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The Wonderful Worlds of Borges

I recently came across an edited set of interviews with one of the true masters, Jorges Luis Borges. The book is Borges at Eighty: Conversations. I first encountered the Argentinian on the built-in bookshelves of one of my English professors. That summer of house-sitting for him, I read as many book titles and back covers and dust jacket flaps as I did actual books. Sometimes I’d come home from a night of bussing tables at Giuseppe’s Ritrovo and let my eyes range over the volumes: Tolkien, Naipaul, Lewis, Booth, E.O. Wilson, Rushdie…then Borges: Selected Poems, then Borges: Selected Non-Fictions, then Borges: Collected Fictions. “Who is this guy,” I thought, “and why does Dr. Summers have these three thick, beautiful paperbacks? Can he be that good?”

I opened the fictions at a random page and began reading. Nearly immediately I felt a kind of shame, twinged with paranoia that someone might walk in on me, as if I held in my hands something illicit. Perhaps it was his generic promiscuity, or his blatant and convincing false scholarship complete with dubious footnotes, or his calm tone as he narrated suicides falling forever through the endless atria of the Library of Babel, their bodies decaying over the decades of their descent. Whatever it was, as I read and witnessed his prose break one rule after another, I remember one thought crossing my mind over and over, “He can’t do that, can he?”

Yes, he can. In Borges at Eighty, I learned that even in conversation, he bent and birthed worlds, confirmed my suspicions about newspapers, questioned the metaphysics of heaven and hell, combined agnosticism with erudition in a rhythm verging on art. Below I’ve clipped some quotes from across the various interviews. They are observations of an old man, of a child, of a visionary, and of a man who is going blind, all at once:

““I don’t think I have read a newspaper in my life. We can know the past but the present is hidden from us. The present will be known by the historians or by the novelists who will call themselves historians. But as to what is happening today, that is part of the general mystery of the universe.”

“I don’t believe in chronology. I don’t believe in dating writings.”

“In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can’t tell them because what happened is not to be put into words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experience.”

“Discover and invent mean the same thing.”

“And I do my best not to allow my opinions to intrude on what I write. I am not thinking of the moral of the fable but of the fable. Opinions come and go, politics come and go, my personal opinions are changing all the time. But when I write I try to be faithful to the dream, to be true to the dream. That’s all I can say. And when I began writing, I wrote in a very baroque style. I did my best to be Sir Thomas Browne or to be Góngora or to be Lugones or to be somebody else. Then I was trying to cheat the reader all the time, always using archaisms or novelties or neologisms. But now I try to write very simple words. I try to avoid, what is called in English, hard words or dictionary words. I do my best to avoid them.”

“I think one is dying all the time. Every time we are not feeling something, discovering something, when we are merely repeating something mechanically. At that moment you are dead.”

“God gave us a brain so that we would have the capacity to forget.”

Much of the above consists of good reminders to keep with me as I write, and as I live. To regard what I think I know with a measure of skepticism, to try to live with routine and discipline perhaps but not mechanism, to attempt to write clearly and simply and well–these give me more than enough to do. I recently sold or gave away a large number of books in preparation for a move, but Labyrinths and the Selected Poems are still on the shelf, and I suspect they will be for a long time. If it were just his rule-breaking and wondrous, unlikely imagery flowering in those volumes I might have let them slip out of my hands. But those are the things that drew me in on that well-worn leather couch several summers ago. It is his generosity that keeps me re-reading:

“After all these years I have observed that beauty, like happiness, is frequent. A day does not pass when we are not, for an instant, in paradise. There is no poet, however mediocre, who has not written the best line in literature, but also the most miserable ones. Beauty is not a privilege of a few illustrious names. It would be rare if this book did not contain one single line worthy of staying with you to the end.”