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Borges and You

By (November 1, 2012) One Comment

Although I would rather do almost anything than attend a literary reading (like, for instance, stay home and read), I made an exception for Jorge Luis Borges when he lectured to a packed house at New York University in 1982. Staying home that night would have felt like turning down a chance to see Shakespeare – or maybe Swinburne, to speak a bit less hyperbolically. Anyhow, “Borges” – and everyone, including the panelists, called him “Borges,” as if he were already a literary character – was modest, funny, and stupendously erudite, though it took my ear a while to adjust to his surprisingly heavy Argentine accent. After reciting The Lord’s Prayer in Anglo-Saxon and disarming us with a few jokes (“I’m an old man,” he said in reply to a question about Freud. “Please don’t embarrass me with such smut.”), he held forth, as he no doubt had on similar occasions in Geneva and Edinburgh and Lima and Austin on the subject of metaphor. The Chinese term for metaphor, he said, is “one thousand words,” but the essential ones are a mere handful. This news must have surprised any young poets in the audience, who would have assumed, as I did, that the poet’s task was to discover new and ever more startling metaphors, which Borges himself had done as a young man in his first collection of verse, Fervor de Buenos Aires.

On the contrary, Borges informed us, the poet’s task was to use the old ones well, since these had an innate receptivity in the human imagination across all cultures. So what were these archetypal metaphors? The list, which Borges recited with examples taken from memory, ran roughly as follows: river-time (Heraclitus), night-death (Tennyson, Joyce), dream-life (Calderón, Shakespeare), sleep-death (Keats), flower-woman (Swinburne, Verlaine), stars-eyes (Chesterton), and tiger-fire (Blake). One of the many paradoxes of his career is that the echt-postmodernist, the builder of epistemological labyrinths, the man who inspired a thousand unreadable studies of the de-centered self, wrote wrenchingly beautiful poems of loneliness and longing in the simplest language and in the simplest, most familiar forms.

While I will not be making extensive use of studies like “The Fecal Dialectic: Homosexual Panic and the Origin of Writing in Borges” (Borges Studies on Line, 13 Jan. 1995), I readily concede that Borges wouldn’t be Borges without his endless ruminations on the nature of language – its beauty, its inadequacy, its extremely problematic relationship with reality. Although this concern figures more prominently in his fiction, it is palpably and powerfully there in a poem like “The Other Tiger” (“El otro tigre”), which makes and unmakes itself in an anguished effort to capture in words a reality categorically beyond language. Readers of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life will know that tigers had a more than metaphorical significance for him. As a young boy, “Georgie” would throw temper tantrums in the Buenos Aires zoo whenever his mother tried to drag him away from the cage of the Bengal tiger, where he would plant himself until the sun went down. This obsession never left him, so that his inability to embody the presence of the tiger in words makes “The Other Tiger” as much a cri de coeur as a philosophical speculation. The poem is organized into three free verse stanzas, each one representing a failed attempt at representation. If that sounds merely clever, there’s nothing clever about the sense of failure that the poem communicates. The failure would hurt less if the imagery were any less strong, but as it is, the poem almost brings to life

        the deadly tiger, the fateful jewel
that in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
of love, of indolence, of dying.
(trans. Alastair Reid)

el tigre fatal, la aciaga joya
Que, bajo el sol o la diversa luna,
Va cumpliendo en Sunatra o en Bengala
Su rutina de amor, de ocio y de muerte.

Even so, Borges’s considerable poetic resources fall short of the task. Language dooms him. The real tiger — “the other tiger, the one not in this poem” – remains forever out of reach. Every poet has to work with the same hopeless toolkit. To name the tiger is to falsify it:

        the act of naming it, of guessing
what is its nature and its circumstance
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those that prowl on the earth.

el hecho de nombrarlo
Y de conjeturar su circunstancia
Lo hace ficción del arte y no criatura
Viviente de las que andan por la tierra.

As deeply felt as it is, “The Other Tiger” poses the sort of ontological conundrum that used to keep graduate students up till dawn, writing papers that their parents could never understand. But one reason that I’m drawn to Borges’s poetry is that it is so intensely personal. It is also conventional, in the sense of accepting and extending literary tradition and form. Borges himself confessed to a journalist, “The theme of love is quite common in my poems; not so in my fiction.” Shocking as it may seem for a writer obsessed with the vertiginous distortions of mirrors (as a child he couldn’t pass one without a shudder), he believed that poetry had a duty to mirror reality.

Of course, for a man who went gradually blind over the course of his adulthood, it’s not surprising that mirrors might have a fraught significance. “The Mirror” (“El espejo”) – like many of his late poems a sonnet, though in this case unrhymed – proposes that an inner, psychic reality is exactly what the mirror so frighteningly captures:

    Now I fear the mirror may disclose
The true, unvarnished visage of my soul,
Bruised by shadows, black and blue with guilt –
The face God sees, that men perhaps see too.
(trans. Hoyt Rogers)

Yo temo ahora que el espejo encierre
El verdadero rostro de mi alma,
Lastimada de sombras y de culpas,
El que Dios ve y acaso ven los hombres.

All that Borgesian metaphysics about mirrors and masks and simulacra, the endlessly repeated motifs of his fictional labyrinths – gone, or at least subsumed into autobiographical imperative. “El verdadero rostro de mi alma” has become the true subject of his poetry. The nakedness of these lines grounds the somewhat abstruse speculations about identity into grief and guilt. Although he loved to play with the concepts of self and anti-self, Borges never pretended to have sorted out his or anyone’s existential dilemmas. His best poetry is very often a clear and elegant formulation of avowed confusion.

What truths was Borges afraid the mirror might reveal? In “Remorse” (“El remordimiento”) he candidly confesses to one such truth:

    I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game of nights and days;
For earth, for air, for water, and for fire.
I let them down. I wasn’t happy.
(trans. Willis Barnstone)

He cometido el peor de los pecados
Que un hombre puede cometer. No he sido
Feliz. Que los glaciares del olvido
Me arrastren y me pierdan, despiadados.
Mis padres me engendraron pare el juego
Arriesgado y hermoso de la vida,
Para la tierra, el agua, el aire, el fuego.
Los defraudé. No fui feliz.

Exactly who is speaking here – Borges or, to confuse matters fatally, “Borges”? In his celebrated prose poem “Borges and I” he claims to have played at being “Borges” for so long that he can hardly distinguish between his public self and his private one, between outer and inner psychic realities. At the end of his career as at the beginning, the enigma of identity remains unsolved. Yet it’s pretty clear that the “I” of “Remorse” belongs to Jorge Luis Borges, the awkward, half-blind librarian oppressed by his family legacy of military glory and by his pattern of hapless, helpless infatuations with women who only reject him. I take it as a point in its favor that there really isn’t all that much to say about a poem like “Remorse.” It’s still a literary artifice, of course, but it has less to do with structures of postmodern thought than with, well, remorse. Critics have turned themselves inside out exploring the dizzying ramifications of “texts” (for once, the word seems appropriate) like “Death and the Compass” and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” while scarcely mentioning his poetry. If I were writing a book about Borges, I would do the same. His short stories are, to use his word, “fictions”; his poems are merely poems.

In his prologue to Antología poética 1923-1977, a slim selection of his own choosing that I prefer to more prolix editions, Borges wrote, “I would wish this volume to be read sub quadam specie aeternitatis, in a hedonic way, not in relation to theories that I do not profess or to my biographical circumstances. I have compiled it hedonically, gathering only what pleases me or what pleased me at the moment of choosing.” I agree about the hedonism. Poetry offers different sorts of pleasures, some more spartan than others, but pleasure is really the baseline of literary understanding, or should be, even if you “interrogate texts” for a living. Yet when Borges warns against biographical readings, I ignore him, and for reasons he may have condoned. Reading his poems in reference to his personal circumstances, when they comprise the principal subject, affords pleasure and understanding at once. The circumstances, after all, are not very esoteric, even if most of us are not blind multilingual geniuses.

In “Heraclitus,” for example, Borges contemplates the “sacred horror” that any thinking person will on occasion experience before the onslaught of time. Heraclitus discovered the metaphor (time-river), but his anguish was identical to that of the man who happens to be writing the poem as a visiting lecturer at Michigan State University in 1976. This being a Borges poem, identity no less than time is in flux, so that the figure of Heraclitus turns out to be a projection of Borges who turns out to be a projection of . . . well, you. What unites protagonist, poet, and reader across time is the constancy of desolation. Thus, after his shattering epiphany at the river Heraclitus feels

        with the shock of a sacred horror
that he too is a river in flux.
He wishes to recover that morning,
that night, and its dawn. He can’t.
He repeats the phrase. He sees it impressed
in clear characters of the future
on a page of Burnet.
Heraclitus knows no Greek . . .
He has neither yesterday nor this moment.
He’s merely an artifice that a gray man
has dreamed up on the shores of the Red Cedar,
a man who weaves hendecasyllables
to avoid thinking too much of Buenos Aires
and its loved faces. Someone is missing.
(trans. S. Akey)

que él también es un río y una fuga.
Quiere recuperar esa mañana
y su noche y la víspera. No puede.
Repite la sentencia. La ve impresa
en futuros y claros caracteres
en una de las páginas de Burnet.
Heráclito no sabe griego . . .
Heráclito no tiene ayer ni ahora.
Es un mero artificio que ha soñado
un hombre gris que entreteje endecasílabos
para no pensar tanto en Buenos Aires
y en los rostros queridos. Uno falta.

Borges recasts Heraclitus in his own image; we ought to recast Borges in ours. My particular image of Borges may or may not correspond to the figure represented by scholars and biographers. The Borges that I treasure is less the imperious metaphysician, the inventor of intellectual paradigms, than the baffled, unguarded man who writes openly of his “humiliations and failures,” his loneliness and his blindness in a sonnet like “Buenos Aires”:

    And now, for me, the city is like a map
of all my failures and humiliations;
from that doorway I watched the sun go down
and next to that statue I waited in vain.
Here unreliable yesterday and different
today have dealt me the same hand they do
to anyone; here is where my steps
weave their incalculable labyrinth.
(trans. Stephen Kessler)

Y la ciudad, ahora, es como un plano
de mis humillaciones y fracasos;
desde esa puerta he visto los ocasos
y ante ese mármol he aguardado en vano.
Aquí el incierto ayer y el hoy distinto
me han deparado los communes casos
de toda suerte humana; aquí mis pasos
urden su incalculable laberinto.

I happen to believe that the qualities I find in Borges’s poetry – courage, honesty, wit, humility, self-knowledge, curiosity, mystery – are really there, but even if I’m finding what I want to find, I am not thereby misreading him. One of the great lessons he teaches us is how to read – hedonically (as he says in that prologue), idiosyncratically, irresponsibly. That he himself had read almost everything (and in the original languages) does not argue for a more dispassionate or objective view of reading. Borges (a high school dropout, by the way) read Icelandic sagas the way a Sue Grafton fan might devour her latest installment – unsystematically and entirely for pleasure. Naturally a lifetime of reading folk ballads, epic poetry, Arabic philosophy, rabbinical commentary, Japanese tankas, and seemingly the entire Western canon will tend to expand your intellectual and imaginative horizons more than will the consumption of mystery novels. Then again, Borges, an avid consumer (and occasional producer) of mystery novels himself, might have discovered imaginative riches in Sue Grafton undetected by most of us. As much as the canonical ones, he revered “unimportant” or secondary writers – Chesterton, Stevenson, Longfellow, Swinburne – out of his love for the eccentric and the idiosyncratic but also out of a sly sense of fellowship.

Borges confirms for me a thought that takes on increasing importance as I grow older and face the truth that I will probably never get around to reading Simone de Beauvoir or Aleksandr Pushkin : it doesn’t matter (within limits) what I read. What matters is how I read. Compared to Borges –maybe compared to Sue Grafton – my ignorance is abysmal. Far from abashing me, however, his scholarly promiscuity licenses my imagination and my leisure. It’s not as if by reading more and more and more I will finally arrive at some point of terminal understanding. Perhaps I “should” read Pablo Neruda more diligently; many scholars would say that his Heights of Macchu Pichu far surpasses any of the verse written by his contemporary Borges. Well, there are a lot of books I should read. I’m more interested in the ones I do read.

There’s no doubt that Borges’s failure to create a Neruda-like magnum opus nagged at him. In the end, however, he accepted that essays, short stories, and lyric poems would have to serve as his Heights of Macchu Pichu or Leaves of Grass. It couldn’t have hurt to have the support of María Kodoma, the Japanese-Argentine woman who finally reciprocated his love. Sometimes there’s just no substitute for having a smart, strong, and beautiful girlfriend who is thirty-eight years younger and adores you. Jorge and María kept their slightly scandalous relationship partly under wraps until they married two months before he died, but he invokes her presence if not her name in a number of late poems. My favorite is “Gunnar Thorgilsson (1816-1879),” an eight-line, unrhymed lyric in which he uses his accustomed stratagem of writing about himself in the guise of another, whoever the the real or imagined Gunnar Thorgilsson might have been:

    The memory of time
Is full of swords and ships
And the dust of empires
And the rumble of hexameters
And the high horses of war
And shouts and Shakespeare.
I want to recall that kiss, the kiss
You bestowed on me in Iceland.
(trans. Hoyt Rogers)

La memoria del tiempo
Está llena de espadas y de naves
Y de polvo de imperios
Y de rumor de hexámetros
Y de altos caballos de guerra
Y de clamores y de Shakespeare.
Yo quiero recordar aquel beso
Con el que me besabas en Islandia.

It’s not that the swords and ships and empires and hexameters are meaningless; it’s just that at the close of an individual life they dissolve before a remembered kiss. Can anyone doubt it? When my time comes I don’t intend to be thinking of the Destiny of America or even of the literature that I love. It seems to me that Borges, who lived with the rumble of hexameters and for whom Shakespeare was one of the principal “events” of his life, had his priorities exactly right. At the close of his life William Butler Yeats showed a similar acuity and honesty. “Politics,” the poem he placed last in his Collected Poems, ends not with a sweeping summation about History or Spirit or “the indomitable Irishry” or any of the other weighty themes he had spent his life thinking about. It ends like this: “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms.”

Early in his career Borges wanted to be Walt Whitman (“cuyo nombre es el universo” – “whose name is the universe.”) I consider it no great disparagement to say that the poet he more nearly resembles in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both used traditional forms to write about traditional themes and both were enormous literary celebrities in their day. Is it such a terrible fate to be a minor poet? Borges wrote a number of poems about minor poets, some with a gentle mockery directed at himself. And though he knew there was nothing “minor” about his fiction, which overturned assumptions about literary representation that even he had once thought immutable, he might have argued – in fact, did argue in “To a Minor Poet of 1899” – that “To leave a verse concerning the sad hour / That awaits us at the limit of the day” was no ignoble ambition. After all, somebody has to write about the simple human things while the Nerudas and Eliots and Rilkes shake the ground on which we stand. Of course, major poets do write about the simple human things, sometimes; they just do so on a level of higher complexity. Although Borges knew the distinction to be in some sense arbitrary, it pleased him to think of himself as a minor figure like G.A. Bürger (“whose two dates are in the encyclopedia”) in the poem of that title. If the names sound alike, they should. As the concluding lines reveal, Bürger and Borges are essentially one:

    Like all men
he lied and was lied to,
was betrayed and betrayer,
agonized over love often enough . . .
With pretended ease he limned some verses
in the style of his day . . .
Bürger is alone, and now,
even now, writes these lines.
(trans. S. Akey)

Al igual de todos los hombres,
dijo y oyó mentiras,
fue traicionado y fue traidor,
agonizó de amor muchas veces . . .
y con falso descuido limó algún verso,
en el estilo de su época. . . .
Bürger está solo y ahora,
precisamente ahora, lima unos versos.

The conceit of being a minor poet allows Borges “with pretended ease” to assume the identity of everyman. Some everyman. If we can, for the moment, forget the four ponderous volumes of the Collected Works, or the colossal erudition, or the mastery of seven or eight languages, or the Nobel Prize he should have won, Jorge Luis Borges truly was an everyman, inhabiting our identities as we inhabit his. “Oh destino de Borges, tal vez no más extraño que el tuyo”: “Oh destiny of Borges, perhaps no stranger than yours.”

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.