Borges And The South American Identity

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So much of the work of Jorge Luis Borges is a contemplation of identity and of the true realities behind the masks and stage-sets of life, no doubt precipitated largely by the fact that he was an Argentine, and thus one of a continent full of peoples who are, to this day, struggling intensely with their own identities, being neither fully aboriginal nor fully European, and yet so full-blooded in each set of traditions that they burn over-blooded, flooding with life and ancestry, two immense pasts squeezed into one present existence like the tip of a pyramid forcibly wedged into a hole in the sky.  Borges’ works are steeped as much in the millennia of the European literary tradition as they are by the on-going freedom fight and the plains-riding gauchos of South America.

Before he died, Jorge Luis Borges put together a collection of his stuff that he thought best epitomized his work.  The book is called A Personal Anthology.   Before this, I had only read a few works of Borges, and those spread out over years, so I really had no idea who he was or what he was about, other than that he was an Argentine.  Reading his best works together like this allowed me to see more clearly his themes and obsessions.

Borges’ work often takes the form of essays written by a fictionalized “Borges” about events in his, the fictional Borges’, life.  Henry Miller was doing something similar with the novel about this time, though in a more bestial fashion.  Borges’ fiction-as-fact approach to story-telling is the mirror image of the New Journalism that was going on in the same period, the mid-twentieth century, and exemplified by Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, in which reporters would write the truth as if it were fiction.  Borges wrote fiction as if were the truth.  And Borges—at least this is the pose he adopted— was just as confused as the rest of us as to where the fictional Borges ended and the real one began.

For Borges, one’s personal identity is not nearly as durable as most people assume.  In A New Refutation Of Time, he writes of the ideas of the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus.  Heraclitus is probably most famous for stating that, as Borges phrases it, “you never go down to the same stream twice.” Heraclitus’s superficial point is that a stream is always flowing past, and thus, the stream you go to five minutes from now will not be same stream as before:  it is a completely different set of water molecules.  But Heraclitus’s deeper point is that everything is in flux; change is the only constant.  Borges points out another way to read the words “you never go down to the same stream twice;” from Borges’ angle, the sentence could be taken to mean that YOU are not the same person you were five minutes ago, and since you have changed during the intervening time, it is impossible for the original “you” to return later to the stream.

Borges, in The Zahir, writes of the difficulties and subtle complexities involved when a writer attempts to relate a story that happened to his former self:  “I am not now the person I was on that day, but still I am able to remember, and perhaps even to relate, what happened.  I am still –however partially– Borges.”

In Averroes’ Search, Borges gives us a glimpse as to how the ever-changing stream of identities flowing through him is intricately bound up in his art:  “My narrative was a symbol of the man I was while I wrote it, and that to write that story, I had to be that man, and that to be that to be that man, I had to write that story, and so on to infinity.”

Early in his career, I conjecture that Borges felt the itch of inferiority and trepidation that a man in the New World (especially before the Second World War) could rightly feel when he dared lay claim to his inheritance from European arts and literature, and who had, on top of that, the audacity to engage (as an equal!) his Old World counterparts in an ongoing conversation about the human condition.  And so, maybe not yet trusting in his own erudition and talent and acceptability, Borges found it difficult to so boldly proclaim himself a writer, and so adopted, perhaps at first subconsciously, the stance of writing as if he were a writer.  In this sense, Borges began writing under a pseudonym which also happened to be spelt “Borges.”  It was a sort of stage performance by an up-n-coming actor.

In Everything And Nothing, Borges defines an actor as “someone who, on a stage, plays at being someone else before a concourse of people who pretend to take him for that other one.”  Borges openly admits that he is doing much the same thing as an author.  He is performing when he writes as Borges The Writer, merely one facet of his personality (most of the facets the world will never know).

The human personality is somehow—in all of us, even the simplest—a fusion of multiple personalities.  And I think that it is because Borges identifies with others he finds who are tapping into this underground reservoir of inner people, that he so admires Shakespeare– not just the plays and sonnets, but the man, himself.  Of Shakespeare, Borges writes that “no one was ever so many men as that man,” speaking of course of the genius of Shakespeare for pulling-out from deep inside his own breast fully formed characters as a god might birth a goddess of wisdom from his head or a god of wine from his thigh.

But there is a price to be paid for opening up one’s psyche to other personas:  the confusion of identity, perhaps even its loss, or a loss of some portion of it or of its stability, the Self becoming a three-legged chair one sits in, tense and uncomfortable, between acts.  If Borges –born so far from the heartland of the European literary tradition he nevertheless aspired to be a part of– was unsure of his credentials, was afraid of being laughed at and turned away at the door to respectability and success— if he was balled up in the contradictions of a timid intrepidity, than perhaps it was self-defense to follow in The Bard’s footsteps and to have, as Borges puts it “trained himself in the habit of pretending he was someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one.”

By the end, Borges The Man, Borges The No One, had successfully emptied himself into his art, transfusing his own overabundant, South American blood –drop by drop, page by page– into Borges The Writer.

“Things happen to him, the other one, to Borges,” the author says in Borges And I.  “I live, I go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature; and that literature justifies me.”  He adds that, “in any case, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of me may live on in him.  Little by little, I yield him ground.”

Borges knows that Borges The Man can never be known, will never be known, that “these pages cannot save me,” and that even Borges The Writer will eventually, at best, shrink to a near invisibility behind any words gilded in a gold pure enough to rot more slowly than the surrounding metal of Time:  “What is good no longer belongs to anyone, not even to him, the other one, but to the language or tradition.”

“Thus is my life a flight,” says Borges, “and I lose everything, and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.  I don’t know which one of the two of us is writing this page.”

—   —   —

More on Borges from Hammering Shield:

The Two Best Short Stories Of Borges

The Best Poems And Essays Of Borges 

Borges And The Ultimate Reality

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