“Merely a Man of Letters”

Jorge Luis Borges: an interview

Philosophy and Literature 1 (1977): 337-41.    


On April 14, 1976, Denis Dutton and Michael Palencia-Roth, both editors of Philosophy and Literature, along with their colleague, Lawrence I. Berkove of the University of Michigan – Dearborn, interviewed Jorge Luis Borges at Michigan State University, where he was visiting professor for the winter term. The transcript below contains the central and substantive portions of that conversation, which was conducted in English. It has recently been re-edited for greater detail and accuracy from a newly digitized version of the 1976 recording. This Philosophy and Literature interview is made available online here for the first time.

You may listen to an MP3 file of the original conversation HERE. Listening time is just over fifteen minutes.


Denis Dutton: Why don’t you tell us about some of the philosophers who have influenced your work, in whom you’ve been the most interested?

Jorge Luis Borges: Well, I think that’s an easy one. I think you might talk in terms of two: those would be Berkeley and Schopenhauer. But I suppose Hume might be worked in also, because, after all, of course Hume refutes Berkeley. But really, he comes from Berkeley — even if Berkeley comes from Locke. You might think of Locke, of Berkeley, and of Hume as being three links in an argument. But when somebody refutes somebody else in philosophy, he’s carrying on the argument.

Michael Palencia-Roth: Where would Schopenhauer come in?

Borges: Schopenhauer is very different from Hume. Of course, Schopenhauer had his idea of the Will. That is not to be found in Hume. But of course in the case of Berkeley it is different. I suppose he thought of God as being aware of all things all the time, I mean if I don’t get him wrong. If we go away, does this room disappear? No, it doesn’t, of course, because God is thinking about it.

Jorge Luis Borges, mid-1970s

Now, in the case of Schopenhauer, I was rereading Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, The World as Will and Idea, and I was rather taken aback, or rather baffled I should say, or puzzled by something that keeps on recurring in Schopenhauer. Of course it may have been a slip of the pen, but as he goes back to it, and as he was a very careful writer, I wonder if it is a slip of the pen. Well, for example, Schopenhauer begins by saying that all this, the universe, the stars, the spaces in between, the planets, this planet, those things have no existence, except in the mind which perceives them — no?

MP-R: Yes.

Borges: But then, to my surprise — and I suppose you can explain this to me, since you are philosophers and I am not — what Schopenhauer says is that all those things have no existence except in the brain. And that the universe — I remember these words, I don’t think I’m inventing them now — “ist ein Gehirnphänomen,” that the world is a cerebral phenomenon. Now, when I read that I was baffled. Because, of course, if you think of the universe, I suppose the brain is as much a part of the external world as the stars or the moon. Because the brain after all is a system of — I don’t know — of visual, of tactile, perceptions. But he keeps on insisting on the brain.

MP-R: Yes.

Borges: But I don’t think, for example, that Bishop Berkeley insists on the brain, or Hume, who would have insisted on the mind, consciousness….

DD: People sometimes say that they see Berkeley in stories like “Orbis Tertius.”

Borges: Yes, I suppose they do. Well, of course. But in that story I was led by literary means also.

DD: How do you distinguish the literary from the philosophical means in that story? Could you explain that?

Borges: Oh, well, yes, I’ll explain very easily…. Encyclopedias have been, I’d say, my life’s chief reading. I have always been interested in encyclopedias. Well, I used to go to the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires — and since I was so shy, I felt I could not cope with asking for a book, or a librarian, so I looked on the shelves for the Encyclopædia Britannica. Of course, afterwards, I had that book at home, by my hand. And then I would pick up any chance volume and I would read it. And then one night I was richly rewarded, because I read all about the Druses, Dryden, and the Druids — a treasure trove, no? — all in the same volume, of course, “Dr–.”

