[lit-ideas] Re: Borgesiana

  • From: Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 24 Nov 2015 20:39:38 -0800

Very nice and informative. Now I'll go back to reading Borges. Thanks! :-)


On 11/24/2015 7:31 PM, (Redacted sender Jlsperanza for DMARC) wrote:

In a message dated 11/24/2015 9:35:54 P.M. Eastern Standard Time,
lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx writes: "I've been reading Borges, This Craft of
which consists of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he gave in 1967-1968."
Indeed, and a fascinating history there is behind these lectures,
discovered some years after they were delivered, in some cryptic tapes.
Oddly, that was the year H. P. Grice delivered the William James Lectures,
but in a different department. The Norton lectures are held by the
Department of Literature; the William James lectures originally bi-annually by
Philosophy and the Psychology Departments (one year each) but just by the
Department of Philosophy when Grice gave them.
Helm goes on:
"On page eight (in the Lecture "The Riddle of Poetry") he wrote-said
"Seneca wrote against large libraries; and long afterwards, Schopenhauer wrote
that many people mistook the buying of a book for the buying of the contents
of the book. Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home I feel I
shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the
temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a
on one of my hobbies -- for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry -- I
say to myself 'What a pity I can't buy that book, for I already have a copy
at home.'"
Is there an irony in this? I dunno. The logic of desire is a complex one.

W(A, p)
Let that represent A has the will that p be the case.

E.g. Borges has the will that he possesses book B.
One can enjoy being in Capri.

W(A, p)
If A enjoys a tourist in Capri and p is the realisation that A is in Capri,
the desire is fulfilled.
Now, S. O'Connor wrote: We only want what we don't have, and there's SOME
truth in it. So back to Borges's utterance
i. What a pity I can't buy Dante's Divine Comedy, because I already have a
copy of it.
ii. There are Divine Comedies and there are Divine Comedies.
I think Borges treasured the Dent edition -- bilingual Italian/English --
and he would often say that he learned Italian JUST to read Dante.
i. What a pity I can't buy Dante's Divine Comedy, because I already have a
copy of it.
"Pity" is perhaps the wrong word -- although perhaps not in Borges's
vernacular -- even if the Norton lectures were given in English. It's not like
Borges is asking for compassion. Shame may work better. But surely it is not
logically contradictory that
ii. Borges buy ANOTHER identical copy of Dante's Divine Comedy.
-- he may keep both in the book shelf, one next to the other. One with
annotations, the other without (He kept the annotations NOT on the margins of
the books, but at the very end of them).
It's different with:
iii. What a shame: I can't read Petrarca's sonnets: for I already read
For surely one can read them again and again. So Borges is posing a
psychological paradox (which is what his father taught in Buenos Aires, as
lecturer of psychology -- and the psychology of William James in particular) for
an institute of higher education -- he was a laywer by trade Borges senior

Helm goes on:

"I stopped after reading this to ask Google when Borges became blind:
1955. I then felt in urgent need of an Argentinian to explain why Borges would
speak-write the words above if he was blind. Was there someone always
with him?"
Well, he married Maria Kodama, YEARS after meeting him. Kodama was his
second wife, and some controversy arose as Borges was already married (but
divorced). Borges and Kodama married via Paraguay (which is like a South
American "Las Vegas" when it comes to marrying: they make things so easy!). The
thing is that in the original will Borges had left all his royalties to his
nephews, but by marrying Kodama these royalties passed to Kodama.
Kodama met Borges when she was a teenager and accompanied him in all his
trips. He would visit his 'modest' apartment EVERY DAY at 6 pm, and work with
him. He would read to him. And he would guide him through the complicated
streets of Buenos Aires. Borges always had a companion or two. Before
Kodama it was Thomas di Giovanni, a Bostonian who has been criticised for
written Borges's "Autobiographical Essay" for him. Di Giovanni's memoir of
Borges is "Lesson from the master". Kodama, rather than write a memoir
(although she presides the International Borges Foundation) commissioned
Williamson, a Scot, to write the authorised bio of Borges. Woodall's, instead,
is a sort of unoficial one, and never as complete, if perhaps more
Besides those lectures for the Uni of Buenos Aires published as "Professor
Borges" (whose review Helm was referring as per an old copy of NYRB),
Borges gave Saturday morning talks of Old English poetry at the Argentine
Association of English Culture (on Calle Suipacha). But more importantly, he
a reading group, that included Kodama and others that met in Borges's
modest apartment. They would go through Henry Sweet's readers of Old English,
and work with Toller & Bosworth's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. He always had
people around him.
There is a bookshop just across from his modest apartment, and he would
cross the street (with this or that 'secretary) and spend HOURS and whole
afternoons just sitting there and talking to the occasional customer. The
bookshop is in a gallery that connects the street where Borges lived (Calle
Maipu) with one of Buenos Aires's most famous streets (Calle Florida).
He was a downtown man!

