I am uneasy writing about Jorge Luis Borges (b.1899, Buenos Aires, d. 1986, Geneva). Borges wrote so much that I have not read; yet his world of myth and fantasy and magic and metaphysics has so influenced me that since I am here in his city where I can feel Borges the man rather than only Borges the artist and writer I have known from afar, I feel I have to record something about him in flesh and blood.
I am entering dangerous territory, I know. A veritable minefield. Nonetheless, being this close, in his very proximity, changes my relationship with him. I have known Borges—poet, essayist and fiction writer—as one of the most important authors of the Twentieth century. Now, in these days I have been to his old address in Calle Maipu in central Buenos Aires where he lived longest, I passed through the Galleria del Est he loved downstairs under his apartment, I walked along the street named for him, Calle Jorge Luis Borges, in the barrio of Palermo where he also once lived, and I have read about his life in Buenos Aires, his curiosity about the world of tango and gangsters and knife fights, all so distant from his real world of letters.
My problem in understanding Borges the man is a familiar one: I was acquainted with his work many decades before I even considered him the person. As usual the art conditions my feelings about its creator. For me it happens this way especially with painters: if you see first the art, it conditions your relationship with the artist you might meet later. For you he remains forever the artist—first the artist, then the person.
However, the reverse can also be true: if you get to know first the person, then later his art, you may wonder that the person you thought you knew really created the art. It seems miraculous that a childlike person, who gets drunk, gossips about his neighbors, worries about his falling hair and spouts absurd political and social ideas, creates disturbing works of art. You underrate the art because of the ordinariness of the person who creates it.
Borges though was not ordinary. Born into an international family that lived in Europe while he was young, Borges spoke English before Spanish. “Georgie” was precocious and everyone assumed from the start he would be a writer. Legend has it that he wrote his first story at seven and translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” at nine or ten.
After the family’s return to Buenos Aires, Borges at twenty-five became the center of Argentine letters, writing a mass of poetry, essays and long stories. During the 1950s he headed the national library of 800,000 volumes, which must have been a paradise for him since books and words were his life. For that reason the Italian writer Umberto Eco in his best seller The Name of the Rose named his librarian, Jorge de Burgos, for him.
In expression of his opposition to the election of the populist President Juan Peron, Borges resigned from the national library and in 1976 lent support to the military dictatorship that overthrew Peron. From afar I was not aware of this. His support for the regime that killed and tortured and ruined the nation in the name of order creates enormous problems for me.
A politically center-left lawyer I asked about this showed little surprise, claiming that people didn’t know what was happening. Finally, in 1980, after thousands of the tortured bodies of some of the best of Argentine youth had been dumped into the ocean, Borges signed a petition in favor of the desaparecidos.
This “We didn’t know” rings suspicious. The majority of the 30,000 desaparecidos were from Buenos Aires. Thousands of families and relatives and friends were oppressed as the military dictatorship crushed all resistance and “subversion”. Who were the subversives anyway? They were the leftwing of the Peronist movement, Montoneros and the Peoples Revolutionary Army (ERP), who went underground … the only political opposition.
Borges knew everybody. Did no one tell him what was happening? Or was it simply too distant from his metaphysical world? But if he knew?
How could Borges not know? His friend, the Chilean poet and Communist, Pablo Neruda, was quoted as saying, “He (Borges) doesn’t understand a thing about what’s happening in the modern world, and he thinks I don’t either.” The Nobel Prize Committee must have believed the same, for though Borges was a longtime candidate for the coveted prize, he never got it. Many people of the literary world believe his support for the dictatorship was the reason.
Now I hope Neruda was right: How could a man concerned with circular labyrinths and mirrors reflecting his alter ego understand what was really happening around him? Trying to resolve the riddle of time, maybe Borges was lost in an infinite series of times, parallel and divergent and convergent, in his intellectual world ranging from Gnosticism to the Cabala.
In Borges’ famous book, El Aleph, a collection of seventeen of his most suggestive and mysterious stories, the story “Los Teologos” speaks of an ancient sect on the banks of the Danube known as the Monotonous who professed that history is a circle and there is nothing that has not been before and that there will never be anything new. For them, in the mountains, the Wheel and the Serpent had replaced the cross. It was heresy. The question in my mind was: What is heretical about saying that nothing was new? Surprisingly Borges’s protagonist decided that the thesis of circular time was too different to be dangerous; the most fearful heresies are those nearest orthodoxy.
In fact, the poetic books of the Old Testament are filled with such a thesis. The new edition of Ecclesiastes starts out with these disconcerting words:
Says the teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
The Old Testament says the most terrible things in poetic words, like the following words of the King Solomon, the teacher, that have graced film and literature:
What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.
Those are demoralizing words for the writer searching for new images and for new word combinations which means turning words and phrases in the hope something new will emerge and that above all it will not be meaningless. We should reject Solomon’s pessimism that we will never be satisfied with what we create. Reject those harsh words, or sink. For just as every man is unique, he is destined to do or write or utter something unique. Otherwise, why all this?
Though I accept Borges on the basis of his creative art, I am uncertain whether it is proper to judge an artist wholly by his work or whether one must separate the man from his art. However that may be, now that I have read more about his role in Argentinean society my feelings toward him are colored; I look at his writings with a more critical eye, searching for the reasons he backed the 1976-1983 military dictatorship here and in Chile and Uruguay, for which some of the political Left condemns him today. He lent full support to the terror of the military junta, which he called blithely “a confraternity of gentlemen.” As an adult with much information at his disposal, he chose the wrong side … the same, it seems, as choosing Nazism in Germany.
In the first story in El Aleph, “El Inmortal,” he repeats in various ways the refrain that no one is guilty … or innocent. When life is circular, without beginning or end, when man is immortal, then everything, good and evil, happens to every man. In an apparent search for a world of order Borges seems to have sentenced that it would be madness to think that God first created the cosmos and afterwards chaos. Read with other eyes, this rings like a whitewash of evil.
Borges’s many books are on prominent display in the magnificent bookstores of Buenos Aires and his anniversaries are marked with new editions of his works and round tables and homages. Like Joycean tours in Dublin, Buenos Aires offers Borgean tours—the streets Borges walked, his cafés, his bookstores, his Buenos Aires of Recoleta and Palermo and Plaza San Martin about which he wrote extensively. Borges is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest voices of world literature, winning many international prizes and recognitions.
Yet he chose to support the dictatorship, even during and after the terror, while continuing to write his esoteric stories so far removed from harsh realities. Is retirement to an ivory tower permissible? Seen in this light he seems to be the creator of art for art’s sake, which I have to condemn. The belief in art for art’s sake, according to the Russian Communist theorist Georgy Plekhanov, “arises when artists and people keenly interested in art are hopelessly out of harmony with their social environment.” It has been said that art for art’s sake is the attempt to instill ideal life in one who has no real life and is an admission that the human race has outgrown the artist. That was most certainly the case of Argentina and Chile in the Seventies of last century.
Commitment on the other hand involves the writer’s trying to reflect through his work a picture of the human condition—which is social—without however losing sight of the individual. I reject the claim that art is a thing apart. Despite the obstacles politics creates, art, I believe, is part and parcel of the social. And writing is a social act insofar as it derives not only from the will to communicate with others but also from a resolve to change things. The artist wants to remake the world. And his passion must be freedom. The military dictatorship was certainly not a goal … nor even a means.
Late in life Borges denied he ever wrote for either an elite or the masses; he wrote for a circle of friends, he said. This familiar claim is also suspect. I reject his thesis that “there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition” underlying his tales of fantasy and remote historical points of departure.
Borges was both universal and an Argentinean nationalist, who wrote of tango and gauchos and detectives and the streets of Buenos Aires. Since he was too universal to accept Peronist populism, it is a mystery how he could fall for the “club of gentlemen” of the military assassins. Perhaps in his subconscious of his apparent asexuality he needed their “machismo.”
The Argentine military dictatorship was so horrible per se that its very existence contaminates past, present and future life. The 30,000 victims continue to lie outside time and memory. Afterwards, Borges, again the great artist, forgiven and reestablished, wrote that, “As long as it exists no one in the world can be courageous or happy.”
A miniaturist, Borges never wrote large works. Yet his work, taken together, forms a great canvas of times and places. It must have been his great regret that he never won the Nobel, apparently the price he paid for his misreading of the role of political power.
Paul Bowles and Anton Chekhov were right: the artist should take a wide berth around politics; yet he should understand enough of it in order to protect himself. For a half decade Borges failed to do that.
His story in El Aleph, “Deutsches Requiem”, concerns a Nazi torturer and killer, the Deputy Director of the concentration camp of Tarnowitz, who has been sentenced to death and is to be executed the next morning. Otto Dietrich zur Linde credits Brahms, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Nietszche and Spengler as his benefactors who helped him “confront with courage and happiness the bad years and to become one of the new men.” He acquired the new faith of Nazism and waited impatiently for the war to test his faith. His was to be the total experience, of victory and defeat, of life and death.
Otto thought: I am satisfied by defeat because secretly I know I am guilty and only punishment can redeem me. He thought: Defeat satisfies me because it is the end and I am tired. He thought: Defeat satisfies me because it happened, because it is linked to all the events that are, that have been, that will be, because to censure or deplore one single real event is to blaspheme the universe.
In other words, everything is linked in Borges’ great circular universe. Everything happens again and again. Everything is part of one whole.
The story written shortly after World War II closes with these disturbing words:
Hitler believed he fought for his country; but he fought for all, even for those he attacked and hated…. Many things have to be destroyed in order to build the new order, now we know that Germany was one of those things…. I look at my face in the mirror to know who I am, to know how I will act in a few hours, when the end stands before me. My flesh will be afraid, but not I.
I don’t quite know what to think of this story. It is disturbing. Hopefully, I keep reading over and over the following quote from Borges which somehow helps: “One concept corrupts and confuses the others.”
I hope he was saying that the thoughts of Otto Dietrich zur Linde were pure speculation and merely part of the abstract universal metaphysical whole.
So, I continue reading El Aleph, alternately exalted by Borges the writer and disillusioned by him the man.
Gaither Stewart is a veteran journalist, his dispatches on politics, literature, and culture, have been published (and translated) on many leading online and print venues.