Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Unrequited Sublimations: Borges Reads Spinoza

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Unrequited Sublimations: Borges Reads Spinoza

Article excerpt

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy cites Jorge Luis Borges--along with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Heine, George Eliot, and George Sand, Somerset Maugham, and Bernard Malamud--as creative writers influenced by Baruch Spinoza. The inclusion of Borges in this list honors the Argentine fabulist, but it is somewhat misleading: it would be more accurate to say that Borges had an uneasy relationship with the philosopher.

Borges mentions or discusses Spinoza in essays, poems, and short stories; and he agreed with Bertrand Russell's assessment of Spinoza as "the most lovable of the great philosophers." (1) Borges also admired Spinoza's recommendation to accept one's destiny dispassionately; but he took pains to distance himself from Spinoza's metaphysics, to point out he could not abide by Spinoza's system, and even less so by his philosophical method. In short, Borges liked his image of the man (he liked Spinoza in the way he liked literary characters like Don Quixote); he expressed sympathy for certain ethical principles espoused by Spinoza; but he went out of his way to reject the philosophy.

Borges began work on a book on Spinoza in the 1970s which he decided he could not finish. It is characteristic of Borges's uneasy relation to Spinoza, not to mention his sense of humor, that after abandoning the project, he wrote an apocryphal biographical note about himself dated 2074, in which an imagined biographer recommends Borges's book on Spinoza to any reader interested in his philosophical inclinations. (2) The book of course, does not exist, and he had no intention to write it when he wrote the stylized note. That being said, no other philosopher is mentioned in that biographical note Borges had composed to serve as an ironic epilogue to his complete works. Borges had written stories about theologians and politicians who refute the ideas of other theologians and politicians, but who in the eyes of God, or of history, are identified with each other as if their affinities were deep, and their differences inconsequential. The biographical note, in which Spinoza is the only philosopher Borges mentions by name, may well be inspired by those tales.

Borges had indicated, on several occasions, that the book he never wrote about Spinoza might have been called either A Key to Baruj Spinoza or Spinoza's Key; and there is a sense in which the key to Borges's interpretation of Spinoza is also a key into some of Borges's most disarming observations about the proclivities of his own imagination.

The key to Borges's interpretation of Spinoza involves his fondness for a character who could have invented Spinoza's God; and he thought of Spinoza's God as an invention. Spinoza gives his account of God in his Ethics, a philosophical treatise written like a work of geometry with premises, proofs, and corollaries. Borges disparaged Spinoza's geometric apparatus, not because it made it difficult to get at Spinoza's philosophical truths, but on the contrary because it made it difficult to get at Spinoza's fierce imagination. For Borges, the definition of God as an infinite substance--identical to the universe--composed of infinite attributes, all of which are inaccessible to humanity with the exception of thought and matter; is not a philosophical insight, but a wild invention, an inspired product of human fancy.

For Spinoza God is the highest reality and the highest truth; but Borges thought of Spinoza's God as a verbal fabrication. He said so in his essays on Spinoza, and even in his poems:

In the dusk, someone is fashioning a God [...] with words. (3)

Borges regretted he had not included Spinoza in his Anthology of Fantastic Literature because Spinoza's God, according to Borges, is a better example of an unbelievable invention than H. G. Well's time machine, Edgar Allan Poe's tale of a dead man under hypnosis, or most of the other fantastic conceits he had anthologized in the book on fantastic literature. …

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