Edited and translated transcripts of recordings of a university class in English literature taught in the fall of 1966 by the celebrated Argentinian author.
In 1966, Borges (1899–1986) had been teaching for 10 years at the University of Buenos Aires, and his lectures communicate a comfortable familiarity with the material; they also offer some piercing insights into specific works in the English canon. His 25 class sessions began with the Anglo-Saxons and ended with Robert Louis Stevenson and the notion of schizophrenia evident in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other works. (Shakespeare is present only in allusions.) His approach is highly traditional—mostly lecture and explication—though in some later classes, he invited students to read aloud from the texts; he periodically interrupted to illuminate. Also astonishing were his expectations for his students. He routinely alluded to other texts outside the syllabus (The Picture of Dorian Gray, In Cold Blood) and stated and/or implied that his students surely knew these works. Among the texts and authors he dealt with directly were Beowulf, Johnson and Boswell, James MacPherson, Wordsworth and Coleridge (he calls the latter “lazy”), Blake, Carlyle, Dickens (who “suffers from an excess of sentimentalism”), Robert Browning and William Morris. Borges—who had lost his eyesight by 1966—occasionally confesses some personal frailties—e.g., “I have a poor memory for dates.” He also clearly believed in the importance of an author’s biography: He continually introduced works with some details about the writer’s personal life. Evident, too, is a trait that many contemporary students would probably find off-putting: a lack of humor. The classes were unrelievedly earnest and academic and included very few references to popular culture or contemporary history.
A sobering, even startling, view of an academic world that has fundamentally altered and softened in the last half-century.