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The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

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Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Jorge Luis Borges, Palermo, Sicily, 1984

Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was engaged in a dialogue with violence. Speaking to an interviewer about his childhood in what was then the outlying barrio of Palermo, in Buenos Aires, he said, “To call a man, or to think of him, as a coward—that was the last thing…the kind of thing he couldn’t stand.” According to his biographer, Edwin Williamson,1 Borges’s father handed him a dagger when he was a boy, with instructions to overcome his poor eyesight and “generally defeated” demeanor and let the boys who were bullying him know that he was a man.

Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic criollo nativism that he wished to know and absorb.

The criollos were the early Spanish settlers of the pampa, and their gaucho descendants. For at least a century now, the word has signified an ideal cultural purity that, according to its champions, was corrupted by the privatization of the pampa and, later, by the flood of immigrants from Italy and elsewhere in Europe that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Borges spent much of his twenties attempting to write a full-length epic poem that would mythologize this “innumerable Buenos Aires of mine,” as he called it—a work that would, in Borges’s words again, “converse with the world and with the self, with God and with death.” He saw it as a way to reflect the city’s essence, as Joyce had done with Dublin, a way to establish a lasting cultural identity that Argentina did not yet possess in the world. His aim, in part, was to enshrine the urban descendent of the criollo, with his ubiquitous dagger and supposedly honorable outlaw ways. Eventually he would abandon the project—Borges was never able to conquer the long form; and though his cultural vision, as it later developed, would be much broader, the romance of the criollo would continue to animate his imagination. Some of his finest fiction—including the stories “The South,” “The Dead Man,” and “The Intruder,” to name just a few—was kindled by the dagger.

The deeply Argentinian nature of Borges’s work is often camouflaged by his metaphysical preoccupations and far-flung literary references. But his involvement with Argentine history and politics, and his belief that the country’s fate was entwined with his own, persisted almost to the end of his life. Politics was an emotional matter. His family wasn’t wealthy but his bloodline was illustrious. Some of the most prominent streets of Buenos Aires are named after his ancestors, most notably Isidoro Suárez, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, a hero of the Battle of Junín in 1824 that would turn the tide in South America’s war for independence from Spain. The battle was fought in the Peruvian Andes, with swords and lances. “No retumbó un solo tiro,” not a single gunshot resounded, Borges writes in a poem to commemorate Suárez. This “clash of the lances” was of high significance to Borges, as was his great-grandfather’s feat of running through a Spaniard “with his spear.”

Borges’s paternal grandfather was a colonel in the Indian wars who died in battle. Another ancestor led the vanguard of José de San Martín’s army against Spain. “At last the blow/At last the hard blade ripping my chest,/the intimate dagger at my throat,” wrote Borges in “Conjectural Poem.” The narrator of the poem is yet another of Borges’s famous ancestors, Francisco Laprida, who was murdered in 1829 on the orders of a gaucho chieftain or caudillo.

The poem is not a celebration of violent death but an anguished response to the coup of 1943 in Argentina that was sympathetic to the Nazis. Borges was outspokenly antifascist during those critical years. But his allegiances were split. Culturally he was a nationalist, politically a liberal. In 1934, a rising faction of right-wing nacionalistas attacked him for “slyly” concealing his Jewish ancestry. Borges answered the attack with an essay entitled “I a Jew” that mocked the nacionalistas’ anti-Semitism and general bigotry. “I wish I had some Jewish forefathers,” he would tell an interviewer later on—probably because it would have allowed him to take psychological possession of a bookish tradition he admired.

By the early 1940s, nacionalistas were marching in the streets of Buenos Aires, chanting slogans in support of the Nazis. During World War II, Borges was closely aligned with socialist and liberal writers. And during the most oppressive years of Juan Domingo Perón’s government, in the early 1950s, he was assigned a detective to keep track of his moves and monitor his lectures, which were often caustically critical of Perón.

Yet in the conundrum of Argentine politics of those days, his liberalism was shot through with ambivalence. In principle, he favored a centralized, European-style democracy, but he worried that such “progressivism” amounted to “submitting to being almost–North Americans or almost-Europeans, always almost-others”—a threat to Argentina’s precarious cultural maturation. He also knew from experience that, given free elections, Argentines would, more often than not, vote into power a tyrannical caudillo with no interest in cultivating an independent judicial system or other reliably democratic institutions. Perón, who was elected president in 1946 when Borges was forty-seven, was a prime example of this. “Our vernacular imitation of fascism,” he called Peronism, with its roving bands of pampered workers, modeled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts, who acted as street enforcers and unofficial thugs.

The conundrum led Borges to the misguided belief that what Argentina needed was an enlightened dictatorship that would train its citizens in the ways of true democracy, and then oversee free elections. His public support for the violently repressive juntas of Generals Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, in the 1970s, has left a permanent stain on his reputation. Without excusing it, one can comprehend it as an act of despair, as Argentina tumbled toward bankruptcy and civil war, and a seemingly endless succession of inept governments collapsed. At the time, no political faction offered anything resembling a solution.

While an official guest of Pinochet, in 1976, Borges spoke of the “sword of honor” that would draw “the Argentine Republic out of the quagmire” just as it had done in Chile. Referring to the underground guerrilla groups that were battling the junta in Argentina, he said he preferred “the sword, the bright sword” over the “furtive dynamite” of the enemy. While in Spain, he called Videla’s junta “a government of soldiers, of gentlemen, of decent people.”

Sheltered at this point by fame, blindness, and the private mythology of honor that he had been cultivating for fifty years, he seemed not to understand the extent of Videla’s reign of terror. He made the mistake of lending the luster of his name to a more virulent version of the fascist state he had condemned in Perón. In place of the personality cult of Peronism, Videla’s junta offered an impersonal justification of patriotic murder. Later, when censorship of the press was eased and Borges learned about the atrocities of the Dirty War, he regretted his support, calling the members of the junta “gangsters” and “madmen” who should be prosecuted for their crimes.

Professor Borges is the literal transcription of a course in English literature that Borges taught at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966. The course begins with Beowulf and ends with Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, a total of twenty-five classes. It’s no surprise that Borges’s discussion of the ancient Anglo-Saxon epics make up this book’s most inspired chapters. With its harsh consonants and open vowels, and its unambiguous vocabulary of things that “correspond to fire, metals, man, trees,” Anglo-Saxon was perfectly suited to the poetry of battle.

Borges had been reading English translations of the epics throughout his life, but when he was fifty-nine, he set out to teach himself Anglo-Saxon, a process he called “the pure contemplation of a language at its dawn.” The epics provided him with a kind of literary ideal: concrete, precise, and suffused with the glow of the sword as a magical object. His reader’s eye was keen, and interestingly unpredictable. He admires the “Finnsburh Fragment” over Beowulf, for instance, though it consists of a mere sixty lines, preserved from what surely was a much longer poem, and composed, perhaps, as early as the late seventh century. What moves Borges is the directness of the language that comes at the reader with an illuminated power, unobscured by kennings, a common literary mannerism of the Middle Ages. Kennings were a form of metaphor fashioned primarily from composite words: “whale road” for sea, for example, and “sea stallion” for ship, and “sword-storm” for battle.

At the heart of the “Finnsburh Fragment” is a Danish princess who has been married off to Finn, the king of Frisia, to avoid a war. The princess’s brother, king of the Danes, comes to visit her at Finn’s castle for the winter. They are attacked by the Frisians and the Danish king manages to hold them off, but kills his own nephew in the process, a tragedy (though the poet would never call it so) that suggests a future conflict with no obvious resolution.

Borges revels in the image of the hall of Finn aglow “with the shimmering of the swords, ‘as if Finnsburh were in flames.’” This glow is not from a fire, as the king’s guards originally suppose, but from the moon “‘shining through the clouds’ and onto the shields and spears of the Frisians who have come to attack.” He notes an analogous metaphor in the Iliad that likens a battle to a fire—the comparison referring “to the glow of the arms as well as its moral stature”—and also the Scandinavian myth of Valhalla, “illuminated not with candles but with swords that shine with their own supernatural glow.”

“Supernatural” is the key word. In Borges’s ideal literary creation, the letters of the alphabet themselves would be supernaturally charged. The runic letters of Saxon, designed with their hard edges to be carved into the metal of blades and the wood of shields, possessed a special physical power. As for the origin of the word “runes,” Borges tells his students:

The word run in Saxon means “whisper,” or what is spoken in a low voice. And that means “mystery,” because what is spoken in a low voice is what one doesn’t want others to hear. So runes means “mysteries”; letters are mysteries.

Certainly this is the idea behind Borges’s famous story “The Aleph,” which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When the protagonist gazes at the Aleph in the story, the confusion of the universe becomes coherent and clear.

Borges calls himself a “hedonic” reader—he seeks pleasure in books, and beyond that, a “form of happiness.” He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame. As a reader, he hunts for specific passages, or even just phrases, that move him. “One falls in love with a line, then with a page, then with an author,” he says. “Well, why not? It is a beautiful process.”

Thus, in “The Battle of Brunanburh,” a tenth-century epic that is included in the The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Borges singles out the tactile description of a crow, “with his beak ‘as hard as a horn’ that eats, devours, the corpses of men.” Borges approvingly reminds us that, “in the Middle Ages, circumstantial details were never invented.” They were either commemorated for their experiential truth, or not mentioned at all.

  1. 1

    See Williamson’s Borges: A Life (Viking, 2004), for a thorough, often incisive account of the writer’s life. 

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