Jorge Luis Borges

Averroes's Search

by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

S'imaginant que la tragédie n'est autre chose que l'art de louer ... Ernest Renan: Averroès, 48 (1861)

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibn-Rushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes,) becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ul-Tahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ul-falasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual. He wrote with slow sureness, from right to left; the effort of forming syllogisms and linking vast paragraphs did not keep him from feeling, like a state of well-being, the cool and deep house surrounding him. In the depths of the siesta amorous doves called huskily; from some unseen patio arose the murmur of a fountain; something in Averroes, whose ancestors came from the Arabian deserts, was thankful for the constancy of the water. Down below were the gardens, the orchard; down below, the busy Guadalquivir and then the beloved city of Cordova, no less eminent than Bagdad or Cairo, like a complex and delicate instrument, and all around (this Averroes felt also) stretched out to the limits of the earth the Spanish land, where there are few things, but where each seems to exist in a substantive and eternal way.

His pen moved across the page, the arguments entwined irrefutably, but a slight preoccupation darkened Averroes's felicity. It was not caused by the Tahafut, a fortuitous piece of work, but rather by a problem of philological nature related to the monumental work which would justify him in the eyes of men: his commentary on Aristotle. This Greek, fountainhead of all philosophy, had been bestowed upon men to teach them all that could be known; to interpret his works as the ulema interpret the Koran was Averroes's arduous purpose. Few things more beautiful and more pathetic are recorded in history than this Arab physician's dedication to the thoughts of a man separated from him by fourteen centuries; to the intrinsic difficulties we should add that Averroes, ignorant of Syriac and of Greek, was working with the translation of a translation. The night before, two doubtful words had halted him at the beginning of the Poetics. These words were tragedy and comedy. He had encountered them years before in the third book of the Rhetoric; no one in the whole world of Islam could conjecture what they meant. In vain he had exhausted the pages of Alexander of Aphrodisia, in vain he had compared the versions of the Nestorian Hunain ibn-Ishaq and of Abu-Bashar Mata. These two arcane words pullulated throughout the text of the Poetics; it was impossible to elude them.

Averroes put down his pen. He told himself (without excessive faith) that what we seek is often nearby, put away the manuscript of the Tahufut and went over to the shelf where the many volumes of the blind Abensida's Mohkam, copied by Persian calligraphers, were aligned. It was derisory to imagine he had not consulted them, but he was tempted by the idle pleasure of turning their pages. From this studious distraction, he was distracted by a kind of melody. He looked through the lattice-work balcony; below, in the narrow earthen patio, some half-naked children were playing. One, standing on another's shoulders, was obviously playing the part of a muezzin; with his eyes tightly closed, he chanted "There is no god but the God." The one who held him motionlessly played the part of the minaret; another, abject in the dust and on his knees, the part of the faithful worshipers. The game did not last long; all wanted to be the muezzin, none the congregation or the tower. Averroes heard them dispute in the vulgar dialect, that is, in the incipient Spanish of the peninsula's Moslem populace. He opened the Quitab ul ain of Jalil and thought proudly that in all Cordova (perhaps in all Al-Andalus) there was no other copy of that perfect work than this one the emir Yacub Almansur had sent him from Tangier. The name of this port reminded him that the traveler Abulcasim Al-Ashari, who had returned from Morocco, would dine with him that evening in the home of the Koran scholar Farach. Abulcasim claimed to have reached the dominions of the empire of Sin (China); his detractors, with that peculiar logic of hatred, swore he had never set foot in China and that in the temples of that land he had blasphemed the name of Allah. Inevitably the gathering would last several hours; Averroes quickly resumed his writing of the Tahafut. He worked until the twilight of evening.

The conversation, at Farach's home, passed from the incomparable virtues of the governor to those of his brother the emir; later, in the garden, they spoke of roses. Abulcasim, who had not looked at them, swore there were no roses like those adorning the Andalusian country villas. Farach would not be bought with flattery; he observed that the learned Ibn Qutaiba describes an excellent variety of the perpetual rose, which is found in the gardens of Hindustan and whose petals, of a blood red, exhibit characters which read: "There is no god but the God, Mohammed is the Apostle of God." He added that surely Abulcasim would know of those roses. Abulcasim looked at him with alarm. If he answered yes, all would judge him, justifiably, the readiest and most gratuitous of impostors; if he answered no, he would be judged an infidel. He elected to muse that the Lord possesses the key to all hidden things and that there is not a green or withered thing on earth which is not recorded in His Book. These words belong to one of the first chapters of the Koran; they were received with a reverent murmur. Swelled with vanity by this dialectical victory, Abulcasim was about to announce that the Lord is perfect in His works and inscrutable. Then Averroes, prefiguring the remote arguments of an as yet problematical Hume, declared:

"It is less difficult for me to admit an error in the learned Ibn Qutaiba, or in the copyists, than to admit that the earth has roses with the profession of the faith."

"So it is. Great and truthful words," said Abulcasim.

"One traveler," recalled Abdalmalik the poet, "speaks of a tree whose fruit are green birds. It is less painful for me to believe in it than in roses with letters."

"The color of the birds," said Averroes, "seems to facilitate the portent. Besides, fruit and birds belong to the world of nature, but writing is an art. Going from leaves to birds is easier than from roses to letters."

Another guest denied indignantly that writing is an art, since the original of the Koran - the mother of the Book - is prior to Creation and is kept in heaven. Another spoke of Chahiz of Basra, who said that the Koran is a substance which may take the form of a man or animal, an opinion seeming to concord with the opinion of those who attribute two faces to the sacred book. Farach expounded at length the orthodox doctrine. The Koran (he said) is one of the attributes of God, as is His piety; it is copied in a book, uttered by the tongue, remembered in the heart, and the language and the signs and the writing are the work of man, but the Koran is irrevocable and eternal. Averroes, who had written a commentary on the Republic, could have said that the mother of the Book is something like its Platonic model, but he noted that theology was a subject totally inaccessible to Abulcasim.

Others who had also noticed this urged Abulcasim to relate some marvel. Then as now, the world was an atrocious place; the daring could travel it as well as the despicable, those who stooped to anything. Abulcasim's memory was a mirror of intimate cowardices. What could he tell? Besides, they demanded marvels of him and marvels are perhaps incommunicable; the moon of Bengal is not the same as the moon of Yemen, but it may be described in the same words. Abulcasim hesitated; then he spoke.

"He who travels the climates and cities," he proclaimed with unction, "sees many things worthy of credit. This one, for example, which I have told only once, to the king of the Turks. It happened in Sin Kalan (Canton), where the river of the Water of Life spills into the sea."

Farach asked if the city stood many leagues from the wall Iskandar Zul Qarnain (Alexander the Great of Macedonia) raised to halt Gog and Megog.

"Deserts seperate them," said Abulcasim, with involuntary arrogance. "Forty days a cafila (caravan) would take to glimpse its towers and they say another forty to reach it. In Sin Kalan I know of no one who has seen it or has seen anyone who has seen it."

The fear of the crassly infinite, of mere space, of mere matter, touched Averroes for an instant. He looked at the symmetrical garden; he felt aged, useless, unreal. Abulcasim continued:

"One afternoon, the Moslem merchants of Sin Kalan took me to a house of painted wood where many people lived. It is impossible to describe the house, which was rather a single room, with rows of cabinets or balconies on top of each other. In these cavities there were people who were eating and drinking, and also on the floor, and also on a terrace. The persons on this terrace were playing the drum and the lute, save for some fifteen or twenty (with crimson-colored masks) who were praying, singing and conversing. They suffered prison, but no one could see the jail; they traveled on horseback, but no one could see the horse; they fought, but the swords were of reed; they died and then stood up again."

"The acts of madmen," said Farach, "exceed the previsions of the sane."

"These were no madmen," Abulcasim had to explain. "They were representing a story, a merchant told me."

No one understood, no one seemed to want to understand. Abulcasim, confused, now went from his narration to his inept explanation. With the aid of his hands, he said:

"Let us imagine that someone performs a story instead of telling it. Let that story be the one about the sleepers of Ephesus. We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow as they sleep, we see them awaken after three hundred and nine years, we see them give the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken in Paradise, we see them awaken with the dog. Something like this was shown to us that afternoon by the people of the terrace."

"Did those people speak?" asked Farach.

"Of course they spoke," said Abulcasim, now become the apologist of a performance he scarcely remembered and which had annoyed him quite a bit. "They spoke and sang and perorated."

"In that case," said Farach, "twenty persons are unnecessary. One single speaker can tell anything, no matter how complicated it might be."

Everyone approved this dictum. The virtues of Arabic were extolled, which is the language God uses to direct the angels; then, those of Arabic poetry. Abdalmalik, after giving this poetry due praise and consideration, labeled as antiquated the poets who in Damascus or in Cordova adhered to pastoral images and a Bedouin vocabulary. He said it was absurd for a man having the Guadalquivir before his eyes to exalt the water of a well. He urged the convenience of renewing the old metaphors; he said that at the time Zuhair compared destiny to a blind camel, such a figure could move people, but that five centuries of admiration had rendered it valueless. All approved this dictum, which they had already heard many times, from many tongues. Averroes was silent. Finally he spoke, less to the others than to himself.

