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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.

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Gisele Freund/Granger Collection
Jorge Luis Borges, 1943

Beowulf, the only surviving full-length Saxon epic, is, to Borges’s mind, “poorly wrought.” Unlike the “Finnsburh Fragment” with its implied familial tragedy, Beowulf simply introduces us to a hero—“a northern Hercules,” Borges calls him—and then goes on to show him doing heroic things before he dies. The author, we know, was most likely a monk who set out to write a Germanic Aeneid, and what irritates Borges is that he mimics the syntactic rules of Latin. At the time Beowulf was composed, probably during the eighth century, there were only about five hundred Latin words in Saxon, religious words for the most part, describing abstract and, to the Saxons, alien concepts. Borges is annoyed by Beowulf’s piousness and “pompous” tone. Borges, of course, wrote in a Latinate language; the hard Saxon words that represented “essential” things in English carried for him an exotic sonic power. Latin-derived words in Saxon seemed imitative and watered down. In his most metaphysical stories and poems, he searched, in Spanish, for primal, material words. In the alchemy of composition, their clarity of meaning had the effect of making the overall mystery of a story sharper.

“I have felt epic poetry far more than lyric or elegy,” Borges told The Paris Review in 1966, “perhaps…because I come from military stock.” But in fact he is unexpectedly stirred by the Saxon elegies of the ninth and tenth centuries, when there occurs, in Borges’s words, “the most important thing that can take place in poetry: the discovery of a new inflection.” These are not poems of battle but personal poems of solitude and sadness. “The Seafarer,” for instance, has a startling opening that anticipates centuries of literature to come, including, most obviously, Walt Whitman: “I will sing a true song of me myself and tell of my travels.” Borges delights in the unselfconscious, colloquial way that, later in the poem, the poet describes a snowstorm from the north: “Hail fell on the earth, coldest of seeds.” This metaphorical pairing of opposites is new—hail summons death, seeds summon life—yet one doesn’t feel the poet straining for effect; it just seems to be the way he saw it.

The most remarkable of the elegies is the second part of “The Dream of the Rood,” when the tree from which the cross was made to crucify Christ speaks to us directly. The wood of the felled tree is sentient and alive. It tells us its story, it asks for forgiveness, and we feel the extraordinary imaginative newness of the poet becoming the voice of a tree. There is nothing pious or dutifully Christian about this part of the poem. It is the voice of the earth itself, expressing a torn sorrow. “The cross trembles when it feels Christ’s embrace,” remarks Borges. “It is as if the cross were Christ’s woman, his wife; the cross shares the pain of the crucified God.”

What captivates Borges is the apparent purity of feeling in these verses, the sense that the writers are unaware of the originality of their poems. “They were forcing an iron language, an epic language, to say something for which that language had not been forged—to express sadness and personal loneliness. But they managed to do it.”

Readers of Professor Borges may be taken aback, as I was, when Borges jumps from the Norman Conquest of 1066 straight to the eighteenth century, bypassing Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and every other English writer for a period of seven hundred years. The writer Borges alights upon after this leap in time is Samuel Johnson, who lamented the loss of English’s Teutonic character, believing that the language had been degraded by the Gallicisms of the French.2 This invasion of Latinate words would expand the language immeasurably and come to comprise about two thirds of modern English. But for Borges this meant the sacrifice of an austere language of precision and action in favor of one stocked with abstract, vague, and overwrought locutions—the very elements in Spanish that he struggled against in his own work.

Shakespeare, in particular, unsettled Borges. He seemed to regard him with a mix of awe and instinctive aesthetic recoil. His improvised remarks about Shakespeare can seem simplistic, designed to shock. “I always feel something Italian, something Jewish about Shakespeare,” he told an interviewer, “and perhaps Englishmen admire him because of that, because it’s so unlike them.” He sincerely objected to what he characterized as Shakespeare’s overstatements, his habit of “piling on the agonies.”

It’s easy to imagine how the bursting soliloquies of Lear or Leontes in A Winter’s Tale might grate against Borges’s coolly metaphorical sensibility. Yet he agreed with Coleridge that “Shakespeare took everything out of himself,” that he was a kind of pantheistic force, “capable of assuming all shapes,” who had the capacity to become even his most minor characters when he wrote them. The great personal cost of Shakespeare’s pantheistic genius, Borges believed, was that he himself had no individual identity. “Behind his face…and his words…there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one,” he wrote.

During a class on Romanticism in Professor Borges, he tells his students:

One of a writer’s most important works—perhaps the most important of all—is the image he leaves behind of himself in the memory of men, above and beyond the pages he has written.

He is speaking of Coleridge, whose posthumous fame is equal, say, to that of Wordsworth, though “Coleridge’s work, which fills many volumes, actually consists of only a few poems…and a few pages of prose.” He says this is because when one thinks of Coleridge “one thinks of a character from a novel.”

In a way, we think of Borges too as someone who has been conjured: a blind, oracular man who imagined a world of doppelgängers and endless cosmic repetitions, and who wrote a handful of “essay-fictions” that have made him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.

Contributing to this image of Borges as an invented figure is his own preoccupation with the idea of an alternate self. He sometimes spoke of a second Borges who was born the same day as the first Borges, bore his name, but was a different person. This second Borges was an observer or spectator of the “real” Borges—the profounder Borges—whom the second Borges has come to identify with, as one identifies with a character in a movie or a play, because his actions are always before his eyes. He borrowed this idea from a Hindu school of thought, a theological attempt to reconcile our self-conscious way of being with our inner, immutable selves.

In 1973, I attended a lecture Borges gave in an elegant room at some historical society in Buenos Aires. I arrived an hour early because the year before, in New York, I had been unable to get into one of his talks—the crowd, at Columbia University, had been so large that it had spilled out onto Broadway. In Buenos Aires there were four people in the audience; one of them was Borges’s assistant, another his close friend. The joke in Buenos Aires at the time was that if Borges had been Czech or French, Argentines would be reading him in translation in droves.

The lecture I attended was on José Hernández’s 1872 epic poem The Gaucho Martin Fierro. In the poem, Martin Fierro is pressed into military service during the Indian wars; he deserts, lives with the Indians for a time, kills a man in a barroom knife fight, and becomes an outlaw, hunted by the authorities. Fierro is left with two choices: to become a tamed ranch hand for one of the large beef growers who were in the process of cordoning off the pampa, or surrender to the police—both a form of imprisonment.

Borges admired the poem for its rich, colloquial authenticity. A sign of this authenticity, he said, was that the protagonist never described the sky—so ubiquitous on the pampa that it goes without remark. The vastness of the landscape is implied in the way the characters move through their lives.

The rhythm of Martin Fierro was drawn from the payada, a kind of gaucho field song with a driving eight-syllable line. The payada would provide the basis for the guitar-sung ballads known as milongas, which in turn would give way to the tango, Argentina’s most recognized artistic form.

Criollo, gaucho life, like that of the characters in the Saxon epics, was marked by an unassailable code of violence. Death was never far away; nor did the gaucho—who, ideally at least, lived in a cult of courage that Borges championed and admired—want it to be. This presence of death, as in the Saxon epics, provoked an elemental expression that he wished to emulate. He strived for a warrior-like stature, or some equivalent of it, in his work, believing that it could lift us out of what he called the “nothingness of personality” with its picayune neuroses and personal complaints.

When he was in his late seventies, he still lived in the modest Buenos Aires apartment he had shared with his mother until she died. His biographer, Edwin Williamson, describes his bedroom as resembling “a monk’s cell with its narrow iron bed, single chair, and two small bookcases where he kept his collection of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian books.” Those ancient books were an integral part of the ethos that sustained this most modern of writers.

Professor Borges is an important addition to his work. These are not academic lectures but spoken essays. Borges’s students didn’t record these classes out of reverence for their teacher, but because it would help them prepare for exams. This messy, casual approach is one of the book’s great strengths. The editors have expertly tidied up the text, hunting down nearly indecipherable references that the students had phonetically transcribed—“Wado Thoube” was the poet Robert Southey, for instance, and “Bartle” was the philosopher George Berkeley. What we end up with is the flavor of Borges’s voice, with its spontaneous digressions and self-entertained ease—his deepest literary influences and concerns, unmediated by the polished and revised nature of the written word.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    For one of the lectures on Samuel Johnson, see Jorge Luis Borges, “ A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell,” NYRblog, July 28, 2013. 

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