In 1921, a well-to-do Argentine family arrived in Buenos Aires on a grand transatlantic ship, the Reina Victoria Eugenia. If they were on deck to watch the city come into view after seven years in Europe and a three-week ocean crossing, they would have first seen the curved art nouveau facade of the Argentine Yacht Club at the port’s entrance, its spire evocative of a lighthouse; then they may have noted the belle epoque customs house, which rose higher than the loading cranes and warehouses of the Dársena Norte port complex; and finally, once they arrived at the passenger pier, they would have seen the crowd eagerly awaiting the ship. On that pier, if we are to trust the memory of Jorge Luis Borges, began the most pivotal friendship in Argentina’s 20th century literary history.
The family on the ship was Borges’s: along with him traveled his father, mother, sister, and paternal grandmother. Among the friends and relatives waiting to greet them was one Macedonio Fernández, a longtime friend of Borges’s father who had graduated with him from the University of Buenos Aires law school. This Fernández may have been a lawyer by education, but he was a writer and philosopher by inclination, and had been recently widowed—all circumstances that would contribute to his affinity for the 22-year-old Borges, whom everyone called “Georgie.” Likewise, no one ever referred to Fernández by his last name; he was known by his beguiling and unusual first name: Macedonio.
Many years later, this is how Borges would remember his first meeting with Macedonio, who would become Borges’s mentor and a sort of intellectual guru to all the poetry and art-addled young men of 1920s Buenos Aires: “When we arrived, a miniscule figure in a bowler hat was waiting for us at Dársena Norte, and I inherited his sumptuous friendship from my father.”1
The friendship, though it was definitely most intense in the 1920s and cooled afterward, lasted until Macedonio’s death in 1952. The words Borges delivered in a eulogy at Macedonio’s burial are the most eloquent confirmation of how important this bond was to Borges’s development. “In those years,” Borges said, referring to the 1920s,
I imitated him, to the point of transcription, to the point of devoted and impassioned plagiarism. I felt: Macedonio is metaphysics, is literature. Whoever preceded him might shine in history, but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.
Gabriel del Mazo, Macedonio’s cousin, remembers Borges’s speech by the family crypt for a different reason. It may have been the first time in the history of the Recoleta Cemetery, a decidedly somber if beautiful necropolis, that attendees at a burial burst into laughter. Borges accomplished this by recalling one of Macedonio’s jokes: that gauchos were invented as entertainments for horses.2
Humor was one of the hallmarks of Macedonio’s writing—a refined and cerebral humor typically flavored with paradox (in one piece he describes a man who is always rushing around so as to be the first one to arrive late). The affinity for the paradoxical proposition is one of the many ways in which Borges took after his old friend, but hardly the only one. Both men were enamored of speculative philosophy, and arguably it was Macedonio who was responsible for making a metaphysician out of Borges. Both writers were incessant explorers of a handful of themes: the inexistence of the individual personality, the elastic nature of time, the permeability of waking life to dreams and vice-versa; one might say: the instability of reality in general. In both writers’ work the supposedly bedrock concepts by which we live are revealed to be unstable isotopes, slippery and layered, none being in essence what they appear to be and all of course eminently moldable, especially within the pages of a story, poem, or essay.
There is an ongoing debate in Argentine literary circles about the extent to which Borges was influenced by Macedonio, an eccentric genius who spent the final three decades of his life drifting through Buenos Aires boardinghouses and country hermitages, absorbed in writing and thinking. Some critics believe that without Macedonio’s influence, the Borges we know would have never existed. Noé Jitrik, who might be described as the dean of academic literary critics in Argentina, said last year in an interview with Buenos Aires’s leading newspaper, Clarín, that “Borges is a product of Macedonio.”3
For other critics, Borges’s friendship with Macedonio is instrumental, but hardly determinant. They point out that Borges published his famous short stories in the 1940s, a decade or more after the period in which he was closest to Macedonio. Also, Borges’s own reading appetites were omnivorous and prodigious: Who’s to say whether he absorbed this or that idea from Macedonio or from a tome in his own library? Also, they regard the debate as somewhat spurious: even if the fodder for Borges’s iconic short stories like “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “The Circular Ruins” came via Macedonio’s influence or idea bank, it’s certainly Borges’s consummate art as a stylist and storyteller that enabled him to fashion flawless prose from the material.
