Arts & Culture

Borges and the Jews-Part IV

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

By / July 8, 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. In Part III, Stavans argued that Borges carefully styled himself as a literary son of Jewish precursors. Here, Stavans demonstrates that the so-called "apolitical" Borges was deeply engaged in fighting Nazism, and that this engagement developed Borges’ belief in a universal "man"–the idea that all of us are "wandering Jews." Who shall tell me if you, Israel, are to be found in the lost labyrinth of the secular rivers that is my blood? -J.L.B., "To Israel" The consensus among Borges’ biographers and critics is that he was deeply apolitical and that, throughout his life, he remained disengaged with, even apathetic to, local, national, and international affairs. There is some truth to this position, but taking it at face values runs the risk of oversimplifying his position. It is true that Borges was, especially in his adolescence, a dilettante à la Oscar Wilde minus the ornamental outspokenness. But he invariably managed to volunteer political comments on current events, even if these comments were saturated with sarcasm and parody, which at times made them appear to be the remarks of an amateur. And yet, they were quite forceful, not to say acerbic. For instance, Borges denounced Hitler almost from the start, decrying the arrival of Nazism as a catastrophe for German culture. A partial yet enlightening record of his opinions is to be found Selected Nonfiction, edited by Eliot Weinberger. It includes a full section devoted to the years 1937-1945. Many of the pieces in it are well known to English-language readers, but a handful are not; and a few among them are hereby translated for the first time. Of the entire bunch, only a small portion address the events in Europe; still, they are significant in that they allow a glimpse of Borges’ beliefs and the trenchant style with which he debunked nasty stereotypes. In one, "A Pedagogy of Hatred," he attacks the publication in Germany of the children’s book Trau keinem Fuchs auf gruener Heid und keinem Jud bei seinem Eid [Don't Trust Any Fox from a Heath or Any Jew on his Oath], which, according to the Argentine, "has already sold 51,000 copies." He adds: "Displays of hatred are even more obscure and denigrating than exhibitions," then proceeds to dissect the anti-Semitic volume. Herein the translation by Suzanne Jill Levine included in Weinberger’s Selected Non-Fiction: Take any page: for example, page 5. Here I find, not without justifiable bewilderment, this didactic poem-"The German is a proud man who knows how to work and struggle. Jews detest him because he is so handsome and enterprising"-followed by an equally informative and explicit quatrain: "Here’s a Jew, recognizable to all, the biggest scoundrel in the whole kingdom. He thinks he’s wonderful, and he’s horrible." The engravings are more astute: the German is a Scandinavian, eighteen-year-old athlete, plainly portrayed as a worker; the Jew is a dark Turk, obese and middle-aged. Another sophistic feature is that the German is clean-shaven and the Jew, while bald, is very hairy. (It is well known that German Jews are Ashkenazim, copper-haired Slavs. In this book they are presented as dark half-breeds so that they’ll appear to be the exact opposite of the blond beasts. Their attributes also include the permanent use of a fez, a rolled cigar, and ruby rings.) Borges ends his exposition as follows: "What can one say about such a book? Personally, I am outraged, less for Israel’s sake than for Germany’s, less for the offended community than for the offensive nation." The list of Borges’ anti-Nazi nonfiction rejoinders includes another piece, this one drafted in 1938, where he complains of the fact that in a revised edition done by Johannes Rohr to Geschichte der deutschen National-Literatur, by A.F.C. Vilmar, a number of entries on Goethe, Lessing, and Nietzsche have been mutilated, and the catalogue that includes seven hundred authors "incredibly, silences the name of Heine." The Argentine was an unequivocal admirer of German literature and was distressed by its decline. "I don’t know if the world can do without German civilization, he wrote in the high-brow magazine Sur, edited by his loyal friend and admirer, Victoria Ocampo; and, in another issue of the same journal, he stated: "It is unarguable that a [German] victory would see the ruin and debasement of the world." Obviously, this type of erudite judgment could only have a limited impact on public opinion. Still, Borges, perhaps because no other channel fitted him well, regularly used the word -printed, oral-to denounce the excesses of fascism. And yet, the outside world succeeded in reminding him that Germanophilia was on the rise in Argentina. In 1939 a small incident, narrated without consequence by some biographers, brought the war closer to home. In Punte del Este, Uruguay, the British attempted to sink the Graf Spee, a German battleship. The ship took refuge in Montevideo but was dispelled by the Uruguayan government, at the time in support of the Allies. The British fleet