Borges Shows Individual Personality As a
Mirage Maintained by Conceit and Custom
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote
“The Nothingness of Personality” in 1922
The following text is reproduced from
the volume “Selected Non-Fictions”, by
Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Eliot Weinberger,
Penguin Books, 2000, 560 pp., pp. 3-9.
“….. My purpose is (…..) but to
Calvary toward which
idolaters of themselves are on a fatal course.”
(J. L. B.)
I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century , sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.
Course of action.
I have noticed that, in general, the acquiescence conceded by a man in the role of reader to a rigorous dialectical linkage is no more than a slothful inability to gauge the proofs the writer adduces and a vague trust in the latter’s rectitude. But once the book has been closed and the reading has dispersed, little remains in his memory except a more or less arbitrary synthesis of the whole reading. To avoid this evident disadvantaged, I will, in the following paragraphs, cast aside all strict and logical schemas, and amass a pile of examples.
There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an indifference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?
I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. The proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.
It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.
There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving themselves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.
No one will pretend that, in the glance by which we take in a limpid night, the exact number of visible stars is prefigured.
No one, on thinking about it, will accept that the self can depend on the hypothetical and never realized nor realizable sum of different states of mind. What is not carried out does not exist; the linkage of events in a temporal succession does not refer to an absolute order. They err, as well, who suppose that the negation of personality I am urging with such obstinate zealotry refutes the certainty of being the isolated, individualized, and distinct thing that each of us feels in the depths of his soul. I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and pleasurable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rigorous self.
Moreover, even if the aforementioned reasons are misguided, I would refuse to surrender, for your conviction of being an individuality is in all ways identical to mine and to that of any human specimen, and there is no way to separate them.
There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexorable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like outsiders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze. This has been declared by those men who have truly scrutinized the calendars from which time was discarding them. Some, extravagant as fireworks, make a boast of so muddled a confusion and say that disparity is wealth; others, far from glorifying disorder, deplore the inequality of their days and yearn for the popular uniformity. I will copy out two examples. The first bears the date 1531; it is the epigraph to De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum, composed by the Kabbalist and astrologer Agrippa of Nettesheim in the disillusioned latter days of his life. He says:
“Among gods, all are shaken by the jeers of Momus.
Among heroes, Hercules gives chase to all the monsters.
Among demons, Pluto, the King of Hell, oppresses all the shades.
While Heraclitus weeps at everything,
Pyrrho knows naught of anything,
And Aristotle glories in knowing all.
Diogenes spurns the things of this world,
And I, Agrippa, am foreign to none of this.
I disdain, I know, I do not know, I pursue, I laugh, I tyrannize, I protest.
I am philosopher, god, hero, demon and the whole universe.”
The second testimonial comes from the third part of Torres Villarroel’s Vida e Historia. This systematizer of Quevedo, learned in astrology, lord and master of all words, expert wielder of the most strident rhetorical figures, also sought to define himself and probed his fundamental incongruence. He saw that he was like everyone else: that is, that he was no one, or little more than an unintelligible cacophony, persisting in time and wearing out in space. He wrote:
“I am angry, fearful, compassionate, joyous, sad, greedy, generous, enraged, meek, and all the good and bad emotions and all the praiseworthy and reprehensible actions that can be found in all men together or separately. I have tried out all the vices and all the virtues, and in a single day I feel inclined to weep and laugh, give and keep, repose and suffer, and I am always unaware of the cause and the momentum of these contrarieties. I have heard this alternative of contrary impulses called madness; if it be so, we are all mad to a greater or lesser degree for I have noticed this unforeseen and repeated alternation in everyone.”
There is no whole self. Beyond all possibility of bombastic gamesmanship, I have touched this hard truth with my own emotions as I was separating from a companion. I was returning to
Aires and leaving him behind in Mallorca.
We both understood that, except in the perfidious or altered proximity of
letters, we would not meet again. What happens at such moments happened. We
knew this good-bye would jut out in our memories, and there was even a period
when we tried to enhance its flavor with a vehement show of opinions for the
yearnings to come. The present moment was acquiring all the prestige and indeterminacy
of the past….
But beyond any egotistical display, what clamored in my chest was the will to show my soul in its entirety to my friend. I would have wanted to strip myself of it and leave it there, palpitating. We went on talking and debating, on the brink of good-bye, until all at once, with an unsuspected strength of conviction, I understood that this personality, which we usually appraise at such an incompatibly exorbitant value, is nothing. The thought came over me that never would one full and absolute moment, containing all the others, justify my life, that all of my instants would be provisional phases, annihilators of the past turned to face the future, and that beyond the episodic, the present, the circumstantial, we were nobody. And I despised all mysterizing.
