Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Magic Work

When I was in junior high school, I took Latin. Not understanding the work that is required to learn a language well enough to become proficient in it, however, I muddled along getting decent grades without really mastering anything. Most of my circle of friends were taking Spanish. And they seemed to be having a better time than I was. So I decided to switch to Spanish. That meant having to take Spanish I with kids two years beneath me and also taking my religion class as an independent study over the summer. But it was worth the maneuvering. Remembering my struggles as I'd gotten into more advanced Latin, I made sure not make the same mistakes twice in learning Spanish.

By the end of the year, I was doing well enough that my teacher gave me permission to try to complete Spanish II over the summer. My mother found a tutor at the University of Maryland, an undergraduate named Mark who charged absurdly little -- even in the mid-1980s, $5 per hour was a tremendous bargain -- and was willing to meet me halfway between his home and ours, at the perpetually depressed Free State Mall in Bowie. He changed my life.

I'd been so miserable at my school, not to mention largely ignored by my teachers, that the love of learning I'd had as a child had been beaten into a state of self-loathing. By sitting with me for an hour in one of the booths at Happy Italian Delight Pizza, conversing about his life and mine, Mark showed me that it was possible to be smart and interested in the world without being pretentious. And he showed me that school is not the place to learn, so much as the place to test what you've learned on your own.

He'd studied in Argentina and found a girlfriend down there with whom he was having the predictable long-distance relationship troubles now that he was back in Maryland. While he never broached details that might be inappropriate for our tutoring arrangement, he shared enough of his experiences with her for me to understand that, despite the misery of high school, I might one day have similar ones myself. Not knowing how marginalized I was at school, he treated me as I'd always dreamed of being treated: a bright person without the burden of history weighing him down.

Mark also introduced me to the idea that literature is more fun to read for fun than it is to read as work. In addition to conversing about our daily lives, we also discussed his cultural interests. His favorite author was Jorge Luis Borges, someone I'd never heard of before. Unlike many of the smart undergrads I've encountered in my teaching, I wasn't one of those kids who reads the classics early in life as a way of compensating for my sense of being different from the herd. I did the summer reading our school demanded with relative enthusiasm, but, once classes started, was so unhappy that I barely cracked a book. The idea that literature might mean something to me apart from being a subject I'd get a lazy "A" in hadn't crossed my mind.

Hearing Mark talk about his love for Borges, though, and feeling that love come through in his indignation that the great man still hadn't received a Nobel Prize, I decided that I'd give literature a shot. So I procured the only Spanish-language copy of a Borges title I could find -- remember, this was years before Al Gore invented the internet -- and sat down to read. The book I'd purchased, La cifra, is one of Borges's late works, a very minor one in the scope of his oeuvre. I didn't know that at the time, however, and was immediately taken, as I turned the pages, by the number of historical and literary references in Borges's pieces. That intrigued me. It had never occurred to me that poetry could be about culture instead of feelings.

Finally, I decided I would try to make it all the way through one poem. The one I picked, somewhat randomly, is not, it turns out, among the most interesting in the collection. But I worked hard enough at learning it that it remains impressed in my mind. I can picture myself reading the words out loud, over and over, as I sat on the curb outside the pizzeria, waiting to be picked up after an unusual nighttime meeting with Mark:
El sueño
La noche nos impone su tarea
mágica. Destejer el universo,
las ramificaciones infinitas
de efectos y de causas, que se pierden
en ese vértigo sin fondo, el tiempo.
La noche quiere que esta noche olvides
tu nombre, tus mayores y tu sangre,
cada palabra humana y cada lágrima,
lo que pude enseñarte la vigilia,
el ilusorio punto de los geómetras,
la línea, el plano, el cubo, el pirámide,
el cilindro, la esfera, el mar, las olas,
tu mejilla en la almohada, la frescura
de la sábana nueva. . .
los imperios, los Césares y Shakespeare
y lo que es más difícil, lo que amas.
Curiosamente, una pastilla puede
borrar el cosmos y erigir el caos.
I also remember being disturbed by the last two lines, which seem to take the vast range of the list that precedes them and render it meaningless. I suppose that was the point, since Borges was a master of the end-of-sonnet like turn, whether in prose or poetry. I also hadn't yet come into contact with cosmos-erasing substances. A few years later, when I was less innocent and more happy, I would drift off with this poem in my head, as if it represented a permit from the authorities to stop thinking and start floating away. Perhaps that's why, when I had the sort of minor surgery in 2003 that should probably come with scare quotes, but which, because I only needed a local anaesthetic, left me conscious for the procedure, I decided to read Borges to take my mind off of the operation. Tonight I'll be teaching Borges in my senior seminar. Right now I'm going to go prepare for class. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the labor.
Tags: autobiography, literature, spanish
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