Borges on Borges

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The following commentaries were written by Jorge Luis Borges for a now out-of-print collection. Read Part II here.

Borges and Myself

This all-too-famous sketch is my personal rendering of the old Jekyll-and-Hyde theme, save that in their case the opposition is between good and evil and in my version the opposites are the spectator and the spectacle. During extremes of happiness or unhappiness, I am apt to feel – in the space of a single, fleeting moment – that what I am undergoing is happening, independent of me, to somebody else. According to one of the Indian schools of philosophy, the ego is merely an onlooker who has identified himself with the man he is continually looking for. The fact that when I write I am stressing certain peculiarities of mine and omitting others has led me to think of Borges as a creature of fancy. This suspicion is strengthened by the existence of so many articles and studies that deal with him. A preoccupation with identity and sometimes its discord, duality, runs through much of my work – for example, in “The Theologians” and in “Tadeo Isidoro Cruz” and in the very title of my later poetry, The Self and the Other.

The Aleph

What eternity is to time, the Aleph is to space. In eternity, all time – past, present, and future – coexists simultaneously. In the Aleph, the sum total of the spatial universe is to be found in a tiny shining sphere barely an inch across. When I wrote my story, I recalled Wells’s dictum that in a tale of the fantastic, if the story is to be acceptable to the mind of the reader, only one fantastic element should be allowed at a time. For example, though Wells wrote a book about the invasion of Earth by Martians, and another book about a single invisible man in England, he was far too wise to attempt a novel about an invasion of our planet by an army of invisible men. Thinking of the Aleph as a thing of wonder, I placed it in as drab a setting as I could imagine – a small cellar in a nondescript house in an unfashionable quarter of Buenos Aires. In the world of the Arabian Nights, such things as magic lamps and rings are left lying about and nobody cares; in our skeptical world, we have to tidy up any alarming or out-of-the-way element. Thus, at the end of “The Aleph,” the house has to be pulled down and the shining sphere destroyed with it.

Once, in Madrid, a journalist asked me whether Buenos Aires actually possessed an Aleph. I nearly yielded to temptation and said yes, but a friend broke in and pointed out that were such an object to exist it would not only be the most famous thing in the world but would renew our whole concept of time, astronomy, mathematics, and space. “Ah,” said the journalist, “so the entire thing is your invention. I thought it was true because you gave the name of the street.” I did not dare tell him that the naming of streets is not much of a feat.

My chief problem in writing the story lay in what Walt Whitman had very successfully achieved – the setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbor either by secret association or by contrast.

“The Aleph” has been praised by readers for its variety of elements: the fantastic, the satiric, the autobiographical, and the pathetic. I wonder whether our modern worship of complexity is not wrong, however. I wonder whether a short story should be so ambitious. Critics, going even further, have detected Beatrice Portinari in Beatriz Viterbo, Dante in Daneri, and the descent into hell in the descent into the cellar. I am, of course, duly grateful for these unlooked-for gifts.

Beatriz Viterbo really existed and I was very much and hopelessly in love with her. I wrote my story after her death. Carlos Argentino Daneri is a friend of mine, still living, who to this day has never suspected he is in the story. The verses are a parody of his verse. Daneri’s speech on the other hand is not an exaggeration but a fair rendering. The Argentine Academy of Letters is the habitat of such specimens.

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Streetcorner Man

As already stated as far back as 1935 in the foreword to Historia universal de la infamy, this story was written under the triple influence of Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton, and Josef von Sternberg’s unforgettable gangster films. My aim was to recapture the atmosphere of the outer slums of Buenos Aires some fifty years ago. At the same time, I wanted the story to be vividly and persistently visual, and to unfold with a kind of pattern or symmetry. The characters appear on the scene like actors and make set speeches, deliberately unlike the unstudied and careless manner of everyday life. Francisco Real knocks twice at the same door: the first time to swagger in and challenge his man, the second time to die. Another example of this symmetry is the high window, out of which first goes the knife and later the body. All this is sheer choreography. The fact that this story was later made into a ballet, a movie, and a stage play corroborates this. But strangely enough, Argentine readers have always felt the story to be realistic. Some eager young men once asked me if I had actually witnessed the scene. I knew very well when I wrote the story that things could never have happened in that stagy and even operatic way, but I suppose I was indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. All Argentines are fond of an imaginary heroic and mythic past, especially as applied to hoodlums and pimps.

