The Harvard Lectures
Jorge Luis Borges, 1899 – 1986
Libraries and Garden Labyrinths: A Dream of Childhood
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 24, 1899 — the same year as Vladimir Nabokov was born. Shortly after his birth, his family relocated to Palermo, a suburb on the northern outskirts of the city named after the capital of Sicily. Although now Palermo is a well-developed area with a high cost of living, at the turn of the century it was a lower class suburb known for its vaguely seedy underclass, discordant politics, and knife-wielding compadrito, or hoodlums. A suburb containing its share of whorehouses and cabarets, it could be an often violent place where the residents danced the tango and told stories aflame with gauchos and knife fights. Although the flavor of this neighborhood was to permanently enter Borges’s later writing, at the turn of the century the middle-class Borges family felt distinctly out of place.
His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a lawyer and a psychology teacher whose personal beliefs were founded in anarchy, and his mother, Leonor Acevedo de Borges, was a proud woman, descended from a long line of soldiers and freedom fighters — her mother, Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida, kept her house well ornamented with family artifacts such as swords, uniforms, and portraits of great freedom fighters. Borges was terribly fond of both of his parents. His father taught him philosophy, once using a chessboard to explain Zeno’s paradox, and his mother, who would live to see 99, was a strong woman who would one day travel around the world with her son.
His parents both spoke and read English, for his paternal Grandfather, Colonel Francisco Borges, had married an Englishwoman from Staffordshire named Francis Haslam. Although Colonel Borges was shot and killed in 1874, Grandmother Fanny was around to tell the young Jorge Luis — “Georgie” — many stories of the wild frontier days. Borges has often remarked that his Grandmother’s dry English wit was the origin of his concise style. (In an interesting parallel, Gabriel Marquez would later lay his deadpan fabulism at the feet of his own storytelling grandmother in Colombia.) She would also read him English magazines; as well as securing Mrs. Tink, another Englishwoman, as his nanny. Borges would later comment that the household was so bilingual that he was not even aware that English and Spanish were separate languages until later in his childhood.
Borges’s younger sister Norah, his junior by two years, was his only real childhood friend. Together they invented imaginary playmates — “Quilos” and “The Windmill” — acted out scenes from books, and spent their time roaming the labyrinthine library and the garden, two images which would find endless incarnations in his writing. During the summers they stayed in their summerhouse in Adrogu , a nearby town where the reasonably well-to-do could relax in a European setting complete with tennis courts, English-style schools, and garden mazes scented with “the ubiquitous smell of eucalyptus trees.” Young Georgie was also fond of the Zoo, and spent countless hours gazing at the animals, particularly the tigers — his favorites. As he would later remark toward the end of his life: “I used to stop for a long time in front of the tiger’s cage to see him pacing back and forth. I liked his natural beauty, his black stripes and his golden stripes. And now that I am blind, one single color remains for me, and it is precisely the color of the tiger, the color yellow.”
But despite his games with his sister and his relaxing summers in Adrogu , Borges has often remarked that he felt somewhat like an alien growing up. As a middle class child living in Palermo, he was essentially a bookish and terribly nearsighted child who tended to hide indoors. And yet in the manner common to all boys everywhere, in his imagination he fancied himself to be an active part of the local scenery. He established a friendship with a local poet, his neighbor Evaristo Carriego, a reckless man who represented much of the “sentimental machismo” of Argentine tradition and would become something of a minor idol to the young dreamer. It wasn’t until much later, returning to Buenos Aires after spending seven years in Europe, that Borges admitted to himself that “for years I believed I had grown up in a suburb . . . of risky streets and visible sunsets. The truth is I grew up in a garden, behind lanceolate railings, and in a library of unlimited English books.” He later wrote a small book on the poet Carriego in which he reconciles the fact that his younger self was no denizen of the streets, but rather a quiet intellectual. Nevertheless, images of the compadrito, stray gauchos, and knife fights would make their occasional appearances throughout the rest of his literary career.
He was always expected to be a writer, as his father had made several attempts, and as his blindness increased over the years, it became a tacit understanding that his son would carry on the tradition. (Of course the blindness was congenital, for Borges himself would later lose his sight as well.) He started writing at the age of six, mostly fanciful stories inspired by Cervantes. When he was nine, he translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish, and effort which appeared in a local newspaper called El Pais. Since it was signed only “Jorge Borges,” everyone assumed it was his father’s work. After some visits to the pampa, where his mother’s cousins owned a ranch on the Uruguay River, he attempted to write gaucho poems, but quickly confessed that they were a failure. But still the pampa exerted an influence on him, and in addition to learning how to swim, he stored up many images that would typically later seek a more fulfilling release in his later stories.
In 1908 Borges began to attend school — his father’s anarchist sentiments had kept him out until now — but he was taught nothing but Argentine nationalism. He was also dismayed at the comparatively low moral and intellectual character of the other students. Adopting an English style of dress in a predominantly anti-English school, wearing thick glasses, and already having a superior education, needless to say Borges was picked on relentlessly by the other students. Possessed by a quixotic sense of ancestral honor, he refused to back down from a fight; but unfortunately his stamina could not back up his pride and he ended up becoming more familiar with defeat than victory. Indeed, he came to loathe school, even though he excelled at it academically.
Discovery in Europe: An Adolescent Awakening
Relief from Argentine bullies came in 1914, when Borges’s life was to make a drastic shift. Forced to an early retirement due to his failing eyesight, his father packed up the family and moved to Europe, spending a few weeks in Paris before setting out for Geneva. In Geneva the Borges children went to school, and his father was to see a Swiss eye specialist . . . But war broke out, and by necessity their lives changed. Their travelling was cut short, and they were forced to settle in Geneva, where they were later joined by their grandmother Fanny Haslam. (His other grandmother, Leonor Su rez de Acevedo, was already with them.) The Borges children would spend four years in Geneva, attending “high school” at the College Calvin and learning to speak Latin, German, and French — at which Norah surprisingly became more proficient than her brother. Fortunately, however, the students here were of a higher caliber than those who attended the state-run school in Buenos Aires, and most of them warmly embraced friendship with Jorge Luis. In fact, it was his peers who convinced the headmaster to promote Borges despite his poor mastery of French!
It was at the College Calvin that Borges got his first taste of Symbolist literature, introduced to him via a pair of sophisticated Polish friends. Perusing the work of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarme , he discovered a completely new way of relating the world through abstract literature. But that was just one facet of his new world — he was learning about so many more writers and philosophers. From Carlyle, he discovered something as equally important as Symbolism: often inventing the idea of a book is just as effecting as writing it. . . . And it was also in Geneva where he first acquired his love of Schopenhauer, his favorite of all the philosophers, and Walt Whitman, whom for a while he believed to be the culmination of all the subtle aims of poetry. All in all, it was a productive four years, and it certainly altered the course of his life, making him aware of a whole new world of ideas awaiting exploration. And despite the War, the family even managed to take a trip to Northern Italy, where Borges clearly remembers reciting gaucho poetry in the empty amphitheaters of Verona. . . .
In 1919 Borges’s maternal grandmother died, and the family left Geneva to settle in Lugano; and Borges, now equipped with a degree, decided it was time to become a serious writer. After a few abortive attempts in English and French, he accepted that Spanish was to be his language. Moving to Spain, the family lived here for over a year, moving from Barcelona to Majorca, then to Seville and onto Madrid. In Spain, the younger Borges began helping his father write a novel about the civil war of the 1870’s. Jorge Luis himself had a story turned down by a magazine in Madrid; but during the winter in Seville, he finally saw one of his poems in print. After a few unsuccessful attempts to join various literary circles, in 1920 in Madrid he finally found an inspiration and a mentor in the Andalusian poet Rafael Cansinos Assens. Under his influence, Borges associated himself with a new literary circle, the “ultraists.” A group of idealists that met every Saturday night at the Caf Colonial, the ultraists “admired American jazz, and were more interested in being Europeans than Spaniards.” All night long they would bandy ideas back and forth, engaging in sparkling literary conversation that fueled the fires of Borges’s imagination. It was among this circle that Borges finally realized that he needn’t be tied down to any one single tradition, particularly a national one. He wrote two books of essays and poems, praising among other things pacifism, anarchy, the Russian Revolution, and freethinking in general. However he quickly became embarrassed with his efforts, and he destroyed them both before leaving Spain in 1921.
