From the prologue to Nine Dantesque Essays in Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions:
Imagine, in an Oriental library, a panel painted many centuries ago. It may be Arabic, and we are told that all the legends of The Thousand and One Nights are represented on its surface; it may be Chinese, and we learn that it illustrates a novel that has hundreds or thousands of characters. In the tumult of its forms, one shape-a tree like an inverted cone; a group of mosques, vermilion in color, against an iron wall-catches our attention, and from there we move on to others. The day declines, the light is wearing thin, and as we go deeper into the carved surface we understand that there is nothing on earth that is not there. What was, is, and shall be, the history of past and future, the things I have had and those I will have, all of it awaits us somewhere in this serene labyrinth …. I have fantasized a magical work, a panel that is also a microcosm: Dante’s poem is that panel whose edges enclose the universe. Yet I believe that if we were able to read it in innocence (but that happiness is barred to us), its universality would not be the first thing we would notice, and still less its grandiose sublimity. We would, I believe, notice other, less overwhelming and far more delightful characteristics much sooner, perhaps first of all the one singled out by the British Danteans: the varied and felicitous invention of precise traits. In describing a man intertwined with a serpent, it is not enough for Dante to say that the man is being transformed into a serpent and the serpent into a man; he compares this mutual metamorphosis to a flame devouring a page, preceded by a reddish strip where whiteness dies but that is not yet black (Inferno XXV, 64). It is not enough for him to say that in the darkness of the seventh circle the damned must squint to see him; he compares them to men gazing at each other beneath a dim moon or to an old tailor threading a needle (Inferno XV, 19). It is not enough for him to say that the water in the depths of the universe has frozen; he adds that it looks like glass, not water (Inferno XXXII, 24) …. Such comparisons were in Macaulay’s mind when he declared, in opposition to Cary, that Milton’s “vague sublimity” and “magnificent generalities” moved him less than Dante’s specifics. Later, Ruskin (Modern Painters IV, XIV) also condemned Milton’s fog and uncertainty and approved of the strictly accurate topography by which Dante engineered his infernal plane. It is common knowledge that poets proceed by hyperbole: for Petrarch or for Gongora, every woman’s hair is gold and all water is crystal. This crude, mechanical alphabet of symbols corrupts the rigor of words and appears to arise from the indifference of an imperfect observation. Dante forbids himself this error; not one word in his book is unjustified.
The precision I have just noted is not a rhetorical artifice but an affirmation of the integrity, the plenitude, with which each incident of the poem has been imagined. The same may be said of the psychological traits which are at once so admirable and so modest. The poem is interwoven with such traits, of which I will cite a few. The souls destined for hell weep and blaspheme against God; then, when they step onto Charon’s bark, their fear changes to desire and an intolerable eagerness (Inferno III, 124). Dante hears from Virgil’s own lips that Virgil will never enter heaven; immediately he calls him “master” and “sir,” perhaps to show that this confession does not lessen his affection, perhaps because, knowing Virgil to be lost, he loves him all the more (Inferno IV, 39). In the black hurricane of the second circle, Dante wishes to learn the root of Paolo and Francesca’s love; Francesca tells him that the two loved each other without knowing it, “soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto” [we were alone, suspecting nothing] , and that their love was revealed to them by a casual reading. Virgil rails against proud spirits who aspire to encompass infinite divinity with mere reason; suddenly he bows his head and is silent, because one of those unfortunates is he (Purgatorio III, 34). On the rugged slope of Purgatory, the shade of Sordello the Mantuan inquires of Virgil’s shade as to its homeland; Virgil says Mantua; Sordello interrupts and embraces him (Purgatorio VI, 58). The novels of our own day follow mental processes with extravagant verbosity; Dante allows them to glimmer in an intention or a gesture.