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The Mirror of Enigmas

by Jorge Luis Borges - translation by James E. Irby

The idea that the Sacred Scriptures have (aside from their literal value) a symbolic value is ancient and not irrational: it is found in Philo of Alexandria, in the Cabalists, in Swedenborg. Since the events related in the Scriptures are true (God is Truth, Truth cannot lie, etc.), we should admit that men, in acting out those events, blindly represent a secret drama determined and premeditated by God. Going from this to the thought that the history of the universe - and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives - has an incalculable, symbolic value, is a reasonable step. Many have taken that step; no one so astonishingly as Léon Bloy. (In the psychological fragments by Novalis and in that volume of Machen's autobiography called "The London Adventure" there is a similar hypothesis: that the outer world - forms, temperatures, the moon - is a language we humans have forgotten or which we can scarcely distinguish... It is also declared by De Quincey:[1] "Even the articulate or brutal sounds of the globe must be all so many languages and ciphers that somewhere have their corresponding keys - have their own grammar and syntax; and thus the least things in the universe must be secret mirrors to the greatest.")

A verse from St. Paul (I Corinthians, 13:12) inspired Léon Bloy.
Videmus nunc per speclum in aenigmate: tunc autem facie ad faciem. Nunc cognosco ex parte: tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum.

Torres Amat has miserably translated:
At present we do not see God except as in a mirror and beneath dark images; but later we shall see Him face to face. I only know Him now imperfectly; but later I shall know Him in a clear vision, in the same way that I know myself.

49 words do the work of 22; it is impossible to be more languid and verbose. Cipriano de Valera is more faithful.
Now we see in a mirror, in darkness; but later we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; but later I shall know as I am known.

Torres Amat opines that the verse refers to our vision of the divinity; Cipriano de Valera (and Léon Bloy), to our general vision of things.

So far as I know, Bloy never gave his conjecture a definitive form. Throughout his fragmentary work (in which there abound, as everyone knows, lamentations and insults) there are different versions and facets. Here are a few that I have rescued from the clamorous pages of Le mendiant ingrat, Le Vieux de la Montagne and L'invendable. I do not believe I have exhausted them: I hope that some specialist in Léon Bloy (I am not one) may complete and rectify them.

The first is from June 1894. I translate it as follows:
The statement by St. Paul: 'Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate' would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the firmament's abysses is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived 'in a mirror.' We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our hearts, for which God was willing to die... If we see the Milky Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.

The second is from the same year.
I recall one of my oldest ideas. The Czar is the leader and spiritual father of a hundred fifty million men. An atrocious responsibility which is only apparent. Perhaps he is not responsible to God, but rather to a few human beings. If the poor of his empire are oppressed during his reign, if immense catastrophes result from that reign, who knows if the servant charged with shining his boots is not the real and sole person guilty? In the mysterious dispositions of the Profundity, who is really Czar, who is king, who can boast of being a mere servant?

The third is from a letter written in December.
Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness or not. We now see, St. Paul maintains, per speculum in aenigmate, literally: 'in an enigma by means of a mirror' and we shall not see in any other way until the coming of the One who is all in flames and who must teach us all things.

The fourth is from May 1904.
Per speculum in aenigmate, says St. Paul. We see everything backwards. When we believe we give, we receive, etc. Then (a beloved, anguished soul tells me) we are in Heaven and God suffers on earth.

The fifth is from May 1908.
A terrifying idea of Jeanne's, about the text 'Per speculum'. The pleasures of this world would be the torments of Hell, seen backwards, in a mirror.

The sixth is from 1912. It is each of the pages of L'Âme de Napoléon, a book whose purpose is to decipher the symbol Napolean, considered as the precursor of another hero - man and symbol as well - who is hidden in the future. It is sufficient for me to cite two passages. One:
Every man is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will serve to build the City of God.

The other:
There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light... History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

The foregoing paragraphs will perhaps seem to the reader mere gratuities by Bloy. So far as I know, he never took care to reason them out. I venture to judge them verisimilar and perhaps inevitable within the Christian doctrine. Bloy (I repeat) did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, and perform other exegetical rigors which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind.[2] Léon Bloy postulates this hieroglyphical character - this character of a divine writing, of an angelic cryptography - at all moments and in all beings on earth. The superstitious person believes he can decipher this organic writing; thirteen guests form the symbol of death; a yellow opal, that of misfortune.

It is doubtful that the world has a meaning; it is even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning, the unbeliever will observe. I understand this to be so; but I understand that the hieroglyphical world postulated by Bloy is the one which best befits the dignity of the theologian's intellectual God.

'No man knows who he is', affirmed Léon Bloy. No one could illustrate the intimate ignorance better than he. He believed himself a rigorous Catholic and he was a continuer of the Cabalists, a secret brother of Swedenborg and Blake: heresiarchs.


[1] Writings, 1896, Vol. I, page 129.

[2] What is a divine mind? the reader will perhaps inquire. There is not a theologian who does not define it; I prefer an example. The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle. This figure (perhaps) has its given function in the economy of the universe.