Introduction: Borges and the Universal
The importance of Latin American literature falls within the domain of Latin American culture, which in turn forms in the shadow of globalized culture as such. In the age of imperialism, Western culture is the hegemon and is—in appearance—the universal. The universal is inescapable, and—because the particular culture exists within the universal—each cultural element, each work of literature exists in relation to that which has a stranglehold over the appearance of the universal. “Every claim to a partial truth or a local truth,” which a work of literature seeks to be, “necessarily implies a universal background that this truth relies on” (McGowan 269). The question of what the Latin American writer should direct his pen at, for Borges, takes place on this plane.
In the “Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges writes, “[t]he Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult that nationalists should reject as a foreign import" (423). He rejects the cheap reproduction of national tropes, instead urging that “[w]e must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine” (Borges 427). How could it be otherwise? Through a Hegelian view of Borges, we envision the transmutation of the insistence of the particular—whose “[c]hampioning . . . always leaves one where one is”—to “a ‘determinate universality’ [which] becomes unique through how it relates this internal universality” (McGowan 270). Borges’ advice is sound, but it leaves the new universality which must transcend its old appearance up for grabs. This open field is the new domain of every literary endeavor of the periphery. But how should it be traversed?
Literature is the Universal Civilizer—Or is it?
The work of the gauchesco poem is a vapid imitation: a failure to be what it thinks it is. There is a striving to “cultivate a deliberately popular language,” a “quest for native words, a profusion of local color” (Borges 421). Consequently, the work is more concerned with itself than with the topic at hand; it is a retrogression from the universal to the aesthetic difference of the particular. It is also an appropriation of the other, wherein the particular of the poeta gauchesco falsely incorporates the gaucho into itself without recourse to a universal. In doing so, the subject replaces its identity with a perception of the other and is alienated from itself. Sarmiento’s Facundo, in which the gaucho is simultaneously an object of fascination and derision, reveals this dynamic in full force. We may regard Facundo as a gauchesco work because, although Sarmiento does not explicitly assume the identity of the gaucho in his vituperation of it, he nonetheless deliberately reproduces the local color that Borges identifies with the gauchesco poem. For example,
The baqueano knows the distance between one place and another, the days and hours needed to get there, and even an unknown, lost path by which one can arrive by surprise in half the time; this is why parties of montoneras undertake surprise attacks on towns fifty leagues away, and are almost always successful. Do you think I exaggerate? No! General Rivera, from the Banda Oriental, is just a baqueano who knows every tree there is in the entire area of the Republic of Uruguay (67).
His immersive imagery which casts the reader into the mystical expanse of La Pampa, populated with traditional characters, suffices to demonstrate that Sarmiento includes himself in the “Argentine people [who] are poets by character, by nature” and that he wishes to partake in the world of the gaucho, if only for a moment (61). And yet, he rescinds his inclusion in the world of the provincial man to whom “lack of restraint, idleness, and indolence are the highest good” (Sarmiento 110). He allows himself the pensive awe that he ascribes to a group which he otherwise denigrates, condemning the originator of his own aesthetic. There is an irony of alienation in the pages of Facundo.
To Sarmiento, the totality of Argentine reality is of two definite groups each encroaching on the character of the other. There is only “unity in barbarism and slavery,” wherein tyrants from the ports terrorize the provinces, which in turn take their vengeance with barbarism (48). This unity exists only in the relation of the particulars in conflict, not as an enclosing totality to which each belongs and refers to in its essence, and thus, this motion towards an Argentine universality falls flat. Civilization does not exist, nor does barbarism; however, civilization and barbarism, both granted at once, cannot be denied in their reality. They are enclosed within the totality of their interdependence.
In Emancipation After Hegel, McGowan warns that “[f]rom the perspective of a particular, it appears as if one can eliminate contradiction by revolutionizing the situation” without recourse to the universal and that “[o]n their own, particulars create the illusion of the possibility of avoiding contradiction . . . the greatest danger of the failure to think absolutely” (270). Sarmiento’s position, always that of the civilized particular, seeks a “unifying element for the nation that one day will populate those vast solitudes” (48). This unifying element is nothing but the civilizing “books, ideas, civil spirit, courts, rights, laws, education: all the points of contact and alliance that [the port cities] have with Europeans” (Sarmiento 79). The resolution of the dichotomy of civilization and barbarism, for Sarmiento, is the dissolution of the barbaric particular by the civilizing particular. This is nothing more than the papering over of the contradiction from the perspective of the particular. The reasons to reject Sarmiento’s faulty move towards the universal are twofold. The first, we find explicit in his language: by denoting the universal as the European, he has already undermined it. The second is better introduced by Kojève by way of McGowan:
The master desires recognition from someone worthy of recognition, but . . . [t]here is only the slave to recognize the master, and the slave’s recognition is really no recognition at all. As a result, mastery leads to a historical dead end or an existential impasse. [In] the struggle for recognition . . . the master has no way of achieving it. Slaves, in contrast, have history on their side. [T]he slave finds another avenue for recognition that is not open to the master. When slaves successfully revolt, they establish a society of mutual recognition in which they can achieve satisfaction . . . (206-207)
In this case, the European-aligned porteños take the historical role of master and the gaucho, degraded by the civilized, that of slave in the world of civilization and barbarism that Facundo sets up and analyzes. It does not fall to the master to posit the universal for the dialectical sublation of this specific contradiction in the Argentine totality. The civilizing mission of Sarmiento’s vision is doomed to fail because civilization only exists if barbarity exists in relation to it, and thus cannot destroy it. Civilization is only a part in the totality of extermination of human beings and human thought. Only the oppressed particular, deemed barbarous, can un-barbarize itself by positing its own universal.
The positing of an Argentine universal by the bourgeois porteños runs parallel to the gauchesco appropriation of the other. Its accession to a false universal claim which undermines itself is functionally indistinguishable from a turn away from the universal, since they result in the same thing. If we understand that “any turn away from the universal will have the effect of eliminating rather than sustaining particularity,” (McGowan 269) then the source of the grandeur of the civilized is also the source of its self-alienation.
The Dangling Aristocracy
Sarmiento reminds us that “[i]n the Argentine Republic we see at the same time two different societies on the same soil: one still nascent, which, with no knowledge of things over its head, repeats the naive, popular work of the Middle Ages; another which, with no regard for things beneath its feet, tries to attain the latest results of European civilization” (70). Above, we have shown enough to offer a challenge to this statement: for the former society, at least we can say that it has ground to stand on; for the latter—it is not only that it has no regard for that below its feet—it is that its feet are dangling, frantically feeling for solid ground. Its own identity is its self-alienation.
The economic underpinnings of this are clear enough. As a peripheral nation, Argentina primarily exports raw materials from extractive industries, has its development determined by foreign investments, and is coerced by debt and necessity to purchase manufactured goods at inflated prices as well as deregulate its economy. The richest Argentines thus make their living by destroying their own country, while still calling themselves Argentine: they identify with their own negation. This is the dangling aristocracy: the same one that only adopted tango—which originated in the Afro-Argentine and Indigenous working classes and peasantry—with “the absolute acceptance of the tango in Paris” (Tabares 63). The aristocracy of Buenos Aires is caught between two identities which simultaneously sustain it and drive towards its destruction: foreign capital and the toiling Argentine masses. If it ever either claims universality or recoils into its particularity, it is inauthentic: “the totality renders visible the ontological necessity of contradiction” (McGowan 270). Its only authenticity is precisely its inauthenticity.
Conclusion: Striving towards a Literary Universal
The comprador universal is dangling above ground, with no path to a dissolution of the dichotomized social classes and the self-recognition of the people of Argentina and Latin America at large. Latin American literature should not seek authenticity by adherence to or exploration of European themes, but of themes found in that which is not a motor of its own plunder and destruction. The European universal is only universal if identical concepts bubble up organically from the authentic experiences of the oppressed in the imperialized nations, or from those who break their perspective away from the dominant idol of the universal appearance.
Borges, Jorge Luis, et al. “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.” Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986, Penguin Books, London, 2001, pp. 420–427.
McGowan, Todd. Emancipation after Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. Columbia University Press, 2019.
Tabares, Lorena E. The Argentine Tango As A Discursive Instrument And Agent Of Social Empowerment: Buenos Aires, 1880-1955, Ph.D. diss. University of Texas at El Paso, 2014.
Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism: The First Complete English Translation. Translated by Kathleen Ross, University of California Press, 2003.
By Samuel Araura