University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Chapter 1


A Landscape for Borges


Buenos Aires in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Every attempt at periodization is controversial, but these decades undoubtedly witness spectacular change. What is in play is not only the aesthetic avant‑gardes and economic modernization, but rather modernity as a cultural style which permeates the fabric of a society that offers little resistance, either politically or socially. The socioeconomic processes which began in the second half of the nineteenth century altered not only the urban landscape and ecology, but also the lived experiences of its inhabitants. Thus, Buenos Aires is interesting both as a physical space and as a cultural myth. The city and modernity presuppose one another because the city is the stage for those changes brought on by modernity: it exhibits them in an ostensible and sometimes brutal fashion, it disseminates and generalizes them.

It is not surprising therefore that modernity, modernization and the city should be seen together in terms of the programmes, values and categories that allow us to describe new physical spaces, and material and ideological processes. In the degree to which Buenos Aires is altered, before the eyes of its inhabitants, with speed attuned to the rhythm of the new technologies of production and transport, the city is perceived as a symbolic and material condensation of change. As such it is both celebrated and judged. A stage on which we pursue the phantoms of modernity, the city is the most powerful symbolic machine of the modern world.

The idea of the city cannot be seen as separate either from the changes caused by modernization or from the fulfillment of other ideas belonging to the nineteenth century institutional projects of Domingo F.Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi.The city has defeated the rural world; immigration from Europe and internal migrations (which became significant from the mid-thirties) offer a new demographic base. Economic progress superimposes its model on reality, especially because the slump and the Depression of the thirties did not affect Argentine development for an extended period. The illusion prevails that the peripheral nature of this South American nation can now be seen as a fluke of its history and not as a feature of its present.

At the same time, the idea of Argentina as the periphery and as a tributary cultural area - a formation that appears monstrous or inadequate when compared to a European model - persists in a contradictory yet not inexplicable fashion. [1] Opposing sentiments:celebration, nostalgia or criticism are scattered through the cultural debates about the city. In the twenties and thirties, moreover, some vigorously political myths are constructed around Buenos Aires.The metaphor of the port‑city, for example, as a voracious centripetal machine which empties the rest of the country, which could not yet consider itself urban even though urbanisation was spreading rapidly. [2] In the twenties and thirties, the desire and the fear of the city occupies a central space in Argentine society and culture.

The desire for the city was as strong, in the Argentine nineteenth century tradition, as the rural utopias. In this sense, the intellectuals of the twentieth century adhere to the paradigm offered by Sarmiento rather than the paradigm of Jos é Hernández, the author of Martín Fierro and champion of the rights of the gaucho.The only exception to this are Ricardo G üiraldes, a cosmopolitan ruralist if this oxymoron may be permitted, and Borges who invented both an image of Buenos Aires and of the Argentine rural past.

The city as an ideal space has been delineated not only in political terms, as may be seen in various chapters of Sarmiento's famous works Facundo or Argirópolis, or just as a stage on which the intellectuals discovered the mixture which defines Argentine culture, but also as an imaginary space which literature invents and inhabits. The city organizes historical debates,social utopias, dreams beyond reach, landscapes of art. To touch the city is equivalent to reaching a territory which has sustained many of our inventions. But, perhaps most important, the city is the stage par excellence for the intellectual, and both the writers and their public are urban actors. [3]


Buenos Aires had grown in a spectacular fashion in the first two decades of the twentieth century.As Walter Benjamin has argued, the modern city makes the flâneur,socially possible, and credible in a literary sense. The flâneur can observe these changes with the anonymous gaze of one who will not be recognised since society is no longer the space of immediate relationships, but has become a space in which relationships are mediated through institutions and through the market.In his journey from the suburbs to the centre, the flâneur crosses a city which has been defined in broad terms, but which still contains many plots of land which have not yet been built upon, wasteland and 'calles sin vereda de enfrente' (streets without the sidewalk opposite), in Borges's felicitious phrase.But by the early thirties the cables of electric wire had replaced the old systems of gas and kerosene.The sky of Buenos Aires was already criss-crossed by telephone wires and the roofs were full of radio aerials, for radio came to Buenos Aires as early as to the United States.Motorised transport, in particular the trams and the trains, had expanded and diversified.The inhabitants of the city lived at unprecedented speed:the experience of speed, the experience of artificial light, and of long distance communications, which would soon give rise to a powerful culture industry, provided a new set of images and perceptions.Those who, like Borges, were older than twenty in 1925 could remember with nostalgia the city at the turn of the century and could confirm the difference.

Technology provided the new machinery for the urban stage; it offered new definitions of space and time:futurist utopias linked to the speed of transport, to electric light which produced a profound break with the rhythms of nature, and to the great enclosed precincts which were another form of street, of market-place and of meeting-place.


This new type of aesthetic‑ideological formation is shown, in the first place, in the mingling of discourses and practices, insofar as the modern city is always heterogeneous because it is defined as a public space.The street is the place, among others, where different social groups wage a war of symbolism.Architecture, urbanism and painting reject the past, correct the present and imagine a new city. The painter Xul Solar [4] , companion of the avant‑garde groups of the twenties and often quoted by Borges, deconstructs plastic figurative space, making it at once abstract and technological, geometric and inhabited by the symbols of a specific magical‑scientific fiction. The aviators drawn by Xul float in planes where flags and insignia mix: here is an extremely elaborate image which may be said as summarise the technical modernization and national diversity of Buenos Aires.

The architectural utopias are also a complex response to the process of transformation. Wladimiro Acosta imagines, between 1927 and 1935, an architectural fiction, the 'city‑block' as an alternative to the truly chaotic growth of Buenos Aires. From another point of view, the intellectual aristocrat Victoria Ocampo became a patroness and Maecenas of architectural modernism and promoted it through her magazine, Sur [5] , which first began publication in 1931.Modernism, for Ocampo, could be seen as an instrument for the purification of taste, indispensable in a city where immigration had left material traces, producing stylistic anarchy of diverse national origins. Modernism would propose a programme of homogenization in face of the stylistic volapuk (heterogeneity) of immigrant origin: its volumes and facades would discipline the street.


The impact of these transformations, which took place in a relatively short period of time, had a subjective dimension:in reality men and women could remember a city that was different to the one in which they were now living.And, furthermore, that earlier city was again different to that of their childhood or adolescence.These people's past underlined what had been lost (or what had been gained) in the modern city of the present.

Buenos Aires had become a cosmopolitan city in terms of its population.What scandalised or terrified the nationalists in 1910, the Centenary of Argentine independence, also influenced the intellectuals of 1920 and 1930:the European imigrants who had began to arrive in the last third of the nineteenth century, now totalled tens of thousands.Even in 1936 there were 36.1% more foreigners than native born in the big cities of the Littoral provinces.From a global perspective they were younger and their women bore more children than Hispanic-criollo women, so that immigrants and sons of immigrants accounted for 75% of total population growth in Argentina.These were sectors that became literate and had access to compulsory primary schooling.They began the hard journey of moving up in society and many of them joined the ranks of intellectuals and journalists.

The space of the great modern city (a model to which Buenos Aires approximated in the twenties and which it consolidated in the thirties) is a stage for national and cultural mixture where, hypothetically, all meetings and borrowings are possible. What we find here, therefore, is a culture defined by the principle of heterogeneity which, in the urban space makes differences extremely visible. In the city, the limits between private and public are constructed and reconstructed incessantly; there the social sphere creates the conditions formixture and produces the illusion, or the effective possibility, of dizzying rises and falls. And if the quick road to fortune makes the city the site for a utopia of upward mobility, the possibility for anonymity converts it, into the preferred, indeed the only possible, place for the flâneur, for the conspirator (who lives his solitude in the midst of other men), for the erotic voyeur who is electrified by the gaze of the unknown woman who passes by.Vice and the breaking of established moral codes are celebrated as the glory or the stigma of the city. The public space loses its sacredness; everyone invades it, everyone considers the street as a common place, where offers are multiplied and at the same time differentiated, where merchandises are displayed, setting up desires which no longer recognizes the boundaries imposed by hierarchy.

But there exists another street, a symbolic space which frequently appears in almost all the Argentine writers of the twenties and thirties, from Oliverio Girondo to Ra úl González Tuñón, via Roberto Arlt and Borges. [6] In the street, time is perceived both as history and as the present. The street is certainly proof of change but it may also become the site where these changes are turned into a literary myth. For the modern street, criss-crossed by electric cables and the rails of the street‑cars, could be denied, as writers looked behind it for the remains of a street which might not yet have been touched by modernization - that imaginary corner of the suburb invented by Borges in the image of 'las orillas', an indeterminate place between the city and the countryside. On the one hand there is the fascination with the down‑town street where aristocrats are as tangible as the prostitutes, where the newspaper‑vendor slips the envelope with cocaine to his clients, where journalists and poets frequent the same bars and restaurants as criminals and Bohemians.On the other hand, there is the nostalgia for the neighborhood street, where the city resists the stigmas of modernity, although the neighborhood itself may have been a product of urban modernization.

Yet the heterogeneity of this public space - which is accentuated in the Argentine case by the new cultural and social mixtures provoked by emphatic demographic change - puts different levels of literary production in contact with each other, establishing an extremely fluid system of aesthetic circulation and borrowing. There is an already vigorous and well‑defined presence of a middle‑brow and popular public, stratified socially, ideologically and politically. By the mid 1930s the rate of illiteracy in Buenos Aires was only 6.64%.Here was a social space in which there was a great potential reading public which included many of the popular sectors.For this new public, mass circulation books, serial novels and magazines were produced, covering a range of tastes from literature 'for pleasure and consolation' to explicit didactic and social propaganda.Successful publishing houses like Claridad undertook print-runs of between ten and twenty five thousand copies, publishing a little bit of everything:European fiction, philosophical and political essays, science for a popular audience, poetry.These cheap books fill the shelves of the poor reader.They are geared to a new public, giving it a literature that was morally responsible, pedagogically useful and accessible both intellectually and economically.This type of publishing-house built up a reading public which, thanks also to a new type of journalism, was forever changing and expanding.Two large newspapers, Críticaand El Mundo began publication in 1913 and 1928 respectively.The distinguishing feature of this new journalism for middle-class and popular sectors were a new rhythm, brief articles, unusual news items, crime reports, sport and cinema, sections dedicated especially to women, to daily life, to children; cartoons and a great emphasis on graphic material.But these newspapers also offer employment to writers new to the intellectual field and even to those of patrician origin, such as Borges, who ran the colour supplement of Crítica for a short period.The new journalism and the new literature had many points of contact and were together responsible for the establishment of a modern form of professional writer as well as consolidating the reading preferences of the new public.Here was a culture that was becoming more democratic in production, distribution and consumption.


A reformist and eclectic Left also established institutions for cultural dissemination - popular libraries, lecture halls, publishing houses, magazines - aimed at those sectors which remained on the margins of "high" culture. The questions of internationalism and social reform are posed in terms of a process of education for the labouring masses who are gradually becoming incorporated into a democratic and secular culture.In literary terms, this implies offering a series of translations principally from Russian and French realism) and a poetics of humanitarianism.

The magazines in the style of Caras y Caretas (which first appeared towards the end of the previous century) became modernised, articulating discourses and information of a different sort, that tended to present an integrated symbolic world in which cinema, literature, popular music, articles on daily life, fashion and comic strips all had a place. The sentimental feuilletons and the magazines map out a horizon of desire, offer models for pleasure, and work for and on a public which is beginning to consume literature.Partially through this medium, and also under the powerful spell of silent films, this public can dream the modern dreams of cinema, fashion, cosmopolitan comfort, the universe of the large department stores, shopping displays, fashionable restaurants, and dance halls.This newsstand literature is based on pleasure, the pleasure of eroticism, of sentimentalism and of daydreaming. Those who produce this culture also intermix and contribute both to the expansion of the system and also to its instability: cultural borrowings, and influences, and texts that move between different cultural levels from 'high' culture to 'low' culture, are all offered to a public which is also culturally diverse.

But this very heterogeneity is disturbing. The large modern newspapers, the magazines, radio, cinema, variety shows and theatre are addressed to different publics, demonstrating in the cultural sphere the social differences between old criollos, immigrants and sons of immigrants.The coexistence of these different groups awakens nationalisms and xenophobia, and reinforces a feeling of nostalgia for a city which is no longer the same after 1920, if it is measured against the images of the most recent past.

Buenos Aires may be viewed with a retrospective gaze which puts into focus a past more imaginary than real (as is the case with the early Borges) or may be discovered in the emergence of a working‑class and popular culture, formed under the influence of cinema and radio and organized by a rapidly developing cultural industry. Capitalism has profoundly changed the urban space and made the cultural system more complex.This complexity begins to be lived not only as a disturbing issue but also as an aesthetic theme, rife with the conflict of programmes and poetic theories which fuel the battles of modernity.Humanitarian realism is opposed to the avant-garde, but discourses with different functions are also opposed to one another (journalism against fiction, politics versus the general essay, the written word as against the cinematographic image).

The debates concerning the establishment of a cultural canon span the literary magazines.The old criollos are not ready to admit that a literary language might also be produced by writers whose parents had not been born in Argentina, whose accent gave them away as immigrants from the suburbs and outskirts of the city.The cultural and ideological complexity of the period is the product of these different influences and of the mixture of different discourses from Cubist painting or avant‑garde poetry to tango, cinema, modern music or the jazz‑band.

The heterogeneity of discourses from advertising to journalism, from poetry to Trivialliteratur, from radio soap operas to cinema melodrama forces literature itself out of its isolation; literature would now seek to include these different influences.Roberto Arlt is a case in point.The link between his novels and the feuilleton have been discussed at length by critics. Yet Arlt shows his relationship not just to 'elite' literature but also to the new texts and practices of science, chemistry, physics, and of those simulacra of popular science which then circulated in Buenos Aires as hypnotism, mesmerism, telepathic transmission and the like. Arlt's writing, or the desires of his characters, cannot be understood, if some reference is not made to this 'lore of the poor', picked up in cheap manuals, in the popular libraries which operated in all the neighborhoods, in the workshops of hair‑brained inventors who had experienced the blinding illumination of electricity, the fusion of metals, galvanization, and magnetism.

On the other hand, Arlt's futuristic vision of the city could not have been written without the impact of new forms of representing the urban stage, especially through films. The Buenos Aires that he puts forward seems to share the nightmarish quality of the city portrayed in the Expressionist films that, in the nineties thirties, were shown in Buenos Aires. Arlt visits the city as no one before him. He goes to the prisons and hospitals, he criticizes the sexual habits of lower middle‑class women and the institution of marriage, he denounces the selfishness of the petit bourgeoisie and the ambition which corrupts the rising middle‑sectors, he stigmatizes the stupidity which he uncovers in the bourgeois family.

Arlt's practice of mixing and transforming different elements can be seen in a more general perspective: the formation of the writer through non‑traditional modes which include, at their centre, journalism and different versions of popular culture. Both influences, which originate in the new industrial culture, presuppose the emergence of non‑traditional publics and, as a consequence, new ways of reading and establishing genres.

The new urban landscape, the modernisation of the means of communication, the impact of these processes on customs and habits, offer a framework and a series of challenges for intellectuals.In the course of a very few years, intellectuals had to process in their own lived experience changes which affected traditional relationships, forms of producing and disseminating culture, styles of behaviour, ways in which the literary canon was established and the organisation of institutions.Social conflicts cast their shadow over cultural and aesthetic debates.The questions of language (who speaks and writes an 'acceptable' Spanish untainted by foreign influences introduced by the immigrants), of cosmopolitanism (what is a legitimate internationalism and what is a perversion of the nation) and of criollismo (which forms can be incorporated into a new aesthetic and which are merely picturesque and folkloric deviations) are some of the topics included in the debate.At the same time, there is always an assessment of the past couched in nostalgic or in critical terms.

In Europe, the process of modernity is characterized by a position of relative independence with respect to the past, which Carl Schorske describes as a growing indifference: the past is no longer seen in terms of functional continuity. Schorske refers to a 'death of history', as a necessary precondition for the establishment of modernity as a global discourse and as a hegemonic practice in the literary and cultural spheres: the victory of Nietzsche. [7] But, in the case of Borges and many of the Argentine avant-garde writers, there is a clear attempt to give the past a new function.It is the case that the severity of the break with cultural traditions is related to the force that these traditions exert.The break will be more radical in a society where modern forms of intellectual relations are already firmly rooted, where aesthetic and ideological fractions and parties have been formed, and where there are clear disputes over the canon, over symbols and authorities.When faced with a strong, consolidated tradition, confrontation appears as a necessary strategy from the point of view of new artists and new poetics. In Argentine culture, this general relationship with the past, is given a specific form in thereading and imaginary recuperation of a culture which seemed to have been affected by immigration and urbanization.

Furthermore, in Argentina as in other Latin American countries, there is a difference between the forms of artistic modernity, which stress autonomy, and the forms of the avant‑garde break, which seek a public stage for artistic conflicts.Also the process of cultural modernization, carried out in the twentieth century, is centrally concerned with the programmes of humanism and the left. For for the avant‑garde 'the new' offers the basis for establishing aesthetic value, whilst for the intellectuals of the left this basis must be found in, reform, revolution or any other form of a transformational utopia.In these conditions, modernity can be revealed in the processes of change in the basic foundations of cultural practices.

Political, aesthetic and cultural ideologies confront one another in this debate which has Buenos Aires as its stage and, frequently, as its protagonist. The modern city is a privileged space where the concrete and symbolic forms of a culture in the process of transformation are organized in the dense network of a stratified society. These social differences were represented or distorted in the intellectual field and were present in both institutional and aesthetic conflicts. Intellectuals felt that the battles being waged in the cultural field were important chapters in a process in which, somehow, the future was at stake. They produced different reactions to this heterogeneity; some defended a spiritual elite which might purify or, at least,denounce the artificial and corrupt nature of Argentine society. Others resorted to myths and images of the past which might serve to restructure current relationships, which often led to the invention of a past.Others still recognised the present as diverse and hoped that it would be possible, through that diversity, to construct a culture.

Affected by change, immersed in a city which was no longer that of their infancy, obliged to recognize the presence of men and women who, by being different, destroyed any notions of an original unity, and considering themselves to be different to the literary elites of Spanish‑criollo origin, the intellectuals of Buenos Aires attempted to respond to, in a figurative or a direct manner, the main question of the day.How to accept or to obliterate the differences in lived experience, in values and in practices? How to construct a hegemony for the process in which they all participated, amidst the conflicts and uncertainties of a society in transformation? The answers to these questions that were formulated in the twenties and thirties, remained relevant until at least the 1950s.This was a period of uncertainties, but also of great certainties, of rereadings of the past and of utopias in which the representations of the future and of history collided in texts and polemics.The culture of Buenos Aires was driven forward by 'the new', although many intellectuals also lamented the irreparable nature of change.Modernity is a stage for restorative fantasies but also for loss, which brings with it feelings of nostalgia.


[1] . The discourse of the essay in the thirties and forties would have as one of its main themes this notion of 'monstrosity' which emerged from modernization and which, for its authors, would not have been a necessary companion to modernity in Europe. Ezequiel Martinez Estrada sets out in Radiografía de la Pampa (1933) his criticisms of a nation which has not responded to the promises and dreams of its 'founding fathers'.Massive immigration left in Argentina only a degraded image of Europe (which had already been anticipated by the Spanish conquest conceived of as a rape); Buenos Aires is a mask which merely succeeds in showing in a too evident way the failure of civilization in America.Less pessimistic, Eduardo Mallea's Historia de una pasión argentina, 1937 shows astonishment in the face of the great city but, at the same time, imagines that the visible and material city covers another invisible reality on whose values Argentinian culture should be founded.

[2] . Ra úl Scalabrini Ortiz, in the 1930s, began his task of denouncing the economic destruction of Argentina by British imperialism which, by setting out the pattern of the railway network, was alleged to have deformed the national territory and to have converted Buenos Aires into the area where all the riches produced by the relegated provinces unjustly flowed. The works of Scalabrini Ortiz had a powerful impact on the constitution of nationalist ideologies and myths which, decades later, would come together in Peronism.

[3] . For Jos é Luis Romero this productivity of the urban (and of the urban elites) is one of the main features of the cultural and institutional tradition of Latin America. See: Latinoam érica; las ciudades y las ideas, M éxico 1976.

[4] . See: Xul Solar; 1887‑1953, Paris 1977. Prologue by Aldo Pellegrini.

[5] . See John King, Sur: a Study of the Argentine Literary journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture; 1931-1970, Cambridge 1986.

[6] . Oliverio Girondo, Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía, in Obras Completas, Buenos Aires 1990; Ra úl González Tuñón, El violín del diablo, Buenos Aires 1926 and Mi ércoles de ceniza, Buenos Aires 1928; Jorge Luis Borges, Poemas (1922‑1943), Buenos Aires 1943; Roberto Arlt, El juguete rabioso, Los siete locos, Los lanzallamas, and El amor brujo, in Obras completas, Buenos Aires 1981.

[7] . See Carl Schorske, 'The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler', in Oscar Handlin and John Burchard (eds.), The Historian and the city, Cambridge (Mass.) 1963.


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. 1. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: