Poets: Borges

Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine poet of the 20th century. Born in 1899, he lived through most of the major events of the 20th century; having died in 1986, he would only have missed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most readers will know him as the author of “The Library of Babylon”, and perhaps “The Garden of Forking Paths”, but may not know much if anything of his poetic output.

Borges began his career–and it really can be viewed as one, at the age of nine. It was not until 1961 that he gained international acclaim, a path that would span 53 years and the loss of his sight. Similar to Chesterton, he was a dedicated upper-middle class kid who kept working and making the right connections; of course, living in Buenos Aires was essential to a person of such standing to acquire fame.

Like Pound, he began his work around the first World War as a member of the then-avant-garde; a movement related to Imagism called Ultraism. Unlike Pound he became, in addition to being an anti-communist, also an anti-fascist. This seems to have been sparked by an attack where certain “Ultra-Nationalists” claimed that Borges was secretly Jewish. As one might expect, this attack simply made Borges a permanent enemy of Nazism, which said group was highly sympathetic to. Some of his criticism seems also to be based on a upper-middle class sensibility reacting to Nazi propaganda, as he was a fan of German folklore and found Nazi alterations of it disgusting.

Though there are numerous attempts to explain Borges’ influence on Spanish language literature, or what his particular genius was, some simply viewed him as the most important figure therein since Cervantes. Given his breadth of work (poetry, essays, screenplays, editing anthologies, short stories and criticism) over a period of nearly 80 years, it would be difficult to summarize him in this short format, which I will not try to do. Instead, I will hit upon a few topics that relate to our Poets series in particular.

In many ways, Borges’ poetry is modern; that is, it can seem to have the almost formless and disjointed quality we associate with “modern” works. Yet, like Pound, if there is modernity there, it is a style he uses to effect more than a theory about poetry itself. I do not know if Borges wrote any poetry in English, as all I have read I believe to have been translated. (On the internet, people are not always crystal clear about who translated what.) Moreover, he is interested in all of the ancient themes, sometimes sweeping all of time like a broom sweeps the length of a stair, only to bring the poem at the last right back to himself:

Things That Might Have Been

I think of things that weren’t, but might have been.

The treatise on Saxon myths Bede never wrote.

The inconceivable work Dante might have had a glimpse of,

As soon as he’d corrected the Comedy’s last verse.

History without the afternoons of the Cross and the hemlock.

History without the face of Helen.

Man without the eyes that gave us the moon.

On Gettysburg’s three days, victory for the South.

The love we never shared.

The wide empire the Vikings chose not to found.

The world without the wheel or the rose.

The view John Donne held of Shakespeare.

The other horn of the Unicorn.

The fabled Irish bird that lights on two trees at once.

The child I never had.

But we also have intricacy and symbol, more characteristic of the old:


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.

(both translations from here.)

Borges in these two poems in particular seems aware of his smallness; this is not in the Christian sense of comparative human limitation, but rather a regret for not having been a hero or a saint, or even a father. Of all of the poets I’ve read who were childless or whose families failed or faltered, I do not recall a clearer picture of awareness–awareness of what they had lost. Borges notices. Put another way, Borges seems capable of a full introspection, even if sometimes expressed unclearly.

It is likely that due to the fact he spent much of his later life blind, he was forced to turn inward and consider thought and imagination themselves; his style was called most prominently “Magical Realism” in that often the connection between the physical possibility we would normally suppose governed a story is suspended without the story itself behaving as if that were so. As a crafter of some clever forgeries and a critic of propaganda, he understood that people believed what they wanted to believe when reading, and what he regarded as important (Similar to Coleridge) was the generation of “poetic faith” in his reader.

While this alteration does allow for a lot of strangeness (and should remind us of H.P. Lovecraft), yet with him it is used purposefully and not destructively; it is used, in a sense, to explore questions that cannot be taken seriously if written as other than fiction. We might suppose in this he owes the most to Cervantes! Most writers, of course, use the opportunity of the story to address ideas they want to ask questions about or discuss– but Borges approaches directly the questions in the same way Lovecraft directly approaches fear.

