Martín Arias and Martín Hadis (eds.), Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (2000; 2013 English translation)

August 25th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In England, however, poets finally realized that these metaphors – some of which, I repeat, were very beautiful, like the one that called the bird the “summer guardian” ended up hobbling poetry, so they were slowly abandoned.  In Scandinavia, on the other hand, they carried them to their final stage:  they created metaphors out of metaphors by using successive combinations.  Thus, if a ship was “sea-horse” and the sea was “gull’s field,” then a ship would be “horse of the gull’s field.”  And this could be called a metaphor of the first degree.  As a shield was the “pirate’s moon” – shields were round and made of wood – and a spear was the “shield’s serpent,” for the spear could destroy the shield, that spear would be the “serpent of the pirate’s moon.”

This is how an extremely complicated and obscure poetry evolved.  It is, of course, what happened in learned poetry, within the highest spheres of society.  And, as these poems were recited or sung, it must be assumed that the primary metaphors, those that served as the foundation, were already familiar to the audience.  Familiar, even very familiar, almost synonymous with the word itself.  Be that as it may, the poetry became very obscure, so much so that the finding the real meaning is like solving a puzzle.  So much so that scribes from subsequent centuries show, in the transcriptions of these same poems as we have now, that they did not understand them.  Here’s a fairly simple kenning:  “the swan of the beer of the dead,” which, when we first see it, we don’t [k]now how to interpret.  So, if we break it down, we see that “beer of the dead” means blood, and “swan of the blood” means the bird of death, the raven, so we see that “swan of the beer of the dead” simply means “raven.”  And in Scandinavia, whole poems were written like this and with increasing complexity.  but this did not happen in England.  The metaphors remained in the first degree, without going any further.

– From Class 1 (Friday, October 14, 1966) (pp. 5-6)

Those of us of a certain age can recall classmates bringing tape recorders to a college lecture, taping the professor’s words in order to fill in the gaps in their notes when prepping for an exam.  While I myself never did this, there were times that I vaguely regret not having a copy of what my history professors said, because there were so many fascinating stories, like the two failed coup attempts by the future Napoleon III or the “glorious” dying speech of Gustavus Adolphus (and the professor’s musing that his actual words, if any, were much earthier).  Yet memory (and its distortions) adds layers of interpretation to what was said (and recorded).

So it was with great interest that I ordered the English translation of Martín Arias and Martín Hadis’s Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  I was already quite familiar with Borges the literary scholar; see my June-July 2010 posts on Borges), but I knew very little about Professor Borges.  The twenty-five lectures transcribed in Professor Borges reveals a Borges who is in turns digressive, almost absent-minded, and a sharp, incisive dissector of English literature of the 8th to 19th centuries.  It is a fascinating look at how the (inter)national literature so familiar to Anglophones is presented to an educated yet foreign college audience.

Borges’ topics might be baffling to those of us weaned on the Norton Anthology of English Literature, as he devoted nearly a third of his twenty-five lectures to the Anglo-Saxon period.  He focuses not only on Bede, Caedmon, and Beowulf, but on the oral qualities of these works.  He discusses kennings, the complex poetic metaphors found in Old English, and he shows how these literary metaphors shaped not just Anglo-Saxon poetry but why these forms faded in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  It is not an easy topic for those of us who are native speakers of English, but yet Borges manages to make this topic not only lucid, but a joy to read (well, at least for those like myself whose first literary love is poetry).

The lecture format suits Borges’ musings well.  He is seen spending time reciting multiple times (often with the help of female students who would read passages aloud for him to listen to first) passages from divers authors (Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry being a prime example) to demonstrate how much English poetry depends upon rhythm and rhyme to create images that “flow.”  In reading it, I found myself wishing to hear how Borges was presenting these lines, even when I knew (due in part to footnotes, but also to my own recollections of the works cited) that occasionally Borges would present an approximation of what was written down and not what was exactly said.  If anything, these little discrepancies added to the experience of reading how a lover of literature presented his knowledge of the field to students.  Borges’ passion almost bleeds through the pages, especially when talking about poetry, and it likely made a positive impression upon his students.

Yet there are gaps in this course.  While the “greats” are covered, there is nothing after Oscar Wilde.  It is as if for Borges, English literature after his 1899 birth is too new, too untamed, to be covered in a course.  This is a shame, as his fleeting thoughts on the Modernists (mostly favorable) presented elsewhere in his non-fiction left me wanting to hear more substantive thoughts on Joyce, Woolf, and others.  This is a minor nit-pick (after all, it is difficult to conceive of works post-1980 being discussed in context of an Anglo-American tradition at this moment; time will only tell when we ourselves have faded away, perhaps) in what otherwise is an excellent presentation of Borges the Professor.  Pardon me if I now feel the urge to re-read some Rossetti or Blake now; Professor Borges is to blame.

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