Borges contemplates the limits of what we are allotted
It’s hard to say whether Jorge Luis Borges would have lived life differently if he thought he had a choice. In the same 1964 collection that our poem comes from he wrote a poem about Emerson, whom Borges long claimed to admire for being an intellectual poet. The poem describes Emerson closing a book, and walking out into the fields at evening where he contemplates his life. (Camina por los campos como ahora / Por la memoria de quien esto escribe. He walks through the fields as now through the memory of the one who writes this.) He realizes that he knows as much as god gives anyone to know and that he is renowned throughout North America. It ends: “No he vivido. Quisiera ser otro hombre.” (I have not lived. Would that I were another.) Of course Emerson was Borges’s literary alter ego. That much is clear by the way he praises Emerson elsewhere. Having a literary alter ego in some small way allows you to be another. But does the poem about his alter ego mean that he, Borges, regretted the way he lived his life? Or was it simply another intellectual game of Borges, a pose. After all, the collection was called El otro, el mismo—”The Other, the Self” or “The Other, the Same” (pdf file).
It is true that there is not much action or conflict or indeed narrative to his life. He once said: “Few things have happened to me and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer’s thoughts or the music of England’s words.” (Kovacs, “Borges on the Right,” Boston Review (Fall 1977).) His life of the literary intellectual was a stark contrast to his forebears who were fighters and political doers who were intimately involved in the development of Argentina since the original exploration and “conquest.” One of his great-grandfathers, Colonel Isadoro Suárez, for example, was a national hero in the war of liberation from Spain. He turned the fortunes of the battle of Junín, where he led the Peruvian hussars in a surprise attack on the royalists’ flank. The victory was a signal one in the struggle for independence, and a department of Argentina and city within it were both named after the colonel. (One of the three poems Borges wrote in his memory was contained in the 1964 collection—Pagina para recordar al Coronel Suárez, vencedor en Junín: “A Page to Remember Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín.”)
Borges, on the other hand, remembered that the most important thing in his life was his father’s library. Books, words purposely arranged, meant more to him than diversion or an occupation. He believed they had a life of their own. Their reality was at least as important as material reality. He said that his own words, once uttered or written, had their own lives unrelated to him.
As for major events in his life, they were few. He contemplated suicide, or at least dallied with the thought of it, when he was rejected by a woman in 1934. He would casually refer to his suicidal thoughts when he attended conferences on his works in universities late in his life. He had a great hatred for and opposition to Juan Perón. The aspect of Peronists that Borges particularly despised were their populist anti-intellectualism. Professors and other intellectuals were dismissed in droves when Perón first came to power after World War II, but Borges was fired from his municipal library position in an especially humiliating way: he was “promoted” to the position of local inspector of poultry. When a coup deposed Perón in 1955, Borges was named head of the Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina. (Borges was internationally famous, and his appointment was part payment for bringing international condemnation on the Peronists.) The position could not have been more fitting for Borges. Unfortunately the appointment coincided with the stage of his blindness when he stopped being able to do new reading. When Perón returned in 1973, he resigned the post.
It was his blindness that began to change him. Not being able to read perhaps caused him to lose touch with the logic that defined him—the logic of the book, linear, clear, insular, loaded with meaning. His stories and poetry were not experiments in technique (which he found uninteresting) but experiments in metaphysics. He trained his art to hew to the content. He found that most books overstayed their purpose. He once said that a review of a nonexistent book more concisely conveyed a meaning, which most authors wasted hundreds of pages on. That’s why he borrowed the technique from Carlyle. His concision reminds one of Callimachus, who wrote “A few districhs in the pan outweigh Deméter’s Cornucopia, and Mimnermos is sweet for a few subtle lines, not that fat Lady poem. … When I first put a tablet on my knees, the Wolf-God / Apollo appeared and said: / ‘Fatten your animal for sacrifice, poet, / but keep your Muse slender.'” [from “Prologue to the Aetia” translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor.] (Borges resembled Callimachus in another respect—his literary learning. But Borges had no need to demonstrate his mastery of all the poetic techniques like Callimachus did.)
Or perhaps the shock of Perón’s return changed him. The anti-Falangist, anti-Nazi descendant of Argentine Radicals became conservative, even anti-democratic. When the term of Perón’s widow, Isabel, was ended by a golpe de estado, Borges accepted the new right-wing dictators who followed her, even provided intellectual cover for them, despite that the Dirty War profoundly shocked and revolted him. By this time he was entering his late 70s and was more of a literary prophet, the blind Tiresias, accepting accolades in Argentina and Europe and America, going from university to university, saying the same cryptic, perhaps meaningless, observations. His offhand, nonresponsive answers, repeated from interview, to symposium, to literary “conversation,” were forgiven because he was genuinely affable, with a self-negating manner, and he was, after all, blind.
