- Emma Zunz:The Jewish Theodicy of Jorge Luis Borges
In September, 1948, The Argentinian Magazine Sur published an unusual short story by Jorge Luis Borges entitled "Emma Zunz." Later, in June, 1949, it became part of the volume "El Aleph." In this story the author does not express Jewishness in his usual manner; the content and form are exceptional. First, unlike his other stories, the protagonist is here a woman; second, she is not in search of a magic stone or a fountain of youth, as are his other characters. She is very much concerned with her own female condition and Weltanshauung. Finally, sex, rape, and violence, absent in the rest of his essays and fiction, are here the main artistic and moral framework for the plot.
In other writings where Borges uses Jewish motifs he creates an esoteric and rigorously intellectual corpus: in Discusión (1932) he attempts a vindication of the Kabbala and uses the gnostic idea of numbers and letters as proto-cosmic symbols; in "El otro, el mismo" (1964), a poem about the Golem of the Maharal of Prague, he relates this myth to Gershom Scholem's scholarly approach; in Elogio a la sombra (1969), another volume of poetry, the people of Israel are treated as the concatenation between nature and some metaphysical force; in La moneda de hierro (1979), which may be one of the author's best creations, he praises his favorite philosopher [End Page 469] Baruch Spinoza; and in the Manual de zoologia fantastica (1957), assisted by Margarita Guerrero, he anthologizes some of the most important Jewish fictional creatures: Kafka's monster in "Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem lande," the Zohar's Keteh Meriri, Behemoth, Leviathan, and other demons and dragons from the Bible and Talmud. Evidently, Borges finds the philologic, theoretical, and pantheistic motifs more attractive than the historical circumstances of the Jewish condition. This statement becomes clear when we understand that the literature of Borges is scholastic and not social or realistic; he is not grounded to the earth but seeks to express a celestial reflection of mundane affairs.
Clearly, "Emma Zunz" is an exception and therefore stands as a meritorious field for comparative analysis; as an ager immunitas, the author's inner feelings, personal appreciation, and rigorous insights may be discovered.
Let's begin with the question of Borges' possible membership to the Argentinian Jewish minority. This question was a very sensitive issue in the Thirties and Forties when, as a result of the political situation, an anti-Semitic spirit flourished. When some of the national journals accused Borges of being a Jew, he replied in an article published in April, 1934, in the magazine Megáfono:
Statistically speaking, the Jews are very few. What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who discovers everywhere descendants of the inhabitants of the San Juan province? Our inquisitors are seeking Hebrews, never Phoenicians, Numidians, Scythians, Babylonians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonias, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Lybians, Cyclops, and Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, Babylon, Carthage, Memphis have never succeeded in engendering one single grandfather: only the tribes of the bituminous Black Sea had that power.1
It seems that in the article he jokes about his roots: "If to be a Jew means that somewhere in the past a Jewish ancestor looms, then who can be sure, in any Latin American country, of not sharing in that ethnic origin?" He does not deny or confirm his Jewishness because he is unsure of his own genealogical tree.
His mother, Leonor Acevedo Haedo, descended from an old Spanish family established in Argentina since the time of the Spanish Conquest: Spanish was her native tongue. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges Haslam, had ancestral roots in Staffordshire, England.2 He was a liberal and cultivated man who read fluently in English, was an agnostic, a skeptic, and had a deep interest in metaphysics. [End Page 470] At home there was a voluminous library offering the little boy a complex and profound universe. On those bookshelves he could find the most important works in English literature: Hawthorne, Wells, Coleridge, Kipling, De Quincy, Poe, and Melville. Of the non-English authors, Dante and...