In the summer of 1967, a precocious senior at Brandeis University, Richard Burgin, learned that his literary hero, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, would be a few miles down the road at Harvard for the coming school year as the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer. Burgin, now editor of the estimable literary magazine Boulevard and an associate professor of communications and English at St. Louis University, says he was already a "Borges addict. I had somehow made up in my mind that I was going to meet him. It's great to be that young -- you're fearless and totally sincere. You can do anything because you don't know any better."
Burgin had first been exposed to Borges' work by a Spanish professor during his freshman year, but it had little impact on him at the time. "I don't remember which story it was, but it was one of his -- no doubt -- that extended or played with the properties of consciousness, allowing people to do more than they normally can. So I classified him in my mind as a science-fiction writer."
A couple of years later, Burgin began to read more of Borges and came to recognize a literature that went far beyond the classification of science fiction. What Burgin came to perceive as a young man is what many have come to accept: an artist wholly unique and original, with a vision as profound as any in the 20th century.
"It really started to sink in," he recalls. "I felt he was writing about things that nobody else was -- like the theme of infinity -- and I still feel that way. I was obsessed with the notion or concept of infinity at that point in my life. One of the things I found odd about it was how rarely people attempted to talk or write about it. It was universally blocked out of everyone's mind.
"The only person I'd known who'd written about it was Dante at the end of The Divine Comedy, but that just strictly followed the Christian vision with Dante's slant on it -- though as beautiful as it was as a piece of writing. Borges was showing a whole other side to it. In the Borges vision of infinity, the ego is destroyed -- which is both a horrifying and beautiful experience.
"Almost every religion grants some kind of immortality to man," Burgin explains, "an infinite life. But Borges, taking a reverse side to that equation in a story like 'The Immortal,' he works out a nightmarish vision that presents the rational consequences of infinity. Supposing people did live forever -- he works out this mathematical idea that if somebody lives forever they become all people. They live out every conceivable destiny. They're a murderer, they're a fool -- in the case of the story, they become Homer at one point. Which is to say they become everyone and no one. They lose their identity and they also lose what we understand to be rationality or passion because time is meaningless. They become totally apathetic.
"It reminds me of the Wallace Stevens' line 'Death is the mother of beauty.' But if there's no death, maybe there is no beauty -- aesthetically or ethically."
Borges, who died in 1986 at the age of 86, is receiving renewed attention with the recent publication of his Collected Fictions by Viking Press to commemorate the centennial of the writer's birth. This marks the first time Borges' stories have been comprehensively collected and translated into English by a single author, Andrew Hurley. Collections of Borges' essays and poetry are forthcoming from Viking as well. For his part, to honor and add to the legacy of Borges, Burgin has edited a selection of interviews, Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, which has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi.
When Borges' stories appeared in English translation in the early 1960s, in the collections Fictions and Labyrinths, a strange and unexplored literary terrain was introduced to North American readers. In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," a writer completely rewrites Cervantes' Don Quixote word for word and claims it as his own. In "Funes, His Memory," the central character possesses the ability to remember everything, a talent both exceptional and horrifying. In one of Borges' most acclaimed tales, "The Aleph," the protagonist (a character named Borges) ventures into the basement of an infuriating and tiresome poet to encounter a sphere through which the simultaneous actions of the planet pass and can be observed -- a vision of the infinite as marvelous and incomprehensible as any found in literature.
Burgin recalls the astonishment he felt as a young man, and still feels, toward Borges' fiction. "It started to make so much other literature that didn't have the metaphysical dimension -- which is to say almost all American fiction, which is all about adultery in the suburbs ...." He doesn't bother to complete the pejorative. "Here's Borges, just as we were landing on the moon and leaving the Earth -- literally -- making a literature for the future. It was extending the boundaries of what could happen in literature and where it could take place, addressing head-on what I suspected as one of the central facts of existence -- which is that we live in an infinite world, or a world so vast that it has the effect of being infinite. He took on this vastness."
So, in the fall of '67, Burgin went over for a visit with the man who dared to contain the infinite in a short story. "Did you have anything specific you wanted to ask me?" Borges asked the young Burgin, in excellent English.
"I just blurted out, 'I'm going to write a book about you.' I was all of 20 years old. It's like I said: You're too young to know better. You're totally sincere. You mean everything you're saying."
And how did the great man, then in his late 60s and nearly blind, respond?
"I can't imagine anyone else responding the same way," says Burgin. "I didn't detect any sarcasm or irony. He didn't laugh. I just remember him being very sincere. Within 15 minutes we started talking about Faulkner and Henry James and Whitman and Dostoyevsky and Kafka. Every few minutes he would say, 'Am I boring you? Am I disappointing you?' Then he said something touching: 'I'm nearly 70 and I could disguise myself as a young man, but then I wouldn't be myself and you'd see through it.' That's when I started to be struck by how he is a very honest, candid and gentle person."
Those qualities, as well as expressions of humility and modesty that border on the extreme, emerge from the conversations Burgin has edited. "I think of him as the least egotistical person I've ever met," says Burgin. "Probably the least egotistical writer I've ever met. Check that -- definitely the least egotistical writer I've ever met."
Burgin believes Conversations presents "a portrait more of a mind than of a life. Borges did have a life, an unusual life. Certainly not a normal life. People have accused him of not living at all, doubting his actual existence. He definitely was a real man who went through love and rejection and bitterness and loneliness, family problems -- the things that happen to most people. But it's also true that he lived so much in his mind, so much through reading and writing -- it pushes the envelope of normality."
Burgin reads his own fiction this Monday with T.C. Boyle and Allison Joseph as part of the River Styx at Duff's series. Thirty years after meeting his literary hero, what does Borges mean to him today now that he himself is a published author? "He's a tremendous example of artistic courage, showing that you can trust your imagination and your thoughts and you should write about what is really you and what you can really sink your being into. If you describe the subject of the stories, which now seem ingenious and wonderful, but back then they were pre-metafiction, back when people were writing about the surface of life -- adultery in the suburbs. Let's remember when he wrote these things -- the '40s. He was every bit as radical and as great a writer as a Beckett or a Joyce, more so in many respects.
"The whole notion of having a metaphysical dimension to fiction is something that has influenced me the most," Burgin concludes. To him, Borges provides the essentials of great art: "a feeling about the strangeness of life, the vastness of the world, the dreamlike quality of existence, a feeling for the mystery.