“Al otro, a Borges, es a quien le ocurren las cosas,” begins the very short story “Borges y yo”. That translates to “It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen” in English. The tale’s author, Jorge Luis Borges, lived his life between English and his native Spanish, just as he lived between his public and private personas. No surprise, then, that his writing generates so much energy from matters of identity, language, and thought, and thus makes you want to learn more about the mind behind it. Here at Open Culture, we particularly enjoy doing our learning through Arena, the BBC’s intellectually omnivorous and artistically liberated television documentary series. The 1983 broadcast above, takes as its subject the imaginative Argentine master of the short story. The show has always done well by what we might call cult writers (see also its episode on the no less imaginative Philip K. Dick), and the cult of Borges now seems broader and more enthusiastic than ever. If you count yourself as a member, this episode “Borges and I” makes for required viewing.
Sitting down with Arena, the elderly Borges speaks without hesitation on his relationship to language, his discovery of his own limitations as a writer, the regimes that have ruled his homeland, his professional life spent at libraries (including his time as director of Argentina’s Biblioteca Nacional), and his accelerating blindness. We see scenes of life in Borges’ beloved Buenos Aires. We see the writer stepping carefully through the city streets, cane in one hand, feeling the buildings with the other. We see, perhaps most fascinatingly of all, dramatized passages of Borges’ most famous stories: “Funes the Memorious”, about a peasant condemned to remember everything perfectly, losing his ability to generalize, and thus to think; “The Circular Ruins”, about a man attempting to dream another human being into existence, detail by minute detail; “Death and the Compass”, about a detective who either accidentally or deliberately walks straight into a villain’s elaborate, tetragrammaton-based trap. Borges’ fans tend to think of his stories as thoroughly wrapped up in, and inseparable from, the text that constitute them, but some of these segments convince me that, as movies, they wouldn’t turn out half-bad.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.