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The Dangerous Labyrinth: Jorge Borges and Panentheism

Published Monday, June 28, 2021 By Conrad Quiros

O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

William Shakespeare

If ever there was a man haunted by bad dreams it was the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, the Father of Latin American literature and of the genre of magical realism. Harold Bloom dedicates an entire chapter of his The Western Canon to Borges and his brand of phantasmagorical and mystical short stories. “Even if Borges were not the prime founder of Hispanic American literature (as he is),” Bloom writes, “even if his stories did not possess authentic aesthetic value (as they do), he would still be one of the canonical writers of the Chaotic Age because… he is the literary metaphysician of the age” (467).

Many readers of Borges have concluded that he was a pure skeptic, fascinated intellectually by the aesthetics of religion but spiritually faithless and atheistic.[1] However, closer investigation and contemporary scholarship suggest a tension within Borges’ work, a duality of “spiritual not religious,” of natural supernaturalism, of magical realism. Each of these pairs is an apparent contradiction, an oxymoron, an enigma. This would have no doubt pleased the ever elusive Borges. Yet, as is so often the case in Borgesian literature, the seemingly original and esoteric truth turns out to be as ancient and ubiquitous as Western thought itself. 

In fact, the faith system evidenced in Borges’ writings is properly categorized as panentheism, inspired by the most ancient forms of occult mysticism and philosophy. His panentheism is seen most clearly in the influence of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah in Borges’ work, joined together with his admiration for Spinoza’s pantheistic ‘God.’ We’ll explore both of these influences before seeing how Borges combined them in his most famous short story, “The Aleph.”

Every Flavor of Mysticism: Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah 

Borges was a voracious reader (and librarian by trade). Andre Maurois writes, “Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads anymore: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers.”[2] Borges was on quest to find perennial philosophy in all its most ancient and esoteric sources.[3] Thus, Borges’ spiritual journey could rightly be seen as through the entire gamut of Western occult mysticism— from Hermeticism to Gnosticism to Kabbalah to Perennial Philosophy.  

In his brilliant essay “Borges on the Couch,” David Foster Wallace describes Borges as both an atheist and a mystic. In fact, it is this word “hermetic” that provides the first key insight into the origin of Borges’ religious thought. Attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and recorded in the Corpus Hermeticum, this ancient mystical religion centered around secret insights into alchemy, magic, and astrology. With influences as wide-ranging as Zoroaster, Orpheus, Plato, Jewish Kabbalah, through contemporary occult philosophy, Hermeticism is the fount from which each new dispensation of mystical, theosophical spirituality springs.

But Hermeticism is not the only mystic tradition associated with Borges’ works. Bloom writes that there is no better way to characterize Borges’ works than as “Kabbalistic and Gnostic essay-parables.”[4] So, too, George Steiner: “We can locate in the poetry and fictions of Borges every motif present in the language mystique of Kabbalists and gnostics.”[5] For Steiner, it is this fusion of original Hermetic and later esoteric mysticisms within Borges’ work that define its religious character. 

Τhe two stories that best exemplify Borges’ reliance upon Hermetic and Kabbalistic themes are “The Rose of Paracelsus” and “The Circular Ruins.” In “The Rose of Paracelsus,” a young man comes to the house of Paracelsus seeking to become the magician’s apprentice. However, upon seeing the rose in the man’s hand, Paracelsus quickly realizes the young man lacks the requisite faith. The young apprentice wishes to witness Paracelsus perform the resurrection of the rose (in order to believe in the possibility of the magic) and to ascertain the tools with which he is able to perform his magic (presumably so he can access their power). Paracelsus says, “I am speaking of that instrument used by the deity to create the heavens and the earth and the invisible paradise in which we exist, but which original sin hides from us. I am speaking of the Word, which is taught to us by the science of the Kabbalah.”[6] The old magician refuses to speak the word and perform the trick. The story concludes with the young man (revealed to be the German critic Johannes Griesbach) leaving disappointed and pitying the sage’s impotence, only to have Paracelsus revive the rose from the ash the moment the door closes. 

In “The Circular Ruins,” the protagonist enters a forsaken temple with the goal to “dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” Borges explicitly mentions how “in Gnostic cosmogonies, demiurges fashion a red Adam who cannot stand; as clumsy, crude, and elemental as this Adam of dust was [so was] the Adam of dreams forged by the wizard’s nights.” At first, the wizard struggles to form the man, but soon makes a sort of pact with the temple god, Fire, who promises to aid the man in bringing his imagined son into reality. Over a long time of dreaming, he succeeds in forming a son completely through his dreams and discovers that Fire has kept his word. The son exists (as evidenced by rumors of a man in a temple of the North who cannot be burned). However, the story ends with the wizard realizing that he himself cannot be burned, and thus, someone must be dreaming him, too. 

Interestingly, though stemming from two disparate mystical traditions, both short stories demonstrate successful magical operations. These Hermetic themes of the human ability to harness the supernatural through words and dreams become central in Borges’ writing, both fiction and non-fiction alike. The transition from mystical and secret knowledge (as espoused by Hermetic, Gnostic, and Kabbalistic philosophy) to the glimpses of divinity within and beyond the natural order mark Borges’ move toward panentheism. Noting his reliance upon the Hermetic tradition, Borges himself concludes his essay “A Defense of Basilides the False” with the line, “Had Alexandria triumphed and not Rome, the extravagant and muddled stories that I have summarized here would be coherent, majestic, and perfectly ordinary.”

The Path to Panentheism: Spinoza Dreams of God  

Why does Borges oscillate between atheism and theosophy, between naturalism and supernaturalism? Annette Flynn suggests that at the core of this dialectic lies Borges’ affinity for pantheism. She writes, “Pantheism, which puts forward the inherent divinity in all creation, the oneness of self and divine, was attractive to Borges because it does not postulate the concept of a personal God, which he found problematic.” Rather, Flynn continues, for Borges God is “identical with a material object (a coin, the aleph, a labyrinth, etc.)… This identity of the divine with the immanent is at the heart of Borges’ tendency to give a pantheistic slant to mystical texts.”[7]

Yet, the claim of pantheism needs to be qualified. Borges himself notes the influence of Spinoza, but qualifies his pantheism with the Cabbalistic notion of Ein sof: “The cosmic system of the Kabbalah may be described as follows: in the beginning there is a Being analogous to the God of Spinoza, except that the God of Spinoza is infinitely rich. The Ein sof, in contrast, is infinitely poor, for of that Being we cannot say that He exists, for if we say that He exists then we must also say that stars exist, men exist, ants exist. How can we put them all in the same category? No, that primordial Being does not exist…”[8] Here we see that the strict identity between nature and God is actually denied by Borges. He pushes beyond Spinoza’s atheistic pantheism. It is not that every object in the universe contains divinity or that the laws of nature encompass the Godhead, but that, if one knows the right magic (the secret words or proper symbols or perfect incantation) one just might transcend the natural order all together and discover beyond it the divine.

Borges authored two sonnets of dedication venerating Spinoza.[9] The first, simply titled “Baruch Spinoza,” reads, “Someone is building God in a dark cup./ A man engenders God. He is a Jew… from nothing, he’s begun/ To construct God, using the word.” One can identify clearly the Kabbalistic impulse in the piece, the power of secret words to conjure the divine. In the second sonnet, “Spinoza,” Borges writes, “Here in the twilight the translucent hands/ Of the Jew polishing the crystal glass… There, dreaming up a brilliant labyrinth… the infinite/ Map of the One who now is all His stars.” The dreamer, Spinoza, is not only the divinity forming creation but he is also being formed to it; he simultaneously becomes and transcends nature. In a word, these poems communicate panentheism.

The Kabbalistic idea that the material world is composed of the Hebrew letters that made it inspires in Borges a pantheistic quest to locate the divine within the objects of the universe (which, again, was precisely the aim of ancient Hermeticism, medieval alchemy, and magic) and beyond them in panenthestic glory to the very source of divinity. Borges’ tireless search for meaning in ordinary objects (like the patterns of a jaguar’s fur in “The Writings of God” or the random letters of the books of “The Library of Babel”) reveal his belief in the divine embedded within the symbols of nature. Therefore, at its core, Borges’ writing communicates not the pantheism of Spinoza but the “Hen Kai Pan” of panentheism.[10]

The Expression of Panentheism: The Aleph 

The tension between Hermetic mysticism and theosophic pantheism is most prominent in Borges’, “The Aleph.” As Flynn puts it, in “The Aleph,” the reader finds the “particularly Borgesian fusion of monotheistic mysticism (with its emphasis on transcendence) on the one hand, and pantheism (with its emphasis on immanence) on the other.”[11] Though Flynn does not characterize the ‘fusion’ as panentheistic, that is in my estimation the best characterization of it. 

