Three Lectures By Jorge Luis Borges: Lecture 4

December 9, 2012 § 2 Comments


Kitezh Transformed By Ivan Bilibin, Via Wikimedia Commons

A few months ago I wrote about Borges’s long ago visit to my graduate program.  This is while he was alive, of course.  The occasion was scheduled at a miraculous time for literature; key writers of the 20th century were brought into our very own local program to teach us rubes, wet behind the ears, for a weekend or a semester, so that we could really be writers–someday.

The people I was lucky enough to study with–and that’s using the term rather loosely–included Italo Calvino, Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Edmund White, William Styron, Tom Wolfe, Josef Skvorecky, Czeslaw Milosz, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Stone, and a group of Chinese who had weathered the Cultural Revolution, as well as Borges.

I felt blessed and smart and in the center of things, for once–but all that did not make me a good student, nor did it lift the curse of my soul, which haunted me then and still haunts me to this day.  There is something essential I have never grasped about memory, about learning, about being a faithful student, and it has to do with receptivity and surrender–with hanging onto the gains my teachers still struggle so hard, to potentiate, tenuously and fleetingly, in my reluctant, snappish, cynical brain.

Where was I?  Oh–here.  So I went–once I wrote about this legend, this idol, a few months ago–to check my memory against the probably much more faithful and true memories of others.  Kirsten Dehner had done a wonderful transcription of part of the lecture and it had been published in Columbia Magazine.  And that’s where I went.

Here ‘tis:

Page 9.  Don’t think too badly of me.

To my horror–as stupidly usual–what should I find lurking amid the innocent pages of Columbia Magazine?  Pedagogical melodrama; the evilness of the mind–well, *squirm* –my mind.  Of course nothing had happened–at least not in this excerpt–precisely as I remembered, or even imprecisely as I remembered.  That is to say, what Kirsten heard and noted, was not only not in the same locale as the one I held so strongly in my mind; the faithful Kirsten wasn’t on the same continent, or even on the same planet.  Her extraordinary excerpt is entirely about Borges’s take on Leaves Of Grass.  Which I vaguely remember, and remember partially excluding, but, then, I’m no poet and Whitman troubles me.

That is not to say that what I jotted down was not, as well, pure Borges.  It could have been.  Probably it was.  Well, really it was–and that’s the damn of it.

What I remembered, and reconstructed, and keep reconstructing to this day, was an Invisible City–one of many.  This is a paraphraxis of something Italo Calvino said that week.  Italo Calvino had also been hanging around, maybe that week, maybe that semester–hanging around Columbia like any normal human being who goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, and text messages to his wife to pick up dinner.  At the time, whether it was a week or month, or any specific time that’s measurable, Calvino was also speaking, with great eloquence–if one were a mathematician–about his book.  According to Calvino, Invisible Cities pretended, like the great Calvino–doesn’t he sound like a magician?–to be structural and restrained and unemotional, a journal of the cities one visits in one’s mind.  There is no other way to get around the Great Around, than to create a City.  If one falls into its inherent layers of intermediary chaos, its pre-subway layers, so to speak, one is doomed.  Especially in this time of global warming.

But what I was paying attention to, to, two, while Calvino spoke that day, maybe Wednesday, was his wonderful accent, his dry and feathery voice.  At a desk of steel, gun metal gray steel, with one paper on it, perfectly lined up on its x and y axes–no speck of dust for the engineer–Calvino was speaking in a low voice, edged at the throat with nicotine, about the bloody babies he’d pulled, lusty and crying, from himself, with such climactic effort and pain, as though they were so many lines of chilly graphite.

And while Borges spoke, two, three, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I was heeding an emotion beneath emotion, a weekend to my week.   I was feeling a structure which cradles perception as a mother cradles an unexpected child.

Both old men’s voices are dry as they echo in my ears.  And both, in their dryness, their lightness, their airy old age–and now their deaths–whisper revelations which in their breathiness, sound the ringing, deep chords of the–well, anyone’s–soul.

Incontro con Italo Calvino

Calvino And Borges Via Multiple Sources (Credit Unknown)

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.

Image: KITEZH TRANSFORMED. Stage-set design for Scene Two, Act Four of the opera the “Tale of the Lost City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” by Rimsky-Korsakov. 1929.

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