Traducere // Translate

about 'borges'

borges by fixionauta
borges, a photo by fixionauta on Flickr.

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.”

borges, the infinite and me

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.

Jorge Luis Borges

3 comentarii:

Anonim spunea...


O'Connell's expression of disappointment at Borges' failure to be more political is puzzling, since Borges was not, as a matter of fact, silent about politics. Either O'Connell doesn't know this, or - more likely - O'Connell simply finds Borges' politics distasteful. Borges called himself a classical liberal and was vocal about his disdain for communism and statism in general. Coupled with O'Connell's lament about the absence of women, it seems pretty obvious that what's going on here is your garden-variety ideological tut-tutting: Mr. Borges is not toeing the PC line!

In other words, O'Connell's real complaint is that Borges wasn't a bien-pensant liberal in the New Yorker mold.


By stipulating that every writer, to be taken seriously, must

1. be interested in and write about WOMEN

2. be interested in and write about POLITICS

and telling us that Borges did not, Marc O'Connell tells us nothing of any consequence about Borges oeuvre but something significant about himself, namely that he toes the line of current trends and intellectual fashions. That this is likely to make him ill equipped to inform us about a writer who did not is roundly born out by his announcement of two books on Borges.


I agree that Borges doesn't have a lot women in his fiction, or a woman's perspective. But that's not so much a "flaw" as a difference in subject matter. Likewise in seeming a-political. Borges is concerned with The Big Issues, time and space, metaphysics, infinities and labyrinths. This isn't saying that politics is narrow-minded, but its main concern is with human beings and our time and place. The transcendent is another matter. If Borges were to write like George Orwell, with as strong a political slant, his fiction would simply not be Borgesian any longer; it would be the writing of someone else. Our society is very concerned with politics, and of course politics matters, because of the injustice Mark O'Connell spoke of in Hitler. But we already know Hitler is wrong, don't we? We don't need a more overt denouncement of Hitler than what Borges said, to know Hitler was an evil man. It's so obvious that Hitler was evil, it's not even worth saying.

Why should we condemn a writer for his subject matter? Literary criticism has been looking for easy political truths in fiction for far too long. It doesn't usually want to address The Big Themes that lurk in Borges' labyrinths and mirrors.

Anonim spunea...


Borges was the observer, thinker, and "dreamer" that he described himself as, not some second-rate political pugilist on a soapbox, or a cable news personality. This cursory, by-numbers hatchet job on his work (itself generally full of reflection, experimentation, and pathos) on the basis of a few ironic soundbites only underscores his point about the immateriality of public appearances. Still true in 2013.

In addition to the other examples mentioned below, Borges demonstrated his disappointing failure to be a misogynist in his translating the entirety of A Room of One's Own, and in his exceedingly high estimation of Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji. There are other examples of course.

Finally, for someone who has personally suffered under Peron to be more interested in Plutarch than in Peron, to find the latter merely ridiculous or illusory, that is a statement more meaningful and a greater blow for freedom than any political tweet or editorial reciting the mantra of the moment.


You misunderstand what it meant for Borges to be a-political. It might be similar to the way Nietzsche was "extra-moral". But it cannot be explained in a short article like this, which also happens to be off the mark in many ways. He did, indeed, express the "ramifying complexity of his own century" but in a more subtle, highly attuned way that is perhaps beyond your comprehension. And, by the way, he wrote one of the great feminist short stories in "Emma Zunz."


"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."

On the contrary, Borges's refusal to engage with politics is exactly the reason he was able to remain in his home producing great literature, rather than getting zapped with a couple hundred volts in a dark basement or getting drugged and thrown into the Atlantic.

Anonim spunea...



Just the first and last paragraph of his not entirely unpolitical essay 'Our poor individualism' (Buenos Aires, 1946):

"There is no end to the illusions of patriotism. In the first century of our era, Plutarch mocked those who declared that the Athenian moon is better than the Corinthian moon; Milton, in the seventeenth, observed that God is in the habit of revealing Himself first to His Englishmen; Fichte, at the beginning of the nineteenth, declared that to have character and to be German are obviously one and the same thing. Here in Argentina we are teeming with nationalists, driven, they claim, by the worthy or innocent resolve of promoting the best traits of the Argentine people. Yet they ignore the Argentine people; in their polemics they prefer to define them as a function of some external fact, the Spanish conquistadors, say, or an imaginary Catholic tradition, or "Saxon imperialism."


"Nationalism seeks to captivate us with the vision of an infinitely tiresome State; this utopia, once established on earth, would have the providential virtue of making everyone yearn for, and finally build, its antithesis."


This is a rather sad portrait indeed. To reduce Borges to this is to know very little about him, his writing, his country or its history. What does Mr. O'Connell want him to say, exactly?

The parochialism here reminds me of something a wise teacher once said: how extraordinary it is for a country like Argentina to have produced a Borges. The best the USA can do is an Updike.



You are right, although Borges would have possibly couched your opinion in scathingly softer terms ("the author's ignorance of Borges'/I's work approaches perfection", or somesuch). Skipping through Borges' reviews of the writings of General Ludendorff and the drawings of Elvira Bauer, as well as his view of the Argentinian Germanophiles at that time, I ask myself: What is wrong with being an anti-antisemite for aesthetic and logical reasons, instead of political ones?