Jorge Luis Borges

The Last Interview and Other Conversations

“[The Universe] did not need me until 1899, when I was born. I was left out until it did.”

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 worlds and creatures that resided in his boundless mind.1

The Last Interview and Other Conversations includes the 1985 interview Borges gave to Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube weeks before Borges died as well as conversations between Borges and graduate student Richard Burgin when Borges was a lecturer at Harvard University. Borges credits Burgin as “helping me know myself.”

One of the many pleasures the stars (in which I don’t believe) have granted me is in the literary and metaphysical dialogue. Since both these designations run the risk of seeming a bit pretentious, I should clarify that dialogue for me is not a form of polemics, of monologue or magisterial dogmatism, but of shared investigation.

[…]

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.

from Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, 1968

Borges was such a mind, such a person. He collected things unusual, like mythical creatures. His work knitted together stories and traditions from multiple cultures and languages. Yet he speaks to everyone because his work exists at that universal metaphysical level, the level of being.2

[T]hey take the universe for granted. They take things for granted. They take themselves for granted. That’s true. they never wonder at anything, no? They don’t think its strange that they should be living. I remember the first time I felt that was when my father said to me, “What a queer thing,” he said, “that I should be living, as they say, behind my eyes, inside my head. I wonder if that makes sense?” And then, it was the first time I felt that, and then instantly I pounced upon that because I knew what he was saying. But many people hardly understand that. And they say, “Well, but where else could you live?”

from Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, 1968

the last interview
Jorge Luis Borges in 1951 by Argentine photographer Grete Stern. Learn more.

While there is a constant contemplation of the universe, Borges’ writing also contains a miniaturization of things, a close focus that allows us to transpose the universal into the everyday.3

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. And the illustrations in the Arabian Nights. And Dickens – Cruikshank and Fisk illustrations.

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.4

from Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, 1968

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. Borges looks at death without metaphor.5

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.

from Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, 1968

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.

Borges’s few but precise words on blindness best illustrate his oddly beautiful mind and the root of his imagination.

Borges: 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.

Lopez Lecube: You once said that blindness was a gift bestowed upon you so that people would like you.

Borges: Well, that’s how I try to think, but believe me …

Lopez Lecube: It didn’t make you angry?

Borges: Believe me: the benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I’d stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they’re as far away as Iceland, although I’ve been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books. And yet, at the same time, the fact that I can’t read obliges me…

Lopez Lecube: To connect with the world?

Borges: No, not to connect with the world, no. It obliges me to dream and imagine…

from The Last Interview with Gloria Lopez Lecube, 1985

Borges died soon after he gave The Last Interview with Lopez Lecube. Perhaps that is why I keep an eye towards death when I read this book.

Sunset. Photo by Joshua Burch. Featured in Jorge Luis Borges "The Last Interview" in the Examined Life Library.
England at sunset. Photo by nature photographer Joshua Burch

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 but wondering whether Borges saw violet in all of his light and movement.

Jorge Luis Borges