Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial


Gina Apostol responds to Mark O'Connell's New Yorker review of two new books about Borges, in the LA Review of Books:

Certainly, Borges’s statements about his indifference to politics are alarming:

I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer.

To be honest, as I read this, I start laughing. You can, of course, believe Borges — why not, if he says so? But you can also see him performing his double act, enacting the writer Borges, the provocative, public intellectual that the I abhors in that terse masterpiece, “Borges and I.” Interestingly, O’Connell begins his review with a quote from that instructive story:

“I like hourglasses,” [the I narrator] writes, “maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; [Borges] shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.”

And yet when it comes to Borges’s actorly statements about politics, O’Connell fails to give the writer the benefit of Borges’s own skepticism of his public self.

What is it about the writer in the First World that wants the Third World writer to be nakedly political, a blunt instrument bludgeoning his world’s ills? What is it about the critic that seems to wish upon the Third World the martyred activist who dies for a cause (O’Connell: “In his own country, six coups d’etat and three dictatorships” — one hears exclamation points of disappointment)? Where does this goddamned fantasy come from — that fantasy of the oppressed Third World artist who must risk his life to speak out, who’s not allowed to stay in bed and just read Kidnapped? I have to say, look at it this way: It only benefits dictatorships when all the Ken Saro-Wiwas die — and the loss of all the Ken Saro-Wiwas diminishes us all. Why is it not okay that an old man in Argentina lives for his art — and yet it is okay for a writer in The New Yorker whose country is targeting civilians abroad in precision assassinations to merely sit and write reviews about dead Argentines whose political feelings are insufficiently pronounced? Where is the great American artist leading his fellow citizens in barricades against the NSA? And why are these New Yorker critics not calling them out for their “refusal to engage with politics”?

Although it is amusing to imagine a blind librarian in Buenos Aires brandishing his weapons of Kipling tomes against the old junta, it is less possible to imagine Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides risking jail at all for any reason. Why are Americans allowed to be more cowardly than others?