The Noé Jitrik Reader: Selected Essays on Latin American Literatureby Noe Jitrik, Daniel Balderston (Editor), Susan E. Benner (Translator)
The Argentine scholar Noé Jitrik has long been one of the foremost literary critics in Latin America, noted not only for his groundbreaking scholarship but also for his wit. This volume is the first to make available in English a selection of his most influential writings. These sparkling translations of essays first published between 1969 and the late 1990s
The Argentine scholar Noé Jitrik has long been one of the foremost literary critics in Latin America, noted not only for his groundbreaking scholarship but also for his wit. This volume is the first to make available in English a selection of his most influential writings. These sparkling translations of essays first published between 1969 and the late 1990s reveal the extraordinary scope of Jitrik’s work, his sharp insights into the interrelations between history and literature, and his keen awareness of the specificities of Latin American literature and its relationship to European writing. Together they signal the variety of critical approaches and vocabularies Jitrik has embraced over the course of his long career, including French structuralist thought, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and Marxism.
The Noé Jitrik Reader showcases Jitrik’s reflections on marginality and the canon, exile and return, lack and excess, autobiography, Argentine nationalism, the state of literary criticism, the avant-garde, and the so-called Boom in Latin American literature. Among the writers whose work he analyzes in the essays collected here are Jorge Luis Borges, Esteban Echeverría, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Martí, César Vallejo, José Bianco, Juan Carlos Onetti, José María Arguedas, Julio Cortázar, and Augusto Roa Bastos. The Noé Jitrik Reader offers English-language readers a unique opportunity to appreciate the rigor and thoughtfulness of one of Latin America’s most informed and persuasive literary critics.
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The Noé Jitrik readerSelected Essays on Latin American Literature
By Noé Jitrik
Duke University PressCopyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneComplex Feelings about Borges
For César Fernández Moreno
I have only met Borges personally a couple of times. I remember them clearly, though I'm sure he does not. The first one was in 1948, I believe; the student center I belonged to invited him to speak. It was in a house in the Belgrano neighborhood in the northern part of Buenos Aires. I have forgotten what he spoke about but clearly remember the way he stammered as he began, a timidity that, wrapped in good manners, created a certain distance. There was no choice but to feel oneself "young" when confronted with a totality in which the tremor in his voice, the lost look, the hesitant manner were a mask, a plate of armor, a way to protect himself. What united us was a complex process of bedazzlement (we had read his poems and the book Ficciones  and knew him as the translator of Faulkner and Kafka) and a common hatred of Perón, which was neither explicit nor thought out but was there, nevertheless, an assumption whose disclosure could have caused a scandal. The second time I saw him was in Córdoba, and there where he was watched over by Carlos FernándezOrdóñez, hounded by Emilio Sosa López, and celebrated by local personalities. I was vaguely introduced to him but could think of nothing to say. And that lack of words was mutual. I contented myself with watching him: he was almost blind, and his face had already begun to take on that marble-like look that can be seen in more recent photographs, that impenetrable air counterpoised against that air of helplessness, real or feigned, that he had back in 1948. This was in 1963.
I have been able to hear Borges speak on two occasions in all these years. The first one was, as I mentioned, in someone's home. I have forgotten what he talked about, but not the tone. The second time was in the auditorium of Radio Nacional in Córdoba, in 1963. The room seemed huge, and it was completely full. Borges talked about the book Martín Fierro ; he stared straight ahead, his eyes half-closed or empty, and his phrases seemed to be pulled from deep within him, as if he were praying or as if he knew with absolute certainty what he wanted to say. He made his way up to the table accompanied by someone-perhaps all he could see were his own feet. He had no papers in hand. Listening to him was fascinating because of that complex elocution for which he was famous. Particularly impressive was the way he recited a certain stanza from the end of the first part, where Fierro and Cruz decide to go and live amongst the Indians-without a doubt, some of the most resounding verses of poetry in the Spanish language. Repudiation and fulfillment:
Y cuando la habían pasao, una madrugada clara, le dijo Cruz que mirara las últimas poblaciones; y a Fierro dos lagrimones le rodaron por la cara. [And after they had passed it one clear early morning, Cruz told him to look back at the last of the settlements- and two big tears went rolling down Martín Fierro's face.]
His dense way of speaking took this piece we recognize as poetry and expanded it in the room. The culminating moment came when he spoke of a mastery, an intelligence, a certain plane where intellectual "things" slid into focus that could be received, admitted in. And yet everything else he said seemed familiar to me-it was the same thing he had written in his book Discusión , in the thirties, and in his book about Martín Fierro, and in the prologue to Poesía gauchesca  that he wrote with Adolfo Bioy Casares. It was the same thing he would say about gauchesca poetry again and again ad infinitum in tiresome interviews, but that always sounded as if it were the first time he had said it, invoking those "big tears" as a way of getting inside the emotion of that other, as if he modestly wanted us to believe in his own theory of emotion, diminished, certainly, by reiteration.
I've written about Borges three times. The first was around 1951, in the journal Centro, of which I was a member of the editorial board. It was a two-page article on his book Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952 [Otras inquisiciones; 1952]. I continued to be dazzled; I expressed my admiration for the mathematical precision of his thought and speculated that there could be such a thing as a purely intellectual passion-and it could be that Borges embodied this. The second time was around 1962, in regard to Dreamtigers [El hacedor; 1960]. There I insisted-anyone who is interested can find the article in the journal Zona de la Poesía Americana-that César Fernández Moreno, Francisco Urondo, Alberto Vanasco, and I put together-that Borges was condemned to repeat himself, that there was nothing in the book that he had not already written or said, and that, to the disadvantage of that particular book, he had written it more clearly in the past. I indicated that with Ficciones he had come into his own, but at the same time, his repetition augured a success that even with Ficciones he had not yet enjoyed. And I was not wrong-it seems as if what we call "recognition," "fame," and so on, arrives just at the moment that a certain depletion appears, though it remains unnamed and unrecognized at the time.
Meanwhile, I referred to Borges in various texts that are not worth citing: but there they are, and he appears in almost all of them as someone who gave a solid form to the solitary and desperate message of Macedonio Fernández and who could give that message a transmissibility that Macedonio himself not only was unable to do but scorned-Borges as a line of transmission that touches all Latin American literature, and through that, Macedonio's revolution. Finally, I wrote a paper on Ficciones that I read in Cluny in 1968, for an audience that without a doubt loved Borges, held him in reverence, and found his texts to be a source of self-confirmation. Considering the fact that Foucault had taken Borges as the point of departure for The Order of Things [Les Mots et les choses; 1966], and that the so-called nouveau roman had pronounced and proclaimed him as a source of inspiration, an attempt at criticism-even one using the weapons of those attending the conference-could only end in silence: if the French do us the favor of venerating a work of Latin American literature, it is not easy to accept criticism of that same work by Latin Americans, that is, a critique of that esteem.
There is no doubt that I was fascinated by Borges's intelligence and his economy, as well as his unity. And from that emerged an unformulated intuition about "what Borges saw" when he began to write poetry. He saw two things, I believe: first, how what we call "writing" emerges, that is, the functioning of an autonomous process, and second, certain ideological core beliefs that penetrate all of his subsequent work and refer to such concepts as origin (one's own), the nation, and society. On the one hand, we find a fertile productive system (of writing) set in motion; on the other, an obsessive, idealized restoration of substances that must have led him, obsessively, to a diffuse metaphysics that, as a side effect in his case, could have given rise to a conservative attitude, a fixed world, in which things (values) cannot be moved.
Are there contradictions between these two positions? Perhaps yes, if we see the one as radically generative and the other as negative from a certain human, revolutionary, and critical perspective. But perhaps we can look at it in a different way, one not so Manichean, since there are no guarantees when talking of points of view or beliefs, especially if they are not formulated from a position of power. At any rate, the contradiction could have another base, that is, if closedness is the predominant feature of a conservative political attitude, closedness in writing can be the code or key to richness. I suppose there is a tendency to consider generativity in writing to be based on its openness, its permeability, its capacity to manifest drives immediately, but I would suggest that perhaps it is equally true that a rigid writing, a closed one besieged by organization, still has the ability to illuminate a path. Perhaps that which represses, by the same token, penetrates-as the repressed often does-the surface of the perfect phrase, and perhaps this play between drives and repressions is the key to generativity, that which makes us think or desire. Looking at it from another angle, this would allow us to ward o the contradiction if we assume that the same schema could serve for the political arena as well, which could then be seen as a system of control of something that bursts its bounds. Correlatively, this does not preclude the possibility that, denying that writing has the capacity to transcend its external qualities, parallels can be established between the search for closure and perfection, and the requirements of fixity demanded by conservative political thought.
Of course there is a difference between one camp and the other: while, as I am attempting to propose, a writing can be fertile despite being closed because the struggle between drives and closedness or limits turns out to be illuminating, in political discourse, on the other hand, the repression of drives, or if this is too much, of desire or of the imaginary, exalts what is repressed, which, metonymically, defines the whole field and sanctions a blocking. What we experience as a contradiction in Borges, then, would take form in the opposition we are familiar with between the effects of his writing and the effects of his conservative thought. I reserve the right to not discount the possibility, on the other hand, that there actually is no contradiction, at least superficially, as far as the superficial is worth, between certain characteristics of his writing and of his conservative thought, although I am not fooling myself either about the risks of a mechanistic system that can arise in the pursuit of this analogy to the detriment of the analysis of the difference in scope of the two discourses. Could we not say the same thing about his admired Péguy and Bloy or Chesterton? Are they not, with their conflicts, a more disturbing example than many of the others that are invoked more often?
I have run across Borges various times in public places; the same day that I left for Europe for the first time, in March of 1953, he was heading west on Calle Florida and I was heading east. It is probably not necessary to mention that I noticed him, he did not notice me. I must confess that I felt as if I were bidding farewell to Buenos Aires, as unsteady in its unsettledness as Borges, who continued tirelessly, unsteadily wandering through the city. I returned from Europe in October of 1954, and the very next day I ran into Borges on Calle Florida-I was heading west, he in the opposite direction: was this the city welcoming me back? As quiet as the farewell had been, it was still somehow symbolic, as if Borges had something to do, if not with my destiny, at least with my most important uprootings. Since I decided not to return to Europe again, my encounters with Borges on Calle Florida became more frequent and less significant. All I had to do was allow myself to walk down Calle Florida, and after 1955, all I had to do was wander at times through the neighborhood south of the Plaza de Mayo. But despite my previous decision, my travels began again in 1958, and in 1967, impelled by the military coup of Onganía three or four days after the death of Che Guevara, I left on another steamship. And as before, almost as a necessity, I saw Borges on the street the day of my departure, even more faltering, with someone accompanying him by the arm.
Recently I recounted these encounters (from which a reader of Henry James could extract a certain atmosphere or at least weave a kind of explanation) to Luis Dávila and Merle Simmons in a cafeteria on the campus in Bloomington, Indiana. I enjoyed pointing out that a writer can be physically present in our lives without there being any words exchanged whatsoever, which would have been useless in any case. We finished our coffee, took the elevator to leave, and when the doors opened to let us out, suddenly-there was Borges waiting to enter. Dávila and I looked at each other; I think he understood the significance of these encounters. And when I left that city that I never believed could be mine and where Hoagy Carmichael composed "Star Dust" one disillusioned night in a house that today is called García's Pizza, there was Borges, heading in the opposite direction, his face already petrified, his mouth full, leaning on his cane and on the arm of a young woman who appeared Japanese-they say her name is María Kodama. In the car as I was leaving I had my last glimpse of Borges, on a tree-lined avenue, walking away with his back still as straight as ever, as if defining for once and for all a system of relations, as if he were stubbornly pursuing the secret of those streets, which must have been hopelessly unknown except for the trees he could not see, chasing the secret of the spring sky, similar, perhaps to that of the pampas but put together in another way, and so different, after all.
In 1974, in September, I took a flight to Mexico, and since then I have not returned to Argentina. I knew this would happen. During the flight I read Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme [Yo el Supremo; 1974] and a long interview with Borges by Eduardo Gudiño Kieer, published in La Nación. The book I found painful, the interview was entertaining: Borges shredded all of Gudiño's attempts to paint him as "good." Gudiño said, if I remember correctly, something about "Che Guevara, Latin American hero," and Borges remarked distractedly, "Guevara, Guevara: that's a surname from the area around Mendoza, isn't it?" Gudiño's line of questioning was designed to obstruct; Borges's answers underscored two things: that Gudiño wanted to obstruct Borges by using assumptions that were perhaps not shared, and that Gudiño himself did not really believe in what he took as a given but availed himself of it and was willing to use it for his own ends. Looked at in this way, Borges appeared more critical and more dynamic than Gudiño, who was revealed as someone who, claiming to examine a "truth" supported by many people, in reality, wanted to compel, force, dominate, and exorcise a celebrated agnosticism. Gudiño was left disconcerted once more, because for Borges, once again, there was nothing sacred.
Years later I experienced the same sensation reading several dialogues between Borges and Sabato that an Argentine publisher believed indispensable to put out. Sabato goes on about grand themes. Borges once in a while mutters a kind of "I guess that's the way it is" and does not even bother to attack Sabato's complicated and pretentious-philosophical-pronouncements, perhaps so as "not to appear impolite," as the criollos would say, whose disdain Borges uses to nurture his well-known denigratory style. I am beginning to think that this is constant-people cannot accept that Gide's well-known comment is true: good intentions make for bad literature, although the contrary has not been shown to be exactly true either. Many people believe that because Borges writes well, without asking themselves particularly what it means to write well, he therefore must have good intentions, which they benevolently try to prove, and thus find themselves face to face with the obstacles Borges himself sets in their way. When this obsession of Borges's for not wanting to be "good" is linked to politics, it creates a scandal, outrage becomes widespread: how can he say that? Such a great writer and so reactionary-he must be under someone's evil influence. At one time it was a certain Di Giovanni, I believe, who became his López Rega in a kind of parallel to the aged Perón that many found quite entertaining.
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Meet the Author
Noé Jitrik was born in 1928 in Rivera, Argentina. He is the Director of the Instituto de Literatura Latinoamericana at the University of Buenos Aires. He has taught at universities in Argentina, Mexico, the United States, Puerto Rico, France, and Venezuela. Jitrik is the author of many works of literary criticism and more than a dozen books of fiction and poetry. He is currently editing a twelve-volume history of Argentine literature.
Daniel Balderston is Professor of Spanish at the University of Iowa. He is the author of books including El deseo, enorme cicatriz luminosa: ensayos sobre homosexualidades latinoamericanas; Borges, realidades y simulacros; and Out of Context: Historical Reference and the Representation of Reality in Borges (also published by Duke University Press).
Susan Benner is a lecturer in the Department of English at Iowa State University.
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