Borgesís Fascination with Hilario Ascasubi

Miguel Fernández

Middlebury College

In mid-April 1914, the Borges family traveled to Geneva for what was meant to be a one-year stay. The fifteen-year-old Jorge brought an impressive stock of books with him. Among them, the Argentine writers included Sarmiento, Eduardo Gutiérrez, Evaristo Carriego, and two poets who would reappear throughout his poetic life: Leopoldo Lugones and Hilario Ascasubi. The following year, while visiting the amphitheater in Verona, young Jorge recited some of Ascasubiís verses in a loud voice as if to test the acoustics of the Roman structure and to pay tribute to the gauchesque poet and the speech of his native land (Borges, "Autobiographical" 214; Woodall 26-27).

In an interview in 1969 with Fernando Sorrentino, when asked what five authors he would include in a history of Argentine literature, he listed Sarmiento, followed Ascasubi, Hernández, Lugones, and finally either Almafuerte or Martínez Estrada (42). Borges would return to Ascasubi throughout his life, writing articles about him, dropping his name here and there, and finally as late as 1975 composing a poem dedicated to the bard.

So why this fascination with Ascasubi? A gauchesco poet that few read today? Why was the master of short fiction who was so influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, so taken by this mediocre poet of popular verse? What made Borges carry a book of Ascasubiís verses to Verona? I believe the solution to this riddle may be found in Borgesís complicated relationship with the gauchesca.

Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, having lived in Europe for seven years. He was twenty-two years old. His delight in being back in his homeland and the fond memories that this return produced are manifested in his first book of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). It did not take long for Borges to gravitate from Ultraism, rejecting the ornamentation, ostentation and sonorous effects of the postmodernists to stress the metaphor as a primary tool of composition, to Criollismo. Along with other young intellectuals he was determined to recover an Argentine style, criollo and porteño, which he believed he saw in the popular way of life. Music, dance, words of tangos and milongas helped compose the criollismo of many of his literary compositions. In these early years, Borgesís youthful impetus prevailed over the skepticism and irony that would later dominate his personality. In the books Borges published in the second half of the twenties, one can see an effort to exalt the autochthonous. "Los rasgos fundamentales de estas obras son, en lo temático, la poetización del arrabal y el compadrito porteño; en lo ideológico, el rechazo de lo extranjero y la exaltación del coraje individual en varios personajes elegidos en la historia nacional y entre sus propios antepasados familiares" (Rasi 323).

A decisive occurrence in Borgesís political definition was the appearance of Juan Domingo Perón. Borges opposed him from the beginning; the author hated Perón because he was a demagogue who practiced torture and suppressed civil liberties. The regime pursued dissidents and in Borgesís case this meant losing the modest job he had at a municipal library and being offered a position as poultry inspector (Zuleta 544). His opposition never diminished and to Borges nationalism became synonymous with Peronism.

In "El escritor argentino y la tradición" (1957), Borges detailed his opposition to nationalism and he synthesized his ideas of what meaning the letters and culture of a country should have. He did not hold back criticism of Argentine myths: Martín Fierro and the gauchesca, Carlos Gardel and the tango, Peronism. In "El escritor argentino y la tradición" Borges criticized both Leopoldo Lugones and Ricardo Rojas. Lugones had proposed, in a series of lectures that were later published as El payador, that Martín Fierro was a classic and as important to Argentineans as Homer was to Greeks. Rojas also recommended the canonization of Hernándezís work, in his multi-volume Historia de la literatura argentina, saying the gauchescos derived their verses from payadores and the spontaneous poetry of the gauchos.

Los nacionalistas simulan venerar las capacidades de la mente argentina pero quieren limitar el ejercicio poético de esa mente a algunos pobres temas locales, como si los argentinos sólo pudiéramos hablar de orillas y estancias y no del universo. (Borges, Obras 271) To Borges, nationalism represented the backwardness of the world in which there should be no borders (Obras 274).

In a sixty-four page booklet entitled El "Martín Fierro" (1953), Borges again contradicted Lugones at several turns: he sees an absence of the epic in Martín Fierro because: "Hernández quería ejecutar lo que hoy llamaríamos un trabajo antimilitarista y esto lo forzó a escamotear o mitigar lo heroico, para que los rigores padecidos por el protagonista no se contaminaran de gloria" (30). He insists it is a mistake to read Martín Fierro as an epic because to do so is to compress (at least symbolically) the secular history of the nation (Martín Fierro 58).

Borges continued his thoughts on Martín Fierro and the gauchesca in an anthology he and Adolfo Bioy Casares published in 1955, La poesía gauchesca. Laura Demaría has done a very careful reading of the introduction and the editorial notes of this anthology, and she has paid close attention to the works selected. She finds that the anthology is a manifesto against the nationalist ideas that were put into fashion in the preceding decades by individuals like Rojas and Lugones, who went on to identify the national with the gauchesco (21). This was not an "innocent" edition that intended to objectively compile the works produced in a given period. On the contrary, it was an arbitrary construction that responded to an interpretive reading of the revisionist histories that were appearing in the early fifties (20-1).

Borges y Bioy Casares callan aquellas voces contrarias a su ideología, manipulan, distorsionan su historia para que su "cantar opinando" pueda apuntar a reinstalar el canon gauchesco simultáneamente como género literario y como protesta exclusiva de aquellos "gauchos del Río de la Plata [que] cantando y combatiendo contra los tiranos de las Repúblicas Argentina y Oriental del Uruguay" se niegan a ser nacionales por simple mandato. (Demaría 28) Borges and Bioy Casares include Ascasubiís complete works in their anthology Poesía gauchesca (1955) as an attack on Peronism and the nationalism apologists that were in vogue at the time. Borges and Bioy Casares refigure the gauchesca canon to eliminate many of the conservative, pro-Rosas works and to expand the liberal voices such as Ascasubi. Furthermore, Borgesís infatuation with Ascasubi goes well beyond the presentation of his work as an anti-nationalist impulse. His affection for the poet enables him and readers like us to muster a reading of Ascasubi, not as one instance of the gauchesca or a mere precursor to Hernández, but as a different voice altogether.

Borgesís first foray into the theme of the gauchesca was in Inquisiciones (1925) where he wrote about Ascasubi. He then studied del Campo in El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), before he tackled the book his "Unitarian" family found so profane, El gaucho Martín Fierro. Interest in Ascasubi and Hernández surfaced again in 1931 in an essay in the first volume of Sur, that he republished numerous times and that culminated in the introduction to the 1955 anthology. (1) As Efraín Kristal and Michel Lafon have recently shown in their books Invisible Work, and Borges ou la réécriture,Borges was constantly rewriting. The attention Borges paid to Ascasubi in this anthology had the effect of shifting attention away from Hernández and the Federalist poets. Borges and Bioy Casares opened up the gauchesca in the 1950ís for reevaluation, and in doing so Hilario Ascasubi emerges for reconsideration.

In his censure the nationalist critics of the first half of the twentieth century for attempting to canonize Martín Fierro as a national epic and suggesting that its appeal is being a novel in verse and not an epic, Borges was sketching out the elements of a Bakhtinian theory of dialogism. Unlike the epic, Martín Fierro does not reveal all the details of its hero; the combination of retrospective and immediate episodes and emotions hides certain facts from the reader. "No sabemos, por ejemplo, si la tentación de azotar a la mujer del negro asesinado es una brutalidad de borracho o --eso preferiríamos-- una desesperación del aturdimiento" (Borges, Obras 197). This perplexity of motives makes the work seem more "real." Borgesís theorization of the appearance of "real" does not seem far away from Bakhtinís own in his important essay "Epic and Novel," where he demonstrates that the hero in the epic is separated by epic distance in a world far removed, and that this gap or space is filled with the national tradition (13-16). Bakhtin also shows that the epic discourse is handed down by tradition and is inaccessible to personal experience; it does not permit individual point of view or evaluation (16). What is new in the novel is the radical restructuring of the image of the individual and the destruction of the epic distance and transferal of the image of the individual from the distant plane to the zone of contact (Bakhtin, 35). It would seem, then, that Borges discovers the novelistic character of Martín Fierro and in doing so recognizes the specificity of the era, the "real," in which it was written:

