Borges on Fiction and Philosophy

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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…

Who’s Cheating America: A Matter of Integrity

Artistic reenactment:

Attorney: Hi there. I’m Chris Linton from Birmingham, Alabama. I’m an attorney, but don’t hold that against me.

Investor: Hello. What can I do you for?

Attorney: Hahahahaha, good one. [Gets serious.] Look, I’ve got a great new business going and the sky’s the limit. How would you like to get in on the ground floor?

Investor: I don’t know…you look a little young…

Attorney: I’m thirty-four years old!

Investor: That’s all?

Attorney: That’s enough! Look, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m setting up what’s called a factoring business. Lawyers who work for the state will submit vouchers to me so they can get paid quickly. I then get the money from the state for the work they performed.

Investor: How do you make money on that?

Attorney: I receive a cut of the money.

Investor: How much money?

Attorney: Enough to pay for my home, construction projects at the residence, private jet flights, vacations, recreational vehicles, furniture, luxury items, Auburn University football tickets and a donation to the Heisman Trophy Trust. All without committing wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, securities fraud, or bank fraud. it’s win-win-win-win-win-win-win.

Investor: That sounds like a lot…are you sure that’s all from your business?

Attorney: Mostly from my business.

Investor: Mostly?

Attorney: Some might be from investments in my business. I occasionally dip into the fund. Here and there. Make ends meet. Keep the lights on. You know how it is.

Investor: Investments? You mean from people like me?

Attorney: Sure. But you don’t need to worry. My business is called Integrity Capital.

Investor: Oh! Why didn’t you say that in the first place? [reaches for wallet]

Attorney: Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Investor: [writing check] It sure does.

Cut to: exposure, scandal, arrest, guilty plea, and a former attorney now facing up to 65 years in prison. Argh! Live up to your name, Integrity Capital! Stop cheating America!

Oh the irony… first “London Associates” and now this…the irony, the irony…

Previous entries in our Who’s Cheating America? series:

Small Press Shout-Out: Luath Press!


Our globetrotting search for good people putting out good books continues! Last week we journeyed to Australia for a visit to the kindhearted and energetic Pantera Press. Up this week: the land of mountains high-cover’d with snow, straths and green vallies, forests and wild-hanging woods, torrents and loud-pouring floods…that’s right! We’re going to visit the Land of Rabbie Burns… Continue reading

Awaking to Find You’re a Monstrous Vermin (The Promotion Excerpt #6)

In Which the Narrator Tiptoes into the World of the Mysterious Mina Meinl

Even now it gives me chills to think of that moment when I heard the name for the first time. The way the words sounded, coming through those teeth. It was a name at the heart of the strangest experience of my life. And yet it sounded so foreign to me—I, who was then so innocent—that I initially thought it was the name of a corporate entity. Mina-Meinl. A company that made industrial machinery, perhaps. An investment vehicle that shipped grain out of the Ukraine. Not a person. Not a woman. Not someone I would ever, ever meet.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Not a what but a who,” Linn explained. “An investor of some kind.”

She explained what was known. During the exam, the accountants had discovered that this woman, Mina Meinl, had been offered co-invest opportunities on all the investments for all of the funds.

I was familiar with the concept of co-invest. Fortinbras Capital Management spent a ton of money looking for good investments—a hotel chain in Abu Dhabi, say, or an office park in Kuala Lumpur, or a string of mines in South Africa. After the Fortinbras funds had invested as much as they wanted, Fortinbras would open up investment to other investors as well.

Sometimes these opportunities were used as favors—a sweetener to get a prospective investor into one of the large funds. All this was fully disclosed, of course, and consistent with their fiduciary obligations. Nevertheless the SEC examined co-invest carefully. The first thing the SEC staff looked for was people who had gotten more than their fair share. According to Linn, the odd thing about Mina Meinl was not how much she got but how little.

“Five million in co-invest blends in,” she said. “Fifty thousand stands out.”

“Who is she?”

“Nobody knows.”

“How did this happen?”

Linn shrugged.

My internal investigation antennae were twitching. I specialized in this! I casually said that it sounded like they could use my services.

“Maybe I should call Darrin?” I suggested, referring to the general counsel of Fortinbras.

Linn shook her head. “No need. They decided it’s not material. The SEC didn’t notice it, and the next exam won’t be for a couple of years.”

“Aren’t they trying to figure it out?”

Linn said she didn’t know. She suspected that Darrin had other problems to deal with.

“Mina Meinl,” I said. Saying the name out loud gave me goosebumps.

“The great mystery,” Linn said.

We had to talk about recruiting. I made a few general remarks about process and goals, and she nodded as she checked the messages on her phone, but in fact my mind was just as preoccupied as hers.

A lot had changed. I had a new set of responsibilities, giving me a sense of purpose. We would be hiring a lot of new people, which was a large commitment of resources. And for the people we’d be hiring, it would be life-changing. It was important to make sure the new hires fit in our culture and wanted to do what we had in mind for them. The entire firm depended on its people, and I would be a major contributing factor to the future of the firm.

Looking back, I can see that something else was already growing in me. A seed had been planted and had already taken root. Soon it would sprawl across my mind like fast-growing kudzu, dominating all other foliage with its tangled, smothering vines.

Mina Meinl. The great mystery indeed.

Next: In Which the Narrator Begins to Realize His Deputy Could Destroy His Life-Changing Plans

Need to catch up? Check out Excerpt #5: In Which the Narrator Hears the Name That Will Forever Alter His Future. Or start at the beginning.

Can’t wait to read the whole thing? A full version of The Promotion is available on in paperback and Kindle versions.

Formatting a CreateSpace Book in 2014: One Quick Tip

I’ve gotten some good feedback from the post touting the still-timely advice of Guido Henkel and his e-book formatting guide. But what about formatting for print-on-demand? That’s no less confusing – and I never found a Guido Henkel to serve as my Virgil.

So it’s Googling, and more Googling, and a lot of trial and error. Eventually I came up with something I was very happy with and a second try that turned out even better, so I thought I’d mention at least one CreateSpace trick that worked for me. Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects: #1 – The Padlock

I have a theory that everyone has what I call the Personal Singularity. This is the period in your life when some trend or phenomenon so defines you, so matches where you are in life, so inspires you to be all that you can be in a particular direction (for better or worse), that you will never be that in sync with anything else in your sorry little life, ever again.

For a long time I thought my own moment of Personal Singularity had come when I was in high school and David Letterman’s show was on NBC (I want to be Dave! I can be Dave! I AM DAVE!). Now that I’m a warped and frustrated old man I realize it was actually the years I spent with this guy:

The odd thing about the Personal Singularity is that it’s rarely disputed. People around you—all your loved ones—can agree on what it is, and you yourself probably won’t argue.

Saturday Night Fever? Yep (embarrassed laugh) I was REALLY into that. Young Tiger Woods tearing up Augusta? Hey, my golf clubs are still in the trunk of my car.

For my friend’s father, it was Sanford & Son. Nothing has made him laugh harder than Redd Foxx and his son Lamont in the junkyard. He still does the “I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth” routine.

Yes, yes: life was good for Monte Strunz when he had Sanford & Son to look forward to each week.

For our high school football coach, the Moment of Personal Singularity was the 1985 Chicago Bears. Continue reading

Who’s Cheating America: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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No, no, this isn’t about the divine Audrey Hepburn. We didn’t catch her cheating, thank god. It’s just a boring old insurance company dispute with Tiffany’s, the world-famous jeweler’s. So boring, in fact, I had to jazz it up with a photo. Here’s another:

Image Credit: Elegant Audrey

Sigh. Now onto the case, which is captioned Those Interested Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London who subscribed to the policy of insurance numbered BO80111433 v. Lederhaas-Okun et al.


I thought this was about Tiffany’s? You mean there’s more…?

Indeed there is. Continue reading

Self-Publishing Update: Reading on a Smartphone

Ugh, is there anything worse for today’s author than to think about someone reading their book on a smartphone? We like the image of a reader luxuriating with a stately hardcover, a sleek paperback, or—in a pinch—an e-reader. But a tiny-screen phone? Is no tradition sacred? Why not throw words out too, while we’re at it?

Ah, reader. You probably know me well enough by now to know I am a positive thinker. (When I’m not cowering in fear of my Dark Lord.) So I direct your attention to Clive Thompson, who points out that 18th-century books looked like smartphone screens:

Image Credit: Google Books via Clive Thompson


Thompson explains:

That small-page format was quite common back in the 18th century. It’s known as octavo with pages that are about 6 inches by 9 inches. The entire Conjectures is only about 8,000 words long, but it was common to print essays in this pretty little style, because it had great ergonomics: It made for easy one-handed reading and portability.

Thompson has much more on his blog, including a brief history of printmaking (explaining the size) and photos comparing it with today’s smartphone screens. He even offers this personal benefit of the format:

In fact, one of the oddly useful things about reading War and Peace on your phone is that the octavo-like format makes the epic enormity of the tome less intimidating: It’s just one little page after another, each one oddly inviting. I tend to blow up the font on my phone to quite large, so each page has only a few hundred words on it, precisely the way that [an 18th-century book] is laid out…

Fascinating. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that my books The Promotion and  The Race are available in a variety of formats, and from a variety of booksellers. Happy reading!

Small Press Shout-Out: Pantera Press!

We’re headed down under for this week’s small press shout-out. And what a trip it is! Even the most seasoned, curmudgeonly book buyer will find it hard to return from the Pantera Press website without wearing a smile. This press exudes friendliness and charm, from their mission-like statement “our passion is publishing books readers rave about by discovering & nurturing talented new authors, & fostering debate,” to their trademarked slogan “good books doing good things,” to their “strong ‘profits for philanthropy’ foundation.”

This is a press that’s unashamed to say, “We’re thrilled about what we’re doing. We hope you get excited too!”

I’m getting there, Pantera!

Actually, their entire statement is worth quoting: Continue reading

One Flew Over the Law Firm (The Promotion Excerpt #5)

In Which the Narrator Hears the Name That Will Forever Alter His Future

We started, as lawyers always do, by defining ourselves according to our practice areas. She nodded when I gave my little sentence about being a specialist in government and internal investigations, some white collar, a lot of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act work lately…

“We have overlap,” she said, nodding. “I do compliance for investment advisers.”

I couldn’t think of much else to talk about except recruiting, a topic I was trying to hold in reserve, because once we finished with that we’d head back to the office, where I had nothing to do. I asked her how things looked in the “compliance space” these days.

“Awesome,” she said. “Everyone is scared shitless.”

I was struck by how the word shitless emerged through her perfect white teeth, which did not ever open very far when she spoke, as if she were thinking hard about each word or had some kind of pain in her mouth.

It turned out we had some clients in common, including Fortinbras Capital Management, a very large investment firm I had helped with an FCPA matter involving a woman they’d hired in China who had stolen money and—it turned out—was having an affair with the mayor of Shanghai. The matter had taken a year to resolve and had resulted in a thirty-slide PowerPoint and a decision by the DOJ not to prosecute.

“That was you?” she said, displaying a level of surprise that another person might have found offensive. I merely nodded and asked how the CCO was doing.

“She was fired,” Linn said. “Too many bad emails at that place.”

I said that it hardly seemed fair to hold a chief compliance officer responsible for the emails of hundreds of employees, especially in a place like Fortinbras, where pushing the envelope was standard among the business folks.

“They were her emails.”


Linn went on to describe an examination that Fortinbras had just gone through. Overall the exam had gone well. The SEC had cited them for a few deficiencies, which was expected, but these were minor and had not led to any enforcement actions. Management was pleased, except for one thing.

“And what was that?” I asked.

Linn’s eyes narrowed. “Mina Meinl,” she said.

Next: In Which the Narrator Tiptoes into the World of the Mysterious Mina Meinl

Need to Catch Up? Check out The Promotion Minisode #4: In Which the Narrator Meets the Deputies Who Will Make or Break His Fortune

Can’t wait to read the whole thing? A full version of The Promotion is available on in paperback and Kindle versions.