I was familiar with his name but until recently, had not read his work. He has written short stories, poems and at least one novel, but I am drawn to his lectures and essays. Born in 1899, Borges began writing in 1922. By the time he was twenty, he was familiar with the writings of philosophers Herbert Spencer, George Berkeley and David Hume. He also read the works of British and American writers (including Romantic poets), German Expressionist poets and the Greek Classics.
In 1914, the Borges family moved from Buenos Aires to Geneva, where Jorges L. Borges learned to speak and read French, Latin and German. Then, in 1921, the family moved back to Buenos Aires. Within two years, Borges was a prolific writer of Latin American poetry and short stories about Argentine life. Over the next ten years, Borges was one of the most recognized writers in Argentina’s literary history (Weinberger 527). In 1932, Borges began to write non-fiction works, including essays, short biographies and book reviews. By 1936, he “was the best-known poet and essayist in Argentina” (529).
Jorges Luis Borges’s father had been chronically ill as an adult and he eventually went blind. The adult-onset blindness was hereditary and Borges suspected that he, too, would become blind as an adult. In 1938, his father died, leaving Borges as the patriarch of the family, which included his mother, his sister Norah, and Norah’s husband. Borges continued to write essays, but in 1941, he decided to devote most of his time to writing fiction. El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan was published that year, and an expanded version was published in 1944 (535). He also translated stories from English into Spanish during this period.
By 1948, in addition to being known as one of Argenitina’s most prolific writers, he also became known as a “symbol of resistance to Perón” (540). As a result, Perón imprisoned Borges’s sister and put his mother under house arrest. Borges had always wanted to become the Director of the National Library. When Perón was overthrown in 1955, Borges achieved his goal. He wrote about the position, stating, “There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred books in various languages, but I found that I could barely make out the title pages and the spines” (475). Soon afterwards, Borges’s gradual blindness became exacerbated. Before long, his physician “forbade him to read and write” (541).
As mentioned previously, his adult-onset blindness was expected. However, he did retain some color recognition. He stated in a lecture, “I can still make out certain colors; I can still see blue and green. And yellow, in particular, has remained faithful to me” (Borges 474). Borges also mentioned that he could not see black or red. I believe that Jorges Luis Borges wrote beautifully. In his lecture on blindness, he further explained,
“…my father and my grandmother, …both died blind, blind, laughing, and brave, as I hope to die. They inherited many things ─ blindness, for example ─ but one does not inherit courage. I know that they were brave” (474).
Instead of considering his blindness as a profound loss, he viewed it differently. He explained, “I have lost the visible world, but now I am going to recover another, the world of my distant ancestors… from Germany, Denmark and the Low Countries, who conquered England…” (477). He began to study the history of the English language, the study of Anglo-Saxon, and did not allow his blindness to intimidate him. From September 1961 to February 1962, Borges became a visiting professor at University of Texas at Austin. While there, he attended a course on Old English/Anglo-Saxon literature, taught by Professor Rudolph Willard (Seale).
Borges believed that what happened to him (his blindness) was an instrument. He viewed his blindness as a gift. He explained:
“[blindness] gave me Anglo-Saxon, it gave me some Scandinavian, it gave me a knowledge of medieval literature I didn’t know, it gave me the writing of various books, good or bad, but which justified the moment in which they were written. Moreover, blindness has made me feel surrounded by the kindness of others” (483).
Borges ended the lecture by saying that his gradual blindness was not a complete misfortune. Instead, it was a new beginning for him, enabling him to learn things that he, otherwise, may not have pursued. I am encouraged by Jorges Luis Borges’s steadfast devotion to words, the history of language and his optimism in the face of adversity.
The following sources were referenced in this essay:
Borges, Jorge L. The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. 473-545. Print.
Seale, Avrel. "Was Borges in Your Class?" The Alcalde 90.2 (2001): 62. Print.