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« In der Strafkolonie | Main | Cautiva »

Borges, "Luke XXIII"

When I first encountered this sensational poem, this author's interpretation of a Biblical verse, I found it even more beautiful because I mistakenly placed an indefinite article in the twelfth line.  Whether its omission really detracts from our perspective, I shall leave to the readers.   The original is here.  
270px-Eccehomo1.jpgA Gentile, Jew, or simply man,
Whose face would fall in sands of time,
No silent letters of his name
Oblivion allows to chime.
What of forgiveness could he know,
This thief Judean nailed to a cross?
To time elapsed we will not come
Today or ever, all is lost. 
One last task left, to crucify,
And from the crowds and taunts he heard
The man by him in death allied
Was God, to Him then blind he stirred:
Remember me when Thou will come
Into Thy kingdom.  And in eyes
Beyond the fearful cross, Our Judge
Incredible spoke Paradise.
No more was said before death's door,
But history will not forget
Or fail to paint that afternoon
The final sun that on them set.
O friends, innocent was he
Whom Jesus Christ would call a friend!
His candor sought, against disgrace,
Just Paradise at earth's broad end.
This candor fed both blood and sin,
Until he saw that time would win. 

Reader Comments (8)

lovely, M. Deeb. Here's an earlier section (KJV):

"But Jesus turning unto them said, 'Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.'

Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us' and to the hills 'Cover us.' For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"

April 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean stabat populus expectans et deridebant illum principes cum eis dicentes: "alios salvos fecit se salvum faciat si hic est Christus Dei electus."

Still the finest verse in 53. Thank you, as always, for your comments.

April 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdeeblog

Very moving. But is paragraph 2 a question or a statement? “He knew the clemency of a man whom Judea crucified can know.” But my Spanish is very poor. I found another translation also with the question mark, and it is more dramatic that way.

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteratilio

Yes, the line you translated correctly is, in any case, a rhetorical question. My rendering changes Judea to Judean, since we are talking about the same people, and assumes that Borges's tone is predominantly ironic. The literal translation is:

He knew the clemency that a thief
nailed to the cross by Judea can know.

April 30, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Hi Hadi,

Thanks for the Easter greetings. I wish you a happy Easter as well.

With regard to Luke 23, this is very interesting. I turn to the hymnology of the Eastern Church to fill in some details that either Borges was contemplating, or of which he may have been unaware.

The first is with reference to the name of the thief who asked the Lord to remember him when He comes into His Kingdom. In the Church Slavonic hymn "Razboinika blagorazumnago" literally translated as the "Wise Thief" in the service of the Matins service of Good Friday (celebrated on Holy Thursday evening in the Greek tradition, by anticipation,) is chanted the following:

"The thief upon the his cross uttered a few words, but found a great faith. In a moment he was saved, and he was the first to enter Paradise when the gates were opened. O Lord, Who didst accept his repentance, Glory to Thee."

According to the sacred Tradition the Good Thief bears the name "Dismas." It is not uncommon for many prison chapels to bear this name, and indeed there are cities named after this thief, such as San Dimas, California.

The theological idea of the "Baptism in extremis" is grounded on the idea that in cases of impending death, it is possible for one who sincerely repents to be granted salvation, even if it is not capable of physically performing a baptism on such a desiring person. In some circles, this is known as the "Baptism of Desire."

Now what I find very interesting here is that Borges makes a sudden switch at the end of his poem, and I would suggest that at the very end of his poem he no longer is even talking about Dismas, but rather is talking about Judas, as it is Judas the Iscariot whom Jesus calls "friend" shortly before his arrest in Gethsemane. This is encountered during the readings of the services that very morning on Holy Thursday, when the Institution of the Eucharist is commemorated. At the Gospel is read, The exact quotation taken from Matthew 26:50 of the KJV reads "And Jesus said unto him, Friend, for what purpose have you come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him."

Though at first one might not see any connection between the actions of the penitent thief and Judas, the hymnology of the Communion hymn at the very same service of the Holy Thursday morning Liturgy establishes the connection by contradistinction rather clearly. This hymn is chanted as follows:

"Receive me today, O Son of God, as a partaker of Your Mystic Feast; for I will not speak of the Mystery to Your enemies; I will not kiss You as did Judas, but as the thief I will confess You. Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom"

I would suggest that it is Judas who is being referenced at the very end of the poem here, and that Borges is either implying Judas' innocence in a sincere manner, or he is attributing innocence to Judas in ironic form. I just don't know. It is complicated. But I do think it plausible that Borges was aware of the hymnology described above, and that he was clearly contemplating the connection between the wise thief and Judas the Iscariot.

Just some thoughts.

Thanks for the wonderful post, Hadi.


April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Zamora

Dear Paul,

I would have to agree with you on the point about Judas. The last two lines are:

Era el que tantas veces al pecado
Lo arrojó y al azar ensangrentado.

This [i.e., candor] was what drove him so many times
To sin, and to bloodstained chance.

The circumstances for Jesus's betrayal are certainly "chance" (azar, the Semitic root of "hazard"), as Judas was both fated to commit the crime to ensure his place in the lowest circle of hell and culpable of exercising his freewill. And aren't the pieces of silver received just gambling tokens? And isn't Barabbas the man "qui erat propter seditionem quandam factam in civitate et homicidium missus in carcerem" (19)?

Thanks for your comments again, Paul.


May 1, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

I agree that the pieces of silver are gambling tokens, in the sense that the high priests wouldn't even accept them back from Judas when he realized what he had done. They considered the money "blood money" and would not allow it back into to the treasury.

But I don't get the very last line. Until he saw that time would win. Who is Borges speaking about here? Judas. I don't think it could be Barrabas, because Barrabas never uttered the words of the thief. And the sentence structure doesn't seem to support the Barrabas idea. But it is a possibility since Barrabas too was aligned with Jesus as a criminal as well.

A very deep passage.

It's at moments like these when I consider how tremendously complex the canonical works truly are, as apposed to the gnostic gospels and other gnostic texts that were all the hulabaloo during the whole DaVinci Code explosion a few years ago. When you really get down to it, the gnostic texts really convey a rather simplified version of a single message. The canonical gospels and epistles of the New Testament are the ones that actually present the true diversity of teachings, theories and alternative understandings, which continue to be debated, and continue to provide substantive material for poetic works, such as this.


May 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Z

Quite right about the Gnostic texts, which offer simpler statements for those (including minds of intricate genius like Nabokov) who find organized religion a bit too organized for their taste.

And Paul, the last English line is my interpolation for the sake of rhyme and not extant in the Spanish. Borges is talking about the person who most needs forgiveness because he least deserves it. That is hardly Barabbas; that can only be Iscariot.

May 1, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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