"Borges and I" (originally in Spanish "Borges y Yo") is a short story by the Argentine writer and poetJorge Luis Borges. It is one of the stories in the short story collection, The Maker (originally in Spanish El Hacedor), first published in 1960.
In 1914 Borges' family moved to Switzerland, where he studied at the Collège de Genève. The family travelled widely in Europe, including stays in Spain. On his return to Argentina in 1921, Borges began publishing his poems and essays in surrealist literary journals. He also worked as a librarian and public lecturer. In 1955 he was appointed director of the National Public Library (Biblioteca Nacional) and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires.
Borges' story raises many philosophical questions of Self and epistemology. Viewed through the analytic lens of Russell's knowledge by description, the story explores the interesting concept of knowledge of Self by description (as opposed to the more expected knowledge by acquaintance). This is emphasized by the mention of receiving Borges' mail and reading about Borges in a book.
Also, the distinction between persona and Self can be interpreted as a distinction between author and writer. The author would be analogous to the persona and Borges. The writer would be the Self and "I". Theoretically, the writer could be anyone, it just happens to be Borges. With this interpretation Borges is seen to be commenting on the cognitive differences between processing third person information and first person information.
- ^, publication information and text in English at Northwestern University.
- ^, Amherst philosophy lecturer John Perry discusses the differences between the two possible interpretations in depth. Perry, John. “ ‘Borges and I’ and ‘I’.” The Amherst Lecture in Philosophy 2 (2007): 1–16. <http://www.amherstlecture.org/perry2007/>.
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
By Jorge Luis Borges. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. Translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger.
559 pages. Viking. $40.
orge Luis Borges was the master of the short, erudite mysterious story. He loved paradox, the search for meaning in things, the labyrinth as a symbol of human perplexity; he probed the diabolical; he invented perfect murders. He was, in short, strange in his determined quest for arcane knowledge and his use of that knowledge in the creation of a literary universe.
He is most widely read for his fiction, but this intelligently selected and magically translated collection of Borges' nonfiction demonstrates, among other things, the closeness of his two worlds, reality and invention. Reading this latest in what is now Viking's three-volume set of this great Argentine's works is to see how Borges' fiction represented a mere short step from his essays. A similar sensibility pervades both (I am leaving the poetry volume out of consideration here), a sensibility in which an avidity for knowledge, a cabalistic thirst and a poetic taste for images propel the mind into every enigma created by the human experience.
Take, for example, a brief, light fragment of movie criticism written in 1945, "On Dubbing," meaning what Borges calls the "perverse artifice" that Hollywood uses to render foreign-language films accessible. The first line, "The art of combination is not infinite in its possibilities, though those possibilities are apt to be frightening," already suggests something far more than a predictable highbrow complaint about the mass culture.
Borges, who died in 1986, rapidly lists a few of the monstrous creations begotten by mythology over the centuries, especially those creations that combined parts of things that normally do not go together. There is, for example, the Chinese red "supernatural bird equipped with six feet and six wings but with neither face nor eyes." The point is that for Borges, dubbing in movies is not simply vulgar and inauthentic; his learning leads him to find something archetypally grotesque about it, a new monstrous combination: "the famous face of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo."
One reads these many essays, none of them more than a few pages long, with amazement at their author's impetuous curiosity and penetrating intelligence. One also experiences them as difficult pleasures. They are elusive. They are so learned that the learning sometimes inundates meaning.
Many of the pieces -- a prologue to "Mystical Works" by Emmanuel Swedenborg, a comment on the novel "Vathek" by William Beckford, a 1931 review of a German movie called "The Murderer Dmitri Karamazov" -- are obscure or seem dated. And then there are comments and essays whose points are perhaps suggestive but so cryptically put as to elude comprehension.
"Perhaps universal history is the history of the various intonations of a few metaphors," Borges writes at the end of a brief essay called "Pascal's Sphere." Striving to decipher that sentence, and the essay of which it is a part, is like groping for something solid among vapors of light.
And yet one has to allow, with a genius like Borges, for the likelihood that these episodes of noncomprehension reflect more on the reader than on the writer. In any case, there are sublime and accessible essays here, arrestingly compact turns of phrase. Among the most startling comments are those written in the late 1930s and early '40s that bitterly and eloquently denounced Nazi Germany and Nazism's sympathizers among the Argentine middle class.
But most of what Borges wrote about was literary and philosophical. This volume includes witty brief biographies of writers like Isaac Babel, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and others. Borges discourses brilliantly about Dante and about Ellery Queen as well, and in one trenchant piece he creates a "code" for the writing of detective novels. In the last item in the code, "a solution that is both necessary and marvelous," Borges bans "resorting to the supernatural, whose use in this genre of fiction is slothful and felonious."
"Slothful and felonious." The language here is intentionally deformed by its very intensity, and that gives these essays an almost lurid quality, like something overly magnified by a microscope. Although short, the essays are prodigiously detailed. A good example is the one titled "The Translators of 'The Thousand and One Nights,"' which is essentially an illustration of one of Borges' constant early themes, the way language invents reality.
The essay is a review of the several European efforts over the decades to put this famous Arabic classic, whose original version aimed at "the lowbrow or ribald tastes of the Cairo middle classes," into a high-art form suitable for educated Europeans. Borges provides sketches of the translators, the most famous of whom was the Arabist and explorer Richard Burton, which make for a typically learned collective study of European Orientalism. And the whole is written with that imaged, magnesium prose one associates with Borges.
"Of the writer's solitary trade he made something valiant and plural," Borges writes of the extraordinary Burton. "He plunged into his work at dawn, in a vast chamber multiplied by 11 tables, with the materials for a book on each one -- and, on a few, a bright spray of jasmine in a vase of water."
It is not surprising that the writers whom Borges most admired, like Poe, Cervantes, Kafka and Coleridge, combined poetically or grotesquely magnified visions with the creations of profligate stylistic domains. Even at his most erudite and elusive, there is always something lusciously self-mocking in Borges' language. His uniqueness in 20th-century letters is rooted in another almost monstrous combination: encyclopedic knowledge, razorlike critical judgment and a ravishing appreciation for the magical and pagan dimension in every situation.
Who else but Borges could have written "A Defense of the Kabbalah" by depicting the cabalists' belief in a divine "astral intelligence" that manifested itself in a book, Genesis, "where the collaboration of chance is calculated at zero"? And then there is this luxuriant description of the cabalistic vision of that book: "A book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of revelations lying in wait, of superimpositions of light."
Only the quiet sage of Buenos Aires could have devised a sentence like that.