Delia Elena San Marco :: J. L. Borges

We said goodbye on a corner in Once. From the other sidewalk I turned to look back; you too had turned, and you waved goodbye to me.

A river of vehicles and people were flowing between us. It was five o’clock on an ordinary afternoon. How was I to know that the river was Acheron the doleful, the insuperable?

We did not see each other again, and a year later you were dead.

And now I seek out that memory and look at it, and I think it was false, and that behind that trivial farewell was infinite separation.

Last night I stayed in after dinner and reread, in order to understand these things, the last teaching Plato put in his master’s mouth. I read that the soul may escape when the flesh dies.

And now I do not know whether the truth is in the ominous subsequent interpretation, or in the unsuspecting farewell.

To say goodbye to each other is to deny separation. It is like saying “today we play at separating, but we will see each other tomorrow.” Man invented farewells because he somehow knows he is immortal, even though he may seem gratuitous and ephemeral.

Delia, we will take up again–beside what river?–this uncertain dialogue, and we will ask each other if ever, in a city lost on a plain, we were Borges and Delia.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Captive :: J. L. Borges

The story is told in Junin or in Tapalque. A boy disappeared after an Indian attack. People said the Indians had kidnapped him. He parents searched for him in vain. Then, long years later, a soldier who came from the interior told them about an Indian with blue eyes who might well be their son. At length they found him (the chronicle has lost the circumstances and I will not invent what I do no know) and thought they recognized him. The man, buffeted by the wilderness and by barbaric life, no longer knew how to understand the words of his mother tongue, but indifferent and docile, he let himself be led home. There he stopped, perhaps because the others stopped. He looked at the door as if he did not know what it was for. Then suddenly he lowered his head, let out a shout, ran across the entrance way and the two long patios, and plunged into the kitchen. Without hesitating, he sank his arm into the blackened chimney and pulled out the little horn-handled knife he had hidden there as a boy. His eyes shone with joy and his parents wept because they had found their son.

Perhaps this recollection was followed by others, but the Indian could not live within walls, and one day he went in search of his wilderness. I wonder what he felt in that dizzying moment when past and present became one. I wonder whether the lost son was reborn and died in that instant of ecstasy; and whether he ever managed to recognize, if only as an infant or a dog does, his parents and his home.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Toenails :: J. L. Borges

Soft stockings coddle them by day and nail-bossed leather shoes buttress them, but my toes refuse to pay attention. Nothing interests them but emitting toenails, horny plates, semi-transparent and elastic, to defend themselves–from whom? Stupid and mistrustful as they alone can be, they never for a moment stop readying that tenuous armament. They reject the universe and its ecstasy to keep forever elaborating sharp ends, which rude Solingen scissors snip over and over again. Ninety days along in the dawn of prenatal confinement, they establish that singular industry. When I am laid away, in an ash-colored house provided with dead flowers and amulets, they will still go on with their stubborn task, until they are moderated by decay. They–and the beard on my face.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Dreamtigers :: J. L. Borges

In my childhood I was a fervent worshiper of the tiger: not the jaguar, the spotted “tiger” of the Amazonian tangles and the isles of vegetation that float down the Paraná, but that striped, Asiatic, royal tiger, that can only be faced by a man of war, on a castle atop an elephant. I used to linger endlessly before one of the cages at the zoo; I judged vast encyclopedias and books of natural history by the splendor of their tigers. (I still remember those illustrations: I who cannot rightly recall the brow or the smile of a woman.) Childhood passed away, and the tigers and my passion for them grew old, but still they are in my dreams. At that submerged or chaotic level they keep prevailing. And so, as I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: this is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.

Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Argumentum Ornithologicum :: J. L. Borges

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

[This would have made more sense (or less) if all he had written was: “The number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.” But that wouldn’t have been Borges. Apparently, his entire argument hangs on the word “inconceivable” (spoken with a lisp) . . . but how that word makes this a sound argument, I don’t know . . . I love Borges.]

George Saunders’ Amazon Blog!

[I like this George Saunders. He’s funny. I recommend his story “Winky” from his book Pastoralia. I’ll try to post it at some point. . .]

