The Habit of His Verse

*When I consider how my light is spent
*Ere half my days in this dark world and wide

  • John Milton

On the banks of the Charles there are faded wooden benches. They face the river and its red brick bridges, and they face away from Cambridge—towards Boston, and the sea. In February 1968, a foot of snow has fallen and the benches are nearly submerged, their porous planks sealing in the winter chill. Here on one of these benches Jorge Luis Borges sits down. In February 1969 he will sit down here again, in his story “The Other,” and a younger Borges will walk over and join him on the bench, thinking he is in Geneva in 1919. In the story, the younger Borges will dream their conversation; the older Borges will live it. 

Borges is in Cambridge to talk about poetry. The Argentine writer has been chosen to deliver the 1968 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. The lectures will be recorded and shelved in the University Archives, where they will remain for thirty-two years until someone finds them in a forgotten dusty corner, when they will be transcribed, and published, and reviewed in the New York Times. “The unhurried flow and warmth of these talks produce a sense of intimacy,” Micaela Kramer will write. 

Intimacy is a challenge in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, which seats over one thousand in darkpaneled pews set back from the stage. Borges is small and seems even smaller in this room, as he walks in and ascends the stage, cane in hand, dressed all in gray. He grips the sides of the lectern. “I would like to give you fair warning”, he says, “of what to expect—or, rather, of what not to expect—from me.” His English is faultless, if formal; his voice hoists up the end of his phrases, pausing between them, garnishing their words with a slightly rolled r. He admits from the start that he has no grand revelations and that he can only offer to the audience his perplexities and his doubts. He quotes Stevenson, Chesterton, Milton, and Homer. The citations are from his memory, because he has no notes. He has no notes because, in 1968, Borges is blind. 

*For others there remains the universe, 
**In my half-light: the habit of my verse. *

1955, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Outside the Casa Rosada, where Evita had addressed her adoring crowds, those same crowds in the same plaza rioted. Her husband Perón had fallen into disfavor and one dictatorship was replacing another. Borges’ job (if he had kept it) was that of a poultry inspector. This was thanks to Perón, who had promoted him from his position as librarian, in return for Borges’ politics. In 1955, with Perón in hiding, he was offered a new position: director of the National Library of Argentina. They never officially fired the previous Peronist director, who continued to come to work, sitting perhaps in the reading room organizing copies of La Nación in reverse chronological order, until one day he stopped showing up. 

There were nine hundred thousand books in the library, so approximately infinity (nine hundred thousand and one is one way express the infinite). They were there but out of reach because 1955 was the year Borges’ blindness accelerated and his gate of surveillance swung shut. 

From his “Poem of the Gifts”: “No one should read self-pity or reproach / into this statement of the majesty / of God; who with such splendid irony / granted me books and blindness at one touch.” Nine hundred thousand books—nine hundred thousand gifts—and only their outlines were discernible. When Borges was a child he lived not in Buenos Aires’ suburbs, with its legends and local color, but on the other side of his suburban house’s speared fence: in a garden, and in a library, full of unlimited texts. Eden had been gained through his position and now is lost to his possession. It is enough to make someone go mad. 

In an interview with the Paris Review, years later, Borges would quote Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line. He would talk about the unreality of real life, the futility of realism: the idea that even when trying to write realistically about the  world, a story becomes a fantasy, because the world itself is fantastic.

The story of Borges’ blindness might as well be one of his fictions. Borges does not see Cambridge like others do. Its curved squares and fragmented campuses, whatever the weather, are framed in tinted mist. Black and red evade him; blue is seeping out slowly; little by little only a faded yellow remains. His daily trek from 22 Concord Avenue to the white-washed Radcliffe library, his accompanied walks from Sanders to the Charles, can be no more than a theater for conversation and for thought. Clasping his palms together, Borges talks in his second lecture about metaphor, about the movement from the language of Muses to the discourse of the subconscious.  “Rather uncouth,” he says of the latter. “Still, we have to put up with the mythology of our time.” His audience laughs and so for a moment gains a face.

Blindness is more than a nuisance for Borges: it is a literary and a metaphysical problem. Already in 1929, in the poetry collection  Fervor de Buenos Aires, it is more the reader than the writer who is the key to any progression towards truth. “If the pages of this book consent to some pleasing verse, forgive me, reader, the discourtesy of having usurped it,” the “To the Reader” section states. “It is a chance and trivial circumstance that you should be the reader of these exercises, and I their composer.” His essay “Kafka and his Predecessors” posits the reader’s powerful agency: each reader brings to a text his own inventory of previous readings, and in doing so shapes the text itself. The meaning of a poem by Browning is inevitably changed after we have read Kafka; Kafka—or rather the reader of Kafka—might follow Browning chronologically, but still through interpretation creates the poet and his verse. Instead of a linear chronology of literary history,  we have an infinite multiplication of texts and possible readings, each of which inflects what we have read before. 

All texts are wholly original, then—and yet, in a sense, none of them are. This is because all stories have already been told, only to be retold again and again. In one of Borges’ very short stories, Caesar’s death—Et tu, Brute?—is echoed centuries later and leagues away by an Argentine  gaucho stabbed on the plains, who proclaims as he dies: Pero, che? Borges, a multilingual and vociferous reader, finds such implausible connections more easily and is both awed and overwhelmed by them: this is why he will never write a novel, why his stories become increasingly brief. They are rewritings, translations, rather than being the things themselves. “Perhaps the history of the universe is the history of the diverse intonations of a few metaphors,” he writes in “Pascal’s Sphere”—metaphors to be reshuffled and adorned by new writers. The more one reads, though, the better one will perceive those few main stories couching and underlying the rest. It is the reader, not the writer, who creates literature, who brings it to life—and who ensures its continuation. “One reads what one likes,” Borges says in his third lecture, “yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.” And the reader, exempt from this gulf, is happier for it.

