Alberto Manguel’s short memoir With Borges is a great weekend read. In his youth, Manguel was one of many readers paid by the postmodern Argentine Jorge Luis Borges after he had gone blind. Reading is the main theme of the memoir, as Borges believed reading to be a more fully human work than writing, and the bulk of his own writing was about reading the works of others. For instance, Manguel says that, for Borges,
The reader takes over the writer’s task. “You can’t know if a poet is good or bad without having some idea of what he proposed to do,” he tells me as we walk down Calle Florida, stopping wherever the quotation requires it as the hurried crowds walk past us, many recognizing the old blind man of Buenos Aires. “And if I can’t understand a poem, I can’t know what the intention was….” Reading is, for Borges, a way to be all those men he knows he’ll never be: men of action, great lovers, great warriors. For him, reading is a form of pantheism…. Borges stops walking again and says: “The pantheists imagined the world as inhabited by only one person, God, and God is dreaming all the world’s creatures, including us. In this philosophy, we are the dreams of God, and we don’t know it.” (60-61)
If you pick up any collection of Borges’ non-fiction, you will find it to be composed mostly of short essays about authors and novels. He loved Dante, Chesterton, the Kabbalah, and The Thousand and One Nights. Reading Borges spins Borges out of the reader’s seat and into the writer’s–a vortex of irony which surely pleased the blind old Argentine. Borges was a reader of books great and mundane (detective novels were a particular favorite, and he argued that Aristotle would have found the genre to produce the perfect drama), but it is hard to read Borges’ non-fiction for any great length of time without feeling like a dilettante. Those essays are not meant to be studied on their own merit; they are meant to be spurs to one’s own reading, a mentor pointing a friend in the right direction.
Borges’ relationship with the Catholic Church was whimsical, at best. He once told Manguel, “I’m the contrary of the Argentine Catholic. They believe but are not interested; I’m interested, but I don’t believe” (61-62). For symbolic meaning, he preferred the Labyrinth to the Cross. On his deathbed he called for a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister, in that order. His funeral service being held at the Protestant cathedral did not stop Fr. Pierre Jacquet (his purported deathbed confessor) from declaring that Borges was “a man full of love, who received from the Church the forgiveness of his sins.” One can only hope. He was buried in the Cimetière des Rois at Geneva, also the final resting place of the heresiarch John Calvin.
For the modern reader, Borges is a sort of John the Baptist, constantly pointing to poets and fictionists greater than himself. He makes straight the ways for those who might worry unnecessarily about the difficulty of reading Kafka or Don Quixote. The reading of even esoterically obtuse texts seems for Borges to be like a stroll in the park. He was a lover of books, and wanted others to share his love.