Books: Cultural Amnesia — Jorge Luis Borges |
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Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 and died in Geneva in 1986, near the end of a century which he had lived almost all the way through and done a great deal to shape. If we now think of Latin American literature as central to the Spanish world, and of the Spanish world as a vitally renewed force in the world entire, it has a lot to do with Borges. As a twentieth-century master artist, he was celebrated even by nineteenth-century standards. Famous on the scale of Tennyson, Kipling and Mark Twain, he was reported like a natural phenomenon, a human volcano. By the end of his life his every spoken word got into print: dialogues with Borges appeared in The New Yorker as fast as they were recorded in Buenos Aires. His dialogues and essays can be recommended as an easy way into Spanish, a language which every student of literature should hold in prospect, to the extent of an elementary reading knowledge at least. (Borges’s own, and much vaunted, knowledge of English was really not much better than that.) Once acquired, the Spanish language opens up a huge story, in which it will be found that Borges was not without rivals even in Argentina. His contemporary Ernesto Sabato, for example, wrote even better essays. Nor was the serene national treasure’s apparently detached political position regarded as beyond cavil by other Argentinian writers who admired his art but questioned his relaxation into international eminence while his homeland was in the grip of terror. Before getting into all that, however, the beginner with Borges can find a seductive entrance to his enchantment through the short stories collected in Labyrinths (1962), which tranmsit his poetic magic irresistibly even through translation. Borges on Writing (1974) is a painless introduction to the incidental prose. (As early as that year, his writings had been translated into twenty-one languages.) The accessibility of the story-teller is no illusion—as with Kipling, the stories go to the heart of his vision—and his essays and dialogues turn his vast learning into an intellectual adventure guaranteed to thrill the young, as he meant it to do. Before questioning Borges on the political role of his artistic stature, it is wise, as it were, to go crazy about him first. But if he created a fairyland, he did not live in one, and even in the exalted last years of the blind icon there were voices among his countrymen ready to remind him that there had been times when he should have tried harder to use his ears.

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The great American writer Herman Melville says somewhere in The White Whale that a man ought to be “a patriot to heaven,” and I believe it is a good thing, this ambition to be cosmopolitan, this idea to be citizens not of a small parcel of the world that changes according to the currents of politics, according to the wars, to what occurs, but to feel that the whole world is our country.


BY THE WHITE WHALE, of course, Borges meant Moby-Dick. He was often very approximate about the details of his enthusiasm for literature in English. But our attention should be on the argument. It’s a pretty phrase, “a patriot to heaven,” and nowadays it can doubtless be tracked down “somewhere in” Moby-Dick by means of a search engine, without the necessity to re-read the actual text. In the language of book-bluff, “re-read” is often a claim to have read something that one has merely dipped into or even skipped entirely, but there was a period of my early life which I did actually occupy with getting through Moby-Dick. Perhaps spoiled in childhood by the narrative flow of Captains Courageous, I found Melville’s ocean clung like tar. I wish I could believe that it was a masterpiece I wasn’t ready for. Whoever said “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds” was as wrong as he was funny, but there is surely a case for saying that the story of Captain Ahab’s contest with the great white whale is one of those books you can’t get started with even after you have finished reading them. It’s not so much that I find his language contortedly and wilfully archaic: more that I find it makes a meal of itself, as if foretelling a modern critical age in which it is fated to be more taught than enjoyed. This idea of Borges’s, though—that the whole world is, or should be, our country—was encapsulated shinily enough to be picked up like a bead in his untiringly darting magpie beak. So what I underlined was a quotation of a quotation, and I was wondering already if the idea, so attractive on the face of it to a displaced person like myself, was really quite right. Eventually it led me to the considerations that follow.

One of my exemplars, Witold Gombrowicz, would have had good reason to accept the idea: but he didn’t, quite. Exiled in Argentina during World War II, he was reluctant to regard himself as the incarnation of Polish literature, but that was because he distrusted the whole idea of literature as a field of ambition, duty, or even of professional activity. After the war his forced exile continued, because he had correctly judged Poland’s Communist regime as being only marginally less lethal to creative life than the Nazi slaughterhouse that had preceded it. He was under continual pressure to represent the true, liberal Poland, but he didn’t believe in that either. He just didn’t like abstractions. When it came down to it, however, he did not regard the land of his birth as an abstraction. He had all the qualifications of a world citizen, and often seemed to preach as one. But when finally cornered on the point he said there was a Poland, and that he, Gombrowicz, was it.

Under extreme conditions of forced exile from political extermination, all the expatriated artists of the twentieth century seem to have reached a similar conclusion. Thomas Mann behaved as if he were the eternal Germany, Stravinsky as if he were the eternal Russia. In London, Freud was still Vienna. Even the most assimilated to their new conditions found that they could not entirely change their minds. In America the possibilities were at their greatest to forget about origins and embrace world citizenship, just as long as American citizenship had been embraced first. Yet it was remarkable how the opportunity, even when it was taken up, always seemed to leave a mental loophole that led home. On the set in Hollywood, Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich cracked jokes in German. It was world citizenship, but it was also a way of reminding themselves that the melting pot had not boiled down their souls, which had been formed elsewhere, in a place that was really a place. “There are only two places where we feel at home,” Milos Forman once said on television: “Home, and in America.” Yet when Vaclav Havel visited the United States, Forman was one of the ringmasters for the new Czech president’s welcome, and in Forman’s excellent book of memoirs his lost country is perpetually rediscovered. Philosophically, the idea of the world citizen goes back through Erasmus at least as far as Eratosthenes the Stoic, who said he saw all good men as his fellow countrymen; which was only one step short of seeing his country as dispensable. But the modern refugees from totalitarianism, having been compelled to dispense with theirs, found it hard to let go of the memory.

The politically exiled artists thus proved, under laboratory conditions, that the concept of the Weltbürger has its limits. Borges was not in the same position. In 1979, when he wrote his homage to Victoria Ocampo (the founder of the cosmopolitan magazine Sur) in which this revealing passage appeared, the Argentinian junta was doing its obscene worst. Surrounded by horror, either he hadn’t noticed or—a hard imputation, yet harder still to avoid—he knew something about it and thought it could be excused. But even if he was confident that the political Brahmanism he favoured could be pardoned for imposing itself by extreme means, he might well have detected an incipient challenge to his conscience. He had good reason—i.e., a bad reason but an urgent one—to suggest, if only to himself, that what was happening to his country was of secondary importance, because his first loyalty was to the world. But the world, not one’s country, is the abstraction: an ideal that means nothing if one’s first loyalties to truth, justice and mercy have been given up. The old man was pulling a fast one. I read the book, and made my marginal note, in 1999. But it was the date on the article that tipped me off: 1979. A reprinted article should always carry its original date, but you can see why writers and editors should sometimes find it expedient to leave it out. Otherwise an apparently impeccable sentiment might stand revealed as an opportunistic stratagem, or at the very least as a sign of obtuseness.

Self-exiled to Paris from his repudiated Romania, the fragmentary philosopher E. M. Cioran gushingly admired Borges’s world citizenship. On page 1,606 of Cioran’s monolithic Œuvres, we learn that the irresistible example of the Argentinian séducteur (“Everything with him is transfigured by the game, by a dance of glittering discoveries and delicious sophisms”) helped the Romanian philosopher to formulate the device on his own mental shield: “Not to put down roots, not to belong to any community.” But at the time Cioran said this (it was 1976), he was keen to give the impression that his native country had never meant much to him, while not keen at all to reveal that he had played a part in his native country’s unfortunate fascist past. (The nice way of putting it is that he had been close to the Iron Guard, and the nice way of putting it when it comes to the Iron Guard is that their anti-Semitism, by Hitlerite standards, was hit-and-miss, although not many people they hit got up.) Cioran had even better reasons than Borges for suggesting that none of the rough stuff had ever had anything to do with him. Borges was never more than equivocally complicit in nationalist mania. Cioran, in that conveniently forgotten youthful period before he prudently took out citizenship in the world, had been in it up to the elbows. It is interesting that he thought a spiritual alliance with Borges might help to wash him clean.

At this point there is a key quotation from Ernesto Sabato that we should consider:

From Borges’s fear of the bitter reality of existence spring two simultaneous and complementary attitudes: to play games in an invented world, and to adhere to a Platonic theory, an intellectual theory par excellence. (Ensayos, p. 304)

In Buenos Aires after World War II, there were two literary voices of incontestable international stature. The main difference between them was that only one of them was known to possess it. The whole world heard about Borges. But to get the point about Sabato, you had to go to Argentina. Both inhabitants of a beautiful but haunted city, both great writers, and both blind in their later lives, Borges and Sabato were linked by destiny but separated in spirit: a separation summed up in this single perception of Sabato’s, which was penetratingly true. Borges did fear the bitterness of reality, and he did take refuge in an invented world. When Gombrowicz called Borges’s virtuosity “iced fireworks” he was arriving independently at the same judgement. There are no iced fireworks in Sabato, whose fantastic novels were dedicated to including all the horrors of the real world, and raising them to the status of dreams, so that they could become apprehensible to the imagination, which would otherwise edit them into something more easily overlooked. (His rationale for this process of saving reality from its own forgetful mechanisms is spread throughout his books of critical prose, but see especially El escritor y sus fantasmas.) Sabato’s characteristic image is the tunnel. The tunnel is the area of concentration for the dreams. Most of the dreams we recognize all too clearly. He didn’t need to search very far in order to find the stimulus for them. All he needed was the recent history of Argentina. In Sabato the reader is faced with that history often, but in Borges hardly ever. In Borges the near past scarcely exists: in that respect his historical sense, like his Buenos Aires, is without contemporaneity. His political landscape is a depopulated marble ghost-town remembered from childhood, spookily hieratic like the cemetery in Recoleta. Before he went blind he would still walk the streets, but usually only at night, to minimize the chance of actually meeting anyone. In his stories, the moments of passion, fear, pity and terror belong to the long-vanished world of the knife fighters. Death squads and torture are not in the inventory. The timescale ends not long after he was born. Why did he hide?

