Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 32)
Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986
(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H[onorio]. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch.) Argentine poet, short-story writer, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter.
For more information on the work of Borges, see PC, Vol. 22.
During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer of baroque and labyrinthine short fictions often written in the form of metaphysical detective stories. Characteristically, they blur the distinction between reality and the perception of reality, between the possible and the fantastic, between matter and spirit, between past, present, and future, and between the self and the other. They are usually situated in the nebulous confines of allegorical locations, whether identified as bizarre dimensions of the universe, Arabian cities, English gardens, the Argentine pampa, amazing libraries, or the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Since his death, Borges has attained the status of one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, a master poet and essayist, as well as an architect of the short story. His work has influenced not only how Latin American and non-Latin American writers write, but also the way readers read. Associated with the avant-garde Spanish Ultraístas in the 1920s, Borges rejected the Spanish poetry of the nineteenth century, and wrote a baroque verse free of rhyme, surrealistic, even brutal, in imagery and metaphor, dedicated to the incorporation of Argentinean locations, locutions and themes, and establishing the poet as the soul of his subject. By the end of the thirties, however, Borges repudiated his early verse, abandoning local color, nationalism, and the desire to shock. Thereafter, until his death, he worked with traditional devices: rhyme, meter, elucidation, and time-honored metaphors in traditional forms such as the sonnet and haiku. He strove for simplicity of expression through the use of common language and colloquial word order, and projected a tone of tranquil irony, and a wisdom concerned with, but tempered by, an indifference to, time, desire, and mortality.
Borges was born August 24, 1899, into an old, Argentinean family of soldiers, patriots, and scholars, in Buenos Aires, where he spent most of his childhood. His father was an intellectual, a university professor of psychology and modern languages, a lawyer, and a writer. He possessed an extensive library, which was the boy's delight. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised bilingual and read English before Spanish. His first encounter with Cervantes, for example, was in English, and when he was seven, his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's “The Happy Prince” appeared in a Uruguayan newspaper. A visit to Switzerland in 1914 became an extended stay when the outbreak of the first World War made it impossible for the family to return to Argentina. Borges enrolled in the College de Geneve, where he studied Latin, French and German, as well as the European philosophers. he was especially taken with Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist world view was reflected in Borges's literary work. After receiving his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain where he joined with the avant-garde Ultraístas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism in their reviews, essays, and highly metaphorical poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929), was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina. During these years, too, Borges helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language. In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges himself nearly died from blood poisoning, after the wound he received from knocking his head against the casement of an open window while running up a flight of steps was poorly treated. Fearful that his ability to write might have been impaired by his illness, Borges took up short fiction rather than poetry, intending to attribute possible failure to inexperience in the genre rather than diminished literary skill. The result was “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a story highly acclaimed both as a fiction and as a precursor to deconstructionist textual analysis. In the period following this publication, Borges wrote many of the works now considered to be among his masterpieces. Though he spoke of his disdain for politics, Borges was always politically outspoken. He opposed European fascism and anti-Semitism, and the dictatorship of Juan Perón in Argentina. In 1946, Perón removed Borges from his post as an assistant at the National Library of Argentina, due to his opposition to the regime; in 1955, however, following the overthrow of Perón, Borges, now almost totally blind from a condition he inherited from his father, was made director of the National Library. In 1957, he was appointed professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he was a co-recipient, with Samuel Beckett, of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize. Borges did not oppose the Argentinean military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologetically, he signed a plea for those whom the regime had caused to “disappear.” Similarly, he supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, calling the general a “gentleman,” and commending his imposition of “order” in the face of communism. It was for these failings, rather than for any failure as an artist, many believe, that Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. The catalog of his awards and honors, nevertheless, is long and distinguished. He spent his last years as a literary celebrity, traveling and lecturing. Totally blind, he continued to write by dictation: to his mother, who died, in 1975, at the age of ninety-nine, and to his student and companion, María Kodama, whom he married shortly before his death. His enduring love of languages was marked by his late study of Icelandic. Borges died of cancer of the liver in 1986, and was buried in Geneva.
Borges's literary output spanned seven decades, from the 1920s–1980s, during which he published more than fifty volumes of short stories, poetry, and essays. In his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), published in 1923, Borges, an early adherent to the Ultraísta literary movement, took his native city as his subject matter. Subsequent collections of poetry published in the 1920s include Luna de enfrente (1925; Moon Across the Way), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929; San Martín Copybook). Turning to the works of short fiction that eventually won him international praise, Borges virtually ceased to publish poetry throughout most of the 1930s and 40s. His best-known short-story collections include El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; The Garden of Forking Paths), Ficciones (1944), and El Aleph (1949), although the first English language translations of his work did not appear until 1962, with two collections, titled Labyrinths and Ficciones. Borges began publishing poetry again in the 1950s, when, as Edward Hirsch describes it: “The fabulist returned to poetry … with a more direct and straightforward style, a beguiling and deceptive simplicity.” Jay Parini asserts that, “his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965,” while Martin S. Stabbs observes, “By the mid-1960s Borges seems to have regained considerable momentum as a poet. Both thematically and technically his work displays a richness not seen since the 1920s.” In these later poems, “a notion that recurs almost obsessively in his poetry as well as in his prose” is “the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed at times in the form of a labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator.” Borges's poetry volumes of the 1960s include El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers), Obra poética (1964), and El otro, el mismo (1969; The Other, the Same), among others. This period of prolific poetic output continued into the 1970s, with the collections, The Gold of Tigers (1972), In Praise of Darkness (1974), and Historia de la noche (1977), among others. Borges's second-to-last volume of poetry, La cifra, was published in 1981. His last collection, Los conjurados (1985; The Conspirators), includes a combination of short prose pieces and poetry, often blurring the distinction between the two. Of this volume Stabbs states, “The very fact that Borges, then eighty-five, was still exploring that fascinating no-man's-land between prose and poetry, was still writing fine sonnets, and was continuing to rework the rich metal of earlier texts suggests that even though death was close, he remained a poet of substantial talent and considerable vigor.” A volume of new translations, Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges, was released in 1999.
Borges was not well known outside of literary circles in Buenos Aires until 1961, when he was awarded the prestigious Formentor Prize, earning him international recognition and leading to his current status as one of the foremost short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Borges met members of the Ultraísta literary movement while in Spain in 1919, and, as a young writer in the 1920s, is sometimes credited with having introduced ulráism to Argentina. Jay Parini, writing in 1999, notes that, “With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time,” adding, “Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization.” Marcelo Abadi refers to Borges as, “one of the most prominent writers in any tongue,” observing, “in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.” Edward Hirsch opines that Borges, “was a rapturous writer, a literary alchemist who emerged as an explorer of labyrinths, an adventurer in the fantastic, a poet of mysterious intimacies who probed the infinite postponements and cycles of time, the shimmering mirrors of fiction and reality, the symbols of unreality, the illusions of identity, the disintegration of the self into the universe, into the realm of the Archetypes and the Splendors.” However, critics frequently note that, to this day, Borges's accomplishments as a poet are largely overshadowed by his reputation as a master of short fiction. Beret E. Strong describes “the international literary community's portrait of ‘Borges’” as “that of a great short story writer and mediocre poet of conservative political and traditional literary values,” adding that critics have agreed with Borges's own assessment of his early poetry and essays “as less valuable than the later fiction,” and have, therefore, opted “not to write about them much.” Mark Couture, writing in 1999, states the case more strongly: “Borges, like Cervantes, has the reputation in some circles of being a ‘bad’ poet,” but adds, “I don't think this label is quite fair.” Couture points out that Borges's poems “have a quiet, metaphysical intensity and a thematic complexity that can be overlooked in superficial readings.” Parini, observing that, while “One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories … Yet Borges was a well-known poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.” Stabbs, acknowledging that, “Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite essays … and only last as a poet,” defends Borges's poetry in adding: “… he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing.”
Fervor de Buenos Aires [Passion for Buenos Aires] 1923
Luna de enfrente [Moon across the Way] 1925
Cuaderno San Martín [San Martín Copybook] 1929
Poemas, 1923–1943 1943
Poemas, 1923–1953 1954
El Hacedor [Dreamtigers] (poetry and prose) 1960
Obra poetica, 1923–1964 1964
Para las seis cuerdas [For the Six Strings (verses for Milangas)] 1965
Seis poemas escandinavos [Six Scandinavian Poems] 1966
Siete poemas [Seven Poems] 1967
Elogio de la sombra (poetry and prose) 1969
El otro, el mismo [The Other, the Same] 1969
El oro de los tigres [The Gold of Tigers] 1972
Selected Poems, 1923–1967 1972
In Praise of Darkness 1974
Siete poemas sajones [Seven Saxon Poems] 1974
La rosa profunda [The Unending Rose] 1975
La moneda de hierro [The Iron Coin] 1976
Historia de la noche [History of Night] 1977
The Gold of Tigers: Selected Later Poems 1977
Obras Completas (poetry and...
(The entire section is 382 words.)
SOURCE: “Whitman as Inscribed in Borges,” translated with Daniel Balderston, in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 219–30.
[In the following excerpt, Bastos argues that Walt Whitman is a major influence on Borges's poetry.]
1. THE WISH TO EXPRESS THE TOTALITY OF LIFE
In 1925, referring to the extreme subjectivity typical of nineteenth century esthetics, Borges pointed out: “… any frame of mind, however extraneous, can become the focus of our attention; in its brief totality, it may be our essence. If translated into the language of literature, this means that trying to express oneself and having the wish to express the totality of life are but one and the same thing.” Whitman was the first Atlas attempting to bring such a challenge into action, and he lifted the world upon his shoulders.2
Years before, the young Borges, astounded by Whitman's ambitious task,3 wrote verses that, according to the sarcastic reflection of the mature Borges, instead of echoing Whitman echoed the Peruvian Post-Modernista poet, Chocano.4 Here is a sample of those verses, from “Himno del mar,” written in 1919:
I have longed for a hymn of the sea with rhythms as ample as the screming waves; Of the sea when on its waters the sun flutters as...
(The entire section is 3847 words.)
SOURCE: “The Eye of the Mind: Borges and Wallace Stevens,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 254–59.
[In the following essay, Cañas explores affinities between Borges and the poet Wallace Stevens.]
I don’t know what mysterious reason Borges had in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature by not mentioning the name of Wallace Stevens; to solve the enigma is irrelevant. Nevertheless, it is this omission that impelled me to do a simultaneous reading of the two poets.
In 1944, the literary magazine Sur published a translation of the famous Stevens poem “Sunday Morning”; the translators were Bioy Casares and Borges, and some lines from this poem are very close to Borges' own poetry:
What is divinity if it can come Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
At the end of the poem, once more, the obscurity so dear to the author of In Praise of Darkness appears in all of its sublimity:
And, in the isolation of the sky, At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink, Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
In the twenties, two poetic works were created over the foundations of European verse that would play a preponderent role among American and European writers. Robert Alter, in his article “Borges and...
(The entire section is 1792 words.)
SOURCE: “Borges and Emerson: The Poet as Intellectual,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 197–206.
[In the following essay, Holditch examines Borges's appreciation of and affinity with Ralph Waldo Emerson as a poet.]
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Borges' deep love for the literature of the United States is the high position in which he has repeatedly, in writing and in interviews, placed Ralph Waldo Emerson as poet. One is certainly not surprised at his appraisal of Walt Whitman as an epic poet, or Emily Dickinson as “perhaps the greatest poet that America … has as yet produced,” or when he speaks with admiration of the ideas expressed in Emerson's essays; but the praise for Emerson as a poet is another thing altogether. Traditionally Emerson has been admired by American readers and critics, rightly or wrongly, as a philosopher, thinker, and creator of pithy and memorable aphorisms that generously pepper the prose of his famous essays. His poetry, however, interesting insofar as it conveys some of the same philosophical concepts belonging to American romanticism, has generally been relegated to a distant second place. Yes, we remember the farmers who gathered by “the rude bridge that arched the flood” and “fired the shot heard round the world” and may even recall isolated lines such as “Things are in the saddle / And...
(The entire section is 3618 words.)
SOURCE: “Borges and Browning: A Dramatic Dialogue,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 207–17.
[In the following essay, Jones explores Borges's debt to Robert Browning,, especially, in his adaptation of the dramatic monologue.]
In a rather backhanded tribute to Robert Browning, Jorge Luis Borges comments that “si hubiera sido un buen escritor de prosa, creo que no dudaríamos que Browning sería el precursor de la que llamamos literatura moderna.”1 In a writer who has repeatedly emphasized his preference for plot over character and his suspicions about the nonexistence of personality, this interest in the work of a poet who described himself as “more interested in individuals than abstract problems”2 is curious, yet despite his claim in Introducción a la literatura inglesa of this widely accepted view of Browning, Borges seems drawn to a different reading. For him, Browning is “el gran poeta enigmático,”3 and, with Dickens, one of “dos grandes artífices góticos.”4 In the introduction to English literature, Borges summarizes a poem he must have especially liked, “How It Strikes a Contemporary”: “el protagonista puede ser Cervantes o un misterioso espía de Dios o el arquetipo platónico del poeta,”5 and among “Los precursores de Kafka,” he numbers...
(The entire section is 4249 words.)
SOURCE: “Oriental Influences in Borges' Poetry: The Nature of the Haiku and Western Literature,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 170–81.
[In the following essay, Kodama discusses Borges's use of the traditional Japanese poetic forms of tankaand haiku.]
In the foreword to his Collected Writings (1969), and in other works, Borges has expressed many judgments on poetry and style which indicate the way he gradually assumed the essential poetic forms of the Japanese tanka and haiku. He attempted those two forms for the first time in El Oro de los Tigres (1972) and in La Cifra (1981). Borges began his prologue to the Collected Writings by claiming: “I have not rewritten the book. I have toned down its Baroque excesses, I have trimmed rough edges, I have blotted out sentimental verses and vagueness and, in the course of this labor sometimes pleasing and sometimes annoying, I have felt that the young man who in 1923 wrote those pages was essentially—what does essentially mean?—the elderly gentleman who now resigns himself to what he penned or emends it. We are both the same; we both disbelieve in success and in failure, in literary schools and in their dogmas; we both are true to Schopenhauer, to Stevenson and to Whitman. In my opinion, Fervor de Buenos Aires foreshadows all that...
(The entire section is 3935 words.)
SOURCE: “Enumerations as Evocations: On the Use of a Device in Borges' Late Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 116–23.
[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses Borges' use of the device of enumeration in his poetry.]
Enumerations in literature are as old as the Old Testament, but in modern times they have achieved the status of an established rhetorical device only since the writings of Walt Whitman. Such are the conclusions of Detlev W. Schumann and Leo Spitzer, two critics who have studied enumerations in contemporary poetry. Spitzer summarized his findings in a well known essay entitled “Chaotic Enumerations in Modern Poetry.”1 There he says: “All seems to indicate that we owe chaotic enumerations as a poetic device to Whitman.”2 In a different essay devoted to Whitman, Spitzer defines the device as “consisting of lumping together things spiritual and physical, as the raw material of our rich, but unordered modern civilization which is made to resemble an oriental bazaar. …”3 If enumerations have been, until Whitman, one of the most effective means of describing the perfection of the created world in praise of its Creator, it was Whitman's task to render that same perfection and unity into attributes of our chaotic modern world.”4 Whitman did not...
(The entire section is 2965 words.)
SOURCE: “Outside and Inside the Mirror in Borges' Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 107–15.
[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses the significance of mirrors in Borges's poetry.]
In the Preface to his fifth book of poetry—In Praise of Darkness—Borges writes: “To the mirrors, mazes, and swords which my resigned reader already foresees, two new themes have been added: old age and ethics.”1 Mirrors are a constant in Borges' poetry, but long before becoming a major theme or motif in his works, mirrors had been for Borges an obsession that goes back to his childhood years. To his friends he has told that as a child he feared that the images reflected on his bedroom mirror would stay there even after darkness had effaced them. For the boy, the images inhabiting mirrors were like the ghosts haunting the castle of a gothic novel—constantly lurking and threatening through ominous darkness.
In the brief piece entitled “The Draped Mirrors” from Dreamtigers he reminisces upon those fears: “As a child, I felt before large mirrors that same horror of a spectral duplication or multiplication of reality. Their infallible and continuous functioning, their pursuit of my actions, their cosmic pantomime, were uncanny then, whenever it began to grow dark. One of my...
(The entire section is 3391 words.)
SOURCE: “Language as a Musical Organism: Borges' Later Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 124–36.
[In the following essay, Alazraki examines Borges's later poetry, and praises its ability to convey “verbal music.”]
From his early poems of the twenties to his later collection Historia de la noche (A History of the Night, 1977), Borges' poetry has traveled a long way. It first moved from a nostalgic rediscovery of his birthplace, Buenos Aires, to a cult of his ancestors and an intimate history of his country: heroes, anti-heroes, counter-heroes. He then found that metaphysical subjects, literary artifacts, and religious myths were not unworthy material for poetry: “The Cyclical Night,” “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf,” and “The Golem” are samples which illustrate this later period. His perception of poetry in those years could be defined, in T. S. Eliot's dictum, “not as a turning loose of emotions, but as an escape from emotion: not as the expression of personality, but as an escape from personality.” A reflective and ruminative poetry. His ruminations were not about the fortunes or misfortunes of the heart, or existential angst, or the conundrum of life, but about the monuments of the imagination, and particularly those of literature: intellect as passion, culture as the true...
(The entire section is 5168 words.)
SOURCE: “Spinoza in Borges' Looking-Glass,” translated by Leila Yael, Borges Studies on Line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. January 13, 2000. Retrieved March 30, 2000.
[In the following essay, Abadi discusses the influence of the philosopher Spinoza on Borge's poetry, focusing on his sonnets “Spinoza,” and “Baruch Spinoza.”]
In the same tongue in which Spinoza refuted the Jewish authorities who brought about his expulsion from the Amsterdam Synagogue, three centuries later an Argentinean writer, long since blind, dictated a sonnet entitled “Baruch Spinoza”. Some years earlier he had dictated another sonnet, called, simply, “Spinoza”. The poet—Jorge Luis Borges, of course—is one of the most prominent writers in any tongue. He produced no famous novel, no successful play, he created no character comparable to Don Quixote, or Hamlet, or even Father Brown. But in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.
Borges claimed to be “simply a man of letters”1; in private he had described himself as a “puzzled literary man”. Yet, though he never purported to be a philosopher, the stuff of his creation is often philosophical: the riddles on which the mind dwells while pondering problems such as the reality of the external world, the identity of the self, the nature of time.
The Vienna Circle held metaphysics to be a branch of fantastical literature. Borges shared this view, referring ironically but also appreciatively to metaphysics and enumerating among the masters of the genre authors such as Plato, Leibniz, Kant … and Spinoza, whose invention of an infinite substance with infinite attributes he considered a superb fiction.
Borges, admitting that he appraised philosophical ideas according to their aesthetic value or inasmuch as their content were singular or marvellous, never led his readers to expect a style of rigorous demonstration or sustained coherence, which is not to be found in his writings. Nevertheless, one should not hasten to conclude that he was indifferent to truth; he felt there is ultimately a close solidarity between beauty, truth and good. And if he did express deep-rooted scepticism, it was scepticism that spurred his vigilant quest.
But Spinoza deemed his own philosophy to be the true one. In his system there was no place for doubt, not even the provisory doubt of Descartes.
What, then, was the message that three centuries after his death the Dutch philosopher conveyed to the Argentinean man of letters? How is the doctrine of Spinoza to be read in the works of Borges?
In A Borges Dictionary,2 the entry on Spinoza calls attention to echoes of his geometrical method of deduction of reality in “Death and the Compass” (a rigorous detective story where the name of the philosopher appears as a clue) or, too, in “Tlön, Uqbar Orbis Tertius”, where a fictitious planet is developed, foreshadowed by a pronouncement to the effect that copulation and mirrors are abominable because they multiply the visible universe. And, of course, Spinoza's name appears in this story also, though the narrator points out that in Tlön only thought—not thought and extension—would be conceivable as a divine attribute (which is indeed a recurrent idea of Borges'). We should, however, not overestimate these allusions. Borges' imagination is certainly less akin to Spinoza's doctrine than to Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Bradley or Mauthner, whose influence is often acknowledged by the author himself and by critics. We would rather underline the fact that in hardly any of Borges' numerous works written in collaboration—some of which are quite philosophical—does Spinoza's name appear. On the other hand, Borges did write two poems on Spinoza but none on the other philosophers mentioned. It would seem that there is something secret, or at least private, about the relationship.
And surely this is not due solely to the fact that Spinoza was deeply admired by Borges' father—a professor of psychology, at times a writer—who initiated his son into literature and metaphysics and, most certainly, into free-thinking, in a sometimes ostensibly religious country.
It is therefore only natural to focus on Borges' poems on Spinoza, follow their development and attempt to understand the differences between them, as we listen to the age-old dialogue between poetry and philosophy.
The first sonnet, “Spinoza”, is to be found in a collection of poems called El otro, el mismo (The other, the same), which appeared in 1964. It is a beautiful poem, and Borges, who often pretended to forget his own writings, enjoyed reciting it to whomever asked him about it. More than ten years later, he was requested to contribute to a volume on Spinoza which the Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires was preparing in commemoration of the tricentenary of the philosopher's death.3 Borges composed a new sonnet: this time the name was “Baruch Spinoza.”
In the prologue to El otro, el mismo, Borges made fun of his “habit of writing the same page twice over, with minimal changes”, generally resulting, in his own opinion, in a somewhat inferior second version. And in the prologue to La moneda de hierro (“The Iron Coin”), where the second sonnet on Spinoza was included, he refers to it as a probable worsening of the first poem. So that when, years later, in answer to a journalist's query as to his favourite compositions, he mentioned “Everness” and “one on Spinoza,”4 it is tempting to conclude that he was referring to the first sonnet of the two. Which is quite possible, but perhaps unfair.
I should imagine that Borges laid value on the fact that—surprisingly enough—the first sonnet expresses Spinoza's doctrine more accurately than the second, which is a looser rendering and certainly a more fictionalized interpretation of Spinoza's endeavour. I say surprisingly enough, because the second sonnet was composed after a period in which Borges undertook a thorough study of Spinoza's works, read about them (particularly in Alain and Russell), and resolved to write a book which was to be entitled Clave de Spinoza or Clave de Baruch Spinoza (“Key to Spinoza”, or “Key to Baruch Spinoza”). This project even appears as having been accomplished, in the playfully bogus biography of himself to be found in the Enciclopedia Sudamericana of the year 2074 which he “quotes” in the Epilogue of his Obras completas5 (Collected Works). In Mexico, conversing with Ruffinelli, he avowed, “I am preparing a book on Spinoza's philosophy, because I have never understood him. He has always attracted me, less than Berkeley, less than Schopenhauer, but I cannot understand Spinoza.”6
Now, is it true that Borges could not grasp Spinoza's philosophy? Did he understand it after resuming his studies of it? And was the book—that cipher of Spinoza more than once announced but never written—finally condensed into the fourteen lines of the second sonnet?
Let us turn to the first one. It is known that after his expulsion from the Synagogue, Spinoza had to leave Amsterdam for a sort of exile in exile, never renouncing his convictions nor embracing a new faith. In order to safeguard his proud independence, he refused, to the end of his relatively short life, chairs, pensions and honours. He preferred to make a living by polishing lenses, and this is how the first lines of the sonnet portray him:
Las traslúcidas manos del judío Labran en la penumbra los cristales.
[The Jew's translucent hands Polish the crystal lenses in the half-light.]
The lenses symbolize Spinoza's days and works; one might say they also illustrate—more definitely so in the last verses of the sonnet—a central trait in Modern philosophy, which never ceased to conceive of the human mind as a mirror upon whose fidelity depends the accuracy of whatever knowledge of reality may be achieved.7
But Modern rationalism and empiricism both had to contend with the prejudices of the revealed religions in order to ensure the constructing of science. And the struggle was not always bloodless: it often led to isolation and silence, persecution and burning at the stake. Small wonder, then, that a sinister theme should emerge immediately in the sonnet in the shape of fear and monotony:
Y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío. (Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
[And the dying dusk is fear and chill. (The twilight hours are all alike.)]
However, neither fear nor monotony perturb the thinker:
Las manos y el espacio de jacinto Que palidece en el confin del Ghetto Casi no existen para el hombre quieto Que está soñando un claro laberinto.
[The hands and the hyacinth air That pales towards the confines of the Ghetto Barely exist for the quiet man Who is dreaming up a clear labyrinth.]
Most singular, this labyrinth dreamt up by Spinoza. In the sad dusk it is a light, perhaps the way. It is clear as the hand-polished crystal the dreamer transforms into lenses or as the text the poet was to evolve centuries later out of his own brave darkness.
A “clear labyrinth”: I wonder whether the expression is strictly an oxymoron. Actually, Borges' labyrinths do not always cause despair; some there are, infinite and formless, where a man may lose his way and die; others, like the world at times, are the scene of solitude and boredom, but, then again, the scene of deeds of valour guided by love, and there are yet those that constitute a secret order towards which nostalgia is drawn and hope will strive. In 1984, from Knossos, Borges writes, “It is our precious duty to imagine that there is a labyrinth and a thread. We shall never come upon the thread. We may grasp at it and lose it in an act of faith, in a cadence, in dream, in the words we call philosophy, or in plain and simple happiness.”8
In the first tercet on Spinoza we learn that
No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo De sueños en el sueño de otro espejo, Ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
[He is not disturbed by fame, that reflection Of dreams within the dream of another mirror, Nor by the timorous love of maidens.]
How could Borges fail to admire the outcast for whom his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, had felt such devotion, the exiled philosopher who had committed himself to the passion of understanding, while declining honours and braving insecurity?
Spinoza had cast off vanity and illusion, if ever he had been burdened by them, and had scaled the heights of the unadorned essence of his calling. Now,
Libre de la metáfora y del mito
[Free from metaphor and myth],
for he has no craving to dazzle with rhetorical devices, and has banished from knowledge the finalism that remits man to belief in supernatural beings,
Labra un arduo cristal: el infinito Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus Estrellas.
[He grinds an arduous crystal: the infinite Map of the One who is all His stars.]
The dusk has died away. Suddenly in the darkness a refulgent crystal, like the vertiginous Aleph, shines with the radiance of all the stars. Infinity has been tamed by a memorable creation, a map of the universe which is also the map of God.
Why this equation? Because for Spinoza there is only one substance: God or Nature. Whether or not this scandalous identification was the reason for his excommunication, it is the notorious starting point of the Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata, which, for obvious reasons, was published only after his death.
Descartes, whom Spinoza had studied and commentated, moves from the self and its ignorance to eventually apprehend the existence of God and to attain knowledge of the world. Spinoza, on the other hand, starts from the ‘cause of itself’ (causa sui), which is God. And Spinoza's divinity is not the personal and transcendent creator God of revealed religion, nor is it a being superior to ourselves and outside the order of nature, nor yet a Being who shows indignation, feels compassion, works miracles or causes His son to die for our salvation. Deus sive natura, says Spinoza: God, that is Nature. God is the only reality; outside God there is nothing. But, then, Nature is the only substance and outside Nature there is nothing. This explains why, from the time his doctrine came to be known, Spinoza has been considered by some to be an inspired pantheist, the philosopher “drunk with God” that Novalis evokes, whereas others see him as the “prince of atheists”, the stubborn naturalist who acknowledges none other than the physical order. At any rate, in Spinozism, science has no need to refer to any supernatural order whatsoever, man is not a fracture in Being and may attain salvation through philosophy, and, furthermore, the State should not be subordinate to religion.9
In Borges' story La escritura de Dios (The Writing of God), the magus Tzinacán, the narrator and protagonist, when relating his ecstasy, defines it as “union with divinity, with the universe” and adds, in parentheses, “I don’t know that these words differ”. Does Tzinacán's (Borges') thought coincide here with that of the Ethics? Yes and no. Yes, because he proclaims the identicality of God and Nature. No, because these equatable realities are in fact mere words: “I don’t know that these words differ.”10 And Borges well knows that words do not touch the hardcore of reality, that no language is the map of the world, the cipher of the universe or of a life.
