Luce López-Baralt, Humanist of the Year 2003
Praise God that he taught us the language of the birds

Borges, without doubt, loved the secret cadences that each language stirs in the ear. In a small Saxon church in Litchfield, he kept a strange promise he had made in the linguistic order he used to confess to God:
I entered and in the half light of the temple I fulfilled a promise I had made years earlier in Buenos Aires, without thinking I would really be able to complete it: I said the Our Father in Old English, in that old Saxon language and I did it ten centuries, let’s say, since it had resonated in that church the words “Father ure, thu eart on heovenum, sie thin namá gehallgot…” I think I did it to give God a little surprise.
Always loyal to his sonorous enthusiasms, which grew as he lost his sight, each time Borges met me he asked me to say in Arabic the title of One Thousand and One Nights, so musical in its original Arabic: Alf laylā wa laylā. The Argentine master maestro listened with an enthusiastic smile to the seductive rhythm of the language of the Prophet and Sheherezade, a language that, if we are to give credit to the testimony of Erika Spivakovsky and María Kodama, he had some rudimentary abilities. To give a symbolic “small surprise” to Borges, in this study I echo the epigraph of the Persian mystic Al-Kubrā, who quotes the Koran when he celebrates having received from God the “language of the birds” — mantiq -ut-tayr. This refers to the secret language of the Sufis and, as strange as it appears, is a language Borges had also begun. The Argentine writer could not have hidden the reason he chose the ornithological quote of the contemplative Persian as the opening to this essay: with full awareness, Borges makes an impassioned inter-textual colloquium with the symbolic language of the birds of ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur and other Muslim mystics in his poem “The Unending Rose.” (1975). We will soon see with how much savoir faire Borges usurped the literary canon of the Islamic mystic.

But first it is important to say that Borges explored with sustained passion the enigmas of mystic experience. A personal experience lived beneath the obsessive theme of the vast work of our author. In an interview in 1982, Borges confessed to Willis Barnstone that he had twice had this kind of mystical experience:

In my life l… had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put into words… It was astonishing, outstanding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of living not in time but outside time… l wrote poems about it, but they are normal poems and do not tell the experience. I cannot tell it to you, since I cannot retell it to myself, but I had the experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it once more before I die.
Borges told me the same words he had told Barnstone. One of those ecstatic trances happened on the Constitution Bridge in Buenos Aires, where he felt like he was situated outside of time and space, living in a level of awareness expanded to infinity. He tried to explain some of this in his poem “Matthew, XXV, 30” — the confession is also Borges’ — but he insisted to me it was useless to try to speak of the experience, because it was not verbal, but super-rational. When I asked him to explain in detail the two experiences in a question and answer session that followed one of his lectures, he responded: “If you write about San Juan de la Cruz, you know that I simply cannot answer. It is about experiences that cannot be articulated or transferred.” On four occasions I spoke with Borges about his encounter with the unspeakable, and his words were surrounded by the sincere surprise of someone who is talking about experiences that are still being processed.

María Kodama, his widow, confirmed to me that these experiences so interested Borges that he discussed them with a Buddhist nun in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where he planned to spend a year exploring them more closely. Destiny was not kind, as he fell fatally ill before being able to complete his planned trip.

It came to light that Borges, an expert in Zen Buddhism, in divination, in the mystical detours of the heretical Christians and the visionary Swedenborg, always felt more comfortable exploring these super-rational experiences from cultural parameter very different from his own. One of the literary canons he seized with understanding is the Islamic.


Borges knew well that he was taking on a literary canon that is separate from the paradigms of his western culture, which he explored in his essay “About the Classics” in Other Inquisitions. His work was a prelude to the true contemporary obsession with the problems of the literary canon in the West. Harold Bloom, as we know, proposed a more essentialist vision of the intrinsic values of literary works in his famous Western Canon (Bloom 1995), while other theorists, such as John Guillory, believed that our appreciation for canonical texts is tied to the time and the circumstances. Borges knew it well: to some, Fausto is a marvel, while for others it is “one of the most famous forms of tedium” (Borges 1989a: 151). Time wears at the texts: “The emotions that literature raises are sometimes eternal, but the means should constantly vary, if we want it not to lose its virtue.” (ibid.).

Bloom would not have disagreed, although he admitted reading Borges, whose inclusion, like Calvin, among the western classics, “activates an awareness of literature in which he has gone farther than anyone else” (Bloom 1995: 439). This awareness of literature is more extreme in Borges than Bloom imagined, because he went so far as to break the mold of his own western canon with continual allusions to foreign eastern Islamic canons, the Hebrews, the Buddhists and others. With Borges, we cannot speak about the Western Canon, but rather the Global Canon. The maestro believes, as we have seen, that it is necessary to renew one’s own cultural legacy and deciding to mix it, with particular daring, with symbols borrowed from other traditional canons, does not begin to run the risk, which happens so often, of becoming enigmatic and confusing. But Borges relies on the mysterious loyalty of readers who incessantly and continuously decode the challenges imposed on us by his cosmopolitan work.

Our author was, as I said, an adept follower of the Muslim literary canon. He talked with Arabists such as Miguel Asín and Edward Fitzgerald, and famous translators of the venerated verbal garden who were part of the One Thousand and One Nights. He took part in the arduous cultural search of Averroes, entered the labyrinth of Abenjacán the Bojarí and did not hesitate to approach Almotasim. Borges aimed with particular passion his transcendental questions in the literary language of the sons of Islam.

He knew, above all, the secrets of the trobar clus or hermetic symbolism of Islamic mysticism. It was no secret that the nightingale of the Sufis never called the mournful chant of Virgil’s Georgics, where was found the figuration of the mother dispossessed of her nest of featherless chicks. The rara avis of the Persians sang, instead, the presence of the living God, represented by the simile of the rose. The nightingale and the Rose constitute an inseparable symbol in mystic Islamic literature. Thus Borges, in his “Ode to the Nightingale,” distinguished between the two emblematic birds of East and West: “Virgil’s nightingale and that of the Persians.” Apparently, Filomena of Garcilaso and Keats is not the same as the bolbol of ‘Aṭṭār and Rūmī. Borges manages two competing literary canons. And does it with full awareness.

He returns to the same in “The Simurgh and the Eagle,” where he contrasts the eagle of Dante (Paradise XVII and XIX), consisting of thousands of the righteous who intone their otherworldly prayer in unison, and considered a less successful simile than the dizzying Simurgh of ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur. Thirty birds (simurgh) search for their Bird King (Simurgh), only to discover in the end that they themselves are the Simurgh they seek. The rose, so laden with mythology, is also a flower that evokes disparate literary traditions: “The rose of the Persians and of Ariosto” (Borges 1989a:25). Now we return to that rose, sung of in two different literary canons that Borges distinguished very well in the poem “The Unending Rose.”

In the examples I am about to cite, Borges pits the western canon and the Islamic literary canon one against the other. However, he cautiously elaborates intricate Muslim similes and leaves the difficult task of decoding them to the Arabists. He really was an enfant terrible: after studying him for years, I imagine that Borges would secretly enjoy hatching his cryptic Islamic allusions. In the “Zahir,” a symbol that Floyd Merrell considered a “hopeless symbol” because it was so enigmatic (Merrell 1991:6), the writer avoids naming what is behind the symbolism of the zahir. The zahir means the exterior or represented God to the expert fundamentalist theologian zahiritas; in other words, the God that the theologians try to study with the weak tool of language. Borges is silent on the underlying zahir but the Arabists know it well — the bātin, the living God hidden in mystical experience that rational language does not dare touch. (That is why printed on the edge of the coin are the strange letters NT: noli tangere.) “Behind this name is that which is not named,” said Borges (Borges 1989: 875), but the “mystic undercurrent” — the eloquent phrase is his — is clear and the Argentine chose to say it in Islamic code.

It is in Islamic code that Borges writes his crepuscular poem “The Unending Rose.” The verses are sunken in a network of new meanings in light of his Sufi literary background, the perspective from which it must be read. Here is the poem:

Five hundred years in the wake of the Hegira,
Persia looked down from its minarets
on the invasion of the desert lances,
and Attar of Nishapur gazed on a rose,
addressing it in words which had no sound,
as one who thinks rather than one who prays:
—Your fragile globe is in my hand; and time
is bending both of us, both unaware,
this afternoon, in a forgotten garden.
Your brittle shape is humid in the air.
The steady, tidal fullness of your fragrance
rises up to my old, declining face.
But I know you far longer than that child
who glimpsed you in the layers of a dream
or here, in this garden, once upon a morning.
The whiteness of the sun may well be yours
or the moon’s gold, or else the crimson stain
on the hard sword-edge in the victory.
I am blind and I know nothing, but I see
there are more ways to go; and everything
is an infinity of things. You, you are music,
rivers, firmaments, palaces and angels,
O endless rose, intimate, without limit,
which the Lord will finally show to my dead eyes.

(Borges 1989c: 116).

The poetic protagonist of the verses, Farīd ad-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur, he who breathes the perfume, is one of the most celebrated medieval Sufi poets. His death at the hands of invading Mongols, to which Borges alludes in his verses, is as unclear as the exact dates of his life, but ‘Aṭṭār himself alludes to his age and imminent death in his later books.

Borges knew the Conference of the Birds or Mantiq ut-tayr by ‘Aṭṭār with its allusion to Simurgh through the French translation by Garcin de Tassy (1863) and the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald. Particularly melancholy is the Asrār Nāma, or Book of Secrets (or mysteries), by ‘Aṭṭār that Hellmut Ritter published in German. In it, the Persian laments his difficult old age and his coming death, but he knows that when he dies, God will reveal creation (kašf called the Sufis to this “revelation”) and will show the “Science of the Secrets” hidden from mortal eyes. Curiously, ‘Aṭṭār’s sad attitude borders on agnosticism, with which the Persian extends a brotherly bridge to the Argentine, who writes “Unending Rose” when he is already old with his inveterate agnostic attitude. The “Approach to Almotásim” by Borges in 1936 had offered a biographic sketch of the poet from Nišapur, “land of turquoise and swords,” and quotes him again in “The Simurgh and the Eagle” (1982). He knew what he was doing. Now we will see just how well he knew.

In “The Zahir,” Borges had used the Asrār Nāma by ‘Aṭṭār to give us some keys to the enigmatic simile of the “zahir”: “A commentator of Gulshan i Raz says that anyone who has seen the Zahir will soon see the Rose and cites a verse in the Asrar nama (book of things that are ignored) by ‘Aṭṭār: the Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the rip in the Veil” (Borges 1899a: 594). It seems we are facing a delirious definition of the symbol of the Zahir, if nebulous. Readers feel an instinctive fear of the enigma of a voyage that is inscrutable. But no: Borges speaks in the symbolic Sufi key, and soon we see that his allusions are perfectly understandable. We are surprised in “The Unending Rose” by “the shadow of the rose” and the “tear in the veil,” and we face the rose, but the Rose with a capital letter.

Borges begins his poem by setting the scene with the Islamic lunar calendar: “Five hundred years in the wake of the Hegira.” The poet should have said “Six hundred years in the wake of the Hegira” to better agree with the true dates of ‘Aṭṭār, but we are not going to pit biographical exactitude against the terse beauty of this first line. “Persia looked down from its minarets,” continues the protagonist, evoking the Muslim Persian witness to the Mongol invasion. ‘Aṭṭār then looks at a rose and talks about its “fragile globe.” It is curious that he “looks,” because he admits to us he is blind: “I am blind and I know nothing.” We know that the ‘Aṭṭār of history was never blind: the contradictory blindness Borges imposes has, we will see, important symbolic implications. We will come back to that, but for now it is a warning that with his “blindness,” ‘Aṭṭār is associated with the alter ego of the Argentine master, blind from youth.

‘Aṭṭār celebrates in the poem a rose he does not see but whose perfume he breathes. Borges, we know, has sung incessantly of other roses: “the unreachable rose,” for example, that rescues the forgotten “through the art of alchemy.” This “art” that brings it back to life is the word, as the Argentine illustrates in “The Rose of Paracelso.” The Swiss wizard disappoints a potential student who asks him to resurrect the ashes of a rose that had been thrown in the fire: when the student had left, Paracelso “took the handful of ashes in his concave palm and said a word in a low voice. The rose resurrected” (Borges 1989c: 392). His alchemy, thus, was verbal, and the rose was reborn intact, although immaterial, being conjured by the language.

Borges’ work constitutes an extended meditation on the language, as shown by Grabriela Massuh, Gérard Genette, Michael Foucault, Rafael Gutiérrez Girardot, Jaime Rest and Arturo Echavarría. The rose is a verbal object invoked by the writer through language: as when the blind Milton raises the rose to his face in “A Rose and Milton” and cannot see its color: “vermilion or yellow / or white rose from an erased garden.” But for the writer — as good an alchemist as Paracelso — destiny provides “the right to name for the first time” this silent flower that shines in verse, converted to “gold, blood or ivory.” Echavarría (1983) argues that each reader evokes the invisible rose in his or her imagination in a different way, thus making the ephemeral rose of the royal garden into the everlasting and plural literary rose, like the invisible frame that Jorge Larco promised as an “Unending Gift” to Borges. Remember that our poem is titled “The Unending Rose.”

But the rose of ‘Aṭṭār is a Persian literary flower: the rose or gol that symbolizes the infinite God that is sung of by the transcendent bolbol or the Islamic nightingale. ‘Aṭṭār opens The Conference of Birds with this otherworldly Rose and when the ‘Aṭṭār of Borges whispers melancholic words of farewell in the garden, we know that it is a symbolic Sufi nightingale speaking in the secret language of the birds: in the non-verbal language of the unspeakable mystical experience. Only those initiated understand this language of birds or mantiq ut-tayr that his cited as the epigraph to this study.

Let us recapitulate. In the first part of the poem, Borges invokes, through the mask of ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur, the fragrant flower that ends up being the flower saved from being forgotten, thanks to the word: it may be, like the rose of Milton and the picture of Jaime Larco, multicolored and infinite. The blind — ‘Aṭṭār and Borges — cannot tell us the color of the invisible flower show it in multiplicity to those who would pass through the fragrant verbal garden: “It could have the whiteness of the sun / Or the gold of the moon or vermilion / Constancy of a sword in victory.” Each reader imagines in his or her own way and in time, with successive readings. So far, the Borges poem works like that of “A Rose and Milton” and it appears we are seeing a reflection on the magical power of words to save ephemeral things from time. What Parecelso did was whisper the verbal signs into his palm that spell the word rose and resurrected the material flower from its ashes.

But in this poem, to our surprise, there is more than one rose: that of many colors, that the blind man imagines but cannot see, and that echoes in the eyes of the readers; and the other Rose, now capitalized, that is “music, / firmament, palaces, rivers, angels.” The poet now no longer is describing possible attributes of a flower, but rather the strange flower that contains the inconceivable universe within it. In it, the corporeal and transcendental planes flow together — the rivers along with the angels. This “deep, unlimited, intimate Rose” is another rose: “the one the Lord will show to my dead eyes.” An infinite rose that God will open on another plane higher than vision.

The poem suddenly reflects two mysterious roses – the corporeal rose saved from being forgotten by poets such as Milton or Ariosto by writing about it in language, and the non-verbal Rose of the Sufis. If we do not consider the Islamic mystical coordinates of the poem, we miss its richness. Borges tells us that ‘Aṭṭār “looks at” the rose, although he is “blind.” The oxymoron is rich. Borges does not really falsify his character, because ‘Aṭṭār himself talked of his blindness in The Book of Secrets, only for him it referred to a symbolic mystical blindness. There are two ways of seeing, let’s say, and I quote a Persian translation: “the eyes of there and those of here are not the same” (Janés 1999: 26). There are moments that are overwhelming, as Borges called them in his own case, in which the veil is momentarily torn aside and the contemplative can access the ineffable vision thanks to “a way of intuitive and unified perception that has to do with the divine essence in its places of epiphany. The Sufis called this ‘vision of certainty’ that led to the unveiling ‘ayn al-yaqīn.” For a Persian such as ‘Aṭṭār, the site of the epiphany of the symbolic manifestation of God is the Rose, which is so celebrated in his own literary tradition. The Rose is a symbol of infinite God: every Sufi knows it and Borges, fugitive to this foreign literary canon, demands that we know it, also.

But this “veiled” flower whose perfume ‘Aṭṭār breathes with nostalgia is “the shadow of the rose”, the corporeal flower that allows the Muslim mystic to understand the supreme epiphany of God. The Persian mystic longs for, however, the high state of ‘ayn al-yaqīn: seeing without intermediaries the infinite Rose of God. Reaching the living God, not in verbal name or the shadow that it uselessly tries to understand. (For Borges, as Echavarría suggests, the shadow has always meant the language that evokes the real.) All is “blindness” because ‘Aṭṭār faces this direct contemplation of the Divine Essence, where all of the “things” of the universe come together, unified. From there, “each thing” can be an “infinite thing,” as Borges notes in the poem that the Rose is the music and the rivers and the angels: impossible not to remember the quieted music and the sonorous rivers of the “spiritual canticle” of San Juan de la Cruz. This is the unimaginable Rose that Borges and ‘Aṭṭār want to see, not the literary flower that is saved from being forgotten but the ephemeral flower of the garden.