The blindness entirely collapsed his world. Without new books, everything was inside. Even color. But he still had dreams. At a symposium at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in April 1983 Borges explained dreams:
“Well, in my dreams I haven’t lost my eyesight. I keep on dreaming in colors. I suppose the colors are not too subtle. Still I know that every night when I am asleep, I have my eyesight, and then I see things. Sometimes when the nightmare visits me, then I see very awful things, and I do my best to forget them. In daytime I am blind. At nighttime, when I am asleep, I see.” (Carlos Corínez (ed.), Borges the Poet (U Arkansas Press: 1986), p87.)
Two decades before that he was still producing dreams for others. His dreams often involved, as does our poem today, the secret rules which govern our course and fix our choices. It was an expansion of a short poem (by the same name) in El hacedor (1960), a meditation on a line by Verlaine that he doesn’t recall: “Hay una línea de Verlaine que no volveré a recordar.” (There is a line of Verlaine that I will not remember.) The mirror in that poem is one that Borges, approaching 50, will not see. The last line is less whistful: “la muerte me desgasta, incesante” (death wears me down, incessantly).
Some have suggested that the poem has to do with the blindness of Borges. But it cannot be so, because the vision is so perfectly visible to each of us.
from El Otro, El Mismo (1964)
by Jorge Luis Borges
De estas calles que ahondan el poniente,
Una habrá (no sé cuál) que he recorrido
Ya por última vez, indiferente
Y sin adivinarlo, sometido
A Quién prefija omnipotentes normas
Y una secreta y rigida medida
A las sombras, los sueños y las formas
Que destejen y tejen esta vida.
Si para todo hay término y hay tasa
Y última vez y nunca más y olvido
¿Quién nos dirá de quién, en esta casa,
Sin saberlo, no hemos despedido?
Tras el cristal ya gris la noche cesa
Y del alto de libros que una trunca
Sombra dilata por la vaga mesa,
Alguno habrá que no leeremos nunca.
Hay en el Sur más de un portón gastado
Con sus jarrones de mampostería
Y tunas, que a mi paso está vedado
Como si fuera una litografía.
Para siempre cerraste alguna puera
Y hay un espejo que te aguarda en vano;
La encrucijada te parece abierta
Y la vigila, cuadrifronte, Jano.
Hay, entre todas tus memorias, una
Que se ha perdido irreparablemente;
No te verán bajar a aquella fuente
Ni el blanco sol ni la amarilla luna.
No volverá tu voz a lo que el persa
Dijo en su lengua de aves y de rosas,
Cuando al ocaso, ante la luz dispersa,
Quieras decir inolvidables cosas.
¿Y el incesante Ródano y el lago,
Todo ese ayer sobre el cual hoy me inclino?
Tan perdido estrá como Cartago
Que con fuego y con sal borró el latino.
Creo en el alba oír un atareado
Rumor de multitudes que se alejan;
Son lo que me ha querido y olvidado;
Espcio y tiempo y Borges ya me dejan.
[translated by DK Fennell]
Among the streets that sink in the West,
There will be one (I don’t know which) that I’ve crossed
For the very last time, unconcerned
And without foreseeing it, acquiescing
To Him Who determines almighty rules
And a secret and inflexible standard
For the shades, the dreams, the shapes
Which unravel and weave this life.
If all things have an end and there is a stipulated portion
And last time and nothing more and oblivion,
Who will tell us to whom in this house,
Without knowing it, we have bid farewell?
Outside the pane already grey the night lets up,
And from the pile of books which casts
A deformed shade on the indistinct table,
There will be some which I will never read.
There is in the South more than one broken entrance gate
With cement vases
And prickly pears, which I am forbidden to enter
As if it were a lithograph.
You have forever closed some door
And there is a mirror which waits for you in vain;
The crossroads seem open to you
But Janus, four-faced, guards them.
There is, among all your memories, one
Which is lost, irretrievably.
You will not be seen descending to that fountain
By either the white sun or the yellow moon.
Your voice will never repeat what the Persian
In his tongue said of birds and roses,
When, at sunset, before the scattered light,
You wish to say unforgettable things.
And the uninterrupted Rhône and the lake,
All that yesterday on which today I incline?
It will be as lost as Carthage
Which with fire and salt the Latins wiped out.
At dawn I think I hear a busy
Mulling of crowds moving away;
They are those who loved and forgot me;
Space and time and Borges now leave me.