The Immortal by Jorge Luis Borges
First Edition Provenance : February 1947 as a short story (Publisher unknown)
Excerpt Provenance : Borges – Collected Fiction Allen Lane, Penguin Press 1954 Edition
Selection and Analysis by Arsalan Rafique
Often a paradox that ought to bowl us over does not strike us in the abstract form given to it by philosophers. The lengthy discourse strives to expand the intellect and stretch the imagination, but hardly grasping the helm of reality (if one was not of great aptitude, that is) – or more accurately, the reality of being. Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges did just that – gave a concrete shape to the worldly (and godly) paradoxes and the realities that embody them – through a medium that is hardly convenient for that purpose due to its constraints: short stories. Apart from literary essays, poems and transcriptions he wrote only short stories that made Borges, according to Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort “the most important figure in Spanish-language literature since Cervantes. He was clearly of tremendous influence, writing intricate poems, short stories, and essays that instantiated concepts of dizzying power.”
Borges was an Argentine writer and poet born in Buenos Aires. In 1914, his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school and traveled to Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in Surrealist literary journals. The style of writing most often associated with him and his works is magical realism. Often, especially early in his career, the mixture of fact and fantasy crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery. His work embraces the “character of unreality in all literature”. His knowledge of literature from all over the world that spanned from texts from Egypt, Middle East to Britain and Americas allowed him to construct narratives that were unique, to say the least, but at the same time universally approachable. This paradox was literally lived by Borges, as his work often treaded on recurring themes of infinite time and space, fantastical realities that may have never existed, cyclic events that can span an infinitesimal duration and yet last for only a second, the term “Borgesian” came out of his own dilemma, whether it is an author who writes the works, or the works write him – thereby referring to the notion of repetitive nature of life and its histories. As was common in his works, the details of events and architecture were vivid, but contorted masterfully to escape the bounds of physical existence and plausibility. His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph), published in the 1940s, are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes, including dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy, and religion. Labyrinths played an important role in disseminating Borges’ ideas and its recurrence is evident in many of his stories, that include “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths“, “The House of Asterion“, “The Immortal” & “The Garden of Forking Paths“, all of these explore the notions of the perception of time, and space thereof. Borges lost his eyesight later on in life, but instead of deflating his motivation to write it revealed to him a renewed sense of literary imagination that gives a vibrancy to his later work that is atleast as vivid as his earlier and more fantastical works.
The Immortal (El Inmortal as the original Spanish title), originally published as a short story for print in February 1947 and later published as a collection with other short stories under the title The Aleph (El Aleph) in 1949, is one of the few stories by Borges where one can identify a clear plot, rather than just author’s (or one of his character’s) reflections. It has an introduction (with a quote by Francis Bacon – who Borges respected as an artistic entity), five chapters and a postscript. The story is about a character who embarks on a journey to achieve immortality, and after mistakenly acquiring it and weary of a long life, struggles to lose it and writes an account of his experiences. Critic Ronald J. Christ has described it as the “culmination of Borges’ art” as the story touches upon the concepts of time, immortality and infinitesimal space – the Argentinian’s forte. Borges’ immortality has to do with a Nietzsche-inspired humanist immortality, which revolves around the super-abundant development of the person as an individual substantiated through the analogies of the labyrinth (also present in his other labyrinth stories), by using the concept of Eternal Return in which infinite time has wiped out the identity of individuals. The story can be compared to Homer’s Odyssey, in the sense that it is a tribute to the universal, mythical proportion of Homer’s work. The Immortal displays Borges’ literary irony; fusing satire, creative evolution, and the dream visions in a single work. He also comments on literary idealism in the book, in which the identities of component authors Homer, Shakespeare and Borges himself appear to merge into one another.
The plot starts with a moment in 20th century, where a bookseller sells a rare copy of Pope’s Iliad to princess de Lucinge, where she finds the manuscript that Borges purports to be real and poses his story as a verbatim transcription of the document.
Marcus Flaminius Rufus, a Roman soldier, tells this autobiographical tale where a dying man’s words about a river of immortality next to the City of Immortals brings him to embark on the quest to find the city. The harsh conditions of the trip cause many of his men to desert or fall to sickness and death. Borges sets the tone for a mysterious quest in the first few pages, as descriptions of places and cities on the way to locating the City of Immortals elevate the mythical status of not only the city to be found but also a world unknown to history. Using real places with fictional attributes and vice versa, the author swiftly assigns a heightened importance to the journey rather than the destination alone. After wandering through the desert and succumbing to harsh conditions, Rufus finds himself tied up in a recess on the side of a mountain. Over the next few days he explores the area and unknowingly drinks from the polluted stream – the river of immortality – to achieve immortality. He discovers the City of Immortals nearby, abandoned but for the troglodytes. Rufus decided to enter the city, scaling its walls and entering a door-like crevice.
The City itself is an immense labyrinth with dead-end passages, inverted stairways that lead to nowhere, and many chaotic architectural structures. Borges brilliantly layers up the interior space with psychological responses of the user, creating a narrative that blurs the boundaries of walls, mind and reason. Rufus describes the City as “a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull in which teeth, organs and heads monstrously pullulate in mutual conjunction and hatred.” This juxtaposition of elements in a seemingly chaotic way reminds one of Piranesi’s dungeons and Escher’s impossible Stairways (Fig1 & 2). Later on it is revealed that the City had been destroyed by the Immortals and reconstructed in this way as a negation or rejection of immortality. The pluralism present in Borges’ work is symbolized through the inversion of reality to reveal a complexity that is multilayered and has strong deconstructive implications. He believed in testing out “absurd postulate” and that they create when “developed to its extreme logical consequences”.
My travails, I have said, began in a garden in Thebes. All that night I did not sleep, for there was a combat in my heart. I rose at last a little before dawn. My slaves were sleeping; the moon was the color of the infinite sand. A bloody rider was approaching from the east, weak with exhaustion. A few steps from me, he dismounted and in a faint, insatiable voice asked me, in Latin, the name of the river whose waters laved the city’s walls. I told him it was the Egypt, fed by the rains. “It is another river that I seek,” he replied morosely, “the secret river that purifies men of death.” Dark blood was welling from his breast. He told me that the country of his birth was a mountain that lay beyond the Ganges; it was rumored on that mountain, he told me, that if one traveled westward, to the end of the world, one would come to the river whose waters give immortality. He added that on the far shore of that river lay the City of the Immortals, a city rich in bulwarks and amphitheaters and temples. He died before dawn, but I resolved to go in quest of that city and its river. When interrogated by the torturer, some of the Mauritanian prisoners confirmed the traveler’s tale: One of them recalled the Elysian plain, far at the ends of the earth, where men’s lives are everlasting; another, the peaks from which the Pactolus flows, upon which men live for a hundred years. In Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a man’s life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the number of his deaths. I am not certain whether I ever believed in the City of the Immortals; I think the task of finding it was enough for me. Flavius, the Getulian proconsul, entrusted two hundred soldiers to me for the venture; I also recruited a number of mercenaries who claimed they knew the roads, and who were the first to desert.
Subsequent events have so distorted the memory of our first days that now they are impossible to put straight. We set out from Arsinoe and entered the ardent desert. We crossed the lands of the Troglodytes, who devour serpents and lack all verbal commerce; the land of the Garamantas, whose women are held in common and whose food is lions; the land of the Augiles, who worship only Tartarus.
We ranged the width and breadth of other deserts—deserts of black sand, where the traveler must usurp the hours of the night, for the fervency of the day is unbearable. From afar I made out the mountain which gives its name to the Ocean; on its slopes grows the euphorbia, an antidote to poisons, and on its peak live the Satyrs, a nation of wild and rustic men given to lasciviousness. That the bosom of those barbaric lands, where the Earth is the mother of monsters, might succor a famous city—such a thing seemed unthinkable to us all. Thus we continued with our march, for to have regressed would have been to dishonor ourselves. Some of the men, those who were most temerarious, slept with their faces exposed to the moon; soon they burned with fever. With the depraved water of the watering holes others drank up insanity and death.
I found that my hands were bound behind my back and I was lying in an oblong stone niche no bigger than a common grave, scraped into the caustic slope of a mountain. The sides of the cavity were humid, and had been polished as much by time as by human hands. In my chest I felt a painful throbbing, and I burned with thirst. I raised my head and cried out weakly. At the foot of the mountain ran a noiseless, impure stream, clogged by sand and rubble; on the far bank, the patent City of the Immortals shone dazzlingly in the last (or first) rays of the sun. I could see fortifications, arches, frontispieces, and forums; the foundation of it all was a stone plateau. A hundred or more irregular niches like my own riddled the mountain and the valley. In the sand had been dug shallow holes; from those wretched holes, from the niches, emerged naked men with gray skin and neglected beards. I thought I recognized these men: they belonged to the bestial lineage of the Troglodytes, who infest the shorelines of the Persian Gulf and the grottoes of Ethiopia; I was surprised neither by the fact that they did not speak nor by seeing them devour serpents.
I have said that the City was builded on a stone plateau. That plateau, with its precipitous sides, was as difficult to scale as the walls. In vain did my weary feet walk round it; the black foundation revealed not the slightest irregularity, and the invariance of the walls proscribed even a single door. The force of the day drove me to seek refuge in a cavern; toward the rear there was a pit, and out of the pit, out of the gloom below, rose a ladder. I descended the ladder and made my way through a chaos of squalid galleries to a vast, indistinct circular chamber. Nine doors opened into that cellar- like place; eight led to a maze that returned, deceitfully, to the same chamber; the ninth led through another maze to a second circular chamber identical to the first. I am not certain how many chambers there were; my misery and anxiety multiplied them. The silence was hostile, and virtually perfect; aside from a subterranean wind whose cause I never discovered, within those deep webs of stone there was no sound; even the thin streams of iron-colored water that trickled through crevices in the stone were noiseless. Horribly, I grew used to that dubious world; it began to seem incredible that anything could exist save nine-doored cellars and long, forking subterranean corridors. I know not how long I wandered under the earth; I do know that from time to time, in a confused dream of home, I conflated the horrendous village of the barbarians and the city of my birth, among the clusters of grapes.
At the end of one corridor, a not unforeseen wall blocked my path— and a distant light fell upon me. I raised my dazzled eyes; above, vertiginously high above, I saw a circle of sky so blue it was almost purple. The metal treads of a stairway led up the wall. Weariness made my muscles slack, but I climbed the stairs, only pausing from time to time to sob clumsily with joy. Little by little I began to discern friezes and the capitals of columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble. Thus it was that I was led to ascend from the blind realm of black and intertwining labyrinths into the brilliant City.
I emerged into a kind of small plaza—a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building, of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. More than any other feature of that incredible monument, I was arrested by the great antiquity of its construction. I felt that it had existed before humankind, before the world itself.
Its patent antiquity (though somehow terrible to the eyes) seemed to accord with the labor of immortal artificers. Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered afterward that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarities, and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad. I said this, I know, in a tone of incomprehensible reproof that verged upon remorse—with more intellectual horror than sensory fear.
The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality. I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monk like cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. I cannot say whether these are literal examples I have given; I do know that for many years they plagued my troubled dreams; I can no longer know whether any given feature is a faithful transcription of reality or one of the shapes unleashed by my nights. This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured — even in the middle of a secret desert— pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous. I do not want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull pullulating with teeth, organs, and heads monstrously yoked together yet hating each other—those might, perhaps, be approximate images.
I cannot recall the stages by which I returned, nor my path through the dusty, humid crypts. I know only that I was accompanied by the constant fear that when I emerged from the last labyrinth I would be surrounded once again by the abominable City of the Immortals. I remember nothing else. That loss of memory, now insurmountable, was perhaps willful; it is possible that the circumstances of my escape were so unpleasant that on some day no less lost to memory I swore to put them out of my mind.
That day, all was revealed to me. The Troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream and its sand-laden waters, the River sought by the rider. As for the City whose renown had spread to the very Ganges, the Immortals had destroyed it almost nine hundred years ago. Out of the shattered remains of the City’s ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through—that parody or antithesis of City which was also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man. The founding of this city was the last symbol to which the Immortals had descended; it marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation. They built that carapace, abandoned it, and went off to make their dwellings in the caves. In their self- absorption, they scarcely perceived the physical world.
These things were explained to me by Homer as one might explain things to a child. He also told me of his own old age and of that late journey he had made—driven, like Ulysses, by the intention to arrive at the nation of men that know not what the sea is, that eat not salted meat, that know not what an oar might be. He lived for a century in the City of the Immortals, and when it was destroyed it was he who counseled that this other one be built. We should not be surprised by that—it is rumored that after singing of the war of Ilion, he sang of the war between the frogs and rats. He was like a god who created first the Cosmos, and then Chaos.