Culture, politics and literature in Jorge Luis Borges by Alejandra Salinas



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Culture, politics and literature in Jorge Luis Borges by Alejandra Salinas

Abstract: This paper explores the interplay between literature and the political in Jorge Luis Borges. My concern here is to look at the ways in which different cultural orientations are understood and expressed in Borges´ works, and the various ways in which for the author these orientations affect the political. I take culture, politics and literature in their broadest meaning: culture encompasses the distinctive habits, beliefs, and values –real or imagined, past and present, articulated and unarticulated- in any one society; politics or the political refers to the sphere of ideas, institutions and activities related to collective public decisions, and literature is the artistic written creation inspired by an “aesthetic intention”.
The paper is organized as follows: In the first section I sketch Borges´ multidisciplinary perspective; in section II, I examine the tensions between art, culture and politics; section III deals with three cultural archetypes and their interplay with literature and the political; Borges’ stance of “spencerian anarchist” and his views on democracy are the subject for section IV, followed by a few concluding remarks.

Culture, politics and literature in Jorge Luis Borges*
Alejandra Salinas**

This paper is the fourth part of a project that explores the interplay between literature and the political in Jorge Luis Borges (see Salinas, 2002, 2003 and 2004). In the past I have dealt with the relation between philosophy, poetry, fiction and politics by addressing the contributions of the argentine author to the understanding of social and political dynamics. My concern here is to look at the ways in which different cultural orientations are understood and expressed in Borges´ works1, and the various ways in which for the author these orientations affect the political.

I take culture, politics and literature in their broadest meaning: culture encompasses the distinctive habits, beliefs, and values –real or imagined, past and present, articulated and unarticulated- in any one society; politics or the political refers to the sphere of ideas, institutions and activities related to collective public decisions, and literature is the artistic written creation inspired by an “aesthetic intention” (Irwin, 2002:30).

I find the contribution of literature to the understanding of politics very appealing for several reasons. Since people read more fiction and watch movies based on fiction than non fiction or essays, in times of civic apathy literature may bring back an interest in the political. Also, because literature is a tempting space to present ideas that could eventually serve as inspiration for political reform. Last, literature offers a wide variety of channels to express our political sensitivities and to give voice to the denunciation of oppression when political channels ignore them.

The paper is organized as follows: In the first section I introduce some of Borges’ preferred topics and I sketch the multidisciplinary perspective from which he approaches them; in section II, I examine the dynamics that pivot around the tensions between the artist, culture and politics; section III deals with three cultural archetypes and their interplay with literature and the political; Borges’ political views are the subject for section IV, followed by a few concluding remarks.
I. Towards some definitions
Borges looks at culture and politics from different albeit overlapping angles. First he presents us with a geographical classification: a specific culture is ascribed to a neighbourhood, a city, a nation, a region, a continent, a hemisphere. The concentric geographical levels are complemented with a topography of culture, that is, with the impressions and reflections that arise from personal encounters with natural landscapes (the mountains, the fields, the sea, etc.) and with human dwellings (urban or rural, the riverbanks, the frontier). I will mention three prominent themes that illustrate the dynamics between geography, culture and politics in his stories on Argentina. In the first place we find the plains located west of the city of Buenos Aires, the pampa, seen as the “inexhaustible” space that the people in Argentina –Borges included- “yearn for” (CF: 196). The plains are home to nomad Indians and to gauchos (rural workers): the former are brutal and gregarious2, whereas the latter are portrayed as individualistic, austere and courageous, a quality that the early Borges admires “because it is the most difficult thing to have” (2001:364).3 Both Indians and gauchos are confronted by the military, and their encounter is consequently oppressive and violent. Second, there are the orillas, the city’s riverbanks and outskirts, populated by guapos or compadres, men of low income and high self-esteem who spend their time in bars and streets, engaged in knife-fights and in the occasional service of political local bosses. Borges also admires the courage of the men who live in these neighbourhoods -where he grew up and that he always remembered with nostalgia (SNF: 424). Third, there are the people of the city, mostly men of letters, who roam between libraries, literary circles, cafés and estancias (ranches), and who think of the pampas and the orillas mostly in terms of their literary or cultural value (SNF: 137).

In turn, Borges approaches the geographical and the topographical aspects of culture from different perspectives: the historical, the philosophical, the literary, the epistemic, the ethical and the political- they all converge in his multidisciplinary vision, which can be characterized as one of philosophical “perplexity”, epistemological fallibility, ethical and methodological individualism, liberal anarchism, and literary humility. An analysis of these categories is in order to understand the complex fabric of culture, art and politics interwoven in the contents and the form of his works.

Briefly stated, Borges´ philosophical insights stress the limits and the insignificance of the individual and the complexity of the universe. Philosophy’s concern is what transcends man; it is tied to abstract notions in which “metaphysical perplexities” appear (CF:331). The shape of the universe, the nature of time and the place of the individual in cosmos are recurrent themes in his writings, among which I highlight his piece “Pascal’s Sphere” (1951, SNF:351-353) in which the universe is imagined as “a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.” This geometrical metaphor conveys an idea of a multiplicity of centers, a spatial “de-centering” whose ultimate shape is unknowable. Wonder and inquisition are the mental conditions that arise from these philosophical perplexities, where the individual dissipates in a “universal mythology” (Christ, 1995:76), a situation that is paralleled in his works insofar we witness a “deconstruction of characters incidental to the plot” (Molloy, 1994:57).

To the extent that philosophy nurtures a vision of a mysterious and unknowable cosmos, it is the foundation for an epistemology of fallibility. Borges is continuously reminding the reader of the limits of human reason: in attempting to know ourselves and our surroundings (local and cosmic, social and of nature) all we can do is “guesswork”. The path of knowledge -and of life- resembles a labyrinth, deployed in a confusing and apparently chaotic design.4 Thus, human beings are faced with the “conjectural” nature of their knowledge, according to which they can elaborate classifications of things and enumerate their attributes as long as they remain aware that these products are arbitrary and subject to deconstruction. Far from decrying the uselessness of such tasks or of preaching despair, for Borges the cognitive enterprise is justified and merits the effort, if only small and provisionary. In “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (1942, SNF:229-232) he deals with the topics of knowledge and language and with the problems of the representation and expression of reality. He concludes that: “The impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe can not dissuade us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear they are provisional”.

The illusion of certainty and the delusion of individual grandeur that are undermined in the philosophical background of his works are also deplored in his opinions on literature and art. I speak of literary humility in reference to his comments on the unimportant stature of his works, and to the general lack of individual artistic originality. Borges insisted that he was just doing a comment or summary on the literary tradition, and that in general this was the case with most artists, who grow out of and within the tradition of generations. In the introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), he remarks, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books - setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them" (CF: 67). However insignificant this latter task may appear to be, it does not challenge the artist’s identity (pace Parkinson Zamora, 1997: 86). As in the epistemic sphere, where the cognitive effort results in small achievements, in the artistic realm the writer offers a humble albeit justifiable personal contribution. It follows that literature is not a “privatized experience, a game of solitaire” (Franco, 1981: 78) but a collective work that unfolds gradually in time.

In contrast to the philosophical and epistemic condition of individual dissipation and unlike the collective nature of the literary enterprise, in Borges methodological, ethical and political stances the individual becomes crucially important. “Only individuals exist – if in fact anyone does”, he asserts (CF:413), and it pertains to individuals the choice of the cultural and political environment in which they want to live (Balderston, 1993:95).

The dynamics that emerge from the encounter of Borges’ multidisciplinary approach with the cultural and the political inspire to a great extent the content and form of his works, as I will try to show in the next two sections.
II. The dynamics of culture, art and politics
The interactions between culture, art and politics in Borges are presented to the reader under a dual dynamics, that of influence or integration and that of tension or opposition. The latter has received ample scholarly attention although there is no agreement on what the results of those tensions are. For some, he searches for conciliation and coherence between the two poles of any tension; for others, oppositions subsist, there is no synthesis.5 The tensions that we find in his texts emerge from the potential or actual clash between the following concepts, forces and realities: the one and the multiple, universality and particularity, facts and dreams, present and past, successive time and eternity, thought and action, imagination and reality, individual and society, the artist and the artistic tradition, civilization and barbarism. The presence of politics permeates many of these tensions; in this section I analyze the last two, leaving the pair individual /society for section III.

As mentioned before, there is first and foremost a tension between the artist and the artistic and cultural tradition. The writer is faced with his choices, creativity and products, on the one hand, and an artistic tradition that transmits the culture in which the artist is inserted (whether by birth, accident or choice). Following Eliot (1944), for Borges the artist works within a cultural legacy that he in part adopts – tacitly or expressively- but that he also questions from a critical angle. This critic can take the form of a rebellion, an innovation, or, an active imagination of the alternatives or possibilities of altering it. To inhabit a cultural tradition from outside allows us to criticize it and improve it; we see things that may not be seen from within that tradition. In “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” (1950, SNF: 420). Borges puts forwards the idea that what the artist preserves is the spirit of tradition; what he changes is that marginal space where individuality can make a modest contribution. The task of the artist is one of intonating a personal “song”, which is a small variation from the song of tradition.6 Moreover, there is a personal moral duty in the making of art:


When I write a poem, that one has already been written down any amount of times, but I have to rediscover it. That's my moral duty” (Bourne, 1980).
However, the duty is strictly personal and has no preaching tones:
People ask me, for example, what message I have. I'm afraid I haven't any. Well, what's the moral? I'm afraid I don't know” (Bourne, 1980).
The moral duty is not a burden that makes the artist unhappy, on the contrary, even if the individual work is despicable, its realization is not. Writing is enjoyable in spite of its probably meagre results.

