ROBERT LOWELL AND JORGE LUIS BORGES: TWO KINGS, ONE PAIR OF TROUSERSby Jesse Tangen-Mills
So the King of Babylon designs a labyrinth to trap the King of Arabia, but the Bedouin monarch escapes, and swears that if they ever cross paths again he’ll put him in his own labyrinth: the Arabian Desert. As fate would have it, the Babylonian king is captured and soon finds himself lost on the back of a camel in that very desert, where he dies of thirst. Unknowingly, Borges, in this short story from the collection The Aleph, created an allegory that described what would be, for the almost British gentleman, the most embarrassingly disastrous literary encounter of his entire life.
It is 1962. Lowell, 45, once the poet laureate—now reigning man of American letters—has become something of a cult figure in New England thanks to his skirt-chasing and insalubriously stiff cocktails. Since the outstandingly positive reception of Life Studies, in which he claims “I myself am hell,” he has been at work primarily on new translations of his favorite poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, among others). Borges, 63, has long been a phenomenon in Buenos Aires. He is the editor of the most important literary magazine in Spanish of the epoch, El Sur, and has just been named chairman of the English Department at the University of Buenos Aires. Then, before either of them had yet reached the pinnacle of international literary fame, Lowell comes to visit Buenos Aires.
But why? They had never as much written a letter to one another. Some speculate the cultural attaché at the American embassy in Argentina organized a visit for the laureate to make his rounds in Argentina to strengthen ties with non-communist writers, among them, Borges. (Was this part of one of the many CIA Cold War hearts and minds campaigns?) Aside from his political leanings, the embassy knew little of Jorge Luis Borges, and rather than making a mingler, they set the stage for a disaster.
Lowell spends his first day in Buenos Aires strolling through the self-proclaimed Paris of Latin America, accompanied by writer and journalist, Keith Botsford, who vividly remembers the poet obsessing over banks, cathedrals and statues, a phenomenon evidenced in his poem “Buenos Aires,” in which he describes the drab National Cemetery as “hundreds of one-room Roman temples.” Botsford, some fifty years later, recalls the occasion less romantically, “Cal had the energy of half a dozen maniacs, being only one manic.”
After their pedestrian adventure across town, Lowell is invited to Borges’ home in the northern neighborhood of Recoletas where the expatriate Spanish writer and painter Rafael Alberti, his female companion and friends are visiting.
So far, so good. But once Lowell walks in the door to Borges’s house it’s hard to tell exactly what happens, except that the experience leaves a bad taste in the Argentine’s mouth. In an interview some years after, when asked if he had read his poems, Borges claimed, “No, I have not read the poems of Robert Lowell, and I think it is safe to say I will not read the poems of Robert Lowell.” And when the interviewer, Osvaldo Ferrari, continued to poke around for an answer, Borges alluded to that afternoon in his house, “I hear this Lowell likes Hawthorne and I am also a 19th century man. Well—I might like his poems if he keeps his trousers on.”
According to Botsford, “Cal” had fallen into a severe depression that he tried to resolve with “a daily dosage of double vodka martinis, often a half-dozen at a session.” No wonder Lowell sprawled out on the writer’s floor. “Borges stayed in his chair, reflectively, and talked a lot about his mother and his early life up the Rio Plate. It was fun watching him pick his words,” he reminisces. Apparently, the fabulist even read G. K. Chesterton to calm him down, but to no avail.
Lowell, roaring drunk, had been making vulgar advances on every woman in Buenos Aires, and so he finds Rafael Alberti’s female companion, with whom he locks himself in a room, until a doctor along with a few burly henchmen manage to knock the door down and subdue him. From Borges’ house he is taken to an insane asylum, until they can get him back on a plane to the United States. “After that I visited him daily. It took a huge dose of Thorazine to calm him down, but for the first few days he was tied down with leather restraints” remembers Botsford. He also thinks that by “trousers” Borges was referring to the inappropriate sexual advances that took place in his house.
If they had only corresponded by mail about purely literary matters, they might have gotten along. They shared plenty of interests. Both wondered about divinity and destiny, although it goes without saying that their interpretations of these themes differed greatly. If they had been on some online dating service they certainly wouldn’t be matched. Smoker, drinker, bohemian with non-smoker, social drinker, conservative? While one jammed out rock’n’roll confessions and painfully twisted metaphors with the disturbingly controlled zeal of a serial killer, the other composed infinite puzzles that could, in some cases, sound as though they had been written a hundred years earlier.
In the following years their international reputations grow and they are no longer just autochthonous stars. After Alastair Reid’s translation of Labyrinths, Borges’ reputation grows exponentially in the United States. Harvard, ablaze with daily war protests, invited Borges to a series of lectures to be held in the Amy Lowell room—named after Lowell’s cousin—in the fall of 1967. (At the time Harvard refused to publish the lectures on cassette because they were too short.) What did Borges think when he saw the name? Did he fear another drunken boat ride? It is not clear if Lowell attended this lecture (now available as a book, The Craft of Verse). The lecture topic, poetry, surely would have interested Lowell, but he does not mention anything about it in his journal; in fact, Borges hardly comes up at all.
A few years later, they met in Oxford, where Borges, now a superstar, was to be awarded an honorary doctorate. Lowell had been living in England, having recently divorced novelist, critic, ex-wife of Lucien Freud, and all around art scenester, Lady Caroline Blackwood. It’s hard to decide who would have been the bigger figure. David Gallagher, maybe sensing an inevitably disastrous reunion, invites them both for dinner and introduces Lowell to Borges as “the great American poet” to which Borges responds by reciting Walt Whitman.
In Gallagher’s account it appears that Borges has gotten over the ordeal. Indeed, he was characterized as his usual self, in an article published in Chilean newspaper El Mercurio in 1999. Gallagher attributes Borges’ laissez fair attitude to his belief in archetypes; these were merely passerbys to him. But upon his return to Buenos Aires, Borges reports to his would-be Boswell, Bioy Casares (in his recently published autobiographical caricature Borges) that Lowell “is a complete idiot,” something that Gallagher recognizes in his review of the book published in the TLS.
Lowell doesn’t seem to share Borges’s enmity. He writes in a letter to Iris Murdoch that “one of the most exciting things here has been Borges’s visit [to Oxford]. I have had two nights more or less alone with him, talking about Tennyson, James and Kipling, and almost wept when he talked ‘without pity’ to an audience about his blindness.” Everyone was impressed by Borges who, amongst other literary feats, recited from Icelandic Sagas, bedazzling some of the Oxford professors. Lowell’s admiration for Borges continued, citing him in interviews (in particular Borges’s saying about the authenticity of the Koran in that it never mentions camels); the sentiment was not mutual.
It could have been worse. As Lowell once said about a good poem needing “man´s contradictions” these two had plenty and didn’t keep them secret. Considering the great amount of time they spent redacting and second-guessing their ways to le mot juste, they ironically couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Borges, in addressing the subject of the Vietnam War to a Chilean newspaper reporter said, “Vietnam should be erased from the face of the earth.” In the same interview when asked about the Civil Rights Movement, he responded, “Blacks? In my grandparents’ house they were the servants” (many think these comments led to the Nobel Committee to disregard him as a candidate for its coveted literature prize). Lowell openly protested the war like some of a contemporary Boston Brahmin, saying it was “peculiarly hideous and useless,” and as for civil rights he said Americans were “bound to act morally.”
Unlike Lowell who wrote entire books of verse about his life, the real Borges rarely revealed himself, the closest to an appearance being his poem “Borges and I,” in which he describes himself as a mild antiquarian with a thing for clocks. He was generally reserved, eloquent, and spoke with the lissome authority of a bishop. Lowell, on the other hand, was crazier than Don Quixote and Funes the Memorious combined. One wonders if Borges was changed by his discovery of real mental illness, so different from his meticulously constructed fictional mazes of madness. It was a quixotic moment for sure, after which they would surely agree that in life, as in letters, the truth can be disturbing, with or without pants.
Tangen-Mills writes a column at Bookslut about Latin American literature.