WHEN MY FRIEND Charles McNair and I met the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in New Orleans, he was 82 years old. As aspiring novelists, we were drunk on the work of the Latin American magic realists. Borges’s cryptic, compressed tales such as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” were the olives in our Latin martini.
Born in 1899, blinded in the 1950s by a congenital disease, Borges had come from Buenos Aires to lecture at Tulane University on aesthetics and the notion of meaning. The place he most wanted us to take him was Preservation Hall, the small stuffy room just off Bourbon Street where the last remnants of old-style Dixieland are still performed. He stood in the back letting the “waves and waves of jazz” roll over him.
On the morning we met him in 1982 in his suite at the Fairmont Hotel, he was attended by Maria Kodama, the lovely young Japanese Argentine factotum who later became his second wife. (When he died in 1986, polite Argentina was outraged that he left his entire estate to her.)
For our interview, Borges sat in brilliant sunlight by an open window. Remembering the music of the night before, he smiled and softly sang three verses of “St. James Infirmary.” His musical cadence was as precise as the English of his conversation. He was generous with his time and answered all our questions.
MARK CHILDRESS AND CHARLES MCNAIR: Did you dream last night?
JORGE LUIS BORGES: I dream every night. I dream before I go to sleep, and I dream after waking up. When I begin to say meaningless words, I’m seeing impossible things.
I remember that a dream gave me a story. I had a very confused, a very tangled dream. And the only thing I remembered was this: “I sell you Shakespeare’s memory.” And I wrote a story about that [“La Memoria de Shakespeare”].
What a fine name Shakespeare is, yes? But he was quite bad, don’t you think so? A man who wrote “England, that demi-Paradise.” Sounds like a bad joke, no? I mean, Shakespeare’s letting you down all the time. A very uneven writer. He’s not dependable. You have a very fine line, and then you have, well, rhetoric.
Do you like to attend his plays?
I like reading drama, not seeing it. That is a great part of my life, reading. I do my best to keep on reading. I keep on buying books, and living with them, but I can’t read them, of course.
A book is atmosphere, no? I am ringed in with books. I went blind reading verses, and the whole thing came as a very slow twilight. Very slow. Not a particularly pathetic moment. People became faceless, the books had no illustrations, I couldn’t see myself in the looking glass.
Do you remember the last thing you saw?
The last thing I saw was yellow, the yellow color, because the first two colors to disappear were black and red. People think that blind people live in the dark. No. The first color they lose is black. I’m yearning for the black and red. I wish I could see scarlet.
And now I live in the center of a kind of luminous grayish or bluish or greenish mist. But always luminous.
My father went blind also, my English grandmother died blind, my English great-grandfather died blind. I know that I am the fourth blind generation. I knew what lay in store for me.
Do you read Braille?
No, and what a pity. That would have changed my whole life. And now I’m too old. Too old for my hands.
You said once you wished you had never left your father’s library, where you spent your time as a child.
Well, as a matter of fact, I haven’t. I’m still there. And here. I keep on reading the same books I read as a boy. Every time I read them they change. And they’re changing me, of course.
At home, I haven’t got a single book of mine, nor a single book written about me. I hardly know what I have written. I read other and better writers. If I reread my own stuff, I might be disheartened. I want to go on writing. I don’t want to be discouraged.
How do you write now?
I keep on dreaming, scheming, planning all the time. People come, I dictate to them. It’s the only thing I can do. I work in a very scattered way. I have no method. A haphazard way. Everything about me is haphazard.
I do my best to write in a simple style. I do my best to use the simple words. I do my best to watch the dictionary. I think my writing is, on the surface, simple. I feel a kind of inner need, an urge to do it. And I live to satisfy that need, and it keeps on worrying me, and when I write it down, I don’t worry about it.
Have you ever satisfied that need?
Well, no, so I keep on writing.
What are you writing now?
So many things. I have to live on to write ever so many books, to write a book on Swedenborg, and to write a book of poems, a book of short stories. Maria Kodama and I studied Old English together, and now we’re studying Old Norse. Very interesting languages.
What is your favorite language?
I think I would choose between English and German, but maybe if I knew Icelandic I would choose Icelandic. I think Spanish is a rather clumsy language. For example, a verse from Kipling: “We have ridden the low moon out of the sky.” You can’t ride the moon out of the sky in Spanish. The language doesn’t allow it. How lucky to you that you were born to English, no? This is a wonderful language.
