Shakespeare’s Memory, by Jorge Luis Borges

(This story can be found in Borges’ last short story collection, published in 1983.
Translation mine.)

There are men devoted to Goethe, to the Eddas, to the belated songs of the Nibelungen; Shakespeare has been my destiny. It remains my destiny still, but in a way no one could have predicted, save for one man, Daniel Thorpe, who has just died in Pretoria. There is another, whose face I have never seen.

I am Hermann Soergel. The curious reader has perhaps perused my “Chronology of Shakespeare”, which I once considered necessary for a good understanding of the plays and was translated into several languages, including Spanish. It is not impossible that they remember a prolonged controversy surrounding a certain emendation that Theobald included in his critical edition of 1734, which has been an undisputed part of the canon since then. Today I am surprised of the uncivilized tone of those almost foreign pages. Around 1914 I wrote–but did not publish–a study on the compound words that the Hellenist and playwright George Chapman forged for his Homeric translations, which set the English language, without him knowing it, back to its Anglo-Saxon origins (Urprung). I never thought that his voice, which I have now forgotten, would seem familiar to me… some other article signed with my initials completes, I think, my literary biography. I am not sure if it’s fair to mention an unpublished translation of Macbeth, which I began in order to stop thinking about the death of my brother Otto Julius, who fell in the Western front in the year 1917. I never finished it; I realized that English pleasantly contains two registers, the Germanic and the Latin, while our German, despite its best music, must limit itself to only one.

I have already mentioned Daniel Thorpe. Major Barclay introduced us, in a certain Shakespearean congress. I will not mention the place, nor the date; I know very well that such precisions are, in reality, vague.

More important than his face, which my partial blindness helps me forget, was Daniel Thorpe’s notorious unhappiness. Throughout the years, a man can pretend to be many things, but he cannot pretend to be happy. In an almost physical way, Daniel Thorpe exhaled melancholy.

After a long session, the night found us in a random tavern. In order to feel that we were in England (where we already were) we drank in ritual several mugs of warm black beer.

“In Punjab,” said the major, “there lived an old beggar man. An ancient Islamic tradition attributes to king Solomon the ownership of a ring that allowed him to understand the language of birds. Everyone thought this beggar man owned that ring. Its worth was so incalculable that he could never sell it and he died in one of the courtyards of the Wazil Khan mosque, in Lahore.”

I thought that Chaucer was perhaps aware of this fabled ring, but mentioning it would have spoiled Barclay’s anecdote.

“And the ring?” I asked.

“It was lost, as it happens with magical objects. Perhaps it is hidden away in some corner of the mosque or in the hands of a man who lives in a land with no birds.”

“Or a land with so many birds,” I said, “that their many voices cannot be understood. Your story, Barclay, is something of a parable.”

That is when Daniel Thorpe spoke. He did it in an impersonal way, not looking at us. He pronounced his English in a curious way, which I attributed to a long residence in the East.

“It is not a parable,” he said, “and if it is, it is true. There are things of such worth that they cannot be sold.”

The words I try to reproduce were less impressive than the conviction with which Daniel Thorpe said them. We thought he would continue talking, but he suddenly stopped, perhaps with regret. Barclay said goodbye. The two of us walked back to the hotel. It was very late, but Thorpe suggested we continued our talk in his room. After a few trivialities, he said:

“I offer you Solomon’s ring. Of course, this is a metaphor, but what this metaphor alludes to is no less fantastic than the ring. I offer you the memory of William Shakespeare between his most puerile years and the first days of April, 1616.”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak. It was as if someone offered me the sea.

Thorpe continued:

“I am not an impostor. I am not mad. I beg you to suspend your judgment until you’ve heard it all. The major must have told you that I am, or was, a military surgeon. The story is not long. It begins in the Orient, in a hospital at dawn. The precise date does not matter. With his last breath, a soldier, Adam Clay, who was hit by two rifle shots, offered me, before his end, the precious memory. Agony and fever can be inventive; I took the offer without believing in it. Besides, after a battle, nothing is too strange. He barely had enough time to explain the curious conditions of the gift. The owner must offer it aloud and the other must accept it. The giver loses it forever.”

I thought the name of the soldier and the pathetic circumstances of the story seemed literary, in the worst sense of the word.

A bit intimidated, I asked him, “Do you have Shakespeare’s memory now?”

“I have, for now, two memories. My own and the one of that Shakespeare who I partially am. Or rather, two memories have me. There are zones where they become confused. There is a woman’s face–I don’t know which century I should attribute it to.”

I asked, “What have you done with Shakespeare’s memory?

There was silence. Then he said, “I have written a biography in the form of a novel which was disdained by the critics and had some commercial success in the United States and the colonies. I believe that is all. I have warned you that my gift is not easy to possess. I await your answer.”

I stood in thought. Hadn’t I dedicated my whole life, no less dull than strange, to the search of Shakespeare? Wasn’t it fair that at the end of the road I should find him? I said, carefully articulating each word:

“I accept the memory of Shakespeare.”

Something certainly happened, but I couldn’t feel it.

Some vague fatigue, perhaps imaginary.

I clearly remember Thorpe telling me, “The memory has already entered your consciousness, but you must find it. It will appear in dreams, in your waking hours, when you turn the page of a book or a corner. Do not be impatient, do not invent memories. Chance might favor or delay you, in its own mysterious way. As I begin to forget, you will begin to remember. I promise nothing more.”

We spent the rest of the night discussing the character of Shylock. I abstained from asking if Shakespeare had had personal relations with Jews. I didn’t want Thorpe to think I was testing him. I realized, perhaps with relief or perhaps a bit disturbed, that his opinions were as academic and conventional as mine.

Despite the previous night, I barely slept the next day. I discovered, like many other times, that I was a coward. For fear of being swindled, I didn’t give in to that generous hope. I wanted to believe that Thorpe’s gift was illusory. Irresistibly, hope prevailed. Shakespeare would be mine, like no one would ever own anyone else, not in love, nor in friendship, not even in hatred. In a way, I would be Shakespeare. I wouldn’t write the tragedies or the intricate sonnets, but I would remember the instant in which the Three Witches were revealed to me, and the instant where these vast lines were delivered to me:

And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this worldweary flesh.

I would remember Anne Hathaway like I remember that older woman who taught me how to love in an apartment in Lübeck, so many years ago (I tried to remember her and I could only recover the wallpaper, which was yellow, and the clarity of the window. This first failure should have made me anticipate all others.)

I had postulated that the images of the precious memory would be, first and foremost, visual. Such was not the case. Days later, as I was shaving, I pronounced a few words which surprised me and which belonged, as a colleague pointed out, to the A.B.C. of Chaucer. One afternoon, as I was leaving the British Museum, I whistled a very simple tune I had never heard before. The reader will have noticed the common thread between the first revelations of a memory that was, despite the splendor of some metaphors, much more auditory than visual.

De Quincey wrote that a man’s brain is a palimpsest. Each new writing covers the previous and is covered by the next, but the almighty memory can exhume any impression, no matter how fleeting, if given enough stimulus. According to his will, there were no books, not even a Bible, in Shakespeare’s house, but no one ignores the books he frequented. Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Florio’s Montaigne, North’s Plutarch. I was the owner of Shakespeare’s memory; the reading, or rather the rereading, of those old volumes would be the stimulus I needed. I also reread his sonnets, his most immediate work. A few times I came upon an explanation or many explanations. Good poems demand to be read aloud; after a few days I was able to effortlessly recover the rough r’s and the open vowels of the 16th century.

I write in the Zeitschrift für germanische Philologie that sonnet 127 is about the memorable defeat of the Invincible Fleet. I didn’t remember that Samuel Butler, in 1899, had already formulated that thesis.

A visit to Stratford-on-Avon was, predictably, sterile.

Then it came the gradual transformation of my dreams. I didn’t receive, like De Quincey, splendid nightmares, nor pious allegorical visions. Strange faces and strange rooms crept into my nights. The first face I recognized was Chapman’s; then the face of Ben Jonson and one of the poet’s neighbors who does not appear in any biography, but who Shakespeare would often see.

Whoever buys an encyclopedia doesn’t buy each line, each paragraph, each page and each illustration; he merely buys the possibility to know a few of these things. If this happens with a concrete and relatively simple object, given the alphabetical order of its parts, what wouldn’t happen with an abstract and varied object, ondoyant et divers, like the memory of a dead man?

No one can see in a single instant the plenitude of his past. Nor Shakespeare, nor I, his partial heir, were blessed with that gift. The memory of man is not a sum; it is a disorder of undefined possibilities. Saint Augustine spoke, if I remember correctly, of the palaces and caverns of memory. The second metaphor is more just. Into these caverns I walked.

Like ours, Shakespeare’s memory included zones, great zones of shadow deliberately rejected by him. Not without indignation I remembered that Ben Jonson made him read Latin and Greek hexameters aloud, and that the ear, the incomparable ear of Shakespeare, used to read a few of them wrong, to the boisterous laughter of his colleagues.

I knew states of luck and shadow that transcend common human experience. Without knowing it, my long and studious solitude had prepared me for the docile reception of the miracle.

After about a month, the dead man’s memory filled me with joy. During a week of curious happiness, I believed I was Shakespeare. His works were renewed to me. I knew that the moon, to Shakespeare, was less the moon than Diana and less Diana than that obscure word that delays itself: moon. I wrote down another discovery. Shakespeare’s apparent mistakes, those absence dans l’infini that Hugo apologetically mentions, were deliberate. Shakespeare tolerated them, or weaved them into his plays, so that his discourse, destined to the stage, would seem spontaneous and not too polished and artificial (nicht allzu glatt und gekunstelt). This same deliberation moved him to mix his metaphors:

                        my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.

One morning I glimpsed a certain guilt at the bottom of his memory. I will not try to define it; Shakespeare has done that forever. It is enough to say that this guilt had nothing to do with perversion.

I understood that the three faculties of the human soul, memory, understanding and will, are not a scholastic fiction. The memory of Shakespeare could only reveal to me the circumstances of Shakespeare. It is obvious that these cannot define the singularity of the poet; what matters is the work he crafted out of that despicable material.

I had ingenuously anticipated, like Thorpe, the writing of a biography. It didn’t take me very long to realize that this literary genre requires the conditions of a writer, which certainly do not belong to me. I cannot narrate. I cannot narrate my own story, which is much more mundane than Shakespeare’s. Besides, that book would be pointless. Chance or fate gave Shakespeare the trivial and terrible things that every man knows; he was able to transform them into fables, into characters more vivid than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses that the generations of men will not forget, into verbal music. Why unravel that web, why undermine that tower, why reduce to the measured proportions of a documented biography or a realist novel the sound and the fury of Macbeth?

Goethe is the official cult of Germany; more intimate is the cult of Shakespeare, which we profess not without nostalgia. (In England, Shakespeare, who is so different from the English, constitutes the official cult; the book of England is the Bible.)

During the first stage of my adventure I felt the joy of being Shakespeare; after that, the oppression and terror. At first the two memories didn’t mix their waters. With time, the great river of Shakespeare threatened, and almost overtook my modest course. I noticed with fear that I had begun to forget the language of my elders. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.

My friends would come to visit me; I was astounded that they couldn’t perceive I was in hell.

I began to disbelieve of the common things that surrounded me (die alltagliche Umwelt). A certain morning I was lost amidst great formations of iron, wood and glass. Whistles and clamors bewildered me. It took me an instant, which seemed infinite, to recognize the engines and wagons of the Bremen station.

As the years go by, each man is forced to carry the increasing load of his memory. I was weighed down by two often mingling memories: mine and the other, incommunicable.

All things wish to persist in their being, wrote Spinoza. The stone wants to be a stone, the tiger a tiger, I wanted to be Hermann Soergel again.

I have forgotten the date in which I decided to free myself. I chose the easiest way. I dialed random phone numbers. The voices of children and women would answer. I thought my duty was to respect them. Finally, I heard the learned voice of a man. I said:

“Do you want Shakespeare’s memory? I know that what I offer you is grave. Think well.”

An incredulous voice replied:

“I will take the risk. I accept Shakespeare’s memory.”

I told him the conditions of the gift. Paradoxically, I felt the nostalgia of the book I should have written but couldn’t, and the fear that this host, this specter, would never let me write it.

I hung up and repeated like a prayer these resigned words:

Simply the thing I am shall make me live.

I had imagined disciplines to awaken the ancient memory; I had to seek others to erase it. One of many was the study of the mythology of William Blake, that rebellious disciple of Swedenborg. I realized that it was less complex than complicated. That path and other paths were useless; they all led to Shakespeare.

I finally found the only solution to populate my waiting: the strict and vast music: Bach.

P.S. 1924–I am now a man among men. In my waking hours I am the learned professor Hermann Soergel, who handles index cards and redacts erudite trivialities, but some dawns I know it is the other one who dreams. Some afternoons, I am surprised by small and fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic.