How Borges Taught Me to Embrace My Jewish Heritage
"Borges was my rabbinical master in a Yeshiva the Size of the Globe"
On June 16th, 1986, the day after Borges died, I was in Buenos Aires. I had saved enough money to buy myself a plane ticket to Argentina, hoping to visit him. The purpose of my journey was far more ambitious: to acquaint myself with Jewish life in the Southern Cone. But in my eyes, Borges, in spite of his not being Jewish, was the epicenter of that life. Throughout his career, he had written admirable pieces on Kafka, Spinoza, and the Golem. He had visited Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize and had identified with the youthful Jewish state in its struggle for existence in an unwelcoming Middle East. Far more important, his sensibility was Jewish: his inexhaustible memory; his passion for reading; his commitment to the treacherousness of translation; his ever-expanding polyglotism; and his understanding that cosmopolitanism, not nationalism, is the only panacea to the malaise of modern life.
Like most admirers, I knew that the prior November Borges had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. But unbeknownst to me was the fact that he, along with María Kodama, his 40-year-old former student and now wife of eight weeks, had moved to Geneva. In my youthful mind—I had turned 25 in April—Borges was immortal. No other author, dead and alive, had influenced me more profoundly. I knew his oeuvre almost as if I had written it myself. I could recite his poems “Emerson,” “General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage,” “To Whoever Is Reading Me,” and “The Moon.” After nights of scrutinizing their actions, I had made his protagonists Pierre Menard, Erik Lönrrot, Jaromir Hladík, Emma Zunz, and the magus in “The Circular Ruins,” close friends of mine, to the point of holing conversations with them. His essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” was written as a response of sorts to T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and, as I saw it, was a manifesto: no artist, it stated, should be confined to the landscape in which he came of age. That landscape is a trampoline, not a prison.
It was thus a surprise when, upon walking to a newspaper kiosk in the corner of Calles Suipacha and Corrientes, near the modest Buenos Aires hotel I was staying in, I read the loud headlines: Borges muere en Ginebra. He had passed away the morning prior in Geneva, Switzerland—purposely far from home, since he was distraught with Argentina, a country that, at the end of the 20th century, seemed more parochial than ever. My desire to connect with him was misguided. Some years earlier, I had attended a couple of events of his in Mexico (one at the Ollín Yollitzli Auditorium, in which he shared the stage, if I remember accurately, with Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, and Günter Grass, among others), and, on an earlier visit to Buenos Aires, walked the streets with him and visited his apartment.
Maybe I needed to forget his oeuvre, to distance myself, to become free.
Not this time… As I walked around retracing his path, in tribute to him, while reciting to myself lines of his work I had memorized (“Yo camino por Buenos Aires y me demoro, acaso ya mecánicamente, para mirar el arco de un zaguán y la puerta cancel; de Borges tengo noticias por el correo y veo su nombre en una terna de profesores o en un diccionario biográfico”), I realized that Borges’s death was also my beginning. It is only so much that a young writer might burden himself with when it comes to recognizing the impact of his predecessor. Maybe I needed to forget his oeuvre, to distance myself, to become free. Surely I had tried before. Years later, I chronicled my odyssey this way in my memoir, On Borrowed Words (2001), written during a year-long stay in London:
When I began to write, Borges had a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea—the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so disinterested in systematic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself—or rather, it used to perceive itself—as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best.
As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, English, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, were his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences in literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from “Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller”—in Spanish its title is infinitely better: “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista”—by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litterateur was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!
Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else—or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s China. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical works burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, “The Wall and the Books,” about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by the campaign to burn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over.
Heinrich Heine said: “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” After the book burning, my infatuation, I confess, remained. Within a few months of my arrival to the United States, I already had acquired inexpensive English translations of various volumes, Ficciones among them. In fact, reading Borges in Shakespeare’s tongue was a revelation. Since he had been close to English from an early age, it appeared to me (it still does) that his oeuvre is written in Spanish through the filter of English. That is, it feels as if it was conceived in one language but executed in another. The effect is stunning: the art of translation is in its DNA, even when it doesn’t address the topic in upfront fashion. As a Mexican in New York with only sparse knowledge of el inglés, yet hoping not to become a pariah, an appendix, delving into Borges’s writing using the words of my new habitat was comforting. It granted me a refuge, an opportunity to feel at home away from my native home.