How does it feel to read an English translation of your work?
The translators greatly better it.
Why don’t you compose in English?
I respect English far too much. Who am I to meddle with English?
Do you believe in inspiration?
Yes. I think that at least in my case, things begin by inspiration. Something … we call it the Holy Ghost, or the muse, or the great memory, or the subconscious. When I write poetry, I tend to think of something immediate, downright. My poetry is more intimate to me than my prose. Many people dislike my poetry and enjoy my prose, in my country.
In the case of prose, I have to concoct a story, a plot, create characters, that sort of thing. Then, when I have something given me, I try to sit back and proceed. I never let my personal opinions meddle with my work. Given a fable, a plot … let’s see, shall this happen, say, at the turn of the 20th century or, say, in some Arabian Nights kind of life, or shall it have just happened? Maybe I’m in Scotland or America, or Buenos Aires, or Montevideo …
You mentioned the subconscious. What do you think of psychology?
Everybody’s supposed to hate his father or his mother. My father thought it was a very futile science. I don’t understand people who claim they’ve mastered psychology. I feel pity for them. To be so interested in themselves, in analyzing themselves. I hardly know myself. Nobody does.
I think we have lost a very important science: ethics. People admire lying. They admire cheating. They admire a man being a millionaire. The things that are important, really important, are the books a man reads, his feelings, his actions, while opinions are not. They come and go. I’ve been a nationalist, I’ve been a communist, a quiet anarchist.
Do you mean that Argentina has lost its ethical conscience?
Let’s hope it’s just a local phenomenon. My country is just a hopeless country. The only thing we have left is the fact that we are hopeless. Nobody expects anything. Graft, corruption. The kidnapping, people disappearing. We’re going steadily downhill. Had we democracy, we would choose some fool or snob like Perón, and the present man is quite incompetent. Why should he be competent?
How do you define ethics?
I don’t have to define them, they go way down. I mean, when I act, I know where I am, rightly or wrongly. Every time I act, I know whether I’m doing right or wrong. At least I think I do. It’s a feeling, an inner feeling.
Is this feeling religious, as well?
I don’t feel, I don’t concern about that. See, I’m a happy agnostic, a rollicking agnostic. I suppose every day we’re in heaven, we’re in hell, we’re all over, no? I feel something, maybe I hope something, but after all, those are private questions.
The one thing I have experienced is magic. Maybe I haven’t experienced anything else. I remember Halley’s Comet. As a child. I thought it was part of the centenary festivities in Buenos Aires. The whole city lit up. I thought it was a kind of celestial fireworks.
Do you look forward to the return of the comet [in 1986]?
No, no, not at all. No. If I could die right now, that would be the wise thing to do, no? Sitting here and talking to you, in New Orleans? What else can I do? A long sickbed? I’d rather die quickly.
But you still have more stories to write.
Yes, but I suppose I’ve told my best stories. I’m 82. I have no future left, or some kind of dream future, perhaps the only possible future. My mother died at the ripe age of 99, and she stood in fear of being 100.
When you turn 101, you’ll see the next century.
Oh, let’s hope not. Don’t be a pessimist.
Won’t you continue to live, through your work?
Well, I won’t be there. I’ll be absent. I’ll be in another world, and I don’t care a jot about it. I think my work will find its way.
Would you have wanted fame sooner for yourself?
No, I don’t enjoy it. I’m uncomfortable with it. As my father said, “I would like to be a wealthy, invisible man.” I never go to cocktail parties, to meetings of any kind … shaking hands, the same hands, saying, “Pleased to meet you, sir,” and that kind of stuff, over and over again, meeting people, and I can’t see their faces. It’s awful, really. You have to smile, you have to be grateful.
Then does travel intrude upon your writing?
To the contrary. I am very grateful. I can feel countries. I haven’t seen Egypt, but I’ve been there. I haven’t seen Japan, but I went to Japan. That makes all the difference. I don’t know whether it comes from the senses or perhaps from beyond the senses. And now to be here, to be in America, seems so unbelievable to me, so wonderful, different than being in Buenos Aires. Such a drab town.
When will you return to America?
As soon as I can. I want to travel all over, and I also want to go home. That’s a part of traveling. I may be expected or feared at any moment.