Reading: The Just by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) must be anthologized or else… I have mixed feelings about the co-founder of postmodernist literature, who was praised, canonized and catapulted into the realm of immortality. I find his aleph a funny story and his experimental prose (eg ‘Borges and I’) were innovative at the time, but there is not much of the Borges playing with the presuppositions of textuality (authorship) that I feel really attracted to. I thought of reading a very Borgesean poem, ‘To the One Who is Reading me‘ in which the reader is ‘already dead’ but decided not to. I like this poem from 1981 better, in a translation by the amazing A.S. Kline, and I like a Borges confined to symbolic innocence:

The Just
man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done [to] him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

About this poem, Los Justos, I found an essay online (Spanish) that I admit I didn’t read entirely. The reference to Candide is obvious, we remember how ‘cultiver son jardin’ was the concluding imperative of the brilliant satire mocking Leibniz/Pangloss. But Borges is going to determine the Just more precisely. Next he brings in our relation to music, not whether we like it, but whether we are grateful for it. Might rule out some assholes.
Follows the trait of discovering an etymology with pleasure, feeling connected with the historicity and materiality of the words you use. He adds a dreamy image of a couple playing chess that I just like – without explanation.

Referring to the typographer who set this is a very Borgesean move, I smile about him not being pleased. The just are reading the last triplets of a ‘certain canto’ (which one I don’t know), they are stroking a sleeping creature which I like to be a cat.

So far we got rid of the villains. Now Borges rules out the mediocre minds by describing how the just seek to justify wrongs done onto them (El que justifica o quiere justificar un mal que le han hecho). Not just understanding, justifying. This could be read as a controversial statement, vis-à-vis the horrors of the twentieth century. But we understand him: It’s about the will to justify, not a requirement at the cost of obscene imaginations.

The imaginary, then, comes in with Stevenson. Borges once said the most important thing in his life was his father’s library in which he, the meek kid, spent hours reading, among others, Stevenson.

Preferring the others to be right doesn’t mean an unhealthy desire to be wrong yourself. It means a sense of selfless desire for the truth being in effect, ‘waltend in der Welt’ to use the Heideggerian term, rather than in my private possession. This sounds like a wonderful attitude to me. Perhaps most important of all, the just aren’t aware that they are saving the world, they are not proselytizing their postmodern mores. They are just living their lives.


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