23 May 2014

Labyrinths

In one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, the titular detective, no doubt echoing the opinion of his creator, describes the difference between a mystic and a mystagogue, a huckster or sham mystic. “Real mystics,” he says, “don’t hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you’ve seen it, it’s still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it’s a platitude.”

By this definition, Chesterton himself was one of the greatest mystics of all time. One could perhaps call him the “mystic of common sense,” for he reveled in revealing the humane paradoxes of the simple Christian view of life, vocation, and family. Jorge Luis Borges, who was himself greatly influenced by Chesterton, was a mystic as well. He was a mystic of academia or scholarship. He revels in the perverse paradoxes that lurk in the labyrinths of footnotes, the dark and uncertain basements of our sunny and certain essays. He reveals the fundamental insecurities of scholarship and thereby invites the reader to a humility that is nothing less than Christian. I say this despite the fact that Borges was a professed agnostic, for no matter how esoteric or alien his subject matter, his little essays and stories are all founded on the soil of the Christian West like a pagoda in an English garden. It is this rootedness that allows him to be a good mystic, the same rootedness that shapes, for example, Eco’s fiction.

Many authors today, trying to write the perfect postmodern story or novel, have become mere mystagogues, trotting out worn clichĂ©s and platitudes and using every means in their power to make them seem mystifying, to the glory of the author’s intellect. However, Borges seems to hold his genius lightly, playing with words and ideas like a juggler plays with balls. He is clearly having a jolly time of it and wants the reader to enter into the sense of fun; however, this doesn’t detract from the heavy questions posed by many of his stories. The same keen intellect runs through all these “ficciones”, but the individual stories themselves are of many kinds. Some of them like “The Immortal” seem like they could have been written by H.P. Lovecraft; others like “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Shape of the Sword” are highly reminiscent of G.K Chesterton. Some of the stories defy categorization, and some are not actually stories but merely the outlines of stories yet to be written.


I believe that Borges’s intent is to leave the reader with a spinning mind and a sense of awe in light of the story of the world, a story encompassing billions of characters with varied motivations and actions and infinite possibilities before them. Borges’s stories are, among many other things, a call to intellectual humility. As the anonymous narrator of “The Lottery of Babylon” writes, “I have known what the Greeks do not know, incertitude.”

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