Jorge Luis Borges

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Writers and critics

Jorge Luis Borges
Borges in Paris, 1969
Born August 24, 1899
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died June 14, 1986
Geneva, Switzerland

Jorge Luis Borges ( August 24, 1899 – June 14, 1986), was an Argentine writer who is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century. Best-known in the English speaking world for his short stories and fictive essays, Borges was also a poet, critic, translator and man of letters.



Borges was born in 1899 in Buenos Aires. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, was a lawyer and psychology teacher, who also had literary aspirations ("he tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt", Borges once said. "He composed some very good sonnets"). Borges's mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, came from an old Uruguayan family. His father was part Spanish, part Portuguese, and half British; his mother Spanish, and possibly Portuguese. At his home, both Spanish and English were spoken and from earliest childhood Borges was effectively bilingual. It is said that he was reading Shakespeare, in English, at the age of 12. He grew up in the then-distant and not very prosperous neighbourhood of Palermo, in a large house with an extensive English library.

Borges's full name was Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo but, following Argentine custom, he never used the entire name.

Jorge Guillermo Borges was forced into early retirement from the legal profession owing to the same failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son, and in 1914, the family moved to Geneva, where Borges senior was treated by a Geneva eye specialist while Borges and his sister Norah (1901-1998) attended school. There Borges learned French, which he apparently had initial difficulties with, and taught himself German, receiving his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève 1918.

After World War I ended, the Borges family spent three years variously in Lugano, Barcelona, Majorca, Seville, and Madrid. In Spain, Borges became a member of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement. His first poem, "Hymn to the Sea," written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia ("Greece", in Spanish). There he frequented such notable Spanish writers as Rafael Cansinos Assens and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.

Early writing career

In 1921, Borges returned with his family to Buenos Aires where he imported the doctrine of Ultraism and launched his career as a writer by publishing poems and essays in literary journals. Borges's first collection of poetry was Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He contributed to the avant-garde review Martín Fierro (whose " art for art's sake" approach contrasted to that of the more politically-involved Boedo group), co-founded the journals Prisma (1921–1922, a broadsheet distributed largely by pasting copies to walls in Buenos Aires) and Proa (1922–1926). He was, from the first issue, a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931, by Victoria Ocampo, which became Argentina's most important literary journal. Ocampo herself introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, who was to become Borges's frequent collaborator and Ocampo's brother-in-law, and another well-known figure of Argentine literature.

A major influence during these years was Macedonio Fernández, whose friendship he inherited from his father. Macedonio and Borges would hold court in cafés, country retreats, or Macedonio's tiny apartment in the Balvanera district.

In 1933 Borges was appointed editor of the literary supplement of the newspaper Crítica, and it was there that the pieces later published in Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) appeared. These pieces lay somewhere between non-fictional essays and fictional short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories, and literary forgeries, which typically claimed to be translations of passages from famous but seldom read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emecé Editores and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar, which appeared from 1936 to 1939.

In 1937, friends of Borges found him work at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library as a first assistant. The other employees immediately forbade Borges from cataloging more than 100 books each day, a task which would take him about one hour. The rest of his days he would spend in the basement of the library, writing articles and short stories. When Juan Perón came to power in 1946, Borges was effectively fired; "promoted" to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market (from which he immediately resigned; when he told this story, he would always embellish this to "Poultry and Rabbit Inspector"). His offenses against the Peronistas up to that time had apparently consisted of little more than adding his signature to pro-democratic petitions, but shortly after his resignation he addressed the Argentine Society of Letters saying, in his characteristic style, "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy."

Borges's father died in 1938, a great blow because the two were very close. On Christmas Eve 1938, Borges suffered a severe head wound in an accident; during treatment for that wound, he nearly died of septicemia. (He based his 1944 short story " The South" on this event.) While recovering from the accident, he began writing in a style he became famous for, and his first collection of short stories, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan ( The Garden of Forking Paths) appeared in 1941. The book included El sur, a piece that incorporated some autobiographical elements, notably the accident, and which Borges later called "perhaps my best story." Though generally well received, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner the literary prizes many in his circle expected for it. Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a "Reparation for Borges"; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the project.


Left without a job, his vision beginning to fade due to glaucoma, and unable to fully support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer. Despite a certain amount of political persecution, he was reasonably successful, and became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President of the Argentine Society of Writers (1950–1953) and as Professor of English and American Literature (1950–1955) at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story Emma Zunz was turned into a film (under the name of Días de odio, which in English became Days of Wrath) in 1954 by Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.

In 1955, and after the initiative of Ocampo, the new anti-Peronist military government appointed him head of the National Library. By that time, he had become fully blind, like one of his best known predecessors, Paul Groussac (for whom Borges wrote an obituary). Neither coincidence nor the irony escaped Borges and he commented on them in his work:

Borges at the Hotel Beaux, 1969.
Borges at the Hotel Beaux, 1969.
Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
esta declaración de la maestría
de Dios, que con magnífica ironía
me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.
Let neither tear or reproach
besmirch this declaration
of the mastery of God
who, with magnificent irony,
granted me both the gift of books
and the night.

The following year he received the National Prize for Literature and the first of many honorary doctorates, this one from the University of Cuyo. From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, while frequently holding temporary appointments at other universities.

Being unable to read and write (he never learned the Braille system), he relied on his mother, with whom he had always been personally close, and who began to work with him as his personal secretary.

International recognition

Borges first appeared in English translation in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; the story was "The Garden of Forking Paths," and the translator Anthony Boucher. Some "seven or eight" other Borges translations appeared in literary magazines and anthologies during the 1950s, but his international fame dates from the early 1960s. In 1961, he received the Formentor Prize, which he shared with Samuel Beckett. As Beckett was well-known and respected in the English-speaking world, while Borges at this time remained unknown and untranslated, English-speakers became curious about who the person was who shared the prize. The Italian government named him Commendatore; and the University of Texas at Austin appointed him for one year to the Tinker chair. This led to his first lecture tour of the United States. The first translations of his work into English were to follow in 1962, with lecture tours of Europe and the Andean region of South America in subsequent years. In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed him O.B.E.. In 1980 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and numerous other honours were to accumulate over the years, such as the French Legion of Honour in 1983, the Cervantes Prize, and even a Special Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, "for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre".

In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thanks to whom he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios ( The Book of Imaginary Beings, 1967, co-written with Margarita Guerrero), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie's Report, 1970), and El libro de arena ( The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were anthologized in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos.

Though a contender since at least the late 1960s, Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Especially in the late 1980s, when Borges was clearly growing old and infirm, the failure to grant him the prize became a glaring omission. It was speculated that Borges was considered unfit to receive the award because of his tacit support of, or unwillingness to condemn, the military dictatorships that were being installed in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere. Although this political stance stemmed from his self-described "Anarcho-Pacifism," it forced Borges to join the distinguished company of Nobel Prize in Literature non-winners, a group including, among others, Graham Greene, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy and Alfonso Reyes (Borges said of Reyes: "the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time"). He did, however, receive the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society.

Later personal life

When Perón returned from exile and was re-elected president in 1973, Borges immediately resigned as director of the National Library.

Borges married recently widowed Elsa Astete Millán in 1967. It was believed that his mother, who was 90 years old and anticipated her own death, wanted to find someone to care for her blind son. The marriage lasted less than three years. After the legal separation, Borges moved back in with his mother, with whom he lived until her death at 99 (see the book The Lessons of the Master by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni). Thereafter, he lived alone in the small flat he had shared with her and was cared for by Fanny, their housekeeper of many decades (see the book El Señor Borges by “Fanny”).

After 1975, the year his mother died, Borges commenced a series of extensive visits to countries all over the world, that continued until the time of his death. He was often accompanied in these travels by his personal assistant María Kodama, an Argentine woman of Japanese and German ancestry.

Jorge Luis Borges died of liver cancer in Geneva and is buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Plainpalais). A few months before his death, he was married by attorney in Paraguay to Maria Kodama. Kodama, as sole inheritor, has control of his works, estimated to generate a significant annual income. Kodama was denounced by the prestigious French editor Gallimard, and by intellectuals such as Beatriz Sarlo, as an obstacle to the serious reading of Borges works (see articles in Le Nouvel Observateur, diario El País and diario La Nación among other international media).

Other work

In addition to his short stories for which he is most famous, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, several screenplays, and a considerable volume of literary criticism, prologues, and reviews, edited numerous anthologies, and was a prominent translator of English-, French- and German-language literature into Spanish (and of Old English and Norse works as well). His blindness (which, like his father's, developed in adulthood) strongly influenced his later writing. Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges's sense of literature as recreation — all of these disciplines are sometimes treated as a writer's playthings and at other times treated very seriously.

Borges lived through most of the twentieth century, and so was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learned, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the somewhat older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader interests. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended, as their lives went on, toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges's work progressed away from what he referred to as "the baroque," while theirs moved towards it: Borges's later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his early style.

Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, philosophy, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text (" The Library of Babel"), a man who forgets nothing he experiences (" Funes, the Memorious"), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe (" The Aleph"), and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad (" The Secret Miracle"). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic and fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.

Borges's abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. In this respect, and regarding Borges's personal pantheon, he considered the Mexican essayist of similar topics Alfonso Reyes "the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time" (In: Siete Noches, p. 156). His non-fiction also explores many of the themes that are found in his fiction. Essays such as "The History of the Tango" or his writings on the epic poem Martín Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentinian people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights", while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly and obscurely researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, "There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." Borges's interest in fantasy was shared by Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms (see main article: H. Bustos Domecq).

Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), Borges increasingly focused on writing poetry, because he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tlön in " Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in his essay " A New Refutation of Time", and in his poem "Things." Similarly, a common thread runs through his story " The Circular Ruins" and his poem " El Golem" ("The Golem").

As well as his own original work, Borges was notable as a translator into Spanish. He translated Oscar Wilde's story The Happy Prince into Spanish when he was ten, perhaps an early indication of his literary talent. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. Borges also translated (whilst simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation and articulated his own view of translation. Borges held the view that a translation may improve upon an original, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid, and further that an original or literal translation can be unfaithful to the original work.

Borges also employed two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work. Both constitute a form of modern pseudo-epigrapha.

Borges's best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.

At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, Borges chose — instead of following through with the idea in the obvious way, by writing a piece that fulfilled the concept — to write a review of a nonexistent work, writing as though the work had already been created by some other person. The most famous example of this is " Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who so immerses himself in the world of sixteenth-century Spain that he can sit down and create a large portion of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote verbatim, not by having memorized Cervantes's work, but as an "original" work of his own mind. Borges's "review" of the work of the fictional Menard effectively discusses the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much richer Menard's work is than Cervantes's (verbatim identical) work.

While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. It is likely that he first encountered the idea in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work and biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104), records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he "discovered — and was overwhelmed by — Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart." In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them." He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that "those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books." [Collected Fictions, p.67]

Borges as Argentine and as world citizen

Special two-Argentine pesos coin with a Caricature of Borges, 1999
Special two- Argentine pesos coin with a Caricature of Borges, 1999

Borges's work maintained a universal perspective that reflected a multi-ethnic Argentina, exposure from an early age to his father's substantial collection of world literature, and lifelong travel experience: As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas where the boundaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil blurred, and lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain; in middle age he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and internationally as a visiting professor; and he continued to tour the world as he grew older, ending his life in Geneva where he had attended high school (he never went to university). Drawing on influences of many times and places, Borges's work belittled nationalism and racism.

Borges grew acquainted with the literature from Argentine, Spanish, North American, English, French, German, Italian, and Northern European/Icelandic sources, including those of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He also read many translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. The universalism that made him interested in world literature — and interesting to world readers — reflected an attitude that was not congruent with the Perón government's extreme nationalism. That government's meddling with Borges's job fueled his skepticism of government (he labeled himself a Spencerian anarchist in the blurb of Atlas). When extreme Argentine nationalists sympathetic to the Nazis asserted Borges was Jewish — the implication being that his Argentine identity was inadequate — Borges responded in "Yo Judío" ("I, a Jew"), where he indicated he would be proud to be a Jew, but presented his actual Christian genealogy (along with a backhanded reminder that any "pure Castilian" just might likely have a Jew in their ancestry a millennium back).

Multicultural influences on Borges's writing

Borges's Argentina is a multi-ethnic country, and Buenos Aires, the capital, a cosmopolitan city. This was even truer during the relatively prosperous era of Borges's childhood and youth than in the present. At the time of Argentine independence in 1816, the population was predominantly criollo — which in Argentine usage generally means people of Spanish ancestry, although it can allow for a small admixture of other ancestry. The Argentine national identity diversified, forming over a period of decades after formal independence. During that period substantial immigration came from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Syria and Lebanon (then parts of the Ottoman Empire), the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, North America, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and China, with the Italians and Spanish forming the largest influx. The diversity of coexisting cultures living characteristic Argentine lifestyles is especially pronounced in Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi, co-authored with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in the unnamed multi-ethnic city that's the setting for " Death and the Compass", which may or may not be Buenos Aires. Borges's writing is also steeped by influences and informed by scholarship of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish faiths — including mainline religious figures, heretics, and mystics. For more examples, see the sections below on International themes in Borges and Religious themes in Borges.

Borges as specialist in the history, culture, and literature of Argentina

If Borges often focused on universal themes, he no less composed a substantial body of literature on themes from Argentine folklore, history, and current concerns. Borges's first book, the poetry collection Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), appeared in 1923. Considering Borges's thorough attention to all things Argentine — ranging from Argentine culture ("History of the Tango"; "Inscriptions on Horse Wagons"), folklore ("Juan Muraña", "Night of the Gifts"), literature ("The Argentine Writer and Tradition", " Almafuerte"; " Evaristo Carriego") and current concerns ("Celebration of The Monster", "Hurry, Hurry", "The Mountebank", "Pedro Salvadores") — it is ironic indeed that ultra-nationalists would have questioned his Argentine identity.

Borges's interest in Argentine themes reflects in part the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the civil wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay. Spurred by pride in his family's heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (e.g. "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz," "The Dead Man," "Avelino Arredondo") as well as poetry ("General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage"). Borges's maternal great-grandfather was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem "A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suarez, Victor at Junín."

Borges, Martín Fierro, and tradition

Borges contributed to a few avant garde publications in the early 1920s, including one called Martín Fierro, named after the major work of nineteenth-century Argentine literature, Martín Fierro, a gauchesque poem by José Hernández, published in two parts, in 1872 and 1880. Initially, along with other young writers of his generation, Borges rallied around the fictional Martín Fierro as the symbol of a characteristic Argentine sensibility, not tied to European values. As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the poem. Hernández's central character, Martín Fierro, is a gaucho, a free, poor, pampas-dweller, who is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend against the Indians; he ultimately deserts and becomes a gaucho matrero, the Argentinian equivalent of a North American western outlaw. Borges's 1953 book of essays on the poem, El "Martín Fierro", separates his great admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his rather mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. He uses the occasion to tweak the noses of arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem, but disdains those (such as Eleuterio Tiscornia) who he sees as failing to understand its specifically Argentinian character.

In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition", Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses that character in the crucial scene in which Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs about universal themes such as time, night, and the sea. The scene clearly reflects the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes — as distinct from the type of slang that Hernández uses in the main body of Martín Fierro. Borges points out that therefore, Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry on universal themes, versus the "gauchesque" fashion among Buenos Aires literati. Borges goes on to deny the possibility that Argentine literature could distinguish itself by making reference to "local colour", nor does it need to remain true to the heritage of the literature of Spain, nor to define itself as a rejection of the literature of its colonial founders, nor follow in the footsteps of European literature. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of someone who has inherited the whole of world literature.

Borges uses Martín Fierro and El Moreno's competition as a theme once again in "El Fin" ("The End"), a story that first appeared in his short story collection Artificios (1944). "El Fin" is a sort of mini-sequel or conclusion to Martín Fierro. In his prologue to Artificios, Borges says of "El Fin," "Everything in the story is implicit in a famous book [Martín Fierro] and I have been the first to decipher it, or at least, to declare it."

Limits to universalism

To exaggerate Borges's universalism might be as much a mistake as the nationalists' questioning the validity of his Argentine identity. His writing was evidently more influenced by some literatures than others, reflecting in part the particular contents of his library his father had amassed, and the particular population composition of Argentina during his lifetime. A review of his work reveals far more influences from European and New World sources than Asian-Pacific or African ones.

Few references to Africans or African-Americans appear in his work; rare mentions include an idiosyncratic inventory of the latter-day effects of the slave trade in "The Dread Redeemer Lazarus Morrell" and a number of sympathetic references to a person of African descent killed by the fictional outlaw Martin Fierro. Indigenous Amerind sources are poorly represented, owing to the near-destruction of that population and culture in the Southern Cone region of South America; rare mentions include a captive Aztec priest, Tzinacán, in "The God's Script" and Amerinds who capture Argentines in "Story of the Warrior and the Captive" and "The Captive". "Lo Gauchesco" (Gaucho culture), has, however, a big presence throughout his work. Gauchos are of mixed blood (spanish and indigenous) and have always been associated with the barabic, indigenous and unruly elements of Argentine culture.

In contrast to his scholarship in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist sources, Borges's view of Hinduism and Hindus seems to have been formed by peering through the sympathetic lens of the works of Rudyard Kipling, as in Borges's "The Approach to Al Mutasim".

Sexuality and sexual orientation

There has been much discussion of Borges' attitudes to sex and women. Herbert J. Brant, in his essay The Queer Use of Communal Women in Borges’ "El muerto" and "La intrusa" , has argued that Borges employed women as intermediaries of male affection, allowing men to engage each other romantically without resorting to direct homosexuality. For instance, the plot of La Intrusa was based on a true story of two friends,[ citations needed] but Borges made their fictional counterparts brothers, thus excluding (in his mind) the possibility of a homosexual relationship. Borges had always dismissed these suggestions, though they were common even among his friends. It may be inferred from statements made in the essay "Our Inabilities" that he harbored homophobic views, though this may have arisen from his general abhorrence of carnality. This is shown in his short story "The Sect of The Phoenix", which focuses entirely on sex yet never names the act otherwise than under the signifier "Secret", while every clue he gives indicates furtive sexual encounters.[ citations needed] Due to the virtual absence of any discussion of sexuality from his works, some commentators[ citations needed] speculate that he was asexual. Estela Canto, who had known Borges since 1944, asserted in Borges a contraluz ( 1989) that Borges' attitude to sex was one of "panicked terror". According to Canto, Borges' father had arranged a meeting between his son and a prostitute, out of a concern that a nineteen-year-old Argentine boy should not be a virgin. The trauma of this encounter, in which the young Borges failed to perform "as a man", may have planted persistent doubts in his mind concerning his sexual orientation.

Not every instance of a woman in Borges is either as an object or as a part of what Daniel Balderston has called "the fecal dialectic." The story "Ulrica" from The Book of Sand tells a romantic tale of heterosexual desire, love, trust and actual sex, though it may have been only a dream. Also, the protagonist of "El muerto" clearly relishes and lusts after the "Splendid, contemptuous, red-haired woman" of Azevedo Bandeira (Hurley 197). Later he "sleeps with the woman with shining hair" (200). "El muerto" ("The Dead Man") contains two seperate examples of definitive gaucho heterosexual lust, though Brant might counter that the woman represents an intermediary of unfulfilled masculine desire between Azevedo and the protagonist Otálora. Speculations as to the author's sexuality may be called pointless when the text is read from a hermeneutic or Roland Barthes style perspective, denying authorial intention. Finally, to quote the narrator of Borges's " Pierre Menard" concerning intellectual debate, "There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless." The key to understanding Borges's sexuality then, according to his own writings, would be to not look for it in his writings.

James Woodall and Edwin Williamson have both written biographies of Borges, both of which are titled Borges, a Life. Their investigations of his actual relationships and his personal correspondence elaborate on the debate surrounding Borges's sexuality.

Citation from Andrew Hurley Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin, 1998.

