As a conservative who loves the arts, I often have frustrating moments when I realize that a writer, artist, or musician who I particularly admire is fervently committed to the political left. It is a cause for small personal celebration when I discover a truly great artist who publicly expresses support or enthusiasm for conservative ideas or politics. The inimitable writer Jorge Luis Borges was one of these conservative artistic geniuses. Though he and his work have achieved international acclaim, his conservatism is not as well-known or understood. Both his work and his political leanings deserve more attention and study.
The first thing we might consider about Borges’ political beliefs are his positions on the most important global political issues of his lifetime. On each of these, it would not be controversial to say that he was “correct”: He despised Hitler and Franco and the other European despots who caused so much chaos and misery in the twentieth century. He disliked totalitarian ideologies of all stripes: communist, fascist, or otherwise. He opposed Nazism, Anti-Semitism, and racism of any kind in no uncertain terms, at a time when these ideologies were not universally rejected even among thoughtful and educated people. He described his membership in Argentina’s conservative party as “proof of his skepticism”: presumably skepticism of rigid ideology, of utopian schemes, and the promises of unprincipled politicians. The history of the twentieth century when viewed in retrospect shows that this conservative skepticism was wise.
Borges’ conservatism ran deeper than those reasonable opinions. One aspect of his conservatism was his strong belief in limited government and the importance of individual freedom. He wrote that this belief was common to Argentines, saying jocularly that “the Argentine is an individual, not a citizen.” He explained his beliefs further:
“Films made in Hollywood often hold up for admiration the case of a man… who seeks out the friendship of a criminal in order to hand him over to the police; the Argentine, for whom friendship is a passion and the police a mafia, feels that this ‘hero’ is an incomprehensible swine.”
Conservatives will surely disagree with each other about whether the described informant was a hero or a swine or something in between; regardless, it is clear that Borges, like many conservatives, believed in restraint on the power of the state. He went so far as to say that “the most urgent problem of our time… is the gradual interference of the State in the acts of the individual,” describing “this evil, whose names are communism and Nazism.” Perhaps more importantly, he believed that simple human experiences like friendship were more deserving of protection than the abstract goals of the state–another essential conservative idea.
Another aspect of Borges’ conservatism was his affinity for tradition and the wisdom of the past. He once said about an early work of art that “in this case, as in others, the precursor is infinitely more valuable than the successors.” He loved the ancient Greek philosophers and other long-dead authors, and in his writings he frequently invoked the idea that many things were universal across time and space, and that what looked modern was merely a repetition of something ancient. Describing England’s role in defeating the Axis powers, for example, he said that they had “returned to wage once more… the cyclical battle of Waterloo.” In other words, victory in World War II was not a new event, but “merely” a repetition of another past triumph over another mad dictator. By extrapolation we may imagine that some other future disaster will create yet another Waterloo, continuing the cycle. This outlook is deeply conservative, expressing as it does the immutability of the human heart and its enduring capacity for folly. It also expresses the conservative notion of the importance of the past as an aid to understanding and approaching the present.
Though he occasionally expressed opinions such as these in his writings, Borges was not active in local politics and mostly kept political affairs at arm’s length throughout his life. However, like the late Marshall Berman said, even if you’re not interested in politics, politics is interested in you. Borges had serious and life-altering run-ins with who else but Juan Peron, the socialist Argentine leader/dictator and husband of the famous Evita. In 1946, soon after being elected, Peron’s regime took away Borges’ position as a librarian, and assigned him to be a “chicken inspector” in an attempt to humiliate him. He was also “shadowed by the security police” during this time, according to his biographer Gene H. Bell-Villada. When Peron left office nearly a decade later in 1955, Borges was honored with an appointment as the director of Argentina’s National Library, but, in a truly tragic irony, this appointment coincided with Borges becoming completely blind. Borges said that God had “granted him books and night at one touch.”
The petty insults and career setbacks that Borges suffered at the hands of Peron for many years galvanized his hatred of Peronism and all he felt it represented: vulgar populism, thoughtless nationalism, and politics as a stage for sleazy pretenders to win over the hearts of the credulous through flatteries and briberies. Though he nearly always kept current affairs out of his fiction, his story “The Mountebank” is explicitly a denunciation of Juan and Eva Peron, and shows the degree to which Borges hated them. In it, he wonders what kind of man Peron could be: “a fanatic?… a madman? a cynical impostor?”, concluding that Juan and Eva in their political careers “acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.” His hatred for Peron and his ideology was extreme, but it was also a conservative sentiment–Peron was after all a leftist socialist and a friend of Che Guevara and Salvador Allende.
These details of Borges’ political life are only particulars, however, and Borges was a man who was concerned more than anything else with universals. Even in the crucial struggles of the second world war, Borges did not view the interests and positions of the countries involved as overly important: He said that an Englishman or Frenchman should count himself lucky because of the “perfect coincidence of [his] country’s particular cause with the universal cause of humanity.” The cause of humanity was what really mattered to Borges, and what motivated his contempt for Hitler, Franco, and Peron without undue regard to their particular politics. He once wrote that the question of whether art should be a political instrument was a pseudo-problem, because “in art, nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions.” This certainly applies to his own work: Besides the few citations here, Borges’ writings scarcely touch on anything remotely political or biographical. They are otherworldly, timeless, beautiful and austere. Today’s writers on the right, left, or anywhere else, would do well to emulate Borges, his conservative humanism, and his nonpareil and non-ideological art.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.