Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina
Summary and Keywords
To consider the most influential Argentine writer of the 20th century within the South American cultural and historical framework implies going deeper in a literature that put the periphery—the margins, the minor literature—forward as a particular place of enunciation, not only by destiny but also by choice, as an imaginary place of freedom derived from the lack of cultural tradition tied to a territory.
After some years in Europe as a youth, in 1921, Jorge Luis Borges went back to Buenos Aires, where he took part in avant-garde projects and little magazines, as well as in mass circulation publishing and journalistic endeavors. It was in this junction of Modernism and mass culture that, from the 1930s, he began to create his sophisticated fictions, which fully exploited the resources of a second-hand culture, made of hybrid genres, clippings, displacements, plagiarism, and mistranslations, making artistic innovations from some of the most usual practices in printed culture. In the following decade, his anti-Hispanism and his appreciation of certain forms of Argentinian orality were paradoxically combined with his militancy against nationalism. The peripheral condition he addressed in one of his most famous essays (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”), which stands as a theoretical and critical locus that could decenter Western tradition in its entirety, was an argument stated from a particular time and place against the realism and the nationalism that predominated in the vernacular literary field. His opinions on literary, cultural, or political matters (veiled, as in “The Aleph,” or more visible, as in his anti-Peronist texts “L’Illusion Comique,” “The Monster’s Feast,” and “The Mountebank”) present a minefield of controversial interventions in the Argentinian disputes of his time and account for a specifically Borgesian way—self-interested, instrumental, strategic—of taking part in the dilemmas of the history and the culture that he was part of.
Borges has sparked various responses throughout time in Argentina. Some milestones are the tributes to him by the Megáfono group, in 1933, and by Sur magazine in the 1940s, the Contorno patricide trial in the following decade, the Borges “for the masses” in the 1970s, and the generalized rejection of his support for military dictatorships (the one that overthrew Perón in 1955 and the one that began in 1976). In 2009, the literary experiment of a young writer using one of the most famous short stories by Borges gave rise to a lawsuit for copyright fraud, which, in turn, triggered intellectual debates on literary heritage in a socially significant and broader sense, reinstating the problematic—and not merely legal—character of literary property. A well-nourished history tells how, in Argentina, consecutive generations of authors, critics, and readers have dealt with one of their most challenging and intense writers, wondering how to read him, how to get away from the fascination he causes, and how to make his powerful legacy their own.
A Universal Literature and Its Erased Context
Around 1930, Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) began an experiment that, over the next few years, would result in a remarkable and universally recognized literary innovation. From the early narrative texts of those years—the short story “Leyenda policial” (1927), the fictional biography Evaristo Carriego (1930), and the “baroque” stories of Historia Universal de la Infamia (1935) he called “exercises of narrative prose”—he began to develop a set of artistic procedures that reached its peak in Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949), two fundamental books that include widely known texts such as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “Babel’s Library,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The South,” “Funes, His Memory,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “Death and the Compass,” and “The Aleph.” His fictions—as he preferred to call them—deploy a set of innovative procedures and ideas regarding literature: the overlapping of reading and writing, the questioning of the conventional ideas of an individual author and of a definitive text, the suspension of the hierarchy between original text and translation, the use of re-contextualization as an artistic resource, the rejection of the psychological novel, the adoption of anti-realism and anti-nationalism, the transgression of the boundaries between genres through the combination of literary review, biography, autobiography, anecdote, history, fait-divers, chronicle, detective story, and philosophical essay in his fictions.1
Borges’s recognition beyond the borders of his own country since the 1960s—with the Prix Formentor and the special edition of Cahiers de L’Herne devoted to him and his work—meant some erasure of the South American context in which he wrote all his work. In 1944, when translating Borges’s first texts into French, Néstor Ibarra introduced him as follows: “Of a Hispanic-Anglo-Portuguese background, educated in Switzerland, settled for some time now in Buenos Aires, where he was born in 1899, there is no other person less attached to a homeland than Jorge Luis Borges.” And this was the image that prevailed. By the end of the following decade, an article in the French magazine Combat stated: “We should not seek an ‘Argentine writer’ in him—even if he loves and often evokes his country—Borges is not a representative of Argentine literature, he is a monster and a genius.”2
In an already classic book of literary criticism, Beatriz Sarlo remarked that Borges’s integration into the universal canon and the circulation of his work in the Northern Hemisphere had involved the erasure of his links to the River Plate culture (his relation with other texts and authors in the form of dialogue or by breaking with them, the collective projects, and the controversies in which he had been involved). To read him as a universal writer was, somehow, an act of aesthetic justice, though it implied forgetting something that Borges himself considered to be part of him: the bond that connected him to what it meant to be from the River Plate.3 This had meant the loss of the condition of writing and reading from the periphery, a condition of irreverence that could displace Western literature from a centrality that seemed given. Sylvia Molloy reiterated the need to take into account this double aspect of a literature that was both cosmopolitan and localized at once:
The Universal (in its European, Western avatar) lays claim on Borges and the practice of literature he stands for, but does so against the grain, failing to recognise—perhaps because Borges’s text ‘passes’ so easily—its double-voicedness, its fundamentally mobile, relational nature. Beatriz Sarlo, not so long ago, spoke of the uncanniness of lecturing in England on a writer whose first-world reputation had ‘cleansed him of nationality’.4
Borges lived his childhood in Palermo, then a suburb of the capital city of Argentina. In 1913, he traveled to Europe, where he spent the early years of his youth, until he returned for good in 1921. This is when he first became actively involved in the cultural life of Buenos Aires. Throughout the years, his literary practice, always flexible and varied, assumed several forms, such as the publishing of magazines, supplements, his own books, and collections.5 Newly arrived back, he became part of the artistic avant-garde community, participating in the creation of little magazines—Prisma (1921–1922), Proa (1922–1925), and Martín Fierro (1924–1927)—which in the 1920s contributed to a relative modernization of the literary arts by means of a renovation in the local aesthetics and literary sociability. From 1931 onward, he began to publish translations, essays, fictional and critical texts, as well as columns on cinema in Victoria Ocampo’s magazine, Sur. As of 1936, he wrote a regular section of essays and reviews in the illustrated weekly magazine El Hogar, and he started to publish in newspapers with large readerships, such as Crítica, La Prensa, and La Nación, in addition to directing ephemeral magazines, such as Destiempo (1936–1937) and Los Anales de Buenos Aires (1946–1948). Together with Adolfo Bioy Casares, he directed a short-lived imprint and then, from 1945, El Séptimo Círculo, a successful and long-lasting collection of crime novels. Furthermore, he compiled the Antología de la literatura fantástica [Anthology of fantastic literature, 1940] jointly with Silvina Ocampo and Bioy Casares, and, with the latter, a selection of Los mejores cuentos policiales [The best detective stories, 1943].6
Most of his texts were first published in newspapers and magazines in Buenos Aires. While, in 1923, Borges personally distributed among his limited circle of acquaintances the few copies of his first self-published book one by one, the stories he began to publish in the following decade reached an anonymous and innumerably larger readership in magazines and newspapers.
Between 1933 and 1934, he took charge of the Revista Multicolor de los Sábados—the illustrated supplement of the popular and sensationalist paper Crítica—together with Ulyses Petit de Murat. In this milieu, whose mode of production differed so much from that of the avant-garde little magazines, he performed a variety of tasks that contributed to his literary experiments.7 As he recalled later, “there was no copyright then. [. . .] One could make an excellent magazine out of clippings.”8 The magazine was a favorable space to combine discourse genres, to plagiarize, and to do “free translations”—a common practice in that area of the mass culture, which was more oriented toward bringing pleasure to the readers than to guaranteeing intellectual property or legitimacy. And it was precisely to this milieu—to these “exercises” destined for popular consumption, which “took the shape of forgeries and pseudo-essays,” and which arose from texts by other authors only to be transformed at leisure until achieving “little by little the writing of legitimate stories”—that Borges, in retrospect, traced his first steps as a storyteller.9 The significance of the incursion into the journalistic medium of a writer who up to that moment had only written poems and essays, and who from then on would focus on writing stories, is undeniable.
His contributions to El Hogar, a popular weekly family magazine in which, from 1936, he began to write every fortnight, also had literary consequences: that same year, he published a false review, later included as a fictional piece in the book El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan [The garden of forking paths, 1941). “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” dealt with an invented book by an invented author, combined with names of writers, publishers, and books that in fact existed.10 In the references to the publishing, journalistic, and literary worlds of India, there were echoes of the publishing, journalistic, and literary worlds of Buenos Aires, in which Borges was actually involved: in the fictional Bombay, the crime genre appeared intertwined with the Persian mythical story; in actual Buenos Aires, it was mixed with the local stories of cuchilleros (brawlers), as some of Borges’s own stories showed.11 The false review, which closely resembled real reviews, “foreshadows and even sets up the model for the stories that were somehow waiting for me, and for those through which I would establish my fame as a storyteller,” says Borges in his Autobiography.12
In 1939, he published in the magazine Sur “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which he transforms the displacement of a text to different contexts into an artistic procedure. These were foretastes of what he would continue to perfect in his sophisticated fictions, the combination of an exquisite library with some of the most common resources in the printed practices of cultural industry. The journalistic and publishing world of Buenos Aires was to Borges a laboratory.13 In it, he trained in the art of manipulating texts, he learned to what extent a piece of writing could be transformed into another when changing its reading context, he practiced unprecedented textual combinations, and he re-created other people’s writings, bringing about new procedures in literature. According to Ricardo Piglia, such intersections—between high-brow and low-brow, between erudition and circulation—bear the mark that Argentinian literary culture made on Borges.14
The Peripheral Condition
In a famous1951 lecture entitled “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges declared a marginal and minor situation as his own place of enunciation, not only by fate but also by choice, inasmuch as it is a space free from the authority imposed by more consistent cultural traditions.15 But this issue, which arose from his own production circumstances as a South American writer, expanded until becoming a theoretical and critical locus that could decenter Western tradition in its entirety. For what is at stake here is not only a matter of how to write literature in the arrabales (suburbs) of the Western world (and how not to submit to the criterion of local institutions), but also a broader question about what it means to read from a decentered position. The significance of this matter can be seen by taking into account the fact that, to Borges, the practices of reading and writing overlap as creative instances of the text (only by being a reader does Pierre Menard become a new author of the Quixote; and it is possible to imagine the novelties that can arise when a South American reader is the one who moves freely within a text of a great tradition).16 The context in which a work is read is far from innocuous: one literature differs from another less for the text itself than for the way it is read.17
In this lecture, published as an essay in 1953, Borges began by questioning the bases of Argentinian literature as seen by the nationalists, who intended to limit the poetic exercise to just a few uninspiring local topics, “as if we Argentines could only speak of neighborhoods and ranches and not of the universe”; and, additionally, he challenged the national canon, headed by Martín Fierro and by a novel on a rural subject, Don Segundo Sombra.18 The former, Borges argued, did not derive from a spontaneous popular tradition but from a learned author who had invented an artificial genre in order to poetically re-create the voice of the popular sectors of the countryside; the latter accumulated telluric elements—the countryside, the gaucho, the pampas, the ombu—but its metaphors came from the Montmartre coteries and was related to the literature of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. At the same time, he ruled out the idea that local culture had strong Spanish roots (on the contrary, “Argentine history can unequivocally be defined as a desire to move away from Spain, as a willed distancing from Spain”).19 Against the nationalist discourse in literature, Borges defended the right to the whole Western culture: “I believe that Argentines, and South Americans in general [. . .] can take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstitions and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences.”20 Those who did not belong to a central culture could act within it without feeling bound by some special devotion, and this gave them better conditions to innovate.
“The Argentine Writer and Tradition” is a controversial essay that aims its arsenal of arguments at several targets at once, opening a variety of interventions. Appearing in a particular historical context, it first took issue with the nationalist cultural policy of Peronism (the manuscripts of the lecture given at an institution that was in opposition to the government record explicit references to the Argentinian politics of the day that were left out of the printed version).21 Secondly, and fundamentally, it was an intervention against the dominant values in the vernacular literary field (in this sense, the essay is an answer to the reasons for preventing one of his books from receiving the National Literature Prize in 1942).22 Later, Borges introduced some changes in order to erase the lecture’s controversial components and the way he had sought to take part in concrete conflicts: when he published it in 1953, he removed the lines with explicit political comments, and when he re-edited it in 1974 in his Obras completas, he retrospectively included it in a previous book (Discusión, 1932), thus detaching it from its original context of enunciation.
After that, the text projected a series of issues that caused it to be one of Borges’s most intensely read and discussed essays (How could cultural dependence be avoided without falling into narrow nationalism or locking oneself in a particular culture? How could one practice enough cosmopolitism to be contemporary but continue to be aware of one’s distinctiveness from the hegemonic universality?).23
Fundamental for Borges was redefining connections: between the local and the universal, between high-brow and low-brow culture, between reality and fiction. And, when it came to putting this to the test, Buenos Aires was better than Oxford or Salamanca; it was a space where he could freely exercise from an unlimited library. The result was unpredictable (such as a storybook from Turkestan, a Hindu crime novel, or a Chinese encyclopedia read in the River Plate), and it did not have the mere lure of a curiosity.24 A famous preface by Michel Foucault attested to the dissolving power of that literary experiment: “This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.”25 This well-known quotation, which has been used so many times to confirm Borges’s recognition within the cultural nucleus of the West, also shows the way in which untamed literature could disrupt the certainties rooted at the center.
The Language Issue
Like other Latin American avant-garde writers, Borges was involved in intense debates about literary language.26 His interventions, which left a mark on the essays and poems from his early years (1922–1928), had three essential issues as a background: the rejection of the cultural dependence inherited from the Spanish colonial period, the linguistic mixture caused by the recent European immigration in Buenos Aires, and the desire to renew the literary language by getting it closer to oral and everyday uses.
To the 1920s avant-garde writers, the Spanish tradition represented becoming stagnated in the past and implied ignoring the local inflections (pronunciation, vocabulary) present in the use of the Latin American language. The matter was not new: it had arisen with the pro-independence processes of the 19th century, when writers such as Simón Rodríguez (a teacher of Simón Bolívar’s) in Venezuela, Manuel González Prada in Peru, José de Alencar in Brazil, and Domingo Sarmiento and Esteban Echeverría in Argentina began to vindicate a national profile for the literature and the literary language of their various countries. Already at that time, the awareness of an oral practice that was different from the Spanish one had been useful as an element of American self-affirmation. These arguments were reclaimed and redefined a century later by the avant-garde writers.27
In the essay “El idioma de los argentinos” [The language of the Argentines, 1927], a young Borges fought firmly against linguistic purism: the Spanish language was as imperfect as any other language, and had to be renewed, outside of the academies, which intended to continue to impose the standards of correctness from Spain: “To declare an already achieved plenitude of the language is illogical and immoral. It is illogical, since the perfection of a language would postulate a great thinking or a great feeling, that is, a great poetic or philosophical literature, which are qualities that never resided in Spain; it is immoral inasmuch as it abandons the past, our most intimate possession: the future, the great Argentine day after tomorrow.”28 The quarrelsome tone of the Borgesian charge—which he would seek to erase years later—can be understood in the context of its emergence: previously the Spaniard Guillermo de Torre had published an article (entitled “Madrid, meridiano intelectual de Hispanoamérica” [Madrid, intellectual meridian of Spanish America]), which triggered intense counterattacks in the River Plate context that was resistant to cultural dependence and eager to modernize. Borges responded with satirical humor to then continue with his anti-Spanish militancy: in Evaristo Carriego (1930), he called a famous purist grammarian an “unacknowledged viceroy”; in “Las alarmas del doctor Américo Castro” (The Alarms of Dr. Américo Castro), he crushed the authority of a prestigious philologist who in 1941 had just published in Buenos Aires a book on linguistic incorrectness in the River Plate region; and in 1951, he stated that the Argentine history could be defined as a sustained distancing from Spain.29
In the 1920s, Borges thought that literature—not the academy—had a fundamental role in the configuration of a “politics of language”: “What I seek is to awaken in every writer the awareness that language is barely sketched, and that to multiply it and change it is his glory and duty (ours and everybody’s). Every conscious literary generation has seen it this way.”30 He himself set out to invent a written version of the criollo (local) orality, a literary voice that would not be affected by Spanish academicism, cosmopolitan mixture, or artful jargons.
Moreover, his interventions regarding language took place in the context of an urban orality that was mixed due to immigration in Buenos Aires. This led him to rescue (or invent) an oral tradition on the verge of extinction (the “local talk of the elders”), refusing to represent what was characteristically Argentine with the language of the arrabal or lunfardo, an artful jargon used in popular theater and in tango lyrics.31
From the 1930s onward, Borges left the criollo avant-garde and began a process of self-criticism.32 He prevented the re-publication of his first three books of essays—Inquisiciones [Inquisitions, 1925], El tamaño de mi esperanza (The size of my hope, 1926], and El idioma de los argentinos (1928)—and subjected his first three books of poetry—Fervor of Buenos Aires (1923), Moon across the Way (1925), and San Martín Copybook (1929)—to a retrospective correction, reediting them without the oral features characterizing the criollo.33 A critical edition of his work—nonexistent to date—would allow us to reconstruct the fluctuations and variations of a writing that originated from a more rooted and belligerent avant-gardism than what the available editions reveal.
Borges’s relationship to the political life of Argentina does not show his most lucid side: the nature of his positions is not always clear, nor is when or to what extent his positions can be interpreted in terms of honest engagement. In the 1920s, Borges was affiliated with the movement that then represented the large popular majorities, Yrigoyenism, of a national and popular orientation, with close affinity to the avant-garde culture of the criollo he was practicing at the time. In the 1930s, he abjured these stances and began to adopt a more conservative profile. From 1945, he was an opponent of the government of Perón; and from 1955, after the coup d’état that overthrew this president, he was an unconditional supporter of the new government, which considered him the official leading figure in the literature field.34
In 1976, he supported the civil-military dictatorship, but in the following decade, when the atrocities committed against human rights came to light, he had the lucidity to repent. In 1985, he attended the trial of the military juntas and expressed his wish for them to receive an exemplary sentence.35 The poet Juan Gelman—who received the Cervantes Prize in 2007, and whose political orientation was opposite from that of Borges’s—acknowledged the value of that ethical gesture:
The misdirection and even the horror of Borges’s political opinions are well known. [. . .] But in 1981, in the middle of the military dictatorship and before the Malvinas [Falklands] war, he signed the press release that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo managed to publish in the La Prensa newspaper demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing children. [. . .] Unlike other intellectuals who were never capable of admitting having supported the military dictatorship, Borges acknowledged his mistakes.36
The writer Juan José Saer judged him more harshly: “In a Latin America tormented by violence, [. . .] he chose his field with complete lucidity, but without the courage or the intellectual energy that would have made us respect him, since he tried to attenuate the extent of his choice by means of irony or apparent indifference.”37
Politics, an Argentine passion, permeates Borges with its turbulences, in a more or less self-aware and deliberate way depending on the situation. Even though his image as an indifferent and even an apolitical writer prevailed for a long time, several fictional texts, articles, lectures, and debates with other writers show that he was interested and even very active in his interventions.38
By the end of 1947, he signed “La fiesta del monstruo” [Celebration of the monster] under the pseudonym of Honorio Bustos Domecq, in collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares. The story was passed around from hand to hand among those opposing the government of Perón until, after he was overthrown in 1955, it was published by a weekly magazine in Montevideo.39 The events invented and narrated in the parodic text take place in Buenos Aires when a group of Peronist demonstrators is going to the Plaza de Mayo to hear Perón (“the monster”) speak, and, on the way, kills an opponent who is carrying a book under his arm. The narrative voice is that of a Peronist, an absolute other of the implicit value system; it concentrates the stereotypical features—vulgarity, animality, violence—attributed by anti-Peronists to the popular classes, which were seen as a threat. The tale appropriates popular speech, fills it with barbarisms and clichés, and uses it to narrate acts of atrocity. With an extreme rhetorical violence, the text submits the political scene of Peronism—seen as monologic and authoritarian—to criticism; yet, by addressing only one aspect of it, it offers a biased and schematic interpretation. The story is built upon the basis of the civilization–barbarity dichotomy, which has organized the Argentinian political and cultural thinking since the 19th century, when literary texts narrated acts of barbarity (then represented by Juan Manuel de Rosas) against the enemy. By means of a quotation in the epigraph, “La fiesta del monstruo” establishes its continuity with that motif from the previous century.40
Ten years later, Borges published in the National Library magazine “The Mountebank,” whose immediate reference was the multitudinous and passionate wake of Eva Perón. The text narrates the repetition of the event, in a solemn and grotesque ritual, in a provincial town, where a popular sanctuary is constructed to house a doll with blonde hair in a cardboard box. The narrator interprets this “funereal travesty,” kindled by naïve popular fervor, as “the perfect summary of an unreal time.” An earlier text, “L’illusion comique,” had already taken on the staged quality of the Peronist phenomenon, presented as a story “made of nonsense and fables for the consumption of thugs,” a sentimental fiction based on a clever “political handling of the methods of theatre or melodrama.”41 Both pieces focus on a scenic (theatrical) dimension of politics, a motif that had already appeared in “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” a Borgesian fiction of an Irish theme that predated the Peronist period.42 “The Mountebank” foregrounds a ritual of popular political passion, but in the background it also shows—and this is its most interesting dimension—the point of view of an astonished observer of a popular phenomenon he finds incomprehensible. His perspective does not admit any connection between politics and fiction, nor does it accept that affection can play a role in the constitution of collective identities.43 In line with a long tradition in Argentinian literature, this “civilized” look struggles to build an exclusion zone for the barbaric other, embodied in this case by Peronism.44
Simultaneously, from the leftist magazine Contorno, Borges’s inability to understand a complex phenomenon of political life was questioned: “Borges saw Peronism once and for all, and never revised his vision [. . .]; he cannot see the honesty of the schlocky, of the cabecita negra [literally, little dark head], or that those humiliated and insulted were right for the most part—being right without reasoning—despite Perón and certainly despite us, the anti-Peronists.”45 Obsession led Borges to self-parody: he managed to find forms of Peronism avant la lettre or “ur-Peronism” in the 19th century of Argentina and even in Shakespeare.46
In Argentina, views regarding Borges and Borgesian literature have also been colored by political issues: his reactionary stands made him unreadable to the intellectuals of the left, who—at the same time Borges was beginning to be read in Europe with a growing interest—saw him as the epitome of an intellectual elite that was alien to the social reality of a dependent country.47 Sometime later, the cultural left would approach Borges through less lineal ways of reading, and he became of more and more interest because his fictions could contradict the explicit ideology of their writer. In other words, it became possible to leave aside his regrettable public interventions in order to pay attention to the politics of literature, that is, what was at work in the literary forms he had created.48 This allowed, especially from the 1980s onward, the appropriation of his most weighty and significant contributions.
Paradoxes of Nationality
To be an Argentine— a porteño [a man from Buenos Aires] and a South American man—was to Borges an inevitable condition, but also a choice. It was a search filled with contradictory elements, and even an imaginary terrible plenitude (“I see at last that I am face to face with my South American destiny,” thought Francisco de Laprida when he was being killed by the federal gaucho militia in 1829, in “Conjectural Poem”).49
When he returned from Europe in 1921, Borges rediscovered his hometown. In his poem “Arrabal” he wrote:
- The new grass, precarious, desperately hopeful,
- growing through the stones of the street
- and I discern in the depth
- the cards of colours of the west
- and I felt Buenos Aires.
- This city that I believed to be my past
- is my future, my present;
- the years I have lived in Europe are illusory,
- I always was (and will be) in Buenos Aires.50
Taking distance from it had been essential for recovering it: “Had I never lived abroad, I doubt I could have ever seen it with such a strange mixture of surprise and affection.”51 From then on, without completely abandoning cosmopolitanism, he sought a locally rooted aesthetics. He incorporated this personal literary project in a broader one that included writers of the past with whom he felt affinity even in diversity, and he called upon his contemporaries: “I want to speak to the locals: to those men who experience life and death in this land, not to those who believe that the sun and the moon are in Europe.”52 The project that he had in mind had a national element, like the political faction he was enthusiastic about at the time, Yrigoyenism, and it took a collective shape as a literary avant-garde in the magazines Proa and Martín Fierro, which Borges helped to create.
An essential lack and an orientation toward the future demanded a creative task: it was necessary to find a type of poetry for Buenos Aires that matched its desired greatness: “This is the size of my hope, which invites everybody to be gods and to work in their incarnation.” Borges’s essays and poems from this early period sought to build a local mythology around the suburbs (the orillas or the arrabal), a symbolic border space between the city and the pampas, in which to re-create the image of a past still untouched by urban modernity.53 Together with the local themes, Borges tried to find a literary language equivalent to the written version of a past orality of the criollo. These were the basic elements of the Borgesian aesthetics of his beginnings, a period known as literary nationalism, populist nationalism, or avant-garde culture of the criollo.
In the 1930s, a decade that began with a traumatic political turn of events, Borges introduced two fundamental changes in his literature.54 First, he engaged in self-criticism regarding his previous aesthetics, which he would set out to dismantle or reconfigure from then onward. Years later, he disavowed those early books in which he had tried to write the flavor and the essence of the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Second, he would begin to write short stories, and this would reach its peak in the following decade with his fictions, his greatest contribution to 20th-century literature.
In this regard, Evaristo Carriego constitutes a key book, a link in the passage to narration for a writer who, until then, had devoted himself almost exclusively to poetry and essays. The book combines genres (biography, literary criticism, history, fictional tale) in an unprecedented way and is an experiment that would have lasting consequences. It postulates a distinctly Argentinian theme (a popular criollo poet from the suburbs who used to visit his childhood home in the Palermo neighborhood); however, it weakens the consistency of cultural identity:
To the obvious reasons for his Argentineness—a provincial ancestry and the fact that he lived on the edge of Buenos Aires—we should add another paradoxical reason: his trace of Italian blood, expressed in his mother’s family name, Giorello. I say this without wishing to offend: the Argentineness of the full-blooded native is inescapable, while that of a person of mixed origin is a decision, a conscious choice.55
As Jorge Panesi has remarked, since the 1930s, and in the midst of the rise of nationalism, Borges devoted himself to questioning the self-evident identity of nationalities. In the biographies of writers he began to publish in the magazine El Hogar, he emphasized the features that implied multiple identities: “Eden Phillpotts, ‘the most English of English writers,’ is of a clear Hebrew origin and was born in India.”56 And, in several stories from the 1940s—“Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”—he associated the problem of identity with intellectual paradoxes, suggesting that any nationalism is built on self-contradictory foundations.57
To Borges, every cultural identity is, intrinsically, unstable because it includes heterogeneous elements, but this becomes more evident in the “arrabales” of the Western world, a place he claims as his own:
I, for instance, am porteño, the son, the grandson, the great-grandson and the great-great-grandson of porteños; but (in other branches) I have ancestors who were born in Córdoba, in Rosario, in Montevideo, in Mercedes, in Paraná, in San Juan, in San Luis, in Pamplona, in Lisbon, in Hanley, in. . . . That is to say: I am the typical man from Buenos Aires. Better still: I would only need to have Italian blood as well in order to be the typical porteño.58
In this part of America, the lack of a long settled tradition, and the multiplicity of contributions received in its brief history, made the people likely to feel they were rightful heirs to Western culture in its entirety. If the original articulation of the local and the universal was a tendency of the culture of the River Plate region, what so many nationalists had reproached Borges for seems to have been, then, was his most genuine characteristic.
To Be or Not to Be an Argentine
The issue of nationality was a persistent core idea in the debates over Borges and his literature. In 1933, the magazine Megáfono organized a survey around his image, for he was already being considered the Argentine writer with the most influence on his young colleagues. The explicit goal of the questionnaire was “to revise Argentine values,” and this issue appeared in several of the answers. One of them states that:
Borges is not even remotely a national critic or thinker. Argentine reality is absent from his essays. When one reads Borges, it seems that the leading figures of our literary tradition are nothing but empty nutshells. And when Borges comes out with Argentine characterology, everything becomes dark, and there comes the moment of the great mistakes.59
Shortly afterwards, the critic Ramón Doll wrote: “Borges’s prose is, if I may, perfectly anti-Argentine.”60 Both quotations attest to a lasting accusation on the basis of the two dominant values in Argentinian literature at the time: realism and nationalism. This became evident again when, in 1942, the book El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan by Borges was nominated for the National Literature Prize. Indifferent to Borgesian fictions, the judges gave the award to a novel by another author, deemed to be a “valuable document of our ways” and an “undeniably Argentine” work. As a repudiation of the verdict, the magazine Sur organized an issue in defense of Borges, in which several writers participated, stressing the significance of his fiction.61 Then, the magazine Nosotros—whose director, Roberto Giusti, had been a judge in the contest—published a note explaining the reasons for giving the prize to a novel that was “rich in touches that ‘make us see’ types, scenes and places” and for rejecting Borges’s fiction, “an exotic and decadent work” that followed the “deviant tendencies of contemporary English literature.”62 To counteract these arguments, Adolfo Bioy Casares denied that a work, in order to be representative of what is national, had to resort to “national themes or landscapes” or to restrict itself to a limited tradition.63 Shortly before, he had written, along similar lines, a defense of the work:
Perhaps some tourist, or some inattentive native, may ask whether this book is “representative.” The researchers who employ this word are not content with the fact that every work is contaminated by the time and the place in which it appears. [. . .] We can do without certain provincialism from which some Europeans suffer. It is natural that, for a Frenchman, literature is French literature. For an Argentine man, it is natural that his literature is all the good literature of the world. This book is the representative of that culture in which William James, Bernard Shaw, Wells, Eça de Queiroz, Russell, Croce, Alfonso Reyes, Paul Valéry, Julien Benda, and Jorge Luis Borges worked or have worked; and of the Argentina that may possibly come, or perhaps of the future that befits it.64
Borges himself made his contribution to the debate in the lecture on “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” in 1951. But he had done that already, in a more veiled way, in some fiction. “Death and the Compass” (1942) was an implementation of what he saw as a desirable articulation between the local and the universal, and “The Aleph” (1945) subjected dominant values in the local literary scene to parody.65 The protagonist, the writer Carlos Argentino Daneri, exaggerates to the point of exasperation the foundations of nationalist realism. Among other things, the story is a satire of the literary contest that in 1942 had given the award to a mediocre book just because it followed the precepts of being “Argentine,” “representative,” and “making us see” types, scenes, and places (there are hints that lead to this reading: the reference to sight, Daneri’s Italian-Argentine name that duplicates that of one of the judges, inter alia).66 These texts totally transcend the coordinates of their place of emergence, and they can be read perfectly without a reference to them, yet situating them in the context of the debates in which they appeared reveals a writer who was actively involved in the disputes of his time and place.
