Reading and Reading Borges

I took two things to read: Le Morte D’Arthur and Borges’s poetry. Morte D’Arthur had been a few years since the first read through, and it is a lot brighter on the second time. One spends a lot of the first time through trying to figure out what the main plot is, and the second enjoying the errantry. It is not a book with a straight through kind of approach. It is about the glory of chivalry, and how adventures must be met, and how Sir Arthur’s was the most worshipfullest court never ne man did know. I take it a book at a time, and that is just right. The thing unfolds gradually and entirely, quaint and authentic, splendid. There is also the pleasure now of a better consciousness of the matter of Logres from Charles Williams. It was no mistake to stick with Mallory.

Nor was it a mistake to bring Borges. I’ve been at Borges since before Colombia. One of my early problems with Borges was my limited Spanish. I had a slender volume of his poetry and I did not have a dictionary always on hand. I’d ask Colombians about words and received vague replies. And Borges has favorite words that have no precise translation always in English. The verb urdir for example, and the noun arrabal; he uses them all the time, and they have a range of legitimate English translations. I have never heard anybody use them in common speech. But I have persevered, and have the edition with opposing English translations that are sometimes not entirely unreliable, and my Spanish after Colombia is tremendously upgraded, and upgrading.

I’ve spoken Spanish all my life, but it isn’t my mother tongue, and it lapsed into some serious rust during the half of my life lived in the USA. I still have to think carefully sometimes when I begin to speak, and that’s not how persons naturally speak. It is difficult to speak when you’re thinking about how you have to say things, but good discipline for the mind. Anyway, the quality of Borges’s Spanish is inferior to none. He was an absolute master of the music of the sound and syntax of the language. I think I have his measure now, though, and I think so because when I played a recording of him reading his poetry aloud, I had his cadence and intonation down from reading his poetry. Not his pronunciation, of course, which I do not aspire to, but the cadence with which he delivered his lines.

He was quite the person. What kind of person? “Here displayed also are my habits: Buenos Aires, the cult of ancestors, the study of the German [Teutonic languages? Germanistica] language, the contradiction between time that passes and the identity which endures, my astonishment that time, our substance, can be shared.” And, “The writer’s is a curious lot. He starts being baroque, vaingloriously baroque, and at the end of many long years he can, if the stars are favorable, achieve not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.” His own words, my translation; it is hard to get more characteristic of him than that. If I were to dream in the Borgesian way, I’d tell a story of a Christian who never told anybody he was one, never went to church or otherwise indicated he was, all the while being in secret the most devout and fervent Christian possible. That would be a Borges kind of story, and if anybody were to do such a thing it would be Borges. Borges, you know, never claimed to be a Christian.

He was that great paradox: a modest Argentine. There is true humility in his poetry, and I think it was due to his ability to love great things, to realize his insignificance before time and chance and the splendor beyond him of great matters. He was a great lover of literature, especially English, to the degree that he loved the sounds and wrote more than once about Anglo-Saxon, which he knew. He even attempted, failing however, to reproduce in Spanish the music of English and also German poetry, he says. Who even tries that? How many native English readers even hear it? He was interested in the metaphysics of existence, time and eternity, and fascinated with the symbols and the symbolic systems which mediate to us the permanent things. I think his best poem–though he himself did not apparently agree with me–is ‘Arte Poetica’, which made me cry on the Metro. And his statement about a modest and secret complexity above is not only quintessential, but penetrating. He was humorously penetrating, easy about making useful insights and statements without belaboring things. A lover of glory and irony; a seeker of that nameless thing beyond that which is named; a worthy man.
* * *
It is interesting to read Borges in this city which is such a conglomerate of passing time. No doubt other older cities in Europe would serve better, but I am served well enough in one that speaks the language of the music of which Borges knew. He knew himself to be not a poet of English, though our language was his from the first. His art was done in Spanish, and the Spanish language is absolutely his. And not only the time cluttered City of Mexico, but the Metro itself, with the trains that are one continuous quarter of a mile corridor of still human beings rushed through the darkness, the mobs entering and exiting the exact same series of doors, the passing of unrequited time in unperceived advancing space, the succession of lights in the tunnel dimming and flaring and dimming again, the unending effort of the three-story-long escalators which circle dumbly carrying people out of the bowels of the earth from 5AM till midnight, all seem made for Borges.

And this: there was an abandoned building, falling into decay, the elaborate old facade facing the busy avenue. The sidewalk before it is wide and a great pedestrian thoroughfare. There are news kiosks along the side of the walk closer to the road, and statues, and lamps closer to the buildings–shorter lamps that light only the sidewalk. The pedestrians surge more or less between the kiosks and the lamps, but there are so many they go beyond the lamps, except for one place: where the decaying building is. This they avoid, unconsciously but definitely. Nobody goes up close to it. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think the fear is falling elements of the ruin, but the smell of vagrants. But it is the kind of thing Borges would have made a poem out of: a deft little thing, the meaning of which you had to see in the reflection of the mirror he made it be.

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