Sitting With Borges
By Kevin S. Fox
Just off the north bank of the Charles River in Cambridge sit a number of public benches, one every hundred feet or so dotting up the river. If you happen to sit down on one the only company you might find is the person sharing that very same bench, if, in fact, there is anyone. Everyone else will either be too far away that you couldn’t speak with them without yelling or in too much of a hurry as they walked by you to get to class or to a job or to some appointment with their dentist or therapist. Their distance and pace serve as opposites to proximity and proclivity, two elements of good conversation. If it is winter then you will see even fewer people and have fewer chances for dialogue. If it is winter—or even sometimes in spring and autumn—you will want something warm around you, a coat, scarf, gloves and wool hat, and perhaps something warm to drink, a coffee or hot cider from one of those vendors in and around Harvard Square. It can get cold along the Charles and you would want to be prepared. You might be waiting there for a long time.
I can’t say now I remember which bench it was—the one in the story or the one I sat on. I am writing this almost seven years after I sat there myself, almost forty-four years since he sat there. I looked around and tried to guess and choose the right one. I wanted to be inviting to the ‘stranger’ who would hopefully share some of his conversation with me. As I walked around feeling out the potential of each bench I started to find myself far from the movement of people. The fact I liked the quiet but wasn’t a recluse was reflected even in my potential choice of benches! The off-in-the-distant sound of human footsteps over the packed snow produced nostalgia for me, a reluctant Yankee from the borderlands between suburban and rural New England, but maybe it wouldn’t for a cosmopolitan Porteño from Buenos Aires. But I had to ask myself though, where would he have sat in his melancholy? Looking across the river I wondered, what was his sight really like in those days? Could he see across to Boston? Maybe he would like the noise up closer, just out of the way of the high foot traffic but not too far as to be totally isolated from people, even if they were not really there.
It was a cold December morning for me and for Borges a cold morning in February. I had left the hostel near Fenway after a quick, but warm, shower around 8:00 am. I hopped on the T and headed over to Cambridge. I went first to Harvard Square to get breakfast—two eggs, an order of home fries, and some coffee. I had a copy of the story folded into the pages of my notebook and read it again to remember any geographical details he had outlined. I read them like they were notes mapping out a pilgrimage route. I had been carrying the story with me for some time, a couple of years of sitting with it, sitting on benches in different places wondering if I would meet him. In the first paragraphs of this story, The Other, Borges revealed that “the incident occurred in February, 1969[i], in Cambridge… it was about ten o’clock in the morning….I was sitting comfortably on a bench besides the Charles River.” I finished my coffee and asked for one to go. I had a few minutes but I wanted to arrive at the Charles by 9:30 am to get myself situated, to find the bench, to sit down and watch the river and think of time passing by.
Borges is Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer who, in 1967-8, while delivering The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Elsa. Elsa and Borges were married earlier in 1967 in Buenos Aires shortly after she had been left widowed after a twenty-seven year marriage to Ricardo Albarracín. Borges had never been married and was in his mid-sixties when his aging mother, entering her nineties, raised the question of who would take care of him as his blindness progressed and as she could no longer do so. To have a woman in his life would be the solution and Elsa, someone he had actually dated before she was married, was an ideal candidate. Their marriage was still new when they moved to Cambridge and, reportedly clouded over from the start, only lasted three years.
The Other is a story I first encountered in the Andrew Hurley translation of the Collected Fictions. In it Borges depicts an ‘incident’ involving himself sitting alone on a bench on the Cambridge side of the Charles when a young man, a younger Borges as a teen in Geneva (where he spent his youth), sits down next to him engaging in dialogue that explored his, the younger’s, youthful aspirations in order to find some clues to his, the older’s, then, current despair. Borges recounts this meeting of the two in two different places, Geneva and Cambridge, and two different times, 1918 and 1969 and proves to both characters the existence of this time-space collage through an exchange of Swiss coins and US dollars. In the 2004 biography of Borges, Borges: a life[ii], Edwin Williamson comments on the emotional landscape evident through the scene in Cambridge. He says, “Only the most acute estrangement from his own past could have inspired such a story, but as his marriage to Elsa began to fail, it seemed that even his past life was more real than the present, which was so empty, so insubstantial, so unbearable.”
