Productive misunderstanding is often a condition of continuing life.
Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations”.
There is something touching, yet odd and baffling, about the French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s admiration for Borges. Among those who had come to listen to the “Hommage à J. L. Borges” at the Bibliothèque Nationale on that cold Paris evening toward the end of 1986, few could doubt that they were listening to something much larger than a simple homage from a living poet to one recently dead. Although “homage” was the humble title, clearly we were witnessing a metaphysical salvo, a skirmish in the old but more than ever raging battle of the giants about our fate, about the manner of our being in this world. Nobody in that sophisticated audience could have been unaware of what was already a tradition among French literati, that which consists in exhibiting some of Borges’ stories—most often “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” and “La biblioteca de Babel”—as pieces of evidence for post-modern theories such as “the death of the author,” “there is nothing outside of the text,” or “writing is prior to speech.” Against that tradition Bonnefoy spoke forcefully, without naming it or any of its famous producers. Rather, in typical positive fashion, Bonnefoy identified Borges with those who have maintained that the personal encounter, the face-to-face—in a word, presence—is far more important than the disembodied word. Plato in his Seventh Epistle may come to our mind, for in it the same opinion is expressed; but not for Bonnefoy, who puts Plato among the pioneers of the disastrous rush towards the infinite symbolic sky, the disembodied heaven of ideas, and the leaving behind as unworthy all that is finite and ephemeral, like the face of man, the tongue he uses for speaking, and the eyes with which he looks at us. So, Plato is no ally of Bonnefoy and not one to be identified with; rather, he compared Borges with a man far less famous, the Russian-Jewish thinker Lev Shestov (Yehuda Leib Schwarzmann, 1866-1938). Shestov is a maître à penser dear not only to Bonnefoy but to European poets and writers as diverse as D. H. Lawrence, Cioran, and Joseph Brodsky. Since I cannot assume that many are familiar with his thought, here the following sample of Shestov’s prose affords a glimpse of his stand toward language and logic:
“When you are listening to a friend or reading a book do not assign great value to individual words or even to phrases. Forget separate thoughts, and give no great consideration even to logically arranged ideas. Remember that though your friend desires it, he cannot express himself save by ready-made forms of speech. Look well to the expression of his face, listen to the intonation of his voice—this will help you to penetrate through his words to his soul. Not only in conversation, but even in a written book, one can overhear the sound, even the timbre of the author’s voice, and notice the finest shades of expression in his eyes and face. Do not fasten upon contradictions, do not dispute nor demand argument: only listen with attention. In return for which, when you begin to speak, you also will have to face no dispute, you will not have to produce arguments, which you well know you neither have nor could have.” [Nachala i kontsy (Beginnings and Ends), St. Petersburg, 1908, p. 190-1.]
Perhaps it will be useful to put it in Saussurean terms: by identifying Borges with Shestov that evening at the Bibliothèque, Bonnefoy was enrolling the Argentine poet under the banner, PAROLE, in the fight against those who had tried to conscript him into the troops advancing under the banner LANGUE. The military metaphor is not entirely appropriate, however. Listening to Bonnefoy, to my growing astonishment Borges appeared more as a saint rather than a soldier. Bonnefoy’s Borges was a man tormented by the shackles tying him to thick walls of symbols. Borges was an apostle of Presence martyred on the arena of Reference. Briefly, Borges was a knowing, willing victim of the violence inherent in concepts and language.
In retrospect I think that what surprised me was that all this was being applied to Borges, of all people. I was already somewhat familiar with the idea itself, implicit in the lover’s complaint against the insufficiencies of language that was common among the poets, and close kin of Bergson’s notion that our conceptual thought is able only to perform post mortems. The idea, preposterous as it may sound to common sense, that our words, our concepts and mental images, not only falsify (that wouldn’t be so bad), but cannot even co-exist with, the things they point to or refer to. The idea, a thoroughgoing rejection of the ideal of mimesis dear to the Renaissance, is quite central to Modernism. So perhaps I should not have been surprised after all, except that all this was applied to Borges.