Whatever the outcome of this critical debate, if there is one, it’s clear Macedonio left a deep imprint on Borges, one of the 20th century’s great writers. And yet Macedonio Fernández’s name and his work are hardly known outside Argentina. What’s needed is a proper estimation of Macedonio’s legacy; toward this, it’s still useful to examine his friendship with the much better-known Borges, as well as the ideas they decanted together amidst the general intellectual ferment of 1920s Buenos Aires. 4
The flowering of the friendship between Borges and Macedonio was quick and intense. Memoirs of the 1920s recall a cafe in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires called La Perla where Macedonio would hold court on Saturday evenings. When not finding him in the cafe, young literary men would visit him at his boardinghouse rooms, where Macedonio would offer visitors gourds of yerba mate as well as cookie-like Argentine confections called alfajores, which he kept stashed in an old suitcase under the bed. More than one memoir recalls Macedonio’s alfajores had a funny tendency to emerge from storage as an unidentifiable blob of crumbs, dulce de leche, and chocolate.
Reminiscences also coincide in the portrait they draw of Macedonio: a small and slight but striking man with a dark mustache and flowing white hair, usually swaddled deep in a poncho, fond of strumming a guitar and sinking into silence to meditate upon some point of philosophy, only to emerge from absorption with a brilliant turn of phrase.
Borges was among his most assiduous visitors. In those days Borges had a habit of taking endless walks around Buenos Aires, calling on Macedonio at insomniac hours. Almost immediately, the two men began to exchange writing and ideas.
Before the end of 1921, Borges had included a poem of Macedonio’s in an anthology of contemporary Argentine verse he prepared for the Spanish magazine Cosmópolis. This publication is, for several reasons, an important indication of the intellectual infatuation the men shared. To begin with, the poem is titled “Al hijo de un amigo” or “To the Son of a Friend,” and so it is explicitly dedicated to Georgie. On the one hand the poem reads as a summation of Macedonio’s metaphysical interests: “Drunk with meaning / Reality works as an open mystery / And succeeds sometimes / In making not only dreams but life / Seem like a dream.” But the poem is also interspersed with tributes to Georgie’s youth and enthusiasm for life: “The way I saw him yesterday / Greet a woman soul to soul / I came to understand what greeting was.” The poem is shot through with affection, but so is the gushing biographical note appended to the end of it, penned by Borges himself:
Macedonio Fernández: perhaps the only genius in this anthology. Metaphysician, denier of the I . . . crucible of paradoxes, just and subtle gentleman, undefeatable and polemic chess player, meditative and smiling Don Quijote. . . . Macedonio is perhaps the only man—a definitive man and not a derivative or secondary thinker—who lives his life in plenitude, without believing that his moments are less real due to the fact that they do not intervene in others’ moments as books, fame or citations. A man who prefers to scatter his soul in conversation rather than define himself on the page. It’s licit to suppose that for centuries to come psychologists, metaphysicians and diggers in aesthetics will busy themselves rediscovering the bits of genius he already has found, has filed to sharpness, appraised, and not only that: silenced.”5
The text is worth quoting at length because it is the first published piece of writing Borges dedicated to his mentor, and it already offers all the ingredients of the Macedonio myth that would later (in the view of critics specialized in Macedonio’s work) become a superficial caricature, to the detriment of Macedonio’s reputation as a writer. Borges conjures a romantic image of a wizened hermit, devoted to chess and esoteric speculation, a genius in the raw, who does not even bother to capture his creativity in writing or publish it.
The portrait is so compelling it would cling to Macedonio for the rest of his life—and much of his posthumous existence too. Again, those disposed to view Borges’s handling of the Macedonio myth with suspicion believe he too conveniently cast Macedonio as a kind of avant-gardist sideshow, rather than a literary innovator. Only posthumously, with the publication in the late 1960s and 1970s of the major novels Adriana Buenos Aires and Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Museum of the Eternal’s Novel), did Macedonio begin to shake off this reputation as an eccentric footnote to Argentine literary history.
Both novels exemplify Macedonio’s implacable pursuit, similar to Borges’s, of literary forms that went beyond realism and plot, to investigate the bottomless combinatory delirium at the source of art and reality. His Adriana Buenos Aires was an experiment in parodying defunct novelistic forms handed down from gothic fiction and romanticism, while suggesting possibilities for literature light years beyond sentimentalism. Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, first published in 1967 and impossible to summarize, is best described as an extended experiment in writing an open novel analogous to a piece of music. The prose evokes a dizzying world of aesthetic associations and possibilities in the reader’s mind. At every moment it tests the limits between art and life, reality and fiction, as well as form and content.
Macedonio’s novels do not satisfy on a narrative level as Borges’s stories do, but instead engross us with their constant tinkering under the hood of fiction. They suggest a workshop full of previously unimagined literary contraptions. Even if most of these do not quite make it out of the garage, they still make mind-opening exhibits for anyone with time to visit Macedonio’s museum: a kind of early 20th-century World’s Fair for possible literatures.
