Richard Burgin, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges
First published 1969 in America by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 160p. This edition: Published 1998 by University Press of Mississippi
One of the many pleasures the stars (in which I don’t believe) have granted me is in literary and metaphysical dialogue. Since both these designations run the risk of seeming a bit pretentious, I should clarify that dialogue for me is not a form of polemics, of monologue or magisterial dogmatism, but of shared investigation… It is enough for me to say that if I am rich in anything, it is in perplexities rather in certainties. (J.L. Borges in Prologue)
One of the first impressions the book gave me was that of serenity; beyond the honesty and simplicity of the discourse, there is the peacefulness of a complex man who accepted his limits and had no hesitation talking about his fears and dislikes. Still uncertain about many things, Borges reveals himself as a profound intellectual that didn’t take life for granted.
To interview one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century one needed erudition. Although he was still an undergraduate at that time, Richard Burgin, together with Mosca Flo Bildner, a Brazilian girl, were accepted by Borges as his guests and interviewers. Borges was already blind in 1969.
Flo and I split up in the afternoon, each to go out and buy him a present. Of course, there is something futile about buying a gift for Borges. He simply has no need or desire for any symbol of gratitude for his company. He always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs. In any event, after wandering up and down the long streets of Boston, going through department stores, book stores, and record stores, I finally bought him a record of Bach’s Fourth and Fifth Brandenburg concertos on which my father played violin. Back in Cambridge, I met Flo holding her gift, four long-stemmed yellow roses.
As Borges begins to speak, a joy of reading emerges. He is honest, funny, profound. Using his education and his books as major exemplifications he will speak about childhood, family, ethics, metaphysics, favourite writers, art, symbols in his own writings, reality and death.
With a destiny shaped in his childhood (I always thought of myself as a writer even before I wrote a book), Borges spent his entire life reading, rereading, writing and teaching about reading and literature. When he began to lose his sight in his early thirties (he was 87 when he died) he asked for help and was read by his mother and later by a personal assistant so he didn’t stop collecting impressions about life and universe. Memory, mirrors, time, dreams, labyrinths and fictional writers are constant themes in Borges’s books. He defined himself as the result of everything he had read, believed that literature is something fluid and universal and considered that every book is modified by its reader as every reading is a new, unique experience.
I think of the world’s literature as a kind of forest, I mean it’s tangled and it entangles us but it’s growing.
Admiring Dante, Homer, Dickens, Kafka, Henry James, Jung, Hawthorne, Unamuno, Borges discussed the universality of literature and its influences:
That’s why the whole idea of teaching, for example, Argentine literature, is rubbish. In the case of Argentine literature, especially so. Because how can you think of Argentine literature outside the Spanish language? How can you think of it outside the influence of French markets. It can’t be done. You can’t speak of Chaucer without thinking about the Italians and the French. It can’t be done. Meaningless. And you can’t speak of Baudelaire without going back to De Quincey and to Edgar Allan Poe. You can’t speak of them without going back to somebody else.
Borges found this kind of connections and imports in all arts and also in history. He further discussed his political beliefs and the impact of war and aggression on a society. The writer described himself as a classic liberal opposing communism, fascism and all forms of political oppressions and dictatorships. Referring to Hiroshima he said:
I should say this, if you accept war, you have to accept cruelty. And you have to accept slaughter and bloodshed and that kind of thing. And after all, to be killed by a rifle, or to be killed by a stone thrown at you, or by somebody thrusting a knife into you, is essentially the same.
The whole book is very personal confession, a moment of Borges’s reflection on the world but mainly on himself
I know that there are people in the world who have the curious desire to know me better. For some 70 years, without too much effort, I have been working toward the same end. Walt Whitman has already said it: ‘I think I know little or nothing of my real life’.