‘Aṭṭār, despite being a mystic, is, in the Borges poem, a nostalgic old man who recalls what the rose meant in an adventurous day: the day of his ecstatic vision. Now, he hopes to again “see” his rose when God shows him the Rose (capitalized forever) to his dead eyes. In his Book of the Secrets, ‘Aṭṭār laments the veil that hides God in the beautiful things. In the “Zahir,” Borges, meanwhile, has attributed to ‘Aṭṭār an enigmatic caveat that has to do with this veil: he who has seen the Zahir will soon see the Rose (with capital). Remember that the “Zahir” is the manifest or visible God of the rationalist theologians: the word God with which the theologians speculate that does not know the transcendence directly. In the garden, ‘Aṭṭār has only seen the zāhir, which is the rose of notorious exterior beauty that he holds in his trembling hands and that can be evoked by the language we remember from Paracelso but is only a “shadow” of the hidden or “veiled” rose of the living God. The poet refers to the inscrutable God in the simile of the infinite Rose that contains all and therefore is not verbal.

‘Aṭṭār holds the “light weight” of the rose, which is, we now know, just an image or an epiphany of the authentic Rose, oblique reference to the direct experience of God, which wants to be able to see things before death. Neither ‘Aṭṭār nor Borges now want this rose, which was fragrant in the garden of real life and many faceted in the verbal garden of Borges himself and the Sufis. Both poets are old and disposed to see the other Rose. The time is imminent, because only death, in the end — and forever — opens the eyes to the vision of transcendence.

In the “Zahir,” as I previewed, Borges attributed to ‘Aṭṭār some mysterious words that we now understand better: “The Zahir is the shadow of the Rose and the ripping of the veil.” It is necessary to rip this veil that hides the God-Rose. The “tearing of the veil” or kašf, which means, as we have seen, the change in awareness at the moment of ecstasy, will only perpetuate after death. Dying — and I directly quote the poet ‘Aṭṭār — “The veils will be raised one after another” and the “veil of the secrets will unfold” (Janés 1999: 29). The “shadow of the rose” — the zahir or “exterior” or “manifest” rose — will give way to the Rose of the Rose of the living God, always hidden from mortal eyes: the highly sought bātin of the Sufis that, being infinite, cannot be verbalized. Borges knew these mystical extremes well. Remember that he said “behind the name is that which is unnamed.”

The Rose of the after-death, as I said, is not verbal: the language falsifies that unnamable and infinite Rose12 and the poets can only allude to its “shadow” or indirect “epiphany” because human words are incapable of conceiving, or even less, expressing “the inconceivable universe.” Paracelso and Ariosto could have resurrected their corporeal roses with the act of language, but the language betrays the infinite and sacred Rose and covers it with a veil because it can never be articulated adequately. In the context of his poem, Borges has passed from celebration of the language, which saves the ephemeral things from time, to the most severe critic of the language, which is incapable of evoking the living experience of the Whole. ‘Aṭṭār anticipated by centuries the “desperation of the writer” that bothered Borges in “The Aleph” and that is echoed in all that is authentically mystic. We see that Borges read ‘Aṭṭār carefully: “All these truths I have in the heart / God knows, make me a prisoner of the language.” After the unveiling of the Light of God that implies death, the mystic — ‘Aṭṭār reiterates — “crosses the endless abyss of Divinity, of which no language can speak.” Nostalgic for that immortal flower, which is found, according to Rūmī, outside the annoying human language, the Muslim nightingales sing through many literary springs, knowing well that they never can say it truly. That was exactly the infinite Rose that Borges sang of in his “Unending Rose,” taking on, with ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur, the secret condition of singer initiated in the unnamable Rose. He ends up being an “honorary Persian.” Like the fugitive Droctulft in Ravena, the barbarian who abandoned the swamps of Germany for the splendid spectacle of the Roman city in another story by Borges,13 the maestro has come to a foreign literary canon: that of the Muslims. The poem we have looked at implies an impassioned inter-textual dialogue between Islamized nightingales in the setting of a distant and exotic garden extensively visited by Borges: the perfumed garden of Persian poetry. With as much savoir-faire as reverence, the Argentine poet has joined his voice to that of the ‘Aṭṭār de Nišapur to intone an authentic Mantīq-ut-Tayr or Conference of the Birds, in the Spanish language.


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Author: Luce López-Baralt
Published: May 14, 2015.

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