Having finished von Doderer’s The Demons
, an extraordinarily satisfying book which I shall miss, I returned to the collected short stories of Borges.
In The Zahir
(1948) Borges begins to talk of strict observances, such as those of Orthodox Jews, and comments that there were none stricter than those of a particular woman whose funeral he had attended: her life had been guided down to the smallest detail by the precise imitation of everything she saw in Hollywood films and read in French fashion magazines. For her the tragedy of the War had been the cessation of the delivery of Paris Vogue. He ends this section with the surprising assurance that the reader will by now have realized that he—Borges—had loved her, when everything in the text would lead to the opposite conclusion.
He then moves on to a coin he calls the Zahir which he received in change after having a stiff drink at a bar after a funeral (brandy and orange juice—I suppose popular in Argentina, though I don’t think I would want one). He cannot stop thinking about this coin, even after he gets rid of it; he is loosing sleep over it and consults a psychiatrist, though to no purpose.
Finally he unlocks its secret in a book: Julius Barlach, Urkunden zur Gesichte der Zahirsage
(Breslau, 1899). Arab legend tells of an object that reappears in many forms throughout history which exercises a terrible fascination on the viewer, he cannot stop thinking about until it completely fills his mind and he is driven mad. Virtuous caliphs always destroy the objects in order to prevent the whole world from seeing it and going insane.
One manifestation of the Zahir was a tiger; the evidence of this was the jail cell of the only man who saw it. He painted all over his cell a portrait of the world in the form of tigers that added up to one great tiger. I immediately thought of Dali’s tiger optical illusion and of Escher’s illustrative techniques, perhaps Borges had these in mind too (though I am not sure of the date of the Dali). Perhaps not.
Borges becomes convinced that the coin is the Zahir—this seems confirmed by hearing of two acquaintances of acquaintances who have recently been put in the mental hospital (interestingly called Bosch in Buenos Aires) because they could not cease obsessively gibbering about a coin—and that he is doomed to madness. His only hope is the Arab legend that the Zahir is the shadow of the rose and the torn veil; he hopes that once the Zahir possesses him completely he will receive a true vision of God.
Now this story must have a meaning.
It would be easy to take the symbol of the Zahir-coin as meaning that the West is doomed because of obsessive greed. But that seems rather blunt for Borges. I think an important clue is that at the end of the story he says that he will soon be in the same condition as his dead beloved, who just before her death was institutionalized for catatonia. She must have been the first to become obsessed with this new Zahir, and her obsessive observation of popular culture its first symptom. I am inclined to read the story as Borges warning that the growing subsitution of manufactured commercial mass culture for traditional culture is a leading to a kind of social insanity.
This section will be of special interest to those familiar with St. Louis
Borges mentions one of the forms the Zahir took in earlier ages:…then a prophet from Khorsasan who wore a veil spangled with precious stones or a mask of gold.
In my copy of the story (though not the on-line version cited below), he adds a footnote:the prophet is al-Moqanna (the Veiled Prophet)
I find this reference on-line:
“in 775 AD al-Moqanna’ Hashem ibn Hakim and his white-shirted followers in Khorasan and Transoxania (modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) committed suicide and one and a half centuries later (922 AD) his red shirted followers were hanged after being defeated in a 21-year struggle.”
And this more expansive entry, which I can’t cut and paste:http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/MIC_MOL/MOKANNA_al_Moqanna_the_Veiled_.html
Elsewhere I read that this prophet kidnapped the daughter of the Queen of Kobad. She recruited one of the sons of the Baghdad caliph to lead an expedition to recover her, but he instead converted to the Prophet’s new faith and married the daughter, and succeeded the prophet in leadership after he mysteriously vanished.Notes
1. Wikipedia assures us that Barlach’s book is Borges’ invention:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_books
2. here is the text of Borges’ story:http://philramble.files.wordpress.com/2006/08/the-zahir.pdf
3. Here is a rather jejune article on the story:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Zahir
4. Zahir is an Arabic title of God (the manifest—whether it is cognate with Zohar I have no way of knowing; like Vinckman I never studied). Whether the Islamic legends about Borges site are his own inventions or not, I have no way of telling at the moment.
5. Dali’s Tiger illusion:http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Tiger-Posters_i328741_.htm