The Poetry Empire Webring
There are writers that only require a single book to gain admission into Literature's Kingdom: Cervantes with El Quijote, Joyce with Ulysses, Milton with Paradise lost the list could be infinite. Others, such as Quevedo, Eliot, and Gide, gain immortality not because of one book in particular, but because of their entire oeuvre. Borges belongs to this second group.
When one thinks of Borges, one thinks more of a literature, than of a writer. Borges' stories and poems are aimed at the universe, unlike the writer with clearly defined scopes and goals whose book only reaches those goals. Through out his vast oeuvre, one keeps discovering the man of refined intellect, the philosopher, the "writer for writers" as he was considered some twenty years ago, in a somewhat dismissive way. He was not a writer for the masses, not for the people, mind you, when political propaganda was rampant in Latin America, and it was easy to divide the world in two.
Borges' greatness does not fit into one book. His artistry belongs to both fiction and poetry. It was fashionable to consider Borges the story teller superior to Borges the poet. I disagree. Partiality for his prose is due to Borges' own insecurities with his earlier poetry. In his youth, Borges helped create the ultraist movement. A movement, whose main ideals were to be "enemies of rhyme" and "to place the metaphor above anything else", as Borges, somewhat jokingly explained many years later. It was a time, when Borges longed to be (as he himself confessed) Whitman. Among his concerns in those poems of youth was to be Argentinean, to write like Argentineans, with Argentinean's dialect and vocabulary.
After his third book of poetry, San Martín Notebook, he decided to forget about poetry and concentrated on writing his marvelous short stories and essays. His two most famous collections of short stories were written in this period: "Fictions" and "The Aleph". Stories that, as literature's ultimate game, confused and tricked readers with the almost scholarly approach he took. These stories pretended to be essays when in fact they were great creations of fiction. An example: "Pierre Menard, author of el Quijote". This story, which deals with a man who tried to write el Quijote in the 20th-century, was so intricate, the bibliography so thoroughly explained, that many people actually started looking for a Pierre Menard biography and his writings in libraries!
Nonetheless, I'd say that Borges' greatest virtue is the rediscovery of the Spanish language. Taking the language towards regions that had not before been visited and using words with the greatest of clarity and precision than any Spanish writer of this century. More than anything Borges is a great verbal writer. His descriptions, his use of adjectives, are always outstanding. An example from his fiction: "Nobody disembarked in the unanimous night" One from his poetry: "It was known by the arduous students of Pythagoras"
The great elegance with which Borges addresses his themes, the beauty of his language, the fascination caused by the way he viewed Literature, have caused a somewhat deadly influence in many writers. I am not surprised by the dominance that Borges had on Literature. Similar to that exercised by Joyce, Eliot, and Goethe in their own time. His style, so clear and precise, is easy to fall in love with and consciously or unconsciously imitate. Borges had an answer to this, something he wrote while still a young writer, unaware that it could later be applied to him: "One tends to criticize writers who clearly imitate a particular writer. I don't think it's plagiarism or something done intentionally, but when one does that it's due to the fact that he believes that writer represents what Literature is."
Borges' favorite themes include courage, bravery, and specific archetypal objects, such as the labyrinth, tigers, swords, the sea, which are used as symbols for metaphysical problems (mainly the problem of time). Borges always neglected both "realism" and psychology in literature. He did not think that literature's aim should be to teach or to dwell deeply on characters lives in order to know about them. Borges seemed content to writing fictions, and creating sophisticated and ingenious mind games.
It is amusing that critics are always looking for things that for them are important in Borges' work. A good example of this is the critically perceived theme of homosexuality in one of his most famous stories: "The Intruder", a story that tells of two very close brothers and how their lives are affected when they meet a woman whom both fall in love with. Borges returned to poetry in the 50s with a very important book: "The Maker". His return to poetry occurred after he went blind. It was easier to "write" poems in his head and then have someone transcribe them to paper, (although he also began many great stories in this way). Starting with "the Maker", Borges retook some traditional forms, specifically the sonnet. He created wonderful poems, such as: "The poem of the gifts", "Chess", "The Golem", "Labyrinth", and many more. His poetry added another topic he barely addressed in his works of fiction: love.
Although as stated, he continued writing fiction, his great poetry came in the 60's and 70's with books such as: "The other, the same", "In praise of the shadow", "The gold of tigers", "History of the night", "The iron coin", "The unending Rose". Borges' life was peaceful. He did not have the political impetuosity of Neruda, he did not worry about approaching the political figures as García Márquez. His love life was certainly not one to be envied. He always had by his side the imposing figure of his mother who took care of his literary career and more often than not, found fault with the few women Borges managed to attract.
Borges married twice, both times when he was already an old man. His first marriage was a disaster, so much that he removed a poem written for his first wife from the book "In praise of the shadow" in its later editions. His second wife was woman who had been his trusted secretary and had, to an extent, taken over his life near its end. Borges married her shortly before his death. He seemed to have been happy with her and found some solace in her devotion towards him.
It is hard in this century for man to only dedicate himself to literature and neglect politics, and for this Borges was staunchly criticized. This was viewed as sinful (how can one forget Sartre's lapidary comment regarding the duty of writers from underdeveloped countries?). For that he was attacked and judged most arbitrarily. The attitude seemed to be, "I like or dislike what you write based on your political opinions."
It is almost useless to talk about the Nobel Prize. Who deserved it more than Borges did? But in Sweden his political skepticism was viewed as a form of corruption, as a way of agreeing with the atrocities of the juntas that governed many South American nations in the 70s. Borges proved that it was not enough to be a great writer, nor was it enough to change the course of Literature. One had to have strong political convictions as well. Go out to the street, sign manifests, march
Maybe Borges tried to make us understand that literature
should not have anything to do with politics. Maybe it was one of Borges' endless games
with his readers. Maybe it was a sign of courage - defending a position that could not be
popular. Borges died in 1986. One can take anything Borges wrote and be caught forever by
his talent, his ingenuity, and his absolute commitment to literature.