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Two Nights with Borges at the University of Bristol

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Chloe Newman went along to a University of Bristol event about Jorge Luis Borges, the legendary Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and came away eager to learn more.

In 1967 at Harvard University, an almost fully blind Borges gave a series of Norton lectures entitled “This Craft of Verse”. This October, at the University of Bristol, his mesmerizing words were heard once again.

Jorge Luis Borges, a short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, was a key figure in the development of Hispanic literature. Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, he moved to Europe with his family at the age of 15 but returned to South America in his early twenties. He began to publish his writing, worked as a librarian and was appointed professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. After his works were made available in English, the 1960s saw him gain international acclaim and he has since been a prominent figure in the literary canon. Perhaps most noted for his short stories, his poetry has been somewhat neglected and this was the key point stressed during both Bristol lectures entitled ‘Two Nights with Borges’.

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I knew little of Borges before we were asked to read his short story “El Sur” in preparation for a seminar earlier this month. Immediately after reading it, I decided I had to discover more of his work for myself. So when I received an email a week later advertising a unique opportunity to listen to the man himself, I awaited with eager anticipation. The Classics Department of the University of Bristol were hosting a two-part lecture event in homage to the Charles Eliot Norton lectures Borges gave at Harvard University between 1967 and 1968. Using audio recordings long thought to be lost, they hoped to resurrect some of the magic of these lectures.

Jorge Luis Borges in 1951 by Grete Stern

Tuesday 7th October saw some forty people gather in the Modern Languages building for the first lecture: “The Riddle of Poetry”. Dr. Laura Jansen, a lecturer in Classics who has recently undertaken a major research project on Borges, gave a brief introduction to the evening along with Professor Shane Butler, also from the Classics department. We were told that Jansen and Butler were sharing a bottle of wine one evening when they had the idea of listening to Borges’ Norton lectures in a room with the lights turned off. As they listened in awe, they realised the extraordinary sensation of being audience to a lecture recorded years ago and felt this was an experience that needed to be shared.

After a Spanish reading of “The Riddle of Poetry” by Jansen, the audio began to an almost sanctified silence. Borges spoke in a steady voice that made it seem like he was imparting a particular wisdom with each word. He spoke about poetry and language “as an expression”, what it means to “study poetry” and how “poetry is lurking around the corner”. He went on to explain how everything is but a mere physical object in a physical world until the reader comes along and brings it to life. I particularly appreciated his comment on the interpretation of poetry: that often, poetry is “just a feeling” and that whilst “poetry is a new experience every time”, the first reading of a poem “is the real one”.

Lost in the 1967 world of the Argentine writer’s lecture, it took me a moment to bring myself back into the present, from Harvard to Bristol. The lecture audio was followed by various live poetry readings. I particularly enjoyed the poem “The Gold of the Tigers”, read by Dr. Adam Lecznar, and also that with which Shane Butler concluded the evening, “Poem of the Gifts”, a moving autobiographical poem in which Borges uses the image of the library to convey the irony of him becoming its blind custodian. This one showcases his great ability to turn personal experience into metaphor.

The second lecture, “Metaphor”, was given two weeks later, yet again to a packed audience. Borges spoke about the “complex and elusive journey of metaphor”, explaining that all metaphors, despite there being thousands of possibilities and combinations, come from only a handful of “patterns”, including the idea of time flowing, life being a dream, sleep and dying. Towards the end he lamented that he could cite only a few metaphors, and would feel remorse for all the many beautiful ones he had missed. I, however, went away happy that he had quoted Robert Frost, my favourite poet.

Once more it seemed most appropriate to celebrate Borges through several live poetry readings, this time read in a variety of languages, from Spanish to Greek and Italian. During the readings, I was unusually aware of the poetic construct, in particular the use of metaphor, and found myself thinking about the basic “patterns” that Borges might have used. This served only to enhance my interpretations of the poems, among which “Browning Resolves to be a Poet” “The Just”, “I Am” and “Arts Poetica” were chosen.

These two evenings were less readings than celebrations of one of the most remarkable literary minds of the 20th century. Borges took broad concepts and explored them in a way that was coherent yet fascinating. The lectures were given by a wholly unpretentious man who managed to hook both his 1967 Harvard audience, whose laughter could be clearly heard in the audio, and his 2014 Bristol audience. As his voice rang out in the lecture hall, it was as if Dr. Laura Jansen and Professor Shane Butler were hearing his words for the first time, their expressions of admiration mirrored by other members of the audience. As for the introductory talks, the carefully chosen and animatedly read poetry meant the room was filled with those who, like myself, had fallen under Borges’ spell. I’m sure both evenings inspired everyone to read more of his work.

Poem of the Gifts by Jorge Luis Borges

No one should read self-pity or reproach

into this statement of the majesty

of God, who with such such splendid irony

granted me books and blindness in one touch.

Care of this city of books he handed over

to sightless eyes, which now can do no more

than read in libraries of dream the poor

and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day

squanders on the same eyes its infinite tomes,

as distant as the inaccessible volumes

that perished once in Alexandria.

From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),

a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.

Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,

high and profound, of the blind library.

Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,

encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,

symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies

are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

In shadows, with a tentative stick, I try

the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—

I, who had always thought of Paradise

In form and image as a library.

Something, which certainly is not defined

by the word fate, arranges all these things;

another man was given, on other evenings

now gone, these many books, He too was blind.

Wandering through the gradual galleries,

I often feel with vague and holy dread

I am that other dead one, who attempted

the same uncertain steps on similar days.

Which of the two is setting down this poem—

A single sightless self, a plural I?

What can it matter, then, the name that names me,

given our curse is common and the same?

Groussac or Borges, now I look upon

this dear world losing shape, fading away

into a pale uncertain ashy-gray

that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.