On August 25, 1976, Luis Borges turned seventy-seven. His efforts to ignore this event were in vain—throughout the day telephone calls, telegrams, and reporters poured into his small apartment in downtown Buenos Aires. The following morning, a photograph of the disgruntled author appeared in a newspaper with the caption, “Jorge Luis Borges: Living Monument of National Letters.” As the ballyhoo surrounding his birthday suggests, the shy and once ignored author of Ficciones is fast becoming an Argentinean national myth. Although this trend has been apparent for some time, since the coup d’etat which ended the presidency of Isabela Peron in March 1976, the domestic cult of Borges has reached hitherto unexpected dimensions. He has now joined Carlos Gardel, the belle epoque tango singer, and Evita Peron in the ranks of Argentinean superstars.
Shortly after the coup, the new head of government, General Jorge Videla, invited Borges to lunch. This was but one of the numerous honors which have been bestowed upon him in recent months. Almost every week he receives awards from different literary societies, clubs, and even foreign governments. His picture frequently adorns the cover of magazines; the newspapers report upon his travels and activities as if he were a diplomat entrusted with salvaging the foundering economy.
As a result of his newfound celebrity in his native country, Borges’s books have become prestigious objects of consumption which are “marketed” in attractive packages. One such work entitled Cosmogonias appeared in September 1976. This luxurious volume contains only six poems by Borges (of which four had appeared in previous collections). Each poem is accompanied by sumptuous illustrations done by a well-known Argentinean artist. This is the ultimate coffee table book, the supreme object in the cult of Borges. The most recent edition of his Complete Works seems to have undergone a similar transformation. At all of the larger newsstands around Buenos Aires, this thick green volume stands next to fashion magazines and maps of the city. According to the distributors, it is the number one purchase for birthdays and holidays.
In addition to deluxe editions, the cult of Borges has spawned a new subgenre which might be called paraliterary or hagiographic works “on” or “with Borges.” An entire shelf could be filled with all the “interviews,” “talks,” and “dialogues” in which he has recently participated. Their format is invariable: as an indulgent interviewer asks respectful questions, the author digresses on a variety of subjects ranging from English literature, to his travels, to his political preferences. After reading two or three of these interviews, it is easy to predict exactly what Borges will say and even what words he will choose to illustrate his points. One has the impression that the same material is being recycled in response to the new interest which he has aroused.
To those who are familiar with his writings, Borges’s transformation into a public personality is of supreme irony. As he once noted,“My opinions have no importance. Only my works matter.” This is not false modesty on the author’s part. He considers the details of his life to be without interest. Like Henry James or Flaubert, Borges has defined his existence in terms of two activities: reading and writing. “Few things have happened to me and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhauer’s thoughts or the music of England’s words.” Literature is frequently the subject of his stories, and his main characters are often writers. But whether they are real authors like Shakespeare or imaginary ones such as Herbert Quain, Borges’s protagonists tend to be shadowy figures. Their creator is interested in their works rather than in their origins, background, or psychological motivation. Thus while their ideas are presented in a concrete fashion, they are nearly nonexistent as men.
That he omits details of birth and biography in his characters, that he considers these matters to be irrelevant in terms of his own life reflects Borges’s longstanding monistic belief in the identity of all men. In numerous poems, essays, and short stories he suggests that the notion of individual personality is but an illusion fostered by an equally false notion of linear time. At other intersections of space and time an individual may be totally different—even the opposite—of what he appears to be now. Thus in The Other Death the coward dies as a hero on the battlefield; in The Circular Ruins the dreamer is an invention of someone else; in Pierre Menard, Author of ‘Don Quijote’ the reader is the creator of the work of art.
In Pierre Menard the notion of interchangeable identities receives its fullest and most complex elaboration. Menard is a contemporary French man of letters who sets out to compose two chapters of Don Quijote. His aim is not to copy but to invent them. For Menard shares Borges’s belief that “every man should be capable of all ideas.” Through the process of reading and meditation, he hopes to achieve complete identification with Cervantes, thereby becoming the author of the Quijote. Indeed, when Borges juxtaposes those passages of the book written by Menard with the ones composed by Cervantes, they seem to be exactly the same passages. And yet Borges assures us that Menard’s version is infinitely richer than the original: by bringing his own culture and experiences to the interpretation of the text, Menard creates a new and more profound work, one of particular relevance to his own historical period and life. That is to say, in the act of reading, Menard develops the implications of Cervantes’s text, thereby transforming the Spaniards work into a kind of “palimpsest” in which traces of Menard’s future are visible.
In this paradoxical manner, Borges underscores the importance of the reader in the creative process. Like the author, the reader actively participates in the elaboration of the work of art. For this reason, in the preface to his first collection of poems published in 1923 (Fervor de Buenos Aires) Borges apologized to his reader for having “usurped” his verses and said, “it is but a trivial and fortuitous circumstance that you are the reader of these exercises and I am the author.”
If the reader is such an important element in the creative process, if (as is the case of Pierre Menard and Cervantes) reader and author are fused, then an author’s name and the details of his life ultimately do not matter. Ficciones might just as well have been signed by Pierre Menard as by Jorge Luis Borges. As a way of suggesting this, Borges has occasionally used the pseudonyms of H. Bustos Dornecq and Suarez Lynch for some of his books. For from this philosophical point of view, Jorge Luis Borges the writer is as nonexistent as Pierre Menard or Cervantes. “The fact that when I am writing I am stressing certain peculiarities of mind and omitting others has led me to think of Jorge Luis Borges as a creature of fancy. This suspicion is strengthened by the existence of so many articles and studies that deal with him.” In a famous passage entitled, “Borges and I,” he even suggests that the other Borges, “the one whom things happen to,” has preempted his very existence.
And that is the paradox underlying the current cult of Borges in Argentina. While nearly everyone now recognizes his name and his face, relatively few people have actually read his books. Their prime source of information about him is about “the other Borges” and comes from newspaper interviews and television talk shows, where excessive importance is given to his every pronouncement and to all of the details of his daily life. By stressing those “peculiarities of mind” of which he spoke, by obscuring the principle of “biographical invisibility” upon which his oeuvre is predicated, those articles, studies, tributes, and homages have falsified his image—or rather, they have extolled someone whom the writer himself calls a “creature of fancy.”
In addition to falsifying his image, the cult of Borges has taken on certain ideological overtones. It now provides indirect justification for the present government in Argentina. Borges’s support of the military regime of Videla seems to be founded upon his intense dislike of Videla’s predecessor, Juan Peron. This dislike began in the 1940s even before Peron became President for the first time. A liberal who had favored the Spanish Republic, Borges objected to Peron’s fascistic policies and in particular to his support of Nazi Germany. When Peron became President, he demoted Borges from his post as municipal librarian to the rank of poultry inspector. He even imprisoned the writer’s mother and sister. While Peron remained in office, after the coup which deposed him, and during all the intervening years, Borges’s opposition never diminished. When the Peronists were again elected in 1973, he called it a “government of scoundrels.” In an interview with a Brazilian newspaper in 1975 he said: “When I think of the cases of torture [in Argentina] I have the impression that my country is disintegrating morally as well as economically.” In March 1976, when a friend informed him that Isabela Peron had been overthrown, Borges embraced him and wept. When he met Videla, he thanked him for “having liberated the country from the infamy which we bore.”
Borges hated Peron because he was a demagogue who practiced torture and suppressed civil liberties. And yet, he has now become a staunch supporter of a regime which is not substantially different. One can only conclude that he no longer espouses those principles of democracy which Peron threatened to destroy thirty years ago. In fact, when he was in Chile last year to receive that country’s highest medal he said:
In and of itself a dictatorship doesn’t seem reprehensible, one has to consider the particular circumstances. In itself empires don’t seem to be wrong. The Roman Empire and the British Empire did a lot of good . . . For a long time I believed in democracy. Now I don’t believe in it; at least not in my own country. Perhaps in other countries democracy can be justified; but in the Republic of Argentina I don’t think we can trust it . . . Democracy [is] an abuse of statistics . . . No one supposes that a majority of people can have valid opinions about literature or about mathematics, but it is believed that everyone can have valid opinions about politics, which is more delicate than the other disciplines . . . Yes, it seems that to destroy liberty is bad. But liberty lends itself to so many abuses. There are certain liberties which constitute a form of impertinence.
It is difficult to reconcile this image of Borges, spokesman for military dictatorships such as that of Videla or even Pinochet, with that of the Borges who wrote Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the story of a group of scholars who invent a planet. They elaborate all of the aspects of life on Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius—its philosophical system, languages, ethics, and customs—and then diffuse information about it to the peoples of the world. As men of the earth learn of the existence of Tlon, they “submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet.” Tlon becomes “real”: its doctrines win out over “dialectical materialism, antisemitism, nazism” and the other “systems” which men had devised to bring order to the world.
Implicit in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius and in many of his stories is Borges’s belief that the universe is incomprehensible. Any efforts to order experience are ultimately revealed to be false and inadequate. His skepticism extends to the realm of politics. He has always proclaimed his independence from any political party, rejecting nationalism with as much vehemence as communism. As he once said, “I believe that one day we will deserve not to have governments.” How then can we explain his present espousal of the Videla cause? Disgusted by the inability to govern which has characterized every elected government in Argentina during the last twenty years, perhaps he has opted for the “order” proffered by the Videla regime as the only alternative to political and economic chaos. If that is the case, then he has betrayed those ideals which have infused all of his works. One can only conclude that the other Borges, the public figure, has taken over at last. Years ago the author himself foresaw this possibility: “little by little I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.”
In spite of his awareness of this danger, Borges has allowed his namesake to enter the political arena, where he now plays a key role in the propaganda apparatus of the Videla government. It is indeed to be regretted that he has become that government’s most prestigious spokesman for the status quo, for it is a status quo built upon the destruction of democratic institutions and the repeated violation of human rights.
Whether it is responsible for his popularization or not, the government has clearly profited from Borges’s fame and from the intense diffusion which all of his statements receive. An example of this was seen in May 1976, when Borges met with Videla. Three other writers were present: Ernesto Sibato, Leonardo Castellani, and Horacio Esteban Ratti, President of the Writer’s Union (SADE). Borges objected to the fact that Ratti was invited, saying, “This individual represents no one.” Although this comment is entirely in keeping with his belief that writers should not belong to a union because writing is not a job but a destiny, his statement did considerable damage to the cause which Ratti and the others had come to champion. They presented Videla with a list of well-known authors who had been imprisoned or who had simply disappeared and asked him what had become of them. Because he objected to their presence, Borges undermined the potential power of public opinion which the Writer’s Union had hoped to muster. In this instance, as a “living monument of national letters,” he gave tacit approval to the regime’s repressive policies.
Thus it is in the direct interest of the government to continue serving up Borges as a distraction, an icon, the ultimate Argentinean success story. At home, his countrymen not only bask in the reflected glory of his international reputation, but they also recieve assurances from their greatest writer that all is well in Argentina. Abroad, potential critics of the regime may be disarmed—after all, a government which has the support of Jorge Luis Borges can’t be all that bad.
Originally published in the Fall 1977 issue of The New Boston Review