If I am not one of Thy repetitions or errata…-J.L.B., “The Secret Miracle” Throughout his life, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was overwhelmed by a strange feeling of unworthiness. He was, he claimed, unworthy of friendship, love, and public attention. The more he achieved, the more puzzled he was by the towering praise that had descended on him. And he kept on waiting for the day when people would finally recognize how mistaken they had been about his genius. Borges felt a particular affinity towards Jews in part because of the shared psychology of self-deprecation.
In stories like “Unworthy” he featured Jewish protagonists struggling to find a sense of self-worth. The Jewish characters in his work in many ways stand in for Borges himself, reflecting his own complex views about his identity. My intention in this four-part series is to reflect on Borges’ vision as manifestedin his life and his oeuvre, offering a detailed, even talmudic look at Borges through acatch phrase here, motif there, a plotline. I must confess, as I embark upon this journey, that Borges oeuvre has been, for me, a Jew raised in Mexico, a map of identity.
Through his meditations on time, dreams, doppelgangers, God, I have learned what it means to be a Hispanic Jew. *** Borges wasn’t an aristocrat, although often he behaved like one. His past was not unillustrious: one of Borges’ grandfathers, Francisco Borges Lafinur, had fought at the Battle of Caseros against the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas; he died in the Battle of La Verde, which was part of General Bartolomé Mitre’s failed arms uprising against Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. However, Borges himself had not inherited this macho gene, confessing in his “Autobiographical Notes” (The New York Times, September 19, 1970) that “I spent a great deal of my boyhood indoors.” He yearned, he wrote, “for that epic destiny which the gods denied me, no doubt wisely.”
Rather than drawing on the line of Francisco Borges Lafinur, Borges more frequently drew upon a largely ethereal connection with the soldados in Argentina on his mother’s side of the family. Simply put, Borges refurbished his background, making it look more distinguished that it was; or more suitable to the ethos that defines a life spent with too many books around and too little adventure. He used literature to become what he felt he was not, to become the warrior he could never be. [jgk1] . ***
As Borges searched for a genealogy he could truly own, he returned again and again to the Jews. His genealogical tree doesn’t show any Semitic lineage. But he longed for one. In a poem written in 1967, celebrating the triumphant Six-Day War in which Israel defended itself against its Arab enemies, he wondered if Israel, as an emblem, could be found in his genealogy. Indeed, he faithfully searched throughout his entire life for a trace of Jewish blood in his ancestry. This is poignantly clear in a brief essay called “Yo, judío,” “I, a Jew,” whose historical value is decisive in understanding Borges’ interest in things Jewish. Over the years, that interest, in its different facets, and to various degrees of success, has been explored by academics like Edna Aizenberg, Saúl Sosnowski, and Jaime Alazraki. Here is the first paragraph of “Yo, Judio” in 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 favors by all mythologies.
“I, a Jew” appeared in the April 1934 issue of the Buenos Aires magazine Megáfono. It is among the least known essays by Jorge Luis Borges, who saw it as an orphan piece, never collecting it in Other Inquisitions or any of his nonfiction volumes. It has always been available in Spanish in one form or another; before Weinberger included it in his Selected Non-Fiction, it surfaced briefly in English in an American anthology published by E.P. Dutton called Borges: A Reader (1981), edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie. The essay 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).
Borges reacted with enviable concentration, even stalwart conviction, to an accusation, made in 1934 by the magazine Crisol, that he was indeed a Jew. The accusation came from an anti-Semitic faction of the Argentine intelligentsia and had as itsobjective to discredit Borges in public opinion. He, in turn, took the accusation as a compliment.
At the time of the publication of “Yo, judío,” Argentina, in what proved to be a pattern throughout the century, was ruled by the military. In 1933, Megáfono had devoted a full issue to Borges, who was regarded locally as what the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío once described, in general terms, 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.
The final section of “Yo, judío” is emphatic. In it Borges establishes, once and for all, his unquestionable loyalty. In a country like Argentina where anti-Semitism is a norm, he made a commitment to connect with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. 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 intellectual circles of the Hispanic world in general, Borges’ positive interest and appreciation for Jews is a rara avis. No other non-Jewish author from the region addresses Jewish themes with the depth and complexity of the Argentine. The question, one wonders, is why. How is it than in an area so given to ignoring lo judío comes along so influential and visionary a figure? *** Borges learned about Jews from books, of course. While still young, he read James Joyce (whose character Leopold Bloom stroke him as emblematic of “the Wandering Jew”) and Franz Kafka, a writer who inspired him to such an extent that he translated Kafka into Spanish and for decades was among his first, and sole, promoters in the Spanish-speaking world. Gustav Meyrink’s German novel The Golem also left a deep impression. The Hassidic tales compiled by Martin Buber exercised a fascination for him. At different points in his life, he even expressed interest in learning ancient Hebrew. (He eventually settled for other ancient languages, including Anglo-Saxon.)
Jews had arrived in Argentina in waves from the fifteenth century onward, starting with a wave of marranos, New Christians and crypto-Jews who came escaping the Inquisition. Arriving from Portugal, the Netherlands, Northern Africa and, of course, Spain itself, these Sephardic Jews spoke Spanish and slowly disappared into the Argentine melting pot. The Argentinian Jews Borges knew best were from a very different past, part of hte immigrant wave of Ashkenazi or Yiddish-speaking Jews who arrived roughly between 1880 and 1930, escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Bythe time Borges came of age, it was these Ashkenazi Jews, mostly poor and uneducated, who were a fixture in Argentinean society.
Jews, for Borges, thus were Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of Joyce and Buber, the Jews who had arrived in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century. They were not some distant fantastical race, but a people Borges knew. He maintained closed ties with a handful of urbane, forward-looking Jewish intellectuals, among them his tutor Alberto Gerchunoff, considered the grandfather of Jewish-Latin American letters with his collection of vignettes, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, originally published in 1910. And he understood the vagaries of their fate: as a young man, Borges traveled with his family to Europe, where they were caught up by World War I. Five years later, Borges and his family were able to return to Buenos Aires. The contrast between the Old World and the New affected him deeply. While biographers note that this trip gave Borges a new perspective on his homeland (with its national types, the gauchos, compadritos, orilleros), it also fed his fascination with the Jews who had left that older world, the Europe in decline. ***
A story by Borges emblematic of his relationship with Jews in Argentina is “Unworthy,” included in Doctor Brodie’s Report (1970). As its title suggests, the theme returns to the issue of unworthiness at the heart of Borges’ oeuvre. Architecturally, it is shaped as a story within a story. The story begins with the narrator describing his friendship with a Jewish businessman, don Santiago Fischbein, the owner of the Librería Buenos Aires on Calle Talcahuano. This early section allows for 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 the narrator a defining anecdote of his past, when he was still struggling as a Jew to become Argentinean. “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.” In a single, decisive stroke, Borges demystifies the tradition of Jewish gauchos eulogized by Alberto Gerchunoff and others. Kindling a debate that continues to this day, he suggests that the early chapter of the Ashkenazi immigration to Argentina, turned through nostalgia into a usable bucolic past, is fiction. The sociological component in this story becomes even more tangible, as does the debate on identity. How have Argentine Jews solved their dilemma of belonging? How do they understand the concept of homeland? Fischbein’s parents moved their family to Buenos Aires, where they opened a store. They lived in a neighborhood where there were street-corner gangs. The anecdote Fischbein tells is of his friendship with one of them, a compadrito whom he perceived as a hero: Francisco Ferrari. “He had black hair and was rather tall, good-looking-handsome in the style of those days. He always wore black.” At one point, a gang harrasses Fischbein and Ferrari rescues him. Fischbein idealizes him and Ferrari invites him to his clan. It happens, again, just as Fischbein is struggling to find his Jewish-Argentine identity. “I don’t know how to explain it to you,” Fischbein tells the narrator:
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.
At that precise moment, Ferrari invites Fischbein to be part of a robbery. He includes him in the planning stages and gives him a specific role. Fischbein’s self-esteem improves temporarily:
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 becomes an informer-a Jewish informer. Shortly before the robbery, he goes to the police station and lets the authorities-the hated authorities-in on the details of the plot. One of the officers asks him: “Are you making the accusations because you think you’re a good citizen? Is that it?” The response is symptomatic: “I didn’t feel he’d understand, so I answered. ‘Yes, sir. I’m a good Argentine’.” As expected, in the middle of the robbery the police appear. Fischbein hears four shots. Ferrari’s body and that of one of his accomplices are 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.” Fischbein’s story is not a simple one. The Jewish-Argentinian world Borges creates overturns the stereotype of the Jew as guacho. Instead, Jews are everything else: lawyers, doctors, thieves, prostitutes. “Unworthy” is a story of guilt and betrayal. A pseudo-Jewish Gaucho enters the word of gangs and hopes to become a compadrito. But in the end he is incapable of establishing his bonds to that world and joins ranks with the wrong side: the police. 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. In other words, they might be Argentines in paper, but they’ll never be compadritos. That Borges depicts Jews as outsiders and not compadritos, insiders, is not at all meant on his part as a slight against either Jews or compadritos. Borges was envious of compadritos. They were courageous. They were brave. Yet, he, Borges, an Argentinian, did not identify with compadritos-could not identify with them. The novelist could only understand his countrymen by scrutinizing them as an outsider. Fischbein, then, is being placed in the same subject position as Borges himself: an interloper, a falsifier, more connected with books than with life itself.***
I’ve dreamed of one day putting together a volume of Borgeana about Jews. It would include “Unworthy” as well as a myriad essays and poems I intend to mention in this series. Of course, at the center of it would be my own favorite Borges stories, including “Deutches Requiem” and “Emma Zunz,” the two dealing with Ashkenazi Jews. “Emma Zunz,” included in The Aleph (1949), might well be his best, although it is also among his strangest, for no other reason than the fact Borges seldom features a female protagonist in his oeuvre, let alone a rebellious one, taking the law in her own hands, as this one does. I wrote about it years ago from the perspective of Jewish theodicy: in “Emma Zunz,” we have a character who defies social rules and competes with the divine. The story takes place in early 1922, as the female 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 revenge. Indeed, this is a story of an individual taking the law into her own hands. Emma recognizes that, since the facts about Loewenthal aren’t known, human law is unlikely to put him on trail. Her option, then, is to devise a stratagem in order to make Loewenthal pay for his crime but in such a way so as Emma is not deemed a criminal. “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.” What is Emma’s plan? She’s still a virgin. She decides to go to the pier and have herself deflowered by an anonymous Scandinavian 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. Here is how Andrew Hurley (Collected Fictions, 1998) translates it :
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. Loewenthal’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’ scene is strikingly 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…” “Emma Zunz” concludes in a 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. Loewenthal 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.
Why does Borges set the plot amidst Yiddish-speaking immigrants? As a result of his financial dealings, her father has been forced to run to southern Brazil, specifically to the Rio Grande do Sul province. He has also changed his identity by adopting another name. erHHer fathEmma’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 neighborhood 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 have struggled to understand the story from an esoteric perspective. After all, the protagonist’s names each have just four letters, the same as the Tetragrammaton, the divine name. The palindromic quality of the name, the two “ms” in Emma, the two “z”s in Zunz, emphasize a numerological approach. And so some scholars approach Emma Zunz from a kabbalistic perspective, seeing Emma as a figure of the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God. Aizenberg states in The Aleph Weaver:
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 originally appeared in the magazine Sur 167, September 1948), made Emma’s odyssey far more mundane. In an interview, for example, Borges discounts any attempt to find symbolism in Emma’s name, averring: “I was trying to get an ugly and at the same time a colorless name… [T]he name seems so meaningless, so insignificant.” The plot was given to him by his friend Cecilia Ingenieros. Borges in turn dedicated the story to her, saying “I was not so much dedicating it to her as giving it to her back.” Yet, it is Borges who refines the plot, making this a story of Argentine-born, educated Yiddish speakers, cosmopolitian Jews, upper class snobs who are at home neither among the “Tevyes and Yentls” of the immigrant Jewish world nor among Fischbein’s compadritos. Emma is not a believer, though that in itself only serves to underscore the rebellious spirit Borges tends to identify as particularly Jewish. Her decision to act on behalf of her sense of justice, despite the social mores of her culture, 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. Borges’ idea of Jewishness emphasizes individual responsibility above social conventions. 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. “Emma Zunz,” finally, is, like “Unworthy,” about stereotypes. Manuel Meier and Aaron Loewenthal are businessmen. Money is on 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 just as Fischbein uproots the stereotype of the Jewish gaucho, Emma’s action unsettles the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew: she sacrifices herself in order to achieve a superior form of justice. Indeed, rather than (or along with) seeing her name as a symbol of the divine, one might just as easily see the name Emma as a tribute to Emma Bovary and Emma Woodhouse, strong-willed women in the Western canon who refuse to conform to the male establishment. *** For Borges, Jewishness is not only about being unworthy, about suffering, but about turning suffering into vision. The essential quality of the Jew is the ability, like Emma Zunz, of turning disgrace into justice, the mundane into the divine. Emma’s premediated transfiguration reminds me of an essay by Borges on blindness-his own.Borges, since early childhood, knew he would one day become blind. It was congenital in his illness. 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. In the last lecture of seven he gave in 1977 (later published as Seven Nights) Borges addressed oncoming blindness directly (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. The world the blind live in, Borges suggests, is inconvenient, but not more so that any other inconvenience that affects those people able to see. And herein his message: 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. A lesson, perhaps, Borges learned from his love of the Jews. ***
Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement. His work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995) and comic strips in the case of Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000). Stavans is editor of several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998). A selection of his work appeared in 2000 under the title The Essential Ilan Stavans. In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been the recipient of international prizes and honors, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction.