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In Time’s Labyrinth

I began to read Borges in my youth, when he was not yet an author of international renown. In those years his name was a kind of password into a circle of initiates, and the reading of his works was the secret cult of a few adepts. In Mexico, around 1940, we adepts comprised a group of young men, along with an occasional less enthusiastic older partisan: José Luis Martínez, Alí Chumacero, Xavier Villarrutia, and a few more. Borges was a writer’s writer; we used to follow him through the journals of that era. In successive numbers of Sur, I read the series of remarkable stories that later, in 1941, would make up his first collection of ficciones: El jardín de los senderos que bifurcan.

I still have the old edition, with its stiff, blue marbled leather binding, its white letters, and, in darker ink, the arrow pointing toward a south that was more metaphysical than geographical. I have not stopped reading it and conversing silently with its author. The man disappeared behind his work (this was before publicity converted him into one of its victim-gods); at times I even fancied that Borges himself was a fictional being.

The first person who spoke to me of the real man, with amazement and affection, was Alfonso Reyes. He had great regard for Borges. But did he admire him? Their tastes were very different. They were united by one of those happy anti-coincidences that bring together people of the same profession: for Borges, the Mexican writer was the master of prose; for Reyes, the Argentine was a curious spirit, a felicitous eccentricity.Later, in Paris in 1947, my first Argentine friends—José Bianco, Silvina Ocampo,and Adolfo Bioy Casares—were also great friends of Borges. They told me so much about him that without my ever having met him I came to know him as if he were my friend, too.

Many years later, I at last met Borges in person. It was in Austin, in 1971. The meeting was proper and reserved. He didn’t know what to think of me, and had not forgiven him for that poem in which he exalts—like Whitman, but with less justification—the defenders of the Alamo. My patriotic passion did not allow me to perceive the heroism of those men; and he didn’t perceive that the siege of the Alamo had been an episode in an unjust war. Borges was not always able to grasp the difference between true heroism and bravery. Being one of Balvanera’s ruffians is not same as being Achilles: both are figures of legend, but the first is a product of circumstance, while the second is an example.

Our other encounters, in Mexico and in Buenos Aires, were happier. Several times we were able to speak a bit easily, and Borges discovered that some of his favorite poets also were mine. He celebrated these coincides by reciting passages of this or that poet, and the conversation was transformed for an instant, into a sort of communion. One night, in Mexico, my wife and I helped him slip away from the assault of some importunate admirers; then, in a corner, amid the noise and the laughter of the party, he to Marie Jose some verses of Toulet:

Toute allégresse a son défaut

Et si brise elle-meme.

Si vous voulez que je vous aime,

Ne riez pas trop haut.

C’est à voix basse qu’on enchante

Sous la cendre d’hiver

Ce Coeur, pareil au feu couvert.

Qui se consume et chante.

(Every joy has its fault, and breaks apart of its own accord. If you want me to love you, do not laugh too loud. It is in a hushed voice that one delights, under winter’s ash, this heart that, like the banked fire, smolders and sings.)

In Buenos Aires we could talk and stroll leisurely about, enjoying the weather. He and Maria Kodama took us to the old Lezama Park; he wanted to show us, I don’t know why, the Orthodox Church, but it was closed. We contented ourselves with walking along the moist little paths, beneath the trees with their towering trunks and singing foliage. Finally we paused before the monument to the Roman she-wolf, and Borges ran his excited hands over the head of Remus. We ended up in the Café Tortoni, famous for its mirrors, its golden moldings, its generous cups of hot chocolate, and its literary ghosts. Borges spoke of the Buenos Aires of his youth, that city of “patios hollow like bowls” that appears in his earliest poems— an invented city and, nevertheless, mistress of a reality more durable than the reality of the stones: that of the word.

That evening I was surprised by his dispiritedness about the situation in his country. Although he rejoiced in Argentina’s return to democracy, he felt more and more remote from what was happening there. It is hard to be a writer in our bitter countries (it may be so everywhere), above all if one has become a celebrity and is besieged by those twin enemies, treacherous envy and devout admiration, both of them myopic. Moreover, by then Borges no longer recognized the time that surrounded him. He was in another time. I understood his uneasiness. I, too, when I walk the streets of Mexico, rub my eyes with wonder: Is this what we have made of our city? Borges confided to us his decision to “go away to die somewhere else, maybe in Japan.” He wasn’t a Buddhist, but the idea of nothingness, as it appears in the literature of that religion, attracted him. I say idea because nothingness cannot be anything but a sensation or an idea. If it is a sensation, it lacks any restorative and calming power. On the other hand, nothingness as an idea calms us, and at the same time gives us strength and serenity.