I had been born into a Jewish household. My parents were children of immigrants from the Pale of Settlement (Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine). My first languages were Yiddish and Spanish. In my youth, I had fervently rebelled against my Jewish education, which felt parochial. I wanted to be a citizen of the world, not of a little house in the southern part of Mexico City. I burnt by vessels, traveling to Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. I wanted little to do with being un judío and un mexicano. Since I dreamed of becoming a writer, I wrote incessantly, looking for my own voice.
Voice in literature is inevitably attached to place. The more we dream of the universe, the clearer and more significant our own immediate landscape becomes. My journeys brought me back home because home is where one’s doubts originated. I was ashamed—maybe the right term is “terrified”—that I didn’t love Mexico enough, that I could leave it in order to find answers elsewhere. And I was ashamed that my education hadn’t made me fully Jewish, for if it had, why was I questioning my heritage?
The more we dream of the universe, the clearer and more significant our own immediate landscape becomes.
I hadn’t been a voracious reader before my departure. Upon returning, I sought answers in books. Eventually I found Borges. At first I felt repelled: he was too arrogant, too egotistical. Yet wasn’t I too? I found his stories on compadritos, orilleros, and Tango personae contrived; I preferred his explorations of time and the infinite. Then it dawned on me: the two were sides of the same coin. Borges delved into his own milieu to understand his own heritage and he placed that heritage in a larger scale. It was stumbling across “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” that I finally came to understand him, or at least had the illusion of it. My recognition of my own place in the world came when he writes that Jews feel an almost religious devotion to culture because they “do not feel bound” by any devotion to that culture.
I indeed didn’t feel bound by my either my Jewishness or my Mexicanness. Borges taught me this was fine. Actually, he showed me it was an advantage: not to feel bound is to be free.
Me sentí libre, I was free. I could now be Mexican and Jewish by choice, not by force. I repeat a few lines from Borges’s essay that I have already quoted. In them he talks as an Argentine: “I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to that tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have.” He adds: “I believe that we Argentines, we South Americans in general… can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already does have, fortunate consequences.” His conclusion is remarkable: “Anything we Argentine writers can do successfully will become part of our Argentine tradition, in the same way that the treatment of Italian themes belongs to the tradition of England through the efforts of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”
Yes, anything I do successfully belongs to me as well as to the world’s tradition. Defeat is an essential part of literature: one needs to start by recognizing how fragile, how limited one’s own viewpoint is. Yet there is contentment in defeat. I don’t need to write in order to be part of a club; my work, if it has any merit, shall make the confines of that club less constraining, more elastic. That’s because my own tradition is the world’s tradition. Nothing should be strange to me: I shouldn’t feel like an alien anywhere. Years later, I came across a line by Robert Louis Stevenson that ratified this belief and became a kind of mantra: “There is no foreign land; it is the traveler only who is foreign.”
I owed Borges my gratitude. I wanted to meet it. I had seen him a couple of times in Mexico in large events and didn’t have the time to talk to him in detail. So I sought him out in Buenos Aires… but arrived too late.
When I found out that he was no longer in and of this world, I let myself loose in Buenos Aires, teary-eyed, wandering—and wondering—without goal through city streets, retracing my affinity with the master, contemplating my own future as a novice, realizing my dialogue with him would forever be a private affair.
His work has been a map for me. It might seem ironic that a non-Jew would teach a Jew to recognize his own heritage. But isn’t that what we Jews have always done, shaping our sense of self according to the needs of the environment? (Jean-Paul Sartre’s slim book Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) comes to mind, in which the French philosopher argues, polemically, that Jews need anti-Semites to be themselves and vice versa.) Borges was my rabbinical master in a Yeshiva the size of the globe and I his tentative pupil.
From BORGES, THE JEW. Used with permission of SUNY Press. Copyright © 2016 by Ilan Stavans.