Elogio de la Sombra

The Friends of wellfleet Library presented another in its Favorite Poems series yesterday, with Mort Inger ably hosting.

My own contribution was from one of my favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges. Suzanne Jill Levine calls him “the most important writer of the 20th Century,” an assertion supported by Jane Ciabattari in a BBC article last year.

I became fascinated with Borges when I was in high school, the time that his first book-length publications began to appear in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths). His works wandered across a labyrinth of genres, including romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, metafiction, philosophy, literature, and language. His interest in time challenged my own dissertation work on time and formal logic.

I like other musings of Borges on philosophical issues, including this:

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Borges was also a translator of English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. He translated Oscar Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince” at the age of nine. And his ideas about translation are even more relevant today. He saw language as a creative force that shaped us as much as we it. I think that he’d want me to learn better Spanish, but would also support the fact that nearly all my reading of his work is in translation. I know at least one Borges.

His work on time and language come together in his ideas about literary precursors:

the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other….if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist….The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.

Despite being acknowledged by many as an outstanding, even the (or one of the) most important writers of the last century, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. He writes:

Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me.

In 1955, after Peron was deposed, he became Director of the National Library of Argentina. Soon thereafter he became blind. He focused on poetry, since he could memorize an entire work and keep it in memory until he had perfected it.

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 night at one touch
Seven Nights, 1984

A decade or so later, when he was exactly my age now, Borges published a collection of poems, Elogio de la Sombra (In Praise of Darkness). Of the same name, the last poem in the book, is the one I read yesterday:

In Praise of Darkness (1969/1974)

Old age (the name that others give it) can be the time of our greatest bliss. The animal has died or almost died. The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think; Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory, reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persian’s moon, the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

–Tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni