A Conversation With Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges is a man of many worlds and moods. A significant figure in modern Spanish literature, he has drawn much of his creative force from the Germanic world: English poetry, Franz Kafka, the warrior mythology of the old English and Norse. Strongly anti-political and anti-moralistic, this Argentine’s work frequently revolves around the history of South America and the stirrings of the human heart. A storyteller who claims to perform his work in a simple manner, Borges may set his tales in exotic temples or in neighborhood bars; he may describe tigers and knives flashing in moonlight, or the patience of a scholar thumbing an ancient manuscript. Borges’ writings emerge from dreams and from experience. Nothing can be taken for certain; life is powerful, but poorly glimpsed before it overwhelms.
The result of Borges’ continual crossing of linguistic, mythological, and social boundaries is a body of work –essays, tales and poetry –which has earned recognition the world over. In 1960 he shared the World Publisher’s Prize with the French Playwright, Samuel Beckett, and he is often predicted to be a future recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although Borges began publishing in Buenes Aires in the 1920s, and his important collection of prose, Ficciones, came out in 1944, it was not until the appearance in 1961 of Labyrinths (New Directions), an anthology of his earlier stories, essays, and poetry, that his work spread to the U.S. and other English-speaking lands. A translation of Ficciones appeared in 1962, and subsequent translations have included A Personal Anthology (1967), The Aleph and Other Stories (1972), and In Praise of Darkness (1974), the latter four translated by or under the direction of Norman Thomas di Giovanni, with whom Borges worked closely.
To talk closely to Jorge Luis Borges is to track him through a labyrinth of his pasts experiences and attitudes, and the walls that one encounters in the search might be painted in unexpected ways. These may furnish clues or merely diversions in the pursuit, but to understand Borges at least partially is to realize that these clues and diversions are the Borges. We must not expect to find Borges the same each time. There is not one Borges, but many.
This is the Jorge Luis Borges whom the Artful Dodge encountered on April 25, 1980.
Jorge Luis Borges: First let me say: straightforward questions. Not, for example, “What do you think of the future?” when there are so many futures and quite different from each other I suppose.
Daniel Bourne: Let me ask you about your past then, your influences and so on.
Borges: Well, I can tell you about the influences I have received, but not about the influence I may have had upon others. That’s quite unknown to me and I don’t care about it. But I think of myself primarily as a reader, then also a writer, but that’s more or less irrelevant. I think I’m a good reader, I’m a good reader in many languages, especially in English, since poetry came to me through the English language, initially through my father’s love of Swinburn, of Tennyson, and also of Keats, Shelley and so on — not through my native tongue, not through Spanish. It came to me as a kind of spell. I didn’t understand it, but I felt it. My father gave me the free run of his library. When I think of my boyhood, I think in terms of the books I read.
DB: You are indeed a bookman. Can you give us a notion of how your librarianship and antiquarian tastes have helped your writings in terms of freshness?
Borges: I wonder if my writing has any freshness. I think of myself as belonging essentially to the nineteenth century. I was born in the last but one year of the century. 1899, and also my reading has been confined — well, I also read contemporary writers — but I was brought up on Dickens and the Bible, or Mark Twain. Of course I am interested in the past. Perhaps one of the reasons is we cannot make, cannot change the past. I mean you can hardly unmake the present. But the past after all is merely to say a memory, a dream. You know my own past seems continually changed when I am remembering it, or reading things that are interesting to me. I think that I owe much to many writers, perhaps to the writers I have read or who were really part of their language, a part of tradition. A language in itself is a tradition.
Stephen Cape: If we could, let’s turn to your poetry.
Borges: My friends tell me that I am an intruder, that I don’t really write when I attempt poetry. But those of my friends who write in prose say that I’m no writer when I attempt prose. So really I don’t know what to do, I’m in a quandary.
