Arts & Culture

Borges and the Jews-Part III

In Part I of this series, author Ilan Stavans explored Borges’ self-identification as a Jew. Part II focused on Borges’ infatuation with Kabbalah. Here, Stavans argues that Borges carefully styled himself as a literary son of Jewish precursors. "Each writer … Read More

By / June 30, 2009


In Part I of this series, author Ilan Stavans explored Borges’ self-identification as a Jew. Part II focused on Borges’ infatuation with Kabbalah. Here, Stavans argues that Borges carefully styled himself as a literary son of Jewish precursors.

"Each writer creates his precursors"–Borges Borges was the first, and for a while the only, supporter of Kafka in the Hispanic world. In an essay called "Kafka and His Precursors," published in 1951 and included in Other Inquisitions (1952), Borges writes in Eliot Eeinberger’s rendition: At one time I considered writing a study of Kafka’s precursors. I had thought, at first, that he was as unique as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after spending a little time with him, I felt I could recognize his voice, or his habits, in the texts of various literatures and various ages. Rather than offer a hermeneutic interpretation of Kafka, the essay then concentrates on a catalogue of echoes in Kafka’s work: Zeno’s paradox against motion, a fable by the ninthcentury Chinese author Han Yu, Kierkegaard, the anti-Semite Léon Bloy, and Lord Dunsany. Borges concludes: If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have listed resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This last fact is what is most significant. Kafka’s idiosyncrasy is present in each of those writings, to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had not written, we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist. The poem "Fears and Scrupules" by Robert Browning prophesizes the work of Kafka, but our reading of Kafka noticeably refines and diverts our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we read it now. The word "precursor" is indispensable to the vocabulary of criticism, but one must try to purify it from any connotation of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as well as it will modify the future. In this correlation, the identity or plurality of men doesn’t matter. The first Kafka of "Betrachtung" is less a precursor of the Kafka of the gloomy myths and terrifying institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany. Without a doubt, Borges works to create Kafka as his own precursor: In 1943, Borges introduced, for Editorial Losada in Buenos Aires, Kafka’s La metamorfosis. A few years earlier he talked about him (and about Max Brod) in El Hogar (July 8th, 1938). Borges also included material by Kafka in his Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1940), co-edited with Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, as well as in his compendia Libro del cielo y el infierno (1960, also with Bioy Casares), Libro de los seres imaginarios (1967), and Libro de los sueños (1976). A third and four pieces by Borges on Kafka were in the form of introductions. The third was the fourth title of A Personal Library, Borges’ last editorial project, published between 1985 and 1986 in Argentina and Spain by Emecé and in Italian by Franco Marco Ricci. His selection included Amerika and some short stories. The fourth piece is a prologue he wrote toward the end of his life, as part of a project called The Library of Babel paid by the publisher Ediciones Siruela in Spain from 1978 to 1986. Why Kafka? First, Borges needed to see literature globally. He doesn’t even mention his Czech origins and his German-language style. What matters to him are the reverberations of Kafka’s motifs. Yet, the particular reverberation of Kafka that most interests Borges is, again, the Jewish connection. While he does not approach Kafka in the context of Jewish literature exclusively,  Borges is more interested in the Kafka of the Hassidic parables than the novelist of The Castle. His prologue to Kafka’s tale, The Vulture, offers fresh views on Borges’ opinion not only on the author but on Jews in general.: Everyone knows that Kafka always felt mysteriously guilty toward his father, in the manner of Israel with its God; his Judaism, which separated him from the rest of mankind, affected him in a complex way. The consciousness of approaching death and the feverish exaltation of tuberculosis must have sharpened those faculties… Two ideas-or more exactly, two obsessions-rule Kafka’s work: subordination and the infinite. In almost all his fictions there are hierarchies, and those hierarchies are infinite… A less overt tribute to Kafka than these essays, yet one that is equally significant, appears in the story "The Secret Miracle."  