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Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism

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William Rowlandson

Jorge Luis Borges was profoundly interested in the ill-defined and shape-shifting traditions of mysticism. However, previous studies of Borges have not focused on the writer’s close interest in mysticism and mystical texts, especially in the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). This book examines the relationship between Borges’ own recorded mystical experiences and his appraisal of Swedenborg and other mystics. It asks the essential question of whether Borges was a mystic by analysing his writings, including short stories, essays, poems and interviews, alongside scholarly writings on mysticism by figures such as William James. The book locates Borges within the scholarship of mysticism by evaluating his many assertions and suggestions as to what is or is not a mystic and, in so doing, analyses the influence of James and Ralph Waldo Emerson on Borges’ reading of Swedenborg and mysticism. The author argues further that Swedenborg constitutes a far richer presence in Borges’ work than scholarship has hitherto acknowledged, and assesses the presence of Swedenborg in Borges’ aesthetics, ethics and poetics.

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Chapter One Fantastic or real? Borges’ reading of Dante and Swedenborg

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1 Hay un curioso género literario que independientemente se ha dado en diversas épocas y naciones: la guía del muerto en las regiones ultraterre- nas. El Cielo y el Infierno de Swedenborg, las escrituras gnósticas, el Bardo Thödol de los tibetanos (título que, según Evans-Wentz, debe traducirse ‘Liberación por Audición en el Plano de la Posmuerte’) y el Libro Egipcio de los Muertos no agotan los ejemplos posibles. Las simpatías y diferencias de los dos últimos han merecido la atención de los eruditos; bástenos aquí repetir que para el manual tibetano el otro mundo es tan ilusorio como éste y para el egipcio es real y objetivo. — Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero, El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, ‘El Devorador de las Sombras’ [There is a strange literary genre which, spontaneously, has sprung up in various lands and at various times. This is the manual for the guidance of the dead through the Other World. Heaven and Hell by Swedenborg, the writings of the Gnostics, the Tibetan Bardo Thödol (which, according to Evans-Wentz, should be translated as ‘Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane’), and the Egyptian Book of the Dead do not exhaust the possible examples. The similarities and dif ferences of the latter two books have attracted the attention of esoteric scholarship; for us, let it be enough to recall that in the Tibetan manual the Other World is as illusory as this one, while...

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