Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges’

What literature teaches us.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
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The meeting of Aeneas and Dido, as portrayed by Sir Nathaniel Dance

I’m always making the case for literature, and readers of the Book Haven know my argument that a great deal of our predicament today follows from our abandonment of great literature in our schools, our public conversations, and our thinking. An excellent column from Scott Esposito makes the same argument, with a new twist, over at Lithub, “How the Oldest Stories Can Give Us the Best Perspective.”  It opens:

An oddly postmodern thing happens right near the beginning of Virgil’s ancient classic the Aeneid. Having fled Troy in defeat from the Greeks, and destined to found the great Roman civilization, a defeated, beleaguered Aeneas and his men wash up on the northern coast of Africa near Carthage. Before long Aeneas locates the bustling port city, eventually stealing into the magnificent temple of Dido the queen. As he is acquainting himself with the surroundings he discovers an elaborate depiction of the very war that he is a refugee from:

Wondering at the good fortune of the city,
And admiring all the things the makers had done,
The workmanship of what was told on the walls,
Suddenly he saw depicted there,
One after another, the scenes of the Trojan War,
Famous through all the world . . .
Aeneas stopped, and weeping at what he saw,
Said, “Is there, Achates, anywhere on earth
That does not know the story of our trouble?”

He started it.

Imagine it: the catastrophic war that has wiped your home off the face of the Earth is now the stuff of legend, famous clear across the entire known world. The beloved comrades you watched die as you struggled to defend your homeland are now wrought exquisitely into the walls of a queen’s temple. You even see your own self, fighting the war you have just fled from. It is a curiously modern moment: Aeneas sees the horrific reality he has just escaped as a story told by foreigners a thousand miles away, not so different from, say, a refugee from Venezuela, or Yemen, or Syria, or Myanmar escapes to a more stable nation, only to see the story of her nation’s escalating tragedy—and maybe even herself—broadcast on CNN.

He describes how the Homeric tale winds its way through Western literature, from Virgil to the works of Dante and beyond (though he misses Derek Walcott’s Omeros), and offers this takeaway:

This column began with a war in the Middle East that storytellers began recounting 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and we have followed it to North Africa, Rome, Italy, Spain, and Britain—and all the way to Borges clutching his bilingual copy of the Divine Comedy in Argentina in the early 1940s. I find this one of the greatest things about the literary tradition: it works on the longest timescales of human history, and it easily perforates borders. Literature conducts ideas across continents and through time with a startling efficacy: in the case of the Trojan War, it has traveled all throughout the world and back to the dawn of recorded history. Literature is the medium that is most conversant with humanity’s master narratives, the one that has done the most to form them and make them so indispensible and famed.

Practicing what he preaches

He proposes the “Virgil test”:  “if an artisan were carving this story into a palace wall half a world away, which incidents would make the cut? Which developments in this critical American saga would make it into the grand narrative of these years that may one day be passed down through the ages? Which things would we want to see if, like Aeneas, we happened to suddenly discover this story being told far away? And which developments are just noise, things that sap our energy and attention but that ultimately are not worth so much fuss?”

Read the whole thing here.

Borges’s picks an eclectic library for you: a list of 74 “must reads”

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015
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Jorge_Luis_Borges_1951,_by_Grete_Stern

In his own way, he’s trying to help you.

We’ve already published Joseph Brodskys reading list to have a basic conversation here, and here we published the private reading list he gave to Humble Moi here. And I’ve also published W.H. Auden‘s course syllabus from the University of Michigan here. Are you done with these yet? Good. Here’s another one.

Thanks to Open Culture, we now present you with Jorge Luis Borges‘s invented library. It came about this way: “In 1985, Argentine publisher Hyspamerica asked Borges to create A Personal Library — which involved curating 100 great works of literature and writing introductions for each volume. Though he only got through 74 books before he died of liver cancer in 1988, Borges’s selections are fascinating and deeply idiosyncratic. He listed adventure tales by Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells alongside exotic holy books, 8th century Japanese poetry and the musing of Kierkegaard.”

Call us when you’ve finished. We’ll find some more for you.