In Rimbaud’s Illuminations there is a piece, « Conte », which enacts that idea by offering us a Prince, mage and symbol of the poetic imagination, who is all-powerful and yet totally powerless, who kills everyone yet kills nobody; it ends with the phrase, « La musique savante manque à notre désir ». Mallarmé suggested something similar, famously, in Crise de vers :
"I say: ‘a flower’ and... musically arises, even as a sweet idea, the one who is absent from all bouquets."
And Maurice Blanchot spelled the idea out at length in « Littérature et le droit à la mort » of 1949:
"For me to be able to say, ‘This woman’, I must somehow take her flesh and blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her... Considered in this light, speaking is a curious thing. In a text dating from before The Phenomenology, Hegel, here the friend and kindred spirit of Hölderlin, writes: ‘Adam's first act, which made him master of animals, was to give them names, that is, he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures)’ ... The meaning of speech, then, requires that before any word is spoken there must be a sort of immense hecatomb, a preliminary flood plunging all of creation into a total sea... Of course my language does not kill anyone. And yet: when I say, ‘This woman,’ real death has been announced and is already present in my language... Therefore it is accurate to say that when I speak, death speaks in me."
There is, however, an important difference between Bonnefoy’s creed and orthodox Modernism as instanced in the examples above; namely, for Bonnefoy there is a way out. He believes in the existence of a way, albeit a narrow, difficult one, a razor’s edge, out of language and reference—out of signs—into the marrow of things, into real presence, a way necessarily passing through compassion and respect for the Other. It is a faith foreshadowed by Bergson’s intuition and bolstered by the admired master of presence, Shestov; and it is that which sets Bonnefoy starkly against a Modernist master like Samuel Beckett, for whom the mere suggestion of a way out of the kingdom of signs was but another bitter joke deserving an equally bitter sarcasm. When pressed to explain why he disliked Beckett, Bonnefoy used to reply, « Il se repète … »
But why does Bonnefoy assume that Borges would agree on the basic idea, I mean the strange idea that, when he spoke, death spoke in him? Bonnefoy’s argument, as far as I could see, relied mostly on Borges’ story, “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (The Garden of Forking Paths, 1941).
Yu Tsun, a Chinese scholar residing in England in 1916, is a German spy; he knows an important military secret: the Allies are gathering their forces in the French town of Albert (Somme). To communicate this information to his bosses in Berlin, Yu Tsun adopts a bizarre scheme: he will murder someone whose last name is Albert and then let himself be caught; the next day, when they read the newspapers, the German High Command will understand. The person Yu Tsun picks from the phone book turns out to be a sinologist, Stephen Albert, the only person in the world who knows the work of Yu Tsun’s great-grandfather Ts’ui Pên. Yu Tsun cannot but love Mr. Albert after the first few moments; he cannot but feel that a generous destiny has granted him an encounter with this ideal friend, but he kills him anyway.
Bonnefoy focused on this: a loved man is killed for the sake of a word, in the event his family name which happens to coincide with that of a town in northern France. Yu Tsun’s last words are the last of the story: “No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio” (He [his boss] doesn’t know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and fatigue.) Bonnefoy identified this with Borges’ own, supposed contrition and fatigue as a writer of words, as the author of fictions. No one can deny a reader the right to focus on one aspect of a story, yet I had the feeling that such narrowness of focus was deceiving. But what puzzled me most in Bonnefoy’s talk was the identification of Borges with Shestov. In my mind, no two spirits could have been farther apart. Borges admired Spinoza, Shestov’s bogeyman. Borges disliked Dostoevsky, who had been Shestov’s maître à penser, and although as far as I know there is no record of Borges’ opinions of Shestov, there is reason to believe that Borges disliked Benjamin Fondane, the Romanian Jew who was Shestov’s only disciple and who had visited Buenos Aires in two opportunities, in 1929 and again in 1936 (see the French Pléïade edition of Borges’ Complete Works, vol. I, page 1536, note 1).
I let all those dissonances die down in my mind, however, without trying to resolve them. Bonnefoy’s talk at the Bibliothèque was later published in a volume, La Vérité de parole, Mercure de France, 1988. Years passed. Now I chance, in The Yale Review of April, 2010 (vol. 98, issue 2), on “Three Recollections of Borges” by Yves Bonnefoy, translated by Hoyt Rogers. The old discomfort resurfaces, but now, more than twenty years later, I feel a new urgency: the older we get, the more we want to know what this vaunted being-in-the-world is all about. Is it all about a childhood toy, as in Citizen Kane? The answer, partial or whole, might be found in a story or a poem—who knows—or in some interpretation of a story or a poem, or in somebody’s critique of that interpretation.
Borges’ opinions, both political and literary, were often outrageous, but they were too constant and coherent for anyone to suspect that they were professed pour la gallerie, merely to appear original or to shock. He detested communism as well as fascism, which locally took the form of Catholic nationalism, reminiscent of falangism or of Charles Maurras. What he detested most, having lived through it, was Peronism. We can hardly imagine the vehemence of his hatred when the country listened, every evening for three years, to the pompous voice of the radio announcer: “Son las veinte y veinticinco, hora en que Eva Perón pasó a la inmortalidad” (It is now eight-twenty-five PM, the time when Eva Perón passed to immortality). He ended up supporting any military regime as long as it kept the hated Peronists out of power. Such consistency is impolitic, or rather foolish, in a country where each regime makes people bitterly regret the previous one.
Borges’ literary opinions also ran against prevalent taste; he disparaged Joyce’s Ulysses and praised Kipling both as a story teller and a poet. That could not fail to confirm him as a monster in the eyes of Argentine communists and nationalists, who vied in insulting any perceived supporter of the British Empire—“traidor,” “Judas,” “vendepatria,” were some of the choicest insults, and the most damning: “cipayo” (from the Anglo-Indian “sepoy”).
Borges and Bonnefoy met for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1967: this is the first of Bonnefoy’s three recollections in the Yale Review article. Those were trying times for Argentina: the previous year another military coup had destroyed the School of Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, which had been flourishing after the ouster of Perón. Americans may find it hard to grasp that for the Argentine military the sciences were the seeds of subversion; the generals’ objective was not the technical improvement of their weapons but the improvement of public morals: to that end all park benches were enclosed in barbed wire at dusk and the police was sent to the hotels to find and question any unmarried couples. Borges was no stranger to this kind of humiliation: in 1945, during an earlier military regime, he and his then-girlfriend Estela Canto were arrested by the police while sitting together on a Parque Lezama bench because they were not married.
Yves and Lucy Bonnefoy invited Borges and his new wife Elsa Astete for dinner in their rented house on Francis Avenue, in Cambridge. That evening, speaking in French, Borges said he had visited the Hawthorne’s house in Concord, asked his host if he had read “Wakefield,” the Hawthorne short story, and proceeded to tell the outline. Wakefield tells his wife he’s going on a journey for a few days. He’ll be back on Friday, he says, and Hawthorne adds, “Wakefield himself, be it considered, has no suspicion of what is before him.” As he leaves, he smiles to his wife, a smile which later, in the woman’s imagination, will take many forms; when she dreams of him in heaven, for instance, he “wears a quiet and crafty smile.” In this, the first recollection of his triptych, Bonnefoy retells the story, and as we will see, even though he says he has just reread the original, at some points his and Hawthorne’s versions slightly diverge. After Wakefield leaves home and wife, Bonnefoy goes on:
“But a few streets away, he stops. Why travel any farther, he shrugs. He takes a room in a nearby hotel, planning to go back home the next day.”
Hawthorne, however, tells it thus:
“After several superfluous turns and doublings, we find him comfortably established by the fireside of a small apartment, previously bespoken. He is in the next street to his own, and at his journey’s end.”
In Bonnefoy’s version, premeditation is replaced by sudden whim. Bonnefoy’s main point, though, are the words “crafty smile,” which Borges, apparently, translated into French for his host’s benefit as “un sourire idiot”. Here, In the Yale Review, we have an accomplished translator from English, Bonnefoy, criticizing the choice of words of another accomplished translator, Borges:
“Crafty is a rich and beautiful adjective. As opposed to the French idiot, it conveys the idea of a certain intelligence, a cleverness, the lucid mastery of techniques that are often quite precise; but over the centuries, irresistibly and irreversibly, the term has acquired a pejorative stamp. Even so, the related substantive, craft, has largely escaped that connotation. It is a though we sensed, instinctively, that in the mastery of a practice, we might attain our freedom: that through a potential evil, we might achieve a genuine good. To sum up, crafty reflects the evil-obsessed Christianity brought over on the Mayflower, freighted with archaic fears, whereas craft preserves the even-keeled knowhow of specific trades—often handicrafts—that lie at the heart of society.”
When we look at the OED under crafty, though, we learn that the word had gained some freedom from the noun craft (and to the Germanic root Kraft) long before Calvin and the Mayflower. It meant deceiving, dissembling, fake, already in Chaucer. So much for “evil-obsessed Christianity” as opposed to the Roman Apostolic kind, Bonnefoy’s hobby-horse and ax to grind. Besides, Hawthorne himself, when telling about Wakefield spying on his unsuspecting wife, joins crafty to nincompoop: “the crafty nincompoop takes to his heels,” thus making sure that crafty does not stray far from the idea of idiotic. All in all, and even though he could have translated “crafty” by “fourbe” or something like it, Borges was not wide off the mark in his impromptu translation on that late autumn evening.
Four years before that dinner in the house on Francis Avenue, Borges and his friend Bioy Casares had commented on “Wakefield” and Borges had said, as recorded by Bioy in his Borges (Ediciones Destino, 2006):
“In that story, Hawthorne holds that every man is closer than he imagines to becoming a pariah. Hawthorne himself spent years without talking to anyone. After dusk he went out for a walk in the town. His mother left his food by his door.”
Which is a faithful gloss of the final paragraph of “Wakefield”:
“Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that by stepping aside for a moment a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the outcast of the universe.”
There is a question forgotten under all those details: why did Borges bring up “Wakefield” at that dinner party? Merely because he had visited Hawthorne’s house? The relations between Borges and his new wife had been deteriorating for some time; once, during that stay in Cambridge, Borges was locked out of his apartment by Elsa, and had to spend the night at the Harvard Observatory. My guess is that Borges perceived parallels between Wakefield’s predicament and his own, and that, furthermore, he felt more like an idiot than like a crafty man.
Shortly after that evening chez Bonnefoy, Borges gave the first in the series of his six Norton Lectures at Harvard. “Many of the listeners were taken aback by his talk,” Bonnefoy recalls in the second episode of his first recollection. “He expressed himself with what appeared—to me, anyway—to be a simplicity meant to provoke.” “Some of his listeners were more than a little nonplussed when the lecture came to an end.”
Bonnefoy is not exaggerating; indeed, I have heard from other sources—Professors Raimundo and Denah Lida—that there was general consternation among the Harvard faculty, who took Borges’ nonchalance as an insult. They could hardly forgive his liberties with time, for he would end a talk before the hour, on one occasion because he had to give a talk somewhere else (imagine, slighting Harvard for the benefit of somewhere else!), on another because, he claimed, his foot had gone to sleep and he concluded that the same was happening with part of his audience and so it was a good place to stop. The total result, I was told, was considered so poor and lacking in interest that, for the first time ever, it was decided not to publish it as a set of Norton Lectures. Borges’ Norton lectures on poetry had to wait some thirty years to reach a wider audience.
