"El Oriente" by Jorge Luis Borges: A Poetic Bouquet and Emblem of the East

By Fiddian, Robin | The Romanic Review, March-May 2007 | Go to article overview

"El Oriente" by Jorge Luis Borges: A Poetic Bouquet and Emblem of the East


Fiddian, Robin, The Romanic Review


In the system of knowledge about the Orient, the Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone's work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these (Edward Said, Orientalism, Chapter 2, Part IV).

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A noteworthy feature of recent scholarship devoted to the work of Jorge Luis Borges has been an interest in the connection between his prose writings (mainly), and the subjects of the Orient and Orientalism. In 1991 Julia Kushigian blazed a significant trail in the field with her book, Orientalism in the Hispanic Literary Tradition. In Dialogue with Borges, Paz, and Sarduy. (1) Responding to Edward Said's seminal study, Orientalism: Western Representations of the Orient (1978), Kushigian argued that Said's depiction of modern European attitudes to the East, while accurate as far as late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain and other northern imperial nations were concerned, (2) was simply not valid for Spain or for her former colonies in Spanish America. Citing the centuries-long process of Moorish influence on Spain (but overlooking that country's early twentieth-century colonial wars in north Africa and subsequent periodic outbursts of racism), Kushigian insists, quite rightly, on metropolitan Spain's long-running "intellectual contact with the Orient" (2) characterised, in her assessment, by "a spirit of veneration and regard [...] unparalleled by other Western European nations." She identifies "Hispanic Orientalism" as a distinctive historical phenomenon and describes it as "political in the sense that it is committed to opening a dialogue and exchange with the East" (3). Spanish and Spanish American literature display abundant evidence of fascination, and at times even love, for the Moor, and Kushigian summarises landmark authors and texts, starting, in the case of Spanish America, in the middle of the nineteenth century and extending through the fin de siglo into the middle of the twentieth, where she gives lengthy consideration to works by Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, and Severo Sarduy.

Fanning out from the ground-work laid in the introduction to her book, the two dozen pages that Kushigian devotes to Borges contain numerous observations and points of interest and debate, amongst which the following stand out: i) Along with Paz and Sarduy, Borges "[does] not present the Orient as an alternative source but rather as a complementary cultural source whose dynamic presence influences and is influenced by the West" (12); ii) "The Orient, presented ironically, with familiarity, and at times inverted and parodied, is a metaphor in Borges's works for infinite time, fantasy, and utopia" (19); iii) "Borges's Orient is textual, a creation of the mind" (20); and iv) "Through Orientalism, Borges questions causality and artificiality in literature. [...] The fantastic and the Orient are used to express a more complex Borgesian vision of Western reality" (105). Taking the first and last of these statements together, they have in common a view of the relationship between East and West as two-way and dynamic, which is compelling in the light of a range of historical and geographical factors. Historically, the discovery of a New World beyond the western horizon of Renaissance Europe brought about a realignment of relations between East and West, introducing a third term that effectively re-cast Europe as the Old World sandwiched between the "New World" of the Americas, on the one hand, and the Ancient Worlds of the Middle and Far East, on the other. In terms of geography, and from the specific vantage point of Buenos Aires, the easterly position of locations as diverse as London and Athens, in the northern hemisphere, and Dakar and Calcutta, further south, is a fact based on the solar cycle and a challenge to geo-political models that would continue to align the centre of the world with Europe long after the high-water mark of European imperialism had receded. …

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