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 merge.

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. [laughter]

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 between them.

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 terrified. [laughter]

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.