Thursday, May 23, 2019

Commentary: 'J.L. Borges and Argentine Tradition' by Peter Cowlam

Perhaps Borges was reluctant to accept that there was a tradition in Argentine writing. He was politely deferential to the gauchesque poem Martín Fierro – which some critics of his generation wished to elevate as such – Borges describing it as ‘the most lasting work we Argentines have written’, but in the same breath adding ‘we cannot suppose…[that it is] our Bible, our canonical book’.[1] Borges was a Creole, and not a first-generation coloniser, and for that reason may not have acknowledged a post-Romantic European bucolics as the acceptable face of European opportunism overseas. Borges preferred to look to Europe itself as the source of his programme, and rationalised that choice – ‘The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors’ – and gave the following as an example: ‘The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem.’[2] Nor did Borges much care for the trends operating in the Europe of his own time, and remarks of Valéry: ‘To propose lucidity to men in a lowly romantic era, in the melancholy era of Nazism and dialectical materialism, of the augurs of Freudianism and the merchants of surréalisme, such is the noble vision Valéry fulfilled….’[3] Borges, in some ways the supreme Symbolist, is at bottom something else – a supreme Individualist.
So why should the cauldron of a new and appropriated country, whose influx was largely European, cast back onto us a quasi-European Symbolist / Individualist, such as Borges was? As Homi Bhabha puts it, in the complex wording of an essay I have translated from English to English, called Signs Taken for Wonders

The Bible has to be considered as the first Book of Imperialist propaganda, and being so has paved the way for subsequent European books springing up all over the colonised world, in a similar miraculous aura. The Word as the Word of God, is the Word transmitted by European man, and is a Word that encapsulates a vision of half-made societies everywhere. It therefore becomes not only the Word of God, but of truth, and of art, and as it follows, the basis for founding not only a ‘true’ and ‘artistic’ beginning, but a practice of history and narrative. But. Implanting the Word in the wilds is also a process of displacement, and the immediate vision of the Word is therefore freed from the discourse that accompanied or even encumbered it…. Displacement is therefore what the Word now communicates [and is especially what the Word in the Borges œuvre communicates]. The Word is a hybrid, and of course any hybrid is neither certainly the One nor certainly the Other. Difference and Otherness at that point become a pressure and a presence on the boundary of Authority [an Authority that in Argentina failed to make of Martín Fierro the unequivocal Argentine tradition. Similarly Borges has taken the European Book and turned it into a rope of sand]. Such pressure and presence do not amount to overt opposition (in a political sense), but to a form of resistance. What is resisted is the content of another culture, while at the same time that other culture reinvents its signs and its various discourses to bolster its role as a colonial power. What this results in is an ambivalence towards the rules and dominating discourses of that colonising power [and Borges, being of that power, could not enjoy a relation to European culture in any straightforward way – it was inevitable that the relation was shifted].[4]

One further complication in the case of Argentina is that the colonising power also quickly became the ‘native’ population, since the Indian presence was almost entirely expunged. It is worth reflecting that Argentina’s national constitution is dated 25 May 1853, and that the country was developed by an immigrant population, mostly of European origin, but with a smattering of Turkish and Syrian also. Marginalisation of the indigenous Indian population was extreme, to the extent that in 1914 (for example) it represented 0.68 per cent of the country’s entire population.[5] Bhabha’s argument remains relevant nevertheless, if in this instance its relevance is to a transplanted European culture in opposition to itself.
Consistent with that opposition is Borges in his various acts of ‘deconstruction’, with the European mind the frame he ‘deconstructs’. We have seen with our philosophers of language how ‘deconstruction’ is viewed as play, as an academic game, and performative as a game. In this sense Borges was happy to bear with him the social guilt of what many regard as essentially useless, the pursuit of art. Art does little to alleviate suffering, and has not plausibly solved social, economic or political problems. Whatever benefits art confers are only vaguely measurable (our spiritual well-being can never be a concrete fact). Present generations – our own trend-setting practitioners (or perhaps followers like lemmings) – don’t easily bear that guilt, and find it attractive to abdicate personal responsibility for their artefacts, with the aleatory shored up as the gallery installation, in objects offered to us as monetised, social agitation rather than aesthetic exploration. This is not a sickness, but a social fact, and not a fact it’s advisable to suffer from.
The conflict was of a different order back in the early part of the twentieth century, when Borges entered an artistic world whose legacy was the revised relationship between the artist and the Deity, with Nietzsche identified as the point, in the century before that, where the Church’s authority had been seriously undermined. Some now regard Science, with its amazing successes, as the new God, and Science of course spawns a golden Technology, with Technology handmaid to Commerce (Science, Technology, Commerce, the post-Versailles triumvirate). Borges knew these cultural shifts, and presented in the great majority of his work a condition of human life where the principle of a higher authority cannot be invoked – that is to say a condition with no real compass, and subject to the infinite vagaries of chance. Chance in itself, as formative of procedural, or more scientific, less intuitive methods of artistic composition, does not enter the Borgesian equation with quite that detachment, with quite the remoteness of practitioner from practice. Moreover isn’t the artist’s post-Borges mimicry of science all somewhat shallow, since the world of practical experimentation is largely persons in lab coats shaking up test tubes and wielding screwdrivers? And is not chance itself, ye throwers of arty dice, what our lettered lives really are, where the cue to start and a double-six require patience? Patience we seem to lack.

[1]Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ in Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
[2]Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ in Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
[3]Borges, Jorge Luis, ‘Valéry as Symbol’ in Labyrinths, trans. James E Irby, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.
[4]Bhabha, Homi K., ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’ in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft et al, London: Routledge, 1995.

[5]Yust, Walter (ed.) Encylopædia Britannica, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951.

Peter Cowlam is equally at home with prose and poetry. His most recent novel New King Palmers is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. Due out imminently is collection of poems Addendum Manifesto, aimed as a counter-blast at the political and financial institutions complicit in the deceptions of our master-slave society, wage slaves exhorted to fund a debt economy, and by that heavy price remain obedient citizens. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems and short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, Easy Street, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Galway Review, The Liberal, and others. His books are published by the UK indie CentreHouse Press.