Helm goes on:
"There must have been. How could he wander about in a strange bookshop
without someone leading him and reading the titles for him?"
I think he went to Harvard with his first wife, whose interest for
literature was nil. He went to England with a scholarship from The British
with his mother. Maria Kodama became the default travelling companion
afterwards. One visit to England he did with a woman surnamed Vazquez.
Kodama shared with Borges a love for epic. Her PhD dissertation for the Uni
of Buenos Aires was a comparison of Anglo-Saxon and Japanese epic (Kodama
is of mixed Japanese and German stock: a not so exotic combo for an
Argentine, land of immigrants!)
Helm goes on:
"Was that "someone" someone who would read to him at home? Is his
"looking at the many books I have" therefore merely a simplification to avoid
derailing his lecture by having his audience focus on his blindness rather on
his words?"
I think so. His must be using "looking" metaphorically. He liked the
PHYSICAL contact with books, once blind, even if he could not read them! He knew
where the books were located in his library. He had an extraordinary
memory, and he sadly recalled that he especially loved, back in his teens, at
the illustrations from his father's copy of the 11th edition of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"I have been derailed long after the fact. Perhaps I'll pick up another
old issue of the NYROB and wait for word from Buenos Aires."
Borges's blindness he took with stoicism. Journalists would make the stupid
question, "You wrote poems about the eternal night, and now you live in an
eternal night." He would joke, "Not at all: my blindness is not a black
blindness. I see yellow quite well." He used to buy yellow ties, because
yellow was one colour he could perceive in his blindness. This sort of rare
blindness (inherited) he got from his English blood line and he would comment
that in "The Lancet", one of his ancestors -- the Haslams -- was used in a
study to describe this particular type of blindness.
Looking on the bright side, he would feel enlisted along the gallery of
blind poets that preceded him, from Homer to Milton and beyond...
Since his fame in Europe and the USA was his short stories (although I
prefer his essay) I was mentioning that, once blind, he found he could return
to his original love of poetry. The sonnet form, that he adopted, allowed
him to memorise all the lines of the sonnet he was creating, and he found
amusement in that. I guess that writing a short story was more of a
complication, as writing an essay. Meanwhile, he was constantly invited to
lectures and was given all sorts of awards.

When he received the Cervantes award, he casually said, "Good! Now I will
have the money to buy a copy of the Spanish encyclopaedia Espasa Calpe!".
He said it as a joke, and the next day, Espasa Calpe offered him the full
set of I forget how many volumes as a gift! He hardly have room for them in
his modest apartment, and, sincerely, I believed he cared a hoot for this
rather VERY BORING Spaniard piece of Spaniard erudition!
Kodama was with Borges when he passed away in Switzerland. His graveyard is
simple: Anglo-Saxon in shape and with an Anglo-Saxon inscription from "The
Battle of Maldon" that translates: "and they [the soldiers] should not be
afraid" (implicature: of death)."

The Anglo-Argentine Society (a prestigious club!) met a Canning House (in
posh Belgravia) to institute the J. L. Borges Lectures, that have included
some distinguished authors some of which with zero knowledge of
Anglo-Argentine culture!

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