A review of Borges, J. L. The Approach to Almutasim.[i]
I’m writing a re-view about a review that Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges made of a non existent novel. Bear with me. Borges is one of the best literary minds of all times and he never wrote a novel. He wrote poetry, essays and stories. He invented characters, tales, and authors that he would quote in his pieces, tales of fantasy and paradox. He had an amazing vision of the human condition: he believed that man’s search for meaning is fruitless and that what we believe is reality is only one of an infinite multiversity of perceptions. He was blind.
Borges emphasizes an element that is very much appreciated by therapists: it is through language that we give meaning to our world. He achieves this through one of the favorites of postmodern psychotherapy: reflection.
In “The Approach to Almutasim” the narrator pretends that a novel exists and summarizes it for us. This police story is the first written by a native of Bombay. Borges presents it in the form of a critical review.
It is the case of a law student who is looking for the wise man Almutasim. The student is guided by the reflection, in the form of light that the wise man has left in those who have met him: “the man who is equal to that clarity is somewhere on earth”. This initial reflection gives way to the process of reflection. Borges continues with his synopsis: on a night like many others, the problems between Hindus and Muslims lead a group of people to violence on one of the city streets The student kills or believes that he has killed a Hindu. He escapes and in his journey he meets many people, in one he perceives a certain tenderness and excitement that comes from someone else, he becomes obsessed with finding the man named Almutasim, the man that gives the reflection.
He begins a frantic search that takes years. He travels through a portion of India, searching for the man until he finds tracks that lead him, in the circular way of Borges, to Bombay. According to Borges’ supposed synopsis of the non existent novel, the narration ends abruptly when: “The voice of a man – the incredible voice of Almutasim – invites him to go in. The student opens the curtain and enters. At that point, the novel ends.”
Ramón Moreno Rodríguez suggests that the path the law student takes can be interpreted as the path we take when searching for our selves. The young man’s long journey is seen as a symbol of the path of purification he must follow in order to see his own being: “it is suggested”…”that when he crossed the curtain, the student found himself.” 
Borges seems to give us a clue, in another one of his works, “Parliament of Birds”. A flock of birds fly to the most remote part of a mountain looking for their king, Simurg (thirty-birds): “Thirty, purified by work, step foot on the mountain of Simurg. They contemplate it at last: they perceive that they are Simurg and that Simurg is in each one of them.”
The novel that Borges reviews: “The Approach to Almutasim is subtitled “A Game of Moving Mirrors”. The mirror suggests that one star is every star. Perhaps the author is suggesting that our differences are an invention, since we are all the same. We see ourselves reflected in others. Another interpretation of the mirror as a symbol lies in the idea that man’s knowledge comprises reflections of the universe received only through a mirror.
It has been said that: “man”…”as in the famous “Plato’s Cave” can only know through reflections; in the case of the idea presented by Borges, these are the reflections of a mirror. In this way, Borges´mirror differs from Plato’s, since for the former, a mirror reflects knowledge (…the universe) in a total and undeniable way, while the myth of the cave proposes that we only come to know the shadows cast by light on the walls of the cave.
But, can there be any other possibility? We can explore more ideas, in addition to the antithesis of the illusion or reality. For the Norwegian psychiatrist-therapist, Tom Andersen, a central idea in psychotherapy has to do with listening in a respectful and empathic manner. In this way, the client or patient, who speaks without being judged, without being analyzed, can gain access to that which he has never spoken or thought. This therapy is an invitation to an inner dialogue which takes us to a deeper understanding of our being. For inner dialogue and response to happen is important to have ample time for speaking and listening. Tom Andersen (1995) mentions that people can change their selves by interacting in the different relationships or conversations in which they take part. The multiple selves are governed by the closeness and the type of relationships we have with others.
This innovative psychiatrist tells us that the French term reflexion has the same meaning as the Norwegian refleksjon which means: something is heard and that which is heard is taken (it is comprehended) and thought out before a response is given. The illusion of a mirror can be transformed into the creation of a reality that we construct and analyze through being in contact with our self and others.
Another fundamental issue has to do with the way in which the therapist is always aware of the impact that his words, behavior and thoughts have on others. Once again, we can think of the mirror as the space where a person reviews her actions. As Harlene Anderson (1997) says: the therapist’s inner dialogue and the questions she asks herself during therapy are as important to her clients as the questions she asks out loud. And these questions only emerge from the conversation. Therapist and client, reflected in a mirror, to be seen and heard, not to imitate each other.
From the literature front, Maria Eugenia Betancourt notes that in Borges’ work: “there are recurring themes that sustained his idea that literature is based on a few metaphors.” The pantheistic notions that “everything is everywhere and anything is everything”, and that “any man is all men”, referring to a vision of the cosmos, created or dreamt by “someone”. The vision becomes a chaos, impossible to understand or explain within the limited universe of language. Reality can only be expressed through symbols which are the representation of that chaos.”.
Therefore, in Borges’ work chaos may encompass the human rules which are also symbols of a universe that is human and fallible, always open to reflection. A mirror, situated in the right place reflects new possibilities of being.
A few final considerations:
- Can the limitations of language purported by the borgesian universe become an opportunity to learn?
- Could it be that Borges invites us to think and participate in an inner dialogue when he speaks of his obsessions and his metaphors?
- Does clarity in the story about Almutasim come from knowing that language is a game and we must understand its rules?
- Do we receive and/or create luminosity through scholarship and patience as Borges did?
As a therapist, I do not have the answer to these questions. I am left with the reflection that, if I am lucky, when I read the work of a genius, it will lead me towards a little more clarity. And as a practitioner, it can lead me to the creation of a more luminous space in which my clients can have the opportunity to think and feel what they were not able to express before.
 Borges J. L. (1957) Manual de zoología fantástica. FCE, México
 Anderson, H. 1997. Conversation, Language, and Possibilities: A postmodern approach to therapy. Nueva York: Basic Books
[i] Thanks to Carmen Lee Schultz for her participation in the translation of this paper.
Elena Fernández, Grupo Campus Eliseos and artist and author.