“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”— Jorge Luis Borges
Is Borges the 20th century’s most important writer? This was the question that Jane Ciabattari posed in an essay published on BBC Culture, and answered thus: “Over the decades since his death in 1986, Borges’ global stature has continued to grow.”
“Today one could consider Borges the most important writer of the 20th Century,” says Suzanne Jill Levine, translator and general editor of the Penguin Classics five-volume Borges series. Why? “Because he created a new literary continent between North and South America, between Europe and America, between old worlds and modernity.”
As it often happens, Jill Levine forgot to include Asia in the “literary continent” created by Borges. She also failed to mention Asia’s place within the essential architecture of the Borgesian Multiverse. But when Levine says, “In creating the most original writing of his time, Borges taught us that nothing is new, that creation is recreation, that we are all one contradictory mind, connected amongst each other and through time and space, that human beings are not only fiction makers but are fictions themselves, that everything we think or perceive is fiction, that every corner of knowledge is a fiction,” she actually enumerates the aspects of eastern philosophy, metaphysics and mysticism which have deeply influenced Borges and much of his works.
Just like Borges’ wondrous story “The Aleph” – “a small iridescent sphere” that contains “universal space” – the kaleidoscopic works of Borges contain the whole world and are reflective of influences from all time and space contained within the history of literature, poetry and thought.
Deepened by the vast knowledge of the library, and always attracted to the concise, Borges divulged his metaphysical insights and fundamental truths in a few essential lines. For example, what took Martin Heidegger more than 500 pages to uncover in Being And Time – that time and being are inseparable – was revealed by Borges in these lines:
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”
When literature and literary fiction are displaying an obsession with “trends” and “topicality” today, when metaphysical philosophy has become a vestigial subject, when many authors have stopped working with the fundamental questions of life, and when prize-winning novels tend to become outdated quickly, the works of Borges – which constantly address the central enigmas of life – have the rarest of all qualities: they are universal, they are revelatory, and they are timeless. They will continue to surprise and astonish readers till the end of time itself, and may even continue to exist within the universe, in some inconceivable way, in the afterlife of time.
In March 1984, Jorge Luis Borges and Argentinean poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari came together on Radio Municipal in Buenos Aires for a series of dialogues which have been translated into English for the first time by Jason Wilson, Tom Boll and Anthony Edkins, and published as Conversations – in three hardbound volumes – by the independent publisher Seagull Books. At the time of the dialogues, Borges (1899-1986) was 85 years old. Eye problems ran in his family, and he had been blind for 30 years.
Conversations is a more substantial and much wider collection of dialogues than the single volume Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges by Fernando Sorrentino, translated by Clark M Zlotchew, which collected the conversations with Borges during the late 1960s. The three volumes are arranged carefully in the form of diverse themes connected to Borges’ works, ideas, opinions, obsessions and personal life, with titles such as “The Eternal Traveller”, “About Dreams”, “Concerning Love”, “The Mystic Swendenborg”, and “Two Trips of Japan”, among others.
The recurrence of dreams, mirrors and labyrinths seep through the dialogues, which enthral and entertain, while offering invaluable insights into the way Borges felt, thought and spoke, revealing his vast knowledge, penetrating revelations, candid honesty, childlike wonder, profound wisdom and sense of humour.
Milan Kundera emphatically shared Hermann Broch’s insistence that “knowledge is the novel’s only morality”. While reading Conversations, one strongly senses that Borges – who never wrote a novel – is always attempting to grasp an insight and advance knowledge through the dialogues, and doesn’t leave out anything, however wondrous or fantastical – like dream or myth – from which truth or some aspect of truth can be found. He concludes: “I would say that fantasy literature is part of reality for reality must include everything.”
In “East, I-Ching and Buddhism” (Conversations, Volume I), Borges says, “I have always been keen on the East since The Arabian Nights and my reading of a poem by Edwin Arnold on Buddha’s legend.” Then he points out, “I think that what we call ‘Western culture’ is not completely Western – there are Eastern influences on Pythagoras and the Stoics. And our culture is, in some ways, the dialogue between the Greeks (let’s call them that) and the Holy Scripture.” And he later adds, to denote a possible contemporary synthesis between Eastern and Western world views, ‘All this…should make us forget whether we are from the East or from the West and unite us all. Perhaps, sources of our culture are various.”
In “Buddhism” (Conversations, Volume II), Borges explains his introduction to Buddhism in detail. “I was a boy and I read a poem by a fairly mediocre English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, titled ‘Light of Asia’, where he recounts in fairly unremarkable verse the legend of Buddha. I remember the last lines: ‘The dew is on the lotus / Rise, great sun!’ and then, ‘The dewdrop slips into the shining sea!’ that is, the individual soul is lost in the whole. I read that poem – it was quite an effort – but those lines which I must have read around 1906 (laughs) have been with me ever since.”
Borges goes on to say, ‘Then I read Schopenhauer…I must have been 16 years old…Schopenhauer talks about Buddhism, he says that he is a Buddhist and that led me…I don’t know how a copy of the book by Köppen fell into my hands, a now forgotten book in two volumes and the one that Schopenhauer had read, the one that introduced him to Buddhism. That book caught my interest straight away, and then I read the book by Max Müller, Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, and I read – much later on in Buenos Aires – the philosophical history by Deussen, Schopenhauer’s disciple, who begins his History of Philosophy with three sizeable volumes about India, and only later gets around to Greece. Usually, one would begin with Greece, but not him – he begins with India.’
Here, Borges also declares, “I have the greatest respect and the greatest love for Indian philosophy in particular, and for Chinese philosophy.”
When Borges is not talking about theology and metaphysics, and subjects such as “Chance or Time”, he is talking about many authors and poets who feature in the dialogues. In “Kafka Could Be Part Of Human Memory” (Conversations, Volume I), he remarks, “Kafka writes a good part of his work during the 1914-18 war; one of the worst wars ever. He must have suffered it greatly. Also, he was a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was growing. He lived in Austria, well, Bohemia which was then part of Austria. He died in Berlin, I think. All these circumstances – living in a besieged city, in a country that was winning but was then defeated – reverberate in his work. Yet if the reader did not know about this, he wouldn’t notice it. Kafka transmuted all this.”
Borges thought about himself primarily as a reader, and only then as a writer. From his works, it becomes evident that he has read whoever and whatever is required to be read – and much more – from the ancient to the modern. The library played a central role in his life, and was also related to his profession.
The “first regular full-time job” that Borges secured – at the age of 38 – was at the Miguel Cane branch of the Municipal Library in Buenos Aires. He started work as a first assistant, and then got promoted to third official; his primary work was related to cataloguing books. He could finish his library work, go to the basement and dedicate several hours to reading and writing.
It was there, during these nine years of “solid unhappiness”, that Borges wrote most of the stories which are the central basis of his fame and reputation. In “Literary Thinker” (Conversations, Volume III) Borges says, “I am not sure about being a good writer, but I believe myself to be a good reader (laughs) which is more important, since, well, one dedicates a small part of time to writing and a lot to reading.”
Conversations cannot and must not be missed by all lovers of Borges and readers of literature. The three beautifully produced books also feel like collector’s items. Dylan Thomas memorably said, “The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe...” One can say the same about good books. The existence of these three volumes of Conversations with Borges will perhaps also calm the storms on Jupiter, change the colours of the hexagonal cloud formation on Saturn’s North Pole, spark a fresh burst of high energy gamma rays from the galactic centre and make our world a bit more imaginative, wondrous, wiser and happier.
Conversations (Volumes 1, 2, 3), Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari, translated by Jason Wilson, Tom Boll and Anthony Edkins, Seagull Books.
Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of Anatomy of Life. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine. His short story “The Self and The Other” – related to the works of Jorge Luis Borges – can be read here.