"Each in his own way imagines Paradise;
since childhood I have envisioned it as a library."
By Jorge Luis Borges
In the drone of computers and Kindles and in the cultural anxiety spawned of aliteracy and illiteracy, it helps to have an ally and a hefty dose of literary history. Enter Jorge Luis Borges, the prolific Argentinean writer about whom it might be said that the more we know about him, the less we know. A poet, a translator, and a citizen of the Americas with a longing for global connections, he defies easy description; even his attempts to define himself never met the mark - though they are fascinating to read.
Borges was a modernist – an Argentinean modernist at that – and reading and writing seemed as natural to him as breathing. No doubt, Borges the reader, the writer, and the librarian would be fascinated by the technological transformations of our own age that threaten to undermine the universe ushered in by Gutenberg and his printing press.
Born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, educated in Europe, and cast under the spell of European culture, Borges wrote in almost every genre and category: fiction; non-fiction; poetry; literary theory; and history. From 1955 to 1973, he served as the Director of the Argentine National Library. The position was both honorific and symbolic. By 1955, he had written much of his best work. Moreover, by the time he reached middle age he had lost much of his sight, and by the late 1950s he was unable to read after nearly half-a-century of reading doggedly. He soon needed help to cross a street. Wounded by his own blindness, he was still able to write about it with detachment:
Let neither tear nor reproach besmirch
this declaration of the mastery
of God who, with magnificent irony,
granted me both the gift of books and the night.
A consummate ironist, and brilliant stylist, Borges never, oddly enough, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was awarded many of the highest literary prizes the world over including the Cervantes, the most prestigious literary accolade in the Spanish-speaking world. In the 1940s, he became a well-known author with two dazzling collections: Ficciones and The Aleph; to this day, readers from Buenos Aires to Paris, New York to Madrid know him primarily as a short story writer. The three volumes under scrutiny here show that Borges was a prolific writer of essays on a wide range of topics: from the tango and Buenos Aires – the city that shaped him when he was a young man - to detective stories and what he called curiously “the ethics of the reader.”
Borges began to experiment with fiction and non-fiction in the 1920s as a young anarchist and core member of the Argentinean avant-garde that sought to topple the reigning monarchs of writing in the Spanish language. For another 60 years, he wrote essays and reviews, and continued to do so until shortly before his death in Geneva, Switzerland in 1986. In 1999, Eliot Weinberger edited and Viking published Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions, a 559-page volume in which the essays – more than 150 - were arranged chronologically. For Borges aficionados, that hefty tome is essential reading; it includes the author’s trenchant film criticism along with his “dictations” from 1956-1986.
The three new volumes - On Mysticism, On Argentina, and On Writing - reveal Borges’s diverse interests. Reading these anthologies one is amazed to see the author moving effortlessly from continent to continent, and from the culture of the gaucho to the culture of Franz Kafka’s Prague and to H. G. Wells’s culture of science fiction. With Borges, labels are necessary – or his work sprawls everywhere – but they are only an approximation. In the introduction to On Mysticism, Maria Kodoma, who also edited the book, describes Borges as a man of many parts: an agnostic; a part-time Sufi; and “a pantheistic mystic.”
In his introduction to On Argentina, the editor, Alfred MacAdam, describes Borges’s heroic efforts to create a vital, living Argentinean culture. He also places Borges in the context of Argentina’s wars, civil wars, coup d’etats, dictators, and revolutions. That he survived at all is a testament to his ability to use the combination of weapons – “silence, exile, and cunning” – heralded by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, one of Borges’s all time-favorite writers.
In some of these essays, especially those about minor Argentinean authors. Borges can feel musty, but for the most part he seems extraordinarily contemporary, and well worth reading in the age of the Kindle and the Blog. For Borges, reading was a kind of writing, and writing a kind of reading as he explains in several essays that collapse the boundaries that often divide the act of reading from the act of writing, and fiction from non-fiction.
