“Remorse”

Argentinian Poet Jorge Luis Borges

I remember from my early days of Catholic instruction that there was something called in Against the Holy Ghost, which cannot be forgiven. The relevant Biblical text is Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven for the sons of men. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” In our religion class, we all wondered what this sin could be. I never received a definitive answer (which is not unusual).

Here is a poem by Jorge Luis Borges on the subject, entitled “Remorse”:

I have committed the worst of sins
One can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Take and engulf me, mercilessly.
My parents bore me for the risky
And the beautiful game of life,
For earth, water, air and fire.
I failed them, I was not happy.
Their youthful hope for me unfulfilled.
I applied my mind to the symmetric
Arguments of art, its web of trivia.
They willed me bravery. I was not brave.
It never leaves me. Always at my side,
That shadow of a melancholy man.

According o biographer Edwin Williamson, the great love of the poet’s life was the poet Norah Lange, who married another poet Oliverio Girondo. She died in 1972.

Norah Lange

Borges lived with his mother for most of his life in celibate restlessness. He married twice. The first ended in a messy divorce. The second time was to the much younger Maria Kodama a few months before his death.

The Surrealist Lett

“Palacios en Bria”

I owe my acquaintance with the work of Oscar Agustin Alejandro Schulz Solari (better known as Xul Solar) to Jorge Luis Borges. Now why would I accept the artistic judgment of a blind man? Fortunately, Xul Solar’s association with Borges goes back to the early 20th century, when the writer still had his sight. In fact, the painter is referenced by name in one of his greatest stories—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” On page 23 of the Grove Press edition, we find:

The moon rose over the sea would be written hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or, to put it in order: upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling. (Xul Solar translates it succinctly: upward, beyond the onstreaming it mooned.)

Also, Xul Solar illustrated three of Borges’s earlier works: El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), El idioma de los argentinos (1928), and Un modelo para la muerte (1946). The latter was co-authored by another mutual friend, Adolfo Bioy-Casares.

In Buenos Aires, on Laprida, there is a museum dedicated to Xul Solar, situated in his former home. On my last trip to Argentina, I had the good fortune to visit it. When next I go to Argentina—and I dearly hope I can—I intend to visit it again.

“Fiordo”

What I like most about Xul Solar’s work is its depiction of strangely beautiful and bizarre places. I do not recall many (if any) portraits, but I do remember his many landscapes and cityscapes.

Xul Solar is not widely known outside of Argentina, though I think he is one of the world’s greatest surrealist painters. The painter was born in Latvia in 1887 and died in 1963, just as his friend Jorge’s vision went into an irreparable decline.

In the Red Labyrinths

Victorian Block in London

Every once in a while, I feel I must return to Jorge Luis Borges, the man who has influenced so many of the paths my life has taken in the last forty years:

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 there
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 above photograph by Robert Freidus is from The Victorian Web.

“Time Is Another River”

The Vermilion River

The Vermilion River

Here is a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Art of Poetry”:

To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember Time is another river
To know we stray like a river
And our faces vanish like water

To feel that waking is another dream
That dreams of not dreaming and that the death
We fear in our bones is the death
That every night we call a dream

To see in every day and year a symbol
Of all the days of man and his years
And convert the outrage of the years
Into a music, a sound, and a symbol

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
A golden sadness, such is poetry
Humble and immortal, poetry
Returning, like dawn and the sunset

Sometimes at evening there’s a face
That sees us from the deeps of a mirror
Art must be that sort of mirror
Disclosing to each of us his face

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders
Wept with love on seeing Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
A green eternity, not wonders

Art is endless like a river flowing
Passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And yet another, like the river flowing

The Magnificent Seven

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

Table for Two at La Biela: Statues of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

At Recoleta’s busy La Biela Café, a table is permanently reserved for those two lions of Argentine literature: Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. They naturally belong together, as they were lifelong friends and collaborated together on several books.

In my readings of the literature of Argentina, I have come upon seven writers whose works are equal (when they don’t actually surpass) the best of European and American literature. I will confine my comments only to those works written in the 20th century, as earlier works, such as Hernandez’s Martin Fierro and Guiraldes’s Don Segunda Sombra belong more to the Gaucho myth than to literature.

Here are the seven writers whose works I recommend:

JORGE LUIS BORGES is, to my mind, one of the giants of 20th century literature. Although he never wrote any novels, his poems, short stories, and essays are must reads. Start with his collections Ficciones, Labyrinths, and The Aleph.

ADOLFO BIOY CASARES is not only Borges’s friend and collaborator, but is the author of several novels including The Invention of Morel and The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. He was married to

SILVINA OCAMPO. Together, they were known as Los Bioy. Her Kafkaesque short stories are collected in a volume called Thus Were Their Faces. She is the sister of Victoria Ocampo, founder and editor of Sur, a magazine and a noted publishing house.