If religious pilgrimage is about a journey to a sacred or holy site or center and a way towards a life-changing experience—be it subtle or dramatic—then literary pilgrimage might take us along the paths of the writer and his characters, to those places written about or written for, those imaginative places on the map that produce new imaginings for the reader, new sacred spaces of refuge and understanding. My reading of Borges’ The Other invited me to look at benches more often, and who sits on them, and to think of the metaphysics of my other selves roaming around. I roamed around. I could only imagine that they did too, even if only as memories or apparitions, even if only through the voices of other people, those strangers I meet on the benches. The Other was my favorite of his works for this play between times and places and for how it freed up my spatially-limited Puritan imagination.
My pilgrimage was a literary one but part of a longer trip that I had embarked on—riding the train throughout the East, stopping at cities for a few days, figuring out what I wanted to do next in my life, where I wanted to live next. I went first to Atlanta for turkey, sweet potatoes and pecan pie for Thanksgiving; New Orleans to cross on the ferry to Algiers Point and get lost in the great meandering of Old Muddy all while watching Pennsylvania and Missouri drain downriver; Chicago for no reason at all; Rochester NY to do historical ethnography on my family, specifically the great-great-great-great aunt who held a séance in Lincoln’s White House; Montreal, for two reasons: one, to climb Mont Royal in the snow, and two, to walk at dusk and study how the sunlight tucks itself away into night, shining and dimming on the snow-white sidewalks; Québec City for the bone-chilling cold and to feel othered in French; Halifax because ever since I was a minor league hockey fan (Halifax Skipjacks, Cape Breton Oilers) I wanted to see Nova Scotia; and Boston to go sit on this bench. His bench. I had no other reason to be in Boston. I have family there but I went to sit with Borges.
The night before the bench encounter along the Charles I had a pint at an old Irish pub near the hostel. I can’t remember the name of it or if I went alone or with other travelers in from places like Germany or Japan. I liked quiet pints so it wouldn’t have mattered to me to go alone. It would have been an early night anyways. The night before Borges met his younger self on this bench he presented what was the fourth of his six lectures, Word Music and Translation. I have to admit this is the one I enjoy the least. I like the Riddle of Poetry much better, the lecture he gave in October, his first. Borges’ Norton Lectures became collectively known as This Craft of Verse and the transcripts later appeared in print and the audio in CD through Harvard University Press in 2000. I play those CDs in the car on road trips, while cleaning the house, and when I want to engage with what he called the ‘time-honored perplexities’. I am always astonished at the man who recites works from Schopenhauer and Cervantes without the aid of notes. He always cites obscure references, too, I assume, only recognizable by a literate few. One is the medieval German minstrel Walther von der Vogelbeide. Ahhh, the way he pronounces this name!
By 1968 Borges’ progressive blindness had made it so he could not read his own notes anymore. Knowing this I enjoy hearing him speak, thinking about his silences and pauses, about his imagination and his poetics, all imprinted on his mind, spoken from inside and not from the pages of notes. I’ve recently heard James Joyce on the Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) compilation, Rhythm Science[iii], reading from Finnegan’s Wake and I will never read him the same again. His voice fits his writing and the rhythm of his writing paces his voice. This isn’t the case for everyone. I’ve heard Kerouac doing a duo with a saxophone with less excitement. But perhaps I am just less excited about Jack these days. My literary pilgrimages also took me from his Lowell, MA childhood home and inevitable gravestone to the St. Petersburg, FL house where he lived when he died. I remember asking myself after I got off the bus I took from downtown St. Pete, out past the bars he frequented in midtown, what am I doing here? What was I doing looking at where ‘Ti Jean’ (as it says on his grave) drank himself to death? I found Kerouac, too, on the fourth day of a three-day bender walking along Larimer Street in Denver; and later drunk on Bleecker going to hear jazz.
