Sunday, January 25, 2015

He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying

Jorge Luis Borges is surely one of the most imaginative and influential writers of the 20th century, despite the absence of a Nobel Prize for Literature, of which he was surely worthy. I've collected and read all his fiction, and was pleasantly surprised to recently discover a book of conversations with with this Argentine master. These conversations, titled simply Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations, took place between 1964 and 1984, have been a thrill to read.

In some ways, I find parallels between Borges and Bob Dylan, both in the manner of their creative output and in the way they tend to respond in interviews. I have a friend who commented on the Dylan interview in the current AARP magazine saying, "This was very unusual. I don’t know why, but I got the feeling reading the whole thing that it just doesn’t sound like Dylan. I’ve never heard him expound on things like he did here. I’ve never heard him so directly answer a lot of questions and even the language just didn’t sound like him. I really enjoyed reading all of it… it’s just so different than anything I’ve ever read before when he was interviewed." It surprised her. The Washington Post said the same thing. And how does he normally sound? Frequently -- or should I say usually -- like Borges: enigmatic.

Another shared quality between Borges and Dylan is their total immersion in their craft. As one reviewer of the book notes at, "He lived in Literature and Literature lived in him." Likewise, Dylan's career has been rooted in music, and especially American roots music. It so lives in him that it has streamed from him in the most unexpected ways, not the least of which is his current album Shadows in the Night, scheduled for release February 3.

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The anthology of interviews with Borges features more than a dozen conversations that cover all phases of his life and work. I downloaded it to my Kindle in November and have been enjoying it during my occasional travels these past couple months (Vegas, Savannah, L.A.). This past week I found the following passage, at the end of a discussion about death, worth pondering.

Barnstone: The mystics speak of death-in-life as an experience outside time. How do you perceive it?
Borges: I think that one is dying all the time. Every time we are not feeling something, discovering something, when we are merely repeating something mechanically. At that moment you are dead. Life may come at any moment also. If you take a single day, therein you find many deaths, I suppose, and many births also. But I try not to be dead. I try to be curious concerning things, and now I am receiving experiences all the time, and those experiences will be changed into poems, into short stories, into fables. I am receiving them all the time, though I know that many of the things I do and things I say are mechanical, that is to say they belong to death rather than life. 

The Dylan line "He not busy being born is busy dying" involuntarily came to mind as I read this. Can we train ourselves to notice when we're dying? To notice when we're just mechanically going through the motions? In our work, in our relationships, and even in our play we can find ourselves failing to really live.

It's time to start paying attention. My recommendation: open your eyes... and choose life.

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For more about Borges, visit my page Borges, Revisited.

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