Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899)

-- today's google logo for Borges's birthday

"If Borges were shown to be definitively, halachically, Jewish, he would be hailed as one of the great Jewish writers of the last century. And not just a writer who was Jewish, but a writer whose obsessions with the Holocaust and the Kabbalah prefigure two of contemporary Jewry’s most important concerns," wrote Daniel Schifrin.

The reality is that despite Borges's interest in Jewish themes, and despite the possibility that his ancestors were secret Jews, neither Borges nor other researchers (some of them being malicious antisemites, some simply interested scholars) could demonstrate that he was actually of Jewish descent. “It has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish,” Borges wrote. But based on the available evidence, he wasn't.

Looking for a Jewish angle to Borges is tempting, but actually, I think it's a distraction from actually trying to read and appreciate what he wrote. The question of his distant ancestry is really peripheral to the way he used big themes in writing very interesting (though to me difficult) stories. In a way, I feel as if the case of Borges is kind of a warning to anyone who tries to find too much Jewishness in famous and accomplished people. A warning to me.

The book Jorge Luis Borges: On Mysticism (eds. Maria Kodama and Suzanne Jill Levine) strikes me as offering many examples of stories that both are and are not Jewish in theme. Each story turns on a variety of experiences and characterizations. Whichever mystic or traditional religious metaphor or device Borges picks, each story seems to have a life of its own -- not necessarily based in Jewishness or any other specific source. Sometimes there's a Jewish theme combined with one or more others, as in "The Zahir" about a mysterious object with vastly different embodiment in various cultures. A character in this story was like "Talmudists and Confucians" because she "sought to make every action irreproachably correct."

Because of its title and central surrealist device, the story "The Aleph" especially tempts critics to make a Jewish interpretation which I don't really think is essential to reading the fiction. Actually, I think Borges kind of warns the reader by the varied role of poetry that takes place in the story itself. One character is an appreciator and critic of other men's verse and also a poet himself. In his cellar he has something called "an Aleph... one of the points in space that contain all points." (p. 35) It's also the "microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our proverbial friend the multum in parvo, made flesh!" (p. 36; multum in parvo means much in little) And if you can't see the Aleph, says the poet/critic, that doesn't invalidate what he says.

Just at the moment when the narrator of the story -- whose name is Borges -- becomes convinced that the poet/critic is a madman, who actually has no such thing in his cellar, he sees The Aleph for himself. Of course it's difficult for him to describe the mystical experience (though there is quite a long passage doing that). In the end, the poet/critic of the tale wins a prize for poetry while the narrator is left to try to grasp what he had experienced, including to explicate the Hebrew and Kabbalistic interpretation of the letter Aleph.

But here's the thing: you don't need to make out Borges as having a Jewish identity to find a way to read this story. I think it's an interesting route to follow, but it's also a dead end.

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