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Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“Forget your personal tragedy,” Ernest Hemingway exhorted his dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald in a tough-love letter of advice. “Good writers always come back. Always.” It is an insight as true of writers as it is of all artists and of human beings in general, as true of personal tragedy as it is of collective tragedy — something Toni Morrison articulated in her mobilizing manifesto for the writer’s task in troubled times: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

That is what Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) — born the same year as Hemingway, writing two decades before Morrison — conveys with uncommon splendor of sentiment in Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Including a Selection of Poems (public library) — the record of his dialogues with the Argentine journalist and poet Roberto Alifano, conducted in the final years of Borges’s life, by which point he had been blind for almost thirty years.

Jorge Luis Borges

In a passage Susan Sontag would come to quote in her magnificent letter to Borges composed on the tenth anniversary of his death, he reflects:

A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Complement with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, Marina Abramović on turning trauma into fuel for art, and May Sarton on the artist’s task to rise above the tumult of the times, then revisit Borges on writing, the measure of success, collective joy and collective tragedy, the paradox of time, and the illusion of the self.


The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.

What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?

It’s an abiding question with which each of us tussles periodically, and one which has occupied some of humanity’s most fertile minds. The ancient Greeks addressed it in the brilliant Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Walt Whitman marveled at the paradox of the self. Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Jack Kerouac denounced “the imaginary idea of a personal self.” Amelie Rorty taxonomized the seven layers of identity. Rebecca Goldstein examined what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change.

The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions (public library).

Jorge Luis Borges, 1923

Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:

I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.

Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:

There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an in­difference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?

I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.

Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Half a century before neuroscientists demonstrated that memory is the seedbed of the self, Borges writes:

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inac­cessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose rul­ing you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them­ selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.

In a passage of inimitable Borgesian splendor, he adds:

I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and plea­surable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rig­orous self.


There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Borges draws on two of his great influences in fortifying his point — Walt Whitman, “the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders,” and who had himself contemplated the perplexity of personal identity seven decades earlier, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose words Borges cites directly:

An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I through­out all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.

Echoing Kafka’s reflections on reality vs. appearance, Borges adds:

Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divini­ties hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance.

Citing a famous Buddhist precept of non-self — “those things of which I can perceive the be­ginnings and the end are not my self” — Borges illustrates its veracity with the palpable realness of its living manifestations:

I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case si­lence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances — a thing generally known and undisputed — but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among oth­ers. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its applica­tion to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness — the final hideout where we might track down the self­ — also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.

Borges concludes:

The self [is] a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.

Complement this particular fragment of Borges’s wholly terrific Selected Non-Fictions with Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on selfhood and the crucible of identity, philosopher Jacob Needleman on how we become who we are, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of free will, then revisit Borges on writing and his sublime refutation of time.


A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. “It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.

Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay “A New Refutation of Time,” which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.


Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of “new.” The “slight mockery” of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that “our language is so saturated and animated by time.” With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be “the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics” — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.

Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science (“the clarity of metaphysics,” per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.

Time, Borges notes, is the foundation of our experience of personal identity — something philosophers took up most notably in the 17th century, poets picked up in the 19th, scientists set down in the 20th, and psychologists picked back up in the 21st.

Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the “thinking active principle that perceives” at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” — but they both affirmed the existence of time.

Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls “this unstable world of the mind” in relation to time:

A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton’s] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Returning to Hume’s notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:

Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions.

But even the notion of a “series” of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:

Once matter and spirit — which are continuities — are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside the present moment.

He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:

During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.

One of Norman Rockwell’s rare illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:

The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.

Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

The essay, as everything in Labyrinths, is an exceptional read in its continuous entirety; excerpting, fragmenting, and annotating it here fails to dignify the agile integrity of Borges’s rhetoric and the sheer joy of his immersive prose. Complement it with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, and Sarah Manguso on its confounding, comforting ongoinginess.


The Private Person and the Public Persona: Borges on the Divided Self

A timeless parable of the self-defeating quest for integration.

The Private Person and the Public Persona: Borges on the Divided Self

“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” And yet, inseparable as the parts may be from the whole, we each contain multitudes — not only psychologically, but even biologically — nowhere more so than when it comes to the bifurcation between our inner and outer selves. “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt observed in her insightful inquiry into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display. For each of us, there is a public persona encasing the private person, an aspirational self radiating from the real self.

However integrated our layered identity may be, our twined nature stands like a stereogram — two separate and noticeably different views, composed into a single three-dimensional image of personhood only through the special focal mechanism of our own consciousness.

No one has addressed this existential sundering more elegantly than Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) in “Borges and I” — his classic parable of selfhood, exploring the divide between private person and public persona that each of us must live with and live into. It appears in Labyrinths (public library) — a collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, originally published in 1962.


Borges writes:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

“Borges and I” went on to inspire some of the greatest writers of the past century to reflect on the divided self in hand-drawn self-portraits. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Borges on writing, public opinion, and our private participation in collective joy and collective tragedy.


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