Monday, 21 September 2015

A poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius: Jorge Luis Borges on Irish Literature

Back in the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari had a radio program; the topic was always books and authors, even when Ferrari tried to lead Borges to other places. Once he asked Borges about the “vast richness” of the Irish Literature.

“Yes,” replies Borges, “it’s a richness that seemed opposed to all statistics: a poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius and which enriched English Literature, for English Literature is inconceivable without so many unforgettable authors.” Then he develops his thesis. “Why, curiously, that tradition is ancient, for we’d have to think – I think it’s in the ninth century – and there we have that gigantic image of Scotus Eriugena, whose name means ‘Irishman born in Scotland,’ for Ireland was then called Vetus et Maior Scotia, and Scotland is the name Irishmen had over there.” Only Borges to really begin at the beginning. And then of course he starts digressing. “On reading histories of philosophy, and especially histories of scholastics [Who does that?], which is certainly quite rich and has many varied masters, I noticed that Scotus Eriugena is, however, unique because he’s a pantheist. The writings attributed to the Areopagite had arrived in Paris, and there was no one in France capable of reading them. And then this monk from Ireland arrives, and in Ireland they had saved Greek: they had been invaded I’m not sure if by the Saxons or by the Scandinavians; anyway, the Irish monks had to flee from their convents – these convents were particular, each monk was alone in his hut, and in the cultivated fields there were moats to stop the Barbarians. But one of them left: Johannes Scotus Eriugena.” At this point it does look like Borges is going to give a full lecture on Irish Literary History, but damn it!, it’s so interesting. “He was called by Charles the Bald, and translated the text of the Areopagite from the Greek. No one knew neither Latin nor Greek; the Irish monk did. And then he wrote his philosophy, which is a pantheistic philosophy. And, curiously, there’s a Hugo poem, ‘Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre,’ which corresponds exactly to Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. And that philosophy is also found in Back to Methuselah, from another Irishman, who probably hadn’t read Scotus Eriugena: Bernard Shaw. The idea is that all things emanate from divinity, and that at the end of history all things will return to it. And this provided Hugo with a wonderful page wherein he imagines a whole sort of monsters, of black dragons, or whatever it is, and of demons amongst them. And they all return to the divinity. That is, divinity is reconciled with all creatures, including its monsters.”

Phew, and Ferrari only asked him about Irish Literature! Imagine if he had asked him to talk about philosophy.

Borges moves on to “another incredible writer, we have Swift, to whom we owe Gulliver’s travels – amongst them that horrible voyage: the voyage to the Yahoos, who are men who are like monkeys – and these other men, whose name imitates the sound of a neigh, are the ones who form that republic of thinking horses.” There’s also Berkeley the philosopher. “Berkeley is the first one to reason about idealism and he was Hume’s master. Well, Hume was Scottish, and both were Schopenhauer’s masters. And further on there are so many illustrious Irishmen that one loses the thread: perhaps the greatest poet of the English Language in our, William Butler Yeats. And we also have an unjustly forgotten, George Moore, who began by writing very silly books and in the end writes admirable books with a new type of prose; books like, about confidences of unreal things, of dreamt things by him, but which are told as confidences to the reader and which are Moore’s personal inventions. And there’s another name that, in spite of the sadness, or maybe infamy of his fame, we think of him the way we think of an intimate friends, or even a child: Oscar Wilde obviously. And why not mention another Irishman who created two characters that are perhaps more famous than any politician: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and doctor Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Ferrari asks him to return to Bernard Shaw. Borges remarks on the similarities between Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. “And that was all thought of by Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century and Bernard Shaw ends up giving it a dramatic and hilarious form in that work.” On Borges’ mentioning the play’s humour, Ferrari suggests that Ireland “produced the humoristic genre, the ironic, the satiric; a very particular variety.” Borges kindly ignores him and piles on more names from his prodigious memory. “And we forget Goldsmith, we forget Sheridan; well, we forget the ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets, the ‘Celtic penumbra.’ Yes, but Yeats was in that group at first, but then, fortunately, he abandoned that twilight and wrote perhaps the most poetic and precise works. And we forget, I don’t know how we can, it’s really a feat of forgetting: to forget the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, who was also Irish.” It’s not really a feat of forgetting; although Borges held Ulysses in high regard, he derided Finnegans Wake and had very little to say about Joyce’s earlier realistic books.

Ferrari asks Borges to speak a bit more about Yeats. “Well, what Yeats did with the English Language is more admirable than what Joyce did, for Joyce’s compositions are a bit like Literature Museum pieces, no?” Here’s the Borges I know and love! The one who always speaks his mind, who doesn't fear unpopular opinions. “On the other hand, the poetry of William Butler Yeats is not, it’s something that enraptures us, like Hugo’s poetry, for instance. It’s extraordinary: I always remember that untranslatable, unwise verse which however exerts its magic: ‘That dolphin’s thorned, that gong tormented sea.’ How strange! The sea dilacerated by dolphins and tormented by gongs. I don’t know if it can defend itself logically, but it’s evidently a magical conjunction. And we find many in Yeats’ pages; there are constantly unforgettable lines like that.  I remember the end of one of his plays where one character is a pig keeper, and you see these extraordinary women who descend slowly down a staircase’s handrail. And he asks them what were they made for; and they respond: For desecration, and the lover’s night. Those are the last words. It’s stupendous, isn’t?”

As far as I could inquire, the play to look this line in is called The Herne's Egg.

Ferrari reads aloud a line from Don Juan in Hell: “Hell the home of the unreal and of the seekers of happiness.” Borges’ reaction is a very Spanish “Caramba” of approval and delight.

This is a funny little conversation; as always it showcases Borges’ strengths and weaknesses: he has a prodigious memory, he knows all the classics and he can establish unexpected relationships between them; on the other hand literature seems to have stopped somewhere in 1939: no mention of Flann O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to re-read Borges talking about books.


  1. Certainly no mention of Beckett. Borges seems not to have had a taste for modern literature.

    These conversations have recently been published in new English translations. I'll be getting my copies as soon as possible.

    1. Mark, thanks for reading.

      I know the first volume is; I'm not sure about the second one yet.

      The Beckett omission is glaring to us mortals, but normal to Borges; I wonder if someone has written an essay about the remarkable paradox at the heart of Borges? One of the most influential, forward-thinking, avant-garde writers of his time who had a pretty conventional taste in books.

  2. Dylan Thomas was Welsh, nothing to do with Ireland ;) Apart from this small correction, brilliant.

    1. Why did I think Dylan was Irish? I guess it's because of his famous blurb for Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. Thanks for correcting me. And thanks for reading.

  3. Volume 2 in English will be published next month.

    There are so many of different volumes of conversations with Borges, but they seem to hold such riches, such great riffs about literature, even if Borges often seems to have the tastes of the world's smartest 14 year old.

    1. even if Borges often seems to have the tastes of the world's smartest 14 year old.

      That's quite accurate, now that I think about it.