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Mauricio Kagel on Borges and Gombrowicz

WERNER KLÜPPELHOLZ: How did you meet Jorge Luis Borges?

MAURICIO KAGELI attended his seminar at the Collegio Libre de Estudios Superiores (a free university for higher studies) in Buenos Aires, where, as at the New School for Social Research in New York, a number of European scholars forced to emigrate found refuge. Whether Max Horkheimer, Adorno, and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the north, or Roger Callois, Alfred Métraux, and Borges in the south, all at last found the peace of a haven where they could work. The New School was also called a “University in Exile.” In Buenos Aires neither sociology nor ethnology nor political science were considered the highest disciplines, rather literature and history. If I’m not mistaken, the model for this institution was the Collège de France: seminars with the highest possible standards, only invited lecturers, a restricted number of participants, and a subject change after each semester. The umbilical cord of the Argentine intellectual, particularly in the realms of literature, music, painting, and architecture, leads back to France.
     After the Second World War Europe was startled by the vitality and independence of North American culture and perhaps even more so by the puzzling fascination it held for people of every continent. The relationship between Argentina and Spain did not fare as well. It became rickety with the rise of Franco and the Fascists after the Spanish Civil War, and it faded even further over time. Over the course of the nineteenth century Spain had become reactionary and alarmingly provincial on nearly all fronts. But today the situation has fundamentally changed: old Spain belongs to the new world, while South America is impoverished and desperate. 
     It seems to me important to try to describe something of Borges’s circumstances. During Perón’s dictatorship, he could only survive as an independent instructor at the Collegio Libre, an arrangement whereby ladies of high society could receive important words of encouragement. Borges was a protégé of this well-off circle, from which he himself had come, although his family was relatively less well off. These high-society women were presumably less seriously interested in culture than in bibliophile editions and glamorous exclusive events. Why should Buenos Aires be an exception to the age-old dependency of the intelligentsia on that stratum for funds and power, both of which it possesses? The first Wagnerian was probably also a snob. 
     English and Anglo-Saxon literature were Borges’s hobbyhorse. He knew long passages from Chaucer, Blake and Milton, Tennyson and Keats, Marlowe, Byron, Shelley, and many other writers that he quoted calmly and serenely. We felt clearly how he continually turned the pages of the World-library in his head. And this was all done without the boasting tone of some vain Anglicist, rather almost with humility, from a deep love for the musicality of the language. Literature wasn’t just food for thought, rather every remark that he heard or that he said triggered in him a chain reaction of responses, like a signal sent to a number of switches wired in parallel. 
     He had also read German literature in the original, and could quote both short sentences and astonishingly long passages to explore a connection or illustrate an idea. This is one of the most significant aspects of Borges’s character: his completely relaxed, generous relationship to other literatures and in general to every assembly of words where depth of thought and beauty are joined. Beautiful sound alone was for him—a poeta doctus if there ever was one—insufficient. As literary scholar and literary critic, the range and depth of his erudition were exceptional, a natural result of his extensive education. But he was not a member of the educated class by any ordinary definition. His critical knowledge situated him in a permanent dialogue with Borges the writer on the one hand and Borges the interlocutor on the other—communicating sides of a triangle. 
     As a Modernist and an innovator in the uniting of world literature, he was an advocate for the view that the tradition of Argentine literature was rooted in “the entirety of Western culture.” He spoke specifically to Argentina, but in extenso to all traditions. I have often said that there is no monolithic tradition, rather that the term “tradition” refers to the sum of many, even countless different strands of tradition, all united. All generalizations are dubious and put me in mind of a crutch catalogue from a medical supply house. But Borges’s general point was that authors are part of the organic continuum of belles-lettres of all times, and they shouldn’t try to write out of any neurotic insistence on being up-to-date. This liberality was part of a sovereign tradition of progress. I very much miss such a stance in the New Music subculture. In comparison, what often dominates there is a hysterical defense of personal standards. This is pastoral effort expended on the wrong subject. 
     Good music, even if written centuries ago, always seems timeless and modern, so it is pointless to preach new aesthetic approaches as if they were some ultimate truth. We can compare this fact with the fundamental distinctions that monotheistic religions make in regard to the idea of the Savior: for Christians, He has already appeared; for the Jews, on the other hand, He has not yet come, and the unsuccessful wait for him is an elixir to belief; for Muslims, Christ has already come, but not as a Savior, rather as one of the Righteous, and so has a place in the ancestral pantheon. Just as a three-thousand-year-old terracotta statuette spontaneously elicits from us the term “modern” because of its simplicity and reduction to the essentials, we should apply the same word to every book, picture, or piece of music in which form and succinct clarity are united. 
     Borges was convinced of this relation as well, although he never spoke expressis verbis of it; he never had a thesis that his theories and writings were meant to justify. A few years ago there appeared a collection of feature articles he had written in the 1930s for the magazine El Hogar (“Home”) in order to put bread on his table, and this reminded me of some old issues that I had read in storage at our house in Buenos Aires. (My mother, who bought these magazines regularly, was incapable of throwing away any printed matter … This is irrefutable proof that character traits can be inherited.) Of course, like any purely literary text by Borges, these commentaries can be translated into any language. But an aspect of the style that anyone not familiar with Argentine literature would not recognize is that Borges’s typical use of adjectives is very Anglo-French, a “Franglish.” This important nuance, one that gives rise to a persistent feeling of distance as one reads, disappears in every translation of Borges. (It would be a shame if some Hispanists come to bear me ill will because of this observation.)