awaited the ship, which the German crew itself eventually sank and the Germans escaped to Argentina. This result was discouraging, but to Borges and others, it only confirmed the country’s endorsement of Nazism. This openness to receiving refugees from Germany would continue until after World War II, when former officers and soldiers, with fake passports, were allowed entrance and protection, at times making a life in the same neighborhoods where survivors of concentration camps and other Jewish refugees had moved. Probably the most famous of these is Adolf Eichman, whose case became a cause célèbre when, having been located by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the Israeli Secret Service Mossad, in a thunderbolt rescue operation, flew him out of Argentina and into Israel before the news was made public worldwide. Finally, in an essay of 1940 that is probably the most important one-surely the most discussed-by the Argentine on the topic, called "Definition of a Germanophile," Borges openly ridiculed "Germanophiles" [germanófilos] in his country. He portrayed them as monstrous people whose knowledge of German civilization is sketchy at best and who indulge in obvious acts of censorship of the most egregious form of their own culture, often verging on Anglophobia as they foolishly describe the excesses of the English people in Europe. These Germanophiles, Borges states, are nothing but admirers of Hitler, "not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments." He then adds: He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because of the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtues… The Hitlerist is always a spiteful man, and a secret and sometimes public worshiper of criminal ‘vivacity’ and cruelty. He is, thanks to a poverty of imagination, a man who believes that the future cannot be different from the present, and that Germany, till now victorious, cannot lose. He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side. By the time the war ended, Borges was forty-six. He greeted the news of the liberation of Paris with a sense of inexhaustible exhilaration. That exhilaration he articulated in full in an essay that has been insufficiently read, and even less often studied in detail: "A Comment on August 23, 1944." In it Borges discusses the multiple contradictions of the many Argentineans that supported Nazism. He lists their contradictions, which he prefers to call "incoherences." I hereby list a handful: they adore the German race, but they abhor "Saxon" America; they condemn the articles of Versailles, but they applaud the wonders of the Blitzkrieg; they are anti-Semitic, but they profess a religion of Hebrew origin; … [and] they idolize San Martín, but they regard the independence of America as a mistake. The last paragraph of the essay reverberates in Borges’ fiction, as I will show later: For Europeans and Americans, one order and only one is possible; it used to be called Rome, and now it is called Western Culture. To be a Nazi (to play the energetic barbarian, Viking, Tartar, sixteenth-century conquistador, gaucho, or Indian) is, after all, mentally and morally impossible. Nazism suffers from unreality, like [John Scotus] Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound or kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules. The italicized sentence–"Hitler wants to be defeated"–by Borges himself, is, in my eyes, a paradigm: Hitler wanted to succeed in his campaign to dominate the planet, the Argentine argues, yet, upon realizing that the endeavor is impossible, he deliberately sought to be crushed, e.g., he indulged in an effort that could only culminate in his own defeat. For this defeat Hitler saw as a triumph: a triumph of evil over good, a triumph of barbarism over civilization. The paradigm is best articulated in another aspect of Borges’ response to Nazism: his fiction. I shall now devote my attention to it, but not before offering a handful of comments that should serve as counterpoint to the inventory of quotes and reflections I’ve submitted so far. While in his nonfiction the Argentine regularly discussed the impact of fascism at home, in his stories he took a different route: every tale on the subject is set in Europe, from Czechoslovakia to Germany itself. Why is this so? Perhaps because these stories allowed Borges to tackle the issue frontally, to go to the source; and because he knew well that, since these pieces were in Spanish, their immediate impact would take place in Argentina. Another significant feature is that none of these fictions takes place inside a concentration camp, nor do they make reference to gas chambers or any other method of extermination. And yet, they tackle the Holocaust fearlessly, in a fashion far more overt that almost anything produced by Argentine literati in those decades. "Deutches Requiem" is a Holocaust story, yet also, curiously, a story about faith, endurance, and posterity-but of a different sort. As fiction it is flawed, yet it contains the seed of a more mature, developed viewpoint by Borges than the majority of the nonfiction pieces about the war that I listed above. He drafted "Deutches Requiem" a bit later than "The Secret Miracle" and it was collected in his subsequent collection of stories: The Aleph (1949). In the story, Otto Dietrich zur Linde, the narrator, is a former German officer who in his youth was an avid reader of Schopenhauer and a listener of Brahms but whot, somehow, became attached to the Nazi party, rising in 1941 to become subdirector of the Tarnowitz concentration camp. Zur Linde, from his cell, offers a diatribe about the battle for Nazi supremacy of the globe and, thus, delivers a justification to Hitler’s actions. Borges, of course, uses the character as a springboard to explore the psyche of a "Germanophile." Toward the last third of the story, though, Zur Linde comes across a camp inmate who changes forever his views: the famous poet David Jerusalem. Is it emblematic that none of these characters, Zur Linde and Jerusalem-and Hladik too, for that matter-are real-life individuals? By all means: Borges prefers to work on composites, seeking to define archetypal figures that represent not one single person but humanity as a whole. This quality of unreality is, in fact, what the Argentine is after: a sense that people are not as different from one another as they might believe themselves to be; instead, that they are version, or at best variations, of a Platonic ideal. The following lines, in a footnote by an anonymous editor in "Deutches Requiem" (it is Borges himself, of course), ratify this assumption: In neither the files nor the published work of Sögel does Jerusalem’s name appear. Nor does one find it in the histories of German literature. I do not, however, think that this is an invented figure. Many Jewish intellectuals were tortured in Tarnowitz on the orders of Otto Dietrich zur Linde, among them the pianist Emma Rosenzweig. "David Jerusalem" is perhaps a symbol for many individuals. We are told that he died on March 1, 1943; on March 1, 1939, the narrator had been wounded at Tilsit. [Ed.] In any event, the protagonist says of Jerusalem that he was "the prototypical Sephardic Jew, although he belonged to the depraved and hated Ashkenazim." He becomes obsessed with his victim: the talent of his hexameters, the capacity to consecrate his genius to hymns of happiness. His obsession and his admiration accentuate his repulsion. In due time, he drives Jerusalem insane, and forces him to commit suicide. By killing Jerusalem, zur Linde trusts that he will able to eradicate his own compassion. But sooner rather than later he realizes that what we must detest in the outer world has a chamber in our own soul; that those we hold as victims are actually an essential part of ourselves. It is here where the italicized sentence from Borges’ above-mentioned essay "A Comment on August 23, 1944" acquires its full meaning. Hitler wants to be defeated: as the Nazi ponders his own destiny, he acknowledges that everything in the universe that is evil is the reverse of good and, therefore, Nazism and Judaism are two sides of the same coin. He also admits that Hitler not only brought along, but also wanted, his own ruin. Worse even, he announces that the Führer did not fight for the German nation only but for all nations–since every man is all men, each of us simultaneously beautiful and abominable. Peronismo

This paradox is an attractive idea, which, unfortunately, history often corroborates. Hitler’s demise, for instance, coincided, on the Argentinian national front, with the ascent to power of Juan Domingo Perón, another brutal dictator, one with deceitful Socialist aspirations; thus, the era of Peronismo begun, and in it Borges once again was, willy-nilly, an active participant. Perón emulated Mussolini and other European tyrants by instigating rowdy youthful groups and by channeling their impetus against Jewish targets, from student groups to full-fledge institutions. During the first of his two regimes, between 1943 and 1945, a series of anti-Semitic events orchestrated by the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista took place, in Buenos Aires in particular. The endorsement of Nazi values by Perón and his followers was disturbing to Borges, by then a celebrity among a small but solid intellectual elite, and also among a few fans in France. In a series of declarations, he showed signs of deep concern: "The situation in Argentina," he said, "is very serious, so serious that a great number of Argentines are becoming Nazis without being aware of it. Tempted by promises of social reform-in a society that undoubtedly needs a better organization than the one it now has-many people are letting themselves be seduced by an outsize wave of hatred that is sweeping the country. It is a terrible thing, similar to what happened at the beginning of fascism and Nazism [in Europe]." It was during this period that Borges not only suffered public affront, as one peronista after another attacked or ridiculed him; he also was the target of personal humiliation. His mother and sister were arrested and put in prison for a brief period of time, and he himself was demoted from librarian at the Miguel Cané Public Library to the job of inspector of poultry and rabbits in the municipal market of Calle Córdoba, a gesture by the tyrant’s entourage of the kind of respect that a figure like Borges truly deserved. Borges’ reaction, in return, was, as expected, nothing short of dignified: he never lost his composure as he transformed this affront, though metaphor, into a lucid assemblage of essays and stories. Among them was a collaboration with his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonym of H. Bustos Domecq called "Monsterfest" (La fiesta del monstruo) and published in 1955. A handful of Perón’s supporters saw their idol equated to Hitler and, at a time of international remorse about the excesses of Nazism, were offended by it. But they were more offended by the man of letters himself, who, in their view, refused to recognize Perón as the carrier of una nueva Argentina. None of this deterred Borges in his quest to unveil the brutal side of the nation’s populist leader, nor did it diminish his love for one of Perón’s guinea pigs: the Jews. The Xeroxed Jew In a conversation of 1978, by then old and blind, Borges stated (and I translate): "The preeminence of the Jewish in Western Civilization has to do with the fact that a Jew, aside from being English, French, German or whatever, is always a Jew. He is not tied by any form of loyalty or especial tradition, which allows him to innovate in science and the arts. In that sense, to be an Argentine offers an advantage similar to that of the Jew." By this he meant that Argentines might be Hispanic Americans but also and more emphatically, citizens of the world. To which he added the following in a conversation with Antonio Carrizo four years later: "There are some people that see the Jew as a problem. I see in him a solution." This view is manifested, as an esthetic doctrine, in a lecture Borges delivered in Buenos Aires in 1951, called "The Argentine Writer and Tradition." In part, he was responding to T.S. Eliot’s own views included in his 1919 piece "Tradition and the Individual Talent." But there’s much more, including his intention to revamp Argentine letters from the bottom up. In the lecture he described the local writer in derogatory terms. He said: "The native Argentine, in my understanding, is sardonic, suspicious, over and above everything without illusions, and so utterly lacking in verbal grandiosity that in few can it be forgiven and in none extolled." Borges wondered what are the themes the Argentine writer should address. He answered by discussing a tangential argument in Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which Gibbon suggests that "in the Arabian book par excellance, in the Koran, there are no camels." Borges argues: I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camel, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels. I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color. Borges wished to see his own role in the world beyond the ghettoized confines of regionalism. By the way, it is the exact same feeling he projects toward the English language: it wasn’t his fully, but he would do anything possible to appropriate it. And indeed, his fiction is filled with local types, but their presence is sheer artifice. He turned these local types into a Platonic archetype. And therein his most enduring contribution: he showed that in Latin America, all of us are Xerox copies of a European original, yet in a relativistic world where nothing feels authentic anymore, a Xerox is equally, if not more, valuable than the so-called original.

The Buenos Aires lecture includes a bonus: What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be solved. I believe that our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which the inhabitants of one Western nation or another may have. Here I remember an essay by Thorstein Veblen, the North American sociologist, on the intellectual preeminence of Jews in Western culture. He wonders if this preeminence authorizes us to posit an innate Jewish superiority and answers that it does not; he says that Jews are prominent in Western culture because they act within that culture and at the same time do not feel bound to it by any special devotion; therefore, he says, it will always be easier for a Jew than for a non-Jew to make innovations in Western culture. In admiring the Jew as a wandering type, Borges sought to promote the type of literature unconfined to borders, a literature beyond patriotism-universal, belonging to everyone. That universality, in his eyes, was Jewish. What he strove for, as the Xeroxed Jew that he was, was to make the patrimony of the Argentine writer not a little piece of land near the South Pole but the globe entire. And, through his effort, he wanted to be within that culture and at the same time not to feel bound to it. Toward the end of the lecture, he asked his fellow Argentine writers to be bold, innovative, and free, just as Jews in Western culture were. "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 inescapable act of fate-and in that case we shall be so in all events-or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask." #

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