Borges on Happiness

I thought I’d balance yesterday’s “Remorse” against two poems that appear in the last 100 pages of Borges Selected Poems, two poems that are certainly much more optimistic than “Remorse.” The first of these includes a reference to Shinto deities, which took me directly to What are Kami since I know absolutely nothing about Shintoism, though, in retrospect, the first stanza of the poem stands quite well on its own.

SHINTO
 
When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of the mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.
Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us–
touch us and move on.

In essence, Borges seems to be saying that when we are depressed that the humblest thing can help us shake that depression if only we are “mindful” of it. Most, though not all of the things he lists, appeal to our senses directly, like “the taste of fruit,” the “first jasmine of November,” or, even, ” a sudden physical pain.” This seems to suggest that if we actually live in the moment we can escape our sorrow.

He expands on these ideas in “Happiness.”

HAPPINESS

Whoever embraces a woman is Adam. The woman is Eve.
Everything happens for the first time.
I saw something white in the sky. They tell me it is the moon, but
what can I do with a word and a mythology.
Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful.
The calm animals come closer so that I may tell them their names.
The books in the library have no letters. They spring forth when I open
them.
Leafing through the atlas I project the shape of Sumatra.
Whoever lights a match in the dark is inventing fire.
Inside the mirror an Other waits in ambush.
Whoever looks at the ocean sees England.
Whoever utters a line of Liliencron has entered into battle.
I have dreamed Carthage and the legions that destroyed Carthage.
I have dreamed the sword and the scale.
Praised be the love wherein there is no possessor and no possessed, but
both surrender.
Praised be the nightmare, which reveals to us that we have the power to
create hell.
Whoever goes down to a river goes down to the Ganges.
Whoever looks at an hourglass sees the dissolution of an empire.
Whoever plays with a dagger foretells the death of Caesar.
Whoever dreams is every human being.
In the desert I saw the young Sphinx, which has just been sculpted.
There is nothing else so ancient under the sun.
Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.
Whoever reads my words is inventing them.

I particularly like lines like “Everything happens for the first time” because, as I remember it, that is precisely the way it feels the first time you do something. That’s precisely the reason I search out new things to do. And, of course, I’m struck by lines like “Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful,” a line that reminds me a lot of lines from Whitman.

Mike sent me this note, “Borges (in his criticism) takes Whitman to task for his glorification of the personality, insinuating that it’s a poor substitute for more substantial writing: ‘He believed he had only to enumerate the names of things in order to make their unique and surprising nature immediately palpable …From Whitman on, many have been caught up in this same fallacy.'” While that may be true, the lines beginning “Whoever…” seem to me to mirror Whitman’s technique.

And it would certainly be easy to imagine Whitman saying, “Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”

5 thoughts on “Borges on Happiness

  1. I like that 1st poem very much. In the 2nd, the idea of beauty being frightening struck me too. It’s so true. Whether it’s the awesomeness of big mountains – or the incredible micro-perfection of a tiny leaf – or just generally the absolute ‘otherness’ of nature in the raw (and, because of human consciousness and self-consciousness, it always is ‘other’ – no matter how much we try and be part of it) – there is certainly a frightening, disturbing aspect to beauty – but this aspect just a part of all our other complex reactions to it.

  2. I like both of these poems, Loren. Particularly I like the first sixteen lines of the first poem – these lines are so true regardless of whether you know anything about Shinto or not. I also like the idea of living for the moment – but it is easier to say it than to do it.

  3. Nice catch on the Whitman overtones of that piece. It looks like Borges admired him at the same time he tried to distance himself ? A natural respond of a young writer finding his own way. Something zenlike in the poem, too. The wish to capture [in words] the raw beauty of first impression…does that sound a little like photography?

What do you think?