Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986
Borges y la ceguera (Borges on Blindness) (1977)
In the course of the many lectures-too many lectures-! have given, I've observed that people tend to prefer the personal to the general, the concrete to the abstract. I will begin, then, by referring to my own modest blindness.
Modest, because it is total blindness in one eye, but only partial in the other. I can still make out certain colors; I can still see blue and green. And yellow, in particular, has remained faithful to me. I remember when I was young I used to linger in front of certain cages in the Palermo zoo: the cages of the tigers and leopards. I lingered before the tigers' gold and black. Yellow is still with me, even now. I have written a poem, entitled "The Gold of the Tigers," in which I refer to this friendship.
People generally imagine the blind as enclosed in a black world. There is, for example, Shakespeare's line: "Looking on darkness which the blind do see." If we understand "darkness" as "blackness," then Shakespeare is wrong.
One of the colors that the blind-or at least this blind man-do not see is black; another is red. Le rouge et le nair are the colors denied us. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in dar ess. The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine. (I should say that I am speaking for myself, and for my father and my grand mother, who both died blind-blind, laughing, and brave, as I also hope to die. They inherited many things-blindness, for example-but one does not inherit courage. I know that they were brave.)
The blind live in a world that is inconvenient, an unde ned world from which certain colors emerge: for me, yellow, blue (except that the blue may be green), and green (except that the green may be blue). White has disap peared, or is con sed with grey. As for red, it has vanished completely. But I hope some day-1 am following a treatment-to improve and to be able to see that great color, that color which shines in poetry, and which has so many beauti l names in many languages. Think of scharlach in German, scarlet in English, escarlata in Spanish, ecarlate in French. Words that are worthy of that great color. In contrast, amarillo, yellow, sounds weak in Spanish; in English it seems more like yellow. I think that in Old Spanish it was amariello.
I live in that world of colors, and if I speak of my own modest blind ness, I do so, rst, because it is not the total blindness that people imagine, and second, because it deals with me. My case is not especially dramatic. What is dramatic are those who suddenly lose their sight. In my case, that slow nightfall, that slow loss of sight, began when I began to see. It has con tinued since 1899 without dramatic moments, a slow nightfall that haslasted more than three quarters of a century. In 1955, the pathetic moment came when I knew I had lost my sight, my reader's and writer's sight.
In my life I have received many unmerited honors, but there is one that has made me happier than all the others: the directorship of the National Library. For reasons more political than literary, I was appointed by the Aramburu government.
I was named director of the library, and I returned to that building of which I had so many memories, on the Calle Mexico in Monserrat, in the south of the city. I had never dreamed of the possibility of being director of the library. I had memories of another kind. I would go there with my fa ther, at night. My father, a professor of psychology, would ask for some book by Bergson or William James, who were his favorite writers, or per haps by Gustav Spiller. I, too timid to ask for a book, would look through some volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the German encyclopedias of Brockhaus or of Meyer. I would take a volume at random from the shelf and read. I remember one night when I was particularly rewarded, for I read three articles: on the Druids, the Druses, and Dryden-a gi of the let ters DR. Other nights I was less fortunate.
I knew that Paul Groussac was in the building. I could have met him personally, but I was then quite shy; almost as shy as I am now. At the time, I believed that shyness was very important, but now I know that shyness is one of the evils one must try to overcome, that in reality to be shy doesn't matter-it is like so many other things to which one gives an exaggerated importance.
I received the nomination at the end of 1955. I was in charge, I was told, of a million books. Later I found out it was nine hundred thousand-a number that's more than enough. (And perhaps nine hundred thousand seems more than a million.)
Little by little I came to realize the strange irony of events. I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Others think of a garden or of a palace. There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred thousand books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines. I wrote the "Poem of the Gi s," which begins:
No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God; who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.
Those two gi s contradicted each other: the countless books and the night, the inability to read them.
I imagined the author of that poem to be Groussac, for Groussac was also the director of the library and also blind. Groussac was more coura geous than I: he kept his silence. But I knew that there had certainly been moments when our lives had coincided, as we both had become blind and we both loved books. He honored literature with books far superior to mine. But we were both men of letters, and we both passed through the li brary of forbidden books-one might say, for our darkened eyes, of blank books, books without letters. I wrote of the irony of God, and in the end I asked myself which of us had written that poem of a plural I and a single shadow.
At the time I did not know that there had been another director of the library who was blind, Jose Marmol. Here appears the number three, which seals everything. Two is a mere coincidence; three, a con rmation. A con r mation of a ternary order, a divine or theological con rmation.
