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The Theologians

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Near the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges was visited by a then-little known English writer of the Left, who deplored the reactionary politics Borges adopted, or had at least seemed to adopt in his old age (Borges’ attitude toward politics, like his attitude toward the world in general, was sufficiently ironic that his true views on both were always difficult to discern), but who did not let this distressing fact interfere with his appreciation of the man’s immense literary gifts. Here is Christopher Hitchens’ description of the end of their meeting:

The hours I spent in this anachronistic, bibliophile, Anglophile retreat were in surreal contrast to the shrieking horror show that was being enacted in the rest of the city. I never felt this more acutely than when, having maneuvered the old boy down the spiral staircase for a rare out-of-doors lunch the next day—terrified of letting him slip and tumble—I got him back upstairs again. He invited me back for even more readings the following morning but I had to decline. I pleaded truthfully that I was booked on a plane for Chile. ‘I am so sorry,’ said this courteous old genius. ‘But may I then offer you a gift in return for your company?’ I naturally protested with all the energy of an English middle-class upbringing: couldn’t hear of such a thing; pleasure and privilege all mine; no question of accepting any present. He stilled my burblings with an upraised finger. ‘You will remember,’ he said, ‘the lines I will now speak. You will always remember them.’ And he then recited the following:

What man has bent o’er his son’s sleep, to brood
How that face shall watch his when cold it lies?
Or thought, as his own mother kissed his eyes,
Of what her kiss was when his father wooed?

The title (Sonnet XXIX of Dante Gabriel Rossetti)—’Inclusiveness’—may sound a trifle sickly but the enfolded thought recurred to me more than once after I became a father and Borges was quite right: I have never had to remind myself of the words. I was mumbling my thanks when he said, again with utter composure: ‘While you are in Chile do you plan a call on General Pinochet?’ I replied with what I hoped was equivalent aplomb that I had no such intention. ‘A pity,’ came the response. ‘He is a true gentleman. He was recently kind enough to award me a literary prize.’ It wasn’t the ideal note on which to bid Borges farewell, but it was an excellent illustration of something else I was becoming used to noticing—that in contrast or corollary to what Colin MacCabe had said to me in Lisbon, sometimes it was also the right people who took the wrong line.

That Christopher Hitchens died on the very day that marked the official end of the U.S. war in Iraq is the kind of coincidence that would have led the ever-ironical Argentine to remark upon the mysterious ways of the God with whom Hitchens so famously quarreled.

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