Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–
An Argentinian poet, essayist, short story writer, and translator, Borges is one of the world's most respected authors. Borges's writings present a surreal, labyrinthine world of dream-like parables where there are few solid cause and effect relationships. Obsessed with fantasy and the idea of literature as "fun," this blind author has been described by William Barnstone as "a clever metaphysician who has given us an enormous and varied literature, ranging from re-creations of an ancient Chinese 'Book Guardian' to the characteristics of imaginary beasts." Borges has collaborated with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonyms of H(onorio) Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Borges's affinity for the "cult of courage" (a phrase he took from the poet Evaristo Carriego) stretches across four decades of fiction-writing to 1970, when he filled the stories of Doctor Brodie's Report with duels and death. These primeval battles take on, by accumulation, the look of legend or myth and seem to celebrate Argentina's heroic, violent past—her national glory and tragedy.
But Borges's fascination with bravery is much more than a preoccupation with national history, fighting, and physical bravado. In a duel to the death a man comes to grips with destiny, which sweeps aside all the moral and philosophical complexities of this confusion called life….
Borges's preoccupations with bravery, then, is not based on admiration of combat nor on defense of the right. Alongside his cult of courage, moreover, we must put his cult of cowardice and treachery. In a number of stories he draws our attention to men who refuse to fight or whose loyalty is fickle. (p. 101)
When we come right down to it, it is not Borges who venerates physical courage; he merely writes about men who do. What fascinates him is that such men have made a religion of it…. (p. 102)
But although ["The Challenge" and] other tales of duels portray knife-fighting as [a] kind of impersonal, unemotional, even ceremonial obeisance to the iron gods of courage, in many of them the code is not idealized. Some (such as "Streetcorner Man" and "Rosendo's Tale") show dueling as the first and last resort of the bully and the coward. In the latter type, a man's true calling or destiny requires that he reject blind devotion to the tyrannical custom. What is significant here is that the gesture—the violence—is carried to a level above dueling and embodied in its opposite, a refusal to fight ("Rosendo's Tale") or a betrayal of some other sacrosanct idea of loyalty ("The Unworthy Friend," "History of the Warrior and the Captive," "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz"). The cult of courage is courageously repudiated.
It is no wonder that Borges, so famously bewildered by the inscrutable, labyrinthine universe, should dramatize the arbitrary knife that resolves all complexities in the same way that Omar's "whirlwind Sword" scatters the "black Horde of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul," or that he should finally extol the higher philosophical or religious act that the duel symbolizes. When he idealizes the duel, as in "The Challenge," he makes it a symbol of an apostasy that it takes courage to uphold—a religious or philosophical position which makes the individual human will the sole arbiter of what is correct or incorrect, right or wrong, saving or damning. The common denominator—the only thing finally given reverence in Borges's stories of the knife, or in his whole work for that matter—is the individual's obligation to live, move, and have his being without any kind of official sanction. Borges will not be bullied (this, of course, is well known) by hallowed ideas, sacred dogmas, or authoritarian truths, not to mention despotic men like Borges's favorite enemy, the late Juan Perón. Borges seems to declare in his stories of supposed cowards and turncoats that loyalty and treachery,...
(The entire section is 10,943 words.)