Marmol was director of the library when it was on the Calle Venezuela. These days it is usual to speak badly of Marmol, or not to mention him at all. But we must remember that when we speak of the time of Rosas, we do not think of the admirable book by Ramos Mejia, Rosas and His Time, but of the era as it is described in Marmol's wonderfully gossipy novel, La Amalia. To bequeath the image of an age or of a country is no small glory.
We have, then, three people who shared the same fate. And, for me, the joy of returning to the Monserrat section, in the Southside. For everyone in Buenos Aires, the Southside is, in a mysterious way, the secret center of the city. Not the other, somewhat ostentatious center we show to tourists-in those days there was not that bit of public relations called the Barrio de San Telmo. But the Southside has come to be the modest secret center of Buenos Aires.
hen I think of Buenos Aires, I think of the Buenos Aires I knew as a child: the low houses, the patios, the porches, the cisterns with turtles in them, the grated windows. That Buenos Aires was all of Buenos Aires. Now only the southern section has been preserved. I felt that I had returned to the neighborhood of my elders.
There were the books, but I had to ask my friends the titles of them. I remembered a sentence from Rudolf Steiner, in his books on anthroposo phy, which was the name he gave to his theosophy. He said that when some thing ends, we must think that something begins. His advice is salutary, but the execution is di cult, for we only know what we have lost, not what we will gain. We have a very precise image-an image at times shameless-of what we have lost, but we are ignorant ofwhat may follow or replace it.
I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else. At the time I was a professor of English at the university. What could I do to teach that almost in nite lit erature, that literature which exceeds the life of a man, and even generations of men? What could I do in four Argentine months of national holidays and strikes? I did what I could to teach the love of that literature, and I re ained as much as possible from dates and names.
Some female students came to see me. They had taken the exam and passed. ( l students pass with me!) To the girls-there were nine or ten-I said: "I have an idea. Now that you have passed and I have ful lled my obli gation as a professor, wouldn't it be interesting to embark on the study of a language or a literature we hardly know?" They asked which language and which literature. "Well, naturally the English language and English litera ture. Let us begin to study them, now that we are free from the frivolity of the exams; let us begin at the beginning."
I remembered that at home there were two books I could retrieve. I had placed them on the highest shelf, thinking I would never use them. They were Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Both had glossaries. And so we gathered one morning in the National Library.
I thought: I have lost the visible world, but now I am going to recover another, the world of my distant ancestors, those tribes of men who rowed across the stormy northern seas, from Germany, Denmark, and the Low Countries, who conquered England, and a er whom we name England since Angle-land, land of the Angles, had previously been called the land of the Britons, who were Celts.
It was a Saturday morning. We gathered in Groussac's o ce, and we be gan to read. There was a detail that pleased and morti ed us, and at the same time lled us with a certain pride. It was the fact that the Saxons, like the Scandinavians, used two runic letters to signi the two sounds of th, as in "thing" and "the." This conferred an air of mystery to the page.
We were encountering a language that seemed di erent from English but similar to German. What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each one of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason poems in a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them.
We had good luck that morning. We discovered the sentence, "Julius Caesar was the rst Roman to discover England." Finding ourselves with the Romans in a text of the North, we were moved. You must remember we knew nothing of the language; each word was a kind of talisman we un earthed. We found two words. And with those two words we became almost drunk. ( It's true that I was an old man, and they were young women-likely stages for inebriation.) I thought: "I am returning to the language my an cestors spoke y generations ago; I am returning to that language; I am re claiming it. It is not the rst time I speak it; when I had other names this was the language I spoke." Those two words were the name of London,
"Lundenburh," and the name of Rome, which moved us even more, think ing of the light that had fallen on those northern islands, "Romeburh." I think we le crying, "Lundenburh, Romeburh . . ." in the streets.
So I began my study ofAnglo-Saxon, which blindness brought me. And now I have a memory full of poetry that is elegiac, epic, Anglo-Saxon.
I had replaced the visible world with the aural world of the Anglo Saxon language. Later I moved on to the richer world of Scandinavian lit erature: I went on to the Eddas and the sagas. I wro e Ancient Germanic Literature and many poems based on those themes, but most of all I en joyed it. I am now preparing a book on Scandinavian literature.
I did not allow blindness to intimidate me. And besides, my publisher made me an excellent offer: he told me that if I produced thirty poems in a year, he would produce a book. Thirty poems means discipline, especially when one must dictate every line, but at the same time it allows for a su cient freedom, as it is impossible that in one year there will not be thirty occasions for poetry. Blindness has not been for me a total misfortune; it should not be seen in a pathetic way. It should be seen as a way of life: one of the styles of living.
