Borges on Writing and Blindness
I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.
I too, if I may mention myself, have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny — that bad things and some good things would happen to me, but that, in the long run, all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness does not need to be transformed: happiness is its own end.
I have said that blindness is a way of life, a way of life that is not entirely unfortunate. Let us recall those lines of the greatest Spanish poet, Fray Luis de León:
Vivir quiero conmigo,
gozar quiero del bien que debo al cielo,
a solas sin testigo,
libre de amor, de celo,
de odio, de esperanza, de recelo.
[I want to live with myself,/ I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven,/ alone, without witnesses,/ free of love, of jealousy,/ of hate, of hope, of fear.]
Edgar Allan Poe knew this stanza by heart.
A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is always one, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or the musician feels that the strange world of sounds — the strangest world of art — is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument. Fray Luis de León dedicated one of his most beautiful odes to Francisco Salinas, a blind musician.
A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of an artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.
I want to end with a line of Goethe: ‘Alles Nahe werde fern,’ everything near becomes far. Goethe was referring to the evening twilight. Everything becomes far. It is true. At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.
Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go off, leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude — except that the supreme solitude is death. And ‘everything near becomes far’ also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many — all of them so strange – that fate or chance provide.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Blindness” in The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise (Penguin Great Ideas 98)