Arts & Culture

Borges and the Jews-Part V

In this, the final section of Ilan Stavans’ monograph on Borges and the Jews, Stavans reflects on his own relationship with Borges, as one writer to another. This piece thus circles back to the beginning of the monograph, Part I … Read More

By / July 15, 2009

In this, the final section of Ilan Stavans’ monograph on Borges and the Jews, Stavans reflects on his own relationship with Borges, as one writer to another. This piece thus circles back to the beginning of the monograph, Part I of this series, in which Stavans explored Borges’ self-identification as a writer and, oddly, as a Jew. Part II focused on Borges’ infatuation with Kabbalah. In Part III, Stavans argued that Borges carefully styled himself as a literary son of Jewish precursors. Stavans took on the so-called "apolitical" Borges in Part IV, demonstrating that he was deeply engaged in fighting Nazism, and that this engagement developed Borges’ belief in a universal "man"–the idea that all of us are "wandering Jews." Now, the Mexican-Jewish Stavans turns back to the Argentinian Borges for one last look. What’s good belongs to no one but to language and tradition. -J.L.B., "Borges and I." There isn’t one but many Borgeses. I, for one, have him in Spanish, which, because it was his native language, is fixed, untouchable, and eternal. But readers also have the masked, adulterated, perhaps even improved Borges in translation. Take his essay "Borges y yo," published in The Maker in 1960, when Borges was in his early sixties. Herein the original: Al otro, a Borges, es a quien le ocurren las cosas. Yo camino por Buenos Aires y me demoro, acaso ya mecánicamente, para mirar el arco de un zaguán y la puerta cancel; de Borges tengo noticias por el correo y veo su nombre en una terna de profesores o en un diccionario biográfico. Me gustan los relojes de arena, los mapas, la tipografía del siglo XVIII, las etimologías, el sabor del café y la prosa de Stevenson; el otro comparte esas preferencias, pero de un modo vanidoso que las convierte en atributos de un actor. Sería exagerado afirmar que nuestra relación es hostil; yo vivo, yo me dejo vivir, para que Borges pueda tramar su literatura y esa literatura me justifica. Nada me cuesta confesar que ha logrado ciertas páginas válidas, pero esas páginas no me pueden salvar, quizá porque lo bueno ya no es de nadie, ni siquiera del otro, sino del lenguaje o la tradición. Por lo demás, yo estoy destinado a perderme, definitivamente, y sólo algún instante de mí podrá sobrevivir en el otro. Poco a poco voy cediéndolo todo, aunque me consta su perversa costumbre de falsear y magnificar. Spinoza entendió que todas las cosas quieren perseverar en su ser; la piedra eternamente quiere ser piedra y el tigre un tigre. Yo he de quedar en Borges, no en mí (si es que alguien soy), pero me reconozco menos en sus libros que en muchos otros o que en el laborioso rasgueo de una guitarra. Hace años yo traté de librarme de él y pasé de las mitologías del arrabal a los juegos con el tiempo y con lo infinito, pero esos juegos son de Borges ahora y tendré que idear otras cosas. Así mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo y todo es del olvido, o del otro. No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta página. There’s a multiplicity of English versions, most of them called "Borges and I." Contrasting them is useful to understand the ways the Argentine has traveled across language. The discrepancy between them might be minuscule. Yet in a writer of Borges’ caliber, those nuances create alternative universes. I present them in chronological order according to their date of composition. I start with Anthony Kerrigan’s rendition (1962): Things happen to him, the other one, to Borges. I stroll about Buenos Aires and stop, almost mechanically now perhaps, to look at the arch of an entranceway and the ironwork gate; news of Borges reaches me in the mail and I see his name on an academic ballot or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s prose; he shares these preferences, but with a vanity that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is a hostile one; I live, I go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature; and that literature justifies me. I do not find it hard to admit that he has achieved some valid pages, but these pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good no longer belongs to anyone, not even to him, the other one, but to the language or to tradition. In any case, I am destined to perish, definitely, and only some instant of me may live on in him. Little by little, I yield him ground, the whole terrain, though I am quite aware of his perverse habit of magnifying and falsifying. Spinoza realized that all things strive to persist in their own nature: the stone eternally wishes to be stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall subsist in Borges, not in myself (assuming I am someone), and yet I recognize myself less in his books than in many other, or than in the intricate flourishes played on a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I went from the mythologies of the city suburbs to games with time and infinity, but now those games belong to Borges, and I will have to think up something else. Thus is my life a flight, and I lose everything, and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I don’t know which one of the two of us is writing this page. James E. Irby’s (1964): The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs not to one, not even to him, but rather to the language and tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitely, and only some instant of myself can survive me. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I loose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I do not know which of us has written this page. Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s (1972) translation was written in collaboration with the author himself. Let it be known that, after meeting Borges in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Di Giovanni, an American of Italian descent, moved to Buenos Aires to work with him on translating various books for a multiple-book contract with publisher E.P. Dutton. It appears that after shaping a version in English, di Giovanni persuaded Borges to change the original in a revised version, published at a future date. Thus, their relationship has been at the heart of a heated debate on the role of the translator as agent of language: It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen. I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires, stopping now and then-perhaps out of habit-to look at the arch of an old entranceway or a grillwork gate; of Borges I get news through the mail and glimpse his name among a committee of professors or a dictionary if biography. I have a taste for hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose; the