Argentine essayist, short-story writer, and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) did not so much write as use the extraordinary powers of language to unscramble and unlock the imaginary and mythological worlds and creatures that resided in his boundless mind.
The Last Interview and Other Conversations is actually several interviews with Borges, including the 1985 interview Borges gave to his colleague and Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube, weeks before he died.
One of the many pleasures the stars (in which I don’t believe) have granted me is in the literary and metaphysical dialogue. […] Rereading these pages, I think I have expressed myself, in fact, confessed myself, better than in those. I have written in solitude with excess care and vigilance. The exchange of thoughts is a condition necessary for all love, all friendship and all real dialogue. Two men who can speak together enrich and broaden themselves indefinitely. What comes forth from me does not surprise me as much as what I receive from the other.
Borges was unusual. He collected things unusual, like mythical creatures. His work knitted together stories and traditions from multiple cultures and languages. According to David Foster Wallace, Borges was the most stupendous 20th-century writer who never won a Nobel Prize.1
There is in Borges a miniaturization of things, a close focus that allows us to transpose the universal into the everyday.2
You see, I was always very shortsighted, so when I think of my childhood, I think of books and the illustrations in books. I suppose I can remember every illustration in Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi and so on. […]
Of course, well, I also have memories of being in the country, of riding horseback, I remember my parents and the house with the large patio and so on. But what I chiefly seem to remember are small and minute things. Because those were the ones that I could really see.
In The Last Interview, Borges acknowledges suffering from insomnia, being terrified of mirrors, and having a life-long fascination with labyrinths. He credits these distinctions as directing his gaze towards the profundity of the minute. His short stories, poetry, and essays wondered about being, existence, and the meaning of death.
Of the many things I find comforting in Borges—his love of Dickens, a childhood illustrated by Mark Twain, his observation of the small—his view on death is the most comforting. He sees death without metaphor.3
Infinity is an intellectual problem. Death means you stop being, you cease from thinking, or feeling, or wondering, and at least you’re lucky in that you don’t have to worry. You might as well worry, as the Latin poet said, about the ages, and ages that preceded you when you did not exist. You might as well worry about the endless past as the endless future uninhabited by you.
Although Borges uses imagery often, on death, he doesn’t He simply states, “I have no difficulty in imagining that even as I go to sleep every night, I may have a long sleep at the end.” That is death as precisely as we, those alive, will ever understand it.
Read more from Borges on the lack of deep meaning in Franz Kafka’s writing (and why that signified Kafka a genius of modern alienation), why he wrote poetry about Ralph Waldo Emerson, and four arguments for the existence of God.
Borges’s few but precise words on blindness best illustrate, I think, his oddly beautiful mind.
The first colors I lost were black and red, which means that I am never in darkness. At first, this was a little uncomfortable. Then I was left with the other colors; green, blue and yellow, but green and blue faded into brown and then the yellow disappeared. Now no colors are left, just light and movement.
Borges died soon after he gave The Last Interview with Lopez Lecube in 1985. Perhaps that is why I keep an eye towards death when I read this book. I can’t help thinking of how other writers coped with death pending, captured meticulously in Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour.
And I can’t help wondering whether Borges saw any violet in his light and movement.