Probably because of artistic predilection, rather than human cowardice. There are always artists who place themselves above the battle, and in retrospect we don’t regret their doing so. In World War II, André Gide took no overt position about the Occupation, the biggest moral dilemma that France had faced since the Revolution. Yet we would not want to be without his journals of the period. Safe in Switzerland, Hermann Hesse said next to nothing about the biggest events of any twentieth-century German-speaking writer’s life: his dreamy novella Morgenlandfahrt (The Journey East) was the closest he ever came to making a comment on nationalist irrationality, and there was nothing in that skimpy book to which a Hitler Youth idealist could have objected. Borges openly loathed Peron, but fell silent on everything that happened after Peron was ousted—fell silent politically, but artistically came into full flower, an international hit even as his nation entered the tunnel of its long agony.

Though it would be foolish for an outsider to quarrel with his enormous creative achievement—one might as well take a tomahawk to a forest—there is reason to sympathize with those native Argentinians, not all of them Philistines, who can’t help feeling that it was an accumulation of trees designed to obscure the wood. So much ancillary prose by and about Borges has been published since his death that it is a professional task to keep up with it all, but a casual student should find time to see Antiborges, a compilation of commentaries edited by Martin Lafforgue. (The contribution from Pedro Organbide, “Borges y su pensamiento politica,” is especially noteworthy.) An instructive picture emerges of a visionary whose vision was impaired in more than the physical sense. Borges, alas, had no particular objection to extreme authoritarianism as such. The reason he hated Peronismo was that it was a mass movement. He didn’t like the masses: he was the kind of senatorial elitist whose chief objection to fascism is that by mobilizing the people it gives them ideas above their station and hands out too many free shirts. When the junta seized power in March 1976, he took the view that they weren’t fascists at all, because the helots weren’t in the picture. Most of the intellectuals of the old conservative stamp declined to cooperate with the new regime, and Sabato behaved particularly well. (That a man as out of tune with the regime as Sabato should nevertheless have seen merit in the Malvinas adventure is a token of how indisputable the claim to the islands looked from the Argentinian side.) It need hardly be said that to behave well was not without risk: when everyone was aware of the hideous lengths to which the regime would go against ordinary people whose names meant little, there was never any guarantee that people of prestige would remain exempt. Fear took its toll in a fall of silence.

But there is no evidence that Borges ever felt the need to be afraid. His name and growing international renown were lent to the regime without reserve, either because he approved or—the best that can be said for him—because he was clueless. As the time arrived when not even he could claim blindness to the junta’s war against the innocent, lack of information was what he claimed as an excuse for his previous inertia. Signing the round robin of protest that signalled the end of the regime’s tacit support from the enlightened bourgeoisie—when their children were taken, they woke up—he said that he had not been able to find out about these things earlier. His impatient statement “No leo los diarios” (I don’t read newspapers) became famous among his critics as a shameful echo of all those otherwise intelligent Germans who never heard about the extermination camps until it was all over. It was pointed out with some pertinence that his blindness had never stopped him finding out about all the literature in the world. There was a torture centre within walking distance of his house, and he had always been a great walker. It could be said that by then his walking days were over; but he could still hear, even if he couldn’t see. There was a lot of private talk that must have been hard to miss, unless he had wilfully stopped his ears. He might well have done: a cocked ear would have heard the screams.

In 1983, after the junta fell, he was finally forced into an acceptance of plebeian democracy, the very thing he had always most detested. A decade of infernal anguish for his beloved country had at last taught him that state terror is more detestable still. It was a hard lesson for a slow pupil. On an international scale, Borges can perhaps be forgiven for his ringing endorsement of General Pinochet’s activities in Chile: after all, Margaret Thatcher seems to have shared his enthusiasm, and John Major’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, now wears a medal hung around his neck by Pinochet without any visible sign of chest hair set on fire by burning shame. But within Argentina, there are some distinguished minds that have had to work hard to see their greatest writer sub specie aeternitatis without wishing his pusillanimity to be enrolled along with his prodigious talent. Pedro Organbide, fully sensitive to the eternal literary stature of Borges, was being restrained when he noted—with a sad finality it is hard to contest—that his tarnished hero’s behaviour was a living demonstration of how political elitism depends on ignorance. There are not many great writers who oblige us to accept that inattention might have been essential to their vision. Jane Austen left the Napoleonic wars out of her novels, but we assume that she heard about them, and would have heard about them even if she had been unable to see. Sabato’s blindness, unlike Borges’s, was confined only to the last part of his life, but it was complete enough. His ears, however, remained in good working order, and when the time came he was able to take on the cruel job of writing about the Disappeared—the innocent people whose vanishing took so long to attract Borges’s attention.