University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Borges is closely linked, in the 1920s, to three literary magazines Prisma, Proa and Martín Fierro [1] which put forward avant-garde programmes yet at the same time revealed the ideological and institutional limits of the avant-garde in Argentina. Of these three publications, Martín Fierro had the widest audience and the highest visibility: modernising young intellectuals who began publishing in the 1920s were known as Martinfierristas by friends and foe alike.

With the appearance of Martín Fierro in February 1924, we are witness to a typically modern aesthetic 'break' - that of the avant garde. The scandal that the journal courted in order to achieve an immediate and wide-ranging recognition, the freedom with which it criticised modernista writers and those of the generation of the Centenario [2] , the polemics with socially committed and humanitarian literature, the parodic tone adopted in satirising earlier and contemporary literary trends, all these aspects make Martín Fierro a sounding board which echoed the changes in the textual system and the institutional battles that were being waged. At the same time, the review differs from the European avant-gardes in certain ways which demonstrate its limitations but also its originality.

If the European avant-garde combined a radical aesthetics, with moral insurrection and a 'passion for dangerous experimentation', what can be said to define the Argentine avant-garde in which Borges played such a leading role? In order to characterise the type of break made by Martín Fierro and the Martinfierristas and to explain the largely moderate tone of their interventions, it is necessary to examine the nature of the intellectual field in Argentina between 1900 and 1920. The intellectuals and the artistic c énacles in vogue at the time of the Centenario, created the conditions for the gradual professionalisation of the writer and established ideological and cultural practices that aspired to long-term hegemony. The young Martinfierristas were to do battle with them in a struggle to establish their own aesthetic and institutional supremacy.

One journal, Nosotros, which had been founded in 1907 had become the most universally accepted periodical of the time. [3] It published monthly over one hundred pages of text and included not only developments in Argentine literature and plastic arts but also extensive news sections from abroad and translations of foreign articles. The directors of Nosotros, Roberto Giusti and Alfredo Bianchi, were typical literary promoters in a period that witnessed little differentiation in the artistic field due, precisely, to the small scale and lack of complexity of this field. For this reason, Nosotros was an ideologically and aesthetically eclectic publication. The programme of the journal was to organise and disseminate artistic and intellectual production and it considered that it represented the whole of the intellectual field. The avant-garde came to break this unity, to divide the public and to debate with the hallowed writers of the day.

Martín Fierro attempted to break with the institutions and practices of the preexisting intellectual field, whose development had, in fact, created the necessary conditions for the development of the avant-garde itself. At the beginning of the 1920s, in the two or three years that preceded the appearance of the journals in which Borges and his fellow writers participated (Prisma, Proa, Inicial, Martín Fierro), the intellectual field, under the hegemony of Nosotros, appeared relatively unified. In these years, the unity of the field was considered a prerequisite for its consolidation and expansion. For that reason, the directors of Nosotros included younger writers in their pages. Proof of this can be found in the development, within Nosotros, of those writers who would become the leaders or members of the ultraista [4] or martinfierrista avant-garde. In 1921, issues 121, Nosotros published a declaration by Jorge Luise Borges, titled, 'Ultraismo', which developed some of what would soon become the aesthetic tenets of the avant-garde, and included five or six poems. Almost a year later it published an unprefaced 'Ultraista Anthology' and throughout 1923, it also published clearly ultraista poems by Eduardo González Lanuza and Córdova Iturburu (both of whom would immediately join the ranks of the Martinfierristas), and an article by Borges. 'Berkeley's Dilemma' which prefigured ideas that he would develop in subsequent decades. Nosotros published the first anthology of Argentine ultraism, with poems by Borges, Sergio Piñero, Norah Lange and Eduardo Gonzalez Lanuza (all of whom, a few months later, would become noisy and conspicuous members of the vanguard literary guerrilla). In December 1923, Nosotros also published another article by Borges ('On Unamuno, the poet') and in March 1924, it reprinted a commentary by Díaz-Canedo, which had appeared in Spain, on a book of poems by Borges, Fervor de Buenos Aires. This article is virtually the last demonstration of the harmony between the most institutionalised sector of the intellectual field and those who almost immediately, would become the avant-garde. When another journal of young writers Inicial appeared in October 1923, Nosotros greeted it with a virulent attack. For their part, the Martinfierristas began to find their own place in the network of cultural institutions.


Creating an Environment


The appearance of avant-garde journals, in particular Martín Fierro, profoundly affected the formal and informal institutions of the intellectual field. From 1924, the avant-garde disputed the structures of the literary canon by waging war on Nosotros, modernismo and the writers of the Centenario. In the opinion of Martín Fierro, Nosotros reproduced, and even acted as agents for, the official system and its aesthetic criteria.

In a series of articles, the directors of Martín Fierro set out a programme to change the ways in which, traditionally, a literary pantheon had been created in Argentina. The journal began to compete for literary recognition within these institutions themselves and participated in the system of official prizes. It accepted these institutions as a mechanism for promoting young artists and explicitly recognised the state's legitimate right to intervene as a regulator and promoter of the arts.  Even Presidents of the Republic who attempted to foster artistic development could be, according to the avant-garde, "fair to both parties". But the the avant garde did warn against the danger of a 'politics of the club'. Instead of supporting a movekent for aesthetic and institutional change the 'politics of the club' was based on conciliatory agents such as Nosotros, that is, on figures that had held power in the previous decade. This official policy brought 'no benefit to the country', the editors of Martín Fierro announced. In this aspect of their programme, the martinfierristas worked for a peaceful reform of cultural institutions rather than adopting a radical perspective as refus és, as was the case of the European avant-gardes.

The moderate line of Martín Fierro (in particular of Evar M éndez, its director and the author or driving spirit behind these articles), was limited to denouncing the politics of the c énacle, and demanding that the state should intervene to put an end to favouritism in the awarding of official prizes. By proposing that literary prizes should depend on the Ministry of Public Education, Martín Fierro subscribed to a line of thought already to be found in older writers that the journal was attempting to overthrow: the obligation of the state to offer economic protection to artists who, in a society like the Argentine and in a literary market in which a middle-class public preferred the realist novel to innovative experimentation, could not hope to live from the proceeds of their work. This support for state patronage, which was caused to a large extent by the lack of differentiation in the intellectual field, coexisted in Martín Fierro, and in the avant-garde in general, with an elitist rejection of those products which the rapidly developing publishing industry offered to a broader and obviously less cultured audience.

As well as stressing the need for institutional support for the development of art and literature, Martín Fierro also argued that the state had certain obligations in the field of cultural promotion, in particular to achieve a balance in favour of younger writers, as opposed to the well-established figures such as the 'national bard', Leopoldo Lugones. [5] While it adopted a generally conciliatory attitude to state power, the journal would pick out certain enemies such as the intendente of the city of Buenos Aires (an inefficient and conservative representative of the state) and Nosotros, which provided many of the jury members for municipal prizes. The antibourgeois tension of the European avant-garde was converted, in Buenos Aires, into a more moderate opposition to aesthetic philistinism and to the lack of taste of the average bourgeois or state bureaucrat.

This moderate line was sustained by the editorial board of Martín Fierro from the first to the last issue. Evar M éndez, the director, described the function of the journal as being 'to form an environment and to awaken literary life'. What this meant in practice was that the review helped to change the intellectual field, produce a new type of public, create new attitudes in literary life and modify taste. It was a profound change but not a nihilistic break or an anarchic confrontation with the existing order.

For this reason, when the periodical defines its function, it does so in terms of 'founding' certain literary activities. Important among these was the foundation of publishing houses linked to Martín Fierro and to Proa, which published the vanguard writers and had an explicit programme: they would be exclusive, partisan and tendentious, uninterested in commerce, respectful of authors' rights and all the norms that made up the modern rules of book marketing (publicity in the street, promotional prices, special discounts to booksellers etc.). In other words it marked the beginning of the end of the system which had operated in previous decades, in which authors paid for their own work to be published.

The editors of the magazine were clearly more moderate than some members of the group such as Borges and Oliverio Girondo [6] who proposed a more radical aesthetic break. This moderation was due not just to their own ideological limitations but also to the limitations of the intellectual field and also of the wider society. Sexual and moral repression, apoliticism, the disciplined support of the nation and of the rights and duties of the state, all point to underlying ideologies that were still traditional and which produced a vanguard which did not profoundly question the social order. But if Martín Fierro did not criticise the family, the country, authority or religion, it did, however, decisively change literary mores. Ulyses Petit de Murat, one of the members of the group, recalled that 'Martín Fierro had included women in its literary banquests and in its lectures. Literature at that time was dominated by men. Norah Lange was a cornerstone of these meetings. She gave speeches standing on a table'. In fact all the memoir accounts of these years by avant-garde writers were unanimous in pointing to these new relations among writers. The new relationships seemed to demand more energy than writing itself. Leopoldo Marechal, [7] one the most conspicuous members of the group noted that 'the rest of my time I dedicated to 'literary life' and all that entailed, rather than to literary creation .... the Martín Fierro movement was firmly rooted in life itself'.

 Martín Fierro had its friends and allies. In particular two: Macedonio Fernández [8] (revered by Borges as a 'grand vieux') and Ricardo G üiraldes. [9] In order to make these writers visible it was necessary for the Martinfierristas to reform the Argentine literary system. Only a change in the view of what literature should be, allowed them to rescue G üiraldes from his isolation and discover Macedonio Fernández. The publication of their texts is one of the clearest vanguard gestures of the periodical.


Literature as a Commodity  


The avant-garde reformed the literary system, denied the traditions and the genealogy of the intellectual field (by constructing alternative genealogies) and divided the public. It discovered precursors who had been left out of the established canon. It converted a marginal, like Macedonio Fernández, into the centre of its system. It affirmed that those who did not read literature in this way were aesthetically reactionary, unable to understand the phenomenon of the 'new'. Apollinaire published Sade, the Martinfierristas published Macedonio Fernández: two great marginals outside the institutions and unknown to the market and to the public. These marginals shared a common viewpoint: they were opposed to the logic and the morality of the market (for the avant-garde, the logic of the market, its only raison d' être, was profit).

The avant-garde sees itself as embodying an aesthetic 'truth' which, in its opposition to the 'truth' of commerce, reveals the real conditions of production for the market. But this opposition was so intense because the avant-garde was also, in some way, a product of this market. Only the production of symbolic goods which conceives of various levels of public and gears itself to one of these levels can allow, in opposition to itself, texts which, in however illusory a fashion, can be defined as being outside the market and free of its regulations. But this 'being outside', which defines a moment of the avant-garde, is a space of conflict. The avant garde does not conceive of itself as an alternative space in the intellectual field but rather as the only moral and aesthetically valid space. Its conflict with the 'culture industry' and with 'middle brow' and 'low brow' culture is both aesthetic and ethical. But, it also has a wider social significance. The avant-garde is possible when both the intellectual field and the market for symbolic goods has reached a relatively generalised and widespread state of development. That is to say, when the writer feels both the fascination and the competition of the market, rejects it as a canonical space, but secretly desires its judgement. Competition in the market and for the public is one of the modern forms of aesthetic competition. The tension can be so great, or the vanguard can feel itself so weak, that the retreat from the market is one possible option for competing in this world. When the avant-garde denies the market, it divides the public while at the same time demanding for its texts a type of reading practiced, in the first place, by the writers themselves: a reading among equals.

The Argentine avant-garde lived this tension with the market-place and with the public: it rejected the former and proclaimed the need to form a new type of reader. To this end, it sought to reform taste and create alternative ways in to the literary market-place. Two axes - profit/art and Argentine/immigrant - intersect in the Martínfierrista attitude to literature as commerce. To make money out of literature is an aspiration which is linked explicitly to the class origin of a writer. There are no exceptions to this rule for Martín Fierro.

The conflict of the Argentine avant-garde with the 'culture industry' is not simply a reflection of European ideologies.  From around 1915, Buenos Aires had seen the growth and prosperity of a literature produced for middle and lower sectors, which had relatively high weekly circulation figures and was published at accessible prices. At the beginning of the 1920s, in addition to these weekly publications, which included 'serial' literature and novels of adventures, there appeared collections of cheap books which offered translations of European narrative and theatre. 1922 saw the publication of perhaps the most successful collection of all, significantly called 'Los Pensadores' (The Thinkers). [10] The avant-garde identified this collection with 'social' literature, naturalistic realism and lumpen sentimentality, cultivated by a number of writers who made up the literary group known as 'Boedo', taken from the name of a working class district of Buenos Aires, where some of the writers lived and where the offices of the publishing-house that published them, Claridad, were located.

In its rejection of the market, Martín Fierro condemned the profit motive (which could be applied to the publishers of sentimental, serial literature and adventure stories) and decried 'edifying' literature, which it linked aesthetically to social realism, whose reading public belonged to lower middle class and popular sectors. If the development of a market for literary works was due to the increasing reading public, then Martín Fierro was faced with the problem of how to divide this public. There are important areas of Argentine literary production in the 1920s that the periodical chose to ignore, because they were linked too openly with the market and, by extension, with a public whose philistine taste the avant-garde repudiated. If the goal was to create a new public (and this was Martín Fierro's explicit programme), then the established taste of the market place had to be destroyed. Literature which was published in thousands of copies, in cheap and often shoddy editions, seemed to the journal to be a corrupt form of competition. Hence the elitist reproach made to the writers of the Boedo group: that in the name of social literature, they had one eye on the market or , which was the same thing, they were motivated by profit.

This opposition between profit and art in the intellectual field, has, therefore, a wider social significance. The ethical tone that Martín Fierro adopts when it talks about success in the market place, a tone which cannot be seen as purely dishonest, a mere ideological representation or a symbolic denial, is overlaid by class: 'We know' (states an editorial in Martín Fierro) 'of the existence of a subliterature which feeds the unscrupulous greed of commercial companies created to satisfy the low taste of a semiliterate public.' This link between the commercial nature of popular publishing and the 'inferior' sensibility of its readers, is also a clear comment on the origins of the writer and the money that literature can produce. In these circumstances, the Martinfierristas proclaimed the truth of the avant garde which condemned the commercialisation of art.

The poetics of 'social' literature were, therefore, not only defined by its left-wing' or 'humanitarian' ideology, but also by the demands of the market and the social origins of its writers. With regard to these writers, Martín Fierro's strictures were most implacable: this literature was written with the typical 'deformation of pronunciation' which revealed its immigrant origins. The journal developed once again the theme of linguistic purity as the hallmark of Argentines with old Hispanic-criollo ancestry. The notion of 'linguistic purity' had preoccupied some of the writers of the Centenario, whom Martín Fierro considered as enemies. Yet the journal shared their views in its satires of the 'uncouth jargon infested by Italianisms' thrown by a literature which wallowed in 'slum stories', written by 'Italo-criollo' writers. There were therefore two types of writer and two publics: those who were 'Argentines without effort' because they did not need to disguise a foreign accent, and those who by their origin and their language could not claim to be part of any long national tradition.

The angry violence of this attack (which was not typical of the generally parodic and humorous tone of the journal) illustrates the fact that what is being debated is a fundamental question from both an ideological and an aesthetic point of view. The debate between profit and art was overlaid by these social contradiction between old Argentines and immigrants. This can be seen in the acknowledgement that Martín Fierro gave to the first edition of Proa, the other great journal of the avant garde: much could be expected of the members of this group, it argued, since they were 'deeply rooted in tradition, and their surnames show them to be from families that are Argentine through and through'.

Class origins, the relationship to national tradition, the purity or corruption of language, the attitude towards the literary market: all these elements make up a 'structure of feeling' shared by the Argentine avant garde to which Borges belonged. Not all the elements of this structure, or the literary forms that expressed it, have the same weight. The very dynamic of the avant garde on occasions eroded the importance given to cultural tradition and the nation. However, the control over language and the relationship with the 'low-class' public are constantly stressed. This low brow public, from which the avant-garde kept its distance, contaminated language, imposed a 'deformed' pronunciation and helped to foster an 'illegitimate' use of the conventillo in realist literature. (We will see shortly, that the conventillo could have a 'legitimate' use in literature). The public that the avant-garde approved of were those who turned their back on the market. Defined by their sensibility towards the new, this public was opposed in more than one way to the public that read the realist works of the Boedo group. In social terms, the Boedo public was from the surburban neighbourhoods and not the centre of the city, and they were readers who were unsure of their Argentine language. Aesthetically, they consumed, in the main, short stories and novels, whilst the Martín Fierro public read poetry and the essay. Here we have two publics and also two literary systems, two systems of translating foreign literature and two groups who accused each other of being cosmopolitan.


The Avant Garde and Criollismo

The name that the most important avant-garde magazine adopted, Martín Fierro, needs to be considered. The question is an important one, for the name itself alludes to a central theme, that of nationality.

Why is the question of cultural nationalism so persistent in Argentina? Around 1910 writers as prestigious as Ricardo Rojas and Leopoldo Lugones reinterpreted the gauchesque poem Martín Fierro, written by Jos é Hernández in the last third of the nineteenth century, as a culmination and synthesis of national values. The background to this insistence is the presence of intellectuals from outside the traditional upper classes who are part of an general process of growth of the middle sectors and of urban popular sectors of immigrant origins. For the first time we find posed, in a systematic and dramatic way, the question of national identity. The question arose from the presence of thousands of immigrants in a country who needed them as a labour force, but feared them politically and culturally. Nationalist writers offer two different answers to the question: those who like Ricardo Rojas, proposed a fusion of the native population, be they Spanish, criollo or indigenous, with the immigrants and their offspring, and those who, like Leopoldo Lugones, saw a threat to Argentine culture being posed by linguistic, racial and ideological pressures from the new arrivals.

Couched in these terms, the debate was not resolved in the 1920s. The director of Inicial, one of the modernising journals of the period, stated that it was only in the 1920s that intellectuals began to debate the question of the nation. This remark, which is historically false, since obviously the writers of the Centenario conducted these debates before the 1920s, contains, nonetheless, an ideological truth. The inconclusive debates about national culture became for the avant-garde another key issue to be resolved in the vast movement of aesthetic renovation. In the first issue of Martín Fierro, the phrase with which it announced its appearance, 'The Return of Martín Fierro', carried a heavy symbolic charge for it is based on a gaucho hero who was perceived as a 'national essence', which the avant-garde could once again embody. This insistence on the essence of Argentina (Argentinidad) in the periodical appears as a necessary precondition for their ability to carry out their mandate for change. This decision to support a programme of nationalist cultural regeneration is another of the contradictions that run through the history of the magazine. In the 'Manifesto' that was published in issue 4, cultural tradition is described as a 'family album' which cannot be denied, but which cannot at the same time be held up for fetishistic veneration. However, in the same 'Manifesto', one aspect of this national question is highlighted as one of the new features of the avant-garde: linguistic nationalism, expressed in the phrase 'Martín Fierro has faith in our phonetics'.

In its polemic with the social realist literature of the Boedo writers, one of the main theses of Martín Fierro is the difference, in literary terms, between 'Argentines without effort' (members of the Hispano-criollo tradition) and the sons of immigrants. The key to this difference lies in the relationship that each group has with the language, in particular with spoken language and its phonetic variations. Martín Fierro describes the literature of Boedo as being produced by those who have an external relationship with Spanish and therefore need to disguise their foreign pronunciation. Closeness to oral language and its 'natural' acquisition was seen as a condition and a guarantee of Argentine writing. Any relationship with language which was based on the repression of foreign language (brought in by the immigrants) would produce a literature marked by the spurious origins of the writer. It was assumed of course that the 'bad' foreign languages were those spoken by immigrants, since there were 'good' foreign languages that the Hispano-criollo Argentines learned through culture and literature.

In the discourse of Martín Fierro, nationality is considered as a given. But how could this 'national essence' become the stuff of literature? In his review of Borges' book of poetry Luna de enfrente [11] , Leopoldo Marechal points to rhetoric as being an obstacle to language which was spoken and heard: Borges writes his poetry 'in a language beloved to us, because it is the language that we truly speak, unencumbered by the frills of rhetoric.' Oliverio Girondo also considers that linguistic identity is a given and that due to its immediacy it cannot be gained through 'intellectual effort' or any other work that language acquisition presupposes. The question of social origins (which was seen to be so closely tied to the profit motive or to a lack of interest in art) was considered decisive with regard to language. Once again these literary conflicts duplicated and deformed the conflicts of another system: the difference between old Argentines (i.e. sons of traditional families, who had creole or European surnames which had been established in Argentina for decades) and gringos (who had unknown surnames) was renacted in the debates of the avant-garde.

This insistence on the nuances and variations of oral language can be seen as part of a longstanding debate over the nature of language in Argentina: the special features of Spanish spoken in the River Plate. From the first Romantic generation of writers onwards, we find a constant defence of the right of Argentine intellectuals to renovate language and combat any hegemonic pretensions of Spanish spoken in Spain. This theme of linguistic independence was coupled in Martín Fierro, as in the Romantics, with a declaration of the right to 'contaminate' literary language with socially and culturally prestigious foreign languages. The ideal of Gallicised Spanish as the only possible language for Argentines, which Sarmiento defended, the nineteenth century ideal of the polyglot, reappeared in a caustic response by Martín Fierro to the La Gaceta Literaria of Madrid. La Gaceta had suggested that in order to combat the supposed danger of linguistic fragmentation in Hispanic America, that Madrid should become the region's 'intellectual meridian'. Borges scorned this pretension to literary purity, by ironically pointing out that 'Madrid is a city whose only intellectual invention is the Gallicism - at least, in no other part do people speak so much about it'. Borges implies here that although the Spaniards accuse the Argentines of speaking a deformed, Gallicised Spanish, their own linguistic purity is a sign of their obtuseness. They talk a lot about Gallicisms, but do not have the wit or intelligence to use Gallicisms productively.

The discourse of Martín Fierro answers the question as to which people, by their 'natural' relationship with language, can be polyglots: an Argentine polyglot is someone who has the Spanish of the River Plate as a mother tongue: only on the secure basis of these origins can a legitimate polyglotism be constructed. One can read, translate and even write in French or English but the pronunciation of the Spanish determines everything. Only through phonetics, which in the words of Oliverio Girondo, should be as natural as 'lacing up our boots', could one gamble with, and win control over, language.

The debate over language is one chapter in the vast and, for Argentine intellectuals, obsessive question concerning cultural tradition. In the first literary questionnaire organised by Martín Fierro, the definition of a 'national' was given as one who had an 'Argentine sensibility and mentality'. The question of cultural nationalism and by extension, of cosmopolitanism, divided the intellectual field along distinct class lines. The social writers of the Boedo group rarely mentioned the question, or when they did so, it was to accuse the avant-garde of being truly extranjerizante (following foreign models in an unquestioning fashion). The members of Martín Fierro, as well as declaring themselves to be heirs of this 'natural' cultural identity, threw the argument back at Boedo, accusing them of being linguistically and culturally foreign.

In fact, the question of cosmopolitanism should be read as a definition of different positions in a disputed intellectual field: the cosmopolitan is always the other. And in the case of the 1920s avant-garde, cosmopolitans are those who translate different books to those translated and read by the writers of Martín Fierro.


The tradition of the avant-garde


In issue 22 of Martín Fierro, there is a note signed by Oliverio Girondo arguing that a campaign to erect a monument to Jos é Hernández should receive 'the support of every artist without distinction'. The editors of the magazine took up this suggestion with enthusiasm and expanded the argument by setting out the main lines of a tradition of writers who 'have the deepest national roots and in whose work future Argentines will search for, and discover, their spirit and origin'. The names who should make up this tradition are discussed on several occasions. (Borges, for example, suggests Eduardo Wilde, a short story writer and politician of the last third of the nineteenth century.)

But one important link in this tradition, criollismo, appears as its ideological and aesthetic centre. The question of criollismo appears as a constant in Martín Fierro. There is legitimate criollismo and false criollismo, a necessary criollismo and an 'exaggerated' criollismo, superfluous from the point of view of literary language or of plot. It is almost a national Argentine tradition for criollismo to become the centre of a dispute and for one form of criollismo to be supported explicitly against another form. Sergio Piñero in a bibliographical review of Borges' Inquisiciones (Inquisitions) [12] outlines the question in terms similar to those used by Borges himself some years later 'I think that it is not necessary to refer to the lasso, the rodeo or to stallions to be, and to manifest the soul of, a gaucho'. The question asked by the Martinfierrista is what can guarantee a 'true localism' and by extension, who can write a literature in which criollismo is not simply seen as of picturesque or full of local colour.

The avant garde thought that it could 'purify' criollismo of these excesses and, following Borges's lead, invent a new space: urban rather than rural criollismo, criollismo that is set in the orillas, the outskirts of the city, the neighbourhoods far from the centre, with its houses and vast patios, its stores, and the fleeting presence of the campadrito in the door of the tenements. Borges outlines this aesthetic programme in his first three books of poems [13] and in the short story 'Hombres pelearon' ('Men fought') which Martín Fierro published in 1927.


The Aesthetic Principles of Martín Fierro


Over forty years after the end of the Martinfierrista moment, some members of the group agreed that the journal offered a space for an eclectic avant-garde. 'Martín Fierro was a sort of cocktail of the new generation. There was not much selectivity. All tendencies were represented, but the dominant mood was one of superficial aggression' was the view of Brandán Caraffa, who had also edited Inicial. Another participant, the nationalist historian and translator of Virginia Woolf, Ernesto Palacio, added 'It was like that until Ricardo Guiraldes and Oliverio Girondo joined: it was something ambiguous, without many objectives. It was these two writers who brought with them the ferment of literary renovation and made the quest more systematic'. Leopoldo Marechal recalled that there was no unifying aesthetic but rather 'a desire for renovation, a need to update our literature and art'.

The different strands of the Argentine avant-garde, however, shared a common enemy: Lugones and the lackeys of modernismo were unanimously rejected. The poetics of modernismo were, in effect banished to the basement of Argentine letters by the Martinfierristas. In the manifesto of Prisma, written by Borges in 1921, the literary enemy was described in the following terms: as 'the blue tatoo of Ruben Darío, 'ornamental junk' and as 'garrulous anecdotalism'. All this against a literature which was in its time revolutionary, when Ruben Darió had inaugurated the movement in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

The theoretical poverty of the magazine explains why criticism in Martín Fierro was always more primitive than its literary texts. It was a magazine of poets, according to its own contributors, and only Borges and Macedonio Fernández showed that the avant-garde could possibly express itself in prose. Criticism of books reiterated the tenets of the avant-garde (that the public should finally understand and accept modern art, that they should reform their taste, recognise true values and adopt a 'new sensibility'), in a friendly dithyrambic style characteristic of the journals that Martín Fierro abused.

But the journal made one obstinate claim for itself: that it alone was the aesthetic left-wing of the intellectual field, the most revolutionary sector of Argentine literature. This place was disputed by social writers who declared themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, but Martín Fierro dismissed them as literary reactionaries, linked to European groups such as the journal Clart é, directed by Henri Barbusse, who were described as presenting 'the worse aesthetic manifestations of reaction'.

Boedo was placed firmly on the aesthetic right since it adopted a programme of naturalism, which became ultranaturalism 'in its most crude and sordid aspects, trying to stir up in the reader not simple emotion, but horror and disgust' Martín Fierro used the argument that such writing belonged to an 'aesthetic of the archive': naturalism, because of its objectivity, became totally unfeeling. The new literature by contrast 'should gut the dummies of naturalism, and delve into the entrails of all those characters that writers of naturalism offer us in such a superficial way'. The new literature contrasts an 'aesthetic of reproduction' with an 'aesthetic of sensibility'. But the magazine did not present any textual criticism or programme which could really be seen as a radical alternative. In the face of ultranationalist literature they offered only one exceptional text 'Leyenda policial' (Police Story) by Jorge Luis Borges, a 'proto-text' of 'Hombre de la esquina rosada' (Street Corner Man).


Moderate Heroes


The hero of the Argentine avant-garde was a Spaniard: the ultraist writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna. The greguería, a sort of aphorism based on a metaphor, which had been invented by him, was used productively by the Martinfierristas, and Gómez de la Serna was promoted by the two major poets of the magazine, Borges and Oliverio Girondo. In issue 14, Borges publishes an article entitled 'Ramón and Pombo [*] ' in which he compares Gómez de la Serna to different texts and authors. Firstly to Walt Whitman: 'In Whitman, as in Gómez de la Serna, we see all of life. Whitman also expressed a miraculous gratitude for the scale, the tangible nature and the varied colours of things. But Walt's gratitude was satisfied in his enumeration of objects which make up the world, whilst the Spaniard's gratitude is expressed in a series of merry and passionate commentaries on the singularity of each object.' It is significant that it is Borges who is making this comparison: in effect he is proposing his own way of reading. For Borges, Gómez de la Serna is insufficient, although admirable, as a writer until he is taken out of his own context and placed in a new network of readings which include Whitman but also the Celestina, Rabelais and the Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton. Borges also provides the most sophisticated readings of European writers, in a journal that rather predictably published Apollinaire, Val éry Larbaud, Supervielle and Giradoux.

In fact a significant characteristic of Martín Fierro was their neglect of the most radical European avant garde movements. They translated Paul Eluard for the first time when the magazine was about to close, in 1928. Surrealism, whose first manifesto appeared in the same year that Martín Fierro was founded, received only cursory mention in a few notes and in a very condescending article on Soupault. Along with ultraism and Gómez de la Serna, the real leader of the avant-garde, in terms of the space given over to him in the magazine, was Marinetti, who was greeted as a 'great man of action and thought'. Borges never shared this view.

The moderate nature of the Argentine avant-garde is responsible for these attitudes. Ideological barriers prevented it from becoming radicalised and imposed several 'ide és fixes' which were equally moderate. In the first place, they rejected any form of nihilism. Opposition to nihilism was presented in different ways in several key texts. It was necessary, they argued, to work for 'the new' but 'there was no sense in enlisting into the ranks of the iconoclasts'. Thus, the young literati, it was argued, should seek to dislodge preceding generations but they also had a duty to put in place 'new ideals'. Secondly, this avant-garde was concerned to establish a national genealogy in the field of culture, a task which allowed them to attack ferociously some modernistas but which also obliged them to accept the idea of cultural continuity. Finally this moderate attitude led to their criticism of bourgeois philistinism being expressed in exclusively aesthetic terms: they left untouched the moral philistinism, social hypocrisy and sexual, moral and ideological repression of their society. This 'bien pensant' attitude was clearly also linked to the ideological limits of Argentine society and the place of the intellectual elite within this society. Martín Fierro was a modestly radical avant-garde because it did not take up a radical position with respect to social institutions and mores. Its programme - the creation of a literary environment and the reform of sensibility - did not affect the very conditions of existence of the intellectual.

This moderation is seen in their readings of the European avant-gardes and in the system that they constructed from these readings. It is tempting to compare this reading with that made in the same years by the Peruvian Marxist Jos é Carlos Mariátegui. If Marinetti and Gómez de la Serna are the heroes of the Argentine avant-garde, Mariategui thought of futurism as 'the so called avant-garde which was saturated by conservative and provincial elements'. Furthermore surrealism, which, as we have seen, was practically ignored by Martín Fierro was considered by Mariategui as the avant-garde par excellence, both tragic and desperate. The Argentines in this way shared with Spanish ultraism the same mistrust of, and remoteness from, historic vanguard movements.


Synthesis and Tensions


Yet in Martín Fierro a literary formula was developed with its own original combination of elements, which was distinct from ultraism although it included certain aspects of that movement. This formula was expressed in the texts of Borges, but it can also be read in Girondo, and traces of it can be found in certain key articles that are not signed. Here two lines are fused: Gómez de la Serna plus Evaristo Carriego (the minor, popular, local poet to whom Borges would later dedicate a book). This fusion is found even in the homages that Martin Fierro dedicated to certain writers. Number 17 offers a homage to Carriego, number 19 to Gómez de la Serna. In his article 'Concerning Ramón's Arrival' Borges illustrates this synthesis.

"Carriego discovered the conventillos (tenements). Bartolom é Galindez, el Rosedal and I discovered the street corners of Palermo at sunset. Lanuza all the birds ... The entirety of America, however, is still to be discovered and the discover, now is Ramón... We will know everything through him. Through him we will know that the great Southern Cross is nothing more than a poor wake in the barrios (he will tell you of the miracle that your girlfriend will have seen for having such beautiful eyes)... Through him we will know that Yrigoyen will become President again because he is involved with not just the people but also the things of Buenos Aires. All this and much more Ramón will reveal to us; Rámon the man of the radiographic and tyrannical eyes which can only be compared to the eyes of that other conqueror of this America: don Juan Manuel de Rosas. "


Similarly, in a review that Borges writes of Oliverio Girondo's Calcomanias (Decalcomania) we find these two lines coming together, and today we see that this was the real contribution that the avant-garde made to Argentine literature. The fact that Borges put forward this premise more systematically than the rest is due to the density of his system of readings. Ultraism and Walt Whitman, but also Bishop Berkeley and the Thousand and One Nights: these are points of reference which distance him partly, but not completely, from the conventional system of the avant-garde. Other obvious points are his discovery of Macedonio Fernández and his early literary creation of Argentine myths.

But the coexistence in Martín Fierro of elements of different origins also reveals a tension which distorts many of its texts. This tension can also be seen between the writers who contributed to the magazine: on the one side were the directors, in particular Eva M éndez and on the other side came Borges, Oliverio Girondo and Macedonio Fernández. The Martinfierrista discourse is heterogeneous and is based on a system of oppositions and vacillations that were never resolved. One tension links the name of the magazine, a hero of traditional gauchesque poetry, with a programme of aesthetic renovation: cultural nationalism and the avant-garde. But if this is the programme, the heterogeneous proposals that make up this programme might give the magazine its originality, but they also set up a series of unresolvable contradictions. On the one hand there was the national subject, the gaucho Martín Fierro, on the other the European and cosmopolitan tenets of aesthetic renovation. It is certainly true that one part of Borges' work was concerned with resolving these contradictions. He managed to overcome these tensions present in the magazine with a body of work that could be defined as 'avant-garde urban criollismo'.

An affirmation of the new and an adherence to a preexisting cultural tradition; a revindication of what is 'characteristically Argentine', and a cosmopolitan point of view: these are the elements that make up the ideological-aesthetic m élange of the avant-garde in the 1920s. The tension between criollismo and modernity or nationalism and cosmopolitanism can almost be seen as a constant in Argentine culture of this century. All the great debates were organised around these tensions and the contradictions can still be found in the major texts of contemporary literature.



[*] Pombo was one of the nicknames of Gómez de la Serna

[1] .       Prisma published two issues, in December 1921 and March 1922. The journal took the form of a poster which was displayed on the walls of Buenos Aires. It included some poems by Borges Proa, whose editors included Borges and Ricardo G üiraldes, appeared between 1924 and 1926 (issues 1 to 15). Martin Fierro, the most successful and also the most irreverent of the avant garde magazines, published 45 issues between February 1924 and November 1927.

[2] .       The 'generation of the Centenario' refers to a group of writers who came to prominence around 1910, the Centenary of Argentine Independence from the Spanish Crown. Among these was the essayist Ricardo Rojas, who wrote the first history of Argentine literature and the members of the magazine Nosotros, which helped to modernise the cultural field.

[3] .       Founded in 1907 by Roberto Giusti and Alfredo Bianchi, Nosotros described itself as a 'monthly publication of letters, arts, history, philosophy and social sciences'. It published 300 issues, the last of which appeared in December 1934.

[4] .       The ultraist movement was led in Spain, from the 1920s, by Ramón Gómez de La Serna. Its programme affirmed the image as the fundamental element in poetry, the abolition of logical and syntactical links, and the brevity of the poem as a formal proof of the condensation of meaning. Gómez de la Serna composed a special type of humorous aphorism, which he called the greguería, which transferred these poetic principles to prose.

[5] .       Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938) was the greatest Argentine modernista poet. Borges and the avant garde writers felt obliged to debate with Lugones over poetic and aesthetic matters and they called into question his dominant influence of over the culture of the period. It is important to remember that modernismo, in Latin America, is a movement that took place at the end of the nineteenth century, inspired by Parnassianism and French symbolism. It thus predates the avant garde. On Leopoldo Lugones and modernismo, in Argentina, see Chapter 4.

[6] .       Oliverio Girondo (1891-1967) contributed to all the magazines of the Argentine avant-garde. His poety, which was very different to that of Borges, dealt openly with themes drawn from the modern city and the changes in customs and daily life. In 1925 he published two books of poetry: Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía (Twenty Poems to be read on the Tram') and Calcamanías (Decalcomania) which had great success, mixed with scandal.

[7] .       Leopoldo Marechal (1900-1970) was a poet and novelist. In his novel Adán Buenosayres, published in Marechal satirised the vanguard writers of the twenties and thirties, including Borges.

[8] .       Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952) was the grand vieux of the Argentine avant garde. Up to the 1920s, Macedonio, as he was known, had been a marginal and secret writer and his extremely original books began to be published alongside the younger writer. His fragmentary and eccentric work mixes fiction, essays and poetry, with no respect for the traditional boundaries between genres. Borges' devotion to Macedonio is well known.

[9] .       Ricardo G üiraldes (1886-1926) co-founded, with Borges, the magazine Proa and had been at the forefront of aesthetic modernisation before 1920. In his early books, he attempted to overcome the aesthetics of modernismo and of Lugones. His most famous work, the novel Don Segundo Sombra, is a criollo Bildungsroman written from the stand point of the new literary movements. Its immediate success compensated for the years of intellectual ostracism that G üiraldes had previously suffered.

[10] .      This collection included works by Gorky, Andreyiev, Tolstoy, Lenin, Burjarin amongs others.

[11] .      Book of poems published in Buenos Aires in 1925.

[12] .      Book of essays published in Buenos Aires in 1925.

[13] .      Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de enfrente (1925), Cuaderno San Martin (1929).



Former published as: Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. London: Verso, 1993.


© Borges Studies Online 14/04/01

How to cite this chapter:

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 7. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: (