Jorge Luis Borges


Jorge Luis Borges [bawr-hes] (1899 – 1986) was an Argentine writer whose work embraces the ‘character of unreality in all literature’; his most famous books, ‘Ficciones’ (1944) and ‘The Aleph’ (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, religion, and God.

His works have contributed to the genre of science fiction and magic realism (a reaction against the realism/naturalism of the nineteenth century). In fact, critic Angel Flores, the first to use the term, set the beginning of this movement with Borges’s ‘Historia universal de la infamia’ (‘A Universal History of Infamy’) (1935). Scholars have also suggested that Borges’s progressive blindness helped him to create innovative literary symbols through imagination. His late poems dialogue with such cultural figures as Spinoza, Camões, and Virgil.

By the mid-1930s, he began to explore existential questions and fiction. He worked in a style that Ana María Barrenechea has called ‘Irreality.’ Many other Latin American writers, such as Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, and Alejo Carpentier, were also investigating these themes, influenced by the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger and the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. In this vein, his biographer Williamson underlines how careful readers must be not to infer a biographical basis for Borges’s work as books, philosophy and imagination were as much a source of real inspiration to him as personal experience, if not more so.

Borges’s father died in 1938. This was a tragedy for the writer as the two were very close. On Christmas Eve that year, Borges suffered a severe head injury; during treatment, he nearly died of septicemia. While recovering from the accident, Borges began playing with a new style of writing for which he would become famous. His first story written after his accident, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote’ came out in 1939, examining the father-son relationship and the nature of authorship. His first collection of short stories, ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’ (‘The Garden of Forking Paths’), appeared in 1941. The title story concerns a Chinese professor in England who spies for Germany during World War I, in an attempt to prove to the authorities that an Asian person is able to obtain the information that they seek. A combination of book and maze, it can be read in many ways. Through it, Borges arguably invented the ‘hypertext novel’ and went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel.

In an interview with Richard Burgin during the late 1960s, Borges described himself as an adherent of Classical Liberalism. He further recalled that his opposition to Marxism and Communism was absorbed in his childhood. ‘Well, I have been brought up to think that the individual should be strong and the State should be weak. I couldn’t be enthusiastic about theories where the State is more important than the individual.’ After the overthrow via coup d’etat of President Juan Domingo Perón in 1955, Borges supported efforts to purge Argentina’s Government of Peronists and dismantle the former President’s welfare state. He was enraged that the Communist Party of Argentina opposed these measures and sharply criticized them in lectures and in print.

In later years, Borges frequently expressed contempt for Marxists and Communists within the Latin American intelligentsia. In an interview with Burgin, Borges referred to Chilean Pablo Neruda as ‘a very fine poet,’ but a ‘very mean man’ for unconditionally supporting the Soviet Union and demonizing the United States. During the 1970s, Borges at first expressed support for Argentina’s military junta, but was scandalized by the junta’s actions during the Dirty War. In protest against their support of the regime, Borges ceased publishing in the newspaper ‘La Nación.’

In 1934, Argentine ultra-nationalists, sympathetic to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, asserted Borges was secretly Jewish, and by implication, not a ‘true’ Argentine. Borges responded with the essay ‘Yo, Judío’ (‘I, a Jew’), a reference to the old ‘Yo, Argentino’ (‘I, an Argentine’), a defensive phrase used during pogroms of Argentine Jews to make it clear to attackers that an intended victim was not Jewish. In the essay he notes, that he would be proud to be a Jew, with a backhanded reminder that any ‘pure” Castilian might be likely to have Jewish ancestry from a millennium ago.’ Both before and during the Second World War, Borges regularly published essays attacking the Nazi police state and its racist ideology. His outrage was fueled by his deep love for German literature. In an essay published in 1937, Borges attacked the Nazi Party’s use of children’s books in order to inflame antisemitism. He wrote, ‘I don’t know if the world can do without German civilization, but I do know that its corruption by the teachings of hatred is a crime.’

In a 1938 essay, Borges reviewed an anthology which rewrote German authors of the past to fit the Nazi party line. He was disgusted by what he describes as Germany’s ‘chaotic descent into darkness’ and the attendant re-writing of history. He argues that such books sacrifice culture, history and honesty in the name of defending German honor. Such practices, he writes, ‘perfect the criminal arts of barbarians.’ In a 1944 essay, Borges postulated, ‘Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon, (which must have known that they were monsters), collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.’

In 1946, Borges published the short story, ‘Deutsches Requiem,’ which masquerades as the last testament of Otto Dietrich zur Linde, a condemned Nazi war criminal. In a 1967 interview with Burgin, Borges recalled how his interactions with Argentina’s Nazi sympathizers led him to create the story: ‘And then I realized that those people that were on the side of Germany, that they never thought of German victories or the German glory. What they really liked was the idea of the Blitzkrieg, of London being on fire, of the country being destroyed. As to the German fighters, they took no stock in them. Then I thought, well now Germany has lost, now America has saved us from this nightmare, but since nobody can doubt on which side I stood, I’ll see what can be done from a literary point of view in favor of the Nazis. And then I created the ideal Nazi.’

In 1946, President Juan Domingo Perón began transforming Argentina into a Justicialist regime with the assistance of his wife Evita. Almost immediately, the spoils system was the rule of the day, as ideological critics of the new order were dismissed from government jobs. During this period, Borges was informed that he was being ‘promoted’ from his position at the Miguel Cané Library to a post as inspector of poultry and rabbits at the Buenos Aires municipal market. Upon demanding to know the reason, Borges was told, ‘Well, you were on the side of the Allies, what do you expect?’ The following day, Borges resigned from Government service in response to an insult he would never forget, or forgive.

In 1955, the ‘Revolución Libertadora’ forced Peron to flee into exile. Borges was overjoyed and joined demonstrators marching through the streets of Buenos Aires. In his subsequent essay ‘l’Illusion Comique,’ Borges denounced the conspiracy theories which the Peronist State had spread through the press and speeches. In conclusion, he wrote: ‘…one can only denounce the duplicity of the fictions of the former regime, which can’t be believed and were believed. It will be said that the public’s lack of sophistication is enough to explain the contradiction; I believe that the cause is more profound. Coleridge spoke of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ that is, poetic faith; Samuel Johnson said, in defense of Shakespeare, that the spectators at a tragedy do not believe they are in Alexandria in the first act and Rome in the second, but submit to the pleasure of a fiction. Similarly, the lies of a dictatorship are neither believed nor disbelieved; they pertain to an intermediate plane, and their purpose is to conceal or justify sordid or atrocious realities.’

In a 1967 interview, Borges said, ‘Peron was a humbug, and he knew it, and everybody knew it. But Peron could be very cruel. I mean, he had people tortured, killed. And his wife was a common prostitute.’ When Peron returned from exile in 1973 and regained the Presidency, Borges was enraged. After Borges’ death in 1986, the Peronist Partido Justicialista declined to send a delegate to the writer’s memorial service in Buenos Aires.

In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies. His longest work of fiction was a 14-page story, ‘The Congress,’ first published in 1971. His late-onset blindness strongly influenced his later writing. Borges wrote: ‘When I think of what I’ve lost, I ask, ‘Who know themselves better than the blind?’ – for every thought becomes a tool.’ Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, integrating these through literature, sometimes playfully, sometimes with great seriousness. Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), he increasingly focused on writing poetry, since he could memorize an entire work in progress.

Borges was a notable translator. He translated works of literature in English, French, German, Old English, and Old Norse into Spanish. His first publication, for a Buenos Aires newspaper, was a translation of Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Happy Prince’ into Spanish when he was nine. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Kafka, Hesse, Kipling, Faulkner, Gide, Whitman, and Woolf. Borges wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation, holding that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid.

Borges also employed the devices of literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work, both forms of modern pseudo-epigrapha. Borges’s best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine ‘El Hogar.’ Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works, for example, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ originally claiming them to be translations of works he had chanced upon. In another case, he added three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology ‘El matrero.’

At times he wrote reviews of nonexistent writings by some other person. The key example of this is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’ which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who tries to write Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote verbatim, not by having memorized Cervantes’ work, but as an ‘original’ narrative of his own invention. Initially the Frenchman tries to immerse himself in sixteenth-century Spain, but dismisses the method as too easy, instead trying to reach Don Quixote through his own experiences. He finally manages to (re)create ‘the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.’ Borges’s ‘review’ of the work of the fictional Menard uses tongue-in-cheek comparisons to explore the resonances which Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written. He discusses how much ‘richer’ Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the actual text is exactly the same.