Fervor de Buenos Aires: The Roaring Twenties
The Borges family returned to Buenos Aires in March 1921. The city, having experienced a new growth in the seven years of his absence, was thriving; and Borges discovered that he had come home to a new Buenos Aires ripe with opportunities. Shortly after returning, he was to fall under the influence of one of his father’s friends, the poet Macedonio Fernand z. A terrific conversationalist, Macedonio’s personal beliefs echoed those of Schopenhauer, Berkeley and Hume, and his wit had the ability to frequently spur Borges into new pathways of thought. His philosophical ideas were complex and his writing style eccentric, and one of his biggest influences on Borges was to teach him to read everything with skepticism. Similar to Cansinos-Ass ns in Madrid, Fernand z presided over a Saturday night literary circle in Buenos Aires, and charged by his European experience and his new-found enthusiasm, Borges threw himself into the life of Buenos Aires with all the fervor of a young artist riding the wave of his growing talent. He began producing poems that praised the local color, and in addition he and some friends founded an “ultraist” magazine called Prisma. Taking the form of a large broadsheet, citizens of Buenos Aires would occasionally wake up to find new issues plastered over the walls of the city, exploding with poems, essays, manifestoes, and woodcuts by Norah.
By 1923 Borges had felt ready to bring out his first collection of poems. Called Fervor de Buenos Aires, the 64-page book was financed by his father. Rather hastily printed, the cover boasted a Norah woodcut, and without much thought in the way of profit, almost all of the three hundred copies were distributed freely — and often surreptitiously, such as slipping copies into the pockets of editor’s overcoats!
In 1923 the family returned to Switzerland so his father could continue his eye treatment, and in Spain Borges was disappointed to find that the ultraist movement had petered out; but while in Spain he managed to have a few of his poems published, and a favorable review of Fervor de Buenos Aires appeared in Revista de Occidente, a Spanish magazine. When Borges and his family returned to Argentina in 1924 he discovered that he had developed a small reputation as a poet! It seemed that his guerilla tactic of covert book placement had paid off. . . .
The years from 1924 to 1933 were quite prolific and exciting for Borges. He founded several more literary magazines with varying amounts of success, and he contributed a variety of pieces to many existing magazines, most notably Martin Fierro. Ironically, his contributions to this magazine were to take an unexpected turn when the editors of the magazine decided to “invent” a literary feud. The publicity stunt involved two groups of writers — the aristocratic and intellectual “Florida” group, and the streetwise “Boedo” group, steeped in gaucho lore. Because of his European attachments and his reputation as an intellectual, Borges was assigned to the “Florida” group, a decision which he unsuccessfully appealed. He wanted to write common literature filled with danger and local color — but nevertheless his reputation had merited the “Florida” designation. Disappointed, he spent the next few years attempting to divorce himself of that image, and as a consequence he spent many hours exploring the less reputable areas of the city, talking with the hoodlums, learning the tango, and absorbing the Italian/Portuguese dialect. (All to the dismay of his mother.) As a result, several more books of poems and essays were to issue from his pen, including Luna de Enfrente in 1925 and Cauderno San Mart n in 1929. Named for the brand of notebook in which he wrote them, Cauderno San Mart n netted him the Second Municipal Prize, a handsome sum of 3000 pesos. (One of the things he bought with the money was a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a purchase that would serve him well over the years.) In 1930, he wrote a book about his boyhood hero, the poet Carriego, who had died of tuberculosis in 1912. Unfortunately the book, Evaristo Carriego, became more of a reminiscence of old-time Buenos Aires than a biography of the poet, and it was not very successful. (He revised it in 1955.)
