By Jonathan Basile
Does literature have a philosophy? Can it give expression to a consistent system of principles, and assert them as true? Literature, by its very nature, is a tumult of conflicting voices severed from any demand for truth and sincerity. Is it rather philosophy’s proving ground? Where philosophy speaks of the universal, does literature test its hypotheses by speaking of the particular? Hasn’t something gone awry if we turn to fiction for proof, evidence, truth? Perhaps they have no relationship then—after all, philosophy is serious business, and literature, as we all know, is play.
But say–for a moment–that literature is inimical to philosophy—where one appears the other is absent. Then could there be philosophy at all? One finds every variation of inventive narrativity deployed among those counting themselves as philosophers, from Plato’s dialogues to Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness. If we take philosophy’s literary form seriously (which perhaps requires taking it playfully), can anything resembling philosophy survive our reading?
Perhaps the best author to help us place these two terms in relation is Borges. If there is such a thing as “Borges’ philosophy,” it cannot be found as a set of consistent positions and propositions, but rather must occur as the very play of fiction and philosophy within the variegated corpus with Borges’ (often effaced) signature. No one delighted more in the play of genre, treating literature as non-fiction and non-fiction as literature, inventing histories and disguising short stories as academic treatises. Every position one can find in his oeuvre, whether from a character or narrator in his short stories or in his own or someone else’s voice in his non-fiction, will be undermined or ironized elsewhere in his labyrinthine texts. One finds assertion, but never position, positivity—at least, not for long.
His “non-fiction,” which is notorious for riddling its essayistic form with invented authors and works (including the “Chinese encyclopedia” referenced by Foucault), most resembles what we customarily take as philosophy. The names of philosophers appear, their propositions are cited approvingly or logically refuted; one imagines oneself to be approaching the doctrine of Borges.
If one were to take only those statements where the proper name of a proper philosopher appears, one would come away with the impression of a character we could call Borges the Idealist. His favorite philosophers are Berkeley, Hume, and Schopenhauer, and he argues with them only to move further in the direction indicated by their thought.
For example, in “The New Refutation of Time,” Borges offers a sort of hierarchy. Schopenhauer denied the reality of our representations, but seemed to take on faith our representations of our perceiving body and grounded perception in the brain. Berkeley criticizes this cerebralism by reminding us that we know of a brain only through representation, granting it no more fundamental reality. On the other hand, Hume places in question the objective and subjective self-identity that Berkeley affirms by grounding the continuity of objects in the mind of God, and our ideas in a thinking, active subject.
Borges offers to go one step further, still in the spirit of all three thinkers, by denying the reality of time:
I repeat: there is not, behind the face, a secret self governing our acts or receiving our impressions; we are only the series of those imaginary acts and those errant impressions. The series? If we deny matter and spirit, which are continuities, and if we also deny space, I do not know what right we have to the continuity that is time. (“Time” 322)
Were this all there was to “Borges’ Philosophy,” it would not merit much attention. Heidegger has taught us to be skeptical of the power of negation in philosophical argumentation. When one simply reverses a proposition, without seeking and placing in question its ground, one protects and preserves what is fundamental in that thinking—in this case, both Berkeleyan idealism and the materialism it counters presuppose the representational subject-object form of all thinking. Even when this form is assumed in order to question the existence of the subject.
Borges’ refutations presuppose the same representationalism: “I might add that if time is a mental process, how can it be shared by countless, or even two different men?” (“New Refutation” 322). If we simply say “no” to time, while imagining it as a form of subjective intuition, have we said anything at all? But Borges’ essay, without ever making too explicit its canny playfulness, complicates its subject by complicating its form.
First, we are told that our states of being are “absolute,” not linked together by the flowing of the stream named time, but that “Every instant is autonomous” (Borges, “Time” 322). Following this fractured, disseminative view of the instant, a romantic, unified identity of all in all is put forward, without any apparent recognition of the contradiction:
I suspect, nonetheless, that the number of circumstantial variants is not infinite: we can postulate, in the mind of an individual […] two identical moments. Once this identity is postulated, we may ask: Are not these identical moments the same moment? Is not one single repeated terminal point enough to disrupt and confound the series in time? Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare? (Borges, “Time” 323)
The form of Borges’ essay offers several suggestions that this contradiction is anything but carelessness on his part. His introduction comments on its paradoxical title—how can one both refute time and offer a “new” refutation? He could be read as dismissing language with a sort of nominalism, or acknowledging language’s counter-refutation of everything he will go on to write, when he posits that, “In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it” (Borges, “Time” 318). Furthermore, the “New Refutation” is not new at all—it is a composite of two previously published essays, each offering a “similar” argument. If there is truly no time, if every instant is swallowed in a universal identity, why this need to republish (with slight variations and perfidies) his past work, and why this need to go over the “same” argument twice? Or, if we accept a-temporal fragmentation, how do we even recognize these essays or arguments as the same or similar to any others? How, for that matter, do we ever move from the unfurling of a sentence in time to the seemingly static point of a meaning? And how does that point divide from itself in the non-simultaneity of ironic self-contradiction?
We now see the problem of searching for Borges’ philosophy in his “non-fiction.” The man of letters who we think we find there, playing harmless games with his charming erudition in the pages of popular journals, is constantly worked over and subverted by none other than—Borges. Everywhere that we think we find an assertion of romantic universalism (which reduces all history to a single author creating a single work in a single, self-identical instant), one can find, elsewhere or within the no-longer-self-same work, the contradictory premise, a disruptive vision of ceaseless difference-from-self.
Were we to pursue this particular investigation, the theme of time and identity would take us to Borges’ writings on Nietzsche and the Eternal Return. Indeed, when we read his “non-fiction” as mutually exclusive fragments and forms vying against themselves, against organic totality, Borges begins to seem closest to Nietzsche among all those recognizable, or at least recognized as, philosophers.
If we turn, instead, to Borges’ fiction (but weren’t we there already?), we face all the imposing questions mentioned above. The most frequently deployed method for reading Borges’ fiction as philosophy, for reading philosophy out of or into his fiction, is to ascribe the assertions of his characters or narrators to Borges himself. But a similar impasse faces us—every such assertion can be countered by another or by some cunning play with literary form itself.
Ana María Barrenechea is perhaps the foundational figure for reading Borges’ fiction as philosophy, and Jaime Alazraki best represents a related trend, reading Borges as a religious mystic. Both of them complicate this reading (Barrenechea comes close to calling Borges a philosopher without doctrine, Alazraki to calling him a Kabbalist without monotheism), but both stabilize the ideas they find in his fictional work in order to preserve them in the provenance of philosophy or religion.
“The Aleph” is a perfect example of the difficulties that face either reading. It tells the story of a character named “Borges” who encounters a (true or false? The narrative wavers) Aleph in the basement of a pompous Argentine poet. The latter explains his Aleph as a single point in space where, “without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (Borges, Fictions 281).
The passage in which Borges looks into the Aleph is one of the most celebrated in his corpus. It is a moving vision of transcendence and paradox, the universal and the particular, intellect and passion. Should we say this story is Borges’ (the author’s) own theophanic, mystic vision, or his philosophy of eternity in the instant? But isn’t he also making fun of himself when he lampoons his poet friend’s attempt to make the Aleph into an epic called The Earth (turning its visions into poetry, just as Borges the author does): “So witless did these ideas strike me as being, so sweeping and pompous the way they were expressed, that I associated them immediately with literature. Why, I asked him, didn’t he write these ideas down? Predictably, he replied that he already had” (Fictions 276).
The feebleness of this epic is described in a kind of list poem that directly ironizes the famed enumeration of the Aleph, “He proposed to versify the entire planet; by 1941 he had already dispatched several hecatres of the state of Queensland, more than a kilometer of the course of the Ob, a gasworks north of Veracruz…” The list goes on.
Is Borges’ story the celebration of mystic union or its ironization? Does he hold or behold the infinite self-identity of God and eternity or the impossibility of the same? The risk and difficulty of reading Borges as literature would be to consider that one could posit both at once, in a “single” story or instant that no longer coincided with itself. How do we read a fiction that is capable, much like the “Borges” of “The Aleph,” of dividing from and gently mocking itself?