This melancholy conviction, which fissures the edifice of classical rationalism, pervades the second sonnet, the one entitled “Baruch Spinoza.” Shortly prior to composing it, as we have said, Borges had applied himself to a diligent study of Spinoza's works, which was to prelude a book on the philosopher. One of the conclusions this study had led to—presaged, no doubt, by his inveterate repudiation of all systematic thinking—was expressed in an interview some years later.11 On this occasion Borges averred that the geometrical form of the Ethics, far from being essential to Spinoza's doctrine, was not even appropriate to its exposition. He affirmed that Spinoza “had not originally conceived the book in this manner … Only later did he endow it with this absurd machinery” Moreover, “he chose this mechanism mistakenly”. Borges deplored this, since he believed that the content of the Ethics could have been expounded without recourse to such a mechanism, just as Spinoza had expressed it in letters to his friends, which were “most readable and lovely.”12
The author of the Ethics had intended this work to be impersonal: alone the voice of reason, with the characteristic timbre it had acquired from Galileo and Descartes, was to be audible in its development; no affectivity whatsoever should resound, however indirectly. But Borges—whose own poetry, while often purporting to be objective, springs from subterraneous emotion—discovered, behind the screen of axioms, demonstrations and corollaries, a poignant figure: the sad, tenacious, intrepid Baruch. And the sonnet “Baruch Spinoza” begins by presenting him faced with the infinite task that he has assigned himself or that has singled him out among all the men of his times:
Bruma de oro, el occidente alumbra La ventana. El asiduo manuscrito. Aguarda, ya cargado de infinito. Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.
[A golden haze, the west glows Through the window. The assiduous manuscript Awaits, already laden with infinity. Someone is constructing God in the fading light.]
It is the same time of evening, probably in the same surroundings suggested in the sonnet “Spinoza”. But the crystal transparency of the lenses is not evoked; only a window glows in the last rays of the setting sun. And there, alone, sits Baruch constraining himself to write out infinity.
The greatness of Spinoza's task is already apparent; so, too, is his glorious, inevitable failure. Clearly, the aim outlined in the first sonnet was far from modest, or even attainable: the philosopher had set himself no less than to facetting a diamond that would reflect God, or to drawing an infinite map of the universe. But in “Baruch Spinoza” ambition is directed, perhaps by its own logic, towards another, higher order of endeavour: this God, this universe, is to be carved out of the coarse stuff of language, none the more polished for all its geometrical form.
Un hombre engendra a Dios. Es un judío De tristes ojos y piel cetrina; Lo lleva el tiempo como lleva el río Una hoja en el agua que declina.
[A man is begetting God. He is a Jew With sad eyes and sallow skin; Time bears him along as a river bears A leaf on the downward flow.]
A toy in the river of time—a plaything, like the autumn leaf or the sheet of paper reverberant with the incipient poem—Spinoza does not bemoan, as does the Heine of another of Borges' poems,13 the “fate of being a man and being a Jew”. The one lay prostrate, recalling the “delicate melodies” he had instrumented; the other obstinately crafted a“delicate geometry”. The third quatrain of this Elizabethan sonnet goes on to say:
No importa. El hechicero insiste y labra A Dios con geometría delicada; Desde su enfermedad, desde su nada, Sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra.
[No matter. The wizard persists and fashions God with delicate geometry; Out of his infirmity, out of his nothingness, He continues to erect God with the word.]
Galileo had observed that the world is a book written in mathematical characters. Borges' metaphysician, having learnt to read—and to write—these characters, could legitimately nourish more ambitious or more feasible projects than those devised by the alchemist, or by the Prague Rabbi who engendered the Golem, the senseless mannequin barely good for sweeping out the Synagogue.14 And yet, the terms used by Borges evoke magic, the Kabbala, dreams, perchance literary creation.
Borges belittled the geometrical form of demonstration of the Ethics, showing scanty regard for its mathematical, Cartesian inspiration. The analytical geometry discovered by Descartes is reduced to a “delicate geometry”, which in turn refers back to a verbal art. Spinoza is creating God out of the word, as the poet creates the text. This word, Borges says, is uttered by the philosopher “out of his infirmity”. And perhaps nothing is farther from this idea than the view Spinoza held of himself and man in the world. While Novalis will consider life as an “infirmity of the spirit”, while Pascal was dismayed by “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces”, man according to Spinoza participates fully in being; no room is left for any sense of helplessness in the heliocentric universe proposed by Modern science.15
It is true that Descartes took an interest in magic in his youth, and true, too, that as a young man Spinoza studied the Kabbala, the mystics and the poets and was also contemporary with Pascal. But of all this there remains in the Ethics much less than what these last lines we have quoted might suggest. On the other hand, in the Fifth Part and referring to God, we do find the none too theistic idea expressed in the final couplet of the sonnet:
El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado, El amor que no espera ser amado.
[Love most prodigal was granted him, The love that never expects to be loved.]
It was not Spinoza's intention to forge a God, but to discover, deduce, an order which is the order of the unique reality or that of its only two attributes known to us: extension and thought.16
His conception of the unity of nature is not the same as the one born of Renaissance enthusiasm, but rather the revigorating gesture that asserts scientific optimism while rationally satisfying all man's longings and while requiring a society in which man may reveal himself freely.
Spinoza's God, as Borges recalled in another text, “abhors no one and loves no one.”17 How then would Spinoza expect His love? Are not his declarations to this effect, above all, a way of underscoring the completely impersonal nature of this God of the Ethics?
Perhaps what Borges in turn exhalts, at the close of this sonnet, is a norm akin to the one he finds and values in Robert L. Stevenson, which proclaims that man must be just, whether God be just or not and whether God exist or not.18 Likewise the poet must “work at the incorruptible verse,”19 though the material at hand be perishable.
Spinoza as portrayed in the second sonnet is stripped of his geometrical armour; his formulations are not the inexorable deduction of reality: reason is an art of the word and there is nothing to warrant any deep correspondence between this art and the world.
Nevertheless, in 1979, on being asked to name his favourite historical character, Borges unhesitatingly answered, “Spinoza, who committed his life to abstract thought.”20 It is evident then that in composing “Baruch Spinoza” it was not his intention to present the philosopher as a myth-maker who fabulizes a God promptly to be vaunted as the only and uncreated reality.
