Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Edgardo C. Krebs. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.019


Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

Disagreements, affinities

Edgardo C. KREBS, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Missing from scholarly studies of Borges’ work are substantial analyses of his interest in anthropology and the way it found carefully meditated expression in his essays and fiction. The common thread was a concern with some of the central subjects of anthropological theory: the possibilities of symbols and language to represent the world, categories of thought, systems of classification and the risks of translation. Alfred Métraux arrived in Argentina in 1928 with the ambitious project of starting a fieldwork-based school of anthropology. I contend that Borges’ adversarial engagement with Métraux’s work led directly to stories like “Dr. Brodie’s Report” and “The Ethnographer.” An inquiry on the tension between fiction and ethnography that runs through these stories sheds new light on the unorthodox history of anthropology in Argentina, and on Métraux’s relationship with Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Keywords: History of anthropology; Jorge Luis Borges; Alfred Métraux; Claude Lévi-Strauss, Argentina

D’abord, Alfred Métraux fut l’homme qui a toujours voulu prendre l’ethnographie au sérieux, qui a inlassablement protégé notre science, et les indigenes eux-mêmes, contre les fantaisies parfois dangereuses des esthètes et des théoriciens.1

– Claude Lévi-Strauss[296]


Two fugitive gauchos, herding ahead of them a string of stolen horses, cross the frontier at dawn, set for Indian country. With misgivings that could not be helped they turn their heads to look at the receding lights of the last settlements, las ultimas poblaciones. They press on.

This liminal scene from José Hernández’s Martín Fierro (1872, 1879), a long nineteenth-century poem that has acquired mythical dimensions for Argentines, was a favorite of Jorge Luis Borges. He recreated it overtly in The Story of the Warrior and the Captive, and in The South. He variously refigured and transformed many of its themes in his analytical fiction. He tried to enact it too. There was a bridge in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Puente Alsina, that stood between the last settlements and the “magic circle of the pampas.”2 After long walks that sometimes lasted most of the night, Borges often ended at the bridge. As in a ritual, he stood on it to experience the thrill of that border, the lights of the new city behind him; ahead, in darkness and silence, the tantalizing wilderness, a nonhuman presence that preceded the city and its inhabitants and would endure after their memory had been erased. Borges would take friends to the bridge to see how they reacted. When the French writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, after being subjected to the ritual, defined the pampas as “horizontal vertigo,” Borges was pleased. It had been left to a foreigner, he said, to find the perfect words that had eluded him, and many generations of Argentines. Did you take Alfred Métraux to the bridge? I asked him once. “Yes,” he responded without hiding his irritation, “but he was not impressed at all.”3


Alfred Métraux was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1902, but he grew up in the Andean province of Mendoza, Argentina, where his father was an expatriate medical doctor and surgeon of great prestige. He would later reminisce: “I had, therefore, an Argentine childhood, and the mountains and the dry pampas are part of my earlier memories. I think that the attraction I felt towards those landscapes is at the root of the choice of my career” (Métraux 1954). He rode a horse to school and some of his playmates were Mapuche Indians. When he turned eleven his father sent him to a gymnasium in Lausanne. After graduation he wanted to become an historian and archivist, and attended the École nationale des chartes for a few years (Georges Bataille, who would become a lifelong friend, was one of his classmates) before moving to the École des langues orientales4 and later to the L’École des hautes etudes where, in 1928, he obtained his doctorate in anthropology with a thesis on the history and material culture of the Tupinambá. That same year—at age [299]twenty-six—he returned to Argentina, to be the founding director of the Instituto de Etnologia de la Universidad de Tucumán. “My task—he wrote—was to create a research center in the old capital of one of the most interesting regions of South America, a crossroads of the indigenous cultures of the Andes, the pampas, and the forests of the Gran Chaco” (Métraux 1954: 358). He had done his first fieldwork at age twenty in Lagunas de Guanacache, Mendoza, prompted by Eric Boman and Felix Outes.5 Now he embarked on an ambitious research plan that took him to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, where he also stayed for extended periods among the highland Chipaya Indians.[300]

Figure 1
Figure 1: Alfred Métraux at age nine in Mendoza, Argentina, ready to ride to school. Photo courtesy of Daniel Métraux.

It was during this time (1928–34) that Métraux first met Borges in Buenos Aires. They both belonged to the group of writers, painters, musicians, and intellectuals that gathered around Victoria Ocampo’s journal, SUR.6

“My God, why would I not admit it?”—he wrote after leaving Argentina to Maria Rosa Oliver, also a member of the SUR group.

I love the Argentine landscape deeply, selfishly, and I am sure that my life would lose meaning if I were to be separated from it for long. . . . I am irritated by your accusation of not understanding your country because, you say, I am incapable of appreciating the beauty of its landscape. I am convinced that I know your land better than all of you. Who among you, in Buenos Aires, has been to Catamarca, the Calchaquí Valleys, the Quebrada del Toro, the deserts of the High Andes, Aconquija??? You do not even have the excuse of distance; in 24 hours you can be in the Andes and in the extreme north. My taste for the truth has made it impossible for me to believe in the sincerity of feelings that have always seemed artificial to me. How can you love the pampas if you have only seen them from a train, on the way to Mar del Plata?7 Who among your friends has slept under an algarrobo tree, or a quebracho?8

For Métraux, knowing the land meant more than reacting emotionally to the landscape. “I would like to participate in your group,” he wrote in the same letter to Maria Rosa Oliver, “as the person who takes on the task of advancing the study of sociology and psychology . . . and I am going to fight . . . so that the fugitive aspects of your distant past are observed and recorded before it is too late. If you, South Americans, are not interested . . . in your Indians, in your metisse masses, it is up to us, the ‘North Americans,’ to replace you and describe for you your own country. I assure you that I am not exaggerating one bit.”9

Borges probably figured prominently in Métraux’s mind when he wrote those words. On the strength of his fieldwork experiences in Mendoza, the Gran Chaco, and Bolivia, Métraux could not be impressed by the faltering, conjured view of the pampas provided by the vantage point of a bridge in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.10[301]


Perhaps Métraux achieved his wish of becoming an “instructor” of the SUR group in ways he could not have imagined: as a source of the two fictions in which Borges alludes directly to ethnography.

In the first of these, “The Ethnographer” (1969), Borges tells in a succinct, exemplary way the story of Fred Murdock, a student at the University of Texas, “naturally respectful and not averse to books and those who write books,” and of that age at which “men do not know who they are” and can throw themselves at anything that fate presents to them: the study of “Persian mysticism, the origins of the Hungarian language, algebra . . .” His teacher suggests fieldwork among a certain tribe in the West to learn their rites and go through their initiation ceremonies. In an obvious allusion to himself and his family history Borges slides in the sentence: “one of his elders had died in the frontier wars; that old discord between their kin was now a link.” Murdock embarks on “the long adventure,” lives precariously for two years in a hut, “learns to dream in a language that is not his own” and think in ways “his own logic rejected.” The shaman he is an apprentice to finally reveals to him the secrets he was after. One morning, without saying goodbye, Murdock leaves. Back in Texas he tells his professor he had learned all he wanted to know but that he would not write a monograph. “Is the English language insufficient for that task?” the professor asks. No, that was not the reason. And he would not go and settle among the Indians either. “Fred married, divorced and is now a librarian at Yale,” the story ends (Borges 1969).

With Métraux in mind, two types of comments are possible. The first type has to do with “circumstantial evidence.” In 1940, Métraux joined the Yale anthropology faculty as “Bishop Museum Professor.” The head of the department was George Murdock, who was also the best man in Métraux’s wedding to Rhoda Bubendey in 1941. These details may seem banal (nothing was banal in Borges’ choices of names and locations) but they have not been pointed out.

The second type of comment goes straight to the differences between Métraux and Borges. Fred Murdock does what Métraux did—fieldwork—but the expected culmination of this work is not to bear witness to another culture and another history by writing about it. He becomes, instead, a librarian, a custodian (perhaps an interpreter) of the many codified forms that the imagination of man produces, not unlike the protagonist and narrator of “The Library of Babel” (Borges 1941) who spends his days in the “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” of the library. “The library is unlimited but periodic,” the narrator states. “If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant thought.”[302]

One of the plausible interpretations of this story, consistent with a recurring theme in Borges’ work, is that the acquisition of knowledge does not imply the affirmation of a particular cultural perspective but the conscious shedding of it as a philosophical choice, the realization that all cultural perspectives are inventions, as is the thinker himself. In Borges’ case, such a realization is the starting point for literature. If seen as a contest between interpretation (Borges) and description (Métraux), “The Ethnographer” represents a defeat of description. The superior enterprise is to understand the operations of the mind that pursues knowledge, and for Borges one of the necessary options of the thinker is silence.11 More about this later.

The second Borges’ story, in which the ghost of Métraux insinuates itself, perhaps more forcefully, is “Dr. Brodie’s Report” (Borges 1970). In 1931, both Métraux and Borges published articles in SUR’s third issue that are representative of their temperament as writers.12 Métraux’s was an ethnography of the Chipaya Indians. He had just retuned from spending several months with them. The purpose of his expedition (the term he uses) is to verify a hypothesis put forward by Paul Rivet, namely that the Chipaya, isolated in an impossibly barren landscape over 3,000 meters high in the Andes, were one of the few remnants of a widespread culture that preceded the great civilizations of Peru and Bolivia. A key to this argument was the Chipaya language, related to the Arawak spoken by the Indians Columbus first encountered in the Caribbean. It was a perfect subject for Métraux. It went to the heart of an important problem: sorting out the details of the long history and migrations—human and cultural—the Indians of South America had experienced long before the arrival of Europeans. Any sound attempt to solve this problem required a combination of painstaking archival work and dedicated fieldwork. Métraux’s article covers a lot of ground and is full of detailed ethnographic information.13 But it is an odd article too, sounding from the very beginning very [303]Brodie-like notes. Métraux states in a preface that the “Chipaya are the only Indians I have not liked.” Their life is “morose, lacking in any attractive elements, even those traits that could generate the curiosity and sympathy of the profane.” They sacrifice pigs and put their severed heads on a table and pay homage to them over several days, as the flesh decomposes. They use the excrement of sheep to build a fire. Even the weather is strange. It is not unusual for the skies in Chipaya to be split in half, fiercely illuminated on one side while the other is churning with dark storms and blazed by flashes of lightning. And the Chipaya are not beautiful. They do not bathe and they allow their coarse clothes to rot on their bodies before replacing them. The men seem to be “pursuing an interior dream that never renews itself,” and the women comb incessantly their hair, applying putrid urine to it. Even children are different; quiet, subdued, they don’t play. There are no toys in Chipaya. According to their myths, the ancestors of the Chipaya, the Chullpas, were killed by the sun. Their homes had doors opening to the east, to avoid the harsh sun, which rose then from the west. When the sun changed course and rose on the east all Chullpas died, except for two, a man and a woman, who took refuge in a body of water. So the Chipaya consider themselves part of an older, inferior order of humanity, and their domineering neighbors, the Aymara, see them that way, too.

However, this cornered culture—reduced to 240 people—is admirable, Métraux writes, and their impossible landscape “worthy of figuring amongst the most interesting” in the Americas. The reader of this piece who is familiar already with “Dr. Brodie’s Report” is probably struck by the resemblances. Brodie the missionary sounds very much like Métraux the ethnographer, and the Yahoos could be the Chipaya. “They represent (the Yahoos)—Brodie states at the end of his report—culture, just as we do, in spite of our sins. I do not regret having fought in their ranks against the ape-men. It is our duty to save them. I hope that the Government of her Majesty will take heed of what this report has the temerity to suggest.”

It is not just that the Yahoos are degenerate and bestial; that they number only seven hundred, “including the Nr,” that they use excrements to cover the body of their kings, that they are poorly clothed, and their material culture is limited—all things that seem transliterations of the negative characters of the Chipaya. Métraux himself had a crisis once in the Chaco, and fantasied, or hallucinated, with the idea of becoming a missionary. He admired the practical role played in the Chaco by English missionaries who often were the last, or only, refuge Indians had in a frontier setting that was vicious and criminal toward them. It is improbable that Borges did not know about this crisis, because Métraux enlisted the help of Victoria Ocampo to send a letter to the president of Argentina, General Justo, proposing that he be named “Protector of Indians,” a Spanish colonial institution that provided a certain juridical precedent for the sort of actions Métraux wanted to carry out. Like Brodie, Métraux had the temerity to hope that the government would follow his advice—something that did not happen.

It is always imprudent to divine with definitive confidence what sources Borges used for his stories—he was so well and variously read, and his associations were so unpredictable and original—but a case can be reasonably made that Métraux, with his irritating tenacity for factual information, was somewhere in the back of Borges’s mind when he wrote “The Ethnographer” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report”.[304]


There is something more complicated going on behind the scenes of the counterpoint between Borges and Métraux, as presented thus far. The disagreements have been stressed, not the affinities. These, I would argue, are also significant; in particular, for how to think anew about the history of anthropology, for reflecting on the very basic operations of research and the use of sources, and for understanding how all this ends up expressed in an text.

The most important affinity between the two men was that they wrote against tradition, and the contrarian peripheral positions they adopted within their professions. Borges refused to be a predictable Argentine writer (“I am Argentine; I do not need to act Argentine”), and Métraux rejected to assume the point of view of European/Western interpreter of a lesser and exotic world. These were parallel efforts. Borges came to the task pushed by his aversion to nationalism (a sentiment shared by Métraux), and fully aware, as he put it clearly in “The Analytic Language of John Wilkins” (Borges 1952b), that symbols have meaning only if their interpretation is shared. They can be invented with a pretense to universality, as Wilkins intended, but will never achieve it without a willing audience. For Borges this is less an indictment of Wilkins’ experiment than a key for understanding how the mind works. Inventions can be sustained only if a significant number of people share the illusion. “The Encyclopedia of Tlön” (Borges 1944) is based on that premise. Finding first a reference to an improbable and unheard of place called Tlön leads Borges to an encyclopedia that fully describes it. Tlön is a world as alien as the one Dr. Brodie reports on. But it makes sense, it is complete and functional, and although invisible and real only on the pages of an elusive compendium, it is unsettling: the writer that discovered it realizes that it is a world that can take over his own: Borges’s short story ends thus: “French and English and mere Spanish will disappear from the earth. The world will be Tlön.”

Métraux was not attracted by these fine-grained elucidations. Although like the ethnographer Frank Murdock he was “not averse to books and those who write books,” he preferred action in the field and the archive. His first teacher was his father, the expatriate medical doctor. Alfred Métraux, Sr. was a punctilious aficionado to archaeology and what we call today ethnohistory. He had an impressive collection of travel books, which included first editions of classics such as Cook’s Travels. He went on archaeological expeditions in Mendoza and took his son with him. Even as an adult and an accomplished ethnographer, Alfred Jr. was somewhat afraid to send his publications to his father, who had an eye for detail and for finding, victoriously, the errant data, the mistaken attribution—the blemish in the portrait.14 In Paris, Métraux studied with Paul Rivet,15 and mainly with Marcel Mauss, [305]against whose totalizing theories he rebelled.16 More an ethnographer than an ethnologue, he was attracted to Erland Nordenkjold, and sought his mentorship. But the real key to understanding Métraux’s approach to the discipline is to look at two other teachers of his that are seldom mentioned in biographical appraisals: Maurice Delafosse (1870–1926), with whom he studied at the École des langues orientales, and the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Delafosse was a French colonial officer, a self-made ethnographer, and linguist who suffered on account of his activism on behalf of the colonized Africans he was appointed to rule over. Métraux dedicated to him his first publication, an essay on the methodology of fieldwork (Métraux 1926: 262–87). Delafosse’s book Les negres (Delafosse 1927) no doubt was the model for Métraux’s Le Peu Rouges (Métraux 1950). Both are deceptively unacademic in tone. Based on thorough archival and fieldwork research, they are advocacy texts, not enamored with ideas of “others” eternally stuck in ethnographic presents but seeing them as living and evolving cultures and peoples, ready to insert themselves in national frameworks and assert their rights as citizens of hybrid worlds in transformation. The influence of Vico’s ideas is the most solid and constant fault line in Métraux’s work, its origins traceable to the years he spent at the École de Chartres.17 Métraux believed that the ethnographer was fundamentally a historian who searched in archives and among the living traditions of existing [306]populations for ways of seeing and making sense of reality that were missing from the record. Significantly, the histories these efforts produced would attempt to reflect the point of view of the people who lived such histories, had created them. Perhaps the most distinct demonstration of this heuristic approach was his work on Easter Island, where he had to contend with a very decimated native population. But it was using their fragmentary memories and looking for other fragments of history in books that Métraux—in perfect alignment with Vico’s method—was able to produce his remarkable ethnography of Easter Island.18

Métraux and Borges crossed paths in several publications, not just in SUR. The two I would like to notice are the issue of Critique (founded and edited by Georges Bataille) of August–September 1952; and the issue of Temps Modernes (founded and edited by Jean-Paul Sartre) of June 1957. They illustrate a larger point: the appropriation by the Parisian intelligentsia of Borges, and the influence his work began to exert in France—his point of entry into Europe and then the United States.19

In the cited issue of Les Temps Modernes, Métraux and Borges shared the top of the table of contents. There is a first French translation of “The Aleph” (Borges 1957) and a chapter of Métraux’s forthcoming book on Vodou in Haiti (Métraux 1958), “Le Vodou et le Christianisme” (Métraux 1957). As was the case in the SUR issue referred to above, the works in question were very representative of the two authors. Borges’ piece is one of his most accomplished deconstructions of a cosmological order, and Métraux’s is the other side of the coin: a careful construction of sense out of what appears to be a very disconcerting and alien religious practice. It is tempting to think that the editor saw this oppositional tension and deliberately paired the two articles to underscore it.[307]

The translator of “The Aleph”, Paul Benichou,20 is the author of the piece that appeared in Critique, Le Monde de J-L Borges (Benichou 1952). A review of the first French edition of Fictions (Borges 1951), Le Monde . . . is a very perceptive analysis of what the Argentine author was up to: “an interrogation and an investigation of the sense (or the non-sense) of the world.” Benichou remarks that Latin American literature had produced, until then, mostly narratives, stories that describe reality in a straightforward way, as it is perceived. In Borges there is something different, an exception, he says. The local color is not missing, but it is carefully hidden and ciphered within rigorous philosophical speculations of universal relevance. The possibilities of language to express reality are at question in Borges’s fictions, he states.21 And the critique of language and literature leads to a critique of intelligence and memory. The results are not devastating, though. The vertigos produced by thinking—Benichou argues—are inevitable in games played by those who think, and Borges is, en fin de compte, “a smiling demiurge” (Benichou 1952: 675–87).

Borges certainly applies his critical rigor in “The Aleph” to the description of one of the main characters, the professional writer Carlos Argentino Daneri. Everything about him is an imposture, beginning with the middle name, which tries to assert a condition he cannot really claim. He has discovered something extraordinary in the basement of his house in Buenos Aires, the Aleph, a “place where all the places in the world can be found, simultaneously and without mixing with each other, and can be seen from every possible angle.” Yet confronted by this miraculous event Daneri, “whose mental activities are continuous, passionate, versatile and completely insignificant” cannot come up with anything that makes it justice. “I considered his ideas so inept, so pompous, and their exposition so vast,” the narrator comments, “that I immediately related them to literature; I asked him why didn’t he write them down.” Predictably, Daneri had done just that. The mannered language of his texts, the invented terminology, baroque and empty of meaning, prompts the narrator to conclude that the work of the poet was not the production of poetry or understanding and communicating through his writing the exceptional experience he had but to conjure up reasons to make him admirable. The same feelings are often in stock for readers of some ethnographies: the topics are extraordinary yet the opaque corporate language in which they are represented guts any reasonable meaning out of them.

Métraux wrote tersely and precisely. Bataille thought that L’île de Pâques (1941) was “one of the masterpieces of French literature today” that “leaves far behind the mass of novels received by the public as literature”(cited in Debaene 2014: 103). He read and spoke Russian (his mother was Russian), Spanish, French, English, Italian, Portuguese, and German, and had learned Latin at school. He needed to take with him to the field a good collection of books, not ethnographies or volumes of theory but fiction and poetry, classics and modern classics. They constituted an indispensable stream of consciousness that that helped him frame and process [308]his observations. When he lived in Tucumán he sent off lists of titles for his friend Yvonne Oddone in Paris to procure him. Maria Rosa Oliver was recruited for the same purpose. He told her: “I want to be a sort of link between science and literature, a role that suits my hybrid nature.”22 He also needed (like Borges) the stimulation of cinema. Italian neorealism and Soviet films were at the top of his list. The mental discipline that resulted from these constant exercises shaped his professional writing. But a lot was left out from his carefully edited books and papers. It found its way into letters (he was an assiduous correspondent) and personal diaries that should be considered alternate and complementary registers of an ethnographer who could not escape relentless self-examination. On occasion, he wrote things that could have perfectly been imagined by Borges. “I crossed many canals, changed directions many times and realized that without my guide I would never find Chipaya . . . I arrived at a place perfectly barren.” In 1939, returning to Chipaya for another stint of fieldwork, Métraux gets lost in the unforgiving high altitude landscape of the puna. Night falls upon him. His feet are so cold that he puts them inside his hat, to no avail. He cannot find Chipaya. He stumbles into a hut. The door is locked but he can break in. There is nobody there. He can’t see a thing. He finds some pieces of cloth on the floor. They are rotten and make the air unbreathable but he covers himself with them and waits eagerly for the morning. When the sun comes out Métraux realizes that Chipaya is only two kilometers away. The reader is left with the impression that he had spent the night in a chullpa, a house for the dead. This intense and labile story, that wanders seamlessly between the real and the surreal, was written down in his diary with no particular emphasis, which makes it all the more powerful and effective (Métraux 1978: 120–21).


