Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), one of the great writers to come out of Argentina, went blind when he was only 55 years old. As unsettling as it must have been, it wasn’t particularly a surprise. He once told The New York Times, ”I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind.”
In the years following that life-changing moment, Borges never learned braille and could no longer read. But he did continue to write; he served as the director of Argentina’s National Library; he traveled and delivered an important series of lectures at Harvard on poetry (click to listen); and he even took a stab at drawing — something he did fairly well earlier in life.
Above, you can see a self portrait that Borges drew in the basement of the famous Strand Bookstore in New York City. According to the Times, he did this “using one finger to guide the pen he was holding with his other hand.” After making the sketch, Borges entered the main part of the bookstore and started “listening to the room, the stacks, the books,” and made the remarkable observation “You have as many books as we have in our national library.”
If you’ve ever been to The Strand, you know how many books it holds. Indeed, the store boasts of being “New York City’s legendary home of 18 Miles of new, used and rare books.” My guess is that Argentina’s national library might have a few more volumes than that. But who is really counting?
Jorge Luis Borges had many fascinations—detective novels, gauchos, libraries, and labyrinths. Two prominent figures that occupied his mind, the tango and mythical monsters, appear in drawings Borges made in his manuscripts. Of the tango, Borges did much to spread the idea that the sensual Argentine dance originated in brothels. In his drawing above of a tango-ing couple, he writes at the top (in Spanish): “The tango is a brothel dance. Of this I have no doubt.”
Above, see another of Borges’ sketches, this one from the University of Virginia’s extensive Borges collection. The drawing appears in a manuscript titled “The Old Argentine Habit,” penned in 1946 and published (as “Our Poor Individualism”) in Borges’ 1952 essay collection Other Inquisitions.According to C. Jared Lowenstein, the drawing is titled in German, “Die Hydra der Diktator” (“The Hydra of the Dictators”) and depicts Rosas, Peron, Mussolini, Hitler, and Marx and is signed “Jorge Luis Borges 46.” Lowenstein writes:
The theme of the artwork is a stunning political statement by a writer who has often been deemed apolitical. It is also a remarkably detailed drawing, especially for someone who was losing his eyesight as Borges was at this time. This marvelous depiction supplements Borges’s declaration in his text that Argentineans see themselves as individuals, not as citizens of a specific nation.
It is indeed a remarkably detailed work. I only wish Borges had supplied illustrations for his Book of Imaginary Beings.