Thursday, September 4, 2008

A History of the Night

Dear Everybody:

Did you guys know that Jorge Luis Borges got his start as a poet? Okay, well, have you ever heard of Jorge Luis Borge?

Sigh. In very brief, this guy wrote very short, very intellectual stories. Everyone on this list would love ‘em. “The Library of Babel” describes an infinite library containing not only every written book but every possible book. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is about a man who spends his life writing the first chapter of Don Quixote – word for word identical to the one that Cervantes wrote. Oh, these are strange works. A man discovers that he’s only a dream, another finds all the world in a small copper coin. And his nonfiction essays are stunning. In fact, there are some pieces where you can’t determine if they’re fiction or essay.

Here’s one of his poems:

History Of The Night
by Jorge Luis Borges

Throughout the course of the generations
men constructed the night.
At first she was blindness;
thorns raking bare feet,
fear of wolves.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Now is that a cool idea or what? A history of the night! Borges was brilliantly erudite, too. You can trust him to have gotten the facts right.

Did you notice the kicker? It exists in the last couplet. Borges was blind.

All best,



Markin said...

"Brilliantly erudite", indeed. I'd love to see this thing footnoted.

Erstwhile classicist that I am, I can follow the earlier references well enough, but know too little about the later ones. "Pascal's terror" must refer to the time the carriage in which he was riding almost plunged off the bridge and into the Seine, an incident that led to his religious vision and subsequent conversion. How, exactly, this ties in with the night, I don't know -- I suppose I should start reading Pascal ... [sigh]

And I am definitely unfamiliar with the works of Luis de Leon, who, like Pascal, ended up in trouble with the established Church. (Whatever did we do before Wikipedia?)

Unless Borges was thinking about a more general "dark night of the soul" ...

And what cock crows his own death? That's a new one on me ...

Michael Swanwick said...

I did a little poking about the Web, too, and discovered that the connection of Pascal's terror to night is what's called his "night of fire," Monday, November 23, 1654, from about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight when, according to a document found sewn into one of his jackets shortly after his death by an alert servant, he had his mystical experience and conversion. Man, you just can't make up stuff like this!

I can't find that damn cock, though.


saladinahmed said...

About 10 years ago Penguin published a new edition of Borges' Selected Poems with facing Spanish originals -- it's maybe my favorite book of poetry ever. I don't think I've ever read a better one-page poem than "Boast of Quietness"...

Fernando said...

Borges is also one of my favourite poets ever; when I was doing my military service in Spain, I spent the boring nights in the guard post learning by heart some of his poems. Later I found I was not unique in this. Oh, and he not only started as a poet, he wrote and published poetry all his life.
Oh, and the crow's mystery is just a problem with the English translation, the cock does not crow his own death, he crows the night's end ("su fin" can be "its end" or "his end" or "her end"). But in this case, the mistake (assuming it is a mistake and I am not missing something) adds an extra something, don't you think?

Michael Swanwick said...

Another good reason for me to regret that I've never learned Spanish! As if Gabriel Garcia Marquez wasn't enough.