My First Blog Posting: In Which I Ventriliquate

I have to admit I’m a little unsure about this whole blogging thing. The whole idea of writing to an unknown and possibly nonexistent audience seems – I don’t know – a little narcissistic. Kind of mentally ill? I mean, it’s very similar to what I do, day in and day out, inside my head. But now here I am, typing it out.

Still, when in Rome, as the saying goes, one must blog, or people will start yanking on your toga and calling you a Luddite, in Italian.

So how about this – I’ll do this in an interview format, in which I ask questions of me. This should work well, as long as the questioner isn’t an idiot. Continue reading

A Dialogue About a Dialogue :: J. L. Borges

A: Absorbed in our discussion of immortality, we had let night fall without lighting the lamp, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. With an offhandedness or gentleness more convincing than passion would have been, Macedonio Fernandez’ voice said once more that the soul is immortal. He assured me that the death of the body is altogether insignificant, and that dying has to be the most unimportant thing that can happen to a man. I was playing with Macedonio’s pocketknife, opening and closing it. A nearby accordion was infinitely dispatching La Comparsita, that dismaying trifle that so many people like because it’s been misrepresented to them as being old. . . . I suggested to Macedonio that we kill ourselves, so we might have our discussion without all the racket.

Z: (mockingly) But I suspect that at the last moment you reconsidered.

A: (now deep in mysticism) Quite frankly, I don’t remember whether we committed suicide that night or not.

[From Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley]

Gravity :: DeWitt Henry

I think of small deaths, a sneeze, an orgasm; how close such seizures are at once to vacancy and to the utter concentration of black holes, pure gravity. At once experience past will, past memory or thought; and an absence too, a non-experience. Comatose, the epileptic fit; no chance to dream. And yet like dreams, I hear Continue reading

The Garden of Forking Paths (edit) :: J. L. Borges

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th. The torrential rains, Captain Liddell Hart comments, caused Continue reading

The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell (edit) :: J. L. Borges

THE REMOTE CAUSE

In 1517, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things: W. C. Handy’s Continue reading

Dreamtigers Introduction

Jorge Luis Borges arrived in Austin in September, 1961. The plane that brought him flew for some hours on the edge of a terrible hurricane, the same storm that destroyed several towns along the Texas coast. The placid librarian and University of Buenos Aires professor could not fail to feel on that occasion—as he told us later—a mixture of misgiving and excitement. Texas was for him an epic-laden dream. When the dream came true that September day, it seemed the elements had conspired to give him a heroic reception. Once the first Homeric enthusiasms were over, Borges settled down to the ordinary routine of a visiting professor.

He was with us until the end of January, 1962. He taught courses—on Lugones and Argentine poetry; he gave lectures—Walt Whitman, Macedonio Fernández, and Cansinos-Asséns; and he lived day by day with the group in this university whose interests are the literature, history, and life of our Latin American neighbors. To evoke the impression he made in the many hours he lived among us is not easy. Within a week there was talk about Borges, with Borges, because of Borges, and for Borges, in every corridor of Batts Hall. Scholars felt obliged to write studies and theses on Borges’ work. Poets—wasn’t it inevitable?—fired dithyrambic salvos at him.

I remember that, coinciding with Borges’ arrival in Texas, some of us were reading his book El hacedor. Kim Taylor wanted to devote some pages of The Texas Quarterly to honoring the visiting Argentine writer. In them were included the first prose passages of El hacedor translated by Mildred Boyer and, among other pieces for and about Borges, poems by Harold Morland—translator of the verse in the present edition—and by Christopher Middleton. Borges was surrounded here with something that was more than enthusiasm—something I would almost call fervor. He was completely in his element, though he did at times long for Buenos Aires. Then he would ask us to take him to the banks of our little Colorado River; from there his imagination could carry him to the majestic estuary of the Plata. He especially enjoyed the company of Ramón Martínez-López, a philologist of incredible learning, who kept him company in endless etymological disquisitions, and Rudolph Willard, professor of Old and Middle English, who fed his most recent passion, the Anglo-Saxon epic.

