Professor Borges by Jorge Luis Borges

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Some savants are specialists; Jorge Luis Borges possessed a more sprawling sort of genius.  By turns poet, short-story writer, essayist, translator, and head of Argentina’s National Library, Borges also reviewed imaginary books, theorized hypothetical infinities, and served as gadfly-in-chief to the regime of President Juan Perón. (His ardent opposition almost earned him yet another career when Perón “promoted” the national librarian to the position of poultry inspector; Borges resigned immediately.) Today, however, English readers can at last enjoy the fruits of one of the Argentine writer’s lesser-known labors: from 1956 to 1970 Borges taught English literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and now, over half a century later, one of his courses is finally available in English in a slim, delightful volume entitled Professor Borges.

Borges was 67, blind, and prodigiously well read when he delivered these lectures extempore in the autumn of 1966, and to read Professor Borges today is to experience brain envy. A lifelong polyglot, Borges could begin a thought about James Boswell’s biography of the 18th century critic Samuel Johnson and then effortlessly trace the idea back to Cervantes, and then, without a bead of sweat, to a little-known tenet of Hindu philosophy. His burrowings into literary history were never undertaken to challenge an author’s originality, but rather were motivated by his wonderful sensitivity to the paradox that every writer both forms, and is formed by, a particular constellation of precursors. For, as he reminds his students in one lecture, “There is no literary Adam.”

The story of the lectures’ preservation and publication itself has the makings of a Borges tale—complete with lost records, assiduous archivists, and encrypted names. Evidently, a group of his students at the University recorded the lectures so that their peers, who had scheduling conflicts, could still study the material.  The tapes were transcribed and, unpardonably, recorded over. Decades later, when scholars began to edit the lectures they discovered that every single name Borges mentioned had been mangled in transcription. Some personages had been almost completely lost in the thickets of English spelling: the poet Robert Southey had been transcribed as “Wado Thoube”; George Berkeley became “Bartle.”  (One shudders to imagine how those who studied the transcripts did on the exams.)

Lecturing without notes yet seemingly able to summon any passage from memory, professor Borges leads his students from Beowulf down to the Victorians in a syllabus that manages to reflect both a certain tweedy classicism and an audacious idiosyncrasy.  Almost a third of the course is devoted to Anglo-Saxon poetry, which Borges loved dearly and learned to read as he was losing his eyesight (he said that the harsh, chewy consonants of Old English were a great auditory pleasure). Then, without comment or apology, Borges leapfrogs over Chaucer and Shakespeare to land in the 18th century with Dr. Johnson and James Macpherson.  He dallies with Wordsworth and Coleridge and finishes with the likes of Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning and Robert Louis Stephenson. Borges, it seems, was not out to reset the canon; he simply followed his maxim that “reading is felicity,” and fervently believed that one ought to read what one felt like.

Evidently, Borges found felicity in English itself. He inherited the tongue from his English grandmother and remained a devout Anglophile all his life, going so far as to claim that he liked “anything better in English than in Spanish.” This preference is certainly on display in Professor Borges, in which he praises the compact, monosyllabic quality of English verse and its responsiveness to the natural world.

But Borges’s nationality and native Spanish also afford fascinating perspectives on English language and literature. At one point, he colorfully compares Beowulf’s endless boasting to the culture of braggadocio among Argentina’s tough-guy compadritos. And, in a lecture on the gradual simplification of Anglo-Saxon grammar, which occurred in the twilight years of the first millennium, Borges offers a Spanish speaker’s sympathies to a language losing its gender. “This must have been quite sad for educated Saxons,” he muses. “Just imagine if suddenly we noticed that people said ‘el’ cuchara, ‘lo’ mesa, ‘la’ tenedor. We would think, ‘Darn, the language is degenerating, we have reached the epitome of pidgin.’”

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

Such quirky, trans-historical connections—coupled with Borges’s flair for grand cultural judgments (he avers that the “English character” was probably not fully formed before 1066)—make Professor Borges a bracing study, if a somewhat antique one. The lectures are, notwithstanding Borges’s inimitable touch, a portrait of the gentleman’s humanities that obtained before feminist theory and cultural studies rocked academe, before books had become texts, history had given way to historicizing, and politics had supplanted aesthetics. (Indeed, English majors brought up on the fervor of critical theory or the patient legwork of new historicism may have to squint to recognize their discipline.) For Borges, “greatness” is still a key critical category, and historical context is generally limited to an author’s biography. Women, sadly, are about as present in the course as in Borges’s fiction, which is to say they generally have to be someone’s wife or sister to make the cut, as Elizabeth Browning and Christina Rossetti manage to do.

If you can overlook these crimes of the times, Professor Borges offers a spirited overview of the authors, friendships, and influences that lay behind many of English’s canonical works. Borges’s character studies are particularly notable—his sketch of the complicated Thomas Carlyle, whose writings bore dark presentiments of fascism, is an impressive instance of nuanced intellectual assessment. Still, readers will probably find Professor Borges more enthralling as a document of Borges himself than as a guide to English literature. Borges’s vast erudition is felt everywhere in these pages, and he is at his best when he digresses; the book’s weakest moments, which are few, occur when the professor sticks too closely to plot recapitulation without pausing to offer a spontaneous thought.

Yet in the asides, tangents and odd anecdotes we gain a marvelous view into the mind of the endlessly curious writer we know, the cosmopolitan thinker who delighted in anachronism, befuddling thought experiments, and the felicitous accidents of history. In the lectures we hear inflections of the classic Borges narrator, a man so at peace with the soundness of his faculties and the quality of his library that he can inject his own fabulations with commanding authority. His celebrated short story “The Other Death,” to take a characteristic example, had managed to make the case of a man dying twice, on dates forty years apart, seem not only possible but altogether likely given the available evidence and the reasoning of eminent theologians. In the lecture hall, Borges would demonstrate a similar preference for conjecture and wonder over conventional objectivity: he notes during a lecture that G. K. Chesterton systematically misquoted many lines of Browning’s poetry, and remarks that it is a shame Chesterton’s editors corrected them because it would be far more interesting to read Browning’s lines via Chesterton. (In a gratifying turn, Borges’s editors have stetted the professor’s own misquotations and footnoted the corrections.)

Then, too, there is the lectures’ occasional power to open up our readings of some of the Borges canon’s most blissful enigmata. There is a short, dazzling piece titled “Borges and I” on the two-ness of life and creativity, in which Borges explains that it is not to him but to the other Borges “that things happen to”—whom the world holds in esteem, who publishes books and receives mail—and throughout his lectures we receive an illuminating genealogy of this idea. It appears in his aforementioned foray into Hindu philosophy, in which a certain doctrine teaches that we are but spectators to our own lives. We encounter it again in his comments on Wordsworth’s famous conception of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” which Borges points out implies another spectator, this time of the poet looking onto the past self. Together, the instances layer themselves into a sort of palimpsest of Borges’s meditations, a record of possible influences that informed his wondrous art.

It was perhaps inevitable that Borges, a writer so fascinated by precursors, would in time become a precursor himself. His fiction—especially its capacity to distend our concept of ‘the real’—is widely recognized as having profoundly influenced the Latin American Boom generation of the 1960s and ’70s. What Professor Borges powerfully reveals is the extent to which the ‘father’ of the Boom would have seen his own influence as but a single nexus on a ceaselessly ramifying (and converging) web that stretched beyond him into the past and future. These lectures contain moments in which we must remind ourselves that the particular work Borges is describing, one with fantastic events, deadpan narration, and grand scale, is not One Hundred Years of Solitude but rather William Morris’s translations of Old Norse sagas. Were we to substitute Macondo for Iceland, however, Borges could just as well be describing García Márquez’s multigenerational epic of magic realism. “The sagas are told as if they are real,” Borges tells his students, “and if they abound in fantastical elements it is because the narrators and listeners believed in them.  In the sagas, there are fifty or sixty characters…who lived and died in Iceland and were famous for their bravery and personalities.”

Who knew that the dauntless, preternatural Buendía clan would find their precursors in archaic Nordic sagas? Apparently, as ever, Borges.

Will Glovinsky's essays and criticism have appeared in the Millions, the New York Daily News Page Views blog, and Andrew Sullivan's The Dish. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →