[Kim Seong-kon] Why Borges became apolitical

By Kim Seong-kon
  • Published : May 14, 2019 - 17:19
  • Updated : May 14, 2019 - 17:19

Recently, I saw an interesting diagram on the internet about the left and the right. The drawing indicates that as you go further to the right, you will get bad outcomes such as libertarianism, corrupt capitalism and then anarchy. On the contrary, if you go further to the left, you will end up with equally undesirable results such as fascism, socialism and communism. Then finally you will find totalitarianism and enslavement at the far end of the left.

It is intriguing that the illustration puts fascism on the left because it is the term that leftists usually use in order to criticize and condemn rightists. Perhaps it suggests that leftists, too, are prone to fascism if and when they become extremists. It is also interesting that the drawing puts anarchy on the far right because usually anarchism is associated both with extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing ideologies. The drawing seems to illustrate that both the left and the right are ultimately the same if pushed to extremes.

Perhaps that is why the late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges became apolitical. Initially, he supported the left-wing Salvador Allende administration in Chile. Soon, however, he became disillusioned with the Allende regime. When the right-wing Augusto Pinochet took power, Borges had high hopes that Pinochet would solve the problems created by the previous administration. However, what he saw was yet more tyranny in Chile.

In his own country, Argentina, Borges was deeply disillusioned with Juan Peron and his wife, Evita, who were immensely popular at the time -- especially among the poor and farmers -- but whose legacies remain controversial. Borges was disillusioned by both the rightists and the leftists, and he realized that the two ideologies can easily come to resemble each other if and when extremism takes over. It is understandable that Borges became apolitical over the course of his lifetime, after experiencing the extremes of two political ideologies that frequently harmed and even ruined Latin American countries.

History tells us that when people fight a ruthless right-wing military dictatorship, they are likely to adopt an extreme left-wing -- socialist or communist -- worldview and seek to overthrow tyranny through revolution in the name of democratization. The irony is that, in the process, they end up resembling the monster they are fighting. The problem is that if they succeeded in their goals, they would make the same mistakes. A good example is that of Nazism and Stalinism. Which one is worse? And what are the differences between them? It is hard to tell. They looked alike in many respects. They did terrible things, only on the other side of the bank. Hitler had the dreadful Gestapo and Stalin operated the notorious KGB. Both massacred so many innocent people. Surveillance and censorship were rampant in their countries. The list could go on and on. The Shah and Khomeini are another example.

In 1981, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare published the internationally acclaimed dystopian novel “The Palace of Dreams,” which depicts the nightmarish landscape of a totalitarian society where the government investigates and manipulates people’s dreams. Although the novel is set in the Ottoman Empire, it obviously alludes to Stalinist Albania, which was under a totalitarian communist regime in recent history.

In the novel, protagonist Mark-Alem is offered a position at the government office that examines and interprets the dreams of the empire’s subjects. Initially he is assigned to the Selection Section, where he makes a long list of “suspicious dreams” and then passes it on to the Interpretation Section. Then the Interpretation Section makes a short list to send to the Office of the Master Dream. Thanks to his prestigious family background, Mark-Alem manages to climb the ladder so fast that he is soon appointed head of the organization. Nevertheless, he is not quite comfortable about examining and manipulating other people’s subconscious thoughts.

A socialist country always promises a paradise where everybody is equal, and yet it often turns out to be a totalitarian society that controls everybody and everything, including our dreams. By the same token, an extreme right-wing country can easily turn into a totalitarian society that takes away our freedom and controls our private lives. Perhaps this is what Edward Said and Thomas Pynchon meant when they wrote that both Western imperialism and ultranationalism in the developing world were equally guilty of annihilating humanity and human civilization.

Looking at the current social chaos and political mayhem in South Korea, many Koreans overseas cannot but despair and become disillusioned with our politicians, whose main and only concern seems to be to win the next election. Meanwhile, they seem to be paying no heed to the grave situation or to the multiple crises Korea is now facing in the whirlpool of international politics. When I was young and impetuous, I was disappointed in Borges’ apolitical stance. Now I can understand him fully.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.