Frank Wardlaw, partly in the line of duty, being director of a press pledged to the dissemination of Ibero-American literature in the United States, but also because he too caught our fever or fondness for Borges, asked the poet for permission to publish one of his books in English translation. And that is how the idea of this edition was born. Almost personal considerations, very human, very homey. For several months Borges was our poet and everyday friend. Professor Borges could not, in spite of himself and his vast knowledge, be the professor. The poet would get the better of him. If he sometimes caught himself speaking in a professorial tone, he would check himself, ever so subtly injecting a note of irony, or letting his imagination take flight so that we, his listeners, were imperceptibly led by the hand to the impossible and transparent realm that was his natural home.

With his consent to publish El hacedor in the United States, Borges gave his colleagues of The University of Texas the opportunity to transmit to the American reader something of the spirit of our friendly association with the most original of contemporary Spanish American writers. From the very first pages the English-speaking reader will discover that this is an intimate, personal book. Very apt, therefore, to set up the same kind of simple but heart-felt relationship we fortunate Austinites enjoyed during some months. Borges considered El hacedor—I don’t know whether he may have changed his mind—his book, the book most likely, in his opinion, to be remembered when all the rest are forgotten. And the book—Borges loved to play with this idea—that would make his earlier works unnecessary, including his two extraordinary collections of stories, Ficciones and El Aleph. As is so often the case, the reader, to say nothing of the critic, may not agree with the poet; they may well continue to think, and not without reason, that the great, the unique Borges is the Borges of narrative fiction. As for me, it is not my place to decide: I merely report what the artist felt and said.

For all of Borges’ Texas friends this edition of El hacedor will also be a permanent memento of that great yet simple spirit who passed so briefly through our halls. Borges (if the critics will allow me) was largely right: read as it should be read, the present book contains—or insinuates, as we will shortly explain—all the poet wanted to tell us. We, his friends, old and new, accept it in that spirit, and are grateful.

Now, having set forth the personal considerations of the group of friends who contributed to the reality that is today this volume, I realize that there is something that I, individually, would like to add: perhaps a few lines, a sentence, a word—if there were one—that would be the living equivalent of one of the moments which Jorge Luis Borges’ human presence filled on these Texas plains. But how can I express the accents of a voice grave and sweet, the flights of an extraordinary intelligence and imagination, the candor of a good and innocent soul, the quiet ache of a darkness and a loneliness we sensed, the magic of the poet who makes dreams come to life?

Many times I guided his uncertain steps through halls and down stairways, over the rough places of the island that is this out-of-the-way university. His poor sight allowed his friends the paradoxical task—misfortunate fortune—of guiding the best seer among modern poets in the Spanish language. To walk beside Borges, the great peripatetic conversationalist, was to enter and live in his world. The guide soon discovered, by the light that matters, that he himself was the blind one, and not the poet leaning on his arm.

***

El hacedor, the original version of which appeared in Buenos Aires in 1960, is to all appearances a miscellany. In it the author is supposed to have gathered odd poems, stories, parables, sketches, fragments, and apocryphal quotations, with no other purpose than to show what time accumulates in the bottom of a writer’s desk drawer. But actually this juxtaposing of fragments, bits, and snippets corresponds to a poetic criterion of an extremely high order: that of creating a book—the book—which is the mirror of a life. A life in which, as Borges himself confesses, “few things have happened more worth remembering than Schopenhauer’s thought or the music of England’s words.” A life that has been, more than anything else, an internal life, a truly private life of calm self-possession and “recogimiento.”

