Borges heard the overture before the picture, old fashioned, archaic like the labyrinthine Art Deco theater where Valentino once and always played a bullfighter. Borges was in America, in Texas where the South becomes the Southwest and the decay of the ante bellum gave way to the strutting cowboys of a young and vigorous nation. The picture was about those cowboys, what were then B-pictures of the sort that became archaeological and philological shortly after their release. The cowboys were not Borges’s gauchos, but their cousins, less flamboyant, revolvers and spurs rather than daggers and scarves. They were played by a charismatic aging actor on his way down and a miscast young star on the rise.
As Borges watched the film, blurred in his declining vision, wind its way through its maze, the cowboys arriving in Chicago dirty and mud-caked and flush with their charismatic foreman at the head, taking their accustomed floor of a hotel, attracting the admiration of a young man in need of money, hot baths and negotiating prices of beef, their leader more cultured than the rest taking women who are not explicitly prostitutes but couldn’t be anything else to the opera before losing his stake in an all-night poker game, the young man providing a stake to finance another cattle drive, and from there the younger man becoming a hardened cowboy, ending after many trials at the same hotel this time with the young man commanding a bath and a woman and respect, Borges came to understand in the way a saint recognizes God that the picture was wrong. He saw the picture unfolding in all the permutations that might and should have been, the Aristotelian imperatives of drama ignored by a weak script and insipid direction that point invariably to the Platonic. The single film that becomes all films, the archetypal drama.
Borges saw the cowboys trapped in the open cage of a parched and barren plain, free to wander in all directions under a killing sun, the young man and the old cowboy the last to desiccate. The cattle stampeding. The river unseasonably dry. Victory of nature and the god before the Christian God, the Great God Pan, over man. A Comanche raid providing a suitably heroic end to the old cowboy and an opportunity for the young man to prove himself. The railroad barons raising the rates and reducing the cowboys to ruin, the triumph of the robber barons of the Eastern cities over the individualists of the Western plains. Civilization at its different stages from entirely raw to overcooked overwhelming the cowboy at a liminal and vulnerable stage.
Borges saw the older cowboy forced to accept conventional work in Chicago after financial ruin at the poker table. A proud man, satisfied in his virility, spending his life with his testicles pinched by a suit and accumulating cash or losing his weekly pay every Saturday night, filled with bitter desire for another cattle drive and the open sky away from the smoking hell of Chicagoland. A Theodore Dreiser novel of finance and compelled and ineluctable behavior. Borges saw the older cowboy alone at the twilight of a long and painful life, a man who has outlived his era which ended when the railroad drove south and rendered the cattle drive obsolete. A modern kind of tragedy, of brave and strong men rendered superfluous by capital.
Borges saw the young cowboy bitten by a snake and dying a farcical death, rejected or loved by a woman and either story coming out about the same, or even succeeding and becoming the last member of a dying breed. Borges saw all these things, and he saw more.
He saw the human comedy, played on the stage and then on the screen. He saw the triumph and tragedy inherent in a fallen and redeemed mankind. He saw the ineffable God manifest in the world, evolving towards understanding of Itself. When the picture reached its ending intertitle, Borges for a moment saw what he spent his life seeking. He saw the God of Spinoza at the center of the labyrinth, and heard the strumming of gaucho’s guitars across a distant plain.
©2023 V.N. Ebert
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