Three Lectures by Jorge Luis Borges: Lecture 1

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Notes by Jacqueline Austin)

Borges in 1951, by Grete Stern, courtesy of Wikipedia

Jorge Luis Borges, that master of writing, that innovator of labyrinths and dreams and strange connections in fiction, came to our Columbia MFA program, in his eighties, to teach.  He was very old by then–tiny, gray, frail and blind.  Tottering up to the dais, with two canes, he reluctantly accepted the aid of four American worshippers of his writing, all masters themselves.

Here are my notes from Lecture One.  They are very fragmentary.  Don’t blame Borges, blame me.  He was so fascinating to look at and listen to, I forgot to write.

September 29, 1981 

Children, it’s important not to have local color in your writing, because there are so many different types of people in this world, for example, Japanese, English, and Germans.

It’s good to have a city in your writing, as long as you don’t go there.  Preserve the mystery.

(The Columbia administrator locks the door.  The sound of the lock is louder than that of Borges’s words.)

There are very few real novels.  I can think of a few by Dickens, James, Tolstoy–but that’s that.  I prefer to write short stories because in a short story, everything can be essential.  I feel a special debt to Kipling, Chesterton, and Stevenson.  Stevenson is my favorite writer.

I have a feeling every night, of being lost in a labyrinth.  I know my nightmares by heart.  They’re all the same; they’re all monotonous.

The last ten years before my birth–1890 to 1899–were my period.  I was around, but not born yet.

In Buenos Aires, a story called “Memory of Buenos Aires.”  This comes from a dream of ten years ago.  Once sentence only of that dream, was remembered.  “I sell you Shakespeare’s memory.”

But once a whole poem was given to me in a dream.  The hearer was Kafka.

I’m a private man.  A solitary, an almost secret man.

So now I’m reading the life of the King of Sweden.

The Book Of Sands… The Other One The Same… the rest of my books, I’ve safely forgotten.

Kipling’s autobiography… Rough drafts are always much longer.

I stop revising when I’m thoroughly sick of the subject.  I always know the first two lines, and then the end.  Those are given.  I fill in the middle.

In The Aleph, I began by twisting the idea of eternity from time, to space.

Schopenhauer, Hume… Indian, Chinese, Buddhist… Bradley’s Appearance of Reality, Royce The World and the Individual.  William James.  Kabbala.  Scholem’s The Golem.  Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism.

I saw him twice.  We spoke in English.

Ellery Queen was two writers.  One died, and one kept on writing.

Wilkie Collins.  Armadale. 

In Japan they called me “Horuhay Looes Boruhes.”  That was my name.

English, I respect too much to attempt.

The difference between English and Spanish is that in Spanish, you hear vowel sounds all the time.  In English, you don’t.  Also, in Spanish, you can’t say, “Fall down and pick yourself up.”  A line like Kipling’s “We have ridden the moon out of the sky,” or a phrase like “drummed up the,” or Tennyson, or “Ring out the old, ring in the new,” these cannot be done in Spanish.

English is rich.  For example, in Macbeth, “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red,”  the first half is entirely Latinate; the second phrase is Saxon.

Spanish is Latin.  Certainly it is ten percent Arabic, but the Arabic isn’t felt in the language.  But in English, the Saxon element is entirely felt and justaposed with the Latin: vale/valley; fraternal/brotherly.  The Latinate words in English are very pretentious, very aristocratic.

Other languages I began to study, for example Old English, in 1955.  Then I studied Icelandic and Old Norse.  Words are very rare to me.

Memory?  I can only remember things I’ve read.  My own life seems very far away.

I’m quite unaware of what I do.  I try to let the dream have its way.  I never look for subjects.  They are given to me or they’re not.

A short story should have a surprise at the end.  Williams: “A story should make the reader believe, have faith.”

Finding the intonation, the accent, is primary.  You get that in your first sentence.

Back to words.  “Moon” is the right word for the moon.  A circle suggests infinity.  The word “moon” is round and orange and dim.  In Old English, I’m sorry to say, the word was “mohne” and male.

I used to write by hand, in very small block letters.  If I have a rough draft, now, I have written a text.  This is helpful.

Obvious tricks are metaphors and adjectives.  But language itself is poetry.  Language is poetry.

In translations of my work, the sound is changed for the better, I am sure.  (Inaudible) told me so himself.

I love spirituals, blues, and Brahms.

I live in a humanist mist: a greenish or reddish mist.

In writing I go by the sound, the music of the words–not the meaning.  There’s no rhyme to reason.  The reader does far more work than the author, to get meaning out of the book.

The Buddha is a fantasy, but a very interesting one.

A good book on Buddhism is Herman Alden’s book.

The Tibetans have The Mahayana.  Secret teachings about the chain of causes and effects.

Borges’s work is copyright by Borges.  All rights reserved to Jorge Luis Borges and his heirs.  The rest is copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin, all rights reserved.


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