Borges has traveled a great deal. Sometimes he has made use of the customary media of transportation; but more often he has gone by way of his imagination. From his internal “recogimiento” he has ventured forth, on occasion, toward the strangest places and the remotest times. But his sallies have been only tentative explorations, amoebic assimilations of the external world. His work—and by now it can be viewed as a whole—is altogether poetic, personal, the work of a spirit so withdrawn that solitude has enlarged it and made him now see in that solitude the secret of the whole universe, now tremble before its undecipherable mysteries. Borges’ “theme,” then, throughout all his work—including his now famous fantasy narratives—has been simply Borges himself. It is true that, from all his excursions into nooks alien to his inner self -reading, travel, fleeting human relationships—Borges has come back burdened with every possible doubt except one. In spite of his intelligent, ironic, and painstaking defenses, each clash with external reality has reaffirmed his consciousness of self. With the world’s reality in doubt, and man’s, and even God’s, only one certainty remains: that of being “somebody”—a particular individual, not very easily identifiable, for he could have been named Homer, Shakespeare, or, more modestly, Jorge Luis Borges—creating himself from within. This hacedor is the creator, the poet, the man capable of “singing and leaving echoing concavely in the memory of man” murmurs—in prose and in verse—of Iliads, Odysseys, lost loves, obscure gestes, impossible and desperate adventures of fantasy. Security in this “somebody,” this intimate self, is not based in Borges’ case on a clear consciousness of his identity or personal destiny, but rather on the certainty of the compulsive, creative, poetic force that has borne him to the final stretch of his life work without faltering. The imprecise Homer-Borges of the story “El hacedor” knows very well that the weapon for combating life’s final disillusionment, time’s inexorable weight, and the terror and anguish of darkness, is none other than his capacity to dream and to sing. Dreams and song make the world bearable, habitable; they make the dark places bright. Blindness of the soul—which is the one that counts—is the natural state of man ,4 and woe to him who does not see in time that we live surrounded by shadows! The poet, the hacedor, makes this discovery one day and descends into the shadows unafraid, illumined by his creative consciousness. “In this night of his mortal eyes, into which he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting.” Borges and Homer know, then, that this is where everything begins, in the bold, loving acceptance of life and in the drive that impels them to people their darkness with voices.

Dreams and song. About the whole and about the parts. About the universe and about each of its separate creatures. The creature may be a man—gaucho, hero, Irish patriot, impenitent Nazi, sacrificed Jew—any one of man’s artifacts—whole civilization, a library, a knife—or simply an animal, a tiger. “As I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.”

But the hacedor must accept his ministry humbly. He must exercise his power, prepared, however, to recognize his ultimate impotence. For his office consists, precisely, in the will to dream very high dreams and in attempting the purest, most lasting resonances, all the while realizing and bravely accepting his incompetence. “Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variants of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.”

Dreams and song—in spite of incompetence, stumblings, and disillusionment. This is why the hacedor and his book are born. Their mission and message will not escape the reader who knows when a dream is a dream and who has an ear for remembering the melody of a song.

***

Let the reader not be confused. This book, though composed of fragments, must be appraised as if it were a multiple mirror, or a mosaic of tiny mirrors. At a certain distance from its reading—once it has been digested—it will be clear that the pieces outline a whole: a self-portrait of an entire soul and body. The brilliant insinuation, the mysterious or ironic reference, the small poetic incision, are Borges’ chosen expressive means. The story or short narrative, a form that made him famous, and the novel—a genre he has avoided—always seemed to him unpardonable excesses. That is why Borges feels El hacedor is the culmination of a literary career, a liberation from former limitations, vanities, and prejudices. That is why he feels it is his book. How right he is, it is still not time nor is this the place to judge; but the earnestness the poet put into the effort ought to be clearly established. In El hacedor stories, tales, and even poems are reduced to their minimum, almost naked expression. Everything tends toward the poetic parable: brief, but bright as a flash of lightning.

Since El hacedor, Borges has published an Antología personal in Argentina. In it he has collected, in preferential rather than chronological order, what to his mind can be submitted to the judgment of a hypothetical posterity. As the poet tells us in the prologue, the experiment has served only to prove to him his poverty, his limitations of expression, the mortality of his writings as measured by his rigorous criteria of today. But, at the same time, the task of anthologizing his own work has made him surer of himself, created a new source of vital energy, and given him a renewed illusion. “This poverty,” says Borges “does not discourage me, since it gives me an illusion of continuity.”

In my opinion, the several pieces that make up the present book, El hacedor, were also put together after Jorge Luis Borges had already begun to feel the pull of that anxiety for continuity. “For good or for ill, my readers”—Borges seems to be wanting to tell us in recent years “these fragments piled up here by time are all that I am. The earlier work no longer matters.” “The tall proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not—as his vanity had dreamed—a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.” And this is all he as a poet feels capable of desiring: to be able to add to the world a few bits of more or less resplendent mirror yielding only an illusory reflection—ah, the timid yearning for immortality!—of what was felt, thought, and dreamed in solitude. The solitude, as we know, of one of the most solitary, intelligent, and sensitive souls of our time.

