The Mirror And The Mask
I thought I wrote this article before. But when I was in Ireland last week, I wanted to show it to a friend, and I couldn't find it here. I carefully searched this blog; it had to be here, but it was not. How, I wondered, could I be so confused. How could I have such a clear recollection of something I had written, only to find out that, in fact, I hadn't written it at all. Was my memory playing tricks on me? Maybe I thought I would write this piece, but never did it? Hardly. I remember making revisions. I'm disturbed by this. I have no explanations.
In the Book of Sand (El Libro de Arena) (1975), Jorge Luis Borges gives us insight in "The Mirror And The Mask" into what it takes to be a great, wandering poet. The King of Ireland, having won an important battle, wants the poet to write a poem about the victory. Would the poet undertake this task and make both the King and the poet immortal? Does the poet have the necessary gifts? The poet responds:
Yes, great king, I do," answered the poet. "I am Olan. For twelve winters I have honed my skills at meter. I know by heart the three hundred sixty fables which are the foundation of all true poetry. The Ulster cycle and the Munster cycle lie within my harp strings. I am licensed by law to employ the most archaic words of the language, and its most complex metaphors. I have mastered the secret script which guards our art from the prying eyes of the common folk. I can sing of love, of cattle theft, of sailing ships, of war. I know the mythological lineage of all the royal houses of Ireland. I possess the secret knowledge of herbs, astrology, mathematics and cannon law. I have defeated my rivals in public contest. I have trained myself in satire, which causes diseases of the skin, including leprosy. And I also wield the sword, as I have prove in your battle. There is but one thing that I do not know: how to express my thanks for this gift you make me.After the poet successfully completes this initial task, the king speaks:
I accept this labor. It is another victory. You have given to each word its true meaning, to each noun the epithet bestowed upon it by the first poets. In all the work there is not an image which the classics did not employ. War is 'the fair cloth wov'n of men' and blood is 'sword-drink.' The seas has its god and the clouds foretell the future. You have marshaled rhyme, alliteration, assonance, scansion, the artifices of erudite rhetoric, the wise alternation of meters, and all with greatest skillfulness. If the whole of the literature of Ireland should-- omen absit-- be lost, well might it all be reconstructed, without loss, from your classic ode. Thirty scribes shall transcribe it, twelve times each."
What competence. What gifts. What language. But of course, of course, of course things take a turn toward the infinite in the story. Borges after all is the writer. I will not spoil it for you. It deserves to be read in full.
My point here is incredibly modest: I loved this story before I ever saw Ireland. And now, having seen Ireland, I love it all the more. Amidst all of the island's antiquity, and its long, oral tradition, a story about the love of language and writing fits surprisingly and beautifully.