This is going to sound terrible, but I didn't realize Jorge Luis Borges was so interesting. He ranks up there with the other modernist (or maybe he's closer to postmodern?) authors who I know I should read, but I'm a little too afraid to do so, because I have this often (erroneous) idea that I just won't get what they are trying to do with their work. Not always, but often I am proven wrong. I may not necessarily 'get' things, but I can usually at least work my way through the novel, or in this case essay. I knew Borges was one of those pivotal writers. The sort where if there wasn't a Borges there might not have been a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I find these links in literature so interesting, and Borges himself was really interesting.
Borges was born in Argentina in 1899 into an educated middle class family that was reasonably comfortable but not wealthy enough to live in central Buenos Aires, so they settled for a poorer suburb. His parents were able to speak and write English (one of his grandmothers was an Englishwoman), so he grew up bilingual and I read somewhere that as a child he didn't even realize Spanish and English were separate languages. He was reading Shakespeare at twelve, which is perhaps not overly surprising since his family library held over one thousand volumes. He received his Baccalaureat in Switzerland where his father was receiving treatment for his vision. Borges's blindness was hereditary and his sight would also fail over time. Philip Lopate writes:
"Jorge Luis Borges was one of the most original and influential of modern writers. Enormously learned, he seemed to draw inspiration more from books than raw experience; consequently, he has become one of the heroes of the school of metafiction. His major works show a penchant for fantasy, fiction about storytelling, and genre hybrids and laid the groundwork for literary postmodernism."
Lopate notes his essay, "Blindness" is in the form of a lecture, and in case you're a little intimidated by Borges like I am, do at least try his this essay. It's very accessible and really quite lovely. Last week I read Annie Dillard's essay "Seeing", and while blindness is the subject of Borges's essay, it's really in its own way about seeing, too.
Borges called blindness a gift. He also called his blindness modest as it was a gradual dimming, or "nightfall", over the course of his life. He could distinguish some colors but others like red and black were denied him. The most pathetic moment came in 1955 when he had lost his sight--his reader's and writer's sight. It was at this time he had been named the director of the National Library, a place he had many fond memories of since childhood.
"Little by little I came to realize the strange irony of events. I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Others think of a garden or of a palace. There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred thousand books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines. Those two gifts contradicted each other: the countless books and the night, the inability to read them."
Did you ever wonder where that famous quote came from? There you go.
Perhaps Borges found his inspiration in others whose blindness did not deter them. Two previous library directors had been blind also. As had Homer (whether he really existed or not he was assumed to be blind), as well as Milton, and great of greats James Joyce. They created in darkness. And Borges was given opportunities as well. If he could write thirty poems in a year, his editor promised to publish them, so blindness was not a total misfortune. While blindness caused him to lose the visual world, it helped him recover another--the world of his distant ancestors.
"I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else. At the time I was a professor of English at the university. What could I do to teach that almost infinite literature, that literature that exceeds the life of a man, and even generations of men? What could I do in four Argentine months of national holidays and strikes? I did what I could to teach the love of that literature, and I refrained as much as possible from dates and names."
He and a group of female students decided to study Anglo-Saxon literature and the literature of those who conquered England. His blindness is not something to be pitied and he never asks for sympathy. He sees his blindness not as something to endure or to overcome but as an opportunity.
"A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so."
And yes, I will be looking for more of Borges's work.