Borges’s Plot Summaries: Jorge Luis Borges’s Course on English Literature
By Michael DuffyNovember 3, 2013
Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature by Jorge Luis Borges
IT’S HARD to fall asleep in lecture when you’re on the edge of your seat. Borges kept his students perched in this position throughout his 1966 course on English literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and now keeps us there as we read these transcripts. Instead of giving us information about literary works or decoding them, he tells and retells their stories. The informative, enlightening remarks that we expect to be in a lecture never quite arrive, as Borges launches into plot summaries that unfold into lively retellings. Getting ready to discuss a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Borges scratches his head: “I do not remember all the details,” he says, “but I do remember the plot.” We are blessed to hear many, many plots throughout Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature.
This runs against the foundational dogma of the modern study and teaching of literature. Written over the gates into modern literary studies is the phrase: “DO NOT JUST SUMMARIZE THE PLOT.” Heeding this warning, professors now pack your average English survey lecture with readings, counter-readings, contexts, updates on the state of research, and sophisticated theories. Instead of retelling stories, contemporary literature professors tell you about everything, anything else: context, information, politics, interpretations, or background.
But while the modern study of literature tells students plenty about the books they are reading, Borges gives them an education in the books themselves. And the pleasures of Professor Borges are in the way it doesn’t resemble literary study today. It is most compelling in the moments it is entirely at odds with the way you’ve been taught to analyze books.
Of course, Borges isn’t a full-on rebel. He fulfills many of the basic functions expected of a professor. His course is comprehensive enough. It runs the entire gamut of English literature, from Beowulf to Robert Bridges, Wiglaf to Wilde. The major authors or texts lectured upon include Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon epic poetry (some translated by Tennyson), various Anglo-Saxon elegies, Macpherson, Johnson, Boswell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Carlyle, Dickens, Browning, Rossetti, Morris, Stevenson.
His lectures are also well-formed. They have a distinct preoccupation and theme: the epic, the frankly mythic, the horrible and grotesque — everything Borges loved. Ignoring novelistic realism — the only person who comes close is Dickens, and Borges is really only interested in his exaggerated, unrealistic characterization — Borges restores something wild to the venerable empirical, hard-headed English tradition. Today it might appear in the course catalog as “The Fantastic in English Fiction.”
Borges does engage in some literary criticism in these lectures. There are many nice, witty judgments hanging on clear, ringing phrases. On the inability to fix the English language in some official diction, as some tried to do in the Enlightenment: “The language belongs to fishermen, not scholars.” On Leibniz and the best of all possible worlds: “I think having a toothache is enough to convince us that we don’t live in paradise.” On Wordsworth’s bad poetry: “We must remember that he was not only a good walker, he was also an excellent skater.” Speaking about Carlyle’s history: “The Scots in general tend to be more intellectual than the English. Or better said, the English are usually not intellectual and almost all the Scots are.” And Dickens: “The characters Dickens creates live in the perpetual rapture of being themselves”; “Thackeray portrays the upper classes because he knows them well; Dickens because he felt plebeian.”
All this makes the editors Martín Arias and Martín Hadis quite happy, because they want to make Borges into a venerable and effective professor. There is very little irony, very little jokiness, in their minds, about the book’s inflated title. They are relieved that these transcripts finally allow the display of what they call — as rendered into English by Katherine Silver, the book’s translator — Borges’s “erudition.” They are happy to see that Borges can now appear not only as the venerable, wise lecturer he was on many occasions, but also a good teacher.
But any reader familiar with Borges (or even his reputation) already knew of his encyclopedic mind. And it is truly hard to believe, reading these transcripts, that Borges was the proficient teacher in the professional sense that we understand it today: it’s hard to imagine him setting off with gusto to meetings with the department chair, supervising dissertations, deciding on new hires.
If Borges does indeed teach well, it is not because his “erudition” is a scholarly apparatus of data, dates, knowledge of the state of a field, his immersion in the “critical conversation,” and so on. It is his vast memory for stories, anecdotes, comparisons, characterizations, images, both by poets and about poets, which he could rattle off without any notes, blind, up on the podium.
In his lecture on Anglo-Saxon elegies, for example, he relates to us the following: the tale of a poem called “The Sea Farer”; a story about Dante and one about Langland; a remark about his reading of Chesterton; a story called “The Wanderer”; a poem called “The Ruin”; “Deor’s Lament”; “The Dream of the Rood” (illustrated by a remark of T.S. Eliot); and finally, “Judith.” All are summarized, fully, with casts of characters and plots described.
And then there are the stories that crop up just in passing, by way of comparison or juxtaposition. He compares Johnson’s story of Rasselas the prince to the story of the Buddha (which he also relates). In discussing medieval bestiaries Borges summarizes first a certain moment in Eliot’s Four Quartets, elaborates a scene in Paradise Lost, and recalls a remark in Pliny’s Natural History. In relating Morris’s epics, we hear a story about Virginia Woolf. And so on. Borges’s “erudition” is his sheer command of so much imaginative material, and his ability to wield it, to summon it up and use it.
Borges’s paraphrases and plot summaries don’t only challenge contemporary academic orthodoxies through their length and relentless vividness; they also allow him to imaginatively elaborate, juxtapose, and characterize a text in a way that often conveys much more to us than any analysis. Here is Borges explaining through an anecdote how Boswell came to write his life of Johnson (in a lecture you can read at The New York Review of Books):
After two or three months of friendship, Boswell decided to go to Holland to continue his legal studies, and Johnson, who was very attached to London … Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Johnson accompanied Boswell to the boat. I think it is many miles south of London. That is, he diligently tolerated the long and — at the time — difficult trip, and Boswell says he stood at the port watching the boat sail away, waving goodbye. They wouldn’t see each other for two or three years. Then, after his failure with Voltaire, his failure with Rousseau, his success with Paoli — which might not have been difficult because Paoli was not a very important person — Boswell decided to dedicate himself to being Johnson’s biographer.
We gather from this, first, Boswell’s ambitions in writing the Life through Borges’s work of characterization. Borges hints that Boswell is eager to meet important people, one after the other, to the extent that he will make the mistake here of giving up his connection with Johnson. And the unfolding of this little story itself, where Boswell is also only so successful at his ambitions, shows us how the ambitions come to make the work what it is. His talent for friendship and studied intimacy helps him record his friendship with an important figure like Johnson, but not figures like Rousseau or Paoli. Borges’s storytelling conveys Boswell’s significance just as well as a close reading of Boswell’s famous Preface, where he outlines the work’s aims.
Here is Borges’s explanation of a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Nuptual Sleep”:
It begins by saying, “Al fin su largo beso se separó” (“At length their kiss severed”), and they separated […] The two tired lovers fall asleep, but Rossetti, with a beautiful metaphor, says: “Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams.” “El sueño los hundió más abajo de la marea de los sueños.” The night passes, and the dawn awakens them, and then their souls, which were under sleep, wake up. And they slowly emerge from sleep as if it were water. And then he says that among the drowned remnants of the day — he sees marvels of new forests and streams — he awoke. That is, he had had a marvelous dream, he had dreamed of an unknown, splendid land, because his soul was full of the splendors of love. “Él se despertó y se maravilló aún más porque ahí estaba ella.” That is, the fact of waking up, of returning from a fantasy world, returning to reality, and seeing that the reality is there — the woman he loved and worshiped for so long — and seeing her sleeping by his side, in his arms, is even more wonderful than the dream.
By retelling and building up stories, Borges takes us through a work in the way breaking down a work can’t. We don’t even have to peruse the sonnet to know it with surprising intimacy.
Borges helped originate the idea that reading is a form of imaginative creativity on par with writing itself. He is, of course, author of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a story about a man who involved himself with Cervantes’s work so deeply that he sat down, picked up his pen, and tried to write it, line for line, himself becoming the author of Don Quixote. Borges, like Menard, wanted to make “the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading” itself into a form of literature.
Thinking they are following him, literary scholars and many critics say that to read something is to write it. To have an interpretation of a work is just as good as having written the work yourself in your own way. Studying a work, then, does not require developing a connection with the text, but learning to write well about it.
This emphasis on reading as a kind of writing explains why whatever we create shouldn’t paraphrase the interpreted text, shouldn’t simply retell the work itself. Such paraphrases would cramp your interpretive freedom. Postmodern remarks about the untranslatability and irreducibility and singularity of texts (still around) made what the critic Cleanth Brooks called the “heresy of paraphrase” even more heretical.
But what Professor Borges shows us is that in 1966, precisely when professors in North America and Europe took the initial steps toward making the study of literature a matter of contextualization rather than appreciation, Borges on the Calle Independencia used his insight into reading differently. Borges did not avoid adding to stories when he went over them again: he in fact enjoyed doing precisely this. “Reading should be a form of happiness,” Borges says, in an epilogue Arias and Hadis include at the end of the lectures. And Borges’s happiness — while it might not look as professional, as polished, or even as informative as academic lectures — often enlivens and excites you much more than what gets produced in literary studies today. The professors themselves could learn a lesson or two from Professor Borges. For now, though, we get to enjoy the contrast.
Michael Duffy writes and studies literary criticism in the PhD program in English literature at Princeton University.
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