By Ilan Stavans in the first section of a three-part series
If I am not one of Thy repetitions or errata…
—J.L.B., ‘The Secret Miracle’
Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges was overwhelmed by a strange feeling of unworthiness. He was, he claimed, unworthy of friendship, of love, and of public attention. The more he achieved, the more puzzled he was by the praise he received. He kept waiting for the day when people would finally recognize how mistaken they had been about his genius. This, of course, might be seen as an excess of modesty; it could also be equated with a complex Jews are often linked to: self-deprecation.
For years I have been reading Borges’ oeuvre, turning it into a map. I myself have learned what it means to be a Hispanic Jew (I was raised in Mexico) through his meditations on time, dreams, doppelgangers and God.
Borges’ life-long feeling of unease, this unworthiness is the force behind his writing. Borges wasn’t an aristocrat, although often he behaved as such. And even though his genealogical connection with the soldados in Argentina on his mother’s side of the family is ethereal, his eulogies to them are defined by envy. Simply put, Borges refurbished his background, making it look more distinguished and more exciting than it really was. This enhancement of one’s own heritage, this falsification of the self, is a common trait in the Hispanic world where las apariencias engañan, nothing is at it appears on the surface.
One of Borges’ grandfathers, Francisco Borges Lafinur, had fought at the Battle of Caseros against the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas; he was killed by two bullets shot from a Remington rifle, the first time such a weapon had ever been used in Argentina. In his Autobiographical Essay, published in The New Yorker in 1974, Borges wrote of his military forbears who ‘may account for my yearning after that epic destiny which my gods denied me, no doubt wisely.’ This line suggests that he saw himself for what he was not and used literature to impersonate that absence — to become the warrior he could never be.
Borges’ paternal grandmother, Fanny Haslam, was an English woman with a Quaker past. More important, she was a great reader. Her Spanish was fluent but poor; her English, on the other hand, was hypnotizing. She fell in love with her favourite authors: Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy, Dickens and Thackery and she introduced her grandson to the beauty of the English language. Thanks in large part to her, Borges grew up in both English and Spanish. Most of his early reading was in English, including Don Quixote. The original, which he read years later, seemed to him like a second-rate translation.
His genealogical tree shows no Semitic lineage, but he longed for one. In a poem written in 1967, celebrating the triumphant Six-Day War he states: ¿Quién me dirá si estás en el perdido laberinto de mi sangre, Israel? — ‘Who shall tell me if you, Israel, are to be found in the lost labyrinth of my blood?’ He faithfully searched throughout his entire life for a trace of Jewish blood in his ancestry. This is evident in a brief but seminal essay called Yo, judío. Herein the first paragraph from Eliot Weinberger’s English translation, included in Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Non-Fiction (1999):
Like the Druzes, like the moon, like death, like next week, the distant past is one of those things that can enrich ignorance. It is infinitely malleable and agreeable, far more obliging that the future and far less demanding of our efforts. It is the famous season favoured by all mythologies.
In 1933, Megáfono had devoted a full issue to Borges, who was regarded locally as un raro— a Wildean dandy, an Europeanized auteur infatuated with metaphysics and prone to an obtuse vocabulary. As a response to the Megáfono festschrift, the right-wing, nationalist periodical Crisol, also published in Buenos Aires, attacked Borges for hiding his ‘Israelite’ origins. Yo, judío, his brave and unapologetic response to Crisol, pointed out, in the measured prose that was to become his trademark, a deep desire to find the missing link in his ancestry — the Jew in the mirror. The essay continues:
Borges Acevedo is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chapter of Rosas and His time, lists the family names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demonstrate that all, or almost all, ‘come from Judeo-Portuguese stock’. Acevedo is included in the list: the only supporting evidence for my Jewish pretensions until this confirmation in Crisol. Nevertheless, Captain Honorario Acevedo undertook a detailed investigation that I cannot ignore. His study notes that the first Acevedo to disembark on this land was the Catalan Don Pedro de Azevedo in 1728: landholder, settler of ‘Pago de los Arroyos,’ father and grandfather of cattle ranchers in that province, a notable who figures in the annals of the parish of Santa Fe and in the documents of the history and the Viceroyalty — an ancestor, in short, irreparably Spanish.
