Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Joyce and Borges: Modernism and the Irish Mind’,
interview with Seamus Heaney & Richard Kearney, in The Crane Bag, 6, 2 (1982), pp.71-78.

[Source & Notes: Interview of 16th June 1982 when Borges had been invited to Dublin by Anthony Cronin and the Joyce Centenary Committee. Kearney writes prefatorily: “If something specifically Argentine remains in his work, it is, he reminds us, because he believes, Joyce did [71] before him, that the universal can only be reached by an abiding, if not apparent, fidelity to the genesis-glance of the particular.” The remarks quoted in extract here are not necessarily continuous with each other. Available at JSTOR Ireland - online; accessed 16.06.2015. The interview was reprinted as ‘Conversation with Jorge Luis Borges’, in Kearney, ed., Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture (1988).]


Kearney: In The Argentine Writer and Tradition you declared that you felt yourself to be an author “on the outside of a cultural mainstream”. Joyce expressed a similar sentiment when he described “home, fatherland and church” as restrictive nets he would try to fly by, or when he has Stephen admit that he could never feel at home in the English language, that he could never speak or write its words “without unrest of spirit”: “This language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its [sic] words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of (this) language.” Do you experience such a cultural or post-colonial alienation in your use of the Spanish language?

Borges: It is true that as an Argentine I feel a certain distance from the Spanish mainstream. I was brought up in Argentine with as much familiarity with the English and French cultures as with the Spanish. So I suppose I am doubly alien - for even Spanish, the language I write precisely as an outsider, is itself already on the margin of the mainstream of European literary tradition.

Heaney: Do you think there exists such a thing as a Hispanic-American tradition - accepting the fact that all traditions have to be imagined before they emerge?

Borges: It is true that the notion of traditon [sic] involves an act of faith. Our imaginations alter and reinvent the past all the time. I must confess however that I was never very convinced by the idea of a Hispanic-American tradition. When I travelled to Mexico, for example, I was delighted in their rich native culture and literature. But I felt I had nothing in common with it. I could not identify with their cult of the Indian past. Argentina and Uruguay differ from most other Latin-American countries in that they possess a mixture of Spanish, Italian and Portugese [sic] cultures which has made for a more European-style climate. Most of our coloquial [sic] or slang [73] words in Argentian [sic], for instance, are of Italian origin. I myself am decended [sic] from Portugese [sic], Spanish, Jewish and English ancestors [...] The only real Americans are the Indians. The rest are Europeans. (pp.73-74.)

Borges: There is no such thing as racial or national purity ... Nationalism and literature are therefore natural enemies. I do not believe that there exists a specifically Argentine culture which could be called “Latin American” or Hispanic-American”. The only real Americans are the Indians. The rest are Europeans. I like to thing of myself therefore as a European writer in exile. Neither Hispanic nor American, nor Hispanic-American, but an expatriate European. (p.74.)

Kearney: Are there other Irish writers, besides Joyce, that you particularly admired?

Borges: When I was still a young man in Buenos Aires I read George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism. I was so impressed that I went on to read all of his plays and essays and discovered there a writer of deep philosophical curiosity and a great believer in the transfiguring power of the will and of the mind. Shaw possesses that typical Irish sense of mischievous fun and laughter. Oscar Wilde is another Irish author who had that rare ability to mix humour and frivolity with intellectual depth. He wrote some purple passages, of course, but I believe that every word he wrote is true ...

Not to belong to a homogeneous “national” culture is perhaps not a poverty but a richeness. In this sense I am an “international” writer who resides in Buenes Aires. [...] This multinational apprenticeship enables me to play with words as beautiful toys, to enter, as Browning put it, the “great game of language”.’ (p.74.)

[Further: [A]ll the verbal plantasmagoia [for phantasmagoria] in Joyce also seems to be deeply involved with his conventional classical education; ... Beckett is a bore ... why bother waiting for Godot if he never comes? Tedious [74] stuff]

Borges [in answer to a question about philosophical influences]: Schopenhauer [...] The other philosopher who fascinated me greatly was George Berkeley - another Irishman. Berkeley knew that metaphysics is no less a product of the creative mind than is poetry [...] My father introduced me to Berkeley’s philosophy at the age of then. Before I was even able to reade or write properly he taught me to think. [...] I remember very well how he introduced me to Berkeley’s idealist metaphysics and particularly his doctrine that the material world is an invention of the creative imagination. [Tells story of the colour and taste of an orange.] This was a revelation to me: that the outside world is as we perceive or imagine it to to be. It does not exist independently of our minds. From that day forth I realized that reality and fiction were betrothed to each other, that eve our ideas are creative fictions. I have always believed that metaphysics, religin and literature all have a common source. (p.74; p.53 in Transitions, as infra.)

[Cf. infra: ‘As my agnostic father used to say, “Reality being what it is - the product of our perception - everything is possible, even the Trinity”. I do believe in ethics - that things in our universe are good or bad. But I cannot believe in a personal God.’ (p.77.)]

Kearney [quoting Berkeley’s “we Irish think otherwise” which W B Yeats hailed as “the birth of the national intellect”:] Do your think it is just a happy accident that your early discovery of the creative power of the mind coincided with your admiration for Irish writers and thinkers such as Berkeley, Shaw, Wilde and Joyce, who had also made such a discover. How would you account for this common empathy?

Borges: Perhaps nothing is an accident? Perhaps all such coincidences obey some hidden law, the unfolding of some inscrutable design? The principle of the Eternal Return? of a Universal Logos? Of a Holy Ghost? Who knows. But as an outsider looking on successive Irish writers I have sometimes been struck by unusual and remarkable repetitions. Berkeley was the first Irish philosophy I read [...] Then followed by fascination for Wilde, Shaw and Joyce. And finally there was John Scotus Erigenea, the Irish metaphysician of the 13th century. I loved to read Erigena, especially his De Divisione Naturae, which taught that God creates himself through the creation of his creatures in nature. I have all his books in my library. I discoverd that Berkeley’s doctrine of the creative power of the mind was already anticipated by Erigena’s metaphysics of creation and that this in turn recurred to several other Irish writers: in the last two pages of the forward of Back to Methuselah we find Shaw outling a philosophical system remarkably akin to Erigena’s systme of things coming from the mind of God and returning to him. In short, what Shaw calls the life-force plays the same role in his system as God does in Erigena’s. I was also very struck by the fact that both Shaw and Erigena called the “Nihil” of God, what resided at the heart [75] of our existences. I doubt that Shaw ever read Erigena; he certainly showed very little interest in medieval philosophy. And yet the coincidence of thought is there. I suspect it has less to do with nationalism than with metaphysics.


Borges: Yes, I believe that metaphysics is no less a product of imagination than is poetry. After all the ontological idea of God is the most splendid invention of imaginaton.

Kearney: But do we invent God or does God invent us? Is the primary creative imagination Divine or human.

Borges; Ah, that is the question. It might be both.

Heaney: Did your childhood experience of the Catholic religion nourish your sensibility in any lasting way? I am thinking more of its rites and mysteries than its theological precepts. Is there such a thing as the Catholic imagination which might express itself in works of literature as it did in Dante for example?

Borges: In Argentina being a Catholic is a social rather than a spiritual matter. It means you align yourself with the right class, party or social group. Only women seem to take religion seriously. [...] I rarely saw a man in church. My mother had great faith. [..] I am no longer a practising Catholic and cannot share her faith [...] Immortality is no more strange or incredible than death. As my agnostic father As my agnostic father used to say: “reality being what it is - the product of our peception - eerything is possible, even the Trinity.” I do believe in ethics, that things in our universe are good or bad. But I cannot believe in a personal God. As Shaw says in Major Barbara: “I have left behind the Bride of Heaven.” I continue to be fascinated by metaphysical and alchemical notions of the sacred. But this fascination is aesthetic rather than theological.

[Kearney asks about the idea of 'eternal repeticion of chaos giving rise to a metaphysical patter or order in “Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius”.]

Borges: I enjoyed myself very much in writing that. I never stopped laughing from beginning to end. It was all one huge metaphysical joke. The idea of the eternal return is of course an old idea of the Stocs. St. Augustine condemned this idea in Civitas Dei, when he contrasts the pagan belief in a cyclical order of time - the City of Bablylon - with the linear, prophetic and messianic notion of time to be found in the City of God, Jerusalem. This latter notion has prevailed in our Western culture since Augustine. But I think there may be some truth in the old idea that behind th eapparent disorder of the universe, a hidden order might emerge - an order of repetition or coincidence.

Kearney: You once wrote that even though this hidden cyclical order cannot be proved it remains for you “an elegant hope”.

Borges: Did I write that? That's good, yes, very good. I suppose that in my 82 years I am entitled to have written a few memorable lines. The rest can “go to pot” as my grandmother used to say.


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