The Whole World Was Looking At Him
I was unhappy during my adolescence, but the truth is that I wanted to be unhappy. I wanted to be a Prince Hamlet, a Raskolnikov, I even wanted to be a Werther, and possibly did become one, but now I realize that I was acting a bit, as young romantics act, as do all "angry young men." These are romantic games, vain, and I would say unimportant. Now I don't know whether I feel resigned or not, but I feel relatively happy. Perhaps because now I am more or less who I am. I know my limits. I know there are many things that I should not try to do, I believe I know what I should write, or rather what I can write. When I was young I knew that I was going to be a writer. At the same time I felt limited and didn't know what kind of writer I was going to be.
Oscar Wilde's 1888 story The Happy Prince is about a metal statue who befriends a bird. At the age of nine, Jorge Luis Borges translated it into Spanish. By 12 he was reading Hamlet, by 15 he wanted, as he says above, to become the Prince of Denmark. Due to a genetic disease, Borges was totally blind by his fifties, but although he could no longer himself read, he continued his writing. His mother was his personal secretary for most of his life, and before her death at the age of 99 she twice attempted to marry off her blind son to a woman who would take care of him. Was he the metal statue, or the bird? Borges gave one of his most extensive interviews to the short story writer Richard Burgin, although some questions from his other interviews are also included in the transcript that follows.
Q: Was there ever a time when you didn't love literature?
JORGE LUIS BORGES: No, I always knew. I always thought of myself as a writer, even before I wrote a book. Let me say that even when I had written nothing, I knew that I would. I do not think of myself as a good writer but I knew that my destiny or fate was a literary one, no? I never thought of myself as being anything else.
Q: You never thought about taking up any career? I mean, your father was a lawyer.
JLB: Yes. But after all, he had tried to be a literary man and failed. He wrote some very nice sonnets. But he thought that I should fulfill that destiny, no? And he told me not to rush into print.
Q: But you were published when you were pretty young. About twenty.
JLB: Yes, I know, but he said to me, "You don't have to be in a hurry. You write, you go over what you've written, you destroy, you take your time. What's important is that when you publish something you should think of it as being pretty good, or at least the best you can do."
Q: When did you begin writing?
JLB: I began when I was a little boy. I wrote an English handbook ten pages long on Greek mythology, in very clumsy English. That was the first thing I ever wrote.
Q: You mean "original mythology" or a translation?
JLB: No, no, no, no, no. It was just saying, for example, well, "Hercules attempted twelve labors" or "Hercules killed the Nemean Lion."
Q: So you must have been reading those books when you were very young.
JLB: Yes, of course. I'm very fond of mythology. Well, it was nothing, it was just a, it must have been some fifteen pages long... with the story of the Golden Fleece and the Labyrinth and Hercules, he was my favorite, and then something about the loves of the gods, and the tale of Troy. That was the first thing I ever wrote. I remember it was written in a very short and crabbed handwriting because I was very short-sighted. That's all I can tell you about it. In fact, I think my mother kept a copy for some time, but as we've traveled all over the world, the copy got lost, which is as it should be, of course, because we thought nothing whatever about it, except for the fact that it was being written by a small boy. And then I read a chapter or two of Don Quixote, and then, of course, I tried to write archaic Spanish. And that saved me from trying to do the same thing some fifteen years afterwards, no? Because I had already attempted that game and failed at it.
Q: Do you remember much from your childhood?
JLB: You see, I was always very short-sighted, so when I think of my childhood, I think of books and the illustrations in books. I suppose I can remember every illustration in Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It and so on. And the illustrations in the Arabian Nights. And Dickens - Cruikshank and Fisk illustrations. Of course, well, I also have memories of being back in the country, of riding horseback in Estancia and Uruguay in the Argentine. I remember my parents and the house with the large patio and so on. But what I chiefly seem to remember are small and minute things. Because those were the ones that I could really see. The illustrations in the encyclopedia and the dictionary, I remember them quite well. Chambers Encyclopedia or the American edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with the engravings of animals and pyramids.
Q: So you remember the books of your childhood better than the people.
JLB: Yes, because I could see them.
Q: Have you corresponded much with other writers?
Q: I didn't think you had. You've been more solitary.
JLB: And besides, I'm a very poor letter writer. For example, I'm awfully fond of my mother. I love her. I'm always thinking about her. And, of course, I have to dictate my letters. But even when, for example, while I am away from her, I always send her very trivial letters. Because somehow I feel that she knows what I am feeling and that I have no need to say anything, that I can just be trivial and cheerful and commonplace and that she will know exactly how I am feeling. So that the letters I send her - sometimes they are even postcards to help me out - I suppose they are quite meaningless to anybody else, and yet there is a kind of secret writing between us, although we've never spoken about it. She knows me and I know her. I think that I might spend six months without a letter from her and if I knew that she was well, I wouldn't be worried about it. And she would feel much the same way about me. Of course, I might be worried because she might be ailing or something might have happened to her. But if I know from all sources that she's getting on, I don't have to worry about what she says, and she doesn't have to worry about what I say.
Q: She must be a remarkable woman.
JLB: She is a remarkable woman. She was in prison in Peron's time. My sister also.
Q: You noticed something very interesting about Don Quixote. That he never does kill a man in all his adventures, even though he often engages in fights.
JLB: Ah yes! I wonder about that.
Q: And then you wrote that parable.
JLB: Well, I suppose the real reason or the obvious reason would be that Cervantes wanted to keep within the limits of farce and had he killed a man, then the book, then that would have been too real, no? Don't you think so? I mean if Quixote kills a man, then he somehow is a real, bad man, whether he feels himself justified or not. I don't think Cervantes wanted to go as far as all that, no? He wanted to keep his book within certain bounds, and had Don Quixote killed a man that would have done Cervantes no good.
Q: Also, there's the idea you've mentioned that the author at some time in the book becomes a main character. So perhaps Cervantes couldn't bear to kill a man himself, if he became Don Quixote.
JLB: Yes, yet I suppose he must have killed many in his life, as a soldier. But that's different, no? Because if a soldier kills a man, he kills him impersonally, no? Don't you think so? I mean if you kill a man as a soldier you don't really kill him. You're merely a tool. Or somebody else kills him through you or, well, you don't have to accept any responsibility. I don't think a soldier feels guilty about the people he's killed, no? Except the men who threw the bomb on Hiroshima.
Q: Well, some of them have gone insane, some of those people who were involved with the bomb.
JLB: Yes, but somehow, now I suppose you are, I shouldn't say this to you, I'll be blurting it out.
Q: Well, say it.
JLB: I can't think of Hiroshima as being worse than any battle.
Q: What do you mean?
JLB: It ended the war in a day. And the fact that many people are killed is the same fact that one man is killed. Because every man dies his own death and he would have died it anyhow. Then, well, of course, one hardly knows all the people who were killed in Hiroshima. After all, Japan was in favor of violence, of empire, of fighting, of being very cruel; they were not early Christians or anything of the kind. In fact, had they had the bomb, they would have done the same thing to America.
Hold it, I know that I shouldn't be saying these things because they make me seem very callous. But somehow I have never been able to feel that way about Hiroshima. Perhaps something new is happening to mankind, but I think that if you accept war, well I should say this, but if you accept war, you have to accept cruelty. And you have to accept slaughter and bloodshed and that kind of thing. And after all, to be killed by a rifle, or to be killed by a stone thrown at you, or by somebody thrusting a knife into you, is essentially the same. Hiroshima stands out, because many innocent people were involved and because the whole thing was packed into a single moment.
Q: Had you read much before you started to write or did your writing and reading develop together?
JLB: I've always been a greater reader than writer. But, of course, I began to lose my eyesight definitely in 1954, and since then I've done my reading by proxy, no? Well, of course, when one cannot read, then one's mind works in a different way. In fact, it might be said that there is a certain benefit in being unable to read, because you think that time flows in a different way. In fact, it might be said that there is a certain benefit in being unable to read, because you think that time flows in a different way. When I had my eyesight, then if I had to spend say half an hour without doing anything, I would go mad. Because I had to be reading. But now, I can be alone for quite a long time, I don't mind long railroad journeys, I don't mind being alone in a hotel or walking down the street, because, well, I wouldn't say that I am thinking all the time because that would be bragging.
I think I am able to live with a lack of occupation. I didn't have to be talking to people or doing things. If somebody had gone out, and I had come here and found the house empty, then I would have been quite content to sit down and let two or three hours pass and go out for a short walk, but I wouldn't feel especially unhappy or lonely. That happens to all people who go blind.
Q: What are you thinking about during that time - a specific problem or -
JLB: I could or I might not be thinking about anything. I'd just be living on, no? Letting time flow or perhaps looking back on memories or walking across a bridge and trying to remember favorite passages, but maybe I wouldn't be doing anything, I'd just be living. I never understand why people say they're bored because they have nothing to do. Because sometimes I have nothing do, and I don't feel bored. Because I'm not doing things all the time, I'm content.
Q: You've never felt bored in your life?
JLB: I don't think so. Of course, when I had to be ten days lying on my back after an operation, I felt anguish but not boredom.
Q: You're a metaphysical writer and yet so many writers like, for example, Jane Austen or Fitzgerald or Sinclair Lewis seem to have no real metaphysical feeling at all.
Q: Yes, the latter.
JLB: Ah, yes.
Q: I was just naming a writer who came to mind as having essentially no metaphysical feeling.
JLB: He was always on the surface of things, no? After all, why shouldn't you, no?
Q: Of course most people live and die without ever, it seems, really thinking about the problems of time or space or infinity.
JLB: Well, because they take the universe for granted. They take things for granted. They take themselves for granted. That's true. They never wonder at anything, no? They don't think it's strange that they should be living. I remember the first time I felt that was when my father said to me, "What a queer thing," he said, "that I should be living, as they say, behind my eyes, inside my head, I wonder if that makes sense?" And then, it was the first time I felt that, and then instantly I pounced upon that because I knew what he was saying. But many people can hardly understand that. And they say, " Well, but where else could you live?"
Q: Do you think there's something in people's minds that blocks out the sense of the miraculous, something maybe inherent in most human beings that doesn't allow them to think about these things? Because, after all, if they spent their time thinking about the miracle of the universe, they wouldn't do the work civilization depends on and nothing, perhaps, would get done.
JLB: But I think that today too many things get done.
Q: Yes, of course.
JLB: Sarmiento wrote that he once met a gaucho and the gaucho said to him, "The countryside is so lovely that I don't want to think about its cause." That's very strange, no? It's kind of a non sequitor, no? Because he should have begun to think about the cause of that beauty. But I suppose he meant that he drank all those things in, and he felt quite happy about them and he had no use for thinking. But generally speaking, I think men are more prone to metaphysical wondering than women. I think that women take the world for granted. Things for granted. And themselves, no? And circumstances for granted. I think circumstances especially.
Q: They confront each moment as a separate entity without thinking about all the circumstances that lead up to it.
JLB: No, because they think of...
Q: They take things one at a time.
JLB: Yes, they take them one at a time, and then they're afraid of cutting a poor figure, or they think of themselves as being actresses, no? The whole world looking at them and, of course, admiring them.
Q: They do seem to be more self-conscious than men on the whole. Your writing always, from the first, had its source in other books?
JLB: Yes, that's true. Well, because I think of reading a book as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love. I think that reading Berkeley or Shaw or Emerson, those are quite as real experiences to me as seeing London, for example. Of course, I saw London through Dickens and through Chesterton and through Stevenson, no? Many people are apt to think of real life on the one side, that means toothache, headache, traveling and so on, and then you have on the other side, you have imaginary life and fancy and that means the arts. But I don't think that the distinction holds water. I think that everything is a part of life. For example, today I was telling my wife, I have traveled, well I won't say all over the world, but all over the west, no? And yet I find that I have written poems on rather drab street corners. And I have never written poems on a great subject, I mean on a famous subject. For example, I greatly enjoy New York, but I don't think I would write about New York. Maybe I'll write about some street corner, because after all so many people have done that other kind of thing.
Q: What novelists do you think could create characters?
JLB: Conrad, and Dickens. Conrad certainly, because in Conrad you feel that everything is real and at the same time very poetical, no? I should put Conrad as a novelist far above Henry James. When I was a young man I thought Dostoevski was the greatest novelist. And then after ten years or so, when I reread him, I felt greatly disappointed. I felt that the characters were unreal and that also the characters were part of a plot. Because in real life, even in a difficult situation, even when you are worrying very much about something, even when you feel anguish or when you feel hatred — well, I've never felt hatred — or love or fury maybe, you also live among other lines, no? I mean, a man is in love, but at the same time he is interested in the cinema, or he is thinking about mathematics or poetry or politics, while in novels, in most novels, the characters are simply living through what's happening to them. No, that might be the case with very simple people, but I don't see, I don't think that happens.
Q: Do you think a book like Ulysses, for example, was, among other things, an attempt to show the full spectrum of thought?
JLB: Yes, but I think Ulysses is a failure, really. Well, by the time it's read through, you know thousands and thousands of circumstances about the characters, but you don't know them. And if you think of the characters in Joyce, you don't think of them as you think of the characters in Stevenson or in Dickens, because in the case of a character, let's say in a book by Stevenson, a man may appear, may last a page, but you feel that you know him or that there's more in him to be know, but in the case of Ulysses you are told thousands of circumstances about the characters. You know, for example, well, you know that they went twice to the men's room, you know all the books they read, you know their exact positions when they are sitting down or standing up, but you don't really know them. It's as if Joyce had gone over them with a microscope or a magnifying glass.
Q: You've linked Henry James and Kafka before — you seem to associate them, in your mind for some reason.
JLB: I think that there is a likeness between them. I think that the sense of things being ambiguous, of things being meaningless, of living in a meaningless universe, of things being many-sided and finally unexplained; well, Henry James wrote to his brother that he thought of the world as being a diamond museum, a museum of monsters. I think that he must have felt life in much the same way.
Q: And yet the characters in James or Kafka are always striving for something definite. They always have definite goals.
JLB: They have definite goals, but they never attain them. I mean, when you've read the first page of The Trial you know that he'll never know why he's being judged, why he's being tried, I mean, in the case of Henry James, the same thing happens. The moment you know that the man is after the Aspern papers, you know, well, either that he'll never find the papers, or that if he does find them, they'll be worthless. you may feel that.
Q: But then it's more a sense of impotence than it is an ambiguity.
JLB: Of course, but it's also an ambiguity. For example, "The Turn of the Screw." That's a stock example. One might find others. That's a stock example. One might find others. "The Abasement of the Northmores" — the whole story is told as a tale of revenge. And, in the end, you don't know whether the revenge will work out or not. Because, after all, the letters of the widow's husband, they may be published and nothing may come of them. So that in the end, the whole story is about revenge, and when you reach the last page, you do not know whether the woman will accomplish her purpose or not. A very strange story.... I suppose that you prefer Kafka to Henry James?
Q: No, they stand for different things for me.
JLB: But do they?
Q: You don't seem to think so. But I think that Henry James believed in society, he never really questioned the social order.
JLB: I don't think so.
Q: I think he accepted society. I think that he couldn't conceive of a world without society and he believed in man and, moreover, in certain conventions. He was a student of man's behavior.
JLB: Yes, I know, but he believed in them in a desperate way, because it was the only thing he could grasp.
Q: It was an order, a sense of order.
JLB: But I don't think he felt happy.
Q: But Kafka's imagination is far more metaphorical.
JLB: Yes, but I think that you get many things in James that you don't get in Kafka. For example, in Henry James you are made to feel that there is a meaning behind experience, perhaps too many meanings. While in Kafka, you know that he knew more about the castle or about the judges or the trial than you do. Because the castle and the judges are symbols of the universe, and nobody is expected to know anything about the universe. But in the case of Henry James, you think that he might have had his personal theories or you feel that he knows more of what he's talking about. I mean that though his stories may be parables of the subject, still they're not written by him to be parables. I think he was really very interested in the solution, maybe he had two or three solutions and so in a sense I think of Henry James as being far more complex than Kafka, but that may be a weakness. Perhaps the strength of Kafka may lie in his lack of complexity.
Q: Do you accept the linking of your name with Kafka, and do you enjoy being linked with Kafka?
JLB: I think Kafka taught me the way to write two quite bad stories, "The Library of Babel" and "The Lottery of Babylon." Of course I owe a debt to Kafka. Naturally. I enjoyed that. At the same time, I couldn't go on reading Kafka all the time so I left it at it that. I only wrote two stories following the pattern and then I left off. Of course I owe much to Kafka. I admire him, as I suppose all reasonable men do.
Q: In the "Library of Babel" you insert a word spelled thusly: Qaphqa. I think the only way to pronounce that is Kafka. Did you put that in there to show that you were aware that you were writing like Kafka?
JLB: Yes. Of course I did.
Q: What do you admire especially in Stevenson?
JLB: I admire everything in Stevenson. I admire the man, I admire the work, I admire his courage. I don't think he wrote a single indifferent or despicable line. Every line of Stevenson is fine. And then there is another writer I greatly admire: Chesterton. And yet Chesterton would not have been what he was had it not been for Stevenson. For example, if we read Chesterton's Father Brown saga or The Man Who Was Thursday, or "Man Alive," we get the same fairy London that was invented or was dreamt by Stevenson in his New Arabian Nights. I suppose I should be thankful to Stevenson. I suppose we should all be thankful for Stevenson. I hardly see why you ask me that. The thing is as obvious as the sun in heaven.
Q: In Cincinnati when an admirer said, "May you live one thousand years," you answered, "I look forward happily to my death." What did you mean by that?
JLB: I mean that when I'm unhappy, and that happens quite often to all of us, I find a real consolation in the thought that in a few years, or maybe in a few days, I'll be dead and then all this won't matter. I look forward to being blotted out. But if I thought that my death was a mere illusion, that after death I would go on, then I would feel very, very unhappy. For really, I'm sick and tired of myself.
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