Our Poor Individualism
by Jorge Luis Borges
(Sorbonne University; Jorge Luis Borges (aged 79) receiving the honorary degree of doctor Honoris Causa in Paris France in 1978)
There is no end to the illusions of patriotism. In the first century of our era, Plutarch mocked those who declared that the Athenian moon is better than the Corinthian moon; Milton, in the seventeenth, observed that God is in the habit of revealing Himself first to His Englishmen; Fichte, at the beginning of the nineteenth, declared that to have character and to be German are obviously one and the same thing. Here in Argentina we are teeming with nationalists, driven, they claim, by the worthy or innocent resolve of promoting the best traits of the Argentine people. Yet they ignore the Argentine people; in their polemics they prefer to define them as a function of some external fact, the Spanish conquistadors, say, or an imaginary Catholic tradition, or "Saxon imperialism."
The Argentine, unlike the Americans of the North and almost all Europeans, does not identify with the State. This is attributable to the circumstance that the governments in this country tend to be awful, or to the general fact that the State is an inconceivable abstraction . One thing is certain: the Argentine is an individual, not a citizen. Aphorisms such as Hegel's "The State is the reality of the moral idea" strike him as sinister jokes. Films made in Hollywood often hold up for admiration the case of a man (usually a journalist) 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. He feels with Don Quixote that "everybody hath sins of his own to answer for" and that "it is not seemly, that honest men should be the executioners of their fellow-creatures, on account of matters with which they have no concern" (Quixote I, XXII). More than once, confronted with the vain symmetries of the Spanish style, I have suspected that we are irredeemably different from Spain; these two lines from the Quixote have sufficed to convince me of my error; they seem to be the secret, tranquil symbol of our affinity. This is profoundly confirmed by a single night in Argentine literature: the desperate night when a sergeant in the rural police shouted that he was not to consent to the crime of killing a brave man, and started fighting against his own soldiers alongside the fugitive Martin Fierro.
The world, for the European, is a cosmos in which each individual personally corresponds to the role he plays; for the Argentine, it is a chaos. The European and the North American consider that a book that has been awarded any kind of prize must be good; the Argentine allows for the possibility that the book might not be bad, despite the prize. In general, the Argentine does not believe in circumstances. He may be unaware of the fable that humanity always includes thirty-six just men - the Lamed Wufniks - who are unknown to one another, but who secretly sustain the universe; if he hears of it, it does not strike him as strange that these worthies are obscure and anonymous.... His popular hero is the lone man who quarrels with the group, either actually (Fierro, Moreira, the Black Ant), potentially, or in the past (Segundo Sombra). Other literatures do not record analogous events. Consider, for example, two great European writers: Kipling and Franz Kafka. At first glance, the two have nothing in common, but Kipling's subject is the defense of order, of an order (the road in Kim, the bridge in The Bridge-Builders, the Roman wall in Puck of Pook's hill); Kafka's, the unbearable, tragic solitude of the individual who lacks even the lowliest place in the order of the universe.
It may be said that the traits I have pointed out are merely negative or anarchic; it may be added that they are not subject to political explanation. I shall venture to suggest the opposite. The most urgent problem of our time (already denounced with prophetic lucidity by the near-forgotten Spencer) is the gradual interference of the State in the acts of the individual; in the battle with this evil, whose names are communism and Nazism, Argentine individualism, though perhaps useless or harmful until now, will find its justification and its duties.
Without hope and with nostalgia, I think of the abstract possibility of a party that had some affinity with the Argentine people; a party that would promise (let us say) a strict minimum of government.
Nationalism seeks to captivate us with the vision of an infinitely tiresome State; this utopia, once established on earth, would have the providential virtue of making everyone yearn for, and finally build, its antithesis.
Everything & Nothing, by Jorge Luis Borges