In “The Other,” a fictional Jorge Luis Borges encounters a younger version of himself on a park bench in Cambridge. As the two try to navigate the dreamlike surreality of their encounter, Older Borges has a flash:

I was struck by a sudden idea.

“I can prove to you this minute,” I said, “that you aren’t dreaming me. Listen to this line of poetry. So far as I can recall, you’ve never heard it before.”

I slowly intoned the famous line. “L’hydre-univers tordant son corps écaillé d’astres.”

I could sense his almost fear-stricken bafflement. He repeated the line softly, savoring each glowing word.

“It’s true,” he stammered, “I could never write a line like that.”

Hugo had brought us together.

There is something so comforting to me in reading these lines. I picture Borges, the great master, reading Hugo’s Les Contemplations for the first time. Stopping to repeat, first silently, then aloud, that extraordinary line, “L’hydre-univers tordant son corps écaillé d’astres.” The hydra-universe twisting its body scaled in stars. It is an astonishing image in its imagination and in its clarity. And I find it deeply comforting that even one as brilliant as Borges (and his younger self) could be stopped in his tracks by the magic of it.

Hugo’s poem is worth reading in its entirety, but like Borges, the image that sticks with me is of the waving universe covered in scales of stars. At once menacing and beautiful. And isn’t that the truth.

Car, au-dessous du globe où vit l’homme banni,
Hommes, plus bas que vous, dans le nadir livide,
Dans cette plénitude horrible qu’on croit vide,
Le mal, qui par la chair, hélas ! vous asservit,
Dégorge une vapeur monstrueuse qui vit !
Là, sombre et s’engloutit, dans des flots de désastres,
L’hydre Univers tordant son corps écaillé d’astres ;
Là, tout flotte et s’en va dans un naufrage obscur ;
Dans ce gouffre sans bord, sans soupirail, sans mur,
De tout ce qui vécut pleut sans cesse la cendre ;
Et l’on voit tout au fond, quand l’œil ose y descendre,
Au delà de la vie, et du souffle et du bruit,
Un affreux soleil noir d’où rayonne la nuit !
– Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations, VI.26 Ce que dit la bouche d’Ombre

Image by astrorom, reproduced under Creative Commons License.

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