“It has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish.”
— Jorge Luis Borges, “I, a Jew”
For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to decide if the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the almost-Jewish Argentine writer, are appropriate for a Jewish book group I facilitate.
This may seem a hair-splittingly parochial question. But my difficulty in arriving at an answer suggests a larger issue: “Who gets to write about Jews?” Even more importantly, perhaps, is the question of how Jews feel about non-Jews writing about Jews.
Borges, generally considered the most influential Latin American writer of the 20th century, was the scion of an aristocratic, if slightly impoverished, family who may or may not be descended from Portuguese Jews. During his long life, Borges was a good friend to the Jewish community in Buenos Aires. He often lectured at Buenos Aires’ Jewish cultural center, contributed articles to its literary journal, denounced German anti-Semitism when it was brave to do so, and after the Six-Day War wrote bluntly and passionately about his deep-seated connection to the Jewish people.
Borges is famous mostly for his short stories of the 1930s and ‘40s, many of which have strong Jewish themes. One category of stories focused on the Kabbalah, and includes “Death and the Compass,” a mystical detective story that begins during a Talmud convention and whose clues are the unutterable name of God; and “The Aleph,” a fantasy of infinite knowledge that gives the narrator access to the secrets of the universe.
The second category focuses on the Holocaust, and includes the stories “Deutsche Requiem” and “The Secret Miracle” — both about executions of Jews during wartime — which are among the earliest literary (and philosophical) treatments of the Holocaust.
Beyond the Jewish content in Borges’ stories, there is a sensibility that recalls Jewish texts, and a Jewish attitude toward those texts. Borges’ characters’ desperate need to remember things, for instance, vacillates between being a theological imperative and a curse (“I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” Funes the Memorious famously complains), and recalls the biblical injunction to remember (“Zakhor!”) Then there is Borges’ obsession with the infinite permutations and power of language, which, filtered through his secular, postmodern consciousness, becomes a stand-in for God itself.
If Borges were shown to be definitively, halachically, Jewish, he would be hailed as one of the great Jewish writers of the last century. And not just a writer who was Jewish, but a writer whose obsessions with the Holocaust and the Kabbalah prefigure two of contemporary Jewry’s most important concerns.
Borges’ ideas about Judaism are best expressed in two famous essays from the ‘30s. In the first, defending his interest in Kabbalah, Borges half-jokes about “my almost complete ignorance of the Hebrew language” and his desire “to defend not the doctrine but rather the hermeneutical or cryptographic procedures that lead to it.” In plain language: His lack of Hebrew, and interest in actual kabbalistic content, makes him a poor choice for those interested in true kabbalistic study.
The second essay, called “I, a Jew,” was written in response to an article decrying Borges’ “Jewish ancestry, maliciously hidden.” Borges responded by saying “It has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish.” Near the end of the essay, after recounting his family’s genealogy, Borges ruefully acknowledges, with tongue halfway in cheek, that “... hope is dimming that I will ever be able to discover my link to... Heine ... and the ten Sefiroth; to Ecclesiastes and Chaplin.”
Borges’ interest in things Jewish evokes — at least in me — both pride and a strange anxiety. The pride, of course, has to do with an intellectual giant standing up for Jewish ideas, and for the Jewish people. The anxiety has to do with Borges using Jewish ideas for his own complicated, idiosyncratic purposes. If Madonna is the symbol for a Kabbalah evacuated of Jewish content and context, Borges — despite his learning and bravery — represents a subset of intellectual history in which the idea of Jews overwhelms the reality of Jews. (Or, to use the language of the French deconstructionist critic Jean-Francois Lyotard, there are Jews — meaning Jewish people – and there are “jews,” an abstract category of marginalized ethical thinkers who dreamed up postmodernism.)
For instance, in the story “Death and the Compass,” the tetragrammaton, or hidden name of God, is used as way to catch a criminal. Is this plot device an acute insight into the existential Jewish condition, or as a flattening of Jewish history and culture into an idiosyncratic literary project, disconnected from real Jewish ideas or people?
And in Borges’ essay, in which he lists his Jewish influences to be “Heine, Ten Sefiroth, Ecclesiastes and Chaplin,” one wonders at the overlap between those figures and the texture of Jewish life for most Jews.
At the end of the day, I want to be the kind of Jew who is glad for non-Jewish interest in things Jewish, even if — as with Borges and Madonna — their application of Jewish ideas calls into question the ownership and goals of Jewish life.
Daniel Schifrin is a writer in Berkeley, Calif.
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