Interview by Amelia Barili ........................... I met Jorge Luis Borges in 1981, when I returned to Buenos Aires from a job at the BBC in London and began working for La Prensa [Buenos Aires]. He received me very kindly, remembering that during the 1920's, when he was not well known, La Prensa had been the first newspaper to publish him. Later I returned to see him frequently. Sometimes he would dictate a poem that he had been composing during a long night of insomnia. After typing it, I would put it in his desk near his collection of Icelandic sagas, a precious gift from his father.
Sometimes we would walk to a nearby restaurant, where he would eat something very simple. Or we would go to a bookstore, searching for yet another book by Kipling or Conrad in an English edition for friends to read to him. People would stop to greet him, and he would jokingly tell me they must have mistaken him for someone else. His fame as a writer seemed to burden him, and he often regretted that he had to go on living so that Borges the writer could weave his literary fantasies. One morning shortly before he left Argentina in November, we spoke about his recent work, his beliefs, his doubts. I did not know it would be our last conversation before his death last month in Geneva. We started by discussing one of his latest books, ''Los Conjurados'' (''The Conspirators''), in which he calls Geneva ''one of my homelands.''
Where does your love for Geneva come from?
In a certain manner, I am Swiss; I spent my adolescence in Geneva. We went to Europe in 1914. We were so ignorant that we did not know that was the year of the First World War. We were trapped in Geneva. The rest of Europe was at war. From my Genevan adolescence I still have a very good friend, Dr. Simon Ishvinski. The Swiss are very reserved people. I had three friends: Simon Ishvinski, Slatkin, and Maurice Abramowicz, a poet who is now dead. You remember him in ''Los Conjurados.'' Yes. It was a beautiful night. Maria Kodama [ Borges's secretary, traveling companion and, during his final weeks, wife ] , Maurice Abramowicz's widow and I were at a Greek tavern in Paris, listening to Greek music, which is so full of courage. I remembered the lyrics: ''While this music lasts, we will deserve Helen of Troy's love. While the music lasts, we will know that Ulysses will come back to Ithaca.'' And I felt that Maurice was not dead, that he was there with us, that nobody really dies, for they all still project their shadow.
In ''Los Conjurados'' you also speak about one of your nightmares. Do some repeat themselves?
Yes. I dream of a mirror. I see myself with a mask, or I see in the mirror somebody who is me but whom I do not recognize as myself. I arrive at a place, and I have the sense of being lost and that all is horrible. The place itself is like any other. It is a room, with furniture, and its appearance is not horrible. What is atrocious is the feeling, not the images. Another frequent nightmare is of being attacked by beings who are children; there are many of them, very little but strong. I try to defend myself, but the blows I give are weak.
In ''Los Conjurados,'' as in all your work, there is a permanent search for meaning. What is the sense of life?
If life's meaning were explained to us, we probably wouldn't understand it. To think that a man can find it is absurd. We can live without understanding what the world is or who we are. The important things are the ethical instinct and the intellectual instinct, are they not? The intellectual instinct is the one that makes us search while knowing that we are never going to find the answer. I think Lessing said that if God were to declare that in His right hand He had the truth and in his left hand He had the investigation of the truth, Lessing would ask God to open His left hand - he would want God to give him the investigation of the truth, not the truth itself. Of course he would want that, because the investigation permits infinite hypotheses, and the truth is only one, and that does not suit the intellect, because the intellect needs curiosity. In the past, I tried to believe in a personal God, but I do not think I try anymore. I remember in that respect an admirable expression of Bernard Shaw: ''God is in the making.''
Even though you present yourself as a nonbeliever, there are in your work some references to mystical experiences that have always puzzled me. In the story ''The God's Script'' you say: ''From the tireless labyrinth of dreams I returned as if to my home, to the harsh prison. I blessed its dampness, I blessed its tiger, I blessed the crevice of light, I blessed my old, suffering body, I blessed the darkness and the stone. Then there occurred what I cannot forget nor communicate. There occurred the union with the divinity, with the universe.'' It seems that when you accept your circumstances and you bless them, then you come back to your center, and clarity dawns upon you. In the story ''El Aleph'' too, only when you accept your circumstances do you get to see the point where every act in the whole history of the cosmos comes together.
This is true. It is the same idea. Since I do not think often about what I have written, I had not realized that. Nevertheless, it is better that it should be instinctive and not intellectual, don't you think? The instinctive is what counts in a story. What the writer wants to say is the least important thing; the most important is said through him or in spite of him.
Geneva, Switzerland. Norah and Jorge Luis Borges (lower left, right) attending high school in Geneva. (Photo taken between 1914-1918.)
Since we have spoken about the kabbala, that is, about the studies to decipher the word of God, let's speak about the Bible. What do you think about the inspiration of the Bible?
What I find very strange is the fact that the Hebrews did not take into account the various authors or the different epochs when the books were written. It is strange to see everything in the Bible as a creation of the Spirit, which inspires those who write it, through different epochs. It is never thought, for example, that the works of Emerson, Whitman and Bernard Shaw have the same author. But the Hebrews took writers that were many miles and centuries apart and attributed their work to the same Spirit. It is a strange idea, is it not? Nowadays we think of authors, even of entire literatures, as consecutive. But they didn't. They saw everything as written by one author, and that author was the Spirit. Maybe they thought the circumstances of the writing do not matter, that the circumstances are trivial, that history is trivial. ''The Bible'' - the name is plural - comes from ''the books'' in Greek. It is a library, really, and a very heterogeneous one too. It is evident that the author of the Book of Job cannot be the author of Genesis, nor can the Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes and the Book of Kings have the same author. It is as if the individuals did not matter, nor the epochs, nor the chronological order. All is attributed to only one author, the Spirit. One of the fundamental books of the kabbala, the ''Sefer Yezirah'' (''Book of Creation''), deals with the 10 Sefirot. That term means ''numbers,'' and they are taken to be an emanation from God, the Ein-Sof. Should we think, then, that the First Being is a cipher, that He is abstract?
I feel that the First Being, the Ein-Sof, cannot be defined. It cannot even be said that He exists. Even that is too concrete. Then you cannot say that He is wise or that He knows. Because if He knows, then there are two things - the known and the One who knows. And that is too detailed for God. He should be an indefinite divinity. And then from there spring forth the ''10 emanations,'' or Sefirot, and one of them creates this world. It is the same idea as the Gnostics had, that this world was created by a subaltern god. [ H. G. ] Wells had that idea also. That way you explain imperfections such as evil, diseases, physical pains, so many things. Because if an absolute God had made the world, he would have done it better, no? Instead, He has made our bodies, which are very liable to err, decompose and become diseased; the mind also decomposes, and it fails with age, and, well, there are so many other objections.
In the ''Zohar'' (''The Book of Splendor''), which Gershom Scholem considers the most important literary work of the kabbala, there are many speculations about life after death. Swedenborg describes in detail hells and paradises. Dante's poem is also about hell, purgatory, paradise. Where does this tendency of man come from, to try to imagine and describe something that he cannot possibly know?
In spite of oneself, one thinks. I am almost sure to be blotted out by death, but sometimes I think it is not impossible that I may continue to live in some other manner after my physical death. I feel every suicide has that doubt: Is what I am going to do worthwhile? Will I be blotted out, or will I continue to live on another world? Or as Hamlet wonders, what dreams will come when we leave this body? It could be a nightmare. And then we would be in hell. Christians believe that one continues after death to be who he has been and that he is punished or rewarded forever, according to what he has done in this brief time that was given to him. I would prefer to continue living after death if I have to but to forget the life I lived.