Quodlibets: Borges Redux

The image he invited of himself was that of a wraithlike figure, moving among the stacks of a great library, no longer sure of the difference between what he reads and the rest of reality. “El universo (que otros llaman la Biblioteca) se compone . . .” [“The universe (which others call the library) is composed of . . .”]. Thus begins “The Library of Babylon” in Ficciones. No more bookish an author than Borges ever lived.

In September of 1985 I heard him speak in Buenos Aires. Blind and venerable, he was led like Homer into the hall, his milky eyes turning this way and that, an apologetic smile on his wide expressive mouth. In his last collection, Los Conjurados, there is a poem bearing — of course — Milton’s title, in English: “On His Blindness.” The same collection begins with a poem called “Cristo en la cruz.” It is not the poem of a believer. In the lecture I heard, there were several agnostic remarks, followed by an apology. It seemed clear that Borges had lost the faith of his baptism.

Imagine my surprise, then, to be told a few weeks ago in Buenos Aires that Borges had reconciled with the Church on his deathbed. Imagine my elation, too. Thank God, I thought. I would not want Borges excluded from that great library in the sky.

But then I grew wary. Unless I am very mistaken, no such story was ever carried in American newspapers. A similar story had been told of Jean Paul Sartre, and I have never found a corroboration of it. Last year a biography of Sartre appeared and, flipping through it in a bookstore, I found no reference to a deathbed conversion. How did we know that Borges had made his peace with the Church when he died in Geneva?

Monsignor Daniel Keegan, rector of the cathedral in Buenos Aires, having come across mention of this reconciliation in newspapers, wrote the priest in Switzerland who had been called, one Father Pierre Jaquet. The reply, together with an interview with Keegan, appeared in the Argentine Catholic magazine Esquiu in September 1986. The editors state quite bluntly that Borges died reconciled with the Catholic faith. Monsignor Keegan is equally positive, adding that Borges had said at the funeral of his mother that he wished to be interred in his mother’s faith. Keegan adds that, in reality, Borges never ceased being Catholic, meaning that he had never formally renounced his faith. Indeed, Borges had said that the reason he had not been given the Nobel Prize was that “my mother is profoundly Catholic and I have remained close to her and, in spite of everything, I am Catholic.” Keegan is aware of other explicit, public, and negative things Borges said, but feels that the search for the divine evident in all his writings makes plausible Borges’s ultimate return to the faith.

The letter from Pierre Jacquet is reproduced. Comparing it with the headlines and the confident remarks of Monsignor Keegan is not unlike reading a story by Borges. The heart of the letter consists of these numbered points:

(1) At the request of the family, I was called to Borges’s bed.

(2) Borges was already very weak and could not carry on a conversation.

(3) My presence next to him was a support (asistencia).

(4) It was clear that he understood what I said to him. I felt that he associated himself with the prayer and with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

(5) On the basis of this encounter, I feel no one can doubt what Borges’s disposition toward the Catholic Church was.

That is the heart of it. There was an ecumenical service in the Protestant Cathedral because Borges had asked to be buried in Geneva. His grave is not far from Calvin’s.

The ambiguity is just what we would expect, is it not? In Robert Lowell’s first collection, Lord Weary’s Castle, there is a poem called “After the Surprising Conversions.” It is an ironic piece. Maybe all conversions are ironic. There is such incommensurability between the events or arguments, whatever, and the momentous graceful Yes.

I want to be buried in the faith of my mother. Perhaps he always was. It is certainly one of his best lines.

Requiescat in pace.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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