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El Etnógrafo

by Jorge Luis Borges

El caso me lo refirieron en Texas, pero había acontenido en otro estado. Cuenta con un solo protagonista, salvo que en toda historia los protagonistas son miles, visibles e invisibles, vivos y muertos. Se llamaba, creo, Fred Murdock. Era alto a la manera americana, ni rubio ni moreno, de perfil de hacha, de muy pocas palabras. Nada singular había en él, ni siquiera esa fingida singularidad que es propia de los jóvenes. Naturalmente respetuoso, no descreía de los libros ni de quienes escriben los libros.  Era suya esa edad en que el hombre no sabe aún quién es y está listo para entregarse a lo que le propone el azar: la mística del persa o el desconocido origen del húngaro, la aventuras de la guerra o del álgebra, el puritanismo o la orgía.
En la universidad le aconsejaron el estudio de las lenguas indígenas. Hay ritos esotéricos que perduran en ciertas tribus del oeste; su profesor, un hombre entrado en años, le propuso que hiciera su habitación en una toldería, que observara los ritos y que descubriera el secreto que los brujos revelan al iniciado. A su vuelta, redactaría una tesis que las autoridades del instituto darían a la imprenta. Murdock aceptó con alacridad.
Uno de sus mayores había muerto en las guerras de la frontera; esa antigua discordia de sus estirpes era un vínculo ahora. Previó, sin duda, las dificultades que lo aguardaban; tenía que lograr que los hombres rojos lo aceptaran como a uno de los suyos.
Emprendió la larga aventura. Más de dos años habitó en la pradera, bajo toldos de cuero o a la intemperie. Se levantaba antes del alba, se acostaba al anochecer, llegó a soñar en un idioma que no era el de sus padres. Acostumbró su paladar a sabores ásperos, se cubrió con ropas extrañas, olvidó los amigos y la ciudad, llegó a pensar de una manera que su lógica rechazaba.
Durante los primeros meses de aprendizaje tomaba notas sigilosas, que rompería después, acaso para no despertar la suspicacia de los otros, acaso porque ya no las precisaba. Al término de un plazo prefijado por ciertos ejercicios, de índole moral y de índole física, el sacerdote le ordenó que fuera recordando sus sueños y que se los confiara al clarear el día. Comprobó que en las noches de luna llena soñaba con bisontes.
Confió estos sueños repetidos a su maestro; éste acabó por revelarle su doctrina secreta. Una mañana, sin haberse despedido de nadie, Murdock se fue.

En la ciudad, sintió la nostalgia de aquellas tardes iniciales de la pradera en que había sentido, hace tiempo, la nostalgia de la ciudad. Se encaminó al despacho del profesor y le dijo que sabía el secreto y que había resuelto no publicarlo.

-- ¿Lo ata su juramento? preguntó el otro.
-- No es ésa mi razón -- dijo Murdock --. En esas lejanías aprendí algo que no puedo decir.

-- ¿Acaso el idioma inglés es insuficiente? -- observaría el otro.
-- Nada de eso, señor. Ahora que poseo el secreto, podría enunciarlo de cien modos distintos y aun contradictorios. No sé muy bien cómo decirle que el secreto es precioso y que ahora la ciencia, nuestra ciencia, me parece una mera frivolidad.

Agregó al cabo de una pausa:

-- El secreto, por lo demás, no vale lo que valen los caminos que me condujeron a él.
Esos caminos hay que andarlos.
El profesor le dijo con frialdad:
-- Comunicaré su decisión al Concejo. ¿Usted piensa vivir entre los indios?
    Murdock le contestó:
-- No. Tal vez no vuelva a la pradera. Lo que me enseñaron sus hombres vale para cualquier lugar y para cualquier circunstancia.

Tal fue, en esencia, el diálogo.
Fred se casó, se divorció y es ahora uno de los bibliotecarios de Yale.


The Ethnographer

I heard this story in Texas, but it took place in another state. It has only one protagonist, although in every story the protagonists are thousands, visible and invisible, living and dead. His name was, I believe, Fred Murdock. He was tall, in the American way, his hair was neither blond nor black, he had a profile like an axe, and he was a man of few words.
There was nothing strange about him, not even the fictitious strangeness that is typical of young people. Naturally respectful, he did not have doubts about books or the people that write the books. His was the age when man still doesn't know who he is, and he is ready to deliver himself to what change proposes: Persian mysticism, the unknown origin of the Hungarian language, the adventures of war or algebra, puritanism or the orgy.

In the university they advised him to study Native American languages. There exist exoteric rites that are still practiced in certain tribes of the West; his professor, a man of a certain age, proposed that he go to live in a ranch, where he would observe the rites and discover the secret that the shamans reveal to the initiate. When he came back, he would write a thesis that the Institute's authorities would print. Murdock accepted with enthusiasm.
One of his ancestors had died in the Indian Wars; that ancient enmity between their two lineages turned into a link. Doubtlessly, he foresaw the difficulties that were waiting for him: he had to make the red men accept him like one of them.
He started the long adventure. He lived in the prairire for more than two years, under a leather roof, or under the stars. He woke up before dawn, he went to sleep at dusk, he even dreamed in a language that was not the language of his fathers. He inured his palate to sharp tastes, he covered himself with strange clothes, he forgot his friends and the city, and he actually started to think in a way that his own logic refused.
During the first months as an apprentice he took careful notes that later on he would destroy, maybe in order not to awaken suspicion in the tribe, maybe because he did not need them any more. When a certain time, dedicated to moral and physical exercises, had elapsed the priest ordered him to remember his dreams, and to relate them to him at daybreak.
He determined that on full moon nights he dreamed about bisons.
He told his teacher about these repeated dreams; the shaman ended up revealing his secret doctrine. One morning, without saying goodbye to anyone, Murdock left.

In the city he felt homesick for those first evenings in the prairie in which he had felt, time before, homesick for the city. He went to the professor's office, and he said that he knew the secret, and that he was resolved not to publish it.

"Are you bound by the oath you took", the professor asked.
"That is not the reason", Murdock said, "in those faraway places I learned something that I cannot say."

"Could it be that the English language is not up to the task ?", the other one observed.
"Not at all, sir. Now that I have the secret, I could enounce it in a hundred different, and possibly contradictory, ways. I don't know how to tell you that the secret is precious, and that now science, our science, seems to me mere frivolity."

After a pause he said:

"The secret, besides, is worth less than the ways that led me to it. These roads you must have walked."
The professor said coldly: "I will inform the Commitee of your decision. Do you think you are going to live among the Indians ?"
Murdock answered: "No. Maybe I will not go back to the prairie. What its men taught me is valid for every place and every circumstance"

Such was, in essence, the dialogue.
Fred got married, got divorced and he is now a librarian at Yale.

 

The translation is mine. The Spanish text I found somewhere on the WWW - I hope it is correct.

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