The Mind as a Library

Jorge Luis Borges, Jason Wilson (173pp, £10.95, Reaktion Books)

Borges was the astonishing writer of the Twentieth Century in that he believed readers of books were the true writers. As Jason Wilson puts it, 'By 1935, then, Borges had inverted the Romantic relationship that we still believe in: the mystique of the author as the embodiment of originality and inspiration, who Borges simply calls a reader. His reversal takes on even greater effect today as more and more people want to be writers and do not read.' There is at the heart of Borges as writer and human being something uncommonly mysterious that leaked out in various ways. Imagination and intellect were abnormally sharply in conflict in him. He believed the ego was the enemy: a view that brought him close to Buddhism. Also, he was a pre-Barthes, Barthes, implicitly denying the author a place in the text. His whole upbringing was bookish, confessing, 'If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father's library. In fact, I sometimes think I have never strayed outside that library.' Yet another peculiarity is that the literature he loved most of all was English literature: writers he loved best were Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stephenson, closely followed by the likes of Lewis Carroll, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, S.T. Coleridge ('of whom he would talk endlessly'); and he took the trouble to learn Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic so that he could penetrate Norse-based literatures. Yet his reputation as a writer really became international by virtue of his appeal to French literary intellectuals - especially during the post-Second World War structuralist era - an appeal based on his seeming abolition of the author and his creation of a highly-focused, economical texte for his amazing short stories. A refined bourgeois taste, an acute irony, and a fascination with Argentinian low life characterized his writings and resonated particularly among French intellectuals. Yet despite his being an omnivorous reader, he never read the great French writers of the modern era like Flaubert or Proust: indeed, though an obvious europhile, as well as anglophile, he never read Europe's most famous 20th Century poet, Rilke. This latter despite always regarding himself primarily as a poet.

Physically, Borges was a large, placid-looking man, not unattractive, who dressed to match the very correct gentleman that he was. It seems that women were attracted to him all his life, and it was an attraction that he frequently reciprocated. However, it seems a strong possibility that he never had sexual relations with any woman; and all the women in his life were muses rather than mistresses. He may have been impotent, he may simply had a revulsion about sexual intercourse that he could never overcome. Though dealing faithfully with his various 'lady loves', this book never quite resolves the matter. Here is what the book says about Borges' most famous love affair:

     During the war, and under Peronism, Borges suffered what has
     become his most publicized love affair, with the writer and communist
     Estela Canto. In 1989 Canto wrote her version of the affair
     with a timid man eighteen years her senior. He proposed marriage to
     her on a cement benach on the river coast between Adrogué and
     Mármol. She was willing to become his mistress, even marry him
     if they went to bed together, but he insisted it had to be marriage. As
     mentioned earlier, he was not impotent, but was panicked and
     shameful about sex...

Interestingly, though asseverating that Borges was 'not impotent', he goes on to describe the affair with Estela Canto as 'Their bookish and lustful relationship'; and nowhere in the book is there offered real proof that Borges ever had sexual intercourse. Obviously, too, the fact that Borges lived all his life, until she died in extreme old age, with his mother compounded his difficulties with the opposite sex. This was not only because his parents' marriage was a painful failure, of which their son and daughter were only too well aware, but Borges' mother
- who long outlived the father - was a highly literate, bookish person herself. With the result that not only did Borges adore his mother for natural reasons, but they shared an enormous literary interest: one to such a degree that his mother was an important critic of everything he wrote. Love and  shared interest make the most powerful of combinations. In this case, not only did it give the mother power over her son's work but, also, she exercised strong and affecting approval or disapproval of his many women friends - and it was mostly disapproval.

Over many years Borges became gradually blind. According to Wilson's view, and that of most critics, his best work was produced while he was sighted
- unlike with Milton. But his blindness merely matched with outer darkness the inner darkness were he always dwelled: a darkness lit only by the light of ideal love and by innumerable lanterns of books. Throughout this study Jason Wilson makes important observations that provide insights which cast light also on that darkness. He tells how Borges said of the Bengali poet Tagore and all Easterners, 'eternity interested them and not time'; and how he wrote elsewhere, 'Descreo en la historia' or 'I do not believe in history'. 'I remember', Borges wrote, 'is a sacred verb'. Borges was given to aimless wandering of the streets of Buenos Aires; and one day, 'Suddenly, in his lowly, ignored is here that Borges first experienced “eternity.” Borges set off ...through back streets...and found himself by the Maldonado stream (that is, in Palermo), a place that he had possessed in words but not in reality; he was in the wrong side of familiar Buenos Aires with low, poor houses, pink walls, fig trees and mud, American mud, he wrote, and a state of bizarre, utter happiness. Nothing had changed in twenty years: a bird sings, a cricket scratches, silence is vertiginous. 'Me sentí muerto' ('I felt dead') he wrote, outside time, in one of those impersonal states like pleasure, or falling asleep, with successive time a delusion. This crucial experience lies at the source of his work and being.' In other words the heart of his work, the core of his thinking was based on a mystical experience.

Borges was a joker and an ironist, a subverter of received opinion, even the sheer conformism of his outer life was a kind of resistance to political and social pressures, such as were put upon him during the Peron era. He was, however, if anything anti-political, but his resistance to the prevailing left-wing intellectual ethos of both Peron's time and of the whole intellectual world, both in Argentina and in Europe
- even though his support was always for democracy over autocracy - led him to be considered a right-winger. And once this view of him had taken firm hold it meant, for example, he would not, and did not, receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Finally, here are two last quotes from the end of the book, where Borges dies 'reciting Verlaine'. In the prologue to his poems El otro, el mismo,
Borges summarized his own life: 'Curious fate that of a writer. At first he's baroque, vainly baroque, and after years he manages to attain, if the stars are favourable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but a secret and modest complexity.' Says Wilson, 'That secret lies buried in the poems, not in some biographic fiction, and only reading them as a kind of magic will reveal anything.' Lastly, 'Jean-Pierre Bernes was at his death bed and called Borges 'before all else a poet, always rebelling against everything, but peaceful'. A fitting comment with which to end this wonderful, information-and-insight-packed critical life of a great writer.      

       © William Oxley 2008