In the masterful “The Aleph,” the protagonist (a man named, of course, Borges) makes a pilgrimage to the home of Beatriz, the late woman he loved without reciprocation, on her birthday. Borges’ visit is abruptly interrupted by Carlos Argentino Daneri, Beatriz’s first cousin, a fellow writer whom Borges despises. Carlos Argentino reads Borges some of his poetry and Borges takes pleasure in lustfully gazing upon Beatriz’s photographs while sardonically mocking Daneri’s work. Time passes, and Borges receives an urgent call from Carlos Argentino. Carlos informs Borges that Beatriz’s house will be torn down unless Borges can do something about it. Not wanting to lose his annual reverie in the only place that retains the presence of Beatriz, yet intent on pestering Carlos, Borges asks Carlos why he should help. Carlos claims that an Aleph, “one of the points in space that contains all other points,” lies in the house, in a crack of the cellar stairs. Borges rushes over. Carlos allows Borges to see the Aleph, calling it “the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists.” Borges lowers himself down in the pitch darkness and stares up at the nineteenth step. For one horrifying moment, he thinks he may have been duped, that Carlos Argentino desires to do him harm. But then, he sees the Aleph, and notes “The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished.”[12] In a simultaneous moment, Borges sees everything. All of history, all of space, every person and word and object that ever existed in all their specificity and complexity. In the Aleph, Borges sees the micro and macro forces and all the inner workings of every single thing within “the unimaginable universe.”

Riffing on both Hermeticism and Kabbalah, Borges devises a tale that locates the most secret esoteric knowledge and the most occult magic in the most ordinary natural object in the universe. As the human mind penetrates the natural object, it gains access to the divine mind and in fact unites with it. Borges writes, “In the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth.”[13] In that moment, Borges (the character) reached the zenith of mystical spirituality, man and divine as one. This is Borgesian panentheism.

Identifying the panentheistic nature of Borgesian spirituality is more than just an exercise in literary criticism. The pervasive nature of Borges’ influence on contemporary literature may be seen in the revival of ancient occultism in children and young adult literature in our time. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single volume of young adult literature that does not contain some of the magical and mystical elements introduced to the genre by Jorge Luis Borges. I do not think it an accident that the rise in occult themes in our children’s books has been met with a rise in “spiritual, not religious” adults. At the end of his essay “A New Refutation of Time” Borges concludes, “The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.” Perhaps we in this secular age would do well to remember, against our vain speculation and dreaming, that the natural world is a reality external to us, that we are creatures amidst a glorious creation, and that God is not secretly hidden within the natural world, but has come down to us in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not up to us to decipher the cryptic word that unlocks secret knowledge of and access to the divine; the Word, Christ, has appeared to us and definitively spoken.

Conrad Quiros is a graduate student at Westminster Seminary California.

[1]  See, for example, Annette U. Flynn, The Quest for God in the Work of Borges, 24 and Bloom, The Western Canon, 465-468.

[2] Andre Maurois, from Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Short Stories & Other Writings, preface by Andre Maurois, 5.

[3]  See, e.g., Flynn, 131 and Elliot R. Wolfson, “In the Mirror of the Dream: Borges and the Poetics of Kabbalah,” from The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 104, No. 3 (Summer 2014), 362-379.

[4] Bloom, The Western Canon, 464.

[5] George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 70–71.

[6]Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, ed./trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin, 1999), 1075-1076. Accessed 4.21.21 via PDF at https://posthegemony.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/borges_collected-fictions.pdf .

[7] Flynn, The Quest for God, 12, 14.

[8] Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights, 100.

[9] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, 228-229 and 382-383.

[10] ‘εν και παν is often attributed to Lessing. See Toshimasa Yasukata, “Lessing’s Spinozism” from Lessing’s Philosophy of Religion and the German Enlightenment: Lessing on Christianity and Reason

[11] Flynne, The Quest for God, 21.

[12] Ibid, 277.

[13] Ibid, 279.

  • Conrad Quiros

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