The Borges Retrospective:
To make the claim that Borges is well-read is like walking up to a stranger, preparing to brandish your dueling gloves, and proclaiming that water is wet. His vast and endless erudition is, along with his blindness and fascination with Angl-Saxon lore, one of those most striking things about him. There seems to have been little he hadn’t read, and little he didn’t remember. Even after blindness overcame him, he still had the library in his head, and if he didn’t recall a line exactly, could get someone to read it to him by remembering the book, and where it was located on his vast shelves (Hitchens, who has written many times and movingly about meeting Borges, spoke in Hitch-22 about having the honor of reading to him).
(Sidenote: one of the limitation of this series is not being able to talk about everything, so I do want to share his quote on blindness, from “The Other”, in which the old Borges meets his younger self. “When you reach my age, you’ll have almost totally lost your eyesight. You’ll be able to see the color yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.” Has a more beautiful and aching line about the enveloping process of decay ever been written?)
So, given his incredible range of reading, it stands to reason that he’d be a fine literary critic, being able to weave the vast tapestry of the human story into all his writing. What might strike readers as surprising is his proficiency as a film critic in the early days of cinema, as silent movies turned into talkies, and as the medium grew up. It is hard to imagine him as taking time away from his books, but he did, and often. I confess it delights me to imagine the young Borges, sitting in a darkened theater, in the cool the juxtaposes the Buenos Aries summer, head filled with ancient myths and knife-fights, and watching a giant ape palm a screaming blond.
But this giant ape didn’t do much for Borges, who opened his short blurb with “A monkey forty feet tall (some fans say forty-five) may have obvious charms, but those charms have not convinced this viewer.” Borges’s main complaint in the review seems to be that the great size of Kong “did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted in photographing him from above rather than from below– the wrong angle, as it neutralizes and even diminishes the ape’s overpraised stature.”
As you can see, Borges thought deeply about the visual language of film, in a way that seems as first surprising, but then you understand shows his great and immediate genius, and is part and parcel of one of his animating passions; that is, how we tell stories. The form in which we do is important. Homer’s voice (or that of the many anonymous poets who made him up) is what created The Odyssey and The Illiad. It works as recitation. The gesticulations of a man telling the story of his greatest battle are as important as the words. And the flickering shadows on the screen mean just as much, if not more, than what is being said.
Consider how much he says about competing aesthetics, both moral and literal, in just one sentence (the opener) in reviewing King Vidor’s Street Scene. “The Russians discovered that the oblique- and consequently- distorted shot of a bottle, a bull’s neck, or a column had greater visual value that Hollywood’s thousand and one extras, hastily camouflaged as Assyrians then shuffled into total confusion by Cecil B. DeMille.” Borges is showing his distaste for the vulgar and pointless, but lest you think he is overpraising art for the sake of art, he continues, with trademark modesty, insight, and wit.
They also discovered that Midwestern cliches– the merits of espionage and betrayal, of everlasting wedded bliss, the untarnished purity of prostitutes, the finishing uppercut dealt by a sober young man– could be exchanged for other, no less admirable cliches. (Thus in one of the noblest Soviet films, a battleship bombards the teeming port of Odessa at close range, with no casualties except for some marble lions. This marksmanship is harmless because is comes from a virtuous, maximum battleship.
From here, he goes on to decry the idea that the world had decided to replace American cinema with Russian, since the world was “saturated to the point of disgust with Hollywood productions” (in 1931! As Borges would argue, history is always repeating itself in some kind of endless present). He praises Vidor’s film, as well as the virtues of other American films. There is an endless generosity of spirit, leavened only when what he see seems tacky.
There’s a certain giddy modernity to reading his reviews. He seems to have love for Chaplin and a love for Keaton, which is where I think we’re at now, after years of being forced to choose. He anticipates the growing blockbusters, seeing audiences who were once frightened by a solitary train yawning at hundreds of galloping horses. He doesn’t particularly care for Citizen Kane, although he recognizes its greatness. (His review of Kane is talked in greater depth in a fantastic essay on Borges by Jonathan Russel Clark in LitHub yesterday. He goes far deeper into Borges the critic, and with sharper insight, than does this piece.)
One wonders then, what an older Borges, whose sight failed him in the mid-50s, would have made of the growing language of cinematic expression by Hitchcock, by Truffaut, by Kubrick, by Scorcese, and even by George Lucas. Would he have seen vast wonders? Would the movies have been too vulgar for this elderly gentleman? Would the coarseness rub him the wrong way? Or would he have seen echoes of earlier bawdier times, of Vikings telling sex epics to each other on the high seas, and of soldiers bragging about their latest conquest? Or, more likely, some of each, in his endless fairness.
In a way then, this is about blindness. The degeneration that overtook him stole a form of human expression. It robbed him of a way to absorb more stories. Given his prodigious memory for what he had read, this might have been the primary downfall of his blindness (for us, the selfish reader) When you recognize his depth and passion for the stories we tell, and their echoes around the world and through time, you realize why he was such a good film critic. This was the next step in storytelling, a way to wed visuals to our words, in a way not dissimilar from the dramatists that created the first stage plays, or the men who drew stories on the walls of great hunts. We see that the slowly growing darkness was indeed tragic, as the newst medium lost from its ranks of interpreters our greatest reader.