Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Encounter with Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

I trouble myself posting this fictional story about a real author. Elsewhere in this blog I have written true accounts of real writers, some of whom have passed away. In a real world where people have real lives of real effort it seems irresponsible to mix it up with lies, and yet I can't resist. What follows is false. You can research it all on the internet and find it to be complete nonsense.

Willis Barnstone, in his humane memoir With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires, excludes an account of one of the Argentine's visits to Bloomington, Indiana, and only in my old friend Peggy Seaforth's article about him in The Cage is there even passing mention of Aziz, the young Arabic scholar who sometimes accompanied Borges on travels when his wife stayed home. It is at this time in my life, with myself afflicted with partial blndness along with the usual struggles of a breathing person living in a time--like all times, Borges would remind us--of broken culture and cruelty, that I choose to offer a few words about my encounter with the literary giant.

I do not recall the name of the hotel in downtown Bloomington but remember it always--except for the night in question--as an image in my rear view mirror, so to speak, that tall, prismatic building out of place had it not been clad in Indiana limestone. (Even an internet search for the hotel will not reveal its location, although mention is made of another lodging from the city's downtown history.) I prefer to remain quiet about the business that brought me to his room that evening in October, 1982, and not because I stand to lose anything by  the revelation, but because some other people concerned are still alive. Suffice it to say I was a student, the evening warm and glowing with leaves, and I was excited in a way I have seldom experienced since. This was all in the era before the internet, a time when the pace of human competition was languid yet much warmer by comparison. It was also a time for Indiana before it was awash in the larger, international culture it so stubbornly resists even today, and it was also before the hope and depredation brought on by the Hoosier Chic movement moved the State to cultural notice. I perhaps shared the innocence of the times, but only with a hostility toward them covered by a veneer of timidity.

Aziz, a thin man in his early thirties, whose eyes froze me with their steadiness, greeted me at the door of the sixth floor room.  "You are John? Please come in." The room had a round, paper-and-book strewn table in the middle. The shaded west window still glowed with daylight. Hung on a wall--picture or mirror--was a large frame draped in cloth that seemed the same shabby taupe as the walls, except for a brown stain in the lower left corner of the fabric. Perhaps it was the combination of Aziz's intensity, the room's dull inhospitality and my own excitement that I noticed Borges last of all, sitting on a chair in the corner, dressed in a suit, eyes closed, leaning forward on his cane as posing for one of his book covers. Aziz took my elbow and sat me at the table facing Borges's direction. It was then I looked down and saw the photocopies of sigils, the cracked, leather-bound editions of John Dee, von Junzt and a lead-black copy of The Book of Eibon, all part of his continuing scholarship. I put the envelope I was sent to deliver on the table.

"So kind of you to do this for us," were his first words, smiling, keeping his blind eyes closed.

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Borges."

The conversation we had lasted longer than I can recall. I'm not even sure how it developed except that it was Borges who kept it going. As for Aziz, about whom I'm afraid I have little to say, he took off his sport coat, lit a cigarette after offering one to me that I gratefully accepted, and leaned back in a silence that seemed amused in a quaintly friendly way. Looking back I'm amazed I did not feel more uncomfortable in the situation than I did in my nervousness, but that was the kind of trust Borges inspired.

"When I was young," Borges said, "I believed in God. Now I am an atheist," and for a moment he opened his eyes and gazed in blindness, not at Aziz or at me, but at the documents that lay spread before us. "It has been a long inquiry. Aziz helps with his experience in the matter. Our work is coming to an end. Yes. Tell me, John, what interests you?"

I told him I wanted to be a writer.

"It is easier to be a reader," he said. "It was hard for me to read Arabic, but as soon as I discovered a copy of the orginal in Buenos Aires, it was inevitable I learn that tongue. But I was," and here he paused and pressed his eyelids together, "impatient. So I read the translation by Dr. John Dee. He was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, you know." Borges chuckled. "A poor translation, but effective." He explained how after reading Dee's translation of The Necronomicon he had a dream about a vast library of horrifying dimensions, stairwells that led to infinity. "I always thought those shafts might be too melodramatic a touch for the story I wrote, but I don't mind melodrama, and one must sometimes remain truthful in talking about reality, especially," and here he paused again and looked, if "looked" is an allowable word, away from the table, "especially about the things one sees."

It turned out that the reason for Borges's visit had nothing to do with Indiana University or his friends there, but it had to do instead with a previous visit from William S. Burroughs . "Bill visited your university last year and lodged in this hotel room. He is a very powerful writer. Anyway, he left unfinished business, and he has asked me to settle it." At those words Aziz pursed his lips and glanced toward the draped wall hanging. He fidgeted with an unlit cigarette.

"But all this trouble is avoidable," Borges continued. "Avoidable. If I had a choice now, I would have continued only to read Chesterton. He is terrifying enough." Here Borges opened his eyes and looked at me. They were eyes of great kindness and great loss. "I appreciate what you have done for us this evening. Yet none of it is necessary or even advisable. I did not need Dr. Dee's works. Nor do you. You don't even need mine. Or if you do need them, better sell shoes, young man. Better sell shoes." He ended in a quiet crescendo punctuated with a bob in his throat. His eyes closed again, and at that moment Aziz rose. I took this as my cue to leave. The last I remember of the room the drapes had gone black.

No more impersonal details remain worth relating. The ones I withhold are matters of embarrassment to others and have little to do with that great author's biography.  It should come as little surprise that Borges was a Necronomicon scholar, since his home town was one of that book's capitols, and since Borges was Borges. The scandal surrounding that book of black magic has lost its cachet now that its contents lie entirely open on the internet.

We are instructed to let go of the past. Letting go the past is freedom. Apart from a kind of past that is made of negative memories we play over and over in our hearts, it turns out there are infinite kinds of past that need letting go. My memories related here are paltry, made under the influence of youthful awe, but I will always remain indebted to Borges. In that brief interview I learned enough to begin in earnest as a writer. As for the mistakes I have made, of course I have no one to blame but myself. That I have abandoned writing for other ventures just as dubious and just as infinitely fraught with opportunities for failure, well, that I also owe to Borges, or to no one. In whatever I have left to do. In whatever I have left to see.

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