It takes great sobriety of spirit to know your depths. It takes an exceptional grandeur of nature to know the limits of your self-knowledge. A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his ( ) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless and his classic . Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in animate — loosely
translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:
The outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or cannot distinguish.
No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to the more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917).
Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — and 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:
[St. Paul’s statement] 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 sky’s Abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart… If we see the, it is because it exists in our souls.
A century before Milan Kundera consideredin his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:
Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do notafflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness.
These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, and his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay— a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered the precursor of another hero — man, and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:
Every manis 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.
NHistory is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters. Still, the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden. o human being on earth can declare who he is with certitude. No one knows what he hasinto this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, his real name, his enduring Name in the register of Light…
But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making about fundamental truth.
Borges recognized this, closing the essay by acknowledging, “It is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.”
I recognized this upon sitting down for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm andotherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.
I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.)
But then I considered this chance event as thethat deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the precise moment to produce the chance event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this certain consciousness that is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why awash is.
No oneof why anything comes to be or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as an incredible cosmic egg.
Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with a chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the importance of a color or a bird. On this particular, in this specific moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue; singing only is.