Do not blame me for writing this post. I was ‘triggered’ by a great Canuck with whom I share a liking of Jorge Luis Borges, William Henry Hudson and (I suspect) other inquisitors specialized in idol demolition. Said Canadian —involved often in idol demolitions himself— wrote a piece in which I was mentioned obliquely: Otras Inquisiciones, borrowing the title from an essay wrote by Jorge Luis Borges in 1952. That was the year when general Juan Perón inaugurated what is now an Argentine cherished tradition: monetary inflation.
I grew up in a Buenos Aires where you could run into Borges anytime. Him and Adolfo Bioy Casares used to frequent the Café de la Paz, now defunct after succumbing to the draconian pandemic limitations imposed by government. It happened to me long ago, may be half a century ago, such a long time that I do not know if my memory of this is true, imagination, or something I dreamed. I was walking down Avenida Cordoba, approaching the corner of Calle Uruguay when I saw Borges standing right at the corner obviously waiting for someone to help him cross the busy avenue. He was just standing there, no signs or explanations needed. Everyone knew he was blind, we all knew who he was. I approached him and gently asked him if I could help him cross the street. Traffic was, as usual, devilishly non stop and fast. Borges offered his right arm which had all the consistency of a chicken wing. Half way through I said something to the old man, just to make small talk. Remember I was only a teenager: “You know, maestro Borges, I bought your book, El Oro de los Tigres last week …” The man, without missing a beat responded smiling: “So, it was you.” I think he stole the joke from Henry James but I could not prove it yet. That was unfortunately the total of my conversations with Borges.
He was hated by many. In fact, he was hated by a certain kind of people who had never read a page of his. Some, like Fr. Leonardo Castellani, disliked Borges because of what he truly was: a very well read sophist with an almost divine command of the Spanish language. The same could be said of his English and French (German and Italian as well!) Argentines of his generation were often polyglots. My paternal grandmother mastered French and English before her 18th birthday —her first cousin Ricardo Sáenz Hayes (1888-1976)— belonged to Borges’ inner circle and was a celebrated writer himself who wrote in Spanish and French. He was forgotten along with other writers of their generation like Rodríguez Monegal, Castellani, Oesterheld, Banchs, and so many more. But Borges survived the hateful press, the cruel jokes, the defamation. I think there was an energy in him that moved him to write better the more he was envied. You see, mediocrity and envy are part of the unofficial religion of this country. There is nothing one can do about it.
That ‘religion’ has various elements. One is the principle: “If the facts do not agree with our theory, we must reexamine the facts.” The other one is something we could call ‘poor-ism’ which is not the praising of holy poverty we find in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Nay, it is a perverted way to freeze the poor and the part of society they belong to into a form of cheap sainthood. The poor may fall from that ‘state of grace’ by merely aspiring to a better life, by working hard to improve their lot, by honing their skills at some useful ability, by learning (oh! that is a bad one!) or by simply imitating the good traits of their betters. That is the doctrine of eternal mediocrity being enforced all across the board: “Stand fast until there is nothing in you, except the Will which says to you: ‘Hold on to mediocrity!'” — Forgive me, Mr. Kipling.
You see, Borges belongs to a family with deep roots in the country. His ancestors (Lafinur, Laprida, and others in his lineage) were important here long before this land was called by its current name. And yet, Borges was called names by his freshly arrived enemies who believed him to be a rich pro-European oligarch which he was most definitely not. Funny, because for most of his life he was as poor as mouse. But you see, that poverty was not ‘virtuous’ because he was a learned man who spoke the language of the ‘English pig’. The epithet was the invention of Perón whose followers made Borges’ life hell during the 1946-1955 period. A local comedian nailed it: “We have a special class of ‘cultivated person’ here. They are people that wish they had read and envy those who have.”