I saw him again last year, in New York. We found ourselves for a few days in the same hotel with him and Maria Kodama. We dined together. Eliot Weinberger joined us unexpectedly, and the talk was of Chinese poetry. At the end of the evening, Borges recalled Reyes and López Velarde, and, as always, he recited some lines of the latter, those beginning: Suave patria, vendedora de chía (“Gentle fatherland, seller of chía . ..”). He interrupted himself, and asked me: “What does chía mean?” Confounded, I responded that I could not explain it, except as a metaphor: “It is an earthy taste.” He nodded his head. It was too much and too little. I consoled myself with the thought that to express the transient is no less difficult than to describe eternity. He knew that.

It is difficult to resign oneself to the death of a dear and admired man. From the moment we are born, we expect to die, yet death surprises us. In this instance the expected is always the unexpected, always the undeserved. It doesn’t matter that Borges died at 86; he wasn’t ripe for death. Nobody is, whatever his age. One may invert the philosophical phrase and say that all of us—old men and children, adolescents and adults—are fruits picked before their time. Borges survived Cortazar and Bianco, two other beloved Argentine writers; but the short time he survived them does not console me for his absence. Today Borges has become what he was when I was 20: some books, an oeuvre.

He cultivated three genres: the essay, the poem, and the short story. The division is arbitrary. His essays read like stories; his stories are poems; and his poems make us think, as though they were essays. The bridge connecting them is thought. It is therefore useful to begin with the essayist. Borges’s was a metaphysical temperament. Hence his fascination with idealist systems and their lucid architecture: Berkeley, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Bradley, the various Buddhisms. His was also a mind of uncommon clarity, united with the fantasy of a poet attracted by the “other side” of reality, so that he could not help but laugh at the chimerical constructions of reason. Hence his homage to Hume and to Schopenhauer, to Chuang-Tzu and the Sixth Empire. Although in his youth the verbal extravagances and the syntactical labyrinths of Quevedo and Browne appealed to him, he was not like them. He makes one think more of Montaigne—for his skepticism and his universal curiosity, though not for his style. Also of another of our contemporaries, who is today a bit forgotten: George Santayana.

Unlike Montaigne, moral and psychological enigmas did not interest Borges much; nor did the diversity of the customs, habits, and beliefs of the human animal. History did not excite him; the study of complex human societies did not attract him. His political opinions were moral, even aesthetic, judgments. Although he expressed them with bravery and with honesty, he did so without truly comprehending what was going on around him. At times he affirmed, for example, his opposition to the Peron regime and his rejection of totalitarian socialism; at others he slipped up, and his visit to Chile when it was under military dictatorship, as well as his facile epigrams against democracy, caused consternation among his friends. Later he repented. One has to add that always, in his certainties and in his errors, he was consistent with himself and honest. He never lied or knowingly justified evil, as many of his enemies and detractors have done. Nothing was more foreign to Borges than the ideological casuistry of our contemporaries.

All such matters were beside the point. He kindled to other subjects: time and eternity, identity and plurality, the self and the other. He was enamored of ideas. It was a contradictory love, corroded by multiplicity: behind ideas he did not find the Idea (call it God, Nothingness, or the First Principle), but rather a new and more profound plurality, that of himself. In seeking the Idea he found the reality of a Borges who was broken up into successive manifestations. Borges was always the other Borges unfolding into another Borges, until infinity. The metaphysician and the skeptic fought within him; and though it seemed that the skeptic won, skepticism gave him no peace. Instead, it multiplied the metaphysical ghosts. The mirror was its emblem. An abominable emblem: the mirror is the refutation of the metaphysical and the condemnation of the skeptic.

His essays are memorable, mainly for their originality, their diversity, and their style. Humor, sobriety, acuity—and suddenly, an unusual twist. Nobody else had written that way in Spanish. Reyes, his model, was more correct and fluent, less precise and also less surprising. Reyes said fewer things with more words. The great achievement of Borges was to say the most with the least. But he did not exaggerate. He did not fasten on to the sentence, like Gracián, with the needle of genius, nor did he convert the paragraph into a symmetrical garden. Borges served two opposed divinities: simplicity and strangeness. Frequently he brought them together, and the result was unforgettable—the naturalism of the uncommon, the strangeness of the familiar. This skill, perhaps inimitable, gives him a unique place in the literature of the 20th century. When still very young, in a poem dedicated to the shifting and changing Buenos Aires of his nightmares, he defined his style: “My verse is about interrogation and proof, in order to obey that which is hidden.” This definition embraces his prose as well. His work is a system of linked vessels, and his essays are navigable streams that empty naturally into his poems and stories. I confess my preference for the latter. His essays do not help me to comprehend either the universe or myself; they help me rather to understand better Borges’s own surprising inventions.