When Borges and Métraux met in the late 1920s or early 1930s, at the beginning of their professional careers, they shared one deep-seated interest: Indians. The very different ways in which they engaged the subject created the tensions which are played out in “The Ethnographer” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report”.

Borges was the inheritor and interpreter of a criollo, home-grown intellectual tradition—mostly rooted in the city of Buenos Aires—which was forged during the nineteenth century out of the revolution of 1810, the wars of independence with Spain, and the civil wars that followed, headed by local caudillos. This tradition, initiated by revolutionary patriots influenced by the Enlightenment, was contested by the romantics of the generation of 1837, and further reshaped by the cosmopolitans of the generation of 1880. What mattered most to Borges in these obviously complex, protracted political and cultural processes (impossibly summarized in the last two sentences) was the myth making activity that went on with them.23 Spaniards and Indians had to be assigned a role in the myths, and the role chosen for them in a nation that projected itself as European was one of suppression [309]and invisibility. Borges interpreted each case of this double erasure very differently. The Spaniards were attacked on the language front. In early essays on Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Gongora, two classic authors of the Siglo de Oro—the century of Cervantes—he thoroughly deconstructed their use of grammar and of words, and asserted his own, Borgesian philosophical handling of these expressive and meaning-making tools, a technical equivalent of the more symbolic burial (or recreation) of Spanish literature he would later perform in “Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote” (Borges 1967c). Spanish literature was not Argentine literature, he stated, making the cut final and explicit, and giving a date for the divorce: 1810. The act of assuming political independence for Borges implied a more radical act of intellectual adventure, the birth of an Argentine Adam free to explore anew all possible worlds (Krebs 2012: 61–66).

On the subject of Indians, nothing is simple in Borges. To explain how they figure in his imagination, how he interprets, or achieves, their invisibility, a more intricate navigation is necessary.

A good point of departure is his lecture on Dante (Borges 1990: 9–32). In its conversational tone this lecture is, perhaps, the most thorough and consecutive explanation given by Borges of his personal understanding of what literature is, and what is the task of the writer.

Borges notes that Dante writes the Divine Comedy in Tuscan, then a dialect of Italian, not in the learned Latin of scholars. And he does so in the first person, involving himself as a character in the story, and this is something new. St. Augustine’s Confessions precedes the Commedia but does not convey a similar immediacy or closeness to the reader. “The splendid rhetoric of the African”—Borges points out—“is a barrier between what he says and what we hear.” The other two main characters are the poet Virgil, his guide—a “virtuous pagan” condemned by being born before the arrival on earth of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of sins and savior of souls—and the never mentioned presence of God. The first stanzas place Dante halfway down the road of his life, in a dark forest, trying to find his way. The long poem—100 cantos—is not only a description of a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise but also an exercise in the Aristotelian prescription of examining one’s life. It is of an intensity that never diminishes. Borges can think of only one other example of such sustained intensity in the history of literature: Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Dante’s command of words is hesitant at the beginning, he had not yet acquired, as Borges puts it, the perfection of his art. This happens as he moves further into the poem; the poem creates the poet.24 When Dante achieves the perfection of his art, his words mean more than what they say because the rhythm that orders them communicates his emotions and tone of voice. And they do something else, very important for Borges, which he tried to emulate in his stories: Dante discovered the [310]capacity to cipher the entire life of a person in a sentence. “Novels require five hundred or six hundred words to make us know someone, if we ever do. Dante needs just one moment” (Borges 1990: 20).

What Borges is praising in Dante is what he thinks a good writer should do: hone all those invisible processes of editing, sifting, and discarding thoughts and feelings that enable an author to come close to something essential that has to be told, and then pour it only into the words that are necessary, words that seem reinvented for the purpose.

Borges also notes that “the idea of a text of multiple interpretations” is a characteristic of the Middle Ages, and that the Commedia can be read literally, allegorically, and so on. It can also be read—it could be argued—as an ethnography: an ethnography of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Dante is the participant observer, Virgil the knowledgeable guide. There is a voyage, an initiation and the struggle to convey the meaning of what was seen and lived, even if the goal is in the end futile or unattainable. When he arrives in Paradise, Dante’s words begin to fail him. Borges uses the canvass of a voyage in many of his stories, certainly in “The Ethnographer” and in “Dr. Brodie’s Report”.25

To represent the search for knowledge Borges goes back to one of the earliest sources, a metaphor that appears in Homer’s The Odyssey. It involves a distinction between dreams and reality. Penelope has had a dream and is recounting it to Ulysses, who has returned incognito to his home in Ithaca. Penelope has not realized yet that the stranger she is talking to is her husband. She wants to know the meaning of her dream, whether it portends something truthful or not.

“ Ah friend,” seasoned Penelope dissented,
“dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things—
not all we glimpse in them will come to pass . . .
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
one is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
Are will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
Are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.” (Homer 1996: 408 [547–80])

This distinction, picked up later on by Plato in his ambivalent dialogues on the roles of the philosopher and the poet, was important for Borges. As he did with many other classical formulas, he stood this one, assertively, on its head.

There is a passage in the Aeneid, Borges writes, when the hero Aeneas goes beyond the Pillars of Hercules and descends to the Elysian Fields (Borges 1990b: 35–54). There he sees the shadows of Achilles and of his own mother. He sees the future grandeur of Rome, the city that he will later found, and he sees Augustus in all his imperial glory. When he returns to earth, after seeing all this, “something curious happens, not quite well explained, except for an anonymous commentator.” According to his interpretation—shared by Borges—Aeneas returned to earth through the Gate of Ivory, the gate of false dreams, not the Gate of Horn, the gate of [311]prophetic or true dreams, because for Virgil the real world was the Platonic world, the world of archetypes. “Aeneas,” Borges concludes, “goes through the Gate of Ivory because he enters the world of dreams—that is to say, what we call wakefulness.” Borges subscribed to this inversion of meanings.26

To draw his cognitive maps Borges relied on the recombination of a deep memory of authors and philosophical traditions. This is what distinguishes the form of essays and short fiction he invented. It is something obvious and well known, and it has been amply discussed (Mualem 2012; Magnavacca 2009; Jaén 1992). What has not been remarked upon is that when it came to place Argentine Indians on those cognitive maps, Borges chose to follow and adapt a key theological argument by Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). In fact, Borges was very much at home in the imaginative world of the philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages. The task of rearranging Christian ontology in light of the works of classical Greek philosophy made available by the Translation Movement, started in Baghdad in the ninth century, produced the kind of radical puzzles and paradoxical thinking Borges was keen on. In De Docta Ignorantia Nicholas of Cusa argues that in trying to approach an understanding of God a doctrine or science of ignorance is necessary, because an infinite God is beyond apprehension by a finite intellect. Aristotelian rationality provides a means for attempting the explanation of the diversity of Creation but not of the Creator. A symbolic, indirect language born out of the knowledge of not knowing has to be cultivated to match this “visio sine comprehensione.”27

