Saturday, 22 February 2014

Jorge Luis Borges, Traveller

It’s been a long time since I wrote about Jorge Luis Borges, I’ll give people reason to think he’s not my favourite writer. But lately I’ve been re-reading bits and pieces of his conversations with poet Osvaldo Ferrari. As we all know, in 1984 both men started meeting every week to talk at Buenos Aires’ Radio Municipal, now that’s public service. Usually Ferrari chose a theme to get the conversation going, and then it was just a matter sitting back and listening to Borges talk. Ferrari was not an intrusive interlocutor, he kept Borges on track without overwhelming him, and he knew how to goad him, although Borges didn’t need much encouragement to start talking.

I like En Diálogo because when I’m hard-pressed by the need for a quick post, I can just whip up a few quotes, translate them, add a few framing commentaries, like this one, and pretend I’ve done something substantial.

In one conversation, Ferrari expresses curiosity about Borges’ love for travels. In the wake of a future trip to Japan, Italy and Greece, he asks him why he’s taken up to travelling in his old age. The obvious answer should be, Because I’m famous now and everyone invites me to go everywhere and people are only to happy to take care of a blind guy. But ever politeness personified, Borges replied:

One reason would be my blindness, the fact that I feel the countries although I can’t see them. And besides that, if I stay in Buenos Aires, well, my life is… poor, I have to be constantly fabulating, dictating. On the other hand, if I travel I’m receiving new impressions, and all that, in the long term, converts into literature – which I’m not sure if it’s an advantage; anyway, but I try to continue… accepting and thanking things. I think if I were really a poet – it’s obvious I’m not – I’d feel every instant of life as being poetic. That is, it’s a mistake to suppose that there are, for instance, poetic themes or poetic moments: all themes can be so. Walt Whitman has already demonstrated that and Gómez de la Serna in his own way also: the fact of seeing the quotidian as poetic. There’s a sentence that goes… yes: reality stranger than fiction [originally in English and Italics]: reality is stranger than fiction. And Chesterton comments on that wisely and fairly, I think; he says: “because fiction is made by us, in order to compensate reality is much weirder because it’s somebody else that makes it, the Other: God.” So that reality must be stranger. And now that I’ve said what somebody else said, I’m reminded that in the first part of The Divine Comedy… of course, the first part is Inferno, there the name of God is not allowed, and thus they call him the Other. “Like the Other willed,” says Ulysses, for instance, because the name of God can’t be uttered in Hell. And so Dante invented that beautiful synonym: the Other. Furthermore, it’s frightful, isn’t it? Because it means, well, that one is very far from the other, that we are not the Other. That’s why in The Divine Comedy the name of God shows up in, well, it could already happen in Purgatorio, because there they’re in the fire that… purifies them, and in Heaven, of course, but in Hell, no – they say the Other – and it’s usually printed with a capital O so there’s doubt about it.

This is Borges in a nutshell, the best of his qualities in one single quote: humble, self-deprecating (“I’m not a real poet”), trying to see the positive in the darkness (blindness allows him to feel rather than feel the countries he visits), funny and the tendency to lead all conversations back to books. His mind refuses staying in concrete reality for long. How the heck tourism end up in The Divine Comedy? It’s Borges!

Then Ferrari narrows it down to a trip to Sicily, where Borges will receive an honoris causa from the University of Palermo. Borges is excited for visiting Italy and Magna Graecia:

You can say that the West started thinking at Magna Graecia. That is, part Minor Asia and South of Italy. What a strange thing, philosophy having started shall we say in the outskirts of Greece, isn’t it? Well, there men started thinking, and we’ve tried continuing to think since then. Anyway, that fine custom started in Magna Graecia. And then, well, the South of Italy means other great names. It means Vico [et tu, Borges?] for instance, so quoted by Joyce due to his theory on the cycles of history. And, perhaps, who best wrote on aesthetics: Croce, from the South of Italy too. But I wanted to know the South of Italy, and I’ve been missing it so far, like so many things, for if a person considers, I’m not going to say the vastness of the universe, but the vastness of the planet, what a person can see is very little. I’ve thought sometimes, when people tell me that I’ve read a lot, that no. If a person thinks, well, in all the libraries of the world or one single library; let’s say… the National Library in Mexico Street. And what has a person read? A couple of pages. Of what’s written, a person has read but a few pages and nothing more, and of the world, one person has seen a couple of sights. But one may think that in those are the others, that is, that platonically a person has seen all things, and read all things. Even the books written in unknown languages. That’s why it’s said that all books are just one book. I’ve thought, so many times, that the themes of literature, well, are scarce, and that each generation searches for slight variants, each generation rewrites in the dialect of his epoch, what has been written. And that there are small differences, but those small differences are very, very important, naturally, at least for us.

Now this is more coherent, because it starts with philosophy in the outskirts of Greece and ends with Plato. Ferrari then remarks that the Italians are deeply interested in his work (which is true, take a gander at The Library of Babel, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, written four years before, made obvious allusions to him. I wonder if Borges ever read it).

And… yes, although that about their loving me very much may also indicate that they haven’t read my work, but I think that even though they’ve read me they like me, no? Which doesn’t cease to amaze me a little bit. Yes, Italy has been very generous to me. Well, the world has been very generous to me. I don’t think I have personal enemies, for instance, and besides that, maybe when a person reaches eighty-four years, he’s already, in a certain way, posthumous, and can be beloved without great further risks, right?

Ferrari then shifts the location Japan and informs him that Adolfo Bioy Casares told him of a book translated into Japanese, written by him and Borges in 1977 called Cuentos breves y extraordinarios.

   I didn’t know that, I didn’t have any news [they’re withholding royalties from Borges!]. Yes, we compiled that book more or less at that time, but my dates are very vague. The truth is I’m losing my memory, but I keep the best, which are, not my personal experiences, but rather the books I read. My memory is full of verses in many languages, I never tried to learn a poem by heart, but the ones that pleased me stayed and there they are. So that I could recite you verses in many languages, without excluding Old English; Anglo-Saxon, for instance.
   And I think many Latin verses too, but I’m not sure if I can scansion them well, perhaps I’ll get the number of syllables wrong, but anyway, I remember a lot more of what I read than what happened to me. But of course one of the most important things that can happen to a man, is having read this or that page that moved him, a very intense experience, no less intense than others. Even though Montaigne said that reading was a languid pleasure. But I think he was wrong, in my case reading is not languid, but intense. I suppose in his case also, for, if you read the essays of Montaigne, the pages are full of Latin citations, to which now has been necessary to add translations because Latin, unfortunately, is a dead language. On the other hand, in the past it was the common language of the whole educated Europe. A great-grandfather of mine, doctor Haslam, well, he couldn’t afford Oxford or Cambridge, so he went to the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. And he came back, at the end of five years, with the title of doctor of Philosophy and Letters, without a word of German. He had taken all his exams in Latin.

Ferrari then says that some writers don’t like travelling, because it breaks their concentration, like a “violent irruption in their lives and their writing.” Borges disagrees, arguing that he always returns enriched from his travels. Which takes us to one of his usual lessons on etymology.

You’re going to say I’m so chaotic I can’t disorder myself very well. I start with being a disorder, a chaos. What a thing, the word cosmetics has its origin in cosmos. Cosmos is the great order of the world and cosmetics the small order a person imposes on his face. It’s the same root, cosmos: order.

It’s so obvious now, and yet I had never thought about it. One is always learning with Borges and having a good time simultaneously.


  1. Your last line sums thing up perfectly, Miguel. A very educational & entertaining post. I do wonder how ironic Borges was, though, in declaring that his favorite memories came from books and not (other) personal experiences. I can relate to an extent, but it sounds so sad in a way.

    1. I can relate to an extent, but it sounds so sad in a way.

      I think he's just thoroughly committed to reading in a way can never hope to aspire :)