This Essay Takes Up the Relationship Between Literary Aesthetics and the critique of nationalism in Jorge Luis Borges. I begin with a critical overview of Josefina Ludmer’s genealogy of the gaucho genre and then turn to Borges’s “El fin,” which by my reading, poses a number of challenges, not only to the ideology of cultural nationalism, but also to Ludmer’s attempts to distinguish between the popular and its aestheticization.
In El género gauchesco Josefina Ludmer identifies two tendencies at work in literary representations of the popular in the Argentine tradition. The first is what she calls “literatura para el pueblo” (literature for the people), or literature put to work as a pedagogical tool for shaping productive subjects for the modern State. Literature for the people speaks of—if not necessarily to—those who have not yet come to see themselves as citizens of the nation, but who nonetheless possess the potential for belonging, and who thus ought to be incorporated. Possible examples include the gaucho in Sarmiento’s [End Page 25] Facundo (1845) or the Ranquel Indians in Lucio Mansilla’s Una excursion a los indios ranqueles (1870). Literature, according to this model, is charged with the task of convincing and educating by exemplifying the virtues and benefits of citizenship while portraying the modern State as inevitable destiny of all history. In this task. literature is marked by an aporia. If its interpellative message is to be perceived as truly democratic, literature must address itself to the People in its totality and not just to an erudite subset of society. If it is to avoid charges of elitism and paternalism, it must appeal to both the sensibility and the reason of the plebe.1 However, the popular subject, sensibility, or reason to which literature must appeal cannot in all rigor be said to exist before the successful transmission of the aesthetic message that literature is charged with disseminating. The People is itself an invention of literature, as Jacques Rancière would say (2004). Within the torsion of this aporia, it is precisely the delayed condition of a People that has yet to constitute itself as a social and political subject that confers on Argentine literature its social mandate during much of the nineteenth century and the first half the twentieth century. “Spiritual underdevelopment,” or the delay in the emergence and constitution of a popular social subject until the early twentieth century, distinguishes Latin American experiences from the European contexts discussed by Rancière.
The other tendency is what Ludmer terms “literatura del pueblo.” Literature of or by the people bears the traits of something the popular itself might have produced, even when it is, in fact, written by such sympathetic letrados as José Hernández. Literature of or by the people transcribes or recalls the existence of voices not yet captured by the State and its military, juridical, scientific, economic, and pedagogical institutions. Literature of the people bears witness to the bare life of the plebe and its dignity and resilience in confrontation with state power.
Inclusion of these subaltern traces in literary works is fraught with ambiguity. While popular styling of literary discourse seeks to vindicate forms of knowledge, aspirations, and demands that exist in uneasy relation to the lettered tradition and its institutions, the inclusion of popular voices within the literary institution necessarily opens these traces of the popular to the risks associated with repetition: embellishment, idealization, caricature, parody, [End Page 26] and so on. In the context of national culture and the social reorganization processes that accompany modernization during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, modern literature is defined by this paradox: on one hand it is always opening itself to voices, experiences, and forms of knowledge that have previously been denigrated as antithetical to progress and modernization; at the same time, literature, in its treatment of the popular, frequently serves as an instrument for neutralizing its alterity and rendering it fully legible and visible as both a recognizable object of aesthetic appreciation and as a countable member of...