Reading Professor Borges

Available for the first time in English translation, Professor Borges collects a term’s worth of lectures delivered by Jorge Luis Borges in 1966 on the history of English literature. It’s a remarkable book, I think, for two quite different reasons.

It’s remarkable first of all in offering a survey of its subject that will be almost unrecognizable to most students of English literature. Fully a quarter of the course is spent on the Anglo-Saxon era of Beowulf and Co. Almost no mention at all is made of Chaucer and, in fact, seven hundred years of literary history are glibly ignored when Borges leaps directly from the Norman invasion to Samuel Johnson. Milton and Shakespeare are mentioned only in passing. After a couple lectures each for Wordsworth and Coleridge, we’re introduced to a long line of Victorians. Borges spends a really perverse amount of time on Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Robert Browning, and (of all people) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He concludes with Robert Louis Stevenson. Modernism he leaves tucked in the womb circa 1895.

Second, the book is remarkable because Borges’s style of presentation is no less idiosyncratic than his selection of texts. But there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s a style born of unabashed personal enthusiasm. Literary theory goes out the window (and good riddance) or, rather, it doesn’t so much go out the window as fail to obtain entrance to the room in the first place. Questions about the nature and function and politics of texts don’t seem to interest Borges. Rather, stories interest him. The old, blind Argentinian gets up in front of his students every day and he simply tells stories. He tells whole plots of numerous works. He quotes at length from memory. He tells about the authors’ lives, their absurd notions, unpleasant habits, and frequent misfortunes. Again and again he digresses into alleyways that are sometimes more surprising and more scenic than the view from the broad highway.

The epilogue of Professor Borges excerpts an interview which neatly sums up Borges’s personal philosophy of reading. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms,” he says. “Reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost – which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness…”

Never tedious itself, Professor Borges is unrecommendable as an introduction to English literature. It is, however, a wonderful introduction to Borges as a teacher, and it offers a fascinatingly oblique view of its subject for those already possessed of a more orthodox understanding.

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4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Literature

4 responses to “Reading Professor Borges

  1. Bruce Fleming

    I had the privilege of hearing the great man give a talk in 1983. All I can remember is that he had been round the lecture circuit so many times by that stage that he just drew on a storehouse of well-polished replies to whatever he was asked.

    Your post reminded me of a witticism, possibly from Williamson’s biography, that it would be possible to design a perfectly respectable English literature course consisting of the authors that Borges didn’t like.

    While writing, I should maybe put my hand up to the resurgence of interest in your Powellian bibliography. I found your website after searching under ‘Evadne Clapham’ and notified the powers that be. I won’t claim to be the first member of humanity to have googled her name, but I got the impression that doing so was a bit of a minority sport.

  2. Douglas Dalrymple

    Ah, so I have you to thank for that. Thank you. It’s nice to see an old post get some fresh interest.

    Borges was what, 83, in 1983? I didn’t realize he had lectured so long. As an aside, there’s a very funny photo of Borges with some of his “groupies” circa 1977 on Wikipedia:

  3. why
    “and (of all people) Dante Gabriel Rossetti…”?
    of all people…
    i find that remark strangely intriguing. what did the old man say about Rossetti? ii’m compelled find a fuller reference to his remarks on that score.

  4. Douglas Dalrymple

    Borges thought Rossetti was a very great English poet, which is not a sentiment I personally share. Hence the “of all people” phrase.

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