KLÜPPELHOLZ: Another literary great you knew in your early life was Witold Gombrowicz. How did the two relate to one another? 

KAGEL: Gombrowicz and Borges badly misunderstood one another. For the Polish writer, Borges was the embodiment of a bourgeois man of letters, which was not at all the case, not with the negative undertones he had in mind. After all, Gombrowicz himself did little more than write books; perhaps he included the labor of writing in his list of the many subjects he dismissed as not being of interest. Borges was his opposite, not his enemy. And there was an additional element, one I know well from personal experience. Artists who work in their home country enjoy a permanent home advantage. This holds both for the standout personalities and for those who don’t reach the heights. Artists who initially have to push against the resistance of the public and critics often are belatedly remembered with extravagant honors. (The InterCityExpress train christened “Joseph Beuys” is a prime example …) While Borges with his great knowledge was able to till a lush garden of culture, Gombrowicz preferred to remain resolutely within his own culture—out of an innate laziness. I would meet him evenings after he had worked many hours at his writing table, and he would insist with an earnest expression that he was naturally lazy. I know this apparent contradiction well. In conversation, Gombrowicz displayed a dreadful sarcasm, something Borges entirely lacked. Borges could describe things with a fine irony, but he didn’t indulge in vicious humor, and wished that no one else would do so, either. But many Polish writers loved Gombrowicz’s wit, for its sharpness and particularly for its power to provoke. 
     He came to Buenos Aires in August of 1939, on the maiden voyage of the Polish transatlantic steamship Chrorby. Gombrowicz offered many differing accounts of the preparations for and the undertaking of this journey. In one version he had been invited, with his friend the writer Czestan Straszewicz, to act as a reporter for a Warsaw newspaper. In another, for me more plausible, version he went along to play chess with the well-off passengers onboard the ship. And he continued to play chess—very aggressively, by the way—his entire life. A few days after his arrival the war broke out, and he found himself forced to remain in Argentina. 
     It was through chess, which I pursued with pleasure at that time—playing shyly and defensively, that I met him. This was about 1950. The chess café Rex on the Avenida Corrientes was situated on the first floor over an enormous movie theatre of the same name. As soon as you climbed to the top of the narrow stairs, your head would be shrouded in a dense cloud, a haze that was continually refreshed by the constant smoking of cigars, pipes, and cigarettes. It was the apotheosis of chess and smoke. The puffing supposedly helped concentration, and I won’t dispute that. There was a constant anxious background sound made by the rushed, arrhythmic slapping of dozens of hands on the chess clocks. Gombrowicz chain-smoked—either cigarettes or pipe—with an intensity I’ve never seen since. He drew the smoke so violently through his clenched teeth that there could be no doubt that the foul vapor reached the last branching capillaries in his diaphragm. (As you yourself smoke cigars you can imagine the effect of this gas exchange on his bronchial tubes.) His front teeth—and likely his lungs, as well—had over the course of years turned different shades of brown and black, and when Gombrowicz grinned and delivered one of his endearingly malicious remarks this colorful decoration intensified its punch. Game boards were inlaid into the surface of the tables; there were conspicuous traces of many games and cups of coffee. All around there was a jumble of speech as in Babel after the apocryphal version that has been handed down: Russian, Polish, and Czech, a great deal of German, a little Spanish—this from the wait staff—Hungarian, Dutch/Flemish, Serbian, and Yiddish. In short, the full spectrum of emigrant voices. 
     I have often asked myself why chess plays an especially large role in Eastern Europe, but I won’t hazard a theory. Perhaps a depth psychologist would find a complex answer to this question. But when I read The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, an author who also plays chess, I again enter this world of strategic advantages and disadvantages, of foresight and tactics in confrontation. Is chess a mirror image of everything we do in order to survive with decency?

