An excerpt from the documentary Buenos Aires, meine Geschichte (1998) by German Kral, an Argentinian filmmaker.
A Conversation with Jorge Luis Borges
Juan Luis Borges candidly discusses his father’s library, immortality, and the mystery of his writing in a fascinating conversation that was conducted in 1984 by the Professor of Philosophy Tomás Abraham, associate professors Alejandro Rússovich and Enrique Marí, and their students in the Psychology Department of the University of Buenos Aires. The conversation was first published in English by Joshua Ellison, translated, and included in Habitus Magazine’s third issue on Buenos Aires. To order a copy of the journal from our shop click here.
RÚSSOVICH: We begin. What can we say about…?
BORGES: In the beginning, b’reshit bara elohim, no?
RÚSSOVICH: B’reshit bara elohim et hashamayin ve et ha’aretz, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
BORGES: No, the Gods created.
RÚSSOVICH: Ah, “Gods”; elohim is plural. Borges knows more. [laughter]
ABRAHAM: Today, philosophy invites poetry to a discussion. We have a poet…
ABRAHAM: A supposed poet, then, of whom we can ask what relationships exist between philosophy and poetry.
BORGES: Sometime ago I said that philosophy is a fantastic branch of study. But I didn’t mean anything against philosophy, on the contrary; it could be said, for example, that it was exactly the same [as poetry] maintaining that the syntax is from two distinct places, [and] that philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics. If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic literature, you’ll see that they are much more ambitious than the poets. For example, what works of poetry are comparable with something as astonishing as Spinoza’s god: an infinite substance endowed with infinite attributes?
Every philosophy creates a world with its own special laws, and these models may or may not be fantastic, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve entered into poetry, and also fables, that is, I’m not a novelist. I’ve read very few novels in my life; for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad. I’ve never attempted a novel, but I’ve tried to write fables. I’ve dedicated my life to reading more than anything, and I’ve found that reading philosophical texts is no less pleasant than reading literary texts, and perhaps there is no essential difference between them.
My father showed me his library, which seemed to me infinite, and he told me to read whatever I wanted, but that if something bored me I should put it down immediately, that is, the opposite of obligatory reading. Reading has to be a happiness, and philosophy gives us happiness, and that is the contemplation of a problem. Quincy said that discovering the problem is no less important than discovering a solution, and I don’t know if any solutions have been discovered, but many problems have been discovered. The world continues to be more enigmatic, more interesting, more enchanting.
“For me death is a hope, the irrational certitude of being abolished, erased and forgotten. When I’m sad, I think, what does it matter what happens to a twentieth-century South American writer; what do I have to do with all of this? You think it matters what happens to me now, if tomorrow I will have disappeared? I hope to be totally forgotten, I believe that this is death.”Jorge Luis Borges
BORGES CONT’D:I said a moment ago that I’ve dedicated my life to reading and writing. For me they are two equally pleasurable activities. When writers talk about the torture of writing, I don’t understand it; for me writing is a necessity. If I were Robinson Crusoe I would write on my desert island. When I was young I thought about what I considered the heroic life of my military elders, a life that had been rich, and mine… The life of a reader, sometimes rashly, seemed to me a poor life. Now I don’t believe that; the life of a reader can be as rich as any other life. Suppose Alonso Quijano had never left his library, or bookstore, as Cervantes called it, I believe that his life reading would have been as rich as when he conceived the project of turning himself into Quixote. For him the latter life was more real, for me reading about him has been one of the most vivid experiences of my life.
And now that I have committed the indecency of turning eighty-five, I confirm without melancholy that my memory is full of verses and full of books, and I can’t see past the year 1955—I lost my reader’s vision—but if I think about my past life, I think of course about friends, loves also, but I think most of all about books. My memory is full of quotes in many languages, and I think that, returning to philosophy, that we are not enriched by its solutions, as these solutions are doubtful, they are arbitrary, and philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought. That is, what philosophy offers us isn’t a system. It’s not like someone stated a concrete and transparent piece of knowledge, it’s a series of doubts, and the study of these doubts is a pleasure. The study of philosophy can be very pleasant…
So, resuming my preliminary digressions, I would say that I don’t believe there is an essential difference between philosophy and poetry. Now, other questions, and I hope I can answer them with fewer digressions, more concretely, but clearly, I’m a little nervous, I’m very timid, I’m a veteran of timidity. I was timid when I was young, imagine now that I’m eighty-five I’m seriously terrified. [laughter]
This is one of several lectures that Jorge Luis Borges delivered at Harvard University in the fall of 1967 and spring of 1968.
