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Forgotten but Not Gone

By
July 1, 2011

On the fiftieth anniversary of Borges’s first visit to Texas, Eric Benson searches for traces of the fabulist in the Lone Star State.

Borges-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Daise Ribeiro

Quiero ser olvidado…

—Jorge Luis Borges

Deep inside the stacks at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center lies a single box containing unpublished letters and handwritten essays by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Among the Ransom Center’s 36 million manuscripts and one million books are a Gutenberg Bible, rare first-editions, and holy relics of literature like James Joyce’s hand-corrected proofs of Ulysses. In the past decade alone, the Center has acquired the archives of Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien, David Mamet, and David Foster Wallace. It’s a constant deluge; and every so often a stray file or two gets submerged—sometimes even for decades. The Borges papers were purchased in 1999; twelve years later, they remain uncatalogued.

It’s appropriate that Borges has been neglected. For most of his life, the canonical writer of playfully ironic satires (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”), cosmic mind-benders (“The Aleph”), and sly thought-experiments (“On Rigor in Science”) found little recognition outside Argentine intellectual circles; much of his work had been published first in avant-garde magazines and almost none of it had been translated into English. Observing this state of affairs, the critic George Steiner noted that even basic details about Borges were “close-guarded, parsimoniously dispensed, often nearly impossible to come by, as were [his] poems, stories, essays—themselves scattered, out-of-print, pseudonymous.”

By the time Borges gained international notoriety, he was already sixty-one; and his decades of anonymity continue to haunt his work. Every published word has been collected into handsome hardbound volumes, and yet Borges’s writing still feels scattered. The same quality is intrinsic to his oeuvre. There’s no real order to it, no frequently recurring characters, no subjects or locations that unify the whole. Instead, Borges’s fascinations meander from tango lore, to metaphysical pulp, to meditations on immortality, myth, and language. Reading Borges isn’t like reading most fiction, it’s more like flipping through an encyclopedia: uncovering its most surprising truths requires whim and a wandering mind.

There was at least one place, I would discover, where that “instant” of Borges persisted, a land where Borges lived on as both Borges and “I,” legend and life. That place is Texas.

Borges, the man, is similarly hidden. We are told he served as director of Argentina’s National Library, went blind in middle age, and never won a Nobel Prize. Little else is widely remembered. Oversimplification is an inevitable consequence of the passage of time, but Borges’s life has proved particularly susceptible to biographical elision. Borges never had dramatic love affairs, never fought in heroic battles, and never traversed the globe on grand adventures. It’s tempting to think of him more as a literary creature than a human being.

As Borges writes in his prose poem “Borges and I,” this process was well underway during his lifetime. There was the grand name “Borges,” “the one things happen to,” and its modest servant, the man who “[goes] on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature.” Like Jekyll transforming into Hyde, Borges knows that he will soon succumb to his doppelgänger: “I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him.”

There was at least one place, I would discover, where that “instant” of Borges persisted, a land where Borges lived on as both Borges and “I,” legend and life. That place is Texas. Starting in 1961, Borges made five visits to the state—first, to teach for a semester in Austin as a visiting professor; then to lecture on Cervantes and Whitman as a literary celebrity. When Borges died on June 14, 1986, the University of Texas’s main campus lowered its flags to half-mast, a rare tribute for a writer and a perplexing honor for one without deep Texas roots. Why had Texas so embraced Borges? And why had Borges continued to return there throughout the final twenty-five years of his life?

In early January, I began to investigate what seemed a long-forgotten romance. From New York, I emailed the Ransom Center’s staff about my search for Borges, and they replied that they’d be eager to help me. Indeed, there in the Hill Country, they had a treasure trove of Borges’s work. There was a film-script outline on which Borges collaborated! An autographed draft of his classic revenge story “Emma Zunz”! The completed pages of “Los Rivero,” a fragment suspected to be Borges’s never-finished novel! And, most promisingly, five notebooks full of handwritten essays that might shed new light on Borges’s time in Austin. I was convinced that at the Ransom Center, I’d discover the living, breathing Borges who had so enamored Texas. I booked my trip that week.

*****

I’d first encountered the name “Jorge Luis Borges” in my eleventh-grade yearbook. The editors, in a cruel gesture, had placed an unflattering photo of him—blind, withered, and vaguely Gollum-like—next to a picture of our doddering school nurse. The headline read, “separated at birth.” I’d never before seen or heard of this strange, aged man, and for whatever reason, he piqued my curiosity. I researched Borges only enough to discover that he had been an Argentine writer. I quickly forgot about him.

