Why did I do this? Because I love Argentina. No, this is not true. I know almost nothing about Argentina, and also I have never seen "Evita." Because I dance tango without knowing very much about Argentina, without having feelings about it.
Explaining tango to people who do not dance tango, and so probably do not think about tango, is a risky endeavor. Case in point: since I started dancing tango I have received as gifts three "tango shawls" from friends and relatives. I had no idea that such a thing exists, or is even possible, and even now, as the owner of three tango shawls (one fuzzy white, which can be converted into a cowl by opening it at either end and has for some reason a thick line of fringe on the inside, one a thin strip of pink, purple and green knitted frills, and one in what I imagine is a classic red), I could not give you an account of their definitive characteristics. After a lot of talking and Google Image-searching, though, I determined that what is roughly supposed to happen is that I am supposed to lean back over my partner's right arm and let my body form an appealing arc, as the fringe of my shawl and, optionally, the last half-inch of my hair trails on the slightly dingy black-and-white tiles of the dance floor, before snapping back and continuing on to form new and different appealing arcs.
Sometimes the attempt proceeds along more comprehensible lines. A man with a gorgeous and well-maintained bookshelf recommended to me that I read Borges' essay on the history of the tango, which seemed extremely reasonable. My understanding of the man (Borges, with the many bookshelves, not the man, with his one or two) remained somewhat unearthly, which is more a result of my prodigious non-knowledge than any quality of his. I know he was a librarian in Argentina's national library, I know he was into Old English. I know sometimes I would sit on the floor in the Undergraduate Library and read his advice to young poets, and it would give me great feelings. I know he was blind. I know he is dead. But without excessive knowledge I was also able to understand him as someone who was probably able to explain something about Argentina to me. Most of what I know about Argentina I have learned through the tango, and what this has left me with besides a diminished certainty in my ability to move my own body is for the most part a collection of unfamiliar words, and a little bit more about music.
So I'm not really sure what I was expecting. I think I expected him to be something more like Nabokov, sort of playing with national and linguistic allegiance through recourse to pure proficiency, a little more sublime in the case of Borges, and personal ambiguity--Nabokov's insane accent to Borges' vague evocation of Tiresias. What I actually found when I started reading from parts of "On Argentina," which understandably is a collection of his writings having to do with Argentina, was something I was more familiar with than I had expected. This was not fiction and it had nothing to do with endless libraries and books that sort of write themselves. This was nonfiction, written by a man with a sense of himself, and a sense of the place he lived and cared for, and felt that his primary responsibility as a writer was to present this place to the world beyond its borders. The pieces were all short, and all clustered around the same set of goals; he was trying to define the Argentine national character. At one point he defines the Argentine national character as caring not at all about national characters, or existence as a nation at all, but instead being defined completely by personal relationships. Two separate times he proves this with the example of a crime show where a police agent befriends a criminal in order to turn him into the police, which would be reacted to with rage by his typical Argentinian.
I'm not sure if any of this indicates a contradiction, but I feel like it does. Or maybe I'm just impressed by someone who can believe so deeply and comprehensively in both universal and particular truths, and believes that they can strengthen each other. I was expecting something as unearthly as the stories themselves, instead I found a man engaged in the same problems of every person who attempted to live the 20th century, slaving away at the same categories that are beginning to seem insane to me.