Borges’ “Remorse”

For some reason Borges’


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.

5 thoughts on “Borges’ “Remorse””

  1. If memory serves correctly, I think Borges’ father was a psychologist, though also, like Stevenson, trained as a lawyer. Hemingway’s father was a medical doctor. Quite a few successful poets and writers are sons or daughters of doctors, lawyers or ministers. Psychology is betwixt and between and it’s a relatively new field, devised in large measure to address the secularity of American culture.

    My father worked for many years as a psychologist, employed by both federal and state governments. Poets often see themselves as meta-lawyers or meta-doctors or meta-clergy, all traditional professions that educators comprehend. Marching orders for educators often come from psychologists. The same goes for correctional officers. And for the police, and for the military.

    My mother was an English major in college. I think she always figured I would either be a teacher or maybe a poet. How do you rebel against that? I wrote my thesis on Emerson. Take that to a bank and see what they’ll lend you. I didn’t let my wife pay off my student loans until after she’d married me.

    English departments tend to be filled with people who have a deep-seated resentment of psychology as a profession. The idea of strait jackets, high-walled institutions, electro-shock therapy and little pills that blot out cerebral activity are not the sort of things they really like to contemplate.

    Psychotherapy has much in common with teaching people to write, but there’s a marked difference in clientele. Rich people worried about going insane can afford a long gradual process with no concrete results beyond keeping their antics out of the newspaper. Creative writing students have similar problems, usually with limited wherewithal for ongoing payment that a teacher can often best alleviate by getting their student’s work published so that newspapers will have something about which to write.

    Psychotherapists, if they have common sense, work with people who have tasted success and need to learn to preserve and enjoy it. Writing instructors work with people, usually of limited means, in whom they see talent that might readily be converted into success.

    I haven’t yet read David Guterson’s new book, The Other, as none of the bookstore chains in Manila are carrying it. But I’m visiting the U.S. next week, including a trip to Port Orchard, and I plan to snag a copy while I’m there. From what I’ve seen in reviews I think it may be an important book for the future of literary culture.

  2. Loren, I can’t help thinking that a truly creative mind – in whatever branch of the arts – poetry, painting, music – and absolute happiness are a contradiction in terms. My husband, who is a farmer, is happy to be at one with the soil and goes with the flow. He is a truly happyman.

  3. interesting comments on art and whimsy or happiness. lots of artists have made me extremely happy, and i know several happy artists, and humor is often a talent they possess. they do see dark and light, though each in his or her own way. tough to lump people i think.kjm

  4. Three thoughbts on reading this piece by Borges. First, I don’t see how we can read it without thinking of the famous and similar poem by Neruda which opens, “Sometimes I get tired of being a man/Sailing an ocean of clinkers and causes…” This wonderful pile of irony may even have influenced Borges. I’m sure they knew each other. But it suggests a cultural mindset we do not embrace in America, where happiness is a sort of standard measurement, having replaced the Puritan ethic of righteousness. So we are just righteously happy instead. Something smug in that? Another association is the PBS interview of 25-30 years ago with a young Norwegian woman who had lived briefly in America and gone back to Oslo because the American obsession with “happiness” offended her. “Hey, we live in darkness 6 months a year,”
    she said. “It’s OK to be gloomy.” Finally, I’d try to read Borges in the context of philosophy first, then poetry. He is exploring outloud the challenge of disappointing parents. But he’s nowhere near as gloomy, or preoccupied with gloom, as the Portuguese
    poet who invented an entire persona dedicated to depression. I agree with KJM: lots of happy artists out there (not all of them SHOULD be). And there may be no correlation between their art and their mood. I have a hunch the mood predates the art, and the art may be one of several ways the artist copes with it. So is alcohol, for many of them. We may be too quick to see art as some sort of equivalent symptom to gloominess. But we neer allow the same privilege to bankers…or assume the same connections. (Though lately, banking and gloom are probably synonymous.)

  5. Footnote: See also John Berryman: (approximate quote) “as my mother sd, ever to admit you are bored is to admit you have no inner resources, and I confess it I have no inner resources and I am heavy bored…

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