Malcolm K. Read

Jorge Luis Borges and His Predecessors, Or,
Notes Towards a Materialist History of Linguistic Idealism



One of the ingredients in Borges’ idealist make-up with which critics have somewhat belatedly engaged is the Argentinian philosopher, Macedonio Fernández. It is an omission for which they have only themselves to blame. For as is his wont, Borges is uncommonly honest and specific in acknowledging his intellectual debt: “Pocas horas le bastaron a Macedonio para convertirnos al idealismo” (P, 49). Macedonia lived idealism with an intensity, to judge from Borges’ own account, that few others have managed to equal. In other words, he was committed not merely to a metaphysics but to the practical imperative of the pursuit of perfection. (It is not dialectical materialists alone who have been able to move beyond interpretation to praxis.) This suggests a greater affinity with such Romantic idealists as Schelling rather than with those eminently bourgeois representatives of the enlightenment, the British Empiricists. It was doubtless from this same source that Macedonio also imbibed his sense of cosmic mystery and despair, which he was subsequently to pass on to his youthful disciple. [12]

Macedonio is in many respects the archetypical, alienated victim of industrial capitalism, to the point of parody. Motionless on his bed or sitting in a straight-backed chair, he committed himself totally to the mind: “El cuerpo en él era casi un pretexto para el espíritu” (P, 53). We need to seek the cause of such schizophrenic disintegration in that historical, cultural juncture whereby the aggressive entrepreneur of classical liberalism, bolstered philosophically by Herbert Spencer, has been eclipsed in favour of a passive, interrogative and ultimately inexistent subject. At the same time, there is no gainsaying the severity of Macedonio’s idiosyncratic form of the illness: “Vivía (más que ninguna otra persona que he conocido) para pensar. Diariamente se abandonaba a las vicisitudes y sorpresas del pensamiento, como el nadador a un gran río” (56). Needless to say, this art of inaction presupposes a total estrangement not merely from the individual body but from the body politic. The solitary philosopher finds his natural resting place in a boarding house, that symbol of institutional impersonality par excellence in which several of Borges’ own short stories are set.

Pursuing the logic of withdrawal, and his commitment to practice, Macedonio attempted to found an anarchist colony in Paraguay. It was a predictable undertaking, given his lack of any political alternative to the dehumanized, bureaucratized form of modern society. For such a beleaguered member of the traditional bourgeoisie, the Romantic drama of escape retains all its attraction and its promise: “En un traspatio de la calle Sarandí, nos dijo una tarde que si él pudiera ir al campo y tenderse al mediodía en la tierra y cerrar los ojos y comprender, distrayéndose de las circunstancias que nos distraen, podría resolver inmediatamente el enigma del mundo” (53). Even within civilization, Macedonio saw the world with a pristine freshness: “Era como si Adán, el primer hombre, pensara y resolviera en el Paraíso los problemas fundamentals” (53).

However, in reality, Macedonio is not a forerunner but a latecomer. Deeply contaminated by idealism, his utopianism was bound to fail, and fail it did, less a solution than a further symptom of capitalist dehumanization. It succumbs to abstraction at the very moment at which it lays claims to the concrete. For in order to see, Macedonio, like his fictional counterpart, Funes, must first close his eyes! And as with any latecomer, in whom repression is excessive, the material world returns with a vengeance. His smile of courtesy and distant air belie a constant fear of pain, quintessentially that inflicted by the dentist, and of death (57), both of which, in their sheer physicality, are the ultimate affront to a creature who would identify himself with the absolute Spirit.

12  See Ferrer, 47-51.

Ferrer, Manuel. Borges y la Nada. London: Tamesis, 1971.

SOURCE: Read, Malcolm K. Jorge Luis Borges and His Predecessors, Or, Notes Towards a Materialist History of Linguistic Idealism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carrolina Dept. of Romance Languages, 1993. (North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages & Literatures; 242). Chapter IV: The Ideal Revolution: Romanticism and Its Legacy: section V, pp. 111-112.

Abbreviations 17
Introduction 19
I. From Classical Symbols to Medieval Signs 31
II. Public Usage and Private Abusage in the Age of Conflict 54
III. Monsters of Enlightened Reason 76
IV. The Ideal Revolution: Romanticism and Its Legacy 100
V. To Have and Have Not: Modernist Literature as Fetishism 122
Conclusion 142
Bibliography 147

Monsters of Enlightened Reason (excerpts: Borges & philosophical languages)
by Malcolm K. Read

Macedonio Fernández
poem by Roberto Bolaño

Macedonio: Selected Writings in Translation

From “Prologue to the Never-Seen”
by Macedonio Fernández

The First Good Meta-Novel?:
Review by R. Dumain

Theoretical Fables: Conclusions (Excerpt)
by Alicia Borinsky

Stanislaw Lem on Jorge Luis Borges (Borges 16)

Jorge Luis Borges & Lucien Goldmann’s Genetic Structuralism

Marx on political economy vs reversion to Romanticism

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web


Macedonio Fernández @ Ĝirafo

Macedonio Fernández - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Museum of Eterna's Novel - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Macedonio Fernández: A Museum of Possible Literatures"
by Kate Bowen, The Argentina Independent, 29 December 2011

A Mini Intro to Macedonio Fernandez

Macedonio Fernández: The Man Who Invented Borges
by Marcelo Ballvé

Macedonio Fernández at the Front of the Rearguard
by Robert Wells
(Política común, vol. 6, 2014)

WJ and Borges Again: The Riddle of the Correspondence with Macedonio Fernández
by Jaime Nubiola
(Streams of William James, Volume 3, Issue 2, Fall 2001)

Unwriting the Author:
Affect and Authorship in Macedonio Fernández, Felisberto Hernández, and Clarice Lispector

by Camille Jordan Sutton
(PhD dissertation, Spanish, Vanderbilt University, 2014)

One Man’s Opinion: “Utopia of a Tired Man”
by Jorge Luis Borges, read by C. R. Stapor
(Oct. 4, 2017)

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