University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Chapter 8
Utopia and the Avant Garde

The New as a Foundation


"Sweet yearning" does not delight our spirits and we would like to see all things in their first flowering. And while wandering through this unique, dazzling night, whose magnificent gods are the august reflections of golden lights, like Solomonic genies, imprisoned in glass cups, we would like to feel that everything in the night is new and that that moon which rises behind a blue building is not that eternal circular arena over which the dead have performed so many rhetorical exercises, but a new moon, virginal, aurorally new.' (Borges, 'On the margins of the modern aesthetic')

This strange statement by Borges published in the magazine Grecia, in Seville in 1920, despite its fin de si ècle style, expresses some of the spirit of renewal that, soon afterwards would be reflected in the magazines Prisma, Proa, and Martín Fierro. If every literary movement develops in relation to an aesthetic and ideological context which legitimates it (for example through tradition, nationality, the social, the notion of beauty as an autonomous instance), the young writers made the 'new' the foundation of their literature and of the opinions that they formed about their predecessors and contemporaries.

The spirit of 'the new' is at the centre of literary ideology and defines the aesthetic conjuncture of the avant-garde. This desire to be seen as different distanced it, as we have seen, not only from Leopoldo Lugones and modernismo, or from realism, but also from the structure and organisation of intellectual institutions at the beginning of the 1920s. When Borges goes back to Buenos Aires, when Girondo publishes Veinte poemas para ser leidos en el tranvía (Twenty Poems to be Read on the Tram), the state of the cultural field can be summed up in the desperation of G üiraldes whose books, based on symbolist aesthetics, had been completely ignored by the critics. The social elite (to which G üiraldes belonged) considered his work extravagant and tasteless. A rapid glance at La Nación, the most important daily paper of the period, reveals that the processes of cultural modernisation, in particular in Argentina, receive only scant mention in its pages. The references to books and to art, which frequently appear, cannot be seen as a coherent critical discourse. They are, instead, short introductory notes which include questions or entire poems from the books under discussion; comptes rendus of exhibitions put on in Buenos Aires; commentaries on contemporary local or European culture, highlighting precisely those writers and groups that the avant-garde despised. It is in the cinema section that we find some comments which show an awareness of cultural renovation (references to Griffiths and Pabst, articles on set design or on the relationship between cinema and politics). The same can be said of the notes on foreign theatre signed in the main by Lugn é Poe and Zacconi. This extremely fragmented information is registered on long wave, which could pick up very few new voices from Europe.

Ten years later, N éstor Ibarra, a fellow traveller of the young avant-garde writers, described this early period:

'Jorge Luis Borges returned to his country in 1921. What can I say about the state of poetry then? Nothing could be more neutral or sluggish, nothing could be closer to decadence and death. The great Lugones had already given, twelve years earlier, of his best. Enrique Banchs in 1911 had offered almost his final word in La urna (The Urn), which contains some of the strongest sonnets in our language: innovatory in its themes and eternal in its sensibility. Carriego was copied and diluted many times; the most famous name was that of the prolific and minor sencillista* [1] poet Fernández Moreno. But these values were either accepted or ignored, they were almost never questioned or discussed; poetry, and in general, literature and art, was the most boring and incidental aspect of the life of the country'. [1]

Ibarra, an intelligent reader of Borges and a gentle critic of ultraism, sets out the problems faced by what he called 'the modern' in the Argentine cultural field. His descriptions coincide with Martín Fierro's commentaries on cultural institutions, the system of literary prizes, commercial theatre and criticism in newspapers. The feeling of discontent covered several areas: the preeminence of writers who had reached the end of their creative potential around the time of the Centenario; the myopia of the critics who were not receptive to the new tendencies; the eclecticism of cultural journals, above all Nosotros; the way in which cultural institutions were organised; the reading habits and preferences of the public.

This spirit of renovation is expressed through a series of grievances and protests. The young writers attacked the positions held by the great writers of the turn of the century, the poetics they defended and the authority with which they were invested. And they attacked the style of journals and daily newspapers which formed the tastes of the reading public. The aesthetic context described by Ibarra corresponds to the first quarter of this century. In opposition to this situation there emerged a somewhat diffuse but sufficiently powerful literary formation, which caused an important change in this institutional framework, including the major daily papers.

It was necessary to break with the eclecticism of the magazine Nosotros, which had been published continually for some twenty years, and with La Nación. Intolerance and belligerence replaced the tolerance and conviviality that had characterised the relationship between intellectuals up to that moment. The winds of change caused divisions and polemics: this was the style of the avant-garde, which marked it out as distinct from Nosotros. All the actors in the cultural field were forced to take up new positions, because their hegemony was being seriously questioned and because the growing prominence of avant-garde writers threatened to overthrow the established order: the 'new' came to reorganise the system of intellectual hierarchies. In 1930, Ibarra could single out Martín Fierro as the driving force behind this movement.

'Non stop activity and chaos, daring and independence, with no system and no serenity, Martín Fierro will remain forever as a witness to a great literary period in Argentina (....). Thanks to Martín Fierro, literature has greater autonomy, is held in higher regard, and operates in a field which is less ungrateful than before'. [2]

When contemporaries talk of Martín Fierro, they refer to a cluster of magazines of the period, known generically as Martín Fierro, since that magazine offered the most thorough expression of the avant-garde break. But Ibarra goes further, arguing that Martín Fierro completed the process of making the aesthetic sphere autonomous, a project that had begun with modernismo, but had not been concluded in the years of the first cultural nationalist debates, around 1910. It is interesting to note what values underpin this process of increasing autonomy. The avant-garde defended autonomy not merely in the name of beauty but more particularly in the name of 'the new': the new could settle the question of legitimacy. It was not a minor part of their programme, but rather its structuring principle. And because the new was intransigent, the avant-garde asserted a maximalist position.