Neither should this sonnet be read as formal tribute rendered in deference to a distant thinker nor yet as a mere critique of a conceptual system. Rather does the poem mark the author's encounter, in the labyrinth of the world and of ideas, with an old fellow-adventurer, an ally, a friend.
Despite his claims to the contrary, I believe that Borges had always understood the architecture of the edifice erected by Spinoza, but never deemed it inhabitable by man, conducive to attaining indubitable knowledge, or to experiencing a kind of eternity, to salvation.
He was sensitive to the philosopher's deep yearnings, but disbelieved the algorithmic spells summoned up to satisfy them. The studies he undertook prior to composing the second poem annotated led him to demythologise the mathemathical apparatus of the Ethics, to view its author, ultimately, as “simply a man of letters” and to strengthen his own misgivings. They did not, however, undermine the admiration his father had passed on to him; they only altered the affective quality of this sentiment, guiding it more closely to the thinker, the laborious, mystical free-thinker, than towards the systematic result of his thought. Thus, one might say that the first sonnet is truly, and not only by virtue of its title, the poetical exposition of a quasi classical Spinoza by Borges, while the second is, no less truly, the evocation of an intimate, lovable Baruch by Jorge Luis.
In later years, Borges was to insist on his incapacity to apprehend Spinoza's doctrine.21 Or else he would say that he could understand it, but that this doctrine constitutes a religion, not a system, and that its author should be considered a saint.22
Albeit, to the end of his life in 1986, Borges was wont to answer questions on Spinoza (after he became blind, answering questions was one of the ways he most used to avoid writing, or, perhaps, in order to write) with a strong feeling of admiration. I suppose he felt that the finest creation of the Ethics was its very author. The Ethics may prove not to attain Truth, or the Absolute, but it mirrors the gaze that seeks them regardless of menaces, disdaining fame and riches. Baruch, not God, is construed by the architecture of the Ethics. And history teaches us that he existed and lived up to his ideas.
Most certainly, Borges admired the audacity of Spinoza's philosophical intention (invention) and adhered to many of its religious,23 ethical and social implications. But, above all, he perceived in the thinker's life the acceptance of a cogent intellectual passion and saw perhaps in that life an image of his own existence, entirely committed to an unquestioned literary destiny.
Carlos Cortínez (ed.), Simply a Man of Letters, Orono, 1982
A Borges Dictionary, by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Burns. Will soon appear in England, the United States and Argentina.
Museo Judío de Buenos Aires, Homenaje a Baruch Spinoza, Buenos Aires,1976. The poem by Borges is on page 7.
La Prensa, Buenos Aires, April 8, 1984.
J. L. Borges, Obras completas, Buenos Aires,1981 (from now on cited as O.C.), p.1143.
Cf. Plural, Mexico, August 1974, number 35.
Cf. R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1979.
“El hilo de la fábula”, in Los conjurados, Madrid, 1985, p.61.
F. Alquié, Servitude et liberté selon Spinoza, Les cours de Sorbonne: Paris, 1959, p.72.
in O.C., p.598.
La Opinión, Buenos Aires, August 31, 1980.
For a recent discussion of the idea of geometrical order as a rhetorical device, cf. Herman de Dijn, “Conceptions of Philosophical Method in Spinoza: Logica and Mos Geometricus”, in The Review of Metaphysics, Washington D. C.,September 1986, vol. XL,No.1, issue 157.
“París,1856”, in O.C., p.914.
Cf. “El alquimista” (O.C., p.925) and “El Golem” (O.C.), p.885.
Cf. F. Alquié, Nature et vérité dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Les cours de Sorbonne: Paris,1958, pp.118, 119, passim.
I believe that latterly Borges (see for ex. “Nihon”, in La cifra, Buenos Aires, 1981, p.101) committed an interesting mistake: that of considering the knowable attributes of substance according to Spinoza to be space and time rather than space and thought as they in fact are. A slip of the memory or perhaps an attempt to make the existence of finite beings more comprehensible?
“El primer Wells” (O.C., p.698). In a suggestive article brought to my attention by P.F.Moreau, J. Damade quotes this essay from Otras inquisiciones, and compares the indifference of Spinoza's God to the indifference Borges shows towards the creatures of his own making. Cf. J. Damade, “Le Dieu indifférent et le voyageur immobile”, in Europe, Paris, May 1982, pp. 126–130.
Cf. Borges' prologue to the translation—by himself and R. Alifano—of. Stevenson's fables: Fábulas, Buenos Aires, 1983, p.11.
“El hacedor”, in La cifra, p.50.
Argencard, Buenos Aires, May, 1982.
See “Nihon”, in La cifra, p.101.
Cf. “Spinoza, une figure pathétique”, in Europe, Paris, May 1982, pp.73–76.
Borges, of course, utterly disbelieved in divine punishment or reward and, more generally, in God, the personal God of the Bible. Sometimes he was tempted by a sort of pantheism. He recalled Bernard Shaw's expression, “God is in the making”. “Why not [believe], Borges asked, in a God who may be evolving through stones, through plants, through beasts, through men (…), through the days to come (…)”? Cf. Carlos Cortínez (ed.), Borges the poet, Fayetteville, 1986, p.24.
SOURCE: “The Mystical Experience in Borges: A Problem of Perception,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 98, No. 2, January, 1990, pp. 71–85.
[In the following essay, Giskin explores the role and significance of mythical experience in Borges's work.]
A reader of Borges is likely to notice that his work, especially his short stories, is not always easily accessible. This is due not to any deliberate desire for obscurity, but rather his persistent allusion to mythical themes such as the search for self and ultimate knowledge. A journey, metaphorical or actual, frequently ends in epiphany in which a character discovers his true place in the universe.1 The mystical experience in Borges includes four characteristics which are common to all epiphany, as cited by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience: (1) Ineffability: Mystical union defies expression. It must be directly experienced and perceived, yet cannot be communicated to others. (2) Noetic experience: The mystic feels that tremendous knowledge has been imparted to him. (3) Transiency: The mystical interlude is very brief. (4) Passivity: The mystic feels his own will to be in complete abeyance to that of some superior power (292–93).2
One frequently finds in Borges instances in which characters see with absolute clarity the interrelationship of all things in the universe and the...
(The entire section is 6334 words.)
SOURCE: “The Making of a Writer,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 1–36.
[In the following excerpt, Stabbs examines Borges's early poetry.]
Borges became famous as a writer through his prose rather than through his poetry. Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite short essays, often on arcane subjects, and only last as a poet. Yet he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing. The capriciousness and learned frivolity of much of his prose are rarely found in his poetry. By contrast, we see in it the other Borges—the sincere and ardent youth of the twenties or the contemplative and nostalgic writer of the sixties and seventies. For many this is an unknown Borges; perhaps it is the real Borges.
Borges's career as a poet and writer began when he was in his late teens. His travels in Europe and contact with the Spanish avant-garde have already been noted. Like most young literary rebels, the members of the circle with whom he first became associated, the ultraístas, craved innovation and were repelled by the tastes of their fathers. The poetic movement against which they were reacting was modernismo, a rich and complex style of writing that drew heavily on the French fin...
(The entire section is 6494 words.)
SOURCE: “A Late Harvest,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 69–100.
[In the following excerpt, Stabb offers a brief survey of Borges's later poetry.]
In 1964, Borges's publishers, the Buenos Aires firm of Emecé Editores, brought out a single volume Obra poética (Poetic works) that included, with some modifications, his three early collections and a group of mostly newer compositions under the subheading “El otro, el mismo” (“The other, himself”).1 This section of the volume also includes the poems of Dreamtigers, though they are not identified as such. In addition, the collection retrieves a few poems from the forties and early fifties that had not appeared in earlier poetic collections. The 1979 Obra poética uses the same subtitle, “El otro, el mismo,” for a section of the volume but adds a new prologue and a number of poems written in the late 1960s while it excludes the material from Dreamtigers. The same volume also includes a short collection of folkloric poetry, Para las seis cuerdas (For the six strings, 1965), In Praise of Darkness (1969), the poetry from The Gold of the Tigers (1972), La rosa profunda (The profound rose, 1976), and La moneda de hierro (The iron coin, 1976). The Historia de la noche (History of...
(The entire section is 5420 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Preface and John 1:14, in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 151–53.
[In the following essay, Polette finds similarities in the conception of God held by Borges and that of seventeenth-century Puritan minister, Edward Taylor.]
The power of the imagination to unify opposites and thus reveal the interplay between the eternal and the temporal, or the Divine and the human, links Edward Taylor, a seventeenth-century Puritan colonial minister, to Jorge Luis Borges, a twentieth-century secular Argentine writer. Separated by time and language, Taylor and Borges become, in a sense, two human eyes in the face of God. The two writers offer poetic visions of two important acts of creation: Taylor re-visions the wonder of Genesis in his “Preface,” and Borges sees with bright and broad eyes the poetry of St. John's Gospel. Both poets, via the imagination, reconcile and harmonize oppositional forces and ideas by discovering the sacred in the experience of the profane. They express their experience of this discovery in clear, common language and sing in simple human song of that which is more than human. It might be said that God, or the poets' conception of God, is “languaged alive” through each writer's pen.
Taylor describes a God who deliberately fashioned the world. The God he writes about is not the distant, judgmental God who presided darkly...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
SOURCE: “Medieval Germanic Elements in the Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Readerly/Writerly Texts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1993, pp. 97–105.
[In the following essay, Tyler demonstrates Borges's interest in medieval Germanic literature, and points to elements of it in his poetry.]
Libros como el de Job, LA DIVINA COMEDIA, Macbeth (y, para mí, algunas de las sagas del Norte) prometen una larga inmortalidad …
Borges, “Sobre los clásicos.”1
… In the preface to Literaturas germánicas medievales (1978), Borges states that the aim of his book is “to trace the origins of three literatures which emerged from a common root, and whose complex historical vicissitudes transformed and separated, as occurred also with the diverse languages in which they were written” (“Medieval Germanic Literatures” 7, hereafter referred to as MGL; my trans. Translations hereafter are my own). My aim here is to trace elements from those literatures in several poems included in his Obra poética and elsewhere.
Borges's initial interest for these literatures begins at home with the English origins of his father: “My father's English came from the fact that his mother, Frances Haslam, was born in Staffordshire of Northumbrian stock” (“An Autobiographical Essay” 136;...
(The entire section is 2804 words.)
SOURCE: “The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges,” in Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection, edited by Geoffrey M. Sill, The University of Tennessee Press, 1994, pp. 257–69.
[In the following essay, Coleman demonstrates the strong influence of Walt Whitman on the poetry of both Borges and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Coleman focuses on the contrasting effects of this influence on the two poets.]
In writing his lucid overview of the history of Walt Whitman's presence in Spanish America, Professor Fernando Alegría of Stanford University had to come to grips with a question that inevitably haunts Hispanists as they try convincingly to identify the “influence” of such a magisterial and protean poet as Walt Whitman in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. Professor Alegría's bafflement before his task might well serve as a starting point for my own comments:
To study Whitman in Spanish American poetry is to trace the wanderings of a ghost that is felt everywhere and seen in no place. His verses are quoted with doubtful accuracy by all kinds of critics; poets of practically all tendencies have been inspired by his message and have either written sonnets celebrating his genius or repeated his very words with a somewhat candid self-denial.
(Qtd. in Gay Wilson Allen, New Walt Whitman...
(The entire section is 4868 words.)
SOURCE: “Manometre (1922–28) and Borge's First Publications in France,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 27–34.
[In the following essay, Shaw introduces two of Borges's earliest poems, including variants and a French translation of one, which were discovered in a little-known magazine published in Paris in the 1920s.]
In his essay “Pour la préhistoire ultraïste de Borges” (Cahiers L’Herne 161) Guillermo de Torre writes: “Dans ses premières lignes autobiographiques—celles qu’il rédigea pour une Exposición de la actual poesía argentina (1927)—Borges écrit: ‘Je suis porteño … Je suis né en 1900 … En 18 j’allais en Espagne. Là j’ai collaboré aux commencements de l’ultraïsme … ’ Eclairons ce point-là: ‘J’ai collaboré’ et avec quelle fréquence et quelle intensité! A peine ouvre-t-on un quelconque numéro de cette tendance, Grecia, Ultra, Tableros. … qu’on y trouve quelques écrits de lui en prose ou en vers …” Gloria Videla extends the list to include Cosmópolis, Cervantes and Reflector. In the magazines mentioned in her book she also includes Manomètre. But since in her bibliography she mentions only the brief review which it carried of Guillermo de Torre's Hélices (1923), without either details or page-numbers, she may not have seen the original. Clearly, however, this...
(The entire section is 2586 words.)
SOURCE: “What to Make of an Even More Diminished Thing: A Borgesian Sonnet Considered in a Frosty Light,”in Publication of the Arkansas Philological Association,Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 77–85.
[In the following essay, Wink praises Borges as a writer of sonnets.]
Some years ago I heard an otherwise bright young man announce in the student union at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville a literary critical approach which promised to save time and which I have since come to think of as the arm's length theory of evaluative reading. He contended that he could hold a text before his eyes at arm's length and deem it worthy of reading or not based solely upon the shapes the words conspired to make on the page he was holding at bay. He was later prevailed upon to modify slightly this approach by agreeing that the number of permissible shapes might vary in direct proportion to the age of the poem.
The shape a poem assumes when it is a sonnet is no longer a permissible shape. My interlocutor had not quite the chronological surety of the fellow in the Viennese section of John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, a cocksure young Bohemian who knew to the moment and in what cafes artistic movements had begun and ended. And so he wasn’t quite sure what to do with Robert Frost's “The Oven Bird.” The sonnet's being irregularly rhymed was in its favor. However, it was still a...
(The entire section is 2237 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Todos queriamos ser heroes de anecdotas triviales’: Words, Action and Anecdote in Borges' Poetry,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies,Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 73–93.
[In the following essay, Sanger considers the function of “self-enacting discourse” in Borges's poetry.]
In his speech on the topic of arms and letters in Chapters 37 and 38 of the first part of Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote, as a knight errant, naturally upholds the superiority of arms over letters, arguing that the soldier's goal of peace is nobler, and that his life entails greater sacrifices and requires physical, as well as mental, strength. However, when he ends his speech reiterating his desire to ‘hacerme tamoso y conocido por el valor de mi brazo y filos de mi espada’, we are told of the impact his words have had on the barber, the priest and the others assembled at the inn: ‘En los que escuchado le habían sobrevino nueva lástima de ver que hombre que, al parecer, tenía buen entendimiento y buen discurso en todas las cosas que trataba, le hubiese perdido tan rematadamente en tratándole de su negra y pizmienta caballería.’1 The phrase points up one of the great ironies of the novel: that, though Don Quixote has chosen to devote himself to arms and the world of action, his real talent lies in words, especially words that advocate or describe action.
(The entire section is 11014 words.)
SOURCE: “Borges and Girondo: Who Led the Vanguardia?” in The Poetic Avant-Garde: The Groups of Borges, Auden, and Breton, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 71–97.
[In the following excerpt, Strong contrasts the relationship of Borges and his fellow Argentine writer Oliviero Girondo to the Spanish modernist movement known as Ultraísmo.]
BORGES AND GIRONDO: WHO LED THE VANGUARDIA?
In the 1920s, the Argentine vanguardia valued Borges's lyric poems more highly than Girondo's prose poems. Aside from their mutual commitment to the use of metaphor and to a couple of new literary journals, the two poets had little in common. In important ways Borges was as conservative and traditional as Girondo was radical and avant-garde. That Borges's early work was at that time more highly valued than Girondo's is partly because of the literary establishment's conservatism and the vanguardia's unwillingness to risk upsetting that establishment. Where Girondo was critical of the wealthy, state institutions, the Catholic Church, and the sexual mores of his day, Borges avoided topical issues. He changed course several times in his early years, while Girondo—like Breton—remained committed to the philosophy of the vanguardia. Though both were products of the same cultural atmosphere and had experienced European avant-gardism firsthand, they grew farther and farther apart over the...
(The entire section is 11173 words.)
SOURCE: “Jorge Luis Borges,” in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 109–14.
[In the following excerpt, Hirsch discusses Borge’s love of reading and of languages, focusing on his conception of poetry as “a collaborative act between writer and the reader.”]
We tend to think of Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) exclusively in terms of fiction, as the author of luminous and mind-bending metaphysical parables that cross the boundaries between the short story and the essay. But Borges always identified himself first as a reader, then as a poet, finally as a prose writer. He found the borders between genres permeable and lived in the magic space, the imaginary world, created by books. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father's library,” he said in 1970. “In fact, sometimes I think I have never strayed outside that library.”
Borges was so incited, so inflamed by what he read, so beholden to what he encountered, that it demanded from him an answer in kind, a creative response. He was an Argentine polyglot who learned English even before he learned Spanish (in a sense he grew up in the dual world of his father's library of unlimited English books and his mother's sensuous Hispanic garden). As a teenager in Geneva during World War I he also learned Latin and German, which he considered the language of the philosophers, and...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
SOURCE: “Empty Words: Vanity in the Writings of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 265–71.
[In the following essay, Couture discusses the centrality of “vanity” as a word and as a concept in Borges's writing.]
Twisting an old Spanish saying, Bryce Echenique wrote that Borges “más sabía por viejo y sabía más todavía por diablo” (7). Alastair Reid, speaking of conversations with Borges about translation, said that Borges's modesty could be deadly. These remarks allude to one of Borges's greatest charms, something that attracts us more than his audacious, sophisticated metaphysical speculations: his coy sense of humor. I think that a great deal of the humor in Borges can be attributed to his sense of the vanity of literature, his own included. Borges, while aware of the beauty and power of words, also knew that words, at last, are just words, and as such are ultimately destined to fail us. Part of the subdued chuckle of recognition we experience as we read Borges comes from this awareness. Borges's writings have the uncanny knack of deflating our preconceived notions of the nature of language and literature. “Vanity,” etymologically, means “emptiness.” One of Borges's most effective diabluras is a deflation, a gentle reminder running through his texts of the illusory character of literature, a knowledge that literature is not life, nor...
(The entire section is 2699 words.)
SOURCE: “One Mind at Work,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5019, June 11, 1999, p. 14ff.
[In the following essay, diGiovani discusses the process of collaborating with Borges in the translation of his poetry.]
In November 1967, in Harvard Square, I walked into Schoenhof's Foreign Bookshop and asked for a copy of Jorge Luis Borges's collected poems. When the clerk brought me the book, he said, “You know Borges is speaking here next week.” That was the first link in an invisible chain of cause and effect that brought me together with Borges in a working association that lasted for nearly five years. It was also the first link in a network that was soon to connect me with Buenos Aires in particular, with the River Plate in general, and with many dozen friends the world over.
I went home from Schoenhof's that day with a copy of Borges's Obra poética under my arm, and the following week I attended his public lecture in Memorial Hall. But the whole time, while I was reading the poems and listening to Borges and afterwards reading and studying the poetry further, I was transported to another realm. The words in the book and those spoken by the man on the stage were unmistakably one and the same, and I was struck by the gentle quality and humanity that each radiated. I had first come across it in lines of verse that Borges had written about his friend Elvira de Alvear, a...
(The entire section is 3614 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 268, No. 30, May 31, 1999, pp. 25–8.
[In the following review, Parini discusses the volume Selected Poems of Borges (1999), edited by Alexander Coleman.]
With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time. Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization. Although literary fashions come and go, he is always there, endlessly rereadable by those who admire him, awaiting rediscovery by new generations of readers.
One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories, such as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Secret Miracle” and—my favorite—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where the author imagines a parallel universe. This idiosyncratic, mind-altering fiction was mostly written in the late thirties and forties (Ficciones, his central collection, appeared in 1944, gathering most of his best stories to date). Yet Borges was well-known as a poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.
Now a generous volume of his poetry has been published by Viking, edited by Alexander Coleman and translated by various hands, including Alastair Reid, Mark...
(The entire section is 1934 words.)
Foster, David William. Jorge Luis Borges: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984, 328 pp.
Scholarly in its depth and comprehensive in its range.
Loewenstein, C. Jared. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Jorge Luis Borges Collection at the University of Virginia Library. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993, 254 pp.
Catalogs a major collection dedicated to providing “reliable information about the origins and development of” Borges's texts.
Woodall, James. Borges: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1997, 333 pp.
Contains significant scholarly tools, including bibliography and catalogs of travels, awards, and films based on his works, as well as a lucid account of life and work.
Menocal, Maria Rosa. Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth: From Borges to Bocaccio. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991, 223 pp.
Adopting a Borgesian, non-linear aproach to literary history, views Dante and Borges in a relation of reciprocal influence.
Additional coverage of Borges's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 26;...
(The entire section is 230 words.)