In a recent post on the mathematical-minded Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, Colin Marshall referred to David Auerbach’s short “Inquest on Left-Brained Literature.” Here, Auerbach situates Jorge Luis Borges among writers like Richard Powers, Umberto Eco, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami and others, who exist “on a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers.” From his observations, Auerbach draws only “one obvious conclusion… that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material.”
Auerbach’s list seems legitimate (he mentions “another scholar who also works amongst engineers” and who “produced near-duplication of this list”). But it prompts one important question for me: How do these writers see themselves? As primarily literary authors? Genre writers? Engineers themselves, of a sort?
In the case of Borges, we have an eloquent self-description from the author in his introduction to the Selected Poems 1923-1967. “First and foremost,” writes Borges, “I think of myself as a reader, then as a poet, then as a prose writer.”
While Borges may hold tremendous appeal for left-brain thinkers like programmer Jamie Zawinski, he began his career as a very right-brained poet, and continued to see his work as primarily “addressed to the imagination” rather than “to the reason.”
I cannot say whether my work is poetry or not; I can only say that my appeal is to the imagination. I am not a thinker. I am merely a man who has tried to explore the literary possibilities of metaphysics and of religion.
Borges is inordinately modest. His work is poetry, especially, of course, his actual poetry—volumes of it, written over six decades of his life— from his first published collection in 1923, Fervor de Buenos Aires, to his last, Los conjurados in 1985. It has always seemed to me something of a tragedy that Borges is not better-known as a poet among his English-speaking readers. It’s not for lack of excellent translations, most of them guided by the multi-lingual Borges himself.
The situation is much different, in my experience, among Spanish-speakers. There is indeed a Latin-American—and specifically Argentine—resonance in some of Borges’ verse that is impossible to translate. For those who can appreciate Borges in his original language, we bring you the album above, 30 poems read by the author himself. You can hear one of those readings, “Arte Poetica,” in the video at the top of the post, with English subtitles. The director, Neels Castillon, describes the short film as “a journey around Argentina and Uruguay to illustrate words of Jorge Luis Borges.”