The mesmerizing new book, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, pieces together notes and tapes from students in Borges' 1966 class on English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Here are some of the writer's thoughts on authors and literature.
Whether one has studied English literature at the best universities, has read widely but is almost largely self-taught, or has only dabbled in the island’s literary treasures, Jorge Luis Borges’s Course in English Literature will enchant, instruct, and ignite deep curiosity. This book is a transcription and translation into English of the course Borges gave in the 1960s at the University of Buenos Aires. The editors do not comment on whether Borges himself determined the curriculum, though it seems fairly unlikely that anybody else could have come up with quite so eccentric, unorthodox, and even baffling a survey as this. Following is a brief sampling of the authors and works discussed therein, a glance at the kind of erudition and extrapolations only Borges can bring to the field. Language, as Borges says at one point, belongs to the fishermen. The great books, and even some minor ones, belong to us, he reminds, to be read for our enjoyment and delight, never because we should read them.--Katherine Silver
The name in itself is a metaphor that means “bee-wolf,” in other words “bear.” It is truly a long poem: it contains a little fewer than 3,200 lines, all of which follow the law of Germanic versification: alliteration. Its language is intricate; it makes constant use of what is called “hyper-baton,” that is, the alteration of the logical sequence of words in a sentence.... It was previously believed that the style of Beowulf belonged to a primitive, barbaric stage of poetic creation. Subsequently, however, a Germanist discovered that lines from the Aeneid were woven into the poem, and that elsewhere, passages from that epic poem were brought in, then interspersed in the text. Hence, we have realized that we are not dealing with a barbaric poem, but rather with the erudite, baroque experiment of a priest, that is, someone who had access to Latin texts, and who studied them.... The Germanist Ker has criticized Beowulf, for he considers the plot to be childish.4 The idea of the hero who kills an ogre, that ogre’s mother, and then a dragon, belongs to a children’s tale. But these elements are, in fact, inevitable; they are there because they must be. Once he chose that legend, the author could not possibly omit the ogre, the witch, or the dragon. The public expected them, because it knew the legend. Moreover, these monsters were symbols of the powers of evil; they were taken very seriously by that audience.
William Blake, on the contrary, remains not only outside the pseudo-classic school (to use the most elevated term), and that is the school represented by Pope, but he also remains outside the romantic movement. He is an individual poet, and if there is anything we can connect him to—for, as Rubén Darío said, there is no literary Adam—we would have to connect him to much more ancient traditions: to the Cathar heretics in the south of France, the Gnostics in Asia Minor and Alexandria in the first century after Christ, and of course to the great and visionary Swedish thinker, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Because Blake was an isolated individual, his contemporaries considered him a bit mad, and perhaps he was. He was a visionary—as Swedenborg had been, of course—and his works circulated very little during his lifetime. Moreover, he was better known as an engraver and a draftsman than as a writer.... Blake’s work is extraordinarily difficult to read because he created a theological system. In order to express it, he had the idea of inventing a mythology, and critics don’t agree on what it means. There is a poem by Blake—it is included in all the anthologies—where this problem is expressed, but of course is not resolved.... In Songs of Experience, Blake deals directly with the problem of evil, and he symbolizes it, in the manner of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, as a tiger. The poem, which consists of five or six stanzas, is called “The Tyger,” and was illustrated by the author.
SAMUEL JOHNSON AS SEEN BY BOSWELL
So here we have these two extreme opinions: one, that Boswell was an idiot who had the good fortune to meet Johnson and write his biography—that’s Macaulay’s—and the other, the opposite, of Bernard Shaw, who says that Johnson was, among his other literary merits, a dramatic character created by Boswell.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has a disadvantage, and that is that the story is so well known that almost all of us know it before we read it. On the other hand, when Stevenson published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the year 1880—that is, long before The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which was inspired by Stevenson’s novel—when Stevenson published his book, he published it as if it were a detective novel: only at the end do we learn that these two people are two facets of the same character. Stevenson proceeds with great skill. Already in the title there is a suggested duality: two characters are introduced. But these two characters never appear at the same time—Hyde is the projection of Jekyll’s evil—the author does everything possible to prevent us from thinking they are the same person. He starts by making a distinction between their ages. Hyde, the evil one, is younger than Jekyll. One is dark, the other is not: he is blond and tall. Hyde is not deformed. If you looked at his face you could see no deformity, because he was pure evil. Many films have been based on this plot. But all those who have made films based on this story made a mistake; they used the same actor to play Jekyll and Hyde. Moreover, in the film, we see the story from the inside.
Dickens suffers from an excess of sentimentalism. He does not remain outside his work when he writes. He identifies with each and every character. His first book that achieved a large readership was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, published in installments. At first they suggested he use certain illustrations, and Dickens adjusted the text to fit them. And as he kept writing the book, he kept imagining new characters, becoming intimate with them. His characters soon began taking on a life of their own. This is what happens with Mr. Pickwick, who takes on a singular relevance and is a gentleman with a solid character, and the same thing happens with the other characters. The servant sees certain ridiculous things about his master, but he is very fond of him...Dickens read very little, but one of the first books he did read was the translation of A Thousand and One Nights; also, the English novelists who were influenced by Cervantes—the road novels—in which characters traveling around create the action; adventure jumps out to meet the characters.... Dickens’s penchant for extravagant names is worth noting: Pickwick, Twist, Chuzzlewit, Copperfield. One could list many more. He ended up making a fortune from literature, and achieving fame. His only rival was Thackeray. But it is said that even Thackeray’s daughter once asked him, “Papa, why don’t you write books like Mr. Dickens?” Thackeray was a cynic, though there are sentimental moments in his works. Dickens was incapable of portraying a gentleman, but they appear in his work. He was intimate with the lower classes and the bourgeoisie, but not the members of the aristocracy, who rarely figure in his work. Thackeray portrays them because he knew them well; Dickens, because he felt plebian. We should keep these different circumstances in mind: they set the two writers apart.
CHARLES DICKENS & WILKIE COLLINS
Dickens was very good friends with Wilkie Collins. I don’t know if any of you have read The Moonstone or The Woman in White. Eliot says his are the longest detective novels, and the best. (Dickens collaborated with Wilkie Collins on a play that was staged at Dickens’s house. And Eliot says that Dickens—because he was an excellent actor—must have given the roles much more individuality than they had in the work.) Wilkie Collins was a master in the art of weaving complicated, but never confusing, storylines. That is, his plots have many threads, but the reader holds them in his hand. On the contrary, Dickens, in all his novels, arbitrarily wove the storylines together. Andrew Lang said that if he had to recount the plot of Oliver Twist and they were threatening him with the death penalty, he, who so admired Oliver Twist, would certainly be hung.
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW’S “THE GRAVE”
There is a very sad poem, a poem written after the Norman Conquest and admirably translated by the American poet Longfellow, who also translated Manrique’s Coplas from Spanish, The Divine Comedy from Italian, and then translated many cantos of the Norsemen and the Provençal troubadours. He translated the German romantic poets, as well as German ballads. He was a man of vast learning, and during the years of the American Civil War, in order to distract himself from the war—the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century—he translated in its entirety The Divine Comedy, as I said, into hendecasyllables, blank verse, without rhymes. Now, the poem “The Grave” is a very strange poem. It is thought to have been written during the eleventh or at the beginning of the twelfth century, that is, in the middle of the Middle Ages, in a Christian era. However, in this poem, “The Grave,” there is no mention of the hope for heaven or the fear of hell. It is as if the poet believed only in physical death, in the decay of the body, and imagined, moreover that the dead are conscious of this decay. And the poem begins: “For you a house was built before you were born”—that is, for each of us there is already a place in the earth for us to be buried—“To you dust was given before you came out of your mother.” “De wes molde imynt, er ou of moder come.” You can see that at the end there, it is very similar to English, the English shines through. Then it says, “Dark is that house” … Forgive me, “Doorless is that house, and dark it is within,” and in that late Old English, which is already foreshadowing, prefiguring English, it says “Dureleas is pet hus and dearc hit is wioinnen.” Already with this Anglo-Saxon, we are approaching English, even though there are no words of Latin origin. Then the house is described. It says that house does not have a very high roof, that the roof is built touching the chest, that it is very low, “that there you will be very alone,” it says, “you will leave behind your friends, no friend will come down and ask you if you like that house.” Then it says, “the house is locked and death has the key.” Then there are more verses—four additional verses written by a different hand than the one that wrote the others, for the tone is different. Because it says: “No hand will stroke your hair,” and that expresses a tenderness that seems to be an afterthought, because the whole poem is very sad, very harsh. The whole poem becomes a single metaphor: the metaphor of the grave as man’s last abode. But this poem was written with so much intensity that it is one of the great poems of English poetry. And Longfellow’s translation, which is usually included after it, is not only literal, but sometimes the poet follows the precise order, the same order as the Anglo-Saxon lines. Of all Anglo-Saxon literature, its language is the easiest, because it is closest to contemporary English.
EZRA POUND, AS TRANSLATOR
“The Seafarer,” begins with lines that anticipate “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman. It begins like this: “I can sing a true song about myself, I can sing of my travels,” “Mæg ic be me sylfum soogied wrecan, sipas secgan.” This was totally revolutionary in the Middle Ages. This poem has been translated by the famous contemporary poet, Ezra Pound. When I read Ezra Pound’s version many years ago, it seemed absurd. Because I could not have guessed, by reading it, that the poet had his own personal theory about translation. The poet believed—as did Verlaine, let’s say, as did many others, and perhaps they were right—that the most important thing in a poem is not the meaning of the words but the sound.... Now, here’s how Ezra Pound translated those lines: “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, / Journey’s jargon.” This is barely comprehensible, but as sound it resembles the Saxon. “May I for my own self” (this is about myself)—“song’s truth reckon” sounds like “Mæg ic be me sylfum soogied wrecan, sipas secgan,” and then “journey’s jargon” repeats the alliteration of “sipas secgan.” Secgan is of course the same word as “say.”
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE’S “KUBLA KHAN”
Now, this dream was sad. It was a visual dream, because Coleridge dreamt, he saw, the construction of the Chinese emperor’s palace. At the same time, he heard music, and he knew the way we know things in dreams, intuitively, inexplicably—that the music was building the palace,
that the music was the architect of the palace. There is, moreover, a Greek tradition that says that the City of Thebes was built by music. Coleridge, who could have said as did Mallarmé, “I have read every book,” could not have been unaware of this. So, Coleridge, in the dream, watched the palace being built, heard music he had never heard before—and now comes the extraordinary part—he heard a voice that recited the poem, a poem of a few hundred lines. Then he awoke, and remembered the poem he had heard in his dreams, the way the verses had been given to him—as had happened to his ancestor, Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon shepherd—and he sat down and wrote the poem. He wrote about seventy lines, and then a man from the neighboring farm of Porlock came to visit him, a man who has since been cursed by all lovers of English literature. This man talked to him of issues of rural life. The visit lasted a couple of hours, and by the time Coleridge managed to free himself and pick up where he had left off writing down the poem given to him in his dream, he found that he had forgotten it.…. These poems, of course, cannot be read in translation. In translation all that remains is the plot, but you can easily read them in English, especially the second one, “Kubla Khan,” whose music has never since been equaled. It is about seventy lines long. We don’t know, we cannot even imagine, a possible ending to this poem.