Offcourse Literary Journal
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(A Romanian translation of this essay has appeared in the Bucharest journal Observator Cultural, December 15, 2005.)


Jorge Luis Borges' first "metaphysical" fiction, "Approach to Al-Mu`tasim" (1935) names several European intellectuals for reasons which, I hope to show, can be detected.



Before long-distance air travel, back in the 1920s and 30s, London and Paris were fifteen, twenty times more distant from the Pampas than today. This made for a correspondingly higher mythic potential energy, which meant that the cultivated classes on both sides of the Atlantic, and on both sides of the Equator, believed that on the opposite side was to be found the cure for le mal du siècle, the elixir against existential ennui.  From the Argentine shore, only the wealthy could afford the trip to Europe, and the ostentatious Pampæan lord carrying a milch cow with him all the way to Paris for his dairy requirements was an often-envied laughing-stock.   To him the word “rastaquouère”, or simply “rasta”, was regularly applied.  Europe, conversely, sent her intellectuals to the Far South-southwest, paid to lecture on culture by either side or by both.

The Europeans expected a beneficial dose of noble savagery from the natives; the Buenos Aires educated public expected to hear the dernier cri of civilization & refinement: whether, for example, it was fashionable to trust reason or rather intuition, to think oneself primitive or advanced, to believe in life after death or to believe in nothing.  By 1931, Guillermo de Torre (the man of letters who was J. L. Borges’ brother-in-law) wrote in the journal Sur, “Buenos Aires is a great importer of lecturers.”  And so it was.  Take 1929 for example: in that year, Hermann Graf von Keyserling, the Estonian aristocrat, and Benjamin Fondane a.k.a. Fundoianu, the Romanian Jew, spoke at the same hall, probably facing the same bejeweled, blue-stocking ladies and the same slick-haired, tight-gartered gentlemen.  Both dissertators, so different in almost every respect, edified their audience with impassioned denunciations of discursive intellect.

In the period between the two world wars, nuance was unappreciated and too often taken for betrayal.  All middle ground had disappeared, sunk like Plato’s Atlantis, and had been replaced by the abyss.  Philosophically, reason was either exalted as the supreme good or denigrated as the nethermost evil; politically, one had to choose, willy-nilly (so it was urged), between two opposed tyrannical loyalties, Communism and Fascism.  In such a climate of unconnected isles, essentiality and authenticity became the ruling virtues: the enemies were the amphibious, the cosmopolitan, the nomad, the lukewarm, and above all, the land-less capital.  Argentina was no exception: there, nationalism meant to rid the country of British economic and French cultural influences, and go back to the “essence” of Argentinity, whatever that might have meant.  A pretty subjective affair in any case, often meaning simply that the patrón, issued from Spanish conquistadors, should absolutely lord over the vast, bastard peonage.

All his life Borges refused to surrender to those either/ors.  He was derided by Argentine nationalists as a buffoon at the pay of foreign capital, and called by the worst insult in their vocabulary: cipayo (a word curiously derived from Anglo-Indian sepoy, through French cipaye).  On the other hand the left treated him so unfairly that, six years after Borges’ death in Geneva, Édouard Roditi, in an article published in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse, placed the Argentine writer in a short list of fascistic Denker und Dichter, together with Heidegger, Céline, Pound, Eliade and Gertrude Stein.  By almost everyone else Borges was, for a long time, pegged as a bookish writer, disconnected from life.


“El acercamiento a Almotásim” (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim), of 1935, is the earliest of Borges’ metaphysical fictions, and as such it is especially remarkable.  It interests us not because it is among his best—no one, I think, would rate it close to “El Aleph” or “El Zahir”—but because here we see the writer coming to terms, in a highly self-conscious way, with his new invention.  I mean the invention of a new literary genre, something that happens very rarely in literary and art history, and which is roughly equivalent to the invention of a new human feeling.  New genres are often conceived just like sexed creatures, by the coming together of two genres already mature, two mature genres which furthermore are traditionally perceived as opposite and incompatible, the one being “high” and the other “low.”  So Plautus, to cover himself from Rome’s pedantic critics, had the highest authority on these matters, the god Mercury himself, tell the public in the Prologue of Amphitryon that the play to come, with gods as well as slaves in it—can you imagine?—would be “a mixture of both” (tragedy and comedy) and that therefore it would be called “tragi-comedy.”  And so, too, with the first modern novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  This latter is a fusion of the chivalry romance, derived from the medieval and late-antique tales of adventure, and the peculiarly Spanish “low” genre called the picaresque.  All through the first part of Don Quixote the author was so unsure of the success of his bold innovation that he intercalated stories in the Italianate and pastoral styles to keep up the readers’ interest, to keep away the critics’ ire, and to show that he, Cervantes, was able to compose a “normal” tale.  Of course, I do not mean to imply that later instances of a genre will go on exhibiting for everyone to see—that is, so naked and so filled with anxiety—the mixed features characteristic of the first attempt.  No, the textual anxiety accompanies the awareness of the new, and it can take many forms: endistancing or setting masks between the author and the work, as in the First Part of Don Quixote, or in Eliot’s Wasteland, for example; or a willful confusion of reality levels—the mixing of real and fictitious characters and situations, for instance; the introduction into the work of self-reference and its aporias, and so on.