MARÍ: Mr. Borges, you mentioned something very interesting about philosophy, and that is its enigmatic character. Among the important philosophical enigmas, in spite of the fact that there are many, there is one…
BORGES: I would say there’s nothing else…
MARTÍ: Among these important enigmas one is the enigma of truth, the other is the enigma of death.
BORGES: For me death is a hope, the irrational certitude of being abolished, erased and forgotten. When I’m sad, I think, what does it matter what happens to a twentieth-century South American writer; what do I have to do with all of this? You think it matters what happens to me now, if tomorrow I will have disappeared? I hope to be totally forgotten, I believe that this is death. But perhaps I’m wrong and what follows is another life on another plane, with distinct conditions, no less interesting than this one, and I will accept that life, too, just as I have accepted this one. But I would prefer not to remember this one in the other, being younger. [laughter]
STUDENT: You say that you accept and resign yourself to what life gives you, but are you not constructing this life through your actions?
BORGES:I don’t believe in free will. In this case, I’m not constructing.
Now, if you believe in free will, free will is a necessary illusion. But regarding my past, I can accept that everything that I have done has been conditional upon world history, upon the entire cosmic process that came before. But if I’m told in this moment that I’m not free, I give myself away. Here are my two hands, and I say, I can choose which I’m going to drop onto the table, and in this moment I’m sure, but, now that I’ve let fall the left hand, how can I accept that this was determined and letting the right fall would have been impossible?
But in what we refer to as the past, on the contrary, you can think, if I acted badly, I have no reason to repent, as it was already determined, and the ideas of punishment and reward both would be false, since everything has been predetermined; that free will doesn’t exist, that everything has been conditional. But this depends on the temperament of the individual. Perhaps those of you who are young feel free will more easily. As for me, it happens that it’s very difficult to believe in it.
STUDENT: You wrote that the theme of time is one of the most important. Could you tell me why you believe this?
BORGES:I have found it essential. For example, you can conceive of the universe without space since space is a creation that owes itself to touch and sight. But we are going to eliminate touch and sight, and we’re going to suppose simply a conscience. This conscience, or these consciences—they could be infinite—must communicate through words of our own sound or through music, that would be more beautiful still. So we would have a purely temporal universe, without space. But a universe without time is for me inconceivable.
STUDENT: If you were a critic of your work, how would you explain certain symbols, such as labyrinths, mirrors?
BORGES: The answer is easy in the case of the labyrinth: it’s the most evident symbol of perplexity. I feel completely lost, and the labyrinth is an obvious symbol of being lost. Now, the mirror is not so easy. It’s the idea of “I,” for example, what one has been, and later one will be a third person, it’s an aspect of the mirror.
I haven’t chosen these themes, the themes chose me. I don’t believe that any writer should search for themes or choose them, it’s convenient that the themes look for him and find him…
In the case of a story, the beginning and the end always reveal themselves to me, but not what happens between the starting point and the finish line. There are writers who say that they don’t work this way, that for them the beginning is sufficient, later they look for the best ending, the best solution. I know the beginning and the end, and I have to figure out what happens between them for the story itself, and I can be wrong. So I have to start again when I realize this.
One has to see what truth there is in this whole process; if not, it would be very tedious. At my age, one doesn’t have contemporaries. They have died. I pass a good part of my time alone, but I don’t complain about this. I am populating the time with plans for the future, a future that can conclude at any moment, of course. I have many young friends but they can’t give me their time, it’s natural.
STUDENT: Carlos Fuentes said of Buenos Aires that it would be lovely to put it into words, and he said that Borges had done it. Do you consider yourself a Buenos Aires writer?
BORGES: First, I don’t know if it’s just, but I thank him. Of course, I am from Buenos Aires. I was born in the center, it’s something I know very well, but it was a different place then. I was born in Maipú, between Esmeralda and Suipacha. The whole block was low houses, with a door to the street, with a knocker—there were no doorbells—the hallway, the inner door, patio, well, very tall ceilings. Buenos Aires was very distinct. Actually, there are many parts that I don’t know. For example, a year ago I went for the first time in my life to the Teatro Colón; I have never been in Villa del Parque, in La Boca del Riachuelo, they are places I don’t know; apart from Barracas, el Sur, el Centro, Palermo, I don’t know, but the Palermo that I imagine is something that has disappeared, that of Evaristo Carriego.
STUDENT: Each author has a masterpiece. What is yours?
BORGES: I think that this is an error, that some work is the masterpiece; any work could be.
I believe that it depends on the manner in which an author is read. If you read something in a diary, you read it with an eye toward obscurity, if you read it in a book, you read it with an eye toward remembering it. If the author is famous you go along with more respect, but the text could be the same, it could be equally valid or equally fallible. I don’t believe that definitive books exist. Furthermore, perhaps you have to see that each generation rewrites the great old books, with its own dialect and footprint.
We’re going to suppose that there are ten or twelve plots for a story, each one has to tell itself in its own way, with slight variations that are, of course, precious. Supposing that everything has already been said is an error.
Moreover, these books have been enriched by generations of readers. Without a doubt Alonso Quijano is more complex now than when Cervantes imagined him, because Alonso Quijano has been enriched, we say, by [Miguel de] Unamuno. Without a doubt Hamlet is more complex now than when Shakespeare originated him; [Hamlet] has been enriched by Coleridge, by Bradley, by Goethe, by so many people. That is, the books live on posthumously. Each time that anyone reads them, the text changes, even if slightly, and the fact of being read with respect makes us see the riches in them ignored by the author. Perhaps a good book never corresponds with everything the author set out to do. Cervantes wanted to make fun of books on chivalry, and actually, if anyone remembers Palmarín de Inglaterra, Amadís de Gaula, Tirante Blanco, it’s because Cervantes laughed at them. Hernández wrote Martín Fierro to protest the levy, to oppose the conquest of the desert, and actually these themes fall by the wayside, and here is Martín Fierro as a man that lives, that suffers, that continues living and suffering far beyond what Hernández thought about him. I almost have the conviction that every good book has been modified, has been enriched by the history of cultures…
I can’t talk about my books. I have written them and tried to forget them. I have written once, and readers have read me many times, no? I try to think of what I wrote, it’s very unhealthy to think about the past, the case of elegies is very sad, as much as the case of complaints.
STUDENT: You said that in your life that you’ve been thankful for happiness, just as you’ve been thankful for pain, and you justified the inclusion of blindness. Why are you thankful for pain and blindness?
BORGES:Because for an artist, and I try to be one, everything that happens is material for your work; sometimes it’s very difficult. Happiness doesn’t require anything more; it’s an end in itself. Unhappiness has to be transformed into something else; it has to be elevated to beauty. For an artist everything that happens to him has to be clay for his mold, and he must try to feel things this way, even if these gifts might be atrocities.
Habitus Buenos Aires’ features work by Jorge Luis Borges, Rodrigo Fresán, Osvaldo Golijov, Marcelo Birmajer, Ana María Shua & Alejandra Pizarnik, 192 p.; 23 cm x 15.5 cm. To order a copy of Habitus: Buenos Aires click here.
Habitus Magazine is written, edited, and published by Joshua Ellison. Each issue of the international journal of Diaspora literature and culture focuses on a different city, penetrating deep into the emotional and political substance of the urban environment. Every new city is a venue for illuminating a different corner of the world, and a different perspective on the issues that define us. While Habitus is rooted in the experience and language of the Jewish Diaspora, the magazine cannot be limited by the parochial boundaries of any single group. As Editor Joshua Ellison writes in the introduction to the first issue: “Habitus is not just about cataloguing distinctions. It’s a way of using the whole world as raw material for creating a more complete picture of ourselves.”
The cover of the Buenos Aires issue.
Ilan Stavans and Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky speak to Habitus about their new collaboration.