Liberty, Individuality, and Democracy in Jorge Luis Borges

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According to Nobel Prize Winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges is “the most important thing that happened to Spanish literature in modern times, and one of the most memorable artists of our time.”[1] I had not fully realized the unique stature that Borges reached abroad until fifteen years ago, when as an Argentine often travelling in the United States many interlocutors asked me about the author’s work and life. Although I had read Borges sometime before, I regretted that I could not offer a more enlightened answer to their enquiries. I thus began a research journey during which I discovered a strong presence of ‘the political’ in Borges’s texts, and I started working on an interpretation of his writings from a political angle. This book is the result of that research.

In the following pages, ‘the political’ is broadly understood as the field of ideas, motivations, actions, discourses, decisions and events dealing with the organization and governing of a society. My main objective in this work is to analyze in which aspects and around which topics Borges found inspiration and gave literary form to ‘the political’. I am aware that he repeatedly claimed that his literature did not intend to design political institutions and programs or to persuade about specific policies; that he had “no message at all” since he only wrote “to ease the passing of time,” and that he was uninformed about political affairs: “I know little about contemporary life. I don’t read a newspaper. I dislike politics and politicians.”[2] On the other hand, he also acknowledged the evidence “that political events exert influence on the literature of a country.”[3] What I intend to show in these pages is how the political inspired him to write fictions, short articles and essays (many of his poems also address the subject, but I do not focus on the analysis of his poetry). My objective is not to evaluate if the plots and contents of his work are truthful or not to historical facts or to political theories, nor I assess the literary style of his writings.

As scholars have acknowledged throughout the years, the several forms in which the political is present in Borges’s works is as philosophical problems, as a reference to national and international historical and cultural contexts, and as an exposition of conjectures about what is plausible to believe or assert.[4] In regard to the philosophical perspective it could be argued that, strictly speaking, Borges did not engage in the construction of arguments: he stated that “I am not a philosopher or a metaphysician; what I’ve done is to explore (…) the literary possibilities of philosophy.”[5] There are, of course, several ways of reading philosophy in literature. Peter Lamarque finds at least three ways to do it: by detecting philosophical themes in a literary text and connecting them to given elements in the plot; by a philosophical reading of the ideas present in a literary text, for their clarification and illustration, and by commenting how literature can help us reflect on philosophical topics.[6] The third method is closest to the one used in the first two chapters of this book, which analyzes Borges’s works in connection to political philosophical issues. Some of the questions that sprang up when reading him include the following: What is the nature of human beings, their limitations and capacities? What should the political order be? Are the responses that we give to these questions valid universally, or are they limited to a particular society and a particular time? Also, what is the role of imagination in designing a political order? Can literature show what lines of actions to pursue, or what kind of ideals to profess? I find in Borges’s prose and fiction many arguments and stories that directly and indirectly touch on alternative answers to these questions.

Borges’s works are not intentional political statements but literary pieces that bring in the political as a stimulus for his writing. Besides philosophy, he found inspiration in historical events and in situations of political oppression. His critique of the latter is formulated from a perspective that exalts the various dimensions of individuality. For one, he follows the methodological tradition in which “the individual is irreducible, unassimilable and unique.”[7] Second, there is the literary dimension in which each individual searches for a distinctive voice, which requires the possibility to engage in as many conversations as desired. Third is the critique of political intrusions into individual lives, which go from simple interferences to persecution and war. Last, there is the ethical dimension of individuality, understood as an ethics of self-restraint that holds the social order together.[8] Borges sees the four dimensions of individuality under the assault of certain political ideologies and regimes, against which he advocates the primacy of liberty.

A clarification is in order about my approach to Borges’s political sympathies. The late Borges said he had been successively communist, socialist, conservative and anarchist.[9] This book traces the evolution of these affiliations as stated in his writings and opinions. Mainly, I call attention to his liberal anarchism, his belief “in the individual, not in the State” and his hope that “someday we will deserve not to have governments.”[10] I examine Borges’s defense of liberty against nationalism and revolutionary causes and against totalitarianisms of diverse sign: “Fascism and Nazism, nobody ignores it- equally abhor democracy.”[11] I also discuss his views on Argentine political history and literature, and why he contested the workings of democracy, mostly in its populist version. Borges was not an “anti-capitalist aristocrat,”[12] but someone who took distance from both elites and plebs: “I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, or for that adulated platonic entity known as the masses. I disbelieve in both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue.”[13] Against aristocratic leisure and adulated masses, his poem “The Just” speaks to the type of virtues—such as work, honesty and austerity- that are instantiated in the various “saviors” of the world: anyone who is attracted to knowledge, art, work, forgiveness, gratefulness and modesty; naturally, there are no politicians among them.[14] In any case, in writing about Borges’s political sympathies my main task is not to assess if his work was either inspired or shaped by political theories or authors. I only point out his literary use of the topics of individual liberty and the relevance of ethics, in which he firmly believed, and of governmental interference with liberty and political excesses, which he strongly opposed.

Throughout the years scholars have addressed these issues extensively. My perspective differs from many literary scholars and people of letters who, perhaps due to their métier, find that in Borges’s texts the individual and reality are a fiction. I argue instead that the variety of individual thoughts, emotions, voices and loyalties does not equate with unreality. Rather, the fact that there is a plural, changing and even contradictory combination of elements in the way Borges depicts individuals only indicates that the latter are complex beings, confused, limited and fallible, but still real. In turn, social life, as literature, is the realm of what individuals do, imagine and achieve among multiple networks of conversations and relationships, which require a framework of political liberty so as to allow for conversations and creations to take place. Conversely, political interference distorts and in the extreme dissolves those networks by imposing disorder in the form of maddening bureaucracies, government intimidation and persecution, and ultimately, oppression and war.

On the basis of the arguments anticipated in the precedent paragraphs I hope to contribute to fill a double lacuna in Borges’s scholarship. For one, the latter has been mostly developed by professors of literary and cultural studies and not by political or social theorists who can offer a distinct disciplinary perspective. Secondly, some scholars have underestimated or failed to see to what extent the political inhabits Borges’s texts,[15] yet his concern with individual liberty and his distrust of governments not only inspired his writing but also serves as a conceptual thread to his texts. In addition, I believe that his literature can help increase political awareness: since people read more fiction and watch movies based on fictions than read prose books or essays, fiction may familiarize readers with political topics and problems that otherwise would go undetected. It might also awaken civic sentiments by praising the achievements of political deeds, by warning against the perils of oppression, and it can feed our imagination with worlds that may inspire us to find more appealing political alternatives.

All in all, I find in Borges an intelligent treatment of political topics; a humorous and witty reflection on the human condition; a realistic vision of the dangers that haunt politics and a cautionary but also hopeful view about the direction and the spirit of political reforms.

Book Structure

Chapter 1 deals with the political philosophy latent in Borges’s works and it tackles issues of individuality, liberal anarchism, and civic indifference. I argue that his notion of individuality is consistent with his liberal anarchistic stance, because individual limitations and fallibility carry less pernicious effects in a decentred political order than under alternative arrangements. I also posit that the self-restraint exercised by some of his characters helps sustain the liberal anarchistic setting, as opposed to a polis ruled only by State coercion. The stories analysed in this light are “The Bribe,” “The Congress,” “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” “Avelino Arredondo,” and “Our poor individualism.”

Chapter 2 argues that in Borges’s texts individuals are often engaged in the search for a creative voice, and that they do so by establishing conversations with multiple philosophical and literary traditions. The chapter also looks at critical interpretations on the nature of the individual and of reality. I find that his works attest not to the annihilation of personality but to a creative individual, who discovers a personal voice within the legacy of traditions. Among the texts addressed from this perspective are “The Library of Babel,” “Undr,” and “A New Refutation of Time.” In addition, I also look at how the design and workings of political institutions foster or hinder the enunciation of collective voices in “The Lottery in Babylon” and “The Man in the Threshold.”

Chapter 3 is inspired in the fantastic story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and it deals with the topics of revolution, treason and war, which come through as “untlonic” worlds when compared to the peaceful and orderly life in the fictional planet. The main argument of the chapter is that political ideas, actions and situations that carry detrimental consequences are those that try to forcefully impose symmetrical utopias upon individuals and societies. Besides “Tlön,” the stories analyzed from this perspective are “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Shape of the Sword,” and “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” along with some prose pieces written during World War II.

