Jorge Luis Borges is a great writer who has composed only little essays or short narratives. Yet they suffice for us to call him great because of their wonderful intelligence, their wealth of invention, and their tight, almost mathematical style. Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds. It is a sign of his importance that, in placing him, only strange and perfect works can be called to mind. He is akin to Kafka, Poe, sometimes to Henry James and Wells, always to Valéry by the abrupt projection of his paradoxes in what has been called “his private metaphysics.”
His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read every thing, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—but it is vast. For example, Pascal wrote: “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.” Borges sets out to hunt down this metaphor through the centuries. He finds in Giordano Bruno (1584): “We can assert with certainty that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.” But Giordano Bruno had been able to read in a twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille, a formulation borrowed from the Corpus Hermeticum (third century): “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Such researches, carried out among the Chinese as among the Arabs or the Egyptians, delight Borges, and lead him to the subjects of his stories.
Many of his masters are English. He has an infinite admiration for Wells and is indignant that Oscar Wilde could define him as “a scientific Jules Verne.” Borges makes the observation that the fiction of Jules Verne speculates on future probability (the submarine, the trip to the moon), that of Wells on pure possibility (an invisible man, a flower that devours a man, a machine to explore time), or even on impossibility (a man returning from the hereafter with a future flower). Beyond that, a Wells novel symbolically represents features inherent in all human destinies. Any great and lasting book must be ambiguous, Borges says; it is a mirror that makes the reader’s features known, but the author must seem to be unaware of the significance of his work—which is an excellent description of Borges’s own art. “God must not engage in theology; the writer must not destroy by human reasonings the faith that art requires of us.”