In 2004 I took a train from Chicago to Houston, rocking the whole way in a coffin-sized compartment. I had a laptop, a few books, and about fifty-two hours (round trip) to myself. As the train left Chicago, I staggered to the dining car, bought one of those mini bottles of wine, went back to my compartment, and watched the Midwestern landscape scroll by: oceans of field stretching toward the sun and then tapering into tunnels of abject poverty near small towns. When the fields went black and the towns shrunk into dots of light, I turned on my reading lamp and pulled out Seven Nights—a book that had been sitting on my desk for months. After a few pages, I realized that Borges and I were in for a long and intense journey.
Seven Nights is a meditation on literature, language, and people: what they are, how they work. It is part religion, part craft talk, part literary criticism, and part shamanism. Each chapter, a lecture given in Buenos Aires between June and August of 1977, focuses on a specific topic: The Divine Comedy, Nightmares, The Thousand and One Nights, Buddhism, Poetry, The Kabbalah, Blindness. In some respects, Borges simply teaches these topics. He defines, historicizes, and explicates. But he also celebrates and sings. Each chapter has its own intensity, rigor, and rhythm, its own key signature. Each can be read and studied on its own, but reading them all at once does something unique and compelling.
As a whole, Seven Nights is poetry—a carefully sculpted expression of wonder. And like the best poetry, it is also a distillation of volumes, a concentration of philosophy, religion, mythology, and even psychology. It looks hard at how people conjure and dream, how we yearn and tremble, how we fake ourselves out, and how gurus sometimes get beyond fakery. It is sweeping, polemical, non-stop beautiful, and terrifically destructive. It removes centuries of intellectual infrastructure and leaves room for sheer wonder. No matter the topic, Borges crashes against widely shared beliefs. He knocks down and turns to powder the most comfortable assumptions that linger in Western education—those quiet and entrenched notions that come with most schooling in the humanities. For example, in the Buddhism chapter, he goes after the sacred cow of mainstream literary life:
One of the great delusions is the I. Buddhism thus agrees with Hume, with Schopenhauer, and with our own Macedonia Fernández. There is no subject; what exists is a series of mental states. If I say, “I think,” I am committing an error, because I am assuming a fixed subject and then an act of that subject, which is a thought. It is not so. One should say, as Hume points out, not “I think,” but rather “it is thought,” as one says “it is raining.”
Here, Borges is the fierce Buddha, the sublime force that obliterates knowing. For me, his point is crucial. When you remove the big and bloated I (the thing that gets way too much attention in discussions about writers and writing), possibilities open up. Writing and reading become energies, actions, or currents—something other than personal idiosyncracies.
In the same chapter, Borges targets some annoyingly persistent beliefs that frame everything from college writing courses to degrees in the arts. First, he tackles enlightenment or illumination, which is, much to the chagrin of Platonists everywhere, “not the product of a series of syllogisms.” It is, rather, “a sudden event that is beyond logic.” A few pages later, he delivers another blow to the philosophical foundation—the notion that language connects to, or should connect to, what is real: “Erroneously, we suppose that language corresponds to that mysterious thing we call reality. The truth is that language is something else.”
I love these passages. They are direct blows to Plato—whom I consider the Richard Nixon of ancient Greece: a man with way, way too much influence given his provincial understanding of the world. I love Borges’ effortless and grand dismissal, the clean sweep of ancient nonsense. Of course, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Foucault (to name a few) hammered at the same assumptions, but Borges clobbers Plato with such facility, such ease. And in the debris, he erects something else.
More than anything, Seven Nights is a study and celebration of beauty, an investigation of aesthetic wonder. For Borges—and those of us lucky enough to read this book—beauty comes along on the wings of words. In the chapter on poetry, Borges focuses on the moon:
Let us imagine something yellow, shining, changing. That thing is something in the sky, circular; at other times it has the form of an arc, other times it grows and shrinks. Someone—we will never know the name of that someone—our ancestor, our common ancestor, gives to that thing the name moon, different in different languages and variously lovely.
And then begins a kind of linguistic beauty contest:
I would say that the Greek word selene is too complex for the moon, that the English moon has something slow, something that imposes on the voice a slowness that suits the moon, that seems like the moon because it is almost circular: it begins with the same letter with which it ends. As for the Spanish luna, that beautiful word we inherited from the Latin and share with the Italian: it consists of too many syllables, two pieces, which are perhaps too much.
The chapter is a dance with morphemes—a linguist’s giddy dream—so that when Borges declares that “Each word is an aesthetic work,” that “Language is an aesthetic creation,” we have no other conclusion worth considering. For Borges and his audience, beauty is the thing, the genesis and genius of the world. It is the engine of intellect and the measure of life experience: “Beauty waits in ambush for us. If we are sensitive, we feel it in the poetry of all languages.”
Other chapters have a similar ecumenicalism. They reach through time and tradition to seek out brain-bending and terrifying beauty. They leap over conventional boundaries and lunge for the unthinkable. Consider, for example, the conclusion of his chapter on nightmares:
The nightmare has a particular horror, and that horror may be expressed by any story… by Wordsworth’s Bedouin who is also Don Quixote, by scissors and threads, by my dream of the king, by the famous nightmares of Poe…. We also have the possibility of a theological interpretation, one that would be in accord with etymology. Take any of the words: the Latin incubus, the Saxon nightmare, the German Alp. All of them suggest something supernatural. Well, what if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.
About a month ago, I found Seven Nights in a moving box. I sat down on the basement floor, started reading, and got flung back to that amazing train ride from Chicago to Houston. Later that night, I searched through an old hard drive to find a narrative of my trip—a brief report to friends and colleagues. Here is my final note:
And on the train ride there and back, I read through a short essay collection of Jorge Luis Borges, South American guru. I recommend Seven Nights to anyone/everyone who loves language, literature, or philosophy. Wow.
I expressed my awe in one tight exclamation. That is all I could say in the moment. And here, now, I have not done much better. Seven Nights is more than this, more than its chapters, more than its almost fussy investigative foci, and more than its grand assertions. It is both compact and expansive, a stowaway and the entire journey itself.