The poet is setting out, then, on his last venture. It makes one tremble to think with what assurance poets know when the final stage of a creative life begins; but at the same time it is wondrous to contemplate how the chaos that is their own life and work begins to take on meaning for them. Perhaps what is seen now will in retrospect be only another illusion, but there it is. When the uneven fragments that comprise the work are pieced together—especially the ones that appear most insignificant they outline something the poet is consoled to behold. The parts organize themselves into a whole. “A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.”

If, after all, the face is merely the mirror of the soul, it is not hard to guess the ultimate meaning of the game of illusion Jorge Luis Borges proposes to the reader in this book: the separate parts that constitute El hacedor—narratives, poems, parables, reflections, and interpolations—when read as a whole, trace the image of the poet’s face: face—mirror-image of the soul of the creator, of the maker.

***

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about one poet’s dedicating one of his books to another poet. That El hacedor should be dedicated to Leopoldo Lugones is something that need not be mentioned in this introduction if it were not that the explanation Borges gives for his dedication at the beginning of the volume requires a special imaginative effort on the part of the reader. Actually, without such an effort one cannot wholly enter the mysterious realm where the poet lives his dreams. The invocation of the shade of Lugones—who committed suicide in 1938—on the threshold of El hacedor is revealing. It is an exorcism.

The dream and the song of El hacedor are troubled from the start by old, malignant spirits. In conjuring his former demons—passion, intellectual pride, rebellion against the voice of the once omnipresent poet—Borges wants to be done with them. It is not merely a question of appeasing the memory of the Modernist poet, against whom Borges and his young friends in 1921 launched the most violent attacks and obstreperous jibes. Nor of recognizing, out of the creative maturity of his sixties, the right and dignity of literary prestige honorably won. Borges intends to do this, of course, but much more as well. He wants now to incorporate into his book, into his song, the feeling that in his hostility toward the great poet of the generation preceding his own there was somehow a great and heartfelt love. For without internal peace and order the poet cannot truly face the chaos of life, or manage to have his work’s labyrinth of lines trace the image of his face.

There is, besides, a certain fascination in his recollection of Lugones. Borges is the present director of the National Library in Buenos Aires; in 1938, Lugones was director of the Library of the National Council of Education. In his dedication Borges deliberately fuses and confuses the two libraries and the two times, past and present: “Leaving behind the babble of the plaza, I enter the Library. I feel, almost physically, the magnetic force of the books, an ambient serenity of order, time magically desiccated and preserved.” The intent is quite clear: “My vanity and nostalgia have set up an impossible scene,” says Borges. The impossibility is not merely physical; it depends rather on the fact that it is a wish, a dream, too distant to be attainable; for what the poet dreams of is nothing less than a loving communion between the voices of the poets. “Perhaps so,” says Borges to himself in his illusions, “but tomorrow I too will have died and our times will intermingle and chronology will be lost in a sphere of symbols. And then in some way it will be right to claim that I have brought you this book and that you, Lugones, have accepted it.”

From the very first pages, therefore, the reader can discover where the poet is going in the rest of the book. Besides, without the initial exorcism of the demons of frivolity, routine reading, and pedantry, the reader might even be prevented from coming at last to trace out the portrait of his own face. And to reach this moment to which every reader—a passive poet—should be led by the hand of the hacedor, the active poet, there is no other way than to exorcise oneself and make ready to dream and to hear the murmurs that are heard in dreams.

Miguel Enguídanos
Austin, June 1963

Everything and Nothing (edit) :: J. L. Borges

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even in the poor paintings of the period is unlike any other) and his words, which were copious, imaginative, and emotional, there was nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone. At first he thought everyone was like him, but the puzzled look on a friend’s face when he remarked on that emptiness told him he was mistaken and convinced him forever that an individual must not differ from his species. Occasionally he thought he would find in books the cure for his ill, and so Continue reading

Borges and I :: J. L. Borges

It’s the other one, it’s Borges, that things happen to. I stroll about Buenos Aires and stop, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance or an iron gate. News of Borges reaches me through the mail and I see his name on an academic ballot or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, Continue reading