SC: One modern poet, Gary Snyder, describes his poetic theory in a short poem called Riprap. His ideas seem to have some things in common with your poetry, and I’d like to quote a short section of it which describes his attitudes towards words in poems.
Borges: Yes but why a short section, a large section would be better, no? I want to enjoy this morning.
(SC reads Gary Snyder’s Riprap, in RIPRAP. San Francisco: Origen Press, 1959)
SC: The title Riprap refers to making a path of stones on slippery rock, to get pack horses up a mountain, a small inter-connected path.
Borges: Of course, he writes with varied metaphors, and I don’t, I write in a simple way. But he has the English language to play with, and I haven’t.
SC: His idea seems to be comparing placing words in a poem with building the inter-connected trail where each piece is dependent on the piece on either side. Do you agree with that type of approach towards the structure of poem, or is it just one of many?
Borges: Well, I think as Kipling said, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,/ and-every-single-one-of-them-is-right.” — and that may be one of the right ways. But mine is not at all like that. I get — it’s some kind of relation, a rather dim one. I’m given an idea; well, that idea may become a tale or a poem. But I’m only given the starting point and the goal. And then I have to invent or concoct somehow what happens in between, and then I do my best. But generally, when I get that kind of inspiration, I do all I can to resist it, but if it keeps bothering me, then I have to somehow write it down. But I never look for subjects. They come to me in a cage, they may come when I’m trying to sleep,or when I wake up. They come to me on the streets of Buenes Aires, or anywhere at anytime. For example, a week ago I had a dream. When I awoke — it was a nightmare — I said, well, this nightmare isn’t worth telling, but I think there’s a story lurking here. I want to find it. Now when I think I found it, I write it within five or six months. I take my time over it. So I have, let’s say, a different method. Every craftsman has his own method, of course and I should respect it.
SC: Snyder’s trying to achieve a direct transfer of his state of mind to the reader with as little interference as possible from reasoning. He’s going for the direct transfer of sensation. Does this seem a little extreme for you?
Borges: No, but he seems to be a very cautious poet. Where I’m really old and innocent. I just ramble on, try to find my way. People tell me, for example, what message I have. I”m afraid I haven’t any. Well, here’s fable, what’s the moral? I’m afraid I don’t know. I”m merely a dreamer, and then a writer, and my happiest moments are when I’m a reader.
SC: Do you think of words as having effects that are inherent in the word or in the images they carry?
Borges: Well yes, fro example, if you attempt a sonnet, then, at least in Spanish, you have to use certain words. There’s only a few rhymes. And those of course may be used as metaphors, peculiar metaphors, since you have to stick to them. I would even venture to say — this of course is a sweeping statement — but perhaps the word moon in English stems from something different that the word luna in Latin or Spanish. The moon the word moon is a lingering sound. Moon is a beautiful word. The French word is also beautiful: lune. But in Old English the word was mona. The word isn’t beautiful at all, two syllables. And then the Greek is worse. We have celena, three syllables. But the word moon is a beautiful word. That sound is not found, let’s say in Spanish. The moon. I can linger in words. Words inspire you. Words have a life of their own.
SC: The word’s life of its own, does that seem more important than the meaning that it gives in a particular context?
Borges: I think that the meanings are more or less irrelevant. What is important, or the two important facts I should say, are emotion, and then words arising from emotion. I don’t think you can write in an emotionless way. If you attempt it, the result is artificial. I don’t like that kind of writing. I think that if a poem is really great, you should think of it as having written itself despite the author. It should flow.
SC: Could one set of myths be replaced by another when moving from one poet to another and still get the same poetic effect?
Borges: I suppose every poet has his own private mythology. Maybe he’s unaware of it. People tell me that I have evolved a private mythology of tigers, of blades, of labyrinths, and I”m unaware of the fact this is so. My readers are finding it all the time. But I think perhaps that is the duty of poet. When I think of America, I always tend to think in terms of Walt Whitman. The word Manhattan was invented for him, no?
