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Friday
Jun192009

Borges, "Prólogo al Elogio de la Sombra" 

The beginning ("Prologue to In Praise of Darkness") of a fantastic collection by this Argentine.  You can find the collection here.

Without initial consideration, I have devoted my now-long life to literature, to teaching, to idleness, to the tranquil adventures of conversation, to philology, of which I know little, to the mysterious habit of Buenos Aires, and to the perplexities that, with no small arrogance, are called metaphysics.  Nor has my life lacked the friendship of a certain few, which is the only kind that matters.  I do not think I have a single enemy, and if I have had any, they have never made themselves known to me.  The truth is that the only people who can hurt us are those we love.  Now, at my three-score and ten (in Whitman's phrasing), I put to press my fifth volume of poems.    

Carlos Frías has suggested that I use this prologue to announce my code of aesthetics.  Both my poverty and willfulness are opposed to such advice; I am not the possessor of a code of aesthetics.  Time has taught me a few tricks: avoid synonyms, which have the disadvantage of suggesting imaginary differences; avoid Hispanisms and Argentine coloring, archaisms and neologisms; favor ordinary words over the more surprising; imbed in each story circumstantial features as demanded by the reader of today; simulate minor uncertainties, for if reality is precise memory is most definitely not; narrate the facts (this I learned in Kipling and the Icelandic sagas) as if I did not quite understand them; remember that previous norms are not obligations and that Time will be tasked with abolishing them.  Such devices or traits certainly do not comprise a code of aesthetics.  What is more, I do not believe in any codes of aesthetics; in general they are nothing more than useless abstractions.  They vary according to author and text and have little value apart from being an occasional stimulant or instrument.

This, as mentioned, is my fifth book of verse.  It is reasonable to presume that it will be no better or worse than its forerunners.  With the mirrors, labyrinths and swords expected by my resigned reader come new thematics: old age and ethics.  The latter, as everyone knows, never ceased to preoccupy a certain very dear friend whom literature bestowed upon me, Robert Louis Stevenson.  One of the reasons I prefer the Protestant countries to those of Catholic tradition is their attention to ethics.  Milton wished to educate the children in his academy in the knowledge of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences; whereas Johnson observed in the middle of the eighteenth century: "Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance."

In these pages I see the forms of prose and verse coexisting without discord.  I could invoke illustrious antecedents, such as The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, the Tales of Chaucer, or the Book of a Thousand and One Nights.  Yet I would prefer that these divergences seem accidental and would want this book to be read like a book of verse.  A volume in itself is not an aesthetic act – it is a physical object among other objects; an aesthetic act can only occur when it is written or read.  It is common to aver that free verse is nothing other than a typographical pretense, yet I think in this affirmation lies an error.  Beyond its rhythm, a versicle's typographical form serves to announce to the reader that what awaits him is poetic emotion, not information or reasoning.  There was a time when I inhaled the vast respiration of the psalms* or of Walt Whitman, and after so many years I realize, not without melancholy, that I have limited myself to alternating among certain classical meters: the alexandrine, the hendecasyllable, the heptameter. 

In one milonga I have tried to imitate, respectfully, the flowery courage of Ascasubi and the street songs of the barrios.

Poetry is no less mysterious than other elements of our orb.  This or that felicitous verse cannot make us vain because it is the gift of Chance or the Spirit; only the errors are ours.  I hope that the reader will discover in my pages something deserving recollection; in this world beauty is common to all.

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*And here I deliberately write psalmos.  The members of the Royal Spanish Academy wish to impose upon this continent their phonetic incapacities; they advise us to use rustic forms such as neuma, sicología and síquico.  Recently it has occurred to them to write vikingo instead of viking; I suspect that soon enough we will hear of the works of Kiplingo.

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