Borges and the tradition

November 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Myth . . . abolishes the complexity of human actions, cloaks them in the simplicity of essences, eliminates all dialectic, obscures all that is not immediately visible; it organizes a world without contradictions because it is a world without depth, a world laid out before us; it establishes a convenient clarity—things appear to signify in and of themselves.”

(Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 231)

There is a well-established perception about tango that sees it as a form of “exotic eroticism,” a culture (for it is more than just dance or just music) charged with sexual innuendo and a barely concealed violence. A smoke-filled world of illicit behavior and male bravado. According to this view, tango is the product of a world of poverty and despair, unbridled passions and uncontrolled jealousy, of seductive women and handsome but dangerous men. It is a world in which disputes are settled quickly and violently, and relationships are shortlived and end in sorrow. It is a picture we all know and have all seen in movies and on stage, and is the one generally packaged for export to the curious and the naive. However, it is one that reflects neither the social history of tango—as a musical form, a dance, or a form of poetry—nor the reality of its genesis in Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata more generally.

This form of global or “exoteric” tango stands in sharp contrast to its development and growth in Buenos Aires from roughly 1890 to 1955, a period in which the music of tango gained in popularity and became something of a cultural signifier for the city of Buenos Aires, and Argentina more generally. For Borges, however, this popular version of the tango was as false as the export tango produced for global consumption. In other words, there were (at least) two strains to the development of tango, a bifurcation largely triggered by the onset of immigration and the dilution of a purer and older layer of myth. Through his writing and his lyrics (Borges wrote lyrics for milongas), Borges created his own personal mythology of tango based on an earlier period in its development, before the more overtly dramatic manifestations found in tango lyrics from the 1930s and beyond became commonplace.

It was Borges’s intent to give Argentina a past it could be proud of, a past he felt had been hidden or usurped by the more popular tangos of the post-Guardia Vieja period (after about 1925). Historically, the growth of tango has been attributed to the influx of immigrants to Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century (the population of Buenos Aires grew from roughly 210,000 to 1.2 million), primarily from western and southern Europe, especially Italians. This incoming immigrant culture mixed with the large numbers of unemployed gauchos, who had begun to settle on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the areas known as the orillas, or arrabales. 

The men they found there had lost not only their livelihood but their way of life with the fencing off of the pampas into large estates and the mechanization of livestock production. The gauchos and payadores brought with them the traditions of the open plains, along with their guitars and their songs, whose rhythms were largely of Spanish origin—habañeras, fandangos, milongas, vidalitas (see “A Sense of Where you Are,” The Economist, Dec. 20, 2001). The incoming waves of unemployed cattle herders had settled in areas populated by the indigenous Afro-Argentine community, to which the early origins of the tango can be traced, including the words “tango” and “milonga” themselves. (R. F. Thomson provides a fuller discussion of the African origins of tango.)

It is now believed that the earliest forms of tango, as a dance form, were based on the interactions between the  compadritos, or urbanized gauchos, and this existing Afro-Argentine population. The music to which they danced would be the early, simple milongas that Borges loved—the music and words of the payadores. But this music began to change, rather dramatically,  during the last decades of the nineteenth century with the influx of European immigrants and the growing complexity of musical composition and the added instrumentation, the bandoneon in particular, that quintessential instrument of tango. The fuller and richer sound of the new tango orchestras was accompanied by lyrics that reflected the loneliness of immigrant life in a large foreign city and the travails of unrequited love. Borges, however, felt that the new tango cancion, typified by Carlos Gardel, was a betrayal of the older style of the payadores with its elevation of the machismo of the gauchos and compadritos.

The tango is gay . . . and it is normally brave and manly.

(Borges, quoted in Aynseworth, 56)

It was the early, rural milonga that Borges most admired (although he was willing to extend his admiration to aspects of the Guardia Vieja), with its simpler rhythms and engagement with a largely mythic past of open plains, unfettered freedom, and unabashed masculinity. It is a world of prowess, boasts, hardship, and early death. Women played almost no part in it. In an early poem, “El Tango,” Borges writes:

The tango creates
a shady, unreal past that in some ways is true,
an impossible memory of having died
fighting on a corner in the slums.

