Borges and God

Borges Sicily.jpg
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Jorge Luis Borges at the ruins of Selinunte, Sicily, 1984

In March 1984, Jorge Luis Borges began a series of radio “dialogues” with the Argentinian poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Forty-five of them have just been translated into English for the first time by Jason Wilson and will be published this month by Seagull Books as Conversations, Volume 1. What follows is Borges’s conversation with Ferrari about the existence of God.

—The Editors

Osvaldo Ferrari: Many people still ask whether Borges believes in God, because at times they feel he does and at times that he doesn’t.

Jorge Luis Borges: If God means something in us that strives for good, yes. If he’s thought of as an individual being, then no, I don’t believe. I believe in an ethical proposition, perhaps not in the universe but in each one of us. And if I could I would add, like Blake, an aesthetic and an intellectual proposition but with reference to individuals again. I’m not sure it would apply to the universe. I remember Tennyson’s line: “Nature red in tooth and claw.” He wrote that because so many people talked about a gentle Nature.

Ferrari: What you have just said confirms my impression that your possible conflict about belief or disbelief in God has to do with the possibility that God may be just or unjust.

Borges: Well, I think that it’s enough to glance at the universe to note that justice certainly does not rule. I recall a line from Almafuerte: “With delicate art, I spread a caress on every reptile, I did not think justice was necessary when pain rules everywhere.” In another line, he says, “All I ask is justice / but better to ask for nothing.” Already to ask for justice is to ask for much, too much.

Ferrari: Yet, you also recognize in the world the existence of happiness—in a library, perhaps, but other kinds of happiness too.

Borges: That, yes, of course. I would say that happiness can be momentary but that it also happens frequently, it can happen, for instance, even in our dialogue.

Ferrari: There’s another significant impact—the impact that prompts most poets to hold on to the notion of another world, a world apart from this one. Because there’s always something in the poet’s words that seems to send us beyond what is mentioned in the writing.

Borges: Yes, but that beyond is perhaps projected by the writing or by the emotions that lead to the writing. That is, that other world is, perhaps, a beautiful human invention.

Ferrari: But we could say that in all poetry there’s an approximation to something else, beyond the words and the subject matter.

Borges: Well, language does not match up to the complexity of things. I think that the philosopher Whitehead talks of the paradox of the perfect dictionary, that is, the idea of supposing that all the words that a dictionary registers exhaust reality. Chesterton also wrote about this, saying that it is absurd to suppose that all the nuances of human consciousness, which are more vast than a jungle, can be contained in a mechanical system of grunts which would be, in this case, the words spoken by a stockbroker. That’s absurd and yet people talk of a perfect language, of a rich language, but in comparison to our consciousness language is very poor. I think that somewhere Stevenson says that what happens in ten minutes exceeds all Shakespeare’s vocabulary [laughs]. I believe it’s the same idea.

Ferrari: Throughout your writing, you have referred to what’s divine, including the supernatural. You have also accepted, in one of our dialogues, Murena’s words about beauty being able to transmit an otherworldly truth. That is, you seem to admit that transcendence exists but you don’t call it God.

Borges: I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable. On the other hand, if we employ other words, perhaps less precise or vivid ones, then we could approach the truth, if an approach to truth is possible. Or it could be something that we ignore.

Ferrari: That’s exactly why one could think that you do not name God. Even though you believe in the perception of another reality, besides the everyday one.

Borges: I am unsure if this reality is an everyday one. We don’t know if the universe belongs to a realist genre or a fantastic one, because if, as idealists believe, everything is a dream, then what we call reality is essentially oneiric. Schopenhauer spoke of the “essence” (oneiric sounds pedantic, doesn’t it?). Let’s say, “The dream-like essence of life.” Yes, because “oneiric” suggests something sad—like psychoanalysis [laughs].

Ferrari: Besides faith or its absence, another question is whether you consider love in universal terms, as a power or a necessary force for the fulfillment of life.

Borges: I don’t know if it’s necessary but, yes, it is inevitable.

Ferrari: I don’t mean love between two human beings but what men receive or do not receive, as they receive air or light. A love that is eventually supernatural.

Borges: At times I feel, how can I put it? Mysteriously grateful. When I have an idea that will later, sadly, become a story or a poem, I have a sensation of receiving something. But I do not know if that “something” is given to me by something or someone or if it bursts out on its own. Yeats held a doctrine of a great memory and thought that it wasn’t important for a poet to have many experiences because he inherited memory from his parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents. This multiplies itself in geometric progression until he inherits humankind’s memory and this “something” is revealed to him. Now, De Quincey thought that memory is perfect, that is, I have in myself everything that I have felt, everything that I have thought since childhood. But there must be an adequate stimulus to find this memory. He thought—he was a Christian—that would be the book used in the Final Judgment, the book of everyone’s memories. And that could lead us eventually to Heaven or Hell. But, deep down, that mythology is alien to me.

Ferrari: How odd, Borges, it seems that we are talking constantly through memory. Sometimes, our conversations remind me of a dialogue between two memories.

Borges: In fact, that’s what it is. If we are something, we are our past, aren’t we? Our past is not what can be recorded in a biography or in the newspapers. Our past is our memory. That memory can be hidden or inaccurate—it doesn’t matter. It’s there, isn’t it? It can be a lie but that lie becomes part of our memory, part of us.

Ferrari: As we have talked about faith or its absence, I want to mention something about our times that seems strange to me. Over the centuries, men in the Protestant and Catholic West have worried about the dilemma of the soul’s salvation. But it seems to me that recent generations do not think that it is even a dilemma.

Borges: That seems pretty serious to me, that a person or people do not possess an ethical instinct or sense, doesn’t it? Moreover, there’s a tendency, or a habit, of judging an act by its consequences. Now that seems immoral to me, because when you act you know if your acts are evil or good. As for the consequences of an act—they ramify and multiply and perhaps balance out in the end. I do not know, for example, if the consequences of the discovery of America have been good or evil, because there are so many. Even as we are talking, they are growing and multiplying. Thus, to judge an act by its consequences is absurd. But people tend to do this. For example, a contest or a war is judged according to failure or success and not according to whether it’s ethically justified. As for the consequences, as I said, they multiply in such a way that, perhaps in time, they balance out and then become unbalanced again. It is a continuous process.

Ferrari: With the loss of the ideas of salvation and damnation, there’s the loss of the ideas of good and evil, sin and virtue. That is, there’s a different version of things that excludes the earlier world view.

Borges: People now only think about whether something is advantageous. They think as if the future doesn’t exist, or as if there is no future other than an immediate one. They act according to what counts in that moment.

Ferrari: And that way of being, of being preoccupied with immediacy, has turned us into “immediate” beings, perhaps even into futile ones.

Borges: I completely agree.