The concept of the new was in itself sufficient to draw up the battle lines in the intellectual field, but it was not the only aspect of the avant-garde programme. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the national-criollo content of the avant-garde and its moral moderation distinguished it from other contemporary movements in Latin America. But nationalism, in this period, was filtered through the lens of 'the new'. Borges often debates the nature of acceptable and unacceptable criollismo, the way in which certain forms, in their adherence to local colour, are products of the past and other forms, in their rejection of such 'localism' are formal-aesthetic inventions grounded in the new. For him good and bad criollismo can be differentiated according to aesthetic values.

'The new' is also a judgement on the public which the avant-garde deliberately divided, unlike magazines such as Nosotros which had always sought to make homogeneous and unify the reading public. Martín Fierro insulted the 'hippopotamic' and 'honourable' public, marking out for themselves an exclusive space far from the all embracing Nosotros. The magazine Poesía published a letter from Macedonio Fernández to its editor, which laid out an aesthetic of negativity, which was opposed to pleasure, and by extension opposed to the reading public.

'For this reason I give the name of 'culinary' to any art that makes use of sensory images just for the sake of pleasure itself and not as a means towards expressing certain emotions. Thus all versification is culinary in its rhythm, in its harmony, in its onomatopoeia and in the sonorous nature of its words and the rhythm of its accents.' [3]

Macedonio Fernández lays out clearly those elements of the avant-garde programme which would lead to a fragmentation of the public. If modernismo and the decadent movement had made great use of the sensory, the avant-garde sought to destroy it. While modernismo had sought to increase readership, the avant-garde deliberately limited the field and saw comprehensibility as a negative value. These aesthetic strategies affected literary production and also the receptivity and the expectations of readers.

Alberto Hidalgo, the Peruvian poet who played an active part in the skirmishes of the Argentine avant-garde set out, in a long text which appears as a prologue to his book of poetry Simplisimo, a number of ways of reading which presuppose (or demand) a public prepared to engage with quite complex issues, in marked contrast to the 'spontaneity' of reading modernista and postmodernista works. He develops a poetics of 'pauses', with a strong prescriptive element, since these pauses define the meaning of the poem rather more than the words themselves:

'In Simplismo, the pauses have an unexpected importance. The pauses because something like intervals. One cannot do without them in the reading if one wants to experience fully the poetic instant that flows from each verse independent of the global harmony of the poem. The pause is not a typographical expedient but rather a psychological state. At times it is more important than the line that precedes it.' [4]

Let us imagine this reading public which is warned to keep away from a book because it does not contain cheap thrills; whose tastes are considered as part of a culinary, antiartistic dimension of literature, who are told to mock Lugones, as Borges does brilliantly on numerous occasions, who are told how to read, and told that the blank spaces on a page are more significant than words: we are dealing, of course, with a future public, one which is constructed in one of the most successful operations of twentieth century Argentina culture.

In this sense, the avant-garde is radical and optimistic. It does not share the social aspirations of humanitarian writers or those of the left; its optimism is based on what Adorno called the 'historically ineluctable'. The left envisaged a public that had to be educated, or heralded a public who could become readers through their own social development. If the workers cannot read us yet, state Ra úl González Tuñon, 'there are intellectuals, artists, journalists, painters, teachers and students who desire the transformation of society'. [5] Both these attitudes were attempts to establish left-wing intellectual foundations. The avant-garde shared this concern to oppose the philistines (a term often used by Martín Fierro), the pompiers and the traditionalists who did not want to run the risk of an art which did not wallow in feelings. It supported instead the new readers who shared the imagination of their chosen writers. In this way, the avant-garde of the 1920s is not interested in pedagogy: rather than educating, it sought to demonstrate, to issue proclamations, and to provoke.

For the avant-garde, the 'new' is located in the present; for the left, the 'new' is a promise for the future. Thus their value systems were different: whilst the left thought that social transformations or revolution were the main pillars of their artistic practices, the avant-garde considered that it embodied new values that it could define and carry out. The pedagogic left worked in the long term whilst the radicalised left placed itself in the orbit of the revolutionary cycle. The avant-garde was a utopia which transformed existing aesthetic relations: it offered the luminous and instantaneous establishment of the new.

For this reason, the avant-garde was so actively engaged in transforming the cultural context and its tactics appeared so extreme. The avant-garde confronted the other fractions of the intellectual field and established what they considered to be a dividing line between old and new. Hidalgo, Huidobro and Borges, in the prologues that they wrote for the Indice de la nueva poesía americana. (Index of the New American Poetry, 1926), considered themselves to be on the other side of the line, at a zero point in the history of poetry. Huidobro dedicated his prologue, in a characteristic pose that he repeated in each one of his manifestos, to a declaration of his own importance as an avant-garde creator. Borges declared modernismo to be dead and buried: 'Rubenism is exhausted, at last, thank God.' Hidalgo repeated the attack on modernismo, finding value only in Jos é María Hidalgo, after whom, 'nothing important happened until Huidobro appeared' as the founder of ultraism. One year earlier, in the prologue to Simplismo mentioned above, Hidalgo had offered his own periodization for the history of poetry. He established a 'troglodyte era' between Homer and Victor Hugo, which included Darío, followed by a break caused by Rimbaud, followed by the avant-garde which could be summed up, logically, in his own work. These delirious moments are an integral part of the foundational impulse of the avant-garde, and of the force and conviction of its programme which has 'the new' at its centre.

