Three Lectures by Jorge Luis Borges: Lecture 2

December 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Victorian Woman, Public Domain Image

(Notes by Jacqueline Austin)

September 29th, 1981.

After a short break, we file back into the big hall, and take our places on the red velvet cushions.  Borges asks for questions from the writing students.  My notes from this lecture are terrible–short, stenographic.  I hope I have typed them correctly.  If anyone else who reads this was there that day, I can only beg that you add your notes to mine.

Perhaps it was white folding chairs we sat in, after all.  I try to apologize to your beloved memory, but I see in my mind’s eye, that you are pleased.

Question: 

What do you feel is the difference between prose and verse?

Answer:

If you read “Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, he speaks of the following.  If you have a metrical line, perhaps 8-10-14 syllables, or an alliterative line… such as “This is the forest primeval,” you merely have to repeat that rhythmic unit, several times, and you have a verse.

But in prose, that unit has to change.

Most people believe that free verse is easy, because they have the idea that prose is nearer to oral tradition, our so-called natural state.  Untrue.  To compose free verse, you have to have an ear.  No literature begins in prose.  Musical speech is far more difficult.

Question:

So we should read our prose aloud?  To hear its rhythms?

Answer:

If it is good, your prose makes you read it aloud.

Before I write something down, it has to go through several rough drafts.

If you print something as a verse, you should read it for the sake of emotion–not for information, not for narration, not for facts.  Browning asks us to realize that you’ve told a story at the same time you’re hearing the verse, the music.

Question:

Earlier, you were speaking about Latinate and Saxon words, and about the different textures of meaning and sound…

Answer:

English-speaking writers can strengthen their music by hearing both languages.  “Interwoven” is a very strong word because you get the meaning twice: once in Latin, and once in Saxon.  In English, there is always a choice, a coloration.  “Holy Spirit” is a light Latin word; “Holy Ghost” is a dark Saxon word for the same phenomenon.

Listen to the two possible ways, in English, of ordering reality.  Do you want to use “luna,” or do you want to use “moon?”

Question:

How do you deal with writing so precisely, when you know your books will be primarily distributed in translation?

Answer:

I try to use as simple a vocabulary as I can.  But avoid diminutives–they are childish–except as an anticlimax when you’ve been building up something extremely dignified.

Question:

How do you choose whether to write your story in first or third person?

Answer:

Ah, there’s also the second person telling of some stories.  This method gives a kind of reality to the tale.  Look at Joseph Conrad.

Third person, first person, stories within stories.  Like Russian Matrushka dolls.

A Madame Saksuma once called on Borges.  She was very  made up and wore veils and feathers–he was always feeling something tickling his face.

You see?

Question:

But–

Answer:

Listen to the natural rhythms.  The four seasons, Circadian rhythms, impose a certain tremulous order on a shy cosmos.

Un coup de des jamais n’abolira pas le hazard…But it’s a self-abolition.  All the dots drop off the die and you’re left with a solid black or white cube.  Though “jamais” is very pompous here…

You must pay for knowledge.  Knowledge must be earned.

Every word is a symbol.  Every abstract word is a metaphor.

Freud made all dreams into the smartest stories.

And I have no message at all to give to anybody–not even myself.

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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§ One Response to Three Lectures by Jorge Luis Borges: Lecture 2

  • Jaqueline, you have no idea how much I appreciater your posting this. I love Borges dearly; I am Argentinean, but when I studied literature Borges had already retired as a teacher from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, such a shame. I sincerely think he is a genius close to illumination. His words carry a magical element for me. He makes me proud to carry the same nationality though he is buried in Switzerland. He was actually beyond national borders.
    Thanks again, Maria.

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