Hi, I’m Jonathan Pritchard-Barrett, a copywriter and content manager. On this website you will find examples of my copywriting work: both headlines and articles, for both digital and print formats.
Why call the site ‘Ecstatic Gaucho’ then?
This particular gaucho is found in the short story The South (El Sur in Spanish) by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. But I first came across it in the cult 1968 movie Performance, where Mick Jagger plays a burned-out rockstar living in a menage a trois in a Notting Hill mansion. In one scene Mick reads from the story in his camp, hippy drawl.
The film is terrific and that scene is very cool. The phrase ‘ecstatic gaucho’ leapt out and it just seemed like a great name for a website.
Borges thought that The South was ‘perhaps’ his best story, and it is certainly a good place to start if you’ve never read his really exceptional writing. You can read a version here.
The South tells the story of an Argentinian library administrator, Juan Dahlmann, who gets ill and on recovering takes the train to visit the dilapidated family farm in the vast empty south of the country. Alighting at a small rural station, he is challenged to a knife fight by some local toughs. As Dahlmann is unarmed, a wizened old local – the ecstatic gaucho, in fact – throws him a knife. He picks it up, knowing that this action means he – a weedy book lover – has accepted the challenge and will most probably die in the fight; this fact does not perturb Dahlmann however. In fact, the opposite is the case:
“They went out and if Dahlmann was without hope, he was also without fear. As he crossed the threshold, he felt that to die in a knife fight, under the open sky, and going forward to the attack, would have been a liberation, a joy, and a festive occasion, on the first night in the sanitarium, when they stuck him with the needle. He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt.”
I suppose, those three sentences struck some sort of a cord. Not of course that I am planning on walking out to my doom any time soon, or even considering getting into a knife fight. It’s just that I like the paragraph as a motto for the living, for life.
What is the gaucho so happy about then?
He’s not happy, he’s ecstatic. The two are different. Borges describes him as being small, desiccated and insignificant to the point of being absent from the world. The gaucho is in but not of the world. Also, he is an agent of fate – the man that gives Dahlmann the dagger that ensures his end.
Borges also describes the gaucho as being a “cipher of the South (his [Dahlmann’s] South)”. So, what is the south for Dahlmann? It is the place where his ancestors lived and died in battle and it came to stand for romantic ideals of courage and romantic death.
A Borgesian addendum to the origin of the name the Ecstatic Gaucho
Jorge Luis Borges is one of those illustrious writers whose names have become an adjective. According to Dictionary.com ‘Borgesian’ describes a literary style that is “reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, esp. labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity”. Another of Borges’ recurring themes is, somewhat ironically, recurrence itself.
A good example is his story, The Plot, from the 1960 collection Dreamtigers that was published as El Hacedor in Spanish, where Borges applies the idea of recurrence to literary plots (another of his interests). Only two paragraphs long, The Plot is probably more of a meditation rather than a story. Still, while it might be brief, it certainly packs a punch:
To make his horror complete, Caesar, pressed to the foot of a statue by the impatient daggers of his friends, discovers among the blades and faces the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his protégé, perhaps his son, and ceasing to defend himself he exclaims: “You too, my son!” Shakespeare and Quevedo revive the pathetic cry.
Destiny takes pleasure in repetition, variants, symmetries: nineteen centuries later, in the south of the Province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is attacked by other gauchos. As he falls he recognizes an adopted son of his and says to him with gentle reproof and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read), “Pero che!” He is being killed, and he does not know he is dying so that a scene may be repeated.
It’s classic Borges. Only 129 words, it contains gauchos, recurrence, and death by knife. Daggers are one of the most significant symbols in his work. You can read more about the meaning of knives in his writing in the essay The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges by Michael Greenberg.
About 13 years ago, I became interested in my family history. This was a few years after my father died, just the sort of event that can set you on a strange family history-researching trajectory. It was also while I was writing ecstaticgaucho.com as a blog, which meant constantly hunting for new material.
Borges also uses family history in both his fiction and non-fiction. Much of Borges’ 19th century family history is well recorded and often heroic. His grandfather Isidoro de Acevedo Laprida fought in battles in the Argentine Civil Wars.
Like most of us, my own family history is less well recorded and features fewer sabre wielding héroes. I do know that my maternal grandfather worked in Argentina helping to build that country’s railway network, but beyond owning his knife and compass (yes, two slightly Borgesian objects), I don’t really know what he got up to there.
In 2017 my research took on a Borgesian tone. I discovered that two of my grandfather’s uncles (or maybe his cousins – my great great uncles) had lived in Argentina in the 19th Century, and that one of them had been murdered, in the countryside (perhaps ‘the limitless country [that] sometimes contained only a solitary bull’ of El Sur). Of course, he was murdered with a knife… by gauchos. This relation of mine was also a Scot (another of Borges’ pet interests).
Here is the newspaper story that tells about the murder:
26th March, 1870
TWO ENGLISHMEN MURDERED IN BUENOS AYRES. Particulars have been received of the death of Mr. Robert Bald, B. A., Cambridge, second son of Mr. John Bald, Wells, Roxburghshire. The deceased was cruelly murdered, on the 22nd of January, at his estancia, about twelve miles from Rosario, Santa Fe, Buenos Ayres. On the evening of that day two natives arrived and purchased 150 sheep, when it was arranged that they should remain over the night and remove the sheep next day. On the following day Mr. Bald was found murdered in his house, his body pierced with many wounds. Henry Tait, a boy of fourteen, who was in his service, shared the same fate, having been in bed in an adjoining room. It is believed that the crime was perpetrated between nine and eleven o’clock, and that Mr. Bald was treacherously stabbed while sitting at his table, on which a book was found lying open. He appears to have sprung up in order to defend himself, as the room gave all the indications of a violent struggle, and there were numerous wounds in his arms. Two boxes were ransacked, and several articles, including Mr. Bald’s watch and revolver, were stolen. This diabolical crime has caused a most painful sensation throughout the province, and the President of the Argentine Republic immediately offered a reward of 5,000 dols. (£1,000) for the capture of the murderers. One has been taken, and has confessed his guilt, but refuses to give any information as to his accomplice. Mr. Edward Bald, a younger brother of the deceased, and who had only been a couple of months in the country, was at Rosario on the day of the murder. He has travelled over a great part of the country since, in search of the other assassin, who has hitherto escaped detection. The lamentable event has been reported to the Earl of Clarendon, who immediately forwarded instructions to her Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires at Buenos Ayres to afford every assistance in his power in bringing the murderers to justice. Mr. Bald was a young man of high principle, of a frank and genial nature, and of an accomplished mind. His many amiable qualities endeared him to his own family and a large circle of friends, by whom his untimely fate is deeply deplored.
The Southern Reporter of Selkirkshire reported in their District Intelligence section on 17 March 1870 that:
“the murder of Mr Robert Bald… whose death was noticed in our obituary last week… appears that two gauchos called on the 22d January at the estancia of Mr Bald…”
It is interesting to note that, according to Wikipedia, the president of the Republic, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who offered the reward for apprehending the murderers, is best remembered for ending the power of the gaucho in Argentine society.
Like the dying men in The Plot, Mr Bald was betrayed by his murderers, although I suppose it is unlikely that he treated either of them as a protege or son. We will never know if he cried out “Pero Che” to the men who had come sell him livestock. But somewhere in the annals there must be a story – even if it has not yet been written or found – in which a person looks for an alias, and the name that they choose, it turns out, has an unlikely connection to them. Such a coincidence, I suppose Borges would say, is inevitable. Perhaps this is that story, or one of them.