JORGE LUIS BORGES EXPLAINS THE TASK OF ART

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in the Spanish language literature. His work embraces the “character of unreality in all literature.” His best-known books, Ficciones (Fictions) and The Aleph (El Aleph), published in the 1940s, are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes, including dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, fictional writers, philosophy, and religion.


Jorge Luis Borges

Borges’ works have contributed to philosophical literature and also to the fantasy genre. Critic Ángel Flores, the first to use the term magical realism to define a genre that reacted against the dominant realism and naturalism of the 19th century, considers the beginning of the movement to be the release of Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia). However, some critics would consider Borges to be a predecessor and not actually a magical realist. His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil.

In 1914 his family moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Collège de Genève. The family travelled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. In 1955 he was appointed director of the National Public Library and professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. He became completely blind at the age of 55; as he never learned braille, he became unable to read. Scholars have suggested that his progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination. In 1961 he came to international attention when he received the first Prix International, which he shared with Samuel Beckett. In 1971 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe. Borges himself was fluent in several languages. He dedicated his final work, The Conspirators, to the city of Geneva, Switzerland.

His international reputation was consolidated in the 1960s, aided by his works being available in English, by the Latin American Boom and by the success of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee said of him: “He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Before his death in 1986, Borges offered his thoughts on the “task of art,” essentially distilling 80+ years of wisdom into a few pithy lines. He says:



“The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. You are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”

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