[Several years ago I
was invited to say something about myself as a "writer"-how I became one, what
it being one has meant to me, and so on.
I was allotted twenty minutes to talk about myself at the conference. The piece that follows is a shorter version
of that talk.]
writing, one in which the author plays fast and loose with the then fairly
novel notions that there exist two Borges.
There is the one who writes and the one who (otherwise and in other
ways) does the living. The punch line-a final turning of the screw-is that he
(whoever he is) cannot at the last know who it is-the writer or the one who
otherwise lives-that has actually written the sentences and paragraphs we have
just taken in. As the narrator leaves
the page, he says, "I do not know which of us has written this page."
comical if trenchant film documentary of a quest by Michael Moore, the
documentary filmmaker, to speak with Roger Smith, the C.E.O. of General
Motors. Moore’s quest, ostensibly, is
not to find the other himself but to see if he can communicate with another,
one who, ostensibly, is anything but the filmmaker. In the course of his journey Moore seems to
talk to just about everybody in Michigan but Roger Smith. If it were not for a final confrontation of
sorts, when at the General Motors stockholders’ meeting Smith the C.E.O.
ignores questions put to him from the floor, one might think that Roger Smith
does not really exist, that he is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s devious MacGuffins
set up early to enable the movie, which is about quite something else. Of the many people Michael Moore does meet
and interview is a dealer in small animals.
For its shock value, especially for those who must believe in the Easter
bunny, the camera closes in on her business sign: "Rabbits, Pets or Meat." I was not shocked.
Borges’ parable has become so popular, especially among writers, that
it has spawned countless me-too versions.
Even those writers who have not had the genius or the talent even to
concoct Fernando Pessoa heteronyms (though sometimes I do rule out the
possibility that Pessoa dreamt up the term heteronym because he failed to
appreciate, or even to understand, the riches of the simple pseudonym)-even many
who have never heard of heteronyms have been led to discover in themselves at
least two selves-"The Writer and I." In
this regard, consider an entire collection of what I take to be such Borges
pieces: Who’s Writing This? Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits,
edited by Daniel Halpern and published by the Ecco Press in 1995. The collection leads off with "Borges and
I." Digression. When, some years ago, an English Department
decided in to introduce an ambitious three-semester course surveying world
literature written in English, the already aging Turks who designed the course
dedicated a unit to Jorge Luis Borges, unaware, it turned out, that the titles
they would include had not been originally written in English, not even by the
"Borges" who is not the "yo."
For two reasons, I refer to Who’s Writing This? One, I marvel at the fact that fifty-five
contemporaries writing in English accepted the editor’s offer to exercise their
wit in a me-too attempt to acquire purchase in Borges’ clever conceit; and two,
I question the notion that Borges’
conceit has validity outside of his parable.
I recognize the force of the logical conclusion that readers you have
probably already drawn. If I do not
"believe" in Borges’ parable, then I must not be a writer. Digression.
Once a department chair, convinced that the university should subsidize
writers by giving them more paid free time-free from teaching, committee work,
etc.-insisted that writers were different from the rest of the members of his
department (publishing scholars included) because the "writers" lived in their
"writing." When asked where he thought
the rest of his department lived, his mumbled answer could not be made out.
Personally, I have never considered myself to be a Writer in the
Borges sense, even though I have been writing-up and publishing my own work for
decades. And except for a poem on the
joys of winter, written while I was in the fifth grade-now lost-I did not write
a second poem until I was in my late forties.
And it came as a surprise to me, for I had never harbored the wish to
write anything, let us say, Creative-let alone publish such work. If I can be called a poet, I can only conclude
that is poet with a small "p," the kind of poet who, as Ralph Waldo Emerson
reminded all, exists in every person-in every one of us-in some way or other,
including when we are safe in the privacy of our minds.