Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Other Borges: Mallarmé Wrote We Are the World

 [ source ]

From the always sublime Language Hat:

A very bad "poem" has apparently been making the rounds for decades now, attributed to Jorge Luis Borges. I learn this via Anatoly, who discovered an article (in Spanish, which Anatoly is studying) by Ivan Almeida, laying out the entire ridiculous story. It starts with a guy named Don Herold, who in 1953 published a short piece in Reader's Digest called "If I Had My Life to Live Over"—typical Reader's Digest material, mildly quirky and touching ("I'd dare to make more mistakes next time. I'd relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip..."). At some point, inevitably, somebody decided it would be even more effective chopped up into lines of varying length and presented as a "poem," and it was occasionally attributed to an octogenarian woman from Kentucky called Nadine Stair. Then it got attributed to Borges and translated into Spanish as "Instantes," which became the presumptive original; the English version was sometimes called by the Spanish name, for extra exoticism points.

Almeida does excellent work with the tangled tale, and I like his conclusion, which I'll translate (original below):

In the same way that in "El Aleph" the divine Beatrice appears revealing pornografic secrets, just as in "The End" [Martín] Fierro is the opposite of Hernández's character, so the Borges of "Instantes" is a Borges brought to be his own adversary.

The Borges of "Instantes" is a Borges whom we would like to see repentant. Repentant for being the most quoted of authors without being understood by the poor people who enjoy television series or teach Cultural Studies. We want him to continue being Borges but to renounce his options and who, in place of his cryptic poems, would come to tell us what would like to hear and what we are told only by those associative (?) magazines we despise. The perfect world would be a book by Rigoberta Menchú signed by Wittgenstein, the Imitation of Christ signed by Joyce, the song "We are the world" signed by Mallarmé. We want to be able to say that the poem we love most is by that Borges whom the intellectuals wanted to appropriate. So says that collective actor we cannot even call "readers."

Should we get angry? I don't believe there's any reason to. We mustn't forget that, despite everything, as shown by an example cited above, there are people who have been brought by the reading of "Instantes" to discover Ficciones. Perhaps the history of literature is the history of various great mistakes in reading.

Luckily, Borges wrote a famous text called "Borges and I." We will never know to which of the two this story is happening. But we can be sure that the other would be enjoying himself tremendously.

As with most Borges stories, I had to re-read this before it made any sense. It is beautiful. I imagine Borges' skull clacking with joy. I was particularly amused by the Rigoberta Menchú book signed by Wittgenstein and "We are the world" by Mallarmé. The imagination instantly reaches out to embrace these possibilities with a huge smile.

The quick pastiche is irresistible:

We are the world, we are the children
When the shadow with fatal law menaced me
We are the ones who make a brighter day
A certain old dream, sick desire of my spine,
So lets start giving
Beneath funereal ceilings afflicted by dying
There's a choice we're making
Folded its indubitable wing there within me.
We're saving our own lives
Luxury, O ebony hall, where to tempt a king
Its true we'll make a better day
Famous garlands are writhing in death
Just you and me

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