Limits Imposed and Removed
Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite modern writers, published two distinct but similar poems called “Limits,” dealing with roughly the same philosophical theme, namely the gradual narrowing of our remaining experience as we grow older. I wish to discuss the shorter of the two poems, which, although less well-known, is the one I prefer.
I begin with Borges’ work itself, which I present here both in the original Spanish and in my own English translation. I am neither a poet nor an expert in the Spanish language, but I do not wish to violate anyone’s copyright by posting one of the officially published renditions. And I may say, as my only defense of my hubris in daring to produce my own version, that the only reason I know Spanish at all is because I studied it on my own many years ago for the express purpose of reading Borges in his original tongue.
Hay una línea de Verlaine que no volveré a recordar.
Hay una calle próxima que está vedada a mis pasos,
hay un espejo que me ha visto por última vez,
hay una puerta que he cerrado hasta el fin del mundo.
Entre los libros de mi biblioteca (estoy viéndolos)
hay alguno que ya nunca abriré.
Este verano cumpliré cincuenta años;
La muerte me desgasta, incesante.
— Jorge Luis Borges
There is a line of Verlaine that I will not remember again,
There is a nearby street that is forbidden to my footsteps,
There is a mirror that has seen me for the final time,
There is a door that I have closed until the end of the world.
Among the books of my library (I am looking at them now),
There are some that I will never again open.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year;
Death wears me down, unceasing.
— translation by Daren Jonescu
I begin by observing that this poem, at least viewed as a pure form, abstracted from my inevitably inadequate translation, which merely participates in that form at two removes, is lovely in the manner of Borges’ best writing, which is to say that it is lovely without sentimentality or floridity — without any superficial affectations of loveliness.
Notice that Borges does not romanticize these various “last times” of life. There is neither wistfulness nor tragic posturing. It is simply a catalogue of mortality, a reflection on life’s recession.
It is precisely here, however, that I wish to dispute the poet’s presentation of the accurately reproduced mental catalogue. Specifically, I question the elegant final line: “Death wears me down, unceasing.” Or rather, I wish to challenge just one word, one interpretive decision, that Borges made in the process of rounding off his reflection: his use of the grammatical object “me.”
The original Spanish is as decisive on this point as my English translation: La muerte me desgasta. I regard this choice of object as indicating a fatal error in Borges’ thinking on the relation between experience and death, an error all too common to our age. This error, if I may speak somewhat cryptically for a moment, is the equation of experience with life, from which equation it follows that the gradual closing off of experience constitutes the loss of life. Hence, in response to the doors closed forever and the books never to be reopened, Borges concludes that death — the presence that limits experience, or rather limits the replication of experience — is wearing down the subject of those disappearing experiences, namely “me.”
First of all, it is unlike Borges, given the usual complexity of his thought on the nature of time and perception, to identify the limit of repeated experience — the “nearby street that is forbidden to my footsteps,” i.e., that I will never walk again — as an existentially meaningful reality at all. Borges was very well aware of Heraclitus’ observation that we never set foot in the same river twice, meaning that the flow of time makes a true repetition of experience impossible. And yet to claim, as he does in this poem, that something will never happen again, is implicitly to assume that it could happen again, which is to say that the river of time is frozen or illusory, and that you and that street are in principle capable of meeting again as the same person, the same street. If he were not assuming this, then associating the eroding effects of Death with the mere fact that there are particular and unreplicable events that will not happen would be a triviality, as it is simply self-evident that there are millions of discrete particularities one will not encounter in one’s lifetime; and this would presumably be true even if one were never going to die. Thus, the poem’s emphasis on events having occurred for “the final time” is a conceit based on the psychological illusion of temporal stasis and true perceptual repeatability in a phenomenal world of flux and development, an illusion Borges himself, of all modern poets, is best equipped to see through, as Heraclitus saw through it twenty-five hundred years earlier.
There is a second problem with Borges’ perspective here, however, which strikes me as even more fundamental than the first, namely a misperception of the nature of the endlessly closing doors of experience that he cites as evidence of Death’s wearing him (and us) down.
Every door that is closed forever entails entering a new world in which that door (meaning whatever was on the other side of it) is no more, as that door. This new world has all those forever-closed doors and never-revisited streets as its sedimentary rock layers, or as part of the manifold the mind must gradually learn to transcend or overlook in its continual quest for greater focus. To focus means precisely this: to bring the essential object — the focal point — forward while pushing all else into recession.
Insofar as closed doors and unreviewed sentences comprise death’s unceasing approach, then, we may say that to die (as a process) is to place essential experience, that which does not fade with time but rather never completes its slow unfolding in the soul, into bold relief. Death, understood in this sense, which is to say as an intellectual process, equals concentration. What is “worn down,” then, is not the living person, but rather the blur of experience that constitutes the material intellect as it seeks form and actuality. Death is a “limit” in the sense of providing definition. Death sculpts sharp meaning out of the receding blur of transient perceptions. The forever closed door, the book never to be reopened, and the mirror that never reflects us again, are, or rather become, the dust of experience left by thought’s chisel as it reveals meaning, which is to say truth, which is to say life.
All of this, of course, applies only to those who have learned to experience their surroundings as hunters of perfect stones, and then to reflect upon it all as sculptors seeking to reveal the true forms lying in potency within those stones. That is to say, I am speaking only of the serious, desiring intellect, and explicating Borges’ musings through the lens of Socrates’ famous formula, “Philosophy is practicing for death.” That aphoristic formula, spoken in the final hours of his own life, was, if you will, Socrates’ rewrite of Borges’ poem about limits.