We inevitably desire eternity; and dreams of eternity can only fail, condemned as we are to temporality.--William Egginton "Borges on Eternity," (in Eternity: A History, 277)
Today, Eternity: A History edited by Y. Melamed arrived in the mail. I don't know why I received the volume (I have edited a volume on Sympathy in the same series, but I have not been sent other gratis copies in the series), but I am pleased with the anonymous gift. Because I sometimes muse about Borges, I was drawn to Egginton's elegant "Reflection" on Borges (quoted above). Oddly, when I looked up Egginton in the list of Contributors, I found his name missing. At first I wondered if Melamed had played a practical, Borgesian joke and invented a fictional character to write the entry on Borges. But from Wikipedia I learn William Egginton was born in Syracuse in 1969.*
In Averroës's Search,-- sadly unmentioned by Egginton --, the great philosopher, Ibn Rushd, is explicitly located in "the land of Spain, where there were not a great many things, yet where each thing seemed to exist materially and eternally." It's important for Borges' politics that this philosopher is also a Spanish philosopher and, thus, somehow in the cultural ancestry of the 'West.' And Spain gets presented as (to adapt a Quine-ean phrase) a desert landscape, where the lack of ''entity' density is compensated, as it were by a cosmic, metaphysical harmony, by eternal, material existence of the relatively rare entities found there. Of course, this only seems so because we assume that no material thing -- we can ignore spirits here -- exists eternally in Spain.
The next time we encounter the eternal in Borges's story of Ibn Rushd, Faraj (an "orthodox" Qur'anist) is reported as saying, "while language and signs and writing are the work of men, the Qur'an itself is irrevocable and eternal.'' (Averroës remains silent in response, although he thinks that Faraj could also have said "that the mother of the Book is similar, in a way, to the Platonic Idea.") Faraj is the host of the dinner-party, and it is impolite and imprudent to draw those unskilled in theology into discussion about it.
As an aside, in his contribution to the Eternity volume (p. 84), Peter Adamson helpfully notes that the idea that the Qu'ran is uncreated becomes an imposed dogma in the mid ninth century by the Abbasid Caliphs, although this remark only gives a hint of what is at stake in Ibn Hanbal's famous defiance on this point.**
It is notable that Borges's Ibn Rushd philosophical translation of Faraj's remark does not contradict it. He is shown capable of an esoteric reading that he does not utter. Here, as is elsewhere, Borges shows that he has grasped Ibn Rushd's political thought because Ibn Rushd is exceptionally clear on the significance to political-theology that the experts that know can keep quiet.
The 'mother of the Book' is itself a Quranic phrase (see 43:2-4) and on the Platonizing reading of Borges's Ibn Rushd it is a kind of eternal template for the Arabic text that Faraj knows how to recite. It is compatible with this idea, but that's unmentioned, that any material Qu'ran could also be produced in a different language (the work of men).***
The idea of a 'mother of the Book' returns under a different name (and with a different content) in The Library of Babel: in the eternally existing and eternally returning library, "There must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books." There Borges's narrator treats the "belief" in what was termed the Book Man," that is, the "librarian" who "must have examined that book" (and "this librarian is analogous to a god") as a "superstition." (Here the narrator sides with the Islamic critique of Christianity.) I note that Borges's narrator goes on to insist -- and I hasten to add on impeccable, modal metaphysical grounds -- that this perfect compendium of all others books itself, must exist.