CÉSAR AIRA is a recent find for me. I have written several blog postings about him and his highly original narrative style (resembling a Roomba vacuum cleaner that always moves forward). I particularly liked The Hare and The Seamstress and the Wind (my favorite novel about Patagonia).

JULIO CORTÁZAR is known primarily for being the author of the short story which Michelangelo Antonioni adapted into his film Blow Up. I think his short stories are his best work.

THOMAS ELOY MARTÍNEZ has written novels about the Peróns. My favorite is about the long journey taken by the body of Evita Perón after her death by Cancer: Santa Evita. Today, Evita’s corpse is finally at rest at Recoleta Cemetery under her maiden name, Duarte.

JUAN JOSÉ SAER writes about El Litoral, the area along the River Paraná centered around Santa Fe. I think he may be up there with Borges and Bioy Casares. Currently, I am reading The Clouds. Another excellent title is The Witness.

If you feel your reading is in a rut, I highly recommend you turn your attention South—way South—and read one of these Argentinean classics.

 

 

The Approach to J. L. Borges

Argentinian Author and Poet Jorge Luis Borges

Argentinian Author and Poet Jorge Luis Borges

In 1935, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story entitled “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim.” In it, he writes of a man who, after a religious riot between Hindus and Muslims, “becomes aware of a brief and sudden change in that world of ruthlessness—a certain tenderness, a moment of happiness, a forgiving silence in one of his loathsome companions.” He concludes that “somewhere on the face of the earth is a man from whom this light has emanated; somewhere on the face of the earth there exists a man who is equal to this light.”

For me, the source of that light—at least in the world of 20th Century literature—is Jorge Luis Borges himself. I have read all his works that have been translated into English, and even the many interviews he conducted toward the end of his life. I am now on the lookout for ever more obscure works … and I think I have found a good candidate.

The book is by Argentinian author and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, and its title is Borges In/And/On Film (New York: Lumen Books, 1988). Its three parts consist of:

  1. Reviews of films written by Borges before his blindness became total in the 1950s.
  2. The influence of Borges on film critics and filmmakers (mostly French).
  3. A survey of films based on Borges’s stories or scripts.

The parts become decreasingly interesting from one part to the next. He had a curious liking for the films of Josef von Sternberg—before that director had discovered Marlene Dietrich. Afterwards he regards him as “a devotee of the inexorable Muse of Bric-à-Brac.” Reviewing an Argentinian film, Borges writes it “is unquestionably one of the best Argentine films I have seen, which is to say, one of the worst films in the world.”

Of Citizen Kane, he writes that it “suffers from gigantism, from pedantry, from tediousness. It is not intelligent, it is a work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.”

Of Victor Fleming’s version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Borges complains that he “avoids all surprise and mystery; in the early scenes of the film, Spencer Tracy fearlessly drinks the versatile potion and transforms himself into Spencer Tracy, with a different wig and Negroid features.”

Although Borges did no write many film reviews, many of his observations are interesting. He also has made one notable howler: Recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), he writes:

Thus, in one of the noblest Soviet films, a battleship bombards the overloaded port of Odessa at close range, with no casualties except for some marble lions. The markmanship is harmless because it comes from a virtuous, maximalist battleship.

It is not the Potemkin that bombards Odessa, but the Czarist Black Sea Fleet, whose shooting results in a massacre.

The above painting is the work of Beti Alonso.

Borges, Milton, and the Rose

“A Rose and Milton”

“A Rose and Milton”

What do these writers have in common: Homer, John Fante, Benito Pérez Galdós, John Milton, and Jose Luis Borges? For at least part of their lives, all were blind. So when Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges honors Milton, it is by way of acknowledging a common fate. The name of this poem is “A Rose and Milton”:

A Rose and Milton

From the generations of roses
That are lost in the depths of time
I want one saved from oblivion,
One spotless rose, of all things
That ever were. Fate permits me
The gift of choosing for once
That silent flower, the last rose
That Milton held before him,
Unseen. O vermilion, or yellow
Or white rose of a ruined garden,
Your past still magically remains
Forever shines in these verses,
Gold, blood, ivory or shadow
As if in his hands, invisible rose.

Of course, Milton could not see the color of that last rose he beheld. He could not see whether that last rose was spotless and perfect. Whatever that rose was, it was unperceived by the great poet who held it in his hands; it might as well have been invisible, or, just as well, resplendent in its glory.

The poet talks about being allowed by Fate to handle that last rose that Milton held. I could just see the ironic smile playing on Borges’s face. Very Zen, in effect.