It was also during this period that he struck up two important friendships with women: Victoria Ocampo and Elsa Astete Mill n. Ocampo, whom he met through his family in 1925, was a translator who would later promote Borges’s writing as an editor of the influential Sur literary magazine; and Mill n was a 17-year old beauty with whom Borges fell in love. Unfortunately she married someone else; but some forty years later the two would reunite and marry in 1967. The twenties were to also bring a new — albeit mild — political awareness to Borges. In an interesting and controversial break with family tradition, he supported the campaign of former president Hip lito Irigoyen, a figure whom he compared favorably to an old family enemy, the Dictator Rosas. In 1928 Borges, perhaps attracted to Irigoyen’s underdog campaign, featured prominently in the Committee of Young Intellectuals, a group dedicated to his re-election as president. Unfortunately, the only fruit to spring from his efforts was disillusionment — surprisingly, Irigoyen won the election; and to the disappointment of many of his younger supporters, he proved to be too out of touch with the times to be an effective ruler. Borges’s dismay increased when Irigoyen was overthrown by a military junta, which would turn out to be only the first of many more repressive governments. Finally, like many of his generation, Borges’s disgust with politics became complete.
Sadly, the myopia he saw in the political world was becoming reflected in his own personal physical world: blindness was beginning to manifest itself in Borges as it had in his father, who was now completely blind. In 1927 he had an operation for cataracts; it would be the first of a long series of eight operations. None would succeed, and by the end of his life he would be totally blind.
Later Borges would write off this period of his life and virtually disown the literary output from these years, all of which he now disavows as being overtly derivative of others’ styles. He claims that several pieces were so drenched in local color that “the locals could hardly understand it.” His later embarrassment is such that he was actually known to buy up any copies he found of these works and burn them.
Transformations: The Darkening Thirties
Putting politics behind him, the thirties were to see his talent taking new directions, both in the topics of his writing and in the fundamental style of his expression. In 1932 he published another collection of essays, Discusi n. Many of these essays revolved around a more recent, non-literary passion — the magical world of the cinema. His work began to appear in the magazine Meg fono, literary endeavors which brought him recognition in the form of a round table discussion about his writing in 1933. His first short story — an art form he would later perfect — was called “Streetcorner Man,” and inspired by the death of a local compadrito, the story had a gritty realism with an interesting twist at the end. Published in Cr tica, a local newspaper, Borges was sufficiently tenuous about his effort that it appeared under the pseudonym of “Francisco Bustos,” the name of one of his ancestors. It was a tremendous success; but Borges had no intentions of settling down as a mere writer of populist dramas. In 1933 Borges began a series of sketches called Historia universal de la infamia, or “A Universal History of Infamy.” Published between the years 1933 and 1934 in Cr tica, these stories took characters and ideas from other published works and “re-invented” them. Blending fact and fiction, often mythic in resonance, many of the stories had a vague feeling of surrealistic authenticity; and later more than a few Latin American “magical realists” would cite Borges as their primary inspiration. But his career was just really beginning: in 1935, he wrote what is considered to be the prototype of the typical “Borgesian” story, “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim,” a review of a fictional novel. In 1936 he published another collection of essays, Historia de la eternidad, or “A History of Eternity.”
Although Borges was finally coming into his own as a writer, the thirties were of course not all that kind; the world was in an economic crisis, and Borges’s father was now completely dependent on his mother. It was clearly time for Borges to rely on a more steady income than his writing allowed, and in 1937 he landed a $70/month job as First Assistant in the Miguel Can branch of the Municipal Library. His work involved classifying and cataloging the library’s holdings, and it was a disappointingly simple job in which he was actually advised by his colleagues to slow down so that they could spread the task out as long as they could! He remained in the library for nine years, nine years of “solid unhappiness” leading a “menial and dismal existence.” He worked among colleagues who were less concerned with literature than with horse racing and girl watching, and to add insult to injury, his superiors and colleagues didn’t realize that he was the same Jorge Luis Borges who wrote some of the very same stories which they were cataloging! Usually, Borges would finish his work in the first hour of his day and spend the rest of the time in the basement, reading the classics or translating modern fiction into Spanish. (Borges was the first to translate Woolf and Faulkner into Spanish.)
