The Search for Al-Mu'tasim

'The plot itself is this: A man (the unbelieving, feeling law student we have met) falls among people of the lowest, vilest sort and accommodates himself to them, in a kind of contest of iniquity. Suddenly -- with the miraculous shock of Crusoe when he sees that human footprint in the sand -- the law student perceives some mitigation of the evil: a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence, in one of the abominable men. "It was as though a more complex interlocutor had spoken." He knows that the wretch with whom he is conversing is incapable of that momentary decency, thus the law student hypothesizes that the vile man before him has reflected a friend, or the friend of a friend. Rethinking the problem, he comes to a mysterious conclusion: Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates; somewhere in the world there is a man who is equal to this brightness. The law student resolves to devote his life to searching out that man.

Thus we begin to see the book's general scheme: The insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others -- at first, the faint trace of a smile or a word; toward the last, the varied and growing splendors of intelligence, imagination, and goodness. The more closely the men interrogated by the law student have known Al-Mu'tasim, the greater is their portion of divinity, but the reader knows that they themselves are but mirrors.... After all those years, the law student comes to a gallery "at the end of which there is a doorway and a tawdry curtain of many beads, and behind that, a glowing light." The law student claps his hands once, twice, and calls out for Al-Mu'tasim. A man's voice -- the incredible voice of Al-Mu'tasim -- bids the law student enter. The law student draws back the head curtain and steps into the room. At that point, the novel ends.'

excerpt from: Jorge Luis Borges, The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim (translated by Andrew Hurley)


Anonymous said…
Well, I think it has it's roots in things like the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, which if I remember correctly seems to say there wasn't a soul worth saving, and the converse, more optimistic concept of " whoever saves a soul, it is if he has saved the whole world."