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Borges, Swedenborg and Mysticism


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 Two Was Borges a mystic, and does it matter?


The range of mystical experience is very wide, much too wide for us to cover in the time at our disposal. — William James, Varieties of Religious Experience Knowledge of God, the realization of one’s union with God, in a word, mysticism, is necessary. — Alan Watts, Behold the Spirit Borges repeatedly denied being a mystic: Many people have thought of me as a thinker, as a philosopher, or even as a mystic. […] People think that I’ve committed myself to idealism, to solipsism, or to doctrines of the cabala, because I’ve used them in my tales. But really I was only trying to see what could be done with them. (Burgin 1998: 79) At the same time, he recognized that he experienced two mystical states in his life: In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put in words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experi- ence. And if you have not had the experience you can’t share it – as if you were to talk about the taste of cof fee and had never tried cof fee. Twice in my life I had a feeling, a feeling rather agreeable than otherwise. It was astonishing, astounding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of living not in time but outside time. It may have been a minute or so, it may have been longer. […] Somehow the feeling came over me that I was living beyond time,...

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