‘Conversations, Volume 2’ by Jorge Luis Borges: An Excerpt
In Conversations: Volume 2, Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari engage in a dialogue that is both improvisational and frequently humorous as they touch on subjects as diverse as epic poetry, detective fiction, Buddhism and the moon landing. With his signature wit, Borges offers insight into the philosophical basis of his stories and poems, his fascination with religious mysticism and the idea of life as dream.
Translated by Tom Boll
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The Moon Landing
OSVALDO FERRARI. There’s a contemporary event, Borges, that seems to have made a particular impression on you, and which doesn’t receive much attention, in spite of having happened relatively recently—I’m talking about the moon landing.
JORGE LUIS BORGES. Yes, I wrote a poem about this subject. But for political, that is, circumstantial and ephemeral reasons, people tend to diminish the importance of an achievement which, for me, is the great achievement of our century. Absurdly, the discovery of the moon has been compared to the discovery of America. You wouldn’t credit it, and yet it’s fairly common. Of course, because of the word ‘discovery’—since people are used to the ‘discovery of America’, they apply it to the ‘discovery of the moon’ or to the discovery of, I don’t know, an afterlife, for example, no? Well, I think that once the boat had been invented, once, let’s say, oars, masts, sails, rudders, had been invented, the discovery of America was inevitable. I would go as far as to say that ‘the discovery’ is an error—it would be more accurate to talk about the discoveries of America, as there were so many. We can begin with mythical discoveries, for example, of Atlantis which we find in the pages of Plato and Seneca, or the voyages of Saint Brendan where he came upon islands with silver greyhounds chasing deer of gold. We can leave those myths aside, which are perhaps a distorted reflection of real events, and we can turn instead to the tenth century, and there we have a reliable date with the adventure of that noble who was also a Viking, and who also, like so many people at that time from those parts, was a murderer—it seems that Eric, Eric the Red, owed a debt, as we say now, for a number of deaths in Norway. He went to the island of Iceland, there he brought more debts upon himself for further deaths and then had to flee to the West. Let’s suppose that distances then were much greater than they are now, since space is measured in time. Well, he arrived with his boats at an island they called Greenland—I think it’s ‘greneland’ in Icelandic. Now, there are two explanations: one refers to the green colour of the ice, which seems improbable, and the other, that Eric gave it the name Greenland to attract settlers. Eric the Red is a lovely name for a hero, and for a hero from the North, no?
FERRARI. For a bloody hero.
BORGES. For a bloody hero, yes. Eric the Red was a pagan, but I don’t know if he worshipped Odin, who gives his name to the English Wednesday, or Thor, who gives his name to Thursday, as one was identified with Mercury—‘miércoles’—and the other with Jove— ‘jueves’. The fact is that he came to Greenland, that he brought settlers with him, that he made two expeditions . . . and then his son, Leif Ericson, discovers the continent, he comes to Labrador and beyond what is now the border with Canada, he enters what is now the United States. Then we have more discoveries, well, by Christopher Columbus, by Amerigo Vespucci, who gives the continent its name. And later, one loses count of the number of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish navigators, from all parts, who keep on discovering our continent. They were looking for the Indies, and they stumbled on this continent which is so important now, and in which we are talking.
FERRARI. They thought, as well, that it was a part of the Indies.
BORGES. Yes, they thought it was a part of the Indies, which is why they used the word ‘indian’ which is used to describe the indigenous peoples here. That is, it was all fated, it had to happen, and the proof is that it happened, well, historically from the tenth century. In any case, it would have happened, given the fact that there was travel by sea. On the other hand, the discovery of the moon is completely different. It’s an enterprise that is not only physical—I don’t want to deny the courage of Armstrong and the others—but also intellectual, scientific, it was something planned, something executed, not a gift of fate. It’s something—I think it happened in 1969, if I’m not wrong—which honours humanity, not only because men from different countries participated in it but also because a landing on the moon is no mean achievement. And strangely, two novelists who wrote books on this subject, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells—well, neither believed it was possible. I remember, when Wells published his first novel, Verne was scandalized. He said: ‘He’s making it up.’ Because Verne was a rational Frenchman to whom the dreams and the eccentricities of Wells seemed excessive. They both thought that it was impossible, although in one of Wells’ books—I don’t remember which one—he talks about the moon, and he says that the moon will be man’s first trophy in the conquest of space. A few days after that feat had been accomplished, I wrote a poem in which I said that there was no happier man in the world than I. The cultural attaché at the Soviet embassy came to visit me, and, standing aside from the, well, territorial or geographical prejudices which are in fashion now, he said to me: ‘This has been the happiest night of my life.’ He forgot that it had been organized in the United States, and he simply thought: We’ve landed on the moon, humanity has landed on the moon. But now the world has proved oddly ungrateful to the United States. For example, Europe has been saved twice by the United States from, well, absurd cruelties—the First and the Second World Wars. And contemporary literature is inconceivable without Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, not to mention Henry James. But I don’t know why those things aren’t acknowledged. Per- haps because of the power of the United States. Well, Berkeley, the philosopher, said that the fourth and greatest empire in history would be America. And he suggested preparing the settlers of the Bermudas, and the Redskins, for their future imperial destiny (laughs). Then we have that great achievement, we’ve seen it, it has made us extremely happy, but now we tend, ungenerously, to forget it. But, I’m monopolizing this dialogue (laughs).