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Fighting words, disarming music; Jorge Luis Borges's "Milonga del muerto".

No peleo por fantasia, ni peleo por ignorancia, ni ando sacando el cuchillo: me sobra con la guitarra.

Copla popular


In the by now iconic short piece "Borges y yo," included in El hacedor (1960), Jorge Luis Borges unequivocally binds his identity to the strum of a guitar. Ingeniously contrasting "Borges" and himself, he cleverly confides intimacies in this playful and ironic self-portrait. Among his revelations, he claims less self-recognition in Borges's books than he does in "muchos otros," or in "el laborioso rasgueo de una guitarra" (OC 808).

Certainly, in his early writings, guitars notate the author's poetic universe, one closely tied to the physical and emotional geographies of home. The rhythms and musical phrasings, the timbre and strums of guitars alike comprise and encapsulate his homeland: "Mi patria es un latido de guitarra" (Luna de enfrente, OC 62). And, when guitars "speak," the poet hears the very heartland of the Argentine countryside: "Pampa: yo te oigo en tus tenaces guitarras sentenciosas" (Luna de enfrente, OC 58). Indeed, in "Guitarra," included in his first poetry collection, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), the instrument operates like a point in space and time that contains all the rest, as does the aleph in Borges's story. (2)

From the time of his youth, guitar music was, for Borges, a siren's call awakening his poetic sensibilities and alerting his ethnographic curiosity as he embraced Argentine traditional culture and searched for a criollo voice. One night, for example, on a stroll with the poet Osvaldo Horacio Dondo, Borges tells us: "La pulsacion de una guitarra que no veiamos nos fue llamando." Guided by the music, and beckoned by locals into a gathering, both poets entered a world where "buena parte del orilleraje de San Bernardo estaba en posesion de la noche." There, "De mano en mano iban la resabiada guitarra y la cana dulce, en reparticion de amistad." There, also, "le llego la guitarra a un mozo enlutado, oscuro el achinado rostro sobre el panuelo dominguero de seda, requintado con precision el chambergo" who, as Borges acknowledges, "Converso o canto la seria milonga de la que he asumido unos versos" (Cuaderno San Martin 56).

This and similar encounters inspired Borges's poetry and reinforced his understanding of the milonguero world. However, another thirty some years would go by before la guitarra le llega a Borges. Not until 1965, at the advanced age of 66, and by then totally blind, did Borges publish a series of lyrics precisely "for guitar," explicitly titled Para las seis cuerdas.

Composed in the manner of Argentina's traditional, oral milonga verses, the poems in this slim volume diverge sharply from Borges's other writings. Moreover, only recently have literary critics begun addressing these compositions, which have perplexed Borges readers unable to reconcile the work of one of the world's most erudite writers with these apparently simple "folk" verses. (3) Borges himself, however--keen on oral tradition, and the disarming sound of a guitar--always considered several of his milongas tobe among "some of my best poems." He questioned why we would assume "que la erudicion tiene que excluir la guitarra y excluir el payador y excluir lo criollo?" asserting: "Es un error" (De Paula 9). Indeed, when once asked why he had "condescendido a las milongas," he replied: "No he condescendido. !Me he elevado a ellas!" (Cortinez 143).

Nonetheless, Borges's milonga poems, both those in Para las seis cuerdas and others published subsequently, pose critical puzzles, crucial for understanding the writer's oeuvre: What is it that Borges aimed to achieve by composing these "songs"? What do milongas, as a unique Argentine genre, contribute to his poetics? How does the explicit or imagined presence of a guitar expand the author's criollo voice and vision? How do these poems "elevate" him both as a poet and as a man of courage? More specifically, how does "Milonga del muerto," written at the end of Borges's life, expand--and transform--his lifelong milonga repertoire and his status as a cantor criollo?


Borges is not alone in responding to the lure of guitars. Regarded as the "national instrument," guitars permeate Argentine culture both as musical artifact and cultural emblem. "Its image, whether literary, visual, or musical, has been consistently used by Argentine artists and intellectuals to evoke images of argentinidad, or Argentineness" (Plesch 242). However, more significant than Borges's literary use of the guitar (as image, symbol, metonym, metaphor, and evocation) is the artistic leap the poet makes by actually composing lyrics written for the six strings. In so doing, Borges symbolically moves off the printed page to engage in a larger sociocultural criollo discourse.

Many of the poet's writings persistently trace his quest to comprehend the metaphysical concerns of everyday life expressed by ordinary criollos through verbal art. His texts on the verbal tricks of truco, inscriptions on carts, veiled compliments and insults, playful nicknames, improvised boasts, toasts, and other folk genres (including, of course, milongas, the very etymology of which is "words") eschew local color, aiming instead to capture an habla criolla. (4) To be sure, Borges realized that voicing creolity depends not merely on a lexicon, on set phrases, on a specific register, or on sheer orality. Rather, it must constitute a cultural enactment, a performance, deeply rooted in the local ethics and aesthetics--the politics and poetics--of Argentine criollo culture. (5)

As the poor man's currency in many creole societies, creole talk functions not only as an instrument of extraordinary art, but also as a weapon against oppressive authority and as a vehicle for solidarity among all manner of disenfranchised people. (6) In payadas recited or sung to the "gaucho guitar," as in later milongas sung and recited by orilleros, men contested not only each other's poetic ability, but also their capacity to speak their minds, make their boasts, and issue their provocations. Accompanied by guitars, they stood ready to jugarse through song.

Cognizant of the inherent power encoded in these verbal art practices, Jose Hernandez--so admired and emulated by Borges--borrowed from this tradition to render his own critical assessment of the nation. In his literary role as mouthpiece, the gaucho guitarist Martin Fierro makes patent he doesn't merely sing for diversion:
   Yo he conocido cantores
   que era un gusto de escuchar;
   mas no quieren opinar
   y se divierten cantando;
   pero yo canto opinando,
   que es mi modo de cantar. (Hernandez 92-93)

Implicit here is the high value placed on asserting one's views. Whether enacted through payadas, milongas or other forms of criollo verbal art, the ability to contar cantando went hand in hand with the art of cantar opinando. Indeed, on many occasions, the sharp edge of critical judgments comprised nothing if not fighting words. Consequently, criollo "men-of-words," as Roger Abrahams puts it, also figured as men of courage--able not only to carry out verbal battle over ideas, but ready to stake their lives on their word. Accordingly, when differences of opinion escalated, and words ran out or failed, poetic and musical duels often segued into knife fights.

In his Itinerario del payador, Marcelino M. Roman epigrammatically maintained that, as recently as the mid-twentieth century, he and his contemporary payadores, like those from a more violent past, recognized that "donde termina la guitarra empieza el cuchillo" (381). Borges also knew that payadas were a land of duel, but a duel carried out with guitars. Critical, of course, was the art of calibrating between poetry and actual combat.

As immigration, urbanization and industrialization pushed Buenos Aires's limits into the pampa, this contentious tendency also flourished among guapos and compadres in the city outskirts--their verses often shifting from bellicose to belligerent. In the face of colliding urban and rural cultures, the milonga (with its implications of verbal intricacies, entanglements and prowess) replaced old-style payadas, becoming the iconic songs of the liminal urban rim. "[E]l payador se fue esfumando en el milonguero," Vicente Rossi summarized, adding "y la Payada ... se convirtio en la Milonga ..." (115). The latter's often argumentative, quarrelsome, "noisy" character generated enredos, bullas or barullos (confusion, disorder, altercations), capable of inciting audiences. Equally effective in their provocations, however, were their calculated understatements, their mocking humor, and their claim of physical territory to provocatively stake one's (power) turf. (7) Depending on their skill, singers could also successfully sublimate violence with song, reminding us that "No solo de peleas; esa frontera era de guitarras tambien" (Evaristo Carriego, OC 111).

