Essay Mondays: Borges


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Jorge Luis Borges has a reputation for being a very reference-heavy writer, a member of the literati who gleaned his inspiration more from other books than from real life. It's interesting, therefore, that as I was enjoying my first taste of his work—in the form of his essay "Blindness"—my chief delights were not so much dependent on his ideas or craftsmanship, but on the connections I was able to find with my own reading life. Not that Borges's craftsmanship isn't lovely. But "Blindness" is a casual essay, a lightly reworked lecture on the subject of the author's own blindness and a more general overview of literary blindness through history. Its tone is conversational, slightly digressive, and it doesn't have the carefully controlled and shepherded form that I often admire in essays written to be read. It does have some interesting observations on the reality of being blind, as in this passage:

One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black; another is red. Le rouge et le noir are the colors denied us. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in darkness. The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.

I can't help but wonder whether José Saramago read this essay before or during the composition of his own Blindness, the 1995 novel about an epidemic in which the sufferers can only see a glaring white at all times. Borges's description of being bothered by the lack of darkness when attempting to sleep, is closely mirrored by a number of scenes in Saramago's book, although Borges's luminous blue-green mist sounds more calming than Saramago's characters' intense white blaze. There is the same sense of surprise, however, at the loss of the darkness, and how disconcerting that can be, despite the common fear of the dark.

Borges goes on to discuss his reactions to the onset of his blindness; he argues that, as much as it seemed at the time to be a terrible loss, it allowed him to gain a number of things as well: he was motivated, for example, to learn the Anglo-Saxon language after losing his sight.

What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason the poems of a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them.

This is such a beautiful observation, and one to which I very strongly relate. I'm currently making my way through Emile Zola's Germinal in the original French, and am having exactly the reading experience Borges describes here: noticing the individual words, the mouth-feel and texture of them, their repetitions and significances, so much more clearly than I would in an English text. I love his description of each word standing out "as though it had been carved," because individual words in a language one is studying do have this very tactile quality—not that English words have lost their tactile quality; heaven forbid that should ever happen. But usually I am only aware of the individual words in English now and then, when a particular word choice seems apt, awkward, or intriguing. Much of the time, the language is a transparent medium through which the meaning is communicated. In French, though, each word still retains a solidity, a "thing-ness," as if, as Borges says, it were a talisman, as if one could run one's hands through the reservoir of all these tiny, textural word-objects like one would through a bag of marbles or a sack of dry beans. L'accrochage. Écraser. Les betteraves. And so on. One doesn't even need to understand their meaning to appreciate their slippery, rippling texture.

I think, more than his ostensible messages that every loss is also a gain and that being blind can actually be a benefit to artists of certain types (musicians and poets especially, since they are better able to focus their musical/poetic ear), what struck me about Borges is his deep love of language and of reading. And I wondered why I've been semi-avoiding Borges for so long. I've heard rumors that he can be overly erudite and bookish, but come on now (you must all be saying by now), I love bookish and erudite authors! I love books that dwell in the land of other books, and other art. I love Proust, and Bolaño, and Woolf, and although the jury's still somewhat out on Auster, his discussions of literature were definitely my favorite parts of his Manhattan Trilogy. So what am I waiting for?

A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds—the strangest world of art—is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument.

(As an aside, the above made me giggle as I thought of my own craft: the designer of clothing does indeed feel continually assaulted by cuts and colors, as the poet by poetry. I often find myself distracted in social settings as I try mentally to deconstruct a knitted cable in a sweater someone is wearing, or as my mind reconstructs the shapes of the sewn flat pieces that likely went into my friend's blouse. I suppose all art forms pursue their practitioners, don't they?)

Next week: A four-way fight between Herbert Butler, E.M. Cioran, Roland Barthes, and Natalia Ginzburg.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • I admit, I don't think I do like Borges. I read some of his short stories, though, so maybe I need to visit his essays. I don't think I'm "erudite" enough to understand. But maybe I just need to stop being afraid of Woolf and Proust, etc. I did enjoy the Woolf I've read this year. Even if I didn't understand it...

  • What am I waiting for? My thought exactly. As you know, I have been toying with the idea of a big Borges read lately even going as far as accumulating the books required in a discreet little pile on the far edges of my piles. Richard's recommendations. Soon.

    Loving this:

    " ... noticing the individual words, the mouth-feel and texture of them, their repetitions and significances, so much more clearly than I would in an English text."

    Yes! Word or language almost as object for me. Consequence of not being my native language? Indicator of what a poor linguist I am? :) Or resulting from the fact that I read other languages more slowly and carefully than my native language? And then I think that just as language interprets experience, the senses create experience and I get back to the point of Borges' essay.

  • I've only ever read a handful of Borges stories and liked them and keep meaning to read more including his essays, but, alas, that has yet to happen and I have no idea why. This particular essay sounds fantastic. Maybe I'll pull my copy of Lopate's book off the shelf one of these days and use it for an inspirational launch into the longer works of writers I have been meaning to read.

  • I'm really enjoying your essay series. I'd love to be reading along with you, but even though I can't manage that right now, I'm still finding your responses to these essays fascinating. I suspect that I'm getting more out of reading your blog than I would out of reading the essays themselves - I love to read, but I never took any English classes beyond high school, and you're really helping me to see what I missed out on.

  • I read 'The Total Library' by Borges a few years and loved it. If you haven't read any books by Borges yet then start with this one.

  • Rebecca: You're not alone. I've heard a lot of people say that about Borges, which is why I've steered clear of him for so long. Starting to think I should re-evaluate, personally. Glad to hear your overall Woolf experience was positive, though!

    Frances: I didn't know you were planning a big Borges read! What were Richard's recommendations? I would be interested to know where to start. Also love your senses/language tie-in. At least this essay can put our minds at rest about the language-as-object phenomenon being the product of a poor linguistic ability, given Borges's own skill in that area!

  • Stefanie: That is sort of what the Lopate experiment is turning into for me! I'm finding myself with an ever-growing list of authors I want to explore in more depth as a result of reading this book, and Borges is definitely on that list.

    Wendy: Oh, that's so sweet! I'm glad you're enjoying them, and if you ever happen across the Lopate, I bet you will find even more to love. :-)

    Jennifer: Ooh, thank you so much for the recommendation! I was feeling a bit at sea about where to start with Borges's other work.

  • All right, now you've done it. You've made me go and get my Lopate off the shelf and put a marker at page 377 and plan to read "Blindness" as soon as I finish writing this. A couple of years ago I read Borges' Ficciones, a collection of stories. You'll like this -- one of them begins: "Under the influence of the flagrant Chesterton (contriver and embellisher of elegant mysteries) ... I have imagined the following argument, which I shall doubtless develop (and which already justifies me in some way), on profitless afternoons."

    Thanks, too, for the musings on reading in a foreign language. Over the past year I've accumulated two books I keep forgetting about because they go so slowly: Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink, and Les dieux ont soif by Anatole France. I read them out loud, so the experience of tasting the words one by one is absolutely as you say. My vocabulary is small in both languages, but I discovered with Les dieux that I could read on through without the dictionary. Marchons!

  • Well, add me to the group of people who feel a little intimidated by Borges. I've been meaning to read him forever ... and yet I keep putting it off. You are inspiring me to give him a try! I have his book Labyrinths on my shelves and will start there probably. You're right -- if I can enjoy writers like Woolf then surely I can enjoy Borges?

  • Julia: Enjoy the Borges! Love that first sentence - I've been eyeing Ficciones for some time. It's hard to keep oneself from the dictionary, but I'm finding that minimal use of a reference is really helping me get into the swing of Germinal - if I look up every word I don't know, I lose the thread. Thanks for dropping by!

    Dorothy: Yes, why is he so intimidating? Onward, I say. I'll look forward to your thoughts when you get around to him!

  • Oh I just knew I'd love Borges' nonfiction! Thank you so much this post. You've just convinced me that I should get that thick book of Borges' Collected Nonfiction at the bookstore.

    About blindness, yes interesting to think that those who are visually impaired don't really see black but something else. And I guess it makes sense, for it's not really that their eyes aren't reached by light but that something's broken in their ability to transmit or decode images (or at least something like that).

    And I very much agree with you about the "tactile quality" of a foreign language. In my case for instance, as a Filipino, I have this feeling that I tend to hear the slightest articulations of English words more consciously as an American would since usually it is the sound that registers to my mind first before the actual meaning. In a way, I still have to translate it before I could give meaning to it. On the other hand, A native English speaker would probably be less aware of these sounds when engaged in a casual conversation... something like that :)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography