Borges’ A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell Excerpted at NYRB

The NYRB has an excerpt from one of Borges’ lectures given in 1966. It is a lecture on Johnson and Boswell, although it doesn’t stop him from writing about particularly Borgesian preoccupations. It will be published by New Directions on July 31.

….Now, in the same way that we have seen how Johnson is similar to Don Quixote, we have to think that just as Sancho is the companion Quixote sometimes treats badly, we see Boswell in that same relation to Dr. Johnson: a sometimes stupid and loyal companion. There are characters whose role is to bring out the hero’s personality. In other words, often authors need a character who serves as a framework for and a contrast to the deeds of his hero. This is Sancho, and that character in Boswell’s work is Boswell himself. That is, Boswell appears as a despicable character. But it seems impossible to me that Boswell didn’t realize this. And this shows that Boswell positioned himself in contrast to Johnson. The fact that Boswell himself tells anecdotes in which he appears ridiculous makes him not seem ridiculous at all, for if he wrote them down, he did it because he saw that the purpose of the anecdote was to make Johnson stand out.

There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says that we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators, and this is illustrated using the metaphor of a dancer. These days, maybe it would be better to say an actor. A spectator sees a dancer or an actor, or, if you prefer, reads a novel, and ends up identifying with one of the characters who is there in front of him. This is what those Hindu thinkers before the fifth century said. And the same thing happens with us. I, for example, was born the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with—though separate from—the other. Now, I don’t know what experiences you might have had, but sometimes this happens to me: usually at two particular kinds of moments—at moments when something very good has happened, and, above all, at moments when something very bad has happened to me. And for a few seconds, I have felt: “But, what do I care about all this? It is as if all of this is happening to somebody else.” That is, I have felt that there is something deep down inside me that remains separate.

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