Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 17th, 2017

The metal vultures and the dragon

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If you’ve ever wasted an hour of your life arguing with a total stranger online, you might feel like echoing Jorge Luis Borges when he writes of such encounters: “[This is] something in which I swear never to involve myself again, for the time granted to mortals is not infinite and the fruit of these discussions is in vain.” The difference is that Borges was writing of his conversations with German sympathizers in 1940, at a time when Argentina was officially neutral, and the interactions of which he speaks occurred in person, with those whom he calls “the charlatans and apologists that indefatigable fate obliges me to encounter on the streets and in the houses of Buenos Aires.” These days, our political discourse has been irrevocably balkanized, with each group relying on its own separate news sources and websites, and any hope of a real dialogue seems to be gone. As a result, when I picture Argentina in the forties—which Borges describes in an extraordinary series of essays, “Notes on Germany and the War,” collected in his Selected Non-Fictions—I can’t help but see it as a test case for happens when such attitudes clash between men and women who are likely to speak to each other on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, and at cocktail parties, and at a time when it was still socially permissible to express support of Adolf Hitler. I’m far from an expert in this period, and my knowledge of it comes entirely from Borges, so whatever conclusions I draw from it can hardly be anything but artificial. But I think that it’s still worth seeing if we can find any insights here into our own era, when such debates tend to be conducted either remotely or not at all.

And when I read these essays now, I find that what Borges reports of Buenos Aires in the early years of the war seems uncomfortably resonant. Borges loved German culture, which didn’t make it any easier for him to talk to Argentine Germanophiles: “I have tried to speak of Germany and the German things that are imperishable; I have mentioned Hölderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer, and Leibniz; I have discovered that my ‘Germanophile’ interlocutor could barely identify those names and preferred to discuss a more or less Antarctic archipelago that the English discovered in 1592 and whose relation to Germany I have yet to perceive.” His description of the hodgepodge of ideas on which the Germanophile’s worldview depended is both devastating and utterly familiar:

Total ignorance of things Germanic does not, however, exhaust the definition of our Germanophiles. There are other unique characteristics that are, perhaps, equally essential. Among them: the Germanophile is greatly distressed that the railroad companies of a certain South American republic have English stockholders. He is also troubled by the hardships of the South African war of 1902.

Replace “the railroad companies” with “Uranium One” and “the South African war” with “Benghazi,” or your choice of fixations, and this paragraph might have been written yesterday. As Borges sums up: “One might infer from this that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He is perfectly ignorant of Germany, and reserves his enthusiasm for any country at war with England.”

This rings painfully true of our own moment, in which politics, from the national to the personal,  often seems to consist of the members of one party relishing the punishment of another, even if it goes against their own best interests. But Borges—who, as I discussed in detail years ago, is Karl Rove’s favorite writer—isn’t done yet:

Disdaining these dry abstractions, my interlocutor begins or outlines a panegyric to Hitler: that providential man whose indefatigable discourses preach the extinction of all charlatans and demagogues, and whose incendiary bombs, unmitigated by verbose declarations of war, announce from the firmament the ruin of rapacious imperialism…I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtue. The apologists of Amigas, Ramírez, Quiroga, Rosas, or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them…He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

The italics are mine. As Borges writes in his story “Emma Zunz,” all that need to be changed here are “the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2017 at 8:54 am

Quote of the Day

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It is easy to see what the defining marks of a great engineer are destined to be. They will not be the marks of mere “efficiency” nor of mere technological knowledge nor of technological skill…The characteristic marks of the great engineer will be four: Magnanimity—Scientific Intelligence—Humanity—Action.

Cassius Jackson Keyser, Mathematical Philosophy

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

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