The Other Borges

A Painting by the Younger Sister of Jorge Luis Borges

I was reading a radio interview by Osvaldo Ferrari with the late Jorge Luis Borges, when the subject came up of the writer’s sister, Leonor Fanny “Norah” Borges Acevedp (1901-1998):

FERRARI: As for your relationship with painting, Borges, we mustn’t forget that you’re the brother of a painter.

BORGES: Of a great painter, I think, eh? Although I don’t know if the word ‘great’ adds anything to the word ‘painter.’ Brother of a painter, let’s say. Now, as she explores subjects like angels, gardens, angels who are musicians in gardens …

FERRARI: Like the painting of the Annunciation, for example, which has the city of Adrogué in the background, which is in your house.

BORGES: Yes, which she wanted to destroy.

FERRARI: How dreadful.

BORGES: No, it’s because she thinks that she was still very clumsy, that she couldn’t paint when she made it. Well, what I know is that she sketches the plan of each painting and then she paints it. That is, the people who’ve described it as a naive painting are completely wrong. But art critics, of course, their profession is to get things wrong, I’d say … or all critics.

Woman Playing a Guitar, Painted by Norah Borges

Before one raising the issue of the blind writer as an art critic, let me say that Borges lost his vision in the mid 1950s, so he is talking of painters from his memories of thirty or more years ago. There is also a book I have of Borges’s film criticism, which also dates from before the onset of his blindness.

Because Borges and his writings have been so influential in my life, I am deeply interested in works produced by his family. For instance, Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo, collaborated with her son on a number of translations from the English.

Norah Borges

The work of Norah Borges is known and exhibited in South America.

A Different Tiger

A Somewhat Less Cosmic Tiger Than the One Created by Borges

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a number of spectacular poems based on tigers he had viewed at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Leave it to his friend, poet Silvina Ocampo, to provide an altogether different picture. Appropriately, the title is:

 
A Tiger Speaks

 

I who move like water
sinuously
like water I know
shameful secrets.
I heard that there are dog cemeteries,
with earnest inscriptions
commemorating human friendship,
and that there are horses so stupid
they kneel before their masters,
oxen who are slaves to farmworkers,
cats who are ornaments for ladies,
like a hat or a fan,
bears who dance to the sound of a tambourine
from a man or a dwarf woman,
monkeys who flatter their owners,
elephants whom the public degrades,
abject seals who gargle
to entertain the children,
cows who let themselves be dragged along, mistreated,
who give their milk to anybody,
trained sheep
who donate their wool
to make clothing or mattresses,
snakes who caress
the head and neck of madmen.

We never managed to agree
about man’s true nature,
some fools think
perhaps in gratitude
for those who deified us
in other times
that man is a god,
but I and certain of my friends and enemies
think that he is edible.
The edible man
is always shy and trembling,
without claws and hair or with very little hair;
the man-god distributes food
with his hands, so I’ve been told,
he has a whip in his tongue and in his eyes.
In olden days, when he took up his position in the arena,
or in the desert, he wore a halo
or carried a magic wand,
he had a long mane
like a lion’s, which tangles in the teeth.
All this disturbs me:
sometimes I dream
of a rug whose coat
resembles mine, and I cry
stretched out on my own skin.
It’s strange. Inconceivable.
But there are stranger things:
Don't birds exist
who pass the time singing,
ridiculous doves, and an infinite series of fish
and beetles I’m unaware of
but which bother me?
Isn't there a poet who thinks about me constantly,
who believes that in my skin are signs revealing
man’s destiny drawn by God
in a poem?

Back to the Movies

Nicolas Cage and His Truffle-Hunting Pig

Today, for the first time in over a year, I went to the movies. My brother Dan had recommended I see Michael Sarnovski’s film Pig (2021) starring Nicolas Cage. So I took the bus to Pico and Westwood to see the film at the Landmark Theatres there—seeing as how I hate to spend a lot of money on parking.

The film was a winner. Cage is made to look like a grizzled old homeless person, which is all part of Sarnovski’s attempt to make us underestimate the character. When Cage’s truffle-hunting pig is stolen, he heads to the city (Portland, Oregon) to find it and bring it back. There we learn that he is the formerly famous chef Robin Feld who was once a legend in the city’s restaurant world.

