Monday, 19 October 2015

Because otherwise we’d live in a chaotic world, which may be true, but it’s not cheerful: Borges on Argentina.

                       The Argentinean Literature of Doom

                        Now that time of year when busy book blogs
                        take tasty, tender trips to Argentina,
                        and even I cease translating Three Wogs
                        and cobble up some verses - not a sestina

                        though!, he deserves no riches, my friend Rich
                        (clever trick, inspiration is abloom!),
                        just hare-brained clumsy verses crammed with cute kitsch
                        to contradict this dire drift of droll Doom,

                        a playful prologue to graver (is it?)
                        business about an arabesque blind man
                        who wrote of mazes, tigers, books with bright wit
                        and of whom everyone is a big fan.


I was looking at the Table of Contents of my Osvaldo Ferrari/Jorge Luis Borges book of conversations and noticed that there was a conversation about Argentina. Well, that seemed appropriate! Borges mentions in passing that he was 84, which puts it at 1983 or 1984, so Argentina was still either a dictatorship or had just recently moved to democracy. But Borges detested politics – he says as much below – so he dexterously avoids being too explicit about anything.

It begins, as it often does, with Osvaldo Ferrari asking him something. “Borges, I’d like to know how you see Argentina, or how you remember it (I mean inner vision) from your travels: from the technocratic world of America and Europe, for instance, or else, ultimately, from the ancient West: from Greece, Sicily.” Borges replied at length: “I always have an anachronistic recollection of this country. Of course I lost my sight more or less a bit before I was fifty-five – I lost my reader’s sight at that date. I imagine Buenos Aires in a totally anachronistic way; unwillingly, I think of Buenos Aires as a low-ceilinged houses town… of course, apparently I never saw that much, but when I saw what I saw, that was one of things that impressed me. And now I know that vision is false. And yet I continue to keep it: I continue to imagine a Buenos Aires that, obviously, doesn’t look like the real Buenos Aires; I still think of Buenos Aires with low-ceilinged houses, terraces on the roof, patios, cisterns, attics. I know that’s all anachronistic, I know that no longer exists. Except, perhaps – in a rather theatrical way – in the proximities of the Lezama Park, or in that place they now call Palermo Viejo, but there they’re conserved in an artificial way. I still see things that way, and as for politics, the truth is politics never interested me, except in relation to ethics. That is, if I intervened in politics it was for ethical reasons, and nothing else. But I’m not affiliated in any party, I expect and fear nothing. Well, perhaps I may fear some parties a bit, but I try to live in the margins of that, and I try to live my own way, that is, inventing; inventing fables, thinking… and now, well, perhaps we have some right to hope. Or maybe we have the duty to hope, to better put it. I think an act of faith is expected of each and every one of us if we wan to save the nation. And perhaps that act is not hard, although its effect may be, yes… it’s still a bit far. And we shouldn’t think what’s going to happen this year or the coming one, but rather think, well, think of how things will be in five years, and perhaps that way we’re cooperating. Yes, an act of faith.”

Ferrari insists on the theme of Argentina joining the pace of the rest of the developed world, focusing on the nation’s difficulty to come to terms with modernity; “it’s suspected,” he says, “that there is something in us, Argentines, that offers resistance to unconditional adaptation to technocracy as a way of life.” Borges replies: “However I don’t know if there’s any other possibility left to us. Well, we’re always left with the exercise of ethics; and that’s an individual thing. I don’t know if I can think in a very general way; I can think about my behavior, in the behavior of people I love, of my friends. But such a vague thing as the historical future, I don’t know if I can think about that… of course I spent my life rereading Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer said that seeking for a purpose in history is like looking for bays, rivers and lions in the clouds – we find them because we look for them – but he believed that history didn’t have any purpose. And yet it seems rather sad to think so: we must think that history has a purpose – at least an ethical purpose – and perhaps also an aesthetic purpose. Because otherwise we’d live in a chaotic world, which may be true, but it’s not cheerful. Nevertheless… our dreams are also part of reality and can intervene in it, no? So. The fact that we look for lions is already something.”

Ferrari maintains that Argentina seems incapable, unlike the rest of the Western world, of accepting change; but he’s also worried about the risks of becoming a technocratic country; he wants to know if Borges sees risks and benefits for Argentina. “Id’ say,” Borges replies, “that it might harm us, but I don’t know if my opinion has any value. Besides, I don’t know if we exist outside the West, we’re part of the West.” Ferrari asks him to imagine that Argentines suspect the technocratic way is wrong and that the West is developing along wrong lines. “And what other line is possible to us?” asks Borges. “You say it’s humanism? But we also practice it, and the whole West.” Then he adds: “Yes, well, humanism, of course; but that’s not an Argentinean invention either – it’d be very awkward. Besides, as far as I know we didn’t invent anything.”

Ferrari next argues that the Argentines don’t have propensity to form a community, to go about accomplishing something as a community. Borges agrees. “That’s a grave flaw, no doubt about it. And I think it’s due to the fact that people think, well, that people think in this and that party, and not in the nation. And that seems dire to me, and I think you must be in agreement with me, and everyone must be, theoretically, in agreement with me. Why, in practice they act otherwise: as to that there’s no doubt at all, is there?” They talk about parties and economy and Borges maintains that, for Borges, led Argentina to “disaster.” For him it’s the consequence of everyone thinking only about their own interests: “each one thinks in his personal fortune and his personal fate. The result is general disaster.” With everyone running for their own lives, “they manage not to save anybody’s. That’s the final result.”

Then Ferrari asks him if he thinks they can ever come together as a people. The best part of the reply is really when he starts talking about Hindus. “You will certainly manage it,” says Borges, “you’re still young. Not me, I’m hoping to die this or the next moment and of course I won’t see that, for I don’t know if I can live another ten years. Certainly not, besides that would be a disaster for me. I’ve surpassed the reasonable life expectancy. It’s seventy in the Scripture, I’m eighty-four. Why, according to Schopenhauer, he prefers the Hindu way of counting, which says that the normal thing in human life is one hundred years. He explains that by saying that if a person dies before reaching one hundred, he dies because of an illness, which is no less accidental than falling on a river, or being devoured by a tiger. So that number would be exact because only after one hundred does a person die without agony, spontaneously; that is, he ceases to be, suddenly. Not before, before you need something as casual as an illness, or like an accident, to kill you.”

There you have it, this is how Borges discussed Argentina and current affairs. Just to relieve readers of possible shock, yes, Borges does talk about books towards the end, about George Bernard Shaw in fact, but I skipped that; I just don’t want people to leave St. Orberose wrongly persuaded that Borges ever had a conversation without bringing books into it. This may be a two-bit book blog, but it’s still committed to the truth and will not brook the creation and spreading of false rumors!


  1. Borges without books? What a scary thought! Thanks for this post and the poetic intro. I can now face Doom with confidence!

  2. I don't know that the Borges-Ferrai conversation shed much light on Argentina for me, but I certainly enjoyed reading this, especially for the introductory poem.

    "Palermo Viejo" - someone has to have written the definitive literary history of Argentine-Italian relations, right? Any ideas what that might be?

  3. Think how depressing and doomy Argentine literature would be without Borges. I say this even after reading him say that he ought to drop dead. Which is pretty funny.