Jorge Luis Borges on What Writers Become

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

jorgeluisborgesenpalermofotoferdinandoscianna198403Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo was born into an educated middle-class family on 24 August 1899. They were in comfortable circumstances but not wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires, so the family resided in Palermo, then a poorer suburb. Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from a traditional Uruguayan family of criollo (Spanish) origin. Her family had been much involved in the European settling of South America and the Argentine War of Independence, and she spoke often of their heroic actions.

In 1914, his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school and traveled to Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in Surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. Borges was fluent in several languages. He was a target of political persecution during the Peron regime and supported the military juntas that overthrew it.

Borges was a key figure in Spanish-language literature. His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph), published in the 1940s, are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes, including dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy, and religion.

His works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre. Critic Ángel Flores, the first to use the term magical realism to define a genre that reacted against the dominant realism and naturalism of the 19th century, considers the beginning of the movement to be the release of Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia). However, some critics would consider Borges to be a predecessor and not actually a magical realist. His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil.

In 1914 Borges’ family moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Collège de Genève. The family traveled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. In 1955 he was appointed the director of the National Public Library and professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. He became completely blind by the age of 55; as he never learned braille, he became unable to read. Scholars have suggested that his progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination.

In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first Formentor Prize (Prix International), which he shared with Samuel Beckett. In 1971 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. Borges himself was fluent in several languages. He dedicated his final work, The Conspirators, to the city of Geneva, Switzerland.

His international reputation was consolidated in the 1960s, aided by his works being available in English, by the Latin American Boom and by the success of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee said of him: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Due to a hereditary condition, Borges became blind in his late fifties. In 1955, he was appointed the director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he came to international attention when he received the first International Publishers’ Prize Prix Formentor. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1986.

J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish-American novelists.”

“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

Yesterday I wrote a list of ten bookish resolutions for the new year. One of them was to read more books. Another was to read books written by the acclaimed author Jorge Luis Borges.

I first encountered Borges years ago when I came across his short story Borges and I. To me it was a little masterpiece, perfectly written. I planned to read more of his work but then I got very busy trying to be a grown up and making all the grown up mistakes I needed to make, and I forgot all about reading books, and about Borges and his little masterpiece.

I’ve been reading again for some time now. I have gotten back that old obsession for language and stories that draw me in and change me a little with every page. I have come back to books a bit more mature and ready to get more from them than just entertainment.

I want to study how they are written. I want to learn all the ways there are to say things, and I hear Borges said things in very interesting ways.

I went back and read Borges and I last night, and I think I understand better what he is saying or at least I know better what it means to me. Borges is a writer, a public figure, a persona, and a mask presented to the world. “I” is the inner self, the secret self the one who lives and dies while the persona endures in books and the minds of others.

Borges and his “I” are very similar. I think everything that Borges is must have begun in the “I” but now has become distorted and at times unrecognizable. I think as time goes on the “I” gives more to Borges and Borges distorts it all the more and eventually there will be no “I” left. The inner Borges will die because we all die one day and Borges the writer, the persona, and the memory will live on.

The whole thing is very powerful, and if you want to be a writer, artist, entertainer, etc. It is all something to consider, but the last line is what hits me the hardest. The last line — “I do not know which of us has written this page.” — is where the problem really lies.

Who is the real you? The one on paper or the one who lives inside? How much of what you write is the truth? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter to you?

All writers have a habit of exaggeration and distortion. We leave out what we feel needs leaving out, and we highlight all the action. The lows get lower, and the highs get higher. The colors become brighter and the smells more intense. We take the chaos of life and give it order and meaning. We write what we feel and forget the rest and the reader creates a version of us in their minds. This other self is who becomes what we are to the world, and slowly we fade away and the other lives on forever.

I thought that writing about myself meant being my true self, but now I think that one human can never fully and accurately explain who they are or what kind of life they have lived. We can only give approximations and caricatures.

I had thought I could obtain a sort of immortality through words, but I think that isn’t true either, not exactly. The Lisa that lives on, if one does at all, won’t really be me. I am giving birth to a new Lisa, one who is much more interesting and colorful than I. The new Lisa is something I had hoped I could be. The new Lisa is the one I dream was born the night that I was. I give her whatever I can, and she uses all that I am for selfish gains. I don’t mind. I love her all the same.

Lisa and I, which one of us has written this?

***

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Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash

 

 

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

4 thoughts on “Jorge Luis Borges on What Writers Become”

  1. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    “I do not know which of us has written this page.” Jorge Luis Borges
    A powerful line and profoundly true – every time we invest our souls in expressing ourselves, we are reflecting all that we are and all that has been poured into our particular crucible…my own trilogy of novels on enlightenment is what I hope will survive my physical death, a small tribute to a life lived in pursuit of the great goal of liberation. Thanks for a great post, Lisa!

    Like

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