“I think of myself as being essentially a reader,” says Borges in his final Cambridge lecture, “The Poet’s Creed.” Borges’ creed is not much more or less than this. What happens, then, when his identity as reader is undermined—when he can no longer make out the words on a page? 

Borges’ blindness is not a surprise. It ran in his family: his father and his grandfather had both gone blind by middle age; his great-grandfather was subject to one of the first British eye operations.  “It was a slow, summer twilight,” he will say. “There was nothing particularly pathetic or dramatic about it.” In blindness he writes in meter again, freed by the confines of classical rhythm, which is easier to remember than free verse. He writes letters, still, to friends like Victoria Ocampo, with whom he had founded the magazine  Sur in the thirties. Some are preserved within manila folders at Harvard’s Houghton Library: a careful slanting print of the early years and a Spanish sprinkled with anglicisms (“roundabout”; “groping our way”), is replaced by the seventies with a wild, nearly unintelligible cursive. In his Cambridge lectures he cites Homer, Milton; in other speeches he recalls other blind writers—James Joyce, William Prescott, the French-Argentine historian Paul Groussac who preceded him at the National Library. He can do this thanks in part to his memory: meeting a Romanian man in Paris, he quotes to him an eight-verse poem, in Romanian, that a young war veteran had composed and recited to him in Geneva fifty years before. Borges did not speak Romanian. In a certain way blindness is his heritage.

This is not to deny that it was excruciating to him. When Borges first went blind he would dream about reading, nightmares of black and red characters proliferating into long unreadable sequences and then curling back in on themselves. He wrote poems about this “hollow gloom,” strung uneasily somewhere between darkness and light.  He missed the darkness, which is denied to a blind man, for whom eyes open and close on an identical scene. From “History of the Night”: “To think that night would not exist / without those tenuous instruments, the eyes.” 

But since he realized he would lose his sight, when he was young, he had time to work through the idea from the start. Blindness is more than biographical in Borges’ poems and stories. Always inevitable, it becomes less a chronological life event and more inscribed in his very person. It is a trait similar to his love of encyclopedias or skill for foreign languages: a trope that lends itself to his fictions more than arising from his biography. Blindness is to be found between the lines of Borges’ earliest poems. Even in Fervor de Buenos Aires, sprinkled with the “local color” that will later embarrass him, there is a sense of uncertainty as to the boundaries between the self and what it sees. Dawn in Buenos Aires becomes “that tremendous conjecture / of Schopenhauer and Berkeley / Which declares the world / An activity of the mind.” In “Caminata” the suggestion is more direct: “I am the only spectator of this street, / if I stopped watching it, it would die.” Such idealism will be diluted later, as Borges actually goes blind and the world he no longer sees comes to seem more real. But as a younger man, there is both a fear of blindness and a doubt regarding the reaches of sight. 

Later, in 1960, “The Witness” meditates on seeing and blindness and the limits of both. When a Saxon man, the last to have seen the pagan rites of Woden, is dead, the rites themselves will die too: so one thing or infinity things die with each person’s death, bound within their sight, and blinded by their loss. And then “Simplicity”: 

*It opens, the gate to the garden With the docility of a page 
**That frequent devotion questions
**And inside, my gaze
**Has no need to fix on objects
*That already exist, exact in memory

Fear of the unknown has surrendered to acceptance of a reality that has no need of sight; that in a sense renders all blind, because it exists independently—real only in memory. “I live in memory,” he says—that is the imagination, for him: memory, or a peculiar intermingling of memory and oblivion, which creates scenes more attune to reality than those of his or anyone’s eyes. All Borges’ fictions are no more than verbal constructs: they are detached from reality by the same speared fence that cut off his childhood library from the gauchos outside. But there is the hope that the gap between writing and reality, though unbridgeable, can ultimately be obliquely approached. A reader can sidle up closer to it through past readings, through the memory of reading. “I do not know if that geography is important,” he writes in a letter to Victoria Ocampo: “my most vivid memory of Lugano is the passionate reading of De Quincey’s vision.” Reading, sight, and memory become a circular process, fortified and fused by the art of telling stories. 

When Borges is in Cambridge he visits the homes of Melville, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson. “Friends seemed to multiply in Cambridge,” he will later say to a translator. When he is in Cambridge, in the fall, before the benches by the Charles trap the winter chill in them, he will write “New England—1967.”

*The forms in my dreams have changed;
**now there are red houses side by side
**and the delicate bronze of the leaves
**and chaste winter and pious wood,
**as on the seventh day, the world **is good.
In the twilight there persists
**what’s almost non-existent, bold, sad,
**an ancient murmur of Bibles, war,
**soon (they say) the first snow will fall
*and America waits for me on every corner…

The red that escapes his sight still populates his memory, as Borges reads Cambridge through history and through books. A Puritan heritage modulates the noises in its streets (an ancient murmur at twilight recalls the seventh day). Emerson too is here in the delicate bronze of the leaves—“Nature” paints them bronze, animates the faded yellow. Perhaps, even, there is the mortal dread of Moby Dick, a futile summoning-up of the non-existent in the middle of what’s there. In New England, in 1967, these all are ways of reading Cambridge, all results of reading poetry. Borges sees it as perhaps only a blind man can.