Beowulf, the only surviving full-length Saxon epic, is, to Borges’s mind, “poorly wrought.” Unlike the “Finnsburh Fragment” with its implied familial tragedy, Beowulf simply introduces us to a hero—“a northern Hercules,” Borges calls him—and then goes on to show him doing heroic things before he dies. The author, we know, was most likely a monk who set out to write a Germanic Aeneid, and what irritates Borges is that he mimics the syntactic rules of Latin. At the time Beowulf was composed, probably during the eighth century, there were only about five hundred Latin words in Saxon, religious words for the most part, describing abstract and, to the Saxons, alien concepts. Borges is annoyed by Beowulf’s piousness and “pompous” tone. Borges, of course, wrote in a Latinate language; the hard Saxon words that represented “essential” things in English carried for him an exotic sonic power. Latin-derived words in Saxon seemed imitative and watered down. In his most metaphysical stories and poems, he searched, in Spanish, for primal, material words. In the alchemy of composition, their clarity of meaning had the effect of making the overall mystery of a story sharper.
“I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy,” Borges told The Paris Review in 1966, “perhaps…because I come from military stock.” But in fact he is unexpectedly stirred by the Saxon elegies of the ninth and tenth centuries, when there occurs, in Borges’s words, “the most important thing that can take place in poetry: the discovery of a new inflection.” These are not poems of battle but personal poems of solitude and sadness. “The Seafarer,” for instance, has a startling opening that anticipates centuries of literature to come, including, most obviously, Walt Whitman: “I will sing a true song of me myself and tell of my travels.” Borges delights in the unselfconscious, colloquial way that, later in the poem, the poet describes a snowstorm from the north: “Hail fell on the earth, coldest of seeds.” This metaphorical pairing of opposites is new—hail summons death, seeds summon life—yet one doesn’t feel the poet straining for effect; it just seems to be the way he saw it.
The most remarkable of the elegies is the second part of “The Dream of the Rood,” when the tree from which the cross was made to crucify Christ speaks to us directly. The wood of the felled tree is sentient and alive. It tells us its story, it asks for forgiveness, and we feel the extraordinary imaginative newness of the poet becoming the voice of a tree. There is nothing pious or dutifully Christian about this part of the poem. It is the voice of the earth itself, expressing a torn sorrow. “The cross trembles when it feels Christ’s embrace,” remarks Borges. “It is as if the cross were Christ’s woman, his wife; the cross shares the pain of the crucified God.”
What captivates Borges is the apparent purity of feeling in these verses, the sense that the writers are unaware of the originality of their poems. “They were forcing an iron language, an epic language, to say something for which that language had not been forged—to express sadness and personal loneliness. But they managed to do it.”
Readers of Professor Borges may be taken aback, as I was, when Borges jumps from the Norman Conquest of 1066 straight to the eighteenth century, bypassing Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and every other English writer for a period of seven hundred years. The writer Borges alights upon after this leap in time is Samuel Johnson, who lamented the loss of English’s Teutonic character, believing that the language had been degraded by the Gallicisms of the French.2 This invasion of Latinate words would expand the language immeasurably and come to comprise about two thirds of modern English. But for Borges this meant the sacrifice of an austere language of precision and action in favor of one stocked with abstract, vague, and overwrought locutions—the very elements in Spanish that he struggled against in his own work.
Shakespeare, in particular, unsettled Borges. He seemed to regard him with a mix of awe and instinctive aesthetic recoil. His improvised remarks about Shakespeare can seem simplistic, designed to shock. “I always feel something Italian, something Jewish about Shakespeare,” he told an interviewer, “and perhaps Englishmen admire him because of that, because it’s so unlike them.” He sincerely objected to what he characterized as Shakespeare’s overstatements, his habit of “piling on the agonies.”
It’s easy to imagine how the bursting soliloquies of Lear or Leontes in A Winter’s Tale might grate against Borges’s coolly metaphorical sensibility. Yet he agreed with Coleridge that “Shakespeare took everything out of himself,” that he was a kind of pantheistic force, “capable of assuming all shapes,” who had the capacity to become even his most minor characters when he wrote them. The great personal cost of Shakespeare’s pantheistic genius, Borges believed, was that he himself had no individual identity. “Behind his face…and his words…there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one,” he wrote.
During a class on Romanticism in Professor Borges, he tells his students:
One of a writer’s most important works—perhaps the most important of all—is the image he leaves behind of himself in the memory of men, above and beyond the pages he has written.
He is speaking of Coleridge, whose posthumous fame is equal, say, to that of Wordsworth, though “Coleridge’s work, which fills many volumes, actually consists of only a few poems…and a few pages of prose.” He says this is because when one thinks of Coleridge “one thinks of a character from a novel.”
In a way, we think of Borges too as someone who has been conjured: a blind, oracular man who imagined a world of doppelgängers and endless cosmic repetitions, and who wrote a handful of “essay-fictions” that have made him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
Contributing to this image of Borges as an invented figure is his own preoccupation with the idea of an alternate self. He sometimes spoke of a second Borges who was born the same day as the first Borges, bore his name, but was a different person. This second Borges was an observer or spectator of the “real” Borges—the profounder Borges—whom the second Borges has come to identify with, as one identifies with a character in a movie or a play, because his actions are always before his eyes. He borrowed this idea from a Hindu school of thought, a theological attempt to reconcile our self-conscious way of being with our inner, immutable selves.
In 1973, I attended a lecture Borges gave in an elegant room at some historical society in Buenos Aires. I arrived an hour early because the year before, in New York, I had been unable to get into one of his talks—the crowd, at Columbia University, had been so large that it had spilled out onto Broadway. In Buenos Aires there were four people in the audience; one of them was Borges’s assistant, another his close friend. The joke in Buenos Aires at the time was that if Borges had been Czech or French, Argentines would be reading him in translation in droves.
The lecture I attended was on José Hernández’s 1872 epic poem The Gaucho Martin Fierro. In the poem, Martin Fierro is pressed into military service during the Indian wars; he deserts, lives with the Indians for a time, kills a man in a barroom knife fight, and becomes an outlaw, hunted by the authorities. Fierro is left with two choices: to become a tamed ranch hand for one of the large beef growers who were in the process of cordoning off the pampa, or surrender to the police—both a form of imprisonment.
Borges admired the poem for its rich, colloquial authenticity. A sign of this authenticity, he said, was that the protagonist never described the sky—so ubiquitous on the pampa that it goes without remark. The vastness of the landscape is implied in the way the characters move through their lives.
The rhythm of Martin Fierro was drawn from the payada, a kind of gaucho field song with a driving eight-syllable line. The payada would provide the basis for the guitar-sung ballads known as milongas, which in turn would give way to the tango, Argentina’s most recognized artistic form.
Criollo, gaucho life, like that of the characters in the Saxon epics, was marked by an unassailable code of violence. Death was never far away; nor did the gaucho—who, ideally at least, lived in a cult of courage that Borges championed and admired—want it to be. This presence of death, as in the Saxon epics, provoked an elemental expression that he wished to emulate. He strived for a warrior-like stature, or some equivalent of it, in his work, believing that it could lift us out of what he called the “nothingness of personality” with its picayune neuroses and personal complaints.
When he was in his late seventies, he still lived in the modest Buenos Aires apartment he had shared with his mother until she died. His biographer, Edwin Williamson, describes his bedroom as resembling “a monk’s cell with its narrow iron bed, single chair, and two small bookcases where he kept his collection of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian books.” Those ancient books were an integral part of the ethos that sustained this most modern of writers.
Professor Borges is an important addition to his work. These are not academic lectures but spoken essays. Borges’s students didn’t record these classes out of reverence for their teacher, but because it would help them prepare for exams. This messy, casual approach is one of the book’s great strengths. The editors have expertly tidied up the text, hunting down nearly indecipherable references that the students had phonetically transcribed—“Wado Thoube” was the poet Robert Southey, for instance, and “Bartle” was the philosopher George Berkeley. What we end up with is the flavor of Borges’s voice, with its spontaneous digressions and self-entertained ease—his deepest literary influences and concerns, unmediated by the polished and revised nature of the written word.