A second tension arises in the relation between the artist and politics. Artistic ends should be apolitical; the artist’s intentions must not be committed to a moral, social or political cause. “To talk of social art is like talking of vegetarian geometry”, Borges wrote in 1933 (2001: 343). He later criticized André Breton and Diego Rivera, who sustained what for him were two incompatible premises: “all license in art” and “art should prepare the revolution” (1938, in SNF:192). Beyond the logical incompatibility between the notions of art for art’s sake and art in the service of political ends, Borges’ implication is that the political use of art would be arrogant from an epistemic view: “The notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing” (1975, in CF: 343).7 For Borges a politically-engaged art is not only naïve but also dangerous in at least two ways. First, it replaces the artistic standard with a political criterion: “Politics is ubiquitous, a writer is judged on the basis of his political opinions and not of his art” (Borges and Ferrari, 1999:155). Secondly, politics may look for the imposition of a cultural model thus threatening the creative process that demands liberty to foster creativity and humility in regard to its pretensions and outcomes.8

Notwithstanding the need to preserve artistic independence from the claws of politics, he acknowledged that the political might still had a function in regard to art: “the ends of art have to be distinguished from the excitations that produce it [that can be political]” (1933, in 2001:343). Borges himself is a testimony of the political excitations, since his tales, poems and essays abound in battles, tyrants, nostalgia for order and freedom, and socio-political utopias. However, he tried to remain uncontaminated from political intentions in his works, as he asserts in 1970: “I have never hidden my opinions, even through the difficult years, but I have never allowed them to intrude upon my literary production, either, save that one time when I praised the Six-Day War” (CF:346).9

One of strongest political excitations for him was the theme of the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism that underlies many of his works. The tension between the values of freedom, order and respect for the law associated with civilization, on the one hand, and the issues of courage, revenge and tyranny latent in barbarism, on the other, speaks to the importance of the political in Borges. It also illustrates the complexity of political loyalties: the argentine writer, who was artistically attracted to the charms of heroic battles and of courageous knife fights, lamented the political consequences of such values in his country, where according to him courageous leaders had used them to gain popular support for their despotic regimes.10

The Argentine author repeatedly deals with the political consequences of courage: he saw it as “a South American destiny” (“Conjectural Poem”, 1943, in SP: 159). Yet Borges did not see the polarization between civilization and barbarism as a theme specific to Latin-American circumstances, but saw it as manifest or latent elsewhere, for example in fascism and Nazism (SNF:201), and before them in the Lombard invasion of Rome (CF:208) and in aggressive war in general (“Adam Cast Forth”, SP:233).

At this juncture it is important to highlight that Borges’ identification of civilization and barbarism with a given group or place is intermittent and unstable, and to recall that the reader often witnesses identity reversal: those who appear to be civilized may become barbarous, and vice versa. It is not the person or the group who belong to each category, but certain actions and ideas that insert them in any one category and that can be reversed by contrary actions and ideas. In this regard, Borges’ precautionary tone is aligned with other fictions that warn us against easy and quick alignments with either side of the equation.11


III. Cultural archetypes and their interplay with literature and the political
Borges uses the word archetype in two senses: in the philosophical, anchored to general ideas or “Platonic entities” (SNF:128) and in the cultural, constructed through history, politics or literature, as in the description of the Lombard as a “generic type” (CF:208; SNF:137), in the portraying of a nation’s destiny (SNF:378) or in the recurrence of war as the “cyclical battle of Waterloo” (SNF:213). In this section I address Borges’ literary construction of three cultural archetypes -the Argentine, the American, and Western culture- and their connection to the political.

Borges’ depiction of the Argentine archetype can be associated with four main characteristics: the habit of friendship, individualism, the disbelief in authority and disrespect for law, and a lack of social ethics. Friendship is the “passion that redeems the Argentines” (Autobiografía, 93). His tale “The Interloper” (1970, CF: 348-350) was inspired in the idea that friendship is the essential Argentine passion, capable of superseding love (Borges and Ferrari, 1999:121-122). In the story, two brothers fall in love with the same woman and end up killing her in order to save their friendship.12

Fond as he was of the argentine commitment to friendship, Borges also thought that it had been a dangerous virtue because it led to a political situation in which people are only loyal to a person: the local political chief or caudillo.13 Friendship lends itself to abuses, he added, dictators are supported by friends though in an unromantic sense, since this type of friendship implies loyalty to the chief due to utility or convenience. Borges took peronism14 as a prominent example of this type of friendship, since he defined it as guided by personal advantage only: whereas for him a communist government could be a “sincere” one, a peronist government could only be a “government of scoundrels” (Sorrentino, 2001:120).

Political friendships born out of emotional ties to leaders are different from literary friendships: the former act as forces of expulsion of outsiders (those who are not considered friends) while the latter are seen by Borges as including anyone who becomes a reader: “Don Quixote is the first that deserves and wins the friendship of the human genre” (2001: 253). Unlike Quixote’s friends, political friendships crowd out the equality that the literary work engenders by equating all individuals as readers. Also, political friendships overlook the objective of the political, that is, the need to organize a framework of conditions applicable to all and not only to friends.

Borges lamented that argentines were capable of individual friendships but could not sustain that friendship of the whole which we call community, and which in his opinion was important for the union of a country (Borges and Ferrari, 1999:109-112). The notion of a friendship between individuals who are alienated from a sense of a political community is tied to the argentine strong sense of individuality, which he traces back to Spanish culture (“Our Poor Individualism”, 1946, SNF: 309-310).15 Once again, Quixote serves Borges to illustrate this idea: “Let each answer for his own sins. (…) It is not fitting that honest men should be the instruments of punishments inflicted on others, when they are in no way involved” (Cervantes, 1981, I:XXII, 157). The inference is that when the concrete individual is not harmed, he is not supposed to act in defense of the community. Borges argues that a lack of a sense of community is a form of a lack of ethics, and that argentines think in terms of concrete individuals and not in terms of ethics, so abstract and general.

Moreover, an atomized individual indifferent to the destiny of the community eventually becomes an individual living “at the margins or in spite of the government”. Argentines identify “with the vast generic figures of the gaucho and the hoodlum because they are seen as rebels; Argentines, unlike North Americans and most Europeans, do not identify with the state.” For Borges this individualistic feature was initially promising: after the end of the Second World War and upon Perón’s arrival to the presidency, he hoped that argentine individualism would make a contribution to the world by protecting the individual from the State (SNF:310). Decades later, this hope had been erased when the writer realized that his co-nationals did not profit from their isolated individualism precisely because “politics is the contrary”, it is about “engaging with the whole” (Borges and Ferrari, 1999:109-112).

In addition, Argentina was a “submissive republic” due to the fact that “the majority has an intellectual but not a moral conscience” (Autobiografía, 122). Argentines are either politically submissive or resentful: “a poverty of imagination and resentment defines our place in earth” (“Our inabilities”, 1931, SNF:56-58). The link becomes at this point clear: a “poor” individualism linked to political friendships and disrespect for the law had operated against the sense of ethics and had facilitated political decadence.

Perhaps due to his concern with ethics, Borges became attracted to the American cultural archetype, which he contrasted with the argentine: “South Americans tend to think in terms of convenience, people in the United States have an ethical attitude. As a vocational protestant, that is what I admired most” (Autobiografía, 143-44). Borges first visit to the U.S. was in 1961, which possibly explains the growing presence of ethics in his late works. In the prologue to In Praise of Darkness (1969) he writes that “one of the virtues that makes me prefer Protestant nations to Catholic ones is their concern for ethics”, and quotes Samuel Johnson: “Prudence and justice are preeminences and virtues which belong to all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists and sometimes geometers” (CF: 332).

One of the stories of the book, “The Bribe” (CF: 466-471), illustrates Borges’ concern with ethics. The story is about the character of two professors in the U.S. Dr. Winthrop - a scholar of puritan origins with a “sense of right and wrong” - has to decide whether young Professor Eric Einarsson, from Iceland, or experienced American Professor Herbert Locke, will chair a conference. An article is then published that calls into question Dr. Winthrop’s pedagogical method; the article is signed by E.E. A few days later, Einarsson is selected to chair the conference and comes to Winthrop’s office to thank him. He then confesses that by publishing the article he had intended to use Winthrop’s “disposition for impartiality” to his advantage, since the latter would feel ethically obliged to appoint someone who had criticized his work. Borges wrote that the story “could not have happened anywhere else”.

“The Bribe” reflects the American commitment to “doing what is right”, which the author contrasted with the Argentine ethos of evading duty.16 But America is a big country by definition open to contrasts, and Borges knew too well that Northern, puritan Americans were different from the Southern. Through the reading of Faulkner and Twain, Borges became aware that America’s South was aligned with the cultural traits of the countries south of the equator. When writing about Faulkner’s The Unvanquihed (1938, SNF: 186) he highlighted its “physical, carnal world” and the “blood relation” of southern America and its history; “it, too, is criollo”, he added. The northern realm of ethical principles gives in to a southern scenario of “blood, battles and brown waters”, a reality that verges on the “implausible”: for the Argentine writer, this book touched him “physically”.17

The “physical closeness” between culture and politics in America’s south and South America is indeed a revealing metaphor, since what is physical touches upon the crucial issue of survival, a condition threatened by many of Borges recurrent “ghosts” such as knifes, duels, and tyrants. In both “souths” we witness the shadows of bodily threats and mental anxiety that haunted southern writers. Besides Faulkner, his other favourite southern writer was Twain, “a man of genius” (SNF, 522) and of “wise words” (SNF, 208). Both in Borges’ and in Twain’s south we find a cultural reluctance to obey the law. In Zuckert’s view, the absence of the rule of law in Huckleberry Finn is due to the fact that people don’t stand up for rights because they see law as constraining freedom; this vision would undermine the protection of rights and thus maximize the role of force and of aristocratic pretensions (1990:146-151). The parallel is striking: where culture mandates to ignore the law, it undermines the equality on which law is founded and the liberty that is supposed to protect it. Political oppression then emerges.

It is precisely the theme of political oppression, or rather the desire to avoid it, that animates the next archetype, Western Culture, which Borges ascribed to England, France, Germany and the United States, “the essential nations of the western world” (SNF:201), and that he associated with the fight against oppression. The association comes clear in his writings in connection to World War II - published mostly in Sur and compiled in Selected Non Fictions under the title “Notes on Germany and the War”- where we read that Hitler’s “only possible lesson is barbarism” (1939, SNF: 203). Borges warned that the oppressive imperial threat could reach South America (1941, SNF: 206).18 As a matter of fact, Hitler’s ideas had spread rapidly among many argentines that Borges labelled “Germanophiles” and that he described as ignorant of Germany, hateful of England, and deriving pleasure in evil and atrocity (SNF:205). In contrast to the Germanophiles, Borges insisted that “For Europeans and Americans, one order and only one order is possible; it used to be called Rome, and now it is called Western Culture “(1944, SNF: 210). The end of the war was naturally celebrated by the argentine writer with the comment that “Western Civilization has triumphed, that Rome has triumphed” (1945, SNF: 212).