While Borges was the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, he had developed the idea from Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus,’ a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist work, and the biography of its equally non-existent author. In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ Borges remarks, ‘It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.’

Borges’s change in style from regionalist criollismo to a more cosmopolitan mode brought him much criticism from journals such as ‘Contorno,’ a left-of-centre, Sartre-influenced Argentine publication. In the post-Peronist Argentina of the early 1960s, ‘Contorno’ met with wide approval from the youth who challenged the authenticity of older writers such as Borges and questioned their legacy of experimentation. Magic realism and exploration of universal truths, they argued, had come at the cost of responsibility and seriousness in the face of society’s problems. The ‘Contorno’ writers argued that Borges’s work lacked substance due to its lack of interaction with the reality that he inhabited, an existentialist critique of his refusal to embrace existence and reality in his artwork.

Many of Borges’s most popular stories concern the nature of time (‘The Secret Miracle’), infinity (‘The Aleph’), mirrors (‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’) and Labyrinths (‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths,’ ‘The House of Asterion,’ ‘The Immortal,’ ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’). Williamson writes, ‘His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate ‘poetic faith’ in his reader.’ His stories often have fantastical themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text (‘The Library of Babel’), a man who forgets nothing he experiences (‘Funes, the Memorious’), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe (‘The Aleph’), and a year of still time given to a man standing before a firing squad (‘The Secret Miracle’).

Borges also told realistic stories of South American life, of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, and historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic: fact with fiction. In the ‘Book of Imaginary Beings,’ a thoroughly (and obscurely) researched bestiary of mythical creatures, Borges wrote, ‘There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.’ Borges’s interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom he coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, often under different pseudonyms including H. Bustos Domecq. Often, especially early in his career, the mixture of fact and fantasy crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) presents the idea of forking paths through networks of time, none of which is the same, all of which are equal. Borges uses the recurring image of ‘a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression’ so we ‘become aware of all the possible choices we might make.’ The forking paths have branches to represent these choices that ultimately lead to different endings. Borges saw man’s search for meaning in a seemingly infinite universe as fruitless and instead uses the maze as a riddle for time, not space. Borges also examined the themes of universal randomness and madness (‘The Lottery in Babylon’) and (‘The Zahir’). Due to the success of the ‘Forking Paths’ story, the term ‘Borgesian’ came to reflect a quality of narrative non-linearity.

Along with other young Argentine writers of his generation, Borges initially rallied around the fictional character of Martín Fierro. Martín Fierro, a poem by José Hernández, was a dominant work of 19th century Argentine literature. Its eponymous hero became a symbol of Argentine sensibility, untied from European values – a gaucho, free, poor, pampas-dwelling. The character is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend against the Indians but ultimately deserts to become a gaucho matrero, the Argentine equivalent of a North American western outlaw. As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the Hernández poem.

In his book of essays on the poem, Borges separates his admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. In his essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ (1951), Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses the Argentine character. In a key scene in the poem, Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs on universal themes such as time, night, and the sea, reflecting the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes. Borges points out that Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry, versus the ‘gauchesque’ fashion among Buenos Aires literati.

In his works he refutes the arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem, and disdains others as critic Eleuterio Tiscornia, for their Europeanising approach. Borges denies that Argentine literature should distinguish itself by limiting itself to ‘local color,’ which he equates with cultural nationalism. Racine and Shakespeare’s work, he says, looked beyond their countries’ borders. Neither, he argues, need the literature be bound to the heritage of old world Spanish or European tradition. Nor should it define itself by the conscious rejection of its colonial past. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of those who have inherited the whole of world literature.

The varying genealogies of characters, settings, and themes in his stories, such as ‘La muerte y la brújula’ (‘Death and the Compass’), used Argentine models without pandering to his readers or framing Argentine culture as ‘exotic’.’ In his essay ‘El escritor argentino y la tradición,’ Borges notes that the very absence of camels in the Qur’an was proof enough that it was an Arabian work. He suggested that only someone trying to write an ‘Arab’ work would purposefully include a camel. He uses this example to illustrate how his dialogue with universal existential concerns was just as Argentine as writing about gauchos and tangos.

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