Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In Praise of Mistranslation: The Melancholy Cosmopolitanism of Jorge Luis Borges

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In Praise of Mistranslation: The Melancholy Cosmopolitanism of Jorge Luis Borges

Article excerpt

Jorge Luis Borges, we are told, devoted the last few weeks of his life to learning Arabic, with the help of an Egyptian teacher living in Switzerland. (1) In this most appropriately enigmatic of Borgesian endings, it is tempting to read two contradictory aspects of Borges. On the one hand, this sense of an ending is in character with Borges the unrelenting cosmopolitan, who would die far from his native Buenos Aires, and who, having mastered English and Spanish since birth, French, German and Latin in his teenage years in Geneva, Italian along the way, (2) and old Norse in his sixties, was attempting, in the face of death, to acquire the rudiments of an ultimate, and ultimately foreign, language. On the other hand, this exemplary anecdote leaves us with the much more melancholy image of an old man defeated. How much of the Arabic language could an eighty-seven year old blind man, dying of liver cancer, hope to learn in a few lessons?

This study attempts to explore this sort of duality in some of Borges's writings, with particular emphasis on the story translated as "Averroes' Search" (first published in Sur in 1947, then included in El Aleph in 1949), and on the essay written shortly thereafter, "The Argentine Writer and Tradition." The essay proudly claims cosmopolitanism as the quintessential dimension of the writer's experience. Borges refuses to be limited to narrowly local or national themes and characters, but instead borrows from all periods of history and all cultures. "Our patrimony is the universe," (3) he boldly asserts: the essay claims for the Argentine writer the right and indeed the privilege to derive inspiration and find subjects in any culture he chooses, a declaration that flew in the face of the nationalistic politics of literature at that time in Peron's Argentina. Originally given as a lecture in 1951, the essay is Borges's response to criticism that demonized him as a foreigner, a "European," indifferent to and ignorant of the local reality--attacks coming from both sides of the political spectrum which would dog him all his life. (4) Borges argues that the Argentine writer's marginal status with respect to the Western tradition is what paradoxically enables him to play freely with all world literature: "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" (Labyrinths, p. 184). (5) Borges compares the situation of Argentines (of Latin Americans in general) to that of Jews with respect to Western culture, or Irish writers with respect to English literature--feeling marginal, he claims, enables them to be innovative. Decades before Deleuze and Guattari's influential theory of litterature mineure (minor literature, defined by the French philosophers as "celle qu'une minorite fait dans une langue majeure"), (6) Borges develops the same idea--that the artist's marginality is a prerequisite for his universality. To the extent that it is remote and postcolonial, the literature of Argentina achieves the "deterritorialization" that Deleuze and Guattari see as characteristic of minor literature. Although Deleuze and Guattari do not quote Borges in their essay, their idea of minor literature is practically identical to Borges's marginal universality: "Kafka dit precisement qu'une litterature mineure est beaucoup plus apte a travailler la matiere," (7) they write. As to Beckett and Joyce, "tous deux, Irlandais, sont dans les conditions geniales d'une litterature mineure. C'est la gloire d'une telle litterature d'etre mineure, c'est-a-dire revolutionnaire pour toute litterature." (8) Thus Borges defiantly turns a handicap into an asset, while also claiming for himself a kinship with the writers he admires, Joyce, Kafka and other "marginals" whose irreverence became a source of innovation. (9)

Other famous essays by Borges also promote cosmopolitanism. …

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