The voice used throughout the story is supposed to be oral, but the sentences are really those of a written work. They are unbroken and complete, while in real life Argentines rarely finish a sentence; the moment they feel the hearer has caught what they are aiming at, they just break off. The language of “Streetcorner Man” is partly a conventionalized slang, or dialect, of Buenos Aires called lunfardo. This language is primarily a device of the writers of sainetes and tango lyrics. It has, as to be expected, been canonized by several glossaries, by an Academy of Lunfardo, and by the Argentine Academy of Letters. As a matter of fact, lunfardo is barely used by the people it is credited to. Once taxed by fellow journalists for his utter ignorance of lunfardo, Roberto Arlt, the novelist of Buenos Aires lowlife, said, “I’m afraid I’ve spent all my life in the outer slums among common people and toughs and so never had time to study such a thing.”

The “esquina rosada” of the Spanish title means pink, or rose-colored, corner. It refers to the painted walls of the streetcorner almacenes, which a long time ago were both groceries and saloons, where men drank and played cards. These corners were often painted other vivid colors, such as green, purple, or blue, and stood out in an otherwise drab city. For me the esquina rosada symbolizes a particular kind of life. It has nothing whatever to do, as some adventurous translator has supposed, with the red lamp that hung outside Julia’s dance hall. Such an establishment would be called a “Farol Colorado,” which is close to the term “red-light district.” In a way, the American “drugstore cowboy” would be something of a latter-day “hombre de la esquina rosada.”

The Approach to al-Mu’tasim

The idea that a man may be many men is, of course, a literary commonplace. This is usually understood in an ethical way (William Wilson, Jekyll and Hyde, and so on) or in terms of heredity (Hawthorne, Zola). In “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim” the concept undergoes certain modifications. There, I think of men being incessantly changed by each man they talk to and perhaps by each book they read. Thus I arrived at the tale of a kind of saint who spreads circles of diminishing splendor all around him, and is finally discovered by somebody who divines him through these many far-flung echoes of his influence. Since this plot is something of an allegory, it led me quite naturally to an Eastern setting. I do my best to be indebted to Kipling; India, as we are aware, stands for almost countless multitudes.

I knew only too well that this delicate work lay far beyond my powers. I therefore plotted the piece as a literary hoax, rather after the example of Sartor Resartus. Years after the story was published, I found out that Henry James had attempted a similar scheme in his novel The Sacred Fount, and had failed through sheer inability to keep his characters distinguishable.

As for Farid ud-Din Attar, I am afraid my knowledge of his famous poem can be reduced to FitzGerald’s A bird’s-eye view of Faríd-Uddín Attar’s Bird-parliament, to Browne’s Literary History of Persia, and to a few handbooks on Sufism. Silvina Ocampo, by the way, composed a very fine poem based on Attar’s book.

The Circular Ruins

The ontological argument, the claim that Something or Someone could be its own cause – its causa sui – as the Schoolmen and Spinoza have it, has always seemed to me a mere juggling of words, a violence done to language. In my opinion, a speech implies a speaker and a dream, a dreamer; this, of course, leads to the concept of an endless series of speakers and dreamers, an infinite regress, and may be what lies at the root of my story. Naturally, when I wrote it, I never thought of the story in these abstract terms. In a pair of sonnets on chess, written years afterward, I took up the same idea. The chessmen do not know they are guided by a player; the player does not know he is guided by a god; the god does not know what other gods are guiding him. Several years ago, during a one-day visit to Lubbock, in the Texas panhandle, a girl asked me whether in writing another poem, “The Golem,” I had been consciously rewriting “The Circular Ruins.” The answer was no, but I thanked her for revealing this unsuspected affinity to me. In fact, it amazed me to have traveled hundreds of miles to come upon this piece of news about myself out on the edge of the desert.

Readers have thought of “The Circular Ruins” as my best story. I can hardly share this view since I now think of fine writing, which this tale comes continually to the brink of, as a beginner’s mistake. One might argue, however, that if it is going to be done at all, this kind of story needs this kind of writing. This also accounts for the dim Eastern setting and for the fact that the scheme is somehow timeless. The title itself suggests the Pythagorean and Eastern ideas of cyclical time.

Lewis Carroll gave me my epigraph, which may have been the story’s seed, but had I not often thought about life as a dream, that seed, known to millions of readers, might have fallen wide of the furrow.

When I wrote “The Circular Ruins” way back in 1940, the work carried me away as it had never done before and as it has never done since. The whole story is about a dream and, while writing it down, my everyday affairs – my job at the municipal library, going to the movies, dining with friends – were like a dream. For the space of that week, the one thing real to me was the story.

Death and the Compass

Since 1923, I had been doing my best to be the poet of Buenos Aires and never quite succeeding. When, in 1942, I undertook a nightmare version of the city in “Death and the Compass,” my friends told me that at long last I had managed to evoke a sufficiently recognizable image of my home town. A few topographical elucidations may perhaps be in order. The Hôtel du Nord stands for the Plaza Hotel. The estuary is the Río de la Plata, called “the great lion-colored river” by Lugones, and, far more effectively, “the unmoving river” by Eduardo Mallea. The Rue de Toulon is the Paseo Colón, or rather, in terms of rowdiness, the old Paseo de Julio, today called Leandro Alem. Triste-le-Roy, a beautiful name invented by Amanda Molina Vedia, stands for the now demolished Hotel Las Delicias in Adrogué. (Amanda had painted a map of an imaginary island on the wall of her bedroom; on her map I discovered the name Triste-le-Roy.) In order to avoid any suspicion of realism, I used distorted names and placed the story in some cosmopolitan setting beyond any specific geography. The characters’ names further bear this out: Treviranus is German, Azevedo is Portuguese and Jewish, Yarmolinsky is a Polish Jew, Finnegan is Irish, Lönnrot is Swedish.

Patterns in time and space are to be fund throughout the story. A triangle is suggested but the solution is really based on a rhombus. This rhombus is picked up in the Carnival costumes of the seeming kidnappers and in the windows of Triste-le-Roy, as well as in the Fourfold Name of God, the Tetragrammaton. A thread of red also runs through the story’s pages. There is the sunset on the rose-colored wall and, in the same scene, the blood splashed on the dead man’s face. Red is found in the detective’s and in the gunman’s names.

The killer and the slain, whose minds work in the same way, may be the same man. Lönnrot is not an unbelievable fool walking into his own death trap but, in a symbolic way, a man committing suicide. This is hinted at by the similarity of their names. The end syllable of Lönnrot means red in German, and Red Scharlach is also translatable, in German, as Red Scarlet.

No apology is needed for repeated mention of the Kabbalah, for it provides the reader and the all-too-subtle detective with a false track, and the story is, as most of the names imply, a Jewish one. The Kabbalah also provides an additional sense of mystery.

As in the case of most stories, “Death and the Compass” should stand or fall by its general atmosphere, not by its plot, which I suppose is now quite old-fashioned and therefore uninteresting. I have embedded many memories of Buenos Aires and its southern outskirts in this wild story. Triste-le-Roy itself is a heightened and distorted version of the roomy and pleasant Hotel Las Delicias, which still survives in so many memories. I have written a longish elegy, entitled “Adrogué,” about the real hotel.

The straight-line labyrinth at the story’s close comes out of Zeno the Eleatic.

The Maker

This story may be thought of as autobiographical – Homer as an exaltation of myself, his blindness as my blindness, his acceptance of darkness as my acceptance. On the other hand, the departures from autobiography are striking. Blindness came to me as a slow twilight, not as a revelation; no Iliads and no Odysseys ever awaited me. When I first conceived this piece, I hesitated between Homer and Milton. Milton, however, is almost a contemporary, and also – as Dr. Johnson felt – a not very lovable figure. But Homer, as old as Western civilization itself, is a myth and so may quite easily be made into another myth. Eleven years after writing “The Maker,” I seem to have recast my fable – without being aware of it – into a more narrowly autobiographical poem called “In Praise of Darkness.” As for Milton, I have paid due tribute to him in a sonnet entitled “A Rose and Milton.”

An early translator was worried that there was no strict English equivalent for the words “El hacedor,” my Spanish title. I could only inform him that hacedor was my own translation of the English “maker,” as used by Dunbar in his “Lament.”

Ever since 1934, the writing of short prose pieces – fables, parables, brief narratives – has given me a certain mysterious satisfaction. I think of such pages as these as I think of coins – small material objects, hard and bright, tokens of something else.

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