Jorge Luis Borges

Template:Infobox Biography

Jorge Luis Borges (br′hĕs) (/ˈxoɾ.xe luˈis ˈboɾ.xes/ in IPA) (August 24, 1899June 14, 1986) was an Argentine writer who is considered to be one of the foremost writers of the 20th century. A poet and an essayist, Borges is generally best-known for his short stories.




Borges was born in Buenos Aires. His father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was a lawyer and a psychology teacher, who also had literary aspirations ("he tried to become a writer and failed in the attempt," Borges once said. "He composed some very good sonnets"). Borges's mother, Leonor Acevedo Surez, was a translator. His father's family was part Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and British; his mother's Spanish, and possibly Portuguese. At his home, both Spanish and English were spoken, so from earliest childhood Borges was effectively bilingual, and learned to read in English before Spanish. He grew up in the suburban neighborhood of Palermo in a large house with an extensive library.

Borges's full name was Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo, but he never used the entire name.

Jorge Guillermo Borges was forced into early retirement from the legal profession owing to the same failing eyesight that would eventually afflict his son, and in 1914, the family moved to Geneva, where Borges senior was treated by a Geneva eye specialist while Borges and his sister Norah (born 1902) attended school. There Borges learned French, which he apparently had initial difficulties with, and taught himself German, receiving his BA from the Collge of Geneva in 1918.

After World War I ended, the Borges family spent three years in Lugano, Barcelona, Majorca, Sevilla, and Madrid. In Spain, Borges became a member of the avant-garde Ultraist literary movement. His first poem, "Hymn to the Sea," written in the style of Walt Whitman, was published in the magazine Grecia (Spanish: Greece).

Early writing career

In 1921, Borges returned with his family to Buenos Aires where he imported the doctrine of Ultraism and launched his career as a writer by publishing poems and essays in literary journals. Borges's first collection of poetry was Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He contributed to the avant-garde review Martn Fierro (whose "art for art's sake" approach contrasted to that of the more politically-involved Boedo group), co-founded the journals Prisma (1921 - 1922, a broadsheet distributed largely by pasting copies to walls in Buenos Aires) and Proa (1922 - 1926). He was, from the first issue, a regular contributor to Sur, founded in 1931, by Victoria Ocampo, which became Argentina's most important literary journal. Ocampo herself introduced Borges to Adolfo Bioy Casares, who was to become Borges's frequent collaborator and Ocampo's brother-in-law, and another well-known figure of Argentine literature.

In 1933 Borges was appointed editor of the literary supplement of the newspaper Crtica, and it was there that the pieces later published in Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy) appeared. These pieces lay somewhere between non-fictional essays and fictional short stories, using fictional techniques to tell essentially true stories, and literary forgeries, which typically claimed to be translations of passages from famous but seldom read works. In the following years, he served as a literary adviser for the publishing house Emec Editores and wrote weekly columns for El Hogar, which appeared from 1936 to 1939.

Borges's father died in 1938, a great blow because the two were very close. At New Year's 1939, Borges suffered a severe head wound in an accident; during treatment for that wound, he nearly died of blood poisoning. While recovering from the accident, he began writing in a style he became famous for, and his first collection of short stories, El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths) appeared in 1941. The book included "El sur", a piece that incorporated some autobiographical elements, notably the accident, and which the writer regarded as his personal favorite. Though generally well received, El jardn de senderos que se bifurcan failed to garner the literary prizes many in his circle expected for it. Ocampo dedicated a large portion of the July 1941 issue of Sur to a "Reparation for Borges"; numerous leading writers and critics from Argentina and throughout the Spanish-speaking world contributed writings to the project.

Starting in 1937, Borges began working at the Miguel Can branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library as a first assistant. When Juan Pern came to power in 1946 he was effectively fired, being "promoted" to the position of "Poultry and Rabbit Inspector" for the Buenos Aires municipal market (from which he immediately resigned). His offenses against the Peronistas up to that time had apparently consisted of little more than adding his signature to pro-democratic petitions, but shortly after his resignation he addressed the Argentine Society of Letters saying, in his characteristic style, "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy."


