Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.
In his memorable prose piece “Borges and I,” he addresses a deeply felt distinction between himself and “the other one, the one called Borges.” “I like hourglasses,” he writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.” He recognizes almost nothing of himself in the eminent literary personage with whom he shares a name, a face, and certain other superficial qualities. “I do not know which of us has written this page,” he concludes.
This haunting, teasing fragment is reproduced in its entirety in “Borges at Eighty: Conversations,” a collection of interviews from his 1980 trip to the U.S., which has been published in a new edition by New Directions. It’s an instructively ironic context for the piece to turn up in—a transcript of a public event at Indiana University in which a number of Borges’s poems and prose pieces were read aloud in English, followed by a short extemporaneous commentary by the author. When he addresses the audience, he seems to be speaking for the “I,” but it is surely “Borges” who is doing the talking:
Borges stands for all the things I hate. He stands for publicity, for being photographed, for having interviews, for politics, for opinions—all opinions are despicable I should say. He also stands for those two nonentities, those two impostors failure and success […] He deals in those things. While I, let us say, since the name of the paper is “Borges and I”, I stands not for the public man but for the private self, for reality, since these other things are unreal to me.
For someone who hated being interviewed, Borges was a prolific and garrulous interviewee (although it was perhaps “Borges” who handled that side of things). And yet, to point this out is to risk missing the substance of what he is saying here, which is not simply that he feels himself at odds with his own public persona but that he feels himself profoundly at odds with how little he is at odds with it. (Such paradoxes are an occupational hazard in any encounter with Borges.) One of the collection’s most interesting aspects is the interaction of these incompatible elements: the obvious pleasure Borges takes in the opportunity to present himself for public consumption, and his reflexive skepticism about the necessary fraudulence of the writer as personality.
There’s something fascinatingly Borgesian about the way in which the self-awareness of the performance is itself highly performative. This preoccupation with the divided self veers close to a sort of ontological double act, a one-man odd-couple routine. “Everyone sitting in this audience wants to know Jorge Luis Borges,” begins the interviewer, in the first of this book’s conversations. Borges replies, “I wish I did. I am sick and tired of him.” For a writer, he was not greatly exercised by the topic of himself. He was interested in his interests and not the contingent fact that it was he, Borges, who was interested in them. Being himself was never much more than drudgery. “When I wake up,” he tells one of his interviewees, “I always feel I’m being let down. Because, well, here I am. Here’s the same old stupid game going on. I have to be somebody. I have to be exactly that somebody. I have certain commitments. One of the commitments is to live through the whole day.”
Borges never wrote a work of fiction longer than fourteen pages. “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one,” he wrote in 1941, “the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.” But I think, perhaps, that the real reason he never wrote a novel was that the form is largely dependent on character, and Borges had no real interest in, or facility for, the creation of psychologically vivid people. (Try relating Leopold Bloom orally in five minutes, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Anna Karenina. Their greatness as characters arises out of their irreducibility to the facts about themselves.) He wasn’t much for fleshing out, and he was not the kind of writer whose characters ever had a chance of “taking over” from their creator. His most indelible creations—Funes the Memorious, say, or Pierre Menard—are memorable not for the contents of their invented souls but for the situations that he placed them in, the ingenious conceits that worked their way into narrative through the idea of their particular madness. His characters—including the one called Borges, the recurring protagonist of so many of his fictions—tended to be ciphers. They were fictions made from fiction, drawn from reading, not from life. And he himself, the character who he happened to be in the framing narrative called reality, was not much different. “Why on earth,” he asks in another of these conversations, “should I worry what happens to Borges? After all, Borges is nothing, a mere fiction.”
The man we see in these eleven interviews is a person made of books, a librarian who often remarked that his idea of paradise was an endless library—a sort of eternal busman’s holiday. He speaks of himself as a reader first and a writer only secondarily. That this self-conception emerges out of his scrupulous humility and instinct for self-effacement doesn’t make it any less accurate or revealing. Borges’s writing was always, to some degree, a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts. He was a man of letters in the nineteenth-century mode, possessed of a type of encyclopedic erudition that seems not to exist anymore. And this brings us to one of the structural paradoxes at the heart of Borges’s work. He was deeply invested in the past, in the idea of a living and evolving literary tradition. “I think of myself as not being a modern writer,” he says here. “I don’t think of myself as a contemporary of surrealism, or dadaism, or imagism, or the other respected tomfooleries of literature, no? I think of literature in terms of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. I am a lover of Bernard Shaw, Henry James.” And yet this strangely totalizing conservatism was the basis of Borges’s radical legacy, a new way of thinking about fiction and its relationship to the world.
That extent to which he was steeped in tradition can also be seen in another new book published by New Directions, “Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.” The book collects the transcripts of a lecture course on the history of English literature that Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. It’s both shamelessly comprehensive and entirely idiosyncratic, launching with the Anglo-Saxons and coming to rest, twenty-five lectures later, on Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer especially beloved of Borges. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for particularly gripping reading. His approach to most of the works that he’s lecturing on is largely descriptive, so that we get a fairly exhaustive rundown of what happens in “Beowulf,” say, or some of the more interesting aspects of Boswell’s Johnson, but not nearly the insight into either you’d expect from a great literary mind.
The “Borges” who is revealed, or perhaps performed, in these two books seems like the Platonic ideal of the man of letters: a man who taught himself German because he wanted to read Schopenhauer in the original, and learned it, moreover, by reading the poetry of Heine; a man who taught himself Icelandic in order to pursue his interest in Norse sagas. His loss of sight seems strangely appropriate; in the interviews, he speaks of the “luminous mist” of his blindness as though it were a kind of blessing, a removal of all distraction from what was most important, most real—the life of the mind. (And there was never any shortage of people willing to read to the great writer in his old age.)
But there were things that Borges didn’t see whose invisibility had nothing to do with his physical blindness—things he didn’t see because he wasn’t interested in looking at them. The lecture course in “Professor Borges” doesn’t feature anything written by a woman. It’s a history of English literature that includes no Austen, no Shelley, no Charlotte or Emily Brontë, no Eliot, and no Woolf. He was a great admirer of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, but even that admiration is not without its strain of condescension: in an interview with the collection’s editor, Willis Barnstone, he describes her as “the most passionate of all women who have attempted writing.” I laughed out loud when I read this, and then decided to extend Borges the benefit of the doubt, given the context of an unscripted conversation in a language that—despite his Anglophilic protestations—was not his first. But then I came to this moment, sixteen pages further on, in a conversation with Alastair Reid and John Coleman at the New York PEN Club:
COLEMAN: Borges, you have spoken of literary men you admire, what about literary women? Could you identify the women in literature whose contribution you consider most significant?
BORGES: I think I would limit myself to one, to Emily Dickinson.
COLEMAN: Is that it?
BORGES: That’s that. Short and sweet.
REID: I think it should be pointed out, however, that there are more.
BORGES: Yes, of course. There is Silvina Ocampo, for example, who is translating Emily Dickinson at this moment in Buenos Aires.
Borges’s fictional universe is relentlessly, oppressively male. He wrote very few female characters, and there is a vision of masculinity—violent, fearless, austere—that exists in his work as a counterpoint to its obsessive bookishness, and neither ideal has much room for the presence of women, writers or otherwise. His abstraction meant, among other things, a removal from the heat and chaos of human relationships. There is very little love in his work, very little emotional intensity; its richness and complexity is that of philosophical problems, of theology and ontology, not of human relationships.
And it is certainly not that of the wider human complexity of politics. An aloofness from mere politics seems like a strength in his fiction, but it’s hard to come away from reading these interviews seeing it as anything other than a serious weakness in his life. Understandably, he is often asked to speak about Argentina’s recent history of tyranny and brutality; repeatedly, he finds ways of evading these questions. And the ways in which he says nothing often end up being more revealing than he intends. On “The Dick Cavett Show,” Cavett asked him if he could account for the level of sympathy for the Nazis in Argentina. “Look here,” said Borges. “I don’t profess to understand my country. I am not politically minded, either. I do my best to avoid politics. I belong to no party. I am an individualist.” Pressed on the topic of Hitler, Borges said that “of course I hate and loathe him. His anti-Semitism was very foolish.” This is hard to read because, although we should know better, it’s difficult to stop ourselves expecting wisdom from a person who happens to be a genius. Hitler’s anti-Semitism might well have been foolish, but that was pretty far from being its most remarkable aspect.
Borges’s refusal to engage with politics wouldn’t have been nearly so remarkable had he not lived through two World Wars and, in his own country, six coups d’états and three dictatorships. In an interview revealingly titled “But I Prefer Dreaming,” an audience member asks him what he thinks the role of the artist should be in a threatened society. Rather than saying that the role of the artist should be to make art, he gives an answer that seems itself oddly threatened and elusive. “I have no use for politics,” he says. “I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer.” Borges’s skepticism was deeply felt, but here it does look like a tactical withdrawal from the very real terror and anarchy and injustice of the world, a retreat into the luminous mist of his own blindness. His fiction was no less great for its abstraction, but there is something ultimately sad about this great architect of labyrinths who would not enter into the ramifying complexity of his own century.