Readings — From the January 2010 issue

On the Shoulders of Giants

From a February 2, 1985, interview with Jorge Luis Borges, by Argentine poet and essayist Héctor Alvarez Castillo, included in Camino a Babel, self-published by Alvarez Castillo last year. Translated from the Spanish by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.

Héctor Alvarez Castillo: A thinker you must find interesting is Heraclitus.

Jorge Luis Borges: Yes, he believed that everything is fire.

Alvarez Castillo: Everything is fire, and good and bad are one.

Borges: The path that goes up and the path that goes down. You get to know him best through his critics, right? I mean Aristotle and others. I think the phrase panta rhei, “everything flows,” is a summary by Aristotle. That’s not in Heraclitus’ text, but no matter. It’s good.

Alvarez Castillo: I just wrote a poem with that title. I can read it to you if you’d like.

Borges: Why not? Let’s hear it.

Alvarez Castillo: In the activity of all beings
And of all things:
The reluctant river is reborn a thousand and one times.

Borges: Good.

Alvarez Castillo: The sea deepens in its waters
And travels through the indefinite time
That is distance and lightning
And everything flows and flows, generous and new,
Fleeting and deep like memory, forgetful
Of the dwarves and the night
That at every sleepless hour, with the ocean’s rush,
Sees the tide return to the breast of days
Fugitives like shadows
Dissolved by the moon.

Borges: What a lovely poem! Can you read it?again?

[Alvarez Castillo reads the poem again. Borges interrupts.]

Borges: I don’t like the word dwarves.

Alvarez Castillo: I don’t either, but I don’t know what to replace it with.

Borges: We have to find another word.

Alvarez Castillo: That’s the problem. Dwarves belongs in another context.

Borges: A completely different one. It shatters the poem’s unity. It’s as if you had put in, oh, I don’t know, telephones or something.

Alvarez Castillo: Sure, but don’t take it out of the poem yet, because I haven’t found the right?word.

Borges: Well, dwarves certainly isn’t that word. I knew it the first time I heard it and the second time I heard it, and if you feel it too . . .

Alvarez Castillo: People have told me it’s an acceptable word, that it’s?fine . . .

Borges: Nothing should be “acceptable.” In a short poem, nothing should be “acceptable.”

Alvarez Castillo: Of course. I’ve thought about ancient beings, mythological creatures, and a plethora of words and things, but I can’t find the exact word, the right word . . .

Borges: Angels doesn’t work.

Alvarez Castillo: No, it doesn’t.

Borges: Spirits doesn’t, ghosts doesn’t—no, no, they all have different connotations.

Alvarez Castillo: Satyrs doesn’t.

Borges: Goodness no!

Alvarez Castillo: It seems like it can’t be done.

Borges: Now wait—all right, how does it go?

[Alvarez Castillo reads from “And travels through the indefinite time.”]

Borges: And of the dead and of the night?

Alvarez Castillo: Ah, the poem gains so much with that word. I’m very grateful!

Borges: You’d have to write Of the dead and of the night, because Of the dead and night? No.

Alvarez Castillo: I greatly appreciate it.

Borges: In any case, I’d prefer dead to dwarves.

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