My parting shot, in the sidebar to this blog, is a quote from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer and librarian: “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.” This, to me, is a rather beautiful sentiment, and even hopeful. However, while it’s how Borges’s words are usually presented in compilations of quotations, and it turns them into something that can stand alone, it’s loosely translated. In fairness to the poet’s memory, here is the whole of his ‘Poem of the Gifts’ (1958), with the original words in their proper context. The translation is by Alastair Reid, and the poem is one that every bibliophile should know. It addresses the progressive blindness that began to afflict Borges shortly after his appointment as director of the National Library of Argentina in succession to Paul Groussac – who, strangely, was also blind.
No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness in one touch.
Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver
to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on the same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.
From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of the blind library.
Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.
In shadows, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
In form and image as a library.
Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books, He too was blind.
Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.
Which of the two is setting down this poem—
A single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?
Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.
Why does this resonate? In his essay “Jorge Luis Borges and the plural I,” Eric Ormsby makes an important point about libraries, about the poem and the poet: “The library, whether the Library of Babel in his great ‘fiction’ of the same name or the National Library of Argentina where Borges served as director for some eighteen years, is a fitting metaphor for infinitude. The fact that Borges was almost completely blind during his tenure as national librarian must have strengthened his sense of boundlessness. Anyone who has wandered in a large library at night when all the lights are out will appreciate the eerie sensation of limitless; the books on serried shelves, each foreshadowing its neighbour, appear to extend into endlessness, and to perceive this purely by touch must be doubly persuasive.”