The Index of New American Poetry must be read as a manifestation, under the guise of an anthology, of the avant-garde utopia: these are texts that change the aesthetic conjuncture. One could argue whether or not they are all part of a homogeneous programme. Perhaps not, despite the heavy handed way in which Hidalgo dealt with those writers which he excluded. Girondo, for example, is not included in the anthology, because Hidalgo declares that he has left out any imitators of Gómez de la Serna. Arbitrary and somewhat odd, the Index can be read as a statement of poetic art and also as the realisation of a desire: the exclusions and inclusions together make up a literary map which establishes its legitimacy in the face of tradition, whilst it tries at the same time to exclude this tradition. It changed literary relations, supported aesthetic principles and gave examples of what writing should be from that time hence. In the anthology there are writers who, in the words of Borges, must first carry out a work of destruction:

'Before beginning any explanation of the latest aesthetic, it is necessary to unmask the Dario-isms and anecdotalism of current literary practices which we, as ultraist poets, seek to expose and abolish.'

The Index is also an expression of this avant-garde aesthetic in the emphasis it places on two complementary themes: urban modernity and the recuperation of a past or imagined Buenos Aires. Eduardo Gónzalez Lanuza developed the first of these themes not just in the title of the poems he included ('Instantaneous', 'A motor car poem', 'An elevator poem', which Hidalgo also celebrated), but in the perspective he offered of the urban landscape. In 'There are distant places fifty metres away', the modern city is seen to alter the experience of space, in images that also occur in painting: 'dislocated landscapes/flee round the corners'. Space is modified because speed becomes a principle of the perceptive system and of representation. The same is true of noise which did not appear in earlier poetry: 'words hang from the cables/hooters, squealing, voices'. Jazz is a central theme: 'When the jazz-band of the angels/plays the fox trot of the Last Judgment'... A cubist decomposition of the urban continuum, the impact of modernity on the system and forms of perception, the confusion of the 'natural' contact between man and his surroundings, the construction of new images out of this amalgam of fragmentary allegories: all these are themes of the new poetry.

Another theme is that of the lost city which the literature of the period, and especially the work of Borges, invents or reconstructs. Borges went back to Buenos Aires bearing the good news of ultraism; at the same time he was working with both literary and emotional aspects of the past. His poetry is part of an aesthetic, a sensibility and an urban landscape experiencing a rapid process of change. His system of perceptions and memories link him to the past; his poetic project, on the other hand, is linked to 'the new'. He worked under the influences of aesthetic renewal and urban modernisation and produced a mythology which contained premodern elements but which was filtered through aesthetic and theoretical avant-garde principles. In terms of topology, he brought the margins to the centre of the Argentine cultural system and established a new set of relations between the themes and the forms of poetry. He established in Argentina the avant-garde usage of oral language, which in these years was represented by the images of ultraism. He established the centrality of the margins.

The poems printed in the Index demonstrate different avant-garde tendencies of the 1920s, not only because they use the rhetorical system of cubism and ultraism, but also because, as a body of work, they show the force of the new ideologemes of urban modernisation and aesthetic renewal in their most intransigent phase. But this Argentine avant-garde does not place experimentation at the centre of its concerns, unlike Huidobro or the Brazilians. Its main intervention in the aesthetic field is the assertion of its difference to modernismo: and its originality can be found in the blend of ultraism and urban poetry.

The publication of the Index of New American Poetry is one of the cultural confrontations of the twenties. The poems are the pragmatic demonstration of a conflict that could not be resolved through pragmatic means alone. The newness of the avant-garde (including its new version of criollimo) was outlined in successive programmes and manifestos. This explains Borges' incisive interventions in Martín Fierro and Proa, the aggressiveness of González Lanuza, the attacks by Leopoldo Marechal on rhyme and rhythms, the laments by Ricardo Guiraldes over his solitary past and his gentle friendship with the young writers, the cult status of Macedonio Fernández, the militancy of Oliverio Girondo and the vital nature of Norah Lange.

In these years, as never before, Argentine writers produced many explanatory and polemical texts which, in the relative unanimity of their themes and outlook, can be seen as a programme of 'the new'. The main outlines of this programme can be found in Hidalgo, Macedonio, Borges and González Lanuza and in the unsigned commentaries published by the little magazines. These are the years of attacks on the literary establishment: there are many discussions about the value system of these others, the old men, the followers of Lugones or Ruben Darío, the postromantics. There is also a exposition of the value system of the new poetry.

The fractions of the intellectual field articulated in this period different ideas, which would become the major concerns of later years: the 1930s developed the tendencies of the 1920s. Intellectual concerns were more complex and diverse than the relatively small number of issues that had been debated by the first cultural nationalist groups of the Centenario. From both an ideological and an aesthetic point of view, the writers established new literary foundations. On the question of cultural identity, that had so obsessed previous generations, the avant-garde groups considered that the concept of 'the new' was sufficiently powerful to assert its hegemony. At the same time however, from the standpoint of the new, they articulated a different cultural nationalism. The great changes in culture in the period are related to changes in the foundations of the value system, that is to say, in the different answers to the question: 'What legitimises a cultural practice, making it superior or preferable to other practices?'

In 1930, when Ibarra gave a fairly balanced and critical account of ultraism (giving Borges a central role in this movement), he added a comment on the ideological-aesthetic blend that I have called 'avant-garde urban criollismo'.

'This artistic nationalism is, moreover, very modern - perhaps the only really modern aspect of our spirit... This growing and organised intellectual nationalism is having a great influence on our young writers. The great apostle of criollismo is, as we know, Jorge Luis Borges. His criollismo, and he is the only writer to define it in a structured and non verbose fashion, defines literary criollismo in general: neither Lugones nor Carlos de la P úa nor Jijena Sánchez can provide any argument or any work of art to counter him.' [6]

This invention of Borges puts into play an important aspect of 'the new' and it also offers a re-reading of tradition which becomes possible through Borges' blending of the avant-garde with his reformulation of the importance of foreign literatures.

But other definitions of 'the new' were circulating and being discussed in Buenos Aires. With the work of Huidobro, the avant-garde advanced an 'anti-content' position which affirmed the radical autonomy of art: the poet adds to the world a dimension which in any other way, would have been unthinkable. Newness, as Huidobro never tired of repeating, was not to be found in the theme 'but in the way in which this theme is produced' [7] Newness is formal as Borges saw when he supported an aesthetic of refraction in place of an aesthetic of mimesis:

'There are, therefore, only two aesthetics: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms' [8] . And Macedonio accepted only one valid definition of literature: 'The state of literary beauty should not contain (1) any instructive element or information (2) any sensory aspects (3) any aim other than itself.' Macedonio occupies the most extreme point in this discussion, due to his philosophical antinaturalism, his idea that 'emotion' is a mental construction totally devoid of any "notions" of pleasure as an objective or as an end in itself.

Through such resistance to the positions of romantic and postromantic poetry, the writing of poetry becomes a formal operation. The avant-garde is, in this sense, anti psychological and anti-expressive. Borges puts it thus, anticipating his later construction of the poetic 'I' as a tissue of different voices.

'Lyric poetry has, until now, done nothing except oscillate between the search for auditory or visual effects and the urge to express the personality of its maker. The first of these should be the concern of painting or music, the second is based on psychological error, since personality, the 'I', is only a broad collective term which embraces the plurality of all the different states of consciousness. Any new state which is added to the others becomes an essential part of this I, and expresses it: both from within and without. Any event, any perception, any idea, expresses us with equal power, it can be added to us... Overcoming this useless and obstinate desire to fix in words a vagabond I, which is transformed every second, ultraism upholds the central principle of all poetry: that is, to transform the palpable reality of the world into an interior and emotional reality.'

In terms of its programme, the argument has moved forward in two ways: it is against the sensory aspects of modernismo and the decadents, and against the emotive nature of late romanticism and the psychologism of the realists and the naifs. Macedonio's definition of art as anti-naturalist is combined with the notion of art as a process. These definitions appeared in all the manifestos of the period and Borges gives them a theoretical density in the first issues of the literary journal Sur, in the early 1930s.

As programmes, the theories of the avant-garde could be partially modified in practice. However, their formulations mark out the universe of what is desirable: they operate as true utopias, putting into play, in the literary field, the past, with which they must break, the present, which must be reconstructed in a total way, and the future horizon of the 'new', the attainment of which occupied all their ideological and aesthetic forces. Literary practices found a sense of the future in these excessive and polemical programmes: they offered the foundations for transformation.

The utopia of the avant-garde had a force which was not just literary. The manifestos and the polemics stirred up a strong reaction from members of other groups in the intellectual field. These manifestos are the avant-garde, as much as the poems themselves, because they demonstrate the absolute and anticonciliatory nature of the 1920s process of aesthetic renovation. These manifestoes declare: 'We, the young writers, support only 'the new' and we will not permit other sectors of society to set the standards for our work.' In this way, they adhered in a radical fashion to the notion of autonomy, stating that the basis of their work is to be found in the work itself, even in work that has not yet been written. They seem to place themselves outside society and yet it is society, and their place within it, that makes their programme possible. 'The new' is defended precisely by those who are sure of their past, who can refer back to tradition and reaffirm this tradition as if it were a family album. Those who support the new are not the recent arrivals to the country. These recent arrivals, it was felt, defended ethical or ideological principles outside the realms of literature and they needed to establish foundations in order to be accepted as legitimate intellectuals.

The utopia that can be read in these avant-garde programmes functions like all utopias: it expands the limits of the possible, confronting the aesthetic and institutional legitimacy of those who cannot think outside certain well-prescribed limits. Freeing literature from its socio-ideological confines, they adopt a position far removed from the surrealist project, which took art to the very limits of life. On the contrary, these avant-garde writers of the 1920s separated life and literature, although a new version of the national question can be read in their texts.


The Case of the Magazine Proa

In August 1924, Proa was reissued in a new format. On 7 September, La Nación mentioned this fact with a careful, or disconcerted, lack of commentary. It transcribed, without comment, part of Proa's editorial and listed the editors and contributors. When La Nación commented on books by the young ultraistas, they merely announced that they had been published and transcribed certain fragments. Obviously Proa would present difficulties for that newspaper for Proa declared itself as a voice which would be heard and understood by its equals and its contemporaries.

The collective text which appears on the first page of the magazine, signed by the editors Borges, Brandán Caraffa, Guiraldes and Rojas Paz, is a definition of their image, their proposals, their alliances and their hopes. It is a canonical statement which lays out its programme for aesthetic renewal. Conscious of its generational status, the magazine declared that its writers had no truck with the old masters and noted that the First World War had overturned all the old structures and institutions. The war made it 'possible for the first time in this country for a generation to be formed on the margins of the canonical institutions of society'. [9] This attitude would profoundly affect the way in which literary value would be judged, since the magazine did not call upon the great names of the earlier generation to legitimate new writers. Perhaps for the first time in Argentine cultural history, such judgements would be made among equals. The intellectual field was thus split between those who supported change and those who adhered to a continuation of the old order. The first of these groups did not have much power until Prisma, Inicial, Martín Fierro and Proa appeared. These magazines and the activities of their contributors gave rise to what Girondo called the 'united front', a focus of intellectual initiatives which also aspired to influence wider currents in Latin America:

'Recently Oliverio Girondo took with him the first fruits of our labour. It had been possible to resolve all the conflicts that had previously separated the main little magazines and form a united front. And Girondo went as an ambassador to try to promote intellectual exchange and to visit the principle Latin American centres of culture.' [10]

Proa's mode of presentation offers nothing new: it uses ritual formulae of collective identification. Another aspect of this first text, however, seems to me more interesting. We find aesthetic and ideological influences in Proa which does not appear in Martin Fierro: these are the traces of a spirit still influenced by Arielism* [2] and by the new morality among young people that came out of the University Reform, that vast student movement which in 1918 had imposed drastic changes on the teaching system and the running of the university. [11] The editors of Proa consider that its publication is part of a 'collective duty' levied on a generation which had been liberated by the war from their mentors and which sought to extend that 'first shaft of illumination, the University Reform'.

Proa, in much the same way as the Reform movement had an outlook which was characterised by spirituality, a spirit of renovation and youthfulness. It is different to Martín Fierro in that it does not carry out literary feuding in its pages. Proa has an explanatory and reasoned tone, although Borges' contributions often display radical and incisive ideas. The moderate style of Proa is linked to the reformist tenor of its presentation: the magazine seeks to offer a common, non sectarian, space.

'We are not trying to lump together diverse groups, undermining different tendencies and smothering different personalities. Our desire is to offer to young writers a serene and unprejudiced forum which will bring together different aspects of mental work that are not purely journalistic.

Our magazine should be a special kind: not purely literary or purely philosophical. Our intelligent young people do not have such a forum which is open and without barriers. As a melting-pot of young writers who admire obscure and daily heroism, Proa will attempt to mould into an Academy the dispersed energies of a generation that does not feel animosity'. [12]

This first text of Proa has Arielist ecos and inflections: with its fervour, moral affirmation, seriousness of endeavour, and unity of aspirations, it saw itself as 'a pristine amalgam of dreams and desires'. This Arielist discourse coupled with ideas from the University Reform, produced a similar set of interpellations and desires which, in 1924, offered a common heritage that could be shared by some of the aesthetic innovators.

This tone unites many of the notes and commentaries in the magazine. There was a battle to impose the 'values of the spirit' in a country whose great men had still not understood these values. The protagonists of this struggle are young people who hope for 'a future society where these values will find a place'. [13]

This same spirit is maintained in subsequent issues. In number 10, Proa gave three pages over to the news that the Latin-American Union was being founded. Notes on institutional matters of this kind, especially on politics, were not frequently published in Proa. The Latin-American Union was an attempt to carry the spirit of the University Reform into a continental arena. The founders of the Union were writers and young socialist politicians. Extracts from this declaration, which are outside the usual preoccupations of Proa, give some idea of the climate in which the magazine appeared. The Union sought:

'To develop in the peoples of Latin America a new consciousness of national and continental interests, supporting all aspects of ideological renewal which leads to the effective exercise of popular sovereignty, combatting any dictatorship that might stand in the way of economic reforms inspired by a desire for social justice... Opposition to any financial policies which would compromise national sovereignty, and in particular the taking on of any loan which might allow or justify the forceful intervention of foreign capitalists... The nationalisation of the sources of wealth and the abolition of economic privilege. The struggle against any influence of the Church in public life and in education.... The extension of free, secular and compulsory education and an integral university reform.' [14]

A mixture of nationalism and spirituality was sweeping through Latin America. To what degree can Proa be considered as part of this climate? The publication of this document on the foundation of the Latin-American Union is not enough to prove the point. What it does signify, however, is a gesture of good will towards, and recognition of, currents of left democratic and anti-imperialist thought, whose Arielist, spiritualist and youthful aspects were shared by Proa. However, this is not the whole story. On the one hand, it expressed a desire to map out a common intellectual field which would encompass all aspects of the avant-garde. Proa was committed to this in the artistic sphere, whilst recognising that other spheres were also legitimate. The experience of the first years of the avant-garde had shown the need to conquer public spaces; it was possible, therefore, to recognise this same need in the political arena. Proa shared with the Reform and the Pan Latin American movements the desire to reach a continental audience: the journeys of Oliverio Girondo, the anthologies, the activity of the first years of the literary periodical Sur all had the same objective. Also the young men in the political field intruded into the intellectual field, with the same actors changing alliances. The movement for aesthetic renovation had not yet become fixed into incompatible ideological positions. On the contrary, in this first half of the 1920s, the 'young' were lined up against the ranks of traditional and well established intellectuals. It was still a generational movement. Finally, these mixtures of alliances point to a relatively small intellectual field in which divisions between 'left' and 'right' were less important than those between 'old' and 'new'. There was a shared way of seeing, a shared structure of feeling in the project that sought to conquer society and change it aesthetically, morally or politically. This can be seen in all the editorials published in Proa. The magazine tried to compensate for its isolation in a world of large daily newspapers and traditional institutions by calling writers and intellectuals to support different causes and ideas. Number 11 saw the publication of a letter signed by Borges, Brandán and G üiraldes which asked for the support of all writers who approved of the huge ideological and cultural changes which were being set in motion.

'We have hoped, from the beginning, that Proa - the Prow -, living up to its name, should become a rallying point for the struggle, through serious work rather than through mere polemics. We work in the most free but also in the hardest part of the boat, whilst the literary bourgeoisie sleep in the cabins. From the position we have chosen, we will open up new paths, while they remain behind. Let them call us mad and extravagant. At heart they are tame and will do everything except dispute with us the privilege of work and adventure. Let us be united on that unsteady part of the craft, which sets its course. The prow is smaller than the main body of the boat since it is the point where all the energies converge. We laugh at those who rage, since they know that they are born to follow others. Their attacks cannot touch us because they are afraid. Proa lives in direct contact with life. It has already been tossed in the waves and is refreshed by optimism and by its desire to conquer distances. Today it wishes to grow one more day. For this reason, we are writing to you. Give us your strong support to help us guarantee this growth.'

G üiraldes is almost certainly responsible for the spiritual tone of such declarations. Also the young participants of the Reform movement had close (sometime family) relations with the writers of Proa and the cultivated, creole socialists who signed the Latin American Union manifesto bore little resemblance to the hirsute left militants of immigrant origin. The avant-garde had at the centre of its programme a new style cultural nationalism. Borges gave it form and tone. Many other articles published in Proa share these sentiments but the letter in which the editors declare their intention to abandon the boat is perhaps the most interesting stylistic example of the blending of the avant-garde and criollismo. The letter is sent by Borges to Brandan and to Ricardo and it shifts the metaphor from the sea to dry land, to the orillas. Its last judgement is criollo as is its paradise:

'.... We will meet again and start up a lively literary gathering, an immortal conversation without ceremony or haste. The patristic tells us little about those friendships at the end of the world, but I think that it is our happy duty to go forward towards this goal, to anticipate God's designs. I cannot think of any endeavour better suited to this purpose than Proa.

How splendid are our conversations and discussions! Guiraldes: through the bridge of your austere guitar, through that black hole or window through which we can most certainly glimpse San Antonio de Areco* [3] , far-off places speak to us most eloquently. Brandán seems small, but that is because he is always standing on the other side of one of his verses which have transported him off before they carry off the rest of us. Macedonio, behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, that good natured, creole demigod, knows how to invent a world between two rounds of mat é tea* [4] and then deflate it again immediately. Rojas Paz, Bernárdez and Marechal almost set the table on fire with their metaphors. Ipuche speaks with a deep voice and is a safe-handed and surefooted messenger, bringing urgent secrets from the forests in Uruguay. Ramos, the Recent-arrival and Always-forewarned* [5] also takes pride of place and there is a gang of admirable Chileans who have stormed through sandy, distant and humid lands, swept, on occasions, by a black wind, the 'black wind' of Quinto Horacio, that dyer of the sky. There are ten, twenty, thirty of us believing in the possibility of art and friendship. How splendid are our conversations. And yet ... there is a most sacred right of this world: our right to fail, to walk alone and to suffer (....). I want to tell you that I am leaving Proa and I am leaving my paper crown on the peg. More than one hundred streets in the orillas await me with their moon and solitude and the odd tot of rum. I know that the pampa is calling Ricardo and the mountains of Cordoba are summoning Brandán. So long United Front, Chau Solder, Goodbye all. And yet Adelina, with that protective grace of yours, give me my coat and stick, because I'm going'. [15]

It would be impossible to include more criollista references on one page. Proa is coming to an end, Borges writes one of its concluding statements, and takes its poetics to the limits in an almost parodic fashion. Obviously a humourous tone dominates in this letter, but it is also important to ask how much truth it tells about Proa. Once again its most striking feature is what we have called avant-garde criollismo. When in issue one of Proa, Borges writes on Gonzalez Lanuza's Prismas (Prisms) he is careful to differentiate the new Argentine poetics from Spanish ultraism. The difference lies in the system of readings (which Borges, as usual, falsifies) and the place where they are read: under 'the stars of the suburbs'. It is there, precisely, that Borges places his literary programme

'(we believe in different things) that the pampa enshrines; that the first countryman is very much a man, in the strength of the malevos (hard men) in the sweet generosity of the arrabal. Out of all the limitless riches of the world, what really belongs to us are the arrabal and the pampa. [16]

The tango is banished from the world that 'divine will' created in the suburbs. The creole vanguard cannot identify with its music or with the lyrics that still tainted by crime or by the brothels. For this reason Borges's rereading centres on Carriego (a precursor of the tango to come) and on gauchesque literature. He also highlights Macedonio's creole inventiveness and it is doubtless true that Macedonio's paradoxes, his conceptism (witty, allusive style) and his plurals* [6] are very much akin to the inventive nature of the payador, the gaucho troubadour.

But Borges' version of criollismo is not Proa's only programme. As a magazine of the 'united front' it carried out a work of 'pedagogy' by disseminating various tendencies of the European avant-garde. It did this mainly through a series of long articles by Guillermo de la Torre who, soon after, would marry the artist Norah Borges, Jorge Luis' sister, who illustrated some issues of Proa. Like many of Guiraldes' articles, de la Torre's were encyclopedically up to date but written in a tone that was strangely academic in this world of literary essayists. His notes are explanatory and tend to guide the reader through the new aesthetic principles, rather than vigorously outlining this new field which is made up of friends and allies. Didactic and somewhat pedantic, these articles of Guillermo de la Torre are an explanatory vademecum, a blue guide to the library shelves. When Guiraldes reviewed de la Torre's Literaturas europeas de vanguardia (Avant-garde European Literatures) he was very perceptive in his assessment of de la Torre's work, and pointed out how the book in question was different in style and taste to Guiraldes's own work and that of Borges:

'Guillermo highlights above all groups and group credos, and studies the personalities involved within these broad categories, leaving somewhat to one side isolated individuals whose polemical importance is not so great. This might not be a criterion shared by others who prefer to study works above all as creations of individuals, leaving to one side the historical context of literature and concentrating on the specifically literary nature of literature. [17]

G üiraldes highlights in his review the classic contrast between literary history and literature, between productive aesthetic reading and the stolid nature of criticism. His own articles are extremely personal and non academic essays, usually commentaries on French symbolism and post symbolism. In one of these articles, on Val éry Larbaud's A.P. Barnabooth, G üiraldes offers interesting insights into how he put together his own literary library. Even for a man from a privileged social background such as his, it was a laborious adventure. This is the central theme of the essay: how in 1919, a friend returning from Europe told him about Larbaud's book. Once he had obtained the book, he struck up a personal and literary friendship with Larbaud. But it had been difficult to get his hands on the book: in order to do so, it was necessary to break out of the vicious circle of modernismo, and overthrow its aesthetic hegemony by introducing other aesthetic principles: hold up other French poets in preference to Darío and Lugones. Even for G üiraldes, this task demanded a firm will and dedication:

'There was a time when it was a great feat to obtain (in Buenos Aires) a book, or even a poem, by the symbolists. However, a handful of young readers encouraged by the premonitions we had, and guided by a revolutionary obstinacy, managed to make this journey into forbidden territory. In my own case, before people began to laugh at my work, I grew used to them laughing at my readings (....). The symbolists were, therefore, our masters.

Rimbaud was so alone that his greatness was chilling. Mallarm é threw us handfuls of brilliant ideas.

Laforgue seemed to us the one who above all the rest had lived in a state of poetic grace.

Corbi ère was somewhat different: an antiliterary literature, a pugnacious outward expression of a fierce sensibility wounded by pain.

We had one copy of Isidoro Ducasse which we threw at each others heads, to frighten each other.

Claudel, Verhaeren, those two great figures of neosymbolism (let's call it this) did not captivate us. Religion, fatherland. We wanted literature above all else. The writer had to show us that art was the core of life.' [18]

This was the state of affairs before 1920: an intellectual solitude, as epitomised in G üiraldes, and the search for a new literature, based fundamentally on an aesthetic of renovation. Writing at the time of the Centenario, Lugones had saturated the space of patriotism, and G üiraldes is correct in his intuition that these changes would also affect cultural nationalism. We are on the threshold of the establishment of the ideologies of the new. It was necessary to import European writers who could help answer the questions thrown up by the new aesthetic movements and the growing independence of art from social controls. The nature of this importation brought conflict with the modernistas and for this reason, Proa gave a strategic space and value to the dissemination of foreign authors. This space was substantially different to the classic section 'Europe literature' which Nosotros published efficiently but in an informative rather than a programmatic, way. Proa made a radical break with such traditionalism by offering not a show-case of recent publications, but rather a system for understanding the 'new'. It did not give information about all authors or all texts: instead it gave European literature a new function in the context of the River Plate avant-garde.

In visual arts, a similar objective was proposed. Like Martín Fierro, Proa considered that graphics were important, but it adopted a style which was much less strident than that of Martín Fierro, more in keeping with its serious tone. Proa's graphics make great use of vignettes, a great number by Norah Lange and a few from Figari. Number 4 reproduced drawings by Gustav Klimt. The vignettes fill the blank pages at the bottom of the page, and the spatial layout of the magazine uses modern streamlined letters of logotype, framed by geometric lines which contrasted to the art deco vignettes and trimmings of the earlier Proa magazine. The magazine is thus seen in the same aesthetic frame in which it is read.

Furthermore, in these years, writers and plastic artists were close to each other. The different avant-garde publications stoutly defended the work of the artists Figari and Petorutti. Graphics is like translation: it demonstrates the commitment of the young men and women, from the moment in which the readers first leaf through the magazine. Martín Fierro altered the traditional format of the page, whilst Proa showed its commitment to the principles of a more moderate aesthetic modernity. The avant-garde writers do not believe that graphics usurp a space which should be filled wholly by writing; they are not economical and indeed have no reason to be so.

If there is a policy towards graphic art, there is also a move to instigate what Borges calls 'a politics of language'. [19] What would this mean? And why would it be necessary? Both Borges and González Lanuza in these years experimented with ortography. [20] The manifesto - proclamation of Prisma was written according to the new rules that Borges would use in his first books. This reform of spelling can be seen to play an important part in the project of the avant-garde even though only a couple of writers fleetingly adopted these reforms. It implied a break with academic norms and it fuelled the debate between the avant-garde and Spain which broke out in Martín Fierro, as we have seen, when Madrid was proposed as the 'culturel meridian' of Latin America and Borges destroyed the idea in his reply to Am érico Castro. But more important is the fact that this porteño spelling is a refutation of linguistic norms which is parallel to the refutation of norms of prosody in poetry. It has ideological and aesthetic connotations because it represents, graphically, the River Plate, urban oral language, which Borges was working on at that time. It becomes an instantly recognisable gesture for it is not necessary to read the texts to note these changes: it is sufficient to see them in their graphic form. This project, furthermore, is carried out by writers who are sure of their phonetics and of their origins. Such behaviour would have been unthinkable among the recent arrivals to the intellectual field, who were unsure of spelling or among those for whom the acquisition of writing had been a recent and painful process. As in the work of Sarmiento, the reform of spelling is utopian and radical, indicating the depth and extent of other changes in style, form and prosody. It did not offer a mimetic transcription of oral language, but rather a refutation of norms at all levels.

The problem of language is central to the Argentine avant-garde firstly because it is a central problem of the wider society: language seems uncertain not for reasons of excessive linguistic purity but because of the fact that Buenos Aires had become, in recent decades, a free port for immigrants. Even the intellectual field is made up of voices that do not share the linguistic register, acquired over many years, by old criollos. Alongside them, other phonetic inflections are jostling for space and corrupting literature. Borges is an ironic participant in this debate with the purists since he is at the same time opposed to lunfardo (urban argot), which he considers to be a hybrid of the suburbs and immigration:

'But it necessary to differentiate between outward and essential riches. A man uses the correct, latinate term prostituta (prostitute). The dictionary immediately falls on his head, silencing him with words such as meretriz and buscona* [7] . The neighbourhood tough will add words such as yiro, yiradora, turra, mina, milonga.** [8] This does not demonstrate the richness of our language. Instead it is noisy confusion since this junk-yard of words does not help us to feel or to think.' [21]

This text of Borges demonstrates his own use of language, one of the great inventions of the period: 'se le viene encima, ('fall on his head'), 'le tapa la boca' ('silence him, literarlly 'closing his mouth'), farolería, ('noisy confusion') and cambalache ('junk-yard') are all words or expressions taken from River Plate colloquial Spanish. Borges is here making literary language criollo, one of the riskiest undertakings possible if we consider the attempts at criollo literature previously seen in Argentina. The 'criollo-isation' of Borges is permanently pushing at the limits: it offers lexical and syntactual changes, but it also affects the syntax and, above all, the rhythm of the period and of the sentence. It is not ostensibly lexical, because Borges avoids lunfardo and gauchesque terms, choosing instead a corpus of words with blurred contours, with expressions that can sometimes be traced back to the gauchesque, but which can almost always be found in the oral language of long standing urban criollos. The corpus is familiar and masculine, never vulgar or plebian.

A politics of language is based on the conviction that this language is a historic and modifiable instrument which, as a result can both resist the system and offer a canvas on which to place the imprints of a sensibility and of a nation:

'What I hope to do is to awaken in each writer the realisation that the potential of languages is scarcely being tapped and that the glory and duty of all of us lies in multiplying and varying it. Every literary generation that is awake has understood this fact'. [22]

A linguistic imagination pervades these works of Borges and informs his readings of gauchesque literature which appear in Proa and later in Sur. An imagination that is opposed to the sinuous tradition of the modernistas and the antipoetic literalness of the language of left-wing humanitarian writers. The linguistic imagination leaps backwards and sideways with a freedom that only the avant-garde could have produced: towards the gauchesque, the old criollo traditions, towards the inflections of plain and trivial oral language. Cultural nationalism was in this way given a new formal and aesthetic definition by the 1920s avant-garde. Literary imagination, free at last from modernismo, redefined the space of Argentine literature.


     [1] * The term sencillista refers to poetry which attempted to capture the tone of colloquial language and work with every day themes as opposed to the exoticism of modernismo.

     [2] * The anti-positivist, spiritualist movement that grew up in the River Plate in the first two decades of the century, is termed Arielism after the important essay of the Uruguayan Jos é Enrique Rodó, published in 1900.  Rodo, using through the opposition between Shakespeare's Ariel and Caliban, criticised the materialism of local elites and proposed a moral and cultural regeneration based, in no small part, on the intellectual youth of the continent.

     [3] * G üiraldes country house.  The model for his famous novel Don Segndo Sombra.

     [4] * Mat é is most often drunk communally.  The gourd is passed around a circle of friends.

     [5] * Here Borges is playing with compound adjectives in the style of Macedonio.

     [6] * Macedonio used abstract nouns in the plural, a usage that is not very common in Spanish, but which can be found in the song 'duels' in the poem Martín Fierro

     [7] * 'literary' words for prostitute

     [8] **     Lunfardo, urban slang meaning, 'street walking', 'street walker', 'easy lay', 'doll', 'milonga' (a song, dance form).

[1] .       Nestor Ibarra, La nueva poesía argentina, Buenos Aries 1930, pp. 15-6.

[2] .       ibid, p.21.

[3] .       Poesía 1-2, 1933, p.43.

[4] .       Simplismo: poemas inventados por Alberto Hidalgo, El Inca, Buenos Aires, 1925, p.13.

[5] .       Prologue to La roas blindada, Federación Gráficia Bonaerens, 1936 quoted in the Horizonte edition, Buenos Aires, 1962.

[6] .       La nueva poesía argentina, op.cit., p.127.

[7] .       Vicente Huidobro, Obras completas, Zig Zag, Santiago de Chile, 1964, p.686. On Huidobro, see George Y údice, Vicente Huidobro y la motivación del lenguaje, Galerna, Buenos Aries, 1978.

[8] .       Anatomía de mi Ultra, text of 1921, quoted in C ésar Fernández Moreno, La realidad y los papeles, Aguilar, Madrid, 1967, p.493.

[9] .       Proa No.1, p.4.

[10] .      ibid pp. 4-5

[11] .      Raul Crisafio notes: 'The new poetics was drastically opposed to 'commercial' society. And it opposed this society by using, on more than one occasion, ideas and feelings that were present in the University Reform of 1918 (...) demanding the destruction of anachronistic, parasitic and traditional institutions and denouncing the acquiescence of the poblation to the daily routine and the consequent rejection of anything new.' In, 'Boedo-Florida e la letterature argentina degli anni venti', Materiali Critici, 2, 1981, Tilgher-Geneva p. 374. María Luisa Bastos also points out these stylistic traces in Inicial. See Borges ante la crítica argentina; 1923-1960, Buenos Aries, 19 pp. 24, 25 and 38.

[12] .      Proa 1, pp. 4-6

[13] .      Unsigned commentary on the Association 'Amigos del Arte' Proa 1, p.28.

[14] .      Proa 10, pp. 65-6.

[15] .      Letter dated 1 July 1925 and published in Proa 15, pp. 26-7.

[16] .      'La pampa y el suburbio son dioses' ('The pampa and the suburbs are gods'), Proa 15.

[17] .      Proa, 8, p.15.

[18] .      'Un libro' Proa, 3, pp. 35-6.

[19] .      'El idioma infinito' (The Infinite Language, Proa 12).

[20] .      The omission of the 'd' at the end of a word; the use of i instead of y in conjunctions and at the end of a word with a dipthong; an erratic, but irreverent use of j and g.

[21] .      'El idioma infinito', op cit, p.43.

[22] .      ibid, p.46.



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