A Prophet in Reverse

Pericoli Borges.jpg
Studio Pericoli
Tullio Pericoli: Jorge Luis Borges, 1987
In March 1984, Jorge Luis Borges began a series of radio “dialogues” with the Argentinian poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari, which have now been translated into English for the first time. The following conversation appears in the second volume of these dialogues, translated by Tom Boll, which will be published by Seagull Books in October.
—The Editors

Osvaldo Ferrari: One of your essays, Borges, is called “On the Cult of Books.” It made me think of titles and authors you mention repeatedly.

Jorge Luis Borges: I don’t remember anything at all about that . . . Do I talk about sacred books, about the fact that each country has a preference for a particular book?

Ferrari: You mention the former, yes, but you also refer to people who have criticized books in favor of oral language. For example, there’s a passage in Plato where he says that excessive reading leads to the neglect of memory and to a dependence on symbols.

Borges: I think that Schopenhauer said that to read is to think with somebody else’s mind. Which is the same idea, no? Well no, it isn’t the same idea but it is hostile to books. Did I mention that?

Ferrari: No.

Borges: Perhaps I talked about the fact that each country chooses, prefers to be represented by a book although that book isn’t usually characteristic of the country. For example, one regards Shakespeare as typically English. However, none of the typical characteristics of the English are found in Shakespeare. The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person. Or, in Goethe’s case, we have the Germans who are easily roused to fanaticism but Goethe turns out to be the very opposite—a tolerant man, a man who greets Napoleon when Napoleon invades Germany. Goethe isn’t a typical German. Now, this seems to be a common occurrence, no?

Ferrari: Especially in the case of the classics.

Borges: Especially in the case of the classics, yes. Well, and the Spain of Cervantes’ time is the Spain of the burnings of the Inquisition, the fanatical Spain. And Cervantes, although he’s Spanish, he’s a cheerful man, one imagines him as tolerant, he didn’t have anything to do with all that. It’s as if each country looks for a form of antidote in the author it chooses. In France’s case, however, it has such a rich literary tradition that it hasn’t chosen one figure, but if one goes for Hugo—clearly, Hugo isn’t like the majority of French people.

Ferrari: As for your personal cult of books, Borges, I recall that your favorites include The Thousand and One Nights, the Bible and, among many others, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Borges: I think that the encyclopedia, for a leisurely, curious man, is the most pleasing of literary genres. And, besides, it has an illustrious forerunner in Pliny, whose Natural History is an encyclopedia too. There you have information on art, history—it isn’t simply a natural history in the current meaning of the term—and on legends, also on myths. So that when he talks about some animal, he doesn’t simply give factual information but everything recorded by legend—the magical properties attributed to it, even though Pliny probably didn’t believe in them. But, in the end, he did produce that splendid encyclopedia which was also written in a baroque style.

Ferrari: Talking specifically about the Encyclopaedia Britannica, what have you discovered in it over the years?

Borges: Mostly, long articles. Encyclopedias are made for reference now, so there are long articles and extremely short ones. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, however, was made for reading, that is, it was a series of essays—essays by Macaulay, Stevenson, Swinburne. In the later editions there were occasional essays by Shaw as well. Essays by Bertrand Russell, for example, on Zeno of Elea. I must have told you that I used to go to the National Library with my father. I was very shy—I’m still very shy—so I didn’t dare request books. But there were reference works on the shelves, and I would simply take down by chance, for example, a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. One day I was extremely fortunate, because I took down the volume D–R, and I was able to read an excellent biography of Dryden, who Eliot has written a book about. Then, a long article on the druids, and another on the Druzes of Lebanon who believe in the transmigration of souls. There are Chinese Druzes too. Yes, that day I was very lucky: Dryden, druids and Druzes, and all those things in the same volume that went from D to R. At other times, I wasn’t so fortunate. I’d go with my father, my father would look up books on psychology—he was a psychology teacher—while I would read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Later I’d read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in the National Library. And it never occurred to me that, one day, in an improbable future, I’d become director of the library. If someone had told me that, I’d have thought they were joking. Yet that’s what happened. And when I was director I remembered that boy who would visit with his father and timidly take down a volume of the Encyclopaedia from the shelf.

Ferrari: And you were director for almost two decades, I think.

Borges: I don’t know the precise dates, but they appointed me in 1955, until . . . I don’t know what year Perón came back, because I couldn’t rightly carry on.

Ferrari: In 1973. So eighteen years in the library.

Borges: Well, that’s not bad, is it? Who’s the director now?

Ferrari: Up until quite recently it was Gregorio Weinberg.

Borges: Ah, yes. I think he resigned, didn’t he?

Ferrari: He resigned, and I still don’t know who replaced him.

Borges: I remember that the budget we received was paltry. Maybe that’s not changed. Perhaps that was the reason for Weinberg’s resignation.

Ferrari: As usual. You’d have to manage with the bare minimum then?

Borges: And the Ministry of Education has been the most debilitated, the most vulnerable of all. Perhaps it still is.

Ferrari: In that essay, Borges, you also refer to the eighth book of The Odyssey, where it says that God has given misfortune to men so that they will have something to sing about.

Borges: Yes, I think that it says that they weave misfortunes so that men from generations to come will have something to sing about, no?

Ferrari: Yes.

Borges: Well, that would be enough to prove that The Odyssey comes after The Iliad, because one can’t imagine a reflection like that in The Iliad.

Ferrari: Of course, because Homer gives the idea of beginnings . . .

Borges: Yes, and as Rubén Darío said: Doubtless Homer had his own Homer. Since literature always presupposes a precursor, or a tradition. One could say that language is itself a tradition—each language offers a range of possibilities and of impossibilities as well, or difficulties. I don’t remember that essay, “The Cult of Books.”

Ferrari: It’s in Other Inquisitions.

Borges: I’m sure it exists, since I don’t think you’ve made it up to test my memory, or my lack of memory.

Ferrari: (laughs) It exists, and it’s also from 1951.

Borges: Ah good, right, in that case I have every right to have forgotten it. It would be very sad to have remembered the year 1951.

Ferrari: But you end with that remark by Stéphane Mallarmé.

Borges: Ah yes, that everything leads to a book, no?

Ferrari: Of course.

Borges: Yes, because I take those lines from Homer and I say that they both say the same thing. But Homer was still thinking about song, about poetry that wells up in a surge of inspiration. In contrast, Mallarmé was already thinking about a book, and, in a sense, about a sacred book. In fact, they’re the same thing—everything exists in order to end up in a book, or everything leads to a book.

Ferrari: That’s to say, events are ultimately literary. But a book you always recommend, even to people who aren’t literary enthusiasts, is the Bible.

Borges: Well, because the Bible is a library. Now, how strange that idea of the Hebrews to attribute such disparate works as Genesis, the Song of Songs, the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, to attribute all of those works to a single author—the Holy Spirit. They are clearly works that correspond to quite different minds and quite different localities and, above all, to different centuries, to diverse periods of thought.

Ferrari: Well, it must have something to do with that other saying in the Bible: “The spirit blows where it will.”

Borges: Yes, which is in the Gospel according to St. John, I think, no? In the first verses.

Ferrari: Yes, if you compare it with that phrase from Whistler, “Art
happens,” in another of our conversations.

Borges: I hadn’t realized, but of course, that’s the same idea, “Art happens,” “The spirit blows where it will.” That is, it’s the opposite of, well, a sociology of poetry, no? Of studying poetry socially, of studying the conditions that have produced poetry. . . . That reminds me of Heine, who said that the historian is a retrospective prophet, someone who prophesies what has already happened. It amounts to the same idea.

Ferrari: Of course, a prophet in reverse.

Borges: Yes, someone who prophesies what has already happened, and what one already knows has happened, no? “The prophet who looks backwards”—the historian.

Ferrari: Who’s that from, Borges?

Borges: Heine. History would be the art of divining the past, no?

Ferrari: Yes, the art of the historian.

Borges: Yes, once something has happened, one demonstrates that it happened inevitably. But it would be more interesting to apply that to the future.

Ferrari: That’s more difficult than to predict the past—it’s harder to
be a prophet than a historian.

Borges: Well, that’s how literary histories are written. One takes each author, then one demonstrates the influence of his background and, then, how the work must logically stem from that author. But this method doesn’t apply to the future, that is, one doesn’t give the names and works of twenty-first-century Argentine writers, does one?

Ferrari: But in literary histories there isn’t such a demand for correctness as in history proper—one is still allowed to be literary.

Borges: Yes, one would hope so.

Ferrari: Another book that appears frequently in your library is, I think, The Thousand and One Nights.

Borges: Yes, and my ignorance of Arabic has allowed me to read it in many translations, and of course I must have told you that, of all the versions I’ve read, perhaps the most pleasing is by Rafael Cansinos Assens. Although even more pleasing is the earliest one, the one by Antoine Galland who first presented that book to the West.

Ferrari: In your essay, there’s another idea that I find interesting—you say that, for the ancients, the written word was merely a substitute for the spoken word.

Borges: Yes, I think Plato says that books are like living things but that they are also like statues—one talks to them but they can’t talk back.

Ferrari: Ah, of course.

Borges: Then, precisely so that books could talk back, he invented
the dialogue which anticipates the reader’s questions and allows for explanation and a proliferation of thought.

Ferrari: Yes, that applies to oral language, but you add that, towards the fourth century, written language begins to predominate over oral language.

Borges: Ah, and I refer to the anecdote of the person who is astonished at another person reading in silence.

Ferrari: Of course. Saint Augustine is astonished at Saint Ambrose, I think.

Borges: Yes, he’s astonished because he sees something he has never seen before—someone reading quietly to himself. Of course, he had to, because the books were written by hand. You must have experienced it many times—when you receive a letter, and the handwriting in that letter isn’t faultless, let’s say, you read it aloud to make sense of it, no?

Ferrari: Yes.

Borges: And if the books were written by hand, it was only natural that they be read aloud. Aside from that point, I think that if you’re reading silently, and you come to a powerful passage, a passage that moves you, then you tend to read it aloud. I think that a well-written passage demands to be read aloud. In the case of verse, it’s obvious, because the music of verse needs to be expressed even if only in a murmur—it has to be heard. On the other hand, if you’re reading something that’s purely logical, purely abstract, it’s different. In that case, you can do without reading it aloud. But you can’t do without that reading if you’re dealing with a poem.

Ferrari: It’s part of that exaltation, however minimal, that poetry requires.

Borges: Yes, but of course that’s becoming lost now, since people no longer have an ear for it. Unfortunately, everyone is now capable of reading in silence, because they don’t hear what they read—they go directly to the meaning of the text.