SC: An image of a healthy America?
Borges: Well, yes. At the same time, Walt Whitman himself was a myth, a myth of a man who wrote, a very unfortunate man, very lonely, and yet he made of himself a rather splendid vagabond. I have pointed out that Whitman is perhaps the only writer on earth who has managed to create a mythological person of himself and one of the three persons of the Trinity is the reader, because when you read Walt Whitman, you are Walt Whitman. Very strange that he did that, the only person on earth. Of course, America has produced writers important all over the world. Especially New England. You have given the world men that cannot be though away. For example, all contemporary literature could not be what it is had it not been for Poe, for Whitman, and perhaps Melville and Henry James. But South America, we have many things important to us and Spain, but not to the rest of the world. I do think that Spanish literature began by being very fine. And then somewhere, and already with such writers as Quevado and Gongora, you feel something has stiffened; the language doesn’t flow as it did.
DB: Does this hold for the twentieth century? There’s Lorca, for example.
Borges: But I’m not fond of Lorca. Well you see, this is a shortcoming of mine, I dislike visual poetry. He is visual all the time, and he goes in for fancy metaphors. But, of course, I know he’s very respected. I knew him personally. He lived a year in New York. He didn’t learn a word of English after a year in New York. Very strange. I met him only once in Buenes Aires. And then, it was a lucky think for him to be executed. Best thing to happen for a poet. A fine death, no? An impressive death. And then Antonio Mucharo wrote that beautiful poem about him.
SC: The Hopi Indians are used as an example many times, because of the nature of their language, of how language and vocabulary thought—
Borges: I know very little about it. I was told of the Pampas Indians by my grandmother. She lied all of her life in Junin; that was on the western end of civilization. She told me as a fact that their arithmetic went thus. She held up a hand and said, “I’ll teach you the Pampas Indians’ mathematics.” “I won’t understand,.” “Yes,” she said, “you will. Look at my hands: 1, 2, 3, 4, Many.” So, infinity went on her thumb. I have noticed, in what literary men call the Pampas, that the people have but little notion of distance. They don’t think in terms of miles, of leagues.
DB: A friend of mine who comes from Kentucky tells me that they talk of distance there as one mountain, two mountains away.
Borges: Oh really? How strange.
SC: Does changing from Spanish to English to German or Old English seem to offer you different means of viewing the world?
Borges: I don’t think languages are essentially synonymous. In Spanish it is very difficult to make things flow, because words are over-long. But in English, you have light words. For example, if you saw slowly, quickly, in English, what you hear is the meaningful part of the word: slow-ly, quick-ly. You hear slow and quick. But in Spanish you say lentamente, rapidamente, and what you hear is the -mente. That is gratis, so to say. A friend of mine translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Spanish. I said that he needed two Spanish sonnets to a single English one, since English words are short and to the point, but Spanish words are over-long. And English also a physical quality to it. Well, in English, you can say: to explain away . In Kipling’s Ballad of East and West, an English officer is pursuing an Afgan horse thief. They’re both on horseback. And Kipling writes: “They have ridden the low moon out of the sky. / Their hooves drum up the dawn.” Now you can’t ride the low moon out of the sky in Spanish, and you can’t drum up the dawn. It can’t be done. Even such simple sentences as he fell down or he picked himself up, you can’t do in Spanish. You have to say he got up the best he could or some lame paraphrase. But in English you can do much with verbs and positions. You can write: dream away your life; live up to; something you have to live down. Those things are impossible in Spanish. They cannot be done. Then you have compound words. For example you have wordsmith. It would be in Spanish un herrero de palabras, rather stilted, rather uncouth. But it can be done in German you can make up words all the time, but not in English. You are not allowed the freedom that the Anglo-Saxons had. For example, you have sigefolc, or victorious people. Now in Old English, you don’t think of these words as being artificial, but in Spanish it can’t be done. But of course, you have what I think is beautiful in Spanish: the sounds are very clear. But in English you have lost your open vowels.
SC: What was it that attracted you to Anglo-Saxon poetry originally?
Borges: Well, I lost my eyesight for reading purposes when I was made chief librarian for the Argentine National Library. I said I won’t bow down and allow self-pity. I will attempt something else. And then, I remember, I had at home Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. And I said we’ll attempt Anglo-Saxon. And then I began; I studied through Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Reader. And then I fell in love with it through two words. Those two words, I can still recall them, those words were the name of London, Lundenburh; and then Rome, Romeburh. And now I’m attempting Old Norse, which was a finer literature than Old English.
SC: How would you describe a twentieth century mythology for writers?
DB: That’s a big question!
Borges: I don’t think it should be done consciously. You don’t have to try to be contemporary. You are already contemporary. What one has in mythology is being evolved all the time. Personally, I think I can do with Greek and Old Norse mythology. For example, I don’t think I stand in need of planes or of railways or of cars.
Charles Silver: I wondered if there were any particular mystical or religious readings you’ve done that have influenced you?
Borges: Yes, I have done some reading, of course, in English and in German, of the Sufis. And then, I think, before I die, I’ll do my best to write a book on Swedenborg the mystic. And Blake also was a mystic. But I dislike Blake’s mythology. It seems very artificial.
DB: You said, “When one reads Whitman, one is Whitman,” and I was wondering, when you translated Kafka did you feel at any time that you were Kafka in any sense?
Borges: Well, I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn’t need to exist. But, really, I am merely a word for Chesterton, for Kafka, and Sir Thomas Browne — I love him. I translated him into seventeenth century Spanish and it worked very well. We took a chapter out of Urne Buriall and we did that into Quevado’s Spanish and it went very well — the same period, the same idea of writing Latin in a different language, writing Latin in English, writing Latin in Spanish.
DB: You were the first to translate Kafka into Spanish. Did you feel a sense of mission while you were translating him?
Borges: No, that was when I translated Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. “What I”m doing is very important,” I said to myself. Of course I know Whitman by heart.
DB: Did you feel that in any of your translations that by doing them you’d help the understanding and appreciation of you own work, did they ever seem to justify what you yourself had done?
Borges: No, I never think of my own work…
DB: When you translate…
Borges: No, at home, come visit in Buenes Aires, I’ll show you my library, you won’t find a single book of mine of one me. I’m very sure of this — I choose my books. Who am I to find my way into the neighborhood of Sir Thomas Browne, or of Emerson. I’m nobody.
DB: So Borges that writer and Borges the translator are completely separate?
Borges: Yes, they are. When I translate, I try not to intrude. I try to do a fair translation of some kind, and to be a poet also.
DB: You said that you don’t ever try to put any meaning into your works.
Borges: Well, you see, I think of myself as being an ethical man, but I don’t try to teach ethics. I have no message. I know little about contemporary life. I don’t read a newspaper. I dislike politics and politicians. I belong to no party whatever. My private life is a private life. I try to avoid photography and publicity. My father had the same idea. He said to me, “I want to be Well’s Invisible Man.” He was quite proud of it. In Rio de Janeiro, there, nobody knew my name. I did feel invisible there. And somehow, publicity has found me. What can I do about it? I don’t look for it. It has found me. Of course, one lives to be eighty, one is found out, one is detected.
DB: About meaning in your work or the absence of meaning in it — in Kafka’s work there is guilt running all the way through, and in your writing everything’s beyond guilt.
Borges: Yes, that’s true. Kafka had the sense of guilt. I don’t think I have because I don’t believe in free will. Because what I have done has been done, well, for me or through me. But I haven’t done it really. But I don’t believe in free will, I can’t feel guilty.
DB: Could this be tied in then with you saying that there is only a finite combination of elements and so actually the conception of ideas is only a rediscovery of the past?