Borges used the geometrical edifice constructed by Cusa to place the Indian, an essentialized Argentine Indian, in the powerful, divine position of the unknowable. This can be verified in its most accomplished form in the short story “El Sur” (Borges 1967e), where Juan Dahlmann, the librarian grandson of an immigrant Evangelical minister, in a sudden and one could argue mystical impulse, boards a train that takes him south of Buenos Aires, into the plains, where he is killed by an Indian during the course of a knife fight, in what appears to be an ultimate communion. The motif appears also in “Funes el memorioso” (Borges 1967d), where a pre-lapsarian Indian, has the capacity to see the world in excruciating detail and simultaneously, and is also able to reconstruct in his memory all the events and [312]thoughts he experienced in his life, all the dreams he has had. But he is incapable of abstract, Platonic thinking. Immobile after an accident, this “solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and intolerably precise world” succumbs when he attempts to codify his God-like knowledge, to resemble, in other words, the brainy and literary narrator, who is Borges himself. There are traces of the same motif in “The Writing of the God” (Borges 1967b), where the protagonist, a shaman/priest named Tzinacán, is trapped in a prison made of two chambers separated by a wall that does not quite reach the ceiling. He is in one of the chambers; in the other, there is a jaguar. Through the narrow gap at the top of the wall Tzinacán can observe the jaguar. The priest feels that the arrival of the Spaniards who imprisoned him is a portent of the end of the world, and tries to remember a sentence written by God at the moment of creation. That sentence can remedy all the ills attending the final days. After much meditation he realizes that the writing of the God is encrypted on the spots of the jaguar’s skin. After persistent, obsessive efforts of memory and observation, he is able to read the fourteen words of the redeeming message but prefers to die with the jaguar, protecting the mystery.

Alfred Métraux, who was recruited by Borges without knowing it into his web of connections and symbols, could not have had a more different view of the Indians of Argentina. For him Indians were living, breathing beings with a culture, domestic lives, an unavoidable physical presence, their own sense of the sacred and the profane, relegated to a marginal situation as putative citizens by a republic and a society that chose to look past them. He arrived back in Argentina after having studied with Delafosse, Nordenskiold, Rivet, and Mauss, with a well thought out and ambitious project as the founding director of the Institute of Ethnology of the University of Tucumán. He laid out his plans in advance in a memorandum several pages long that reads, even today, like a cutting edge document. He was clearly following Vico’s main insights, retooling them for action in the twentieth century, and applying them not to European cultures but to indigenous ones—much like a professed disciple of Vico, Lorenzo Boturini Benaducci (1702–53) had attempted to do in Mexico in the eighteenth century.28 He sought to build an archive, a collection of material culture that also probed geographical areas not well represented in the incipient museums of Buenos Aires and La Plata. To this Métraux added a demanding ethnographic fieldwork schedule—a still not fully disseminated practice on which he had published one of the earliest prescriptive papers (Métraux 1926)—a journal, modeled on the German Anthropos, and a policy of inserting the Institute in an international network of museums and anthropologists. Métraux believed in the value of photography and film as tools of the discipline and took a camera to the field. He also believed in communicating his findings to the general public, and contributed articles to newspapers and popular magazines. No wonder Métraux stood out for Borges, he had probably never encountered anybody like him.

Although the two men, Borges and Métraux, did not share the same hermeneutics, they were similarly subversive of the received ideas that pervaded Argentine society in the 1930s: in particular, the drift toward a rancid nationalism that gradually evolved into fascism in the 1940s. Each after their own fashion were exploding [313]what Vico called “the conceit of nations”—Borges by injecting into the bloodstream of Argentine culture complex strands of philosophy that were, in turn reinterpretations through a novel way of understanding the act of writing; Métraux, by opening archives and looking for documents that rewrote the history of Argentina, making the Indians visible and also, no less importantly, making visible the long and formative links with Spain by recovering the country’s rich colonial history, which is to this day, mostly unknown to the majority of the population.29

Métraux sometimes expressed the wish of having been born in the eighteenth century and to have been one of those Jesuits who first encountered unknown Indian groups in the heart of the Amazon. Borges was at home with the neo-Platonists and scholastics of the Middle Ages. Their philosophical works had discussed everything. “And yet, and yet,” he wrote, “to deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. . . . The world, alas, is real; and I, alas, am Borges” (cited in Jaén 1992: 199).


“Métraux is my best student, and also Erland Nordensjiold’s best student,” wrote Paul Rivet to Juan Teran, the Dean of the University of Tucumán. “If he were French I would keep him here, but he is Swiss, and you know that French law does not permit foreign employees. I give you a jewel, and if you accept him I can tell you that Tucuman will have the best ethnologist in all Latin America. . . . Métraux speaks Spanish as if it were his maternal tongue, speaks French and German, reads English perfectly and Danish, and also speaks Swedish. I repeat that I am referring to a man of the first order. Take him with every confidence. After a short time you will thank me.”30

This glowing recommendation appears more relevant if placed in context. When it was written, in 1928, modern French anthropology was a nascent project. Lévi-Strauss was twenty years old. The patrons of the discipline where Paul Rivet, with a base in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro—which he would transform, in 1938, into the Musée de l’Homme—and Marcel Mauss at the Institut d’ethnologie, which he had founded in 1925.31 Métraux, in fact, was one of the first to obtain a doctorate there. If fieldwork is considered a formative and defining experience in the changing discipline, he did not have many peers among his young [314]colleagues. His friend Georges Bataille, then at the beginning of a career that would also venture into anthropology, was not an ethnographer.32 Métraux’s initial ostracism in Argentina eventually developed into a wide parting of ways with his French colleagues. He had more serious problems with them than with the SUR group. The very definition of anthropology as a discipline was at stake. He complained in private letters about the “abuse of humanism” of French intellectuals,33 of the lack of fieldwork experience of her anthropologists. In the fifties, while living in Paris working at UNESCO as a social scientist, Métraux was on the sidelines when Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roger Caillois had a very public fight for control over the road French anthropology would take. Les frères enemies: A fight between brothers. Perhaps the wrong fight, and the wrong brothers.34 Caillois was indeed walking on the same turf as Lévi-Strauss; both were grand interpreters and synthesizers of ethnographic information. Métraux, however, filled more appropriately the role of enemy-brother than Caillois, because he represented a better differentiated, more substantial, and challenging approach to the practice, and the writing, of anthropology. Métraux believed that the archive and the field offered quarries that had to be exhausted before venturing into the realm of totalizing theories. His “enmity” with Lévi-Strauss on this subject was never expressed. There were no open and public debates between them over programmatic or epistemological issues. They both cultivated their brand of anthropology, and success and influence accrued to Lévi-Strauss while Métraux—highly respected by his French colleagues as he was—remained in the shadows. Both friends were aware of their increasingly diverging itineraries within the discipline but their ruminations about what this meant for them, and for anthropology, were confined to private letters and diaries (Métraux) or are buried between the lines of published interviews, acknowledgements, or occasional offerings (Lévi-Strauss). This is how Lévi-Strauss reviewed the situation in one of those occasional offerings:

D’abord, Alfred Métraux fut l’homme qui a toujours voulu prendre l’ethnographie au sérieux, qui a inlassablement protégé notre science, et les indigènes eux-mêmes, contre les fantaisies parfois dangereuses des esthètes et des théoriciens. Ensuite, il a voulu et il a su assigner à l’ethnologie ses véritables dimensions, voir en elle une science humaine dans toute l’acception du terme, c’est-à-dire s’appuyant sur des disciplines aussi traditionnelles que la paléographie, l’archéologie, a philologie et l’histoire, et qui doit tout de même—et c’est son originalité—se revigorer constamment dans l’expérience du terrain. A tous les niveaux et sur tous les plans, il a tenu à appliquer et à nous enseigner une méthode critique rigoureuse. Si je compare deux [315]ouvrages fort éloignés par le temps, puisque vingt-cinq années séparent leur publication—son Ile de Pâques et son récent ouvrage sur Les Incas—, je suis frappé de voir à quel point la méthode pratiquée est la même; d’abord, s’entourer de tout l’appareil critique, de tout la masse des informations disponibles, l’analyser, la dépouiller, la discuter, la classer, l’exploiter; ensuite vivifier tout cela par l’expérience du terrain, et ne jamais céder aux complaisances de l’imagination, trop encline aux reconstruction fantastiques. . . . Il y avait donc en lui, ce rare alliage d’un immense savoir théorique et d’un solide sens pratique. Nous le regardions comme le préposé à notre savoir—car nous avions constamment recours à lui pour nous instruire—mais aussi, comme une sorte de délégué à notre hygiène mentale.35

It is a paragraph that borders on the confessional. The real challenge is to place Métraux in the rich context of characters, whispers, and suppressed or delayed reckonings it evokes. Why was Métraux necessary for the “mental hygiene” of anthropology? Andre Breton called him “the antipoet” because he read the arts premiers differently than the Surrealists—much more like the men and women who made and used those arts. The Lévi-Strauss quote seems to correctly suggest—except for mentioning the Neapolitan scholar’s name—that Métraux’s own point of departure to reflect on these issues was anchored in Vico, the main source of the intellectual tradition he embraced: a tradition, he felt, which had never been granted a proper seat at the anthropologists’ table.36 Marcel Mauss, with whom Métraux [316]had discussed different approaches to the discipline (see note 16), was critical of the work of Bataille and Caillois. In 1938, after Caillois had just published Le Mythe et l’Homme, Mauss wrote his pupil a letter in which he told him, “As much as I am persuaded that poets or men of great eloquence can sometimes regulate social life, I am equally skeptical of the capabilities of some second-rate philosophy, especially a philosophy of Paris, to regulate anything at all. In short, you are not a philosopher, not even a philosophy professor. Believe me, stay in your area as a mythologist.”37 Bataille had met Mauss through Métraux who, on long walks up and down the Rue de Rennes where Bataille lived, explained to him the behavior of Kwakiutl chiefs during a Potlach, “the aggressive character of generosity” (Métraux 1963: 680). Bataille became fascinated by this and by Mauss, who did not reciprocate the enthusiasm and kept his distance not just from Bataille but also from the College de Sociologie, founded by Bataille, and two of his students, Caillois and Michel Leiris. He did not agree with their reinterpretations of the Durkheimian tradition and of his own theories on gifts and expectations and obligations they entailed. The maître could have gotten wrong the meaning of some key Maori concepts like hau, essential for explaining the circuit of obligations enforced by the spirit of the gift.38

Métraux did not openly engage in these disputes, although all the participants were close to him. However, in a posthumous article on Bataille he takes the measure of his friend with discretion and elegance. In 1928, when Métraux was involved in curating Les Arts Anciens de L’Amerique, he and Bataille were asked to contribute an essay on the subject to the Cahiers de la Republique des Lettres des Sciences et des Arts (see above). Bataille knew nothing about the subject, took the assignment as a pensum, and gathered some appropriate bibliography, much of it provided by Métraux himself. In the resulting article, Métraux sees clearly outlined the main themes of Bataille’s future work, and judges it “the precursor of an entire school of ethnology which has attempted to define the ethos, the hierarchy of values that gives each civilization its own characteristics” (Métraux 1963: 678). Bataille’s exclusive fascination with the Aztecs and the violence of their sacrifices, the seduction exerted on him by the eroticism and the part maudite expressed in the “happiness of those horrors,” his dismissal of the Mayas, is not shared by Métraux. Bataille had used, after all, a single source for his interpretations: the work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. Yet, Métraux concludes reminiscing about his friend with the following judgment: “the problems that he posed are no different than those that ethnologists have attempted to resolve and that justify the existence of our science” (Métraux 1963: 684).


Victoria Ocampo knew Borges and Métraux very well and was aware of the unresolved tension between them. She also knew that this tension was ontological (how [317]to account for the world, how to account for one’s self and the selves of others) and that it represented something important to her and to her SUR project. It is not surprising, therefore, that when she learned about Alfred’s suicide she wrote him a letter in which Borges appears as a necessary ghost:

Dear Métraux you were right. You are still right. I would have liked to tell you this. I would have liked to make an amend honorable. You knew the Americas better that I did. Everything that was good that came out of Sur was the product of a hothouse, even though I am a wild plant, a mutt. . . . However, when the occasion presents itself of exporting a Borges (like is now the case) since there is a demand for his work, it would seem that everybody forgets the oblivion to which he was condemned for years. I do not. Borges came out of the hothouse but he is more Argentine than criollo bread and bitter mate. Now they have to swallow him whole, hothouse and all. I would have liked to discuss this with you, my dear Métraux. . . . Your disappearance impoverishes us all, your friends. Circumstances kept us apart of late. But our friendship no longer depended on seeing each other. And you have not died for me. (Ocampo 1967: 153–56)

Borges had a Swiss adolescence: he attended high school in Geneva, where he learned Latin and German and opened up a lifetime of fieldwork in libraries. Métraux, as we know, had an Argentine childhood, which determined his sensibility as an ethnographer. Borges is buried in Geneva, mi otra patria, his second home. When Métraux was scribbling his final notebook entry, witnessing his own death (as he had his father’s) he turned to his childhood in Mendoza and said goodbye to himself in Spanish: “Adios Alfredo Métraux.” In life and in texts, the paths of the writer and the anthropologist kept intersecting and diverging in complicated ways until the very end.

Métraux’s sister, Vevette, who perhaps knew him better than anybody else, thought that the most apt epitaph for his tomb would be what Juan Tepano—his main Easter Island collaborator—had said: “Well, Alfredo, I have told you everything I know. Now you have to write it down.”39


This article is in memoriam of Rodney Needham (1923–2006) and Ivan Karp (1943–2011), who told me they used Borges’ work—particularly “The Ethnographer” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report”—to teach anthropology in their classes.


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Jorges Luis Borges et Alfred Métraux: désaccords et affinités

Résumé : Jusqu’à maintenant, aucune analyse substantielle de l’œuvre de Borges ne prend en compte l’intérêt de l’auteur pour l’anthropologie, ni la place soigneusement attribuée à celle-ci dans ses essais et dans sa fiction. Pourtant des thèmes [321]centraux de la théorie anthropologique y sont explorés, tels que la possibilité de représenter le monde à travers des symboles et le langage, la nature des catégories de pensée et des systèmes de classification, et les risques posés par la traduction. Alfred Métraux débarqua en Argentine en 1928 avec l’ambitieux projet de commencer une école d’anthropologie entièrement organisée autour de l’enquête de terrain. Dans cet essai, je suggère que le rapport antagoniste que Borges entretenait avec l’œuvre de Métraux est en lien direct avec des récits tels que Le Rapport de Brodie et L’Ethnographe. L’étude des tensions entre fiction et ethnographie, omniprésentes dans ces histoires, éclaire d’un nouveau jour l’histoire singulière de l’anthropologie en Argentine et la relation de Métraux et Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Edgardo C. KREBS is a social anthropologist. He studied at the Universities of La Plata, Argentina, and Oxford, England. He has done fieldwork in Tierra del Fuego, Madagascar, and the Argentine Chaco. His Sangre Negra: Breve historia de una película perdida, on the censored first film adaptation (1950) of Richard Wright’s Native Son, came out last year. Wright produced the film, shot in Buenos Aires, and played the lead role. Krebs’ edition of a manuscript on Métraux’s experiences in WWII, The Morale Division: An ethnography of the misery of war, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2017, followed by an intellectual biography of Alfred Métraux.

Edgardo C. Krebs
Research Associate
Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
10th and Constitution Ave
Washington, D.C. 20550


1. “To begin with, it was Métraux who always took ethnography seriously, who tirelessly protected our science, and the Indians themselves, from the sometimes dangerous fantasies of the esthetes and the theoreticians” (Lévi-Strauss 1964, my translation).

2. Borges (1952a) uses the phrase in his review of William Henry Hudson’s The Purple Land that England Lost (1885).

3. I first met Borges when I was 16, at the National Library of Argentina, which he then directed. I asked him the question about Métraux in1982, during the course of a series of visits to his apartment in Buenos Aires.

4. What is today the Institut national des langues et civilizations orientales (INALCO).

5. Felix Outes (1879–1939) a pioneer of Argentine anthropology, wrote the first textbook used in schools that surveyed the country’s Indian population (1910). Eric Boman (1867–1924) was a Swedish-born self-made anthropologist who spent most of his adult life in Catamarca province, Argentina. His two-volume work on the archaeology of the Andean region in Argentina (1908) is considered a classic.

6. SUR was first published in 1931, and had a run of more than thirty years. There is no entirely fulfilling appraisal of SUR yet—it was such a rich, multifaceted, and eccentric international enterprise. The current work of reference is by John King (1986).

7. A seaside resort 400km south of Buenos Aires.

8. Letter to Maria Rosa Oliver from the United States, August 1940. There are four letters from Métraux to Oliver at the Firestone Library, Princeton. They were not classified and I was able to identify them in April of 2001. In those letters Métraux assesses forthrightly the years he spent in Argentina.

9. Ibid.

10. The subject of landscape and Indian cultures as inseparable bedrocks for national self-examination has eluded the mainstream of literary production in Argentina—with very notable exceptions like Lucio V. Mansilla’s Una excursion a los indios ranqueles (1871) an early classic of modern ethnography, and a precursor of reflexive anthropology. This was the subject at the core of Métraux’s letters to Oliver, and the game of hide-and-seek I argue Borges was playing with his adversarial muse. In a previous article, I analyzed the relationship between Métraux and Oliverio Girondo (1891–1967), an Argentine poet and writer who was very interested in the Indian cultures of the country and who visited Métraux in Tucumán, in 1932 (Krebs 2007: 34–44). Borges returned to the subject of landscape in a rare, not-often-cited work: the preface to a book of photographs by Gustav Thorlichen (1906–1986). See Borges (1958: 3–6). Maria Rosa Oliver published a Geografia Argentina for children, with illustrations by Horacio Butler (Oliver 1939).

11. For a discussion of silence and language in Borges and Wittgenstein, see Mualem (2002). Not addressed by the author is the fact that Borges’ thoughts on language were in large part rooted in the deconstruction of classical Spanish authors as a prerequisite for the invention of an Argentine language, which had to be a more self-conscious, precise, and philosophical means for representing reality.

12. Borges’ piece, simply titled Films, is a review essay on three films: Fedor Ozep’s The Brothers Karamazov (1931), Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), and Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), which quickly turns comparative and into an analysis of what constitutes “the real” in a film (Borges 1931). In contrast to Borges’ restive review, Métraux’s essay “Un mundo perdido. La tribu de los chipaya de Carangas” (Métraux 1931) is a focused attempt at describing reality.

13. As it firmly situates the origins of the Chipaya in the very distant indigenous past of South America, Métraux has several, very effective references to the contemporary. The crash of the Stock Market of 1929, Métraux reports, has badly affected the Chipaya. Workers in copper and tin mines of Bolivia and Chile have lost their jobs—and the Chipaya, customers. The sheep cheese that constitutes their only export and way of accessing manufactured goods, either by barter or cash, accumulates in vain. There is no demand. “Lost in their desert,” survivors of an old, itinerant culture, the Chipaya are nevertheless deeply impacted by events taking place very far from their Andean fastness.

14. These insights were provided by Alfred Métraux’s sister, Vera Conne (Vevette). Their father, she remarked, learned Spanish on the ship that took him from Europe to Buenos Aires. He was an extraordinary character, much admired in Mendoza, where a hospital was named after him. As he was dying, Métraux pere asked his ethnographer son to carefully observe and document the passage, which he did.

15. On Rivet see Laurière (2008).

16. There is evidence for this in several letters Métraux sent to Yvonne Oddone, now at the Beinecke Library, and in the correspondence he exchanged with Mauss himself, which can be found at the library of the College de France. I cannot do justice to this subject in a footnote, just point at its relevance. The first letter from Métraux to Mauss is dated in Clos du Lac, Switzerland, September 7, 1926. Métraux is about to return to Göteborg, where he is working on his dissertation under Erland Nordenskiold. He has just learned from Paul Rivet that Mauss is planning to start a doctoral program in ethnology and wants to enroll and become one of his students. He describes his topic as “A Reconstruction of the History of the Tupiguarani.” Arrangements are made and Métraux transfers to study under Mauss, not without some reservations from the maître. His new disciple has not gone through the type of reading course and training he normally imposes on students—but he has done enough. The central bone of contention between the two is that Métraux is keen on the “historical method” and Mauss wants to widen the analytical frame. “You have not understood that,” Mauss writes on April 7, 1927, “I perfectly admit the historical method, and what you erroneously call the geographic method (because it is simply cartographic). But it comes a point where you cannot apply these any more. . . . I prefer, therefore—and this is my advice to you—the comparative method, less pretentious, more souple, and nuanced, applied within the Tupí-Guaraní family.” It is by contrasting historical documents with new information acquired in recent fieldwork that insights occur. Métraux took the advice but remained always more interested in gathering information and constructing historical and descriptive narratives than in theorizing.

