Thursday, 27 March 2014

Of course, I lack an island, and I also lack sight, don’t I? – Borges and Bertrand Russell

While I was browsing the book of dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Jorge Luis Borges for my post on Gustave Flaubert, I noticed that there was one about Bertrand Russell. I didn’t remember what Borges had to say about one of my favourite philosophers, so I went and re-read it. One of the virtues of these short dialogues is that they make for stimulating occasional reading.

Another one is that they give us lots of incidental information about Borges. In this dialogue we get to know a bit more about his interest in mathematics, we find out which book he’d take to an island, he shows a political side, and he even jokes with his poor memory: there’s a fun moment when Ferrari utters a sentence, “Reality is always anachronistic,” that Borges likes very much before Ferrari informs him that he wrote it decades before in Other Inquisitions. “Ah, yes, there, in fact that book is full of surprises for me; I wrote it so long ago it seems new to me,” says Borges.

But on to Russell. I’ve read my share of Bertrand Russell: Sceptical Essays, The Problems of Philosophy, Why I Am Not A Christian and In Praise of Idleness. I’ve always liked him for his clarity, common sense, acuity and his wit. Borges has read many more than me. He tells Ferrari that he “read and re-read” Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.

It’s a very simple book, a very enjoyable read, like everything Russell writes, and I remember I loaned it to [his friend Alfonso] Reyes. In it I read for the first time an explanation, well, for me the best, the most accessible, of set theory by German Mathematician Cantor. Reyes read the book and also became very interested in it. Sometimes I’ve been asked… I’m constantly being asked that question about which book I’d take for a deserted island; a journalistic cliché. Well, I started by answering that I’d take an encyclopaedia; but I’m not sure they’d let me take ten or twelve volumes, I think not. So, I opted for History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, which perhaps is the book I’d take for the island… but, of course, I lack an island, and I also lack sight, don’t I? The book I already have but it’s not enough.

Ferrari suggests that perhaps he could take a reader with him. “In that case, yes, in that case everything changes; and, besides that, the memory of books… I’d like to ask in that book, well, what I read and what I forgot.” And this sends us into one of his digressions about memory and blindness:

Yes, the memory of the book I’d like to have. If it were perfect, I’d also have the book within my reach. I’m thinking there was a time… well, amongst the Muslims I think it’s very common the case of people who know the Koran by heart. There’s the word hafiz which means that: memorious, memorious of the Koran in particular. Nowadays I think there are educational systems that according to which the student – who may be a child – isn’t required knowledge of the book; he must learn it by heart. If I had benefited of that system it’d have been fortunate for me because I’d know many books by heart and I could understand and read them now, which would be even better. For instance, if I could have read History of Western Philosophy, by Russell, when I was a child, with that system, I would have understood very little, but now I could consult that book…

Ferrari says that his “memory could read” in that case. “Certainly, my memory could read,” agrees Borges. “So that that system, in the case of people who become blind, could have been an excellent system for me.” Borges, from what I understand, doesn’t just miss reading, he misses forming new memories from reading books. Just listening them being uttered by others isn’t enough for him, it seems. ”But sadly I wasn’t that fortunate; I was required to read and understand. Instead, if I had been demanded a simple memory exercise, well, I could be reading many books that now are very far away.” I love how to him remembering a whole book in his memory would be the same as reading it again.

He continues to discuss Russell and how he has problems understanding his philosophical system. “And then I read more books by him, in which he develops a personal philosophical system; that is, I understand every page as I read it, but afterwards, when I sought to organize everything in my mind, I failed, and failed in a singular way.” Ferrari, curious to know what idea Borges made of Russell’s philosophy, asks him to elaborate. “It’s a very rigorous system, it’s a logical system; but if I try to imagine it now in some way, failure.” I take it he means perhaps his mathematical philosophy or even his empiricism. For my part I know him mostly as an essayist on loose topics, so I never struggled with a particular system by Russell. In fact I always thought he was accused of being a light-weight thinker, which I think is ridiculous, because he lacked a system like Sartre; that’s why he’s so invaluable to me: he applied his intelligence to everything, instead of trying to fit everything into a single straightjacket. That’s why I prefer British philosophers in general: they analyse the hell out of things (Mary Midgley is another example) instead of building systems around them, like the abstruse Continentals.

Ferrari then asks Borges what he thinks of Russell’s writings about “contemporary politics and facts of society.” Borges praises him for his freedom. “Ah, yes, and besides that I think he’s a singularly free person; free from the common superstitions of our times, like for instance the superstition of nationality. I think he’s free from that. Then he has another book, Why I Am Not A Christian; but since I am not a Christian, I started reading the book and abandoned it because I felt it was superfluous: I didn’t need those arguments to not be a Christian.” In fact there’s only one essay in the book with that name, the rest is a collection of essays on varied religious topics.

Turning to Let The People Think, where Russell traces a genealogy of fascism (“where Fichte and Carlyle must be included, no?” says Borges), both men start talking about politicians who build their doctrines on other people’s older ideas.

Yes, I’d say politicians are the ultimate plagiarists, the ultimate disciples of writers. But, generally, a century too late, or even a bit more, yes, because what we call “news” is in fact… it’s a museum, equally archaic. Now, for instance, we’re all enchanted by democracy; well, all of that takes us to Paine, to Jefferson, to what may well have been a passion when Walt Whitman wrote his Leaves of Grass. In the year of 1855. All that is news; that’s why politicians would be late readers, no?, old-fashioned readers, readers of old libraries, well, like I also am in fact, nowadays.”

Their discussion of the Russell book Borges reviewed back in Other Inquisitions takes them to meditate on Russell’s belief that the modern world, in opposition to the 18th century, and regarding the rise of fascism and nazism, was anti-rational. “But regarding many things,” argues Borges. “regarding surrealism, regarding the cult of disorder; regarding the disappearance of, well, some verse forms, or even of prose; regarding the disappearance of the punctuation marks, which was an oh so very interesting innovation,” he concludes, sardonic. (He wasn’t into modernist innovations.) And although fascism fell, there was still communism to contend with, which he calls “the exacerbated form of fascism, of the State’s intervention.” Borges, it should be remembered, was a liberal anarchist who did not like the interference of any form of political system on an individual’s freedom.

Going back to Russell, they discuss his Science and Religion and the fact that, in Borges’ view, “in the long run it’s religion that gives way.” “Yes, religion, of course, becomes all the time more subtle; it interprets science, tries to harmonize science I don’t know if with the Holy Scriptures, but rather with theology, with the divers theologies. But in the end it’s science that triumphs and not religion.”

His final line shows him making a reference to the Iranian regime which caught me unawares. Don’t forget these dialogues took place during the mid-80s. “Anyway, in Iran they defend Islam, but in fact we feel that they have more faith in machine guns than in miracles; that is, they believe in a scientific war, and not in the scimitars and camels. And here we had a war, or a guerrilla; which was terrible, like all wars are – if they only last a few minutes; I’d like to remind people that, to my knowledge, there were two people who spoke against that war in the newspapers – which I hope is quickly forgotten: Silvina Bullrich [Argentine novelist] and me. I can’t recall anyone else; everybody else shut up or applauded also. Why, of course many people probably thought like us, but abstained from going public.” And a veiled reference to the Falkland Wars of 1982! It’s always a bit shocking to see apolitical Borges talking about current affairs, and yet for a man who is so often, and unfairly, accused of supporting a dictatorship, when always talks about them with moderation and dignity.

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