Part One: Summary
In this piece we introduce a short story, “El Muerto” (1946), by Jorge Luis Borges and invite you to develop an understanding of the main character, Benjamin Otálara, in order to help you to become more aware (and wary) of this character type (including tendencies you may recognize in your own character) and to think about the the implications of having such characters in leadership roles. First you will develop your own language for characterizing Otálara and then compare him to the clinical description of the narcissist and someone with an antisocial personality disorder (Parts Six, Seven). Finally (Part Eight), we provide some of our own observations about Otálara’s behavior for comparison.
Part Two: An Introduction to Borges and “El Muerto”
Born in Argentina in 1899 (d. 1986) to Spanish-speaking parents, raised by his English-citizen grandmother, and high-schooled in Switzerland, Jorge Luis Borges was fluent in five languages by the time he was 18. Though his parents were upper middle class (his father was a blind attorney and his mother read to his father, typed his briefs, and took his dictation, which is why his English grandmother raised young Jorge Luis), the Borges family could not afford to live in downtown Buenos Aires, so they lived in the poorer neighborhood of Palermo, itself famous for having been the place gauchos who visited the capital hung out. In the early 1900s, there were still bars and hotels whose names showed up in the legends. Borges grew up amidst these places. Like his father, due to a congenital defect, he too started losing his sight in his late 30’s, going almost completely blind around age 50.
Latin America at the dawn of the 20th Century was transfixed by a literary movement called Modernismo, full of examples of luxury, Old-World splendor, history, and allusions. It was decidedly NOT americano (that word in Spanish means someone from the Americas–plural). A reaction arose among Latin-American authors called Criollismo or “Nativism,” for lack of a better translation. Authors sought hyper-realism through stories, settings, plots, characters, and the like that were criollos, a term that means someone or something that is born, raised, educated in, and dedicated to life in the Americas (please note that it is not a synonym with Haitian Creole or New Orleans Creole).
Educated in Europe, from Argentina, descended from great Argentine and Uruguayan criollo war heroes as well as his English commoner grandmother, Borges saw himself as someone whose work should not be chained to stories from the Americas just because he was.
So, he wrote what he knew, which was damned-near everything. Legend has it that as a young man he got a job at a Buenos Aires library. He began working hard and did far more work himself than all of his co-workers combined. Angry, they told him to slow it down before they all lost their jobs. For years thereafter, Borges would go to work, work but little, and then sit and read all day, quitting, finally, when he had read all of the books in the library. Regardless of its veracity, Borges’s knowledge was encyclopedic, covering topics and themes so vast that Umberto Eco struggled to find something on which Borges had not written. Confident that he had found something, Eco named his book Kant and the Platypus, with platypus in the title because he couldn’t find any record of Borges ever having written about the platypus. For the second edition, however, he included the following (1997: 6):
When reading any work of fiction by Jorge Luis Borges, readers should have the following questions in mind:
- Who is the narrator? Can I trust the narrator? Many times Borges writes short stories that make it seem like he’s simply relating to his readers something that happened to him or that he found out from speaking with others. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurry in Borges’s works, especially when you consider that he often first published each story in a literary magazine called Sur. They would appear as articles, leaving readers wondering if it was true or not.
- Why does Borges mention a street, neighborhood, or city in a work? Every mention of a place, person, movement, and so on in Borges should be considered deliberate. Readers should have Google open and do a search for any of the above that are mentioned that they do not know about. It’s likely that something famous happened there. For example, in his story “The Secret Miracle” set during the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the narrator uses the German names for streets in Prague–not the Czech names–and one street is where Franz Kafka was born. The subtleties of those references and the narrator’s German bias are part of what make reading Borges challengingly fun.
- What seems to be the purpose of this work by Borges? Is it an allegory of 1946 politics in Argentina? Is it a commentary on the dastardly reputations and–still fresh–memories/legacies of the 19th-Century caudillos who lorded over the pampas (plains) of Argentina and Uruguay? Is it a metaphor about the at times tense big/little brother relationship between Argentina and Uruguay, demonstrating how lethal Argentines’ sense of superiority can be, even when they believe that they are “in charge”? Is it simply an Old-Testament type story about how not to be, a bad example of how to live one’s life? Is it a narrative that asks its reader to decide whether or not the protagonist had a great life, accomplishing everything that he sought (money, power, women) before dying (albeit early)? Is it a treatise on the relationship between humankind’s divinely promised free will and the predestination that Calvin, Luther, (and, some even argue, St. Paul) argued for? Or, is it simply a story that echoes Santa Teresa de Ávila’s aphorism of “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones”?
As a final insight into Borges’s wry, coy sense of humor, consider the following. In addition to English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian, Borges learned many other languages, fluently, including Anglo-Saxon. Alberto Manguel writes in his book With Borges that while in the UK, near a ruin of an old Saxon chapel, Borges went inside and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Anglo-Saxon, when asked why, Borges is reported to have said that it had likely been centuries since anyone had recited the Lord’s Prayer in that church in Anglo-Saxon and “I just wanted to surprise God.”
“El muerto” was first published in Sur magazine (#145) in November of 1946, later published in book format with El Aleph in 1949. The story first appeared in English translation in 1970 in a translation by the author and Norman Thomas di Giovanni.
Part Three: An Exercise in Translating Leadership Study into Practice
“El Muerto” could be considered a lesson in what is a “bad leader” or a “bad mentee.” While you might not at first be able to see much of yourself in the figure of Benjamin Otálara, it is quite possible that you have encountered someone like him in your social or professional life. Something to reflect on is exactly what kind of character he is and how you might want to interact with such a person in the future, if at all. For this leadership exercise, then, you will develop a checklist, or questionnaire, of behaviors and character traits you see in Benjamin Otálara. Accordingly, every time you notice something about his character, translate it into a generic, third-person question you might ask in the future if you were, say, a person in a leadership role trying to decide whether to bring this kind of person into your community. So, for example, based on your reading of ❡1, you might develop a question like this: “Is this (generic) person willing to take risks (daring) but in an amoral way, i.e., they are not doing it for any greater good but only for the love of danger or for their personal gain?” Thus, you will continue to develop your questionnaire throughout your reading of the story.
Part Four: A Translation of “El Muerto”
Translation by Mac Williams, Associate Professor of Latin American Literature at Coker College. N.B., bracketed portions represent alternate ways of translating Borges’ text.
❡1 That a man from the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a sad little braggart [loudmouth] without any more virtue than his infatuation with courage, would be able to insert himself into a smuggling ring in the empty horse lands of the Brazilian border, even becoming their captain, seems just outright impossible.
❡2 To those who understand it thusly, I’d like to tell you the tale of the fate of Benjamin Otálara; probably no one from his neighborhood in Balvenera even remembers him or his death near the border of the Rio Grande do Sul. I’m unaware of the details of his adventures; when I find them out, I will need to fix and add to these pages. For now, this summary will have to suffice [could be useful].
❡3 Benjamin Otálara in about 1891 is 19 years old. He is a strapping young man with a low brow, honest blue eyes, Basque looking; a lucky blow with a knife has revealed to him that he is a brave man; the death of his adversary does not bother him at all, neither does the immediate need to flee the Republic [Argentina].
❡4 The provincial caudillo gives him a letter of introduction to one Azevedo Bandeira from Uruguay. Benjamin Otálara sets out by ship, the crossing is stormy and groaning; the next day he wanders around the streets of Montevideo, perhaps unaware of an unconfessed sadness he carries with him. He does not find Azevedo Bandeira; towards midnight, in a corner store on Paso del Molina Street, he watches a streetfight between some cattle drovers. A knife flashes in the dark; Benjamin Otálara doesn’t know which side is in the right, but the pure taste of danger draws him in, like others feel towards card games or music.
❡5 He stops, in the brawl, a knife strike that a day laborer swipes at a man with dark gaze who wears a poncho. This man, it turns out, is Azevedo Bandeira. Benjamin Otálara, upon finding this out, tears up the letter, because he’d rather owe his fortune [reputation] to his own efforts. Azevedo Bandeira gives him the impression, even though he’s burly, the impression of being poorly put together; in his aspect, which always seems to be too close, is the face of the Jew, the black man, and the Indian; in his physique, the monkey and the tiger; the scar that runs across his face is just another ornament, like his bristly black mustache.
❡6 Like the screening of a film or an error born of alcohol, the altercation stops with the same haste with which it appeared. Benjamin Otálara drinks with the drovers and later accompanies them to a party and then later to a ramshackle house in the Old Quarter, arriving there after a night of partying with the sun already high in the sky. In the last patio, with a dirt floor, the men lay out their cots [bedrolls].
❡7 Darkly [hazily], Benjamin Otálara compares that night with the previous one; now he’s on solid ground, among friends. It bothers him that he doesn’t seem to miss Buenos Aires. He sleeps until nightfall [Vespers], when he is woken by the man who, while drunk, attacked Azevedo Bandeira (Benjamin Otálara remembers that that man had shared the previous evening’s turmoil and revelry with everyone else, and that Azevedo Bandeira made him sit at his right hand and forced him to keep drinking all night long).
❡8 The man says that the boss sent him to get Benjamin Otálara. In a sort of study that leads into the hallway (Benjamin Otálara had never seen a hallway entrance with doors that faced one another), Azevedo Bandeira is waiting for him along with a fair-skinned and contemptuous red-headed woman. Azevedo Bandeira studies him for a bit, offers a cup of rum, repeats to him he seems like a spirited [energetic] man, proposes that he go up north with the rest of his men to bring back a herd of cattle. Benjamin Otálara accepts; in the wee hours of the morning they’re on the trail, headed for Tacuarembó.
❡9 This is where a distinct and separate life begins for Benjamin Otálara, a life of big-sky dawns and journeys that smell of horse lather. That life is new to him, and at times unbearable, but it’s gotten into his blood, because just as men of other nations venerate and feel the call of the sea, we (including the man who weaves together these symbols) feel a pressing need to be out on that endless plain that reverberates underhoof. Benjamin Otálara grew up in the neighborhoods of teamsters and meat packers; inside of year, he’s become a gaucho.
❡10 He learns to ride a horse with skill, to herd the cattle, to butcher, to handle the lasso and the boleadores that knock down the cattle, to fight sleep, how to handle storms, frosts, and baking sun, to spur on the cattle with whistles and shouts. Only once, during that time of apprenticeship, does he see Azevedo Bandeira, but he’s always thinking about him [has him in mind], because being a Bandeira man is respected and feared, and because, in the face of any and every act of bravery, the gauchos all say that Bandeira does it better.
❡11 Some say that Azevedo Bandeira was born on the other side of the Cuareim River, in Rio Grande do Sul; that, which should be a strike against him, strangely [darkly] makes people associate him with dense forests, with marshes, and with almost inextricable and infinite distances. Gradually, Benjamin Otálara understands that Bandeira’s business interests are varied, and that the main one is smuggling. Being a drover means being a servant; Benjamin Otálara decides to rise to the level of smuggler.
❡12 Two of his companions, one night, will cross the border to bring back some shipments of rum; Benjamin Otálara provokes one of them to fight, wounds him, and takes his place. Ambition and an obscure happiness motivate him. May Azevedo Bandeira (Benjamin Otálara thinks) wind up understanding that I’m worth more than all of these Uruguayans put together.
❡13 Another year goes by before Benjamin Otálara returns to Montevideo. They go down the sidewalks, the city (which to Benjamin Otálara seems very large); they get to the boss’s house; the men set up their bedrolls [cots] en the last patio. Days go by and Benjamin Otálara still hasn’t seen Azevedo Bandeira.
❡14 They are saying, with fear in their voices, that Azevedo Bandeira is sick; a mulatto usually goes up to his bedroom with a kettle and a yerba mate gourd. One afternoon, they give Benjamin Otálara this task. He feels vaguely humiliated, yet satisfied too.
❡15 The bedroom is barebones and dark. There’s a balcony that looks to the east, there’s a large table covered with a glinting [glimmering] mess of riding crops, whips, gunbelts, firearms, and other weapons, there’s a distant mirror with cloudy glass. Azevedo Bandeira lies face up; he mutters in his sleep; a gleaming beam from the sun’s last rays outlines his profile.
❡16 The big white bed seems to somehow make him smaller, darker; Benjamin Otálara notices the gray hairs, the weariness, the limpness, the cracks and wrinkles of time. It bugs him that this old man is the one bossing them around. He imagines that a single punch would be enough to end him. At that, he sees in the mirror that someone has come in the room.
❡17 It’s the red-headed woman; she’s half dressed and barefoot and she observes him with cold curiosity. Azevedo Bandeira sits up; while he speaks about business over the last couple of years, he downs mate after mate while his fingers play with the woman’s braids. At last, he tells Benjamin Otálara he can go.
❡18 Days later, word gets to them to head north. They get to an abandoned ranch compound, one like any other in that endless plain. Neither trees nor a creek are there to make the place a little cozier, the morning and setting suns shine too brightly there. There are stone corrals for the cattle which are long-horned and have to be looked after constantly [needy]. The Sigh is the name of this wretched place.
❡19 Benjamin Otálara overhears a group of workers say that Azevedo Bandeira won’t be long in coming from Montevideo. He asks why; someone says that there’s a wannabe gaucho who’s getting too big for his britches. Benjamin Otálara takes this as a joke, but he’s flattered that this joke is even possible. He finds out, later, that Azevedo Bandeira has gotten into a quarrel with a political boss who has withdrawn his support. Benjamin Otálara likes that news.
❡20 Cases of long guns arrive; a pitcher and a silver wash basin for the woman’s room arrive; some intricate Damask curtains arrive; one morning, out of the hills, a dark horse rider appears, with a short beard and wearing a poncho.
❡21 His name was Ulpiano Suárez and he was the henchman or bodyguard of Azevedo Bandeira. He seldom spoke, and when he did he sounded sort of Brazilian. Benjamin Otálara doesn’t know whether to attribute his reservedness to hostility, contempt, or to barbarism. He knows, oh yes he knows!, that for the plan he’s formulating he needs to win Suárez’s friendship.
❡22 Herein enters into Benjamin Otálara’s destiny a bay horse with a black tail that Azevedo Bandeira brings from the south, and that has a silver-trimmed saddle with jaguar-skin edges. That big bay horse is a symbol of the boss’s authority and for that reason, envy pulses through the lad to such an extent that he even comes to desire, with a resentful desire [jealousy], the woman with the blazing hair. The woman, the saddle, and the bay horse are attributes and trappings of a man that he aspires to destroy.
❡23 Here the story gets deeper and more complicated. Azevedo Bandeira is skillful in the art of slow intimidation, in the devilish task of humiliating someone gradually, subtly combining truth with mockery; Benjamin Otálara resolves to apply that ambiguous method to the difficult task he has set before himself. He resolves to supplant, slowly, Azevedo Bandeira.
❡24 During journeys that were dangerous to them all, he earns Suárez’s friendship. He confides his plan to him; Suárez promises him his help. Lots of stuff happens, some of which I know very little about. Benjamin Otálara stops obeying Azevedo Bandeira; he allows himself to forget instructions, to correct Bandeira, to reverse his orders. The universe appears to conspire with him and speeds up the steps of his plan. One afternoon, in the fields outside Tacuarembó, there’s a firefight with some folks from Rio Grande do Sul; Benjamin Otálara takes over Azevedo Bandeira’s place and commands the Uruguayans.
❡25 A bullet gets him in the shoulder, but that afternoon Benjamin Otálara returns to the Sigh on the boss’s bay and that afternoon a few drops of his blood stain the jaguar skin, and that night he sleeps with the woman with the blazing red hair. Other versions of the story change the order of these deeds or deny that they all occurred in just one day.
❡26 Azevedo Bandeira, nevertheless, is still nominally the boss. He gives orders that are not carried out. Benjamin Otálara doesn’t touch him, out of a mix of routine and pity.
❡27 The last scene of the story corresponds to the uprising that happened on the last night of 1894. That evening, the men of the Sigh ate recently-slaughtered lamb and drank liquor that got them stirred up. Someone played an infinitely long and difficult milonga. At the head of the table, Benjamin Otálara, drunk, lifts up toast after toast, boast after boast; that vertiginous tower is a symbol of his irresistible fate.
❡28 Azevedo Bandeira, silent amid all the shouting, lets the night flow noisily on. When the clocks strikes twelve, he gets up like someone who just remembers he has an appointment. He goes over and knocks softly on the woman’s door. She opens it immediately, as if she were waiting for the knock. She comes out half-dressed and barefoot. In a sort feminine and groveling voice, the boss orders her:
❡29 “Now that you and the Argentine love each other so much, you’re going to kiss him here in front of everyone.”
❡30 He adds a brutal command to his order which I will not repeat here. The woman doesn’t want to do it, but two men have grabbed her by the arm and throw her on top of Benjamin Otálara. Devastated by her tears, she kisses his face and his chest. Ulpiano Suárez has grabbed his revolver. Benjamin Otálara understands, before dying, that he has been betrayed since the very beginning, that he has been condemned to death, that they have allowed him to love, to be in charge, to triumph, all because they already considered him a dead man, because to Azevedo Bandeira, he was already dead.
❡31 Suárez, almost with disdain, opens fire.
Part Five: Considering new behaviors arising from your questionnaire
Now that you have developed your questionnaire, think back to people you have known who fit the profile of Benjamin Otálara, at least somewhat. What has your interaction with such a person been? Have you found them off-putting or seductive? Were they able to manipulate you in some way? Now that you have a clearer impression of this character type, how will you deal with such people in the future? Could a good leader employ this kind of person to a good end? Can any of these Otálara’s traits be strengths? If so, in what situations could you imagine them being of use? Does Bandeira enrich himself and others by using Otálora the way he does? How do we try and eliminate these persons from leadership positions in corporate or social entities? From political office? From any position in which they could weaken the community/society? If you notice them in yourself, how can you eliminate these traits?
Part Six: Otálora and Narcissism
How well does Otálora meet the diagnostic criteria for the narcissistic personality disorder, as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (2013)? Explain your answer by making references to Borges’ text.
“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes” (pp. 669-670).
For more on narcissism and leadership see this link.
Part Seven: Otálora and the Antisocial Personality Disorder
How well does Otálora meet the diagnostic criteria for the antisocial personality disorder, as described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (2013)? Explain your answer by making references to Borges’ text.
“A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeated performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another” (p. 659).
Part Eight: One Possible Questionnaire for the “Benjamin Otálora Personality Type”
- Is the person fixated on daring without any other virtues (e.g., wisdom, compassion, justice) to temper or inform it? (❡1)
- Does this person love risk-taking in an amoral way? Do they love a fight, for example, without caring which side is right or wrong? (❡4)
- Does this person rationalize luck as talent or virtue? By contrast, does this person explain away their vices and mistakes as being the result of bad luck and bad circumstances (e.g., falling in with the wrong crowd)? (❡3)
- Does this person feel that the stars sometimes align in their favor, i.e., that they are destined for greatness? (❡24)
- Does the person regard brushes with death as a sign that the universe is protecting them? (❡25)
- Does this person have an unrealistic sense of their own abilities? (❡12)
- Does this person lack remorse for the harm they have caused others? (❡3)
- Does this person use (the suffering of) others for their own climb to a higher status? (❡12)
- Does this person manipulate and humiliate others? (❡23)
Shallow or Superficial Interpersonal Relationships (Disconnectedness)
- Is this person remembered by their home community? Does this lack of remembrance derive from the fact that this person was disconnected from the members of the community, e.g., family, friends, local organizations? (❡2)
- Does this person fail to recognize–or does this person minimize–the contributions that others have made to their success? (❡5, ❡21)
- Does this person equate common social engagement (partying) with authentic friendship? (❡7)
- Does this person fail to discern alliances and loyalties among others? (❡7)
- Does this person fail to notice when their ambitions threaten others? (❡19)
- Does this person mistake the teasing of others for genuine affection and loyalty? (❡19)
- Does this person have difficulty explaining the motives of others? (❡21)
- Does this person equate a sexual relationship with a deep, emotional bond? (❡25)
Preoccupation with Status and Dominance
- Does this person seek to emulate the examples of excellence from others for the purpose of advancement? (❡10)
- Does this person seek to hold jobs that confer the most status or dominance and to avoid ones that are seen as more servile? (❡11)
- Does this person feel humiliated by menial tasks? (❡14)
- Does this person tend to look down on others and see them as inferior? (❡16)
- Does this person relish the failures and setbacks of their rivals? (❡19)
- Does this person envy those in positions of power? (❡22)
- Does this person covet the prestige items of others? (❡22)
- Does the person become intoxicated by the prospect of power? (❡27)