Friday, November 19, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges: Berkeley, Hume, Philosophy and Mollie Sugden

Jorge Luis Borges was a writer of an astonishing breadth of vision, which is only truly rivalled by someone like Umberto Eco today. This article will introduce and review some of the running themes in the work of Borges, with reference to some of his greatest short stories. The first deals with his lifelong rumination on the theory of induction. In particular, his anxiety at living in an unstructured, un-orderly and non-rational world. The second relates to understanding the subjectivity of truth in the a world of Borges philosophy.

It is hard not to try and put together an amateur psycho-analysis of Borges. A young, rather effete boy. He grew up in a tough part of Buenos Aires where tales of knife fighting and gangs were common. He was gradually going blind by the age of 30, yet his imagination and internal vision soared. Borges was universally famed and popular, yet he was introverted. He was a man full of contradictions. It is easy to see a picture of a man set on chronicling a world, in which he didn’t really fit into.

Cause and effect do not flow effortlessly together, in the philosophy of Borges. Perhaps this is the reason for his lifelong obsession with the unreal nature of the world?

"Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"

Most reviews of Borges' work cite this short story as probably his his most recommended story. He outlines the imaginary world of "Tlon", within which, there is no succession between cause and effect. "Tlon" is the World of the empiricist philosopher George Berkeley. Its viewpoint recognizes perceptions as primary and denies the existence of any underlying reality. In this short story, Borges explores numerous examples and possibilities of living in such a world. He takes us to the logical conclusions of the philosophical ideas of the empiricists like Berkeley and Hume and the results are startling.

"The Threatened One"

There is a clue to Jorge Luis Borges’ thinking in this famous love poem. Whilst, superficially, it is a reflection on the ‘threat’ of being dependent upon another’s love, there is a stanza which creates a moment of anagnorisis.

‘It is love, I know it; the anxiety and relief at hearing your voice, the hope and the memory, the horror at living in succession’

The horror of ‘succession’ refers to his life being guided and conditional upon the cause and effect of another’s will. This concept of succession is worrying enough. However, ‘sucession’, is clearly a philosophical concept that is troubling Borges in another, deeper, sense.

"The Lottery in Babylon"

The idea of 'succession' returns in this superb story. Borges articulates a world whereby a lottery company is dictating life chances and outcomes. The activities of the company keep increasing until eventually it is not, clear to the people of Babylon, whether all their life outcomes are actually being dictated by the company. Borges has created a world in which causality is missing. In the "Babylonian" version, cause and effect are decided on by an unseen omnipotent entity that is solely relying on arbitrary luck.

'A New Refutation of Time'

In this essay, Borges decides to deal explicitly with the subject matter of induction and attempts to take Hume and Berkeley’s ideas to their logical conclusion. In Berkeley’s world of Tlon, objects do not exist outside of Tlonists immediate perception. In Hume’s world of "Babylon", there is no necessary link between cause and effect, only that created by the lottery company.

In this essay, Borges links these ideas together and asks why we should accept the linearity of time when looking at causality. In other words, A strikes B, so we then look for the cause between A and B whilst accepting the linearity of time between A and B. However, what if we see event A happen twice? It seems that inducing that B necessarily follows on from A is the only reason we define time as linear. What if A happens and then A happens again. Surely then, time is not linear?

'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote'

Borges deals with the relativity of truth in this piece ."Pierre Menard" is an author who attempts to re-create the mind set and world view of Cervantes' ‘Don Quixote’. "Menard" does this so well that he ends up re-creating, word for word, an exact copy of ‘Don Quixote’. In Borges’ piece, the two works-although identical- are received by literary reviewers in entirely different ways. This is highly entertaining and, at the same time, pokes fun at the post-modernists obsession with seeing everything in terms of relativity.

Borges is pointing out that the object is always seen in the context of the viewer. This is an idea similar to those articulated above. With this in mind, Borges would have loved the observation outlined in the last sub-heading to this article

'The Circular Ruins and Mollie Sugden'

One of the most famous opening lines in Spanish literature is written at the start of Borges ‘The Circular Ruins’ , specifically, ‘No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night’. By now, it is obvious to the reader, that the word ‘unanimous’ refers to the usual Borges theme of an unseen entity dictating events from afar. It is also symptomatic of his unusual use of words. He delighted in putting two words together unusually, in order to make them create a new and unique nuance.

Similarly, Mollie Sugden who played Mrs Slocombe in the camp 1970’s British sitcom ‘Are you Being Served’ would often declare ‘and I am unanimous in that!’ This joke was based around lampooning the attitudes of trade union leaders (who made block vote decisions for their members) and also highlighting her stupidity.

Both, are using the word ‘unanimous’ in a new context. Both, are hinting at an outside entity who is actually guiding affairs.

One, is the most critically acclaimed author in Latin American history.The other, is a comedy idiot working as a shop assistant in a British sitcom.

Borges would have loved the irony!


"Collected Fictions" by Jorge Luis Borges translated by Andrew Hurley. Penguin Books,1999

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