Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success
“When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.”
By Maria Popova
Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14 1986) is among humanity’s most beloved and influential writers. His work has inspired mathematical revelations, philosophical children’s books, and a universe of literature. After his death, Susan Sontag commemorated him in the most beautiful homage in the history of letters.
In 1972, in his seventies and already completely blind, Borges agreed to meet with a young Argentinian writer and passionate reader named Fernando Sorrentino for a series of conversations. On seven afternoons, the two men, separated by more than forty years and united by a profound love of literature, sat down in a secluded room at the National Library of Argentina and conversed candidly about literature and life. The record of these revelatory encounters, offering the most direct glimpse of the beloved author’s mind, was published as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) in 1974 — the same magnificent volume that gave us Borges’s enduring wisdom on writing.
In one of the most timeless yet intensely timely portions of the conversation, Borges examines the question of success and its true measures through the lens of his extraordinary artistic integrity and cultural insight. When asked whether he cares about the opinions of readers and spectators, he considers the difference between literature and other arts:
It’s possible that a book won’t attract any attention when it’s published; it may be discovered afterward. On the other hand, in the case of a film (and this makes everything more dramatic; the same thing happens, let’s say, with the dancer’s or performer’s art), the failure or success has to be immediate… I think the circumstance of a hall filled with people in itself creates a special atmosphere.
Literature and fine art seem to share this time-scale of success, quite different from that of the popular and performance arts. One wonders whether Borges thought of his younger sister, Norah, in contemplating this question of latent recognition — while she was an enormously prolific graphic artist during her life, it was only after her death that she came to be celebrated as a pioneer of modern art.
With an eye to the psychology of crowds, he adds:
When people join in a group they react in a more exaggerated way; this is something you must have noticed very often. For instance, if someone tells a joke in a small group, people laugh, but they don’t laugh in the same way that five hundred or a thousand people laugh when they hear a joke in a play or a movie. That is, there’s a tendency to greater exaggeration, a tendency for everything to happen in a more emphatic manner. And it’s strange, the fact that people let themselves go more when they’re in a group. On the other hand, a solitary reader, a solitary spectator, seems to have less of a reaction or to react more modestly than when with other people.
The solitary reading of a work is best for its true evaluation. But at any rate, it’s a different kind of evaluation.
Returning to the travesty of evaluation by popular opinion — something Kierkegaard lamented and Georgia O’Keeffe admonished against — Borges observes:
When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.
In a sentiment triply poignant today, nearly half a century of commercialism later, Borges considers how the commodification of literature has warped its metrics of success:
It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.
This resonates with Borges’s earlier remark about the different time-scales of appreciation for literature versus more commercial arts like film and popular music. The notion of the “bestseller” shares cultural genes with the “blockbuster” and the “hit” — notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be — and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.
Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with more of the beloved writer’s wisdom on writing and a marvelous children’s book inspired by his ideas about memory, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success.
Published August 24, 2015