Borges: Yes, I suppose it is. I suppose that each generation has to re-write the books of the past and do it in a slightly different way. When I write a poem, that one has already been written down any amount of times, but I have to rediscover it. That’s my moral duty. I suppose we all attempt very slight variations, but the language itself can hardly be changed. Joyce, of course, tried to do it. But he failed, though he wrote some beautiful lines.
DB: Would you say then that all of these poems that have been rewritten are the coming back upon the same wall in the labyrinth?
Borges: Yes, it would. That’s a good metaphor, yes. Of course it would be.
DB: Can you give us some guidelines as to when you think using local color is legitimate and when it is not?
Borges: I think, if you can do it in an unobtrusive way, it is all for the good. But if you stress it, the whole thing is artificial. But it should be used, I mean, it’s not forbidden. But you don’t have to stress it. We have evolved a kind of slang in Buenes Aires. Writers are, well, abusing it, over-using it. But the people themselves have little use for it. They may say a word in slang every twenty minutes or so, but nobody tries to talk slang all the time.
DB: Are there any North American writers that you felt conveyed this local color to you effectively as an outsider to that culture?
Borges: Yes, I think that Mark Twain gave me a lot. And then, I wonder if Ring Lardner gave me something else also. You think of him as being very, very American, no?
DB: And urban…
Borges: More urban, yes. And then, what other writers? Of course, I have read Bret Harte. I think that Faulkner was a very great writer — I dislike Hemingway, by the way — but Faulkner was a great writer, despite, well, telling a story the wrong way and mixing up the chronology.
DB: You translated Faulkner’s Wild Palms.
Borges: Yes, but I’m not too fond of that book. I think that Light in August is far better. And that book that he despised. Sanctuary, is a very striking book also. That was the first Faulkner I read, and went onto others. I read his poetry also.
DB: When you were translating Faulkner and his use of local color, how did you deal with it, did you stick with straight Spanish or did you try to put it into a type of local Spanish?
Borges: No, I think that if one has to translate slang one should translate it into straight Spanish, because you’re not… you get a different kind of local color. For example, we have a translation of a poem of ours called El Gaucho, Martin Fierro. Now, it has been done into cowboy English. That is wrong, I should say, because you think of cowboys and not of gauchos. I would translate Martin Fierro, into as pure an English as I could get. Because through the cowboy and the gaucho may be the same type of man, you think of them a different way. For example, when you think of a cowboy, well, you think of guns. But when you think of a gaucho, you think of daggers and duels. The whole thing is done in a very different way. I have seen some of it. I have seen an old man, of seventy-five or so, challenge a young man to a duel, and he said, “I’ll be back in no time.” He came back with two very dangerous-looking daggers, one of them with a silver hilt, and one larger than the other. They were not the same size. He put them on the table and said, “Well, now, choose your weapon.” So you see, when he said that he was using a kind of rhetoric. He meant: “You can choose the larger one, I don’t mind.” And then the younger man of course apologized. The old man had many daggers in his house, but he chose those two on purpose. Those two daggers said, “This old man knows how to handle a dagger, since he can choose the other one.”
DB: That brings to mind your stories…
Borges: Well, of course, I’ve used that them for my stories; from telling a person’s experience, comes stories afterward of course.
DB: There’s meaning in there, but you don’t have to mention the meaning, you just have to tell what happened.
Borges: Well, the meaning is that the man was a hoodlum; he was a sharper. But at the same time he had a code of honor. I mean he would not think of attacking someone without fair warning. I mean he knew the way that those things were done. The whole thing was done very, very slowly. A man might begin by praising another. Then you would want to say that where he came from nobody knew how to fight. You might teach him, perhaps. Then after that, he would interrupt the other with words of praise, and then after that he would say, “let us walk into the street,” “choose your weapon,” and so on. But this whole thing was done very slowly, very gently. I wonder if that kind of rhetoric has been lost. I suppose it has. Well, they use firearms now, revolvers, and all that code has disappeared. You can shoot a man from a distance.
DB: Knife-fighting is more intimate.
Borges: It is intimate, yes. Well, I used that word. At the end of a poem I used that word. A man is having his throat cut and then I say, “the intimate end of knife on his throat.”
DB: You said new writers should begin by imitating old forms and established writers.
Borges: I think it’s a question of honesty, no? If you want to renew something you must show that you can do what has been done. You can’t begin by innovation. You can’t begin by free verse for example. You should attempt a sonnet, or any other set stanza, and then go on to the new things.
DB: When is the time to break away? Can you give some idea from you own experience when you knew it was time to go into a new approach?
Borges: No, because I made the mistake. I began by free verse. I did not know how to handle it. Very difficult, and then, I found out that after all, writing with free verse you have to make your own pattern and change it all the time. Well, prose, prose comes after the poetry of course. Prose is more difficult. I don’t know. I have written by instinct. I don’t think I’m a very conscious poet.
DB: You said that someone should begin with the more or less traditional forms. Isn’t it though a matter of audience?
Borges: No, I never thought of an audience. When I printed my first book I didn’t send it to the bookshops, or to other writers, just gave copies away to friends — some three hundred copies I gave away to friends. They were not on sale. But of course, in those days nobody thought about a writer being famous, or failure or success. Those ideas were alien to us about 1920, 1930. Nobody thought in terms of failure or success in selling books. We thought of writing as, I would say as a pastime, or as a kind of destiny. And when I read DeQuincey’s Autobiography, I found out that he always knew that his life would be a literary life, and Milton also, and Coleridge also, I think. They knew it all the time. They knew their lives would be given over to literature, for reading and for writing, which, of course, go together.
DB: Your short prose piece Borges and I and the poem The Watcher show your fascination with the Double. Could we let Borges the non-writer speak for a while and give some sort of assessment of the writer Borges’ work, whether he likes it or not?
Borges: I don’t like it too much. I prefer original texts. I prefer Chesterton and Kafka.
DB: So do you think it’s the non-writer’s decision that your library in Argentina doesn’t have any of Borges’ books?
Borges: Yes,of course.
DB: He made himself felt in that situation.
Borges: Yes, he did, yes. You won’t find a single book of his around me, because I warned him I’m sick and tired. I warned him of the way I feel. I say, well, here’s Borges back again. What can I do? — put up with him. Everyone feels that way I suppose.
DB: A comment that Jean-Paul Sartre made has always fascinated me. He said: “Man is a wizard unto man.” What do you think about that? Would you agree?
Borges: Man is a wizard?
DB: He concocts ideas, he concocts laws of the universe, and tries to make his fellow man believe them. Would you agree with that?
Borges: I suppose that would be applied especially to poets and to writers, no? And to theologians of course. After all, if you think of the Trinity, it’s far stranger than Edgar Allan Poe. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and they’re boiled down into one single Being. Very, very strange. But nobody believes in it, supposedly. At least I don’t.
DB: Myths don’t have to believed to be effective, though.
Borges: No, and yet, I wonder. For example, our imagination accepts a Centaur, but not, let’s say, a bull with the face of a cat. No. That would be no good, very, very uncouth. But you accept the Minotaur, the Centaur, because they are beautiful. Well, at least we think of them as being beautiful. They of course are a part of tradition. But Dante, who had never seen monuments, had never seen coins, he knew the Greek myths through Latin writers. And he thought of the Minotaur as being a bull with a human bearded face. Very ugly. In the many editions of Dante you see that kind of Minotaur, while you think of him as a man with face of a bull. But since Dante had read semi-boven, semi-hominem, he thought of him in that way. And our imagination can hardly accept that idea. But as I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why should I think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not an Uraguayan. I don’t know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves — and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity — are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we’ll be just, well, cosmopolitans.
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