Thursday, October 04, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges Reading Club: "Emma Zunz"

So, Dr. Idelber Avelar over at O biscoita fino e a massa is holding a Jorge Luis Borges reading club this semester. Since Idelber is one of the most brilliant people I've ever known, and one of the best readers of Borges I can imagine, I can't help but participate in the club. His posts are in Spanish. The comments are in English, Spanish, or Portuguese. This week's topic is the Borges story "Emma Zunz" from the collection El Aleph.

This story has typically been read as empowering of women. I disagree completely. Here's my post to the club's comments thread:

Rather than seeing the story as empowering Emma Zunz, I view it as making fun of her, and women in general. The narrator creates an image of Loewenthal as a greedy, fat, capitalist factory owner and miser, but nowhere is the information that he was a thief confirmed. This information forms a formidable red herring, it makes us believe that he deserved what he got, but it’s only superficial evidence. In fact, if the narrator contradicts all the information that we have been given, that “uno o dos nombres propios” are false, then couldn’t the father just as easily have been the thief (OC I 568)?

Why Loewenthal? Her father was convicted of the crime; criminals always claim innocence; they usually blame someone else.

Do we have any evidence of any particular affection for her father? She views the sex that brought about her creation as “that horrible thing that her father did to her mother,” never stopping to think that perhaps her conception was a moment of pleasure for not just her father, but also her mother. She puts sex with an ugly, short, repugnant, and foul-mouthed Scandinavian sailor on equal footing with sex with her father, somehow comparing the paternal figure with the least attractive candidate she could find, to avoid even an inkling of ternura for someone more attractive, as her mother might have had for her father (at the time). I see perhaps resentment at her father for abandoning her during his incarceration because of his crimes, or maybe even a little bit of self-loathing that she could be his progeny, especially since his name, Emanuel, signifies “God with us,” which is a misnomer for a convicted embezzler.

His suicide ends any possibility of their reuniting. In her coping with his death, much like Guy Pearce’s Leonard in Memento (2000), the victim of something terrible becomes so obsessed with “vengeance” that he/she is blinded to the truth, delving into psychosis. Her father was the criminal; Loewenthal is again a victim of the crimes of the father—victim of the crazed mind of the irrational woman “incapable of abstract thought,” as Bioy Casares quotes Borges as saying (Bioy. Borges. Destino, 2007).

I see no power here. She lets herself be used for the sailor’s pleasure, allowing things to be “done to her (que ahora a ella le hacían)” instead of doing them to someone else. Notice the plural conjugation of “hacer;” if she is copulating with the sailor, who is the other to make the plural “they” subject? It is symptomatic of a portrayal of an irrational feminine character convinced that the world (maybe substitute “man” for “world,” I’m not sure) is out to get her. While she certainly does something to Loewenthal when she shoots him, she never even manages to let him know why she kills him.

The narrator’s question, “¿Cómo hacer verosímil una acción en la que casi no creyó quien la ejecutaba, cómo recuperar ese breve caos que hoy la memoria de Emma Zunz repudia y confunde?” sounds to me like a psychologist going over Emma’s past actions and trying to help her come to terms with her insanity and her past actions, especially when the narrator mentions that she could barely believe that she was doing what she did, and that her memory today repudiates what happened (565). Emma Zunz was insane and murdered Loewenthal by reason of mental defect or disease. The cause of the defect or disease can be left up to the reader, but I do not see this story as a glowing example of female empowerment. Not at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with the professor. This was not the portrayal of a free or balanced person. Emma is not a standard for men or women. Emma was confused. From the context of the story, I couldn't understand the case she had against Lowenthal. Why would she let herself be used as a prostitute? Who gained here? She was crazed for a number of reasons that were not clearly set forth by Borges. Her actions proceeded from confusion, self-hate, guilt - who knows what else. It was also not clear what case she had against herself.