International themes in Borges

  • Argentina: Biographer of Evaristo Carriego; earnest reader of Leopoldo Lugones, Almafuerte, others; "History of the Tango", "Our Poor Individualism", "Horse Cart Inscriptions", "Celebration of the Monster", "The South", "The Mountebank"
  • China: " The Garden of Forking Paths", "The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate"
  • Czech Republic: Prague setting for "The Secret Miracle" (part of Czechoslovakia at the time); strongly influenced by Franz Kafka (born in what was at the time Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian empire)
  • France: influenced by Leon Bloy, Victor Hugo; Charles Baudelaire; Stephane Mallarmé; Paul Verlaine; Arthur Rimbaud; Paul Valéry; fan of/essay about Guillaume Apollinaire; translator of Andre Gide.
  • Germany: Special affinity for Heinrich Heine, influenced by Kurd Lasswitz; earnest reader of Fritz Mauthner, Arthur Schopenhauer; " Deutsches Requiem", "German Literature in the Age of Bach"
  • India: setting for "Man on the Threshold", "Blue Tigers" and "The Approach to Al Mu'tasim"
  • Iran (Persia): "The Masked Dyer Hakim of Merv"; "The Simurgh and the Eagle" based on Farid ad-Din Attar; "The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald" who based his most famous work on Omar Khayyam
  • Ireland: Influenced by John Scotus Erigena, Jonathan Swift George Bernard Shaw, subjective idealist metaphysicist George Berkeley who was also an Irish bishop; translated Oscar Wilde into Spanish; reviews of James Joyce; setting of " The Form of the Sword" and "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero".
  • Italy: Borges had a special affinity for Dante's The Divine Comedy, the subject of Nine Dantesque Essays
  • Japan: "The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kotsuke no Suke"
  • Mexico: "The Writing of the God" (also translated as "The God's Script")
  • Spain: Borges makes frequent reference to Don Quixote and to the 17th century writer Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas. Setting for "Averroes' Search"
  • Portugal: scattered references to Eça de Queiroz.
  • United Kingdom: Extensive study of English/Anglo Saxon literature; influenced by Samuel Butler, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas de Quincey, David Hume, Rudyard Kipling, Herbert Spencer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Carlyle; "Everything and Nothing", "Shakespeare's Memory"
  • United States: translator of William Faulkner into Spanish; special affinity for Walt Whitman, influenced by/essays about Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne; Mark Twain-inspired "The Dreaded Redeemer Lazarus Morel"; many reviews of films, e.g. Citizen Kane ("An Overwhelming Film");
  • Scandinavia: setting for "Undr" and "Three Versions of Judas"; lectures on Norse Sagas; learned Old Norse
  • Uruguay: historical fiction "Avelino Arredondo"

Religious themes in Borges: Mainline, heretical, and mystical

  • Buddhist: "Theme of the Beggar and the King", lecture on Buddhism in Seven Nights
  • Christian: Influenced by John Scotus Erigena; "The Mirror of Enigmas" partially based on ideas of Léon Bloy; "A History of Eternity", "Three Versions of Judas", "The Sect of the Thirty", "The Theologians", "The Gospel of Mark", "The Theologian in Death", an early work in imitation of Emanuel Swedenborg
  • Gnostic: "A Defense of Basilides the False"
  • Islamic: "Approach to Al Mu'tasim", " Averroes' Search", "Hakim, Masked Dyer of Merv", "The Chamber of Statues"; "The Simurgh and the Eagle" based on Farid ad-Din Attar; "The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald" who based his most famous work on Omar Khayyam; strongly influenced by/studied several translations of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
  • Jewish: "Death and the Compass", "The Golem", "A Defense of the Cabala", lectures on Cabala and on Shmuel Agnon
  • Pagan: " The House of Asterion", "The Immortals"
  • Zoroastrian: " The Circular Ruins"
  • Fictional: The heresiarchs of Uqbar in " Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "The Sect of the Phoenix"


  • "The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it." — (dogma of a fictional religion in "Hakim, the masked dyer of Merv". Part of this quote is also attributed to a heresiarch of Uqbar in "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius".)
  • "The central fact of my life has been the existence of words and the possibility of weaving those words into poetry."
  • "I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses'. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time." — Introduction to The Book of Sand
  • "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."
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