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Rodrigo Paramo

Professor Hatfield

LIT 3382

14 November 2015

A Certain Afternoon on the Plaza Dufour:


Borges & the Homosexual

-Che, y ese Borges?


Yo lo mir, como si no entendiese adnde
querria llegar. l insisti, seguro.
-Borges, tambin?
Tambin qu?
Se la come?
- Jorge Ass

In the sixty-plus stories Borges wrote, only nine ever featured women prominently, and

only one female character ever approached complexity. For Borges, the most interesting work was

to be found in his depictions of men. Borges ouvre is thus in many ways defined by its

overwhelming masculinity, a tradition that continues in the 1972 story where Borges come face to

face with his equal: himself. Critics have correctly read The Other as Borges attempt to grapple

with the self, with a few even picking up on the subtle sexual undertones of the work. Yet, the

homosexuality contained within the story has gone largely unnoticed, culminating in a profound

misinterpretation of the text. The story may dwell on the concept of the self, but the bulk of its

work is on one particular subject: Borges himself. The Other explicitly identifies its protagonists

as two versions of Borges, necessitating an understanding of it as more than mere theory: it is the

manifestation of the authors struggle with even the potentiality of homosexuality, a struggle he

concludes by seemingly refusing to explicitly align himself with the queer.

The storys sexual undertones manifest themselves in distinctly Borgesian ways. The first

is through the allusion to other existing texts, situating the fiction within a non-fictional literary
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realm. After the two men have met, the elder Borges hopes to prove his identity to the younger by

listing truths that only the two of them could be privy to. Fittingly, much of this centers on a

bookshelf in the younger Borges closet. Two works referenced here draw attention to the sexual.

The first are the three volumes of Lane's translation of the Thousand and One Nights. (Other

412). Lanes translation is significant for how heavily it censored its source material: Lanes

criteria for what counted as objectionable were quite strict and had invariably to do with sexual

matters (Arata). The masking of the sexual (and more importantly, the sexual deemed deviant) is

the first of many bread crumbs Borges leaves for his audience. It is also important to note here that

Borges was not particularly fond of Lanes translation, making it surprising that he would give it

a spot on his most private shelves (Arata). Borges does not stop here though for those readers

unfamiliar with Lanes translation, Borges leaves an explicit clue in the next text he references:

hidden behind the others, a paperbound volume detailing the sexual customs of the Balkans

(Other 412). Borges again draws his readers attention to sexuality, in this case making its hiding

explicit. Borges younger self was profoundly interested in the masking of sexuality, a repression

of the turmoil that characterizes the homosexual process of self-discovery.

Borges furthers the sexual undertones of the story with a reference made in passing, a

seemingly incidental detail that provides valuable context to both protagonists sexual experiences.

After the list of books hidden in his closet, the older man references a certain afternoon in a

second-floor apartment on the Plaza Dubourg. His younger counterpart corrects him: Dufour

(Other 412). This afternoon is lodged in both mens memories, solidifying it as a shared

experience which merits further investigation. Critics frequently read this afternoon as a central

secret in Borges canon, and regularly understand it as a sexual encounter. Woodall has read that

afternoon as a moment of sexual awakening, highlighting the Gnral Dufour in Geneva as a


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location that Borges father sent him to where a woman would be waiting for him (Toibin 424-

5). What these interpretations have missed is the distinctly queer nature of that afternoon critics

have overlooked that the encounter is mentioned in the context of secrets kept in Borges closet, a

sign that today is inseparable from homosexuality. Some would object to giving such a small detail

so much significance, arguing that such a reading risks ignoring historical context. Yet, Borges

most important details are often the most miniscule, and tracing the history of the phrase coming

out of the closet reveals that it was rising in prominence during the 1960s and 70s, pre-dating the

publication of this story. Thus, although the reference in no way marks a coming out moment, it

does force audiences to speculate on the nature of that sexual encounter.

The homosexual nature of the story is not, however, contingent on over-determining

singular lines of dialogue; in fact, the work itself cements the necessity for a queer reading when

it invokes Whitman. After quoting from Hugo, the narrator recalls the younger Borges reciting a

Whitman poem. Though never named, the poem is one in which Whitman recalls a night shared

besides the sea a night when Whitman had been truly happy (Other 415). Daniel Balderston

has identified the poem as Whitmans When I Heard at the Close of the Day, which finds the

poet truly happy in the arms of his lover. The poem is not shy about its queerness, invoking a friend

who is explicitly described as Whitmans lover on his way coming (9). The inclusion of an

explicitly queer text within the story is important, as is the covertness of Borges allusion.

Although he refers explicitly to Lanes text that erased the sexual, he uses coded language to

reference homosexuality, a masking of deviant sexuality that reinforces the conflicted nature of

the storys protagonists. This moment marks a distinct shift in the way that this process of masking

manifests itself in the text where before Borges has referenced others masking in a passive

sense, here he becomes an active participant in the masking of queerness.


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Balderston reads the significance of the inclusion as centered not on the homosexuality

within the poem, but on the distinction Whitman draws between the public and the private when

he juxtaposes my name and I as distinct iterations of the self. The notion that Borges intrigue

with the public/private divide requires a disavowal of the poems queerness is suspect, as the two

are not mutually exclusive areas of interest; rather, they are distinctly inextricable. The queer has

historically been relegated to the private, deemed acceptable only as long as it is kept outside of

the public eye. Further, the elder Borges commentary on the poem emphasizes reading it as not a

literal act, but as Whitmans longing for a night by the sea with his lover. Following Borges

insistence that the poem be read as a question of desire in the private sphere thus under-scores and

highlights the importance of queerness for the story, a question of inner longing that does not have

to be resolved to gain value. This masked desire is revealed to be the primary way that the elder

Borges understands social interaction. While reflecting on the difficulty the two are having

communicating, he notes that we could not deceive one another, and that makes conversation

hard (Other 416). The framing of conversation as requiring deception is indicative of the

public/private divide that so consumed Borges: navigating public social territory leaves a private

dimension necessarily obscured, a masking of inner turmoil meant to facilitate interpersonal

relationships at the expense of the self. Re-reading the storys opening paragraph through this lens

provides a final example of Borges masking. He closes the paragraph noting that if [he does]

write about what happened, people will read it as a story and in time I, too, may be able to see it

as one (411). The introduction to the story hails the text as an attempt to rewrite the narrators

(and in turn, the authors) history, a coping mechanism to erase an internal struggle.

Borges Afterword to The Book of Sand provides his closing thoughts on The Other. He

first situates it neatly within the literary tradition of the double. Fittingly, he then identifies the
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storys own double. The subject of love is quite common in my poetry; not so in my prose, where

the only example is Ulrikke. Readers will perceive its formal affinity with The Other

(Afterword 484). For Borges, The Other shares something with the only love story he ever

wrote, which is interesting given that its only characters are two males. The Other does not have

to proclaim itself queer to engage with sexuality. Yet it chooses to, going so far as to mask its

homosexual allusions in a replication of the everyday masking that queer bodies participate in

when navigating through a distinctly heteronormative society. Taking a stance on the authors

sexuality is largely irrelevant to the question of the work. Even if profoundly straight, Borges

utilized the story to work through a longing for privacy, for selfhood, and ultimately, for

queerness. Historical records may emphasize his relationships with countless women throughout

his lifetime, but those records will remain distinctly public, failing to account for the private

longing that The Other hints at.


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Works Cited

Arata, Stephen. On E. W. Lanes Edition of The Arabian Nights Entertainments, 1838."

BRANCH Branch, n.d. Web. 14 November 2015.

Balderston, Daniel. The Fecal Dialectic: Homosexual Panic and the Origin of Writing in

Borges. Entiendes? -Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings- Ed. Emilie Bergman & Paul

Julian Smith. Durham: Duke University Press. (1995): 29-45.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Afterword. Trans. Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin,

1999. pp. 484-5. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. The Other. Trans. Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin,

1999. pp. 412-17. Print.

Toibin, Colm. New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families New York: Scribner,

2012. Print.

Whitman, Walt. "When I Heard at the Close of the Day." Poetry Foundation Poetry Foundation,

n.d. Web. 14 November, 2015.