When I go to Borges I go to his stories for their boundary-bending philosophy, his essays to remind myself of all the writers I haven't read and the ideas I've never considered, and his sonnets for the inimitable deftness he conjures his ideas with in the space of fourteen lines. And so it is apt that these lectures regard poetry - like his poetry, and unlike most of his short stories and essays, they are extraordinarily digestible.
The second of these lectures is titled simply 'The Metaphor', and I'm focusing on this not because it is more refreshing than the others, or even because metaphor is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. I have chosen this lecture simply because it contained the most thought-provoking image I've encountered for a while, and I thought it merited writing about.
Borges defines metaphor very simply: it is something made 'by linking two different things together.' And with the number of objects, concepts and nouns available, the number of possible metaphors should be near infinite. As he notes, even each individual word is secretly a metaphor, when you trace the etymology of that word. Even when using a simple word such as 'consider', he says, 'we have to forget ... there is a suggestion of astrology - "consider" originally meaning "being with the stars," "making a horoscope".' And yet he refers back to 'the Argentine poet Lugones', who 'wrote that he thought poets were always using the same metaphors.'
He goes on to describe the metaphor 'patterns' in common use - the notion of stars as eyes ('The stars look down'), time as flowing 'as a river does', women as flowers, life as a dream, death as sleeping. These metaphors may be varied a thousand different ways - a million - but why these metaphors? My own theory is that some things are simply innate within us - the argument, for example, that many people are afraid of snakes because they have been, since the earliest days, associated with evil and sin. The idea of the snake as 'bad' is so ingrained within our culture that there is a preexisting idea within us (or an idea that develops so early on that it may as well be preexisting) of their scariness. Similarly, since the dawn of time people have been regarding the stars with wide open eyes and wondering which gods, or spirits, or human descendants, are watching back. There is something about these particular metaphors which resonates within us on a perhaps untraceable level. This ties in with Borges's view on why other metaphors don't have the same sticking power, no matter how impressive: 'Because, of course, you can find other affinities that are merely astonishing, and astonishment hardly lasts more than a moment.'
But then we come to the individual, un-trope-like metaphor, which can't be traced back to one of perhaps a dozen patterns. The example Borges gives is the image I referred to earlier. It is 'from Farid al-Din Attar, or Omar Khayyám, or Hafiz, or another of the great Persian poets,' as he puts it. It is the idea of the moon as 'the mirror of time'.
The more I think of this image the more 'astonished' I am that it hasn't become another 'pattern' metaphor. First there is the moon itself, pockmarked and crater-laden, one sided, like a mirror, the reverse unseen with its back hidden from us in perpetuity. If time were physical, how could it look anything other than like that cold wasteland, a dead sphere? In an essay, 'The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,' collected in Labyrinths, Borges writes of 'Xenophanes of Colophon' who 'offered the Greeks a single God, a God who was an eternal sphere.' If spherical is a perfect way to describe God, how about using it as a way to envisage time, 'for all points of its surface are equidistant from its centre,' a beginning and end of which are impossible to pick out? Then there is the idea of a mirror, which needs eyes to look into for a reflection to be made (or at least appreciated, to avoid becoming too philosophical). We, who have been on the Earth for all of a comparative five minutes, which has been in the galaxy for all of a comparative half hour, which has been in the universe for etc, etc, look at the moon and see time, not bouncing back as reflections are often described as doing, but stagnating ever further, a languorous spot in the sky. This is an image which will stick with me until the end of my time, and which I'm sure will make its way into my own writing more than once.
So should we deplore the fact that our stock of metaphors has been needlessly reduced and search high and low for our own individual metaphors? Or should we experiment with what's readily available? With characteristic optimism, Borges encourages both, in a conclusion worth quoting in full:
'...if we like, we may try our hand at new variations of the major trends. The variations would be very beautiful, and only a few critics like myself would take the trouble to say, "Well, there you have eyes and stars and there you have time and the river over and over again." The metaphors will strike the imagination. But it may also be given to us - and why not hope for this as well? - it may also be given to us to invent metaphors that do not belong, or that do not yet belong, to accepted patterns.'
One of the best Paris Review interviews: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4331/the-art-of-fiction-no-39-jorge-luis-borges
And a link to a brilliant fiction podcast on the New Yorker, with a very harrowing Borges story called 'The Gospel According to Mark': http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/10/15/071015on_audio_theroux