Both for admirers of his pristine prose, and for occasional visitors of his intricate labyrinths, one thing remains inescapable: Jorge Luis Borges was unhappy. I remember, as a teenager, glossing over the pages of La moneda de hierro before putting it back in its shelf as little more than a dust collector. I was not ready for it, and so it waited for years, as good books always do, patiently watching me grow up. A short poem, Remorse, slept secretly within its pages:
I have committed the worst of sins
One can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Take and engulf me, mercilessly.
My parents bore me for the risky
And the beautiful game of life,
For earth, water, air and fire.
I failed them, I was not happy.
Their youthful hope for me unfulfilled.
I applied my mind to the symmetric
Arguments of art, its web of trivia.
They willed me bravery. I was not brave.
It never leaves me. Always at my side,
That shadow of a melancholy man.
It’s true that young Borges “wanted to be unhappy”. He saw himself, or wanted others to see him, as a Prince Hamlet or a Raskolnikov; but admittedly he “was acting a bit, as young romantics act, as do all ‘angry young men'”. Remorse, however, contains the words of an old man with no need for masks or ostentatious displays of pathos. Even the clean, razor-sharp prose speaks of the kind of mature writer who is not afraid of speaking his mind — who chooses not to hide behind walls of clutter. This is a man being honest.
Borges was a complex man, and it is not my aim to explore the many causes of his persistent, yet normally discreet, misery. One of these causes, however, can be of particular interest to us. But let’s provide some background first.
Borges descended from both Juan de Garay, founder of Buenos Aires, and Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, who founded the Argentinian city of Córdoba in 1573. His was a family of conquerors and soldiers right up to his grandfather, Francisco Borges Lafinur, a colonel who deliberately got himself killed by enemy soldiers after the defeat of Bartolomé Mitre in the battle of La Verde, during the Revolution of 1874:
“This was the first time Remington rifles were used in the Argentine, and it tickles my fancy to think that the firm that shaves me every morning bears the same name as the one that killed my grandfather” (The New Yorker. September 11, 1970).
Francisco was the last of the Borges to carry the torch: such honorable destiny would elude his son, Jorge Guillermo, due to a case of high myopia. He would instead become a teacher of psychology and venture into writing poetry. His son Jorge Luis, who would inherit his love of books and his personal library, was a soft, shy boy who was not even sent to school due to his parents’ fear of him catching a disease. He grew up hearing about the feats of his ancestors, perhaps realizing at some point in his youth that he would be forever barred from such noble fate. He would, instead, live long and comfortably enough to be overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and shame (“Let the glaciers of oblivion take and engulf me, mercilessly.”). One gets the impression that he would have given everything — the money, the recognition, the comforts — for the fate of the honorable death that he was denied.
Could it be that literature gave young Borges the means to quench his latent thirst for adventure — or perhaps even a way to trick his soul, his bellicose blood, into believing he was taking part in Charles Marlow’s voyage into the Heart of Darkness; that he himself was traversing the seas with Marco Polo? After all, he loved Don Quixote not so much as a parody of chivalric romance, as Cervantes had intended, but as a proper epic. A solitary child, he considered the characters his friends.
The theme of the honorable death is recurrent in his writings. In The House of Asterion, the Minotaur eagerly waits for death in his labyrinthine prison. A death that was prophesied by one of the men he had killed, and that would come by the hand of his redeemer: “Since then, there has been no pain for me in solitude, because I know that my redeemer lives, and in the end he will rise and stand above the dust”. In the meantime, he waits, fantasizing. What does this liberator look like? Where will he take him? Is he a man or a bull?
In Deutsches Requiem, a German soldier, Otto Dietrich zur Linde, stoically awaits his execution. Besides confessing his guilt, he chose not to speak during the trial, as that would have been cowardly.
“I look at my face in the mirror in order to know who I am, in order to know how I shall comport myself within a few hours, when I face the end. My flesh may feel fear; I myself do not.”
In The End, Borges imagines an alternative ending to the Argentinian epic Martín Fierro, giving the protagonist the gift of dying in a duel, which he considered a more adequate fate for the romantic hero than its author had originally conceived. It seems unquestionable that Borges believed heroes deserve a proper send-off.
But perhaps the most notable example, due to its highly autobiographical tone, is The South, which Borges considered his best short story. The South is the story of Juan Dahlmann, a librarian from Buenos Aires. An ordinary man living an ordinary life, but whose ascendancy was one of warriors and “romantic death[s]”:
“His maternal grandfather had been Francisco Flores, of the 2nd Infantry of the Line, who died on the border of Buenos Aires ‘from a spear wielded by the Indians under Catriel.’”
(Notice the allusion to the author’s grandfather, Francisco Borges Lafinur, mentioned above.)
Juan lived in the city, and year after year he dreamed of visiting the ranch that belonged to his family, and that he had saved “at the price of some self-denial”. Yet he never did. One day, as he rushed upstairs, Juan suffered a deep cut from “the edge of a recently painted casement window that somebody had forgotten to close”, of which he took no notice until he was met by the expression of horror “on the woman who opened the door to him” (I can’t help but smile at the very subtle and I’m sure unintentional instance of magical realism here, even though it’s based on a true accident). As time passed, his wound became infected. He was ultimately rushed to a hospital where he was tortured by the highest of fevers for several days, and was “on the verge of death from septicemia” until he finally recovered. This close encounter with death —a mundane, stupid, and even shameful death by the standards of his lineage— would linger in his soul and prove fateful later on.
Juan’s week or two in Hell woke him from his chronic indolence, and he at last decided to pay his ranch in the South a visit. He took a coach to Constitución station:
“Everyone knows that the South begins on the other side of Avenida Rivadavia. Dahlmann had often said that that was no mere saying, that by crossing Rivadavia one entered an older and more stable world.”
There is now a typical Borgean moment, as Juan Dahlmann is on board the train contemplating the Pampa, in which the author’s genius drops the first of the hints that start to make something extraordinary out of this seemingly dull, mundane sequence of events:
“Tomorrow I will wake up at my ranch, he thought, and it was as though he were two men at once: the man gliding along through the autumn day and the geography of his native land, and the other man, imprisoned in a sanatorium and subjected to methodical attentions.”
After getting off the train, Dahlmann started walking toward the general store —slowly, “inhaling with grave happiness the smell of clover”— in search of a vehicle that would take him to his beloved estate. Upon his arrival, we are met with another Borgean moment: “Inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the owner; then he realized that he’d been fooled by the man’s resemblance to one of the employees at the sanatorium.”
Juan chose to eat at the general store, in which, at another table, some “rough-looking young men” were also eating and drinking. He looked around as he tasted his wine, when he felt something brush against his face. Someone had thrown a ball of breadcrumb at him. He ignored it. Then a second ball came, followed by laughs from the next table. The protagonist, going through his period of convalescence, wished to avoid any type of confrontation. He got up and was ready to leave, until the shopkeeper called him by his name. This changed everything: now it became a personal attack, and his Germanic blood would not have it.
Knowing he was going to be dragged into a fight, Dahlmann nonetheless stood up to his mockers. One of them insulted him and challenged him to a knife fight, even though he was unarmed, until a gaucho from across the room “tossed him a naked dagger [which] landed at his feet”. The choice had been made for him (by the South itself, the narrator ponders), and, even though he knew he was going to die, he was without fear:
“…he felt that on that first night in the sanatorium, when they’d stuck that needle in him, dying in a knife fight under the open sky, grappling with his adversary, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a fiesta. He sensed that had he been able to choose or dream his death that night, this is the death he would have dreamed or chosen.”
I believe this is also the way Borges himself would have wanted to die, even though it took the guts he did not possess. He understood and lamented, spiritually, if not carnally, the soul-crushing luxuries of modern life. As a man who, except when lost in Scheherazade’s tales or the verses of Kipling, was aware of his existence as simply another man sitting amid ruins, Borges knew ours is not a time of greatness.
Whether or not Juan Dahlmann in fact died in the south or in the ignominy of a hospital bed, remains unknown. What I wonder is whether one day in 1986 a certain writer’s last moments were filled with dreams of gauchos and knives; of sunsets and the Pampa; perhaps of men marr’d by the javelin —his javelin— in the Battle of Brunanburh. Whether a generous fever, as he whispered the Lord’s Prayer, granted him the romantic death he had always longed for.
Burgin, Richard, ed. Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations. Jackson. University Press of Mississippi. 1998. Print.
Borges, Jorge L., Hurley, Andrew, trans. Collected Fictions. Penguin Books. 1999. Print.