A very bad “poem” has apparently been making the rounds for decades now, attributed to Jorge Luis Borges. I learn this via Anatoly, who discovered an article (in Spanish, which Anatoly is studying) by Ivan Almeida, laying out the entire ridiculous story. It starts with a guy named Don Herold, who in 1953 published a short piece in Reader’s Digest called “If I Had My Life to Live Over”—typical Reader’s Digest material, mildly quirky and touching (“I’d dare to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip…”). At some point, inevitably, somebody decided it would be even more effective chopped up into lines of varying length and presented as a “poem,” and it was occasionally attributed to an octogenarian woman from Kentucky called Nadine Stair. Then it got attributed to Borges and translated into Spanish as “Instantes,” which became the presumptive original; the English version was sometimes called by the Spanish name, for extra exoticism points.

Almeida does excellent work with the tangled tale, and I like his conclusion, which I’ll translate (original below):

In the same way that in “El Aleph” the divine Beatrice appears revealing pornografic secrets, just as in “The End” [Martín] Fierro is the opposite of Hernández‘s character, so the Borges of “Instantes” is a Borges brought to be his own adversary.

The Borges of “Instantes” is a Borges whom we would like to see repentant. Repentant for being the most quoted of authors without being understood by the poor people who enjoy television series or teach Cultural Studies. We want him to continue being Borges but to renounce his options and who, in place of his cryptic poems, would come to tell us what would like to hear and what we are told only by those associative (?) magazines we despise. The perfect world would be a book by Rigoberta Menchú signed by Wittgenstein, the Imitation of Christ signed by Joyce, the song “We are the world” signed by Mallarmé. We want to be able to say that the poem we love most is by that Borges whom the intellectuals wanted to appropriate. So says that collective actor we cannot even call “readers.”

Should we get angry? I don’t believe there’s any reason to. We mustn’t forget that, despite everything, as shown by an example cited above, there are people who have been brought by the reading of “Instantes” to discover Ficciones. Perhaps the history of literature is the history of various great mistakes in reading.

Luckily, Borges wrote a famous text called “Borges and I.” We will never know to which of the two this story is happening. But we can be sure that the other would be enjoying himself tremendously.

Here’s the original:

De la misma manera que en “El Aleph” la divina Beatriz aparece revelando pornográficos secretos, al igual que, en “El fin”, Fierro es el opuesto al personaje de Hernández, el Borges de “Instantes” es un Borges conducido a ser su propio contrario.

El Borges de “Instantes” es un Borges que quisiéramos ver arrepentido. Arrepentido de ser el más citado de los autores sin ser comprendido por los pobres que gozan de las series televisivas o profesan los Cultural Studies. Queremos que siga siendo Borges, pero que reniegue sus opciones y que, en vez de sus crípticos poemas, venga a decirnos lo que nosotros desearíamos oír y que sólo osan decirnos las revistas asociativas, que despreciamos. El mundo perfecto sería un libro de Rigoberta Menchú firmado por Wittgenstein, la Imitación de Cristo firmada por Joyce, la canción “We are the world” firmada por Mallarmé. Queremos poder decir que el poema que más amamos es de aquel Borges del que quisieron apropiarse los intelectuales. Eso dice ese actor colectivo que ni siquiera podemos calificar de “lector”.

¿Indignarse? No creo que haya motivos. No hay que olvidar que, a pesar de todo, como lo muestra un ejemplo citado más arriba, hay personas a quienes la lectura de “Instantes” ha llevado a descubrir Ficciones. Quizá la historia de la literatura sea la historia de algunos grandes errores de lectura.

Por suerte, Borges escribió un texto célebre, llamado “Borges y yo”. Nunca sabremos a cuál de los dos le está sucediendo esta historia. Pero podemos estar seguros de que el otro se divierte jubilosamente.


  1. to tell us what we would like to hear

    ‘Teachers of Cultural Studies’ are among the “poor people” whom Borges has escaped, the way he has “people who enjoy tv serials”? Rigoberta Menchu and the Imitation of Christ are not among ‘what intellectuals want to appropriate’?
    Is Almeida also pranking?

  2. “Is Almeida also pranking?”

  3. Apologies for the slapdash nature of my translation, which has doubtless muddled Almeida’s point.

  4. Borges wrote another story that seems even more useful here. Borges has been put in the role of Pierre Menard. What would the poem mean if it were by Borges?

  5. Thanks for this. Borges is one of my favourite modern poets. I had no idea he had acquired a Spanish Patience Strong as a doppelganger.

  6. opuesto -> foil?

  7. This is like the Sokal affair. The playfulness of the subjects involved in both cases makes it ambiguous in an interesting way.
    The only reason Sokal could claim that what he wrote made no sense is because he believed that it could only make sense if he *intended* it to make sense. In his view, he didn’t, so it didn’t. End of story.
    But the point of the field he was attempting to send up is that meaning can’t be lassoed to the author’s intent that way. A randomly-generated poem can still be interpreted.
    That’s what makes questions of misattribution so fecund when you’re talking about Borges. That was part of his shtick in a way. So there’s a delicious irony here.
    Anyway, Amateur Reader’s comment captures what makes this interesting.

  8. And of course Almeida does not neglect Menard:

    “La verdad, cuya madre es la historia…”, escribió Pierre Menard, corrigiendo a Cervantes, que había escrito “La verdad, cuya madre es la historia…”. Sería interesante, pero tal vez desplazado, analizar, a la manera de Borges en Menard, las modificaciones que sufre el texto que consideramos, por el simple hecho de ser atribuido no ya a Herold sino a Stair, y no ya a Stair sino al mismo Borges.

    (“Truth, whose mother is history” wrote Pierre Menard, correcting Cervantes, who had written “Truth, whose mother is history…” It would be interesting, but perhaps out of place, to analyze, in the manner of Borges on Menard, the modifications undergone by the text we are considering, by the simple fact of being attributed not to Herold but to Stair, and then not to Stair but to Borges himself.)

  9. peter ahern says

    borges didn’t write this:
    nor kafka of the great wall of china
    but why does it remind me so closely of both?

  10. peter ahern says

    borges didn’t write this:
    nor kafka of the great wall of china
    but why does it remind me so closely of both?

  11. I can only assume that each of peter ahern’s four identical comments is a Menardesque comment on its predecessors.

  12. I deleted two, but left two in case the Menardism was intentional.

  13. (I left the last one, because I think it’s an improvement on the others.)

  14. ¡Qué hallazgo el artículo de Almeida! Siempre me intrigaron los vericuetos por los cuales ese poema tan cursi llegó a ser atribuido a Borges.

  15. ¡No hay de qué!

  16. Slightly similar story:
    Oliver St John Gogarty wrote a poem called “The Ship”, which Pádraig de Brún translated into Irish. De Brún’s version was taught to generations of schoolchildren, who generally thought it was it pretty good, considering it was in Irish and all. The fact that it was not an original was largely forgotten. Theo Dorgan went to the trouble of translating it back into English, and Dermot Bolger’s “The Valparaiso Voyage” is prefaced with Dorgan’s version. Whether Dorgan and/or Bolger knew of the Gogarty original I cannot say.

  17. Benjamin Rossen’s analysis, cited by Almeida and Carson, now seems to be hard to find. This site promises an e-book download, but I’m not gonna run a random .exe. It’s in the Wayback Machine.
    Is there a name for this attribution inflation? Like when the odd political quote catches on and so ends up having been said by Ben Franklin, H. L. Mencken or Will Rogers, no matter how obviously anachronistic that is.

  18. If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.
    –Dorothy Parker

    But the attribution of Instantes to Borges doesn’t sound like an accidental misattribution – a version of the telephone game – but rather a deception, a hoax, and its perpetuation looks like further layers of mockery (growing their molds of buttressing credulity).
    Not a bad thing, necessarily – without that joker Menard, grateful readers might never have had their “Borges”es.

  19. “Pierre Menard” = mierda petard
    –from Puns of the Gods?; Airwick von Quackagain.

  20. Surely “revistas asociativas” are just digests, journals like Reader’s Digest that combine bits and pieces of previously-published material for casual readers with short attention spans – not that there seem to be any other digests in America today. It fits the context, and ‘asociativas’ would mean something like ‘collaborative’.
    By the way, I had to look it up just now to see that it’s Reader’s Digest, not Readers’ Digest. (Readers Digest would almost work, with or without a comma.)

  21. Well, without the apostrophe, it might better be Pre-digested For Reader-like People, or Readers Digest, Regurgitate for You, or Readers-Who-Don’t-Want-to-Digest Digest.

  22. John Emerson says

    Coming in late, but the Borges attribution doesn’t really work, even with the Menard angle. The style is recognizably that of a slightly oppositional subgenre of American self-help literature. Most self-help back to Benjamin Franklin tells people to work hard, be honest, and be optimistic in the expectation of success. But other forms serve as a kind of safety net, because not all hard-working honest people are successful.
    So if a dutiful optimist finds himself stuck in a deadend job that doesn’t count as success, you have to have someone there to tell that money isn’t everything, to take things as they come, appreciate the little things in life, be thankful for their wonderful family, etc.
    You also have another subgenre aimed at workaholics who take the root genre too seriously. When my son was in HS he was involved in amateur theater doing musical coedies from the 40s and 50s, and I was reminded that almost all of them end with The Moral of The Story, which in most cases was loosen up, have a little fun, and pay more attention to the woman in your life (“Guys and Dolls” was gender-reversed.)
    The Pierre Menard angle only works sometimes, for example in misattributed paintings which are really pretty good in their own right.
    I’ve also mentioned elsewhere that Ming fakes are collectable as such — that is, Ming pieces pretending to be Han pieces and artificially aged. One of the giveaways is that Ming potters were more skilled than Han potters and made implausibly fine pieces in the Han style. (There are also modern fakes of Ming pieces that have no special value.)
    My source for all this? Some guy I talked to in 1986.
    “I don’t know whether my family is descended for Julius Caesar, but people have thought so for a thousand years.” (Rough approximation of what some nobleman said during the 18th or 19th century.)

  23. “Pierre Menard” = mierda petard

  24. Sorry, John Emerson. The “Menard angle” always* works. Everything you recognize as typical of the genre is no longer so as long as the poem is written by Borges.
    Borges himself, or at least “Borges,” suggests, at the end of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” that we read The Imitation of Christ as if it were written by Joyce or Céline. I’m pretty sure there are some “recognizable” stylistic differences there, too.
    See the hilarious “History, mother of truth; the idea is astounding” passage, the one Almeida mentions. Or:
    “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.”
    * Or, for those who don’t enter into the spirit of the idea, “never.”

  25. John Emerson says

    The Imitation of Christ isn’t crap though. And Joyce or Celine or Baudelaire or some other ex-Catholic would have a particular affinity to TIOC.

  26. Nope.
    There’s no business like no business like no business you no.
    –Irving “Highest Form of Solemnity” Berlin

  27. Borges argument or conceit has nothing to do with the quality of the work, or the writer. What does crap have to do with it? What does any “particular affinity” have to do with it? Does Madame Henri Bachelier have such a strong affinity with Madame Henri Bachelier? I have my doubts.
    Say that Ming-era fake Han vase was made by Matisse (a fake Ming fake Han vase). Now say it was made by Jeff Koons (I mean, the guy Koons hired to make it). Does the “meaning” of the vase change? Why?

  28. John Emerson says

    Crap has to do with everything. If there’s one thing we’ve learned here in these United States, it’s that.
    The allegation that the misattribution of the piece to Borges is Borgesian is crap. Borges and Menard and Don Quixote is something different.
    Saying “The Menard angle always works” is crap. That stuff is really quite pervasive.

  29. Why is it so important to point out her gender (octogenarian woman from Kentucky called Nadine Stair) even tho her name shows it clearly?
    Why not write: “Nadine Stair, octogenarian from Kentucky”?

  30. Crap has to do with everything. If there’s one thing we’ve learned here in these United States, it’s that.
    Point made. A less Borgesian pair of sentences would be hard to imagine. So I defer.

  31. mitchell porter says

    It’s like those Instructions for Life attributed to the Dalai Lama. “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.”

  32. I wrote about this a while back and ever since I have a steady stream of Google referrals from people looking for Borges’ poem about living his life another time.

  33. I’m embarrassed to commit this to eternity on the internet even under only a partial version of my name, but the poem/hoax is quite old. How do I know? I had it tacked up next to the head of my bed my freshman year in college (1993-4), in Spanish, with the Borgesian attribution.
    Looking back, once I actually started to read Borges, I had the thought that “wow, old age really takes a toll on a man,” because the poem I’d come to recognize as irredeemably cheesy and pat didn’t seem anything like the genius I’d begun to try to learn to love. I’m glad to have this mystery sorted. But still also a little embarrassed, even with 17 years’ hindsight, for my 18-year-old self.

  34. LH, do you have any take on why Alastair Reid published a translation of this poem? That seemed like the weirdest part of the story to me — either Reid was taken in or he was in on the prank? Alameida referenced Reid’s translation in Queen’s Quarterly of autumn 92.

  35. No, I don’t, and I agree that it’s weird.

  36. John Emerson says

    Certainly no one named Alistair could be stupid.

  37. Because the writer initially wrote “old woman from Kentucky,” reconsidered, and rewrote, um, suboptimally.

  38. Awright, awright, yiz guys has asst for it, and besides, it’s the seventeenth.
    There’s no ASCII like US-ASCII,
    It’s no ASCII I know;
    Everything about it is U.S.-based,
    Everything about it’s seven-bit.
    You do that X-three-dot-four wheeler-dealing
    When you’re feeling
    There’s no ASCII like US-ASCII,
    It’s Unicode’s first half-row;
    Although it is a turkey that we know must die,
    While systems chop off the bits that are high,
    It is the only charset that will always fly,
    ASCII, backward we go!
    ASCII, on with the show!

  39. besides, it’s the seventeenth

    Truly, I have zero idea why I wrote that phrase.

  40. While we’re on the subject, “Nadine Stair” sounds to me less like a KY name than like an anagram. I don’t have time at the moment to try to figure it out.

  41. January First-of-May says

    I’ve also mentioned elsewhere that Ming fakes are collectable as such — that is, Ming pieces pretending to be Han pieces and artificially aged. One of the giveaways is that Ming potters were more skilled than Han potters and made implausibly fine pieces in the Han style.

    I’m reminded of the so-called Paduan medals – essentially, very skilled 16th century counterfeits of Roman coins (some of them with designs that aren’t actually attested on Roman originals, and were probably made up by the counterfeiters, and most of them in a fine style that on closer inspection clearly isn’t Roman).
    Those pieces are now quite valuable in their own right, and, IIRC, in many cases even more so than the Roman originals they were based on (which are admittedly often also more common).

  42. AJP Staircase says

    Why is it so important to point out her gender (octogenarian woman from Kentucky called Nadine Stair) even tho her name shows it clearly?
    Why not write: “Nadine Stair, octogenarian from Kentucky”?

    For a start off because her name wasn’t not Stair. It was Strain. But how about General Stair? Man or woman? Or staircase? Name shows it clearly? Private Stair?

  43. Reminds me of Charlie Stross’ impressions from visiting Japan:

    “There’s a sign in front, with an English translation, so you pause to read it. “Founded by the abbot … around 768 … burned down during the wars … this is a modern reconstruction …” And you’re about to walk away, disappointed, when you read the final words: ” … created in 1633.” It’s just as much a modern replica as the Christopher Wren reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral — and yet, the same language is used of reproduction castles cast in the concrete of 1930s modernism, or Buddhist temples from the fourteenth century.”

  44. Anyone though of back-filling Internet? Writing facebook page for Lawrence of Arabia, blog for Tolstoy or tweeter feed for Caesar… There was a genre of “blogging the X” like reading Bible and describing the experience in weekly installments, how about “blogging Turgenev”, his life is relatively well-known, there are letters etc., we can imagine some Turgenev nut taking all this reaches and making a (say) weekly installments out of them. Or should we go straight to Borges? Let’s do Borges blog.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog, and he doth tweet.

  46. @D.O.: I have seen some “history in real time” projects that report on things like the world wars as if they were happening now.

  47. I remember, from the earliest days of Web 2.0, a site that was trying to do something like this for the early Roman Empire. However, it ran into the usual problems: The only real sources for the Julio-Claudian dynasty are Tacitus and Suetonius*; the latter is a horrible gossipmonger**; and anybody who cares knows the whole story already.

    * Does his name literally mean “greaseball,” or is that a convergence of different Latinate roots?

    ** Another of the closed class if things one may “monger” in modern English, alongside fish, war, whores, and iron.

  48. Lazar, yes indeed I now remember something like that for WWI. They should have had a big celebration recently.

  49. Another of the closed class if things one may “monger” in modern English, alongside fish, war, whores, and iron.

    I thought we are all language mongers here

  50. According to g-books also scandal monger, gossip monger, and ballad monger (WTF?) and whores didn’t even make the cut.

  51. And cheese.

  52. Fearmonger, costermonger, and rumormonger are all words I might use in real life. Wiktionary has a list of less common -mongers on the relevant page: (Wordmonger certainly deserves to be more common.)

  53. Coster. Can you direct me to the closest costermongers?

  54. Actually, this raises a question for me: Is the set of “mongers” really a closed class in other dialects than American English?

    I did not mean my list to be exhaustive, but I included ironmonger, which does not exist in America (in part because I remember that my brother-in-law had trouble finding a hardware store when he was visiting London*). Costermongery does not exist here either, nor the vast majority of the examples Wiktionary lists.

    * I had to get instruction how to find a hardware store in Rome once. Fortunately, the fellow manning the counter at the first ferreteria I tried spoke enough English to be helpful. I needed a power outlet converter, but the one I bought at the airport had been missing all the plugs when I opened it up! The replacement I bought at the Roman ferreteria worked for the plug shapes, but it didn’t change the voltage from 220 V, 50 Hz to 110 V, 60 Hz. That was ok for my laptop, but not, say, for my electric razor. Honestly, I do not remember how I managed to shave before I gave my plenary talk, but I know I figured it out somehow.

  55. David Marjanović says

    What is a costermonger?

  56. I think it’s a barrow boy. In London. It’s as much a part of the city as Tower Bridge, beefeaters and the Pearly Kings & Queens – in other words, not at all.

    Monger is apparently from Latin mango, mangonis, a slave trader. I think a monger is a dealer in something, cheese, gossip, what-have-you.

  57. What is a costermonger?

    A seller of fruits and vegetables from a street cart. They are all over New York, but are just called fruit vendors here. This coster- is apparently < costard, an apple cultivar used for cooking and described by the OED as “a large apple with prominent ribs or ridges, often described as having a pale green or red-flushed skin.” Coster also exists as a clipped form of costermonger. This is apparently unconnected with the custard apple, which is not an apple at all but Annona reticulata, a tropical tree fruit with an apple-like texture and a custard-like flavor. Fruit sellers tout court may be called fruitmongers.

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