John, Paul, Jorge, and Ringo: Borges, Beatles, and the Metaphor of Celebrity Crucifixion

Article excerpt

Sometime around 13 April 1969, Jorge Luis Borges completed " The Gospel According to Mark, dictated to a secretary at the National Library in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (1) The story, set in rural Argentina, chronicles the events leading up to the crucifixion of a Buenos Aires medical student at the hands of a family of rustic and illiterate gauchos and was one of the first new fictions to be completed by Borges following the onset of his blindness and international fame in the late 1950s. (2) On possibly the very next day, 14 April, John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles met at EMI studios in London to record Lennon's new song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a retelling, albeit with several liberties taken, of the events surrounding John's recent marriage to Yoko Ono and the couple's internationally publicized honeymoon peace demonstrations in the spring of that year. (3) Featuring the controversial chorus, "Christ, you know it ain't easy, you know how hard it can be/The way things are going they re going to crucify me," the single would be released in the United Kingdom by Apple Records on 30 May and on 4 June in the United States. (4) By the time Borges's story finally appeared in English translation in the New Yorker magazine in October of 1971, The Beatles had been disbanded for more than a year, and Lennon, anxious to reinvent himself as a solo artist and escape the trappings of Beatlemania, had immigrated to America and taken up new residence with Ono in Manhattan. (5) Borges would decide to sever ties with his translator only a few months later. (6) These two narratives, then, clearly represent significant turning points in the careers of their respective authors, but given the two-and-a-half-year gap between their premieres in mainstream popular culture, similarities between "The Gospel According to Mark" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko" would have gone largely unnoticed by contemporary audiences. Consequently, their thematic analogues and almost-synchronous completion might seem at first glance to offer little more than an interesting set of coincidences. As Borges himself would continuously express in his fiction, however, such coincidences are often of far greater importance than they initially appear, implicating the presence of complex and far-reaching phenomena. (7)

Despite differences in age, culture, and genre between the two figures--one a timid sixty-nine-year-old blind Argentinean writer and the other a sometimes-snide twenty-eight-year-old British rock star--pairing the lives and works of Lennon and Borges consequently reveals a profound series of parallels between their personal interests and public experiences as revered celebrity artists in the late 1960s. (8) Throughout their careers, both writers incorporated prominent autobiographical threads in their works, exemplified in Lennon's oeuvre by the personal, confessional mode of songwriting he adopts in The Beatles songs "Help!," "In My Life," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Getting Better," and "The Ballad of John and Yoko," an approach later refined in solo recordings such as "God," "Oh Yoko!," and "Mother." Lennon's well-known blurring of fact and fiction finds a counterpart in Borges, who explores this narrative technique to an even further degree, having once claimed during a lecture that he had "never created a character. It's always me, subtly disguised.... I can't invent people. I'm always myself, the same self in different times or places, but always, irreparably, incurably, myself." (9) His story "The South," for instance, is a fictionalization of a life-threatening injury he suffered on Christmas Eve in 1938, and the poor eyesight he struggled with throughout his life is manifested in symbols of darkness and blindness within writings such as "The Aleph," "The Maker," and "Pedro Salvadores." (10)

Furthermore, Borges's and Lennon's narratives demonstrate a shared interest in the construction and mutability of identity, themes exemplified in Borges's short stories "The Circular Ruins" and "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz," the latter of which portrays a soldier who refuses to capture a hunted outlaw after meeting the fugitive and coming to understand "that one destiny is no better than another . …