A few months ago, in Harvard bookstore, I picked up a thin pocket-sized volume titled This Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges. It waited in my bag for a proper moment since about two weeks ago and I finished it just today. For a book of mere 121 pages it certainly took me a long time to get through – and the reason was not it being tedious or difficult to read, quite to the contrary. The book is actually a transcript of six lectures that Borges delivered at Harvard in 1967, recordings of which were only recently discovered in an archive. In his talk, Borges masterfully strikes this elusive balance between simplicity and sophistication – in fact he shows convincingly that it is not at all necessary to compromise between the two.
However, there is one thing that makes those otherwise quite remarkable lectures on poetry (and literature in general) truly amazing. Borges had been gradually losing his eyesight and by 1960 he was almost completely blind. This means that those six lectures were delivered without notes, simply by walking up to the stage and starting to talk. And reading them one cannot but marvel at how Borges picks up a thread and then effortlessly follows it, without ever losing his bearings or repeating himself. While doing so, he often quotes lines poetry and entire passages by Shakespeare, Homer, Joyce, Milton, Tennyson, Rossetti, Frost, Cummings, Chesterton, Manrique, Omar Khayyám, Yeats, Coleridge, Whitman, Quevedo and countless others in English, Spanish, German, Arabic, German and Old English. The only comparable feat of erudition and command of the subject I can think of must be Auerbach’s tour de force and magnum opus “Mimesis” that was written in Istanbul, where the author was in exile without access to library – and thereby the veritable study of Western literature from Tacitus to Proust and Woolf was written similarly “blind” and out of memory, without taking a look at source texts or anything else that had been written on them. Giants such as Borges and Auerbach stand as towering monuments to the art of reading and imbuing, immersing oneself in literature with a seriousness and dedication that almost scares me.
Borges concludes his series with a deeply personal and intimate creed, by looking back to a long life lived with, in and by literature. He opens his last lecture by saying:
I think of myself as being essentially a reader. As you are aware, I have ventured into writing; but I think what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes – yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.
He reminisces a scene from his childhood, when he first heard his father reading “Ode to a Nightingale”, a poem by Keats, and describes an effect that this experience had on him:
I have toyed with an idea – the idea that although a man’s life is compounded of thousands and thousands of moments and days, those many instants and many days may be reduced to a single one: the moment when a man knows who he is, when he sees himself face to face. I suppose when Judas kissed Jesus (if he indeed did so), he felt at that moment that he was a traitor, that to be a traitor was his destiny, and that he was being loyal to that evil destiny. /…/ When I heard those lines of Keats’s, I suddenly felt that that was a great experience. I have been feeling it ever since. And perhaps from that moment I thought myself as being “literary”.
I don’t think I’ve had a moment like this, and I probably never will. I suppose most of us never will. And maybe this is the thing that ultimately separates us mere mortals from those few that are truly great.