(Aynesworth, 58)

In his attempt to establish a myth of origin for Argentina, Borges turned to the old milongas of the pampas and the arrabales, the music of his childhood. These were largely folkloric in nature, written for six-string guitar, and accompanied by the words of the payadores. What drew Borges to these early “prototype” tangos was the sense of martial vigor and unashamed machismo, the depiction of a world of proud men and sharp knives, a world ruled by honor, endurance, and rough poetry. For Borges, anything later than the Guardia Vieja was not “tango,” did not provide a sufficient basis on which to construct a mythic past Argentina could be proud of. Unlike most lovers of tango, Borges did not admire Gardel, who entered the popular imagination around 1917; he felt that his songs were a betrayal of the earlier, more “authentic,” tradition. The result was an “effeminate” tango that failed to reflect the “martial soul” of the rural milonga. He was especially critical of the sentimentality of the “new” tango, which he attributed to the influence of Italian musicians, who brought with them a familiarity with the emotional upheavals of classical opera. (See Berti for a fuller discussion of Borges’s strained relationship with the tango proper.)

Borges was equally critical of the use of lunfardo for the lyrics of later tangos—a language often extolled as adding an element of clandestine richness and hidden meanings to lyrics of the time. He felt it was a language of inauthenticity, one that led to the production of songs (and myths) that were far too self-conscious of their own symbolism, vey much like the campy sainetes popular in theaters at the time (Berti).

For Borges the lyrics of the old payadas and milongas were a means of symbolizing the physical duels of the Argentine pampas. More importantly, they were a means of negotiating conflict through song, a verbal duel fought with voice and guitars—a duel thought to be symbolically represented in the movements of the earliest danced tangos. Borges himself called the payada a “kind of duel, but a duel carried out with guitars” and he found its verbal ripostes reflected in the milonga that formed the basis of early tango (see Ana Cara-Walker). In “La canción del barrio,” he writes:

The milonga . . . sometimes narrates bloody events without hurry, duels which take their time, deaths of valiant spoken provocations; other times it pretends to simulate the themes of destiny. Its airs and arguments will vary; what does not vary is the singer’s intonation, pulled along, with rushes of weariness, never loud, between conversational and sung. . . The milonga is one of Buenos Aires’s great conversational forms.

(Cara-Walker, 284)

What is interesting, at least from the contemporary point of view, is this duality within the tradition of tango itself, whether for export or for domestic consumption. In “Carriego and the Meaning of the Arrabal,” Borges is quite explicit in his criticism of the use of lunfardo (and slang generally) in later tango lyrics and the overwhelming sentimentality of the tango cancion, which he felt diluted the purity and vigor of the early milongas.

The contemporary tango, made totally out of picturesque and worked-over lunfardo, is one thing, and quite another the old tangos made of pure insolence, pure shamelessness, pure happiness in bravery. Those were the genuine voice of the compadrito: The new ones (music and lyrics) are the fiction of those incredulous about comradeship, those who explain things and create disillusion. The primordial tangos—”The Cabaret,” “The Mustang,” “The Argentine Apache,” “A Night of Fun,” and “Hotel Victoria”—testify to the ribald bravery of the arrabal.

(On Argentina, 43)

And in “Genealogy of the Tango”:

The two versions of the tango—the merely licentious and the mischevious—could correspond to two different eras: the first to this regrettable contemporary episode of low-life elegies in a studiously lunfardo dialect, complete with bandoneones; the other to the good-old (terrible) times of cuts, of electoral stabbings, of corners tricked out in bellicose gangs.

(On Argentina, 72)

Borges again returns to the idea of the dissolution found in the contemporary tango in “The Language of the Argentines”:

The first tangos, the old, wonderful tangos, never had lunfardo lyrics: The use of lunfardo is merely an affectation that novelty-seeking, contemporary simplemindedness makes obligatory, and which fills tangos with phony secrets and false emphases. Every new tango written in this so-called popular idiom is a puzzle susceptible to diverse readings, with corollaries, dark passages, and the documented discussion of commentators. That obscurity is logical: The common people don’t have to add local color to themselves. The faker imagines he does need it, and it’s a habit that fits in with his modus operandi. The soul of the orillas combined with a vocabulary that belonged to everyone: That was the substance of the snappy milongas; international banality and an underworld vocabulary are what we have in today’s tango.

(On Argentina, 82)

It is a theme Borges returns to repeatedly in his writings, this contrast between the vibrant bravery, the “religion of courage” evoked in the early milongas of the arrabal and the later “sad” tango that became popular after Gardel. Of course, Borges’s insistence on this strain of bravery and simplicity was not simply a way of helping to create an origin myth for Argentina but a reaction to the growing number of immigrants in Buenos Aires. In “A History of the Tango,” he acknowledges this, writing: “Perhaps this is the tango’s mission: to give Argentines the belief in a brave past, in having met the demands of honor and bravery” (On Argentina, 105).

Later in life, however, Borges revised his earlier antipathy to the development of the tango and the emasculating influence attributed to the waves of immigrants that flooded into the country for work at the turn of the last century. And in 1955 he wrote “In this myth, or fiction, of a ‘creole‘ tango corrupted by the gringos, I see a clear symptom, today, of certain nationalist heresies that have devastated the world” (Evaristo Carriego, quoted in Berti, 55). Borges wrote these words shortly after Peron removed him from his position as Director of the National Library and made him Poultry Inspector. Michele McKay Aynseworth explains Borges’s change of heart as a realization “that his own idealization of the compadrito, and of the classic tango before it had become ‘Italianized,’ meshed too neatly with Peron’s extreme xenophobia and manipulation of low-class thugs. . . . Having experienced Peron’s ultranationalist excesses, Borges backed away from his previous anti-gringo, anti-Italian insistence on a mythically pure Creole past” (Aynesworth, 57).

There is more than a little irony in the fact that in the stage production of Forever Tango, which helped popularize tango internationally, one of the most famous duets is that between Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran, danced to the music of Pugliese, a composition entitled “A Evaristo Carriego” (first recorded in 1969). Gavito and Duran are magnificent here, but the performance—the entire stage production—is a canonical example of export tango and tango escenario. Both the music and the dancing represent everything that Borges disliked about the far more subdued tangos of the Golden Age—their sentimentality and excess primarily, here compounded by the overdetermined symbolism of the performance, the audacious, almost campy eroticism, and the rich orchestration of Pugliese’s music.

I don’t know what Borges thought of the Golden Age tangos that preceded Pugliese’s well-known composition, but, although his antipathy toward the sentimentality of the tango cancion may have softened, I suspect his loyalties remained with the earlier, more folkloric songs of the arrabal.

Overall, we could say that there are three mythic strains in tango that coexist (although with unequal force). The first, and most prevalent, is the myth of “exotic eroticism” found in export tango. Stage tango, movies, theatrical productions, and performances abound with references to a highly charged, eroticized tango. The second, which could be referred to as the “esoteric” tango of the milonguero, embodies the myth of tango presented in the music of the Golden Age, roughly the period between 1920 and the mid-1950s, the sentimental and nostalgic tango that Borges rejected as being inauthentic. Less overtly stylized, more personal and heartfelt, it contains a world of individual loss and nostalgia, of sadness, unrequited love, betrayal, and abandonment—and some occasional lightheartedness as well. It provides a surface on which personal emotions loom large and it marks a sharp break with the far less sentimental tangos of the previous century. And lastly, there is the myth of Argentina itself as related in the rural milongas and payadas that Borges admired. This is the myth of the pampas and open skies, of hard men on horseback, who would lose their life before their honor, of challenges and duels, both in words and in deeds. Whether symbolic or actual, the adventures and sentiments brought to life in these songs helped establish an origin myth for the country. For Borges, it was a form of criollismo, a view of the past that eschewed the nostalgic longing of the immigrants who shaped what has come to be known as tango today.

Aynseworth, Michele McKay, “Borges and Tango: Imagining Argentina,” West Virginia University Philological Papers, 52, 2006.
Berti, Eduardo, “Éloge tempéré du tango,” Le Magazine Littéraire, 376, May 1999.
Borges, Jorge Luis, On Argentina (London: Penguin Books, 2010).
Cara, Anna, “Entangled Tangos: Passionate Displays, Intimate Dialogs,” Journal of American Folklore, v. 122, n. 486, Fall 2009, pp 438-465.
Cara-Walker, Anna, “Borges’ Milongas: The Chords of Argentine Verbal Art,” in Borges the Poet, ed. Carlos Cortinez (Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1986).
Mauriño, Gabriella, “Tango and Milonga: A Close Relationship” (
Sarlo, Beatriz, “Borges: Tradition and the Avant-Garde,” Borges Studies Online, University of Pittsburgh, (
Thomson, Robert Farris, Tango, the Art History of Love (New York: Pantheon 2005).

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