Behind the Borges cult
The preparations started weeks beforehand. The ICA sent out eight-page programmes and stocked their shelves with Fictions, Laby- rinths, A Personal Anthology and The Book of Imaginary Beings. Three days before the lectures we were invited to a preliminary 'identification'. Alastair Reid fingered his red tie and loftily announced, 'that there are people in this audience who have not yet read him is a virginity more awe-inspiring to me than any physical one'. We were told that he was seventy-one, almost totally blind, spoke fluent English and had an extraordinary command of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Ready to be- lieve anything by this stage, we were shown a film in which he could be seen tapping along the pavements, exchanging pleasan- tries with old friends and sightlessly finger- ing one of the eight hundred thousand books under his surveillance.
After this it came as nothing of a shock to find enormous crowds flocking into the Central Hall, Westminster, four times over the next two weeks, to listen to him talk about his work. We sat in long rows of chairs and clapped as he was led up and sat down at the table. One of his hands was guided towards a glass of water, the other towards the stem of the microphone. Not Sartre, or Beckett, or even Ezra Pound, but Jorge Luis Borges. Argentinian poet and writer of short stories who in the last year or two has suddenly become a cult-figure on the scale of Tolkien, with followers as de- voted and partisan.
As often happens, the cultishness has superimposed itself upon a long-standing achievement. Borges's reputation has been growing steadily since English translations first started to appear in the early 'sixties. His first book of stories came out in 1935, after he had already established a reputa- tion in the Argentine as a poet and founder of an influential literary magazine. An early collection, Fictions (published in paperback by Calder and Boyars), is still the best intro- duction to his work : compressed, allusive examinations of books that don't exist, and fanciful elaborations upon minor incidents in history and legend. The first story, 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,' is a typical one. In the space of a few pages he sketches in the out- lines of an entire imaginary universe, more ambitious than one of Conan Doyle's lost worlds and much more wittily and cleverly presented. The nearest English equivalent is an H. G. Wells science fiction tale which dazzles us with its embroidery of technical detail; but Borges drily substantiates his fantasies by quoting real philosophers, Spinoza, Berkeley and Schopenhauer. And once we have accepted his imaginary world, he leads us further into the labyrinth, entic- ing us with detail after detail :
'Things duplicate themselves in Tlon. They tend at the same time to efface themselves, to lose their detail when people forget them. The classic example is that of a stone threshold which lasted as long as it was visited by a beggar, and which faded from sight on his death. Occasion- ally, a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.'
Other stories, footnoted and documented With scholarly care. describe an unforget- table coin, a panoptic vision on the nine-
teenth step of some cellar stairs, an infinite library, an inevitable murder, a man dreamed by others who himself dreams his successor, and moments, reconstructed as precisely as historical sources will permit, in the lives of Homer, Averroes and Omar Khayyam. Malraux has said that Borges's erudition is 'vast but not profound', and it is certainly the most painless and fascinat- ing kind of scholarship, like McLuhan's or George Steiner's, which throws off famous names like a catherine wheel with never a spark expected to ignite in the mind of the reader.
They are, in other words, fairy-tales, with which Borges conjures up his large and appreciative following. The similarities with Tolkien are too close to be coincidental. Both could be described, not disparag- ingly, as elderly fantasists. They put the resources of their considerable store of learn- ing into creating an imaginary world with its own complicated and reciprocal struc- ture; a world which is satisfyingly both magical and orderly. Tolkien locates his world in space (middle-earth), and Borges locates his in time. But in each case the fan- tasies appear to lock together securely into a recognisable landscape. This is an obvi- ous aspect of the Borges cult, but there is another, more interesting one. Borges has spent his whole life in literary circles, among books. receiving influences from Europe, where he was educated, and from Latin American traditions. Much of his life he has worked in libraries, except during Peron's dictatorship when he was granted the posi- tion of Chicken Inspector for speaking out against the regime. And for the last fifteen years his partial blindness has allowed him to consider books, read to him or re- membered, without the irritating contin- gencies most of us suffer.
A result of all this is that even the simplest of the stories is pervaded with, a philo- sophical idealism, which maintains that the world is in the mind and the mind encom- passes all things at all times. For a man who lives through his books, in which past and present time-scales are coeval and simul- taneous, this is logical enough. And many young people, with theosophies popularly ranging from Hinduism to R. D. Laing, are
naturally sympathetic to an attitude of mind which denies succession and contempor- aneity. No wonder that in the film Perform- ance, Borges's volumes are scattered around as rather self-conscious emblems of intellec- tual respectability. I know at least three people who keep Labyrinths (his largest col- lection of stories, published by Penguin) in a treasured place on their shelves next to the paperback Teachings of Don Juan about mescal initiation in Central America.
As his popularity has risen in Europe, so it has reputedly sunk in his own country. He is accused of intolerance, lack of respect for his native traditions, and political stu- pidity. One 'university militant' was recently quoted by the Guardian as saying, 'When the revolution is won, I can assure you Borges will be the first to go'. Without wish- ing to take this seriously, since there are always well-meaning revolutionaries who take a look at an ivory tower and see a battlemented fortress, there is no doubt that Borges has made some highly inflammatory remarks which reflect his belief that the evi- dence of facts is less important than the product of the imagination. All one can say about this is that it is a characteristic of authors who dispense imaginative justice in their writings that they should wish to im- pose a similarly ideal order upon the out- side world. Militant spirits who forgave Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and eventu- ally Pound, will no doubt find it in their hearts one day to forgive him also.
Meanwhile Borges has been and gone with less fuss than most celebrities make when they arrive at an airport. He lectured with civility, very fluently, picking words out of the darkness and stopping if the precise des- cription eluded him. He deprecated the idea of lasting fame and explained that he wrote only to amuse himself, quoting a passage in which he writes that the gods, he knows now, grant him only allusion or mention. He re- marked that his favourite symbols were the maze, the dagger, the mirror and the trap; hinted that there were perhaps only seven original metaphors of which he had re- cently discovered one in a History of Persia: and guessed that in his lifetime he had seemed to have written and rewritten only five or six poems, of which his short stories were extensions. Had he been questioned more deeply, he would have been the first to say that his writing and lecturing were, for that matter, only part of a more uni- versal word-game, in which he might figure as a letter or the dot on a question mark. But by then he had vanished.