By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Witness’ is a short text by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Not quite a short story and yet not an essay either, ‘The Witness’ runs to just two paragraphs and one page of text, and is a meditation on the passing of the last people to remember, or to have witnessed, dead practices, cultures, and rituals.
As with any Borges text, ‘The Witness’ provokes and invites further questions and analysis. What are we to make of this short, difficult-to-classify text?
‘The Witness’: plot summary
This short text begins in Saxon England, with a stable which stands virtually in the shadow of a new church built of stone. A man with grey eyes and a grey beard is longing to die. He falls asleep and dreams, and is awakened by the sound of the bells calling people to prayer at the new church.
England has now become a Christian country where churches and prayers and bells are part of daily life, but this grey-bearded man remembers the old life, before England converted to Christianity. When he was a young man, he and his people believed in the Germanic god Woden (akin to the Norse god Odin), whom the people worshipped at a ‘clumsy’ wooden idol representing the god. They used Roman coins and sacrificed animals and even prisoners to Woden.
The narrator of ‘The Witness’ tells us that before dawn, this man will be dead. And this is significant because he is the last living person to remember the old pagan rites which people in England practised before Christianity supplanted them. The narrator says that the world will be a little poorer when the Saxon man has died.
The last paragraph of ‘The Witness’ see the narrator (Borges?) meditating on this idea of the witness to something. Things that happen and exist in the world cease to exist, in a sense, when the last person to have witnessed them dies. One thing – or perhaps, rather, an infinite number of things – dies whenever anyone dies, unless the universe somehow possesses consciousness and can ‘remember’ things.
But regardless, there was once a day when the last person who had seen Christ, in the flesh, died. Similarly, the last person to have been at Battle of Junín (an 1824 battle in the Peruvian War of Independence) or to have known Helen of Troy from ancient Greek myth will have died.
Borges then wonders what memories that he has witnessed will die on the day he dies. He suggests that these lost things might include the voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, or the memory of a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk.
‘The Witness’: analysis
‘The Witness’ is a meditation on the last people who witnessed and remember dying cultures, rituals, and practices. The Saxon man who remembers England before Christianity dies and is forgotten, and so that pre-Christian world is also lost forever. So it is with other notable periods of history or culturally significant moments: the last person who witnessed them dies and takes the memory of those things to the grave with them.
It is significant that ‘The Witness’ begins with a stable and a church, the former lying ‘almost’ in the shadow of the latter: the church has supplanted the simple, more homely wooden place where Saxons worshipped their pagan gods. But the stable is only almost in the church’s shadow: it isn’t completely eclipsed, at least not yet.
The stable, which the last witness to pagan rituals shares with the animals, summons the nativity story and the birth of Christianity, of course: the symbolism is deliberate.
As T. S. Eliot highlighted in his poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), the death of one culture heralds the beginning of a new one: in Eliot’s poem, the Magi, Zoroastrian priests, are on their way to see the Messiah whose arrival heralds the death of their own philosophical belief system. One wonders if Borges had Eliot’s poem in mind when he wrote ‘The Witness’: like the Saxon man in Borges’ text, the speaker of Eliot’s poem longs for death.
Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952) was an Argentinian writer who acted as a mentor to Borges. It was a tragedy when the world lost Fernández, but Borges suggests that his own death will also be a tragedy because, with his death, the last person to remember the living voice of Fernández will perish. When we die – all of us – a host of unique memories which we and only we remember will also disappear.
This is why Borges suggests that an ‘infinite number of things’ potentially dies with each and every one of us. These things may be small or even trivial, but by the same token, they may not be. Either way, they are unique and we are the last carriers or curators of these things.
And sometimes, undeniably, they are anything but small or trivial. When Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the First World War, died in Britain in 2009, it was remarked that his death represented the passing of an era, because Patch was the last man who remembered what it was like to fight in that conflict.
Of course, one way in which such memories are kept alive is through writing them down, so that future generations will be able to learn about them. This is not quite the same as the things themselves being preserved – reading about fighting in the First World War or worshipping Woden in Dark Ages Britain is not the same as having done it oneself – but it does guard against complete oblivion, much as a writer (Jorge Luis Borges, for instance?) becomes ‘immortal’ in one sense by living on through his writings, even after the man himself has passed on.
When analysed in this way, ‘The Witness’ is itself an act of bearing witness: it bears witness, if you will, to the witnesses. At the end of the short text, Borges himself seeks to preserve a number of memories, even if only as written ciphers, against his own death. Some of these may be small or even insignificant (the memory of a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk), but writing them down guards against their complete loss, at least to an extent.
Much of Borges’ work is interested in the nature of immortality of various kinds: a theme he most fully explored in ‘The Immortal’, in which a Roman soldier discovers a stream which bestows immortality and survives for the next sixteen centuries before tiring of his ‘gift’. The story is also about literary immortality (the soldier’s narrative includes the character of Homer, the Greek poet, and borrows liberally from Homer’s work).
Similarly, ‘The God’s Script’ is about a priest who is the last ‘witness’ to his god and his people: he is a Mayan magician whose culture has been conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors, and he knows his whole civilisation is about to disappear, unless he can decipher the writing he believes his god has ‘inscribed’ into the skin of the jaguar with whom he shares a prison cell. In both these stories, immortality or the survival of memory are closely linked to writing.