A Proof of Immortality?

Anglo-Saxon Facial Armor

Once again I turn to the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges who in so many ways replicates my thoughts. Perhaps, it is because he has influenced me so much over so many years?

Poem Written in a
Copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
Moved me to study while my night came down,
Without particular hope of satisfaction,
The language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
Loses its grip on words that I have vainly
Repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
Weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
Has some secret sufficient way of knowing
That it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
Circle can take in all, can accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
The universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

This translation is by Alastair Reid from Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems 1923-1967, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

 

“Limits”

A Street Corner in the San Telmo Neighborhood of Buenos Aires

Below is one of my favorite poems from the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. It is called “Limits.”

Limits

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone

Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.

If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.

There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.

There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.

You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.

And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.

At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.

As I drive and walk through the streets of Los Angeles, I, too, wonder which streets I am seeing for the last time. Is it Airlane Avenue in Westchester? Lemac Street in Van Nuys? Adelaide Street in Santa Monica? What about Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatan? Florida in Buenos Aires? The Royal Mile in Edinburgh? As we live, we eventually complete the circuits of our lives.

 

“To a Cat”

Panther in the Wild

If you look hard at my life, you will see that it is like a marginal gloss to the poems, essays, and stories of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since I first came across his work around 1970, I have returned to it again and again as to an ineffable guide. Here is one of his poems, called “To a Cat.” I have visited the zoo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires where Borges probably got the inspiration for this poem.

Jungle Waterfalls at Buenos Aires Zoo (2011)

To a Cat

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.

 

Serendipity: The Writer Gives an Interview

Jorge Luis Borges Giving an Interview for Spanish Television in 1967

I was just looking through V. S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South (1989) when a passage on page 57 suddenly struck my eyes. Toward the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges was blind. During this time, he gave many interviews which were published (I have at least a dozen of them on my shelves). My guess is that he saw the interviews as an easy replacement for having to write the stories, essays, and poems for which he was famous.

It was something I had worried about that these figures of Atlanta, because they had been so often interviewed, and though they might appear new to the out-of-towner, might in fact have been reduced to a certain number of postures and attitudes, might have become their interviews. Like certain writers—Borges, to give a famous example, who had given so many interviews to journalists and others who, in the manner of interviewers, had wanted absolutely the set interview, the one in the file, had wanted to leave out nothing that had occurred in every other interview, that he, Borges, had finally become nothing more than his interview, a few stories, a few opinions, a potted autobiography, a pocket personality. Which was the way, I had been told, the media created two or three slogans for a politician and reduced him to those easily spoken words.

Fortunately, Borges was wily enough to give a series of varied interviews which, though they had some common elements, especially in the area of “a potted autobiography,” are still capable of entrancing the reader.

 

Borges in a Nutshell

The Artistry of Jorge Luis Borges in a Single Image

When I was in Buenos Aires in 2015, I wanted to visit the Centro Cultural Borges in the Galerias Pacifico run by the author’s widow, Maria Kodama. I had expected to see more about Borges rather than various displays of modern art. There was one image that summarized Borges nicely, though my photograph does not do it justice.

At the top right is a drawing of Jorge Luis Borges, next to a representation of the Tower of Babel. This refers to his tale “The Library of Babel,” which sees the universe as an infinite collection of hexagonal library rooms, each containing uniformly-sized books representing not only books written, but all possible books. The tower rests on a pile of books, among which I can make out three titles:

  • The stories of Rudyard Kipling
  • The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Thousand and One Nights

The Galerias Pacifico Where the Centro Cultural Borges Is Located

Other works that Borges discussed at length could possibly include the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Icelandic Sagas, the stories and essays of G.K. Chesterton, and the Argentinian José Hernández’s Martin Fierro.

I started reading Borges in the early 1970s, when an article in The New Yorker alerted me to the publication of Labyrinths and Ficciones. The seed sown by those two collections led me the richness of world literature—a treasure hoard I am still exploring and will not cease exploring until my eyes are closed for the last time.