A few years later Borges wrote “Deutsches Requiem” (1949, CF: 229-234), a story that deals with the opposition between Nazism and the west as understood by a German officer. Bell-Villada finds the story “bookish and abstract”, far from the “moral horror” of Nazism, and “lacking an understanding of Nazism origins” (1999:200-201). This criticism overlooks the intellectual thread of the story, which is a conjecture on the roots and manifestation of Nazi ideology and its confrontation with the Western archetype. The distance with “moral horror” is then consistent with the Borgesian theme that ideas, words or plots will never be sufficient to describe any reality.19

Borges’ archetype of the West anchored in the fight against oppression did not change with the years. Upon receiving the Cervantes Prize, in referring to Cervantes and his master novel Borges said that, notwithstanding the suggestion in the novel’s title, his hero in the novel is not Quixote but the often forgotten Alfonso Quijano, the hidalgo who, after setting to read about Britain, France and the Great Rome, embarks himself in the self-imposed task of being a “paladin”, of restoring justice to a corrupt world (Borges, 1979, my italics).

The Western Culture had taken root in Argentina towards the end of the XIX century, when the country attracted a large European immigration. Borges himself was a product of such cultural mix: descendant of Spanish and English people, he talked in English to his British grandmother and read English authors in their native language (through whom he learnt about Islamic cultures and Buddhism) while living in a criollo neighbourhood. Through the eyes of his father’s library, the local experience of his childhood in Palermo and his early and late world travel, he inherited and developed a rich cultural integration that permeates his writings.

The West had gone global and Borges was a product of cultural globalization: he saw himself as a political cosmopolitan, a European in education, an Argentine in his affections, an American in his ethical views, an Asian in his spirituality.20 Depending on the specific historical circumstances, some elements of this cultural integration receive more of his attention than others, but they all converge in an integrative vision that is latent throughout his work. Therefore to trace a preference for a cultural archetype in his writings is to incur in a sort of reductionism. Borges was not divided between Europe and Latin America nor did he feel impelled to choose between one and the other. Argentine friendship, American ethics, and European literature, they all belong to a rich cultural compound that for him could only be sustained in the atmosphere of liberty.

However, the atmosphere of cultural liberty was threatened by politics in the figure of the State, an organization that seemed to him embarked in working against the intercultural conversation. In the piece “The Wall and the Books” written in 1950 (shortly after the announcement of China’s Cultural Revolution) we read that “burning books and erecting fortifications are the usual occupations of princes” (SNF: 344-346). Political walls also served as a metaphor for the division in countries and the fostering of wars, as advanced in “Juan López and John Ward” (1985, OC III:500), written after the Falklands War. In the story the English soldier reads the Quixote, the Argentine soldier reads Conrad, and their cultural unity is dismantled by war. Politics erodes the common culture by way of the burning of books and the instigation of wars. It was this “interference” of politics that triggered Borges self-declared adscription to anarchism. In the next section I will explore Borges’ treatment of the political, its intellectual roots and its connection to his views on culture and literature.
IV. Politics as interference: Borges on anarchism and democracy
If culture relates to habits and beliefs, and literature deals with the artistic expression and invention of culture, what is the place of politics in regard to culture and literature? Borges’ opinions on politics and on his own political affiliation have not been object of widespread systematic analysis. This may obey to the fact that most works on Borges are of a literary nature, or to the suspicion that his opinions were perhaps quite controversial to be addressed in depth. Even critics like Vargas Llosa, who shares with the Argentine writer a concern for individual liberty and a contempt for any form of collectivism, talks of Borges’ political stance (spencerian anarchism) as “something that does not mean much” (Vargas Llosa, 1999).

It is precisely the scholarly silence on the issue of Borges’ anarchism that captured my attention. Among those who first dealt extensively with the topic of politics for Borges are Balderston (1993), who argues for a historical, contextual reading of his stories, and Rodríguez Monegal (1978:67) who considers Borges’ political preference as a gradual isolation from reality, due to his progressive blindness. Yet in Balderston’s index there is no reference to liberalism, anarchy or Spencer and he labels magazine Sur as anti-fascist and pacifist without specifying if it was conservative, communist, anarchist (or any other); Rodríguez Monegal mentions Borges’ late incorporation to the Conservative Party as a result of family and friends’ influence and not as a self-chosen affiliation emerging from his own convictions.

Among those who acknowledge Borges’ anarchism or liberalism there is somehow a partial reading of it. For González (1998:198), Borges’ is a late stance that appears in the 70’s after he abandoned the hope of a liberal government; Rodríguez Luis (1980:179) believes that Borges saw the “destiny of his social class” as defending “European bourgeois liberalism”; Franco (1981:58) assimilates Borges’ political philosophy to libertarianism, which “privileges the freedom of the powerful and is not concerned with liberation from economic oppression”; for Bell-Villada (1999:273-274) Borges´ “urbane liberalism” sees political turmoil caused by ideas and not by economic dislocations. To an extent, these authors capture the spirit of Borges’ stance, since he was indeed uninterested in economic analysis and he intensified his anarchism as the years increased his suspicion that politics tended to interfere with individuals. Yet to think that his anarchism appears only late in his works, or to relate it to the destiny of a privileged few is to overlook several facts. For one, Borges mentions Herbert Spencer as early as 1946 when stating that the problem of our time is the interference of the State in the acts of the individual (SNF: 310). Second, Borges sided with Emerson, whose sympathies were directed to all individuals and not just to a few. In his Prologue “Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Ralph W. Emerson, Representative Men” (SNF:417) he contrasts Emerson with Carlyle, and sympathizes with the former’s democratic belief while disparaging the latter’s contribution to fascism (SNF:209).21

So what is Borges’ spencerian anarchism? We know that it was inherited from his father who, “as a good anarchist, distrusted every State enterprise” (Autobiografía, 30).22 Borges replicates this distrust:


I am not a nationalist, nor a peronist, nor a communist. I am a modest spencerian anarchist. I believe in the individual, not in the State (Soler Serrano, 1980).
Etymologically, anarchy means “without head”, and implies multiple decision-making instances, a stance against coercion and against closed ideas of authority.23 In this sense, Borges’ concept of anarchy can be compared to his philosophical view of the universe as a multiplicity of centres and to his literary notion of the “various intonations of a few metaphors” (SNF: 353). The anarchist decentralization would be the equivalent of a cosmic decentralization and of the artistic dispersion of individual intonations. In a different sense, the pallor of the individual in his philosophical and literary views - where individuality finds itself submerged and conditioned by the whole - is reversed in the political field, where the individual shines brightly in his own space.

In advancing a strong sense of individuality, Borges’ dislike for the State turns into a distrust of the political per se, which is the realm of the collective (that is, of non-individuality). The political is indistinctively understood as partisan activities, the organization and activity of governing or as the establishment of countries. Borges was equally reluctant to engage in political activities and/or to admit that the countries were a valid or at least a primordial category of modern political organization:


I have no message. I know little about contemporary life. I don't read a newspaper. I dislike politics and politicians. I belong to no party whatever. (…) As I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why I should think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not a Uruguayan. I don't know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves- and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity- are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we'll be just, well, cosmopolitans (Bourne, 1980).
Borges’ anarchist stance has an intellectual as well as a historical source, and they both converge in the view of politics as a frequent cause of interference, death and humiliation. His relative Francisco Laprida, was killed in the argentine civil war of the 1820’s (he narrates this in “Conjectural Poem”); his grandfather, Francisco Borges, was a military who served in a frontier post and died in a battle; his other grandfather, Isidoro Acevedo, also took part in the civil war of the 1870’s (Di Giovanni, 2003:68). Due to his criticism of domestic and foreign policies,24 in 1946 Borges was degraded from his librarian position and was appointed Inspector of Poultry, appointment he naturally declined. In 1948 under Peron’s presidency, his only sister, Norah, spent a month in jail and his mother was placed under house arrest for having disturbed the public order when singing the national anthem in the street.

Besides Argentina’s problems, world history had also given him sufficient causes to engage in a script against political interference. World War I found him and his family in Europe, from where they had to rush back, and the outbreak of World War II found him in Buenos Aires surrounded by fascist sympathies. His anarchist stance was if anything fortified by national and international events.

In regard to the intellectual aspects of his anarchism, a comparison of Borges’ views with Spencer’s is in order to understand better the label of spencerian anarchist. First among the themes shared by the two authors are their methodological individualism and its political implication, which is a distrust of government’s intervention in individual and social life:
There is first of all the undeniable truth, conspicuous and yet absolutely ignored, that there are no phenomena which a society presents but what have their origins in the phenomena of individual human life, which again have their roots in vital phenomena at large (…) the resulting phenomena cannot be wholly chaotic: there must be some kind of order in the phenomena which grow out of them when associated human beings have to cooperate. Evidently, then, when one who has not studied such resulting phenomena of social order, undertakes to regulate society, he is pretty certain to work mischiefs (Spencer, 1981, “The Coming Slavery”)

While men have abandoned the old theory respecting the source of State-authority, they have retained a belief in that unlimited extent of State-authority which rightly accompanied the old theory, but does not rightly accompany the new one…Reduced to its lowest terms, every proposal to interfere with citizens’ activities further than by enforcing their mutual limitations, is a proposal to improve life by breaking through the fundamental conditions to life (…) The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings. The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments (Spencer, 1981, “The great political superstition”).

Secondly, Spencer’s account of the idea of evolution from primitive or militant to industrial societies is latent in Borges´ contrast between caudillo societies and his imagined societies based in voluntary cooperation. Borges’ theme of gaucho and compadre courage echo Spencer’s description of primitive societies ruled by the praise of the brave and loyalty to the ruler:

Always, in rude assemblages of men, the strongest, most courageous, and most sagacious, become rulers and leaders; and, in a tribe of some standing, this results in the establishment of a dominant class… Beyond this complication of governmental structure many societies do not progress; but in some, a further development takes place….it is in the nature of those great and latest-developed legislative bodies which distinguish the most advanced societies, to interpret and combine the wishes of all classes and localities, and to make laws in harmony with the general wants… we may describe the office of a Parliament as that of averaging the interests of the various classes in a community; and a good Parliament is one in which the parties answering to these respective interests are so balanced, that their united legislation allows to each class as much as consists with the claims of the rest (Spencer, 1860).

Spencer’s account of the political evolution towards more voluntary forms of cooperation animates Borges´ time-traveling story “A Weary Man’s Utopia” (1970), where the world of the past is haunted by “spectral collectives” (countries) and “platonic entities” (common markets), whereas the world of the future has no governments (CF: 462).

But in hoping that gradually men would learn to do without governments, Borges goes further than Spencer, who advocates the possibility of a good Parliament. The argentine author contests even the possibility of representing and averaging the multiplicity of individualities in a single representative body. The story “The Congress” (CF:421-436) – which bears a “kafkian” tone to his author (Autobiografía, 151)- deals with the attempt and failure to form a body that could represent “all people of all nations”. The story was inspired by Anacharsis Cloots (pseudonym of the French baron de Cloots, 1755 - 1794), who dreamt of a universal family of nations, and about whom Borges probably read in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.25

The problem with the Congress - the author holds - is fixing the exact number of platonic archetypes, that is, of the classes to be represented. The ghost of John Wilkins appears again in this story in the form of humorous categories: should one of the characters represent “ranchers, Uruguayans, founding fathers, red-bearded men and men sitting in armchairs”? Besides these platonic ponderings, the Congress also undergoes the concrete problems that haunt political organizations: overexpansion, flattering, submission to power and in the end, the burning of books. The author concludes by remarking that “The Congress truly and secretly exists, it is the universe and ourselves”, a sentence that points directly to the inadequacy of any form of representation, and consequently to modern governments as we know them.

Finally, the third Spencerian element present in Borges is related to the role of ethics in society, understood as a minimal, social notion of ethics in dealing with our fellow citizens. Strictly speaking, ethical norms specify how to live while political norms define the setting within which people carry on their ethical actions (Rasmussen and Den Uyl, 2005: 91). If at the heart of ethics is the meliorizable (Op. cit., 193), we could posit that at the heart of politics lies the permissible. Insofar Spencer and Borges talk about the latter they focus on that limited area of morality that is of political concern:


Ethical character arises only with the distinction between what the individual may do in carrying on his life-sustaining activities, and what he may not do. This distinction obviously results from the presence of his fellows. Among those who are in close proximity, or even some distance apart, the doings of each are apt to interfere with the doings of others; and in the absence of proof that some may do what they will without limit, while others may not, mutual limitation is necessitated. Thus it becomes clear, alike from analysis of causes and observation of facts, that while the positive element in the right to carry on life-sustaining activities, originates from the laws of life, that negative element which gives ethical character to it, originates from the conditions produced by social aggregation (Spencer, 1981, my bold).
Borges was aware that an ethical conduct thus understood was indispensable to the well functioning of a society. As stated before, his ethical sympathies were inspired in the protestant culture and its values of duty and equality. In the “Prologue” to William James’ Pragmatism he wrote that “for James, the universe has a plan; its execution is ours. His moral philosophy is the only one in which men have something to do and in which there are no secondary characters” (1945, in SNF:221).

I want to end this section with a comment on Borges’ association between liberalism, ethics and equality and on his views on democracy. If in his view of literature the equality of individuals arises from the act of reading or writing, in his notion of ethics people are equally endowed with the ability and the obligation to fulfil their duty. In a similar fashion, in his vision of the political individuals are equally entitled to engage in their literary and ethical tasks without political interference. The egalitarian quality of liberty separates Borges from any elitism, and individual engagement in literary or ethical tasks distances him from the populists, devoted to the political “cult of courage”.

Borges’ critic of elites and masses was of an ethical nature: “He rejoiced in belonging to the bourgeoisie… the plebs and the aristocracy, devoted to money, gaming, sports, nationalism, success and publicity, seemed to him identical” (1974, OC III:505). While many people are distracted by entertainment, materialism and fame, we infer that the bourgeoisie is busy complying with labour and artistic duties. The virtues are not commercial but artistic,26 and the well-being of world depends on them. In his piece “On Salvation by Deeds” (“De la salvación por las obras”, OC, III:450) eight Shinto divinities meet to decide if they should prevent a worldwide catastrophe by eliminating all men. One of them intonates a poem, and moved by the poem another says “Let the men endure”. The text concludes “Thus, by the work of a haiku, the human species was saved”. The poets are not alone in saving the world; they are joined by anyone who is attracted to knowledge, art, forgiveness, gratefulness and modesty; they “are unaware that they are saving the world” (“The Just”, SP:455). Anyone is called upon to be a poet or a just person.

Borges’ ideas on equality could serve him well to justify a democratic political order, where all individuals are equally entitled and able to participate freely in the organization of the collective. However, historical and personal events associated with political interference led Borges to criticize the argentine democratic experience and democracy at large:

I see myself as unworthy of giving my opinion in political matters, but perhaps I can be forgiven if I say that I do not believe in democracy, that curious abuse of statistics (Prologue, The Coin of Iron, 1976, OC III:121).27

To understand Borges’ disappointment with democracy we must first resort to his multidisciplinary vision that pivots around the notion of caution or moderation against abuses or extremisms. It is because reason is limited that we find the idea of abuse of reason latent in his criticism of platonic entities; it is due to philosophical perplexities that he rejects the abuse of language in pretending to contain all realities (CF: 228-232); it is due to a literary humility that he finds it abusive for artists to believe that they know what they are doing. Last but not least, there is the abuse of politics understood as fanaticism: in justifying his incorporation to the Conservative Party he wrote that “it is the only one that can not arouse fanaticisms” (1974, OC III:506).

Being conservative for Borges is a form of scepticism (1970, CF: 345), which amounts to the antithesis of fanaticism. I need only add that his is a scepticism of social reform, as embedded in populist regimes and, more dangerously, in utopian ideologies such as Nazism. By the same token, his statement about democracy being an “abuse of statistics” may be derived from his conviction that a majoritarian form of government cannot adequately reflect all individual opinions and interests, nor can it override the sphere of the individual in the belief that everything should be a matter of collective determination.28

There is one more abuse related to the political sphere - we might call it the abuse of individualism- which is the situation where isolated persons remain indifferent to the civic or collective life. As state before the root of Borges’ deception with argentine democracy is the cultural foundation on which it was built, one of isolated individualism,29 disregard for the law and caudillismo. The triple diagnosis applied to the malfunctioning of democracy comes through in “Avelino Arredondo” (The Book of Sand, 1975, CF:472-476) a story on political assassination instigated by cronyism and factionalism, inspired by a real event. Arredondo is a solitary man disenchanted with corrupt political bosses that resorts to political assassination in what he considers the only way of doing justice. The cult of courage intrudes in politics once again and, ironically, we read that a street now bears the name of Arredondo.

It could be posited that Borges’ disappointment with democracy was not an exception in Argentina after 1930, when military coups with civilian consent, populist regimes silencing the press, the proscription of political parties and the emergence of revolutionary guerrillas conspired against the gradual and cooperative construction of a genuine and stable democracy.30 One is left to wonder to what extent Borges was disappointed with democracy or rather with the lack of it.

The fact is that he supported the military interventions in 1955 and 1976.31 Borges’ support for the military might have been inspired by his romantic vision of epic times in which his military predecessors had liberated the country and fought for liberty, or by the romantic desire to think of the military as people committed to duty over hedonism, or by the hope that the absence of elections might drive the threat of populism away (González, 1998:198). However, the alternative to democracy did not prove better and in time Borges realized that democratic procedures had to be respected. Rodríguez Monegal (1971:22) mentions that during lunch with Borges in 1962, the latter complaint about the illegality of the recent military coup. If populists had been voted to office, election results had to be accepted, Borges concluded. Historical facts belied his opinion on the military solution and forced him to admit that he had been mistaken in supporting it.32

This recognition reconciles Borges with his emersonian faith in the capacity of all individuals, extensible to democracy, and with his life-long critic of the fascist preeminence of the “heroic few”. Moreover, his criticism of fascism had gained him the acknowledgment of the international literary community that awarded him the International Literary Prize (also known as Prix Formentor) in 1961, which triggered his international fame and the translation of his works to several languages (Woodall, 1996:193).33 This was perhaps the first time in which the political seemed to be interfering with his life in a positive and advantageously way.

At the end of the day, and somehow ironically given Borges’ dislike of politics, the concept of the political-as-non-interference was more than mere inspiration for his fictions and poems; it appeared to him to be the sine qua non condition under which both the artistic enterprise and the intercultural conversation were made possible.


Concluding remarks
In this work I have tried to sketch some general ideas about the relation between culture, politics and literature in Borges. I have first posited that his multidisciplinary tone may be of interest to readers who want to reflect on the manifold foundations of the cultural and political orders. In addition, the multicultural outlook present in the form and the contents of his works –and his opinions to the extent that they help us understand them- conveys the importance of cross cultural themes in a global order where freedom and equality are to be respected. On the one hand, the form of his writings is inhabited by tensions, paradoxes and reversals that point to the complexity of reality and to the limits within which artists and politicians should direct their intentions and efforts. As we saw, the tensions emerge within a culture (argentine individualism/civic apathy; American puritan ethics/southern lawlessness; German illustration/Nazi barbarism) and between cultures as well (a European bribes an American; argentine populism/western liberty; urban restrictions/Indian wilderness).

On the other hand, cultural oppositions dissolve into generic types, thus introducing a universal uniformity that speaks against the very idea of opposition. This move between the particular and the universal, between the tension and its intermittence, seems to reflect adequately the dynamics in modern societies, where individuals are frequently torn between the local and the global. There are no final resolutions in Borges’ fiction, as there is none in reality, but acknowledging the condition of intermittence can perhaps be one way of coming to terms with our disappointments.

In regard to the contents of Borges’ works, the political served him as a theoretical stimulus (SP:345) to ponder about the effects of war and oppression, the unintended consequences of human intentions and actions, and the interference of politics in the cultural life. If multiculturalism is the choice of an individual engaged in multiple cultural sympathies, literature is the articulation of these sympathies and the denunciation of everything that works against them, politics included.

I can imagine that a Shinto divinity would finish this work by saying “Let political liberty, multicultural conversations and literary works save the world”. I would only have to agree.



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