Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinean writer, poet and essayist, who belonged to the Ultraist, and who used a dream-like world, a paradox of reality, to criticize and comment on then socio political situation of Argentina during the beginning of the XX century (Rodriguez Monegal). Borges is known for creating a complex intellectual landscape that, with the use of irony, allows for a deeper philosophical understanding of his writings (Ciabattari). In the story “The Gospel According to Mark” we encounter the irony of the wise man being the ignorant.
As the story unfolds we are given details that point towards Espinoza being the wise character:
As an exercise in translation, and maybe to find out whether the Gutres understood any of it, Espinosa decided to begin reading them that text after their evening meal. It surprised him that they listened attentively, absorbed. Maybe the gold letters on the cover lent the book authority. It’s still there in their blood, Espinosa thought. It also occurred to him that the generations of men, throughout recorded time, have always told and retold two stories — that of a lost ship which searches the Mediterranean seas for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who is crucified on Golgotha. Remembering his lessons in elocution from his schooldays in Ramos Mejia, Espinosa got to his feet when he came to the parables (Borges).
Not only is Espinoza presented as the one with the most information, but he is also attempting to educate the Gutres.
It isn’t up until the end of the story that we realize that these attempts fail when Espinoza gets crucified. The failure however is only from the point of view of Espinoza because in the minds of the Gutres they are getting saved by doing so. Throughout the story Borges reveals details that make us believe that the Gutres are rather ignorant. They have forgotten how to speak English (even though it was the language of their ancestors) and they struggled with Spanish (the official language of where they live) “The chronicle broke off sometime during the 1870s, when they no longer knew how to write. After a few generations, they had forgotten English; their Spanish, at the time Espinosa knew them, gave them trouble” (Borges), Borges also writes about how they agreed with Espinoza even they didn’t fully understand hm.
One night, Espinosa asked them if people still remembered the Indian raids from back when the frontier command was located there in Junín. They told him yes, but they would have given the same answer to a question about the beheading of Charles I (Borges).
They were also unable to remember their birthdates or names of their ancestors: “Gauchos are apt to be ignorant of the year of their birth or of the name of the man who begot them” (Borges). It is also mentioned that despite the fact that they possessed knowledge about the cattle and the ranch they were unable to communicate it or explain it to Espinoza: “The Gutres, who knew so much about country things, were hard put to it to explain them” (Borges).
If we consider the Gutres to be ignorant we could say that Espinoza’s crucifixion was a mere mistake, or the result of a series of mistakes, because it could be argued that a miscommunication or misinterpretation error lead the Gutres to believe that Espinoza was Jesus and that in a way he was telling them to crucify him to save themselves (eNotes.com). However, in this case Borges plays with the information that he gives us to show that perhaps the Gutres are smarter than they appear, and that Espinoza is the one who is ignorant to the situation.
When Espinoza starts to translate the gospel to the Gutres, he doesn’t realize that he is portraying the figure of Jesus. This figure, however, doesn’t come from the mere reading of the gospel, it comes from everything else Espinoza does while he is not reading the gospel. He cures the lamb, he stands up when he reads the parables, he shares his food with the Gutres, answers their questions, etc. and when they are in the middle of the storm, he literally becomes their salvation when he welcomes them into the main house and gives them shelter.
It is not surprising that Gutres found resemblance between Jesus and Espinoza and here is where Borges creates the irony. Espinoza believes himself to be an educated man, and he believes the Gutres to be ignorant. When he starts to translate the gospel and he starts to interact with the Gutres on daily basis, he becomes their master and even more, he becomes their teacher, and he seems to be oblivious to that fact. For Espinoza reading the gospel was an exercise of translation, to practice his own English, and a mere assessment of how much the Gutres were capable of understanding. “As an exercise in translation” wrote Borges “and maybe to find out whether the Gutres understood any of it, Espinoza decided to begin reading them that text after their evening meal” it was never Espinoza’s intention to teach them the meaning of the gospel.
Borges utilizes irony by selecting the gospel according to Mark to be the one Espinoza casually decides to translate: “Leafing through the volume, his fingers opened it at the beginning of the Gospel according to Saint Mark” (Borges). Mark’s gospel is unique in the fact that it portraits the disciples as ignorant, because they are unable to see Jesus’ true identity (White).
Borges could have used any other gospel but by using Mark’s gospel he highlights Espinoza’s own ignorance. Now not only is Espinoza oblivious to the fact that he is becoming a teacher, he also ignores how the Gutres’ interpretation and understanding of the Bible is affected by how he teaches it – he stands up while reading the parables–, and furthermore he is ignorant to the resemblance of the Gutres’ ignorance compared to the disciples’ own ignorance.