Sometimes, nevertheless, mere tone could define a desafio, whether in the popular coplas of unschooled neighborhood poets or the more literary verses of a gauchesque poet like Hilario Ascasubi (Borges, "La poesia" 4). Both sources, albeit in a tone different from Hernandez's, sustain the idea of pelear cantando or the notion of "cantando combatiendo" (Borges y Ferrari 254). Inspired by each, Borges acknowledges, "En alguna milonga he intentado imitar, respetuosamente, el florido coraje de Ascasubi y de las coplas de los barrios" (Elogio de la sombra, OC 976). Often cited by the poet, the following copla displays the defiant tone he attempts to "imitar": "Soy del barrio 'e Monserrat / donde relumbra el acero. / Lo que digo con el pico / lo sostengo con el cuero."

No doubt, Borges aims to render this kind of bravado and bravura in many memorable and endearing verses included in Para las seis cuerdas--verses laced with irony that combine exaltation and understatement, brutality and tenderness, honor and vulgarity, courage and hope. "Siempre el coraje es mejor / La esperanza nunca es vana; / Vaya pues esta milonga / Para jacinto Chiclana," (960) he writes, as if courage were so simple. (8) He describes Nicanor Paredes as having: "El bigote un poco gris / Pero en los ojos el brillo / Y cerca del corazon / El bultito del cuchillo" (961). Of Calandria he says: "No era un cientifico de esos / Que usan arma de gatillo; / Era su gusto jugarse / en el baile del cuchillo" (971). About "el Titere" and his knife he tells us: "Como luz para el manejo / Le firmaba un garabato / En la cara al mas garifo, / De un solo brinco, a lo gato" (964). About death he understates: "Manuel Flores va a morir. / Eso es moneda corriente; / Morir es una costumbre / Que sabe tener la gente" (970). And, as if to prove the latter, in "Milonga de Albornoz" he concludes: "Un acero entro en el pecho, / Ni se le movio la cara; / Alejo Albornoz murio / Como si no le importara" (969). A final example, from "Milonga para los orientales," proclaims: "Milonga del olvidado / Que muere y que no se queja; / Milonga de la garganta / Tajeada de oreja a oreja" (968).

This gutsy criollo way of spealdng ultimately constitutes (across a range of contexts) not just a poetics but also a politics. No doubt, "el verso criollo," employed during the fights for political independence has a long trajectory. (9) Cielitos de pelea were used to encourage criollo troops and to celebrate the triumphs of courageous battalions. One need only think of verses formulated by yet another gauchesque poet, Bartolome Hidalgo: "Cielito, cielo que si. / Hubo tajos que era risa. / A uno el lomo le dejaron / Como pliegues de camisa" (12). Or consider the stanza that Borges loved to quote from Ascasubi's "Paulino Lucero": "Vaya un cielito rabioso, / Cosa linda en ciertos casos / En que anda un hombre ganoso / De divertirse a balazos" (84).

Though devoid of the glory of actual heroic battles, like those fought by Borges's own ancestors, the exaltation of courage on the Buenos Aires outskirts nevertheless caught Borges's fancy. As indicated in a 1966 interview, he was only too aware of the disdain of cowardice among men from the outskirts. "Some sixty years ago in my country," he noted, "it was very important for a man to be brave or to be considered brave," adding that "to be a coward was the one unforgivable sin" (Stern 9). Taken by the notion of "disinterested courage for its own sake," and the impulse to voice this in verse, Borges explored the spiritual and artistic legacies of this phenomenon (Guibert 55).

Indeed, Borges himself makes a courageous literary move by publishing Para las seis cuerdas. With this volume, he shifts from observer poet-ethnographer (describing or alluding to the world of milongueros and their verbal art and music) to actual criollo participant in this tradition (virtually picking up the guitar and performing within the aesthetic conventions of traditional milongueros). At the peak of his success as an erudite world-renowned writer, he bravely and deliberately--perhaps even defiantly, like other milongueros--put himself to the test (and contests) of a vernacular oral/musical criollo tradition inhabited mainly by generations of folic and popular singers and everyday men-of-words. Studiously avoiding any romantic, nostalgic, or academic renditions of milongas, he paradoxically "elevated" himself to this cultural genre. Moreover, he welcomed having his verses set to music, and appreciated performances and recordings of his milongas by musicians of every stripe: folk, popular, tango, rock and classical. (10)

Indeed, as agents of the milonga tradition, both Borges and the collection of poems themselves accomplish important cultural work: they immortalize unsung local heroes, tell unofficial histories, "elevate" milonga compositions to literary status, perpetuate the milonga criollo genre in Argentine tradition, and dialogue with verses by both popular and erudite (gauchesque) poets, thus creating a continuum between so-called "high" and "low" art. (11)

Yet, as accomplished as are some of these unforgettable verses--which even today circulate in oral tradition and popular discourse, and are included in the repertoire of a range of singers--a milonguero dimension is nevertheless still missing in the poetry of Para las seis cuerdas. Though Borges the poet displays artistic courage in writing his milongas, thus demonstrating "lo que dice con el pico," Borges the man has yet to stake his ground, put himself on the line, and fully jugarse (in keeping with the milonga ethos), backing his personal valor "con el cuero."

"Milonga del muerto," written almost another twenty years later, shortly before Borges's death, affords the poet this opportunity.


"Milonga del muerto," published at the time of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict (a war embedded in the besieged period of Argentina's last dictatorship) signals an important and strategic shift in Borges's milonga productions. (12) What, exactly, marks the difference between "Milonga del muerto" and the poet's previous milonga poems?

Unlike Borges's earlier milongas about compadres, knife fights, local neighborhoods, and historical occurrences from which the poet was distanced by space and time, "Milonga del muerto" emerges organically from the immediacy of a sociohistorical moment of great anguish for the author. "The truth was that the war caused him untold distress," writes biographer Edwin Williamson (458).

Written in the urgency of the present--composed in "real time"--Borges's antiwar poem once more calls on the discursive art of old-time milongueros. This time, however, Borges not only enacts the aesthetics of this genre, he also engages in the ethics of the milonga tradition. In the midst of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and in the throes of the Malvinas/ Falklands conflict, the poet once more (figuratively) picks up the guitar, not simply to sing about fighting, but (literally) to do battle. (13) His stanzas here, like those of other criollos before him, are fighting words. In fact, so dangerously provocative are his verses that the Argentine military government of the early eighties actually censored the poem. (14)

Unless read within the conventions of the larger milonga cultural complex, however, the full impact of "Milonga del muerto" cannot be understood. As noted earlier, milonga utterances in Argentina's criollo tradition are not issued or received merely as the performance of a milonga, or the act of saying something. Rather, milongas (or a deeply-felt sense of what I refer to as "milonguicity") are understood as acts performed by saying something. (15) They are, as folklore scholars and critics versed in the notion of performativity propose, reiterable enactments of a traditional genre that, by virtue of iterating familiar verbal or behavioral regimes, have the power to enact ideological values and bring about social effects. (16) This premise, of course, is no different than the lay knowledge of milongueros, who, though unable to articulate it in this way, understood from the schooling of tradition that milongas were capable of constituting a social reality and identity brought to life through their immediate discourse.

Interestingly, "Milonga del muerto," which first appeared under the title "Milonga de un soldado," on December 30, 1982, in the Buenos Aires daily Clarin, was not Borges's only antiwar text written at the time of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. Just months before his milonga, on August 26, the poet published the prose poem "Juan Lopez y John Ward," also in Clarin, which then appeared in English translation in The Times, in September. Unlike the more provocative milonga, however, this uncensored poem belongs to the more universalizing (and perhaps more English than criollo) "Borges." Here, Borges's philosophical, literary, folkloric (think of the "Jack" heroes) and Biblical allusions suspend the text from the immediate reality of war--even while mourning the unfortunate, and transgressive, recurrence of the tale of Cain and Abel. Julieta Vitullo suggests, in this same vein, that Juan and John "se mataban para que la voz poetica pudiera lamentar esa muerte inutil y anorar pasados mas heroicos." She underscores the poem's universalizing impulse and heroic tone by noting that "Los personajes de Borges [in "Juan Lopez y John Ward"] acatan el sentido tragico de la historia, su inevitabilidad, que supone la existencia de una epica y de heroes que mueren por la patria" (37).

"Milonga del muerto," in contrast, defies the notion of a classic, nostalgic epic in which heroes die for their country. Rather, it embraces the ethos of an alternative epic tale--one in which the (anti-heroic) gaucho Martin Fierro, a lone desertor, turns his back on a nation imagined by others and responds to a personal code of honor and courage. Consequently, the (censurable) performative force of "Milonga del muerto" follows from the ritual, reiterable milonga genre (so closely related to the poetry of Hernandez) with its very real citation of a prior authoritative set of practices that reify a history of courageous contestation.

"Milonga del muerto," therefore, is not only about the Malvinas/Falklands War; it is about milonguicity itself. Ultimately, the poem is a subversive attack--if not outright insult--thrust at "los generales," offensive as much for its form as for its content, the impact of which, presumably, was recognized by the censoring regime.
   Oyo las vanas arengas
   de los vanos generales. (17)

Borges did not hold back on his views of the generals: "Los militares que nos gobiernan son tan incompetentes, tan ignorantes," he contended, adding, "son mucho mas peligrosos para nuestros compatriotas que para el enemigo" (Palena 1).

Like Hernandez, who knew that "el amor como la guerra lo hace el criollo con canciones," Borges, in this milonga, pelea cantando on the side of "everyman" by focusing on the voiceless, anonymous (unknown) soldier, del interior, while subversively opinando against the nation state.
   Una de tantas provincias
   del interior fue su tierra.
   (No conviene que se sepa
   que muere gente en la guerra.)

"Es que se manejaron siempre grandes palabras: patria, libertad, 'o juremos con gloria a morir,'" Borges critically commented (Vazquez 233).
   Oyo vivas y oyo mueras,
   oyo el clamor de la gente.

The poet's forthrightness in interviews is echoed throughout his milonga. "Muchachos de dieciocho anos, con escasa o nula experiencia, fueron sacados del cuartel para batirse con soldados" (Montenegro 16).
   Lo sacaron del cuartel,
   le pusieron en las manos
   las armas y lo mandaron
   a morir con sus hermanos.

Conversely, Borges's explicit reproaches in conversations are rendered ironically (though no less reprovingly) in the milonga. "Se obro de un modo histrionico. Se hablo de la ocupacion de unas islas indefensas como si tratara de la batalla de Trafalgar o de las campanas del Cesar, se festejo la victoria cuando la batalla no habia empezado ... Adolecemos de la peligrosa costumbre de obrar sin pensar en las consecuencias ..." (qtd. in Poggi).
   Se obro con suma prudencia,
   se hablo de un modo prolijo.
   Les entregaron a un tiempo
   el rifle y el crucifijo.

The reality, as Borges exposes in his milonga, is that "los pobrecitos que murieron no tuvieron tiempo de pensar si se morian con gloria, palabras todas que tocan las fibras sensibles del nacionalista que cada uno lleva adentro" (Vazquez, Borges, sus dias 233).
   El solo queria saber
   si era o no era valiente.

Like Hernandez' hero, Borges can, in a sense, also be considered a desertor of the Malvinas/Falklands War. Indeed, at a time when anti-British sentiment was rampant in Argentina, he was accused of "treason" by some fellow countrymen for speaking against this military action both in his milonga and in public statements (even after censorship had silenced many others). James Woodall writes in his 1996 biography: "One very old friend in Buenos Ares never forgave him his 'neutrality', protesting to me in 1994 that Borges had effectively deserted his country in its hour of need" (252).

Borges was not always "politically correct" in his views over the years. Often absent-minded, uninformed, and tin-eared in matters of politics he had, on various occasions, made notorious observations. (18) In his defense, many of his comments were printed out of context and misinterpreted, not the least of which his description of the Malvinas/Falklands War as "two bald men fighting over a comb." "He meant to convey the futility of the conflict," explains Williamson, "but the remark came across as flippant and dismissive, and this added to his reputation abroad as a distrait old bibliophile with no understanding of contemporary affairs" (457-58).

To be sure, Borges was initially largely unaware of the activities of the Argentine military during the Proceso. (19) Once informed, however, he readily expressed his abhorrence of the generals, the disappearances, and the torture and brutality of that "periodo diabolico" (Vazquez, Borges, sus dias 232). Crucial in this respect were the harrowing stories he heard during visits to his apartment by members of the organization Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Likewise, "Borges was to learn from veterans of the war that many of the Argentine soldiers had been mere conscripts with minimal training and poor equipment, and yet they had been sent to the Malvinas to face the enemy's professional troops. A large number of these conscripts, moreover, were poor Indians or mestizos from the interior provinces who were unaccustomed to the cold, windblown climate of the South Atlantic," as his milonga attests (Williamson 458).

In his brief article "Borges o el valor," Argentine poet Juan Gelman best captures Borges's stance against these atrocities. In one passage, Gelman hall jests (in Borges-like fashion) that "Borges cita a los guapos tanto que da la impresion de que quien escribe es un guapo que cita a Borges" (333). Nevertheless, he makes clear that, on the subject of courage and ethical convictions, Borges was "el guapo de verdad." His exaltation of valor, Gelman notes, can be found throughout Borges's oeuvre. But the true test of his devotion to courage, Gelman argues, lies in the author's courageous conduct. As Gelman attests, "A diferencia de otros intelectuales, que nunca supieron reconocer sus agachadas frente a la dictadura militar Borges reconocio sus errores" (334-35). Borges, who lived out his commitment to ethics, characterized the war as a grave ethical rupture (Montenegro 20-21).

Significantly, "Milonga del muerto" does not stand as an isolated text at the end of Borges's life. A political thread, evident in the title and eponymous poem of the poet's last volume, Los conjurados (1985), runs through the collection. (20) Included along with "Juan Lopez y John Ward" and "Milonga del muerto," for example, is "Milonga del infiel," which, by referring to an earlier military conflict in the nation's history (the so-called Conquest of the Desert) implicitly lays bare the parallels between the brutal deaths of presumed "barbaros" in the nineteenth century and of innocent conscripts in the deserted islas glaciales of the twentieth. This correspondence, hinted in the milonga, is made explicit in Borges's ironic remark: "Adolecemos de un casi inhabitado territorio. ?A que dilatar el desierto con dos desiertos mas, que nos quedan tan lejos?" (Montenegro 18). Similarly, yet another milonga, also from the early eighties, published in Atlas (1984), corresponds in tenor with Los conjurados. Despite the more celebratory Atlas enterprise-featuring Borges's texts and Maria Kodama's photographs of their travels--"Milonga del punal" (seemingly misplaced here) reveals the poet's underlying anguish during this period. (21) While addressing the dormant knife of the title, the poem also issues a warning to all unsuspecting readers, unequivocally presaging a time of violence reminiscent of yet another brutal era in Argentine history: "No te impacientes, punal / Ya vuelve el tiempo de Rosas" (66). Most significantly, on looking back at the poet's last volume, and at the long inventory of dreams in the poem "Alguien suena," we see, first on the list, that "el Tiempo ... Ha sonado la espada, cuyo mejor lugar es el verso." As Borges points out, "[A]hi estoy condenando la espada, desde luego. Lo digo de un modo reticente, pero suficiente, ?no?" Poetry, he further advocates, should do the work of knives and swords, "no la mano del hombre" (Borges y Ferrari 383).