KLÜPPELHOLZ: I don’t know—I only smoke without playing chess. Was there a chess-playing organization, or was it more just playing in a bar? 

KAGEL: Herr Frydman, a Polish chess master of Jewish descent and a friend of Gombrowicz, bore the pompous title “Director of the Chess Hall.” That sort of thing was necessary, mind you, because of the amounts of money—humble as they were—that would be wagered on the games. Frydman, a big, good-natured guy, bald, with remarkably wide lips, arbitrated the heated arguments. Professional and chronic chess players are monomaniacal; their play is like an endless melody that continues to play even if they are not at the board. If I, as a composer, wanted to describe chess I would say that the game is like the counterpoint of two endless monodies, ringing out simultaneously without producing polyphony. The game lasts a lifetime and becomes an obsession because it has so many variants. The aspects of combination theory that I make use of in composition are not the same as the rules of chess, but the lines of force of the two kinds of thinking about change have a common origin. As a composer, one must have many combinatory possibilities in the back of one’s head. Not all of these are used, but—as with chess—the ones that are chosen are the best, the most elegant, those that hold the most artistic promise.

KLÜPPELHOLZ: Did Gombrowicz ever laugh? 

KAGEL: He had a diabolical laugh, and he knew that his face always showed a trace of arrogance; this further emphasized the demonism of his derision. His manner, innate or learned, reflected his origin among the Polish landed gentry.

KLÜPPELHOLZ: Did he make much of an attempt to learn the local language? 

KAGEL: We conversed in Spanish and French, both of which he spoke in an inimitable metallic, penetrating voice. A comparison with a public speaker striving to be heard at the farthest corners of a platform would not be inappropriate. Gombrowicz’s timbre reminded me of unison playing by an ensemble of oboes. He had studied law in Poland, but he really could only write and play chess. An attempt was made to help him by finding him a job as the secretary to the director of the Polska Kassa Opiecki, the Polish bank (… peculiar, that I still remember the Polish name …). Gombrowicz, the exact opposite of a humble bank employee, was soon kicked out and was again without means. He continued to live in high style on almost nothing. Gombrowicz often played chess until he had won enough money to buy his evening meal, and he was certainly not the only one in that circle, a concentrated, erratic bloc of melancholics. I will never forget his descriptions of Argentine food. He would say, for example, “Today I ate soup with a chicken,” although because agglutination is not possible in Spanish, the form is “soup from a chicken.” Such a simple word-inversion is enough to make syntax and sense ambiguous. I still love such insignificant mistakes both in reading and speaking today and—why shouldn’t I admit it?—often make them myself. 
     I believe in the creativity of defective speech. Unfortunately, I have lost some of that freshness over time, but when I hear, for example, poor Spanish, I still invariably wonder why syntax and grammar are constituted as they are, and not otherwise. Years ago I saw a sign in Italy that read, “One speaks German.” Isn’t it wonderful how politeness transforms into dictate? Perhaps my inner refusal to speak perfectly comes from such connections. It is somewhat different with writing, as there one moves across an invisible border into the territory of those who speak German as their mother tongue. I resist the temptation to venture into any poetic dimensions, because to do so I would need to feel I had an expert mastery of the language. Resisting this temptation spares me any painful zigzag trains of thought. I prefer clear and sequential formulations. I am grateful not to be writing in my mother tongue, as that has helped me become more precise. It seems to me that an important aspect of the beauty of the German language is its concision, its creation of a stereo-panorama, so to speak, from a monaural signal. I would never claim to write true literature in German. My prospects lie elsewhere: in the use of language as an acoustic and symbolic medium.

The interviews were conducted between September 1998 and December 2000. From Werner Klüppelholz, Mauricio Kagel Dialoge, Monologe (Köln: DuMont Buchverlag, 2001). Section I: pp. 264–267. Section II: pp. 276–281. Translated with the permission of the author and publisher. 

Composer Mauricio Kagel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931. While studying to be a composer Kagel was also very involved with world literature and with writers in Argentina. In 1957, Kagel moved to Cologne, Germany, and became one of the most prominent members of the emerging New Music scene in Europe, writing works full of musical surprise, theatricality, and absurd comedy. He succeeded Stockhausen as the director of the Cologne Courses for New Music in 1969, helped found the Cologne Ensemble for New Music, and was invited to act as composer in residence around the world. He died in Cologne on September 18, 2008.
Werner Klüppelholz is a professor of music education at the University of Siegen.