Literary pilgrim or not I wasn’t sure if I was going to meet Borges there or my own self. Part of me wanted to meet future Kevin on that bench, the octogenarian who might laugh at all the options for my geographical destinations and ask me about women instead. Or about ideas or ideas I had about women. I would have so many questions for him. I would have questions for Borges, too, if he sat down to talk. I would ask him how writing became not just a thing he did but his craft. I would ask him why he thought the Spanish named the bay into which the Rio de la Plata flows after St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish sailor monk. I would have closed my eyes and listened to him speak, listened to his intellectual reverie, listened to the pacing of his speech, curious about his mind. I would have asked if he had met other pilgrims at this bench over the years.
By noon no one had sat down next to me. I took a quick exit from the river for lunch, a hot pumpkin soup and artisanal bread on one of the streets heading north towards Harvard. Still cold, I walked back to the same empty bench with a hot coffee and sat down re-commencing my vigil and thinking more about this story. I first read The Other when I had moved back home after living in South America for nearly five years during my post-college twenties. I missed my life there and questioned what, and where, home was for me anymore. I read (or re-read) some of the writers I found along the way—mainly Garcia Marquez, Neruda, and Borges—to summon up the spirit of that time. Borges always intrigued me partly because an older friend I had in Buenos Aires who spoke highly of him confided in me that she really didn’t understand his work; that while everyone in Capital Federal from Borges’ own Palermo to La Boca revered him, few understood what he was saying. I liked the fact that she didn’t get him and I thought I was up to the challenge of understanding his motivations and the trajectories he offered to his reader. I liked Borges’ metaphysics. I started with a small collection of pieces (I call them pieces because I don’t want to assume anything by calling them essays or short stories) called, for his English readership, Dreamtigers. Why bother writing a whole tome when you can say it all in but a few pages? Borges showed me that. I then read other collections: Labyrinths, The Aleph and Other Stories. Having previously read mostly American writers Borges proved to open a door for me that I didn’t even know existed.
Borges might agree that events, like people, are not islands. His story didn’t happen in isolation. Saying that I sat on the bench alone would be a limited reading of the text, too. I waited and waited for a Borges or elder Kevin and I still can’t say whether one of them presented himself. I might have missed him. While I was consciously too literal in my interpretation, I wanted to cover all bases. I had been looking at the benches for a couple of years and was frustrated with the limited dialogue I found on them. I thought that I should go to the bench from the story in the wintertime. While that day turned into night the cold seeped through my woolens and under my dry, chapped skin down to my bones. It still wasn’t as brutal as Québec at mid-day. But I stayed there holding the vigil. I wanted to be thorough even if that only meant putting in time on the bench by the river.
If this time-space collage exists, where my body from earlier or later in life and my present body find each other, then why not there on the bench where Borges met The Other? Wouldn’t that be poetic? Wouldn’t that be a pilgrimage site? I was on Borges’ bench. Maybe it was me who, like my friend from Buenos Aires, didn’t really get him. I don’t know if I wanted to meet him or some literary intellectual like him that would share with me the magic password to a life of letters. A higher probability of such an encounter or ‘incident’ exists in the vicinity of MIT and Harvard and the dozens of other colleges in Beantown.
No, really, I should have asked myself when choosing the bench where would I sit in my late life joy? Maybe there I would have found my eighty-year old, the one who would poke fun at my impoverished solitude while still offering something, a password perhaps, to unlock my pause, my being stuck with a decision. But maybe I don’t find joy later in my life. Or maybe my bench isn’t along the Charles, or the Connecticut or the Housatonic for that matter. Maybe my bench (I should say our bench) is along the Rio de la Plata, the Parana, or the Paraguay where it isn’t as cold as Cambridge most, if not all, times of the year.
[i] Historically, the year was 1968 but it was written in the story as 1969 by Borges.
[ii] Williamson, Edwin. 2004. Borges, a life. New York: Penguin. See Chapter 26 “Marriage” for an account of the events leading to and during their time in Cambridge (pgs 369-381). The quote is from p. 377.
[iii] Miller, Paul D (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid). 2004. Rhythm Science. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Copyright © 2015 Kevin S. Fox