The descendant of a long line of criollo military men, Borges grew up hearing family stories of courage, in a house, on the walls of which were displayed swords from famous South American battles, and daguerreotypes of heroic ancestors. His forefathers had, in fact, fought not only in the revolutionary and civil wars, but also in Argentina's Conquista del Desierto. However, the young Borges--nearsighted, frail, bookish--took a different path. The poet's physical (and temperamental) limitations prevented him from being, like others of his lineage, a criollo man of action, evoking in him feelings of ineptitude and guilt. In response, Borges swapped swords for words. Like earlier payadores and milongueros, he turned to a different way of fighting, embracing a criollo code of valor played out in his milongas, about which he declared: "Pero no soy yo quien las ha escrito. Son todos los criollos que llevo en la sangre" (Cortinez 143). This "blood" lineage, of course, includes the personal and cultural tributaries that merged to comprise Borges's patrimony--a patria denned not by laws but by "el latido de una guitarra."

As early as 1930, the year in which he published Evaristo Carriego, Borges reflected: "Es conocido el parecer de Andrew Fletcher: 'Si me dejaran escribir todas las baladas de una nacion, no me importa quien escriba las leyes." Convinced, like Fletcher, that "el dictamen sugiere que la poesia comun o tradicional puede influir en los sentimientos y dictar una conducta" (OC 164) Borges arrived at yet a deeper realization by the end of his life: that traditional poetry, namely milongas, not only influence feelings or dictate conduct--their very enactment constitutes a world view, an ethics. It might please Borges to know that "Milonga del muerto" is among the collected popular ballads included in the Cancionero Malvinas--a recording of
   el registro de la cronica y del testimonio real, tipico de la
   juglaria, la reflexion metafisica sobre el coraje y la muerte, la
   denuncia del olvido, la potencia simbolica de las islas, el valor
   identitario de su mitologia, la historia de amor, el homenaje a los
   combatientes, el reconocimiento de los heroes y la pronunciacion de
   la palabra Patria, como ese mandato profundo que Raul Scalabrini
   Ortiz definia en estas palabras: "Hay que escucharse; y despues,
   ser leal con uno mismo." (22)

"Milonga del muerto," in sum, amounts to a watershed moment in Borges's poetics, not because of its erudite elegance, its literary sensibilities, nor for any universalizing gestures, but rather for its directness and valor. Like the conscript of his milonga, who asked "si era o si no era valiente," Borges "simply" wishes to verify his courage. Indeed, culminating with this milonga an integrated Borges ("y yo") establishes full claim to his criollo lineage--and to his place as cantor among gauchesque poets and traditional milongueros.

Of course, Borges had already signaled his place within Argentina's criollo verbal art tradition in a 1980 interview appearing in the popular magazine Rincon del Payador. Asked if he played the guitar, his response--in equal measure sincere and ironic, modest and self-satisfied--sounded a disarming milonguero chord: "Ojala fuera cierto, ojala que supiera tocar la guitarra. Pero no. Soy tan incapaz de tocar la guitarra como Jose Hernandez que tampoco sabia tocarla" (9).


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Ana C. Cara

Oberlin College

(1) I am grateful to Phyllis Gorfain for her insightful comments on drafts of my essay and to Bernard F. Stehle for his meticulous edits.

(2) Rene de Costa comments on the "enumeracion caotica" utilizando el mismo tipo de repeticion anaforica ("vi" esto, "vi" aquello)" in both "Guitarra" and "El Aleph," which creates the illusion of encompassing an unlimited universe (35-36).

(3) See, for example, Nicolas Lucero and John Turd-Escobar in Variaciones Borges 31, and my own earlier 1986 essay.

(4) See, for example, Borges's El idioma de los argentinos, Olea-Franco's El otro Borges: El primer Borges, and Lucero's "Las milongas de Borges."

(5) See Cara "Creole Talk."

(6) See Ludmer.

(7) Borges cites several examples of these coplas in "La poesia y el arrabal," among them: "Soy del barrio del norte / soy del barrio de Retiro / yo soy aquel que no miro / con quien tengo que pelear / y a quien en milonguear / ninguno se puso a tiro" (4).

(8) This and the quotes that follow correspond to Borges, Obras completas.

(9) Azeves writes: "Con los primeros cielitos peleadores [el verso criollo] animo las campanas por la independencia, intervino luego bravamente en las luchas entre federales y unitarios, combatio sin desmayo contra Rosas, estuvo en las filas de la Confederacion y en las de Buenos Aires cuando la Nacion Argentina parecio desmembrarse, lo esgrimieron payadores radicales y anarquistas, se lo escucha ayer nomas denunciando dolores del pueblo nuestro en las gallardas coplas de un criollo sin reves y parejito" (7).

(10) I address the settings and recordings of Borges's milongas in a forthcoming book. For an enlightened discussion on this topic, see Turci-Escobar. In my personal communication with the poet, Borges indicated pleasure at hearing his milongas performed.

(11) In his discussion on Boedo and Florida Borges noted about such "contradictorias falacias" that "La primera esta en la connotacion erudita de la palabra 'arte', supersticion que nos invita a conceder categoria de arte a un soneto malo, pero a negarsela a unabien versificada milonga ..." ("La inutil discusion" 366).

(12) The Malvinas/Falklands War began on Friday 2 April 1982, when Argentine forces landed on the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The resulting conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, which returned the islands to British control.

(13) McGuirk also states that "it is often necessary to wage war in poetry" (106) but develops a different argument than mine regarding the milonga tradition.

(14) Set to music by Sebastian Piana, Borges's antiwar milonga was performed by Sandra Mihanovich, and later recorded by Eduardo Falu. Mihanovich once more performed the milonga (under the title "Milonga a un muerto") on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas/Falklands War. See < watch?v=hA4SqWoHwFM>

(15) See Worthen 1100; see also Cara.

(16) Folklore scholarship with its emphasis on performance (see Kapchan) and the critical notion of performativity offers useful insights for reading this text. Derived from the critical work of various scholars, most prominently Judith Butler, performativity suggests that utterances perform actions, and that words do things.

(17) This and the following quotes from "Milonga del muerto" correspond to Los conjurados (91-92).

(18) At one time, for example, he praised the Argentine military suggesting that they might at last bring order to the nation. And, at the cost of the Nobel Prize, he accepted an invitation from Pinochet while in Chile. In this same vein, he had also infamously suggested that Spain was better off under Franco.

(19) This refers to the Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional, the name by which the military dictatorship (1976-1983) identified itself.

(20) In the poem "Los conjurados" Borges holds up the Swiss Confederation "as an example of rational cooperation and good faith among men of different races, languages and religions" (Williamson 473).

(21) Maria Esther Vazquez questions why "Milonga del punal" is included in the volume Atlas (Borges. Esplendor 254-55)

(22) This project, by the Observatorio Malvinas de la Universidad Nacional de Lanus and the Comision de Familiares de Caidos en Malvinas, commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas War ( Of the approximately zoo works collected, 15 appear on the CD, including: "Milonga del muerto" (J. L. Borges-S. Pianna [sic.]) Voz: Ariel Ardit * Hernan Lucero Recitado: Daniel Araoz Bandoneon: Rodolfo Mederos Guitarra electrica: Santiago Bruno Piano: Edu Zvetelman (
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Author:Cara, Ana C.
Publication:Variaciones Borges
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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