University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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  For Juan Pablo Renzi


In Cambridge I enjoyed the warm, and intellectually vigorous, support of my colleagues at the Centre for Latin American Studies and the generous intellectual and material hospitality of Kings College. These institutions, and the friendships that they brought, offered optimum conditions for developing this work. I am also grateful to the generosity of an old friend of mine and of my country, John King, who had the idea for the book.



This book has grown out of four lectures that I gave at the University of Cambridge in February 1992 as the Simón Bolivar Professor of Latin American Studies. When I gave those lectures on Borges I experienced a curious feeling. In a British university, an Argentine woman professor was talking about an Argentine writer who is today considered 'universal'. Indeed since those far off years in the 1950s when translations of some of his work appeared in Les Temps Modernes, Borges has joined the small group of writers who are known throughout the world (more widely known than read, which is how fame works nowadays). Far from the climate which conditions the reading of his work in Argentina, and firmly established within Western literature, Borges has almost lost his nationality: he is stronger than Argentine literature and more powerful than the cultural tradition to which he belongs. If Balzac and Baudelaire, or Dickens and Jane Austen seem inseparable from something that we can call 'French literature' or 'English literature', Borges, by contrast, moves in a world in which is rarely given the name of 'Argentine' literature.

There are many reasons for this, but here I would like to address what I consider to be the most important of these reasons: in the current European climate, the image of Borges is more potent than that of Argentine literature. In fact, from Europe Borges can be read without reference to that marginal region where he wrote all his work. In this way we are given a Borges who is explained by (and at the same time explains) western culture and the versions that this culture also offers of the Orient, and not a Borges who is also explained by (and explains) Argentine culture and particularly Buenos Aires culture. Borges' reputation in the world has cleansed him of nationality. Another contributing factor is without doubt the rare perfection that Borges' writing achieves in a language like English. We could argue that this language, English, is the language of his cultural roots or, if that statement seems too strong, is it certainly one of the strongest influences on him.

Be that as it may, the lectures in Cambridge brought this image of Borges home to me ‑ it was something I should have known before ‑ and I received further verification when I found the paperback editions of Borges, alongside the ancient and modern classics, in all the bookshops that I visited in Britain, without exception. What I am saying is nothing new and could be put down to the surprise of an ingenuous provincial. However, I felt at the same time that something of Borges (at least of the Borges that we read in the city that he loved, Buenos Aires) was lost in this process of triumphal universalisation. Reading Borges as a writer without nationality as a great among the greats, is aesthetically totally justifiable: in his work can be found the concerns, the questions, the myths that we in the West consider universal. But such a reading, however well justified, implies both recognition and loss, because Borges has gained what he always considered to be his - the right of Latin Americans to work within all traditions. He has also lost, albeit partially, something that he considered to be an essential part of his world: his links with River Plate cultural traditions and with nineteenth century Argentina.

It is not a question of restoring Borges to a picturesque and folkloric world that he always rejected, but rather of allowing him to speak to the texts and to the authors with whom he engaged in literary polemics, restoring him to the context in which he made his aesthetic breaks. These authors do not all belong to the great canon of a universal tradition. They are often not well known and yet they were important in the cultural field that Borges participated in from the 1920s.

The first chapters of the book explore what Borges made of the ineluctable fact of having been born in, and of writing in, Argentina. Hopefully, by this means, it will be possible to see with some clarity the ways in which Borges maintained a dialogue with Western culture. In the course of a few decades, Borges presented to Argentina a new and different relationship with literature. He completely reorganised the system, placing at one end of it the residual gauchesque tradition and at the other end the fictionalisation of the theory of the intertext, years before it was disseminated by books of literary criticism. For this reason, Borges is a 'common place' for Argentine readers and writers, and his influence can be seen in a sort of lingua franca, a literary koin é, in which the twists of his stories are mixed up with anecdotes that he himself mischievously invented for the mass media and repeated in hundreds of interviews from the 1960s onwards. It is easier today in Argentina to show that the question of Argentine literature is central to his work, now that the forces of narrow cultural nationalism, which denounced Borges in the 1940s and 1950s, have become weakened, probably terminally.

In short, there is no writer in Argentine literature who is more Argentine than Borges. In his work, this national cultural tone is not expressed in the representation of things but rather in his exploration of how great literature can be written in a culturally marginal nation. Borges' work always deals with this question, one of the most important questions for a relatively young nation, without strong cultural traditions, located in the extreme south of the former Spanish dominions in Latin America, the extreme south of the most culturally impoverished Viceroyalty of Spain which furthermore did not have great Precolumbian indigenous cultures, as could be found in other Latin American countries.

There are many reasons for seeing Borges as a universal cosmopolitan writer. He is that of course, and his work lends itself to such a reading. One can read Borges without reference to Martin Fierro, to Sarmiento or to Lugones. Such a reading would explore his great philosophical questions, his tense but permanent relationship with English literature, his system of quotations, his erudition drawn from the minutiae of encyclopedias, his work as a writer on the body of European literature and on what this literature has constructed as the 'Orient'. It would explore his cluster of symbols, mirrors, labyrinths, doubles or his predilection for Nordic mythology and the cabbala. But a reading constrained within these limits would not pick up the tension that runs through Borges' work, that almost imperceptible movement which destabilises the great traditions since they are crossed by a River Plate dimension (in the sense that roads cross, but also in the sense that races mix).

Borges wrote at this meeting of roads. His work is not smooth, nor is it located precisely on a homogeneous cultural base. Rather, there is a tension in it caused by mixing with, and feeling a nostalgia for, a European culture which can never wholly offer an alternative cultural base. At the heart of Borges work there lies a conflict, and this book will attempt to read his work as a response to that conflict rather than seeing it as an elegantly unproblematic writing. I have wanted to highlight this tension which, in my opinion, runs through Borges work and defines it: a game on the edge of various cultures, which touch on the borders, in a space that Borges' would call las orillas. In this way, a writer emerges who has two sides, who is, at once, both cosmopolitan and national. [2]

Borges the cosmopolitan‑educated in Switzerland during the first World War and, before then, raised with English books in his father's library ‑ poses a series of basic questions, from the early 1920s, once he returned to Argentina where he lived until a very few years before his death. How is it possible to write literature in Argentina, a marginal country, with an immigrant population established in a port city, Buenos Aires? This town was in the process of becoming a metropolis, but it was still very much surrounded by the countryside - that immensity of nature from which the echoes of a rural criollo* [1] culture could still be heard, even as modernisation was eliminating it, above all as myth. Facing his criollo past, Borges asks how it is possible to avoid the pit‑falls of local colour, which can only produce a regionalist and narrowly localist literature, without relinquishing that density of culture which comes from the past and is part of our own history. This question presupposes another concerning literary tradition. Still very close to Borges, stood nineteenth century, gauchesque literature of the River Plate, the writings of Sarmiento, the almost family saga of the civil wars that preceded the organisation of the nation state, the battles between Indian and whites throughout implacable, bloody and unjust decades. These traces of the Argentine past never disappear from Borges' work. Rather, one of the purposes of Borges' literature is to gather up the scattered fragments of that tradition and to rearticulate within his own writing the writing of other Argentines who had now disappeared.

The first thing Borges does is to reconstitute a cultural tradition for that eccentric place that is his country. This aesthetic and ideological intent can be seen in his work from the 1920s until the publication of Historia universal de la infamia (The Universal History of Infamy, 1935), a collection in which he published his first story about compadritos (hard men) and knife fighters. But his task does not end there: the problem of Argentina culture recurs in Borges fictions right up to his last books, in particular in the stories of El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie's Report), which were published in the middle of the sixties. Borges reinvents a cultural past and reconstitutes an Argentine literary tradition at the same time as he is reading foreign literatures. Furthermore, he is able to read foreign literatures in the way that he does precisely because he is reading, or has read, Argentine literature. In Borges, cosmopolitanism is a condition that allows him to invent a strategy for Argentine literature. Conversely, the reordering of national cultural traditions enables Borges to cut, select and reorder foreign literatures without preconceptions, asserting the liberty of those who are marginal to make free use of all cultures. By reinventing a national tradition, Borges also offers Argentine culture an oblique reading of Western literatures. From the edge of the west, Borges achieves a literature that is related to foreign literature but not in any subordinate way.

Herein lies Borges' originality: as a writer‑critic, a short story writer‑philosopher, he obliquely discusses in his texts the major topics of contemporary literary theory. This has turned him into a cult writer for literary critics who discover in him the Platonic forms of their concerns: the theory of intertextuality, the limits of the referential illusion, the relationship between knowledge and language, the dilemmas of representation and of narration. The Borges literary machine fictionalises these questions, producing a mise en forme of theoretical and philosophical problems without ever allowing the development of the tale to lose completely the brilliance of ironic distance or the careful and anti‑authoritarian position of agnosticism. Against all forms of fanaticism, Borges' literature offers the ideal of tolerance. This feature has not always been identified out with sufficient emphasis, perhaps because we left‑wing Latin American intellectuals have been too slow to recognise it in fictions which deal with questions about order in the world. The fantastic themes of Borges, which critics have universally commented upon, offer an allegorical architecture for philosophical and ideological concerns. If the defence of the autonomy of art and of formal procedures is one of the pillars of Borges' poetics, the other, more conflictive, pillar is the philosophical and moral problem of the fate of men and the forms of their relation to society. These concerns ‑ which coexist with metaphysical questions concerning the organisation of the real in a cosmos are highlighted throughout the following pages.

It has been my intention not to decide on one reading of Borges (which is of course a rather arrogant aspiration), but to offer different ways of reading him that take into account the invariably dual and conflictive nature of his literature. I do not want to establish a version of Borges that opts for the 'cosmopolitan' writer at the expense of the 'Argentine' writer or to choose between the writer of fantastic fictions and the writer haunted by philosophical questions. The originality of Borges - one of the many forms of his originality - lies in his resistance to being found where we are looking for him. Something of the old avant‑garde writer remains in this resistance to replying to what is being asked or of asking himself what it is that one wants to hear from him.

If Borge's literature has one very particular and undeniable quality, it must be sought in the conflict that disturbs the strict organisation of his arguments and the perfect surface of his writing. Placed on the limits between cultures, between literary genres, between languages Borges is the writer of the orillas, a marginal in the centre, a cosmopolitan on the edge. He is someone who entrusts literary processes and formal procedures with the power to explore the never ending philosophical and moral question of our lives. He is someone who constructs his originality through quotations, copies, the rewritings of other texts, because, from the outset, he conceives of writing as reading, and he distrusts, from the outset, any possibility of any literary representation of reality. These pages have attempted to be faithful to all these tensions in their rereading of Borges today, at a time when his work seems to be shrouded by the fame that accompanied his final years, and by the immovable spectre of a posthumous glory.

[1] Throughout the book, the word criollo will remain in Spanish. It refers to the population and culture of old Hispanic, colonial or nineteenth century origins. These are the descendents of the Spaniards, eventually mixed with a few drops of Indian blood. The adjective and the noun criollo refer to landowners and rural workers and gauchos. The rural culture of the nineteenth century, its system of production, customs, codes and values, is also referred to as criollo. But the term is also used to describe colonial urban formations. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the term criollo is used in strong opposition to the foreigner of immigrant origin.

[2] Emir Rodríguez Monegal has pointed to this double affiliation in Borges. See Borges: hacia una interpretación, Madrid 1976 and Borges par lui-m ême, Paris 1970.



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


© Borges Studies Online 22/07/01

How to cite this chapter:

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Introduction.  Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: 22/07/01 (