Borges and I

Tom Van Vleck

I bought the Evergreen paperback of Ficciones at the Tech Coop when I was an MIT sophomore, and loved it instantly. (In those days I read a lot of things not strictly required of a math major.) Borges' concision and certainty struck me; he could put his idea across in a few words, where others took volumes. And the ideas were wonderful. The library of Babel, Tlön, the Lottery of Babylon, Funes: these stories explored the boundary between logic and dream. I searched for other Borges writings and read all I could find. In "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim," Borges speaks of "clarity, splendors of reason, of the imagination, and of good." These were exactly the delights I found in his writings.

I saw J. L. Borges in person twice.

He gave the Lowell Lectures at Harvard, I think this was 1967, and I can remember him being led to the podium at Memorial Hall, and how he began by reciting an Anglo-Saxon poem. I was just out of college then, working at Project MAC, and invited my girlfriend to this event. I remember being struck by the contrast between the cold gray of the Cambridge weather outside, and the warm intensity focused on Borges by the audience.

The second time was in room 26-100 at MIT in 1980. Borges was a guest of the MIT Spanish department, and was interviewed in the physics lecture hall at a long table with a lot of awestruck professors. He had been old and frail in 1967, and seemed just the same in 1980. This lecture was also given in winter; I was once again working in Tech Square, and this time I arranged to meet my wife at the talk. Many features of my life had changed, and yet there was almost a recurrence. Perhaps he would have approved.

Andrew Young wrote me:

As you mention Borges in one of your pages, I thought I'd tell you my Borges story. A few years ago, I was in Buenos Aires for a meeting, and took advantage of a dull day to walk over to the old National Library and see where Borges had worked.

When I got in, I asked the guard at the desk about Borges. He offered to get somebody who spoke English to help me; and in a few minutes, a very nice lady showed up and escorted me to the very office on the second floor where Borges had worked. "You can even go in, and sit in his chair," she said.

I opened the door, and the man in the chair said, "What are you doing here, Andy?" It was Helmut Abt, the editor of the Astrophysical Journal. Of course, he had made exactly the same pilgrimage as I, and had arrived a few minutes earlier.

The library itself is a huge octagonal room three stories high; obviously the model for one cell of the Infinite Library in one of his stories. Definitely worth seeing if you get to B.A.

They said he used to go along the shelves of the library and just feel the backs of the books, after he was blind.

(posted with Andy's permission.)

In Venice, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Giorgio Cini Foundation, in collaboration with the Fundación Internacional Jorge Luis Borges, has created the Borges Labyrinth, a reconstruction of the maze that his friend the labyrinthologist Randoll Coate designed in the writer's honor.