Suzanne Jill Levine writes: “Al olvidar un sueño” was brought to my attention recently by a friend who noted that this poem, dedicated to a young woman Borges met late in life, was published in one of Borges’s last books La Cifra while the poet was still alive, but has been omitted in posthumous editions of his poetic works. In my recent Penguin series of Borges’s poetry and essays, editor Efrain Kristal’s beautiful selection of Poems of the Night would be an appropriate context within which to consider “Upon Forgetting a Dream,” as well as these words in his helpful introduction to the volume: “Throughout his career as a poet, Borges returned to the night and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams?.” [PON, ix] Borges was a dreamer and this meditation poignantly expresses the universal as well as the particular, the longing to capture those elusive images or feelings which seem so real in our dreams.”
A translation from the Spanish of Borges’s Al Olvidar un Sueño
Upon Forgetting a Dream
To Viviana Aguilar
In the uncertain dawn I had a dream.
In the dream I know there were many doors.
I have forgotten the rest. In sleepless vigil
This morning let that intimate fable slip away
Now no less unreachable than the shade
Of Tiresias or Ur of the Chaldeans
Or than the ethics of Spinoza
I have spent my life spelling out
The dogmas ventured by philosophers.
We know that in Ireland a man said
That God, who never sleeps, perceives
Attentively, eternally, every dream,
Every solitary garden, every tear
Uncertainty grows and the dark encroaches.
If I knew where to find that dream
I dreamed or imagined I dreamed,
I would know everything.
About Jorge Luis Borges:
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer whose tales of fantasy and dream worlds are classics of the 20th-century world literature. Borges was profoundly influenced by European culture, English literature, and such thinkers as Berkeley, who argued that there is no material substance; the sensible world consists only of ideas, which exists for so long as they are perceived. Most of Borges’s tales embrace universal themes – the often recurring circular labyrinth can be seen as a metaphor of life or a riddle which theme is time. Although his name was mentioned in speculations about Nobel Prize, Borges never became a Nobel Laureate.
“When the end draws near, there no longer remain any remembered images; only words remain. It is not strange that time should have confused the words that once represented me with those that were symbols of the fate of he who accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be On One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.” (from ‘The Immortal’)
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires. His family included British ancestry and he learned English before Spanish. His father was a lawyer and a psychology teacher, who demonstrated the paradoxes of Zeno on a chessboard for his son. In the large house was also a library and garden which enchanted Borges’s imagination. In 1914 the family moved to Geneva, where Borges learned French and German and received his B.A. from the Collège of Geneva.
After World War I the Borges family lived in Spain, where he was a member of avant-garde Ultraist literary group. His first poem, ‘Hymn to the Sea,’ is published in the magazine Grecia. In 1921 Borges settled in Buenos Aires and started his career as a writer publishing poems and essays in literary journals. Among his friends was the philosopher Macedonio Fernandez, whose dedication linguistic problems influenced his thought. Borges’s first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires, appeared in 1923. He contributed to the avant-garde review Martin Fierro, co-founded the journals Proa (1924-26) and Sur, which became Argentina’s most important literary journal, and wrote for Prisma. He also served as literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores, and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar from 1936 to 1939. As a critic Borges gained fame with interpretations of the Argentine classics and displayed a deep knowledge of European and American literature, in particular for such writers as Poe, Stevenson, Kipling, Shaw, Chesterton, Whitman, Emerson, and Twain.
Borges’s father died in 1938, a great blow because the two had been unusually close. Borges also suffered a severe head wound and after recovery the experience freed in him deep forces of creativity. His first collection of the intricate and fantasy-woven short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, was published in 1941. Later collections include Ficciónes (1944), El Aleph (1949), and El hacedor (1960). Borges’s interest in fantasy was shared by another well-known Argentine writer of fiction, Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967.
From 1939 to 1946 Borges was a municipal librarian, but he was fired from his post by the Péron regime, and between the years 1946 and 1954 he was a poultry inspector for Buenos Aires Municipal Market. Borges’s political opinions were not considered inoffensive and as a sign of negative attention an attempt was made to bomb the house where Borges and his mother lived. After Peron’s deposition Borges was appointed Director of the National Library (1955-1973). “I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at once 800 000 book and darkness,” Borges noted alluding to his now almost complete blindness. Borges also was professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and taught there from 1955 to 1970. In 1961 Borges shared the Prix Formentor with Samuel Beckett. During this decade started his series of visits to countries all around the world, continuing traveling until his death.
“A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: ‘What are you looking for?’ Hladik answered: ‘I am looking for God.’ The librarian said to him: ‘God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have searched for this letter; I have grown blind seeking it.'” (from “The Secret Miracle”)
In 1967 Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and gained new fame in the English-speaking world. When Juan Perón was again elected president in 1973, Borges resigned as director of the National Library. Despite his opposition to Perón and later to the junta, his support to liberal causes were considered too ambiguous.
Borges, who had long suffered from eye problems, become totally blind in his last decades. He had a congenital defect that had afflicted several generations on his father’s side of the family. However, he continued to publish several books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (1967), El informe de brodie (1970), and El libro de arena (1975). After the death of his mother, who had been his constant companion, Borges began travelling feverishly. Borges died on June 14, 1986 in Geneva, Switzerland. He was married twice. In 1967 he married his old friend, the recently widowed Elsa Asteta Millán. The relationship lasted three years. After the divorce, Borges moved back in with his mother. His last years Borges lived with María Kodama; they married in 1986. In 1984 they produced an account of their journeys in different places of the world, with text by Borges and photographs by Kodoma.
Borges’s fictional universe was born from his vast and esoteric readings in literature, philosophy, and theology. He sees man’s search for meaning in an infinite universe as a fruitless effort. In the universe of energy, mass, and speed of light, Borges considers the central riddle time, not space. “He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.” The theological speculations of Gnosticism and the Cabala gave ideas for many of his plots. Borges has told in an interview that when he was a boy, he found an engraving of the seven wonders of the world, one of which portrayed a circular labyrinth. It frightened him and the maze has been one of his recurrent nightmares. (from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’) Another recurrent image is the mirror, which reflects different identities. The idea for the short story ‘Borges y yo’ was came from the double who was looking at him – the alter ego, the other I. There is a well-known man, who writes his stories, a name in some biographical dictionary, and the real person. “So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away – and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.”
Influenced by the English philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Borges played with the idea that concrete reality may consist only of mental perceptions. The “real world” is only one possible in the infinite series of realities. These themes were examined among others in the classical short stories ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘La muerte y la brújula’ in which Borges showed his fondness of detective formula. In the story the calm, rational detective, Lönnrot (referring to the philologist/poet, the collector of Kalevala poems) finds himself trapped in labyrinths of his own making while attempting to solve a series of crimes. In ‘La Biblioteca de Babel’ the symmetrically structured library represents the universe as it is conceived by rational man, and the library’s illegible books refers to man’s ignorance. In ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ Borges invented a whole other universe based on an imaginary encyclopedia. The narrator states, that ‘Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”
“Almost instantly, I understood: ‘The garden of forking paths’ was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘the various futures (not to all)’ suggested to me the forking in time, not in space. A broad rereading of the work confirmed the theory. In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse time which themselves also proliferate and fork.” (from ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’)
As an essayist Borges drew on his European education and brought attention to ancient philosophers and mystics, Jewish cabbalist and gnostics, forgotten French poets, the Finnish national epos, and above all such English writers as John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G.K. Chesterton and John Keats. His key books were Discusión (1932), Historia de la eternidad (1936), and Otras inquisiciones (1952). When many Latin American writers dealt with political or social subjects, Borges focused on eternal questions and the literary heritage of the world. However, Borges has criticized his friend, a politically highly visible author, for denouncing all the South American dictators except Juan Perón, Borges’s own arch-enemy. “Perón was then in power. It seems that Neruda had a lawsuit pending with his publisher in Buenos Aires. That publisher, as you probably know, has always been his principal source of income.” (Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, ed. by Richard Burgin, 1998).
About Suzanne Jill Levine:
Suzanne Jill Levine is Professor at the University of California of Santa Barbara. For translation projects she has been awarded three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grants, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant. Among her honours, she has received the first PEN USA West Elinor D. Randall Prize for Literary Translation and the PEN American Center International Career Achievement Award in Hispanic Letters. She was also awarded a Rockefeller Individual Scholar Residency at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1997). Some of Professor Levine’s recent translations are included in the definitive Non-Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges which received the National Book Circle Award for Criticism, and in 2000 she published a 450 page literary biography of Manuel Puig, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions. Other scholarly works include: El espejo hablado, Guia de Bioy Casares (The Spoken Mirror: A guide to Bioy Casares) and The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction.