Jorge Luis Borges
Solomon saith: “There is no new thing upon the
earth ”. So that as Plato had an imagination,
“That all knowledge was but remembrance”; only
Solomon giveth his sentence, “that all novelty is
but oblivion ”.
FRANCIS BACON: Essays LVIII.
In London, at the beginning of June 1929, the antique dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, from Smyrna, offered the princess of Lucinge the six minor-volume volumes (1715-172O) of Pope’s Iliad. The princess acquired them; upon receiving them, she exchanged a few words with him. Was; tells us, a very thin and earthy man, with dull eyes and a gray beard, with singularly vague features. He used the various languages fluently and ignorantly; in a few minutes, it went from French to English and English to an enigmatic conjunction of Spanish from Salonica and Portuguese from Macau. In October, the princess heard from a Zeus passenger that Cartaphilus had died at sea on his return to Smyrna, and that he had been buried on the island of Ios. In the last volume of the Iliad he found this manuscript.
The original is written in English and is abundant in Latinisms. The version we offer is literal.
As I recall, my work began in a garden of Thebes Hekatómpylos, when Diocletian was emperor. I fought (without glory) in the recent Egyptian wars, being the tribune of a legion that was stationed in Berenice, before the Red Sea: fever and magic consumed many men who coveted steel with magnanimity. Mauritanians were defeated; the land, formerly occupied by rebel cities, was eternally dedicated to the Plutonic gods; Alexandria, subdued, in vain implored Caesar’s mercy; before a year, the legions achieved triumph, but I could barely make out the face of Mars. This deprivation hurt me and was perhaps the reason why I set out, through fearful and extensive deserts, to discover the secret City of the Immortals.
My work, as I said, started in a garden of Thebes. I didn’t sleep all night, because something was fighting in my heart. I got up just before dawn; my slaves slept, the moon was the same color as the infinite sand. A beaten and bloodied knight came from the east. A few steps from me, he fell off his horse. With a faint insatiable voice, he asked me in Latin the name of the river that bathed the city walls. I replied that it was Egypt, that the rains feed. “Another is the river that I pursue,” he replied sadly, “the secret river that purifies men from death.” Dark blood welled up from his chest. He told me that his homeland was a mountain that is on the other side of the Ganges and that on that mountain it was said that if someone walked to the west, where the world ends, they would reach the river whose waters give immortality. He added that the City of Immortals rises on the far bank, rich in bastions and amphitheaters and temples. Before dawn he died, but I determined to discover the city and its river. Questioned by the executioner, some Mauritanian prisoners confirmed the traveler’s information; someone remembered the plain Elysium, at the end of the earth, where men’s lives are enduring; another, the summits where the Pactolo is born, whose inhabitants live a century. In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that prolonging man’s life was prolonging his agony and multiplying the number of his deaths. I don’t know if I ever believed in the City of the Immortals: I think that then the work of looking for it was enough. Flávio, proconsul of Getúlia, handed me two hundred soldiers for the task. I also recruited mercenaries, who said they knew the ways and were the first to desert.
The subsequent events distorted the memory of our first journeys even to the inextricable. We left Arsinoe and entered the scorched desert. We cross the country of the troglodytes, who devour serpents and lack the word trade; that of Libyan garamantes, who have women in common and feed on lions; that of the tribe of the augilas, who only worship Tartarus. We weary other deserts, where the sand is black, where the traveler must steal the hours of the night, because the fervor of the day is intolerable. From a distance, I saw the mountain that gave the ocean its name: on its slopes the euphorbia grows, which cancels out poisons; on the summit, satyrs live, a nation of cruel and rustic men, inclined to lust. That these barbaric regions, where the land is the mother of monsters, could shelter in its bosom a famous city, seemed to us all inconceivable. We continued on with the march, as it would have been a dishonor to go back. Some daredevils slept with their faces exposed to the moon; the fever burned them; in the corrupted water of the cisterns others drank madness and death. Then defections began; very shortly after, the riots. To repress them, I did not hesitate in the exercise of severity. I proceeded correctly, but a centurion warned me that the seditious (eager to avenge the crucifixion of one of them) were plotting my death. I fled the camp, with the few soldiers who were loyal to me. In the desert, I lost them between the swirls of sand and the vast night. A Cretan arrow lacerated me. For several days, I made a mistake without finding water, or for a single huge day multiplied by the sun, thirst and the fear of thirst. I left the path to my horse’s will. At dawn, the distance curled up with pyramids and towers. Unbearably, I dreamed of a narrow and clear maze: in the center was a pitcher; my hands almost touched him, my eyes saw him, but so intricate and confused were the curves that I knew I was going to die before I reached him.
