Borges, Duchamp and I

Mark O’Connell’s recent New Yorker blog review of two new books on Jorge Luis Borges opens by sensitively praising the Argentine master’s literary talents, and closes by deeming him politically incorrect. One big problem, in O’Connell’s eyes, is Borges’s failure to adequately appreciate women writers. Without letting us in on the joke, the critic informs us that he “laughed out loud” upon reading Borges’ remark that Emily Dickinson was “the most passionate of all women who have attempted writing.” Perhaps it’s the word “attempt” that O’Connell expects his reader to find so laugable. And perhaps he doesn’t fully grasp Borges’ understanding that this is no insult, since any communication is but an essaie.

As a lead-up to a second fit of pique O’Connell recounts the following conversation from 1980:

On “The Dick Cavett Show,” Cavett asked [Borges] if he could account for the level of sympathy for the Nazis in Argentina. “Look here,” said Borges. “I don’t profess to understand my country. I am not politically minded, either. I do my best to avoid politics. I belong to no party. I am an individualist.” Pressed on the topic of Hitler, Borges said that “of course I hate and loathe him. His anti-Semitism was very foolish.”

O’Connell declares this disavowal of political-mindedness to be unwise and inadequately engagé, yet he fails to tell us what kind of response would have been adequate to, say, the Holocaust, in a Cavett chair or any other context. The critic’s condescension is especially bizarre in light of the mountain of well-known evidence for Borges’s overt political involvement, including his anti-Nazi writings beginning in the 1930s.

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Score one for the LA Review of Books, who have published a magnificent rejoinder to O’Connell’s assertions about Borges’s purported “refusal to engage with politics.” In her essay “Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial” acclaimed novelist Gina Apostol notes that O’Connell “writes astutely about Borges’s complex reflexivity” but that he’s dead wrong to accuse him of apoliticism. As Apostol points out, Borges’s disavowal of political engagement on the Cavett show may be necessary to the survival of a public figure (and, I would add, the survival of his friends) who has already weathered, by O’Connell’s own reckoning, “six coups d’états and three dictatorships.”

Without pointing beyond his fiction and the essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” Apostol persuasively argues that Borges’s apparent abstention from inherited political positions — and the refusal, relentlessly thematized in his fiction, to settle into a single, stable, authentic, vernacular self — may be the only viable way to come to terms with a post-colonial identity. It’s illuminating to be let in on a politically astute Filipina fiction writer’s reasons for emulating Borges’s writerly and existential techniques of interrogation and displacement.

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While I agree with Apostol that Borges’s ability to step outside of himself is a lesson for the the new millennium, I also realize that I’ll need to write my own stories. Apostol’s sketch of the quietly yet decisively subversive Borges brings to mind that other supreme 20thC trickster Marcel Duchamp, who exiled himself in 1915 from Paris to New York, where he remained avant-garde enough to be pretty marginal to the art world until the ascendancy of Neo-Dada and Pop art around 1960.  (Until that wrenching moment, real men like Picasso and Pollock had been ruling the roost.) Although Andy Warhol became Duchamp’s most worthy successor, he did not adopt the privileged Frenchman’s quiet tactics of evasion. Instead, like the drag queens he so admired, he elected to hide in plain sight, over-identifying with a crass and all-pervasive commercial culture by turning himself into the ultimate consumer, producer, marketer and product.

Looking back on my own coming-of-age, in the shadow of the USA and the decade of cable TV, it feels like we were all children of Warhol. Jaded participation in a fairly bland consumerism, aggressive careerism, and passive media-driven politics were about the only imaginable ways of engaging contemporary culture. (The unimaginable ways included the futile resistance techniques of anti-establishment paranoiacs like Ted Kaczynski and Philip K. Dick.) A generation later, when so much of society is in such manifest political/cultural/economic/ecological decline, young-to-middle-aged progressives seem less engaged than ever in business-as-usual.

This is not to suggest that farcical orgies of consumption are going to disappear overnight. That’s still the name of the game in the contemporary art world, where the players are naturally keen to protect their social and financial investments. So much for the 1%. But it’s becoming obvious that the vast majority of us — the increasingly dispossessed masses of the developed and developing worlds — couldn’t gain entrance to that table if we wanted to. And our keepers are keeping an eye on us — indeed they’re buying and selling us every minute. Now that the future has come and gone it seems like we’re all post-colonials.

An increasing challenge for many of us is how to survive without yielding to the yoke of the oppressor, and here, too, history can offer some guidance. In an amazingly prescient talk of 1972, Philip K. Dick confronted the predicament of a late capitalist surveillance state with the following advice:

 If, as it seems, we are in the process of becoming a totalitarian society in which the state apparatus is all-powerful, the ethics most important for the survival of the true, free, human individual would be: cheat, lie, evade, fake it, be elsewhere, forge documents, build improved electronic gadgets in your garage that’ll outwit the gadgets used by the authorities.

Although they lacked Dick’s beat commitment to maintaining authenticity, both Borges and Duchamp worked hard to scramble the signals in some of the ways he was advising. Their splendid selves — stealthful, low-emission, Zen-like in their recognition of life’s paradoxes and the futility of joining a clamorous political fray — seem like an increasingly viable model for surviving a time when it seems like all the experts have solutions and none of them are working.

Thus endeth today’s story. Any such call-to-the-sidelines is likely to strike the O’Connell’s of the world as another apolitical cop-out. But I think opting out can be a viable political act, and that at this juncture the best way to change the game may be to experience the view from outside and to resist jumping to conclusions about where to go next. To that end, and without further comment, I leave you to dig the visages of a 20thC survivor (Duchamp, pictured in 1921 as his female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy) and the paranoiac antihero of the hour.



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