Although the subjects of his poems and stories are quite varied, he has a single theme. But before touching on this point, let us clear up a confusion. Many deny that Borges was really a Latin American writer. The same charge was made against the early Dario; but it is an insult no less perverse for being repeated. The writer belongs to one land and one blood, but his work cannot be reduced to nation, race, or class. Moreover, one can reverse the accusation and say that the work of Borges, for its transparent perfection and for its limpid architecture, is a living reproach to the dispersion, the violence, and the disorder of the Latin American continent. The Europeans were amazed by the universality of Borges, but none of them observed that his cosmopolitanism was not, and could not have been, anything but the point of view of a Latin American. The eccentricity of Latin America consists in its being a European eccentricity: it is a different way of being Western, a non-European way. At once inside and outside the European tradition, the Latin American can regard t’he West as a totality, and not with the fatally provincial vision of a Frenchman, a German, an Englishman, or Italian. No one saw this better than a Mexican, Jorge Cuesta; and an Argentenian, Jorge Luis Borges, realized it in his writings better than anyone else. The real theme of these discussions should not be Borges’s lack of Americanness but rather the acceptance once and for all of his work as an expression of a universality implicit in Latin America since its birth.

Borges was not a nationalist. Still, who but an Argentine could have written many of his poems and stories? He also suffered from an attraction to the darkness and the violence of America. He felt it in its lowest and least heroic manifestation—the street brawl, knife of the bullying and resentful malevo. A strange duality: Berkeley and Juan Iberra, Jacinto Chiclano and Duns Scotus. The law of spiritual gravity governs Borges’s work: the macho Latin faces the metaphysical poet. The contradiction that informs his intellectual speculations and his fictions—the struggle between the metaphysical and the skeptical—reappears violently in the field of feelings. His admiration for the knife and the sword, for the warrior and the ruffian, was perhaps the reflection of an innate inclination. In any case, it appears again and again in his writings. It was perhaps a vital and instinctive response to his skepticism, his civilized tolerance.

In his literary life this tendency expressed itself as a love of debate and of individual affirmation. In his early days, like almost all the writers of his generation, he was a part of the literary Vanguard and its irreverence. Later he changed his tastes and ideas, not his attitudes. He stopped being an extremist, but continued to cultivate his witty tone, his impertinence, his brilliant insolence. In his youth, the target had been the traditionalist spirit, and the commonplaces of the academies and the conservatives. In his mature years, respectability transformed him: he became youthful again, ideological and revolutionary. He mocked the new conformism of the iconoclasts with the same cruel humor with which he had poked fun at the old one of the traditionalists.

He did not turn his back on his times, and he was brave when faced with the circumstances of his country and of the world. But above all he was a writer, and the literary tradition seemed to him no less alive and present than current events. His curiosity ranged in time from contemporary subjects to ancient ones, and in space from the close at hand to the far off, from gaucho poetry to Scandinavian sagas. He studied and quickly mastered the other classicisms that modernity has discovered, those of the Far East and of India, of the Arabs and the Persians. But this diversity of reading and plurality of influences did not turn him into a tower of Babel: he was not confusing or prolix, but clear and concise. Imagination is the faculty that associates, that builds bridges between one object and another; it is the art of correspondences. Borges had this faculty in the highest degree, joined to another no less precious: the intelligence to stick to the essential, to weed out parasitic growths. His was not the historian’s skill, or the philologist’s. or the critic’s; it was a writer’s skill, an active skill that retains what is useful and throws out the rest. His literary loves and hatreds were profound and reasoned, like those of a theologian, and violent, like those of a lover. He was neither impartial nor fair. He could not be: his critical faculty was the other arm, the other wing, of his creative fantasy. Was he a good judge of himself? I doubt it. His tastes did not always coincide with his genius, nor his preferences with his true nature. Borges did not resemble Dante, Whitman, or Verlaine, but rather Gracian, Coleridge, Valery, Chesterton. No, I am mistaken: Borges resembled, above all, Borges.

He worked in traditional forms and, except in his youth, the changes and violent innovations of our century scarcely tempted him. His essays were truly essays; he never confused this genre, as is now the custom, with the treatise, the dissertation, or the thesis. In his poems, free verse predominated at first; later, canonical forms and meters. For an extremist poet, he was rather timid, especially if the somewhat linear poems of his first books are compared with the odes and the complex constructions of Huidobro and other European poets of that period. He did not change the music of Spanish verse or reshape its syntax: he was neither Gongora nor Dario. Nor did he discover poetic heights or depths, as did some of his contemporaries. Still, his verses are unique, unmistakable; only he could have written them. His best verses are not sculpted words; they are sudden lights or shadows, gifts of unknown powers, true illuminations.

