The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A real metaphor’s resonance

Posted on: June 25, 2007

INTERVIEWER

But that’s not something you intend to show: the degeneration of the world by the metaphorical use of colour?

 

BORGES

I don’t intend to show anything. (Laughter) I have no intentions.

 

INTERVIEWER

Just to describe?

 

BORGES

I describe. I write. Now as for the colour yellow [why it often appears in my work], there is a physical explanation of that. When I began to lose my sight, the last colour I saw, or the last colour, rather, that stood out, because of course now I know that your coat is not the same colour as the table or of the woodwork behind you — the last colour to stand out was yellow, because it is the most vivid of colours. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cab scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way than scarlet. So you have yellow cabs because anybody can pick them out. Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends… well they made, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow although it really was too glaring. I said, “Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only colour I can see, practically!” I live in a grey world, rather like the silver screen world. But yellow stands out. That might account for it. I remember a joke of Oscar Wilde’s: a friend of his had a tie with yellow, red, and so on in it, and Wilde said, “Oh, my dear fellow, only a deaf man could wear a tie like that!”

 

INTERVIEWER

He might have been talking about the yellow necktie I have on now.

 

BORGES

Ah, well. I remember telling that story to a lady who missed the whole point. She said, “Of course, it must be because being deaf he couldn’t hear what people were saying about his ncektie.” That might have amused Oscar Wilde, no?

 

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to have heard his reply to that.

 

BORGES

Yes, of course. I never heard of such a case of something being so perfectly misunderstood. The perfection of stupidity. Of course, Wilde’s remark is a witty translation of an idea, in Spanish as well as English you speak of a “loud colour”. A “loud colour” is a common phrase, but then the things that are said in literature are always the same. What is important is the way they are said. Looking for metaphors, for example: when I was a young man I was always hunting for new metaphors. Then I found out that really good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature, because they correspond to something essential. If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever. If you think of life as a dream, that is a thought, a thought that is real, or at least that most men are bound to have, no? “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” I think that’s better than the idea of shocking people, than finding connections between things that have never been connected before, because there is no real connection, so the whole thing is a kind of a juggling.

 

INTERVIEWER

Juggling just words?

 

BORGES

Just words. I wouldn’t even call them real metaphors because in a real metaphor both terms are really linked together. I have found one exception — a strange, new and beautiful metaphor from Old Norse poetry. In Old English poetry a battle is spoken of as the “play of swords” or the “encounter of spears”. But in Old Norse, and I think also in Celtic poetry, a battle is called a web of men”. That is strange, no? Because in a web you have a patter, a weaving of men, un tejido. I suppose in a medieval battle and spears on opposite sides and so on. So there you have, I think, a new metaphor; and, of course, with a nightmare touch about it, no? The idea of a web made of living men, of living things, and still being a web, still being a patter. It is a strange idea, no?

 

INTERVIEWER

It corresponds, in a general way, to the metaphor George Eliot used in Middlemarch, that society is a web and one cannot disentangle a strand without touching all the others.

 

BORGES

(With great interest) Who said that?

 

INTERVIEWER

George Eliot in Middlemarch.

 

BORGES

Ah, Middlemarch! Yes, of course! You mean the whole universe is linked together; everything linked. Well that’s one of the reasons the Stoic philosophers had for believing in omens. There’s a paper, a very interesting paper, as all of his are, by De Quincey on modern superstition, and there he gives the Stoic theory. The idea is that since the whole universe is one living, then there is a kinship between things that seem far off. For example, if thirteen people dine together, one of them is bound to die within the year. Not merely because of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper, but because all things are bound together. He said — I wonder how that sentence runs — that everything in the world is a secret glass or secret mirror of the universe.

 

From “The Art of Fiction” interview no. 39 with Jorge Luis Borges, The Paris Review no. 40, 1967.

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1 Response to "A real metaphor’s resonance"

I’m going to read Borges for the first time soon (his “Fictions”), so I read this with extra interest. Thank you for sharing!

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