The last point to make is what has been called the “Borgesian Conundrum”–that of the identity of the author. This could be viewed as a question of narrativization, whether we are talking about ourselves, or the talking about ‘ourselves’ is what is making ‘us’. Borges lived before the internet, but it is hard to think he would not have understood intuitively how internet handles work, and how the identities we create for communication are a separate thing that we both create, and also may end up defining us.

The most concise statement of this paradox seems to be in this short essay, Borges and I:

The other one, Borges, is the one to whom things happen. I wander through Buenos Aires, and pause, perhaps mechanically nowadays, to gaze at an entrance archway and its metal gate; I hear about Borges via the mail, and read his name on a list of professors or in some biographical dictionary. I enjoy hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymology, the savour of coffee and Stevenson’s prose: the other shares my preferences but in a vain way that transforms them to an actor’s props. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is hostile; I live, I keep on living, so that Borges can weave his literature, and that literature justifies me. It’s no pain to confess that certain of his pages are valid, but those pages can’t save me, perhaps because good writing belongs to no one, not even the other, but only to language and tradition. For the rest, I am destined to vanish, definitively, and only some aspect of me can survive in the other. Little by little, I will yield all to him, even though his perverse habit of falsifying and exaggerating is clear to me. Spinoza understood that all things want to go on being themselves; the stone eternally wishes to be stone, and the tiger a tiger. I am forced to survive as Borges, not myself (if I am a self), yet I recognise myself less in his books than in many others, less too than in the studious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and passed from suburban mythologies to games of time and infinity, but now those are Borges’ games and I will have to think of something new. Thus my life is a flight and I will lose all and all will belong to oblivion, or to that other.

I do not know which of us is writing this page.

As a man who was born in the middle class, whose fame became international, the difference between the world of his affection (which is formed in youth) and the reality of his identity must have been profound; anyone who has created an internet identity that is much more famous than they are can get a sense of what he means here, though he has perceived it without that apparatus.

A Wolf

Furtive and grey in the last penumbra,
He leaves behind his trail by a nameless
River shore, where he’d satiated his
Gullet’s thirst and whose waters
Won’t reflect the stars. Tonight,
The wolf is but a lonesome shadow
Rutting for the she-wolf, and he’s cold.
He’s the last wolf of England.
Odin and Thor know. In his high,
Rocky abode, a King has ruled
To put an end to wolves. The killing
Iron has already been forged for you.
Saxon wolf, you have sired in vain.
It’s not enough to be cruel. You are the last.
A thousand years will pass and an old man
Will dream of you in America. Yet
That future dream won’t help you.
Today, you are besieged by the men following
In the tracks you left in the forest,
Furtive and grey in the last penumbra.
(translation and context from here)

Borges’ grave is quite interesting, as well. Also for fun, check out the difference between the Infogalactic and Wikipedia entries for him.

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  1. Your entries are very good at easing the bloodpulse.

    1. If that makes them “easy listening”, I’ll take the compliment :)

  2. Thanks. I never quite “got” Borges. I was always an acolyte of Neruda with his odd combination of tactile strength and romantic melodrama. I related to the common railroad worker’s son in Neruda, but not his bosomy affection for this and that Leftist trope. Still, Neruda provided a root stink, an earthy odor, a panorama of local nectars and decay.

    Borges seemed cold. Too cerebral. And I felt both lazy and dumb for not being able to break his code. So thanks for succinct explanation.

    I saw Borges at Michigan State just before he passed away. He stood firm against the liberal sops in the audience. He characterized Federico Lorca as “a minor poet” and he was indifferent to Emerson’s alleged homosexuality. In all, Borges was above gross sentiment. He had an old fashioned European dignity that was both studied and authentic. Not an easy synthesis and, probably, his life’s inner-work.

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