other man shares these likes, but in a showy way that turns them into stagy mannerisms. It would be an exaggeration to say that we are on bad terms; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can weave his tales and poems, and those tales and poems are my justification. It is not hard for me to admit that he has managed to write a few worthwhile pages, but these pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good no longer belongs to anyone-not even the other man-but rather to speech and tradition. In any case, I am fated to become lost once and for all, and only some moment of myself will survive in the other man. Little by little, I have been surrendering everything to him, even though I have evidence of his stubborn habit of falsification and exaggeration. Spinoza held that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is so that I am someone), but I recognized myself less in his books than in those of others or than in the laborious tuning of a guitar. Years ago, I tried ridding myself of him, and I went from myths of the outlying slums of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games are now part of Borges, and I will have to turn to other things. And so, my life is a running away, and I lose everything and everything is left to oblivion or to the other man. Which of us is writing this page I don’t know. Andrew Hurley’s (1998): It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause-mechanically now, perhaps-to gaze at the arc of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, seventeenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accouterments of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is hostile-I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, nor even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition. Beyond that, I am doomed-utterly and inevitably-to oblivion, and fleeting moments will be all of me that survives in that other man. Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything. Spinoza believed that all things wish to go on being what they are-stone wishes eternally to be stone, and tiger, to be tiger. I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’, or in the tedious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and moved on from the mythologies of the slums and outskirts of the city to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now, and I shall have to think up other things. So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away-and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man. I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page. And Kenneth Krabbenhoft’s (1999): The other one. Borges, is the one things happen to. I wander around Buenos Aires, pausing perhaps unthinkingly, these days, to examine the arch of an entranceway and its metal gate. I hear about orgs in letters, I see his name on a roster of professors and in the biographical gazetter. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typeface, the taste of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose. The other one likes the same things, but his vanity transforms them into theatrical props. To say that our relationship is hostile would be an exaggeration: I live, I stay alive, so that Borges can make his literature, and this literature is my justification. I readily admit that a few of his pages are worthwhile, but these pages are not my salvation, perhaps because good writing belongs to no one in particular, not even to my other, but rather to language and tradition. As for the rest, I am fated to disappear completely, and only a small piece of me can possibly live in the other one. I’m handing everything over to him bit by bit, fully aware of his nasty habit of distortion and aggrandizement. Spinoza knew that all things desire to endure in their being: stones desire to be stones, and tigers tigers, for all eternity. I must remain in Borges rather than in myself (if in fact I am a self), and yet I recognize myself less in his books than in many others, or in the rich strumming of a guitar. Some years ago I tried to get away from him: I went from suburban mythologies to playing games with time and infinity. But these are Borges’ games now-I will have to think of something else. Thus my life is an escape. I will lose everything, and everything will belong to oblivion, or to the other. I don’t know which of us wrote this. Each translator (no women here, by the way) reshaped Borges according to his own conception of language, his linguistic and biographical background (one is Irish, another one lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a third moved to Buenos Aires, etc.). Now my own version of "Borges and I": The other one, Borges, is to whom things happen. I walk through Buenos Aires, stop, maybe a bit mechanically, to look at an arch of an entrance way and a grillwork door; I have news from Borges by mail or when I see his name in a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, the taste of coffee, and Stevenson’s prose; the other shares those preferences but with a vanity that turns them into an actor’s attributes. It would be an exaggeration to affirm that our relationship is hostile; I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature and that literature justifies me. It doesn’t cost me anything to confess he has achieved a few valid pages, but those pages can’t save me, perhaps because what’s good no longer belongs to anyone, not even to the other, but to language and tradition. In any case, I’m destined to be lost, definitively, and just some instant of me will survive in the other. Little by little I cede everything, even though I’m aware of his perverse tendency to falsify and pontificate. Spinoza understood that all things want to be preserved in their being: the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many by others and in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried freeing myself from him and went from the mythologies of the arrabal to the games with time and the infinite, but those games are Borges’ now and I shall come up with other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to the other. I don’t know which of the two writes this page.  