After the first lecture, Bonnefoy tells us, he met Borges in the hallway and asked him, “What do you make of Mallarmé, then?” “Too complicated,” said Borges. “Then how about Baudelaire?” “Baudelaire? He’s too arrogant.” Borges explained that he preferred Paul Verlaine, “or even Paul-Jean Toulet, for whom he felt a special fondness.”
It would be hard to overstress the discordance. For Baudelaire and Mallarmé (not Verlaine, nor, by a long shot, Toulet) belong, as Bonnefoy says,
“To that handful of poets we have acknowledged in France as the source of our modernity: we often contemplate their thoughts on poetry and its role in our awareness of the self.”
Remarkably, Bonnefoy does not dismiss Borges’ opinions out of hand, but justifies them:
“This rebuff—which he extended to many attitudes and values he conceived of as French—was easily understandable. Poetry owes a debt to what is truly important: compassion, and the humility that it instills. Those who want to raise poetry to some loftier plane of the mind are arrogant: they refuse to accept the narrow limits of the human condition. Their excesses make poetry fall prey to evil, which may win out because of their meddling.”
Can this be the same Bonnefoy who spoke, only two pages ago, of evil-obsessed Christianity as something Puritan and American? We must keep in mind that for a residual Catholic like Bonnefoy, the one fatal sin is pride; we should keep in mind, too, that any serious discussion of Bonnefoy’s poetry must take into account that it is a poetry always focused on the problem of Presence, which is none other than the mystery of the Eucharist where the artist is the priest. Borges then, according to Bonnefoy, viewed Baudelaire and Mallarmé as arrogant, which is almost to imply, as Satan’s fellow travelers. But when all is said, the French poet cannot countenance such a view. Bonnefoy is the heir of Baudelaire and Mallarmé; he is too much on the continuous line of the French spirit to avow its trajectory as false, or even as contingent. At the same time, he wants to assimilate Borges to that line, because he admires Borges as a writer and because he wants to save him from being captured by the post-modernistic hosts of the Kingdom of the Sign. Here is then what he concludes:
“But obviously, such strictures do not apply to either Mallarmé or Baudelaire; they were neither complicated nor arrogant, and Borges knows this as well as anyone. His rejection of them that evening, as so often, did not take aim at those great poets at all, but rather at the great man he was himself: he feared complication and refused arrogance. He considered writing a person’s walling in of the self—in other words, the murder of everyone else—and all the more so, the more important the writer. Through Mallarmé and Baudelaire, he worried about his own dilemma, and since they clearly rose above such a grave indictment, he could feel reassured about himself.”
Writing as the walling-in of the self and the murder of everyone else: that bloody-minded idea of very late Romanticism, from Rimbaud to Blanchot, is here ascribed to Borges without further ado—and in addition, a fear of it. Regarding the fear, this is not the only time Bonnefoy has employed the tactic of attributing something he disapproves of, or which does not fit his argument, to some fear on the part of the agent. In Bonnefoy’s writing on art, Delacroix’s black-and-white illustrations for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, have to do with the painter’s secret fear of his own violent nature, exacerbated by color, and Mondrian’s abstractions originated out of the Dutch master’s secret fear of what his previous, expressionistic pictures such as the 1907 “Red Cloud” showed about his being-in-the-world.
In the case of Borges, Bonnefoy’s tactic seems particularly inappropriate because the Borges we glimpse through the abundant testimony of his intimates, not to speak of his own, is so different from this Borges projected by Bonnefoy in these Recollections:
“… he was ravaged by the pain and mortality of those around him, appalled that by merely being ourselves, we might inflict an irreparable hurt on our fellow beings. He said as much, plainly and boldly, in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths.’ Compassion—and the sense of helplessness it entails—surely underlies the suffering I invoked from the outset as fundamental to Borges.”
