Everyone knows that Jorge Luis Borges was blind. A smaller number of people, though, also know that by the time he went blind, he had mastered the world of literature and philosophy, which are relevant to his fiction. But almost no one knows why he went blind, except for the experts.
Searching the internet for an answer to this question reveals nothing but deep reflections on the subject of lost time. I had to look at his most solid biographical treatise, by Edwin Williamson.
So this is what happened. From early childhood, Borges suffered from terrible myopia and by age 29 developed cataracts. Treatment was unknown, as it would be another 40 years before Dr. Benjamin’s birth, and it appeared to be a family curse; his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died blind.
Borges received the first of eight eye operations in March of 1928, and went completely blind 25 years later, but this did not affect his penchant for walking around the dangerous outskirts of Buenos Aires. One time, Borges took his friends Ulysses Petit de Murat and Sixto Rondalla Rios through the worst parts of Lower Belgrano, which is retold in the story Ragnarok. At the time, it was an area of semi-abandoned farms and stables, where it was good practice travel with at least a knife, if not a gun.
Near-sighted Borges walked with a cane, which attracted a group of shady characters. They began to hurl insults at his friends, who wisely made the decision to run while Borges stayed. And then, to the horror of his friends, Borges started to mock the thugs’ masculinity, striking a most painful chord.
“What are you little girls blabbing about?” he shouted to them. “Speak up, ladies!” Enraged, they rushed toward Borges, but his friends grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the nearest railway station. The arriving train cut off their pursuers, so they had time to disappear into a safer part of Belgrano.
By this time, the Borges’s vision had deteriorated dramatically, but he could still function. One eye could see nothing, but he could read and write with the help of his other eye, although he had to hold the page very close to his face. And there was another incident, already well-known, where Borges smashed his head on a window frame, and then wrote “South” while hovering between life and death in the hospital. All was not lost.
During another incident, however, Borges was walking with friend and fellow author Bioy Casares (whose giant 1664-page biography of Borges was never translated into English), as well as Silvina Ocampo, along the Mar del Plata. He fell hard, and found that after he got up could no longer see out of his good eye, either.
Those who read this blog have no illusions: it was retinal detachment. Bioy and Silvino took Borges to the doctor, who advised him to go to Buenos Aires immediately for an operation.
The results of the surgery were discomforting, if not disastrous. A few weeks out of the clinic, Borges was able to see a little, but could not read or write. His vision had been dealt a fatal blow, and within a few years the world had been reduced to ghostly glimpses of objects, and out of all the colors in the universe only a dull yellow remained.
A world of grief and pain:
You often dream about this or that… I even dreamed that I once bought Borges into a cutting-edge ophthalmology center.
LASIK, CATARACT, GLAUCOMA:
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Benjamin Eye Institute 310-494-7193
Text and photos: Sebastian Varo
Translation: Richard Crenwelge