1. Stories by Julio Cortázar (not sure if this refers to Hopscotch, Blow-Up and Other Stories, or neither)
2. & 3. The Apocryphal Gospels
4. Amerika and The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
5. The Blue Cross: A Father Brown Mystery by G.K. Chesterton
6. & 7. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
8. The Intelligence of Flowers by Maurice Maeterlinck
9. The Desert of the Tartars by Dino Buzzati
10. Peer Gynt and Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
11. The Mandarin: And Other Stories by Eça de Queirós
12. The Jesuit Empire by Leopoldo Lugones
13. The Counterfeiters by André Gide
14. The Time Machine and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
15. The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
16. & 17. Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
18. Mathematics and the Imagination by Edward Kasner
19. The Great God Brown and Other Plays, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill
20. Tales of Ise by Ariwara no Narihara
21. Benito Cereno, Billy Budd, and Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
22. The Tragic Everyday, The Blind Pilot, and Words and Blood by Giovanni Papini
23. The Three Impostors
24. Songs of Songs tr. by Fray Luis de León
25. An Explanation of the Book of Job tr. by Fray Luis de León
26. The End of the Tether and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
27. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
28. Essays & Dialogues by Oscar Wilde
29. Barbarian in Asia by Henri Michaux
30. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
31. Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett
32. On the Nature of Animals by Claudius Elianus
33. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
34. The Temptation of St. Antony by Gustave Flaubert
35. Travels by Marco Polo
36. Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob
37. Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, and Candide by George Bernard Shaw
38. Macus Brutus and The Hour of All by Francisco de Quevedo
39. The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts
40. Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
41. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink
42. The Lesson of the Master, The Figure in the Carpet, and The Private Life by Henry James
43. & 44. The Nine Books of the History of Herodotus by Herodotus
45. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
46. Tales by Rudyard Kipling
47. Vathek by William Beckford
48. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
49. The Professional Secret & Other Texts by Jean Cocteau
50. The Last Days of Emmanuel Kant and Other Stories by Thomas de Quincey
51. Prologue to the Work of Silverio Lanza by Ramon Gomez de la Serna
52. The Thousand and One Nights
53. New Arabian Nights and Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson
54. Salvation of the Jews, The Blood of the Poor, and In the Darkness by Léon Bloy
55. The Bhagavad Gita and The Epic of Gilgamesh
56. Fantastic Stories by Juan José Arreola
57. Lady into Fox, A Man in the Zoo, and The Sailor’s Return by David Garnett
58. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
59. Literary Criticism by Paul Groussac
60. The Idols by Manuel Mujica Láinez
61. The Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz
62. Complete Poetry by William Blake
63. Above the Dark Circus by Hugh Walpole
64. Poetical Works by Ezequiel Martinez Estrada
65. Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
66. The Aeneid by Virgil
67. Stories by Voltaire
68. An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne
69. An Essay on Orlando Furioso by Atilio Momigliano
70. & 71. The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Study of Human Nature by William James
72. Egil’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson
73. The Book of the Dead
74. & 75. The Problem of Time by J. Alexander Gunn

 

Borges in the classroom – from Beowulf to Blake

Monday, August 12th, 2013
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borges

When Jorge Luis Borges taught English at the University of Buenos Aires, he delivered his lectures off the cuff.   It was a “you had to be there” situation – until now.  Students have offered their tapes of the lectures, and editors reconstructed the course. Voilà! Twenty-five lectures, all from 1966, have been published in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.

According to Publishers Weekly:

“This mesmerizing volume preserves the eclectic, erudite, and charismatic style of Argentine writer Borges … Borges moves effortlessly between subjects, almost overloading the senses with facts, digressions, and interpretations. While the lectures are not all equally compelling, there is enough here to keep the reader moving forward, and Borges’s delight and passion for every author shines brightly. As the afterword explains: ‘What Borges tries to do as a professor, more than prepare his students for exams, is excite and entice them to read the works and discover the authors.’ Over 40 years later, he is still achieving that goal.”

Here’s Borges speaking on “the Wolf” and William Blake:

Borges2

No notes, no teleprompter, no nuthin.

On Beowulf –

The name in itself is a metaphor that means “bee-wolf,” in other words “bear.” It is truly a long poem: it contains a little fewer than 3,200 lines, all of which follow the law of Germanic versification: alliteration. Its language is intricate; it makes constant use of what is called “hyper-baton,” that is, the alteration of the logical sequence of words in a sentence…. It was previously believed that the style of Beowulf belonged to a primitive, barbaric stage of poetic creation. Subsequently, however, a Germanist discovered that lines from the Aeneid were woven into the poem, and that elsewhere, passages from that epic poem were brought in, then interspersed in the text. Hence, we have realized that we are not dealing with a barbaric poem, but rather with the erudite, baroque experiment of a priest, that is, someone who had access to Latin texts, and who studied them…. The Germanist [Neil] Ker has criticized Beowulf, for he considers the plot to be childish.4 The idea of the hero who kills an ogre, that ogre’s mother, and then a dragon, belongs to a children’s tale. But these elements are, in fact, inevitable; they are there because they must be. Once he chose that legend, the author could not possibly omit the ogre, the witch, or the dragon. The public expected them, because it knew the legend. Moreover, these monsters were symbols of the powers of evil; they were taken very seriously by that audience.

On William Blake – 

William_Blake_by_1804

A Swedenborg fan, for sure.

William Blake, on the contrary, remains not only outside the pseudo-classic school (to use the most elevated term), and that is the school represented by [Alexander] Pope, but he also remains outside the romantic movement. He is an individual poet, and if there is anything we can connect him to—for, as Rubén Darío said, there is no literary Adam—we would have to connect him to much more ancient traditions: to the Cathar heretics in the south of France, the Gnostics in Asia Minor and Alexandria in the first century after Christ, and of course to the great and visionary Swedish thinker, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Because Blake was an isolated individual, his contemporaries considered him a bit mad, and perhaps he was. He was a visionary—as Swedenborg had been, of course—and his works circulated very little during his lifetime. Moreover, he was better known as an engraver and a draftsman than as a writer…. Blake’s work is extraordinarily difficult to read because he created a theological system. In order to express it, he had the idea of inventing a mythology, and critics don’t agree on what it means. There is a poem by Blake—it is included in all the anthologies—where this problem is expressed, but of course is not resolved…. In Songs of Experience, Blake deals directly with the problem of evil, and he symbolizes it, in the manner of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, as a tiger. The poem, which consists of five or six stanzas, is called “The Tyger,” and was illustrated by the author.

Read more excerpts here.

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
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The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”

 

Bodleian’s treasures on display: paradise as a library

Saturday, November 26th, 2011
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"Marco Polo's Travels," 14th century. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

As you enter the darkened room,  a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio is to your right.  Enigmatic scraps of a poem by Sappho, circa 2nd century A.D., are to your left.  And all around you the wonders of the world: weighted with heavy seals, a 1217 “engrossment” of the Magna Carta is nearby (it was reissued under Henry III); so is a 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  In the corner of one glass case –  an exquisite 18th-century miniature scroll of the Bhagavad Gita, which shines like a cache of jewels, somehow pressed and rolled into paper.

William Shakespeare, First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And here, in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, “Treasures of the Bodleian,” 30 Sept. – 23 Dec. 2011, everyone could see that, well, he had a point.  The exhibition anticipates a permanent gallery in the Weston Library in 2015.  The exhibition shows some of the Bodleian’s rarest, most important, and most evocative rarities.

To wit:  In a corner, a single page of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s Frankenstein describes the ominous night of the creature’s creation. Her scrawled text is corrected and amended by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Other handwritten manuscripts are the work of Jane Austen, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Others are the work of a brush rather than a nib: an exquisite 17th-century picture scroll of the sad Tale of Urashima, a classic Japanese fairy tale which I had read as a child.

For Sir Thomas Bodley, who basically created the museum that opened its doors in 1602, the Shakespeare first folio did not seem like the greatest find. According to the exhibition guide, he “would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and rife raffes’ that had not place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections.”

The volume left the library under mysterious conditions in 1674, and resurfaced only in 1905.  By that time, “the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare.'”

William Shakespeare,First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

I visited the exhibition in the company of my friend, Oxford’s Eliza Tudor, and we gravitated towards our favorites.  Hers seemed to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s brilliant golden watercolor of Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, as he converses with a dragon.  She also took a liking to the Selden map of China, from the Ming era – the earliest Chinese map to show not only shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia. And for me … well, what a choice!  Perhaps I’ll plump for one of the earliest editions of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fully illustrated, made within decades of his death (see video below).

But there are littler treasures, too – Mohandas Gandhi wrote to his friend, the Anglican missionary Charles Andrews, in a 1932 prison letter exhibited in the collection: “I can therefore never say beforehand what will occupy my attention exclusively or for the most part at a given moment and since a civil resister bargains for the punishment he receives for his resistance, he must not fret over it. Therefore and to that extent I am content with my lot.”

Letter from an Egyptian boy to his father, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Eliza arrived with her young son Fabian, who was mildly ill and did not attend school that day. His own choice was no surprise.  The exhibit that intrigued him the most was one of the earliest – about the same era, perhaps a little later, as the Sappho fragments: on a sheet of papyrus, an Egyptian schoolboy Theon complains to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health.