“To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible god.” – Borges

That gem of a line is from an obscure essay by Borges on one of the most striking episodes in The Divine Comedy: Dante’s encounter with the lovers Francesca and Paolo, who are condemned to be tossed about in a windstorm in the second circle of Hell for their adultery.

The Williamson biography examines the life and writings of Borges largely through a Dantean perspective, that Borges was searching for a love that would bring him fulfillment. The guiding image for Dante Alighieri was Beatrice (a name that sounds much better in Italian than English); Williamson asserts that the guiding image for Borges was the Argentine writer Norah Lange (followed by a string of other women). In “The Meeting in a Dream” an essay written in 1948 and published originally in La Nación, Borges himself gives some credibility to the argument:

Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante. Dante very little, perhaps not at all, for Beatrice. All of us tend to forget, out of pity, out of veneration, this grievous discord which for Dante was unforgettable. I think of the two lovers that Alighieri dreamed in the hurricane of the second circle and who, whether or not he understood or wanted them to be, were obscure emblems of the joy he did not attain.

While paintings over the years often depict Paolo and Francesca embracing, I prefer to imagine the alternate image of the couple as being tossed separately about on the winds, forever in sight of one another, being thrown close together but then continually pulled back by the winds just before touching, eternally out of reach.

I can no longer think about this story without remembering last year’s remarkablefuerzabruta show in Buenos Aires. There was a segment depicting a man and a woman positioned on either side of a large rotating disk suspended in front of the audience. Amidst the sounds of a storm, the rotating disk moved faster and faster as the couple tried vainly to reach each other. While I’m not sure if it was intentional, I thought immediately of Paolo and Francesca when I saw the performance….Dante is all around.

In the very last line of the essay, the forty-nine year old, unmarried Borges writes that when he thinks of Paolo and Francesca – the two lovers forever united, though in the most unpleasant of circumstances – that he does so “with appalling love, with anxiety, with admiration, with envy.”