Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges, Struggling to Write in ‘Bedeviled Times’: Must an Artist Be the People’s Voice?

[this one is a little long; I recommend, with apologies in advance to the trees and to the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, printing it out and enjoying it over a cup of coffee...]

In a Slate article on Jorge Luis Borges, entitled, "Can a Great Writer Be Blind to The World around Him?" (February 7, 2007), Clive James questions the lack in Borges' writing of open, direct, unambiguous criticism of the Argentine junta. James opens with a quote that Borges made in 1979, late in this writer's career and life, when, according to James, "the Argentine junta was doing its obscene worst". Using (or misusing) the quote to establish Borges as an author who thought that "what was happening to his country was of secondary importance, because his first loyalty was to the world", James forges his stance: Borges was disloyal, almost non-Argentine; detached from the human situation and the concepts of "truth, justice, and mercy"; hiding and taking "refuge in an invented world; writing only as a means of escaping reality. I seek to elucidate not only certain basic historical facts that James omitted in order to strengthen his points but also the apparent political ambivalence of Jorge Luis Borges with a deeper, more thorough examination of his writing and philosophy.

Before constructing a comparative analysis of Borges' writing, I pose a few basic points (and counter-points) on Clive James' commentary. Jorge Luis Borges did live from 1899 to 1986, and most of the major violence characterizing Argentina's Guerra Sucia [Dirty War] did begin in 1976 when Jorge Rafael Videla took control of the country after the ousting of Isabel Martínez de Peron. During the period, however, of 1976 to 1983, when the Argentine junta was conducting its genocide, and, according to James, when Borges was walking the streets of Buenos Aires in a state of oblivion to the suffering all around him, this author was for the most part not even in the country. Borges' mother, his personal secretary, scribe and literally his eyes since he went completely blind in the mid 1950s, died in 1975. After her death, which must have been a serious blow to his writing capabilities, Borges began traveling all over the world, up to the time of his own death in Geneva, Switzerland. If he was even in Argentina for the 1979 writing and publishing of his homage to Victoria Ocampo, he probably wasn't even there long enough to 'hear the screams of the torture center near his house'.

James’ depiction of and attitude towards Borges' career - his citation of Borges’ works published only after 1962 and his use of only the later Argentine violence as a backdrop - creates a misleading and false image of this author. James states that "Borges openly loathed Perón, but fell silent on everything that happened after Perón was ousted - fell silent politically, but artistically came into full flower, an international hit even as his nation entered the tunnel of its long agony". This overly dramatic, hyperbolic statement contains a claim that is delusion bordering on blatant lie. Juan Perón died in 1974 and Isabel Martínez Perón was ousted in 1976, approximately 30 years after Borges actually "came into full flower", and 10 years before the death of, at that later time, that old man. Borges' most famous and acclaimed work - considered by him and others the pinnacle of his career - was Ficciones (1944), for which he received the Gran Premio de Honor de la Sociedad Argentina de Escritores [High Honor Award of the Society of Argentinean Writers]. Labyrinths (1962) is actually a compilation of works written mostly in the mid 1950s earlier, and the first 13 pieces in this compilation represent Ficciones (1944) in its near-entirety. Ten years after Ficciones was first published, Borges was almost completely blind in both eyes, and "because of his near-blindness, Borges ceased to write stories after 1953...and since then has concentrated on even shorter forms which can be dictated more easily" (1). In the prologue of A Personal Anthology (1961), published in the year in which he and Samuel Beckett jointly received the Formentor Prize and in which his international fame really began, Borges writes "My preferences have dictated this book. I should like to be judged by it, justified or reproved because of it, and not by certain exercises in excessive and apocryphal local colour which keep cropping up in anthologies and which I can not recall without a blush" (2). This statement is not one made by a writer who is still 15 years shy of blooming and 'coming into full flower', and though such a statement does not prevent Borges from accomplishing subsequent great works, it does seem to suggest that after consistently publishing his writing for almost 40 years, he had by 1961 begun to reach a certain level of comfort and satisfaction with his literary career. While it doesn't necessarily excuse him from or explain the apparent political ambivalence 15 years later that James wishes to focus on, it is crucial to understand that Borges’ literary mind was much more vibrant decades before Perón was ousted, and not during the latter ten years of this Argentine writer's life, as James falsely suggests.

With those historical corrections in mind, I move to the issue of artistic political silence. James states that "his [Borges'] name and growing international renown were lent to the regime without reserve, either because he approved or - the best that can be said for him - because he was clueless". James is wrong on both counts and neglects to pose the most obvious alternative, namely that Borges simply chose, as I believe any artist is entitled to do, not to write directly and openly about the political situation of his country in the latter years of his career and life. One could potentially claim by 1983, when the juntas led by Videla had disappeared 9000 people at minimum, 30000 at maximum, and when Borges was 3 years from his own death, that the absence of political commentary on the part of this author was the result of old age, fatigue, blindness, and a comfortable feeling of accomplishment with the literary achievements of the previous 60 years. Indeed even by 1940 his "failing eyesight and other crippling afflictions made him more and more a semi-invalid, more and more an incredible mind in an ailing an almost useless body, much like his character Ireneo Funes" (3). One might also contribute Borges' apparent political ambivalence during the most violent epoch of Peronísmo to the fact that he was rarely in the country after 1975 and was most likely out of touch with the events of his country, whether or not he read the newspapers. In my mind, however, the best explanation of Borges' political silence comes as should be expected from his own writing and through a thorough examination of his personal philosophy, an examination which James fails to undertake.

James leads into his discussion of Borges' "apparently detached political position" with the mention of disgruntled Argentines who expected Borges to take a more active anti-Peronísta role. In the introduction to Labyrinths (1962), James Irby discusses this dissatisfaction as well, but also begins to pose a counter-argument: "In Argentina, save for the admiration of a relatively small group, he [Borges] has often been criticized as non-Argentine, as an abstruse dweller in an ivory tower, though his whole work and personality could have emerged only from that peculiar cross-roads of the River Plate region, and his non-political opposition to Perón earned him persecutions during the years of the dictatorship" (4). It was apparently even "speculated that Borges was considered unfit to receive the award [the Nobel Prize in Literature] because of his tacit support of, or unwillingness to condemn, the military dictatorships that were being established in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere,....[despite the fact that] he was granted the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society" (5).

To those Argentines grumbling at the absence of active and engaged political commentary on the part of Borges, this literary behemoth might have said that such malcontents fail to understand that "history, true history, is far more modest [than traditionally accepted 'historical' days and dates] and that its essential dates may well be, for a long time, secret as well" (6), an idea that Borges explores in the essay The Modesty of History. Earlier in the same essay, Borges writes (perhaps somewhat cynically and bitterly) that "one of the tasks of modern governments (most notably in Italy, Germany, and Russia) has been to fabricate or counterfeit them ['historical' days and dates], with the help of previously accumulated propaganda and of persistent publicity" (7). Further in the The Modesty of History, Borges states that "such 'historic dates' [referring for example to a famous battle that occurred on Sept 20, 1792] bear less relation to history than to journalism" (8). Newspapers and historians alike it seems to Borges do no more than record certain mundane superficially critical days and dates, and fail to actually chart the progress of man's humanness - the evolution of the human situation - over the centuries. For Borges, writing openly and distinctly about the Argentine junta would have been to submit to the unimaginative role of simple reporting, of journalism, an unacceptable shift for Borges that Irby detects to some degree as well: "Apparently, many of his [Borges'] countrymen cannot pardon in him what is precisely his greatest virtue - his almost superhuman effort to transmute his circumstances into an art as universal as the finest of Europe - and expect their writers to be uncomplicated reporters of the national scene" (9).