“My postulate is that all literature in the end is autobiographical,” Borges wrote in a 1926 essay, “A Profession of Literary Faith,” which came near the start of his career as a writer.
As though to prove the veracity of that remark, he crafted essays that were intensely personal; reading them is very much like diving into the autobiography of a reader who devoured books as a hungry man might devour a loaf of bread.
“All poetry is the confession of an I, a personality, a human adventure,” Borges wrote near the conclusion of “A Profession of Literary Faith.” He went on writing autobiographically for the rest of his life, as when he explained in a 1946 essay, “The Paradox of Apollinaire,” that “Of all the obligations that an author can impose upon himself, the most common and doubtless the most harmful is that of being a modern.” He knew whereof he spoke; knew also that to try to escape from modernism was for him an exercise in futile.
Borges read widely in the literature of his own country, of course, but he also read globally and not only in Spanish, but in French and English and especially in the literature of the United States. We might read him now because he wrote so affectionately and insightfully about our own authors. Borges revered Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, along with Cervantes’s Don Quixote and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Works of experimental fiction and experimental poetry ranked high on his list of favorite books. He enjoyed detective stories and pulp fiction, too. Never a literary snob, he liked diving into the work of Ellery Queen, just as he liked to talk to street corner thugs in the barrio. On the street, he found a compelling kind of bravado, and in pulp fiction he salvaged literary gold and offered insights into “the labyrinths of the detective story.”
Borges’s 1978 essay entitled “The Detective Story” shows that his intellectual sharpness had not dulled near the end of his life. “Do literary genres exist?” he asked in that essay, and went on to answer his own question. “Literary genres may depend less on texts than on the way texts are read,” he wrote. “The aesthetic event requires the conjunction of reader and text: only then does it exist.”
Of all the essays that reveal the author himself, one of the most satisfying is a 1927 piece entitled “Literary Pleasure,” in which Borges discusses his personal history as a young reader who went through several distinct stages. First, he was what he calls a “hospitable reader” and a “polite explorer.” Next, he “discovered words” and “memorable readability.” Finally, “through ineffable leaps of taste,” he became “familiar with literature.” He would go on reading for several decades after 1927, and in many ways he repeated the stages that he had already gone through as a young reader. Some authors he seems to have explored out of politeness, and a sense of obligation. But even when he went along for the ride motivated by necessity and not by passionate love, he found something new and wonderful that delighted him, and wrote for example that Oscar Wilde’s “work was utter mischief.”
The volume On Mysticism – the thinnest in the series - includes a playful 1941 short story entitled “The Library of Babel,” in which the narrator describes his own slowly growing blindness that he takes as a kind of death. “Now that my eyes can hardly make out what I myself have written, I am preparing to die,” the narrator says.
The best essays in On Argentina are from the 1920s and capture the author’s youthful energy. In a 1921 piece entitled “Buenos Aires” Borges writes about dawn as “an infamous, dragged-out affair” that goes about “straightening streets, decapitating lights, and repainting colors.” No matter what the subject, he couldn’t help but write poetically.
His brief – just four-and-one-half-page - 1969 essay on Whitman and Leaves of Grass pays homage to a “man of genius” who “carried out the most wide-ranging and audacious experiments that the history of literature records, and with happy results.”
Borges’s essays on writing, on Argentina, and on mysticism provide a record of his own bold experiments with language. The 1927 essay, “An Investigation of the Word,” is one of the most playful in his work. Beginning with the statement “that there is nothing more human than grammar,” he goes on to analyze in detail the opening sentence of Don Quixote, and then to define the word “word” in a “wordy” way. Borges’s concluding thoughts are as startling as they are autobiographical. “Language is nourished not by original intuitions,” he wrote. “But by variations, happenstance, mischief.”
Few 20th-century writers in any language were as mischievous as he, and very few authors made mischief with more of a sense of ethical responsibility to the readers of the world. Moreover, as a blind writer he joined the elite company of Homer and John Milton, and it’s not surprising to hear Borges say, “Being blind has its advantages.”