As I finally untangled myself from that nightmare, I found myself thrown and bound in an oblong stone niche, no bigger than a common grave, superficially dug into the rough slope of a mountain. The sides were damp, polished by time rather than labor. I felt a painful throbbing in my chest, I felt that my thirst was burning me. I got up and screamed weakly. At the foot of the mountain, an unclean stream, numbed by rubble and sand, spread without a sound; on the opposite bank, the evident City of the Immortals shone (under the last sun or under the first). I saw walls, arches, frontispieces and forums: the foundation was a stone plateau. A hundred irregular niches, analogous to mine, furrowed the mountain and the valley. There were shallow wells in the sand; from these petty holes (and from the niches) emerged men with gray skin, sloppy beards, naked. I thought I would recognize them: they belonged to the bestial strain of the troglodytes, which infest the shores of the Arabian Gulf and the Ethiopian caves; I was not surprised that they did not speak and that they devoured serpents.
The urgency of the headquarters made me reckless. I thought I was about thirty feet from the sand: with my eyes closed, my hands tied behind my back, I threw myself down the mountain. I buried my bloody face in the dark water. I drank as the animals drank. Before I lost myself again in the dream and in the delusions, I inexplicably repeated some Greek words: “The rich Teucros of Zeléia who drink the black water of Esepo …”
I don’t know how many days and nights have swirled over me. Sore, unable to recover the shelter of the caves, undressed in the ignored sand, I let the moon and the sun play with my fate. Troglodytes, children in barbarism, did not help me to survive or to die. In vain, I begged them to give me death. One day, with the thread of a flint, I broke my bandages. In another, I got up and was able to beg or steal – me, Marco Flamínio Rufo, military tribune of one of the legions of Rome – my first detested snake meat ration.
The urge to see the Immortals, to touch the superhuman City, almost prevented me from sleeping. As if they penetrated my purpose, the troglodytes did not sleep either: at first, I inferred that they were watching me; afterwards, that they had been infected by my anxiety, how could dogs be infected. To get away from the barbaric village, I chose the most public of hours, evening, when all men emerge from crevices and wells and look at the sunset, without seeing it. I prayed aloud, less to plead divine favor than to intimidate the tribe with articulate words. I crossed the brook that the sand banks numb and headed for the City. Confusedly, two or three men followed me. They were (like the rest of that lineage) of diminished stature; they did not inspire fear, but disgust. I had to get around some irregular bluffs that looked like quarries; overshadowed by quarries; overshadowed by the greatness of the City, I had assumed it was close. Around midnight, I stepped, bristling with idolatrous shapes in the yellow sand, the black shadow of its walls. A kind of sacred horror stopped me. So abhorred by man are the novelty and the desert that I was glad that one of the cave dwellers had accompanied me to the end. I closed my eyes and waited (without sleep) for the day to shine.
He said that the City was built on a stone plateau. This plateau, comparable to a cliff, was no less arduous than the walls. I have exhausted my steps in vain; the black basement did not register the slightest irregularity, the invariable walls did not seem to allow a single door. The strength of the day made me take refuge in a cave; at the bottom was a well, in the well a stairway that led up to the lower darkness. I went down; through a chaos of sordid galleries I came to a vast circular chamber, at a very visible cost. There were nine doors in that basement; eight faced a labyrinth that fallaciously into the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) overlooked a second circular chamber, just like the first. I ignore the total number of cameras; my misfortune and my anxiety multiplied them. The silence was hostile and almost perfect; there was no other rumor in those deep stone nets other than an underground wind, the cause of which I did not discover; without noise, they were lost between the cracks of rusty water. I got used to this dubious world with horror; I considered it unbelievable that there could be anything other than basements with nine doors and long basements that forked. I do not know how long I had to walk underground; I know that I once confused, in the same nostalgia, the atrocious village of the barbarians and my hometown, among the vines.