The two men definitely had divergent artistic temperaments. Essentially, Macedonio was erratic and impassioned; Borges was methodical and restrained. Borges’s essays and short stories are painstakingly crafted and famously flawless, each carefully prepared for publication. Macedonio spent decades prolifically recording his thoughts and composing wildly experimental novels, but published only three books in his lifetime: a brief meta-novel, a collection of humorous writing, and a compendium of speculative philosophy.6
What united the two men more than anything else was their proclivity for metaphysics, their unflagging interest in examining the nature of reality, the mystery of being, the fabric of time and space.
For the young Borges, still searching for his voice and subjects, Macedonio’s boardinghouse room clearly was a sanctuary, a place where he could unburden his heart and simultaneously soak in the consoling and vertiginous rush of philosophical discussion. In 1924, during another trip to Europe, Borges wrote a letter to Macedonio in which he said he would like to talk with him regarding a woman he loves, but then added he’d rather wait until he was back in Buenos Aires, “and say it to you in your berth on Rivadavia Street, amidst yerba, guitar and metaphysics.”
Extrapolating from this line, we can imagine many long nights of yerba mate drinking in which the two men engage in metaphysical flights of fancy while not forgetting to periodically descend to earth and talk about their troubles and frustrations. In short, they did what male friends do—banter endlessly, about everything under the sun.
This level of intimacy seems to have lasted until 1928. By this time, Borges had begun to distance himself from his early avant-gardist tendencies, meaning he already would feel less rapport with the perennially iconoclastic Macedonio. For his part, Macedonio had just published his first book, the collection of metaphysical texts No Toda es Vigilia la de los Ojos Abiertos (Not All Is Vigil with Open Eyes), and would have been particularly sensitive to any literary cross-currents.
But as is the case with most intellectual friendships that taper off, there was a catalyzing spat. In this case, it involved a less-than-reverential published reference to Macedonio written by Borges’s brother-in-law, the critic Guillermo de Torre. In an article published in Spain, he referred to Macedonio as a “man already advanced in years, a kind of frustrated semi-genius writer, whose attitudes have exercised a diffuse influence over the writers of the new generation.”
Some books by and about Macedonio
This lukewarm appraisal enraged Macedonio’s disciples, who by that time did not include Borges among their inner circle, and they began to lump Borges together with his brother-in-law on the enemy side. One Macedonio devotee, Leopoldo Marechal, fired off a plucky response to the article. In the course of arguing that Macedonio’s influence over the new generation was hardly diffuse but ubiquitous and thorough, he also makes a pointed reference to Borges as Macedonio’s “spiritual son,” who perhaps could do a better job honoring his progenitor.7
The spat carried over into other literary magazines, with Macedonio partisans here and there accusing Borges of a less-than-scrupulous appropriation of the older writer’s ideas. As one writer put it Borges was playing the role of an “unconfessed Plato” to Macedonio’s Socrates.8
The two men would patch things up the next year, in 1929. Although they never regained the intimacy they once shared, the exchange in metaphysical ideas still went on. Into the 1930s Macedonio wrote Borges long letters full of scratched out and illegible words, letters detailing extravagant positions on metaphysical problems. In the last extant letter of their correspondence, dating to 1939, Macedonio wrote to console Borges after the death of his father the year before, and stated, among other esoteric asides: “I deny the world as unity, identity, continuity.” Toward the end of the letter he added: “I think death has a little twist to it.”9
For anyone who has a passing familiarity with Borges’s career-making 1940s story collections Ficciones and The Aleph, the two statements above will strike a chord. Simply taking Macedonio’s propositions, and slightly reformulating them, one might come up with a one-sentence summation of many of Borges’s famous stories: they portray reality as endlessly mercurial and death as something slightly other than what we might make it out to be.
These two themes—the illusive nature of reality, the idea of death as a metaphysical rabbit-hole—are fused in “The Circular Ruins,” among the most anthologized of Borges’s stories. It is at once an allegory anatomizing religious belief and a devastating diagnosis of life, death, and individuality, which the story says may be nothing more than dreams—self-deceiving phantasmagoria. This is the story’s last line: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.”
The idea of one’s reality as a dream (or someone else’s dream), which of course has ancient roots, is a favorite one with Macedonio. He fleshed it out as early as 1924 in Proa, a short-lived magazine founded and edited by Borges and a few other writers in his circle. According to an editor’s note preceding Macedonio’s essay (a note almost certainly written by Borges), it is a “hurried sketch” of Macedonio’s metaphysical position. Like much of Macedonio’s writing, the essay, titled “Metaphysics, Critique of Knowledge; Mysticism, Critique of Being,” is intricate, dense and brilliant:
. . . time, space, causality, matter, and I, are nothing, neither forms of judgment or intuitions. The world, being, reality, everything, is a dream without a dreamer; a single dream and the dream of one alone; therefore, the dream of no one, and that much more real to the degree it is entirely a dream.10
Here, Macedonio is rendering a microcosm of all his metaphysical ideas, much as Borges’s Aleph is a concentration of all points in space at one ultimately indescribable spot.
If reality is a dream of “one alone,” as Macedonio’s essay claims, then it is is also the dream of “no one,” though this may at first appear paradoxical. In Macedonio’s world the individual personality does not exist; in his conception, reality as we know it is best described by what he elsewhere calls an “almismo ayoico,” or “I-less soulism,” a rush of sensation we only imagine to be connected to ourselves.
Although Macedonio admits there is a practical level to existence in which we must communicate through conventions such as personality, causality, and time, it is the mystical level that is of the essence. On this fundamental level, everything that is sensed must be treated as real but understood to be part and parcel of an endless dream, without knotting oneself up with silly questions such as, “Who am I?” or “What is the purpose of life?” or even, “Is this
real?” For Macedonio, the primordial fact is that something is occurring as sensation in the present moment, whether it is dream or waking life. Everything else is sophistry. There is no reality outside of what each of us sense, outside the sensation itself. As he says, “We are everything, we don’t perceive it.”
Among the corollaries of this philosophy is a refutation of death, which Macedonio also explores in this essay. Based on the mystical position he has staked out, the only experience we can know is being in the now. Existence is a succession of present moments and so does not have a past or a future, which are illusions. Since death can only occur in the future, in the moments after we die, or in the past, in the instants or ages before we were born, it follows death does not exist. The Grim Reaper is a phantom we invent to romanticize our lives.
This philosophy, derived from a life reading William James, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was unusual in the context of Macedonio’s milieu. It is evidence of Macedonio’s powerful and intuitive intelligence that an amateur philosopher studying on his own would have arrived at these idiosyncratic conclusions, albeit expressing them in lyrical language and without any pretense at academic rigor. The dominant philosophical school at the time in Argentina was positivism, diametrically opposed to Macedonio’s sketch of a radical, I-denying subjectivity. It’s not surprising then that beyond a small circle of writers and artists Macedonio’s ideas were assimilated mainly as eccentric expositions rather than serious philosophical reflections.
But clearly, Borges took these ideas seriously, at least as conceptual artifacts that might be induced to produce innovative literature. Whether it was Macedonio’s influence or not, he became in his own right a serious reader of philosophers like Schopenhauer (arguably Borges’s favorite, and Macedonio’s second-favorite after James). Few of Borges’s iconic stories lack a metaphysical inflection similar to that contained in Macedonio’s metaphysical writings of the 1920s. Again, whether these ideas were taken directly from Macedonio or emerged more spontaneously from Borges’s general immersion in the intellectual cutting-edge of his time is a matter for scholars to squabble over.
Neither writer believed in originality in art, so in the deepest and most important sense the question is moot. If Macedonio invented Borges the metaphysician, then it is probably just as valid to say Borges invented Macedonio, the literary man. By his own account, until he met Borges and other young writers and artists participating in the Buenos Aires avant-garde, Macedonio was still writing self-conscious poetry mired in fin de siecle conventions. However coy both writers may have occasionally been about influences, they were conscious of the debts owed one another. For Borges’s legions of readers it’s important simply to know Macedonio played a pivotal role in opening the younger writer’s eyes to a wider world, beyond appearances, through veils of illusion.
Reading Borges in the light of Macedonio’s ideas enriches Borges, fleshes out the context from which he emerged, and has the overall effect of making Borges more approachable. With Macedonio as a precursor, Borges seems less monstrous, less a preternatural intelligence emerging freakishly in splendid isolation.
There is no contemporaneous writer I have read that enjoys as many correspondences with Borges’s writing as Macedonio. With almost every other author, including those in the Argentine canon, Borges seems to offer far fewer point of contacts, or if they are to be found they seem far more subterranean and circuitous. Borges looms large as an influencer, but appears to have no clear genealogy and so remains fixed as a distant, cold juggernaut in the literary firmament.
Of course Borges claims certain influences—Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson, H.G. Wells, etc—but these only get us so far. We read these authors’ work and Borges’s stories side by side and can’t quite fathom what might have triggered the quantum leap represented in stories like “The Aleph,” or “Funes the Memorious.”
Borges’s writing, so obnoxiously perfect, can seem an impenetrable construction, much like the city featured in his story “The Immortal,” built on a foundation that does “not reveal the least irregularity, the invariable walls not indulging a single door.” After a dose of Macedonio, though, the reader suddenly feels empowered to tunnel in with multiple points of entry.
Consider the 17 epic pages of “The Immortal.” The cross-references start even before the actual story begins. First, there’s the title of the story. Immortality, as before said, was one of Macedonio’s favorite ideas to toy with, since he believed death to be as illusive as most of the other concepts we fear or feel buoyed by in this life. Macedonio once described death as a “game . . . that happens and never kills.”11
After the title we find hovering above “The Immortal’s” text one of Borges’s characteristically erudite epigraphs, this one from Francis Bacon, which begins: “Solomon saith: there is no new thing upon the earth.” The quote sums up the story’s deeper theme, which is how our notions of history and memory are turned to dust once we consider the mind-boggling ramifications of infinitely elasticized lifetimes: infinite destinies, transmigrating personalities, a leveling of ethics.
After reading this epigraph, a reader familiar with Macedonio can’t help but think of his “Prologue to Eternity,” included in the first pages of the Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, which explores a similar idea, only less solemnly:
A popular musical phrase was sung to me by a Romanian woman, and later I rediscovered it ten times in different works and composers from the last 400 years. Without a doubt, things don’t begin; or they don’t begin when they are invented. Or the world was invented ancient.
If the world emerged as an ancient thing, as Macedonio says, then clearly, as in “The Immortal,” memory’s depth perception is an illusion, and the distinction between remembering and foreseeing is doubtful. And both Macedonio’s novel and Borges’s short story take this idea of relativizing history into the aesthetic plane as well, where it instantly undermines any conception of authorial importance or artistic originality.
In Borges’s story, we learn that Homer’s poetic output would be reproduced by any human, given an immortal span, since an infinite lifetime necessarily contains all possibilities. In Macedonio’s novel, amid countless meta-narratives spinning here and there like so many tops, there’s one that plays with the idea of originality, “humanity’s eyes placed finally on something never seen,” a “novel like none that has ever before been written,” “the first good novel,” only to tragicomically deflate this utopian notion when the author admits in the end: “I leave behind a perfect theory of the novel, and an imperfect example of its execution.”
Other resonances: in “The Immortal” the protagonist explores a sinister palace, in which stairways’ steps are all of different heights and exhaust him. According to Borges himself, the idea for these irregular stairways emerged tangentially from Macedonio’s most well-known 1920s literary stunt, which seen through the lens of today seems nothing less than a conceptual art piece: his quixotic project to win the Argentine presidency.
To support the campaign, which of course never really got off the ground, Macedonio and his co-conspirators (among them Borges) invented a series of subversive pranks. These would supposedly frustrate citizens into voting for candidate Macedonio, who would then ascend to power and deliver them from the disruptions. Among the absurdist tactics conceived: trolley-cars’ handrails would be loosened, small-denomination coins would be minted to be absurdly heavy (recalling the metal cones in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” that fit into the palm of the hand but are nearly too heavy to lift), mirrors would reflect only half the face, and stairways would be constructed so that none of their steps were of equal height. 12
Beyond these surprising biographical connections, there are lines in “The Immortal” that simply gleam as polished avatars, concise coinages, of Macedonio’s theories. At the pivot point in the story, when a central enigma is revealed via the unveiling of a troglodyte’s secret identity, Borges’s narrator states: “We easily accept reality, perhaps because we intuit that nothing is real.”
A bit later in the story we find a succinct and poetic rendering of Macedonio’s metaphysics canceling out death and individuality: “Nobody is somebody, one immortal man is all men . . . I am God, I am a hero, I am a philosopher, I am a demon, I am the world, which is a fatiguing manner of saying that I am not.”
The philosophical vein running through Borges and Macedonio might be described as mystically-inclined skepticism (though perhaps Macedonio drank more and more eagerly of his own Kool Aid than Borges did). Both were habitual doubters of their own existence, and by extension, also of their novelty as artists. Borges liked to say “I don’t write well, I plagiarize well.” Macedonio once wrote prophetically of Borges, “he will be what others thought I would be.” But if we accept the premise of “The Immortal,” perhaps it’s immaterial who wrote what, or who became what. Given immortality, there’s no doubt each would have written the other’s work, with an unshakeable, creeping sense of deja vu.
Marcelo Ballvé was born in Buenos Aires and currently divides his time between New York City and Latin America. He blogs on arts and literature at Sancho’s Panza and cofounded the community newspaper El Sol de San Telmo.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Marcelo Ballvé