Borges on fiction and philosophy? You could devote an entire blog just to this subject, of course. But for today, I’ll focus on this interview from 1976, which is full of gems.
Interviewer: Can a narrative, especially a short narrative, be rigorous in a philosophical sense?
Borges: I suppose it could be. Of course, in that case it would be a parable. I remember when I read a biography of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson. Then there was a long discussion going on about predestination and free will. And he asked Wilde what he made of free will. Then he answered in a story. The story seemed somewhat irrelevant, but it wasn’t. He said – yes, yes, yes, some nails, pins, and needles lived in the neighborhood of a magnet, and one of them said, ‘I think we should pay a visit to the magnet.’ And the other said, ‘I think it is our duty to visit the magnet.’ The other said, ‘This must be done right now. No delay can be allowed.’ Then when they were saying those things, without being aware of it, they were all rushing towards the magnet, who smiled because he knew that they were coming to visit him. You can imagine a magnet smiling. You see, there Wilde gave his opinion, and his opinion was that we think we are free agents, but of course we’re not.
Borges’ spoken words are a lot like his writing: concise, dreamy, and packed with ideas.
Interviewer: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a good example of one of your stories where, however the story ends, the reader is encouraged to continue applying your ideas.
Borges: Well, I hope so. But I wonder if they are my ideas. Because really I am not a thinker. I have used the philosophers’ ideas for my own private literary purposes, but I don’t think that I’m a thinker. I suppose that my thinking has been done for me by Berkeley, by Hume, by Schopenhauer, by Mauthner perhaps.
Interviewer: You say you’re not a thinker –
Borges: No, what I mean to say is that I have no personal system of philosophy. I never attempt to do that. I am merely a man of letters. In the same way, for example that – well, of course, I shouldn’t perhaps choose this as an example – in the same way that Dante used theology for the purpose of poetry, or Milton used theology for the purposes of his poetry, why shouldn’t I use philosophy, especially idealistic philosophy – philosophy to which I was attracted – for the purposes of writing a tale, of writing a story? I suppose that is allowable, no?
Borges is so good, and so obviously profound, that it would be easy for him to be grandiose. But his humility – which I think comes from both his sincere appreciation for the many thinkers who came before him and his astonishment at the mysteries of life and the universe – always shines through. The interviewers, who are philosophers comfortable with their status as great arbiters of profundity, try to draw him into their world, and if he doesn’t quite bite, he does at least nibble at the bait…
Interviewer: You share one thing certainly with philosophers, and that is a fascination with perplexity, with paradox.
Borges: Oh yes, of course – well I suppose philosophy springs from our perplexity. If you’ve read what I may be allowed to call “my works” – if you’ve read my sketches, whatever they are – you’d find that there is a very obvious symbol of perplexity to be found all the time, and that is the maze. I find that a very obvious symbol of perplexity. A maze and amazement go together, no? A symbol of amazement would be the maze.
But he’s quick to add something else, which so good it makes me want to pick up the pen:
But I would like to make it clear that if any ideas are to be found in what I write, those ideas came after the writing. I mean, I began by the writing, I began by the story, I began with the dream, if you want to call it that. And then afterwards, perhaps, some idea came of it. But I didn’t begin, as I say, by the moral and then writing a fable to prove it.
Another dreamer (in a very different context) would, I think, approve…