Like "Deutches Requiem," this short story has a single, unifying argument: the last hours of a prisoner about to be executed by the Nazis; and the two focus on a single concept: self-redemption. The former has a Jew as its protagonist, but it is narrated by an omniscient third-person narrator; the latter, instead, has a Nazi as its main character, and it is he who delivers the tale to us. I will discuss "Deutches Requiem" in the next section: here, I want to focus on "The Secret Miracle," which owes much more to Kafka. "The Secret Miracle," was written during World War II and collected in Ficciones as a triptych with Borges’ other Jewish tales: "Emma Zunz" and "Death and the Compass." (I included the three in the anthology Tropical Synagogues [1994]). It is more than a subliminal tribute to one Kafka, dead by then for approximately a couple of decades. The story opens with an epigraph from the Qur’an, 2:261: "And God caused him to die for an hundred years, and then raised him to life. And God said, ‘How long hast thou waited?’ He said, ‘I have waited a day or part of a day’." Borges sets the plot in Prague in 1943. In the first scene Jaromir Hladik, a translator and playwright arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish, is taken to prison. The first scene is emblematic, and highly Kafkaesque: it describes a dream Hladik has of a long chess game in which the opponents have been at each other for such a long time that they have forgotten what prize was to be. Even the rules of the game have been forgotten. Clearly, Borges is setting the stage for a rivalry between Jews and Nazis as ancient as the world itself. It is in his cell where Hladik communicates with God, and this communication is the centripetal force in the argument. Hladik, we find out, is the author an unfinished drama called The Enemies and he knows that, if his life is to have any meaning, it is because of his authorship of this drama. So he requests that God grant him a miracle-a secret miracle, since only he and he alone will know about it. In the final scene, as Hladik faces a German firing squad, the universe comes to a stop: The guns converged on Hladik, but the men who were to kill him stood motionless. The sergeant’s arm eternized an unfinished gesture. On a paving stone of the courtyard a bee cast an unchanging shadow. The wind had ceased, as in a picture… He had asked God for a whole year to finish his work; His omnipotence had granted it. God had worked a secret miracle for him; German lead would kill him at the set hour, but in his mind a year would go by between the order and its execution. In the very last line of the story, Hladik is shot to death on March 29th, at 9:02 A.M. Even though no evidence of a finished manuscript of The Enemies can be found, the prisoner dies satisfied: his life has been justified. His justification, obviously, has to do with immortality, a theme, again, parallel to Kafka’s. Borges’ statement is clear: a writer’s raison d’être is to leave behind the better part of his talent, and to struggle so that that contribution is finished, even if only "ideally." It is clear, to me at least, that in the face of tyranny and death, the Argentine understood what Jews in Europe were about: faith, endurance, and posterity. Isaac Babel Borges’ interest in European Jews and in particular, the Hasidim, led him to a tangential interest in Isaac Babel, another Jewish author with few echoes in the Spanish-speaking world. In a "capsule biography" about him published in 1938 in the magazine El Hogar, to which Borges contributed between 1936 and 1939, he portrays Babel, who was still alive at the time, as a defiant Jew. Herein Esther Allen’s translation: He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaac was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd.

In that capital city "traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews" were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but-implacably-it included Babel. He had to relay on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sebastopol, and on an apocryphal passport. His first writings date from that period: tow or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?) Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution. In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, through not according to the bibliographies, Isaac Babel is still a homo unius libri. His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories-"Salt"-enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart. Years ago I introduced Babel’s stories into a Spanish-speaking audience. (An English version of the introduction to Cuentos de Odesa and Cuentos de Odesa [1993] appears in my book The Inveterate Dreamer [2001].) Borges’ profile is a revelation because no two writers could be more different. Indeed, they are like and oil and water: the Russian, while a meticulous stylist á la Maupassant, focused on the physical (e.g., the Jewish body) and on political and social tensions in the early Soviet Union; the Argentine, instead, was an escapist concerned with the metaphysical. Borges’ understanding of Babel, obviously, comes through secondary sources, as did much of his knowledge in general. Still, even if he had read his stories, and I’m skeptical about it, the connection between them would have remained tenuous. Agnon A stronger, and more vital influence on Borges came from a different direction, Israel, but through the same chain of association: the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe.  Agnon (aka Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes), was an Israeli writer, but among his earliest works was a translation of the Tales of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Whether Borges found Agnon through these tales, or through another means, by the mid-sixties Borges was sufficiently enamoured of Agnon’s writing to devote a series of lectures to him. Delivered  at the Instituto Cultural Argentino-Israelí in Buenos Aires, two of these lectures, one on the Book of Job, the other on Spinoza,  were eventually translated into English. It turns out that there was a third lecture as well.A chance comment with Neal Sokol-included in Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations (2004)-in which I state that Borges never read Shmuel Yosef Agnon, prompted a Canadian friend, Carl Rosenberg, editor of Outlook, to send me, so as to correct my ignorance, a third, previously unknown and significantly shorter lecture by Borges. It was delivered in the same institution in 1967, approximately a year after Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with the German poet Nelly Sachs. In "On Sh. Y. Agnon," which I hereby reconstruct in English (the Spanish transcription is awful), Borges mentions, in passing, Agnon’s edition of the Tales the Ba’al Shem-Tov. He also refers to Days of Awe, which Schocken issued in 1965 in the United States, under the supervision of Nathan Glatzer, with one of those elongated subtitles more suitable for poetry slams than for libraries: "Being a treasury of traditions, legends and learned commentaries concerning Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur and the days between, culled from three hundred volumes, ancient and new". But as the nonbeliever he was-and even less an enthusiast of religious rituals-Borges prefers Contes de Jérusalem (1959), which he read in the French rendition of Rachel and Guy Casaril. The anthology includes nine of Agnon’s tales, among them "Forevermore," "Tehila," "The Whole Loaf," "Ido and Enam," and "Orange Peal: A Fantasy." Here is Borges: I begin with some considerations that run the risk of appearing digressive but which should take us to the essential theme: the personality and oeuvre of our great contemporary, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. My ignorance of Hebrew-ignorance which I deplore but which it’s late to remedy it-has forced me to judge him through Days of Awe, about the Jewish liturgical year; and Contes de Jérusalem. I’ll limit myself to the astonishment I’ve experienced in these volumes, the latter especially. Let me ask a simple yet complex question, which is what all questions are: What is a nation? My first reaction is to offer a geographical answer, but it would be insufficient. Instead, let us envision a nation as the series of memories stored at the heart of a people. George Bernard Shaw was once asked: How much suffering is humankind able to bear? His answer was that the suffering of a single individual is enough and is also the limit. In other words, the limit might be an abstraction, although the suffering itself is real. And so, if misery is impossible to measure in collective terms, how might one define a nation? To me there isn’t a clearer example of a nation than Israel, whose origins are almost confused with those of the world entire, and who reaches us today after much misery and exile. A nation is made of the accumulated memory of successive generations. In itself, memory is often approached in a couple of ways: as a barren collection of dates, names and locations; and as a catalog of curiosities. But there’s another approach neither endorsed by historians, nor by students of folklore: memory as experience incarnated in people. This, precisely, is what I find in Agnon. Contes de Jérusalem ought to be read like one reads Dante: as a series of tales, at once tragic and humorous; and as a set of symbols. Agnon enables us to appreciate ancient Jewish tradition through a game of mirrors. In it he also invites us to recognize the role of Hasidism. Unquestionably, the Hasidic tales compiled by Martin Buber and, in his early years, by Agnon too, left an indelible imprint on him. For instance, "Ido and Enam," filled with mystery, is the bizarre tale of a scholar who, in an act of revelation, sees ninety-nine words of an unknown language. Ninety-nine are also the names of God; the Tetragramaton, which is the hundredth one, is infallible. Indirectly, Agnon recalls in his pages the legend of the Golem, made out of sand by means of words by a Cabalist in Prague’s Jewish quarter. I shall now refer to "The Whole Loaf," a story about chance. It reminds me of Kafka, who is part of Jewish memory too. Agnon chronicles the infinite yet minuscule obstacles undergone by its hungry protagonist as he prepares for the Sabbath. Whereas Kafka was about the lack of hope, or else about a hope so remote it generates in us a terrible feeling of desperation, Agnon is patient: he waits because he’s a believer. Indeed, one of the right decisions the Swedish Academy made recently was not to award its Nobel Prize to a writer of sadness and despair. Instead, it honored one who, like Bernard Shaw, also a laureate, is sensitive to tragedy but knows that a joyful conclusion to the human quest isn’t altogether beyond us. Another story in Contes de Jérusalem is about a country that could be any country. This one in particular is punished with a drought marked by an inexorably blue sky. Furthermore, enemies are always on the attack, the earth is barren and rivers are empty. The population is divided into two parties: on one side are the cover-headed, on the other the naked-headed. [...] The two parties are ready to destroy each other. Yet there’s a single individual who is beyond any affiliation. He furtively leaves the city, praying for God to send a compassionate storm to stop the destruction. When the others find out, they excommunicate him. His sin: not to have alerted the authorities to his wishes. A decision is then made to have everyone build a huge tent for protection from the storm, which must be large enough to cover the entire country. A commission is established to decide what name to give to the tent. Alternative commissions take the responsibility of studying the etymology and orthography of the chosen name. As the population wastes its energy in trivialities, God allows rain to fall-and the barren land is fertilized, just as modern Israel itself was fertilized. I hear a distant echo in Agnon’s story of the Jewish tradition that says that every generation includes a total of thirty-six just men. By the way, this tradition was studied by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend. Unacquainted with one another, these just men navigate the world and are replaced as soon as they die. Right now their dynasty redeems us. Israel’s memory is in Agnon-not an erudite but a living memory. He is known through a pseudonym; he didn’t write for his own vanity. Somehow he knew he was the living memory of that admirable people to which, beyond the vicissitudes of blood, we all belong: the people of Israel. The interest in Agnon is part of Borges’ admiration for Israel as a young nation. His relationship with the Jewish state was ambivalent at first and only in later years-when he himself became an institutional luminary-did he soften his approach to it. It isn’t that Borges was critical of Zionism. In fact, judging by his work, he seems to have a limited knowledge of it. International politics didn’t interest him in the least. He seldom talked about Theodor Herzl, not even about Eliezer ben Yehuda, credited for the modern revival of the Hebrew language. I said before that Borges visited Israel. He was there twice. The second time was in 1971, when he received the Jerusalem Prize. The first trip came at the invitation of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. It was in recognition of his philo-Semitism, and in particular of his positive views on Israel. He had been active in the Casa Argentina en Israel-Tierra Santa, a project that sought to build in Jerusalem an Argentine cultural center. He also was the first to write in Sur (no.254, September-October 1958). In the autobiographical essay published in The New Yorker, Borges stated: Early in 1969, invited by the Israeli government, I spent ten very exciting days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I brought home the conviction of having been in the oldest and the youngest of nations, of having come from a very living, vigilant land to a half-asleep nook of the world. Since my Geneva days, I had always been interested in Jewish culture, thinking of it as an integral element of our so-called Western civilization, and during the Israeli-Arab war of a few years back I found myself taking immediately sides. White the outcome was still uncertain, I wrote a poem on the battle. A week later, I wrote another on the victory. Israel was, of course, still an armed camp at the time of my visit. There, along the shores of Galilee, I kept recalling these lines from Shakespeare: Over whose acres walk’d those blessed feet, Which fourteen hundred years ago, were nail’d For our advantage, on the bitter cross. Actually, Borges wrote three poems while in Israel, collected in  In Praise of Darkness (1969). All were later included in his Obras Completas. These poems have been rendered into English before. Herein my own version. First, "To Israel": Who shall tell if you, Israel, are to be found In the lost labyrinth of secular rivers That is my blood? Who shall locate the places Where my blood and yours have navigated? It doesn’t matter. I know you’re in the Sacred Book that comprehends Time, rescued in history By the red Adam, as well as by the memory And agony of the Crucified One. You’re in the Book that is the mirror Of each face approaching it, As well as God’s face, which, in its complex And hard crystal, is appreciated in terror. Long live Israel, who keeps God’s wall In your passionate battle. "Israel": A man incarcerated and bewitched, a man condemned to be the serpent that keeps the infamous gold, a man condemned to be Shylock, a man wandering through the globe, knowing he had been in Paradise, an old and blind man who ought to tear down the temple columns, a face condemned to be a mask, a man who in spite of humankind is Spinoza and the Baal Shem and the Kabbalists, a man that is a Book, a mouth praising heaven’s justice from the abyss, an attorney or a dentist who talked with God in a mountain, a man condemned to ridicule and abomination, a Jew, an ancient man, burnt and drowned in lethal chambers, an obstinate man who is immortal and now has returned to battle, to the violent light of victory, beautiful like a lion at noon. And "Israel, 1969": I feared Israel would be threatened, with sweet insidious, by the nostalgia that secular diasporas accumulated, like sorrowful treasure, in the cities of the infidel, the juderías, the twilight of the steppe, the dreams- the nostalgia of those who, near the waters of Babylon, longed for you, Jerusalem. What else were you, Israel, if not that nostalgia, the will to safe-keep, from the inconstant shapes of time, your old magical book, your liturgy, your solitude with God? I was wrong. The oldest of nations is also the youngest. You haven’t been tempted by gardens, otherness and boredom, but by the rigor of the last frontier. Israel has announced, without words: you shall forget who you are- you shall leave behind your previous self. You shall forget who you were in those lands that gave you their afternoons and mornings and which you shall no longer cherish. You shall forget your parents’ tongue and learn the tongue of Paradise. You shall be an Israeli. You shall be a soldier. You shall build the homeland with swamps, you shall erect it in deserts. You brother shall work with you, he whose face you haven’t seen before. Only one thing is promised: your place in the battlefield. There’s a strange, triumphant, pompous (almost unBorgesian) tone and tune to these poems. They eulogize the Six-Day War figuratively, in the abstract, without placing it in context: The oldest of nations is also the youngest. Whoever is interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict won’t get an uninterested picture though them. Instead, the reader appreciates a blind fervor. In these poems, the political Borges, a Borges I will discuss in the next section, makes one of his earliest appearances.

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Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement. His work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995) and comic strips in the case of Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000). Stavans is editor of several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998). A selection of his work appeared in 2000 under the title The Essential Ilan Stavans. In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been the recipient of international prizes and honors, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction