Borges' bad politics.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 7 2007 7:11 AM

Jorge Luis Borges

Can a great writer be blind to the world around him?

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In 1983, after the junta fell, he was finally forced into an acceptance of plebeian democracy, the very thing he had always most detested. A decade of infernal anguish for his beloved country had at last taught him that state terror is more detestable still. It was a hard lesson for a slow pupil. On an international scale, Borges can perhaps be forgiven for his ringing endorsement of Gen. Pinochet's activities in Chile: After all, Margaret Thatcher seems to have shared his enthusiasm. But within Argentina, there are some distinguished minds that have had to work hard to see their greatest writer sub specie aeternitatis without wishing his pusillanimity to be enrolled along with his prodigious talent. Sábato's blindness, unlike Borges', was confined only to the last part of his life, but it was complete enough. His ears, however, remained in good working order, and when the time came he was able to take on the cruel job of writing about the Disappeared—the innocent people whose vanishing took so long to attract Borges' attention.

Correction, Feb. 8, 2007: This article originally and incorrectly identified Buenos Aires as the city where Jorge Luis Borges died. He died in Geneva. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.