An Interview with Jorge Luis Borges

Reality Is Perplexing Enough
This story is included in these collections

Often considered the greatest living writer of Spanish prose, Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires. In reviewing a volume of Borges' "fictions within fictions" in the September 29, 1967 Commonweal, Ronald Christ called the term "Borgesian," like Kafkaesque, "indispensable for the specification and clarification of our awareness." In 1961, Borges shared the International Publishers Prize with Samuel Beckett. Several collections of his stories and poems have been translated into English: Labyrinths, Ficciones, Other Inquisitions, Dream Tigers, A Personal Anthology. Mr. Borges was inter­ viewed by Patricia Marx, weekly interviewer for WNYC, and John Simon, drama critic for New York Magazine.

Commonweal: Mr. Borges, you recently spent quite some time visiting Harvard University as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. I wonder what your impressions were of students there.

Jorge Luis Borges: I found the students very keen. One of them wrote a parody of my stuff, and I was introduced as one of the characters. He also gave me some fine lines of verse. For example this one—I wish I had written it and anybody would say the same—it's a pity it wasn't written in the 17th or maybe in the 18th century: "So chaste was she that lilies were her roses."

CW: You began writing as a poet and essayist, and it was not until after a serious illness that you started writing stories. Do you value one form of writing more than another?

JLB: Well, I suppose that they're all essentially the same. In fact, I hardly know what I'm going to write—an article, a story, a poem in free verse—or in some regular form. I only know that when I have the first sentence. And when the first sentence makes a kind of pattern, then I find out the kind of rhythm I'm looking for. And then I go on. But I don't think there's any essential difference, at least for me, between writing poetry and writing prose.

CW: So you evolve the form and the content as you go along?

JLB: Yes. When I feel I'm going to write something, then I just am quiet and I try to listen. Then something comes through. And I do what I can in order not to tamper with it. And then, when I begin to hear what's coming through, I write it down. I try to avoid purple patches, fine writing, all that kind of thing… because I think they're a mistake. And then sometimes it comes through and sometimes it doesn't, but that's not up to me. It's up to chance.

CW: Does this kind of inspiration . . .

JLB: Well inspiration I think is too-too ambitious a word.

CW: This process—is this something that is regular in your life?

JLB: No, it comes and goes. Sometimes there are periods of aridity, periods where nothing happens. But then I know those periods are real. I know that when I think of myself as being utterly worn out, when I think that somehow I have nothing more to write, then something is happening within me. And, in due course, it bubbles up; it comes to the surface, and then I do my best to listen. But there's nothing mystical about all this. I suppose all writers do the same.

CW: In his review of your Personal Anthology John Simon made the point that in contrast to so many other writers who make distinctions between reality and illusion, in your writing, reality is illusion, and illusion is reality, being one and the same.

JLB: Well I wonder whether we can make a distinction. Because in order to make that distinction we would have to know whether we are real or unreal. And, I suppose, as philosophers have been bickering and quarreling over that for the last 2,000 or 3,000 years; it's not up to me to decide.

Let's say that the words "an unreal thing" or "an unreal happening"—are a contradiction in terms. Because if you can speak about something, or even dream something, then that something is real. Unless of course you have a different meaning for the word "real." But I don't see how things can be unreal. I don't see any valid reason why Hamlet, for example, should be less real than Lloyd George.

CW: You've been attracted to fantastic writings. Does this same concept apply to the fantastic?

JLB: I am attracted to fantastic writing, and fantastic reading, of course. But I think things that we call fantastic may be real, in the sense of being real symbols. If I write a fantastic story, I'm not writing something willful. On the contrary, I am writing something that stands for my feelings, or for my thoughts. So that, in a sense, a fantastic story is as real and perhaps more real than a mere circumstantial story. Because after all, circumstances come and go, and symbols remain.

Symbols are there all the time. If I write about a certain street corner in Buenos Aires, that street corner may pass away for all I know. But if I write about mazes, or about mirrors, or about the night, or about evil, and fear, those things are everlasting—I mean they will be always with us. So, in a sense, I suppose a writer of the fantastic is writing of things far more real than, well, what newspapermen write about. Because they're always writing about mere accidents, circumstances. But, of course, we all live in time. I think that when we write about the fantastic, we're trying to get away from time and to write about everlasting things. I mean we do our best to be in eternity, though we may not quite succeed in our attempt.

CW: Do you feel any kinship with Pirandello, by any chance?

JLB: I have greatly enjoyed Pirandello. I mean that game, for example, between the actors and the spectators. But I do not think he invented that game. Because in a sense you're getting that game all the time in Cervantes. I wonder if you remember that the characters in Cervantes have read Don Quixote. And that some characters speak about Cervantes, and even poke fun at him. That is the same kind of game.

CW: What about people like E.T.A. Hoffmann and the German romantics? Have you felt any sympathy with them?

JLB: Well I have done my best to admire Hoffmann, but he's always defeated me. Because I think of him as being quite irresponsible. At the same time I don't think of him as being particularly amusing. Of course you might say that Lewis Carroll is irresponsible, but I feel attracted to him, and I don't feel attracted to Hoffmann. But that, of course, is my personal mistake, or my personal heresy, I should say.

CW: What do you mean by Hoffmann's irresponsibility, Mr. Borges?

JLB: Well, if I may use old-fashioned and rather phony American slang, I shall accuse him of piling on the agonies. I remember that Poe was asked about his horror, and they thought that his horror came out of German romantics. He said, "Horror belongs not to Germany but to the soul." I suppose personally his life was awful enough, he had no need of looking for that horror in books.

CW: You have said that the purpose of your writing is "to explore the literary possibilities of certain philosophical systems."

JLB: Many people have thought of me—of course, I can only be grateful to them-as a thinker, as a philosopher, or even as a mystic. Well the truth is that though I have found reality perplexing enough—in fact, I find it gets more perplexing all the time—I never think of myself as a thinker. But people think that I've committed myself to idealism, to solipsism, or to doctrines of the cabala, because I've used them in my tales. But really I was only trying to see what could be done with them. On the other hand, it might be argued that if I use them it's because I was feeling an affinity to them. Of course, that's true. But in fact I'm in too much of a mental muddle to know where I am—an idealist or not. I'm a mere man of letters, and I do what I can with those subjects.

CW: Do you have a personal religion?

JLB: No, I don't have, but I hope to have one. Of course, I can believe in God, in the sense that Matthew Arnold gave to that word, something not ourselves that makes for righteousness. But I suppose that that's rather shadowy. I suppose you want more on that. Now as to a personal god, I don't like to think of God as a person—though I'm quite fond of people, and I suppose I'm a person myself, after all. But I don't think I have any use for a god who is very much interested, let us say, in ethics, in what I am doing. I would rather like to think of God as being a kind of adventurer—even as Wells thought about him—or perhaps as something within us making for some unknown purpose. I don't think I can really believe in doomsday; I could hardly believe in rewards and punishments, in heaven or hell. As I wrote down in one of my sonnets—I seem to be always plagiarizing, imitating myself or somebody else for that matter—I think I am quite unworthy of heaven or of hell, and even of immortality. I mean I might accept immortality, if I had to do it. But I would prefer—if there is any afterlife—to know nothing whatever about Borges, about his experiences in this world. But I suppose identity depends on memory. And if my memory is blotted out, then I wonder if I exist—I mean, if I am the same person. Of course, I don't have to solve that problem. It's up to God, if any. So that I ask of any God, of any gods, that if they give immortality, I hope to be granted oblivion also.

CW: Perhaps in a reincarnation you wouldn't mind reading Borges.

JLB: Well no, I look forward to a better literary future than that.

CW: Let me ask about one more German that I'm curious how you feel about, I mean Rainer Maria Rilke.

JLB: I don't know, I have a feeling that he's been greatly overrated. I think of him as a very pleasant poet. I know some of his pieces by heart, or at least I did. But I never could be very interested in him. But if I have to speak of German writers, there is one German writer that I would like to speak about. And I think I spent most of my life reading and rereading him—at first in English and now in German. And that writer is, as you may have guessed, Arthur Schopenhauer. I think that if I had to choose one philosopher, one metaphysician, I would choose Schopenhauer. Or if not, I suppose I would fall back—and be very happy about it—on Berkeley or on Hume. So you see that I'm quite old-fashioned. But I think of Schopenhauer as belonging to the 18th century. I think his irony and his pleasant style—and the word "pleasant" means much to me—belong rather to the 18th than to the 19th century. And certainly they don't belong to the cumbrous dialect of his German contemporaries. I think that, in a sense, he was more of a contemporary of Gibbon or of Voltaire than of Hegel or Fichte, whom he hated, as you all know.

CW: Mr. Borges, do you feel in any way indebted to surrealism? Either through Ultraism or some other form?

JLB: Well, as a matter of fact, I know very little about surrealism. But I hope it's better than Ultraism, because I think of Ultraism as being sheer stuff and nonsense. And that's the feeling most of us old Ultraists have. It was merely a boyish joke, and I hope we've grown out of it. And yet now and then when I write, I evolve very silly metaphors, and then I know that's my old self—that's the man I was let's say around 1920—who's still lurking somewhere and who's trying to spoil everything I write.

CW; Well, what do you do with those metaphors—do you keep them or do you throw them out?

JLB: Yes, I keep them, and I attribute them to imaginary writers, so that I use them for the sake of parody. Because after all I've got to put them to some use. And maybe in a sneaking way I'm fond of them.

CW: Are there any contemporary writers that you are attracted to and feel an affinity for?

JLB: Well, if I have to speak of contemporary writers, I should be thinking about Plato, about Sir Thomas Browne, about Spinoza, about Thomas De Quincy, about Emerson, about Schopenhauer, of course. Maybe, why not? About Angelus Silesius, about Flaubert. That's as far as I care to go. But here I'm merely repeating what Ezra Pound said. He said, "All art is contemporary"—and I think he was right. I don't see why a man, by the mere fact of sharing my experiences of living in the same century, should be more important to me than somebody who died many years ago. [After all, if I am reading somebody, that writer is a contemporary—I mean he belongs to the present.] So that I think the word "modern" means nothing whatever; and the word "contemporary," of course, is a mere synonym of "modern." I think they're both meaningless.

CW: You're renowned for your knowledge of literature and philosophy. Are there other arts that are as meaningful to you—painting or music?

JLB: Well, I'm very ignorant of music. I can only plead the doctrine of invincible ignorance. But when we were writing, Bioy Casares and I, we were hearing records. And then we found out there were some records that stimulated us, that gave us a sense of power, of passion, of might. So we wrote better when we were hearing them. Then we found out where those records came from. And they were records by Brahms. And that's all I know of music. There my knowledge stops. But in a sense I should be grateful to Brahms. Because I feel a stronger and happier man and a more passionate man when I am hearing his music. So I suppose I should thank him for that gift. But, of course, I cannot understand that gift or explain it.

CW: Mr. Borges, one subject very rarely, if at all, shows up in your work, and that is sex. What would you say was the reason for that?

JLB: I suppose the reason is that I think too much about it. When I write, I try to get away from personal feelings. I suppose that's the reason. But there has to be another reason. The other reason may be that it's been worked to death, and I know that I can't say anything new or very interesting about it. Of course, you may say that the other subjects I treat have also been worked to death. For example, loneliness, identity. And yet, somehow I feel that I can do more with the problems of time and identity than with what was treated by Blake when he spoke of "weaving through dreams a sexual strife, and weeping o'er the web of life." Well, I wonder if I have woven through dreams the sexual strife. I don't think so. But after all, my business is to weave dreams. I suppose I may be allowed to choose the material.

CW: In an interview for the Paris Review you were mocking the concern about the audience you reach. And you were saying that, only 37 copies of your first book had been sold, and that…you liked that because you could identify yourself with 37 people.

JLB: Because after all, if you sell a thousand copies you might as well sell no copy at all, no? Infinity and zero come together. But 37 people—with faces, with circumstances, with likes, with dislikes, with relatives and so on. So I was very grateful when I had sold 37 copies. But I think I was exaggerating, it may have been 21 only, or 17 for that matter.

CW: But is it really of little concern to you to reach a large audience?

JLB: I think that what I'm really concerned about is reaching one person. And that person may be myself for all I know. In my country writers hardly worry about audiences. Perhaps because they know they'll never get any. Not out of modesty, but self-knowledge. But I think it's all to the good that a writer shouldn't be too famous. Because, in a country where a writer may be famous, he may be pandering to the mob, celebrity and so on. But in my country, I write for myself, and perhaps for half a dozen friends. And that should be enough. And that might improve the quality of my writing. But if I were writing for thousands of people, then I would write what might please them. And as I know nothing about them, and maybe I'd have a rather low opinion of them, I don't think that would do any good to my work.

CW: There are many of us who are afraid about the directions that art—or the arts in general—have been taken most recently, and there's the feeling that there may be a dehumanization in the arts, to use Ortega's term. Do you feel that danger?

JLB: Well I see no reason whatever why that danger should be especially active today. After all, there are thousands of people writing away, and if we evolve one or two writers, that should be enough. I mean, we're always thinking highly of the past, because we say Shakespeare, Marlowe and so on. But after all, we are thinking of the ones who have come down to us. I suppose that in any special time art must have been really quite rubbishy. But if we manage to evolve one or two writers, and those writers should be thought worthy of being read in time to come, I don't think we need worry about there being many quite bad writers.

CW: I was thinking not so much of the quantity of bad writers but the direction in which perhaps even good art or so-called good art is going, which seems to become progressively beset by scientific or anti-intellectual or self-destructive values, which might in time lead to a preponderance of anti-art.

JLB: Well I wonder if you're thinking, let's say, of art being written in a very special way. For example, of literature being merely verbal. Or painting merely concerned with shapes, with lines, with certain patterns.

But I think that something should come through in spite of the artist's theories. Suppose a writer may think that he's writing meaningless verse, or that he's only out, let's say, for verbal patterns, and at the same time he may be saying something, or rather suggesting something, very meaningful. Because art is very mysterious. I wonder if you can really do any damage to art. I think that to have that opinion is to think too highly of reason. I think that when we're writing, something comes through or should come through, in spite of our theories. So theories are not really important. I don't think esthetic schools are important. What is important is the use that is made of them, or whatever the individual writer does. I'm not interested in the fact that a writer may label himself as being intellectual or anti-intellectual. l'm really interested in the stuff he's turning out.

CW: At this point, what are you attracted to—where is your sense of adventure leading you now?

JLB: Well, I have several plans. One of them is to write a volume of straightforward stories. I think I'm rather tired of mazes and mirrors and people who are somebody else. And I was rereading some months ago the Plain Tales From the Hills, these very straightforward stories that Kipling wrote when he was a young man­ afterward, of course, he went on to very intricate schemes—and I thought I would try my hand at writing a straightforward story, and I wrote one. And I'm thinking of writing more stories in that style. I mean stories with simple characters—if there be such a thing as a simple character. That's one of my plans. And the other plan would be to write a book on Old English and Old Norse literature. Not a book of information, but rather a book with my personal opinions, a book wherein I try to say what I thought that poetry might have meant to the Saxons and to the Norsemen. So that I have those two books in mind.

And also, perhaps, I'll fall back on my old schemes, because one never knows. I might write one or two fantastic stories. But I'll do my best to avoid them. I'll only write them down if they insist on my writing them.

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