Macedonio Fernández At the Front of the Rearguard

Robert Wells
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Volume 6, 2014


As it was with most Latin American avant-garde artists, Macedonio Fernández produced from the periphery. Yet, as critics often note, Macedonio strategically situated himself on the periphery of this periphery.[1] Ricardo Piglia nevertheless asserts that Macedonio’s best-known work, Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena), functions as nothing less than “el gesto vanguardista por excelencia,” “el momento de máxima autonomía de la ficción” (2006, 99, 85). In more local, yet no less emphatic terms, Noé Jitrik says of Macedonio, “Con él se abre un espacio nuevo que es el de la vanguardia. […] [E]s el emergente de una vanguardia local, criolla, que no sigue la oleada de las europeas” (qtd. in López Orcón 2007, n.p.). Thusly situated on both the inside and outside of the avant-garde milieu so assembled at the time in Argentina and abroad, Macedonio provided himself with enough room for maneuver throughout his life so as to be able to come and go as he saw fit. This unique ability to position himself in the center and on the margins of literary and philosophical discourse has persisted beyond Macedonio’s life and continues to manifest itself up through the present day. Indeed, Macedonio has been able to employ a sort of self-promotional strategy that establishes a peripheral, yet pivotal, presence – one which he concomitantly deconstructs via recourse to actions that signal its spectrality and its refusal to fully, consistently, (re)present itself.

Macedonio’s presence haunted his avant-garde contemporaries while he was alive (1874-1952) and continues to haunt Argentine letters, and perhaps even Latin American literature and international avant-garde cultural production on a whole, today. Within Argentine literature, Macedonio has appeared in some form or another – sometimes by name – in the works of a number of more well-known authors, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan José Saer, and Piglia.[2] In spite of this persistent presence and its ghostly nature, scholarship on Macedonio – particularly vis-à-vis the aforementioned writers – remains insufficient, peripheral and, much like the good novel he promised to write, to come.[3] It is with this very delayed futurity in mind that Piglia speculates that “quizá el siglo próximo será macedoniano” (“Extranjeros” 2010, n.p.). Whether such an arrival ever occurs, one cannot be certain as to whether Macedonio, as a specter, will always remain to come or if he will instead someday come back.[4] Whatever the case may be, Macedonio will surely require some sort of introduction, as he is constantly re-presented to those who remain unawares. In this way, Macedonio Fernández is forever prologue to himself.

A paradoxical thinker by nature, Macedonio has come to cultivate a cult of personality that occasions a sense of reverential appreciation and anticipation in many of his peers and progeny as he simultaneously undermines the notion of a clearly defined and embodied Subject, or an identitarian Self – el Yo – as based in presence. In so doing, Macedonio aims to deconstruct not only the nature of modern art but also the nature of modern subjectivity.[5] He aims to dovetail what we might call el desobrarse de la obra with what he calls el disyoísmo, thereby creating a philosophical art form commensurate to a different kind of subject, and vice versa (1990, 238). Above all, it is to be a philosophical art form and a corresponding subject a venir that disavow the metaphysics of representation and its attendant insistence upon Self-identity.

Of course, anti-representational aims traverse the myriad avant-garde imaginaries of the times in Argentina, Latin America, and Europe, in prose, painting, and poetry, and also extend across the political spectrum from left to right. In other words, this critique of representation is in itself nothing new. Macedonio’s critique differs, however, insofar as it refuses to align itself with other forward-thinking and modern avant-garde models – both of the Eurocentric and autochthonous varieties – by undermining and double-crossing the unequivocal avatar of modernity and the avant-garde: the new. He also subverts two other axiomatic notions that are often associated with the new: production and the future.

What is more, Macedonio’s overall critique differs from those of his contemporaries since it operates according to its own self-styled metaphysical framework. He describes this framework as “la metafísica no discursiva […] que se da en la artística,” and further codifies this conceptual configuration via several names, including BelarteAutorística, and Dudarte (1996b, 34). Despite the fact that, in many ways, and especially today, metaphysics as such has fallen out of fashion, it could be said that metaphysics nevertheless continues to haunt conceptual thought. For, as Theodor W. Adorno maintains, “Metaphysics […] always deals with concepts. Metaphysics is the form of philosophy which takes concepts as its objects” (2001, 4).[6] If such is the case, then, as Adorno goes on to say, “Whether one is for metaphysics or against metaphysics, both positions are metaphysical” (2001, 9, emphasis in original). What sets Macedonio apart from his avant-garde peers, and from many of the philosophers and aesthetes that follow him, is that he openly admits to and even celebrates his own metaphysical approach – one which critiques and creates philosophical and aesthetic concepts.

According to one of his otherwise most astute contemporary critics, Todd S. Garth, aligning Macedonio with “postmodern” thinkers such as, for example, Adorno, represents a “highly anachronistic” act (2001, 353). It “attribut[es] to Macedonio intentions and ideas that disregard the time and place in which he lived and wrote” (Garth 2001, 353). Yet, any interpretation of Macedonio and his thought is “anachronistic,” that is, untimely. Such is the nature of Macedonio’s thought: a thought which disrupts sequential notions of time and dislocates secured notions of space. Macedonio is therefore pre-modern, modern, and post-modern – all at once. This is not to say that Macedonio’s thought is thought outside or devoid of a socio-historical context, but rather that it spectrally (re)presents itself within other contexts, times, and places.

Without ignoring Macedonio’s determinant context, and yet while still interpreting the untimely nature of his general critique of representation, the aim of this essay is twofold: 1) To situate Macedonio vis-à-vis the avant-garde and modernity, proposing that Macedonio’s aesthetic production and over-arching philosophy, avant-garde and modern as they may be, are simultaneously constitutive of a rearguard; 2) To explore how this is so because of Macedonio’s insistence on a particular metaphysical approach. Throughout the analysis, Macedonio’s so-called “twin novels,” Adriana Buenos Aires (Última novela mala) and Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena) shall serve as the main points of reference. Ultimately, it will be shown that Macedonio Fernández, a metaphysician, outflanks his avant-garde contemporaries from a position of peripheral modernity, thereby positioning himself at the front of the rearguard.

At the Front of the Rearguard

As previously mentioned, many critics classify Macedonio as one of the (if not the) most avant-garde authors of his era. His approach to aesthetics, philosophy, and life are all considered to be well ahead of their time – as they should be. Macedonio was by all means a great innovator and a true inventor who endlessly experimented with various forms of thought, expression, and activity. The intent here is not to say that Macedonio was not at all avant-garde. Rather, it is to examine how he was not only avant-garde but rearguard as well – how he was and continues to be both ahead of and behind the curve.[7] In light of all of the good and all the bad that the avant-garde and the impetus to be modern brought about in the course of the 20th Century, perhaps being rearguard is not necessarily a bad thing. (And, in the case of Argentina, what followed the hyper-modern 1920s but the 1930s, that is, the Década Infame.) Macedonio’s paradoxical ability to front a rearguard shall thus be examined here with respect to the ways in which he treats three interrelated phenomenon that sparked Argentina’s drive towards modernization and that often acted as unquestioned tenets of the avant-garde: the new, production, and the future. In addition, the metaphysical critique of the metaphysics of representation that weaves its way through Macedonio’s avant-garde/rearguard dialectic shall reappear, and be readdressed, in turn.

Mónica Bueno unequivocally states that, “El nombre de Macedonio Fernández remite, sin duda, a los años veinte” (2007, 17). In the 1920s, Argentina, and particularly the growing metropolis of Buenos Aires, had embarked upon its quest towards modernity – full speed ahead. Sarlo sets the scene in Buenos Aires as follows:

La ciudad vive a una velocidad sin precedentes y estos desplazamientos rápidos no arrojan consecuencias solamente funcionales. […] [E]l impacto de estas transformaciones tiene una dimensión subjetiva que se despliega en un arco de tiempo relativamente breve: en efecto, hombres y mujeres pueden recordar una ciudad diferente a aquella en la que están viviendo.

(1999, 16-17)

Macedonio was, without a doubt, one of these men. By 1920, he was already forty-six years old. He had seen the city and its people changing, he had seen the old fall out of fashion and the promise of the new constantly (re)produced in its place. And yet he referred to himself as the recienvenido.

The story of the recienvenido spans the 1920s. Starting in 1922, Macedonio tells the recienvenido’s tale in a series of fragments and miscellanea that came out in various revistas and that are eventually collected and published together for the first time in Papeles de Recienvenido in 1929. The collection’s first text, “El Recienvenido (Fragmento),” depicts clear signifiers of modernity – “una locomotora” and a town hall that still needs to start its “reconstrucción” – but also starts off with the protagonist tripping and accidentally falling down and hitting his head on the sidewalk, “atropellad[o] por el suelo” (2007, 13, 18). Soon thereafter, the recienvenido speaks of his need for a “bastón,” which he has unfortunately lost (2007, 20). Contrasting the typical modern scene in which a flaneur traverses the newness of the urban landscape that alternately alienates and embraces him, here the recienvenido is seen to be stumbling from the start. This accident causes a crowd to form around the recienvenido. Finding himself confronted with an eager public, the recienvenido, as a literary man, then does what comes natural: he delivers a talk, part of which he devotes to mocking a city and its citizens that claim to be so quick and yet cannot arrive in time to save a person from falling down (2007, 18).

As the recienvenido, Macedonio presents himself as a newcomer, but also a latecomer; as someone who is new to the scene, albeit late in arriving; as someone who has trouble navigating the new without tripping and falling. Macedonio uses the term to make jokes about initiates and old people alike. He also uses the term to lampoon what he sees as being the local obsession with all things fast-paced and new, even as those so conditioned by such modern obsessions could hypocritically disregard and disdain the innumerable immigrant recienvenidos who were arriving at that time from abroad.[8] As Macedonio portrays him, then, the recienvenido is untimely in his arrival and finds himself feeling out of place. Out of joint, Macedonio nevertheless sees advantage in this position: it allows him to play along with the proceedings, albeit at his own pace and in his own ways.

The New, The Old, The Good, The Bad, and The Self

The play and pace at work in the self-styled epithet, recienvenido, can potentially apply to the word avant in avant-garde as well. For avant as before suggests both in front of and behind, first and last – again, untimely. This is precisely how Macedonio situates himself and his works before the avant-garde. In so doing, he confirms Adorno’s statement that, “The old has refuge at the vanguard of the new: in the gaps, not in continuity” (1997, 22). Such a dialectical yet non-synthetic relationship between the new and the old defines Macedonio’s relationship to how he sees and (re)presents himself as the recienvenido. It defines his relationship to aesthetic production as well. These opposites are not necessarily reconciled, cancelled out, or overcome, so much as they are actively confounded and correlated, and yet still retain a certain degree of distinction and facticity.[9] Thus, Macedonio is able to say in Museo, “Es indudable que las cosas no comienzan cuando se las inventa. O el mundo fue inventado antiguo” (1996b, 8) – yet at the same time have a “character” named “demás lectores” demand of their author, “Sé nuevo, autor” (1996b, 241). These two notions regarding the new may seem to be incompatible, impossibly coexisting. According to Macedonio, however, the impossible conditions the possible. As such, the impossible is the non-existing pre-condition for the possible. This thought process informs Macedonio’s overall philosophy, especially in regards to his approach to art: as he says in Museo, “el Arte es posible pero todo asunto para serlo de Arte ha de ser imposible” (1996b, 57).

For most other vanguardists, denying or even questioning the new would be, in a word, impossible. Case in point: if we compare Macedonio’s statements that contradict the new with Oliverio Girondo’s proclamations in the “Manifiesto de ‘Martín Fierro,’” composed for the revista vanguardista in 1925, then the differences between the two approaches become clear. Girondo sets forth the martinfierrista mission statement as follows:

“MARTIN FIERRO” siente la necesidad imprescindible de definirse y de llamar a cuantos sean capaces de percibir que nos hallamos en presencia de una NUEVA sensibilidad y de una NUEVA comprensión, que, al ponernos de acuerdo con nosotros mismos, nos descubre panoramas insospechadas y nuevos medios y formas de expresión. […] “MARTIN FIERRO” sabe que “todo es nuevo bajo el sol” si todo se mira con pupilas actuales y se expresa con un acento contemporáneo.

(1994, 25)

The martinfierristas, a group with which Macedonio was loosely affiliated, a group which, moreover, tried to claim Macedonio as one of their own, here define and legitimate themselves according to the new. As Sarlo explains, “Si todo proceso literario se desarrolla en relación con un núcleo que lo legitima […], los jóvenes renovadores hicieron de lo nuevo el fundamento de su literatura y de los juicios que pronuncian sobre sus antecesores y sus contemporáneos” (1999, 95). The martinfierristas also took advantage of what they considered to be their special access to the new so as to pass value judgments upon and effectively exclude those that were uninitiated and not up to, or behind, the modern times. They projected an unassailable faith in the seemingly limitless power of the new to act as an aesthetic and ideological force field that shielded them from the possibility that they might have to answer to any kind of past, as it promised them a kind of invaluable and commanding cultural capital for the ever-new present. In addition, they banked on the fact that others would want to invest in such a rewarding and new enterprise, which would allow them to sell more copies of their revista. Hence, Girondo concludes with a call to his contemporaries’ pocketbooks: “¡SUSCRÍBASE VD. A ‘MARTÍN FIERRO!” (1994, 26). Hence, we see how, in the words of Adorno, “the abstractness of the new is bound up with the commodity character of art” (1997, 21). This is not to say that the new is without merit, or, in the words of Macedonio, not “good.” The fetishism of the new, however, runs the risk of emptying whatever its content may be so as to abstract from it a commodified norm rather than an everyday ideal. To return to Adorno, when such is the case, “The new is a blind spot, as empty as the purely indexical ‘look here’” (1997, 20).

Impossible as it may seem, in the face of “lo nuevo como valor hegemónico,” in the face of the nearly all-encompassing fetishization of the new, Macedonio, forever untimely, refuses to conform to the times (Sarlo 1999, 28). Actively defying the hegemon of the new – in an act perhaps equally as brash as those “new” acts associated with Girondo and the young martinfierristas – Macedonio writes the “last bad novel,” Adriana Buenos Aires, in a consciously old, outdated, romantic, and representational style. (Although a draft of Adriana is completed in 1922 and then re-edited and finalized in 1938, the complete text itself was not published until 1974 – seven years after the publication of Museo and twenty-two years after Macedonio’s death.) That Macedonio writes a novel at all can be considered to be out of touch with the times, since many vanguardists thought the novel to be an exhausted aesthetic form. That critics almost categorically ignore Adriana in favor of Macedonio’s other, more “innovative” works can speak to their own obsession with the new and their own desires to disavow themselves of what is supposedly passé.[10]

Macedonio’s last bad novel challenges the vanguard insistence that the new must rule over all. It shows that the new is not absolutely autonomous nor can it totally exclude itself from the past. Consequently, in the seemingly straightforward “Nota a la novela mala” that precedes Adriana, Macedonio calls out his contemporaries who aspire to the new, claiming that it has been all the more difficult for him to reproduce and accurately aestheticize such old, bad forms, rather than just go ahead and write a newfangled novel like everyone else (1996a, 13). In other words, Macedonio asserts that it takes more talent to write something so bad and accordingly legitimates his own work in terms of its relation to what is not new. The author’s ostensible aim with Adriana, however, is not to exalt the old and pronounce that ‘things really used to be better’ in a reactionary or traditionalistic way – nor, for that matter, is that the aim of the current investigation. After all, Adriana is designed to be the last bad novel, and thus to function as propaedeutic for the novela a venir.

Adriana, much like Museo, operates as an example of aesthetic and philosophical pedagogy.[11] There is a primary lesson to be learned: namely, that representation has its limits, and is limiting, to boot. If Adriana is to live up to its promise of being the “last” of its kind, that to which Macedonio hopes to put an end with Adriana is the metaphysics of representation. Macedonio equates representation with what he calls the “culinary arts,” also known as “bad literature.” Representation is so “bad” because it operates to reinforce the transcendental, identitarian sense of Self – el Yo – of whomever might be taking part in such an art. The politics of this bad literature is that of Self-serving representation: the selfsame Self so desired, produced, and split off from other possibilities by means of interpellation into the subjectivizing State’s institutions, including capital “L” Literature, and the commodified culture industry. The latter institutions conspire to create a Self that believes it perpetually produces itself in accordance with cultural styles and trends – one that Self-identifies with the representative culture that it consumes and that consumes it, in turn.[12] The official institutions of the State, meanwhile, call out individuals as subjects so as to circumscribe their desires according to pre-established social and moral codes. In both cases, and especially when combined, the institutionalization of desire in the form of a discrete, ego-driven, and thoroughly interpellated Self-identity underpins the notion of a centered Subject at the center of it all, living freely, yet strictly in accordance with the demands of the times.

If bad literature equates to representation, and if the self equates to identity, then Gilles Deleuze is correct in saying, “The primacy of identity, however conceived, defines the world of representation” (1994, XIX). Deleuze also remarks that, “Representation is a site of transcendental illusion” (1994, 265). In Adriana Buenos Aires (Última novel mala), Macedonio proposes to shake this “transcendental illusion” from within representation itself. It is an avant-garde and rearguard proposal, expressed in a fittingly roundabout way.[13] As a mode of immanent critique, Macedonio writes Adriana in the old ways so as to make manifest their transcendental failings, show how “the forms of our logic practice this coercion on identity,” and, again, at the same time, so as to double-cross the vanguard commitment to the new and its attendant commodification and fetishization (Adorno 2008, 8).

Another word for “transcendental illusion” could be madness. Throughout Adriana, the novel’s narrator-protagonist, and Macedonio stand-in, Eduardo de Alto, encourages his friends to engage in altruistic, that is, Self-less acts of love in order to free themselves and their affections from the madness that is the belief in a unified and identitarian self. Eduardo affirms that, “La locura única es la ilusión del yo,” and that, furthermore, “la única virtud, la única belleza, el único ético-estético de las cosas es el altruismo, el amor, la ruptura del yo” (1996a, 119, 153). In opposition to the “ilusión del yo” stands the metaphysical virtue of Passion. As Monder explains, “La metafísica de las pasiones intenta rescatar al sujeto de ese encierro en sí mismo. En este sentido, Macedonio Fernández señala un punto clave: la crítica del sujeto moderno involucra la reescritura de la historia del deseo” (2007b, 95-96). According to Macedonio, then, madness has historically occupied not the margins but rather the very core of modern society in the form of the representational, transcendental “I”; this history must indeed be “rewritten,” that is, “ruptured” in a corporal and affective language that disrupts and displaces its supposed center. This kind of symptomology shows why Nietzsche once remarked that, “artists and philosophers are civilization’s doctors” (Deleuze 1995, 143).[14] To be sure, Macedonio here acts as a veritable (meta)physician in order to diagnose what he determines to be the primary symptoms of modern madness and the ways in which the subject might be saved.

Museo aspires to teach a similar lesson to that which is represented in Adriana, but in a different, that is, non-representative, that is, good way. This should come as no surprise, since Macedonio’s bad writing, which is behind the times and composed in its “ultimate” form, is intimately linked, if often indistinguishable from, his good writing, which is ahead of the times and the first attempt of a new form to come. Indeed, the twin novels were/are intended to be published and packaged as one entity “indivisible” (1996b, 267). And in Museo Macedonio even goes so far as to question which novel – the good or the bad – will actually be better, asking, “¿Cuál será la mejor?” (1996b, 267). While Macedonio believes that he has succeeded in the arduous task of writing a truly bad novel, he finds that he has failed with Museo. Still, he still affirms: “eso de fracasar es un lucimiento” (1996b, 119). The first good novel consequently opens itself toward the future, acting as prologue to what is to come. Macedonio spells this out as follows: “Como yo pensé que hay una Literatura buena a venir y una Literatura, una novelística mala hasta hoy […] me propuse entretener el ánimo de la gente lectora, y que siguieran leyendo indulgentes la mala aliviados por la conciencia de que ya la buena venía” (1996b, 118).[15] The novel that Macedonio promises to come is “una próxima novela malabuenaprimerúltima en su género,” which will show off his “ambidextría,” which we might say is another word for his ability to be both good and bad, avant-garde and rearguard, superadvanced and superannuated (1996b, 267-268, emphasis added).

That being said, Museo is not the same novel as Adriana. Unlike the latter, Museo reads nothing like a typical novel: there is little discernible plot, there are no embodied characters, and the work starts off with approximately fifty-six prologues. If Adriana tells too much of a story, saturating itself in sentimental and romantic representations, then there is little, if any, story told in Museo – apart from that of how one is, by all considerations, not to write a novel. More, Museo not only diagnoses but also seeks to palliate the symptoms of the Self. Whether as an author, a person, or a character, Macedonio consistently disrupts, defers, and even negates his own Self-representation. Here in Museo he attempts to do the same within the work he has written, but now for the sake of his reader.

That which Macedonio aims to provoke and disseminate within his reader is the confusing, arresting suggestion of the reader’s own non-existence, and/or, what is and is not the same, the sensation that the reader is being read, is a character in a novel. In Macedonio’s words this means: “conmoción total de la conciencia” (1996b, 18, emphasis in original); “un ‘choque de inexistencia’” (1996b, 38); “el mareo de su sentimiento de certidumbre de ser, el mareo de su yo” (1990, 258). Macedonio sums up this negating yet salvaging process here:

En resumen: la única Literatura o Prosa artística […] es la que tiende no al realismo sino a irrealizar al Hombre o al Cosmos, es decir: la Prosa no tiene otro fin artístico que el metafísico obtenido, perseguido no discursivamente sino por impresión de absurdo creído, o de auto-inexistencia creída, luego de una preparación, no raciocinante, progresiva, preanunciada hasta una Conclusión, sino sorpresiva.

(1990, 249)

He further explains his onto-aesthetic “means” to an onto-aesthetic “end” in Museo: “un resbalarse de sí mismo del lector, es todo lo que quise como medio; como fin busco la liberación de la noción de la muerte: la evanescencia, trocabilidad, rotación, turnación del yo lo hace inmortal, es decir no ligado su destino al de su cuerpo” (1996b, 33-34). A slippage in the self that, in effect and affect, constitutes immortality as it opens one up to the metaphysical One, to “sentir el misterio de sentir,” to the very substance of life and the world: Passion (1996b, 35). Macedonio finds that, “Dentro del misterio hay un [sic] claridad plena, la Certeza y sólo una: la Pasión” (1996b, 209). Hence, the essence of existence comes outside of subjectivity, sublated and “irrealizada” within a metaphysics that takes Passion as its primary cause. In this way, as it is pronounced in the last bad novel, “Lo que muere es el individuo, es decir, lo que nunca existió” (1996a, 121). What remains is what the individual has always been: a collection of passions and sensations, a dis-position that is therefore nothing new.


Despite their ostensible acts of self-marginalization and greater cultural critique, the avant-gardes often ally themselves with the culture industry’s reigning consumerist values, fetishizing not only the modern mandate to be new but also the modern mandate to produce. The incessant production of the new compels those that see themselves as being up to the times to produce incessantly. And if, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, “The liberation of the productive forces is confused with the liberation of man,” so too is the liberation of the new confused with the liberation of man – or, at least, with a select few (1975, 21). Meanwhile, the first good novel, the novel considered by some to be the most avant-garde of them all, refuses to produce itself. Macedonio thus refutes a “temporal order which is always merely that of production” and disrupts the productivist foundations of the modern culture industry as well (Baudrillard 1975, 40).[16] It bears repeating that, in spite of Macedonio’s perpetual promises regarding Museo, the novel was not published until 1967 – a full fifteen years after its author’s passing, and some forty years after he first made mention of it. In the meantime, Macedonio did produce other projects, publishing two books, along with numerous essays, poems, short stories, and other types of texts. He was highly regarded for his oratory skills and also composed many oral (and ephemeral) works such as toasts and other brief speeches that were not always written down or recorded. Fragments of Museo came out as early as 1928 as well. Yet, Museo, undoubtedly his most anticipated work, was set to be his masterpiece – and he refused to produce it according to the prevailing productivist imaginary. Of course, the novel did eventually come out. That being so, and without discounting the final unfinished work itself, what Macedonio really produced was all the anticipation and hype surrounding himself and his work. Such a means of production is no doubt an integral part and an immanent critique of the myth-making logic of the culture industry.

Piglia extols the virtues of all the work that Macedonio puts into Museo. He praises Macedonio for being able to “pasarse la vida escribiendo una sola novela que incluya todas las variantes y todas las historias posibles. La novela de una vida. Pero hay que tener el coraje de Macedonio” (2006, 99). But, surely, Macedonio spent much of his life not writing the novel as well. In this regard, Museo is not only an unfinished work-in-progress but also a refusal-to-work; it effectively un-works the novel as such. Museo is not only anti-novel, but also anti-work – and plenty of non-work went into it. Museo, in its affirmation of life outside of work, critiques “a society which in its absurd present form has rendered not work, but life, superfluous” (Adorno 2011, 113). One might expect as much from an author whose other works include short pieces entitled, “El no-hacer,” “El neceser de la ociosidad,” and “Poema de trabajo de estudios de las estéticas de la siesta” (1997; 1997; 2001).

There are also numerous occasions that arise in which Macedonio simply refuses to write. This tendency presents itself in both the good and the bad novels. In such moments Macedonio abdicates from his self-proclaimed autoridad by leaving blank pages and/or calling on his reader to write for him. For example, Adriana includes una “Página de omisión” (1996b, 97). Here, even though the author, “responsable del género,” knows he should compose a wonderfully bad scene which contrasts the joys and the sorrows of two different romantic couples, he’s suffering himself from a “bad day,” and thus asks for “indulgence” from the reader (1996b, 97). Later on in the novel, rather than writing a scene himself, the author asks for the reader’s direct participation in the writing process, delegating the completion of one of the novel’s final scenes to the “labor del ingenio del lector-autor” (1996b, 232). As Vecchio points out, this refusal to write informs Macedonio’s conception of what it means to be an author: “Según Macedonio, un autor es alguien que no escribe. […] Muy a menudo, se trata de un Autor cuya virtud principal es la pereza de escribir” (2003, 130). Not writing is therefore not “a liberation of work but a liberation from work” (Weeks 2011, 26, emphasis in original). These, too, are the values of Macedonio.

Macedonio’s refutation of production’s forward-moving temporality reasserts itself in the form of the seemingly interminable series of prologues that start off and restart Museo. These prologues commence the first good novel, but, as false starts, also indefinitely postpone its commencement by repeatedly repeating it in different ways. Museo, the first good novel, a work which Macedonio had promised to produce for years and years, is exceptionally unforthcoming in its own self-styled forthcomingness. The novel refuses to advance; it refuses to develop and to move forward. Instead, it stalls and interrupts itself with one new prologue after another, withdrawing into itself as it advances into the future. That which is produced with the prologues is not so much a product as a recurrent potential to begin anew, perhaps so as to show the potential of the new – but also its genetically repetitive nature.[17] “Velleity binds the new to the ever-same,” in Adorno’s words, “and this establishes the inner communication of the modern and myth. The new wants nonidentity, yet intention reduces it to identity; modern art constantly works at the Münchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical” (1997, 22-23). The modern myth of the individual subject therefore secures itself to the modern myth of production. This subject must believe that it is capable of producing a Self-work, or an identity, as something repeatedly new that might overcome and cancel out all that it cannot control.

Avant the Future

As a work, Museo is left unfinished. It is open and open-ended. And although it has failed, it has also paved the way for a truly good novel to appear at some point in the future. Museo ends as it begins – with a prologue. In “Al que quiera escribir esta novela (Prólogo final),” the prologue that closes and effectively re-opens the novel, the author declares:

La dejo libro abierto: será el primer “libro abierto” en la historia literaria, es decir, que el autor, deseando que fuera mejor o siquiera bueno y convencido de que por su destrozada estructura es una temeraria torpeza con el lector, pero también de que es rico en sugestiones, deja autorizado a todo escritor futuro de buen gusto e impulso y circunstancias que favorezcan un intenso trabajo, para corregirlo lo más acertadamente que pueda y editarlo libremente, con o sin mención de mi obra y nombre. No será poco el trabajo. Suprima, corrija, pero en lo posible que quede algo. [18]

(1996a, 253)

That Museo opens itself up to the future and takes faith in the fact that some “escritor futuro” will correct and improve upon the good style appears to be clear. Yet, Macedonio’s conceptions of and relationship to the future as such are ambivalent and not necessarily as trusting as they may initially appear to be. While Macedonio embraces the future as both an open temporal reality and as a postponed, dislocated location of potential activity, that is, as part of the a venir, he opposes the future’s co-optation as an avant-garde, political, and ideological idea, that is, as manifested in el futurismo and as incarnated in the first futurist, F.T. Marinetti. For Macedonio, the future functions as both impetus and impediment.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi tells us in his book After the Future, that the 20th Century was “the century that trusted in the future” (2011, 17, emphasis in original). Bifo further clarifies this idea, discussing the significance of the future vis-à-vis futurism: “Italian futurism is a good essential introduction to the twentieth century […]. Futurism asserted the idea that the future was the better dimension of time, not the past. When in fact, futurism is all about the destruction of the past, and the emphasis on and glorification of the future” (2012, 93). Futurism’s conception of and concomitant faith in the future sparked not only the avant-garde and modernity but, as Bifo argues, the 20th Century on a whole; it also “giv[es] birth to the language of commercial advertising” (2011, 17). We have already seen how the avant-garde tends to bind itself to the means and ways of commodified expression. In many ways, this connection commenced with Futurism and became all the more intimately (and ideologically) entangled because of Futurism’s glorification of speed and the machine. When speed and the machine combine, one is able to revel in the promise of modern productivity, just as the Futurists did, along with so many other vanguardists around the world. Bifo tells us that, “The Futurist Manifesto declared the aesthetic value of speed. The myth of speed sustained the whole edifice of modernity’s imaginary, and the reality of speed played a crucial role in the history of capital, whose development is based on the acceleration of labor time” (2011, 21). Macedonio, on the contrary, writes according to a different, decelerated rhythm and pace. He tends to slow things down, preferring to delay, anachronize, and even honor idleness and non-work, rather than speed up and produce according to the typical tempo of the times. He therefore undermines the modern and avant-garde (and mythological) injunctions in favor of the new, the now, speed, and productivism, along with certain versions of the future as well.

Macedonio does not see the future in the same way as the Futurists do. He speaks directly to his personal opposition to Marinetti and to futurism’s supposedly forward-thinking conceptions of the future and the past in his “Brindis a Marinetti.” The brindis was composed in honor of the acclaimed futurist’s arrival to Buenos Aires in 1927 and later published in Papeles de Recienvenido. Iconoclastic in his own ways, Macedonio says of and to Marinetti:

En materia política soy adversario vuestro […] pues mientras pareceís pasatista en cuanto a teoría de Estado, lo que impresiona contradictorio con vuestra estética, y creéis en el beneficio de las dictaduras, provisorias o regulares, yo no conservo de mi media fe en el Estado, más que la mitad […]. [H]ay que confesar, insigne futurista, que el pasado no ha muerto, y no le falta un parecido de porvenir.

(2007, 61-62)

According to Macedonio, then, Marinetti’s outdated faith in a greater, centralized, fascist state contradicts his faith in all things new. Try as Marinetti may to kill the past in the name of the future, Macedonio proclaims that “the past has not died.” Not a stranger to contradictions himself, Macedonio does not obfuscate these contradictions due to ideological or political reasons here. And that which Macedonio trusts less than he trusts the future is clearly the State.

In his typically periphrastic fashion, he rearticulates his condemnation of el futurismo in Museo. Here, Macedonio says of his first good novel and of himself:

Esta novela que fue y será futurista hasta que se escriba, como lo es su autor, que hasta hoy no ha escrito página alguna futura y aun ha dejado para lo futuro el ser futurista en prueba de su entusiasmo por serlo efectivamente cuanto antes – sin caer en la trampa de ser un futurista de en seguida como los que adoptaron el futurismo, sin comprenderlo, en tiempo presente – y por eso se le ha declarado el novelista que tiene más porvenir, todo por hacer, apresuramiento genial suyo que nace de haber pensado que con el progreso de todas las velocidades la posterioridad no se ha hecho contemporánea y ya está, para cada obra, en la última edición periodística del día de aparición.

(1996b, 43)

Within this confusing passage Macedonio’s ambivalence with respect to the future is nevertheless intelligible: he conflates the past and the future states of his novel and his relationship to these supposedly unique temporalities as the novel’s author; he calls himself “el novelista que tiene más porvenir, todo por hacer” but also says that he has left the future, or at least a certain conception of the future, to the misguided futurists; and he satirizes the otherwise celebrated speed and productivity of the greater culture industry. Macedonio’s skepticism with respect to the futurist and avant-garde future is thus another example of how he is rearguard. Paradoxically, this distrust may also be prophetic and forward-thinking in its own right. For Bifo, writing in 2012, also asserts, “Now the glory of the future is over. We no longer trust in the future as the futurist – and the moderns, in general – did” (2012, 93). In his own untimely ways, Macedonio did trust in the future – but only up to a certain point.


Whether or not Macedonio someday finally comes and arrives in the future, reading and interpreting Macedonio will always prove to be a difficult and vexing task. This is because his work constantly unworks not only its aesthetic but also its cultural, temporal, and philosophical foundations. As Vecchio notes, when reading Macedonio, “Lo que debería orientarnos, nos pierde” (2003, 25). Nevertheless, Macedonio maintains that, “Este confusionismo deliberado es probablemente de una fecundidad conciencial liberadora” (1996a, 254). Confusion is nothing new: it is an inevitable part of thought, expression and being. For that very reason, in the mind of Macedonio, confusion should induce sympathy in his reader. Confusion undoes the ego, opening the reader up to what is outside of identity – perhaps even to the other.[19] Sympathy is created through the collective working and unworking, through the collective understanding of this Self-questioning confusion. For Macedonio, this is an ethical process: “la ética (que es toda la emoción de simpatía y la acción que ella provoca; la ética es la trasposición del yo, el disyoísmo”) (1990, 238). If an overriding sense of Self-preservation is what has always lost us and led to nothing less than madness on a massive, modern scale, then an ethical and equally overriding metaphysical method is required to critique this process and rescue whatever remains.

Apart from being so thoroughly and intentionally confusing, Macedonio maintains that what he does produce in his work is indeed altogether metaphysical. That Metaphysics itself operates a confused and vexed methodology should perhaps be taken as a given.[20] To be sure, when referencing Macedonio’s particular metaphysical approach, Monder goes so far as to say, “la metafísica es una confusión sistemática inevitable” (2007a, 56). In no less categorical terms, Adorno proclaims, “It can undoubtedly be said that the concept of metaphysics is the vexed question of philosophy” (2001, 1). He also tells us that, “The term […] arose from a principle of literary arrangement,” and that “it is precisely [the] twofold aim of criticism and rescue which constitutes the nature of metaphysics” (2001, 12, 20, emphasis in original). In light of Adorno’s explanation, what else are Macedonio’s twin novels, if not his entire oeuvre, but an ongoing manifestation of the metaphysical process of critique and rescue? By critiquing the novel, Macedonio aims to rescue the novel. By critiquing philosophy, Macedonio aims to rescue philosophy. By critiquing the new, Macedonio aims to rescue the past, the present, and the future. By critiquing productivism, Macedonio aims to rescue life. By critiquing the ego-driven “I,” Macedonio aims to rescue the sympathetic subject.

Macedonio bases his metaphysics in Passion. Such an insistence on Passion as a primary cause and (dis)organizing principle can be attributed, in part, to the thought of another metaphysical thinker, Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer haunts Macedonio through and through. It is important to note that Schopenhauer believes that, “when passion is spoken of, we can subsume this under the concept of the greatest force, of the mightiest agency in the world, or under the concept of irrationality, and this under the concept of powerlessness or weakness” (1969, 49). Via the concept of Passion and its potential for both absolute power and absolute impotence, Macedonio acts as what Schopenhauer calls a “practical philosopher,” one who “translate[s] the concept into life” (1969, 90). Macedonio also “translates” passion into his art, which is both his life’s work and its concomitant unworking, which effectively and affectively makes the impractical condition the practical, just as the impossible conditions the possible.

The realm of metaphysics would not seem to that of practicality. Still, Macedonio infuses it with another practice, another thought: Love. Love operates as a generous, if capricious, passion that lays bare the individual. “No creo que la Metafísica sea el placer directo de una explicación,” he postulates, “es un trabajo que tiene el placer de una perspectiva de poder; es un poder lo que se busca; un poder directo del amor: que éste pueda ser causa inmediata” (1996b, 33). The potentially pleasurable dis-position of love is ideally to come over and over again, as “immediate cause,” as prolegomenon. The first and ultimate origin and end of this informalized metaphysics would not be an “explanation,” which is never not immediately possible, and therefore representable, but rather a love that yields a “perspective,” a “power.” Albeit a power which, failingly, can consume what it composes and exhaust what it works to expose. It is thus by design that both the last bad novel and the first good novel narrate a common tragedy – love unfulfilled, come undone – and that, for Macedonio, tragedy represents the “cumbre del arte” (1990, 235). By its very definition, Passion – in good and in bad, in pleasure and in pain – works against itself. Passion thinks against itself. Passion is its own tragedy. Yet this might be Passion’s only means to matter in a metaphysical way. Adorno says that, “if metaphysical thinking today is to have any chance, […] it will have to […] think against itself” (2001, 115). However tragic, Passion is that very metaphysical thinking that also unthinks itself.

An even greater tragedy is that of the Self. Macedonio thinks that the belief in a Self-identity haunts and harms not only what is rearguard but what is avant-garde as well. Whether old or new, the culture industry, along with its unequivocal valorization of the new, production, and the future, has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the Self. As Adorno posits, “For people chained to the blind principle of self-preservation under the prevailing social conditions of production, […] this liquidation of the ego is what is most to be feared” (2001, 108). Were the Self to fade away, then people would have to somehow valorize other cultural forms. They would have to live in other ways. Thus, to return to Adorno, “whether it is still possible to live is the form in which metaphysics impinges upon us today” (2001, 112). It is this question of living that matters the most for Adorno – as a fellow metaphysician, the same question matters the most Macedonio as well.

How to undo these chains? How to live? And just where might we look for a thought that could possibly point us in the right direction? Again, these are not new questions. Yet, seeing as how Macedonio himself does not know which of his twin novels will be better – the good or the bad – we might look to the novel which nearly no one reads or writes about, to that which is behind the times, at the rearguard, to Adriana Buenos Aires (Última novela mala). Here, we are told: “No hay que creerse nunca más vivo que los demás: lo mismo te descuidarás vos que cualquiera” (1996a, 55). In simple metaphysical terms, this means that one life is just as alive as another. We must therefore critique the Self so as to rescue life – and, if possible, live with each other.


01. Such self-situatedness functions as part and parcel of what Julio Prieto calls Macedonio’s ex-centricidad (2002). Samuel Monder references Macedonio’s aptitude for operating “desde dentro y desde fuera de una tradición” (2007a, 54, emphasis in original). In addition, Todd S. Garth outlines Macedonio’s relationships to both the international and the more autochthonous, Argentine avant-gardes as follows: “Macedonio remained simultaneously apart from and a part of the Argentine avant-garde for consciously aesthetic and ethical reasons”; ultimately, “Macedonio exploited avant-garde techniques in order to expose the avant-garde movements’ inadequate efforts to discard subjectivity” (2005, 49). Garth’s assertion, in particular, will be key to the arguments offered here regarding subjectivity.

02. See Miguel Dalmaroni (2007); he focuses specifically instances in which Macedonio appears in the works of Saer and Piglia.

03. Signals of Macedonio’s potential, and potentially imminent, arrival can be detected in two relatively recent publications: 1) as part of a twelve volume set published under the collective title, Historia crítica de la literatura argentina, an individual volume of critical scholarship is devoted entirely to Macedonio, (Macedonio, Vol. VIII, 2007) – the only other individual author who receives such individual treatment is Sarmiento; 2) Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena) was translated into English for the first time in 2010 by Margaret Schwartz as The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel).

04. That is, as Jacques Derrida says in Specters of Marx, “one can never distinguish between the future-to-come and the coming back of a specter” (2005, 46).

05. A mode of deconstruction avant la lettre, Julio Prieto refers to Maceonio’s thought as “una suerte de proto-desconstrucción” in which “la aporía es el camino de lo imposible” (2007, 136, 142). Given Macedonio’s own unfinished project, given his ability to disrupt and disjoin time, and thus any nominal sense of “proto,” one could turn the tables and say instead, or rather, at the same time, that, since he has yet “to come,” deconstruction prefigures Macedonio.

