NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.143 | May 15, 2008
Just when I think everyone’s heard ort or read Jorge Luis Borges, I run into people who have near heard him or not read him in years.
I’d say, if you’re a serious writer (poetry, fiction, essay), you put Borges on that special shelf of writers to read at least once a year, writers who exercise the thinking/dreaming mind. Borges, along with Rilke, Transtromer, Neruda, Kafka…don’t get me started. Norbert Blei
THE DESTINY OF BORGES
From an interview with Jorge Luis Borges, in Habitus 03, conducted in 1984 at the University of Buenos Aires by philosophy professors Tomas Abraham, Alejandro Russovich, and Enrique Man. Translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Acker.
ALEJANDRO RUSSOVICH: We begin.
JORGE LUIS BORGES: In the beginning, bereshit bara elohim, no?
RUSSOVICH: Bereshit bara elohim et ha’shamayim v’et ha’aretz, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
BORGES: No, the gods created.
RUSSOVICH: Ah, “gods.” Elohim is plural. Borges knows more. [Laughter.]
TOMAS ABRAHAM: Today, philosophy invites poetry to a discussion. We have a poet—
ABRAHAM: A supposed poet, then, of whom we can ask what relationships exist between philosophy and poetry.
BORGES: Some time ago I said that philosophy is a fantastic branch of study. But I didn’t mean anything against philosophy. On the contrary, it can be said that it is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places, and that philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics. If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic literature, you’ll see that they are much more ambitious than poetry. What works of poetry are comparable to something as astonishing as Spinoza’s god: an infinite substance endowed with infinite attributes? Every philosophy creates a world with its own special laws, and these models may or may not be fantastic, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve entered into poetry, and also fables— that is, I’m not a novelist. I’ve read very few novels in my life; for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad.
I’ve dedicated my life to reading. My father showed me his library, which seemed to me infinite, and he told me to read whatever I wanted, but that if something bored me I should put it down immediately—that is, the opposite of obligatory reading. Reading has to be a happiness, and philosophy gives us happiness, and that is the contemplation of a problem. The world continues to be more enigmatic, more enchanting. For me reading and writing are two equally pleasurable activities. When writers talk about the torture of writing, I don’t understand it. For me writing is a necessity. When I was young, I thought about what I considered the heroic life of my military elders, a life that had been rich, and mine—the life of a reader—seemed to me a poor life. Now I don’t believe that. The life of a reader can be as rich as any other life. Suppose Alonso Quijano had never left his library, or bookstore, as Cervantes called it, I believe that his life reading would have been as rich as when he conceived the project of turning himself into Quixote.
For him the latter life was more real, for me reading about him has been one of the most vivid experiences of my life. And since I have committed the indecency of turning eighty-five, I confirm without melancholy that my memory is full of verses and full of books. I can’t see past the year 1955—I lost my reader’s vision—but if I think about my past life, I think of course about friends, lovers also, but I think most of all about books. My memory is full of quotes in many languages, and I think, returning to philosophy, that we are not enriched by its solutions, as these solutions are doubtful, they are arbitrary, but philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought. Now other questions, and I hope I can answer them with fewer digressions, more concretely. But clearly, I’m a little nervous. I’m very timid. I’m a veteran of timidity. I was timid when I was young. Now that I’m eighty-five, I’m seriously terrified. [Laughter.]
ENRIQUE MARI: Among the important philosophical enigmas, in spite of the fact that there are many, there is one—
BORGES: I would say there’s nothing else—
MARI: Among these enigmas, one is the enigma of truth, the other is the enigma of death.
BORGES: For me death is a hope, the irrational certitude of being abolished, erased, and forgotten. When I’m sad, I think, What does it matter what happens to a twentieth-century South American writer? What do I have to do with all of this? You think it matters what happens to me now, if tomorrow I will have disappeared? I hope to be totally forgotten. I believe that this is death. Yet perhaps I’m wrong, and what follows is another life on another plane, no less interesting than this one, and I will accept that life too, just as I have accepted this one. But being younger, I would prefer not to remember this one in the other.
from HARPER’S Magazine/April 2008
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges
(24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986) was an Argentine writer. His output includes short stories, essays, poetry, literary criticism, and translations. He was influenced by Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes, Franz Kafka, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Schopenhauer, G. K. Chesterton, Leopoldo Lugones, and R. L. Stevenson.
Borges’s mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from an old Uruguayan family. His 1929 book Cuaderno San Martín included a poem “Isidoro Acevedo,” commemorating his maternal grandfather, Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida, a soldier of the Buenos Aires Army who fought against Juan Manuel de Rosas. A descendant of the Argentine lawyer and politician Francisco Narciso de Laprida, Acevedo fought in the battles of Cepeda in 1859, Pavón in 1861, and Los Corrales in 1880. He died in 1905 of pulmonary congestion in the same house in Serrano Street, Buenos Aires, where his grandson Jorge Luis Borges was born.
Borges’s father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, was a lawyer and psychology teacher with literary aspirations. (“…he tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt,” Borges once said, “…[but] composed some very good sonnets”). His father was part Spanish, part Portuguese, and half British; his father’s mother was British and maintained a strong spirit of English culture in Borges’s home. In this home, both Spanish and English were spoken and from earliest childhood Borges was bilingual, reading Shakespeare, in English, at the age of 12. He grew up in the then somewhat poor neighborhood of Palermo, in a large house equipped with an extensive English library. The family name Borges may have been derived from the English surnames Burroughs or Burgess, analogous to the transformation of the surname Evans into Ibanez.
Jorge Guillermo Borges was forced into early retirement from the legal profession owing to the same failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son, and in 1914, the family moved to Geneva. Borges senior was treated by a Geneva eye specialist, while his son and daughter Norah attended school. There Borges junior learned French, initially with some difficulties, and taught himself German. He received his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918.
Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires to an educated family descended from famous military figures in Argentina’s history; in accordance with Argentine custom, he never used his entire name. His family was comfortably wealthy, but not quite wealthy enough to live in downtown Buenos Aires. Instead, they lived in the then suburb of Palermo, famous for its knife-fights, where urban space gave way to the countryside.
In 1914 the Borges family went to Europe and stayed until 1921 because of World War I and domestic unrest in neutral Argentina. First in Switzerland and later in Spain, Borges came into contact with several authors who would impact his writing, Arthur Schopenhauer and Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem (1915) being key examples. After World War I ended, the Borges family spent three years living in various cities: Lugano (Switzerland), Barcelona, Majorca, Seville, and Madrid. In Spain, Borges became a member of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement (anti-Modernism, which ended in 1922 with the cessation of the journal Ultra). His first poem, “Hymn to the Sea,” written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia (“Greece”, in Spanish). There he frequented such notable Spanish writers as Rafael Cansinos Assens and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.
In 1921, Borges returned with his family to Buenos Aires where he imported the doctrine of Ultraism and launched his career as a writer by publishing poems and essays in literary journals in the Criollismo style. In 1930, Nestor Ibarra called Borges the “Great Apostle of Criollismo.” His first published collection of poetry was Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He contributed to the avant-garde review Martín Fierro (whose “art for art’s sake” approach contrasted to that of the more politically-involved Boedo group); co-founded the journals Prisma , a broadsheet distributed largely by pasting copies to walls in Buenos Aires), and Proa ). Later in life Borges would come to regret some of these early publications, attempting to purchase all known copies to ensure their destruction.
By the mid-1930s, his writings began to deal with existential questions, and with what Ana María Barrenechea has called “irreality.” Borges was not alone in this task. Many other Latin American writers such as Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, and Alejo Carpentier investigated these themes in their writings, influenced by the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger or the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though existentialism saw its apogee during the years of Borges’s greatest artistic production, it can be argued that his choice of topics largely ignored existentialism’s central tenets. To that point, Paul de Man has written:
Whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’ moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.
He was, from the first issue, a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo, then Argentina’s most important literary journal. Ocampo herself introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, another well-known figure of Argentine literature, who was to become a frequent collaborator and dear friend. Together they wrote a number of works, some using pseudonyms (H. Bustos Domecq), including a parody detective series and fantasy stories.
Also during these years Macedonio Fernández became a major influence on Borges, who inherited the friendship from his father. The two would hold court in cafés, country retreats, or Macedonio’s tiny apartment in the Balvanera district.
In 1933 Borges gained an editorial appointment at the literary supplement of the newspaper Crítica, where he first published the pieces later collected as the Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy). This involved two types of pieces. The first lay somewhere between non-fictional essays and short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories. The second consisted of literary forgeries, which Borges initially passed off as translations of passages from famous but seldom-read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar, which appeared from 1936 to 1939.
In 1937, friends of Borges found him working at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library as a first assistant. His fellow employees forbade Borges from cataloging more than 100 books per day, a task which would take him about one hour. The rest of his time he spent in the basement of the library, writing articles and short stories.
Borges’s Cosmopolitanism allowed him to free himself from the trap of local color. The varying genealogies of characters, settings, and themes in his stories such as “La muerte y la brújula” were Argentine without forcing them to be Argentine by pandering to his readers. In his essay “El escritor argentino y la tradición” Borges notes that the very absence of camels in the Koran was proof enough that it was an Arabian work, inferring that only someone trying to write an “Arab” work would purposefully include a camel. He uses this example to illustrate how his dialoguing with universal existential concerns was just as Argentine as writing about gauchos and tangos (both of which he also did).
Borges’ father died in 1938, a tragedy for Borges: father and son were very devoted to each other. During Christmas Eve 1938, Borges suffered a severe head wound: during treatment, he nearly died of septicemia. While recovering from the accident, he began tinkering with a new style of writing, for which he would become famous. The first story penned after his accident was Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote in May 1939. In this story, he examined the relationship between father and son 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, composed mostly of works previously published in Sur. Though generally well received, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner for him the literary prizes many in his circle expected. Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a “Reparation for Borges”; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the “reparation” project.
When Juan Perón became President in 1946, Borges was dismissed, and “promoted” to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market (he immediately resigned; he always referred to the title of the post he never filled as “Poultry and Rabbit Inspector”). His offenses against the Peronistas up to that time had apparently consisted of little more than adding his signature to pro-democratic petitions, but shortly after his resignation he addressed the Argentine Society of Letters saying, in his characteristic style, “Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.”
Without a job, his vision beginning to fade due to hereditary retinal detachment, and unable to fully support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer. Despite a certain degree of political persecution, he was reasonably successful, and became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers, and as Professor of English and American Literature at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story Emma Zunz was turned into a film (under the name of Días de odio (English title: Days of Wrath), directed in 1954, by the Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson). Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.
In 1955, and after the initiative of Ocampo, the new anti-Peronist military government appointed him head of the National Library. By that time, he had become completely blind, like one of his best known predecessors, Paul Groussac (for whom Borges wrote an obituary). Neither coincidence nor the irony escaped Borges and he commented on them in his work:
Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
esta declaración de la maestría
de Dios, que con magnífica ironía
me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.
Let neither tear nor reproach besmirch
this declaration of the mastery
of God who, with magnificent irony,
granted me both the gift of books and the night.
The following year he received the National Prize for Literature from the University of Cuyo, the first of many honorary doctorates. From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, while frequently holding temporary appointments at other universities.
His eyesight deteriorating, he relied increasingly on his mother’s help. When he was not able to read and write anymore (he never learned the Braille system), his mother, to whom he had always been devoted, became his personal secretary.
A story of Borges was first translated into English in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; the story was “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the translator Anthony Boucher. Though several other Borges translations appeared in literary magazines and anthologies during the 1950s, his international fame dates from the early 1960s. In 1961, he received the first International Publishers’ Prize Prix Formentor, which he shared with Samuel Beckett. While Beckett was well-known and respected in the English-speaking world, and Borges at this time remained unknown and untranslated, English-speaking readers became curious about the other recipient of the prize. The Italian government named Borges Commendatore; and the University of Texas at Austin appointed him for one year to the Tinker chair. This led to his first lecture tour in the United States. The first translations of his work into English followed in 1962, with lecture tours in Europe, and in subsequent years the Andean region of South America. In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed him O.B.E. In 1980 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; numerous other honors were to accumulate over the years, such as the French Legion of Honour in 1983, the Cervantes Prize, and even a Special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, “for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre”.
In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thanks to whom he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings, (1967, co-written with Margarita Guerrero), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie’s Report, 1970), and El libro de arena (The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were anthologized in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos (Nine Dantesque Essays).
Borges’s change in style from criollismo to a more cosmopolitan style brought him much criticism from journals such as Contorno ), a left of center, Sartre-influenced publication founded by the Viñas brothers (Ismael & David), Noé Jitrik, Adolfo Prieto, and other intellectuals. Contorno “met with wide approval among the youth [...] for taking the older writers of the country to task on account of [their] presumed inauthenticity and their legacy of formal experimentation at the expense of responsibility and seriousness in the face of society’s problems” (Katra:1988:56).
Borges and Eduardo Mallea were criticized for being “doctors of technique”; their writing presumably “lacked substance due to their lack of interaction with the reality [...] that they inhabited”, an existential critique of their refusal to embrace existence and reality in their artwork.
When Perón returned from exile and was re-elected president in 1973, Borges immediately resigned as director of the National Library. In 1967 Borges married the recently-widowed Elsa Astete Millán. It was commonly believed that his mother, who was 90, and anticipating her own death, wanted to find someone to care for her blind son. The marriage lasted less than three years. After a legal separation, Borges moved back in with his mother, with whom he lived until her death at age 99. Thereafter, he lived alone in the small flat he had shared with her, cared for by Fanny, their housekeeper of many decades.
After 1975, the year his mother died, Borges began to travel all over the world, up to the time of his death. He was often accompanied in these travels by his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry.
Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in 1986 in Geneva and is buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Plainpalais). A few months before his death, via an attorney in Paraguay, he married Kodama. After years of legal wrangling about the legality of the marriage, Kodama, as sole inheritor of a significant annual income, has control over his works. Her administration of his estate has bothered some scholars; she has been denounced by the French publisher Gallimard, by Le Nouvel Observateur, and by intellectuals such as Beatriz Sarlo, as an obstacle to the serious reading of Borges’ works.
J. M. Coetzee said of Borges: “He more than anyone renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”
Though reputed to be a perennial contender, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Especially in the 1980s, when he was clearly growing old and infirm, this became a glaring omission. It was speculated that he was considered unfit to receive the award for his political views.
Although this political stance stemmed from his self-described “Anarcho-Pacifism”, it placed him in the distinguished company of Nobel Prize in Literature non-winners, a group including, among others, Graham Greene, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy and Alfonso Reyes. He did, however, receive the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society.
In addition to his short stories for which he is most famous, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, several screenplays, and a considerable volume of literary criticism, prologues, and reviews, edited numerous anthologies, and was a prominent translator of English-, French- and German-language literature into Spanish (and of Old English and Norse works as well). His blindness (which, like his father’s, developed in adulthood) strongly influenced his later writing. Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges’ sense of literature as recreation — all of these disciplines are sometimes treated as a writer’s playthings and at other times treated very seriously.
Since Borges lived through most of the 20th century, he was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learnéd, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader perspectives. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended–as their lives went on–toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges’ work progressed away from what he referred to as “the baroque,” while theirs moved towards it: Borges’ later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his earlier works.
Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, philosophy, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic 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 time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad (“The Secret Miracle”). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic: fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.
Borges’ abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. In this respect, and regarding Borges’ personal pantheon, he considered the Mexican essayist of similar topics Alfonso Reyes “the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time.” (In: Siete Noches, p. 156). His non-fiction also explores many of the themes found in his fiction. Essays such as “The History of the Tango” or his writings on the epic poem Martín Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentine people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”, while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly (and obscurely) researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” Borges’ interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms including H. Bustos Domecq.
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. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in his essay “A New Refutation of Time”, and in his poem “Things.” Similarly, a common thread runs through his story “The Circular Ruins” and his poem “El Golem” (“The Golem”).
As already mentioned, Borges was notable as a translator. He translated Oscar Wilde’s story The Happy Prince into Spanish when he was nine, perhaps an early indication of his literary talent. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. He also translated (while simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation, and articulated his own view at the same time. He held the view 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 two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work. Both constitute a form of modern pseudo-epigrapha.
Borges’ 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 after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.
At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, rather than write a piece that fulfilled the concept, he wrote a review of a nonexistent work, as if it had already been created by some other person. The most famous 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 he 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’ “review” of the work of the fictional Menard uses tongue-in-cheek comparisons to discuss the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much “richer” Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the actual words are exactly the same.
While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. Borges was already familiar with the idea from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work, and the biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104) records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he “discovered — and was overwhelmed by — Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart.” 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.” He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler’s The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that “those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.” [Collected Fictions, p.67]
Borges’ work maintained a universal perspective that reflected a multi-ethnic Argentina, exposure from an early age to his father’s substantial collection of world literature, and lifelong travel experience. As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas where the boundaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil blurred, and lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain; in middle age he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and, internationally, as a visiting professor; he continued to tour the world as he grew older, ending his life in Geneva where he had attended high school (he never went to university). Drawing on influences of many times and places, Borges’ work belittled nationalism and racism. An Argentinian, Borges set some of his historical fiction in Uruguay.
He grew acquainted with the literature from Argentine, Spanish, North American, English, French, German, Italian, and Northern European/Icelandic sources, including those of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He also read many translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. The universalism that made him interested in world literature reflected an attitude that was not congruent with the Perón government’s extreme nationalism. That government’s meddling with Borges’ job fueled his skepticism of government (he labeled himself a Spencerian anarchist in the blurb of Atlas). When extreme Argentine nationalists sympathetic to the Nazis asserted Borges was Jewish (the implication being that his Argentine identity was inadequate), Borges responded in “Yo Judío” (“I, a Jew”), where he said, while he would be proud to be a Jew, he presented his actual Christian genealogy, along with a backhanded reminder that any “pure” Castilian just might likely have a Jew in their ancestry, stemming from a millennium back.
Borges’ Argentina is a multi-ethnic country, and Buenos Aires, the capital, a cosmopolitan city. At the time of Argentine independence in 1816, the population was predominantly criollo, which in Argentine usage generally means people of Spanish ancestry, although it can allow for a small admixture of other origins. The Argentine national identity diversified, forming over a period of decades after the Argentine Declaration of Independence. During that period substantial immigration came from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Syria and Lebanon (then parts of the Ottoman Empire), the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, North America, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and China, with the Italians and Spanish forming the largest influx. The diversity of coexisting cultures characteristic of the Argentine lifestyles is especially pronounced in Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi, co-authored with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in the unnamed multi-ethnic city that’s the setting for “Death and the Compass”, which may or may not be Buenos Aires. Borges’ writing is also steeped by influences and informed by scholarship of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish faiths, including mainline religious figures, heretics, and mystics. For more examples, see the sections below on International themes in Borges and Religious themes in Borges.
If Borges often focused on universal themes, he no less composed a substantial body of literature on themes from Argentine folklore, history, and current concerns. Borges’ first book, the poetry collection Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), appeared in 1923. Considering Borges’ thorough attention to all things Argentine — ranging from Argentine culture (“History of the Tango”; “Inscriptions on Horse Wagons”), folklore (“Juan Muraña”, “Night of the Gifts”), literature (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, “Almafuerte”; “Evaristo Carriego”) and current concerns (“Celebration of The Monster”, “Hurry, Hurry”, “The Mountebank”, “Pedro Salvadores”) — it is ironic indeed that ultra-nationalists would have questioned his Argentine identity.
Borges’ interest in Argentine themes reflects in part the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the civil wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay. Spurred by pride in his family’s heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (for example, “The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz,” “The Dead Man,” “Avelino Arredondo”) as well as poetry (“General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage”). Borges’ maternal great-grandfather, Manuel Isidoro Suárez ), was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem “A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín.” The city of Coronel Suárez in the south of Buenos Aires Province is named after him.
Borges contributed to a few avant garde publications in the early 1920s, including one called Martín Fierro, named after the major work of 19th century Argentine literature, Martín Fierro, a gauchesque poem by José Hernández, published in two parts, in 1872 and 1880. Initially, along with other young writers of his generation, Borges rallied around the fictional Martín Fierro as the symbol of a characteristic Argentine sensibility, not tied to European values. As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the poem. Hernández’s central character, Martín Fierro, is a gaucho, a free, poor, pampas-dweller, who is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend against the Indians; he ultimately deserts and becomes a gaucho matrero, the Argentine equivalent of a North American western outlaw. Borges’ 1953 book of essays on the poem, El “Martín Fierro”, separates his great admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his rather mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. He uses the occasion to tweak the noses of arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem, but disdains those (such as Eleuterio Tiscornia) whom he sees as failing to understand its specifically Argentine character.
In “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses that character in the crucial scene in which Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs about universal themes such as time, night, and the sea. The scene clearly reflects the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes — as distinct from the type of slang that Hernández uses in the main body of Martín Fierro. Borges points out that therefore, Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry on universal themes, versus the “gauchesque” fashion among Buenos Aires literati. Borges goes on to deny the possibility that Argentine literature could distinguish itself by making reference to “local color”, nor does it need to remain true to the heritage of the literature of Spain, nor to define itself as a rejection of the literature of its colonial founders, nor follow in the footsteps of European literature. 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 someone who has inherited the whole of world literature.
Borges uses Martín Fierro and El Moreno’s competition as a theme once again in “El Fin” (“The End”), a story that first appeared in his short story collection Artificios (1944). “El Fin” is a sort of mini-sequel or conclusion to Martín Fierro. In his prologue to Artificios, Borges says of “El Fin,” “Everything in the story is implicit in a famous book [Martín Fierro] and I have been the first to decipher it, or at least, to declare it.”
To exaggerate Borges’ universalism might be as much a mistake as the nationalists’ questioning the validity of his Argentine identity. His writing was evidently more influenced by some literatures than others, reflecting in part the particular contents of his library his father had amassed, and the particular population composition of Argentina during his lifetime. A review of his work reveals far more influences from European and New World sources than Asian-Pacific or African ones.
Few references to Africans or African-Americans appear in his work; rare mentions include an idiosyncratic inventory of the latter-day effects of the slave trade in “The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morrell” and a number of sympathetic references to a person of African descent killed by the fictional outlaw Martin Fierro. Indigenous Amerind sources are poorly represented, owing to the near-destruction of that population and culture in the Southern Cone region of South America; rare mentions include a captive Aztec priest, Tzinacán, in “The God’s Script” and Amerinds who capture Argentines in “Story of the Warrior and the Captive” and “The Captive”. “Lo Gauchesco” (Gaucho culture, translates as “that which is Gauchesque”), has, however, a big presence throughout his work. Gauchos are the cowboys of Argentina, the men who herded the cattle and were generally of mixed blood (Spanish and indigenous) and have always been associated with the wild, indigenous and unruly elements of Argentine culture.
In contrast to his scholarship in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist sources, Borges’ view of Hinduism and Hindus seems to have been formed by peering through the sympathetic lens of the works of Rudyard Kipling, as in Borges’ “The Approach to Al Mutasim”.
There has been discussion of Borges’ attitudes to sex and women. Herbert J. Brant’s essay “The Queer Use of Communal Women in Borges’ ‘El muerto’ and ‘La intrusa'”, has argued that Borges employed women as intermediaries of male affection, allowing men to engage each other romantically without resorting to direct, homosexual contact. For instance, the plot of La Intrusa was based on a true story of two friends, but Borges made their fictional counterparts brothers, excluding the possibility of a homosexual relationship. Borges dismissed these suggestions.
There are, however, instances in Borges writings of heterosexual love and attraction. The story “Ulrikke” from The Book of Sand tells a romantic tale of heterosexual desire, love, trust and sex. The protagonist of “El muerto” clearly relishes and lusts after the “Splendid, contemptuous, red-haired woman” of Azevedo Bandeira. Later he “sleeps with the woman with shining hair”. “El muerto” (“The Dead Man”) contains two separate examples of definitive gaucho heterosexual lust. James Woodall and Edwin Williamson have each written a biography of Borges, each of which is titled Borges, a Life. Their investigations of his actual relationships and his personal correspondence elaborate on the debate surrounding Borges’ sexuality.
A growing number of literary commentators argue that in his short stories Borges curiously prefigured the World Wide Web. In an article for the New York Times on January 6, 2008, Noam Cohen discusses these trends. According to Cohen, many of Borges tales, such as “The Library of Babel,” describe a “symmetrically structured library” that “represents the universe as conceived by rational man with illegible books that refers to man’s ignorance.” In the story “Tlon,” the universe is based on an “imaginary encyclopedia, a labyrinth devised and deciphered by man.” Borges invites his readers to become active participants in his stories, somewhat like the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Also, according to commentators, his characters describe their lives “like a blog,” where “nothing is forgotten.” Finally, Borges describes in “The Library of Babel,” a universal library that contains all of the secrets of the universe. Literary critics see this universal library as the internet itself where searchers can find the answers to all of their questions.
- * FERVOR DE BUENOS AIRES, 1923
- * LUNA DE ENFRENTE, 1923
- * INQUISICIONES, 1925
- * EL TAMAÑO DE MI ESPERANZA, 1926
- * EL IDIOMA DE LOS ARGENTINOS, 1928
- * CUADERNOS SAN MARTÍN, 1929
- * EVARISTO CARRIEGO, 1930
- * DISCUSIÓN, 1932
- * LAS KENNIGAR, 1933
- * HISTORIA UNIVERSAL DE LA INFAMIA, 1935 – A Universal History of Infamy
- * HISTORIA DE LA ETERNIDAD, 1936 – History of Etenity
- * trans.: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, 1937
- * trans.: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, 1937
- * ed.: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, 1938
- * trans.: William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, 1941
- * SIX PROBLEMS FOR DON ISIDRO PARODI, 1942 (with Bioy Casares under the preudonym H. Bustos Domecq)
- * EL JARDÍN DE SENDEROS QUE SE BIFURCAN, 1941 – Haarautuvien polkujen puutarha
- * SEIS PROBLEMAS PARA DON ISIDRO PARODI, 1942 – Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi
- * EL JARDIN DE SENDEROS QUE SE BIFURCAN, 1942
- * FICCIONES, 1944
- * DOS FANTASÍAS MEMORABLES, 1946
- * UN MODELO PARA LA MUERTE, 1946
- * NUEVA REFUTACÍON DEL TIEMPO, 1947
- * ASPECTOS DE LA LITERARA GAUCHESCA, 1950
- * LA MUERTE Y LA BRÚJULA, 1951
- * ANTIGUAS LITERATURAS GERMÁNICAS, 1951 (with Delia Ingenieros)
- * OTRAS INQUISICIONES 1937-1952, 1952 – Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952
- * LOS ORILLEROS, 1955
- * MANUAL DE ZOOLOGIA FANTASTICA, 1957 – The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969)
- * LEOPOLDO LUGONES, 1957
- * OBRAS COMPLETAS, VIII 1954-60
- * LIBRO DEL CIELO Y DEL INFIERNO, 1960
- * EL HACEDOR, 1960 – The Doer/The Dreamtigers
- * ANTOLOGÍA PERSONAL, 1961 – A Personal Anthology
- * MACEDONIO FERNÁDEZ, 1963
- * EL OTRO, EL MISMO, 1964
- * OBRAS COMPLETAS III, 1964
- * PARA LAS SEIS CUERDAS, 1965
- * INTRODUCCIÓN A LA LITERATURA INGLESA, 1965 (with María Esther Vásquez)
- * LITERATURAS GERMÁNICAS MEDIAVALES, 1966 (with María Esther Vásquez)
- * CRÓNICAS DE BUSTOS DOMECQ, 1967 – Chronicles of Bustos Domecq
- * EL LIBRO DE LOS SERES IMAGINARIOS, 1967 – The Book of Imaginary Beings
- * MUEVA ANTOLOGÍA PERRSONAL, 1968
- * ELOGIO DE LA SOMBRA, 1969
- * EL OTRO, EL MISMO, 1969
- * EL INFORME DE BRODIE, 1970 – Dr. Brodie’s Report – suom. Hiekkakirja
- * EL CONGRESO, 1971
- * EL ORO DE LOS TIGRES, 1972 – The Gold of Tigers
- * Borges on Writing, 1973
- * OBRAS COMPLETAS, 1974
- * EL LIBRO DE ARENA, 1975 – The Book of Sand – suom. Hiekkakirja
- * LA ROSA PROFUNDA, 1975
- * PRÓLOGOS CON UN PRÓLOGO DE PRÓLOGOS, 1975
- * LA MONEDA DE HIERRO, 1976
- * LIBRO DE SUEÑOS, 1976
- * ANDROGUÉ, 1977
- * ASESINOS DE PAPEL, 1977
- * HISTORIA DE LA NOCHE, 1977
- * LA ROSA DE PARACELSO, 1977
- * TIGRES AZULES, 1977
- * OBRAS COMPLETAS EN COLABORARACIÓN, 1979
- * PROSA COMPLETA, 1980
- * screenplay: The Intruder, dir. by Carlos Hugo Christiansen, 1980
- * SIETE NOCHES, 1980 – Seven Nights
- * LA CIFRA, 1981
- * NUEVE ENSAYOS DANTESCOS, 1982
- * VEINTICINCO AGOSTO, 1983
- * OBRA POETICA, 1923-1977, 1983
- * Y OTROS CUENTOS, 1983
- * LOS CONJURADOS, 1985
- * TEXTOS CAUTIVOS, 1986
- * EL ALEPH BORGIANO, 1987
- * BORGES, EL JUDAISMO E ISRAEL, 1988
- * BIBLIOTECA PERSONAL, 1988
- * OBRAS COMPLETAS, 1989 (2 vols.)
- * Selected Poems, 1998
- * Collected Fictions, 1998
- * Selected Non-Fictions, 1999
much more about Jorge Luis Borges can be found here…