“Reaching the Center” was featured in PEN America 1: Classics, and was presented at a centenary celebration of Jorge Luis Borges, sponsored by the PEN Forums Committee and the New School Writing Program.

Jorge Luis Borges was invited to Puerto Rico in 1981 to receive an honorary degree and to speak at a reading of his poems. At 82, he was frail and almost completely blind. Impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit, he was led by two professors to a long table covered by a red tablecloth, with a single red rose in a vase by his side. His devoted companion, María Kodama, usually walked everywhere with Borges, like a benignant shade, her arm linked to his, whispering constantly in his ear. On this occasion, however, the maestro appeared alone, and I remember thinking, “It must be terrifying to walk into the middle of an empty stage surrounded by darkness, with at least four thousand eyes fixed upon you.”

The university’s theater was packed with students and professors who were thrilled to meet the author of “Hombre de la Esquina Rosada,” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Funes el Memorioso,” and other extraordinary stories. Every seat of the more than two thousand was filled, and people were sitting in the aisles all the way to the back of the auditorium. A professor read several of Borges’s poems, and the maestro was asked to explain them. Borges spoke deliberately, as if he were interpreting dreams. A dream and a poem were sometimes impossible to differentiate, he said. Perhaps that was why he saw himself more as a maker of dreams than as a man of letters.

Mesmerized by the author’s slow drawl and by the way he stared in front of him as if trying to decipher the double darkness of the stage’s open maw, the students began to raise their hands to ask Borges questions. A young man who looked like a freshman proceeded to the microphone. Since Borges was already a very old man, the student said, and he was probably going to pass away soon, would he mind telling how it felt to be at death’s door? What were the insights that one gained from this perspective? Had blindness given him a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries?

There was a universal gasp from the audience, followed by silence. Everybody was afraid the maestro would feel insulted. Borges thought for a few seconds and, instead of being upset by the tactless question, he answered patiently and with exquisite manners. “Old age,” he said, a beatific smile on his face, “could in some cases be el tiempo de nuestra dicha, the time of our true happiness. The animal in us is mostly dead by then, and we are left only with our humanity and our soul.” And blindness, he said, slowly looking around him, blindness could become a purification. It could purify us of visual circumstances. The world, which was always trying to grab our attention, became fainter. It faded away in the distance. It was a slow, not unpleasant return to one’s beginnings, to the first books we read, to the first words of love we heard. But most important, since it required fortitude to go on living once you were blind, it brought back to him the memory of his own heroic ancestors.

That afternoon hundreds of students left the university theater feeling inspired. We had been made better persons, more courageous and generous, by Borges’s beautiful words, by his heroic example.

The next day, I was supposed to pick up Borges and María Kodama at the hotel, to drive them to San Juan’s Ataneo, where Borges was to give a lecture on Schopenhauer. The couple sat in the back seat throughout the trip, which took us by one of the most spectacular views of San Juan. María Kodama, dressed as usual all in black, sat next to Borges, her arm linked to his.  Speaking softly into his ear, she described every detail that could be seen from the car: the Atlantic’s white breakers rolling toward the city and bursting against San Juan’s ancient walls, the uneven cardboard rooftops of La Perna slums glinting dark green in the distance, the capitol’s white dome shining in the sun like a giant meringue, dozens of cats sunning themselves on a hill nearby. And Borges, staring in front of him, an avid smile on his face, listening to every word mixed with the sound of the waves. María Kodama was literally Borges’s eyes that day.

When we arrived at the Ataneo, Borges’s lecture was a devastating apology for suicide. He talked at length on Schopenhauer’s and his own pessimistic view of the world. Individuality, Borges said, was an illusion. I was amazed. I had Borges’s speech from the day before still fresh in my mind, and I stood up to ask a question: “Yesterday at the university,” I said, “you talked movingly about how a brave man always accepts his destiny. For example, when God blinded you, and you accepted blindness as a gift which added a profound dimension to your writing. How do you reconcile the idea of a universe where individual heroism is impossible with the concept of courage as the redeeming virtue in the face of tragedy?”

Borges turned his head slowly towards where my voice was coming from and stared at me with sightless eyes. “Blindness is the great tragedy of my life. I assure you, there is no heroism in blindness, only pain,” he said.

I blushed and sat down, ashamed of myself. Borges was telling me that a hero is a historic and a literary creation, a fiction of our imagination, and he preferred to be remembered not as a hero, but as a man who had experienced the deepest suffering and the most intense happiness.

“In Praise of Darkness” is one of my favorite poems. I’m an agnostic so I don’t pray anymore, but whenever I feel like praying I usually pick up Borges and read one of his poems.

Elogio de la sombra

La vejez (tal es el nombre que los otros le dan)
puede ser el tiempo de nuestra dicha.
El animal ha muerto o casi ha muerto.
Quedan el hombre y su alma.
Vivo entre formas luminosas y vagas
que no son aún la tiniebla.
Buenos Aires,
que antes se desgarraba en arrabales
hacia la llanura incesante,
ha vuelto a ser la Recoleta, el Retiro,
las borrosas calles del Once
y las precarias casas viejas
que aún llamamos el Sur.
Siempre en mi vida fueron demasiadas las cosas;
Demócrito de Abdera se arrancó los ojos para pensar;
el tiempo ha sido mi Demócrito.
Esta penumbra es lenta y no duele;
fluye por un manso declive
y se parece a la eternidad.
Mis amigos no tienen cara,
las mujeres son lo que fueron hace ya tantos años,
las esquinas pueden ser otras,
no hay letras en las páginas de los libros.
Todo esto debería atemorizarme,
pero es una dulzura, un regreso.
De las generaciones de los textos que hay en la tierra
sólo habré leído unos pocos,
los que sigo leyendo en la memoria,
leyendo y tranformando.
Del sur, del Este, del Oeste, del Norte,
convergen los caminos que me han traído
a mi secreto centro.
Esos caminos fueron ecos y pasos,
mujeres, hombres, agonías, resurrecciones,
días y noches,
entresueños y sueños,
cada ínfimo instante del ayer
y de los ayeres del mundo,
la firme espada del danés y la luna del persa,
los actos de los muertos,
el compartido amor, las palabras,
Emerson y la nieve y tantas cosas.
Ahora puedo olvidarlas.  Llego a mi centro,
a mi álgebra y mi clave,
a mi espejo.
Pronto sabré quién soy.

In Praise of Darkness

Old age (the name that others give it)
can be the time of our greatest bliss.
The animal has died or almost died.
The man and his spirit remain.
I live among vague, luminous shapes
that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
whose edges disintegrated
into the endless plain,
has gone back to being the Recoleta, the Retiro,
the nondescript streets of the Once,
and the rickety old houses we still call the South.
In my life there were always too many things.
Democritus of Abdera plucked out his eyes in order to think:
Time has been my Democritus.
This penumbra is slow and does not pain me;
it flows down a gentle slope,
resembling eternity.
My friends have no faces,
women are what they were so many years ago,
these corners could be other corners,
there are no letters on the pages of books.
All this should frighten me,
but it is a sweetness, a return.
Of the generations of texts on earth
I will have read only a few-
the ones that I keep reading in my memory,
reading and transforming.
From South, East, West, and North
the paths converge that have led me
to my secret center.
Those paths were echoes and footsteps,
women, men, death-throes, resurrections, days and nights,
dreams and half-wakeful dreams,
every inmost moment of yesterday
and all the yesterdays of the world,
the Dane’s staunch sword and the Persan’s moon,
the acts of the dead,
shared love, and words,
Emerson and snow, so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center,
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I will know who I am.

Translated by Hoyt Rogers