Three years later, Borges returned, this time in the form of his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” A wicked send-up of scholarly excess written in the sober tone of an academic article, the story immediately appealed to my love of literature-as-prank. In a faux bibliography that begins the piece, Borges describes one of his protagonist’s works: “a technical article on the possibility of enriching the game of chess by eliminating one of the rook’s pawns (Menard proposes, recommends, debates, and finally rejects this innovation).” I rejoiced in this intellectual gallows humor. Here was Borges celebrating scholarship while slyly acknowledging that it was all ultimately futile. The outcome was grim; the fun was getting there.

Spanish had been my worst subject in school, but after discovering “Pierre Menard,” I committed myself to studying the language. I marked up a copy of Borges’s most famous story collection, Ficciones. I kept a vocabulary notebook to digest the creole slang in the knife-fighting tale “Streetcorner Man.” I talked a professor emeritus into giving me a one-on-one survey class on Borges’s work. And after graduating college, I moved to Buenos Aires, driven by whim, adventure, and Borges’s words.

I had gone to Buenos Aires to write for an English-language newspaper, but two weeks after arriving, I was already back to Borges. One night, I found myself in a neighborhood I’d never heard of, sitting in the dark kitchen of a long, narrow house with high walls. I was there to study Borges. The teacher, Marcos Liyo, a grad student in his late twenties, would read the master’s stories aloud in the clear, lilting cadence of a balladeer. I was bewitched. Six months later, Marcos would be a close friend and I’d move into a room in that very same house.

If Borges had visited the University of Nebraska, I wouldn’t have cared enough to visit Lincoln.

It was there that I’d first learn of a connection between the Argentine master and the Lone Star State. Marcos had given me a CD of Borges reading selections of his poetry, and I was surprised to find that one of the tracks was titled “Texas.” I clicked and heard Borges’s voice, wispy as an evening breeze:

Here too. Here as at the other

Edge of the hemisphere, an endless plain

Where a man’s cry dies a lonely death.

Here too the Indian, the lasso, the wild horse.

Here too the bird that never shows itself,

That sings for the memory of one evening

Over the rumblings of history

Here too the mystic alphabet of stars

Leading my pen over the page to names

Not swept aside in the continual

Labyrinth of Days: San Jacinto

And that other Thermopylae, the Alamo.

Here too, the never understood

Anxious, and brief affair that is life.

My Spanish was still a work-in-progress, so it took the better part of an hour to decipher words like confín (edge) and potro (colt or wild horse). Having made the poem intelligible if not meaningful, I sent the recording to my uncle. He didn’t speak Spanish, but he’d taught poetry, studied linguistics, and learned, it seemed to me, the secret to decoding almost any tongue. Who else did I know who might truly understand “Texas”?

My uncle lives forty minutes northwest of San Antonio in a hermit kingdom that he calls Wandering Aengus. Appropriately, for a house named after one of W.B. Yeats’s poems, it’s full of great books. Since his early days as an academic, my uncle has been a member of the Folio Society, and for years he’s received gloriously illustrated copies of the Western classics in the mail. As a teenager, I once recited the entirety of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot while reclining in a hammock in my uncle’s backyard—the vast blue Texas sky above. It was an oversize volume with thick-cut pages, and the experience of handling it added layers to the play not present in the Grove Press paperback edition. Later on, I would travel to my uncle’s house without a book—I wanted to be seduced by something on his shelves.

When I discovered that Borges had spent time in the very Hill Country that I’d always associated with my uncle and his magical home, I intuited a deeper meaning. If Borges had visited the University of Nebraska during the ‘60s and ‘70s, I wouldn’t have cared enough to visit Lincoln. But he didn’t. He visited Texas. How could it be, I wondered, that my favorite writer and I—born eighty-five years and five thousand miles apart—had both found something meaningful in this distant land?

I began to pore through biographies, interviews, and Borges’s work, trying to discover what had happened during his visits. When Borges arrived in Austin in 1961, it was his maiden voyage to America and his first trip outside the Río de la Plata region since he was twenty-four. Four months earlier, Borges had shared the inaugural International Publishers’ Prize with Samuel Beckett—beginning his ascent to stardom—and translators were racing to finish the first English-language collections of his stories.