Then I came to the idea of how fine it would be to think of an encyclopedia of an actual world, and then of an encyclopedia, a very rigorous one of course, of an imaginary world, where everything should be linked. Where, for example, you would have, let’s say, a language and then a literature that went with the language, and then a history with it, and so on. Then I thought, well, I’d write a story of the fancy encyclopedia. Then of course that would need many different people to write it, to get together and to discuss many things — the mathematicians, philosophers, men of letters, architects, engineers, then also novelists or historians. Then, as I needed a quite different world from ours — it wasn’t enough to invent fancy names — I said, why not a world based on, let’s say, Berkeleyan ideas?

DD: A world in which Berkeley is common sense instead of Descartes?

Borges: Yes, that’s it. Then I wrote that story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” that day, which has attracted many readers. And of course, the whole thing was based on the theory of idealism, the idea of there being no things but only happenings, of there being no nouns but only verbs, of there being no things but only perceptions.…

Lawrence I. Berkove: “Tlön” 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.

MP-R: 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?

DD: 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.

DD: But philosophers seem not content ever to merely be confronted with perplexity, they want answers, systems.

Borges: Well, they’re right.

DD: They’re right?

Borges: Well, perhaps no systems are attainable, but the search for a system is very interesting.

MP-R: Would you call your work a search for a system?

Borges: No, I wouldn’t be as ambitious as all that. I would call it, well, not science fiction, but rather the fiction of philosophy, or the fiction of dreams. And also, I’m greatly interested in solipsism, which is only an extreme form of idealism. It is strange, though, that all the people who write on solipsism write about it in order to refute it. I haven’t seen a single book in favor of solipsism. I know what you would want to say: since there is only one dreamer, why do you write a book? But if there is only one dreamer, why could you not dream about writing a book?

DD: Bertrand Russell once suggested that all the solipsists ought to get together and form a solipsist association.

Borges: Yes, he wrote very cleverly about solipsism. And so did Bradley in his Appearance and Reality. And then I read a book called Il Solipsismo by an Italian writer, where he says that the whole system is a proof of the egoism, of the selfishness of this period. That’s idiotic. I’ve never thought of solipsism in that way.

MP-R: How do you think of solipsism?

Borges: Well, I suppose that solipsism is unavoidable.

MP-R: Avoidable or unavoidable?

Borges : I should say, it’s unavoidable in a logical way, since nobody can believe in it. It is a bit like what Hume says of Berkeley: “His arguments admit of no refutation and produce no conviction.” Solipsism admits of no refutation and produces no conviction….

DD: Do you think that it is possible then for a story to represent a philosophical position more effectively than a philosopher can argue for it?

Borges: I have never thought of that, but I suppose you’re right, Sir. I suppose you — yes, yes, I think you’re right. Because as — I don’t know who said that, was it Bernard Shaw? — he said, arguments convince nobody. No, Emerson. He said, arguments convince nobody. And I suppose he was right, even if you think of proofs for the existence of God, for example — no? In that case, if arguments convince nobody, a man may be convinced by parables or fables or what? Or fictions. Those are far more convincing than the syllogism — and they are, I suppose. Well, of course, when I think of something in terms of Jesus Christ. As far as I remember, he never used arguments; he used style, he used certain metaphors. It’s very strange — yes, and he always used very striking sentences. He would not say, I don’t come to bring peace but war — “I do not come to bring peace but a sword.” The Christ, he thought in parables. Well, according to — I think that it was Blake who said that a man should be — I mean, if he is a Christian — should be not only just but he should be intelligent ... he should also be an artist, since Christ had been teaching art through his own way of preaching, because every one of the sentences of Christ, if not every single utterance of Christ, has a literary value, and may be thought of as a metaphor or as a parable.

DD: What do you think ultimately, then, separates the philosophical from the literary temperament, if they share these things in common?

Borges: I suppose a philosopher goes in for a rigorous way of thinking, and I suppose a writer is also interested in narratives, he’s telling tales, with metaphors.

MP-R: 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….

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.


This ends the recorded portion of the conversation with Borges, though that conversation began earlier and also continued for several minutes more in the room, as well as later over lunch.



Copyright 1977 © The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.