The last century was rootedly subjective in its aesthetic manifestations. Its writers were more inclined to show off their personalities than to establish a body of work, an aphorism that is also applicable today to the teeming and highly acclaimed mob of those who profit from the glib embers of that century’s bonfires. However, my purpose is not to lash out against one or the other of these groups, but to consider the
Calvary toward which idolaters of themselves are on a
fatal course. We have already seen that any state of mind, however
opportunistic, can entirely fill up our attention, which is much the same as
saying that it can form, in its brief and absolute term, our essence. Which,
translated into the language of literature, means that to try to express
oneself and to want to express the whole of life are one and the same thing. A
strenuous, panting dash between the prodding of time and man, who, like
Achilles in the illustrious conundrum formulated by Zeno of Elea, will always
see himself in last place…
Whitman was the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders. He believed he had only to enumerate the names of things in order to make their unique and surprising nature immediately palpable. Therefore, his poems, along with a great deal of fine rhetoric, string together garrulous series of words, sometimes repeated from geographic or history primers, which kindle lofty signs of admiration and mimic great enthusiasm.
From Whitman on, many have been caught up in this same fallacy. They have said:
“I have not tormented the language in quest of unexpected intensities or verbal marvels. I have not spun out even a slight paradox capable of creating a stir in your conversation or sending its sparks out through your laborious silence. Nor did I invent a tale around which lengthy spans of attention would cluster, as many futile hours cluster in remembrance around one hour in which there was love. None of that did I do nor have I determined to do and yet I wish for enduring fame. My justification is as follows: I am a man astonished by the abundance of the world: I bear witness to the unicity of things. Like the most illustrious of men, my life is located in space, and the chiming of unanimous clocks punctuates my duration in time. The words I use are not redolent of far-flung readings, but signs that mark what I have felt or contemplated. If ever I made mention of the dawn, it was not merely to follow the easy current of usage. I can assure you that I know what the Dawn is: I have seen, with premeditated rejoicing, the explosion that hollows out the depths of the streets, incites the slums of the world to revolt, humiliates the stars and broadens the sky by many leagues. I also know what a jacaranda, a statue, a meadow, a cornice are… I am like everyone else. This is my boast and my glory. It matters little whether I have proclaimed it in feeble verses or in rough-hewn prose.”
The same is asserted, with greater skill and mastery, by painters. What is contemporary painting - that of Picasso and his pupils - but a rapt confirmation of the gorgeous unicity of a king of spades, a gatepost, or a chess board? Romantic ego-worship and loudmouthed individualism are in this way wreaking havoc on the arts. Thank God that the lengthy examination of spiritual minutiae that this demands of the artist forces him back to the eternal classic rectitude that is creation. In a book like Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s Greguerías, the currents of both tendencies intermingle, and as we read we are unaware if what magnetizes our interest with such unique force is copied reality or is of pure intellectual fabrication.
The self does not exist. Schopenhauer, who often appears to adhere to this opinion, at other times tacitly denies it, I know not whether deliberately or because he is compelled by the rough, homespun metaphysics - or rather ametaphysics - that lurks in the very origins of language. Nevertheless, despite this disparity, there is a passage in his work that illuminates the alternative like a sudden blast of flame. I shall transcribe it:
“An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.”
Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divinities hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance. The senses do not deceive, it is the mind that deceives, said Goethe, in a maxim we could compare to this line by Macedonio Fernández:
“La realidad trabaja en abierto misterio”
[Reality works in overt mystery]
There is no whole self. Grimm, in an excellent presentation of Buddhism (Die Lehre des Buddha, Munich, 1917), describes the process of elimination whereby the Indians arrived at this certainty. Here is their millennially effective precept: “Those things of which I can perceive the beginnings and the end are not my self.” This rule is correct and needs only to be exemplified in order to persuade us of its virtue. I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case silence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances - a thing generally known and undisputed - but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among others. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its application to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness - the final hideout where we might track down the self - also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.
Grimm observes that this rambling dialectical inquiry yields a result that coincides with Schopenhauer’s opinion that the self is a point whose immobility is useful for discerning, by contrast, the heavy-laden flight of time. This opinion translates the self into a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.
[Translation, Esther Allen]
 Borges wrote this in 1922. “Last century” is therefore 19th century.
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