Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Course in English Literature by Jorge Luiz Borges

In his Autobiografia, after mentioning his appointment as the director of the National Library in 1955 Borges explains: “The following year I received a new satisfaction, by being named professor of English and North American literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Other candidates had sent detailed accounts of their translations, articles, conferences, and other accomplishments. I limited myself to the following declaration: ‘Without realizing it, I have been preparing for this position my entire life.’ That simple statement had the desired effect. They hired me, and I spent twelve happy years at the university.”

The 25 classes presented in this book were recorded by a small group of students of English literature so that other students, who couldn’t attend class because they were working, would be able to study the the material. The transcriptions of these recordings, produced by the same students, form the basis of this book.

The tapes have been lost; they were probably used to tape other classes, in other subjects. Such carelessness might seem unpardonable today.  However, we need to understand that in 1966 – the year these lectures were given- Jorges Luis Borges was not yet considered the indisputable genius he is today. For many in his class, Borges –though an eminent writer and director of the National Library –must have simply been one more professor. The transcriptions of the classes, therefore, were made for the purposes of studying the material, and were probably done quickly in order to prepare for the exam.

We might, in fact, be grateful for this: there was no attempt to modify Borges’s spoken language, nor edit his sentences, which have thus reached us intact with their repetitions and their platitudes  This fidelity can be verified by comparing Borges’s language here with that of other texts of his oral discourse, such as his many lectures and published interviews. The transcribers also made certain to note under the transcription of each class the phrase: “A faithful version.” This faithfulness was maintained, fortunately, not only in Borges’s discourse, but also in asides and colloquialisms the professor used to address his students.

Editing this book was like running after a Borges who was constantly getting lost among the books in a library – disappearing around corner after corner of a vast labyrinth. As soon as we had found a date or a biography we were looking for, Borges would race ahead and vanish behind an unknown personage or an obscure Oriental legend.  When, after looking long and hard, we found him again, he would toss us an anecdote without a date, a quote from an author, and again we would watch him disappear, escaping through the crack of a door left ajar o between rows of shelves and racks. In order to recover his words we followed him through the pages of innumerable encyclopedias and rooms of the National Library in Buenos Aires; we searched for him in the pages of the books he wrote and in dozens of lectures and interviews he gave; we found him in his nostalgia for Latin, in the Norse sagas, and in the memories of his colleagues and friends.  By the time we finally completed our task, we had traversed more than two thousand years of history, the seven seas, and the five continents. But Borges kept fleeing from us, calm and smiling. Running from ancient India to medieval Europe hadn’t tired him out. Traveling from Caedmon to Coleridge was, for him, an everyday affair.

Within the framework of these classes, Borges erudition us always apparent. This erudition, however, never limits his communication with his students. Borges doesn’t quote in order to show off his knowledge, but only when it seems appropriate to the subject a hand.  What matters to him more than the precise facts are the ideas. In spite of this, and in spite of excusing himself for his bad memory for dates, it is surprising the number of dates he does remember, and with what incredible precision. We must remember that at the time he gave these classes – and since 1955 – Borges was almost completely blind, and certainly unable to read. His quoting of texts, therefore, and his recitation of poetry, depended upon his memory, and are a testimony to the vast extent of his reading.
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…There is something very strange about Boswell, something that has been interpreted in two different ways. I’m going to look at the two extreme views: the one of the English essayist and historian Macaulay who wrote around the middle of the nineteenth century, and that of Bernard Shaw, written, I believe, around 1915, or something like that. Then there is the whole range of judgments between the those two. Macaulay says that preeminence of Homer as an epic poet, of Shakespeare as a dramatic poet, of Demosthenes as an orator, and of Cervantes as a novelist is no less indisputable than the preeminence of Boswell as a biographer. And then he says that all those eminent names owe their preeminence to their talent and brilliance, and that the odd thing about Boswell is that he owes his preeminence as a biographer to his foolishness, his inconsistency, his vanity, and his imbecility. Then he recounts a series of instances in which Boswell appears as a ridiculous character. He says that if these things that happened to Boswell had happened to anybody else, that person would have wanted the earth o swallow him up. Boswell, however, dedicated himself to publicizing them. For example, there’s the scorn shown to him by an English duchess, and the fact that the members of the club he managed to join thought that there could not be a person less intelligent than Boswell.

But Macaulay forgets that we owe the narration of almost all those facts to Boswell himself. Moreover, I believe a priori that a person with the lights out upstairs can write a good poem. I have known poets, “whose name I do not wish to recall”, who were extremely vulgar, and even trivial, apart from their poetry, but they were were well enough informed to know that a poet should exhibit delicate sentiments, should express noble melancholy, should limit himself to certain vocabulary. And o these people, outside their work – some were broken men- but to tell the truth, when they wrote, they did so with decorum because they had learned the trade.  Now, I think this is possible in the case of a short composition – a fool can utter a brilliant sentence – but it seems quite rare for a fool to be able to write an admirable biography of seven or eight hundred pages in spite of being a fool or, according to Macaulay, because he was a fool.

Now, let us take a look at the opposite opinion, that of Bernard Shaw. Bernard Shaw, in one of his long and incisive prologues, says that he is heir to an apostolic succession of dramatists, that tis succession comes from the Greek tragedians – from Aeschylus, Sophocles, through Euripides – and then passes through Shakespeare, through Marlowe.  He says that he is not, in fact, better than Shakespeare, that if he had lived in Shakespeare’s century he would not have written works better than Hamlet or Macbeth; but now he can, for he cannot stand Shakespeare, because he has read authors who are better than him. Before, he mentioned other dramatists, names that are somewhat surprising for such a list.  He says we have the four Evangelists, those four great dramatists who created the character of Christ. Before, we had Plato, who created the character of Socrates. Then we have Boswell, who created the character of Johnson. “And now, we have me, who has created so many characters it is not worth listing them, the list would be almost infinite, as well as being well known.” “Finally,” he says, “I am heir to the apostolic succession that begins with Aeschylus and ends in me and that undoubtedly will continue.”

So here we have these two extreme opinions: one, that Boswell was an idiot who had the good fortune to meet Johnson and write his biography – that’s Macaulay’s – and the other, the opposite, of Bernard Shaw, who says that Johnson was, among his other literary merits, a dramatic character created by Boswell.

It would be unusual for the truth to be exactly in the middle between these two extremes. Lugones, in his prologue to El imperio jesuitico  [The Jesuit Empire], says that people often claim that the truth can be found between two extreme statements, but that would be very strange in a particular case for there to be, for instance, 50 percent in favor and 50 percent against. The most natural would be for there to be 52 percent against and 48 percent in favor, or something like that. And this can be applied to any war and any argument. In other words, one side will be a little more right and one a little more wrong.

So, now we will return to the relationship between Boswell and Johnson.  .  .

1 comment:

  1. “I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek. Obligatory happiness! We seek happiness as well. For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advise my students: If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost – which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you,. Reading is a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment. It is the only way to read.” – Jorge Luis Borges