Thoughts on Familiarity and Belonging via Borges’ Poem, “Llaneza”

(I posted the poem below in my commonplace book a while back, but I was looking at it again and found myself wanting to write a few words about it.)

The difficult-to-pronounce Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (HOR-heh / loo-EES / bor-HEHS) is a favorite of mine when it comes to short fiction, but I recently discovered his poetry. Here’s my translation of his poem “Llaneza.”

Familiarity

The garden gate opens itself
with the docility of the page
which a frequent devotion interrogates,
and within, the gaze
need not fix itself on those objects
that are already fully in memory.
These costumes and souls are familiar to me
and that dialect of allusions
that every human cluster goes about weaving.
I don’t need to speak
or invent privileges;
they know me well who here surround me,
they know well my anguish and my weakness,
That state being the highest we can reach,
the highest Heaven may give us:
not admirations or victories
but simply being admitted
as part of an undeniable Reality,
like stones and trees.

Borges often wrote fictions posing as academic prose, mock biographies of historical figures, convoluted tales of people losing their sense of reality in the surreal halls of infinite libraries and endless books. These fictions play with reality and meaning, and intentionally throw wrenches into common conceptions of authorship, history, the nature of the self, of time.

So—this poem isn’t really doing any of those things, which is why, for me, it’s so arresting. While it seems to invoke some paradise-like setting, where gates open and, as in Cheers, everybody knows your name, this poem is resolutely here and now.

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Source: tumblr.com

The poem acknowledges that our lived experience, “authentic” though it may seem, cannot be separated from artifice; our social relations, our identities, are built in part upon costumes and performances using the building blocks of ideas and images and behaviors that often aren’t entirely our own, but rather allusions to those of others. And the poem seems to feel the truth that we often move among the myriad people of our grocery stores and city streets and workplaces without really paying attention to them as individuals, or at worst, viewing them only in a brief moment as mere objects.

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Source: shakylegs.tumblr.com

But even so, this poem argues that there is a state of affairs in which you can be acknowledged, recognized as a fellow traveler, a fellow human being, without worrying about your legitimacy or genuineness being put in doubt; that within the space of llaneza, it seems that you fundamentally, radically, belong.

The Spanish word “llaneza” can be defined as “simplicity,” as in an attitude free of appearances or artifice. In practice, it’s sort of like “familiarity” or “frankness” in one’s relations with others. The poem does a better job of defining that sort of familiarity than I could. In Borges’ vision, llaneza is a safe and intimate place, a gift of community, of camaraderie.

Reflecting on the poem, I keep coming back to how it can feel so ridiculously tenuous, this effort at existing within a tiny carved-out space within this great big crowded interwebz, trying to build my own garden gate…


News: I started a subreddit!

So, yeah. Check out the new subreddit, /r/ElectricDidact. I’ll be posting the blog posts there as well as anything else interesting that I come across from time to time and that may be worthy of discussion (but isn’t everything?). You could say it’s more of a META-didact…

Anyway, go and subscribe if you’re on reddit. (Which, if you’re not, now you have a good reason?)

 

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