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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 Three In the shadow of William James: Borges as scholar of mysticism


In order to be able to decide if the prophet is telling the truth or lying, we shall have to investigate the mystical experience for ourselves. This can be done in two ways: from the outside, by studying the biographies and writings of the saints; and from the inside, by following the instructions they have given us. — Christopher Isherwood, Vedanta for The Western World Was Borges a theorist of mysticism? As established in the previous chapter, it is characteristic of scholars of mysticism to define the terms ‘mystic’ and ‘mysticism’ by enumerating the salient features following analysis of both mystical texts and, in some cases, personal experience. William James’s four principles are doubtless the best known. Borges is not a name gen- erally associated with the long tradition of the scholarship of mysticism, for the same reason that he is not included, for example, in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. This is because he always eschewed defin- ing a particular theory or method – whether philosophical, theological or metaphysical – preferring to be considered ‘un mero hombre de letras y no un investigador o de un teólogo’ (2005: 155) [‘a mere man of letters and not a researcher or theologian’] (1995: 8). He af firms this to Burgin in interview: ‘I’m not sure whether I’m a Christian, but I’ve read a great many books on theology for the sake of their theological problems – free will, punishment, and eternal happiness. All these problems have interested me as food for my imagination’ (Burgin...

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