Borges’s connection to what it means to be an Argentine was a persistent matter of debate. In 1948, Héctor Murena, from the magazine Sur, even objected to the poems from Borges’s early period, because they abounded in national symbols without authentically experiencing them.67 In the 1950s, one of the young critics from the left, of the so-called “patricide” generation—readers of Jean-Paul Sartre, and those gathered around the magazine Contorno—judged him for his lack of engagement with the social reality of his time: “One can get out of being an Argentine, a Latin American, or an Englishman, but one cannot take the abstractions to the point of erasing my conditioning as a man who is a part of a historical development.”68 At the beginning of the following decade, another intellectual from the national left would use the term “estrangement” to name the imbalance between a dependent country and its most talented writer.69
If, during the first half of the 20th century, a recurring question had been how to write literature in Argentina, toward the end of that century, the basic question would be how to write after Borges.
One of the main narrators from the following generations, Juan José Saer (1937–2005), sought to distance himself from this leading figure and the work with the greatest weight and legitimacy in the national literary field. In “Borges como problema” [Borges as a problem], he distinguished two aspects in the image of the writer (as an artist and as an intellectual), also suggesting that Borges’s literary corpus had to be studied by setting apart zones that deserved different degrees of appreciation. This critical distance allowed him to contribute new elements: he showed some dimensions that had been omitted until then (Borges as a polemist and as a militant), and he related one of the main characteristics of Borges’s work—the predominance of the brief form—to the active and sustained participation this author had in the publishing and the journalistic media of Buenos Aires.70 In this manner, he demystified the purely aesthetic reasons for some of Borges’s literary decisions, but by doing so, he uncovered a field of research that had remained unexplored until then. His verdict on Borges as an intellectual was ruthless: he had backslid from his anti-Peronism and anti-communism toward ever more regrettable positions. To counterbalance the severity of this criticism, Saer acknowledged the magnitude of a large part of Borges’s literary work: “His instinct as an artist, fortunately, and in a manner of speaking, betrayed him”; and he also stated that, between 1930 and 1960, Borges wrote texts that record “the extreme tension of the conflicts that haunted him consciously or unconsciously, the result of which is every literary text of any value.”71
Saer’s judgement had the necessary controversial strength to dispute a leading figure and a work with extraordinary weight and legitimacy. However, in his demystifying vigor, paradoxically, there are also echoes of the lessons of somebody who taught readers not to be intimidated by “literary superstitions”—the beliefs that make one forget the verbal nature of literature—or by the authority of the great names (“How can one elucidate that tide of pomp, that beats upon the high shore of the world: the 1056 pages in a minor Quarto attributed to Shakespeare? How can one seriously judge those who study it in block, with no other method than a wonderful release of terrified compliments, but without even examining a single line?”72). There are many ways in which Borges is present in Saer’s writings: through the problematization of realism, the overlapping of memory and fiction, the interplay between differing versions, as well as more or less veiled references to Borges’s texts, among others.73 Saer built his narrative project from Borges’s literature, at the same time as he broke with and differentiated himself from it, by which he managed to create a very prominent and singular work.
In turn, the writer and critic Ricardo Piglia (1941–2017) turned Borges into a starting point for analyzing the Argentinian cultural tradition, the relation between the crime genre and literary criticism, the connection between fiction and politics, the uses of popular speech and parody. He was interested in Borges’s self-image as the heir to a divided lineage that helped define Argentinian culture: “Arms and letters, the criollo and the European, courage and books, life and culture, the oral and the written: ultimately, these oppositions replicate and change the basic form of the contradiction between barbarity and civilisation, felt as a double family tradition.”74 Piglia performed audacious readings of Borgesian writings, making hypotheses regarding the Argentinian context: the discord between the two lineages in the librarian who in “The South” faced a duel with a knife; the seduction by barbarity felt by the English woman in “Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden” who is abducted by the Indians and turns her fate into a choice (“The relation between civilisation and barbarity is at the core of the story and the transformation of the terms and the inversion of opposites are an example of how Borges weaves his fiction by working simultaneously with the contrast and the likeness between these two worlds which are, at once, familiar and antagonistic”).75
Piglia put a controversial and strategic Borgesian way of reading into practice, less interested in truth than efficacy in generating hypotheses and stories, in which literature is seen as a challenge for the reader, and criticism is intertwined with fiction. Like Borges, Piglia wrote from a peripheral culture that was cosmopolitan, but always in conflict with the tradition of the foreign high culture, accustomed to a specific use of cultural heritage, and prone to mistranslations and second-hand quotations.76 Like Borges, Piglia was a part of a literary culture that sought innovation, challenge, and irreverence.
In 2013, Public Television and the National Library of Argentina (the latter directed by Horacio González at the time), jointly produced a series of four lectures in which Ricardo Piglia, with critical excellence and a remarkable communicative capacity, presented to a wide audience the main hypotheses he had been elaborating over previous years. The lectures, organized around the central topics of “Why Is Borges a Good Writer?,” “Memory and Violence in Borges,” “The Library and the Reader in Borges,” and “History and Politics in Borges,” were an exhibition of the possibility of broadening the interest in Borgesian literature without neutralizing its most interesting elements, which is a usual risk of institutional canonization and media circulation.
In 2000, the ubiquity of Borges’s name in the Argentine public scene and the symbolic weight of his literature on young writers caused the critic Josefina Ludmer (1939–2016)—whose oblique and strategic reading methods can also be taken as a Borgesian heritage—to ask: “How do we escape Borges?” This question was an attempt at considering the writer from the place in South America where he had produced his work and from the challenges his literature had meant for the readers. The organic authority of his work had to be dissolved, and its monumental character had to be taken from it in order to make room for the Argentinian literature of the future. The starting points would have to be the methods with which Borges himself had dared “without superstitions” to analyze other authors and read their texts in an innovative manner: “I would like to imagine what that future reading would be like, working with him as he himself worked with the classics and their traditions.”77
A decade later, a literary experiment by a young writer was a step in that direction. El Aleph engordado [The fattened aleph, 2009], by Pablo Katchadjian, consisted of an enlargement of the famous short story by Borges by adding 5,600 words to the 4,000 of the original text. With this, he applied a set of Borgesian methods and ideas regarding literature to a Borgesian literary corpus: overlapping writing and reading, putting into question the idea of a definitive text, using re-contextualization as an artistic procedure, among others. The experiment gave rise to a lawsuit by Borges’s widow and legal heir, who initiated a still-ongoing trial for intellectual property fraud.78 Indifferent to the long history of creative appropriations performed by the artistic avant-garde movements of the 20th century (such as ready-mades, collages, intertexts, and interventions of the most varied kinds), the Argentinian judicial system accepted the lawsuit. The case triggered intense intellectual debates on literary heritage in a socially significant and broader sense, reinstating the problematic—and not merely legal—character of literary property. Many Argentine and foreign intellectuals came out in defense of the passionate reader who was capable of honoring the Borgesian heritage with an act of irreverent appropriation.79
In July 2015, a public event was organized at the National Library, with a round-table talk called “Borges: What to Do,” which featured César Aira, María Pía López, Jorge Panesi, and the author of El Aleph engordado. The audience, consisting of readers, writers, artists, critics, and professors, crowded the auditorium where the encounter took place, and there were convincing interventions requesting that the case be dismissed. César Aira declared that it was necessary to overcome the paralysis caused by an admiration of Borges in order to be able to continue writing, which implied not to put limits on what can be done with admired writers, such as gloss, imitation, and parody.80 It would suffice to remember Borges’s explanation when he said that he had written “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” in order to do something different with a text that had become a cause for patriotic toasts, grammatical pride, and obscene deluxe editions.
The case aroused discussions in journalistic articles, messages on social networks, and public events. These can also be seen as part of Borges’s heritage due to the controversial nature that characterized his constant interventions, but above all, because of the critical elements favoring innovation that are available in his literature for the readers who are willing to take on his legacy.81 To them, Borges is not a writer of stories about labyrinths and mirrors but a powerful component within an active cultural world, and the name of a literature that refuses to become dead letter.
As an acclaimed writer—and against what his own literature poses as a challenge—Borges sometimes tends to be connected to traditional ideas of a conservative culture: the authority of knowledge, fame, and the advantages that come with awards.82 At other times, conversely, his is the name of a literature that shakes the inertia of thought. The dispute between both possibilities is a struggle for the appropriation of Borges’s meaning, and is still current in today’s Argentina. Time will tell to what extent he will have managed to endure as the personification of a conventional and profitable culture “more widely known than read, which is how fame works nowadays,” or whether he will still be celebrated as a challenge that, from a peripheral and distant place in the 20th century, promises to continue to engage.83
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(1.) The main issues of Borgesian literature have been exposed in plentiful and relevant critical works. See “Further Reading” section and see also: Jaime Rest, El laberinto del universo: Borges y el pensamiento nominalista (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Librerías Fausto, 1976); Daniel Balderston, Gastón Gallo, and Nicolás Helft, Borges: Una enciclopedia (Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Norma, 1999); Mario Goloboff, Leer Borges (Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 2006); and Sergio Pastormerlo, Borges crítico (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007).
(2.) Sylvia Molloy, La diffusion de la littèrature hispano-amèricaine en France au XXe xiècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), 205, 219.
(3.) Beatriz Sarlo, Borges, un escritor en las orillas (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1995).
(4.) Sylvia Molloy, “Lost in Translation: Borges, the Western Tradition and Fictions of Latin América,” in Borges and Europe Revisited, ed. Evelyn Fishburn (London: University of London, 1998), 19.
(5.) These activities certainly trained him for the re-editing of his own writings when, from the 1950s, he began the task of preparing his Obras completas [Complete works] for the publishing house Emecé, exercising a personal management of publications, which shows his determination to have control over his own work. See Annick Louis, Jorge Luis Borges: Obra y maniobras (Santa Fe: Universidad Nacional del Litoral, 2014).
(6.) See Beatriz Sarlo, “Borges en Sur: Un episodio del formalismo criollo,” Punto de Vista 16 (November 1982): 3–6; María Teresa Gramuglio, “Bioy, Borges y Sur: Diálogos y duelos,” Punto de Vista 34 (1989): 11–16, 135–142; Jorge Lafforgue and Jorge B. Rivera, “El séptimo círculo revisited,” in Asesinos de papel: Ensayos sobre narrativa policial (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 1946), 121–131; and Beatriz Sarlo, “Vanguardia y criollismo: La aventura de Martín Fierro,” in Ensayos argentinos: De Sarmiento a la vanguardia, ed. Carlos Altamirano and Beatriz Sarlo (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1997), 211–259.
(7.) The Revista Multicolor de los Sábados was also a first platform for the promotion of stories that would be part of the anthologies of crime and fantastic fictions Borges later prepared in collaboration. See María de los Ángeles Mascioto, “Literatura fantástica entre el diario Crítica y la editorial Sudamericana: Políticas editoriales, materialidad de los textos y modos de escritura.” Revista Chilena de Literatura 93 (2016): 127–153.
(8.) Jorge Luis Borges, Borges el memorioso: Conversaciones de Jorge Luis Borges con Antonio Carrizo (México City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982), 218.
(9.) “The true beginning of my career as a storyteller was with a series of exercises called A Universal History of Infamy, which I published on the columns of ‘Crítica’ between 1933 and 1934. [. . .] these exercises and some of the fictions that followed, little by little, led me to write genuine stories in the form of forgeries and pseudo-essays. [. . .] I read about the life of renowned people, and I deliberately changed and distorted everything as I pleased. These stories were destined for popular consumption on the pages of ‘Crítica’, and they were deliberately colourful. I suppose that the secret value of these fictions—in addition to the pleasure I got in writing them—is the fact that they are narrative exercises. Since the plots or the general circumstances had been given to me, all I had to do was to think of vivid variations.” Jorge Luis Borges, Autobiografía (Buenos Aires: El Ateneo, 1999), 101–102.
(10.) Jorge Luis Borges, “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” in Historia de la eternidad (1936), in Obras completas, 1923–1949 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1989), 414–417.
(11.) An example is “Hombres de las orillas” [Men from the suburbs], which was published in the Revista Multicolor de los Sábados in 1933 under the pseudonym of “F. Bustos.” Previous versions are “Leyenda policial” [Crime legend, 1927] and “Hombres pelearon” [Men fought, 1928].
(12.) Borges, Autobiografía, 104.
(13.) Two other characteristics of Borgesian writing, the exclusiveness of the brief form and the accumulation of heterogeneous fragments, have been related to his intense activity in the publishing and journalistic worlds. See Juan José Saer, “Borges como problema” in La narración-objeto, by Juan José Saer (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral-Planeta, 1999), 125.
(14.) “The management of culture, cosmopolitism, the circulation of quotations, references, translations, allusions. . . . Quite the Argentine tradition, I would say. All this somewhat outrageous work with cultural materials can be found in Sarmiento, of course, but also in Cané, in Mansilla, in Lugones, in Martínez Estrada, in Mallea, in Arlt. It seems to me that Borges exacerbates this use of culture and takes it almost to the limit, almost to derision: he empties it of content, turns it into pure procedure. [. . .] There is something very interesting in this whole issue, and it is the accessible style in Borges. Borges is actually a reader of manuals and of informational texts, and he makes a quite eccentric use of all that.” Ricardo Piglia, “Sobre Borges,” in Crítica y Ficción (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Siglo Veinte, 1990), 147.
(15.) Jorge Luis Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” (1951), in Selected Non-Fictions, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), 420–427 [“El escritor argentino y la tradición,” in Obras completas, 1923–1949 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1989), 267–276].