In contrast to Barrenechea and Alazraki, Efraín Kristal offers the best example of what it would mean to read Borges’ literature as literature. If we are to derive some philosophical significance from it, it can only come from this reading. Kristal offers a transformative reading of Borges’ “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” This story tells of an early 20th century Frenchman who takes on the strange task of making himself the author of Don Quixote.
His method is no less odd: he does not want to mechanically copy the text, but only having read it as a schoolboy, hopes to recreate it from a moment of inspiration (so we’re told). Not by forgetting three centuries of history and inhabiting the life and mind of Cervantes, but by “continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard” (Borges, Fictions 91).
The narrator proceeds to read passages from Don Quixote as though they were written by Menard, finding different, more subtle meanings in them than he is willing to attribute to the identical text written by Cervantes. Critics tend to assimilate this story to Borges’ play with authorship and attribution in his “non-fiction” writings; that is to say, they take the narrator to be Borges.
However, Kristal has noted a strange coincidence about the narrator of “Pierre Menard.” Certain of his statements repeat verbatim those of Erich Ludendorff, the commander of the German armed forces during WWI, co-conspirator with Hitler, and an outspoken racist and anti-semite. Though Borges is best known for his political allegiances later in life, when he supported the authoritarian government in Argentina, during WWII he was an ardent anti-fascist and published extensively against the pro-Nazi sentiment in Argentina, including essays that criticized Ludendorff directly. That is to say, if Ludendorff is narrating “Pierre Menard,” it is likely to mark some distance between the narrator’s views and those of Borges.
The story opens with a denunciation of a false catalog of Menard’s works, published in a periodical whose “deplorable readers” are described as “few and Calvinist (if not Masonic and circumcised)” (Borges, Fictions 88). We should attribute this anti-semitism to Ludendorff—in fact, it is a quotation. The irony is apparent: the work of Menard, which routinely makes sport of the idea of authenticity or the attachment of a work to the context of its creation (including its author), is nonetheless forced to conform to the ideological purity of a vulgar genealogist. We should recall the role the construction of an authentic genealogy played in the violent fantasies of the Nazis when interpreting the target of Borges’ critical irony.
We should question, in turn, the central premise of the story: The Quixote does not depend on anyone’s moment of inspiration to be read as the work of a fin de siècle Frenchman—the work has always already severed itself from its context, and permits any intention to be read into it.
The question of Borges and philosophy is, thus, the very question of philosophy and literature. Philosophy of a certain kind may be impossible in literary form; it is nonetheless impossible to philosophize without literature, without that narrativity which unites the logical (with its premises and consequences) and the chronological. Placed in jeopardy is any philosophy that claimed to transcend its nationality, its language and idiom, and its birthdate, to arrive at universal and eternal truths. Nor are these stories bound to their context, but adrift in a field (dis-)oriented from every other non-self-identical point, a flux resembling time only to the extent that it is never simultaneous, that it never coincides with itself.
Barrenechea, Ana María. Borges, the Labyrinth Maker. Trans. Robert Lima. New York: New York UP, 1965. Print.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1998. Print.
—. “The New Refutation of Time.” Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine. The Total Library: Non-fiction 1922-1986. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. London: Penguin, 1999. 317-32. Print.
Kristal, Efraín. “UCLA Professor Erain Kristal Delivers the 118th Faculty Research Lecture on ‘Jorge Luis Borges’” UCLA 118th Faculty Research Lecture. UCLA, Los Angeles. 13 May 2015. YouTube. Web. 4 Jan. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXR9AiqRXVQ>.
Jonathan Basile (@jonotrainEB/jonathanbasile.info) is a Ph.D. Student in Emory’s Comparative Literature program, and the creator of an online universal library, libraryofbabel.info. His first book, Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream of Totality, is forthcoming from punctum books. His non-fiction has been published in The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and Electric Literature, and his fiction has been published in minor literature[s] and Litro. Of course, it’s also available in the universal library, if you know where to look.