An Unquenchable Gaiety of Mind

BorgesGeorge Watson in The American Scholar:

By his last years Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) was often seen as a skeptic. Michel Foucault began Les mots et les choses (1966, published in English as The Order of Things) by acclaiming him for having defied certainty and demolished every familiar landmark of knowledge, since everything “bears the stamp of our age and our geography.” Foucault cited something Borges claimed to have found once in an old Chinese encyclopedia, a hilarious taxonomy of animals using the following categories: those belonging to the emperor, those that are embalmed, those that are tame, sucking pigs, sirens, stray dogs, et cetera. That was impressively credulous of Foucault, since Borges (as I once heard him say) often made up his quotations: “One is allowed to change the past.” Among the literal minded, however, his reward was to be thought to have sounded the death knell of all human hopes to know the world or to understand our place in it.

Nearly 30 years ago I wrote down my recollections of Borges’s visits to Cambridge, mainly in 1984, which was coincidentally the year Foucault died. Perhaps I should have published them sooner, since they suggest an unquenchable gaiety of mind: Foucault’s mistake would undoubtedly have amused him. He might even have made a story of it. Though blind, Borges was not sad. His name and fame survive as the author of several dozen stories; he never wrote a novel, and cheerfully called himself lazy.

He was a traditionalist—the last Victorian—mindful, perhaps, that when Queen Victoria died he was already in his second year of life. In a 1979 BBC radio conversation with Graham Greene, John Updike, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Carlos Fuentes celebrating Borges’s 80th birthday, he cheerfully conceded it. “What is the matter with being an old-fashioned storyteller?” he asked, and he politely disdained an accolade from Robbe-Grillet calling him the enemy of realism and father of the nouveau roman. Realism, after all, never confined itself to reality: it embraces coincidence, for example, and foreboding. “You don’t think of life as being like a realistic novel, do you?” he asked. All lives are rich in fantasy, and to depict fantasy is to depict life.