 

The Tomb of the Hero

Honor Guard at the Tomb of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires

The liberators of South America from the Spanish are honored throughout South America. One keeps running into the names of Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, and O’Higgins again and again. The honor guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires is dressed in the uniforms of the early 19th century, with swords drawn and standing at rigid attention.

Even Jorge Luis Borges, who never served in any country’s military, bragged of being descended from Colonel Manuel Isidoro Suárez, hero of the Battle of Junín in far-off Peru back in 1824. Many of his poems refer to this ancestral hero. Here is the last stanza of “A Page to Commemorate Manuel Suárez, Victor at Junín”:

His great-grandson is writing these lines
and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
out of the blood:
“What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.

I have read biographies of Bolivar and San Martín—as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s excellent The General in His Labyrinth, about the former—only to find that the heroes are more honored today than they were in their lifetimes. San Martín became so disgusted with his fellow Argentines that he moved to France. Only many years later did the Argentines invest him with the sanctity he wears today like an uneasy crown.

 

 

The Conversationalist

Jorge Luis Borges and His Books

Blindness was a curse in Jorge Luis Borges’s family. Not only his father, but his grandfather and great-grandfather all died blind. Fortunately for us, Borges had lived for more than fifty years before the gathering darkness prevented him from picking a book from his shelf and reading it. Because he lived on for thirty-five years or so longer, the Argentinian writer and poet managed to find a role for himself that would help keep his amazing erudition alive and produce works of interest to a worldwide public that was just beginning to discover him.

Enter Borges the interviewee. I first experienced this in Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, when the American author describes a meeting with Borges in Buenos Aires. It began with Borges requesting that Theroux read some passages from Kipling to him and went on from there. From this point on, I continued finding published interviews, and I started collecting them alongside his original poems and stories, whose output diminished as he aged.

In a brief interview with Amelia Barili,  he is asked about the meaning of life:

If life’s meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn’t understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer. I think Lessing said that if God were to declare that in His right hand He had the truth and in his left hand He had the investigation of the truth, Lessing would ask God to open His left hand—he would want God to give him the investigation of the truth, not the truth itself. Of course he would want that, because the investigation permits infinite hypotheses, and the truth is only one, and that does not suit the intellect, because the intellect needs curiosity. In the past, I tried to believe in a personal God, but I do not think I try anymore. I remember in that respect an admirable expression of Bernard Shaw: “God is in the making.”

Willis Barnstone’s Borges at 80: Conversations has this little gem. When asked about the wrong women he has loved and the wrong days he has spent, Borges replied:

All those things, the wrong women, the wrong actions, the wrong circumstances, all those are tools to the poet. A poet should think of all things as being given him, even misfortune. Misfortune, defeat, humiliation, failure, those are our tools. You don’t suppose that when you are happy, you can produce anything. Happiness is its own aim.

As one who has personally suffered from dictators—Juan Perón made him a poultry inspector for the markets of Buenos Aires—Borges describes what he thinks of them:

It really seems a childish idea, don’t you think? I believe the idea of giving orders and being obeyed is more to be associated with a child’s mind than that of a man. I don’t think dictators generally are very intelligent people. Fanaticism can lead to it too. Take Cromwell’s case, for example: I think he was a Puritan; he was a Calvinist and believed he had every right. But in the case of more recent dictators, I don’t think they’ve been motivated by fanaticism. I think they were impelled by histrionic zeal, by the desire for applause, for being obeyed, and perhaps by the mere childish craving for publicity, which is a craving I don’t understand. [Sounds a lot like Trumpf, no?]

This last comes from Fernando Sorrentino’s Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, one of the better collections of interviews with Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges was, fortunately, a great conversationalist. I still like to pick up one or other of his interviews and re-read it just for the pleasure of the man’s company.