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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 Four Two lectures on Swedenborg: Emerson and Borges


The Arabians say, that Abul Khair, the mystic, and Abu Ali Seena, the philosopher, conferred together; and, on parting, the philosopher said, ‘All that he sees, I know’; and the mystic said, ‘All that he knows, I see’. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their f light? For an augury of good or evil? A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa f lew through his mind and then there f lew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the cor- respondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason. — James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man Ralph Waldo Emerson is a powerful presence in Borges. He is referred to in many essays, interviews, tales and poems. Borges dedicated a sonnet to him and listed him amongst his enumeration of treasures in the poem ‘Elogio de la sombra’. He also translated Emerson’s Representative Men into Spanish. Far too many to list here, the many references to Emerson in Borges’ works are invariably employed as herald for an exploration of a particular literary or philosophical theme.1 Most importantly and most frequently, Borges 1 ‘Emerson, lector de los hindúes y de Attar, deja el poema Brahma’ (1974: 251)...

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