Two hundred years and I can’t find the Israelite; two hundred years and my ancestor still eludes me.
I am grateful for the stimulus provided by Crisol, but hope is dimming that I will ever be able to discover my link to the Table of the Breads and the Sea of Bronze; to Heine, Gleizer, and the ten Sefiroth; to Ecclesiastes and Chaplin.
Yo, judio is among Borges’ least known essays; he saw it as an orphan piece, never including it in Other Inquisitions or any of his nonfiction volumes. Although it has always been available in Spanish it appeared only briefly in English in a 1970s American anthology published by E.P. Dutton. It continues:
Who has not, at one point or another, played with thoughts of his ancestors, with the prehistory of his flesh and blood? I have done so many times, and many times it has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish. It is an idle hypothesis, a frugal and sedentary adventure that harms no one, not even the name of Israel, as my Judaism is wordless, like the songs of Mendelssohn. The magazine Crisol [Crucible], in its issue of January 30, has decided to gratify this retrospective hope; it speaks of my ‘Jewish ancestry, maliciously hidden’ (the participle and the adverb amaze and delight me).
The final section of Yo, judío is emphatic. In it Borges states his unequivocal position.
Statistically, the Hebrews were few. What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who uncovers people from San Juan province everywhere? Our inquisitors seek out Hebrews, but never Phoenicians, Garamantes, Scythians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyians, Cyclopes, or Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, of Babylon, of Carthage, of Memphis, never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that this gift was granted.
In the context of Argentine letters and, by extension, in the Hispanic world in general, Borges is a rara avis. No other non-Jewish author from the region addresses Jewish themes with his depth and complexity. Why, in a place so disinterested in lo judío, should as influential and visionary a figure as Borges emerge?
Borges’ personal journey paints a sharp picture of the fragile status of Jews in the Hispanic world. He was less attracted to the Sephardim than to the Ashkenazi culture of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who arrived at the River Plate at the end of the nineteenth-century. He maintained close ties with a handful of urbane, forward-looking intellectuals, among them his tutor Alberto Gerchunoff, considered the grandfather of Jewish-Latin American letters. His collection of vignettes The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, originally published in 1910, is a celebration of Argentina’s first hundred years of independence.
Borges’ Jewish education was far more cosmopolitan than that of most Jews at the time. While still young, he read Joyce (whose character Leopold Bloom stroke him as emblematic of ‘the Wandering Jew’) and Kafka, a writer that inspired him to such an extent that he translated him into Spanish and for decades was among his first promoters in the Spanish-speaking world. He was also fascinated by Gustav Meyrink’s German novel The Golem and the Hassidic tales compiled by Martin Buber.
By the time Borges came of age Jews, mostly poor and uneducated, were a fixture in Argentinean society. The more recent Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim replaced the earlier wave of crypto-Jews who had arrived in their thousands from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Northern Africa from 1525 to 1810 and who slowly disappeared.
Argentina was a magnet for large-scale philanthropists and organisations involved in the resettlement of Jews from Europe. The French benefactor Baron Maurice de Hirsch and the Alliance Israélite Universelle poured funds into establishing socialist agricultural communes in the Pampas for Jews fleeing the pogroms in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. The early immigrants found themselves in rural milieus where Gaucho life prevailed, explaining the lore of the Jewish gaucho at the turn of the nineteenth-century. But life in the countryside only lasted one or two generations. The Jewish settlers and their children slowly moved to urban centers, especially Buenos Aires and by the thirties, the majority of Jews were fluent in Spanish and active in Argentine society. Still, anti-Jewish sentiment, a fixture in Latin America since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the Catholic missionaries, remained rampant, and to this day refuses to vanish altogether.