"With less eloquence," Averroes said, "but with related arguments, I once defended the proposition Abdalmalik maintains. In Alexandria, it has been said that the only persons incapable of a sin are those who have already committed it and repented; to be free of an error, let us add, it is well to have professed it. Zuhair in his mohalaca says that in the course of eighty years of suffering and glory many times he has seen destiny suddenly trample men into the dust, like a blind camel; Abdalmalik finds that this figure can no longer marvel us. Many things could be offered in response to this objection. The first, that if the purpose of the poem is to surprise us, its life span would not be measured in centuries, but in days and hours and perhaps minutes. The second, that a famous poet is less of an inventor than he is a discoverer. In praise of Ibn-Sharaf of Berja it has been repeated that only he could imagine that the stars at dawn fall slowly, like leaves from a tree; if this were so, it would be evidence that the image is banal. The image one man can form is an image that touches no one. There are infinite things on earth; any one of them may be likened to any other. Likening stars to leaves is no less arbitrary than likening them to fish or birds. However, there is no one who has not felt at some time that destiny is clumsy and powerful, that it is innocent and also inhuman. For that conviction, which may be passing or continuous, but which no one may elude, Zuhair's verse was written. What was said there will not be said better. Besides (and this is perhaps the essential part of my reflections), time, which despoils castles, enriches verses. Zuhair's verse, when he composed it in Arabia, served to confront two images, the old camel and destiny; when we repeat it now, it serves to evoke the memory of Zuhair and to fuse our misfortune with that dead Arab's. The figure had two terms then and now it has four. Time broadens the scope of verses and I know of some which, like music, are everything for all men. Thus, when I was tormented years ago in Marrakesh by memories of Cordova, I took pleasure in repeating the apostrophe Abdurrahman addressed in the gardens of Ruzafa to an African palm:

You too, oh palm!, are
Foreign to this soil ...

The singular benefit of poetry: words composed by a king who longed for the Orient served me, exiled in Africa, to express my nostalgia for Spain."

Averroes then spoke of the first poets, of those who in the Time of Ignorance, before Islam, had already said all things in the infinite language of the deserts. Alarmed, and not without reason, by Ibn-Sharaf's trivialities, he said that in the ancients and in the Koran all poetry is contained and he condemned as illiterate and vain the desire for innovation. The others listened with pleasure, for he was vindicating the traditional.

The muezzins were calling the faithful to their early morning prayers when Averroes entered his library again. (In the harem the dark-haired slave girls had tortured a red-haired slave girl, but he would not know it until the afternoon.) Something had revealed to him the meaning of the two obscure words. With firm and careful calligraphy he added these lines to the manuscript: "Aristu (Aristotle) gives the name of tragedy to panegyrics and that of comedy to satires and anathemas. Admirable tragedies and comedies abound in the pages of the Koran and in the mohalacas of the sanctuary."

He felt sleepy, he felt somewhat cold. Having unwound his turban, he looked at himself in a metal mirror. I do not know what his eyes saw, because no historian has ever described the forms of his face. I do know that he disappeared suddenly, as if fulminated by an invisible fire, and with him disappeared the house and the unseen fountain and the books and the manuscript and the doves and the many dark-haired slave girls and the tremulous red-haired slave girl and Farach and Abulcasim and the rosebushes and perhaps the Guadalquivir.

In the foregoing story, I tried to narrate the process of a defeat. I first thought of that archbishop of Canterbury who took it upon himself to prove there is a God; then, of the alchemists who sought the philosopher's stone; then, of the vain trisectors of the angle and squarers of the circle. Later I reflected that it would be more poetic to tell the case of a man who sets himself a goal which is not forbidden to others, but is to him. I remembered Averroes who, closed within the orb of Islam, could never know the meaning of the terms tragedy and comedy. I related his case; as I went along, I felt what that god mentioned by Burton must have felt when he tried to create a bull and created a buffalo instead. I felt that the work was mocking me. I felt that Averroes, wanting to imagine what a drama is without ever having suspected what a theater is, was no more absurd than I, wanting to imagine Averroes with no other sources than a few fragments from Renan, Lane and Asin Palacios. I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, "Averroes" disappears.)

• Source: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)