Monday, March 12, 2012

A Canticle for Daniel, Part I

This will be a three-part series. The prologue is here.

Sometimes I wonder about the validity of the hedonistic, comfortable life I lead with my head buried deep in books or in the thirteenth century. Particularly if I've had a frustrating time teaching, I have a sense that I'm doing nothing to improve the world or make a mark. So I suppose that one small, quiet thing that I can do is to make different types of knowledge accessible, organized in an original and thought-provoking fashion — that is, be a certain type of long-form talking head and hope for the best. The medieval can be a guide, but so, too, is the twentieth century with its nationalism, new borders, cycle of despotism and the fearless reporting that was the first draft of it all. What follows is a most literary excerpt from that first draft, a lesser-known 1934 essay by Jorge Luis Borges entitled "Yo, judío," translated here by Eliot Weinberger:
Like the Druzes, like the moon, like death, like next week, the distant past is one of those things that can enrich ignorance. It is infinitely malleable and agreeable, far more obliging than the future and far less demanding of our efforts. It is the famous season favored by all mythologies.
Who has not, at one time or another, played with thoughts of his ancestors, with the prehistory of his flesh and blood? I have done so many times, and many times it has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish. It is an idle hypothesis, a frugal and sedentary adventure that harms no one, not even the name of Israel, as my Judaism is wordless, like the songs of Mendelssohn. The magazine Crisol, in its issue of January 30, has decided to gratify this retrospective hope; it speaks of my 'Jewish ancestry, maliciously hidden' (the participle and the adverb amaze and delight me).
Borges Acevedo is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chapter of Rosas and His Times, lists the family names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demonstrate that all, or almost all, 'came from Judaeo-Portuguese stock.' 'Acevedo' is included in this list: the only supporting evidence for my Jewish pretensions until this confirmation in Crisol. Nevertheless, Captain Honorio Acevedo undertook a detailed investigation that I cannot ignore. His study notes that the first Acevedo to disembark on this land was the Catalan don Pedro de Azevedo in 1728: landholder, settler of 'Pago de los Arroyos,' father and grandfather of cattle ranchers in that province, a notable who figures in the annals of the parish of Santa Fe and in the documents of the history of the Viceroyalty — an ancestor, in short, irreparably Spanish.
Two hundred years and I can't find the Israelite; two hundred years and my ancestor still eludes me.
I am grateful for the stimulus provided by Crisol, but hope is dimming that I will ever be able to discover my link the Table of the Breads and the Sea of Bronze; to Heine, Gleizer, and the ten Sefiroth; to Ecclesiastes and Chaplin.
Statistically, the Hebrews were few. What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who uncovers people from San Juan Province everywhere? Our inquisitors seek out Hebrews but never Phonecians, Garamantes, Scythians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphalagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Lybians, Cyclopes or Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, of Babylon, of Carthage, of Memphis, never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that this gift was granted. 
In Borges' reality, to be made a Jew is an act formed of malice and "outing;" in the present reality to be baptized is articulated an act of kindness. But the Mormon act is nothing more than the flip side of what was done to Borges in Crisol; both make being Jewish a flaw to be identified and remedied. Borges, though, walks cleanly down the line between what is and what might have been, fantasizing and stopping short of becoming his own inquisitor. Though he might have wished it to be different, he does what he can with the past he can identify and leaves the rest to hope, prayer, imagination.

He extends the same courtesy to his ancestors: In the realidad histórica, there are two: the visible Spanish viceroy and the missing Israelite. As an essayist, all he can do is present the gaping short distance between them rather than remedy it.

He also raises one of the interesting archival problems that the Mormon baptismal project creates. Intimating an answer of not much at all, Borges asks: "What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who uncovers people from San Juan Province everywhere?" What would we think? By posthumous baptism, the Latter-Day Saints are creating a world where future historians will find Mormons everywhere. They are creating a world where the five-hundred-years-from-now versions of ourselves will find people of San Juan Province everywhere. They're not making themselves the new Israel like early Christians did, or even like the Boston Puritans who made their colony a beacon on a hill as a light unto the nations; instead they are making themselves a latter-day Israel, the unqualified obsession of the modern age.

This is the enrichment of ignorance.


  1. Since one of the labels of this post is "the category of things on which I do not normally share my opinion publicly", I wanted to asked you if you mind if I link to this post. I know you approve the messages before they are public, so feel free to delete this one if you don't want me to link to it.

  2. Thanks for asking, but please do go ahead. All that tag is about is that this definitely isn't going to be a blog where I regularly talk about current events or religio-political happenings because that's not part of my professional portfolio and this is a blog I'm writing pretty much in my professional voice (even if I'm considering it to be low-to-medium-stakes writing). But with this issue, it's both that there is a connection to my work (Barcelona, 1391, anyone?) and beyond that, it's one that I feel is important enough that I'm willing to stick my neck out. So, yeah, I don't normally talk politics on the job (both because it's not my job and because my views definitely don't conform to "typical" academic positions on things), but I've put this out on the web, with my name attached, so I have no delusions about it being private.