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2016 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2): 297–321


Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred

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

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

 his work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Edgardo C. Krebs.

ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI:
Edgardo C. Krebs 298

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 ulti-
mas 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 War-
rior 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, de-
fined 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 genera-
tions 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 fa-
ther 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 class-
mates) 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 the-
sis on the history and material culture of the Tupinambá. That same year—at age

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).

2016 | Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2): 297–321

299 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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.

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

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.

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Edgardo C. Krebs 300

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 land-
scape. “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

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 forth-
rightly 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

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301 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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, ex-
emplary way the story of Fred Murdock, a student at the University of Texas, “natu-
rally 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 Hun-
garian 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 anthropol-
ogy 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 his-
tory 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 eter-
nal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries
that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, be-
comes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant thought.”

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 vis-
ited 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).

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Edgardo C. Krebs 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 af-
firmation 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 en-
terprise 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, per-
haps 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 ar-
gument 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 field-
work. 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

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 Mo-
rocco (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

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303 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

Brodie-like notes. Métraux states in a preface that the “Chipaya are the only Indi-
ans 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 beauti-
ful. 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 in-
teresting” 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 mission-
ary 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 provid-
ed 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”.

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Edgardo C. Krebs 304

There is something more complicated going on behind the scenes of the counter-
point between Borges and Métraux, as presented thus far. The disagreements have
been stressed, not the affinities. These, I would argue, are also significant; in par-
ticular, 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 profes-
sions. 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 ef-
forts. 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 interpre-
tation 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 unset-
tling: 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 aficio-
nado 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 find-
ing, victoriously, the errant data, the mistaken attribution—the blemish in the por-
trait.14 In Paris, Métraux studied with Paul Rivet,15 and mainly with Marcel Mauss,

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).

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305 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

against whose totalizing theories he rebelled.16 More an ethnographer than an eth-

nologue, 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 ac-
count 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 de-
ceptively unacademic in tone. Based on thorough archival and fieldwork research,
they are advocacy texts, not enamored with ideas of “others” eternally stuck in eth-
nographic 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 fundamen-
tally a historian who searched in archives and among the living traditions of exist-

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 Mé-
traux 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 nor-
mally 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 geo-
graphic 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 compara-
tive 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 inter-
ested 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.

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Edgardo C. Krebs 306

ing 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
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 cosmo-
logical 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.

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 cre-
ated 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 manu-
script. Although a tentative draft of some sort existed, it has not been found (Conversa-
tions with Jean Malaurie in Paris, 2001–2).
19. For the influence of Borges on Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, see Irwin (1996).

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307 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 com-
pletely insignificant” cannot come up with anything that makes it justice. “I con-
sidered 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

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.

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Edgardo C. Krebs 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 litera-
ture, a role that suits my hybrid nature.”22 He also needed (like Borges) the stimula-
tion 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 profes-
sional 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 ethnog-
rapher 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 unbreath-
able 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 cosmopoli-
tans 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 cho-
sen for them in a nation that projected itself as European was one of suppression

22. Letter to Maria Rosa Oliver, New York, November 20, 1935.
23. On this subject see Halperin Donghi (1980).

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309 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 expres-
sive and meaning-making tools, a technical equivalent of the more symbolic burial
(or recreation) of Spanish literature he would later perform in “Pierre Menard, au-
thor 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. Augus-
tine’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, purga-
tory, 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
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

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).

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Edgardo C. Krebs 310

capacity to cipher the entire life of a person in a sentence. “Novels require five hun-
dred 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 rein-
vented for the purpose.
Borges also notes that “the idea of a text of multiple interpretations” is a char-
acteristic of the Middle Ages, and that the Commedia can be read literally, allegori-
cally, 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 Eth-
nographer” 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 distinc-
tion 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 real-
ized 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 commenta-
tor.” 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

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

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311 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 Ivo-
ry 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 mem-
ory 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 imagi-
native 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 cen-
tury, 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 unknow-
able. 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 com-
munion. 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

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 con-
ceive 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).

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Edgardo C. Krebs 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 specta-
tor 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 ob-
serve 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 attend-
ing 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 In-
dians 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 fol-
lowing 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 pro-
fessed 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 demand-
ing 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 hermeneu-
tics, they were similarly subversive of the received ideas that pervaded Argentine
society in the 1930s: in particular, the drift toward a rancid nationalism that gradu-
ally evolved into fascism in the 1940s. Each after their own fashion were exploding

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).

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313 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

what Vico called “the conceit of nations”—Borges by injecting into the bloodstream
of Argentine culture complex strands of philosophy that were, in turn reinterpreta-
tions 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 forma-
tive 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 Indi-
an 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 ev-
erything. “And yet, and yet,” he wrote, “to deny temporal succession, to deny the
ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret conso-
lations. . . . 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 proj-
ect. 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 ex-
perience in the changing discipline, he did not have many peers among his young

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 ge-
ography 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).

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Edgardo C. Krebs 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 ostra-
cism 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 broth-
ers. 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 anthro-
pology. 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 oc-
casional 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

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 Dé-
coratifs, 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.

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315 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 an-
thropology? Andre Breton called him “the antipoet” because he read the arts pre-
miers 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—ex-
cept 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 in-
tellectual 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

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 fan-
tasies 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 tra-
ditional 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 reposi-
tory 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.”

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Edgardo C. Krebs 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 pen-
sum, 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 civi-
lization 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 unre-
solved tension between them. She also knew that this tension was ontological (how

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).

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317 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 ethnogra-
pher. 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 every-
thing 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 Ethnogra-
pher” and “Dr. Brodie’s Report”—to teach anthropology in their classes.

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

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Edgardo C. Krebs 318

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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 soigneu-
sement attribuée à celle-ci dans ses essais et dans sa fiction. Pourtant des thèmes

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321 Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux

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 commen-
cer 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

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