Borges on Happiness

I thought I’d balance yesterday’s “Remorse” against two poems that appear in the last 100 pages of Borges Selected Poems, two poems that are certainly much more optimistic than “Remorse.” The first of these includes a reference to Shinto deities, which took me directly to What are Kami since I know absolutely nothing about Shintoism, though, in retrospect, the first stanza of the poem stands quite well on its own.

SHINTO
 
When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of the mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.
Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us–
touch us and move on.

In essence, Borges seems to be saying that when we are depressed that the humblest thing can help us shake that depression if only we are “mindful” of it. Most, though not all of the things he lists, appeal to our senses directly, like “the taste of fruit,” the “first jasmine of November,” or, even, ” a sudden physical pain.” This seems to suggest that if we actually live in the moment we can escape our sorrow.

He expands on these ideas in “Happiness.”

HAPPINESS

Whoever embraces a woman is Adam. The woman is Eve.
Everything happens for the first time.
I saw something white in the sky. They tell me it is the moon, but
what can I do with a word and a mythology.
Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful.
The calm animals come closer so that I may tell them their names.
The books in the library have no letters. They spring forth when I open
them.
Leafing through the atlas I project the shape of Sumatra.
Whoever lights a match in the dark is inventing fire.
Inside the mirror an Other waits in ambush.
Whoever looks at the ocean sees England.
Whoever utters a line of Liliencron has entered into battle.
I have dreamed Carthage and the legions that destroyed Carthage.
I have dreamed the sword and the scale.
Praised be the love wherein there is no possessor and no possessed, but
both surrender.
Praised be the nightmare, which reveals to us that we have the power to
create hell.
Whoever goes down to a river goes down to the Ganges.
Whoever looks at an hourglass sees the dissolution of an empire.
Whoever plays with a dagger foretells the death of Caesar.
Whoever dreams is every human being.
In the desert I saw the young Sphinx, which has just been sculpted.
There is nothing else so ancient under the sun.
Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.
Whoever reads my words is inventing them.

I particularly like lines like “Everything happens for the first time” because, as I remember it, that is precisely the way it feels the first time you do something. That’s precisely the reason I search out new things to do. And, of course, I’m struck by lines like “Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful,” a line that reminds me a lot of lines from Whitman.

Mike sent me this note, “Borges (in his criticism) takes Whitman to task for his glorification of the personality, insinuating that it’s a poor substitute for more substantial writing: ‘He believed he had only to enumerate the names of things in order to make their unique and surprising nature immediately palpable …From Whitman on, many have been caught up in this same fallacy.'” While that may be true, the lines beginning “Whoever…” seem to me to mirror Whitman’s technique.

And it would certainly be easy to imagine Whitman saying, “Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”

Borges’ “Remorse”

For some reason Borges’

REMORSE

I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game of nights and days;
For earth, for air, for water, and for fire.
I let them down. I wasn’t happy. My ways
Have not fulfilled their youthful hope. I gave
My mind to the symmetric stubbornness
Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
They willed me bravery. I wasn’t brave.
It never leaves my side, since I began:
This shadow of having been a brooding man.

reminds me of Roethke’s The Right Thing which contains the line, “The right thing happens to the happy man.” The poems seem like opposite sides of the same coin.

Of course, no one really believes that not being happy is the “worst sin of all,” but it provides a dramatic introduction to the poem. If you asked almost any parent what they most wanted for their kids,I think they would say, ” I want them to be happy.” It was certainly my dream for my kids, and I was willing to sacrifice some of my own immediate happiness to ensure that happiness. It is what my parents wanted for me.

Considering his fame and success, it’s surprising to hear the poet argue that his devotion to art, to “all its webs of pettiness,” has caused his unhappiness. Those who aspire to be artists must imagine that being a successful artist will bring them happiness. Borges would seem to argue otherwise, to argue that in order to be a “successful” artist you have to give in to that pettiness.

It’s not clear why he thinks he hasn’t been “brave,” but one might guess from the last line that it has something to do with having become a “brooding man,” a quality that probably contributed to his literary success.

Borges’ “In Praise of Darkness”

A few days ago I cited the Prologue to “In Praise of Darkness,” and here’s the title poem from that work:

IN PRAISE OF DARKNESS

Old age (the name that others give it)
can be the time of our greatest bliss.
The animal has died or almost died.
The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes
that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses
we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think;
Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory,
reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections,
days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persan’s moon,
the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

Although this poem stands on its own, it is much more poignant if you know that Borges, like his father, gradually went blind in his 50’s and 60’s.

