My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This recent volume (published by New Directions, translated by Katherine Silver, and edited and annotated by Martín Hadis and Martín Arias) is derived from student recordings and transcriptions of a lecture course on the history of English literature that Borges gave in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires (where he had been hired on the strength of his literary reputation, despite not having an advanced degree, about a decade earlier). Irrespective of the Borgesian contents, it is a good book all around—attractively designed, durably bound, and possessed of an excellent scholarly apparatus.
As for Borges’s actual course: if you’ve read any other review of this book, you already know of the Argentine writer’s eccentric choice of texts. The first seven (of 25) classes are devoted to the Anglo-Saxon period, encompassing such texts as Beowulf, “The Wanderer,” The Battle of Maldon, and others. Then Borges leaps forward hundreds of years—over Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton—to arrive at the eighteenth century, where he focuses for several classes on Samuel Johnson before beginning the Romantic movement with the semi-fraudulent Wanderings of Ossian; from there, he plots a more conventional course through Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, and Browning, before getting weird again as he devotes a mind-numbing number of pages to the inspection or sometimes just recitation of some minor verse by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. Finally, he concludes with a long, lovely appreciation of Stevenson, including asides on Wilde and Chesterton.
There is a method to this madness, though. A critical commonplace about Borges is that he was torn between his cosmopolitan modernist vision (associated with his fiction’s emphasis on the infinitude of literature) and his longings toward masculine violence and the raw authentic gaucho life of the Pampas. I would ague that Borges here projects this inner conflict onto English literature: he begins with England’s own primal scene—the masculine contest of competing ethnicities (Angle, Saxon, Jute, Dane, Celt, Geat, etc.) and ideologies (pagan vs. Christian) over the island after the fall of Rome. Borges indulges his taste for this literature of the violent frontier in examining these texts, but he does not go in for fantasies of primordial authenticity: for instance, he is at pains to emphasize the learned quality of Beowulf, its Virgilian Latinity.
By rushing forth from the Anglo-Saxon period to the Age of Reason, Borges positions Johnson, with his melancholy and chastened Christian wisdom in competition with his combative nationalism, as the fulcrum of his canon (though why the similarly torn Shakespeare, who haunts the book, could not have played that role is unclear). After Johnson comes Ossian and medievalism and the whole panoply of Romantic nationalism—in other words, the ideological hallucinations of the moderns over the pre-modern reality Borges has spent seven earlier classes meticulously describing in admiring but de-idealizing tones.
From the introduction of Johnson onward, Borges essentially charts the distance or proximity of each writer under his gaze to this Romantic nationalist mood of trying to recreate the putative wholeness or vitality of pre-industrial or pre-Norman (or even pre-Christian) English culture, which Borges has shown not to have been much of a whole, to which lack it owed its vitality. And while he admires the quixotic efforts of a William Morris toward the resuscitation of a Teutonic sensibility for English letters, I think it is safe to say he admires more the advanced techniques of a Dickens, Browning, or Stevenson—seeing them as more in line with the advanced techniques of the Virgil-reading Beowulf bard.
Borges’s lectures do not look terribly impressive—they consist of biography, context, and redescription of the text under discussion, with little in the way of twentieth-century hermeneutics—but taken as a whole, they may amount to an attempt to discredit the very idea of “culture” (in the sense of the organic expression of ethnic identity) in favor of “literature.” What, to Borges, is literature if not the spontaneous effusion of blood and soil?
One answer may be “inspiration”: early on, Borges discusses the earliest English poem, Caedmon’s hymn, a poem dictated to a monk in a vision. He traces this Caedmon theme, then, through the dream that led Coleridge to write “Kubla Khan” and the dream that led Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some of the best literature, in other words, descends upon the poet from well above the cultural realm—from some invisible world. After that, it is up to the poet’s mastery of form to make literature of his vision.
These weighty themes just about compensate for the course’s oddness of design, but still, I want to quibble with what seem like arbitrary choices. I will even grant Borges his donnée of skipping most of the medieval period and the entire Renaissance, especially since Shakespeare is present throughout the book, like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s feast. But why go on at such extraordinary length about Rossetti and Morris while hardly mentioning Tennyson, probably the best poet qua poet to go the medievalizing route? Why such neglect of the modern novel (only Dickens is treated at any length)? The absence of women writers is perhaps unsurprising given the author and the time of his formative years (there is an appreciative mention of Woolf and a neutral-to-patronizing one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning), and it would be silly to expect a man of Borges’s sensibility to have much interest in the kind of ethical realism perfected by Jane Austen and George Eliot. But does the fabulist who warns us of the demiurgic temptation have nothing whatever to say about the author of Frankenstein; does the creator of a fantastical bestiary have no words for the poet of “Goblin Market”? And I would certainly have liked to hear more about Wilde (whom Borges once pronounced correct about everything).
Quibbles aside, this book is more complex than it looks, and would be fun to read—for Borges’s asides on verse, on history, on his tastes, and on his life—even if it were not so complex. In an afterword, he inveighs against reading for obligation instead of pleasure (this is his apologia for not including so many of the expected authors), and Professor Borges can certainly be read for pleasure.