Among the most famous of Latin American authors, Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) became internationally known rather late in life when he shared the 1961 Prix International with Samuel Beckett and when collections of his short fictions were published in English in 1962 (Ficciones and Labyrinths). Already well received in France, he ultimately became a favorite of poststructuralists, who saw Borges as a precursor of their own theoretical interests (e.g., in intertextuality).

Thus, Michel Foucault alludes to a bizarre Chinese encyclopedia from Borges’s “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language” to illustrate his notion of epistemes (Borges, 2000, pp. 229–232). Deleuze, Derrida, and de Man have also acknowledged Borges’s influence. Religion scholars also find Borges evocative. J. Z. Smith repeatedly refers to Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” to explain his understanding of religion as a map, not reality (Borges, 1999a, p. 325). Biblical scholars find intimations of their own exegetical rewritings of biblical texts in his work (e.g., Crossan, 1976; Walsh, 2010; Walsh and Twomey, forthcoming).

(Bible) Commentary.

While Borges wrote in various genres (quite significant poetry and essays), he is most famous for essay-like short fictions (see Ficciones and Labyrinths). Many of these comment upon an earlier book (some of which do not exist) or an author, philosopher, or theologian’s oeuvre. Thus, in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” the narrator reviews the achievements of the recently deceased Menard, concentrating on his reconstruction of two fragmentary passages of Don Quixote (Borges, 1999a, pp. 88–95). Menard did not copy or recall these texts, nor did he become Cervantes. He remained Menard and (re)wrote the fragments verbatim through his own experiences. The narrator concludes that if Menard had been immortal, he would have completed the Quixote.

Anticipating postmodern intertexuality, “Pierre Menard” makes authorship and personal identity, as well as the boundaries between reading and writing, indefinite. Reader becomes author and vice versa, so that the narrator can sum up Menard’s achievement as enriching “the art of reading.”

Borges sometimes imagines biblical readers similarly (e.g., 1999a, pp. 163–167, 397–401). But even if Borges’s oeuvre did not contain such readers, the similarities to biblical commentary in pieces like “Pierre Menard” would be fairly obvious. Menard nicely represents scholarly devotion to the text (compare “A Defense of the Kabbalah,” 2000, pp. 83–86). Regardless of their faithfulness, such readers inevitably transform the Bible. Thus, the narrator of “Pierre Menard” observes that Menard’s fragments of Don Quixote change the text’s meaning, despite being verbally identical with their source, because they come from different cultures (1999a, p. 94).

Bible as Commentary.

In such interactions, the text read loses its definitive, foundational quality. Everything becomes commentary. Historians routinely assert that some biblical text reprises an earlier text (e.g., that Genesis 1 rewrites the Enuma Elish). In a more Borgesian fashion, scholars sometimes create imaginary texts, like Q , in order to read existing texts, like the Synoptic Gospels.

The Borgesian Bible, however, is commentary in a far more radical sense. In “Kafka and His Precursors,” Borges finds Kafka’s “voice” in Zeno, Kierkegaard, Browning, and others (2000, pp. 363–365). Reading Kafka transforms Borges’s reading of earlier texts so extensively that Borges concludes that “each writer creates his precursors,” modifying our conception of the past and future (2000, p. 365, italics in original). Similarly, (one’s reading of) Augustine, Luther, Spinoza, The Passion of the Christ, Borges, or others might create Bibles as their precursors as one finds their “voices” already in these new Bibles.

The Kabbalists, Léon Bloy, and the Gnostics are the primary creators of the Borgesian Bible (see 1964, pp. 209–212; 2000, pp. 65–68, 83–86). As their precursor, the Borgesian Bible is deeply, mysteriously symbolic. It is, appropriately enough, Kafkaesque. It does not reveal, but it portends secrets. Job, standing before the whirlwind and receiving no answer to his queries, is the very heart of the Borgesian Bible (see his “The Book of Job,” in Aizenberg, 1990, pp. 267–275). But, then, “near revelation” is the aesthetic phenomenon for Borges (2000, p. 346), and the Borgesian Bible is completely literary.

Plural, Plastic Bibles.

In such “enriching” readings, texts do not simply depend on earlier texts. Time becomes reversible (or cyclical), and identity becomes indefinite. The Bible becomes a process, a flux, a history, a labyrinth, or a “Garden of Forking Paths” (Borges, 1999a, pp. 119–128). The Bible becomes Bibles.

For Borges, any narrative is a series of choices, any of which could have been different. Narratives then are temporal labyrinths (1999a, pp. 107–111, 119–128) and inherently plural. By definition, classics, like the Bible, are even more “open to endless interpretation” and to a future of which one knows only “that it will differ from the present” (Borges in Aizenberg, 1990, p. 1). Of the Argentinean classic Martín Fierro, a Borgesian narrator says that it “can be all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22)” (1999a, p. 212; also cited in Aizenberg, 1990, p. 1). The biblical citation implies a similar fate for the classic Bible(s).

As the classic Bible’s beginning is its uncertain future and as it has no end, the Borgesian Bible is infinite. It is an abyss in which one can easily become lost (see 1999a, pp. 480–483). There is something horrible or awe-ful about it. Given enough time, it will be, like Borges’s Shakespeare and God, “Everything and Nothing” (1999a, pp. 319–320, italics in original).

Exegesis as Betrayal.

Borges’s commentaries betray their precursors. In a “Pierre Menard”-like piece, “The Gospel According to Mark,” Borges transforms the Gospel simply by resetting it (1999a, pp. 397–401). Baltasar Espinosa, a lazy Buenos Aires medical student, vacations on a ranch. At their request, he repeatedly reads the Gospel to the foreman and his family, until they take him out to crucify him for their salvation (compare 1999a, pp. 443–445). Baltasar provides an object lesson in the dangers of reading the Bible as the story reveals its precursor Mark to be a magical, uncanny script—a Borgesian fiction (see Walsh, 2010, pp. 32–34).

Borges’s “biblical” stories are seldom this straightforward. More often, they are symbolic and allusive. Biblical stories or patterns appear in disguise—after the fashion of Christ figures. Thus, Borges’s fascination with heroism, loyalty, and betrayal leads to a number of stories with affinities with the story of Judas (compare 1999a, pp. 138–142, 143–146, 336–337, 352–357). A fascination with fraternal rivals (or mirrors) leads to intimations of Cain–Abel (or Adam–Christ) (compare 1999a, pp. 201–207, 324, 338, 348–351, 364–369, 381–385, 386–389). Consequently, the Borgesian Bible is rife with issues of loyalty (faith) and betrayal.

When Borges takes up specific biblical narratives, he typically takes an oppositional, “betraying” approach. Thus, the Borgesian creation is the “rash or guilty improvisation” of a “deficient divinity” (2000, pp. 66–68) or even a divine death wish (1999a, pp. 443–445; 2000, pp. 333–336). Or creation (of a metaphysic) is the work of humans, who have left “in its architecture … tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false” (1964, p. 208). He reviews and questions, if he does not rebut, Jesus’s teaching (1999a, p. 339; 1999a, pp. 293–295). He profanes the cross by turning Christ’s suffering into the suffering of anyone and everyone (1999b, p. 471). He imagines the loss of Jesus’s appearance to allow God’s own disappearance in everyman (1999b, p. 81). The Borgesian Adam is also everyone and no one (1999b, p. 413).

The most infamous biblical betrayal is “Three Versions of Judas” (Borges, 1999a, pp. 163–167). It reviews the life work of the Swedish theologian Nils Runeberg, who devoted himself to discovering the secret hidden in the canonical story of Judas’s betrayal. Runeberg’s Judas intuits the divine sacrifice inherent in the incarnation and matches it by becoming an informer/traitor. Refuted by the orthodox, Runeberg imagines an ascetic Judas who renounces the spirit, and betrays, in order to glorify God. Finally, Runeberg arrives at the inevitable conclusion: Judas is the incarnate one. To redeem, God became fully human and, therefore, the arch-sinner Judas. Imagining it punishment for knowing the secret name of God, Runeberg gratefully shares the isolation, alienation, and hell of his redeemer, dying of a ruptured aneurysm.

The Horror of the Infinite (God).

The narrator deems Runeberg’s ideas “monstrous.” For Borges, the horror likely refers to the observation that God “could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history. He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus … ” (1999a, p. 166, italics in original). The possibilities are infinite, and it is the infinite that fascinates and repels Borges.

Runeberg is a gnostic, and so too is the infinite Borgesian Bible. In Gnosticism and in Borges, the creator becomes a lesser deity, spawned by some higher deity, and so on (1999b, p. 103). The creator becomes an analogue of the priest in “The Circular Ruins,” who dreams a son into existence, only to discover that he himself is s similar creation (1999a, pp. 96–100). The narrator’s review of A Game with Shifting Mirrors in “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” suspects a similar regression (1999a, pp. 82–87). The novel’s protagonist searches for Al-Mu’tasim, “the Seeker of Shelter,” in whom the reviewer sees “the idea that the Almighty is also in search of Someone” and so on, “perhaps cyclically” (1999a, p. 85). A final gnostic footnote compares a Persian poem in which the birds search for the lost king Simurgh, whose name means “30 birds.” In the finale, 30 birds reach their journey’s end only to discover that they are the king and he is they (1999a, p. 87).

Borges was intrigued with Spinoza (see 1999b, pp. 229, 383; and “Baruch Spinoza” in Aizenberg, 1990, pp. 276–284), and “Al-Mu’tasim” hints at an optimistic pantheism. But the searcher and sought also mirror each other, and mirrors, like the trinity and infinity, horrify Borges (2000, pp. 84, 294–297). Their endless reduplications corrupt all other concepts (1964, p. 202).

In “The Library of Babel” (1999a, pp. 112–118), the infinite, labyrinthine library is both created universe and god (compare the library’s spherical description with that of God in 2000, pp. 351–353). The infinite library’s horror lies in the fact that it contains all possible books and “the certainty that everything has already been written.” This horrible certainty “annuls us, or renders us phantasmal” (1999a, p. 118). Despite the implication of “Babel,” the believing librarian asserts that no book is without (its possibly secret) meaning. Unfortunately, the library’s infinity makes the prospect of anyone finding their own meaning-giving book a statistical impossibility (1999a, p. 115).

Accordingly, human fate is not providential. Infinity is an irrational god who does not deign to explain itself to human Jobs (Borges, 1999a, p. 500). And this Borgesian god is ultimately destructive of humans or, at least, of their personal identity (see, for example, Borges, 1999a, pp. 131–137, 183–195, 242–249, 250–254, 274–286). Thus, on the rare occasions when Borgesian characters do find the secret meaning, they lose themselves and are incapable of sharing the ineffable mystery (e.g., 1999a, pp. 250–254).

The Fascination of the Infinite Book.

In a concluding note to “The Library of Babel,” the narrator observes that a single infinite book would have the same effect as the library. In “The Book of Sand,” a Bible salesman sells a Holy Writ purchased in Bombay to the narrator (1999a, pp. 480–483). This text has no beginning or end, and its reader can never find the same page again. Intrigued, the narrator buys the book and becomes obsessed with it, until he realizes the book is monstrous and making him so. He escapes by hiding the book on an inconsequential library shelf.

This book is the infinite Borgesian Bible, and Borges imagines its obsessive fascinations through characters like Runeberg and the family that crucifies Espinosa and through reflections on the Kabbalah. Given the Kabbalah’s conception of scriptures’ mechanical inspiration, one can hardly avoid studying such a “mechanism of infinite purposes” “to absurdity” for its “revelations lying in wait” (2000, p. 86).

This Kabbalistic or Borgesian Bible is not transparent. It is chaotic, infinite, and symbolic. Characters acting out its events represent God’s predetermined “secret drama.” From that idea, Borges’s Léon Bloy, the precursor of Nils Runeberg, takes the reasonable step to the enigma of the universe (1964, p. 209; compare 1964, p. 196). No one can know who he/she is, and one may see everything backward. As Borges finds these notions in Bloy’s reflections on 1 Corinthians 13:12, Borges claims the ideas are “perhaps inevitable within the Christian doctrine” (1964, p. 211). They are certainly inevitable in the Borgesian Bible, which like Borges’s Job focuses on God’s inscrutability.

Shared Aesthetics: Magic and the Uncanny.

Intriguingly, Borges’s short fictions share stylistic features with biblical narratives. The characters of both enact a secret drama. Borges locates this aura not in providence but in an aesthetic style with the causality and “the primeval clarity of magic.” Rejecting psychological realism, which biblical narratives also lack, Borges writes stories with intricate, puzzle-like plots in which things act on one another at a distance through some secret sympathy and events are brought about by their mere mention. Every detail in such magical narratives is a prophecy (2000, pp. 80–82). The aesthetic description applies to the Borgesian Bible as well as to Borges’s other fictions.

Borges combines his intricate puzzle-like narratives with metaphysical propositions, which serve as “as if” starting points for his tales. Accordingly, critics compare him to the Buddha, the Gnostics, Hume, the idealists, Schopenhauer, and so on. For Carter Wheelock (1969), Borges’s aesthetic metaphysic conceives the world as circular, predestined, capricious, and capable of a number of equally valid configurations. It renders the boundaries between world and self, life and death, and waking and dreaming fluid. It is the mythic thinking described by Eliade and others or Freud’s uncanny (Wheelock, 1969, pp. 4–20). Apart from biblical tendencies toward monotheism/empire, it is also the world of much of the Bible.

Fiction, not Faith.

For the skeptical Borges, these matters are aesthetic. He takes up such metaphysics simply to see where they might take a fiction. It is his obsessive characters who seek the hidden meaning or faithfully hold onto one perspective/item as if it were the whole (or God) (see 1999a, pp. 242–249). Their obsession often leads to their destruction. Borges rejects such faith in favor of fictions. He does so because of his skepticism about human abilities to know “the whole” (2000, p. 231).

Thus, the Borgesian Bible is a fascinating and horrifying labyrinth. It sparks destructive obsession. It is also an unreal, “as if” text fraught with suggestions. It is not transcendent knowledge. It is a classic interminably and perversely read. It is Job and the incarnate Judas. It is the crucified Espinosa. It is God and Christ as everyone and no one. It bespeaks an irrational creator in search of mortality. It is ficciones. Thus, instead of submission to an inevitably human scheme (or interpretation), the Borgesian Bible calls for reason and justice: “The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us)” (Borges, 1999a, p. 339; compare 1999b, pp. 293–295). The Borgesian Bible makes everyone a Job.

[See also LATIN AMERICAN ART and MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

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  • Barrenechea, Ana María. Borges: The Labyrinth Maker. Edited and translated by Robert Lima. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
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Richard G. Walsh