Red Sea


"Cuando alcances mi edad habrás perdido casi por completo la vista. Veras el color amarillo y sombras y luces. No te preocupes. La ceguera gradual no es una cosa tragica. Es como un lento atardecer de verano."

When you attain my age, you will have almost completely lost your sight. You will see the color yellow, and shadows, and lights. Don't worry yourself. Gradual blindness is not a tragic event. It is like the slow, grave sunset of a summer evening

--Jorge Luis Borges, "El Otro"/"The Other"

When the train left the station
It had two lights on behind.
The red light was my baby
And the blue light was my mind

--Robert Johnson, "Love In Vain."


I discovered Borges' "the Other" fairly recently, when my Parisian e-mail friend, Nicolas, fellow member of an Internet Retinitis Pigmentosa forum, recommended it to me. That Borges had lost his sight by degrees, I was aware, but I had never before come across any reference to this in his fiction. The "Love In Vain" lyrics, by comparison, I have known for years, whether as keened eerily by Robert Johnson himself on scratchy old recordings in that unearthly voice of his or delivered in an English parody of a blues drawl by Mick Jagger, decades later.

Watching helplessly as the world dissolves into a chaos of bright ghosts and dark vacancies is not, for me, so gentle an experience, does not call up the bucolic images of my Midwest childhood memory of suburban summers that the Borges quotation suggests. It does not recall for me fireflies pricking the gathering July dark with their tiny, airborne strobe-flashes, or ice cubes clinking in tall glasses, or muted talk and television sounds filtering outdoors through screens. My immediate response to the sanguine reassurance of the Borges passage was disbelieving, disdainful, to the point of rage, and the rage was quickly followed by depression.

But, soon after, in a grieving moment, "Love In Vain" came into my mind, the very sorrow of the song, the unapologetic, unqualified bereavement of it, making much more sense to me and, in the way that music can do, bestowing catharsis and consolation, all at once. And then I thought of this image, also involving a train, that seemed to say how I felt, myself.

I am the only passenger on a subway car that is plunging headlong into a tunnel I know to be endless. I can smell the fetid odor of old stone and sparking metal, hear the clatter and shriek of wheels on tracks. The tunnel's particulars--tiles, distance markers, call boxes--fade out with ferocious speed, and the tunnel itself becomes just a backward-rushing shadow, its concrete embrace more sensed than seen.

Panic. A vacuum in the belly, a racing in the heart. Now the light inside the car itself starts to flicker. I feel an urge to jump up and rush to the rearmost door of the train, to look backward out its thick glass window. But I know if I do that, what I will see. A shrinking point of light holding my last sight of the last station, with its posters, its turnstiles, its few midnight travelers strung out along the platfform like the isolated figures of Edward Hopper's paintings. And the point of light will compress itself relentlessly around that tableau, crush it down to an atom of recollection, to the visual equivalent of an amputee's phantom limb. So instead, I stay planted in my seat, rocking gently down the line to darkness, just trying to think of a good tune to whistle to myself when I get there.


Borges passage trans. J. Deutsch


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