Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial

By Gina ApostolAugust 18, 2013

Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial

Borges at Eighty by Jorge Luis Borges
Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature by Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

MARK O’CONNELL on The New Yorker’s "Page Turner" writes astutely about Borges’s complex reflexivity in “Two New Books about ‘Borges,’” a review of new publications from New Directions, Borges at Eighty: Conversations (translated by Katherine Silver) and Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (translated by Willis Barnstone). O’Connell says of Borges’s interviews:

There’s something fascinatingly Borgesian about the way in which the self-awareness of the performance is itself highly performative. This preoccupation with the divided self veers close to a sort of ontological double act, a one-man odd-couple routine.

And he describes well a peculiar stamp of Borges’s fiction:

Borges’s writing was always, to some degree, a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts.

But O’Connell’s astuteness fails him when he falls into the reductive trap of thinking that, as an artist, Borges is not political. O’Connell is urged to that conclusion because Borges says so. “I have no use for politics,” he quotes Borges saying in an interview. And like a gullible reader of Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote, O’Connell falls for Borges’s wit, his “double act.” This is odd, because Borges has just instructed O’Connell — and any reader who reads Borges’s interviews — to doubt anything Borges says. As O’Connell correctly says of Borges’s work: “Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message.”

I have long taught Borges in my classes, and I understand how deeply indebted I am as a writer to Borges’s tricky, duplicitous mind. But it is only as I have tried to explain the effect of Borges on my work, in the realm of the political — the effect of Borges on someone who grew up in the Third World — that I have come to understand a blindness we might have about Borges as a writer. In his review’s final paragraph, O’Connell is sad about Borges’s “tactical withdrawal from the very real terror and anarchy and injustice of the world.” He further notes that:

Borges’s refusal to engage with politics wouldn’t have been nearly so remarkable had he not lived through two World Wars and, in his own country, six coups d’états and three dictatorships.  

Having grown up under dictatorship, beset by the psychological scars of a history of colonization, I know my debt to Borges. I learn from him as an artist, but I also read him, unavoidably, as a luminous thinker about the politics and problems of the so-called Third World, and about the issues of engagement that confront us in America now. I keep wondering if my own response is idiosyncratic. But then, I realize, writers in The New Yorker and such who talk about Borges might not have the experience that Borges and I have — the postcolonial experience of that “divided self,” that “ontological double act.” Anyone who has grown up in a country where history has been created by the words of its occupiers understands this existential condition — the sense that who you are is a fiction, the result of texts constructed by others.

Certainly, Borges’s statements about his indifference to politics are alarming:

I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer.

To be honest, as I read this, I start laughing. You can, of course, believe Borges — why not, if he says so? But you can also see him performing his double act, enacting the writer Borges, the provocative, public intellectual that the I abhors in that terse masterpiece, “Borges and I.” Interestingly, O’Connell begins his review with a quote from that instructive story:

“I like hourglasses,” [the I narrator] writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; [Borges] shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.”

And yet when it comes to Borges’s actorly statements about politics, O’Connell fails to give the writer the benefit of Borges’s own skepticism of his public self.

What is it about the writer in the First World that wants the Third World writer to be nakedly political, a blunt instrument bludgeoning his world’s ills? What is it about the critic that seems to wish upon the Third World the martyred activist who dies for a cause (O’Connell: “In his own country, six coups d’etat and three dictatorships” — one hears exclamation points of disappointment)? Where does this goddamned fantasy come from — that fantasy of the oppressed Third World artist who must risk his life to speak out, who’s not allowed to stay in bed and just read Kidnapped? I have to say, look at it this way: It only benefits dictatorships when all the Ken Saro-Wiwas die — and the loss of all the Ken Saro-Wiwas diminishes us all. Why is it not okay that an old man in Argentina lives for his art — and yet it is okay for a writer in The New Yorker whose country is targeting civilians abroad in precision assassinations to merely sit and write reviews about dead Argentines whose political feelings are insufficiently pronounced? Where is the great American artist leading his fellow citizens in barricades against the NSA? And why are these New Yorker critics not calling them out for their “refusal to engage with politics”?

Although it is amusing to imagine a blind librarian in Buenos Aires brandishing his weapons of Kipling tomes against the old junta, it is less possible to imagine Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides risking jail at all for any reason. Why are Americans allowed to be more cowardly than others?

These are momentary, kneejerk thought-bubbles that rise up whenever I read reviews in The New Yorker. But this is only part of the problem, because for any of us who read Borges closely from the perspective of the colonized, Borges is very political: he gives us a template to think about our politics and our problems. He provokes us to imagine what “identity” and “nation,” the “other” and the “self” are, with cunning, humor, and incalculable, astonishing vision and precision. This is not to say that he provides his political lessons directly, or even intentionally. As O’Connell notes, “To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world.” Borges’s stories, in fact, dissolve the certainties of that hegemonic world of The New Yorker; but then, he decenters everyone’s assumptions — about politics, about being, about God.

Borges is the author of the essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” an amusing, deconstructive lesson on how to read and write a country. In anti-colonial poetics in Argentina, in the Philippines, and elsewhere, the question of “tradition” is dominant: what makes a literature “Argentine”? What makes a story “Filipino”? It’s a question that always drove me nuts — because the arguments always seemed at best foolish, and at worst dangerously essentialist. Anti-colonial critics at one point suggested that one must isolate “Filipino-ness” or “Argentine-ness” and find some pure, untrammeled state beyond history, when the “native” was pristine and untouched by the foreign, or even time. But the Filipino or Argentine or Kenyan or Indian is necessarily hybrid, condemned to deal with the past: history makes our identities irreducibly multiple. The Filipino is Western and Asian, European and Ifugao, animist and Christian, all simultaneously and vertiginously so. To isolate what is “Filipino” is to seek a chimera. And in such lucid essays as “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” a quite polemical work that sends up these fantasies of our singular national identities, Borges dissuades people like me from seeking such illusions. The essay is a classic in deconstructive postcolonial thought, before Gayatri Spivak, before Homi Bhabha. The public intellectual Borges may not have directly wrestled with political stances and historical dilemmas in his passing interviews. But in his essays and his fiction, with clarity and logic, he sets up for the Argentine, or for someone like me, a template for how to think about our historical reality, and thus our art. That portal he provides is a political act.

In typical fashion, Borges presents the problem of Argentine tradition with doubt:

My skepticism does not relate to the difficulty or impossibility of solving this problem. [. . .] Rather than with a true mental difficulty, I take it we are dealing with an appearance, a simulacrum, a pseudo-problem.

The essay’s logic unfolds to dissipate a chimera. Borges takes as his departure the “almost instinctive” solution to the problem of tradition — that “the Argentine literary tradition already exists in the gauchesque poetry.” To me, this is the same solution that nationalist critics (and they may be Filipino or Western or both) often come to — they wish to isolate a pre-colonial form or story, say epic syntax in Tagalog, or the dusty themes of a Native American romance with plants, or the too-much-sung story of migration, and expect the artist to grapple with such “traditions.” But Borges proceeds to devastate that solution with a close reading of motifs and syntax in gauchesque poetry: “gauchesque poetry is a literary genre as artificial as any other.” In short, one form is not more essentially “Argentine” as the next. He makes definitive, political pronouncements: “The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in Argentine traits and Argentine local color seems to me a mistake,” he writes, employing with humor that Borgesian trick of inverse persuasion, his trademark logical-jujitsu move: “The Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult which the nationalists ought to reject as foreign.”

As a writer from the colonized world, I find Borges’s work almost intolerably revealing, as if spoken directly to the political debates that beset my country. Borges’s postcolonial critique and analysis in his ficciones are obscured by his philosophical sleights of hand, startling plots, and narrative wizardry, but though buried, his critique is powerful. In particular, I am struck by his logic of the inverse. His use of doppelgangers (sometimes triplegangers) and mirrors and refractions and texts within texts — spies that become victims, heroes that are villains, detectives caught in textual traps of their own making, translators who disappear in puffs of smoke in someone else’s writer’s block — in Borges’s stories, these astonishing mutations force us to see reality from new perspectives, force us to question our own encrusted preconceptions. While questions of ontology and Berkeleyan illusion and all those philosophical games beloved of Borges are paramount, the constant revisiting of the problems of fictionality and textuality in these stories have profound echoes for the postcolonial citizen, bedeviled by and grappling with questions of identity and nation, questions seething always under our every day, our working hours, our forms of art.

“Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote” is structured as a classic Borgesian inversion. Ostensibly it is about writing. A minor French Symbolist poet, Menard has a grand plan to rewrite the story of the Quixote by not changing a single word in it. Of course, the inversion, the joke, is that “Menard” is really about reading, not writing — Borges flips the binary: Pierre Menard is a reader of the Quixote, and as such “rewrites” a book whenever he reads it. An exemplary fable of poststructuralism (though I do not imagine that Borges was merely writing a footnote to some essay by Roland Barthes), “Menard” is also a commentary on the postcolonial condition. The clue here is that Borges, a writer in Latin America, chooses as text for “rewriting” that classic of the colonizing Spanish, the Quixote. He could have chosen Hamlet (one of his favorite illusions), The Odyssey (his second favorite), or his third, weird favorite, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial. But in this text about the art of reading as an act of innovation, of revolution, Borges chooses the canonical Spanish text. Part of “Menard’s” inversion, its playfulness, is that Menard is a Frenchman who believes the Quixote is a “contingent” not “necessary” text — a blasphemous notion, perhaps, to a Spaniard. The truism, of course, is that the Quixote is necessary in the Spanish canon. Borges raises the question of how to read artifacts of Argentina’s colonial patrimony, say schoolbook texts like Don Quixote, through other, non-Spaniard, dare we say Argentine eyes. In this way, Borges’s philosophical plot of inversion is a political question for artists in Latin America and elsewhere: whenever we read work that seems “necessary,” established by colonial patrimony, or “tradition,” like The Quixote, maybe we need to read it awry, anew — like an ironic French Symbolist, or a mischievous Argentine. Significantly, this does not mean we throw the book away: we keep it in our patrimony, but we reread it. Menardly.

As a Filipino, I grew up memorizing "The Gettysburg Address" and singing My country ‘tis of thee, quite without irony. I don’t lament at all having Lincoln’s prose in my bones — I can recite his words in my sleep, I think: I love “The Gettysburg Address” (though “America The Beautiful” is another story). Borges’s work explains why it makes sense that the Western canon is part of me, too. In Borges’s work, the outsider who is also inside is a powerful reader — those characters are usually his heroes. In the spy-versus-spy story “Garden of Forking Paths,” there are two outsiders, doubles of each other: the Chinese spy Yu-Tsun who works for the Germans (who despise the Chinese), and the Irish spy Madden who works for the British (who of course oppress the Irish). Themes of the colonized abound. Yu-Tsun’s exemplar of genius is German — Goethe — but he finds himself killing an Englishman whom he calls “as noble as Goethe,” Dr. Albert, a Sinologist, a great scholar of his own ancestors’ “labyrinth,” some vast Chinese novel. To prove himself to the Germans, Yu-Tsun kills the Chinese scholar, the lone man who has the key to his history, “with infinite weariness and contrition.” Note the layers of reading and readers — and doubles and double-crossers — we must get to in order to come to the nub of this story: that through our enemies we conceive ourselves.

Borges teaches me to solve questions that are inherently ethical and political: Who am I writing for? What is my tradition? If I am writing to speak my “nation,” how am I defining it? And Borges reminds me that what is central to my knowledge of myself is provisional and fabricated: it comes from texts. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the narrator Borges and his sidekick Bioy find an encyclopedia article describing in full the fables of a world of counter-facts that are an inverse mirror of our own. The narrator discovers that the enthralling, encyclopedic world of Tlön and Uqbar is a hoax underwritten by some crass American millionaire, but the reader is unable in the end to distinguish the world of Tlön from the modern world that troubles him now — as Borges says, “the world has become Tlön,” that is, a mere text made up by others. (The economic parable here is, as that eminent Borgesian John Barth used to say, grist for another mill.)

Borges always puts within the realm of aesthetics this “voluntary dream” of the other. He says in his essay on Argentine tradition:

We should feel our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an escapable act of fate — and in that case we should be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask [. . .] I believe that if we surrender ourselves to that voluntary dream which is artistic creation, we shall be Argentine and we shall also be good or tolerable writers.

For him, his stories about doppelgangers and mirrors and texts-within-texts are ways in which he solves artistic problems — they are the “voluntary dream which is artistic creation.” But they are also the plots that solve the problem Borges faced specifically as a writer in Argentina. His “meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts” are a response to his condition as a writer dealing with the effects of colonization.

 An obvious problem that faces me as a writer from the Philippines, for instance, is that the texts that define me are, more often than not, written by my country’s conquerors. O’Connell’s description of Borges’s public self can be read as a description of the colonized: a divided self defined by “stories whose central presences were not people but texts.” It is impossible to perceive who I am except through acts of serial reading.

A series of U.S. Senate Hearings on the Affairs of the Philippine Islands in 1902 describes step by step how my country’s modern government was set up through the biases and lenses of William Howard Taft, first governor-general of the Philippines, General Elwell Otis, the occupying general of Manila at the start of the war with America, and the American senators — imperialists and anti-imperialists — who in the hearings serve as my proxy readers of myself, interpreting and cross-examining their witnesses’ portrayals of the Philippines. Not a single Filipino is called to testify on our behalf. These arbitrary men, some of whom were very well-meaning racists, were a scattered bunch of expansionists, isolationists, worrywarts, and moralists who by some act of fate shaped who I am. The senate hearings (available online) are illuminating artifacts, especially when I reread them through a Borgesian, Menardian lens. One senator, Thomas M. Patterson of Colorado, calls the lies of General Elwell Otis about the Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo “astonishing” and made “with perfect impunity.” From Taft to Otis to sundry servicemen in the U.S. Army, Filipinos are called any number of names and calumnies “with perfect impunity.” But it is also through these enemy documents that I learn about our civil service, how public schools were set up, the reasons for establishing English as the unifying language, and so on. Matters I take for granted, like the division of Manila’s districts or the trite metaphors about the beauty of its sunsets, are all in fact already constructed in the U.S. Senate in 1902. Ours is like a Borgesian, fantastic country, a Tlön, dreamed up by diseased capitalists. And my job as an artist and a citizen is to pursue like a spy, a detective, a doomed translator, a reading and rereading of the double in the text, the elusive Filipino, who must be read awry through others’ words: inverse, anew.

Borges’s tragic characters are always those who fail to see the other: the Dupin-like detective in “Death and the Compass,” the Minotaur in “House of Asterion,” the translator in “Averroes’s Search.” In “Averroes’s Search,” one of those virtuosic Borges stories whose design is as terrifyingly lucid as its allusions are maddening, the doctor and translator Averroes, an Arab in Muslim Spain whose translation of Aristotle during the West’s Dark Ages is key to the survival of Aristotle’s work, is trying to figure out the meaning of the word tragedy in the Poetics. He fails, because (in the story’s plot) the concept of drama does not exist in the Muslim world. A man named Borges, who is the story’s narrator, rescues Averroes from his plot’s infamy by inserting himself in the story as a failed artist with writer’s block who finds it impossible to imagine Averroes’s world. From this triple inversion, ultimately self-reflexive, set in Cordoba, a place of conquest, we gain a concept of history and self that is persistent in Borges — simply put, what we know as history, or truth, is merely a form of reading, often faulty.

We know, after stories like Trayvon Martin’s, that the paradox of the self as contingent on understanding the other is as much a lesson for the colonizer as it is for the colonized. My fantasy about George Zimmerman is Borgesian: I imagine him one day narrating the story of Trayvon Martin as if he were Trayvon Martin, like Borges’s traitor Vincent Moon in “Shape of the Sword,” whose only way to tell the story of his crime is to take on the voice of the man he killed. This grapping with the other, who is after all part of our own self, is the ethical question that governs the politics of our times. We need, in these days, to be constantly inverting our perception — conceive the Muslim as ourselves, the vicious colonizer as part of our painful story, our history as part of a larger mystery, all of our stories as stories of detection, of reading. In short, a good way to engage in politics is to be powerfully Borgesian.

As O’Connell says of Borges’s stories: “They were fictions made from fiction, drawn from reading, not from life.” But the inversion of this point is also true: a politically meaningful life can be drawn from Borges’s acts of powerful reading. That is what Borges creates in his stories — an art of reading that makes meaning out of the mess of our modern world. His infinite art is subtler than his fleeting conversations in such books as Borges at Eighty: Conversations. That, perhaps, cannot be avoided. But his critics need to be subtler, too.


Gina Apostol's last novel, Gun Dealers' Daughter, recently won the PEN/Open Book Award and will come out in paperback this fall. She is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American war, William McKinley's World. [read more]

LARB Contributor

Gina Apostol was born in Manila and lives in New York. She went to college at the University of the Philippines and earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, won the 1998 Philippine National Book Award for Fiction. Her third novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, is a comic historical novel-in-footnotes about the Philippine war for independence against Spain and America in 1896. Her latest, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, recently won the PEN/Open Book Award and will come out in paperback this fall. She is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American War, William McKinley’s World.


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