Borges survived the hordes by becoming their Inquisitor himself. None of the mediocrities running the country ever escaped his sharp wit: “Peronists are neither good nor bad, they are simply incorrigible.” When a young man offered to help him cross the street, the young man tells Borges ‘Excuse me Mr. Borges, but I have to tell you… I’m a Peronist.’ With his characteristic quick wit Borges responded: ‘Don’t worry, I am blind as well.’ That was the Great Inquisitor in action. Here is one phrase that cannot be quoted often enough:
“Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servility, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they encourage idiocy. Tattletales that babble imperatives, effigies of caudillos, predetermined ‘long live so and so’ or ‘death to so and so’, bootlicking ceremonies, mere dictates usurping the place of lucidity… Combating these sad monotonies is one of the many duties of the writer. Shall I remind the readers of Martín Fierro and Don Segundo Sombra that [kind of meager] individualism is an old Argentine virtue?”
Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina. He was only two years old when his parents moved to New York and settled in Little Italy where he grew up. The family returned to Argentina ten years later. He acquired the feisty attitude of the New Yorkers of that era. One of his neighborhood pals was Joseph Campanella, later a famous baseball player and actor. Astor became one of the great Argentine cultural inquisitors of all time.
Piazzolla and Borges worked together. The musician composed music to complement some of the writer’s poems about Buenos Aires. The work of Piazzolla was basically the score of my youth from my teen years onward. I listened to him, The Beatles, and the greats of classical music and jazz all at the same time. Through Borges I knew C. S. Lewis, Conrad, Yeats, Kipling, etc. while Piazzolla introduced me to Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, Copland, and many many others. Decades before the birth of the World Wide Web I was hyperlinking authors of world literature and music influenced by these two unique men. Of course, that was done in the context of my contemporaries, the likes of which are brilliantly described by David Warren in his post.
Sharing some of my lifetime with Borges, Piazzolla, and so many other talented men and women of that time condemned me to the same fate: hate by association coming from cretins who could hardly point at the sun in the sky. Yet, they were self appointed cultural critics who could teach us what to like or not to like. I was not a happy camper in those days. Neither was Astor Piazzolla. Grown men with a mattress firmly inserted in each ear would violently pontificate: “That is not tango, in fact it’s not even music!” Carrying one of Piazzolla’s long-playing albums out of a music store was as dangerous as walking the streets of Mecca carrying a Crucifix. Piazzolla was many times physically attacked by men who recognized him in public places. Thankfully, Piazzolla took boxing lessons in New York. He had a mean left jab and many of those disturbed aggressors got a taste of his knuckles. Imagine if George Gershwin had to suffer that kind of treatment in New York, or if Heitor Villa-Lobos would have to disguise himself to walk the streets of Rio de Janeiro to avoid being beat up!
Piazzolla now towers as one of the great musical geniuses of all time, his music is played all over the world. The effect that Borges had on Argentine literature Piazzolla had on Argentine music. The man single handedly elevated tango to an art form now appreciated nearly everywhere. Truthfully, he saved the genre from extinction. Now there are Chinese, Finnish, Russian interpreters of tango. Great musicians from all over the world play Piazzolla’s music often. And yet even now, years after his death there are people here that continue to hate his very name.
Fortunately, Piazzolla had the kind of character needed to defend his musical apostolate. He was as sharp with his critics as Borges was. In my unlearned opinion, Borges and Piazzolla are a form of archetypal Argentine. You can still find them although they are seldom seen. I have discovered a few surviving specimens since my return. They are men and women from all walks of life who have developed an ability to disguise themselves. They go about without being noticed, strange people that have survived a big cataclysm and now have to convive with the natives in a country filled to the rim with knaves, assassins, thieves. Saints are hiding in 21st century catacombs while the savages above ground enjoy themselves in a reprise of the burning of Rome
Here we were the first to see a unique culture demolished by cretinous barbarians. The likes of Borges and Piazzolla were martyrs that pointed at the kind of diabolic disease that one day would take over the world. They dared to be inquisitors attacking new and more destructive heresies. They dared to preach fire and brimstone to a land lost far away. But that was yesterday, now the whole world is in deep darkness and in dire need of brand new inquisitions.
Borges interviewed by Bill Buckley in 1977
A 1968 masterpiece