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date: 27 June 2017

J. L. Borges in Argentina

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

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 of European youth, in 1921, J. L. 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 Argentinean 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 Argentinean 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.

J. L. Borges has raised various approaches throughout time in Argentina. Some milestones are the tributes to his figure by the Megáfono group, in 1933, and by the Sur magazine in the 1940 decade, 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 from 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.