Being blind has its advantages. I owe to the darkness some gi s: the gi ofAnglo-Saxon,mylimitedknowledgeofIcelandic,thejoyofsomanylines of poetry, of so many poems, and of having written another book, entitled, with a certain falsehood, with a certain arrogance, In Praise ofDarkness.
I would like to speak now of other cases, of illustrious cases. I will begin with that obvious example of the iendship of poetry and blindness, with the one who has been called the greatest of poets: Homer. (We know of another blind Greek poet, Tamiris, whose work has been lost. Tamiris was defeated in a battle with the Muses, who broke his lyre and took away his sight.)
Oscar Wilde had a curious hypothesis, one which I don't think is his torically correct but which is intellectually agreeable. In general, writers try to make what they say seem profound; Wilde was a profound man who tried to seem frivolous. He wanted us to think of him as a conversationalist; he wanted us to consider him as Plato considered poetry, as "that winged, c e, sacred thing." Well, that winged, ckle, sacred thing called Oscar Wilde said that Antiquity had deliberately represented Homer as blind.
We do not know if Homer existed. The fact that seven cities vie for his name is enough to make us doubt his historicity. Perhaps there was no sin gle Homer; perhaps there were many Greeks whom we conceal under the name of Homer. The traditions are unanimous in showing us a blind poet, yet Homer's poetry is visual, o en splendidly visual-as was, to a far lesser degree, that of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde realized that his own poetry was too visual, and he wanted to cure himself of that defect. He wanted to make poetry that was aural, musical-let us say like the poetry of Tennyson, or of Verlaine, whom he loved and admired so. Wilde said that the Greeks claimed that Homer was blind in order to emphasize that poetry must be aural, not visual. From that comes the "de la musique avant toute chose" ofVerlaine and the symbolism contemporary to Wilde.
We may believe that Homer never existed, but that the Greeks imagined him as blind in order to insist on the fact that poetry is, above all, music; that poetry is, above all, the lyre; that the visual can or cannot exist in a poet. I know of great visual poets and great poets who are not visual-intellectual poets, mental ones-there's no need to mention names.
Let us go on to the example of Milton. Milton's blindness was volun tary. He knew from the beginning that he was going to be a great poet. This has occurred to other poets: Coleridge and De Quincey, before they wrote a single line, knew that their destiny was literary. I too, if I may mention my self, have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny that bad things and some good things would happen to me, but that, in the long run, all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness does not need to be transformed: happiness is its own end.
Let us return to Milton. He destroyed his sight writing pamphlets in support of the execution of the king by Parliament. Milton said that he lost his sight voluntarily, defending freedom; he spoke of that noble task and never complained of being blind. He sacri ced his sight, and then he re membered his rst desire, that of being a poet. They have discovered at Cambridge University a manuscript in which the young Milton proposes various subjects for a long poem.
"I might perhaps leave something so written to a ertimes, as they should not willingly let it die;' he declared. He listed some ten or fi een subjects, not knowing that one of them would prove prophetic: the subject of Samson. He did not know that his fate would, in a way, be that of Sam son; that Samson, who had prophesied Christ in the Old Testament, also prophesied Milton, and with greater accuracy. Once he knew himself to be permanently blind, he embarked on two historical works, A BriefHistory of Muscovia and A History of England, both of which remained un nished. And then the long poem Paradise Lost. He sought a theme that would inter est all men, not merely the English. That subject was Adam, our common father.
He spent a good part of his time alone, composing verses, and his memory had grown. He would hold forty or y hendecasyllables of blank verse in his memory and then dictate them to whomever came to visit. The whole poem was written in this way. He thought of the fate of Samson, so close to his own, for now Cromwell was dead and the hour of the Restora tion had come. Milton was persecuted and could have been condemned to death for having supported the execution of the king. But when they brought Charles 11-son of Charles I, "The Executed"-the list of those condemned to death, he put down his pen and said, not without nobility, "There is something in my right hand which will not allow me to sign a sen tence of death." Milton was saved, and many others with him.
He then wrote Samson Agonistes. He wanted to create a Greek tragedy. The action takes place in a single day, Samson's last. Milton thought on the similarity of destinies, since he, like Samson, had been a strong man who was ultimately defeated. He was blind. And he wrote those verses which, ac cording to Landor, he punctuated badly, but which in fact had to be "Eye less, in Gaza, at the mill, with the slaves"-as if the misfortunes were accumulating on Samson.
Milton has a sonnet in which he speaks of his blindness. There is a line one can tell was written by a blind man. When he has to describe the world, he says, "In this dark world and wide." It is precisely the world of the blind when they are alone, walking with hands outstretched, searching for props. Here we have an example-much more important than mine-of a man who overcomes blindness and does his work: Paradise Lost, Paradise Re gained, Samson Agonistes, his best sonnets, part of A History of England, from the beginnings to the Norman Conquest. All of this was executed while he was blind; all of it had to be dictated to casual visitors.
The Boston aristocrat Prescott was helped by his wife. An accident, when he was a student at Harvard, had caused him to lose one eye and le him almost blind in the other. He decided that his life would be dedicated to literature. He studied, and learned, the literatures of England, France, Italy, and Spain. Imperial Spain offered him a world that was agreeable to his own rigid rejection of a democratic age. From an erudite he became a writer, and he dictated to his wife the histories of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, of the reign of the Catholic Kings and of Phillip II. It was a happy labor, almost impeccable, which took more than twenty years.
There are two examples that are closer to us. One I have already men tioned, Paul Groussac, who has been unjustly forgotten. People see him now as a French interloper in Argentina. It is said that his historical work has become dated, that today one makes use of greater documentation. But they forget that Groussac, like every writer, le two works: rst, his subject, and second, the manner of its execution. Groussac revitalized Spanish prose. Alfonso Reyes, the greatest prose writer in Spanish in any era, once told me, "Groussac taught me how Spanish should be written." Groussac over came his blindness and left some of the best pages in prose that have been written in our country. It will always please me to remember this.
Let us recall another example, one more famous than Groussac. In James Joyce we are also given a twofold work. We have those two vast and why not say it?-unreadable novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But that is only half of his work (which also includes beautiful poems and the ad mirable Portrait ofan Artist as a Young Man). The other half, and perhaps the most redeeming aspect (as they now say) is the fact that he took on the almost in nite English language. That language-which is statistically larger than all the others and o ers so many possibilities for the writer, par ticularly in its concrete verbs-was not enough for him. Joyce, an Irishman, recalled that Dublin had been founded by Danish Vikings. He studied Norwegian-he wrote a letter to Ibsen in Norwegian-and then he studied Greek, Latin. . . . He knew all the languages, and he wrote in a language in vented by himself, dif cult to understand but marked by a strange music. Joyce brought a new music to English. And he said, valorously (and menda ciously) that "of all the things that have happened to me, I think the least important was having been blind." Part of his vast work was executed in darkness: polishing the sentences in his memory, working at times for a whole day on a single phrase, and then writing it and correcting it. All in the midst of blindness or periods of blindness. In comparison, the impotence of Boileau, Swi , Kant, Ruskin, and George Moore was a melancholic in strument for the successful execution of their work; one might say the same of perversion, whose bene ciaries today have ensured that no one will ig nore their names. Democritus of Abdera tore his eyes out in a garden so that the spectacle of reality would not distract him; Origen castrated himself.
I have enumerated enough examples. Some are so illustrious that I am ashamed to have spoken of my own personal case-except for the fact that people always hope for confessions, and I have no reason to deny them mine. But, of course, it seems absurd to place my name next to those I have recalled.
I have said that blindness is a way of life, a way of life that is not entirely unfortunate. Let us recall those lines of the greatest Spanish poet, Fray Luis de Leon:
Vivir quiero conmigo,
gozar quiero del bien que debo al cielo, a solas sin testigo,
libre de amor, de celo,
de odio, de esperanza, de recelo.
[I want to live with myself,/I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven,/alone, without witnesses,/free of love, of jealousy,/of hate, of hope, of fear.]
Edgar Allan Poe knew this stanza by heart.
For me, to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate. To live without love I think is impossible, happily impossible for each one of us. But the rst part-"I want to live with myself,/I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven"-if we accept that in the good of heaven there can also be darkness, then who lives more with themselves? Who can explore them selves more? Who can know more of themselves? According to the Socratic phrase, who can know himself more than the blind man?
A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a xed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Who ever is a poet is always one, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds-the strangest world of art-is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an in strument. Fray Luis de Leon dedicated one of his most beauti l odes to Francisco Salinas, a blind musician.
A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, em barrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the an cient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make om the miserable circum stances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.
If a blind man thinks this way, he is saved. Blindness is a gi . I have ex hausted you with the gifts it has given me. It gave me Anglo-Saxon, it gave me some Scandinavian, it gave me a knowledge of a medieval literature I didn't know, it gave me the writing of various books, good or bad, but which justi ed the moment in which they were written. Moreover, blind ness has made me feel surrounded by the kindness of others. People always feel good will toward the blind.
I want to end with a line of Goethe: ' lles Nahe werde fern," everything near becomes far. Goethe was referring to the evening twilight. Everything near becomes far. It is true. At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.
Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go o , leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude-except that the supreme solitude is death. And "everything near becomes far" also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show, speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many-all of them so strange-that fate or chance provide.
Jorge Luis Borges in UbuWeb Sound