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Jorge Luis Borges
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2010, Dec 15
Words From the Genius

Jorge Luis Borges, by Diane Arbus

Here’s an excerpt of a very long interview with Borges done in 1966, in his office at the National Library in Buenos Aires. If you are allergic to reading, I could just say that Borges once wrote something to the effect of, “I sometimes wonder why philosophers always take such pains to write long books, when their arguments could be condensed into a few pages.”

This is not directly about photography, but it’s not so hard to connect the dots, right?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that your own work has moved from, in the early times, expression, to, in the later times, allusion.

BORGES

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by allusion?

BORGES

Look, I mean to say this: When I began writing, I thought that everything should be defined by the writer. For example, to say “the moon” was strictly forbidden; that one had to find an adjective, an epithet for the moon. (Of course, I’m simplifying things. I know it because many times I have written “la luna,” but this is a kind of symbol of what I was doing.) Well, I thought everything had to be defined and that no common turns of phrase should be used. I would never have said, “So-and-so came in and sat down,” because that was far too simple and far too easy. I thought I had to find out some fancy way of saying it. Now I find out that those things are generally annoyances to the reader. But I think the whole root of the matter lies in the fact that when a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament, under words taken from the seventeenth-century writers; or, if not, and he sets out to be modern, then he does the contrary: He’s inventing words all the time, or alluding to airplanes, railway trains, or the telegraph and telephone because he’s doing his best to be modern. Then as time goes on, one feels that one’s ideas, good or bad, should be plainly expressed, because if you have an idea you must try to get that idea or that feeling or that mood into the mind of the reader. If, at the same time, you are trying to be, let’s say, Sir Thomas Browne or Ezra Pound, then it can’t be done. So that I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He’s playing at several games at the same time. He wants to convey a peculiar mood; at the same time he must be a contemporary and if not a contemporary, then he’s a reactionary and a classic. As to the vocabulary, the first thing a young writer, at least in this country, sets out to do is to show his readers that he possesses a dictionary, that he knows all the synonyms; so we get, for example, in one line, red, then we get scarlet, then we get other different words, more or less, for the same color: purple.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked, then, toward a kind of classical prose?

BORGES

Yes, I do my best now. Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, that is to say, a word that may be used by the Spanish classics or a word used in the slums of Buenos Aires, I mean, a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word. I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word. One should be able to read smoothly in it even if you’re writing metaphysics or philosophy or whatever.


							

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Interviews, Jorge Luis Borges

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