Borges equates this loss of vision with old age, and “the animal has died, or almost,” physical desires no longer dominate a man’s, or woman’s, life but the “spirit” remains. Many would be devastated by this loss of eyesight, but the line ” In my life there were always too many things.” would suggest that the loss of eyesight may be a blessing, a way of making the poet see what is important in life.

With the loss of sight comes greater insight: “Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think; Time has been my Democritus.” Much of what we see draws us away from our own thoughts. It’s easy to get so caught up reading what’s “new” that you can’t find the time to sit down and simply think your own thoughts. Without this distraction, the narrator suggests that he will have time to reflect on “the ones that I keep reading in my memory.” I’ve certainly felt that way at times; I’m so busy reading poets that I’ve never read before that I don’t take the time to go back and re-read the poets, or authors, that have most impressed me in the past.

More to the point, the poet feels that shutting all these distractions out will help him reach his center, his algebra, his key, his mirror. Soon he will know who he is.

I suspect anyone who has spent much time meditating can identify with this. It’s amazing how good it feels to spend time alone in the darkness, free of other’s thoughts, simply feeling at one with yourself and with the darkness.

Borges’ Prologue to “In Praise of Darkness”

I seldom bother to read, much less cite, a poet’s prologue, so I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Borges’ prologue to “In Praise of Darkness.” I think it probably gives a better indication of what to expect from his poetry than anything I’m going to have to say, and perhaps gives a clearer view of his poetry than the few poems that I choose to highlight, which probably say more about me than about him.

Prologue

Without thinking about it at the beginning, I have dedicated my now long life to literature; to teaching; to idle hours; to the tranquil ventures of conversation; to philology, of which I know nothing; to my mysterious habit called Buenos Aires, and to those perplexities which not without some pomposity are called metaphysics. At the same time, I should say that my life has not been lacking in the friendship of a certain few, the only kind of friendship of value. I do not think I have a single enemy or, if I have had one, that person never made himself known to me. The truth is but for those we love, no one can hurt us. Now, at three score and ten, I publish my fifth book of poems.

My publisher Carlos Frías suggested that I make use of this “prologue” to describe my ars poetica. Both my inner poverty and my will oppose his idea. I do not possess an aesthetic. Time has taught me a few devices: avoid synonyms, which have the disadvantage of implying imaginary differences; avoid Hispanisms, Argentinisms, archaic usage, and neologisms; to choose ordinary rather than surprising words; to take care to weave the circumstantial details into a story that readers now insist on; to intrude slight uncertainties, since reality is precise and memory is not; to narrate events as if I did not entirely understand them (I got this from Kipling and the Icelandic sagas). Keep in mind that the aforementioned rules are not obligatory and that time will take care of them anyway. Such habitual tricks hardly constitute an aesthetic theory. Moreover, I don’t believe in any aesthetic theories. In general, they are little more than useless abstractions; they vary with each writer and each text, and can be no more than occasional stimulants or instruments.

As I said, this is my fifth book of poems. It is reasonable to presume that it will not be better or worse than the others. Adding to the mirrors, mazes, and swords that my resigned reader expects, two new themes have appeared: old age and ethics. The latter, as everyone knows, was a recurring preoccupation of a certain dear friend given to me by reading him-Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the virtues for which I prefer Protestant nations to those with a Catholic tradition is their regard for ethics. Milton wanted to educate the children in his academy in a knowledge of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences. Doctor Johnson would pronounce a century later that “Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.”

In these pages I believe that the forms of prose and verse coexist without discord. I might invoke illustrious precedents-Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae, Chaucer’s tales, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, but I would prefer to declare that the differences between prose and verse are slight, and that I would like this book to be read as a book of poems. A book itself is not an aesthetic act, it is a physical object among others. The aesthetic act can only take place when a book is written or read.

It is often stated that free verse is no more than a typographical pretense; I think that an error lurks in such a certainty. Beyond its rhythm, the typographical layout of free verse is there to inform the reader that what awaits him is not facts or reasoning, but poetic emotion. On occasions long ago I aspired to the vast breathing of the psalms* or of Walt Whitman. After many years I realize (not without a bit of sadness) that in all my efforts in free verse I just went from one classical meter to another-the alexandrine, the eleven-syllable line, the seven-syllable line.

In my milongas, I have done my dutiful best to imitate the unfettered courage of Hilario Ascasubi and the street ballads of the barrios.

Poetry is no less mysterious than the other elements making up our earth. One or two good lines can hardly make us vain, because they are gifts of Chance or of the Spirit; errors come from us only. I hope the reader will discover something worthy of his memory in these pages; in this world beauty is of all of us.

-J.L.B.
Buenos Aires, June 24, 1969

I do think his emphasis on “metaphysics” sets him apart from poets that I generally admire, though some might argue that R.S. Thomas also deals with metaphysics in his own right. But I generally agree with Borges’ ars poetica, particularly using “ordinary rather than surprising words,” and avoiding synonyms when the original word is more precise.

On the other hand, I think I’d have to disagree that “the differences between prose and verse are slight,” even though I find pleasure in both. Of course, I did cite one of his prose poems that I was rather fond of, and it turns out that they are also included his book of “short stories” that I just purchased.

I would certainly find it difficult to disagree with his parting comment, “I hope the reader will discover something worthy of his memory in these pages; in this world beauty is of all of us.’

Borges on Emerson and Whitman

I think the following two poems say volumes about Borges’ aspirations as a writer. In this collection, at least, the second poem directly follows the first.

To me, the more shocking of the two is the first one, which begins rather traditionally, by providing a rather acute summary of Emerson, who was known primarily as an essayist and philosopher who had been strongly influenced by Montaigne.

EMERSON

Closing the heavy volume of Montaigne,
The tall New Englander goes out
Into an evening which exalts the fields.
It is a pleasure worth no less than reading.
He walks toward the final sloping of the sun,
Toward the landscape’s gilded edge;
He moves through darkening fields as he moves now
Through the memory of the one who writes this down.
He thinks: I have read the essential books
And written others which oblivion
Will not efface. I have been allowed
That which is given mortal man to know.
The whole continent knows my name.
I have not lived. I want to be someone else.

The next few lines seem to capture Emerson’s love of nature, and go on to summarize his fame. Of course, it’s the last line that is completely unexpected. I’m still not sure I understand what it means, much less whether I agree with it. Since I’ve never encountered anything like it in Emerson’s own writing, I’d have to assume that that is how Borges would have felt if he had been Emerson.

Why he would feel that way seems to be suggested in

CAMDEN, 1892

The smell of coffee and the newspapers.
Sunday and its lassitudes. The morning,
and on the adjoining page, that vanity-
the publication of allegorical verses
by a fortunate fellow poet. The old man
lies on a white bed in his sober room,
a poor man’s habitation. Languidly
he gazes at his face in the worn mirror.
He thinks, beyond astonishment now: that man
is me, and absentmindedly his hand
touches the unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth.
The end is close. He mutters to himself-
I am almost dead, but still my poems retain
life and its wonders. I was once Walt Whitman.

Unlike the first poem where Emerson is revealed in the title, it’s not entirely clear that this poem is about Walt Whitman until the last line. The first poem begins on a positive note, whereas this one begins on a negative note. The man is living in “a poor man’s habitation” and appears close to death, with an “unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth./The end is close.” But he is astonishingly happy because he “was once” Walt Whitman and wrote “allegorical verses.”

I wonder if Borges would prefer to be Whitman because he senses he is more like Emerson, which certainly seems the case to me? More and more, though, I’m beginning to suspect that he’s more like Hawthorne than either of those two. His is certainly a rather dark Romanticism rather than an optimistic Transcendentalism, which might simply say that it’s nearly impossible for a modern writer to be be Transcendentalist.

Borges on Don Quixote

Though I’m often fascinated with Borges’ ideas, too often I find his poetry too “intellectual” for my taste. In that sense, he reminds me more of Emerson, whose ideas I adored and whose poetry I tolerated, than he does of Whitman, whose poetry I adored but whose ideas seemed, at best, derivative.

Occasionally, though I run into poems like these that seem almost perfect:

SOLDIER OF URBINA

Beginning to fear his own unworthiness
for campaigns like the last he fought, at sea,
this soldier, resigning himself to minor duty,
wandered unknown in Spain, his own harsh country.

To get rid of or to mitigate the cruel
weight of reality, he hid his head in dream.
The magic past of Roland and the cycles
of Ancient Britain warmed him, made him welcome.

Sprawled in the sun, he would gaze on the widening
plain, its coppery glow going on and on;
he felt himself at the end, poor and alone,

unaware of the music he was hiding;
plunging deep in a dream of his own,
he came on Sancho and Don Quixote, riding.

As a footnote explains, Cervantes was a soldier in Urbina’s army. How perfect that a sense of “unworthiness” should produce one of the greatest works of literature ever written, a work often described as the first novel. In retrospect, that sense of “unworthiness” probably was essential in creating Don Quixote, one of the most charming failures ever created. What a fine line there is between failure and success.

And a few pages later, I find:

READERS

Of that gentleman with the sallow, dry complexion
and knightly disposition, they conjecture
that, always on the edge of adventure,
he never actually left his library.
The precise chronicle of his campaigning
and all its tragicomical reversals
was dreamed by him and not by Cervantes
and is no more than a record of his dreaming.
Such is also my luck. I know there is something
essential and immortal that I have buried
somewhere in that library of the past
in which I read the story of that knight.
The slow leaves now recall a solemn child
who dreams vague things he does not understand.

This is one of my favorite poems dealing with Borges’ dream motif. He adds another dimension here when he has a “character” dreaming his own adventures, rather than the author dreaming them, and ties these dreams into his childhood dreams, dreams he never quite understood. In an early poem “Break of Day” he says “if things are void of substance/ and if this teeming Buenos Aires/ is no more than a dream/ made up by souls in a common act of magic. In “Ars Poetica,” he says, “To be aware that waking dreams it is not asleep/While it is another dream, and that the death/That our flesh goes in fear of is that death/Which comes every night and is called sleep.”

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems

I finally managed to get around to reading Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman. I’m not sure how long it’s been sitting around, but it’s, relatively, a recent purchase, not a leftover from my college years. Still, I bought it long enough ago that I have no memory of why I bought it, other than some vague feeling of guilt that I’ve never read a single South American poet except for the occasional translation in the works of an American poet. Perhaps reading such poems inspired me to make this purchase. Whatever the reason, the experience so far has been surprisingly pleasant, so pleasant that I ordered a book of his short stories from Amazon a few minutes ago, and a book of poems by Neruda, inspired by this short essay on the The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges, an essay I found while looking online for a copy of the poem so I wouldn’t have to type it or scan it myself.

In one of his introductions Borge mentions Walt Whitman, and I suspect it’s the Whitmanesque lines in

MY WHOLE LIFE

Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.
I kept getting close to happiness and have stood in the shadow of suffering.
I have crossed the sea.
I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men.
I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, with a Spanish quietness.
I have seen the city’s edge, an endless sprawl where the sun goes down
tirelessly, over and over.
I have relished many words.
I believe deeply that this is all and that I will neither see nor accomplish
new things.
I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are
the equal of God’s and of all men’s.

that originally attracted me to it. Although the repetition of “I” here seems an obvious tribute to Whitman, the more important similarity lies in the last line, “I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are the equal of God’s and of all men’s.” Although Borge’s heritage is anything but “common,” he seems to go out of the way in his poetry to try to be “everyman,” while, like Whitman, insisting on his individuality, recalling these lines from “Song of Myself”

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Many of my favorite Borges’ early poems emphasize this commonality and the individual finding himself in those common experiences.

But no matter how much Borge admired Whitman, he is definitely a “modern” poet, and much of the poetry in later books remind me more of Hermann Hesse than Whitman. That’s particularly true of the prose poems included from “The Maker.” I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not particularly fond of “prose poems,” which seem like a contradiction of terms to me. However, Borge’s prose poems remind me an awful lot of “The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse,” a book I reviewed a long time ago, January of 2002, to be exact, and I was quite fond of those “fairy tales.” Like, Hesse, Borge often seems to be trying to discover his role as artist, as in

EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
 
THERE was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.
 
For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.
 
History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

This search for identity seems to be a particularly modern theme. Perhaps that’s because modern life forces us to fit so many different roles, roles we ourselves begin to accept as self defining. Personally, I always found it a little odd that people invariably introduce themselves by announcing their occupation, especially since I never defined myself that way.

Which is not to say I haven’t spent considerable time trying to discover who I am, or, at least, discover what I believe, which seems to me a more accurate way of defining who I am, though perhaps not as accurate as “among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”