But in the first place, regarding “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and setting aside the injustice of attributing to the author feelings which belong to a character: Yu Tsun, the protagonist-narrator, does not appear to care much for those around him. On the contrary, he is in England to betray them. He cares only for the good opinion of the German High Command and, belatedly, for one man, Stephen Albert, met through the chance of a London phone book.
Also, the constantly recurring theme of the story is not ethical but metaphysical. It is Time, viewed not as a single line but as a monstrous tree, bifurcating with each action. That is the reason for the title, and that is why Borges’ story is apt to be cited by physicists whenever they talk of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum measurement. In this interpretation, each outcome is represented by a different parallel universe, and the person doing the measurement bifurcates as well, each version of himself or herself experiencing a different outcome, unaware of the other versions. In absolute terms, there is no such thing as the road not taken. Borges’ story is from 1941; the Many Worlds interpretation is, as far as I can determine, from the 1950s at the earliest. Borges insists on the boundless nature of the branching out: we should not be surprised then when Yu Tsun, at the end of the story, utters the phrase on which Bonnefoy bases his interpretation: “No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio.”
Now, innumerable and infinite are not quite synonymous: infinite is hyperbole for great, enormous, but usually innumerable applies only to discrete quantities. We don’t say, “an innumerable distance” for “an enormous distance,” but we do say, “innumerable stars.” Borges had long outgrown the stage in which a writer chooses an adjective for the sake of surprise or elegant variation; where he writes innumerable he is referring not to the size of Yu Tsun’s contrition and fatigue, but to the different worlds in which Yu Tsun (like all of us) is forced to bifurcate, so that in many of them—though not necessarily in all!—he feels contrition and fatigue. And since two persons can share only a very limited number of worlds, as Stephen Albert carefully explains before he is shot, that is why Yu Tsun says, parenthetically, than no one can know (“nadie puede saber”) his innumerable contrition and fatigue.
Borges’ book, Ficciones, traverses an obsessive infinity, yet this aspect is ignored in Bonnefoy’s interpretation, whose emphasis is on finiteness. Right before “The Garden of Forking Paths,” at the very end of “The Library of Babel,” there is, in a footnote: “Cavalieri, at the beginning of the 17th century, said that any solid body is the superposition of an infinite number of planes.” How happy Borges would have been to know that Cavalieri’s Principle was, long before, discovered by the Chinese mathematician Zu Gengzhi (CE 480–525), if we believe Joseph Needham, whose books on Chinese mathematics appeared years later. Had Borges known of it, we would have a (perhaps totally) different version of “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
If we now leave Ficciones and take a look at the author’s opinions as revealed by his intimates (in particular by Bioy Casares in Borges), we find that Borges not only considered Baudelaire “too arrogant,” but thought his poems “ugly and luxurious,” and compared him unfavorably with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1975 Borges tells Bioy that Baudelaire is a touchstone: whoever likes him is an imbecile. So much for Bonnefoy’s Freudian tactics. As for “compassion and the helplessness it entails,” with which Bonnefoy haloes Borges, it does not square with a man who hated all Peronists and despised all Blacks.
Little more need be said about the construct Bonnefoy calls “Borges.” What remains to be told is the effect “Borges” had on the French poet. But let us proceed in numerical and chronological order. Bonnefoy’s second recollection is from 1974, at Yale, when a huge crowd acclaimed the Argentine master. They had to look for a room vast enough to accommodate so many people, and Bonnefoy remembers:
“By now night had fallen, and it was cold. Hearing the uproar on every side, I said to Borges, ‘It looks like you’re inciting the second American Revolution.’Borges was not a revolutionary. He turned his beautiful face to me, on which a gleam of astonishment never ceased to roam. ‘Do you know what I’m thinking of, right now?’ he asked me. ‘I’m in Geneva, at Bourg-du-Four’.
Bourg-du-Four, the central square of old Geneva, is the quintessential setting where ordered lives coincide at intervals during a day which repeats the one before. It is not a place that could spark revolutionary urges in a teenage Argentine, working toward his high-school diploma in the prosperous city of Calvin.”
How could Bonnefoy have guessed the likely meaning of Borges’ phrase? In Argentine speech quilombo means brothel. As in other Romance languages (French bordel, Italian casino), the word is commonly used to mean a tumult, a great disorder, a mess. Borges’ most traumatic experience as a young man, according to his biographer Erwin Williamson (Borges, Viking, 2004) and to Elena Canto’s memoir (Borges a contraluz, Espasa Calpe Argentina, 1999), was his visit to a whore at the Place de Bourg-du-Four, a visit arranged by his father, who, in the traditional Argentine fashion, wanted to lift from his son the painful pall of virginity. The visit was a failure, and the episode became the secret focus of lifelong suffering for Borges. “Bourg-du-Four,” fifty-six years later, was in Borges’ lips a polite way of saying in French what he would have expressed in his own idiom back home simply as, “¡Qué quilombo!” My own guess is that what Bonnefoy took for a gleam of astonishment was a mischievous smile.
The amphitheater was found, and for hours Borges answered the questions posed, in writing, by the audience. When he deciphered the writing on the last piece of paper, he said aloud, “Love? Yes…” as he prepared to answer, but the audience didn’t let him. They went wild at those two words, “Love? Yes.” It was the time when the slogan, “Make love not war” was still heard loud and often, and Bonnefoy interprets the wild enthusiasm by means of another Freudian bit: for the student crowd at Yale, President Nixon represented the hated father, and Jorge Luis Borges the beloved grandfather.
The third and final recollection is at the hospital at Geneva, shortly before Borges’ death. Bonnefoy and Jean Starobinski visit him. At some point Virgil is mentioned, and Borges says, “Virgil? Yes, but don’t forget about Verlaine.” Later, as Bonnefoy and Starobinski are leaving, the dying poet repeats, “Don’t forget Verlaine,” and still again, in a louder voice as his two visitors are already in the hall, “Virgil and Verlaine!”
Bonnefoy leaves his triple recollection at that point, but fourteen years later, at a conference on the subject of the haiku, he returns to Borges and Verlaine. The text of Bonnefoy’s talk can be found in www.terebess.hu/english/haiku/Bonnefoy.html. He recalls that Borges, « qui s’y connaissait en poésie », admired Toulet and Verlaine, and proceeds to give an example of something close to a haiku in French: four lines (the first half) of the ninth ariette oubliée, from Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles:
L’ombre des arbres dans la rivière embrumée,
Meurt comme de la fumée,
Tandis qu’en l’air, parmi les ramures réelles,
Se plaignent les tourterelles.
For which I offer the following translation:
Upon the hazy river a tree’s image
like smoke and shadow wanes;
up in the air, inside the real foliage,
the turtledove complains.
The second half, by its purposeful omission, testifies to Bonnefoy’s sure poetic taste:
Combien, ô voyageur, ce paysage blême
Te mira blême toi-même,
Et que tristes pleuraient dans les hautes feuillées
Tes espérances noyées !
Bonnefoy is too charitable to say anything about it. Indeed, this specular moral drawn to traditional specs detracts immensely from the possibilities contained in the first four lines. To use a simile ready at hand, it is as if the infinite garden of forking paths had been collapsed into a single alley-way.
Bonnefoy concludes about French poetry in general:
“To find brevity in our poetic past we have to plunge, like the cormorant in the lake, into longer works, and look for those places where a poet has paused, lifted his eyes from his text, and looked around. Brevity, then, has been for him an unexpected event, not something willed. Nevertheless, I am certain that he must have often felt those moments were among the best in his poetic work.”
This insight, then, this new approach to Verlaine, and its probable consequences for Bonnefoy’s poetic practice (I fancy I hear them in some parts of the 2001 volume, Les Planches courbes), all seem to emerge from his encounters with Borges. It is not the first time misinterpretations furnish a locus and occasion for the emergence of some beautiful truth.