A few years ago, a moments discovery was made: the 1967 Charles W. Norton lectures of Jorge Luis Borges at Harvard University. These lectures are a delight, especially “A Poet’s Creed.” To listen to Borges is to feel for a brief moment what it is like to be someone who is possessed by a timeless and immortal memory. What makes a great scholar a wonder—and here I think about someone like Erich Auerbach or Carlo Ginsberg—is the fact that they seem to experience the past as if it were an eternal present. But listening to the final lecture, it occurred to me how aware Borges was of his memory and the predicament of modern literature.
And I think that perhaps you are lead astray by one of the studies you value most, the study of the history of literature. I wonder—and I hope that this is not a blasphemy—I wonder if you are not too aware of history. Because being aware of the history of literature—or of any other art for that matter—is really a form of unbelieving, a form of skepticism.
Today it is easy to discover thousands of years of writing in languages that are no longer spoken, in books whose last checkout date was fifty years ago, in writers who were once famous and now utterly unknown. We are indebted to those scholars who rescued a Blake or Guamán Poma from succumbing to the deep sea of forgetting. And we must be respectful of those writers who are even now fading from the minds of the current generation; to delight in William Cowper is to whisper the words “Exit Ghost;” to be passionate about Charles Brockton Brown is to wave a ship sinking inevitably below the horizon.
I am no scholar and my memory has never been very good. But I am modern and being modern means to live—even without being fully conscious of it—in the knowledge of all that has come before me. To be modern is to know your place and it can be the cause of a great deal of creative paralysis. Thinking about writing a love poem? Rilke will tell you, it is very hard to compete on that subject with Keats or Yeats, or Rilke himself. Better you write about what you know. Or I should say, better to write about what has not been written about yet. If such a thing should indeed exist.
And so as a modern, not only are we sinking into the great sea of forgetting, but we are sinking frozen in panic, with hardly a ripple of resistance made.
[audio:http://www.thomasventimiglia.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Poets-Creed-excerpt.mp3|titles=A Poet’s Creed excerpt]
For Borges, beauty is the one quality that is eternally present. To read a minor poet of the 19th century is to read that poet under equal conditions today. The fact that he is from the 19th century is irrelevant. It is the present reading that is relevant. The skepticism Borges speaks about is the disassociation of the past from the present, as if the former were the fact, and the latter the anomaly.
I think there is a great deal of comfort that comes from listening to Borges on this topic, especially if you are one of those people who feel paralyzed by the past. In listening you come to understand that in fact there is no past, just as there is no future. Every act of writing must withstand the present. And while up against those odds it is very likely your work will not survive, it is ultimately a problem of the work and not the conditions that produced the work.
So what then?
One of the sins of modern literature is that it is too self-conscious, says Borges.
The goal is to be true to the dream and not to tinker too much. “Slight Amendments” as Borges calls them, really do not have much of an effect on the whole. In a sense, it seems as if Borges understands the present problem of production is a problem of spirit. Our inability to communicate with the eternal arrives because our spirit is too encumbered with the material, the corporal, the earthly.
That is to say, we have forgotten that we are holy.
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