Professors from the University of Austin organize a picnic on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol in Austin. The center of attention is Jorge Luis Borges, the celebrated Argentinean poet, professor, essayist and short-story writer.
Later, helped by Professor Marta Luján, also from Argentina, Borges, almost blind by then, reads with his hand the carved reliefs of the building in an intimate act of communication.
Jorge Luis Borges in Austin
Visiting professor at UT
Borges came to Austin several times. The first time was in 1961-62, when he came as a visiting professor to the University of Texas under the auspices of the Tinker Visiting Professorship in Spanish, which aims to bring Latin American writers to certain US houses of study.
That semester, he gave two courses: an overview of Argentine poetry and a seminar on Argentinean poet Leopoldo Lugones, whose work greatly influenced that of Borges’.
Borges also gave lectures on great Argentinean writers and the American poet Walt Whitman. Borges returned to Austin on other occasions to give courses and conferences, which always ended with a standing ovation
I tried to follow in Jorge Luis Borges’ footsteps in Austin, as I had done when I visited Harvard and learned that he also was a visiting professor there. First of all, I did some research online and found some interesting information, on which I based my visit.
First, I went to the Texas Capitol. I had read that Borges enjoyed picnicking in the sprawling gardens. It is not clear if he did it once or on several occasions. No big deal, it’s a lovely place to sit on a bench under the trees, among sculptures and monuments that reflect Texas history. It was inevitable to speculate under which tree Borges and his colleagues might have sat.
The University of Texas campus, where Borges taught the courses, is a 20-minute walk down Congress Avenue from the Capitol. It took me the same length of time by car because there isn’t a direct easy way to get there and I had a hard time finding a place to park. It must have been infinitely easier in the 1960’s
After I parked, I walked down Guadalupe Street, known as The Drag. Borges met with students and teachers at a bar called Nighthawk, which no longer exists. But the atmosphere must have been similar. There are many stores and bars and places to eat cheaply, ideal for students.
The campus is beautiful. It is dominated by a tower from the 1930s and part of the main building, the heart of the historic campus. Students were milling about, talking and laughing. There was a sense of optimism and the omnipotence of youth in the air.
I walked along tree-lined avenues adorned with fountains, and past the buildings of the various colleges and student residences, until I came across Batts Hall.
Batts Hall (1951) was the headquarters of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and where Borges had his office. Today it is occupied by the Information Technology Department.
Borges and Texas
Borges admired Texas, his first point of contact with the US. So much so that it inspired him to write a sonnet dedicated to the state. In it, he highlights the similarities of the Texas plains with the Argentine pampas, the cowboy and the gaucho. Borges also wrote a story called El soborno (The Bribe), set in Parlin Hall, where the Department of English is housed.
By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
And so it is here too. Here too, as at
the Americas’ other edge: the measureless
plain where a cry dies unattended. Yes,
here too, the Indian, mustang, lariat.
Here too the secret bird that ever yet
over the clamorings of history
sings for an evening and its memory;
here too the stars with mystic alphabet
that dictate to my writing hand below
such names, today, as the unceasing maze
of days and turning days does not displace,
as San Jacinto and the Alamo,
and such Thermopylaes. Here, too, is rife
with that brief unknown anxious thing called life.
Jorge Luis Borges
Aquí también. Aquí, como en el otro
confín del continente, el infinito
campo en que muere solitario el grito;
aquí también el indio, el lazo, el potro.
Aquí también el pájaro secreto
que sobre los fragores de la historia
canta para una tarde y su memoria;
aquí también el místico alfabeto
de los astros, que hoy dictan a mi cálamo
nombres que el incesante laberinto
de los días no arrastra: San Jacinto
y esas otras Termópilas, el Álamo.
Aquí también esa desconocida
y ansiosa y breve cosa que es la vida.
Austin, and American culture in general, fascinated Borges. Of Austin, he said it was one of the most beautiful cities he had visited because he could dream well.
Me, I didn’t care much for Austin the first two times I came. But this time it was different. I had a mission: to see where Borges’s had been, which lent another meaning to my visit.
Originally published as Siguiendo los pasos de Borges en Austin
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