I discovered the writing of Jorge Luis Borges when unpacking a box filled with books. I had been an employee of the Plaza Book Shoppe (the owners loved the Olde English spelling) for only a few months. It was my first job ever, in a our town’s only bookstore.
As one of a handful of clerks, I had to unpack books and figure out where to put them. Where would be put “The Aleph & Other Stories,” Borges’ collection of odd, surrealistic, intellectually paradoxical tales that would eventually be categorized as “magical realism”?
I didn’t know, and I couldn’t take the book home and read it. Nor did I have an Internet available where I could get the gist of just about anything, including an author’s reputation, in seconds. No one else at the bookstore had heard of Borges and the stuff on the cover was ambiguous, to say the most.
Another clerk exiled it in New Age/Occult for a while. Then I took another look at the cover and put it on the “author wall,” alphabetically, but, spine-out, which those who have worked in book stores know is death to a book, because most people really do judge books by their covers, and this one was a “puzzlement.”
Finally it came time to return books that hadn’t sold. This was done by tearing off the front cover and mailing it back for a refund. The book itself was supposed to be destroyed. I took the book home and encountered some of the most wonderfully strange stories ever. As a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, the only other author I know who was so imaginative was R.A. Lafferty, an electrician who lived in the midwest. As joyously surreal as Lafferty could be, he still held on to the science fiction’s core structure, that the fantastic elements of the story had to sprout from a contemporary scientific, historical or, in the case of the “New Wave” writers of the 1960s and ’70s, mythic or folklore sensibility.
Borges, with his infinite library, his mysterious places that were neither real or imaginary because they had been excised from the texts that had told how they could be found, began with paradoxes and never tried to resolve them. He was an astonishing source of wonder and, to this day, I hold the Nobel Prize committee culpable for never rewarding him the world’s top literary honor.
Borges was an extraordinarily well-read, and brilliantly educated polyglot. He was part of a group of snarky Buenos Aires literary types celebrating their differences under the dark shadow of Argentinian Fascism. He wrote the short stories for which he is famous in only a few short years. He lived on their reputation, as well as comments made in numerous interviews, for the rest of his life.
I came across this quote from an interview:
“A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”
I’ve heard this sentiment previously. Keith Laumer, a science fiction writer who mentored me for a while, used to tell me that ups and downs of life were “grist for the writer’s mill.” Henry James said “to an artist, nothing is wasted.”Zen masters who wrote books explaining the inexplicable emphasized that the goal of Zen practice was to accept everything that happens, not as good, bad or indifferent, but as it is, exactly as it is. I wrote an unpublished novel on the theme that disappointment was a gift that art transforms into beauty. The metaphor was a central theme of the last season of the superb HBO TV series Treme. For most of my life, I have held this in my heart as a matter of faith.
Recently, as I return to Dante’s life and work, I come across academics who insist that the poet’s exile from Florence was the greatest gift, because it led him to writing his Comedia, one of the great works of human civilization.
How grateful was he for this gift at the time? We can only guess. The Comedia functions on many levels, especially as revenge literature: Dante puts many people he hates into his Inferno. I can imagine him sitting alone in that drafty Tuscan villa, flush with the uplift that creative work can bring, only to feel it all deflate when he drops his quill (or whatever he used to write back in the 14th century), gazes toward Florence and realizes that so many of those he hates are still there, having a great time being Florentine, and he’s stuck in exile, forced to populate his loneliness with his imagination.
I think of Emily Dickinson, my favorite American poet, doing the same thing. We love the irony that neither Dante or Dickinson would know that their work would be so important in later years, but they persevered.
What about all the others who are laboring in exile, either real, or self-imposed? An increase in world-wide literacy, and the Internet, have brought us more writers than anyone, or anything, will ever read, much less understand.
The very violent period of European history called Renaissance, of which Dante’s work was so much a crucial part, proved that that art was mightier than brutality, though few were willing to believe that at the time. According to Grigori Vasari, a minor painter who became the historian of Rennaissance art, Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Florence’s famous self-supporting cathedral dome, claimed that, when bringing something entirely new into the world, one must act solely on one’s belief.
The rejections suffered by that unpublished novel has haunted me all my life. It wasn’t meant to be a test of my belief, but it turned into that.
Robert Fripp, a guitarist and composure whose work I admire, said that an artist must aspire to, and, if he is fortunate, enter a state of innocence, in which he becomes a means by which music can enter the world.
Fripp also said that the best times for an artist have nothing to do with the consequences of making art, i.e., the successes, failures, fame, fortune (or, for most, lack of both), or the things people say and do because of the music.
He said you live for the rare moments when “music takes us into its confidence,” when what you do gives you an insight into who you are and why you’re lucky enough, or crazy enough, or wounded enough, to persevere.
I wish you those moments. They can turn exile into something new.