Jorge Luis Borges on Collective Tragedy and Collective Joy
“There was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring.”
By Maria Popova
“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence,” legendary composer Leonard Bernstein urged in his stirring clarion call for the only true antidote to violence in response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “I have seen much of suffering and death in my lifetime, but I have never lived through a more terrible moment,” the great cellist Pau Casals wrote of his own reaction to the tragedy. “It was as if a beautiful and irreplaceable part of the world had suddenly been torn away.”
Bernstein and Casals were but two of millions anguished by deep personal pain in parallel with everyone else heartbroken by the unspeakable brutality of the loss. They were articulating a profound collective grief — the kind we experience whenever something or someone widely cherished has been violently ripped from humanity’s shared embrace, which is perhaps the most palpable evidence we have of a “planetary übermind,” or what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”
That’s what Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) contemplates in a particularly poignant portion of the 1974 treasure trove Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) by Fernando Sorrentino, which gave us the beloved author’s abiding wisdom on writing.
Borges reflects on the grim afternoon of November 22, 1963, when he learned of JFK’s assassination:
I received that piece of news with an emotion I wouldn’t know how to analyze. I remember I was walking through this neighborhood, the one in which the National Library is; I heard someone say: “Kennedy’s dead.” I assumed this “Kennedy” was some Irishman in the neighborhood, and later, as I was entering the Library, someone said to me: “He’s been killed…!” And then I understood, from the tone in which he said it, whom he was talking about. And I recall, during that same day, having stopped in the street with people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, and our having embraced each other as a way of expressing what we were feeling.
Echoing his contemporary Primo Levi’s celebration of how space exploration brings humanity closer together, Borges considers the collective joy of these transcendent leaps of human achievement as a counterpoint to the collective tragedy of human destructiveness:
That day there was a sort of communion among men, as there was also that Sunday on which the first men landed on the moon. That is, there was the emotion over what had occurred, and there was also the emotion of knowing that thousands of people, millions of people, maybe all the people in the world, were feeling great emotion over what was occurring. With the difference that in Kennedy’s case we felt that something tragic had happened and, on the other hand, in the case of men landing on the moon, I think we all felt it as a personal joy. I would go even further; I would say I felt a kind of personal pride, as if I had somehow been one of the creators of that prodigious feat, since we’ve all looked at the moon, since we’ve all thought about the moon.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges with Susan Sontag’s timeless tribute to Borges’s legacy, then revisit JFK on poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society — one of the greatest speeches ever given, and a testament to all that made him so eternally irreplaceable.
Published August 24, 2016