06. Even more significant for the work at hand will be Adorno’s definition of metaphysics as a process of “critique and rescue,” which shall be applied to Macedonio’s metaphysics in the final section of the present essay (2001, 19).

07. This avant-garde/rearguard dialectic may be relevant to other Argentine vanguardists as well. Besides Macedonio, the artistic collective most associated with the Argentine avant-garde would certainly be those connected to the revistaMartín Fierro (1924-1927), including and along with Borges. Sarlo notes, however, that for both los martinfierristas and Borges, “La novedad reside, precisamente, en que la poesía de vanguardia se hace cargo de un tono nostálgico” (1999, 47). A similar case could be made for Roberto Arlt, too. For example, in Arlt’s novel, Los siete locos, the Astrólogo, arguably Arlt’s greatest character, advances the following with respect to his proposed “super-modern” sociedad secreta: ‘“Vi que el callejón sin salida de la realidad social tenía una única salida… y era volver para atrás”’ (2001, 121). For more on Arlt’s ambiguous relationship with respect to modernity and the avant-garde, see Wells (2013).

08. Garth speaks here to the ways in which Macedonio’s self-imposed and semi-derogatory moniker of recienvenido shows his solidarity with all those who were new to Argentina: “The deprecating term recienvenido, or ‘newcomer,’ in the Argentina of the early twentieth century, could not be employed without invoking profound and widespread ethnic, cultural, and social tensions. In Macedonio’s case, this ironic self-designation serves to mock those tensions, and arguably to dissolve them, by redefining and defusing a highly charged word. […] ‘[R]ecienvenido’ refers to Macedonio’s refusal to participate in Argentine xenophobia” (2005, 75).

09. As Jitrik posits, “la preservación del equilibrio de los dos polos […] parece abrir un camino en sus búsquedas” (1972, 39). Daniel Attala further explains Macedonio’s approach to thinking through and with supposed opposites as follows: “no es ni dualismo ni monismo, menos aún una síntesis dialéctica de ambos, sino las dos cosas a la vez. […] Lo que queda puede expresarse así: cogito quia absurdum, ‘la Imposibilidad como criterio’” (2007, 321, emphasis in original).

10. One notable exception to this critical tendency to ignore Adriana is Garth (2005).

11. Sarlo clearly does not consider Macedonio when she states that, “la vanguardia de los veinte no es pedagógica” (1999, 100). It is not for nothing that Macedonio, elder vanguardist that he is, is referred to as the “father of the avant-garde” (López Ocón 2007, n.p.).

12. Jean Baudrillard details this desire to produce a Self, along with its relationship to identitarian representation, when he speaks of “the identity that man dons with his own eyes when he can think of himself as something to produce, to transform, or bring about as value. This remarkable phantasm is confused with that of representation, in which man becomes his own signified for himself and enjoys himself as the content of value and meaning in a process of self-expression and self-accumulation whose form escapes him” (1975, 20, emphasis in original).

13. Adorno here refers to the need for a critique of the self-aware work from within the work, stating, “If in accord with its model, the fetish character of the commodity, the new becomes a fetish, this is to be criticized in the work itself” (1997, 22).

14. We could also cite Nietzsche for proclaiming the following regarding the potential purpose of art: “art as the joyful hope that the spell of individuation can be broken” (2003, 52).

15. Both Adriana and Museo therefore explore the deconstructive possibilities of what Alberto Moreiras and Gareth Williams call “denarrativization” (Moreiras 2001; Williams 2002). Williams defines this specific strategy as “a narrative that is capable of exploring dislocation and of opening up its destructuring structures to future possibilities” (2002, 153). In “La ‘novela futura’ de Macedonio Fernández,” Noé Jitrik speaks to a similar creative process and specifically describes Macedonio’s process as “la búsqueda de […] formas nuevas, la frustración por imposibilidad de hallarlas dadas las dimensiones de la búsqueda, la remisión al futuro de tales formas” (1972, 32).

16. Baudrillard elucidates the ways in which production operates in a seemingly all-encompassing way in the following passage: “A specter haunts the revolutionary imagination: the phantom of production. Everywhere it sustains an unbridled romanticism of productivity. […] Everywhere productivist discourse reigns and, whether this productivity has objective ends or is deployed for itself, it is itself a form of value. It is the leitmotif both of the system and of a radical challenge – but such a consensus is suspect” (1975, 17-18). This “specter of production” no doubt haunts the modern and avant-garde imaginations as well.

17. According to Garth’s analysis, the prologues demonstrate that “the only sort of invention possible in a world without a subject […] is a world in which inventions are either always potential or always repetitions” (2005, 82).

18. Macedonio’s claim to Museo being the first “open novel” is not entirely accurate. Felisberto Hernández, a contemporary of Macedonio’s, and someone who, in certain ways, also fits the avant-garde/rearguard dialectic, says of his Libro sin tapas, published in 1929: “Este libro es sin tapas porque es abierto y libre: se puede escribir antes y después de él” (qtd. in Verani, 1996, 43). Notably, Felisberto also once composed a brief “Prólogo de un libro que nunca pude empezar” (2007, 15). For a more in depth comparison of Macedonio and Felisberto, see Prieto (2002).

19. Monder describes this process and also notes how it sparks a certain joy with the reader: “Hay un goce en la frustración de nuestras expectativas, que no podría lograrse en la vida cotidiana, en donde el educado lector probablemente maldice ante la mínima contrariedad. Esta apertura a un mundo de infinitas posibilidades supone una negación, o un olvido, del ego y su manía de manipular – etiquetar, catalogar, racionalizar – toda y cada una de nuestras experiencias, como dice Fernández: la todoposibilidad intelectiva posee una resonancia liberatriz. (2007b, 102, emphasis in original)

20. With his deliberately confusing metaphysics in mind, Vecchio refers to Macedonio as the quintessential thinker of “la metafísica bruta” (2003, 33-34). 

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