(16.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 88–95 [“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” in Obras completas, 1923–1949 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1989), 444–450].
(17.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw,” in Obras completas, 1952–1972, (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1990), 125–127.
(18.) Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” 424.
(19.) Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” 425.
(20.) Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” 426.
(21.) See Daniel Balderston, “Detalles circunstanciales: Sobre dos borradores de ‘El escritor argentino y la tradición,’” Cuadernos LIRICO 9 (2013).
(22.) See the section “To Be or Not to Be an Argentine.”
(23.) See Mariano Siskind, “El cosmopolitismo como problema político: Borges y el desafío de la modernidad,” Variaciones Borges 4 (2007): 76–92; and María Teresa Gramuglio, “El cosmopolitismo de las literaturas periféricas,” in Nacionalismo y cosmopolitismo en la literatura argentina (Rosario: Municipal de Rosario, 2013), 365–373.
(24.) In a 1927 review about a story book from Turkestan, he wrote: “a copy appeared in my house, most likely the only copy in the city. I read it almost all in one go, crediting it with false settings, no doubt: a thing that does not worry me, because it is a book of fantastic stories, and each new version is a new myth. The fact that an Argentine man may speak (and even write) about the German version of the Russian translation of some tales imagined in Turkestan is in itself magic of a superior level.” Jorge Luis Borges, “Cuentos del Turquestán,” in Textos recobrados 1919–1929 (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2011), 271.
(25.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), xvi.
(26.) Although the language issue is especially significant in the 1920s, it is present in different ways throughout Borges’s work. Over time, both rhetorical operations and their foundations, and even their virulence, underwent modifications throughout his work. See Alan Pauls, “El decir argentino,” in El factor Borges Nueve ensayos ilustrados, ed. Alan Pauls and Nicolás Helft (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000), 57–70.
(27.) See Jorge Schwartz, Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: Textos programáticos y críticos (México City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002).
(28.) Jorge Luis Borges, “El idioma de los argentinos,” in El lenguaje de Buenos Aires, ed. Jorge Luis Borges and José Edmundo Clemente (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1998), 11.
(29.) Jorge Luis Borges, Evaristo Carriego (1930), trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 87 [Evaristo Carriego: Obras completas, 1923–1949 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1989), 133]. See Jorge Luis Borges, “Sobre el meridiano de una gaceta”; Ortelli y Gasset (a pseudonym used by Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Mastronardi), “A un meridiano encontrao en una fiambrera,” Martín Fierro 42 (June–July 1927): 7; and “Las alarmas del doctor Américo Castro,” in Obras completas, 1952–1972, 31–35.
(30.) Jorge Luis Borges, “El idioma infinito,” in El tamaño de mi esperanza (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1993), 39, 43. See Pauls, “El decir argentino,” 57–70.
(31.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Invectiva contra el arrabalero,” in El tamaño de mi esperanza (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1993), 121.
(32.) In 1970, he expressed regret for his searches during his first period: “One of these experiments, of a dubious value, was “Hombres pelearon,” my first attempt at a mythology of the old north quarter of Buenos Aires. In it, I was trying to tell a purely Argentine story in an Argentine way, a story I have been repeating with small variations ever since. It is the tale of an uninterested or unmotivated duel: bravery for bravery’s sake. When I wrote it, I emphasised the sense that the language of the Argentines differs from that of the Spaniards. Conversely, now I believe we must stress our linguistic similarities.” Borges, Autobiografía, 64–65.
(33.) Jorge Luis Borges, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929), in Obras completas, 1923–1949.
(34.) In the middle of the 1950s, he was named director of the National Library and Professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires.
(35.) After attending the oral trial, Borges wrote a text in which he expressed his retrospective repudiation of the military government. See Jorge Luis Borges, “Lunes, 22 de julio de 1985,” in Textos recobrados 1956–1986 (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2001), 278–279.
(36.) Juan Gelman, “Borges o el valor,” Página 12 (October 28, 1993). Gelman went from the Communist Party to left-wing Peronism; his son and his daughter-in-law were killed by the military dictatorship (1976–1983), and his granddaughter was born in captivity; then she was appropriated and, eventually, restituted.
(37.) Saer, “Borges como problema,” 123.
(38.) Several parodic fictions written by Borges in collaboration with Bioy Casares, and signed under a pseudonym, include references to national politics of the time when they were written. Regarding the stylistic and ideological features of those fictions, and the interpretative framework of the magazine Sur about them, see María Teresa Gramuglio, “Bioy, Borges y Sur,” 295. For an example of a political speech, see Jorge Luis Borges, “Palabras pronunciadas por Jorge Luis Borges en la comida que le ofrecieron los escritores,” Sur 142 (1946): 114–115. In 1956, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, who was not a Peronist, accused Borges of being a sycophant of the military regime. See Jorge Luis Borges, “Una efusión de Martínez Estrada,” Sur 22 (1956): 52–53. He was also involved in a controversy with Ernesto Sábato; see Jorge Luis Borges, “Un curioso método,” in Textos recobrados (1956–1986) (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2011), 221–222.
(39.) Honorio Bustos Domecq, “La fiesta del monstruo,” Marcha 783 (1955): 20–23.
(40.) See Josefina Ludmer, “The First Fiesta of the Monster,” in The Gaucho Genre: A Treatise on the Motherland (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 138–153.
(41.) Jorge Luis Borges, “L’illusion comique,” Sur 237 (1955): 9–10.
(42.) Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Mountebank,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York and London: Penguin), 143–146, 301–302 [“Tema del traidor y del héroe,” in Obras completas, 1923–1949, 496–498; “El simulacro,” La Biblioteca 1 (1957): 116–117].
(43.) See Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (New York: Verso, 2005).
(44.) “Barbarity and political barbarity have noticeably interested Borges, as was the case with Sarmiento. In the case of cuchilleros [brawlers], the passing of time has turned them into helpless figures from an almost extinct world; the same social strata (with the addition of immigration) converge in the Peronist masses. If the condemnable ethics embodied by the former can be excused because it is a game that has come to embellish the game of art and of literature, the latter cannot be the substance of any art, for they are not touched by unreality, as he assumed, but by another reality that Borges insists on not understanding,” Jorge Panesi, “Borges y el peronismo,” in El peronismo clásico (1945–1955): Descamisados, gorilas y Contreras, ed. G. Korn (Buenos Aires: Paradiso, 2007), 30–41.
(45.) “The invisible Argentina, the guapo [tough guy] and the orillero have revolted against us, and we do not know what to do with them. We have used them in literature and we have lived peacefully at the expense of their dirt and their misery. They have been useful for us. Now we certainly must be prepared to impose our cleanliness, our wise literature, and our good manners on them. Perhaps it is possible to understand each other in French, since execution, torture and prison is a lesson we have taught them and which they did not learn well, for they have used it against us.” V. Sanromán (Ismael Viñas), “La fiesta del monstruo,” Contorno 7–8 (1956): 172.
(46.) “[Borges] discusses an article by Unamuno on Martín Fierro, published at the turn of the 20th century, which could have been written by one of our nationalists overflowing with Peronism avant la lettre”; “Shakespeare, with his irresponsible eloquence, seems to be a deviant Italian Jew, never an Englishman; no understatement, no English passion for the sea: he might as well have been a Peronist,” in Borges, ed. Adolfo Bioy Casares (Barcelona: Backlist, 2010), 186, 269–270.
(47.) See Juan Carlos Portantiero, Realismo y realidad en la narrativa argentina (Buenos Aires: Procyón, 1961), 107–108. Regarding Borges in the magazine Contorno, see Nora Avaro and Analía Capdevila, “El caso Borges,” in Denuncialistas: Literatura y polémica en los años 50 (Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos, 2004), 146–160.
(48.) See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Literature (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2011).
(49.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Conjectural Poem” [Poema conjetural], in Selected Poems 1923–1967, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (London: Penguin, 1972), 94–97.
(50.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Arrabal,” in IDARG: Identidad Argentina = Argentinean Identity, trans. and ed. Hernán Berdichevsky and Gustavo Stecher (Buenos Aires: STF, 2007), 98 [in Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), in Obras completas, 1923–1949, 32].
(51.) Borges, Autobiografía, 48–49.
(52.) Jorge Luis Borges, “El tamaño de mi esperanza” (1926), in El tamaño de mi esperanza (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1993), 11.
(53.) The books he published during this period are: Inquisiciones (1925), El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), El idioma de los argentinos (1928), Fervor of Buenos Aires (1923), Moon across the Way (1925), and San Martín Copybook (1929). See Rafael Olea Franco, El otro Borges: El primer Borges (Buenos Aires: El Colegio de México-Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993); Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge (London: Verso, 1993); Beatriz Sarlo, “Vanguardia y criollismo: La aventura de Martín Fierro,” in Ensayos argentinos: De Sarmiento a la vanguardia, ed. Carlos Altamirano and Beatriz Sarlo (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1983), 211–260; and Ricardo Piglia, Respiración artificial (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1988), 163.
(54.) Shortly after the military coup that, in 1930, overthrew Hipólito Yrigoyen, who had been elected two years before for his second presidency, Borges wrote a text he would never want to re-publish. In it, he defined the Argentine condition as distressing, as failure and bitterness. The final lines refer to those historical circumstances and show Borges on the opposite side from the supporters of the coup d’état. See Jorge Luis Borges, “Nuestras imposibilidades,” Sur 4 (1931): 131–134.
(55.) Borges, Evaristo Carriego, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, 53–54.
(56.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Eden Phillpotts” (1937), in Obras completas 4 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2007), 291.
(57.) Jorge Panesi, “Borges nacionalista,” in Críticas (Buenos Aires: Norma, 2000), 131–151.
(58.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Los escritores argentinos y Buenos Aires” (1937), in Obras completas 4, 273–274.
(59.) Enrique Anderson Imbert, “Encuesta de la revista Megáfono” in Antiborges, ed. Martín Lafforgue (Buenos Aires: Javier Vergara, 1999), 29. For a reconstruction of the interventions, see María Luisa Bastos, Borges ante la crítica argentina 1923–1960 (Buenos Aires: Hispamérica, 1974).
(60.) Ramón Doll, “Discusiones con Borges,” in Antiborges, ed. Martín Lafforgue, 34.
(61.) “Desagravio a Borges,” Sur 94 (1942): 7–34. See Judith Podlubne, “Sur 1942: El ‘Desagravio a Borges’ o el doble juego del reconocimiento,” in Variaciones Borges (2009): 27.
(62.) “Los premios nacionales de literatura,” Nosotros (1942), in Antiborges, ed. Martín Lafforgue, 45.
(63.) “Desagravio a Borges,” 22.
(64.) Adolfo Bioy Casares, “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” Sur 92 (1942): 64–65.
(65.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Death and the Compass” and “The Aleph,” in The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges (New York: Bantam, 1971): 41–53, 3–17 [“La muerte y la brújula,” Sur 92 (1942): 27–39; “El Aleph,” Sur 131 (1945): 52–66].
(66.) Jorge Panesi, “Borges y la cultura italiana en la Argentina,” in Críticas (Buenos Aires: Norma, 2000), 153–167.
(67.) Héctor Murena, “Condenación de una poesía,” Sur (1948): 164–165.
(68.) Adolfo Prieto, Borges y la nueva generación (Buenos Aires: Letras Universitarias, 1954). See David Viñas, “Borges: desacreditar el mundo,” in Literatura argentina y realidad política: De Sarmiento a Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Siglo Veinte, 1974), 85–91; and Avaro and Capdevila, “El caso Borges,” 146–160.
(69.) Juan Carlos Portantiero, “El desarraigo intelectual,” in Realismo y realidad en la narrativa argentina (1961) (Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 2011), 108.
(70.) “According to his own statements, which were probably sincere, the novel did not attract him much, but something noteworthy is that, amidst all his activities, he must have lacked the time and the patience to write one.” Juan José Saer, “Borges como problema,” 119.
(71.) Saer, “Borges como problema,” 137. See Juan José Saer, “Borges francófobo” (1990), “El hacedor” (1971), “Borges novelista” (1981), in El concepto de Ficción (Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1997), 32–40, 190–193, 282–290.
(72.) Jorge Luis Borges, “Elementos de preceptiva,” Sur 7 (1933): 160.
(73.) The first few lines of one of Saer’s most important novels, Glosa (1986), provide an example of this: a narrator shows his own creation of a plot in progress, which can be read as an implicit quote of the first lines of Borges’s fiction “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”: “The action takes place in an oppressed yet stubborn country—Poland, Ireland, the republic of Venice, some South American or Balkan state. . . . Or took place rather, for though the narrator is contemporary, the story told by him occurred in the mid or early nineteenth century—in 1824, let us say, for convenience’s sake; in Ireland, let us also say” (“Tema del traidor y del héroe,” in Obras completas, 1923–1949, 496).
(74.) Ricardo Piglia, “Borges y los dos linajes,” in La Argentina en pedazos (Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Urraca, 1993), 103. See Piglia, “Sobre Borges,” 139–154; “Ideología y ficción en Borges,” in Punto de Vista 5 (March 1979): 3–5.
(75.) Jorge Luis Borges, “El Sur,” in Ficciones (1944) (Madrid: Alianza, 1998), 205–216; Jorge Luis Borges, “Historia del guerrero y la cautiva,” in El Aleph (1949) (Madrid: Alianza, 1997), 55–61; and Ricardo Piglia, “Borges y los dos linajes,” 103.
(76.) Piglia, Respiración artificial, 162.
(77.) Josefina Ludmer, “Cómo salir de Borges,” in Jorge Luis Borges: Intervenciones sobre pensamiento y literatura, ed. William Rowe, Claudio Canaparo and Annick Louis (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2000), 299.
(78.) See Fernando Sdrigotti, “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, not a crime,” Guardian, June 25, 2015; and Jorge Carrión, “Las otras apropiaciones de Borges y Bolaño,” New York Times (Spanish version), December 6, 2016.
(79.) See PEN International “Argentina: Drop Charges against Author on Trial for ‘Plagiarising’ Borges in Literary Experiment,” July 3, 2015.
(80.) See César Aira, “El tiempo y el lugar de la literatura: Acerca de El Martín Fierro ordenado alfabéticamente y El Aleph engordado, de Pablo Katchadjian,” in Otra parte 19 (2009–2010); and María Pía López, “Para nosotros, Borges,” in Cuestión Borges: La Biblioteca 13 (2013): 207.
(81.) Horacio González’s controversial interventions, of an ironic style, are very Borgesian. See Horacio González, “Literatura y jurisprudencia,” Página 12 (July 2, 2015); and Horacio González, “¿Cuál Borges?,” Página 12 (July 24, 2016).
(82.) An exhibition organized in 2016 at the National Library under the direction of Alberto Manguel was called “Historia Universal de la Fama” [A universal history of fame], with the core idea of “a career destined to shine thanks to its recognitions,” as stated in its brochure.
(83.) Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge, 1.