The straitjacket of Borges

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The novelist Cecilia Szperling
mines the literary roots of her Confesionario series of reading-performances and argues that these can loosen the straitjacket of good taste imposed on Argentine writers by the ghost of Borges

Photo by: Stefania Fumo

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OSCAR MASOTTA, an almost forgotten figure, represents a missing link in Argentine literature who moved between the fields of writing, the visual arts, philosophy, psychoanalysis and criticism.

His unfinished and powerful world of ideas leaves much room for further exploration and offers a precursor to a new tendency in Argentine literature – a concern with more personal writing – exemplified by the Confesionario series of reading-performances that I have been so closely involved with (see cover, above right).

A connection can be made between Confesionario and Masotta based on an essay he wrote for the launch of a book about the novelist Roberto Arlt that he had written seven years previously. This article, Roberto Arlt, Myself, was published in 1961 and is a rarity in Argentine literature because it talks about the emotional breakdown Masotta had experienced during those seven years.

Specifically, he describes the experience of humiliation (during his personal crisis, Masotta went from a comfortable middle-class position to being unable to work and hence having to ask for money, etc.) and this is one of the main subjects of Arlt’s work. In his article, Masotta uses the term “confession” to describe the text he was reading to the audience that night. As Borges himself says in his essay Kafka and his Precursors: “Each writer creates his own precursors” – there is no such thing as Kafka’s precursors before Kafka’s existence.

Besides Masotta’s crucial role in introducing key French intellectuals such as Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Levi Straus to Argentina when they were still developing their ideas in France and before they were known to the English-speaking world, he was responsible for bringing to the country the compelling new art experience called The Happening.

He was more influenced by the North American version of the happening, which was concerned with perception, than the French version, which was involved in sexual liberation and breaking rules. Again, as Borges says in The Argentine Writer and Tradition, Argentines, who don’t have such a strong cultural tradition of their own, take as their own whatever they want from all western cultural traditions.

Not surprisingly considering how passionate Argentines feel about politics – think of the saga of Evita and Perón – Masotta’s adaptation of the North American happening entailed a political commentary, which he called Social Sadism. In these works, he exhibited poor people to the intellectual elite in gallery settings, (humiliation, again, of the sort that he himself experienced and described in that essay on Arlt).

Decades later, artists such as Santiago Serra, who not long ago hired illegal immigrants, tattooed them and then exhibited them at a gallery, have explored Social Sadism. Once again, Masotta was well ahead of his time.

Myth of Borges

Going back to Borges and my personal experience with the Confesionario reading series, which brings “shameful” personal matters to light – the situation in Argentina after the Borges legacy (maybe one completely outside his intentions) – it seems that for both the popular, and academic and literary communities, the myth of Borges is one of a disembodied, purely abstract and philosophical figure.

At a certain point, a poem was attributed to Borges that said, basically, “If I could do it all over again, I would kiss more children, smell more flowers, eat more ice cream.” People believed it was, in fact, by Borges based on his Buddha-like image of a wise old blind man living an ascetic life with his books.

With this in mind, the story of how Confesionario began becomes relevant and, jumping ahead, so does why it evidently struck a chord – because now there are so many Argentine writers writing books about their personal experiences and there have also been a couple of academic essays on what Alberto Giordano called The Autobiographical Turn in Argentine Literature.

In 1995, I was in London to interview British writers such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Hanif Kureishi for an Argentine newspaper, and (as a wide-eyed young writer from a country where secrets were secrets) while I was there I went to see the Nuyorican Poets Café, which was actually a group of Puerto Ricans raised in New York in the 1980s who were then visiting the British capital. What they did was to rap poetry, and I was so impressed and moved by their work that, like Masotta in the 1960s, when I went back to Argentina six months later, I adapted this to the local literary context (in true Argentine fashion).

I created the series Lecturas + Música (Reading plus Music) – which combined a writer reading his or her work out loud plus a band. Because I thought that Argentine writers would not have the musical sensibilities of the New Yorker poet-rappers – our music, like tango, is very staccato – I ensured the reading and the music were interspersed, rather than layered.

These events were initially very popular because everyone wanted to see the bands. Through them, I was able to bring music to literature, but what was missing in my adaptation was the very personal nature of the New Yorkers’ performances. To remedy this, in 1998 I created Confesionario, Historia de mi vida privada (Confession: The Story of My Private Life).

Initially, I received no support from the literary community, and even writers who had wanted to participate in Lecturas + Música because of the publicity it afforded them did not want to participate in the Confesionarios. They said things like, “If my real life were interesting, I wouldn’t be a writer.”

In fact, there was so little interest that we cancelled the series for five years, and resumed in 2004. Since then, however, it has grown from strength to strength. In fact, even writers who had once opposed autobiographical writing supported the series and have participated in it. If in Lecturas + Música I had wanted to make attending a reading more fun, in Confesionario the target of my mission was, in a sense, the literary community itself.

Maybe this alludes to the legacy of Borges: did good writing really have to be removed from personal experience? Isn’t copying Borges dogmatic and boring? Indeed, was this even a correct, or the only possible reading, of Borges?

Borges was, in fact, one of the writers who most named himself, sometimes in the third person, in his own writing. He also did plenty to promote his own myth (like requesting to be buried in Switzerland instead of Argentina – quite a provocation coming from our most internationally recognized writer).

Something that helped the literary community “go personal”, so to speak, was the publication by BC, another great Argentine writer, of a book called Borges. It was 2,000-pages long and a bestseller, consisting of BC’s diaries of his almost daily conversations with the great man. In those conversations, B, and his friends, often maliciously, made fun of other writers. In a strange way, I think this book served to legitimize the dirty little secrets we all have.

The structure of Confesionario consists of three artists who are invited to confess in front of the audience. Each is given about 10 or 15 minutes to confess, and then I ask some questions, as does the audience.

Subjects have ranged from professional envy (an older musician denying to a journalist how much he liked the work of an up-and-coming colleague); money and friendship (a poor actress imagining everything she would like to say to a friend who, because she has much more money, cannot even imagine certain things like not having enough for a bus fare); the
fall from fame to status as a has-been, as experienced by a well known journalist who quit her job; a misadventure with a male prostitute (by a woman who after a naked dip in the river called him, but he then turned out to be incompetent); and so on. Not all the contributions have been literary: one artist presented a series of cartoons called “My Sexual Life”, and another a video called “How I Became Gay”.

At the end of Masotta’s confession in his article Roberto Arlt, Myself, he analyzes a photograph of himself and realizes that this, actually, was the reason for his breakdown. In the image, he is wearing a very elegant and expensive suit that he had, in fact, received by begging a friend to sell it to him very cheap.

Masotta tells us that the look he sports in that picture is diametrically opposed to his real origins: his father, whom he hated, was an uneducated, reactionary, anti-Semitic Italian immigrant. At the same time, as Masotta says in the article, this posturing, the endless keeping up of an appearance and denial of his background, is what eventually took a toll on his mental health, causing his breakdown.

It made me think about photographs of Borges, in which he is so often surrounded by aristocrats and their accoutrements (their ranches, their British suits and haute couture, summer homes, etc.).

Most people assume that Borges was himself of that class. But in fact he lived with his mother in a modest apartment and worked full-time at a public library.

All this might seem superficial, but such posturing, while by no means started by Borges, was reinforced by him, and subsequently adopted by many Argentine writers. For many years, “good taste” played an important role in the Argentine literary landscape.

An elegant suit might have been useful to some people in some ways, but it was also, for Masotta and many others, a sort of straitjacket.

I like to think that Confesionario has contributed in its own small way to this collective jailbreak from the imposture of good taste.

Cecilia Szperling is an Argentine novelist who conceived and organized the popular Confesionario series of reading-performances in Buenos Aires. Her latest novel, Natural Selection (2009), is published by Aflame Books. This article is an adaptation of a presentation she delivered at the Ibero-American Book Fair at Foyles bookshop in London in November 2009. Watch Confesionario here. Read Cecilia’s blog here.

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