This is a film for people who are into food, as my brother certainly is. The film reminds me of Marie NDiaye’s novel The Cheffe, which has a similar foodie emphasis. And because of Robin Feld’s prodigious memory of every meal he ever prepared, I will add that you should check out Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious.”

Great movies and stories always lead you to interesting places. And I think Pig fits into this category.

Borges on Chess

Borges Had a Unique Take on the Game of Kings

Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote two sonnets entitles “Chess.” This is the second one:

Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign.

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

From Jorge Luis Borges, The Sonnets (London: Penguin, 2010).

An Unhappy Time

I Was at Low Ebb in My Twenties

If I had to pick the worst decade of my life, I would have to pick my twenties, between 1966 and 1975. I had miraculously survived brain surgery in September 1966. For my entire adolescence, I did not have a functioning pituitary gland: Instead, I had a benign tumor that not only destroyed my pituitary, but was staging an incursion on my optic nerve. Oh, and by the way, due to the malfunction of my pituitary, I had, for all intents and purposes, no adrenaline, thyroid, sex hormones, or human growth hormone. At the age of twenty-one, I looked like a high school freshman. When I bought alcoholic beverages, I was always being carded by store employees who did not believe my true age.

As I have described my condition before, I felt like a Martian mixed among human beings. I had fallen in love with a young woman, but it was not reciprocated. Several times, I awoke in the middle of the night, walked several blocks to Zucky’s Deli and had breakfast, then walked a few more blocks to the beach at Santa Monica. In the pre-dawn hours, I stared at the waves wondering if I had the courage to take a walk to Japan.

In time, I weathered my depression. I signed up for group therapy, where I discovered that my problems were all part of the human condition, namely, that we were all Martians.

In his book of interviews with Osvaldo Ferrari, Jorge Luis Borges found an interesting way of describing my condition:

Yes, I am sure I am happier now than when I was young. When I was young, I sought to be unhappy for aesthetic and dramatic reasons. I wanted to be Prince Hamlet or Raskolnikov or Byron or Poe or Beaudelaire, but not now. Today, I am resigned to being who I am. And to summarize: I do not know if I have attained happiness—no one does—but I have sometimes attained a kind of serenity and that’s a lot. Also, seeking serenity seems to me to be a more reasonable ambition than seeking happiness. Perhaps serenity is a kind of happiness.

For Borges, that’s saying a lot, as he had lost the sight of his eyes some thirty years before the interview. After my surgery, I was sterile—which is, as I see it now, a highly survivable condition.

The Great American Novel

Chasing the White Whale in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

I think that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. There are a handful of other claimants, but the search for the White Whale—I think—knocks them all into a cocked hat.

Yet it was not always thus. Published in 1851, it took decades before it was recognized for the masterpiece it was. In his Conversations 1 with Osvaldo Ferrari, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges makes an interesting observation:

I believe that [Moby-Dick], upon publication, remained invisible for some time. I have an old an excellent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eleventh edition published in 1912. In it, there’s a not-too-long paragraph about Melville, describing him as a writer of travel novels. And though it mentions Moby-Dick, it is not distinguished from the rest of his books. It’s on the list but there is no mention that Moby-Dick is far more than a traveller’s tale or a book about the sea.

This makes me wonder how many American books written in the last sixty years will suddenly emerge to future generations as the *new* Great American Novel. Will it be something that we now regard as second-rate stuff? We may never know: The future is a closed book.

Browning Decides To Be a Poet

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

It is time for another poem by one of my favorite poets, the late Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo of Argentina.

Robert Browning Decides To Be a Poet

In these red labyrinths of London
I find that I have chosen
the strangest of all callings,
save that, in its way, any calling is strange.
Like the alchemist
who sought the philosopher's stone
in quicksilver,
I shall make everyday words—
the gambler's marked cards, the common coin—
give off the magic that was their
when Thor was both the god and the din,
the thunderclap and the prayer.
In today's dialect
I shall say, in my fashion, eternal things:
I shall try to be worthy
of the great echo of Byron.
This dust that I am will be invulnerable.
If a woman shares my love
my verse will touch the tenth sphere of the concentric heavens;
if a woman turns my love aside
I will make of my sadness a music,
a full river to resound through time.
I shall live by forgetting myself.
I shall be the face I glimpse and forget,
I shall be Judas who takes on
the divine mission of being a betrayer,
I shall be Caliban in his bog,
I shall be a mercenary who dies
without fear and without faith,
I shall be Polycrates, who looks in awe
upon the seal returned by fate.
I will be the friend who hates me.
The persian will give me the nightingale, and Rome the sword.
Masks, agonies, resurrections
will weave and unweave my life,
and in time I shall be Robert Browning.

