Professor Borges

May 18, 2013

My first proofreading job in months: Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. His lectures in the year 1966, to be published by New Directions. Halfway through the job, I took breaks to buy, download, or read the following: Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” De Quincey’s opium confessions, Eckermann’s conversations with Goethe, and so on.

Borges can convince me to read anything.

At one point, while Borges discusses biographies—Boswell’s of Johnson, Sancho Panza’s of Don Quixote—he says, “I, for example, was born the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day.” I gave a start. That Borges was constantly aware of the “other Borges,” as described in “Borges and I,” is touched on by Geoff Dyer in The Ongoing Moment, which I’ve been reading for the past month on my commute. I had bought this book, and another of his, about yoga (though I don’t think it’s really about yoga, I don’t know, I haven’t opened it yet, and regret the purchase), on the day I had to turn down an opportunity to study with him at a residency that, at the last minute, had changed my wait-list status to “accepted.” Later that evening I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of an old love. So when I walked into Greenlight Bookstore, drunk already on one glass of wine, I was in a mood to be careless with money. The intention was to buy all the books they had by Geoff Dyer—if I could not attend his class (I said no because of the new job), then I would send him a note of admiration, but not before I read all his books, or at least one more than I’d already read—but I bought only two, which in the end should have been one.

A Latin scholar from Columbia University once taught a class in my high school, and I took Latin 101 my freshman year. I averaged a C, chewed gum in class, and allied myself with the other female freshman in the class, Nicky, with whom I wasn’t much friendly but whose big hair fascinated me. This professor, whose name I’ve forgotten, walked in with a briefcase and cowboy boots. He was short, stocky, erudite, and looked at us with a mixture of scorn, amusement, resignation, and challenge. Why have I stooped so low? I thought he was thinking, as he lectured about declensions. But while I was intimidated and bored by his authority, noting how he favored the two A students in class, seniors, one on his way to Princeton, the other to Harvard, something of his lectures must have sunk in deep, because I scored a 100 percent on the national Latin exam that he had us all take at the end of the year as an informal exercise. There are two reasons why I, an average student, did so well on that exam: 1) I was good at standardized tests (the SATs gave me a high), and 2) without my knowing it, the professor’s many digressions, his excitement about the material, impressed themselves upon me deeply. I remember and am interested in something only if it’s delivered a certain way. I think of Joel Meyerowitz whispering into my ear a narrative about pianos and melodies as we’re stopped in front of the boat house in Central Park. I think of this Latin professor and his cowboy boots, who was my introduction to a seminar-style class in which I was not allowed to hide (though in the end, because of the force, or rather the mellow register, of my nature, I was allowed to hide). I think of Borges and these lectures about English literature, where he offers up a juicy digression now and then, steers the lecture back to the poem in question with “But let us return to the poem in question,” and repeats details from one class to the next, threads that have embedded themselves permanently in his mind’s eye, because he is by now totally blind.

Dyer recounts the following story in The Ongoing Moment: Richard Avedon, known to engage in (or claim to, at least) an active, equal participation between photographer and subject, found that the intensity of his session with Borges did not translate at all into a satisfying portrait. Later he heard that Paul Theroux’s meeting with Borges happened in almost exactly the same manner as his own had: Borges talked about his admiration for Kipling, had his visitor read a poem to him, then recited an Anglo-Saxon elegy. Avedon suddenly understood why the portrait session with Borges had been a failure: “[His] performance permitted no interchange. He had taken his own portrait long before, and I could only photograph that.” If Borges were to respond to this, he would do so with a story about Boswell and Sancho Panza, or about literary portraiture in general—that the subject is indeed complicit in the portrait, but is not necessarily on the same wavelength, or planet, as the biographer, the chronicler, the photographer, the admirer.

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