Borges was no less self-conscious and no less anxious about what would come out of his Al-Mu’tasim; surely he was aware that what he had there was a first attempt at a new genre.  The genetic fusion (or hybridization, as Borges himself calls it) in this case, is this: a philosophical or theological theme (in the occurrence, the theme of the hidden Imam in the Ismaelian tradition) is combined with the genre of detective fiction, murder mystery or roman policier, itself a child of newspaper crime reportage and scientific report or mathematical treatise.  Borges had been thinking about these matters rigorously.  In July of the same year of Al-Mu’tasim, 1935,  the journal Sur published Borges’ first essay on the subject of detective fiction, “Los laberintos policiales y Chesterton” (The Detection Labyrinths and Chesterton); in it Borges gave a very strict set of rules defining the genre and declared that Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) was its first specimen.  That in itself was a provocation, for that place of pioneering honor is usually reserved for Poe’s earlier story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  But Borges was probably of the opinion (surely right) that the earlier story violates one of the genre key requirements, namely that the solution to the crime should not invoke facts or data not available to the reader beforehand.  Let us note about Poe, briefly and parenthetically, that “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”—though surprisingly not “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—exhibits all the signs of textual anxiety attending the awareness of the new, as is most noticeable in Poe’s footnotes: here, as usual, Borges may have been right in spite of the appearances.


Finally I come to the original purpose of this article, which is to disclose the peculiar form textual anxiety takes in “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim.” In the first place, Borges attributes the authorship of the novel about the search for the hidden Imam to the Bombay lawyer Mir Bahadur Ali, just as Cervantes had attributed most of the First Part of Don Quixote to Cide Hamete Benengeli.  Then, before he starts narrating the plot, he has a couple of critics condemn, in implacable and summary fashion, the “hybrid” nature of the text, its being a “rather uncomfortable combination” of Islamic allegory and detective fiction, i.e., precisely the feature that gives the piece its originality.  Neither of those two writerly tricks is new or in itself remarkable.  What is remarkable, however, is the identity of those critics.  Philip Guedalla, whose name begins Borges’ story, was a real person (b. 1889, d. 1944) who visited Argentina in at least three occasions: in August and September of 1931, in September of 1934, and lastly in November 1939.  The first visit promptly resulted in a book, Argentine Tango (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1932), glib and clever yet vulgar and clearly inessential.  The second visit, apparently, won for the British writer the honor of playing a prominent role in Borges’ first metaphysical story—I say apparently because it can scarcely be doubted that Borges and Guedalla met, but I have not been able to find, so far, any account of their meeting or acquaintance.

Borges’ other self-inflicted critic is Cecil Roberts, born in 1892.  Guedalla (says Borges) only repeats Roberts’ criticism of the Bombay lawyer’s novel “in a more choleric dialect.”  For the rest (he adds), both critics agree entirely.  This fictitious agreement is a reflection of the real agreement and mutual admiration between those two British writers.  I have extracted the following information from the third volume of Cecil Roberts’ memoirs (The Bright Twenties: being the third book of an autobiography, 1920-1929, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1970; pages 121-3).  In 1921, aged 32, Philip Guedalla had been already caricatured by Max Beerbohm, which amounts to saying that he had arrived.  His career

“had begun at Rugby with notable contributions to the school magazine.  At Balliol College he took two Firsts and became President of the Oxford Union.  His bons-mots were famous.  Before he left Oxford he published two books of verse …  Guedalla was a brilliant public speaker … I was captivated by his technique.  He was forceful, witty and well-informed.  In subsequent years it was sometimes my fate to find myself speaking at the same functions.  He was always formidable, in complete command of his audience.  Because of my admiration I treasured a compliment he paid me on one occasion.  I liked to recall it against visitations of doubt and despondency.  He came up to me after he had been overwhelmingly excellent and congratulated me on my own contribution, saying: ‘I never know whether I prefer to precede you or to follow you—you’re such a high jumper.’  It was generous coming from a master.  In a few years he was well-established as a biographer.  Some critics accused him of being a disciple of Lytton Strachey, who then led the field, but ‘he was more conscientious and scholarly’ as the Dictionary of National Biography observed.  Wellington, his last biographical work, sets the standard of quality.  His death in 1944, aged fifty-five, took from the public scene a brilliant figure.”

Besides being excellent public speakers, both members of the Liberal Party, Roberts and Guedalla were assiduous, sought-after travelers: the former interviewed President Coolidge and later President Roosevelt in the White House; the latter visited the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires and talked about military strategy with the de facto President, General Uriburu.  Such were the men Borges chose as fake critics of Mir Bahadur Ali’s bogus novel: brilliant, facile with tongue and pen, recognized importers of European culture into the New World—Guedalla concentrating on the South, Roberts on the North.

In the absence of credible documents, the question as to why did Borges choose such personalities as reprovers is completely open to conjecture.  Mine follows.  Once the writer had decided that his bogus novel was to belong to the realm of British letters, it naturally followed that the critics had to be British, prestigious, full of Oxonian self-assurance, and ready at reproval, since lauding critiques belong to the commercial advertisement or blurb, a genre too dismally low to mix with anything, unless it be with clear irony.  But I think there is something besides, or rather behind, all that: an experience which must have been specially frustrating, given Borges personality.  No one in Argentina was so conversant with European literature, and certainly no one had as firm preferences and dislikes, totally unaffected by fashion or the dictates of European visitors: for instance, Borges placed Kipling’s Kim near the top of modern novels, but thought poorly of Joyce’s Ulysses.  I imagine that often his literary opinions were patronizingly dismissed by some distinguished visitor, with whom all the other guests at tea or dinner party would naturally have tended to agree, to Borges’ chagrin.  Singling Guedalla as his critic, I suspect, was a way of venting felt frustrations, a kind of revenge; adding Roberts was prudent, since the two English writers were so closely related, and readers would not be able to conclude that Borges picked his critics exclusively from among his acquaintances.

All this, as I have said, is mere conjecture; a slightly later occurrence reinforces its likelihood.  In April 1939, the French magazine Mesures (5th year, number 2, pages 115-122) published a translation of “El acercamiento a Almotásim”.  The translation was done by Borges’ friend Néstor Ibarra and carried the title, “L’Approche du caché”; in it there is a new footnote, added by Borges no doubt, which reads as follows:

“En France, le livre [de Mir Bahadour Ali] semble être passé inaperçu.  Toutefois, Benjamin Fondane le mentionne dans Europe, et le définit en ces termes : ‘De la diversité, du brio, un agencement ponctuel, un art précis et ingénieux qui sait décevoir autant que combler, le sens inné de l’étrange ; partout du talent, voire par moments une force qui ressemble à du génie.  Bref : zéro.’”   (In France Mir Bahadour Ali’s book appears to have been unnoticed.  Benjamin Fondane, however, mentions it in the journal Europe, and defines it thus: ‘Variety, brio, an impeccable arrangement, a precise, ingenious technique ready to fulfill as well as to disappoint, an innate feeling for what’s strange or exotic; talent everywhere, and often a force akin to genius.  In short: zero.)

This footnote appears, too, in the Pléïade edition of Borges’ Complete Works (vol. I, page 1536, note 1).  Benjamin Fondane, I have already recalled, gave talks in Buenos Aires in 1929: they, or part of them, can be found in the magazine Europe, 76th year, number 827, March 1998, pages 110-120, under the unlikely ambitious title, “Un nouveau visage de Dieu” (God’s New Face).  Dostoyevsky and Shestov can be said to be the heroes of those talks, and no doubt the two Russian writers appeared prominently in the conversation of the Romanian/French poet and philosopher when he visited Buenos Aires for the second time in 1936, shortly before Borges penned the above-quoted footnote.  In published interviews (see for example Emir Rodríguez Monegal in Revista Iberoamericana, vol. 36, number 70, 1970, pages 65-76), Borges has told of his disappointment on re-reading Dostoyevsky’s novels as an adult; he has also told of his dislike for “pathetic philosophies.”  It is unlikely, therefore, that he held any sympathy for Fondane’s favorite subjects or for Fondane lui-même.  I imagine a dinner table at Victoria Ocampo’s house: someone mentions Valéry, a poet much admired among the cénacle Sur, and the irrepressible Romanian forcefully expresses his verdict: Valéry is not a poet; he’s merely a clown—or something roughly equivalent.  Whence Borges’ dagger-pointed vignette, “Bref : zéro”.

Paul Bénichou has put it excellently, at the end of his article, “Le Monde et l’esprit chez Jorge Luis Borges” in Les Lettres nouvelles, November 1954: “… que l’œuvre de Borges n’est peut-être qu’un retournement de son éxperience, que son humour combat en secret une amertume, que sa sagesse a été conquise sur le tourment de son esprit, et qu’elle consiste, au fond, à prévenir par le rire un inutile désespoir.”  (… that Borges’ work is perhaps but a reversal of his experience, that his humor secretly combats some bitterness, that his wisdom has been built on spiritual torment: the wisdom to keep useless desperation at bay by means of laughter.)

What I have been trying to say about “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” and the European distinguished visitors is but an instance, a rather minuscule one, of Bénichou’s general principle.


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