to the small poem and the quiet voice within

jorge luis borges | on salvation by deeds

borges'-handBorges & the Birth of Haiku

One of the joys of a personal library is the constant discovery of new and old books. Borges came to mind the other evening…and my hands grasped a volume I have not spent much time with over ten years. The book, ATLAS, was published here in l985, a year before his death. I remember buying it in Chicago because of the colorful book-jacket, blind Borges, smiling, sharply dressed in a dark jacket, white shirt and tie, sitting in a hot air balloon with a beautiful companion/collaborator, Maria Kodama, looking directly at her and into the sun…the two of them waiting to be carried aloft…to drift above a world he has spent a lifetime imagining.

What amazing vision was the blind old man already conjuring, his feet barely on the ground…seeing, recording in his mindscape that he might eventually share with us–the onlookers, seekers, the blind following the blind man down ancient pathways?

ATLAS is pure ‘coffee-table book.’ Not something I would usually give a second glance to—except this was Borges about to ascend in a balloon. This was his atlas. His inner/outer geography described as…”The Gallic Goddess”, ”Ireland”, “Venice”, “Bollini’s Alley”, “The Temple of Poseidon”, “A Dream of Germany”, “Voyage in a Balloon”, “Madrid” etc.…with provocative black and white photographs—his hand reading Japanese characters carved in a pillar. But above all, his pure prose that lights up the dark, page after page.

What a surprise, in the end, to set down with him in Japan, “On Salvation by Deeds” …follow him (in a way) down Basho’s road, and the language of seventeen syllables. –Norbert Blei

On Salvation by Deeds

Jorge Luis Borges

One autumn, one of the autumns of time, the Shinto divinities gathered, not for the first time, at Izumo. They are said to have numbered eight million. Being a shy man I would have felt a bit lost among so many. In any case, it is not convenient to deal in inconceivable numbers. Let us say there were eight, since eight is a good omen in these islands.

They were downcast, but did not show it: the visages of divinities are undecipherable kanji. They seated themselves in a circle on the green crest of a hill. They had been observing mankind from their firmament or from a stone or from a snowflake. One of the divinities spoke:

Many days, or centuries, ago, we gathered here to create Japan and the world. The fishes, the seas, the seven colors of the rainbow, the generations of plants and animals have all worked out well. So that men should not be burdened with too many things, we gave them succession, issue, the plural day and the singular night. We also bestowed on them the gift of experimenting with certain variations. The bee continues repeating beehives. But man has imagined devices: the plow, the key,. the kaleidoscope. He also imagined the sword and the art of war. He has just imagined an invisible weapon which could put an end to history. Before this senseless deed is done, let us wipe out men.

They remained pensive. Without haste another divinity spoke:

It’s true. They have thought up that atrocity, but there is also this something quite different, which fits in the space encompassed by seventeen syllables.

The divinity intoned them. They were in an unknown language, and I could not understand them.

The leading divinity delivered a judgment:

Let men survive.

Thus, because of a haiku, the human race was saved.

Izumo, April 27, 1984

[from ATLAS, Dutton, 1985}


  1. Ralph Murre

    Every time I think I can’t possibly say what needs to be said in a few syllables, I must remember this tale. Thank you, Borges & Blei.

  2. John corbally

    Borges’s tiny poem
    Basho and Hiroshige
    Signposts on the road

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