The topic for chapter 4 is frontier encounters and transformations as presented in two sets of fictions. The first set pivots on the interaction between the gaucho (South American rural worker), the caudillo (a charismatic leader) and the people of the city. The plots refer to mid/ late nineteenth-century Argentina, and are often presented as fights or duels, much like in cowboy stories. I look at these encounters in “A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz,” “Martín Fierro,” “The End,” and “A Dialogue between Dead Men.” The second grouping of texts is set in diverse times and scenarios, and they allude to the action of crossing over from one place of the frontier to the other. This is the plot in “Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” “Brodie’s Report,” “The South,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” and “The Night of the Gifts.” These pieces show how the characters undergo a life-changing experience after their frontier encounter. In the third section of this chapter, I examine Borges’s argument that some of the frontier encounters and transformations ended up by being politically problematic, and I assess the reasons given by Borges to formulate this diagnosis.

The fifth and last chapter analyzes the topic of democracy. I first address what I call Borges’s early democratic sensitivity, as latent in his comments on Whitman and Emerson. Secondly, I look at subsequent political realities to show how they inspired Borges to write ironical fictions and to express his dislike of democratic politics. His distrust in the functioning of democracy originated in his broader critique of abuses, among which he included populism. His aversion to the latter led him to support military regimes, only to eventually realize these would commit abuses that were much more terrible. As is the case with other writers who acknowledged or regretted their past opinions, Borges eventually came to the conclusion that, despite its shortcomings and derailments, democracy had proven to be a better political regime when compared to its alternatives. I argue that his late reconciliation with democratic life is more consistent with both his early democratic sensitivity and with the idea that liberty can be better protected in a democracy.

A Note about Readers and Sources

This book might be of interest to readers who are unacquainted with the letters of Borges, as well as to those who are familiar with his works and his scholarship but who may want to go beyond a strictly literary analysis into the field of the political. (If this latter group finds somehow tedious the recounting of Borges’s plots, they can defer to the paragraphs and sections that deal with the interpretation of the texts). The book can also be of interest for those who do research or teaching on literature and political theory, comparative literature and politics, and Latin American contemporary politics, history, and sociology. With this particular audience in mind, I have included abundant critical discussion of the existing literature. Despite this latter feature, the book can also provide a wider public—including literary critics and creative writers- with insights on how the topics of liberty, individuality and democracy are present in the texts and opinions under analysis.

Throughout the book I quote from several editions of Borges’s works translated into English. I draw heavily from the Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998); Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and E. Weinberger (New York: Penguin Books, 1998); and Selected Poems, ed. Alexander Coleman, bilingual edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1999). Henceforth I refer to these editions as CF, SNF, and SP, respectively. I also make reference to conferences, books, interviews, and newspaper articles in Spanish when I found that doing so was instructive or useful. All translations from these sources are mine. Borges’s works in Spanish have been collected in several editions as complete works; I have used Obras completas I, II and III published by Emecé between 1989 and 1996, and a compilation in twenty volumes published by Sudamericana (Buenos Aires, 2011). These works are listed in the endnotes to each chapter as OC, followed by the volume number. All references to Borges’s works are listed in the endnotes to each chapter by title, original year of publication, and edition used.

I have found very useful for my work the bibliographical listing and ordering of Borges’s works published by Nicolás Helft, Jorge Luis BorgesBibliografía completa, prologue by Noé Jitrik, supervision by Élida Lois, (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998), as well as the articles and notes published on-line by the Borges Center at the University of Pittsburgh (http://www.borges.pitt.edu/).[16]

Last, a caveat: I have intentionally kept the data and the analysis of Borges’s biography and family history to its very minimum.[17] I cannot help thinking that someone who appreciated the idea of invisibility of private matters would have probably appreciated this gesture.[18]

 

Notes

[1]. Mario Vargas Llosa, Wellsprings, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 29.

[2]. Ronald Christ, The Narrow Act: Borges’ Act of Illusion, (New York: Lumen Books, 1995 [1969]), 265–266; “Epílogo” [1974], OC III, 506; Daniel Bourne, “A Conversation with Jorge Luis Borges,” April 25, 1980. URL: http://artfuldodge.sites.wooster.edu/content/jorge-luis-borges

[3]. “Die Raeuber von Liang Schan Moor, de Shi Nai An” [1938], Textos cautivos. Segunda parte, OC Vol. 14: 293–294. This is a review of the German translation of the Chinese novel The Bandits. Borges detects the influence of Nazism in the decline of German literature.

[4]. Among other books that deal with political aspects in Borges’s works see Beatriz Sarlo, Borges: A Writer on the Edge, Borges Studies Online, J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation, 2001 [1993]. URL:http://www.borges.pitt.edu/bsol/bsi0.php; Daniel Balderston, Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); José Luis González, Borges and the Politics of the Form, (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1998), and Gene Bell-Villada, Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art, Revised Edition, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).

[5]. María Esther Vázquez, Borges: Imágenes, memorias, diálogos, (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1977), 11–12, quoted by Osvaldo E. Romero, “Dios en la Obra de Jorge L. Borges: Su Teología y su Teodicea,” in Alfredo A. Roggiano and Emir Rodríguez Monegal (eds.), 40 inquisiciones sobre Borges. Número especial dedicado a Jorge Luis Borges, Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. XLIII, 100–101, (Jul.-Dic.1977), 488.

[6]. Peter Lamarque, The Philosophy of Literature, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 3–4.

[7]. “The Nightingale of Keats” [1952], Other Inquisitions (1937–1952), trans. Ruth L. C. Simms, introd. James Irby, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 123.

[8]. Cfr. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 473. The critic reads Borges’s work as purely aesthetic, disconnected from moral and social concerns.

[9]. “Nuestro deber es la verosímil esperanza,” Nexos, January 1st, 1986. URL: http://www.nexos.com.mx/?p=4574

[10]. Joaquín Soler Serrano, “A Fondo: Entrevista a Borges” [1980], Part I, at 05:12. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-GlQZujLqw; Prologue to Doctor Brodie’s Report, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author, (New York: Dutton, 1972), 10.

[11]. Review of “C.E.M. Joad, Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics” [1938], Textos cautivos: segunda parte, OC Vol.14, 289.

[12]. R. Piglia, “Historia y política en Borges,” Part IV of the series Borges, by Piglia (Buenos Aires: Argentine Public TV/ National Library, September 2013), at 5.07. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5svf4mzbeTc

[13]. “Epílogo” [1974], OC III, 506.

[14]. Selected Poems, Alexander Coleman ed., (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 455.

[15]. For example Alfonso de Toro includes literary, philosophical and historical topics among Borgesian discourses, but he excludes any reference to the political. “El productor ‘rizomórfico’ y el lector como ‘detective literario’: la aventura de los signos o la postmodemidad del discurso borgesiano,” in Karl Alfred Bluher and Alfonso de Toro (eds.), Jorge Luis Borges. Variaciones interpretativas sobre sus procedimientos literarios y bases epistemológicas (Frankfurt and Main: Verhvert Verlag, 1992), 175–176.

[16]. There is a web page run by the Borges state, Fundación Internacional Jorge Luis Borges, which is “dedicated to the diffusion of the work of Jorge Luis Borges, promoting its knowledge and its correct interpretation.” The reader will find a summary of biographical data and the list of works, as well as some pictures. Unfortunately, the webpage is only in Spanish. URL: http://www.fundacionborges.com.ar/index.php/borges

[17]. For Borges’s biographical information I consulted among other works: James Woodall, The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges (London: Hodder Headline, 1996), Norman T. Di Giovanni, The Lesson of the Master: On Borges and His Work (New York and London: Continuum, 2003), and Borges and Norman T. di Giovanni, Autobiografía 1899–1970, (Buenos Aires: El Ateneo, 1999). For a summary bio see Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes, A Dictionary of Borges, (London: Duckworth, 1990), 267–270. URL: http://www.borges.pitt.edu/bsol/pdf/fishburn.pdf

[18]. “At first I wanted to be Wells’s Invisible Man and in that sense I have failed. In many countries, though, I am invisible. In Switzerland (…) nobody knows me, and I am quite happy.” See my transcript, “Jorge Luis Borges: conversación con el público en ESEADE” [1985], Revista de Instituciones, Ideas y Mercados, Nº 62–63, (May-Oct., 2015), 222.

Alejandra M. Salinas

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Alejandra M. Salinas is a Professor in Social and Political Theory at Escuela Superior de Economía y Administración de Empresas University in Argentina. She is author of Liberty, Individuality, and Democracy in Jorge Luis Borges (Lexington Books, 2016).