I'm in Idelber Avelar's Borges reading group at www.idelberavelar.com if anyone's interested. This blog is dead apparently....so here's my post from the reading group, trying to revive some conversation over here.
So, the other day I was thinking about the story “El muerto” and how the protagonist, Benjamín Otálora, in essence wins the lottery of male fantasies. Let me explain.
The people of Babylon quickly lost interest in the original lottery, wherein only a few won some money, because it lacked “virtud moral” (OC I 456). It was the addition of some “pocas suertes adversas” that really piqued public interest in the game. This kind of lottery, where you might “win” something terrible reminds me of Tessie Hutchinson’s winning draw in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948). It is the morbid possibility of a dire outcome, of playing Russian roulette with one’s fate, that brings in the crowds to la Compañía.
But, as the lottery evolved, silver coins were no longer the desired prize, for as the narrator points out, “Algunas moralistas razonaron que la posesión de monedas no siempre determina la felicidad y que otras formas de la dicha son quizá más directas” (457). So, if the Babylonians held that money did not necessarily determine happiness, what then does? Otálora seeks power and money, and all its trappings. He could’ve been content with money, but it wasn’t enough. He craved far more. He wants Azevedo’s horse, success, power, and woman. He gets them all, but only briefly.
I note a parallel between current American political discourse over the role of poverty and education as causation of criminal behavior and the Babylonians view of criminal fate. The legal penalty for stealing a lottery ticket was having one’s tongue burned out. When a slave stole a ticket that entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out, some determined that the slave “merecía el hierro candente, en su calidad de ladrón; otros, magnanimous, que el verdugo debía aplicárselo porque así lo había determinado el azar” (457). If we judge people as criminals because of their environment, because of nature, in a sort of Spinozan view of causation, then is it fair to punish criminals when nature, or fate, or “the lottery” of life has determined their actions for them? Or do we take the less magnanimous approach and punish them because they are simply criminals? This little paragraph, to me, speaks volumes about how legal codes are applied, and how privilege and chance, and even nature might determine our own actions.
And yet, Babylonians sought to overcome the chance involved in the lottery by making “delaciones” in stone lions (Wailing Wall? Lion of Judah?), in a sacred latrine called “Qaphqa,” or in a dusty old aqueduct (Hindu prayers floating on the Ganges?) that supposedly led to the Company’s headquarters. These prayers/accusations/complaints were determined to play a part in chance, but the Company offered no “garantía oficial” that they would have any appreciable effect on the game (458). Prayer, it seems, is no guarantee of special treatment in the lotería en Babilonia.
So, amid accusations that the game was unfair, that it was rigged, that some people had better luck than others, I see Otálora, and how he is able to obtain the stereotypical male gaucho ideal in a short amount of time. He takes over for Azevedo in battle, beds his red-headed woman, and convinces his henchman to help him murder Azevedo. While it seems that Azevedo knew all along how things would be determined, that the lottery drawings were all known from the beginning, I find it difficult to believe, knowing what the eventual outcome would be, that Otálora would not repeat the same fate. He has lived the life than many men only dream of living. Similarly, in Borges’s “El sur” we find a decidedly un-gaucho type, finally escaping the city and stepping out into the street to fight, and almost assuredly lose, a knife fight with a brigand. In “El muerto” and in “El sur” I see a Borgesian longing for the adventurous life, for the man’s-man life of a man of action, not of letters. And I also see an example of the phenomenon that we hear about all too often, that dying young at the pinnacle of success and glory guarantees immortality and adoration. We need only look at the cults of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Princess Di, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix to see proof of this point.
“La lotería en Babilonia” is one of Borges’s best, and I find new things in it every time I read it, almost like it’s Scripture.