Almost thirty years ago I had the chance to hear the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges deliver the keynote address at a conference on the work of Vladimir Nabokov. The event was hosted by Cornell University and I rode a bus to Ithaca, New York from Geneva—a trip that took me about two hours. I was going through an unpronounceable personal crisis because I was losing the last of my usable reading vision and I couldn’t talk about it. I had been "legally blind" since birth but had managed to read with one eye by holding a large print page by my nose. I had survived college using this technique. I had also graduated from the University of Iowa’s "Writer’s Workshop" with a degree in poetry writing.
I had enough dramatic irony to know that my emotional vocabulary was failing me. I could write like other people. I could imitate Garcia Lorca or H.D. or Robert Bly but I couldn’t find the sub-rosa dialect of disability and I knew that I wasn’t finding much about this in the pages of The American Poetry Review or The Atlantic Monthly. All I knew for sure was that Borges was blind and he was slated to speak about Nabokov and I knew how to find the event on my own .
Thank you for this link to this post:
Borges on the Planet of the Blind
I arrived in time to hear some desultory remarks from panelists who were Nabokov’s former colleagues at Cornell. I wasn’t sure I was in the right room but a woman in front of me whispered that Borges was next. The professor who introduced Borges spoke at some length about the honor of having a world class poet close the Nabokov conference and he properly underscored Borges literary achievements. The introduction seemed to take a long time but maybe it was just me.
I couldn’t see the people on stage but I was used to that. Legal blindness is a complicated business but it means, invariably, that you never see the people on stage or the writing on a blackboard or Ingrid Bergman for that matter.
Borges spoke in Spanish and he had his own interpreter who also served as his sighted guide. The interpreter had a soft voice and a fine ear. It was easy to see that these two men were used to working together. This was most likely a speech they’d given elsewhere.
As I listened I realized that the talk had nothing to do with Nabokov or the conference. I suspected that some of the Cornell folks were likely discomfited. Borges was delivering a monologue on the necessity of play as the core ingredient of imagination. "The imagination is like playing a card game but with your own rules," Borges said. "You can become quite free if you ignore the rules." And then he was done. I think the talk lasted all of fifteen minutes.
The applause was uneasy. There was some silence after people stopped clapping. Then someone down front shouted out: "What about Nabokov?"
"Who is Nabakov?" said Borges.
"Nabokov! You know, he wrote Lolita!" said the questioner.
"Who is Lolita?" asked Borges.
"You know, she’s the young girl who winds up sleeping with a forty year old man who is some kind of pedophile."
"Oh," said Borges, "So it is an old story?"
Borges fielded a few more questions but he never revealed that he knew anything about Nabokov.
The Borges event was probably a disappointment for Cornell but it was the right thing for me. If I was going to lose more vision I would have to find ways to escape the prevalent expectation that writers are essentially just another kind of journalist.
One of the chief assumptions of our time is that writing prose, or poetry too for that matter, requires acute vision. Perhaps this idea owes a good deal to the oft repeated anecdote about young Ernest Hemingway who reputedly exited a train during the first world war so he could write his impressions about a dead dog on a rail platform. In any event,by the 1920’s literary prose was assumed to be a slightly dressier form of journalism. By the end of WW I the symbiosis of the modern news photo with literature became the new mosaic standard for writing.
How would I be able to write about the world if I couldn’t see it. Everyone was talking about "the image". In poetry workshop we looked at the broken glass beside the road as William Carlos Williams was driving to the contagious hospital. We saw that red wheelbarrow "glazed with rainwater" and each moment in poetry was crystalline and charged with immanence.
I thought some more about Borges.
A friend told me how his mother used to walk everyday in Buenos Aires with the poet. She would describe the things she was seeing in the central market and in turn Borges would narrate his version of their walk.
This emancipation from the photographic image is what allowed me to become a writer.
What a relief it is to write about the things I do not see!
I do not see the moon in Helsinki's harbor but I know she Is stealing silverware from the old cafes. She always Gets away with this of a winter’s night.