Jorge Luis Borges: Elminativist of the Self

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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.
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Nothingness of Personality

Rereading this essay by Borges, The Nothingness of Personality one comes across the remarkable agreement of all those labored scientific observations of the latter day neurosciences and philosophers of Mind; yet, in Borges the truth of this non-existent Self comes through in a meditative essay that allows one to come to terms with this impersonal and indifferent thing we are as nothing and everything in simplicity and eloquence, which leaves us in that dark region of the aesthetic where the nothingness we are suddenly vanishes into its mirror.

As he states it “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.”1

Borges began his critique of Kant and that subjectivist turn in philosophy and psychology that brought us such illusory worlds of Romantic art and philosophy that led to all those psychologies of the Transcendental Subject that are with us still.  “There is no whole self”: this fleeting thing we describe is neither whole nor part, but rather an illusion of language and meaning; a temporal point of fixity around which we’ve built the illusive and logical imperative of the enduring self-as-identity. Borges will work through a negative or eliminative project that will attack both the self as content and the self as consciousness; neither personality nor ego, but rather an empty illusion of duration and nonsense. We are not the things we perceive, nor are we this mirror or lamp that perceives or constructs the reality around us.

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. (p. 2)

We are neither our memories nor the events through which we temporally move, neither the illusion of duration nor the distortions of passing thought. Borges will eliminate every attachment of our sensual life one by one: we are not what we see, touch, smell, hear, etc. The Self is not this content, nor the states of emotional or intentional aboutness through which we register existence through our body; for our Self is not our body nor the states of mind that interact with this illusive reflection between the body and mind. This dualism of body and mind is itself an illusion of our reflecting nothingness; nothing more, nothing less. Like those figures drawn in the sand that wash away with time, or those figures we’ve all seen caught in the funhouse carnival that gazes into the infinity of mirrors seeing its own reflection multiplied into a fractured multiplicity; those distortions of a thousand forms from fat to thin, light to dark that suddenly congeal into some strange beastly imagining revealing nothing but the copy of a copy until like a nightmare that will not end a door suddenly opens out to the outside where we discover it was all an illusion of reflecting surfaces; that nothing in the end is real, that we are not those images and distortions on the screen of time, and neither are we these passing thoughts that seem to vanish even as they arise. We begin reducing our mirror image travels and travails to some mental fabrication ad absurdum never realizing that all these distortions of our physical features repeated in the mirrorings of reality have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with our self.

We are neither the distortions of our physical features nor their perfection, we are that nothingness that multiplies those features into invisibility beyond the sensual cave of our mind; and, even this is illusory, for the self does not hide behind our gazing eye like some computing god of reality, rather the self is itself computed by those anomalous forces hiding in the shadows of our inner blindness, just beyond the lens of our consciousness where the true magician of the world, our brain twitches in the neural net of an impossible flux of neurons and electrical sensations, a gathering storm of competing electrochemical reactions that shape the fantastical worlds we are and be. Even this is metaphor and surmise, a mystery reduced to scientific notation, a Reductio ad absurdum that is itself but a fluttering in the abyss of repeatable gestures in the mirrors of language and math.

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. (p. 4)

Against the dualisms of philosophers (Descartes) Borges like all Idealists sees no great divide between this and that, subject and object, eye and thing perceived; but rather a strange compositional linkage between, an alignment of the for-itself and its objects; of consciousness and its percepi, what current philosophers of a speculative mind like to term the correlationist paradox is what Borges by way of language dissolves. Like a Zen Master whose koans teach the pupil to leave language behind and enter the movement of the Real, Borges teaches us that in the end Time, Self, and the illusions of the Real are all compositional scores in a grand symphony or cacophony of that infinite Mind of which we are but a distant reflection, a fractured semblance of the cracked mirror reflecting the world in the mirror of our linguistic caves like Plato’s prisoners who mistake the darkness for the light of the Sun.

The correlationist strategy consists in demonstrating that the object can only be thought as it is given, and it can only be thought as it is given for a subject. In drawing our attention to givenness for a subject, correlationism thus demonstrates that we can never know what the object is in-itself, but only what it is for-us. In short, any truth one might articulate is not a truth of the world as it would be regardless of whether or not we exist, but only a truth for-us. Yet, as Borges will point out if we do not exist, if subjects, too, or illusions of perspective, of the mind’s temporal flux. And if this temporal ordering of mind and thing (given) is illusion. There is no circle or self that orders this reality. One might say it is a set of sets, a series of perceptions that belong to neither the object nor the subject, but rather to the vanishing point of an impersonal and logical succession or flux in temporal dislocation, the infinite play of the mind in a game that has no beginning nor end.

Over and over Borges reiterates like some musical leitmotif that there “is no whole self”, no totalistic being behind the appearances: “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.” (p. 5)

Indifferent to this knowledge, neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but rather accepting that our dispositions toward things is of little use because to be fatalistic or its obverse is illusion, too. “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.” (p. 6)

This sense of being no one and everyone, the indifference of the universal nullity that we are as humans brings Borges to this unique insight:

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. (p. 8)

Maybe in the end when we suddenly are surprised by death, by that annihilating light at the end of being we will know as we are known, that in the moment we step out of time, enter the timeless movement beyond the circle of this strange realm of duration we will at that penultimate point awaken to what we are as we are dissolved in absolute nothingness. But, then again, maybe this, too, is illusion. Maybe in the moment that knower and known unite in that unicity beyond time they will collapse without a trace or recollection, mere appearances in a realm of appearances much like this realm of compasses and mirrors.

It is not enough to say, in the manner of all poets, that mirrors are like water. Nor is it enough to take this hypothesis as an absolute and presume, like some Huidobro, that cool breezes blow from mirrors or that thirsty birds drink from them, leaving their frames empty. We must make manifest the whim transformed into reality that is the mind. We must reveal an individual reflected in the glass who persists in his illusory country (where there are figures and colors, but they are ruled by immutable silence) and who feels the shame of being only a simulacrum obliterated by the night, existing only in glimpses. (p. 11)


  1. Jorge Luis Borges. Selected Non-Fictions. Editor, Eliot Weinberger (1999 by Viking Penguin)

2 thoughts on “Jorge Luis Borges: Elminativist of the Self

  1. “However far a man may go in self-knowledge, nothing however can be more incomplete than his image of the totality of drives which constitute his being. He can scarcely name even the cruder ones: their number and strength, their ebb and flood, their play and counterplay among one another, and above all the laws of their nutriment remain wholly unknown to him. This nutriment is therefore a work of chance: our daily experiences throw some prey in the way of now this, now that drive, and the drive seizes it eagerly; but the coming and going of these events as a whole stands in no rational relationship to the nutritional requirements of the totality of the drives: so that the outcome will always be twofold the starvation and stunting of some and the overfeeding of others.” — Nietzsche, Daybreak 119

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