Three Lectures by Jorge Luis Borges: Lecture 3
December 3, 2011 § 3 Comments
(Notes by Jacqueline Austin)
The next day, for some reason, the heat was on. Maybe Borges had said he was cold. So everyone was falling asleep, except Borges, at 10 in the morning, or maybe it was noon, as the heat hissed into the cool air of the last September day.
With only five years left to live, Borges was not about to sleep publicly, though he did take private sips of sleep, looking inward as he spoke.
These are my most deficient notes of all. The subject of this lecture was Whitman. But first that day, Borges spoke at length about another subject. I was too dull to realize that the first subject, the offhand subject, the one which exists only in memory, was the true experience of Borges it was my duty to record.
What I love about America is cowboys, I remember. The wide open spaces, yip along, little dogie. Cowboys are unique to the American dream. Git along, dogie, but yip, the coyote. The lonely coyote yipping at the stars.
Cowboy coffee, strained through the armpit of a smelly, ill used cowboy shirt.
A dark brew by a crackling fire: this is the nectar of the gods.
September 30, 1981
What poems of Whitman’s are most resounding? “Hiawatha” and “Leaves of Grass.” As an experiment, “Leaves of Grass” was utterly successful.
“Leaves of Grass” is the expression of democracy.
Remember the path of discovery of the central hero. In the Old English epic, Beowulf. In Spain, El Cid.
What Whitman set out to write was an epic. Even though we now see “Leaves of Grass” as a series of short poems, Whitman thought of it as a single poem.
A hero–the exemplar of democracy–must be, must act as everybody, including the reader. But “Leaves of Grass” is different. It exists as an epic without a central hero. Instead, the hero is a trinity:
Hero One. Mr. Walter Whitman, a Brooklyn journalist, shy and unhappy;
Hero Two. “Walt Whitman,” the glorified man. For example, the line, “Texas where I was born.” Mr. Walter Whitman, the man, was born in Long Island. But Walt Whitman, the divine, the god, was born in the land of cowboys;
Hero Three. The reader, present or future.
Walt Whitman thought it was his duty–the American duty–to be happy.
“What do you see, Walt Whitman?” asks the poem. This poem is supposed to be addressed to Whitman from the reader.
“This is no book,” Whitman writes. “Who touches this, touches a man.”
The case of Whitman’s verse. Whitman wanted to free verse from dead rhyme. So here, he invented a living verse. Its purpose was to express his pride–Whitman’s pride–in being like everyone else.
What a peculiar message for an epic poem! What a strange ambitious attempt. This had never been attempted before.
A poem whose hero is a trinity…
…Which presents future readers as a hero… those who will read him when he is dead…
Children, Whitman is one of America’s most important gifts (with Emerson) to the world.
One last matter. Emerson urged Whitman to leave out the sexy parts.
Whitman answered, “If I leave sex out, I leave the universe out.”
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.