A memory of speech

We speak, and sometimes we are heard. An impression remains in the memory of our auditors, and although it is not our speech, we and they treat it as such. Eventually, that recollection is occulted or extinguished, in both speaker and auditor, and for the most part, no trace remains of the utterance. This is no longer the fate of speech in the formal circumstances of the public lecture, which is probably recorded by members of the audience, and which is also likely to be the spoken counterpart to a set of lecture notes that will be freely distributed at some point; but in the past, recording was unlikely or impossible, and there was probably only one set of lecture notes, which would almost certainly be lost to posterity, even if the lecturer in question was sufficiently notable that their papers ended up in some institutional archive. It is perhaps ironic that the theorisation of language which fundamentally informs this and many other discussions, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, was the posthumously published reconstruction of a series of lectures, as recalled by two of Saussure’s students. This multiply mediated utterance, which is less significant to the modern practice of linguistics than it is to the philosophical understanding of discourse and epistemology, to social theory, to anthropology, and to the analysis of literature, projects the impression of Saussure’s speech far beyond the context of its initial production and reception, more or less by an accident of circumstance. A similar accident of circumstance has preserved a detailed trace of a series of lectures given by Jorge Luis Borges in 1966, in his capacity as professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

The lectures collected in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature were recorded on tape by students, for the benefit of their fellows who were unable to attend, and at some point soon thereafter, painstakingly transcribed; the tapes are lost, and were presumably re-used for other lectures given by other teaching staff. The introduction neglects to mention when the transcriptions came to light, but copyright in the Spanish text is asserted from 2000, and the English translation from 2013. The introduction does give a brief account of the editing process, which was challenging in the extreme. Although the students were scrupulous in setting down exactly what was on the tape, and assuming their good faith, we can have some confidence in the accuracy of the record, they were unfamiliar with the names of English writers, the titles of English books, and indeed the English language, transcribing such terms phonetically, with often near-indecipherable results. Contextual clues and meticulous research allowed the editors to identify the works and authors cited, but it was a time-consuming process. All of which serves to emphasise how tenuous the survival of our cultural memory can be. It is not Borges’s utterance that has survived, with its many particularities of tone of voice, of the reading of the students he invited to recite certain passages, of the noise from the street outside, the temperature and humidity of the lecture hall, the mood and behaviour of the students. But this textual memory is, as the students noted at the bottom of each transcribed lecture, ‘a faithful version’.

The recovery of these lectures has not set the world of literary studies alight. Borges does not proffer any particular theorisation of his topic, let alone one which could compare to that found in Saussure’s literary revenant, and his account is unlikely to upset the established narratives of literary history. It is not the consequence of research, but simply of reading. However, the book offers a (to me) fascinating insight into an aspect of Borges and his thought that is little known internationally. His view of English literature is an entirely idiosyncratic one, which sees literally nothing worthy of detailed examination (and only three authors even worthy of mention) between the latest Old English texts and James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson.

It was a surprise to me to learn that Borges was a scholar of Old English, one that brought him even closer to home than I already held him as one of my several literary parents. I was brought up by an Anglo-Saxonist, to a certain extent among Anglo-Saxonists, as my mother’s undergraduate training coincided with the years in which I tried to avoid attending secondary school, and the small surviving body of Old English literature has always figured as significant in my understanding of the literary universe. Borges published some translations from Old English into Spanish, and according to one anecdote he relates regarding a visit to a church in the north of England, was able to extemporise a rough translation without reference materials to hand; a full quarter of his lecture series is devoted to Old English literature.

For someone who is remembered as an author of tricksy literary conceits, and regarded as a hard-edged analytical thinker, positioned posthumously in the pantheon of twentieth-century writers alongside some of the most intellectually demanding figures in literature, Borges comes across here as somewhat of a romantic. He has a great deal of affection for nineteenth century authors such as Dickens, whose sentimentality he regards as a strength, and for those associated with the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements. He is as interested in the music of language as in its intellectual content. Borges’ love of literature is the strongest theme that emerges; there is no systematic agenda or single analytical narrative that runs through the lectures. To a large extent the story he tells seems to be the account of an enthusiastic bibliophile rather than an analytical critic, which may be surprising in the person of a professor of English Literature, but seems to me consistent with his own work, which is that of a philosopher using the medium of fiction, rather than someone with any interest in continuing or developing any established narrative traditions.

If there is any critical thesis to be discerned in this book, it is an implicit one, which can be inferred from the heavy emphasis Borges places on the affective qualities of writing, and on Old English literature; clearly Borges regarded that body of writing as important to the history English literature, something which seems to be at variance with the broad critical consensus. Perhaps a story of the aesthetic qualities of English remains to be written, one which could relate the ‘iron language’ Borges so admired in the pre-Norman corpus to the rhythms and timbres of modern prose; or perhaps such theses have already been considered and rejected in the critical literature, in which I am not particularly well-versed.

Reading this book in Sicily, where I had recently seen a striking photographic portrait of Borges in Ferdinando Scianna’s exhibition Journey, Story, Memory at the GAM, felt quite apposite. For Borges, there is an important historical hiatus in the story of English literature, at the arrival of the Normans. The same is true in Sicily, but it is the inverse of what Borges saw in writing in English. In Sicily the Norman conquest heralded the dawn of the Arabo-Norman age, in which all subsequent Sicilian culture waters its roots. In Borges’s England the defeat of Harold Godwinson is the death of writing, which continues only in French among a foreign elite to whom England is a colony, and although writing in English begins again, it is not until the eighteenth century that anything worth reading emerges. By this time it is a hybrid language, and its literary traditions are cultural hybrids, which is nothing that Borges seems to find unpalatable, but he certainly seems to value the cultural singularity of the Old English literary canon. In Sicily, whose indigenes were first colonised by the Phoenicians, culture can never appear unalloyed.

The chapters of this book are translated transcriptions of largely extemporised verbal lectures, presumably given without notes, as Borges was completely blind by the late 1950s, and as a consequence they are not quite as orderly as if they had been written. There is some to-ing and fro-ing, there are some unclear sentences, he forgets things, and recalls them later, interjecting them in some subsequent discussion. His tone of voice is clear, however; it is the same voice that can be heard in his many thought-provoking essays, treating ideas and language with the same playful affection. The book is probably best fitted to disciples and Borges ultras, but it is also an engaging tour through an alternative version of what English literature has been, and as a newly minted literary memory of a writer whose enormous reputation rests on rather few published words, it is as precious to me as it is rare.

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