The line about “if a woman turns my love aside” is particularly poignant. For most of his life, Borges was in love with a fellow writer, Norah Lange, who instead married Oliverio Girondo, whom he hated with a passion.

Argentinean Writer Norah Lange (1905-1972)

Borges did eventually get married in his old age—twice. The first one was a disaster, the second one more of a helpmate.

Who Moves the Pieces?

Chess Pieces

Here is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s sonnets about chess. Except, as you can imagine, it is about more—a whole lot more.

Chess

Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

The translation is by Alastair Reid. Having just finished a cup of hot yerba mate at 9:30 in the evening, after having read a collection of Argentinean short stories by César Aira, I find myself, once again, drawn toward the land of the Sol de Mayo.

Plain Things

The Poems of Borges Have Always Moved Me

Whenever I feel out of sorts, nothing brings me back faster than re-reading Jorge Luis Borges, particularly his poems. Here is a sonnet from his 1974 collection In Praise of Darkness, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni:

Plain Things

A walking stick, a bunch of keys, some coins,
a lock that turns with ease, useless jottings
at the back of books that in the few days left
me won’t be read again, cards and chessboard,
an album in whose leaves a withered flower
lies pressed—the monument of an evening
doubtless unforgettable, now forgotten—
and in the west the mirror burning red
of an illusory dawn. So many things—
a file, an atlas, doorways, nails, the glass
from which we drink—serve us like silent slaves.
How dumb and strangely secretive they are!
Past our oblivion, they will live on,
familiar, blind, not knowing we have gone.

The thing that confused me at first was the poet seeing in the western sky a strange mirror of an “illusory” dawn, which, of course, is rising in the east. That sort of thing is so typical of Borges, who delights to introduce mirrors into his works. So he looks west to see signs of an approaching dawn. Yes, I suppose that is possible. A bit tricky for Borges, though, who, by this time, was quite blind.

Although he was not to die yet for some twenty years, the thought of death was never a stranger to Borges.

Three Tigers

Wild Bengal Tiger (India)

Nobody does poems about tigers better than Jorge Luis Borges—with the sole exception of William Blake. Here is a poem translated by Alastair Reid entitled “The Other Tiger”:

The Other Tiger

And the craft createth a semblance.
—Morris, Sigurd the Volsung (1876).

I think of a tiger. The half-light enhances
the vast and painstaking library
and seems to set the bookshelves at a distance;
strong, innocent, new-made, bloodstained,
it will move through its jungle and its morning,
and leave its track across the muddy
edge of a river, unknown, nameless
(in its world, there are no names, nor past, nor future
only the sureness of the passing moment)
and it will cross the wilderness of distance
and sniff out in the woven labyrinth
of smells the smell peculiar to morning
and the scent of deer, delectable.
Among the slivers of bamboo, I notice
its stripes, and I have an inkling of the skeleton
under the magnificence of the skin, which quivers.
In vain, the convex oceans and the deserts
spread themselves across the earth between us;
from this one house in a remote lost seaport
in South America, I dream you, follow you,
oh tiger on the fringes of the Ganges.

Afternoon creeps in my spirit and I keep thinking
that the tiger I am conjuring in my poem
is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows,
a sequence of prosodic measures,
scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
and not the deadly tiger, the luckless jewel
which in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
pf love, of indolence, of dying.
Against the symbolic tiger I have planted
the real one, it whose blood runs hotly,
and today, 1959, the third of August,
a slow shadow spreads across the prairie,
but still, the act of nameing it, of guessing
what is its nature and its circumstances
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those who wander on the earth.

Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system and arrangement of human language,
and not the tiger of the vertebrae
which, out of reach of all mythology,
paces the earth. I know all this, but something
drives me to this ancient and vague adventure,
unreasonable, and I still keep on looking
throughout the afternoon for the other tiger,
the other tiger which is not in this poem.