The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
The great American writer Herman Melville says somewhere in The White Whale that a man ought to be “a patriot to heaven,” and I believe it is a good thing, this ambition to be cosmopolitan, this idea to be citizens not of a small parcel of the world that changes according to the currents of politics, according to the wars, to what occurs, but to feel that the whole world is our country.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “Homage to Victoria Ocampo,” in Borges en Sur
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1899 and died in 1986, * near the end of a century that he had lived almost all the way through and done a great deal to shape. If we now think of Latin American literature as central to the Spanish world, and of the Spanish world as a vitally renewed force in the world entire, it has a lot to do with Borges. As a 20th-century master artist, he was celebrated even by 19th-century standards—famous on the scale of Tennyson, Kipling, and Mark Twain. By the end of his life, his every spoken word got into print: Dialogues with Borges appeared in The New Yorker as fast as they were recorded in Buenos Aires. By “The White Whale,” of course, Borges meant Moby-Dick. (He was often very approximate about the details of his enthusiasm for literature in English.) When I encountered this idea of Borges’—that the whole world is, or should be, our country—I was wondering already if the idea, so attractive on the face of it to a displaced person like myself, was really quite right.
Before interrogating Borges about his politics, it is wise, as it were, to go crazy about him first. The beginner with Borges can find a seductive entrance to his enchantment through the short stories collected in Labyrinths (1962), which transmit his poetic magic irresistibly even through translation. Borges on Writing (1974) is a painless introduction to the incidental prose. (As early as that year, his writings had been translated into 21 languages.) The accessibility of the storyteller is no illusion—as with Kipling, the stories go to the heart of his vision—and his essays and dialogues turn his vast learning into an intellectual adventure guaranteed to thrill the young, as he meant it to do. But if he created a fairyland, he did not live in one, and even in the exalted last years of his life as a blind icon there were voices among his countrymen ready to remind him that he should have tried harder to use his ears. His apparently detached political position was not regarded as beyond cavil by other Argentine writers, who admired his art but questioned his relaxation into international eminence at a moment when his homeland was in the grip of terror.
In 1979, when Borges wrote his homage to Victoria Ocampo (the founder of the cosmopolitan magazine Sur) in which this revealing passage appeared, the Argentine junta was doing its obscene worst. Surrounded by horror, Borges either hadn’t noticed or—a hard imputation, yet harder still to avoid—he knew something about it and thought it could be excused. But even if he was confident that the political Brahmanism he favored could be pardoned for imposing itself by extreme means, he might well have detected an incipient challenge to his conscience. He had good reason—i.e., a bad reason but an urgent one—to suggest, if only to himself, that what was happening to his country was of secondary importance, because his first loyalty was to the world. But the world, not one’s country, is the abstraction: an ideal that means nothing if one’s first loyalties to truth, justice, and mercy have been given up. The old man was pulling a fast one. At this point there is a key quotation from Ernesto Sábato, one of Borges’ most talented peers, that we should consider:
From Borges’s fear of the bitter reality of existence spring two simultaneous and complementary attitudes: to play games in an invented world, and to adhere to a Platonic theory, an intellectual theory par excellence.
In Buenos Aires after World War II, there were two literary voices of incontestable international stature. The main difference between them was that only one was known to possess it. The whole world heard about Borges. But to get the point about Sábato, you had to go to Argentina. Both inhabitants of a beautiful but haunted city, both great writers, and both blind in their later lives, Borges and Sábato were linked by destiny but separated in spirit: a separation summed up in this single perception of Sábato’s, which was penetratingly true. Borges did fear the bitterness of reality, and he did take refuge in an invented world. Sábato’s fantastic novels were dedicated to including all the horrors of the real world and raising them to the status of dreams, so that they could become apprehensible to the imagination. Most of the dreams we recognize all too clearly. He didn’t need to search very far in order to find the stimulus for them. All he needed was the recent history of Argentina. In Borges, by contrast, the near past scarcely exists: In that respect his historical sense, like his Buenos Aires, is without contemporaneity. His political landscape is a depopulated marble ghost town remembered from childhood, spookily hieratic like the cemetery in Recoleta. Before he went blind he would walk the streets only at night, to minimize the chance of actually meeting anyone. In his stories, the moments of passion, fear, pity, and terror belong to the long-vanished world of the knife fighters. Death squads and torture are not in the inventory. The time scale ends not long after he was born. Why did he hide?
Probably because of artistic predilection, rather than human cowardice. There are always artists who place themselves above the battle, and in retrospect we don’t regret their doing so. In World War II, André Gide took no overt position about the Occupation, the biggest moral dilemma that France had faced since the Revolution. Yet we would not want to be without his journals of the period. Borges openly loathed Perón, but fell silent on everything that happened after Perón was ousted—fell silent politically, but artistically came into full flower, an international hit even as his nation entered the tunnel of its long agony.
Though it would be foolish for an outsider to quarrel with his enormous creative achievement—one might as well take a tomahawk to a forest—there is reason to sympathize with those native Argentines, not all of them Philistines, who can’t help feeling that it was an accumulation of trees designed to obscure the wood. Borges, alas, had no particular objection to extreme authoritarianism as such. The reason he hated Peronismo was that it was a mass movement. He didn’t like the masses: He was the kind of senatorial elitist whose chief objection to fascism is that by mobilizing the people it gives them ideas above their station and hands out too many free shirts. When the junta seized power in March 1976, he took the view that they weren’t fascists at all, because the helots weren’t in the picture. Most of the intellectuals of the old conservative stamp declined to cooperate with the new regime, and Sábato behaved particularly well. It need hardly be said that to behave well was not without risk: When everyone was aware of the hideous lengths to which the regime would go against ordinary people whose names meant little, there was never any guarantee that people of prestige would remain exempt.
But there is no evidence that Borges ever felt the need to be afraid. His name and growing international renown were lent to the regime without reserve, either because he approved or—the best that can be said for him—because he was clueless. As the time arrived when not even he could claim blindness to the junta’s war against the innocent, lack of information was what he claimed as an excuse for his previous inertia. Signing the round robin of protest that signaled the end of the regime’s tacit support from the enlightened bourgeoisie—when their children were taken, they woke up—he said that he had not been able to find out about these things earlier. His impatient statement “No leo los diarios” (“I don’t read newspapers”) became famous among his critics as a shameful echo of all those otherwise intelligent Germans who never heard about the extermination camps until it was all over. It was pointed out with some pertinence that his blindness had never stopped him finding out about all the literature in the world. There was a torture center within walking distance of his house, and he had always been a great walker. He could still hear, even if he couldn’t see. There was a lot of private talk that must have been hard to miss; a cocked ear would have heard the screams.
In 1983, after the junta fell, he was finally forced into an acceptance of plebeian democracy, the very thing he had always most detested. A decade of infernal anguish for his beloved country had at last taught him that state terror is more detestable still. It was a hard lesson for a slow pupil. On an international scale, Borges can perhaps be forgiven for his ringing endorsement of Gen. Pinochet’s activities in Chile: After all, Margaret Thatcher seems to have shared his enthusiasm. But within Argentina, there are some distinguished minds that have had to work hard to see their greatest writer sub specie aeternitatis without wishing his pusillanimity to be enrolled along with his prodigious talent. Sábato’s blindness, unlike Borges’, was confined only to the last part of his life, but it was complete enough. His ears, however, remained in good working order, and when the time came he was able to take on the cruel job of writing about the Disappeared—the innocent people whose vanishing took so long to attract Borges’ attention.