17. The importance of Vico in Métraux’s work was pointed out to me by his nephew, Professor Guy Métraux, who attended the first public lecture given by Métraux at the College de France (sometime in the late 1950s). Claude Lévi-Strauss had asked Métraux to give a course on the history of anthropology (Lévi-Strauss reportedly said, “You are the only one in France that can do that.” Isaac Chiva, pers. comm.) and he began the course with a lecture on Giambattista Vico.

18. Métraux published two books on Easter Island, one academic (1939) and the other one both more personal and aimed at the general public (1941). For a comparison of these two books, see Debaene (2014). In Debaene’s judgment, French anthropologists created a tradition in the twentieth century of producing two books, a scientific one and a literary one. The second type of books “by their mere existence reveal the inadequacy of the positive, museum-based paradigm on which French anthropology thought it could be founded—but they don’t modify this paradigm” (2014: x). It is plausible to present a case for such a double testimony, but I doubt that Métraux, au courant as he was with what his French colleagues were publishing, consciously tried to follow a path that, in 1941, was scarcely marked. Tristes Tropiques, the most famous book in the literary vein, came out in 1955. Other than this, Métraux always felt like an outsider in France, and his emotional and intellectual allegiances were complicated. What does merit mentioning, though, is that the same editor who requested Lévi-Strauss to write Tristes Tropiques, Jean Malaurie, approached Métraux for a similar book of personal memoirs a few years later. The book had the working title of La terre sans mal, and according to Malaurie, it was going to revolutionize French anthropology by offering a strong and liberating contrast to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism—one of the reasons he wanted the book published. Métraux committed suicide before completing the manuscript. Although a tentative draft of some sort existed, it has not been found (Conversations with Jean Malaurie in Paris, 2001–2).

19. For the influence of Borges on Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, see Irwin (1996).

20. The writer and literary historian Paul Bénichou (1908–2001) was one of the French exiles in Buenos Aires during WWII who became involved with SUR. Together with Roger Caillois (1913–1978), another protégé of Victoria Ocampo, he would later be responsible for translating and introducing Borges in France.

21. See note 11.

22. Letter to Maria Rosa Oliver, New York, November 20, 1935.

23. On this subject see Halperin Donghi (1980).

24. Meyer Fortes had a similar notion: “Writing an anthropological monograph is itself an instrument of research, and perhaps the most significant instrument of research in the anthropologist’s armoury. It involves breaking up the vivid, kaleidoscopic reality of human action, thought, and emotion which lives in the anthropologist’s notebooks and memory, and creating out of the pieces a coherent representation of a society” (quoted in Jacobson 1991: 3–4).

25. “El inmortal” (Borges 1967a) is another good example.

26. Borges quoted on several occasions Coleridge’s assertion that “Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist. I do not think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure that no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian. They are two classes of man, beside which it is next to impossible to conceive a third.” In line with the “anonymous commentator” of the Aeneid, Borges made varying and inventive uses of this opposition, not limited to his short stories and essays. He directed two collections for EMECE, an Argentine publishing house. In an obvious allusion to Dante, he named the first collection “The Seventh Circle,” the circle of hell where the violent are housed. It included analytic detective stories and pulp fiction. The second collection he named “The Ivory Gate.” Dedicated to a broader spectrum of fiction, it listed several works by Joseph Conrad, among them Heart of Darkness, which Borges compared to Dante’s “divinely inspired” and “supremely wise” Hell, judging its subject matter to be “harto mas terrible”—by far more terrible.

27. For Borges and Nicholas of Cusa, see Magnavacca (2009: 241–66). For Cusa’s De Docta Ignorantia see Cusa (2010, vol. 1: 4–159).

28. I am not certain that Métraux was aware of Boturini’s activities, which deserve more attention that can be given to them here. See Canizares-Esguerra (2001: 130–203).

29. It would appear to belong almost in the realm of fiction, for instance, that when, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Bourbons reorganized the political geography of their Spanish dominions in the Americas, the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, administered from Buenos Aires, was also put in charge of Spanish Guiana, or Equatorial Guinea, a fascinating link between South America and West Africa that is completely absent from the Argentine imaginaire.

30. The emphases are Rivet’s. The original of Paul Rivet’s letter to Teran is in the Métraux folder at the University of Tucumán’s archives. For Metraux’s activities in Tucumán, see Perilli de Colombres Garmendia (2006: 145–63) and Berberian and Capuano (1974).

31. For Rivet, see Laurière (2008). For French anthropology in the 1930s see Conklin (2013) and Debaene (2014). For Mauss, see Fournier (1994) and Bert (2012).

32. Their different approaches to the discipline were already evident in the essays they contributed, in 1928, to a special issue of the Cahiers de la Republique de Lettres des Sciences et des Arts dedicated to L’Art Precolombien. The publication accompanied the first exhibit of pre-Columbian art staged in Paris. It was held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, and the 26-year-old Métraux was one of the curators.

33. I go more deeply into this subject in Krebs (2016: 29–48).

34. For the dispute between Lévi-Strauss and Caillois see Panoff (1993). Métraux and Lévi-Strauss had met in Brazil in 1939. They had a long walk on a beach near Rio de Janeiro. Following that encounter they became lifetime friends and collaborators.

35. To begin with, it was Métraux who always took ethnography seriously, who tirelessly protected our science, and the Indians themselves, from the sometimes-dangerous fantasies of the esthetes and the theoreticians. Then, he wanted to assign to ethnology its true dimensions, to see in it a human science in the full sense of the term, built on traditional disciplines such as paleography, archaeology, philology, and history—a human science (and in this lies its originality) reinvigorated constantly by the experience of fieldwork. At all levels and in all aspects Métraux applied and taught us a rigorous critical method. If I compare two works of his very distant from each other in time, separated by twenty five years—Easter Island and his recent book on the Incas—I am struck by the extent to which the method he used remained the same: first surround himself with a vast critical apparatus, of the entire mass of available information, and then analyze it, examine it, discuss it, classify it, and exploit it; and further, breath life into all this by the experiences gathered in the field, always resisting the indulgences of the imagination, prone to fantastic reconstructions. . . . There was in him that rare alliance between an immense theoretical knowledge and a solid practical sense. We regarded him as a repository of our discipline—because we were always resorting to him for our instruction—and also as a sort of ballast for our mental hygiene (Lévi-Strauss 1964: 7; my translation). In a letter of condolences Lévi-Strauss wrote to Rhoda Métraux on April 26, 1963, after his friend’s suicide, he says: “I am terrified to think that he probably decided to devise a perfect death to counterbalance what he mistakenly thought to be an unsuccessful life. Since his remarriage (to third wife Fernande Schulmann) we were seeing less of each other. Strangely enough, he acted as if he were afraid of me. But on my side, I still looked at him as a brother . . .” (Private collection, Rhoda and Alfred Métraux papers).

36. As Anthony Grafton has put it in his introductory essay for the Penguin edition of New Science (Vico 1999: xvi), Vico thought that even “those philosophers who study society . . . had gone wrong as they tried to draw from a wide range of texts and experiences, themselves pulled out of context, a theoretical history of society and the state.”

37. The original was published by Fournier (1990). The English version appears cited in Debaene (2014: 165–66).

38. On Bataille and Mauss, see Marcel (2007). On the Collège de Sociologie, see Hollier (1988) and Falasca-Zamponi (2011).

39. From an extensive interview I had with Vera Conne in 2001.