In 1938 two tragedies were to occur. First, his beloved father died; and then on Christmas Eve, Borges himself had an accident that would be complicated by a serious illness. (He would later recast this incident into fiction in the story “The South.”) While running up a stairway, he grazed a freshly painted casement with his forehead, and soon after the wound became infected and he fell ill, hallucinating in bed for a week. After an operation in the hospital, he developed septicemia, and for a month hovered between life and death.
Visions from the Library Basement: A Mid-life Rebirth
Borges biggest fear was that he had lost his creative ability; that the disease had burned it out of him. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth — he was about to embark on a creative arc that would eventually carry him to world fame. In an attempt to discover whether or not he still possessed his creative faculties, he penned a new story, an attempt at something different, something unique. The result was “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” Next he wrote “Tl n, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Both were well received and published in Victoria Ocampo’s Sur. Delighted at his new surge in creativity, he began writing stories in the basement of the library, and so while his co-workers above obliviously frittered away their time on gossip, Borges was busy in the basement planting the seeds of post-modernism. “The Library of Babel” became his nightmare allegory for his job, and other stories quickly followed. In 1941, a collection of these stories was published, The Garden of Forking Paths, which would later be added to Artifices and retitled Ficciones in 1944. In 1942 he published a series of spoof detective stories with his younger friend Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, under the joint pen-name of “Bustos Domecq.”
In addition to his new stories, which ingeniously mixed philosophy, fact, fantasy and mystery, Borges also began to write political articles again. Appearing in El Hogar, these articles didn’t so much support any one political system as criticize many of the general trends of the time: anti-semitism, nazism, and the increasing decline into fascism. Ironically he gained wider recognition for his articles than for his brilliant, but largely unnoticed, fictions — a fact that was to cause him problems when the fascists came into power in the mid forties. In 1946 Juan Per n was “elected” president, and due to his political affiliations, Borges was “promoted” to “Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets.” He immediately decided to resign, remarking that “dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty; even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers.”
God’s Splendid Irony: The Fifties
Fortunately for Borges, being fired turned out to be a mixed blessing. Soon after leaving the library, he accepted positions as a lecturer on American and English literature. He travelled across Argentina and Uruguay, giving talks on subjects that ranged from Blake to Buddhism. He was paid well, and for the first time in a long while, he was happy — although he could not conceal his pain at the direction taken by his country. The Per n regime, though coming short of directly detaining him, did attempt to make life more difficult for his family and friends. After taking part in a protest, his mother and Norah were arrested in 1948; his mother was placed under house arrest, but Norah was thrown in a jail reserved primarily for prostitutes. (When given the opportunity to be set free — if she wrote a letter of apology to Evita Per n — Norah elected to remain in jail.) Borges could rarely give a lecture without the presence of a police informer in the audience . . . although on a very Borgesian note, he actually came to know the agent, who himself was less than thrilled with his duties but needed to earn a paycheck. Still, his work went on. In 1949 his second major book of short stories appeared, The Aleph. It is perhaps notable that the title story concerns itself with a disillusioned man who painfully denies the ability to experience the entire universe to his enemies.
In 1950 Borges was elected President of the Sociedad Argentina de Ecritores (The Argentine Writer’s Society.) The SADE had mainly political overtones — as in non-Peronista — and was under scrutiny. A typical meeting eventually fell into an interesting pattern, whereby the artists would airily discuss complex literature and philosophy until the police agents present would be bored into sleeping or departing, after which the real political discussions would take place. Despite their precautions, however, the SADE was eventually closed.
In 1952 Borges published his major collection of essays, Other Inquisitions.
In 1955 the C rdoba revolution took place, and Borges was back in favor. Even though the government was still military in nature, they decided that too much culture was wounded under the gentle graces of Juan Domingo and his lovely wife Evita.The SADE was reopened, and much to his amazement Borges was appointed Director of the National Library, the job of his dreams. By this time Borges was going completely blind; ironically two of the previous directors of the National Library had also been blind. He took it as stoically and gently as possible: “I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.” He took his job very seriously, and determined to make the library into a cultural center, he started a program of lectures and resurrected the library’s journal. In 1956 he was named to the professorship of English and American Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, a position he was to hold for twelve years; and later that same year, he unsurprisingly won the National Prize for literature. By the late fifties, he was astonished to find out that books were being written about his life and work, and he rapidly attracted a wide circle of dedicated students. It was around this time that he wrote one of his most intriguing pieces, “Borges and I.”
With the assistance of his students and of his mother, who had begun to translate English classics into Spanish, he continued his career. To compensate for his loss of vision, he turned again to poetry, a form of writing that he could more easily revise in his head than on paper. He also continued his pursuit of knowledge, acquiring a taste for the old Anglo Saxon language and Old Norse. In 1960 he published El hacedor or “The Maker,” which was later retitled in English as Dreamtigers. Essentially a collection of prose pieces, parables, and poems, Borges considered El hacedor to be his best, and most personal, work.
An End to Solitude: The Sixties
Although it was the 1940’s that first gave Borges the glimmer of international fame, when his works were translated into French by Ibarra and Callois; but it wouldn’t be until 1961 that he would gain genuine world-wide recognition. That year he and Samuel Beckett were jointly awarded the second-ever International Publishers Prize (the Formentor Prize, which included an award of $10,000), and he found that the global spotlight was suddenly turned upon him. His work was translated into English, and all at once he became in demand. Ficciones was translated into several languages and made its way into many countries, becoming the first Latin American work to achieve such attention. He was invited to the University of Texas, and in 1961, in the company of his mother, he experienced America for the first time, a country that he had always considered in semi-mythic proportions. He spent six months travelling across America, lecturing at universities from San Francisco to New York. He would visit the United States numerous times over the rest of his life, giving lectures, readings, and informal discussions.
In 1963 he travelled again to Europe, revisiting many locations from his childhood memories and meeting again with old friends and associates, and in 1967 he was invited by Harvard to spend a year in the U.S. as a visiting professor. There he met Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who would become a good friend, a literary collaborator, and one of his principle translators. That same year he also married his old friend Elsa Astete Mill n, whose husband had died in 1964. Unfortunately it was not a fulfilling marriage for either of them — Elsa had grown used to a settled, married existence, and Borges was still too much the explorer. In addition, Elsa spoke only Spanish and felt uncomfortable in English-speaking countries and in front of English-speaking guests. The marriage lasted for less than three years, and in 1970 Borges and Mill n obtained a divorce, and Borges moved back with his mother. Throughout these years, however, Borges still traveled quite extensively, visiting Europe, England, Scotland, and Israel. He wrote many more volumes of poetry, and a few collections of short stories and essays. In 1967 — the year that Gabriel Garc a M rquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was published — he and his old friend Bioy-Casares published another “Bustos Domecq” book, The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq. In 1970 a collection of more traditionally “Argentine” stories came out, El Informe de Brodie, “Dr. Brodie’s Report.” He developed an acquaintance with one of the students who attended his lectures, Mar a Kodama, an Argentine with Japanese ancestry. She agreed to work as his secretary, and eventually their association blossomed into a collaborative friendship. He would later marry her during the last year of his life.
So Many Mirrors: The Long, Wandering Autumn
In 1973, Juan Per n, recently returned from exile in Spain, was again elected president of Argentina. Although Borges’s fame was now extensive enough to render him immune from persecution, the writer refused to be a part of a Per n government. In 1973 he resigned as Director of the National Library, and decided to spend the next few years travelling and lecturing, producing another collection of stories, El libro de arena, or “The Book of Sand” in 1975. That same year, his mother died at the age of 99. Long ago people had begun mistaking Borges and his mother for brother and sister.
Life still had much in store for Borges, however. In 1976, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited him to Japan, and he finally got to visit a culture that had long fascinated him. When Isabel Per n was replaced by another military coup later that year, Borges began another one of his periodic flirtations with politics. In a similar vein to his earlier experience with Irigoyen, Borges at first accepted the new government with a certain amount of trust and tolerance — a stance that won him the surprised disappointment of many of the Argentine left. But as mounting evidence revealed that the new government was just as abusive of power as any other traditional Argentine junta, Borges began to criticize its policies, until the “absurd war” over the Falkland Islands instigated yet another disgusted withdrawal from the world of politics.
(Courtesy Borges Center)