Novela, novela de organización instintiva o premeditada, es el Martín Fierro: única definición que puede trasmitir puntualmente la clase de placer que nos da y que condice sin escándalo con su fecha. Ésta, quién no lo sabe, es la del siglo novelístico por antonomasia: el de Dostoievski, el de Zola, el de Butler, el de Flaubert, el de Dickens. (Obras 197) Borges counters the position of Lugones and argues that Martín Fierro is not an epic. Like Bakhtin, he understands that the epic represents a preform (an antecedent) of the novel. The governing models and traditions of the epic--heroic meter, intervention of the gods, exalted heroes--are not applicable here, but the novelistic conditions--revealing the protagonistís feelings and complexity--are (Borges, Obras 197). One could say that Martín Fierro is a hybrid in that it has interwoven characteristics of the epic and the realist novel, and it is upon this hybridity on which its originality is founded.

One can better appreciate why Borges also refutes suggestions that Ascasubi was a precursor to Hernández. While Hernández had the limited aim of recounting the history of the destiny of Martín Fierro, Ascasubi is more alive and vibrant according to Borges. He compares descriptions of Indian raids by the two authors and finds Ascasubiís version more immediate; the reader can feel the leagues of Indians racing towards him. "Lo escénico otra vez, otra vez la fruición de contemplar. En esa inclinación está para mí la singularidad de Ascasubi, no en las virtudes de su ira unitaria, destacada por Oyuela y por Rojas" (Obras 183). Borges goes on to praise Ascasubiís versatility; he brought dances alive in his media cañas, he showed fear and panic in "La Refalosa," he liked crystal-clear colors and precise objects. Borges seems to see Hernández bringing to the reader the same high level of pleasure produced by the narrative. In contrast, he recognizes that the pleasure in Ascasubi is in contemplation. Hernández narrates scenes, whereas Ascasubi is a painter of scenes and stills--his images are fleeting yet indelible. Ascasubi is rescued by Borges into the canon of Argentine letters in part due to his attentive contemplation of the past.

Borges said in an interview that he thought Esteban Echeverrías El matadero was a very good piece, as good as Ascasubiís "La Refalosa." In this poem by Ascasubi we can see the colorfulness of description that attracted Borges, the versatility and the contemplative nature of a painter of stills.

Perhaps the most memorable of the poems in Paulino Lucero is "La Refalosa" where a supposed Rosas soldier describes to Jacinto Cielo how they slice the throat of all the Unitarios they capture:
Mirá, gaucho salvajón,
que no pierdo la esperanza,
y no es chanza,
de hacerte probar qué cosa
es Tin tin y Refalosa.
Ahora te diré cómo es:
escuchá y no te asustés;
que para ustedes es canto
más triste que un Viernes Santo.
Unitario que agarramos
lo estiramos;
o paradito no más,
por atrás,
lo amarran los compañeros
por supuesto mashorqueros,
y ligao
con un maniador doblao,
ya queda codo con codo
y desnudito ante todo.
Aquí empieza su aflición [...]

"El escritor argentino y la tradición" (1957) was the product of a lecture Borges delivered in 1951 in response to accusations by nationalist critics who attacked him for using Argentine national symbolism in his poetry without properly invoking his nationality (Woodall 186). Peronist intellectuals (such as Fermín Chávez) denigrated him for not being sufficiently Argentine and for privileging the spurious over the original. In "El escritor," Borges uses a long discussion of Martín Fierro to come to the conclusion that one need not be afraid of not invoking oneís nationality; Argentinaís patrimony is the universe and Argentineans should not limit themselves to purely Argentine subjects (Obras 273-4). He uses his often cited passage of Gibbon's observation that the Koran, the Arabic book par excellence, contains no camels. With this essay in the same volume as his article "La poesía gauchesca," we can see why he toned down the emphasis of argentinidad and focused more on what the gauchesca texts could offer concerning contemporary culture. Borges was stating that the best work is not nationalist. He saw Ascasubi as a precursor to himself, because he felt that the nineteenth-century poet was not nationalist--he depicted sketches of the time. Hernández, on the other hand, was seen by Borges as gauchesco and nationalist.