Borges' approach to the concept of history begins to provide insight on how he might have viewed the actions of Videla's junta. His outlook suggests that even if he did read the newspapers, as he claimed he didn't, he wouldn't have ever felt obliged to react - literarily or otherwise - to any articles contained therein, independent of whether they were written in times of peace or in times of violence. The truth is that Borges' political ambivalence is not an emotional neutrality or frigidity with respect to such times of violence, cruelty, and destruction, or even with respect to times of peace, harmony, and productivity, but in truth is more a lack of concern with all aspects of the traditional concept of time. In A New Refutation of Time, Borges follows the idealist logic of Berkeley and Hume to present an associated postulate on time: “Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment” (10). Borges then goes on to mention a section of the treatise Sanhedrin of the Mishnah which states 'whoever kills one man destroys the world', and then writes, "That is the way I understand it, too. Clangorous general catastrophes - conflagrations, wars, epidemics - are a single grief, multiplied in numerous mirrors illusorily" (11). Borges supports his view on human suffering with a quote from Bernard Shaw: "'What can you suffer is the maximum that can be suffered on earth....Do not let yourself be overcome by the horrible sum of human sufferings; such a sum does not exist'" (12). Would even the genocide of thousands of Argentineans over the course of 6 years at the end of Borges' life overcome this philosophical point of view? I think not. Would such physical dates of mass murder in Argentina, the period 1976 to 1983, stand out in man's long repetitive history of torture, self-destruction, and war that has played out from one corner of the earth to the other, among all peoples, all civilizations, races, and nationalities, at one time or another? I think not. Borges may indeed have heard the screams issuing from the torture center that was apparently within walking distance of his house, but the precedent for one human being torturing another had unfortunately been set long ago. To Borges the 'true' historical moment would be have been the date on which one human first tortured another; or to plunge even deeper, the date on which one human first tortured another without suffering sickening feelings of guilt, horror, and remorse; or deeper still, the date on which one man tortured another and only at the death of the tortured realized that it was in fact his own brother. This is the core of the human situation and this core is what interests Borges most.

Failing to see what drives Borges writings, James makes the mistake of analyzing Borges' quote on the 'Patriot of Heaven' literally. Borges, who traveled all over the world and lived for a number of years in Spain, Switzerland and other places in addition to Argentina, truly was a citizen of the whole world. As André Maurois says in the preface to Labyrinths (1962), "Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds" (13). James sees as Maurois would also have seen that Borges' "first loyalty was to the world", but James fails to comprehend the symbolism that Maurois touches on, namely that 'the world' to Borges is merely a representation for all its human inhabitants and the play of humanness through all time (or through the infinity of moments constituting the human experience). James sees a literal allegiance to the world as synonymous with and necessitating a physical, actual abandonment of one's own country and one's "loyalties to truth, justice, and mercy", but this point of view is gravely short-sighted. Borges was concerned in his writing with the human situation, with Man, not just the Argentinean man or woman, and if his writing is not a directly obvious discussion of his own country, of the political situation in Argentina, then it is at times, at the least, an indirect one, a commentary that can be applied to the human situation in Argentina as anywhere else. In an almost unforeseen and unplanned response to James, Irby wrote, "Borges' stories may seem more formalist games, mathematical experiments devoid of any sense of human responsibility and unrelated even to the author's own life, but quite the opposite is true. His idealistic insistence on knowledge and insight, which means finding order and becoming a part of it, has a definite moral significance,...and all his fictional situations, all his characters, are at bottom autobiographical, essential projections of his experiences as writer, reader and human being" (14).

This idea, that Borges' imaginary worlds and shrouded mysterious fables were actually deeply pertinent, not only to the Argentine people during the junta but also are so to people at all times, was also touched on by Anthony Kerrigan, one of the translators for A Personal Anthology (1961). He states in the foreword to that book, "Jorge Luis Borges is most poignantly and hauntingly interested in what men have believed in their doubt: Siddartha, Josaphat, the Face of Christ; Duns Scotus, Averroes, Berkeley, Hume; Judaism, its offshoot Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Idealism. His equivocation regarding heresies and dogmas renews them all, though he may be the unique evocative source of his own nostalgic non-belief in Belief or prescient belief in non-belief" (15). For the Argentine citizen, the era of Peronísmo, beginning when Juan Perón first came to power in 1946, was certainly a time of tremendous doubt, and thus in light of Kerrigan's quote, it is really no surprise that Borges thrived as a writer in this environment as much as he did. Irby expands these ideas, rather verbosely, beginning with a question similar to that originally posed by James:

"It could be asked what such concerns of a total man of letters [Borges] have to do with our plight as ordinary, bedeviled men of our bedeviled time. Here it seems inevitable to draw a comparison with Cervantes, so apparently unlike Borges, but whose name is not invoked in vain in his stories, essays and parables. Borges’s fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life which is not only the central problem of all literature but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality. We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author: but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight’s, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails, at our expense. Borges’s ‘dehumanized’ exercises in ars combinatoria are no less human than that (16)".

It seems in the unimaginative, institutional mind of James there can be only two polar and immutable sides: a black or a white; a loyalty to the world, or a loyalty to one's country and the standards of truth, justice, and mercy; that "Borges either hadn't noticed it [the junta's genocide] or...he knew something about it and thought it could be excused". As a related side note, Borges was raised by "parents of the intellectual middle class [who were] descended from military and political figures prominent in the struggles for Argentine national independence and unity that occupied most of the nineteenth century" (17). Brought up then undoubtedly with a mind politically aware, Borges was actually fired from his position at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library in 1946 when Perón first came to power and was subsequently 'promoted' to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market, a position from which he immediately resigned, presenting the Argentine Society of Letters with the following statement at the time: "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy" (18). Late in his career, Borges didn't write openly or directly about the killings occurring in Argentina but that doesn't mean he was "blind to the world around him", or that "he should have tried harder to use his ears", as James suggests.

This latter idea, the question of what Borges should or should not have done in reaction to the political situation in his country, leads this discussion into new territory. It seems fairly clear from his writing why Borges chose to abstain from political commentary, namely because of the philosophical belief that the pain of his countrymen was not a new phenomenon, for Argentineans or humans in general (a silence and ambivalence NOT to be confused with quiet approval of Peronísmo or Videla's actions). The question of what Borges should have done is clearly a relative matter. James seems to think Borges' decision to abstain from political commentary an inexcusable course of action and feels justified in subsequently painting this artist as a blind, deaf, clueless, doddering potential advocate of the Guerra Sucia genocide. Like James, however, I too am stirred by the excerpt from "Homage to Victoria Ocampo", perhaps because I too, continually traveling from place to place - homeless in a certain sense of the word - feel like a "displaced person", to use James’ words (though his adjective seems to bear more negative connotations than those used by Borges to describe something seemingly so noble as a 'citizen of the whole word', an advocate for the entire human experience). Unlike James, though, I feel that an artist, no matter how widely read or acclaimed, can dedicate themselves to whatever subject matter they feel moved by, be it political or otherwise. I also feel that the greater the distance that this chosen subject diverges from the expectations, imagined or real, of an apparent audience base, then the greater the awareness of self and confidence of independence possessed by the artist in question. Countless artists are motivated and inspired by monumental (according to the traditional sense of 'history', not Borges' notion of that word) social, cultural, and political events in their country, but I am mystified as to the time and place when such action or pro-action or reaction, as it may be, became a requirement for the successful work and accomplishment of anyone considered an artist by the masses (if they exist at all). I am venturing close to a point in this discussion where I must define the word artist, and I want to avoid such territory, save for the following thought. I would say that being an artist is about expression of ideas, images, thoughts, and beliefs that have no where to go and need an outlet, but that in a sense already violates an aspect of Borges' philosophy and leads me into contradiction. So I'll let Borges speak for himself on the matter:

"Croce held that art is expression; to this exigency, or to a deformation of this exigency, we owe the worst literature of our time. True enough, Paul Valery was able to write with felicity:

Comme le fruit se fond en puissance,
Comme en delice il change son absence
Dans une bouche ou sa forme se meurt

and Tennyson could write:
...................................and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bore the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.

verses which reproduce a mental process with precision; but such victories are rare and no one (I believe) will judge them the most lasting or necessary words in literature. Sometimes, I too, sought expression. I know now that my gods grant me no more than allusion or mention" (19).

It seems to me that an exigency only appears to be an intrinsic aspect of expression when there is for the 'artist' a perceived audience with perceived expectations, and that such perceptions and the associated yoke of feeling obliged to meet such expectations is the point at which the expression itself becomes warped and the exigency proven to be deformed. I believe when Borges speaks of the 'worse literature of our time' he is speaking of such expression so bent to meet the will of the 'masses' (a term Borges doesn't even believe in) that it is no longer the voice or expression of the artist. Thus would Borges have most likely wished to avoid the title Artist at all, and avoid the dubbing of his work as Expression. Thus would he come to feel in this wisdom, most likely only gained after so many years of writing, that he achieved no more than 'allusion or mention'.

I will say no more on what art should or shouldn't be, or what Borges should or should not have done, but will let his words stand on their own. Any opinion I pose on questions such as those will be contested as easily and quickly as I contested the opinions of Clive James. I sincerely desire to end this ramble with the words of Borges himself, and I feel that the following quotes can do more to reveal the rashness and ignorance of James' criticism, and to defend Borges' own philosophy and apparent political ambivalence, than anything I said in the previous paragraphs:

"I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses'. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time" (20). — Introduction to The Book of Sand (1975)

And lastly: "[Un autor] debe tratar de ser un amanuense del Espíritu o de la Musa (ambas palabras son sinónimas), no de sus opiniones, que son lo mas superficial que hay en el. Así lo entendió Rudyard Kipling, el más ilustre de los escritores comprometidos. A un escritor - nos dijo - le esta dado inventar una fabula, pero no la moralidad de esa fabula. Ojala las paginas que he elegido prosigan su intrincado destino en la conciencia del lector. Mis temas habituales están en ellas: la perplejidad metafísica, los muertos que perduran en mi, la germanística, el lenguaje, la patria, la paradójica suerte de los poetas" (21). - Prólogo de Nueva antologiía personal (1980)}

{Translated by me: "[An author] should attempt to be a scribe of the Spirit or the Muse (the two words are essentially one and the same), not of his own opinions, which are the most superficial aspects of his nature. Rudyard Kipling, the most distinguished of the committed writers, understood this endeavor. The writer - he tells us - is given the power to invent a story, but not to invent the moral of the story. I can only hope that the intricate unforeseeable path of the pages I've chosen persists and develops in the minds of the readers. These pages contain my usual themes: metaphysical perplexity, the dead that live on through me, Germanistics, language, the mother-country, and the paradoxical luck of the poets (21)". - Prologue to A New Personal Anthology (1980)}

1. Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths, New Directions Publishing Corporation, USA, 1962, pg 22
2. Borges, Jorge Luis, A Personal Anthology, Editorial Sur, S.A., Buenos Aires, 1961, pg xi
3. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 17
4. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
5. Wikipedia contributors, "Jorge Luis Borges", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, DOLR: Feb 20, 2007, PL:
6. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
7. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
8. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
9. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
10. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 46
11. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
12. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
13. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 9
14. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 20
15. Borges, Pers Anth, pg ix
16. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 21
17. Wikipedia, Borges
18. Wikipedia, Borges
19. Borges, Pers Anth, pp xi-xii
20. Borges, Jorge Luis, The Book of Sand, Emecé Editores, S.A., 1975, pg 2
21. Borges, Jorges Luis, Nueva Antologia Personal, Editorial Bruguera, S.A. , Barcelona, 1980, pp 8

1 comment:

John A. Atchley III said...

Got something coming on this. Wait and you shall see.