30 Days with Borges: Day 4, Shakespeare’s Memory, Everything and Nothing

Shakespeare’s Memory was the last story published by Borges. It is often overlooked in reviews of the stories. Some cite that the story wasn’t totally revised and that it should never have been published. Others say that it adds nothing new to his works. However, I like Shakespeare’s Memory.

Shakespeare’s Memory is a good summation of the themes that obsessed Borges – time, chance, identity, memory, and the creative process. The story is rather explicit in stating those thematic points, which is its flaw. But, for the person new to Borges, it might be worthwhile to read Shakespeare’s Memory first before tackling some of the more difficult stories.

“Shakespeare’s Memory” is narrated by a German scholar who is given the opportunity to acquire the complete memory of William Shakespeare. Not an archive of documents or writings but Shakespeare’s actual memory, the thoughts and feelings that inhabited Shakespeare had during his entire life.

When given the memory, the scholar is told, “‘The memory has entered your mind, but it must be discovered. It will emerge in dreams or when you awake, when you turn the pages of a book or turn a corner. Don’t be impatient. Don’t invent recollections. Chance in its mysterious workings may help it along, or it may hold it back.’”

Borges admired the works of the writer Thomas De Quincey and mentions him in an important section of Shakespeare’s Memory:

De Quincey says that our brain is a palimpsest. Every new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows – but all powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression, no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus.

Reading Shakespearee’s Memory I cannot help but think about the process of learning, the Internet, and the current vogue of Wikipedia: “The man who acquires an encylopedia does not thereby acquire every line, every paragraph, every page, and every illustration; he acquires the possibility of becoming familiar with one and another of those things.”

The concerns about mortality and the purpose of life that possessed Borges is clearly present in Shakespeare’s Memory: “No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past….A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities.”

Towards the end of the story Borges writes, “As the years pass, every man is forced to bear the burden of his memory.”

As usual, when talking about these stories, I will try not to reveal the endings. Borges loved placing a twist at the end, often in the very last sentence.

Shakespeare’s Memory should be read alongside an earlier piece , which is not really a story but more of a reflection, a meditation on Shakespeare and creativity. Borges gave Everything and Nothing its title in English rather than Spanish and with italics. [Note: I don't have a Spanish copy of Shakespeare's Memory, so only quoted the English translation by Hurley; in these postings, when I have both Spanish and English versions, I will quote both.]

Borges starts with the great line: “There was no one inside him; [Nadie hubo en él;].”

Everything and Nothing foreshadows in many ways and is the stronger of the two works. Regarding Shakespeare: “The fundamental identity of living, dreaming, and performing inspired him to famous passages. [La identidad fundamental de existir, soñar y representar le inspiró pasajes famosos.]”

Everything and Nothing has a very strong ending and will be probably the only ending from the fictions that I will repeat on this blog:

History adds that before or after he died, he discovered himself standing before God, and said to Him: I, who have been so many men in vain, wish to be one, to be myself: God’s voice answered him out of a whirlwind: I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.

[La historia agrega que, antes o después de morir, se supo frente a Dios y le dijo: “Yo, que tantos hombres he sido en vano, quiero ser uno y yo.” La voz de Dios le contestó desde un torbellino: “Yo tampoco soy; yo soñé el mundo como tú soñaste tu obra, mi Shakespeare, y entre las formas de mi sueño estabas tú, que como yo eres muchos y nadie.”

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