In his effort to reread the gauchesca and claim Ascasubi as one of his own precursors, Borges shows in his poem "Los gauchos" (1969) that the gaucho was not the mythical figure suggested by the Nationalists. In his opinion, everything from the word gaucho to their language is a creation of "others," and we should not think of them as having died patriotically for the abstract idea of patria, but rather in the services of a master, out of anger, or due to a dangerous challenge.
No murieron por esa cosa abstracta, la patria, sino un patrón 
casual, una ira o por la invitación de un peligro.
Su ceniza está perdida en remotas regiones del continente, en
repúblicas cuya historia nada supieron, en campos de
batalla, hoy famosos.
Hilario Ascasubi los vio cantando y combatiendo.
Vivieron su destino como en un sueño, sin saber quiénes eran
o qué eran.
Tal vez lo mismo nos ocurre a nosotros. (Obras 1001)

When Borges invokes Ascasubi, he suggests that the liberal poet had a clearer understanding of the gauchos than the Nationalistsí standard bearer, José Hernández. This is all part of his effort to distance himself from the twentieth-century Nationalists and to undermine their project of a national gaucho tradition, by providing a model that is diametrically opposed to theirs. Borges takes the ultimate elite position and places himself and the reader in the position of believing that they (we) are more knowledgeable of the gauchosí reality than the gauchos were themselves. In the last verse, making use of a metaphysical twist, the Argentinean critic suggests that the reader, too, may be subject to living his life not as agent, but rather as if it were a dream in the Calderonian sense of La vida es sueño. Borges uses Ascasubi again to criticize a certain view of history and the past and to make us think about how we represent ourselves and others.

In the year 1975, when Isabelita Perón was leading the country into an economic and cultural nightmare, Borges again brought out Ascasubi as his war-horse. In a poem entitled "Hilario Ascasubi (1807-1875)," Borges refers to the year 1975 (the centenary of the bardís death) as "Hoy ultrajada" because the nationalists in Argentina were disseminating an apologist rhetoric about the Rosas years and demeaning the liberals of the 1850ís as "vendepatrias" or sellouts to the Europeans. Borges interprets these periods as being as far apart as night and day.
Alguna vez hubo una dicha. El hombre
Aceptaba el amor y la batalla
Con igual regocijo. La canalla
Sentimental no había usurpado el nombre
Del pueblo. En esa aurora, hoy ultrajada
Vivió Ascasubi y batió, cantando
Entre los gauchos de la patria cuando
Los llamó una divisa a la patriada.
Fue muchos hombres. Fue el cantor y el coro;
Por el río del tiempo fue Proteo.
Fue soldado en la azul Montevideo 
Y en California, buscador de oro.
Fue suya la alegría de una espada
En la mañana. Hoy somos noche y nada.
(Moneda 37)

Ascasubi was present in and participated in the optimistic dawning of a bright period in Argentine history, while Borges forecasted the darkest years of the nationís history that lay right around the corner with the military juntaís genocidal rule from 1976 to 1983 when he ends with the verse "Hoy somos noche y nada."

The problem with the argument that Borges makes in this poem is that he engages in the same vices as the nationalists. Forgetting his previous arguments, he treats the gauchesca as an epic form that depicts a completed, perfect world, one that is separate from the world of the author and the audience by an absolute and unbridgeable past. It is as if Borges were now seeing Ascasubi telling his stories as though they were a sacred and incontrovertible legend. Borges saw Ascasubiís verses more closely related to the novel. The given literary system of the gauchesca reveals the limits of that system as inadequate, imposed, and arbitrary. Ascasubiís verses are dialogical among a multiplicity of texts and are constantly generating new forms.

Ascasubiís dialogical texts entailed writing against the grain. He used a variety of implied readers, and he mixed fiction, politics and daily life. The author of Paulino Lucero, Aniceto el Gallo and Santos Vega, o los mellizos de la Flor, picked up where Bartolomé Hidalgo had left off, and expanded the use of dialogues in the gauchesca and created original compositions in a variety of forms and styles; he was a creator and an innovator. His poems were aimed at a whole range of social classes and sectors.

Ascasubi wrote in a coarse and more jocular tone, which was different to the decent words of Bartolomé Hidalgoís characters and which prefigured some of the crudeness of Martín Fierro. For instance, Ascasubi combined fiction with daily life (as Borges would in his own stories) in a work titled "Las milicias de Rosas y episodio de Camila OíGorman." This is written as a letter from a fictitious soldier in Juan Manuel de Rosasís troops, to his wife in Montevideo. The letter is divided in two parts and is preceded by a short introduction in prose and a dedication to Rosas in verse. In the short introduction, the author harshly attacks Rosas while at the same time attesting to the "truthfulness" of the letter. The letter then begins, dated August 20, 1848, two days after the actual events involving Camila OíGorman. The first part of the letter has the soldier warning his wife not to come to Argentina because the situation is so chaotic. Rosas had just ordered the execution of Ladislao Gutiérrez, Camila, and their unborn child. The soldier describes how even Rosasís own people are afraid of him. He then goes on to describe the love affair between Ladislao, a Jesuit priest, and Camila, the daughter of a wealthy pro-Rosas landowner. In the second part of the letter, the soldier narrates a series of humiliating conditions that the soldiers loyal to Rosas were suffering.

Ascasubi blends here a well-known episode of the Rosas years with his own personal experiences, propaganda meant to draw the federalist soldiers to the opposition, and a variety of implied readers. This, again, attests to the dialogic nature and the novelness of Ascasubi's work. (2) The myriad of voices present and the multiple textual and generic forms used by the poet create a dialogic heteroglossia--an essential element of the novel that is not distinct in poetic language. This, I believe, explains the appeal and attraction that a reader, like Borges found in Ascasubi.


(1). In 1932 Borges published a series of essays under the title Discusión. The original edition included modified versions of the Sur articles, "El coronel Ascasubi" and "Martín Fierro," that Borges eliminated in subsequent editions. In the second edition of Discusión, which appeared in 1957, he included a longer essay entitled "La poesía gauchesca" that sprang from the original essays and the introduction to the 1955 anthology he compiled with Adolfo Bioy Casares.

(2). Unlike other genres, Mikhail Bakhtin sees the novel lacking any formal characteristics. The novel is constantly generating new forms and is formally as incomplete as the world it describes. Because the fundamental features of a culture are inscribed in its texts--not just literary but in its legal, religious, historical as well--"novelness" can work to undermine the official or high culture of any society. Novelness is a new sensibility that is by its very nature iconoclastic and forever questing. See Clark, chapter 13.

Works cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist: U Texas P, 1981.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "An Autobiographical Essay: Family and Childhood." The Aleph and other stories, 1933-1969. Ed. and trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970. 203-260.

----. El "Martín Fierro". 3rd ed. Buenos Aires: Columba, 1960.

----. La moneda de hierro. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1976.

----. Obras completas, 1923-1972. Ed. Carlos V. Frías. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974.

Clark, Katerina. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press (Harvard UP), 1984

Demaria, Laura. "Borges y Bioy Casares, 1955 y la "Poesía Gauchesca" como paradójica rebeldía." Latin American Literary Review XXII.44 (1994): 20-30.

Kristal, Efraín. Invisible work : Borges and translation. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2002.

Lafon, Michel. Borges, ou, La réécriture. Paris : Seuil, 1990.

Rasi, Humberto M. "Borges Frente a la Poesía Gauchesca: Crítica y Creación." Revista Iberoamericana 40 (1974): 321-36.

Sorrentino, Fernando. Siete conversaciones con Jorge Luis Borges. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Ateneo, 1996 (1974).

Woodall, James. Borges: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Zuleta Alvarez, Enrique. "Borges, Lugones y el nacionalismo." Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos. 505-507 (1992): 535-549.