Dear Emily Post-Avant,

So I know you have written about Anthony Madrid before. I know you think he’s a cool poet. But you’ve also given him the business about a couple of his columns for the Paris Review Daily. I also know you are a big fan of Juan Luis Borges, and I see that Madrid’s latest column, from 11/20/19, focuses on that famous writer of Argentina and of the world. Therefore, I was wondering what you thought of it? Anything you could say?

–Bored MFA Café Fly with Nothing Better to Do than Ask, in Lawrence, Kansas


Dear Café Fly with Nothing Better to Do than Ask, in Lawrence, Kansas,

Yes, I believe Anthony Madrid is a frightfully good poet. He also usually writes brilliant pieces for the Paris Review Daily. Not always, and there is no shame in falling short. But this is one of those “not always,” I’m afraid. Let me try to explain.

Mr. Madrid’s piece is about “The Zahir,” a story first published in the legendary 1949 collection El aleph, by Jorge (not Juan, my love) Luis Borges. The story is about a twenty-centavo coin of Argentine mint, dated 1929, one that has been dug into by unknown razors or knives, so that the N and the T in the word “CENTAVO” on the tail face are notched through. The number 2 on the coin, belonging to the “20,” is also notched. These particular notches or incisions are, one presumes, connected to the coin’s strange and wild powers. Thus, the coin is claimed to be a Zahir by Borges, which in Arabic–and in the mystical Sufi tradition in particular—designates an everyday object that assumes talismanic powers.

All sorts of alarming things happen to the innocent people who come into contact with this coin/Zahir, after Borges receives it within his change, at some bar. Borges, in a panic to rid himself of this objet petit a with-event-horizon, spends it later on another drink, because it has begun, he senses, to eat away at his very identity and soul. Thus, in what might be secondarily taken as an allegorical critique of the circulation of capital and its attendant fetishisms (with the minted coin, writes Engels, “The commodity of commodities had been discovered, that which holds all other commodities hidden in itself, the magic power which can change at will…”), he passes on the coin’s infectious spells to unfortunate others. (Nice guy, this “Borges”!). Basically, anyone who comes into contact with the coin/Zahir goes bonkers or dies.

Madrid, with not a little evident Jill Bialosky-like raiding on Wikipedia, I’m afraid, recounts all this. And he then goes on to end his essay in something of a bizarre rush, to too-earnestly proffer a weirdly banal notion about the Christian symbolism he sees behind Borges’s Zahir. Which, unless he means it as a kind of joke, is surprising, for someone as ingenious as he.

Specifically, Madrid claims that the notches in the N and the T are most productively read as standing for the common abbreviation of “Nuevo Testamento” (New Testament). And that the notched “2” points us, in turn, to the second gospel of the New Testament (NT), that being Mark. OK, so Madrid then proceeds to propose three consecutive verses from Mark that Borges may have had in mind—verses about the need to love God with all one’s soul, etc. Madrid posits that his NT2 Bible Code is finally borne out by the story’s conclusion, where Borges mentions a hiding “God.” To which, stifling a yawn, one honestly wonders: Is that all there is? In any case, you can judge the value of Mr. Madrid’s interpretation for yourself, by clicking on the link my correspondent offers above.

Forgive me if my language above is too severe, but I really believe there are much more intriguing, more plausible takes as to what the hell the strangely incised coin is “saying.”

To begin: It is strange that Madrid provides the notched, struck-through elements with positive meaning, which he sees as tethered by religious-symbolic filaments to the last words of the story: “Quizá detrás de la moneda esté Dios” [“Perhaps behind the coin would be God.”]. For generally, if not universally, something that is crossed-out or cut-through (especially when such action is done so violently as to incise metal) is intended to be erased or cancelled.

It seems much more to the point, then, to negatively disappear the incised/struck elements than to positively highlight them, in symbolic fashion, as does Madrid. For when the literal annulment that Borges reports is taken at face value, as it were, something quite interesting occurs. And it is something which, to my mind, gives the famous concluding words of the story a meaning much more suggestive of the mystical Islamic/Sufi origins of the term Zahir than Madrid’s quaint Biblical allusion, and by a long shot.

To wit: When we take the word CENTAVOS on the back side of the coin/Zahir and cancel out the N and T, both of which, again, are cut into and across by a mysterious source, we are left with the following “lexical” unit: CEAVOS.

Now, in Argentina (and in Uruguay, along with parts of Paraguay, even), the otherwise standard TÚ pronoun usage for second-person singular informal address is near-universally replaced by VOS (derived, in Rio de la Plata culture, from the use of VOSOTROS, in first person plural addresses in Spain). In this sense, we can, in homophone, take CEAVOS (again, what we are left with after the N and T are removed, as Borges arguably intends) as the present-tense volitional subjunctive address: [QUE] SEA VOS (Let it be you, or May it become one with you), where the relative pronoun QUE that normally leads off independent-clause subjunctive expressions of desire or command may in unusual circumstances be elided (just as subject pronouns commonly are), especially in formal, ceremonious contexts–something which can never be done when the subjunctive appears in dependent-clause constructions.

Furthermore, by elegant “coincidence,” CEAVOS can be understood in a different sense–again in homophone–this time with VOS being heard as VOZ (Voice). So that the independent subjunctive-command clause is now [QUE] SEA VOZ (Be/Become voice), where the addressee, whoever it might be—he/she/it/you–is now no longer the predicate nominative of the first CEAVOS case, but charged, literally, by decree, as pure, singular, and indefinable subject of some mysterious mission.

It’s worth proposing, in passing, that these two “formal,” albeit different semi-hieratic commands, when taken not just as discrete pronouncements but as following sequentially or discursively one from the other (and in whatever flip-flop order), may provoke, at least for sensitively tuned Spanish-language readers, a deep (and quite literal) disturbance of différance at the level of the story’s “textual unconscious.” For the ambiguous, elided subject in both utterances, though present, remains unnamed and distributed. The suffusing dread is very Poe-like, really. And Poe was among the precious few authors at the apex of the Borges pantheon.

Now, these “grammatical” symbolic readings become even more plausible, I’d argue, when we remember that the “2” is also annulled on the coin/Zahir, so that we are left only with “0” [Zero]. The zero at the bone. The null, the infinite, the unfathomable, the universal, the voice that you, I, he, and she will become. Or the one universal voice that will come to voice us, even if no one will hear. Or something like that. Thank you, Borges, for the ambiguity, as always.

There is an interesting anecdote I thought I’d add, not entirely connected, perhaps, but maybe relevant enough in the end. Almost no one in North American literature knows this: One of Borges’s most cherished writers, though Borges did not speak of him often, was Fernando Pessoa, the greatest modern poet of Portugal and perhaps of 20th century Europe, who, by dividing his self into still uncounted identities, or heteronyms (he has five main ones, counting himself, but there are many dozens of others, still being pulled from his jam-packed trunk), essentially zeroed out his self and went down into the fertile black rabbit hole of el Zahir.

And the somewhat older Pessoa, it seems, admired the young Borges, too. There is a strong and credible hypothesis, in fact, that Borges and Pessoa met, very possibly at one of Pessoa’s favorite bars, the Café A Brasileira, in Lisbon, in 1924, when Borges, in midst of his avant-garde Ultraísta phase in Madrid (Madrid!), was visiting Lisbon, one of the avant-garde centers of European poetry at the time, where Pessoa was the dark/bright point at the very core. See here:

And one last thing: When the Café A Brasileira was founded in 1905, it replaced a longstanding hotel in Lisbon, a haunt of artists and writers, it is said: Its name was the Hotel Borges. Ghostly sightings and sounds were reported by early patrons of the Café A Brasileira, especially on the second floor above the main bar. People who went into the Brasileira after 1985 and through the mid-nineties (when the Escudo was withdrawn in favor of the Euro), often paid with a coin that bore the image of Pessoa, in repeating profiles (the bill simply bore his single image). Is there, somewhere, an incised Zahir among the coins? Today, there’s bronze statue of Pessoa, a revered hero of Portugal, outside the Café A Brasileira, the ghosts of the old Hotel Borges still inside it.

Now I ask you dear poet reader (et vos, Anthony): How awesome is that?


–Emily Post-Avant