At the end of a corridor, an unforeseen wall barred my steps, a remote light fell on me. I raised my dazzled eyes: in the vertiginous, the highest, I saw a circle of sky so blue that it seemed to me to be purple. Some metal steps scaled the wall. Fatigue relaxed me, but I went up, only stopping sometimes to heavily sob with happiness. I saw capitals and astragalus, triangular pediments and vaults, confused pomp of granite and marble. I was thus granted to ascend from the blind region of black woven mazes to the resplendent City.
I emerged in a kind of small square, or rather, a courtyard. A single building surrounded it irregularly and with variable height; to this heterogeneous building belonged the various domes and columns. More than any other trace of this incredible monument, I was struck by the age of its construction. I felt that it was before men, before earth. This evident antiquity (although, in some way, terrible for the eyes) seemed to me adequate for the work of immortal workers. Cautiously at first, with indifference later, with despair at last, I missed the stairs and floors of the inextricable palace. (Then I found out that the length and height of the steps were inconstant, a fact that made me understand the singular fatigue that infused me.) “This palace is the work of the gods”, I thought at first. I explored the uninhabited enclosures and corrected: “The gods who built it have died”. I noticed its peculiarities and said: “The gods who built it were crazy”. I said that, I know, with incomprehensible disapproval that it was almost remorse, with more intellectual horror than sensitive fear. The impression of enormous antiquity was joined by others: that of the endless, that of the atrocious, that of the complexly unreasonable. I had crossed a maze, but the clear City of the Immortals terrified and disgusted me. A labyrinth is a house built to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to this end. In the palace I imperfectly explored, architecture lacked an end. The dead-end corridor abounded, the tall unreachable window, the grand door leading to a cell or a well, the incredible back stairs, with the steps and the balustrade down.
Others, adhered airily to the side of a monumental wall, died without reaching anywhere, after two or three turns, in the upper darkness of the domes. I don’t know if all the examples I have listed are literal; I know that for many years they infested my nightmares; I can no longer know if this or that trait is a transcript of reality or of the forms that have unleashed my nights. “This City”, I thought, “is so horrible that its mere existence and endurance, although in the center of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and, in some way, compromises the stars. As long as it lasts, no one in the world can be valued or happy ”. I don’t want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous words, a body of a tiger or a bull, in which they swarmed monstrously, conjugated and hating each other, teeth, organs and heads, can (perhaps) be approximate images.
I do not remember the stages of my return, among the dusty and humid hypogeus. I only know that the fear that when I left the last labyrinth I would once again surround the nefarious City of the Immortals. I can remember nothing else. This forgetfulness, now insurmountable, was perhaps voluntary; perhaps the circumstances of my evasion were so ungrateful that, on some day, no less forgotten, too, I swore to forget them.
Those who have carefully read the account of my works will remember that a man of the tribe followed me, as a dog could follow me, until the irregular shadow of the walls. When I left the last basement, I found it at the mouth of the cave. He was lying in the sand, where he drew roughly and erased a row of signs that were like the letters of dreams, which one is about to understand and soon come together. At first, I thought it was some barbaric writing; then I saw that it is absurd to imagine that men who did not reach the word reach the writing. In addition, none of the forms were the same, which excluded or excluded the possibility of being symbolic. The man would draw them, look at them and correct them. Suddenly, as if this game bored him, he erased them with his palm and forearm. He looked at me, he didn’t seem to recognize me. However, so great was the relief that flooded me (or so great and fearful my loneliness) that I started to think that this rudimentary troglodyte, who was looking at me from the cave floor, had been waiting for me. The sun scalded the plain; when we made the return to the village, under the first stars, the sand was burning underfoot. The troglodyte preceded me; that night I conceived the purpose of teaching him to recognize, and perhaps to repeat, a few words. The dog and the horse (I reflected) are capable of the first; many birds, like the Caesar’s nightingale, from the latter. However gross a man’s understanding was, it would always be superior to that of irrationals.
The troglodyte’s humility and misery brought to mind the image of Argos, the old dying dog from Odyssey, and so I named him Argos and tried to teach him. I failed and failed again. The wills, the rigor and the obstinacy were completely useless. Motionless, with inert eyes, he didn’t seem to notice the sounds I was trying to instill in him. A few steps away from me, it was as if it were very far away. Lying on the sand, like a small ruined lava sphinx, he let the skies swirl over him, from the twilight of the day to that of the night. I thought it was impossible for you not to realize my purpose. I remembered that it is said among Ethiopians that monkeys deliberately do not speak so that they do not compel them to work, and I attributed Argos’s suspiciousness or fear to silence. From that fantasy I went on to even more extravagant ones. I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that Argos combined them in another way and constructed other objects with them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, but a dizzying and continuous game of very brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language that ignored nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. So the days and the years died, but something like happiness happened one morning. It rained, with powerful slowness.
Desert nights can be cold, but it had been a fire. I dreamed that a river in Thessaly (whose waters I had restored a gold fish to) came to rescue me; over the red sand and the black stone I heard him approach; the freshness of the air and the busy noise of rain woke me. I ran to receive it, naked. The night was declining; under the yellow clouds, the tribe, no less happy than I, offered themselves to the vivid showers in a kind of ecstasy. They looked like coribantes possessed by divinity. Argos, eyes on the dome, moaned; torrents rolled down his face, not only of water, but (I learned later) of tears. Argos, I shouted, Argos.
Then, with mild admiration, as if discovering something long lost and forgotten, Argos babbled these words: “Argos, dog of Ulysses”. And then, also without looking at me: “This dog thrown in the dung”.
We easily accept reality, perhaps because we intuit that nothing is real. I asked him what he knew about the Odyssey. The practice of Greek was painful for him; I had to repeat the question.
“Very little,” he said. “Less than the poorest rhapsody. A thousand and one hundred years have passed since I invented it. ”
Everything was explained to me that day. The troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream of sandy waters, the river that the rider was looking for. As for the city whose reputation had spread to the Ganges, it was nine centuries since the Immortals had ravaged it. With the relics of their ruin, they built, in the same place, the crazy city that I traveled: a kind of parody or reverse and also a temple of the irrational gods who manage the world and of which we know nothing, except that they do not look like man. That foundation was the last symbol that the Immortals condescended; marks a stage in which, judging any work to be in vain, they determined to live in thought, in pure speculation. They erected the work, forgot it and went to live in the pits. Absorbed, they hardly perceived the physical world.
Homer narrated these things like talking to a child. He also told me about his old age and the final trip he undertook, moved, like Ulysses, for the purpose of reaching men who do not know the sea, nor eat meat seasoned with salt, nor suspect what is an oar. He lived a century in the City of Immortals. When they knocked her down, she advised the foundation of the other. This should not surprise us; it is said that, after singing the war of Ilion, he sang the war of frogs and rats. It was like a god who created the cosmos and then chaos.
Being immortal is insignificant; with the exception of man, all creatures are, because they ignore death; the divine, the terrible, the incomprehensible is knowing oneself immortal. I have noticed that, despite religions, this belief is very rare. Israelis, Christians and Muslims profess immortality, but the veneration they impose on the first century proves that they only believe in it, since they destine all others, in infinite numbers, to reward or punish it. More reasonable seems to me the wheel of certain religions of Industão; in this wheel, which has no beginning and no end, each life is the effect of the previous one and generates the next, but none determines the whole … Doctrinated in an exercise of centuries, the republic of immortal men had reached the perfection of tolerance and almost disdain. He knew that in an infinite time all things happen to every man. For his past or future virtues, every man is a creditor of all goodness, but also of all betrayal, for his infamies of the past or the future. Just as in games of chance, even numbers and odd numbers tend to balance, so talent and stupidity are canceled out and corrected, and perhaps Cid’s rustic poem is the balance required by a single epitome of the Ecclogues or by a sentence from Heraclitus. The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible design and can crown, or inaugurate, a secret form. I know of those who practiced evil so that in future centuries good might result, or could have resulted in past tenses … Seen like this, all our actions are just, but they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits. Homer composed the Odyssey; postulated an infinite term, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible would be not to compose, even once, the Odyssey. No one is anyone, one immortal man is all men. Like Cornélio Agripa, I am a god, I am a hero, I am a philosopher, I am a demon and I am a world, which is a tiring way of saying that I am not.
The concept of the world as a system of precise compensations has greatly influenced the immortals. First, it made them invulnerable to piety. I mentioned the old quarries that lined the fields on the other bank; a man crashed into the deepest; he could neither regret nor die, but thirst burned him; before a rope was thrown at him, seventy years passed. Nor did fate matter. The body was a submissive domestic animal and it was enough, every month, the alms of a few hours of sleep, a little water and the remains of meat. Let no one want to demote us to ascetics. There is no pleasure more complex than thought and we gave ourselves to it. Sometimes, an extraordinary stimulus restored us to the physical world. For example, that morning, the old elementary pleasure of rain. These lapses were extremely rare; all immortals were capable of perfect stillness; I remember one I never saw standing: a bird nestled in its chest.
Among the corollaries of the doctrine that there is no thing that is not compensated for by another, there is one that has very little theoretical importance, but that induced us, at the end or at the beginning of the tenth century, to disperse us across the face of the earth. It fits in these words: “There is a river whose waters give immortality; in some region there will be another river whose waters extinguish it ”. The number of rivers is not infinite; an immortal traveler who travels the world will someday end up drinking from everyone. We set out to discover that river.
Death (or its allusion) makes men precious and pathetic. These are moved by their condition as ghosts; each act they perform may be the last; there is no face that is not to be dissolved like the face of a dream. Everything, among mortals, has the value of the irrecoverable and the unspeakable. Among immortals, on the contrary, each act (and each thought) is the echo of others that preceded it, without a visible principle, or the faithful omen of others who will repeat it in the future until vertigo. There is nothing that is not lost among indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can happen at once, nothing is precariously precarious. The elegiac, the grave, the ceremonious do not apply to immortals. Homer and I parted ways at the Tangier gates; I don’t think we said goodbye.
I traveled through new kingdoms, new empires. In the autumn of 1066, I fought on Stamford Bridge, I no longer remember whether in the ranks of Harold, who soon found his destination, or in those of that unfortunate Harald Hardrada, who conquered six feet of English land, or a little more. In the seventh century of the Hégira, on the outskirts of Bulaq, I transcribed it with slow handwriting, in a language I forgot, in an alphabet I ignore, Simbad’s seven voyages and the history of the City of Bronze. In a courtyard in the Samarkand jail I played chess a lot. At Bikanir, I taught astrology, and also in Bohemia. In 1638, I was in Kolozsvar and then in Leipzig. In Aberdeen, in 1714, I signed the six volumes of Pope’s Iliad; I know that I frequented them with delight. Around 1729, I discussed the origin of this poem with a professor of rhetoric, called, I believe, Giambattista; his reasons seemed irrefutable. On October 4, 1921, Patna, which was taking me to Bombay, had to anchor in a port on the Eritrean coast.
I went down; I remembered other very early mornings, also before the Red Sea, when I was a tribune in Rome and fever and magic and inaction consumed the soldiers. In the surroundings, I saw a flow of clear water; I tasted it, carried away by custom. As I climbed the bank, a thorny tree lacerated the back of my hand. The unusual pain seemed very much alive. Incredulous, silent and happy, I watched the precious formation of a slow drop of blood. I am mortal again, I repeated to myself, again I look like all men. That night, I slept until dawn.
… I reviewed these pages after a year. It seems to me that they fit the truth, but in the first few chapters, and even in certain paragraphs of others, I think I perceive something false. This is perhaps the result of the abuse of circumstantial traits, a procedure that I learned from the poets and that is contaminated by falsehood, since these traits may be frequent in the facts, but not in their memory … I believe, however, that I have discovered a more intimate. I will write it down; it doesn’t matter that they think I’m fantastic.
The story I told seems unreal because it combines the successes of two different men. In the first chapter, the knight wants to know the name of the river that bathes the walls of Thebes; Flamínio Rufo, who previously gave the city the epithet of Hekatómpylos, says that the river is Egypt; none of these phrases is suitable for him, but Homer, who expressly mentions, in the Iliad, Thebes Hekatómpylos, and in Odyssey, through the mouths of Proteus and Ulysses, invariably says Egypt by Nile. In the second chapter, the Roman, when drinking immortal water, pronounces some words in Greek; these words are Homeric and can be found at the end of the famous ship catalog. Then, in the dizzying palace, he speaks of “reprobation that was almost remorse”; these words correspond to Homer, who had projected this horror. Such anomalies disturbed me; others, of an aesthetic nature, allowed me to discover the truth. The last chapter includes them; there it is written that I fought on Stamford Bridge, that I transcribed Simbad the Sailor’s voyages in Bulaq and that I signed Pope’s English Iliad in Aberdeen. It reads, inter alia: “In Bikanir, I taught astrology, and also in Bohemia”. None of these testimonies is false; significant is the fact that I have highlighted them. The first of all seems to suit a man of war, but it is soon apparent that the narrator does not notice the war but the fate of men. Those who follow are more curious. An obscure elementary reason forced me to register them; I did it because I knew they were pathetic. They are not, said by the Roman Flamínio Rufo. They are said by Homer; it is strange that he copied, in the 13th century, the adventures of Simbad, of another Ulysses, and discovered, many centuries later, in a boreal kingdom and in a barbaric language, the forms of his Iliad. As for the phrase that brings together the name of Bikanir, it can be seen that it was built by a man of letters, eager (like the author of the ships’ catalog) to show splendid words.
When the end approaches, there are no images of the memory left; only words remain. It is not strange that time has confused those that ever represented me with those that were symbols of the destiny of those who accompanied me, for so many centuries. I was Homer; soon, I will be Nobody, like Ulysses; soon, i’ll be all: i’ll be dead.
195O postscript. Among the comments that the previous publication aroused, the most curious, since not the most urban, is biblically called A Coat of Many Colors (Manchester, 1948) and is the work of Dr. Nahum Cordovero’s very tenacious pen. It comprises about a hundred pages. It speaks of the Greek centimes, of the centuries of low Latinity, of Ben Jonson, who defined his contemporaries with excerpts from Seneca, the Virgilius Evangelizans of Alexander Ross, the artifices of George Moore and Eliot and, finally, of the “narration attributed to the antique dealer Joseph Cartaphilus ”. In the first chapter, he denounces brief interpolations by Plínio (Historia Naturalis, V, 8); in the second, by Thomas de Quincey (Writings, 111, 439); in the third, Descartes’ epistle to Ambassador Pierre Chanut; in the bedroom, by Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah, V). It infers from these intrusions, or thefts, that the whole document is apocryphal.
In my opinion, the conclusion is inadmissible. “When the end approaches,” wrote Cartaphilus, “there are no more images of the memory left; only words remain ”. Words, displaced and mutilated words, words of others, it was the poor alms that the hours and the centuries left him.
1 There is an erasure in the manuscript; perhaps the name of the port has been erased.
2 Ernesto Sábato suggests that the “Giambattista” who discussed the formation of the Iliad with the antiquarian Cartaphilus is Giambattista Vico; this Italian maintained that Homer is a symbolic character, in the manner of Pluto or Achilles.