His stories are extraordinary for the felicity of his fantasy, not for its form. When writing works of the imagination, he did not feel attracted to the adventures and verbal vertigos of a Joyce, a Celine, or a Faulkner. Always lucid, he was not swept away by the passionate wind of a Lawrence, which sometimes stirs up clouds of dust and at other times clears clouds from the sky. Equally distant from the serpentine sentences of Proust and the telegraphic style of Hemingway, his prose surprises by its balance—neither laconic nor prolix, neither languid nor clipped. This is a virtue, and a limitation. With such a prose one can write a story, not a novel. One can sketch a situation, fire off an epigram, seize the shadow of a moment, not recount a battle, recreate a passion, penetrate a soul. His originality, in prose as in verse, is not in his ideas and forms but in his style, a seductive alliance of the simplest and the most complex; in his wonderful inventions; and in his vision. It is a unique vision not so much for what he sees as for the place from which he sees the world and himself. A point of view, more than a vision.

His love of ideas was extreme. Absolutes fascinated him, although he ended up disbelieving them all. As a writer, on the other hand, he felt an instinctive distrust of extremes. A sense of measure almost never left him. He was baffled by the excesses and the enormities, the mythologies and the cosmologies of India and of the Nordic peoples, but his idea of literary perfection was of a limited and clear form, with a beginning and an end. He thought that eternities and infinities could fit on a page. He frequently spoke of Virgil, and never of Horace. The truth is that he resembled not the former, but the latter: he never wrote, nor did he try to write, a long poem, and he always kept within the limits of Horatian decorum. I do not mean that Borges adhered to the poetics of Horace, but rather that his tastes led him to prefer measured forms. In his poetry and in his prose, there is nothing cyclopean.

Faithful to such an aesthetic, he invariably heeded the counsel of Poe that a modem poem should not have more than 50 lines. But it is curious, modernity: almost all the great modern poems are long poems. The characteristic works of the 20th century—I think, for example, of Eliot and Pound—are animated by one ambition: to be the divine comedies and the paradises lost of our age. The belief that sustains all these poems is this: that poetry is a total vision of the world, or of the drama of man in time. It is history and religion. I said before that the originality of Borges consisted in having discovered a point of view. For this reason, some of his better poems take the form of commentaries on our classics—Homer, Dante, Cervantes. Borges’s point of view is his unfailing weapon: he turned all traditional points of view on their heads, and obliged us to regard the things we see and the books we read differently. Some of his fictional pieces read like stories in A Thousand and One Nights written by a reader of Kipling and Chuang-Tzu; some of his poems remind one of a poet from the Palatine Anthology who might have been a friend of Schopenhauer and Lugones. He practiced the so-called minor genres—stories. short poems, sonnets—and it is wonderful that he should have achieved with them what others have attempted with long poems and novels. Perfection has no size. Often he attained it by the insertion of the unusual into the ordinary, by the alliance of the interrogative form with a perspective that, by mining some appearances, discovers others. In his stories and in his poems Borges interrogated the world, but his doubt was creative, and brought into being the appearance of other worlds, other realities.

His stories and his poems are the inventions of a poet and a metaphysician. Thus they satisfy two of mankind’s central faculties: reason and fantasy. It is true that Borges does not provoke the complicity of our feelings and passions, dark or light: piety, sensuality, anger, compassion. It is also true that his works tell us little or nothing about the mysteries of race, sex, and the appetite for power. Perhaps literature has only two themes—one, man among men, his fellows and his adversaries; the other, man alone against the universe and against himself. The first is the theme of the epic poet, the dramaturge, and the novelist; the second, the theme of the lyric and metaphysical poet. In Borges’s works, human society and its many and complex manifestations, which run from the love of two people to great collective deeds, do not appear. His works belong to the other half of literature, and all have a single theme: time, and our repeated and futile attempts to abolish it. Eternities are paradises that become prison sentences, chimeras that are more real than reality perhaps I should say, chimeras that are no less unreal than reality.

Through prodigious variations and obsessive repetitions, Borges ceaselessly explored that single theme: man lost in the labyrinth of a time made of changes that are repetitions, man preening before the mirror of unbroken eternity, man who has found immortality and has conquered death but neither time nor old age. In his essays this theme is transformed into paradoxes and antinomies; in the poems and stories, into verbal constructions that have the elegance of mathematical theorems and the wit of living beings. The discord between the metaphysician and the skeptic is insoluble, but the poet makes of it transparent edifices of interwoven words: time and its reflections dance upon the mirror of our immediate awareness. These are works of rare perfection, verbal and mental objects made according to a geometry at once rigorous and fantastic rational and capricious, solid and crystalline. All these variations on a single theme tell us one thing: the works of man, and man himself, are nothing but configurations of evanescent time. He said it with impressive lucidity: “Time is the substance of which I am made. It is a river which carries me off, but I am that river; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am that fire.” The mission of poetry is to throw light upon what is hid in the folds of time. It took a great poet to remind us that we are, at the same time, the archer, the arrow, and the target.

(Translated by Charles Lane)