In Austin, Borges crackled with energy, teaching a graduate seminar on the poet Leopoldo Lugones, auditing a course in Old English, and lecturing on the Spanish writer Rafael Cansinos-Asséns. “Within a week,” the former UT professor Miguel Enguídanos writes in the introduction to Dreamtigers, the first English translation of Borges’s El hacedor, “there was talk about Borges, with Borges, because of Borges, and for Borges, in every corridor of Batts Hall. Scholars felt obliged to write studies and theses on Borges’ work. Poets—wasn’t it inevitable?—fired dithyrambic salvos at him.”

For the rest of his life, Borges would return Texas’s giddy enthusiasm, offering frequent odes to the state. “Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Austin are, perhaps, my most beloved homes,” Borges once told an interviewer. “I’m an honorary citizen of Texas,” he told another. He set “The Bribe,” his story of American academic politics and trickery, in Austin. The narrator of his H.P. Lovecraft homage, “There Are More Things,” is a student at UT. In The Book of Sand, Borges—celibate for most of his life—writes of “a woman from Texas, pale and slender like Ulrica, who denied me her love.” And introducing “Texas” on the recording Borges por Borges, he says of his first visit to Austin, “Before, Texas was only a vague name for me, relating to one of Whitman’s verses and a lot of Westerns. But during that time, I learned to love [it].”

But how had Borges learned to love it? As I began to ask around, it became apparent that the scholarly community viewed my quest as quixotic. “What an extraordinary notion that somehow the fiftieth anniversary of Borges’s first visit to Texas should merit a magazine piece,” Borges’s longtime friend and translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni crowed at me in an email. He’d been to Austin with Borges for only a few days in 1969 and recalled little about the visit. Edwin Williamson, Borges’s most recent biographer, dedicates less than one paragraph to the Argentine’s time in Texas in his nearly six hundred-page tome, Borges: A Life. When I wrote to Williamson to ask whether he knew anything more about Borges’s visits to Austin, he told me that he “didn’t manage to find anyone who had actually worked or studied with him there.”

When I arrived in Texas in early February, I quickly understood Williamson’s difficulty. Since Borges’s death, he had been almost entirely forgotten there. Stopping in at the Ransom Center on my first day in Austin, my search hit a major snag: Borges’s papers were nowhere to be found. I scrolled through the computerized catalog and found no mention of his work. I enlisted the help of the Reading Room staff and found they were just as baffled as I. I inquired at the librarians’s desk, and after a long search, I was presented with a single manila folder containing fewer than twenty pages. There was a marked-up lecture on Walt Whitman; a short correspondence between Borges and the University; and a handwritten copy of the poem “Texas.” Where had the rest of the Borges collection gone? Where were the unfinished novel and autographed drafts and reams of personal notebooks? The librarians didn’t know. If the rest of the Borges papers still existed, they were hidden somewhere—deep in the stacks.

Finding people who had actually worked or studied with Borges seemed like a near impossible task. Not only had Borges’s legacy nearly vanished from Austin, but anyone old enough to have had real contact with him would now be well into his or her eighties. As I was planning my trip, I emailed a half-dozen current UT faculty to see if any of them knew about Borges’s time in Texas. Most of them suggested only that I check in with the Ransom Center. A few directed me toward a former colleague named Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth, a Mexican-born professor emeritus who was still active around the University. When I called Gonzalez-Gerth he invited me to meet with him and seemed eager to facilitate my visit.

Gonzalez-Gerth lives a couple miles north of UT’s campus in an impressive house resplendent with early twentieth-century statues, a Chinese tapestry, and a grand staircase that curves down into the vestibule. When I arrived, his wife, Tita, showed me to the drawing room where I awaited the aging scholar. Old photos sitting on a Queen Anne table showed that Gonzalez-Gerth had been dashingly handsome well into his golden years—his dark eyebrows and white bouffant recalled the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán—and when the man himself arrived, he had a courtly air to match his aristocratic surroundings.

Gonzalez-Gerth hadn’t been in Texas for Borges’s first visit in 1961, he told me, but when the Argentine returned over the next two decades, they had become friends. It was easy to see why. Gonzalez-Gerth, now eighty-four, shared with Borges not only old-school manners, but a fascination with British literature and, more significantly, a storied military lineage. Gonzalez-Gerth’s father, an Army officer during the Mexican Revolution, had taken part in a cavalry charge in 1914 that helped secure a major victory for the Northern Armies. A drawing detailing elements of the old soldier’s storied career hung proudly in the foyer.

Borges too counted several military men among his ancestors— a fact in which he took great pride and alluded to frequently. A maternal forebear, Miguel Estanislao Soler, commanded a division in San Martín’s army during the South American independence wars; and one of Borges’s great-grandfathers, Isidoro Suárez, led a cavalry charge that helped win the Battle of Junín, a crucial victory in Simón Bolívar’s Peruvian campaign. Suárez’s deed was so remarkable that Bolívar declared, “When history describes the glorious Battle of Junín…it will be attributed to the bravery of this young officer.”

“Borges once said that the worst thing that an American can say to another is ‘You’re a liar,’” Gonzalez-Gerth said.

Two academics meet in Texas in the late 1960s and discover that they are both direct descendants of soldiers who rode in heroic cavalry charges in major Latin American battles. In Borges’s work that wouldn’t be coincidence, it would be evidence of something deeper—literary structure inserting itself into everyday life.

“One of Borges’s fairly constant interests is the idea of the hero,” Gonzalez-Gerth told me as we sat in his drawing room. “He had colonels and generals in the Argentine campaigns, and I discovered here in Austin that he was attracted to military parades. He loved to hear marches and the sound of marching feet.”

But there were no grand military parades in Texas when Borges visited, I protested. “It was probably a football thing, but he imagined a military parade,” Gonzalez-Gerth said. “Here universities and even high schools have bands that sound military.”

Borges hears the UT marching band and imagines a colonial army. Borges reads about the Battle of San Jacinto in Texas and links it to the Battle of Junín in Perú.

“Borges once said that the worst thing that an American can say to another is ‘You’re a liar,’” Gonzalez-Gerth said when I asked him about Borges’s sense of morality. “Whereas, for Latin Americans, the worst thing is ‘You’re a coward.’ ‘Usted es un cobarde!’ Those are fighting words. Whereas ‘Un mentiroso,’ who cares? Lies, if they’re not dangerous lies, embellish reality, and that’s fiction. I think that’s how Borges thought about it.”

Texas is the home of the tall tale; exaggerating reality is woven into the culture. My uncle tells a story that shortly after moving out to the country, the local sheriff came to instruct him on how to deal with trespassers. “If you shoot someone outside,” the sheriff said, “drag the body inside the house and there won’t be any problems.” Perhaps that’s a bit of a yarn, but it’s long reinforced my mythologizing of Texas. Your property, your home, your honor. If a struggle ensues, the Law doesn’t want to get in the way. I wouldn’t want to call anyone a coward in Texas.

Borges’s gaucho tales, too, are governed by this ancient code of justice. Laws matter far less than protecting honor. In Borges’s story “The South,” his alter ego Juan Dahlmann—the descendant of a slain Argentine military hero—recovers from a near-fatal bout of septicemia and goes to visit his family’s long-unoccupied country home. After traveling by train, he finds himself waiting for a carriage at a ramshackle saloon. There, a young tough insults Dahlmann, screams insults into his face, and flashes a knife. The barkeep (who mysteriously knows Dahlmann’s name) protests that Dahlmann is unarmed, offering a way out of the violent confrontation. But then “something unforeseen” happens. A gaucho, “in whom Dahlmann had seen a symbol of the South,” tosses our hero a dagger, the instrument by which he must defend his honor. Dahlmann’s fate is now sealed. He will die a gaucho death, his ancestral birthright.

My uncle was the first literary figure in whose myth I became deeply invested.

The story is most likely Dahlmann’s fantasy. Dying of septicemia, Dahlmann lies in his Buenos Aires hospital bed dreaming of a more noble death in the primitive South. When our Dahlmann steps out onto the plain to fight for his honor, the real Dahlmann succumbs to his bacterial infection. This “dream” reading seems obvious now, but it didn’t occur to me until I’d read the story five or six times. I’d fallen for the romance of the fantasy, and I still reject the notion that the more literal reading is true. In Borges’s stories, the co-existence of fact and fantasy is crucial. That was no less true in his life. I imagine Borges conversing with Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth and delighting in the shared family stories that made present the heroic past in their veins.

I am not a descendant of great warriors, but that doesn’t mean I lack predecessors whose lives kindle my dreams. My maternal grandfather, who died long before I was born, was a pioneering ad executive, crutches-bound striver, and successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter whose hit, “Bless You (For Being An Angel),” was once recorded by Fats Waller. But it’s really his son, my uncle, who has fed my fantasies, and I’ve come to view his Hill Country home as the kind of mythic retreat Juan Dahlmann was trying to reach in “The South.”

My uncle is an accidental Texan. A poetry professor specializing in twentieth-century Americans like Sylvia Plath and e.e. cummings, he spent his early career bouncing around academia and burning through wives. Arriving at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1976, he found a home and a permanent spouse (his fourth wife, my aunt Gail). In the years before I was born, my uncle lived in San Antonio proper, but once he and my aunt had a child together, the two of them decided to move their new family into a hillside trailer off rural Park Road 37. Over the next two years, they’d painstakingly construct a house with their own hands.

My uncle was the first literary figure in whose myth I became deeply invested. He had been a chess whiz as a teenager, taking the train into Greenwich Village on Saturdays to hone his skills against the Ukrainian-born grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo. In college, he’d majored in both English and Mathematics. As a young professor at Muhlenberg College, he refined his tennis game and quickly became the campus’s best player. When a seventeen-year-old Chris Evert visited eastern Pennsylvania in 1972, he was invited to play a friendly match against her. He triumphed. That summer, Evert made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon.

My uncle’s precocious run would soon come to an end. He failed, multiple times, to get tenure. His marriages collapsed. He left academia. He ran an ice-cream parlor/arcade into the ground. He sold memberships in an RV park. He taught English to foreign military officers. Lanky and broad-shouldered in his athletic youth, he grew into a jovially rotund middle age. Now sixty-eight with a mane of gray hair frequently topped by a debonair Greek fisherman’s cap, he makes ends meet playing piano to retirees and Alzheimer’s patients. My own father worked as a lawyer at the same corporation for more than three decades before segueing into a well-heeled retirement. My mother is a psychologist with a private practice and an office on Central Park West. They have been married for thirty-nine years. My parents’s lives have been models of circumscribed success; my uncle’s has always seemed to me a rollicking adventure. He never led a cavalry charge or fought in an independence war, but I still see, in his triumphs and defeats, the unmistakable stages of a hero’s quest.

What’s more, in my uncle’s life, I’ve begun to see the telltale patterns of another atypical adventurer. In the essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges creates a lineage for Kafka’s ideas that inverts the way we typically think about authorship. Borges describes Zeno’s paradox on the impossibility of movement, Kierkegaard’s religious parables, and one of Browning’s poems and finds in all of them Kafkian traits. Borges doesn’t do this to illuminate Kafka’s influences—he doesn’t even claim that Franz Kafka actually read the works he cites—instead, Borges wants to show how the present can invent history. “Every writer creates his own precursors,” Borges writes. “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

My uncle hasn’t read much Borges. The copy of Labyrinths in his office has a stiff, unbroken spine and appears to have been only lightly skimmed. Nonetheless, I view his lifelong obsessions with chess, number theory, and literature as profoundly Borgesian traits. His house, a secret and vast library nestled into a remote hillside, exists for me as a Borgesian conceit. Even Texas—its history and myths and tall tales—now feels Borgesian in its composition. “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka,” Borges writes in the essay. “If I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other.”

Before reading Borges, I didn’t understand why I equated my love for my uncle with an admiration for his adopted state. My uncle didn’t have any Texas pride. If anything, he talked about how he felt out of place, sandwiched between the conservative Christians up the road and the avid deer-hunters a few properties over. Yet I always sensed a connection that cut far deeper than the culture clash of a pacifist poet and religious right-wingers. Texas felt mythic to me, pregnant with the ghosts of ancestors and the spark of fiction. Wandering Aengus—with its hand-built homes and totemic books—was Texas in its noblest form. Was it somehow this Texas, my uncle’s Texas, with which Borges too had fallen in love?

*****

One UT professor I’d contacted about my project had strongly recommended I not only talk with Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth, but also seek out another scholar named Carter Wheelock. I was told Wheelock had taken Borges’s course in 1961, written his dissertation on Borges’s fiction, and taught Borges’s work during his career as a professor at UT. He retired from the University in 1993, briefly resurfaced to deliver a lecture on Borges in 1999, and then fell out of touch with academia. No one knew how to find him. The University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, where he is still listed as a professor emeritus, didn’t have a number for him. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth hadn’t spoken to him in years.

The White Pages had listed a number for a K.C. Wheelock in Austin, which turned out to be the nearly forgotten Carter. We’d arranged to meet at his house on the outskirts of the city, but the day before our interview, his daughter called to say that he’d been hospitalized for diverticulitis. The next morning, a record-cold day in central Texas, I found myself inside the North Austin Medical Center, sitting at Carter Wheelock’s bedside. An impish man with a stubbly white beard, a retching smoker’s cough, and a north Texas twang, Wheelock began to tell me about Borges’s first visit to the University.

September 1961: Borges arrives in Miami and decides that instead of flying to Austin, he and his mother, Doña Leonor, will travel by bus across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Three days after his scheduled arrival, the professor who invited him calls the airline to ask if one Jorge Luis Borges made his flight and safely passed through customs. He has. The next day, Borges still hasn’t arrived. The Romance Languages department’s faculty are about to notify the police that a blind Argentine writer and his elderly mother are lost somewhere in the backwoods of the Bible Belt when Borges arrives, beaming. “They’d hit Miami and decided, ‘Oh, we’ll take this swing through the South,’” Wheelock told me. “He said, ‘We wanted to see the South.’ Borges always talked as if he could see; but he couldn’t.”

By the time Borges arrived in Texas, he’d been steadily losing his eyesight for over three decades, settling into what he later called his “modest blindness.” (He could make out shadows and the colors green, blue, and yellow.) At UT, Borges relied on companions to help him navigate the campus. His mother was there in 1961. His first wife, Elsa Astete, accompanied him in 1968. Norman Thomas di Giovanni traveled with him in 1969. And María Kodama, the woman who would eventually become Borges’s second wife, assisted him in 1976 and 1982. When his principal companions weren’t around, Borges could always find an eager young professor like Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth to escort him.

When Borges visited Texas two years later, he insisted on climbing to the top of the tower. “He wanted to see where Whitman was killed,” Wheelock recalled.

I have a hard time imagining how the blind Borges could develop such fondness for a place. Reveling in the “endless plain” without seeing the vast horizon amounts to hearing the wind. Visiting the Alamo without the gift of sight limits one to feeling stone walls. When I think of Texas, I see the squat, gnarled trees on my uncle’s land and Congress Avenue in Austin sweeping uphill toward the Capitol. What did Borges see?

On August 1, 1966—between Borges’s first and second visits—an ex-Marine named Charles Whitman took the elevator to the top of UT Tower and opened fire on the campus, killing fourteen. Carter Wheelock, then writing his dissertation, recognized in the event certain Borgesian symbols. In the Argentine’s stories, Wheelock knew, towers are “high points of revelation or knowledge” and people who ascend to their tops “tend to become dizzy (to suffer from unreality) and to be destroyed, often by gunfire.” In the bullets of Whitman’s rifle, Wheelock saw Zahirs, small objects that supplant the reality of everything around them (in Borges’s story of that name, the object is a coin). In the shotgun shell that killed Whitman, Wheelock saw an Aleph, a point in space that contains all others (the spray of pellets was the vast cosmos unleashed). Wheelock wrote a letter to Borges noting these symbols. “He didn’t say anything about whether I was right or wrong,” Wheelock said, “but he acted like I had caught on to something.”

When Borges visited Texas two years later, he insisted on climbing to the top of the tower. “He wanted to see where Whitman was killed,” Wheelock recalled, rising off his inclined hospital bed. “So I took him up. I remember that day so clearly. He wasn’t entirely blind, he could see light and darkness. I said, ‘This is it’ and he looked at the horizon, and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a new building over there.’ That surprised me, but he could see this vague outline of the city. And then, all of a sudden, he turned to the question of Whitman. We were on the observation deck, and I said it was here that they shot him, and he said, ‘Why did they kill him?’ And I said, ‘Because he was killing other people.’ He mulled that over and didn’t say anything. I know he wanted a better answer. When we went downstairs, his conversation lapsed into something less interesting. I think it’s because I missed my cue. He was looking for people that understood how he conceived the world and what he was trying to say about it.”

In Wheelock’s stories, Borges’s vision of the world seems deeply abstract, so far removed from common experience that he’d ignore the human costs of the Whitman shootings and instead try to fit the incident into a literary structure. Unlike many in the generation of South American writers that followed him, Borges kept aloof from politics and showed open disdain for populists and leftists. After a lecture in which Borges dismissed the idea that literature should be used to seek social justice, a student shouted “But people are dying!” Borges’s reply: “I am dying too.” Did Borges have no compassion for his fellow man? Was he so removed from the world that he saw only stories and characters, not lives and people?

“Borges didn’t express love for anybody, and you didn’t feel any emotional attachment to him,” Wheelock told me. “But the attachment that was purely intellectual made it somehow emotional.”

Wheelock had spent much of the interview speaking of “linear time and eternal time” and “the thing and its attributes,” concepts with which he hoped to link together his seemingly unrelated stories. He wanted me to grasp the Kafka that united his Zeno, Kierkegaard, and Browning. “Well let me say this and you put it together,” Wheelock said as he finished a theoretical musing. “I’m a Baptist, and I had a fundamentalist pastor at one time whom I didn’t like. We used to have conversations about morality and God and things like that, and I couldn’t help quoting Borges. Every time we got on to some really celestial subject, I’d think of something Borges had said, and this pastor finally said, ‘God is to be worshipped, Borges is not.’ ” Wheelock paused. “Son of a bitch! He didn’t understand that Borges is to be worshipped! Don’t quote me on that—it’d be misunderstood—but that pastor didn’t understand that when you find something that is ultimately true and true for you, that’s God. That’s a piece of God. Borges knew that.”

I left Austin three days later, still trying to piece together the puzzle. For Wheelock, Borges was like the aging Einstein, engaged in a mad quest to uncover the Theory of Everything. For Einstein, that meant linking the forces of gravity and electromagnetism into a single system. For Borges, it meant bringing together myth and reality, intellect and emotion, Borges and “I.” When Borges heard a military parade in the sounds of a university marching band or observed the literary structure of Charles Whitman’s killings, he was testing the limits of these boundaries. Texas had historical myths—“that other Thermopylae, the Alamo”—and pulsed with that “anxious, and brief affair that is life.” It proved the perfect laboratory for his experiments.

When I returned that thin manila folder after my disappointing visit to the Ransom Center, I figured there’d be no point in ever going back. Borges was lost there; I’d have a better chance finding him among the shrubs on my uncle’s land. I left the building, and was about to step into the elevator in the multi-level parking garage on Whitis Avenue when I heard a shout. One of the library staffers I’d spoken to, a goateed PhD candidate in his early forties, bounded toward me, panting and sweaty. After I’d left, he’d gone into the stacks and found what he thought was the box containing the bulk of Borges’s papers. He told me he would set it aside.

Two days later, I sat in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, the box in front of me. The notebooks were 6-by-9-inches and filled with Borges’s handwriting—neat and so small it was almost illegible. I leafed through them—an essay on Islamic mystics, then a survey of Anglo-Saxon battle songs, then a review of a likely imaginary book by a little-known author named González Carbalho. Carter Wheelock might have discerned in these scrawlings Borges’s attempt to unify the human cosmos, but I saw something else: the enthusiasm of a bookish kid whose greatest thrills came from outdated encyclopedias, near-forgotten legends, literature’s marginalia. Borges lived to read and write the kind of things that get lost deep in library stacks.

Maybe Borges’s love for Texas was nothing more than an outlet for these life-long fascinations. After so many years in Buenos Aires, the physical act of travel had sparked another aspect of his curiosity. Blind and increasingly dependent on others, he could no longer read or write on his own, but he could still thrill in visiting a far-off land. Texas filled his graph-paper notebooks. There would always be fresh pages left for his tiny letters.

My uncle stopped writing about thirty years ago around the time he settled in the Hill Country with my aunt. I’ve often wondered how this creative force-of-nature could lay down his pen. Wandering Aengus, I now realize, holds the answer. After completing their house, my uncle and aunt constructed a gazebo high up on the property, a perfect perch from which to watch the sun dip under the hills. They added a greenhouse a few years later, then another gazebo, then a pergola over their back deck, then a balcony off their second-story bedroom. They’re currently remaking their guest cottage.

About a decade ago, my uncle and aunt built their most whimsical creation: a purple and yellow-flecked hut next to the driveway that they call “the Marrakech bus-stop.” There are no buses that travel through my uncle’s land, and no Moroccans have ever sought shelter there. That’s not the point. The bus stop is part of a quest to make real my uncle and aunt’s imaginations, to mesh the fictions of their minds with the facts of their landscape. It’s their version of those immaculate 6-by-9-inch notebooks.

Borges said that the greatest accomplishment for a writer is to have his name forgotten but his stories live on. Thirty years after he last set foot in Texas, I traced his steps. I wanted to understand the unexpected bond that had tied an Argentine writer to this far-off place. I wanted to see if any part of that magical connection still lingered. I looked everywhere for Jorge Luis Borges. I found hardly a trace of his name.

G

Eric Benson is an assistant editor at New York magazine, where he writes about politics, crime, and jazz. His recent work includes essays, a radio documentary on the Argentine composer Guillermo Klein, and a pseudonymous blog analyzing the TV interviewer Charlie Rose. His last piece for Guernica chronicled the career of NASA apostate Robert Zubrin and his plans for a manned mission to Mars.

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7 comments for Forgotten but Not Gone

  1. Comment by Anne Fernald on July 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Thank you for this lovely essay. It’s chiming too many bells in my head for me to be coherent, but I love the surprise of Borges in Texas and the unsurprising fact that we’ve forgotten that chapter.

    Maybe he loved it for the same reason he loved the gauchos.

  2. Comment by John Fox on July 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Beautiful tribute to Texas, beautiful tribute to your Uncle and personal history, and beautiful tribute to Borges. Thanks for the in-depth research and provoking thoughts. This really moved me.

  3. Comment by Helene Lois on July 4, 2011 at 12:23 am

    I had lunch with Borges at the University of Buffalo when he visited our Spanish department. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I think he liked Buffalo. No gauchos, but yes buffalos.

  4. Comment by Anonymous on July 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I’m writing you from home, Jorge Luis Borges Street, Buenos Aires, just two blocks from J.L. Borges birthplace.

    This relation between Borges and Texas was unknown to me and is wonderful. Many Thanks for writing this article.

    Let me tell you that the Texas landscape is very similar to that of the pampas (Argentina countryside). Thar could explain.

    The Complete works of Borges have been published again in 2011 here in Argentina: Four Volumes plus one for his Poems (In spanish)

    http://www.megustaleer.com.ar/search.php?titulo=obras+completas&sello=&isbn=&tema=&autor=borges&mes=&anio=&coleccion=&genero=

  5. Comment by Roger Baker on August 1, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I’m a Texan, though I’ve lived abroad in New Orleans for the last 30 years or so, and a life-long lover of literature. I read Borges while a student at the University of Madrid in the mid-60s.

    Reflecting on your fine essay here’s something that occurred to me. Texas is still there, and Borges is gone. Texas is hardly recognizable to me today as the place both real and mythological I grew up in and loved. Borges is unchanged. The advantage there goes to Borges.

  6. Comment by davis on December 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Borges time in Austin is well covered in the nearly 2000 page book of his letter exchanges with Bioy Casares, published in 2008 or so, in Spanish. He relates his visits to revival meetings, the hotel he was staying (the Driskill – old cattle barons palace that bankrupted the original cattle baron the built it) the river (the Colorado) and so on. One comment that stuck with me is his remark, after rambling Dallas and Austin, that if the Soviet Union and the US ever went to war, the Russians “wouldn t stand a dog.s chance” Borges is my favorite too, and living in Austin, Im always on the prowl for Borgesiana.

  7. Comment by david on May 1, 2013 at 1:06 am

    I enjoyed reading your essay; it brought back not only memories of Borges (although I never personally met him), but also fond memories of Dr. Wheelock. I was a student of his at UT-Austin in the early 1980s. I also remember hearing snippets about Borges from two other professors in the Spanish Dept.: Dr. Lily Litvak and Dr. Merlin Forster.

    Supposedly, Borges enjoyed walking around campus and touching limestone walls of the buildings. Many of the older buildings are constructed from limestone which has embedded fossil shells and other odd indentations. It’s surreal for me to imagine Borges feeling those walls as if they were some sort of Braille …

    Even stranger is the story I heard that the old Night Hawk Cafe on the Drag [Guadalupe St.] was one of his favorite places to eat. (It’s no longer there). He liked sitting on a stool at the lunch counter.

    I attended a public lecture by Borges about this time (I think it was in an auditorium in Sid Richardson Hall) and although I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember the lecture’s topic, I do remember some comments Borges made about literature during a final question-and-answer session. He essentially said that you aren’t required to like every work of literature. If you start reading something that doesn’t click / resonate with you, it’s OK to set it aside and move on to another book — there are plenty of other literary works to choose from. He did recommend that if you set aside a “classic,” that you try reading it again at another point in your life, when it would likely take on a different meaning …

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