Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Borges against Peron: A Contextual Approach to "El Fin"

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Borges against Peron: A Contextual Approach to "El Fin"

Article excerpt

"El fin" is possibly the least studied of all the stories in Borges's Ficciones. It is at first sight a very slight tale in which Borges chose to alter the ending of Jose Hernandez's classic poem El gaucho Martin Fierro (1872; 1879). Its kinship with "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" is not hard to see: Pierre Menard sets out to "re-write" Cervantes's Don Quixote word for word, whilst in "El fin" Borges re-writes the ending of the Martin Fierro. Both stories call into question the unique authority of a literary classic and insinuate that even the most revered of authors may in the end be not much different from any other author, thereby exemplifying one of Borges's favourite themes, the arbitrary or illusory nature of personal identity. The questioning of an author's status as the sole originator of meaning also entails a severing of the text from its context, for if the author is no longer a privileged authority, then the context in which the work was written cannot be privileged either.

These ideas were a feature of Borges's writing well before Roland Barthes declared the "death of the author," (1) but, even so, Borges also held to a belief that there was an expressionist, autobiographical basis to all writing, including his own, and even in old age he would insist that "the stories were about me, about my personal experiences." (2) These rather conflicting positions sprang from an ever-present tension that is evident at the very core of his work between a desire to discover and affirm a destiny, a true self, and a horror of what he called "the nothingness of personality." (3) The fluctuations between self and non-self varied in intensity according to circumstances, both personal and political, but they help to define three broad periods in his career: in his youth he believed passionately in the need to capture the self fully in his writing; in middle age, his sense of the nullity of personal identity tended to predominate; and in old age he returned to a more positive, though much attenuated, belief in selfhood, and sought to recover a creative role for the author. (4) It is the work of the middle period, especially Ficciones, El Aleph and Otras inquisiciones, that has overwhelmingly attracted the attention of critics, but this period, I believe, needs to be related to the earlier and later periods in order to arrive at a fuller and more finely-differentiated understanding of Borges's aims and achievements. The contextualization of his work is an essential element in this process, and in this essay I hope to demonstrate that a contextual approach can generate new perspectives and new readings without detracting from the philosophical and theoretical dimensions of his writing. (5)

Borges himself contributed to the general blurring of context because of his habit of adding stories, essays and poems to later editions of already published collections. "El fin" is a case in point: it is now an integral component of Ficciones, which first came out in 1944, but the story was actually published for the first time in the newspaper La Nacion on 11 October 1953, and was only added to Ficciones in its second edition, which appeared in 1956. However, once we situate "El fin" chronologically, we can begin to appreciate its special place in Borges's oeuvre: it was the very last to be written of the stories collected in Ficciones and El Aleph, and he would not publish another story for the next sixteen years. Thus, "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote" and "El fin" were, respectively, the first and last in the range of stories that Borges published in the 1940s and early 1950s, but even though the re-writing of a canonical book is a feature the two stories have in common, the significance of this re-writing is considerably different in the later story, and cannot be properly understood unless "El fin" is seen in the context of Borges's opposition to the regime of Juan Domingo Peron.

Borges's choice of El gaucho Martin Fierro as the principal intertext for "El fin" was deeply political, for this famous gauchesque poem had been a bone of contention over the question of national identity since the early twentieth century. …

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