As a young man, Borges travelled with his family to Europe. They were trapped there by World War I and returned five years later to Buenos Aires. The contrast between the Old World and the New affected Borges deeply and on his return he became aware of a series of national types (e.g., gauchos, compadritos, and orilleros) that seemed to define the character of Argentina. He felt a purely intellectual attraction toward these natives and sublimated them into universal Everymen. From his first short story, Streetcorner Man, to his 1975 volume of tales, The Book of Sand, the figures of Argentinian folklore feature prominently in his work.
Years later, with his friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, he edited a two-volume anthology of gaucho literature. He also produced brilliant essays on subjects such as the Argentinian language, and on local men of letters like Evaristo Carriego, Paul Groussac and Leopoldo Lugones. Borges, as one of his biographers, James Woodall, stated, ‘was as steeped in the poetry of his Argentine predecessors, gaucho traditions and porteño slang, as he was in the stories of Henry James and the novels of Franz Kafka.’
A key story exploring Borges’ relationship with Argentinian Jews is ‘Unworthy’. The story is part of Doctor Brodie’s Report (1970). Architecturally, it is shaped as a story within a story. In the introduction Borges describes his friendship with a Jewish businessman, don Santiago Fischbein, the owner of the Librería Buenos Aires, on Calle Talcahuano. By the time the narrative begins Fischbein has died, allowing Borges to write freely about him and offering some insightful views on politics in Argentina:
Fischbein had tended toward the obese; his features are not as clear in my memory as our long conversations are. Firmly yet coolly he would condemn Zionism — it would make the Jew an ordinary man, he said, tied like all other men to a single tradition and a single country, and bereft of the complexities and discords that now enrich him. I recall that he once told me that a new edition of the works of Baruch Spinoza was being prepared, which would banish all that Euclidean apparatus that makes Spinoza’s work so difficult to read yet at the same time imparts an illusory sense of rigor to the fantastic theory. Fischbein showed me (though he refused to sell me) a curious copy of Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata, but my library does contain some books by Ginsburg and Waite that bear Fischbein’s seal.
Fischbein himself then takes control of the narrative. He tells Borges a definitive anecdote from his youth, when he was still struggling to become Argentinian. ‘I don’t know whether I’ve ever mentioned that I’m from Entre Ríos,’ he states. ‘I won’t tell you that we were Jewish gauchos—there were never any Jewish gauchos. We were merchants and small farmers.’
Fischbein’s parents moved to Buenos Aires, where they opened a store in a neighbourhood of street-corner gangs one of which attacked the young Fischbein. He is rescued by Francisco Ferrari, whom he describes as a hero: ‘He had black hair and was rather tall, good-looking — handsome in the style of those days. He always wore black.’ Fischbein idealizes him and Ferrari invites him to his clan. During this time, Fischbein is struggling to find his Jewish-Argentine identity. He tells Borges:
Today I’ve carved out a place for myself. I have this bookstore that I enjoy and whose books I read; I have friendships, like ours; I have my wife and children; I’ve joined the Socialist party — I’m a good Argentine and a good Jew. I am respected and respectable. The man you see now is almost bald; at the time I was a poor Jewish kid with red hair in a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. People looked askance at me. I tried, as all young fellows do, to be like everyone else. I had started calling myself Santiago to make the Jacob go away, but there was nothing I could do about the Fischbein. We all come to resemble the image others have of us: I sensed people’s contempt for me, and I felt contempt for myself as well. At that time, and especially in that setting, it was important to be brave; I knew myself to be a coward. Women intimidated me; deep down, I was ashamed of my fainthearted chastity. I had no friends my own age.
Fischbein’s self-esteem improves temporarily when Ferrari invites him to be part of a robbery.
Friendship, you know, is as mysterious as love or any other state of this confusion we call life. In fact, I have sometimes suspected that the only thing that holds no mystery is happiness, because it is its own justification. However that may be, the fact was that Francisco Ferrari, the daring, strong Ferrari, felt a sense of friendship for me, contemptible me. I felt he was mistaken, that I was not worthy of that friendship. I tried to avoid him, but he wouldn’t let me. My anxiety was made worse by my mother’s disapproval; she could not resign herself to my associating with what she called ‘the riffraff,’ nor to the fact that I’d begun to ape them.
True to his unworthiness, Fischbein turns informer. Shortly before the robbery, he goes to the police station and reveals the details of the robbery to the authorities.
As expected, in the middle of the robbery the police appear. Fischbein hears four shots and sees the bodies of Ferrari and an accomplice being dragged out of the building. They had been shot at point-blank range. Fischbein adds: ‘In their report the police said the robbers had failed to halt when they were ordered, and that Ferrari and don Eliseo had fired the first shots. I knew that was a lie, because I had never seen either of them with a revolver. The police had taken advantage of the occasion to settle an old score.’
This is a story of guilt and betrayal. A Jewish pseudo-Gaucho enters the world of gangs and hopes to become a compadrito. But in the end he is incapable of establishing a bond with that world and joins ranks with the wrong side. Borges frames the narrative from the perspective of Jewish belonging. Are Jews Argentines? Superficially they are, sometimes in spite of themselves. But as perennial outsiders, they will never truly penetrate the Argentine psyche. They might be Argentines on paper, but they’ll never be compadritos.
This is not an indictment by Borges. Rather, it is a celebration. Borges always admired gauchos and compadritos; they were courageous. They were brave. He instead was simply an intellectual attempting to understand Argentine tradition. Fischbein, then, is just like Borges: an interloper, more connected with books than with life itself.
Among his most unusual stories about Ashkenazi Jews is ‘Emma Zunz’, included in The Aleph (1949) in part because she is one of Borges’ few female protagonists, and moreover a rebellious one,who takes the law in her own hands. I wrote about it years ago from the perspective of Jewish theodicy: characters that defy social rules and compete with the divine.
The story takes place in early 1922, as the protagonist, Emma Zunz, receives a letter from Brazil announcing the death of her father, Manuel Meier, also known as Emanuel Zunz. Although she is told he died of an accidental overdose of veronal — that is, a suicide— she knows better. She recalls a scandal in his business and the fact that her father’s partner, Aaron Loewenthal, drove him to his end. Borges devotes himself to exploring Emma’s inner emotions and her determination to take the law into her own hands and wreak revenge. She devises a cunning plan to make Loewenthal pay for his crime. ‘She did not sleep that night, and by the time first light defined the rectangle of the window, she had perfected her plan. In the mill, there were rumors of a strike; Emma declared, as she always did, that she was opposed to all forms of violence.’
Emma is still a virgin. She decides to go to the pier and have herself deflowered by an anonymous sailor. She then goes to Aaron Loewenthal’s office above the mill when he’s alone. She pretends to be sexually abused by him and then kills him with a revolver. The actual scene of revenge is described in a complex manner:
Sitting before Aaron Loewenthal, Emma felt (more than the urgency to avenge her father) the urgency to punish the outrage she herself had suffered. She could not not kill him, after being so fully and thoroughly dishonored. Nor did she have time to waste in theatrics. Sitting timidly in his office, she begged Loewenthal’s pardon, invoked (in her guise as snitch) the obligations entailed by loyalty, mentioned a few names, insinuated others, and stopped short, as through overcome by fearfulness. Her performance succeeded; Loewenthal went out to get her a glass of water. By the time he returned from the dinning hall, incredulous at the woman’s fluttering perturbation yet full of solicitude, Emma had found the heavy revolver in the drawer. She pulled the trigger twice. Loewethanl’s considerable body crumpled as though crushed by the explosions and the smoke; the glass of water shattered; his face looked at her with astonishment and fury; the mouth in the face cursed her in Spanish and Yiddish.
Borges’s scene is cinematic. He focuses on the gun, then on the victim. He then allows Emma a few dramatic words: ‘I have avenged my father, and I shall not be punished…’ .The story concludes in philosophical tone:
Then she picked up the telephone and repeated what she was to repeat so many times, in those and other words: Something has happened, something unbelievable… Sr. Loewethnal sent for me on the pretext of the strike… He raped me… I killed him…
The story was unbelievable, yes—and yet it convinced everyone, because in substance it was true. Emma Zunz’s tone of voice was real, her shame was real, her hatred was real. The outrage that had been done to her was real, as well; all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.
Its important to focus on the rape scene — the only such description ever included by Borges in his fiction. When Emma goes to the pier, her approach is mimetic. She enters a few bars to study the way women behave towards men in such places. She then looks for a possible suitor. Having identified a young one, she fears he might inspire in her tenderness. She opts for another ‘so that there might be no mitigation of the purity of the horror.’ The sailor (a Swede or Finn) takes her down a hallway which leads outside. Her did not speak Spanish. ‘He was an instrument for Emma,’ Borges writes, ‘as she was for him — but she was used for pleasure, while he was used for justice.”
When she was alone, Emma did not open her eyes immediately. On the night table was the money the man had left. Emma sat up and tore it to shreds, as she had torn up the letter a short time before. Tearing up money is an act of impiety, like throwing away bread; the minute she did it, Emma wished she hadn’t — an act of pride and on that day… Foreboding melted into the sadness of her body, into the revulsion. Sadness and revulsion lay upon Emma like chains, but slowly she got up and began to dress.
Like a black-and-white Hollywood film, sex isn’t so much described as insinuated. Why doesn’t Borges detail the actual moment of horror? Instead, he concentrates on Emma’s mental — and spiritual—plight: what she experiences after the act has been consummated.
Why does Borges set the plot amid Yiddish-speaking immigrants? As a result of his financial dealings, her father was forced to flee, changing his identity by opting for another name. Emma’s memory brings her back to her childhood in the province of Entre Ríos. But she lives in Calle Liniers, in Lanús, a middle-class neighbourhood in southwestern Buenos Aires. Aaron Loewenthal’s mill is on Warnes Street, in central Buenos Aires, near the Villa Crespo commercial district.
Do the names of these immigrants signal a connection to the world of the shtetl? Emma is the daughter of a newcomer, an Argentine by birth. Thus, she is a full citizen. But she still acts like an outsider. Rather than trusting the judicial system, she resorts to implementing her own punishment against her father’s victimizer. Some critics approach the text from a Psychoanalytic perspective: Emma and her father are united by a natural pact, which she sanctifies when an outsider distresses their liaison. Other scholars like Edna Aizenberg have struggled to understand the story from an esoteric perspective. They approach Emma Zunz as the kabbalistic myth of the Shekhinah, the female part of God. Aizenberg states in The Aleph Weaver (1988):
Emma, her wronged and exiled father, and the embezzler, Aaron Loewenthal, reenact the mystical story of God’s Daughter — the feminine hypostasis of the divine — who is separated from her heavenly progenitor and falls into an unclean physical-sexual world as a result of sin. Since the Daughter is God the Father’s power of stern judgment, she proceeds to punish the wrong-doer through destruction and violence, without, however, restoring the harmony which existed in the happy days before the sin.
I believe that Borges, who was still in his forties when he crafted Emma Zunz (it appeared in Sur 167, September 1948), made Emma’s odyssey far more mundane. The plot was given to him by his friend Cecilia Ingenieros. Borges in turn dedicated the story to her, as rather, ‘I was not so much dedicating it to her as giving it to her back.’ The names of his characters — as is typical — aren’t accidental. The words Emma and Zunz are made of four letters each, like the Tetragramathon, e.g., the divine name. The repetition of the letters m and z in them accentuates this relation. In an interview, Borges said: ‘I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name… [T]he name seems so meaningless, so insignificant.’ If he was conscious at all, Zunz, Meir, and Loewenthal have a Germanic extraction. This suggests that Borges places his story in the context of educated Yiddish speakers from the Rhim whose view of their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts was unfavourable. They perceived themselves as cosmopolitan, whereas the shtetl people were uneducated. Seen through this prism, the characters might have yet another element of discomfort toward Argentine society: they are upper-class snobs, unrelated to the proletarian Tevyes and Yentls whose manners are stereotypes by gentile society. In other words, they are neither at home among Jews nor non-Jews.
Emma Zunz, finally, is also about stereotypes. Manuel Meier and Aaron Loewenthal are businessmen. Money is in their mind. Money becomes a source of dispute. They speak Yiddish. One kills the other. This is the pecuniary world of Shakespeare’s Shylock. But Emma’s action unsettles the stereotypes: she sacrifices herself in order to achieve a superior form of justice. She is also a feminist figure eager to prove that women aren’t passive. Why call her Emma? Easy: as a tribute to Emma Bovary and Emma Woodhouse, strong-willed women in Western literature who refuse to conform to the male establishment.
Still, the question persists: Why does Borges make Emma Zunz a Jew? It isn’t clear from interviews if Cecilia Ingenieros offered him the story with the Jewish ingredients already set. Most likely, Borges inserted them as he crafted the final outcome. Even though he makes Emma a non-observant Jew, her religious ancestry emphasizes the rebellious spirit he wants to infuse in her. The female protagonist is Jewish because Borges designs his tale in the interstices between divine and human law. Emma is aware of Loewenthal’s crime but knows no human court will convict him. What choice does she have? She isn’t a believer, which means she cannot procrastinate her sense of justice: she won’t be calmed by the thought that Loewenthal will be punished in the afterlife. Solution: to plot her own punishment. This places her in the tradition of biblical characters: if society isn’t ready to hand in a sentence, she is ready to do it herself. It is clear to me that Borges’s Judaism emphasizes individual responsibility above social conventions. It also stresses spiritual purity and the connection between the heavenly and earthly domains. Emma’s decision to give up her virginity so as to avenge her father is a sign that the higher order is more important than integrity. She is ready to sacrifice herself for an abstract idea of justice.
In 1977 Borges delivered seven lectured on seven different topics in seven nights in Buenos Aires. The topics he chose included nightmares, The Divine Comedy, poetry, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, and the Kabbalah. The transcripts of the lectures were published in book form in 1980 as Seven Nights. Marvellous as these disquisitions are in their encyclopedic broadness, Borges also reduces his themes to a series of similes. Arguably the most inspiring of the lectures was the last one on blindness.
Borges had known since early childhood he would one day become blind. It was congenital, his father, among other relatives, was also blind. And blindness struck librarians in Argentina who, like him, were directors of the National library, Paul José Marmol and Groussac. What is inspiring about Borges’ lecture is the resignation with which he approaches his argument. He talks of different blind writers: Homer, John Milton, W. H. Prescott (the historian who wrote Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru), and Joyce. Borges states (in Eliot Weinberger’s translation):
People generally imagine the blind as enclosed in a black world. There is, for example, Shakespeare’s line: “Looking into darkness which the blind don’t see.” If we understand “darkness” as “blackness,” then Shakespeare is wrong.
Borges adds that the blind live in a universe that is inconvenient, but not more so than any other inconvenience that affects those people able to see. And herein his message, in which uses misfortune as a way to appreciate life. This appreciation comes from his love for Jews, who have turned suffering into vision:
A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is always one, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or a musician feels the strange world of sounds—the strangest world of art—is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument. Fray Luis de León dedicated one of his most beautiful odes to Francisco Salinas, a blind musician.
A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.