Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Borges on Melville

In 1984 Jorge Luis Borges and the Argentine poet, Osvaldo Ferrari, started having weekly conversations in a radio programme at the Radio Municipal of Buenos Aires. Once a week they discussed culture, history, philosophy, politics (inasmuch as Borges liked to talk about politics), his trips around the world, and also his work; but what they mostly talked about was books, books, books.

Lately I’ve been re-reading my Portuguese translations of En Diálogo because I’m looking for a specific passage where Borges talks about the role of fantasy in the history of literature. My two-volume collection contains ninety dialogues, that’s some 600 pages. So it’s going to take a while to find it.

But it’s been great reading it again because Borges was an excellent raconteur and conversationalist, and he had a subtle sense of humour. And it’s also interesting to return to these dialogues years later, with a few hundred more books behind me. Dialogues I originally read without great understanding are now demanding my attention as I am, well, a bit more well-read.

For instance I didn’t care much about a dialogue in the past because I wasn’t very familiar with these two authors, but now “Conrad, Melville y el mar” (Conrad, Melville and the sea) strikes a chord with me.

Osvaldo Ferrari gets the conversation going by saying that from time to time they remember two writers who were mainly concerned with the sea: Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.

“Yes, and they’re nothing alike at all, ah?” Borges says. “Absolutely. Because Conrad cultivated an oral style or, well, fictitiously oral. Of course, they’re the narratives of that gentleman named Marlowe who tells almost all of the stories. Whereas Melville, in Moby Dick – which is a very original book – reveals, however, two influences; there are two men looming over that book – beneficially, of course: Melville, sometimes, tends to reflect or repeat… or, better saying, two voices echo in him. One would be Shakespeare’s, and the other Carlyle’s.”

Shakespeare’s influence I spotted in my reading of Moby Dick, in Captain Ahab’s magnificent speeches. But Carlyle is a writer utterly unknown to me, of I him I know nothing save one page somewhere in El Hogar, I think, where Borges claims that his philosophy today (and that was in the 1930s) could be summed up in one word: Nazism. I don’t see how that influenced Melville at all, since I read the novel exactly as a repudiation of authoritarianism, but perhaps readers better acquainted with both authors can see the connection. I actually thought, for a moment, that Borges was going to say Rabelais as his other influence, the father of the heterogeneous novel, of which Melville, Joyce and many others are true heirs.

Borges then discusses the whale’s whiteness. “Now, in Moby Dick, the theme would be the idea of the horror of whiteness. He may have been led to: he may have thought, at first, that the whale had to be identified amongst the other whales. The whale that had mutilated the captain. But that’s a miserly hypothesis, it’s best to assume that he felt the horror of whiteness; the idea that white could be a terrible colour. Because one always associates the idea of terror with darkness, with the dark; and then with red, with blood. And he saw that the colour white – which would be, for the sight, the absence of all colour – could be terrible also.” Borges then suggests that Melville may have found this idea in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which abruptly ends with the narrator meeting a “shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” This is why I love to Borgess non-fiction, the way his vastly erudite mind works, establishing connections, and so many sensible ones.

Also fascinating is how this point about whiteness segues into a discussion of the origins of the word white and black. Borges argues that black comes from the Old English word for bleak, which meant devoid of colour. Although this word turned into black in English, in the Romanic languages bleak became the Portuguese branco, the Spanish blanco, the French blanc, the Italian bianco. So the word, he argues, split into two opposites. It’s an interesting theory.

Next he compares the final line of the final chapter of Moby Dick with the last line from Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno, namely the episode narrating Ulysses’ journey from Circe’s island.

Compare Moby Dick’s ending:

A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

   Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

with the Canto XXVI’s ending:

With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them. To the dawn
Our poop we turn'd, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the' other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean-floor
It rose not. Five times re-illum'd, as oft
Vanish'd the light from underneath the moon
Since the deep way we enter'd, when from far
Appear'd a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e'er beheld. Joy seiz'd us straight,
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel. Thrice it whirl'd her round
With all the waves, the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow clos'd. (1)

There it is, Borges says, the same idea of the ocean closing upon both Ulysses and the Pequod.

The episode of Ulysses, Borges says, is the most memorable in The Divine Comedy. “But what is there in The Divine Comedy that isn’t memorable?” he asks. “Everything is, but if I had to choose a canto – and there is no reason why I should – I’d choose Ulysses’ episode, which moves me perhaps more than the episode of Paolo and Francesca…” This of course immediately reminded me of one sentence I never forgot from Borges, somewhere in these dialogues: “I’ve always been easily moved by the epic.”

Although the title of the dialogue was Conrad and Melville, Borges has very little to say about Conrad before the radio programme’s time runs out. I’ll continue to read the dialogues and see if I find something about Conrad.

1. Translated by Henry Francis Cary


  1. I find it so fascinating and insightful when one great artist and thinker discusses and analyzes the work of another great. I am so interested into connections between these people and their ideas. As I am very intrigued by Moby Dick this sounds especially interesting to me.

    The parallels between Moby Dick and the passage from The Divine Comedy are brilliantly illustrated in Borges's comments.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Reading Borges discuss other writers is a form of pleasure unique unto itself.

  3. Wait, what! Nazism! Jorge, what are you doing! That moves past "shorthand" into "grotesque error."

    Carlyle was a Great Man of History theorist, and some of his ideas did make their way into fascism. But Carlyle's influence on Melville was not in the realm of ideas but in prose and rhetoric, where Carlyle was one of the great writers of his time. The current of his prose runs through many great writers besides Melville - Dickens and Ruskin especially.

    You are right about Rabelais. Melville's earlier novel Mardi, a crazy mess of a book, openly loots Rabelais. By Moby-Dick, Melville has actually tamed the Rabelais stuff. Relatively tamed.

    The link to Dante's Ulysses is excellent and exciting.

  4. Thanks for the explanation, Tom.

    I've been so curious to read Sartor Resartus, especially because Borges attributes the idea of writing reviews for fake books to it.

  5. As I think about it more, Melville picked up all sorts of ideas from Carlyle, but not, as you noticed, the Great Man business. Now I wonder if some of the treatment of Ahab is even a Great Man parody.

    The "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter is highly Carlylean, the sort of thing found throughout Sartor Resartus. Take something ordinary (whiteness, clothes) and start pulling meaning out of it, however fanciful or even nonsensical. Don't stop until you run out of words.

    Sartor Resartus is one crazy book.

  6. Ahab as a parody of the Great Man, yes, that's an interesting, and I think possible interpretation.

    What's Mardi about by the way?

  7. ... elsewhere invoked together:
    "Now in the epic—and we might think of the Gospels as a kind of divine epic—all things could be found. But poetry, as I said, has fallen asunder; or rather, on the one hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale—we have the novel. One is almost tempted to think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. For the novel goes back to the dignity of the epic."
    —This Craft of Verse, p48

    and in intro to Bartleby (which is half spent on Moby Dick and Melville's insistence on non-allegorical reading, then segueing into Bartleby & Kafka): "'Bartleby' belongs to the volume entitled _Piazza Tales_ ... About another story in the book, John Freeman observed that it would not be fully understood until Joseph Conrad published certain analogous pieces almost a half-century later." (The prologue concludes, "Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity, have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions. Edgar Allan Poe was one of these; so was Melville.")
    —Selected Non-Fictions p248

    (as for seafaring, one should also consider riverfaring: Heart of Darkness, The Confidence-Man)

    Manguel does the Dante thang, I do Poe's whiteness:

    1. Riverfaring, yes, good word; that's what Borges says of Conrad in this dialogue, that his early Malay stories are about rivers. A good observation, I think.

  8. Mardi is mostly about Melville finding his "Melville voice."

    It is also about a boat journey through a Pacific archipelago that is a philosophical search for transcendence and an excuse for deadly topical satire.

    bibliographing made a good run at Mardi.

    A favorite sentence: "'Ah!' signed Babbalanja, turning; 'how little they ween of the Rudimental Quincunxes, and the Hecatic Spherula!'"

    "poetry has fallen asunder" - that's a good one.

    1. I can't seem to find a decent edition of the novel. Which one do you have, Tom?

    2. I read the Northwestern-Newberry edition, but the colorful one, not the green one (they put out more- and less-expensive trade paperbacks of each of Melville's works, with and without significant commentary).

      Also, excellent and super interesting post!

    3. Oh, that edition is out of print, according to Amazon. I'll have to look for another one.

      Thanks for reading my blog, Nicole. Please stop by more often.

  9. Hm, I've now come across a dialogue where Borges explains that he failed to read Rabelais. He tried to read it in two different editions, but couldn't read it, although he appreciated some passages. I wonder if this didn't influence his reading of Moby Dick.

  10. Wonderful post, Miguel. I agree that Borges' nonfiction is often marvelous and I particularly like The Divine Comedy comparisons here and the language stuff on bleakness, blackness, and whiteness. Not having read much of Carlyle, I would have thought that the translators of the King James Bible would have been the second authors "looming" over Moby-Dick alongside Shakespeare, though, and not Carlyle.

    1. Oh, yes, Ahab's epic rants have a beautiful biblical, thundering tone.

  11. The parallel between " Moby-Dick" an the Canto of Ulysses is fascinating. To the modern temperament, inevitably, I think, influenced by Romanticism, Ulysses' striving is heroic and magnificent, and this particular canto of Dante is valued precisely because it appears to us a celebration of the heroic, indomitable spirit of man. This is certainly how Tennyson saw it, in the magnificent "Ulysses", his take on Dante's canto. It is also this aspect that struck Primo Levi in "If This is a Man", when, in the middle of Auschwitz of all places, this paean to human greatness suddenly struck him with renewed force. But the uncomfortable fact remains that Dante had placed Ulysses in hell. Not even in purgatory - but in hell. In order to strive so heroically, Ulysses had broken the ties of family - ties that should have been sacred.And to Dante, this is not merely reprehensible: it is sinful. Melville, of course, was writing after the Romantic era - I.e. at a time when Romantic values had entered the human consciousness; but while he could perceive the magnificence of Ahab's striving, he could also, like Dante had done, perceive also its sinful nature. It is this simultaneous co -existence of heroism and sinfulness that gives "Moby-Dick" so much of its visceral power; and I must confess that until I read this post, I had never connected Melville with Dante.


    1. Borges isn't satisfied with Ulysses in hell either. This is what he writes about it:

      "... there is something mysterious about the fate of Dante's Ulysses: of course he's in the circle that corresponds to cheaters, to tricksters, for for the Trojan horse ploy. But one feels that that isn't the real reason. And I wrote an essay - it's in the book Nine Dantesque Essays - in which I write that Dante must have felt that what he had done was something forbidden to men, for he, for his literary ends, has to anticipate the decisions Divine Providence will make in the Day of Judgment. He himself says, somewhere in The Divine Comedy, that no-one can predict God's decisions. And yet he did it in his book, in which he dooms some to Inferno, others to Purgatorio; and makes other ascend to Paradiso. He may have thought, then, that what he was doing was, well, not a blasphemy, but, well, that it wasn't totally correct that a man adopted took unto himself those decisions. And so, on writing this book, he must have committed something forbidden. Like Ulysses, wanting to explore the Northern hemisphere and sailing guiding himself by other stars, is also doing something wrong; and he's punished for that. Because if not, no one knows why he's punished. That is, I suggest that consciously or unconsciously there's a connection, an affinity between Dante and Ulysses."

      I don't know if this clarifies much, though :)

    2. Thanks for that. I am certainly no Dante scholar, and feel no little trepidation in rushing into an area where even Dante experts fear to tread, but it did seem to me reading that Canto that Dante did see Ulysses' striving for the infinite as a blasphemy: infinity, after all, is reserved for God. Of course, it is heroic as well, but the heroism does not diminish the blasphemy. Since the Romantic era, we have come to admire human striving. Dante admires it too, I think, but in his world view, the blasphemy remains sinful. Ulysses, in order to strive, has, it is made clear, broken ties with his family, ties with humanity itself - ties which should be sacred.

      Seeing Ahab in the context of all this - something I hadn't done till I read your post - seems to me fascinating. For Ahab, too, in his striving, breaks ties with humanity: he refuses, for instance, to join in the search for the missing boy. And like Dante's Ulysses, Ahab too is destined for Hell. And yet, Ahab's striving, like that of Ulysses, has about it a certain glory, a certain magnificence: teh pequod, as it sinks into Hell, takes a bit of Heaven with it.

      I appreciate this is far too simplistic an interpretation of both Melville and of Dante. I have only dipped my toes into Dante, and am not really qualified to pass comment on thorny matters of interpretation; and while I have read Moby-Dick a few times, I am aware that I am nowhere near an adequate understanding of this tremendous but frequently infuriating novel. But Borges' juxtapostion of the two seems to open up new regions of thought.

      Cheers, Himadri

    3. No, it's not simplistic; I think you actually make some good points and make connections I hadn't noticed before. Of course I have never read Dante, so this is all new to me.

  12. Does anyone know if an english translation of En Diálogo is available?

    1. I've looked it up in Amazon, to my knowledge there's no translation. It's bizarre since it's a valuable resouce and Borges is such a popular figure.

    2. I just found this:

      Apparently, an English translation is being published in June. Which is kind of hilarious, because I need it for a paper due in April. :) Oh well. Good opportunity to brush up on my Spanish.

    3. Ha ha, that's rotten timing!

      If I may ask, why do you need this book for your paper?