Beholding and Becoming
Jorge Luis Borges is an Argentine writer who is known for his short stories. His work is philosophical and paradoxical. As a magical realist, he deals with an array of subjects, including time, mythology, infinites, and being.
In his story The Book of Sand, an unnamed narrator—perhaps a fictionalized version of the author—is shown a seemingly infinite book, for which he exchanges his retirement funds and a “black-letter Wyclif.” After obtaining the book, he becomes isolated. “I showed no one my treasure. To the joy of possession was added the fear that it would be stolen from me, and to that, the suspicion that it might not be truly infinite. Those two points of anxiety aggravated my already habitual misanthropy.” He stops seeing his “few friends left”; “A prisoner of the Book, I hardly left my house.” Examining the book, he “rejected the possibility of some artifice.” He fills a notebook with notes about its “small illustrations.” “At night, during the rare intervals spared me by insomnia, I dreamed of the book”.
As summer ends, he comes to the realization that “the book was monstrous,” and himself “no less” so: “It was cold consolation to think that I, who looked upon it with my eyes and fondled it with my ten flesh-and-bone fingers, was no less monstrous than the book.” He “felt it was a nightmare thing, an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He “consider[s] fire, but fear[s] that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke,” and instead abandons it in a shelf in the basement of the National Library.1
Is such an encounter with the infinite always destructive? Is the infinite meant to be something that we cannot, and ought not, try to comprehend?
Borges’s story has similarities to the Christian story. Both involve the infinite manifested in the finite (at the center of Christianity is the incarnation), seen with eyes and touched with hands.2 Both involve a costly exchange, for a treasure received with joy (see the parable of the treasure hidden in a field).3 Both involve the beholder being or becoming like the beheld. Borges’s narrator realizes he is monstrous; Paul wrote we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. 4
"Is such an encounter with the infinite always destructive? Is the infinite meant to be something that we cannot, and ought not, try to comprehend?"
But the infinite book and the incarnate Christ are also different. The book is felt to be “an obscene thing” which “defiled and corrupted reality”; On the other hand, “If the thing happened, [the incarnation] was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”5 Moreover, scripture speaks of creation’s deliverance from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.6 Whereas the book corrupts, the redemption of fallen man—and fallen creation—involve the incarnation.7,8
The book is something monstrous, something to be lost and avoided. But Paul count[ed] everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord, seeking by any means possible to attain the resurrection from the dead.9 And while the narrator’s “treasure” is on earth where the thief can break in and steal,10 Christians are born again…to an inheritance that is imperishable, unfading, kept in heaven.11 There is true treasure here.
Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”12 And although we do not now see him, we know that when he appears we shall be like him.13 We will be glorious.14
References: 1. The Book of Sand, translated by Andrew Hurley. 2. 1 John 1:1. 3. Matthew 13:44. 4. 2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV. 5. Lewis, C.S. (2017). Miracles, p. 398. In The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (pp. 297-462). HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (Original work published 1947). 6. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Romans 8:20-21, NKJV. 7. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:10. ESV. 8. Jerome. (1964). The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 1 (1–59 on the Psalms) (The Fathers of the Church), pp. 417-418. Jerome writes, “It is the Apostle who says that creation itself groans and travails to be delivered into the freedom of the sons of God. [A footnote adds “Cf. Rom 8.22, 21.”] When, moreover, the sons of God shall attain glory, creation itself also will be delivered from its slavery.” 9. Philippians 3:11, ESV. 10. Matthew 6:19. 11. 1 Peter 1:3-4, ESV. 12. John 6:39, ESV. 13. 1 John 3:2, ESV. 14. Philippians 3:21, ESV. See also Colossians 3:4.