This is a suitable place to indulge in my personal quest: Borges y yo. On June 16th, 1986, the day after Borges died, I was in Buenos Aires. I had saved enough money to buy myself a plane ticket to Argentina, hoping to visit him. The purpose of my journey was far more ambitious: to acquaint myself with Jewish life in the Southern Cone. But in my eyes, Borges, in spite of his not being Jewish, was the epicenter of that life. Throughout his career, he had written admirable pieces on Kafka, Spinoza, and the Golem. He had visited Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize and had identified with the youthful Jewish state in its struggle for existence in an unwelcoming Middle East. Far more important, his sensibility was Jewish: his inexhaustible memory; his passion for reading; his commitment to the treacherousness of translation; his ever-expanding polyglotism; and his understanding that cosmopolitanism, not nationalism, is the only panacea to the malaise of modern life. Like most admirers, I knew Borges had been diagnoses the previous November with cancer of the liver. But unbeknownst to me was the fact that he, along with María Kodama, his forty-year-old former student and now eight-weeks-old wife, had moved to Geneva. In my youthful mind-I had turned twenty-five in April-Borges was immortal. No other author, dead and alive, had influenced me more profoundly. I knew his oeuvre almost as if I had written it myself. I could recite his poems "Emerson," "General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage," "To Whoever Is Reading Me," and "The Moon." After nights of scrutizing their actions, I had made his protagonists Pierre Menard, Erik Lonrrot, Jaromir Hladík, Emma Zunz, and the magus in "The Circular Ruins," close friends of mine, to the point of holing conversations with them. His essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," written as a response of sorts to T.S. Eliot’s "Tradition and the Individual Talent," was, as I saw it, a manifesto: no artist, it stated, should be confined by the landscape in which he came of age. It was thus a surprise when, upon walking to a newspaper kiosk in the corner of Calles Suipacha and Corrientes, near to the modest Buenos Aires hotel I stayed in, I read the loud headlines: Borges had passes away the morning prior-purposely far from home, since he was distraught with Argentina, a country that, at the end of the twentieth-century, seemed more parochial than ever. Obviously, my desire to connect with him was misguided. Some years earlier, I had attended a couple of events of his in Mexico (one at the Ollín Yollitzli Auditorium, in which he shared the stage, if I remember accurately , with Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, and Günter Grass, among others), and, on an earlier visit to Buenos Aires, walked the street with him and visited his apartment. Not this time… As I walked around recreating his path, in tribute to him, while reciting to myself his poems "Clouds I" and "Clouds," memorized several years prior for a theatrical performance ("What are clouds? An architecture of chance? Maye God needs them as a warning to carry out His plan of infinite creation, and they’re threads of plot obscure and vague"), I realized Borges’ death was also my beginning. There is only so much that a young writer might carry when it comes to recognizing the impact of his predecessors on him. Maybe I needed to forget his oeuvre, to distance myself, to become free. Surely I had tried before. Years later, I chronicled my odyssey thus in my memoir, On Borrowed Words (2001), written during year-long stay in London: When I began to write, Borges had a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea-the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so disinterested in systematic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself-or rather, it used to perceive itself-as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best. As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, English, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, were his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences in literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from "Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller"-in Spanish its title is infinitely better: "Decálogo del perfecto cuentista"-by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litteratuer was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now! Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else-or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s China. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical works burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, "The Wall and the Books," about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by the campaign to urn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over. Heinrich Heine said: "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings." After the book burning, my infatuation, I confess, was left intact. Within a few months of my arrival to the United States, I already had acquired inexpensive English translations of various volumes, Ficciones among them. In fact, reading Borges in Shakespeare’s tongue was a revelation. Since he had been close to English from an early age, it appeared to me (it still does) that his oeuvre is written in Spanish through the filter of English. That is, it feels as if it was conceived in one language but executed in another. The effect is stunning: the art of translation is in its DNA, even when it doesn’t address the topic in upfront fashion. As a Mexican in New York with only sparse knowledge of el inglés, yet hoping not to become a pariah, an appendix, delving into Borges’ writing using the words of my new habitat was comforting. It granted me a refuge, an opportunity to feel at home away from my native home. Having found out that Borges was not longer in this world, I let myself loose, wandering (and wondering) without goal through city streets, retracing my affinity with the master, contemplating my own future as a novice. And reciting more, such as "Dream": "If dreaming really were a kind of truce (as people claim), a sheer repose of mind, why then if you should waken up abruptly, do you feel that something has been stolen from you?" Soon I left for Porto Alegre, Brazil, hoping to move into another landscape, another mood. Upon my return to New York, I tried ignoring news about Borges but it was foolish. Instead, I have learned to embrace my debt to him. Surely, I would not be the author I am today had it not been for the magical sessions I’ve spent with him. He has taught me that literature, if it has any merit, it is because it doesn’t compete with the present-but with the past and future. Every instant of our life is justified if it leaves a modicum of meaning on a page, however imperfect that page might be. It has also shown me how to be Jewish: asking questions, looking myself as a surveyor of symbols, and recognizing that whatever happens to me is an instrument. #

Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement. His work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995) and comic strips in the case of Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000). Stavans is editor of several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998). A selection of his work appeared in 2000 under the title The Essential Ilan Stavans. In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been the recipient of international prizes and honors, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction.