Tuesday, October 13, 2009

`But I Have Read a Great Deal'

A paragraph from the “Epilogue” to his 1960 prose/poetry hybrid, The Maker (El hacedor), ranks among Jorge Luis Borges’ best-known productions:

“A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that his patient labyrinth of lines is a drawing of his own face.”

The most compelling self-portraits – Keats in his letters, Thoreau in his journal, Chekhov in nearly everything he wrote – are inadvertent, beside-the-point. They begin as chronicles of the world (or a world) and end as revelations of personality – but remain chronicles of the world. Most formal memoirs or autobiographies have the stagey stiffness of a police mug shot and feel ghost-written even when they are not. Self-consciousness muffles self-revelation. Forgotten is the sentence by Borges that precedes the passage quoted above:

“Little has happened in my life, but I have read a great deal, which is to say I have found few things more memorable than Schopenhauer’s ideas and the verbal music of England.”

That is the most complete and attractive one-sentence autobiography I know.

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