Playing games with philosophy

Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952), or just “Macedonio” as he is affectionately known, was an Argentine writer who had a significant influence on Jorge Luis Borges. Today he is not much remembered; for many, Borges overshadowed him entirely. But he deserves the twelve scholarly essays collected in this book.

According to Borges, Macedonio was an unforgettable conversationalist and a vivid personality in the late-night cafés of Buenos Aires. We learn that he was a lawyer in the steamy tropical town of Posadas until 1913, that he turned into literature when his beloved wife died in 1920, that he wrote speeches for the twice-elected president Hipólito Irigoyen until 1922, and that women fell for him in droves.

Though Macedonio was older than Borges by twenty-five years, their influence went in both directions and their work is marked by a number of similar ideas. For both men literature was essentially fiction. Rather than reflecting reality, a literary work created A new one, and the characters of a story or novel existed only while that story was being written or read. For both there was a thin line between literature and philosophy. Borges famously regarded metaphysics as a branch of fantasy writing, and many of his stories are examples, often taken ad absurdum, of known philosophical concepts. Macedonio, who was philosophically more ambitious, saw literature as a vehicle for fresh philosophical thinking. There is, both men believed, a narrow gap between dreaming and being awake. They sought to transcend individuality, in the case of Borges because he wanted to see past the individual towards the archetype – to what the individual represents – and in that of Macedonio because he believed that individuals are best subsumed into a mystical whole. In this respect both eschewed the notion of originality, seeing literature as a collective enterprise across generations. For Macedonio a new work did little more than tweak those that had gone before; for Borges new works were readings and therefore in some way modifications or reinterpretations of previous ones.

The great difference between the two was that Borges encapsulated these ideas in stories that were poetic, witty and concise. His prose was crafted with precision. Macedonio’s prose was, by contrast, rambling and opaque. Some claim this was a deliberate strategy. Gonzalo S. Aguirre, in his contribution to this collection, writes that Macedonio “sought to push language beyond its own limits, ie beyond representation, and explore discursive practices that tough language’s own meaning”. Yet such approaches are dubious – Borges was nearer the mark when he argued that Macedonio was a great conversationalist, but a bad writer. Mónica Bueno, in her contribution to this collection, quotes him as saying that “as a writer he was mediocre because he used confusing and difficult to read language”. For Borges, “the effectiveness of his reflections lay in the intonation with which he said them. It is a pity that these intonations cannot be translated into the written word.”

Like Borges, Macedonio described himself as a “Spencerian anarchist”, as well as being a self- declared “mystic”. Several of the essayists in this collection, and notably Diego Vecchio in his piece on “Macedonio Fernández: The First Egocide in the Río de la Plata”, summarize the scope of this mystical anarchism as follows. Just as there is no individuality in writing, there should be no intellectual, or physical, property. As for our individual attributes, we should simply shed them – and the best way to do so is through Passion, where two, united in their commonality, dissolve into each other. Passion (always written with a capital P by Macedonio) allows us to transcend pre-given rules imposed by the odious rationality of modernity, rules to which we had adhered because of our fear of freedom. Liberated from such fear, we no longer need the state, which will wither away as we all commune in mystical union.

The extent to which Macedonio really believed any of this is uncertain. The attempt to extract a system of metaphysics from his work is as implausible as trying to distil one from Borges’s fictions. Yet the effort is nonetheless taken to extraordinary lengths in several essays here, in which Macedonio’s ideas are distorted to fit some pre-established framework. Luis Othoniel Rosa writes that “in order to comprehend Macedonio’s work, we must decontextualize his writings, appropriate him, and change him”. We should, he adds, combine Macedonio’s “fundamentally anti-modern philosophy” with “the current radical feminist groups that have become a symbol of a new resistance against neoliberalism; or with the current decolonial, indigenous, and black resistances around the world that question the whiteness of ‘human rights’ and the often forgotten relationship between capitalism and slavery”.

Despite the infelicities of Macedonio’s prose, one can still find literary snippets of great charm. Curiously, these are rarely quoted here; the essays strain to turn him into a serious philosopher, which frankly he was not. Rather, he played philosophical games that bordered at times on the slapstick. In Museo de la novela de la Eterna (The Museum of Eterna’s Novel), which Macedonio worked on for nearly thirty years and never published, we are treated to more than fifty prologues before the short “novel” actually begins. In Papeles de recienvenido (The Papers of Just-Arrived), the story centers on the eponymous antihero’s visit to Buenos Aires, with the narrator defamiliarizing the most banal of situations. There is a long description of the protagonist’s fall on the pavement. Is it the fault of the pavement? Why did the pavement not rise to meet him? Why did he forget to bring a walking stick, and why did he forget to bring it? “The memory of forgetting doesn’t make distinctions so he who forgets a walking stick could not remember having forgotten it or having possessed it.” The book also contains some amusing passages that play on the idea (which Borges also explored) that characters do not exist beyond what is written about them. One character gets insufferable cramp because the author takes a long break, him with his arm halfway leaving the sleeve of his overcoat. It is, Macedonio suggested, absurd to kill a character in a novel; he will die anyway when the novel ends.

Borges’s early baroque prose was probably influenced by Macedonio’s convoluted style. But Borges ultimately rebelled, opting for decision and precision, repudiating his early work and even attempting to destroy two books of essays. Borges also regards the experimental novels that Macedonio favored as tiresome, instead writing short stories that are themselves summaries of literary experiments. The fact that Borges and Macedonio explored such similar ideas in works of such disparate quality should draw our attention to the primary value of execution in the art of writing. The ideas matter, but what matters more is the talent with which they are expressed.

David Gallagher is the Chilean ambassador in London

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