The Poems of Ossian (Forgotten Books)

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A Literary Hedonist In The Classroom: On Professor Borges

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A puzzling entry in an old encyclopedia, a country not to be found on any map, the subsequent search through libraries, book stores, atlases, and obscure travel memoirs, leading to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society: this is not the plot of some paperback thriller you bought in an airport. It is the outline of a classic story by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine author with a taste for impossible libraries, unlikely literary discoveries, and esoteric history. What saves it, what keeps “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” from becoming hackneyed or pulp, is Borges’s vast learning and irrepressible erudition. He seems to have read everything, from the Eleatic aporiae and the Gnostic heresiarchs, to Chesterton’s endless volumes. His stories are often about books, about their power and danger, a subject he knew as well as anyone. So when he writes about discovering unimaginable encyclopedias, or fragments of archaic poems, and feeling like “the secret portals of heaven” had opened up over his head, we get the same feeling.

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, the recently translated collection of lectures that Borges gave during the fall of 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, is itself an unlikely discovery. The original tapes of the lectures were lost, recorded over, or misplaced. But now, thanks to transcripts and some impressive editing by a pair of Borges scholars, it seems like the blind professor is giving his seminar on English Literature again, as if we had stumbled upon one of those eddies in the circularity of time that he loved to conjecture about. The voice we find in Professor Borges is less formal than in Borges’s essays, though much of what he spoke about in class found its way into his non-fiction. In fact, reading his essays is a better way to approach much of this material. They are more felicitously composed, while these lectures feel more extemporaneous. But the informal character of Professor Borges is also refreshing. The book is lighter reading. The lectures were meant for undergraduates, and like any good teacher, Borges tried to inspire his students with his own enthusiasm. He explained why he loved a particular passage or a poem so that they might share the feeling with him. There are dull moments, when he repeats himself or grows vague, that are hard to imagine ever finding in his prose. But there are also moments in this book when Borges’s love for his subject matter seems irresistible.

The encyclopedic Argentine taught English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires for more than 20 years, beginning in 1956. And the first thing that will surprise anyone curious about his seminar is where he starts: he spends seven of 25 classes discussing works written in Anglo-Saxon, a language that has almost nothing in common with modern English. This era is remembered mostly for the epic poem, Beowulf, though Borges’s students learned much more. He had already published several volumes of translations into Spanish, and could recite from memory lines like “Helmum behongen, hildebordum, beorthum byrnum, swa he bena wæs.” Not much literature remains from the Anglo-Saxon world, which lasted roughly from 449 to 1066, just four codices, or manuscripts of compiled poems. One of these manuscripts was found in a library in Italy in 1822, a literary discovery like those Borges often imagined in his fictions. In the preface to his Breve Antología Anglosajona (A Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology), he described it this way, “About two hundred years ago it was discovered that English Literature contained a kind of secret chamber, akin to the subterranean gold guarded by the serpent of myth. That ancient gold was the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.”

Borges describes this esoteric literature with fluency and ease. He glosses over the historical context gracefully, for he can quote Tacitus from memory just as easily as The Venerable Bede. But his interest in the poems is literary, as he makes clear in the very first moments of his course. He wants to explain why they are beautiful, and his little descriptive touches render them more vivid. Consider this description of the 10th-century poem, The Battle of Maldon. Borges doesn’t hesitate to speak admiringly of it, or to add details and comparisons that help bring the scene to life:
The fragment begins with the words “brocen wurde,” “was broken.” And we’ll never know what was broken…Then the narration begins, but we don’t know who the subject is. We imagine it to be the earl, because he orders his men to fall out, to spur their horses on, to whip their horses so they will advance. He is obviously speaking to a group of warriors, who were probably peasants, fisherman, woodsmen, and among them are the earl’s guards. Then the earl tells them to form a line. Far off, they will see the tall boats of the Vikings, those boats with the dragon on the prow and the striped sails, and the Norwegian Vikings, who have already landed. Then there appears in the scene — because this poem is very beautiful — a young man, whom, we are told, is offan mæg, “of the family of Offa.”…And this young man is, as we can see, a young aristocrat passing through; he is not thinking about war because he has a falcon on his fist; that is, he is doing what is called falconry. But when the earl issues these orders, the young man understands that the lord will not abide cowardice, and he joins the battle. And something happens, something that is realistic and has symbolic value, something a movie director would use now. The young man realizes the situation is serious, so he lets his beloved falcon (the epitaph “beloved” is very rare in this iron poetry of the Saxons) fly off into the forest, and he joins the battle…In fact, the young man is later killed.
Professor Borges contains many similar off-the-cuff narrations. We must remember that, when he gave these lectures, his vision was already failing. He could no longer read and he was quoting from memory, without the use of notes. The reader may wish for more analysis of the poem, but Borges was trying to entice his students to fall in love with it, to go study the material for themselves. What a pleasure to listen to an expert discuss this archaic poetry in such an unacademic, captivating style, like an old raconteur.

The superstition of the mysterious double, called the doppelganger in Germany, the fetch in Scotland; the idea that history repeats itself cyclically, which Borges liked to call the eternal return, or circular time; the book (or library) as metaphor for the universe; many of Borges’s favorite topics come up in these lectures. It is tempting to say that he even reveals some of his sources, the authors who inspired concepts that seem so Borgesian to us today, but this kind of speculation is pointless. Were esoteric medieval bestiaries, which often included fantastical and legendary creatures, the inspiration for his Book of Imaginary Beings? Impossible to say and probably not worth worrying about. But one of the best things about Professor Borges is the way he draws connections between authors and ideas so freely, comparing the Anglo-Saxon description of a panther (a creature those people had never seen) with a line from T.S. Eliot that has always perplexed him, for example, or the description of a whale with a line from Paradise Lost. The links are often personal, sometimes unlikely, but they seem sincere, and you get a sense of why he liked what he liked.

Another surprising thing about Professor Borges is how much material he skips over, effectively jumping straight from the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, to Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. He lingers on Boswell’s biography, tells the story of James Macpherson and his apocryphal Ossian, gives us the highlights of the Romantic poets, and then goes straight to the 19th century. This is not a comprehensive survey of English Literature so much as a guide to Borges’s tastes, and a series of opportunities for him to be brilliant, like in this speech on James Boswell’s role as a biographer:
There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators…I, for example, was born on the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with — though separate from — the other.
Whatever Professor Borges lacks in the detail of its analyses and the grace of its prose, it makes up for with these moments of lucidity, with brilliantly drawn connections and the teacher’s own overwhelming enthusiasm. Though nowhere near as coherent and powerful as his non-fiction — if you haven’t read it yet, go right now — this book seems to offer a secret and impossible window through the years, turning us into unlikely spectators.

“Reading should be a form of happiness,” Borges said in a famous interview given in 1978. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory.” Few writers can claim to have read as much as Borges did, and there are almost no other writers whose imagination was so fixed on literature, on books, and on reading. But even though he taught at a university for decades, Borges refused to consider studying literature work; he wanted his students to enjoy reading. He chose reading for pleasure over the kind of “sad university-style reading” that emphasizes the importance of citations, references, and footnotes. We can’t help being impressed by the incredible array of books and authors Borges discusses in his fictions and his essays, but we must remember that he read them because he loved them, because when he opened up those volumes he felt the “secret portals of heaven” opening up over his head. This blind librarian, teacher, and brilliant author was a self-proclaimed literary hedonist. Punctilious professors take note.

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