneda esté Dios. [42] (Borges 1042)

The fictitious Borges who narrates the story implicitly compares the Sufi dikr, a ceremony where the ninety-nine names of God are repeated, to the different incarnations of the Zahir in literary history. Just as the whirling dervishes would repeat the various names until they lost their meaning, thereby moving beyond language and entering into a spiritual communion with God, those who experience the zahir through different objects in reality are forced to think about the object obsessively until it loses its meaning and moves to an meta-linguistic and meta-literary plane, revealing God on the other side of the coin. Nevertheless, beyond an implicit comparison between the coin and the recitation of the names of God by Sufi mystics, Borges does not seem to link his experience with the zahir to anything that can be seen to represent literature, language, or any of the elements previously used to develop his idea of literary pantheism. In fact, it is ironic that “El Zahir” is the only story mentioned in this study that does not present a clearly defined seeker in search of some sort of objective associated with language and literature. On the contrary, the narrator of “El Zahir” is an unwilling seeker, he attempts to rid himself of the coin, but it continues to haunt him. The key to decoding this apparent incongruity is an examination of what language and currency have in common. In her article on this story, Luce López-Baralt makes an important observation:

La moneda–las monedas múltiples invocadas en el relato–son, literalmente, palabras. Palabras: es decir, moneda común de todos, que circula democráticamente de mano en mano como el cuento borgeano que tanta lectura atenta ha merecido a través de los años. [43] (López-Baralt 35)

The coin is a stand-in for words and language, a common currency used to facilitate social interactions, and just as the zahir is purported to be “la sombra de la Rosa,” it stands to reason that language is viewed by Borges as an extension of a collective divine presence. Although Borges is unable to express exactly how his spiritual experience unfolded in this story, it is clear that the innate collectivity of language and literature lend them a transcendental quality allowing authors and readers to find the meaning they are seeking within the texts themselves.


After examining these seven stories, it is apparent that Borges had a certain fascination with describing spiritual and mystical experiences. It is so evident throughout his entire corpus that Luce López-Baralt dares to say: “En buena medida toda la obra de Borges es una meditación sobre la radical imposibilidad de traducir la experiencia teopática infinita“ [44] (López-Baralt 28). Borges seeks to verbalize that which is beyond language, to express an experience that is by nature extra-linguistic. Additionally, when examining his work sequentially, “El acercamiento a Almotásim“ and the year 1935 are highlighted as turning points. After the publication of this literary hoax, the concept of a mathematical identity between the seeker and what is sought permeates most of Borges’s fiction. Skeptical as he was, Borges alternates between espousing the idea, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “El inmortal,” “El Aleph,” and “El Zahir” and satirizing it, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” and “La búsqueda de Averroes.” Furthermore, in “La muerte y la brújula“ Borges seems to be terrified of the implication of this theoretical framework.

V Conclusion
The nature of this obsession becomes clearer when it is learned that Borges himself professed to have had not one, but two, mystical experiences. Borges’s account in an interview with Willis Barnstone in 1982, deserves to be quoted in full:

In my life I…had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put into words…It was astonishing, outstanding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of living not in time but outside time…I wrote poems about it, but they are normal poems and do not tell the experience. I cannot tell it to you, since I cannot retell it to myself, but I had the experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it once more before I die. (Barnstone 11)

The timeline of these mystical experiences is unclear so we cannot infer if they occurred before or after Borges began to show strong influences from Attar’s poem. Nonetheless it is clear that the story of the Simurgh had a strong impact on Borges. All of the previously mentioned stories, with the notable exception of “El Zahir,” involve a protagonist on some sort of quest. Towards the end of these texts, regardless of the success or failure of the particular quest, the narrator reveals that there is an identity between the seeker and what is sought, or in a slight variation, the seeker already knows or has seen what he is attempting to find. However, Borges introduces a significant twist to Attar’s Islamic Sufi mysticism. The characters in Borges’s texts, and perhaps Borges himself, are not seeking out a direct encounter with the divinity, but rather they are searching for literary expression, of a mystical nature or otherwise. Borges shifts the paradigm from Attar’s theological framework to twentieth-century literary theory. Attar argues for a theological pantheism where the divinity is present in every pure being. Borges migrates this idea to the literary realm and questions how such a phenomenon could be expressed artistically. The answer is that it can only be expressed artistically. Language is innately a collective code, and literature, at least for Borges, is to a great measure dialogical. Therefore, writing not only connects us to others through language, but also goes beyond the limits of language and creates a dialogue across centuries, similar to that between Attar and Borges himself. This literary communion can even lead to a final spiritual encounter as Borges says in “El Zahir”: “Quizá yo acabe por gastar el Zahir a fuerza de pensarlo y de repensarlo, quizá detrás de la moneda esté Dios” [45] (Borges 1042). On the other side of the coin that represents language lies the divinity. However, throughout his fiction Borges emphasizes that this is only “la sombra de la Rosa,” [46] only a shadow; the true Rose can only be seen after death. Borges resigns himself to the fact that he may not be able to express exactly the divine experience, but literature is the only available medium for him. Thus, the collectivity of language reflects the omnipresent quality of the divinity. Similar to the philosophers of Tlön, Borges’s texts imply the existence of a higher creative consciousness, an ethereal author similar to the Simurgh to which we belong by virtue of using language as a mode of expression. The birds in Attar’s poem are searching for a king to solve the anarchy that has plagued the avian community, just as Borges desperately seeks a way to express his own texts. Language and literature are Borges’s very own Simurgh. He is an integral part of the tools he needs on his journey for the lifting of the veil and the revelation of the true Rose. In Attar’s own words:

[47] (Attar 427)

Endnotes [All translations from Spanish and Persian are my own.]

[1] Balderston does not propose that we read Borges out of context, but rather from the context and against a whole school criticism that assumes that Borges’s fantastic stories have no relation with reality, history or politics. it is about, refuting “unrealistic” positions that he sees represented in authors so disparate as R. Borello, S. Sosnowski, J. Franco, A.M. Barrenechea, J. Alazraki, or in his own book The Hidden Predecessor of 1985. (All translations from Spanish are my own.)
[2] Also, I would like to insist on the fact that it should not surprise us that Borges would manage these technical Islamic terms with such ease. Little by little, his readers start accepting the depth of the knowledge of Muslim culture the Hispanic American narrator boasts.
[3] And how to define the Orient? I would say that the notions of Orient and Occident (West) are generalizations, in that no individual feels Oriental.
[4] But Borges’s greatest Persian allegory consists of repeated references to the two greatest poets of Sassanid mythology Ferdowsi and Farid al-Din Attar. With them more than on any other occasion, the Borgesian scalpel separates and classifies to later be distributed throughout his literary production.
[5] They were all left dumb-founded. They did not know how they had reached this point. They saw themselves as the whole Simurgh. The Simurgh itself was thirty birds. Because they looked at the Simurgh. It was thirty birds, in its place. If you turned your head (implies a mystical revelation), you will see yourself and have seen yourself. (All translations from Persian are my own.)
[6] Because you came here as thirty birds, you saw thirty birds in the mirror. If forty or fifty had come, the same veil would have been lifted.
[7] vague sphere
[8] Attar holds the “light weight” of the rose, that is an image or epiphany of the profound Rose, an oblique announcement of the direct experience of God, that desires to be able to truly see. Both poets are old and are close to seeing a different Rose. The encounter is imminent, because only at death is that our eyes are finally, and permanently, opened to the transcendental vision.
[9] it virtually corrects it and includes it
[10] The disparity between the Eagle and the Simurgh is no less evident that the similarity. The Eagle is not more than improbable; the Simurgh, impossible. The Eagle is a momentary symbol, like before it came the letters and those who write them do not cease to be who they are: the ubiquitous inextricable Simurgh.
[11] The personal God of Rome and Israel is being the Eagle; pantheism is behind the Simurgh.
[12] Menard (perhaps unwittingly) through a new technique has enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading: the technique of deliberate anachronisms and erroneous attributions. That technique of infinite application asks us to go through the Oddyssey as if it were written after the Eneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure by madame Henri Bachelier as if were by madame Henri Bachelier.
[13] Every man should be capable of all ideas and I believe that in the future he will be.
[14] Precisely, the dissolution of the personal in an act that recognizes its limits and fragility, as it saves what it contains of positive and valuable, constitutes the key of Borges’s pantheism…Only one author, atemporal and anonymous, behind humankind and its creations.
[15] Pantheism, far from being a primarily theological conception, is a way of understanding and delving deeper into the essence of what is literary.
[16] Seen from close-up, the house of the Triste-le-Roy villa abounded in useless symmetries and maniacal repetitions: a glacial Diana in a lugubrious niche corresponds in a second niche to another Diana; a balcony was reflected in another balcony; doubled stairs opened into doubled balustrades; Lonnrot circled the house as he had circled the villa. He examined everything: below the terrace he saw a wide curtain.
[17] For the next time I kill you – Scharlach replied -, I promise you that labyrinth made up of only one straight line, indivisible, incessant.
[18] [The story contains the theme] of the futility of assuming a different personality, since our own personality is only an illusion and in any case death destroys the illusion unfailingly.
[19] There are no nouns in Tlon’s conjectural Ursprache, from which “current” languages and dialects come; there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) of adverbial function.
[20] The primordial unit is not the verb, but rather the monosyllabic adjective. Nouns are formed through the accumulation of adjectives.
[21] [A thinker] formulate a bold hypothesis. That happy conjecture postulates that there is only one subject, that that indivisible subject is every one of the beings of the universe and that those are the organs and masks of the divinity. X equals Y and Z.
[22] The concept of a single subject is also omnipotent in literary circles. It is rare that books be signed. The idea of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are by a single author, who is atemporal and anonymous.
[23] Books are also different. Fictions propose a single theme with every imaginable permutation. Those of philosophical nature invariably contain the thesis and its antithesis, the rigorous pro and con of a doctrine. A book that does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.
[24] Almost immediately, reality ceded at more than one point. What is true is that it longed to cede. Since ten years ago, any symmetry with an appearance of order – dialectic materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism- was enough to fool men.
[25] human labyrinths…divine labyrinths.
[26] Because of past or future virtues, every man is accredited all goodness, but also all betrayals, because of his past or present misdeeds. Like games of chance where even and odd numbers tend towards an equilibrium, reason and irrationality annul and correct each other, and perhaps the rustic poem El Cid is the counterbalance demanded by one epithet of the Eclogues or by one of Hercalitus’s sayings.
[27] No one is someone, one immortal man is all men.
[28] When the end nears, no images of memory are left; only words remain. It is not strange that time had confused those that represented me with those that were symbols of the destiny of he who accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; shortly, I will be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I will be all; I will be dead.
[29] Words, displaced and mutilated words, words of others, was the poor charity the hours and the centuries left him.
[30] Words of others, words that belong to others.
[31] A man sets himself the task of drawing the world. Throughout the years, he populated a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and people. Shortly before dying, he discovers that that patient labyrinth traces the image of his own face.
[32] The poem was titled The Earth; it was a description of the planet, in which, picturesque digressions and bold apostrophes were not lacking.
[33] The house was indispensable to finish the poem, for in a corner of the basement there was an Aleph. He clarified that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all points.
[34] The first letter of the alphabet of the sacred language.
[35] For the Kabala, that letter signifies the En Soph, the unlimited and pure divinity.
[36] But the former (besides the defect of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The faithful that flock to the Amr mosque in Cairo know very well that the universe is inside one of the stone columns that circle the central patio…Nobody, it is clear, can see it, but those who put their ear to the surface say they feel, in a short time, its busy rumblings.
[37] Last night, two doubtful words had stopped him short at the beginning of Poetics. Those words were tragedy and comedy. He had found them years ago, en the third book of Rhetoric; nobody, in the Islamic world, had an inkling of what they meant.
[38] With firm and careful calligraphy he added these lines to the manuscript: Aristotle calls panegyrics tragedy and satires and curses comedy.
[39] The muezzins made the dawn call to prayer when Averroes entered the library again. (In the harem, the black-haired slaves had tortured a red-haired slave, but he would not know until the afternoon)
[40] But etymological details are not what matter here, but rather what Borges is saying in between the lines: Averroes never reaches an understanding of the symbolic pure red that evades both culturally and metaphysically and stays as a pale, destitute “rosy son” of crimson and blood-red.
[41] A commentator of the Gulshan i Raz says that he who has seen the Zahir will soon see the Rose and he cites a interpolated verse of the Asrar Nama (Book of things that are ignored) by Attar: the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the lifting of the Veil.
[42] To lose themselves in God, Sufis repeat his proper name or the ninety-nine divine names until these mean nothing. I hope to follow that path. Perhaps I will end up defeating the Zahir through thinking and rethinking it, perhaps God is behind the coin.
[43] Coins – the many coins invoked in the story- are, literally, words. Words: it is to say, everyone’s common currency that circulates democratically from hand to hand like the Borges story that has deserved so many attentive readings throughout the years.
[44] In good measure, all of Borges’s works are a meditation on the radical impossibility of translating the infinite theopathic experience.
[45] Perhaps I will end up defeating the Zahir through thinking and rethinking it, perhaps God is behind the coin.
[46] The shadow of the Rose.
[47] Inevitably, here the speech is cut short. Traveler and guide are no more. Everything is the Way.

Works Cited
Arana, Juan. “El panteísmo de Borges“, Variaciones Borges. The Journal of the Jorge Luis Borges Center for Studies and Documentation (Århus), 6, 1998, ISSN: 1396-0382, pp. 171-188.
Attar, Farid ud-Din. Mantiq ut-aTair. The Conference of the Birds. 1st. Tehran, Iran: Iranian National Library, 1964. Print.
Barnstone, Willis. Borges at Eighty. Indiana: Indiana University Press. 1982. Print
Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras Completas: Edición crítica. 1st. I. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2009. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Un ensayo autobiográfico. 1st. Barcelona: Emecé, 1999. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Nueve Ensayos Dantescos. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1982. Critica De Libros. Web. 17 Feb. 2012. .
Echavarría, Arturo. Lengua y literatura de Borges. Barcelona: Ariel. 1983. Print.
Ferrín, Emilio. “El Islam de Borges“.Philologia Hispalensis. 1992. Pag. 84-93
López-Baralt, Luce “Lo que había del otro lado del zahir de Jorge Luis Borges“. In Conjurados. Anuario Borgeano. Centro de Estudios Jorge Luis Borges (Alcalá de Henares)/Franco Maria Ricci, Italy, vol. I: 90-109. 1996. Electronic resource.
López Baralt, Luce. “El coloquio de los pájaros: Borges y Attar de Nishapur“ Electronic Resource.
López Barat, Luce. “Borges entre Averroes y Algacel“ Electronic Resource.
Ramírez del Río, Jose. : “Borges, Al-Mundir de Hira y la Lotería de Babilonia“ Variaciones Borges XVI (2003) ISSN 1396-0382 69-77. Electronic resource.
Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. Borges: una biografia literaria. 1st ed. New York: Dutton, 1978. Print.
Pagni, Andrea. “El Otro, el Mismo: lecturas de Borges”. In: notas. Reseñas iberoamericanas 3 (1994), 2-15.
Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking, 2004. Print.

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