Crucifying Espinoza wasn’t the result of a misinterpretation, it was the result of the Gutres realizing how the disciples were unable to see Jesus’ true identity. Unwilling to make the same mistake the disciples made, the Gutres see in Espinoza much more than he truly is, not because they think he is Jesus, but because they see him as their own teacher.
In the Gospel according to Mark, the disciples don’t understand that Jesus has to die to save them, even though Jesus explains it to them, and they don’t understand why they need saving from sin. The Gutres, who realize how foolish the disciples were, decide to play an active part in the crucifixion of their own teacher to prevent themselves from making the same mistakes the disciples made.
The irony of the wise man (Espinoza) being the fool and the foolish people (the Gutres) being the wise ones, is possible because at plane sight the Gutres appear to be ignorant, not only to Espinoza but to the readers too. This is because right away Borges lets the readers know that Espinoza is a well-educated man: “The protagonist was a medical student named Baltasar Espinoza” (Borges)so when he makes the judgement that the Gutres are ignorant, he makes the assessment based on his own level of knowledge. Now, because he does indeed have a high level of education, the reader assumes that the Gutres are ignorant due to their lack of education.
However, small details throughout the story lead the reader to suspect that the Gutres know more than is obvious at plane sight. When Espinoza starts to translate the gospel, the Gutres’ behavior changes. At the beginning they merely listen to Espinoza: “It surprised him [Espinoza] that they listened attentively, absorbed” (Borges)but by the end of the story, after the second time Espinoza reads the gospel, the father asks questions that lead the reader to believe that he understands or is trying to understand the gospel:
The next day began like the previous ones, except that the father spoke to Espinosa and asked him if Christ had let Himself be killed so as to save all other men on earth. Espinosa, who was a freethinker but who felt committed to what he had read to the Gutres, answered, “Yes, to save everyone from Hell.”
Gutre then asked, “What’s Hell?”
“A place under the ground where souls burn and burn.”
“And the Roman soldiers who hammered in the nails — were they saved, too?”
“Yes,” said Espinosa, whose theology was rather dim. (Borges)
The Gutres also start to steal the bread crumbles that Espinoza leaves in the table, they echo some of the things he says, they follow him around and one-time Espinoza finds them talking about him in a respectful manner. All of these behavioral changes point to the conclusion that they do understand what Espinoza is saying despite their lack of education.
The reason why Borges desires to use this irony as a criticism to the sociopolitical situation of Argentina is because it becomes a metaphor in which the Gutres represent the citizens of Argentina and Espinoza represents the government. Borges lived through both world wars, and three dictatorships in Argentina (Apostol). Even though he always referred to himself as a man of no political interests as he stated in several interviews:
I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer. (Apostol)
His short stories and essays can always be analyzed under a sociopolitical criticism spectrum because his characters, like the Gutres in “The Gospel According to Mark” often seem to personify aspects of society that Borges disagreed with.
In the case of “The Gospel According to Mark” the Gutres and Espinoza are used to highlight the reality that citizens in Argentina seemed oblivious to the fatality that governments like Juan Peron’s dictatorship represented to the present and future of Argentina, and the absurd notion that the government is unaware of the citizens’ ignorance. It has always been said that ignorance is the weapon of the powerful, meaning that a government can get away with wrong doings as long as its citizens are unaware of it. However, Borges uses this story to point out that the Argentineans know more than the government would like them to because that can lead to terrible consequences for it, like a revolution, or in the case of Espinoza, his crucifixion.
Apostol, Gina. “Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial” 18 August 2013. Los Angeles Review of Books.25 March 2018. <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/borges-politics-and-the-postcolonial/#!>.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Gospel According to Mark: Translation by Norrnan Thomas Di Giovanni ” 1970. Universite de Lausanne.25 March 2018.
Ciabattari, Jane. “Is Borges the 20th Century Most Important Writer?”2 September 2014. BBC: Culture.25 March 2018. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140902-the-20th-centurys-best-writer>.
eNotes.com. “The Gospel Arccording to Mark: Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition” 2004. eNotes.com, inc.Ed. Charles E. May. 25 March 2018. <https://www.enotes.com/topics/gospel-according-mark/in-depth>.
La enciclopedia Biografica en Linea. “Jorge Luis Borges” 2018. Biografia y Vidas.25 March 2018. <https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/b/borges.htm>.
Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. “Jorge Luis Borges” 15 November 2017. Encyclopedia Britannica.22 April 2018.
White, L. Michael. “From Jesus to Christ: The Gospel According to Mark” April 1998. Frontline.25 March 2018.