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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 769-786

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Cosmopolitan De-scriptions:
Shanghai and Hong Kong

Ackbar Abbas

"I like all big cities. More than Japanese, I feel I'm from Tokyo,
where I was born. . . . Tokyo has no nationality."

Yohji Yamamoto, in Wim Wenders's 1989 film
Notebook on Cities and Clothes

One of the most moving, and revealing, texts of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is his short 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy, a collection of stories first published in 1935. During the two decades between the original publication and the 1954 preface, Borges had established himself as a cosmopolitan writer who belonged not just to Argentina but to the world. However, it is possible to see Borges's cosmopolitanism both as the great cultural achievement that it unquestionably and as a response to a quasi-colonial situation that inevitably leaves its traces, however indirectly. In Borges, we find these traces in the excessive and exhaustive erudition that he is famous for and that he calls the baroque: "I would define as baroque the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature." 1 That there is some relation between style and situation, between the baroque and the colonial, becomes clear when we learn a little later in the same [End Page 769] preface that Borges's baroque originated as "the sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of other men." In a colonial or quasi-colonial situation, even our "own" stories have to begin as "stories of other men." No wonder that it was some time before Borges could turn from "these ambiguous exercises" to "the arduous composition of a straightforward short story--'Man on Pink Corner'. . . ."

Besides being a mask for shyness, there is another, less attractive, side to Borges's erudition: it can be related to a tendency toward displays of knowledge or knowingness that comes from the colonial's anxiety to be recognised. This is perhaps what the Spanish director Luis Buñuel intuited in the Argentinian writer, without quite understanding its provenance. Buñuel mentions Borges in some cutting remarks in his autobiography My Last Sigh: "Just because someone writes well doesn't mean you have to like him. . . . he struck me as very pretentious and self-absorbed. There's something too academic (or as we say in Spanish, sienta cátedra) about everything he says, something exhibitionistic. Like many blind people, he's an eloquent speaker, albeit the subject of the Nobel Prize tends to crop up excessively each time he talks to reporters." 2 (This is a tendency, we might add, to which many Chinese aspirants to the prize are also prone.) Buñuel's cruel way of snubbing Borges is simply to remark in parentheses "as we say in Spanish," a we that shoulders Borges back onto the margins; as if the metropolitan and the colonial were clearly divided by a common language. For all Borges's aloofness or air of detachment (as when he writes in his essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition": "I believe our tradition is all of Western culture. . . . our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine" 3 ) a certain shrillness is discernable--at least to a European like Buñuel--in his advocacy of a cosmopolitan stance.

* * *

I begin with this encounter between Borges and Buñuel because it illustrates some of the ambiguities of the cosmopolitan. In Borges's case, cosmopolitanism was, first, a modernist argument against the tyranny of "tradition" as narrow parochialisms and ethnocentrism: this was the critical aspect of his cultural universalism ("our patrimony is the universe")--in much the same way that the [End Page 770] universalism of "structure" was to Claude Lèvi-Strauss a critical safeguard against ethnocentric bias. 4 The problem begins when this universalism is identified with...


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