A Conversation with Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by JENNIFER ACKER
Prepare, readers, for an engaging
cross-examination of Jorge Luis Borges by philosophy professor Tomás
Abraham and associate professors Alejandro Rússovich and Enrique Marí.
Originally conducted in Spanish, in 1984, it has just been published in English.
Check yourself into the well-stocked
library of Borges' mind, where poetry, philosophy, and fable mingle and
Rússovich: We begin. What can we say about…?
Borges: In the beginning, b’reshit bara elohim, no?
Rússovich: B’reshit bara elohim et hashamayin ve et ha’aretz, in the
beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
No, the Gods created.
Rússovich: Ah, “Gods”; elohim is plural. Borges knows more.
Abraham: Today, philosophy invites poetry to a discussion. We have a poet…
Abraham: A supposed poet, then, of whom we can ask what relationships exist
between philosophy and poetry.
Some time ago I said that philosophy is a fantastic branch of study. But I
didn’t mean anything against philosophy, on the contrary; it could be said, for
example, that it was exactly the same [as poetry] maintaining that the syntax
is from two distinct places, [and] that philosophy deserves a place in the
order of aesthetics. If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic
literature, you’ll see that they are much more ambitious than the poets. For
example, what works of poetry are comparable with something as astonishing as
Spinoza’s god: an infinite substance endowed with infinite attributes?
Every philosophy creates a world with its own special laws, and these models
may or may not be fantastic, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve entered into poetry,
and also fables, that is, I’m not a novelist. I’ve read very few novels in my life;
for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad. I’ve never attempted a novel,
but I’ve tried to write fables. I’ve dedicated my life to reading more than
anything, and I’ve found that reading philosophical texts is no less pleasant
than reading literary texts, and perhaps there is no essential difference
My father showed me his library, which seemed to me infinite, and he told me to
read whatever I wanted, but that if something bored me I should put it down
immediately, that is, the opposite of obligatory reading. Reading has to be a
happiness, and philosophy gives us happiness, and that is the contemplation of
a problem. Quincy said that discovering the problem is no less important than
discovering a solution, and I don’t know if any solutions have been discovered,
but many problems have been discovered. The world continues to be more
enigmatic, more interesting, more enchanting.
I said a moment ago that I’ve dedicated my life to reading and writing. For me
they are two equally pleasurable activities. When writers talk about the
torture of writing, I don’t understand it; for me writing is a necessity. If I
were Robinson Crusoe I would write on my desert island. When I was young I
thought about what I considered the heroic life of my military elders, a life
that had been rich, and mine… The life of a reader, sometimes rashly, seemed to
me a poor life. Now I don’t believe that; the life of a reader can be as rich
as any other life. Suppose Alonso Quijano had never left his library, or bookstore,
as Cervantes called it, I believe that his life reading would have been as rich
as when he conceived the project of turning himself into Quixote. For him the
latter life was more real, for me reading about him has been one of the most
vivid experiences of my life.
And now that I have committed the indecency of turning eighty-five, I confirm
without melancholy that my memory is full of verses and full of books, and I
can’t see past the year 1955—I lost my reader’s vision—but if I think about my
past life, I think of course about friends, loves also, but I think most of all
about books. My memory is full of quotes in many languages, and I think that,
returning to philosophy, that we are not enriched by its solutions, as these
solutions are doubtful, they are arbitrary, and philosophy does enrich us by
demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought. That is, what
philosophy offers us isn’t a system. It’s not like someone stated a concrete
and transparent piece of knowledge, it’s a series of doubts, and the study of
these doubts is a pleasure. The study of philosophy can be very pleasant…
So, resuming my preliminary digressions, I would say that I don’t believe there
is an essential difference between philosophy and poetry. Now, other questions,
and I hope I can answer them with fewer digressions, more concretely, but
clearly, I’m a little nervous, I’m very timid, I’m a veteran of timidity. I was
timid when I was young, imagine now that I’m eighty-five I’m seriously
Marí: Mr. Borges, you mentioned
something very interesting about philosophy, and that is its enigmatic
character. Among the important philosophical enigmas, in spite of the fact that
there are many, there is one…
I would say there’s nothing else…
Marí: Among these important enigmas
one is the enigma of truth, the other is the enigma of death.
For me death is a hope, the irrational certitude of being abolished, erased and
forgotten. When I’m sad, I think, what does it matter what happens to a
twentieth-century South American writer; what do I have to do with all of this?
You think it matters what happens to me now, if tomorrow I will have
disappeared? I hope to be totally forgotten, I believe that this is death. But
perhaps I’m wrong and what follows is another life on another plane, with
distinct conditions, no less interesting than this one, and I will accept that
life, too, just as I have accepted this one. But I would prefer not to remember
this one in the other, being younger. [Laughter.]
Reprinted with permission from Habitus:
A Diaspora Journal.