‘The God’s Script’, sometimes translated under the title ‘The Writing of the God’, is a 1949 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story concerns a Mayan priest who is imprisoned with a jaguar; the priest comes to realise that his god has hidden magic writing within the jaguar’s skin. ‘The God’s Script’ takes in, among other things, some quintessentially Borgesian themes including the infinite, the power of writing, and the individual who is granted access to arcane knowledge.
‘The God’s Script’: plot summary
The story is narrated by Tzinacán, who was a Mayan magician (though he has been given an Aztec name) at the pyramid of the god Qaholom before Pedro de Alvarado devastated the pyramid with fire. Tzinacán has been imprisoned in a stone cell, with a jaguar placed in the adjacent cell. Tzinacán can see the jaguar pacing about the other room when food and water are lowered into the cells every day.
When he was captured, Tzinacán had been tortured by the conquistadors wanting to learn where the pyramid’s treasure was hidden. The torturers broke and deformed him but he refused to give up the location of the treasure; when he fell unconscious, he was thrown into this cell, and knows he won’t emerge alive again. Despite all this, he believes his god has not abandoned him.
Over the years of his incarceration, Tzinacán has sought to keep his mind occupied. In particular, he came to recollect an old tradition that his god, Qaholom, had written a magical piece of text somewhere, when he had the world. This text would save the world from destruction, but where it was concealed, nobody knew. But Tzinacán, knowing he is the last surviving priest of his god, believes that he may be able to locate it.
Tzinacán comes to realise that the skin of the jaguar would be the ideal place for his god to have concealed this divine script, because it would survive as the jaguars reproduced, one generation giving way to the next, over thousands of years. He devotes years to studying the jaguar’s fur and looking for signs of the God’s script, until eventually he has a dream in which he imagines himself drowning in sand, grains of which had started to multiply on the floor of his cell.
When he wakes up, he sees the light above him, coming through the hole in the roof through which his food and water are delivered. But then he sees an enormous wheel which was everywhere at once, and made of both water and of fire. Tzinacán has an epiphany, and believes he understands all of the workings of the universe – and he can now read the god’s script written into the jaguar’s skin.
The script, he tells us, is a formula comprising fourteen random words which, if he spoke them aloud, would make him all-powerful. His prison would disappear, he would be young again (and immortal), and the jaguar would pounce upon Alvarado and devour him. Tzinacán believes he would be able to reconstruct the lost Mayan empire and destroy the Spanish invaders.
However, he claims that he will not utter those fourteen words, because he can no longer remember who he was now he has read the god’s script. He is content to let ‘Tzinacán’ die in prison, because Tzinacán is but one man, and anyone who has seen the universe cannot be concerned with the trivial fate of one individual.
‘The God’s Script’: analysis
‘The God’s Script’ shares a number of features with several other Borges stories: in ‘The Zahir’, for instance, a story about monomania and obsession, Borges declares that he will ‘no longer know who Borges was’ once he has completely become obsessed by the Zahir. Similarly, knowledge of one’s own identity plays an important role in ‘Borges and I’, in which Borges the narrator distinguishes between the famous writer named Borges and the man named Borges.
The paradox (another integral element of many a Borges story) of ‘The God’s Script’ is that Tzinacán yearns to free himself from captivity so that he can rebuild the empire, but once he acquires the knowledge he needs to do so, he no longer cares about freeing himself because he no longer has any conception of, or consideration for, Tzinacán as an individual.
Of course, in allowing himself to perish he is also destroying what he believes is the last chance to save the empire of his people and his god. Another paradox (what we might call a meta-paradox) of this situation is that the individual becomes unimportant only at the point at which his survival becomes crucial to the world: he becomes unimportant at the moment he acquires importance, if you will.
One way of explaining this paradox (or meta-paradox) is to say that Borges’ story is about the revelation of the universe being more important than saving it: Tzinacán allows himself to become a passive observer of some deeper truth when he sees that ‘wheel’ composed simultaneously of water and fire (and thus doubly representing totality, we might say, in both shape and elemental substance). And once reminded of how small he is in the grand scheme of things, his continued existence ceases to matter, even to him.
We might even argue that Borges’ story taps into the religious fervour which enables or even impels some people to renounce their own lives in favour of the bigger picture: those who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives in the name of something greater than themselves. Before, Tzinacán had only sacrificed others (atop his pyramid): now, he is willing to sacrifice himself.
But even putting this way risks making Tzinacán’s sacrifice more active than it is. Instead, it is a passive acceptance of some higher power and a refusal to accept or adopt great power for himself. That wheel of fire and water represents yin and yang, we might say, the extreme opposites that go to make up the totality of the universe. Having seen these opposing forces manifest themselves before him, he undergoes a kind of epiphany: a phenomenon common in many modern short stories.
But whereas many epiphanies lead to deeper self-enlightenment and can even be a call to action, Tzinacán’s epiphany leads to passivity and an adjuration of the self. However, since his acceptance of the ‘obliteration’ of the man who was Tzinacán is a personal choice, there is another paradox in Borges’ story: if one chooses to be passive, if one chooses not to act to save oneself, is that not to be active rather than passive?
And following this line of argument, might we not analyse ‘The God’s Script’ as, on some level, a fable about the nature of religious belief, especially pantheism in which God, or the divine, is ‘written’ into every living thing, including the jaguar, but only to those ‘with eyes to see’ what is written there? Tzinacán is able to succeed only after a long process of waiting and seeking. When he does discover the divine, this knowledge is a form of nirvana, an emptying of the self, as he realises the far greater power that is written into everything and the futility of hanging onto earthly power, or even earthly existence.
Of course, the power of Borges’ story rests in the fact that it needn’t be read as narrowly pantheistic: the ‘God’s script’ might be any ‘word of God’, including actual holy texts. Those who come to interpret and comprehend their true meaning realise they, as individuals, have no power and, one suspects, no right to claim any power.