Left without a job, his vision beginning to fade, and unable to fully support himself as a writer, Borges began a new career as a public lecturer. Despite a certain amount of political persecution, he was reasonably successful, and became an increasingly public figure, obtaining appointments as President (1950 - 1953) of the Argentine Society of Writers and as Professor of English and American Literature (1950 - 1955) at the Argentine Association of English Culture. His short story Emma Zunz was turned into a film (under the name of Das de odio, which in English became Days of Wrath) in 1954 by Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. Around this time, Borges also began writing screenplays.

In 1955, and after the initiative of Ocampo, the new anti-Peronist military government appointed him head of the National Library. By that time, he had become fully blind, like his predecessor at the National Library. Neither coincidence nor the irony escaped Borges and he commented on them in his work:

Nadie rebaje a lgrima o reproche,
Esta demostracin de la maestra,
De Dios, que con magnfica irona,
Me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.
Nobody should make light by tear or reproach,
Of the mastery of God who,
With excellent irony,
Gave me at once the books and the night.

The following year he received the National Prize for Literature and the first of many honorary doctorates, this one from the University of Cuyo (Argentina). From 1956 to 1970, Borges also held a position as a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, while frequently holding temporary appointments at other universities.

Being unable to read and write, he relied on his mother, with whom he had always been personally close, and who began to work with him as his personal secretary.

International recognition

Borges's international fame dates approximately from the early 1960s. In 1961, he received the Formentor Prize, which he shared with Samuel Beckett; the Italian government named him Commendatore; and the University of Texas at Austin appointed him for one year to the Tinker chair. This led to his first lecture tour of the United States. The first translations of his work into English were to follow in 1962, with lecture tours of Europe and the Andean region of South America in subsequent years. In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed him O.B.E.. Dozens of other honors were to accumulate over the years, such as the French Legion of Honour in 1983, or the Cervantes Prize.

In 1967, Borges began a five-year period of collaboration with the American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thanks to which he became better known in the English-speaking world. He also continued to publish books, among them El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings, 1967), El informe de Brodie (Dr. Brodie's Report, 1970), and El libro de arena (The Book of Sand, 1975). He also lectured prolifically. Many of these lectures were gathered in volumes such as Siete noches (Seven Nights) and Nueve ensayos dantescos.

When Pern returned from exile and was re-elected president in 1973, Borges resigned as director of the National Library.

In 1975, after the death of his mother, Borges started his series of visits to countries all over the world, and continued traveling until his death.

Borges was married twice. In 1967 he married an old friend, the recently widowed Elsa Astete Milln. The marriage lasted three years. After the divorce, Borges moved back in with his mother. During his last years, Borges lived with Mara Kodama, with whom he had been studying Anglo-Saxon for a number of years, and who also served as his personal secretary. In 1984, they produced an account of their journeys in different places of the world under the name Atlas, with text by Borges and photographs by Kodama. They married in 1986, months before his death.

Borges died of liver cancer in Geneva in 1986, having chosen to return at the end of his life to the city in which he had studied as an undergraduate. He was buried in the Cimetire des Rois.


In addition to his short stories for which he is most famous, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, several screenplays, and a considerable volume of literary criticism, prologues, and reviews, edited numerous anthologies, and was a prominent translator of English- and French- and German-language literature into Spanish (and of Old English and Norse works as well). His blindness (which, like his father's, developed in adulthood) strongly influenced his later writing. Paramount among his intellectual interests are elements of mythology, mathematics, theology, philosophy, and, as a personal integration of these, Borges' sense of literature as recreation — all of these disciplines are sometimes treated as a writer's playthings and at other times treated very seriously.

Borges lived through most of the twentieth century, and so was rooted in the Modernist period of culture and literature, especially Symbolism. His fiction is profoundly learned, and always concise. Like his contemporary Vladimir Nabokov and the somewhat older James Joyce, he combined an interest in his native land with far broader interests. He also shared their multilingualism and their playfulness with language, but while Nabokov and Joyce tended, as their lives went on, toward progressively larger works, Borges remained a miniaturist. Also in contrast to Joyce and Nabokov, Borges's work progressed away from what he referred to as "the baroque," while theirs moved towards it: Borges's later writing style is far more transparent and naturalistic than his early style.

Many of his most popular stories concern the nature of time, infinity, mirrors, labyrinths, reality, and identity. A number of stories focus on fantastic themes, such as a library containing every possible 410-page text ("The Library of Babel"), a man who forgets nothing he experiences ("Funes, the Memorious"), an artifact through which the user can see everything in the universe ("The Aleph"), and a year of time standing still, given to a man standing before a firing squad ("The Secret Miracle"). The same Borges told more and less realistic stories of South American life, stories of folk heroes, streetfighters, soldiers, gauchos, detectives, historical figures. He mixed the real and the fantastic and fact with fiction. On several occasions, especially early in his career, these mixtures sometimes crossed the line into the realm of hoax or literary forgery.

Borges's abundant nonfiction includes astute film and book reviews, short biographies, and longer philosophical musings on topics such as the nature of dialogue, language, and thought, and the relationships between them. His non-fiction also explores many of the themes that are found in his fiction. Essays such as "The History of the Tango" or his writings on the epic poem Martn Fierro explore specifically Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentinian people and of various Argentine subcultures. His interest in fantasy, philosophy, and the art of translation are evident in articles such as "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights", while The Book of Imaginary Beings is a thoroughly and obscurely researched bestiary of mythical creatures, in the preface of which Borges wrote, "There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." Borges's interest in fantasy was shared by Bioy Casares, with whom Borges coauthored several collections of tales between 1942 and 1967, sometimes under different pseudonyms (see main article: H. Bustos Domecq).

Borges composed poetry throughout his life. As his eyesight waned (it came and went, with a struggle between advancing age and advances in eye surgery), Borges increasingly focused on writing poetry, because he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests as his fiction, along with issues that emerge in his critical works and translations, and from more personal musings. This breadth of interest can be found in his fiction, nonfiction, and poems. For example, his interest in philosophical idealism is reflected in the fictional world of Tln in "Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", in his essay "New Refutation of Time", and in his poem "Things." Similarly, a common thread runs through his story "The Circular Ruins" and his poem "The Golem."

As well as his own original work, Borges was notable as a translator into Spanish. At the age of ten, he translated a story by Oscar Wilde into Spanish. At the end of his life he produced a Spanish-language version of the Prose Edda. Borges also translated (whilst simultaneously subtly transforming) the works of, among others, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Andr Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton. In a number of essays and lectures, Borges assessed the art of translation and articulated his own view of translation. Borges held the view that a translation may improve upon an original, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid, and further that an original or literal translation can be unfaithful to the original work.

Borges also wrote in two very unusual literary forms: the literary forgery and the review of an imaginary work.

Borges's best-known set of literary forgeries date from his early work as a translator and literary critic with a regular column in the Argentine magazine El Hogar. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works after the style of the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, originally passing them off as translations of things he had come upon in his reading. Several of these are gathered in the Universal History of Infamy. He continued this pattern of literary forgery at several points in his career, for example sneaking three short, falsely attributed pieces into his otherwise legitimate and carefully researched anthology El matrero.

At times, confronted with an idea for a work that bordered on the conceptual, Borges chose, instead of following through with the idea in the obvious way by writing a piece that fulfilled the concept, to write a review of a nonexistent work, writing as though this work had already been created by some other person. The most famous example of this is "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which imagines a twentieth-century Frenchman who so immerses himself in the world of sixteenth-century Spain that he can sit down and create a large portion of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote — verbatim — not by having memorized Cervantes's work, but as an "original" work of his own mind. Borges's "review" of the work of the fictional Menard effectively discusses the resonances that Don Quixote has picked up over the centuries since it was written, by way of overtly discussing how much richer Menard's work is than Cervantes' (verbatim identical) work.

While Borges was certainly the great popularizer of the review of an imaginary work, it was not his own invention. It is likely that he first encountered the idea in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a book-length review of a non-existent German transcendentalist philosophical work and biography of its equally non-existent author. This Craft of Verse (p. 104), records Borges as saying that in 1916 in Geneva he "discovered -- and was overwhelmed by -- Thomas Carlyle. I read Sartor Resartus, and I can recall many of its pages; I know them by heart." In the introduction to his first published volume of fiction, The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges remarks, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them." He then cites both Sartor Resartus and Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven, remarking, however, that "those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books." [Collected Fictions, p.67]

This form that Borges inherited from Carlyle and Butler was later further developed by Stanislaw Lem in his Wielkosc Urojona (Warsaw, 1973, translated into English 1984 by Marc E. Heine under the title Imaginary Magnitude).

Borges as Argentine and as World Citizen

Borges' work maintained a universal perspective that reflected a multi-ethnic Argentina, exposure from an early age to his father's substantial collection of world literature, and lifelong travel experience: As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas where the boundaries of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil blurred, and lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain; in middle age he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and internationally as a visiting professor; and he continued to tour the world as he grew older, ending his life in Geneva where he had attended university. Drawing on influences of many times and places, Borges' work belittled nationalism and racism.

Borges grew acquainted with the literature from Argentine, Spanish, North American, English, German, Italian, and Northern European/Icelandic sources, including those of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. He also read many translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. The universalism that made him interested in world literature—and interesting to world readers—reflected an attitude that was not congruent with the Pern government's extreme nationalism. That government's meddling with Borges' job fueled Borges' skepticism of government (he labeled himself an "anarchist" in the blurb of Atlas). When extreme Argentine nationalists sympathetic to the Nazis asserted Borges was Jewish—the implication being that his Argentine identity was inadequate—Borges responded in "Yo Judo" ("I, a Jew"), where he indicated he would be proud to be a Jew, but presented his actual Christian genealogy (along with a backhanded reminder that any "pure Castilian" just might have a Jew in their ancestry a millennium back).

Multicultural influences on Borges' writing

Borges' Argentina, despite its origin as a Spanish colony, is a multi-ethnic country, and Buenos Aires, the capital, a cosmopolitan city. This was even truer during the relatively prosperous era of Borges's childhood and youth than in the present. At the time of Argentine independence in 1816, the population was predominantly criollo—which in Argentine usage generally means people of Spanish ancestry, although it can allow for a small admixture of other ancestry. The Argentine national identity diversified, forming over a period of decades after formal independence. During that period substantial immigration came from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Syria and Lebanon (then parts of the Ottoman Empire), the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, North America, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and China, with the Italians and Spanish forming the largest influx. The diversity of coexisting cultures living characteristic Argentine lifestyles is especially pronounced in Six Problems for Don Isidoro Parodi, co-authored with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in the unnamed multi-ethnic city that's the setting for "Death and the Compass", which may or may not be Buenos Aires. Borges's writing is also steeped by influences and informed by scholarship of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, and Jewish faiths—including mainline religious figures, heretics, and mystics. For more examples, see the sections below on International themes in Borges and Religious themes in Borges.

Borges as specialist in the history, culture, and literature of Argentina

If Borges often focused on universal themes, he no less composed a substantial body of literature on themes from Argentine folklore, history, and current concerns. Borges's first book, the poetry collection Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), appeared in 1923. Considering Borges' thorough attention to all things Argentine—ranging from Argentine culture ("History of the Tango"; "Inscriptions on Horse Wagons"), folklore ("Juan Muraa", "Night of the Gifts"), literature ("The Argentine Writer and Tradition", "Almafuerte") and current concerns ("Celebration of The Monster", "Hurry, Hurry", "The Mountebank", "Pedro Salvadores")—it is ironic indeed that ultra-nationalists would have questioned Borges' Argentine identity.

Borges interest in Argentine themes reflects in part the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the civil wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay. Spurred by pride in his family's heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (e.g. "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz," "The Dead Man," "Avelino Arredondo") as well as poetry ("General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage"). Borges's maternal great-grandfather was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem "A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suarez, Victor at Junn."

Borges, Martin Fierro, and tradition

Borges contributed to a few avant garde publications in the early 1920s, including one called Martn Fierro, named after the major work of nineteenth-century Argentine literature, Martn Fierro, a gauchesque poem by Jos Hernndez, published in two parts, in 1872 and 1880. Initially, along with other young writers of his generation, Borges rallied around the fictional Martn Fierro as the symbol of a characteristic Argentine sensibility, not tied to European values. As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the poem. Hernndez's central character, Martn Fierro, is a gaucho, a free, poor, pampas-dweller, who is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend against the Indians; he ultimately deserts and becomes a gaucho matrero, the Argentinian equivalent of a North American western outlaw. Borges' 1953 book of essays on the poem, El "Martn Fierro", separates his great admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his rather mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. He uses the occasion to tweak the noses of arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem, but disdains those (such as Eleuterio Tiscornia) who he sees as failing to understand its specifically Argentinian character.

In "The Argentine Writer and Tradition", Borges celebrates how Hernndez expresses that character in the crucial scene in which Martin Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs about universal themes such as time, night, and the sea. The scene clearly reflects the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes—as distinct from the type of slang that Hernndez uses in the main body of Martn Fierro. Borges points out that therefore, Hernndez evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry on universal themes, versus the "gauchesque" fashion among Buenos Aires literati. Borges goes on to deny the possibility that Argentine literature could distinguish itself by making reference to "local color", nor does it need to remain true to the heritage of the literature of Spain, nor to define itself as a rejection of the literature of its colonial founders, nor follow in the footsteps of European literature. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of someone who has inherited the whole of world literature.

Limits to universalism

To exaggerate Borges' universalism might be as much a mistake as the nationalists' questioning the validity of his Argentine identity. Borges' writing was more influenced by some literatures than others, reflecting in part the particular contents of his library his father had amassed, and the particular population mix of Argentina in his time. His writing reveals unintentional cultural prejudices—most noticeably by omission. A review of Borges' work reveals far more influences from European and New World sources than Asian ones. Few references to Africans or African-Americans appear in Borges; rare mentions include an idosyncratic inventory of the latter-day effects of the slave trade in "The Dreaded Redeemer Lazarus Morel" and a number of sympathetic references to the negro killed by the fictional outlaw Martin Fierro. Indigenous Amerind sources are poorly represented, owing to the near-destruction of that population and culture in the Southern Cone; rare mentions include a captive Aztec priest, Tzinacn, in "The God's Script" and Amerinds who capture Argentines in "Story of the Warrior and the Captive" and "The Captive". Borges reveals what would now be generally considered homophobic sentiments in the essay "Our Inabilities". In contrast to his scholarship in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist sources, Borges' view of Hinduism seems largely filtered through the sympathetic lens provided by Rudyard Kipling, as in "The Approach to Al Mutasim".

International themes in Borges

Religious themes in Borges: Mainline, heretical, and mystical

  • Christian: Influenced by Leon Bloy; "A History of Eternity" "Three Versions of Judas", "The Theologians", "The Gospel of Mark", "The Theologian in Death"
  • Buddhist: "Theme of the Beggar and the King", lecture on Buddhism in Seven Nights
  • Islamic: "Approach to Al Mu'tasim", "Averroes' Search", "Hakim, Masked Dyer of Merv", "The Chamber of Statues"; strongly influenced by/studied several translations of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
  • Jewish: "Death and the Compass", "The Golem", "A Defense of the Cabala", lectures on Cabala and on Shmuel Agnon
  • Mystical: early writings in imitation of Emanuel Swedenborg; "A Defense of Basilides the False"
  • Fictional: The heresiarchs of Uqbar in "Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
  • Sufic: discussed in Jorge Luis Borges: Sources and Illumination by Giovanna de Garayalde, 1978, Octagon Press



  • "Mirrors and copulation are obscene, for they increase the numbers of mankind." -- (dogma of a fictional religion in "Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius")
  • " I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why should I think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not an Uruguayan. I don't know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves – and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity – are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we'll be just, well, cosmopolitans." -- Borges, 1980, according to [1] (


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da:Jorge Luis Borges de:Jorge Luis Borges et:Jorge Luis Borges es:Jorge Luis Borges eo:Jorge Luis BORGES fr:Jorge Luis Borgs it:Jorge Luis Borges ko:호르헤 루이스 보르헤스 he:חורחה לואיס בורחס nl:Jorge Luis Borges ja:ホルヘ・ルイス・ボルヘス pl:Jorge Luis Borges pt:Jorge Luis Borges ru:Борхес, Хорхе Луис fi:Jorge Luis Borges sv:Jorge Luis Borges tr:Jorge Luis Borges


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