Argentine essayist Alberto Manguel believes that at the heart of writing lies a paradox: Writers think that they “can construct (or reconstruct) the world through words”—that language can, by expressing reality, create reality—but at the same time, capturing the world with words is impossible. Writers can never create anything more than “something that suggests an approximation to a copy of a blurry intuition of the real thing,” Manguel writes. “All our libraries are the glorious record of that failure.”
The conviction that language can create worlds is an ancient one. According to Jewish mystical thought, God created the 22 letters of Hebrew, and all beings came into existence through the “mere interweaving” of the alphabet: The words of God created the earth and all that lives upon it.
But, Manguel says, this story has a counterpart—the story of the Tower of Babel, where God divided the world’s unified tongue into many, and no longer could any single language encapsulate the essence of any thing. Taken together, these stories illustrate both the promise and the limitations of language.
Every time we use words to express ourselves, we implicitly declare our faith in the words’ ability to convey what we mean, but, says Manguel, “faith in language is, like all true faiths, unaltered by a practice that contradicts its claims—unaltered in spite of our knowledge that whenever we try to say something, however simple, however clear-cut, only a shadow of that something travels from our conception to its utterance, and further from its utterance to its reception and understanding.”
Manguel notes that the paradox of language is “apparent in almost every culture.” Hindu poet Tulsi Das “argued that the reality of fiction is always other than the reality of the material world, and overrides it.” For Zen Buddhists, “the instantaneous illumination or satori is always both within and beyond the grasp of words.”
The poet and writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) explored this paradox throughout his life. In his poem “Ariosto and the Arabs,” he wrote, “No one can write a book. / For a book truly to be / You require the sunset and the dawn, / Centuries, weapons, and the cleaving sea.”
Could an artist actually create reality in some of his stories? In “The Congress,” Borges’ character “dreams of compiling a complete encyclopedia of the world and in the end realizes that the encyclopedia already exists, and is the world itself.” In another, “Parable of the Palace,” a poet perfectly captures an emperor’s estate, “causing it to disappear.” The only artist whose work is reality, according to Borges, is God.
The futility of attempting to create a world through words gnawed at Borges. He wrote to a friend in 1919, “Sometimes I think that it’s idiotic to have the ambition of being a more-or-less mediocre maker of phrases. But that is my destiny.” Of course, Borges’ “mediocre” phrases are cherished by readers the world over, failures though they might be.