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A New Language of Literature: Borges on Universalism and Nationalism

By Matt Bluemink.

Borges the Argentine

No one is the homeland—it is all of us.
May that clear, mysterious fire burn
Without ceasing, in my breast and yours.

—“Ode Written in 1966”, Jorge Luis Borges (SP, 237)

The work of Jorge Luis Borges is possibly not the first thing that comes to mind when one considers a ‘nationalist literature’. The small selection of short stories that made the great Argentinian author famous are more commonly associated with metaphysics and meta-fiction than the struggle to form a national identity. However, throughout his work, in his poetry, his vast collection of non-fiction writing, and even many of his short stories, the themes of the of the nation are referenced again and again. Borges sought to create an oeuvre that was, on the one hand, particularly Argentine, yet, on the other, completely universal. At various points in his life he had professed to not be interested in, or to understand, the politics of his native country. In his 1980 interview with Dick Cavett he claims: “I think the Argentine Republic cannot be explained. It is as mysterious as the universe. I do not understand it. I don’t profess to understand my country. I am not politically minded either. I do my best to avoid politics. I belong to no party.” (Borges, 2013, 86) Indeed, many critics often look at Borges’s fiction as apolitical, claiming that he dismissed the local in favour of the universal. Nevertheless, it is clear to any reader of his wider oeuvre that politics has played a large role in the formation of his ideas[1], and that Argentina and the South American continent had been a constant source of inspiration for him.

The young Borges, despite an international and multilingual upbringing, was fascinated with his home country. Argentina’s capital played such a pivotal role in his early development as a writer that his first collection of poetry was titled Fervour de Buenos Aires (1923). However, throughout his life there seems to have been a dynamic shift in Borges’ conception of the nation. The later Borges would often look back on his early works, in particular Fervor de Buenos Aires, with an almost melancholic nostalgia. In his “Autobiographical Essay” he admits that “The book was essentially romantic. … It celebrated the sunsets, solitary places, and unfamiliar corners; it ventured into Berkeleyan metaphysics and family history; it recorded early loves … [and] mimicked the Spanish seventeenth century” (Borges, 1971, 154). Although these local themes had fascinated him as a youth, as he aged Borges began to brush off the particularities of his homeland in order to step further into the universal with tropes such as labyrinths, dreams, mirrors, infinity, idealism, and solitude becoming the essential Borgesian archetypes. However, he goes on to state, “I feel that all my subsequent writing has only developed themes first taken up there; I feel that all during my lifetime I have been rewriting that one book [Fervor]” (Borges, 1971, 155). This curious statement poses an interesting and peculiarly Borgesian question: can the typically nationalistic elements of Borges’ work be reconciled with his universal themes?

The National and the Universal

The shift in Borges’ ideas on the nation first became evident in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”. This short piece seeks to create a space for the Argentine writer within the canon of world literature by suggesting that artists should not have to be defined in terms of national traits. Borges argues the writer has no obligation to seek themes from their home country, and that the focus on local fervour is a ‘relatively new concept’ which is not reflected in many literary works throughout history. To exemplify this, he focuses on a typically Argentine distinction between true gaucho poetry and gauchoesco poetry. The gauchos are a group of skilled horsemen who are often represented as a brave and unruly subsection of rural Argentine society (much like North American cowboys). In the nineteenth century, gauchos were often celebrated by South American writers and later became a national symbol of Argentina. These gauchoesco poets sought to recreate the true poetry of the gauchos in order to instil a sense of national pride among Argentine writers. They presented their poems “in accordance with the gaucho, as if spoken by gauchos, so that the reader will read them with a gaucho intonation” (SNF, 421). However, true gauchos wrote poetry about general themes, such as pain, love, and sorrow “in a lexicon that was equally general” (SNF, 421). Borges argues, counterintuitively, that Colombians, Mexicans, or Spaniards, would be able to understand the original poetry of the gauchos, while finding the colloquial slang used in gauchoesco poetry to be incomprehensible. This subtle commentary subverts the reader’s expectations by emphasising that local characteristics (in this case the colloquial language) are not enough to determine what a nation is. He claims that “Shakespeare would have been astonished if anyone had tried to limit him to English subjects” and that “The Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult that nationalists should reject as a foreign import” (SNF, 423). These statements highlight that the overutilisation of particularly local characteristics can be seen as promoting a false imagining of the nation. Even in the Quran, which Borges describes as “the Arab book par excellence”, he points out there that there is no mention of camels. As the Quran was written by the prophet Mohammed, himself an Arab, he had no reason to include camels as something particularly Arab; in fact the inclusion of camels into the text would be something “a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do” (SNF, 423).

Borges, recognised that the idea of a national literature which espouses themes and topics directly associated with the author’s homeland is an extremely limiting factor; one that is distinctly modern and European. In order to overcome this, many of Borges’s contemporaries sought for Argentina to let go of its literary connection to Spain. At the time of Borges’ writing Argentine identity had become too closely associated with a need to break historical continuity with Spain which, paradoxically, placed them in an eternal dialectical relationship with what Benedict Anderson calls their ‘mother nation’.[2] However, Borges suggests that to create something particularly Argentine, Argentina should instead draw inspiration from the whole of western culture. Without the limitation of distinctly Argentine themes, a true Argentine literature can become universal:

we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask (SNF, 427).

However, Borges’ relationship with Argentina and his conception of the nation is much more nuanced than this reading would seem to suggest. Throughout his work, and especially in his poetry, a more directly nationalistic Borges seems to be revealed. In particular, the poem “Ode Written in 1966” (SP, 236-237) is unusual as it’s one of Borges’ few direct appeals to his readers to consider the meaning of the nation and the role of the individual within it. At the beginning of the second stanza is the line “No one is the homeland[3]. Not even time” and in the third Borges writes “The homeland, friends, is a continuous act/As the world is continuous”. Finally, in the last stanza there is an affirmative moment: “No one is the homeland—it is all of us.” Here, once again Borges is playing with paradoxes. His negation of the temporal aspects of the homeland turns it into a timeless entity, yet the idea of the patria must of course be historically determined.

To understand this distinction we must turn to his previous poem, “Ode Composed in 1960” (Borges, 1970, 80). Here the second stanza references both Argentina’s geography (“Fatherland, I have felt you in the ruinous/Sunsets of the vast suburbs”) and significant moments from Argentine history (slaves, wars, and the ‘September’ revolution of 1955 that overthrew the Peron government). However, Borges’ fatherland seems to transcend these limitations, taking on an almost metaphysical character (“…these things/Are merely your modes and your symbols/You and more than your extended territory/And than the days of your extended time”). It is not conceived in terms of its traditions, politics, or geography, but of a higher power, and to Borges, this higher power takes the form of a kind of Berkeleyan idealist God.This theme is continued in “Ode Written in 1966” in a parenthesised segment in the third stanza (“If the Eternal/Spectator were to cease for one instant/To dream us, the white sudden lightning/Of his oblivion would burn us up”.) Here we begin to see an image emerging of an idealist conception of the nation, one that exists purely because it is being imagined by those who inhabit its boundaries, or by an entity outside of itself. Whereas the first stanza of the later ode removes the fatherland from its spatial determinations, and the second aims to take it outside of its temporal historical context, the third recontextualises it in idealist terms.

The development of these odes to the nation seems to reinforce the idea first outlined in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” of a nationalism defined by appeals to the universal; one that exists, not because of any specific historical events or national characteristics, but because of a shared act on the part of the members of this ‘imagined community’.  It also reinforces the idea developed in his short “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” that “Historical truth … is not ‘what happened’; it is what we believe happened” (CF, 94). It is in this regard that I believe Borges’ metaphysical games and the paradoxes that are formulated throughout his works can be seen as directly connected to his understanding of politics and the nation. Borges claims that rather than engaging with the everyday particulars that make up modern political discourse, we must instead seek an overarching metaphysical, and indeed universal, understanding of national identity.

A New Latin American Literature

When considering this unusual conception of the nation, and the focus of universalism in national literature, we are immediately confronted with the influence that Borges the artist had on the state of world literature throughout the twentieth century. That influence was seen most obviously in the reappropriation of Borgesian themes by a large swathe of Latin American authors writing in the years after Borges’ ascent into worldwide popularity. Whereas once it had been claimed that “Argentina has no national literature,”[4] suddenly authors such as Adolfo Bioy Casares and especially Julio Cortazar had emerged as major Argentinian literary figures, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Carlos Fuentes, among others, bringing worldwide praise as part of the so called ‘Latin American Boom’. Although Borges was writing a generation before these authors, his initial translation into French and subsequently English marked the consecration of a specifically Latin American literature, and his influence can be seen directly throughout the work of each of them. Indeed, Borgesian tropes (the infinite and the finite, the self and the double, time and space, memory and dreams) and their symbolic representations (mirrors, labyrinths, tigers, and knives) can be seen again and again in the work of all of his literary disciples. We only need to look at the title of works such as Marquez’s The General in his Labyrinth (1989), or Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude[5] (1950) to see the homage to Borges. Of course, the direct references to Borges and Borgesian themes in the authors of twentieth century Latin America would be too numerous to list here. Yet, it is my intention to show that Borges’ work provided a grounding for a new kind of Latin American literature which could break away from the confines of Europe; one that could exalt local themes along with universal ones in a way that would have been appealing to Borges himself.

Here it is useful to discuss Pascale Casanova, who, in her study of world literature, The World Republic of Letters (2004), suggests that there is a literary universe that exists independently of the world of political divisions and national boundaries. Casanova’s hypothesis seems to echo some themes that Borges would have approved of. She argues, following from Bourdieu’s notion of the “field,” that international literary space “ignores ordinary geography and establishes territories and boundaries along lines quite different from those of nations” (Casanova, 2004, 101). To Casanova this means that it becomes possible to connect writers from disparate countries with different traditions to one another in a way that goes beyond regional borders, for example “to connect James Joyce, an Irishman, with … the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges” (Casanova, 2004, 101). Casanova’s exposition of the revolution in Latin American literature that took place from the middle of the twentieth century starts to give us an understanding of how it was that Borges the Argentine became an inspiration for a unified, trans-national, Latin American literary identity. In order to trace the roots of this question Casanova quotes Carlos Fuentes in stating that: “The literature of Spanish America had to overcome, in order to exist, the obstacles of flat realism, commemorative nationalism, and dogmatic commitment. With Borges … the Hispano-American novel developed in violation of realism and its codes” (Casanova, 2004, 325). Here her choice of quote is relevant because it highlights the aspects of Borges’ work that detach themselves from the literary traditions of Europe and Latin America. Fuentes wants to show that Borges’ stories attempt to bring Latin American literature out of the confines of the European realist tradition in order to sow the seeds of a literature that is unmuddied by the traditional commemorative nationalism of the region. In fact, it is possible to say that Fuentes is the novelist of the Boom generation who has been most influenced by Borges, and he is one of the most prominent defenders of Borges’ role in the development of Latin American literature. In Fuentes’ work “evocations of Borges appear, as master stylist and as narrative magician, and even as New World Libertador—as a Simon Bolivar who does not liberate countries but minds” (Gyurko, 1988, 222). Due to this, Fuentes seeks to defend Borges against a common criticism: that he is not truly a Latin American writer but instead a transplanted European[6]. In his book of literary criticism La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969) Fuentes suggests that Borges was the father of the “Boom” novel because of the transformative effect that he had on the Spanish language. He argues that Latin America was in need of a new language of literature, and he credits Borges as the creator of that language. Borges’ symbolic literary repertoire was not an adoption from Europe, but a conglomeration of universal ideas that had been reimagined by an Argentine, in order to establish himself as Argentine: “Hence the foolishness of those who accuse Borges of being “foreignizing” or “Europeanizing.” Can there be something more Argentinian than that need to verbally fill the gaps, to go to all the libraries in the world to fill the blank book of Argentina?” (Fuentes, 1969, 26). Furthermore, Fuentes sees that through the creation of a literary world that espouses the value of the universal, Borges has sought to free Latin American literature from the outdated and inauthentic forms of the past; forms that South and Central America had long been saddled with since their revolutionary break away from the Spanish Empire. He sees Borges as not only a literary metaphysician who plays games with infinity but as a  “demonstrator of how Latin American history can be re-written and relived, as the creator of a multiplicity of times and spaces that signify the openness not only of the literary text but of Latin American history” (Gyurko, 1988, 223).

Another author who sought to embody this Borgesian idea of re-writing Latin American history was Gabriel García Márquez. Marquez’s works are often fictional retellings of true stories from the South American Continent, but it is his masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), that can be seen as the most explicit homage to the surreal metaphysical work of Borges. Throughout the novel Marquez plays with the ideas of labyrinths and infinity that so fascinated Borges: dreams of houses with infinite rooms and mirror walls resemble Borges’ story “The House of Asterion,” and the labyrinthine genealogy of the Buendia family echoes Borges obsession with cyclical time. However, the theme that permeates through the book, which can be seen as a direct homage to Borgesian ideas, is most clearly seen in the title: the solitude that runs through the town of Macondo and every character who lives within it. Macondo represents the forms of solitude that have become recurrent themes in South American literature. The small town in deepest Colombia is a place that is politically and geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Its inhabitants are placed in a historical and existential state of solitude trying to understand the role they play in their family, their city, and their nation. Marquez’s literary style can be seen to embody the Borgesian characteristics of intertextuality, the problematising of time, space and historical and fictional narration. These themes make reference to a colonised history of incomplete modernity and uneven cultural development that had become representative of Colombia’s struggle for progress. Due to the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude[7], and Marquez’s winning of the Nobel Prize in 1982, many of these distinctly Borgesian, and therefore wholly Latin American themes had been consecrated into the history of world literature. Therefore, we can see that following from Borges, Latin American authors such as Marquez and Fuentes developed a common style which attained a genuine aesthetic autonomy by progressively accumulating what Casanova calls ‘literary capital’ which was necessary to develop a new literature free from submission to European models. It was Borges who represented the first case of original influences which were adopted by other authors in the region and thus allowed for a new kind of autonomous literature to appear (Casanova, 2004, 233-234).

Latin America and Beyond 

To follow the historical development of Borges’ writing, and the influence it had on his contemporaries and his literary descendants, is to reveal something fundamental about the great Argentine author. Borges’ work is defined by a number of contradictions; a number of claims that seem to suggest a tension between the universal and the particular, especially in the case of his relationship to his homeland. For Borges, a man who claimed that speaking about social art “is like speaking about vegetarian geometry” (Borges, 2007, 343), but who also dedicated numerous poems to his home country of Argentina, the status of his art in regards to his conception of national identity may not seem immediately apparent. However, tracing the genealogy of his work reveals a common unifying theme. Whereas critics debate over whether Borges was a universalist or a nationalist, I claim that he was a synthesis of both. The imagining of the idea of the nation was more important to Borges than engaging directly in political actions or promoting a specific political agenda, and this idea is apparent from his earliest romantic poems, to his latest metaphysical fictions. His creation of a new symbolic repertoire, with its emphasis on universalist themes, served as a direct inspiration to, first, the Latin American authors who came after him, but also to a number of authors from former colonial countries. This postcolonial perception of Argentina was painted with a distinctly Borgesian brush. It became part of an imaginary world which brought into question ideas of colonisation, linguistic displacement, and cross-cultural referencing[8]. Here we can see the legacy left by Borges. He served, not only as a literary guide for the authors in his region to follow and build upon, but as a guide for all those breaking out of the confines of a hegemonic European literary tradition. For these writers, Borges represented more than just an inspiration that reached across national boundaries; he represented the creation of a new language of literature.

CF – Collected Fictions
SNF – Selected Non-Fictions
SP – Selected Poems

Aizenberg, E. (1992) Borges, Postcolonial Precursor. World Literature Today. 66(1) pp. 21-26.
Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
Borges, J. L. (1971) The Aleph and Other Stories. Trans. N.T. di Giovanni. London: Lowe and Brydone.
Borges, J. L. (1999) Collected Fictions. Trans. A. Hurley. London: Penguin Classics.
Borges, J. L. (1980) Dreamtigers. Trans. D. A. Yates. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Borges, J. L. (2000) Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. E. Weinberger. New York: Penguin Books.
Borges, J. L. (2013) Borges at Eighty: Conversations. Ed. W. Barnstone. New York: New Directions.
Casanova, P. (2004) The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Diaz, H. (2012) Borges, Between History and Eternity. New York. Continuum.
Gyurko, L. A. (1988) The Metaphysical World of Borges and its Impact on the Novelists of the Boom Generation. Ibero-amerikanisches Archiv. 14(2). pp. 215-261.
Mander, B. (2016) Argentina embraces more open-minded ideals, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges. Financial Times. Available at:  https://www.ft.com/content/bf3a15e0-5807-11e6-9f70-badea1b336d4
Marquez, G. G. (1967) One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Harper & Row.
Marquez, G. G. (1989) The General in his Labyrinth. London: Penguin.
Paz, O. (1950) The Labyrinth of Solitude. London: Penguin.
Paz, O. (1986) In Time’s Labyrinth. The New Republic. Available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/82260/in-times-labyrinth
Spivakovsky, E. (1968) In Search of Arabic Influences on Borges. Hispania. 51(2). pp. 223-231.
Santana-Acuna, A. (2017) How One Hundred Years of Solitude Became a Classic. The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/05/one-hundred-years-of-solitude-50-years-later/527118/
Journey Without an End (1976) Time. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,836924,00.html

[1] He had written poems for the Russian Revolution, written pieces overtly criticising Nazi Germany, declared himself to be an anarchist, become a member of the conservative party, and perhaps most notably developed a strong aversion to Argentinian populist leader Juan Peron. (Diaz, 2012, 8)
[2] Anderson claimed that the creole communities of South America developed their conception of the nation well before most of Europe, despite sharing a language with the ‘mother nation’ of Spain, and thus, they no longer had to conceptualise themselves in relation to, or as a continuation of, the Spanish nation (Anderson, 2006, 50).
[3] Here we must first clarify an ambiguity in the translation. In Selected Poems, the translator decided to translate the Spanish ‘patria’ into ‘homeland’ rather than the more direct etymological match ‘fatherland’. As patria doesn’t have a direct translation into English, yet it is a key concept in Borges’ work, one that comes up a hundreds of times throughout his poems and non-fiction writings, I will use the two English translations interchangeably.
[4] In 1976, Time magazine published a review of Borges’ A Personal Anthology which claimed that “Argentina has no national literature, but it has produced a literary mind that is as mysterious and elusive as the fretted shadows on the moonlit grass.” (Journey Within an End, 1976)
[5] Paz, despite not being typically associated as a part of the Boom generation, was ardent reader of Borges from his youth: “Borges was a writer’s writer; we used to follow him through the journals of that era. In successive numbers of Sur, I read the series of remarkable stories that later, in 1941, would make up his first collection of ficciones” (Paz, 1986)
[6] Borges spent many of his formative years raised in Switzerland and Spain before returning to Buenos Aires with his family in 1921.
[7] As of 2017 One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold over 45 million copies, making it one of the bestselling Latin American novels of all time. (Santana-Acuna, 2017)
[8] Edna Aizenberg (1992) claims that characters and places influenced by Borges himself or by his conception of Argentina appear in the “Hebrew-language Arabeskot (Eng. Ara-besques), by the Palestinian Anton Shammas, in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, in the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Enfant de sable (Eng. The Sand Child), and in Sergio Chejfec’s, Lenta biografia (Slow Biography).” (24)

Matt Bluemink is a philosopher and writer from London. His main interests are the connections between philosophy, literature, technology and culture. He is the founder and editor of bluelabyrinths.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 15th, 2020.