Cahiers du Vertebrata

a human being is never what he is but the self he seeks

Sarah Manguso, 300 arguments

Angelica Sylvestris

You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.


I wrote my college application essay about playing in a piano competition, knowing I would lose to the kid who had played just before me. Even while I played knowing I would lose, I wrote, still I played to give the judges something to remember. I pretended my spasms of self-regard transcended the judges’ informed decisions about the pianists who were merely the best. I got into college.


At faculty meetings I sat next to people whose books had sold two million copies. Success seemed so close, just within reach. On subway benches I sat next to people who were gangrenous, dying, but I never thought I’d catch what they had.


Inner beauty can fade, too.


Like a vase, a heart breaks once. After that, it just yields to its flaws.


Having a worst regret betrays your belief that one misstep caused all your undeserved misfortune.


I don’t write long forms because I’m not interested in artificial deceleration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger.


My teacher cried while I listened. None of his books had ever made money, not even the famous one, he said. He’d spent his life trying to write perfect books, and when he tried to make money, he couldn’t. I didn’t think I’d ever feel as old as he seemed at that moment, but here we are.


I wish I could ask the future whether I should give up or keep trying. Then again, what if trying, even in the face of certain failure, feels as good as accomplishing? What if it’s even better? And here we are again.


I can’t bear to think of my dead friend, but I don’t mind rereading a few things that have nothing to do with him and that always move me to tears. The grief reservoir empties to a manageable level. In this way I can mourn him without having to think about him.


Shame needs an excuse to feel ashamed. It apologizes for everything, even itself.


Just before the poetry reading starts, I ask the overgrown boy sitting next to me why he likes poetry, what happened to him, and he says, I went to war.


When the worst comes to pass, the first feeling is relief.


I write in defense of the beliefs I fear are least defensible. Everything else feels like homework.


Finally, a form I’ll always have time to write—but of course it demands more than time.


My least favorite received idea about writing is that one must find one’s voice, as if it’s there inside you, ready to be turned on like a player piano. Like character, its very existence depends on interaction with the world.


Faced with a camera lens, hideously overwitnessed, I immediately start trying to impersonate myself.


Picture a locked storeroom strewn with all the old sheet music I had to give back to music teachers and choral directors, paper lying unused for decades, fading yellow, annotated in sharp pencil, the pages containers of such joy that it sometimes choked me silent. No one who picks it up could know how it saved my life, over and over.


After I stopped hoping to outgrow them, my fears were no longer a burden. Hope is what made them a burden.


When my husband does the dishes he always leaves some platter in the sink, some surface unwiped. I tried to correct the behavior until I remembered that if I finish everything in my Work in Progress folder I’m afraid I’ll die.


I don’t love writing; I love having a problem I believe I might someday write my way out of.


Even if I’m writing for no audience, I’m appealing to the audience of all who ever agreed that A is A: all readers who have ever lived.


To call a piece of writing a fragment, or to say it’s composed of fragments, is to say that it or its components were once whole but are no longer.


The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.


I’d like to meet someone whose passage through life has been continuous, whose life has happened to an essential self, and not been just a series of lives happening to a series of selves.


Interesting people aren’t interested in appearing interesting.


I want to ask the happiest person in the world whether it was worth it, all the sacrifices he made in order to become so happy.


The first time you love someone who doesn’t love you back it seems wrong, not morally but logically, a river flowing up a mountain. How can such a feeling be wrong? You’ll return to that very river, as many times as it takes.


Outsiders pretend to be insiders, and it makes them unlikable. Insiders pretend to be outsiders, and we love to play along.


The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath.


Some people will punish you merely for witnessing their weakness. Even if they sought you out and asked for help. Even if you helped. Especially if you helped.


Preferable to accepting one’s insignificance is imagining the others hate you.


Today, for the first time, I sent a fan letter to someone younger than I am. It marks a change in my relationship to the world.


Compare and despair, intone the self-help bibles. But without anyone to compare myself to, how would I know what constitutes a human life?


There must be birds that sing or fly better or worse than other birds of their species; I’ve never noticed any. But the birds have.


People congregate according to their relative levels of luck.


Nothing is more boring to me than the re-re-restatement that language isn’t sufficiently nuanced to describe the world. Of course language isn’t enough. Accepting that is the starting point of using it to capacity. Of increasing its capacity.


I read your work hoping to find flaws. I stop reading it, fearing its perfection.


Aspiring to fame is aspiring to a life of small talk.


Certainty is the opposite of thinking; I’m certain of it.


Another friend always gives the same consolation to those afraid of publishing some potentially embarrassing passage. Don’t worry, he whispers beatifically. No one will read it.


I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is.


Nouns are exciting because of their variety and specificity, but consider the amazing capacity of the humble pronoun.


It’s so boring to be a soprano, shackled to the melody, ineluctably noticed.


Great artists make work like the os innominatum, the unnamed bone, called thus in the first edition of Gray’s Anatomy, for its resemblance to no known object, but they do it incidentally.


Death will reveal what you would otherwise have finished. Also what you never would have finished. I found the notes for a book a woman had been working on for thirty years: sixteen pages.


Every new routine begins in desperation. And ends in a different desperation.


Overheard in the café: Get me one of those cheese sandwiches—Capri? You know, like the island where Tiberius died?


In the long moment after I complete a project, adrift on a windless sea, I return to the idea of a certain imaginary book I’ll never write, a goal I’ll never reach. As soon as I think of a new project, I push the imaginary book far ahead of me, past the horizon, where it will wait for me until I need it again.


The will can achieve some things, but one must exhaust one’s will in order to learn which things they are.


I wish someone would tell me what I should be doing instead of this, that he’d be right, and that I’d believe him.


I know a woman who runs marathons she doesn’t train for. Isn’t that bad for your joints, or something? You just have to be stubborn, she says.


Progress takes place in the dark, when you aren’t trying.


My long romance with efficiency has made me miserly.


Achieve a goal and suffer its loss.


Lack of effort poorly conceals lack of ability.


Someone I knew prevented me from getting a job. I fantasized about his death. Years later, he was fired publicly and shamefully. Then he was divorced. Then he developed a disabling illness. With each of his new misfortunes I’m punished further, with secret guilt, for wishing all of it on him, long ago.


Determining when to maintain or to relinquish control is the entire job of any artist and any person. But one must learn a new type of control for every work and every relationship.


Vocation and ambition are different, but ambition doesn’t know the difference.


The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.


When I was a pianist I had two equal and opposite fears: becoming the best and failing to become the best. Most of those who tried to be the best failed. So I tried to be the second-best, and sometimes I succeeded.


I don’t know myself as well as I used to, says a middle-aged friend raising two young children. But he does know. He just isn’t thinking about it as much anymore.


Happiness begins to deteriorate once it is named.


Those whose every act is praised are handicapped by adoration. They grow stunted, shrivel up, lose the impulse to continue. Praise can kill.


I don’t envy the great writers. I envy those who believe they might be great.


So many things I’ll never try again. People my age who are still trying—I don’t know where that energy comes from. Perhaps they’re unhappy. Perhaps I’m happy, but I never thought happiness would feel like this.


In sports, failure is outwardly observable, which is to say it is a sign—look, there it is, the tennis ball that bounced twice. In the rest of life, failure is mostly complex, nuanced, secret. It’s a private self-judgment, a symptom you cannot observe. As with pain, I can only tell you about it.


My entire childhood was spent accompanying my parents to swap meets, yard sales, junk shops, and the dump. At a flea market I found a worn silver signet ring already engraved with my initials. Maybe someone wore it her whole life. The dealer sold it to me by weight.


At forty, many of my college friends are either wildly successful, dead, or almost dead. That’s the outcome of six thousand adolescents being told every day for four years that for them, the best and brightest, anything less than wild success is failure.


The quality that all last words share: the silence after.


For a little attention, complain a little. For a lot of attention, stop complaining.


If you go to Paris, you won’t find Paris; you’ll find yourself in Paris. Ditto anywhere else. You might as well stay home. There, where the surrounding environment fades to neutral, you’ll really find yourself, but only if you’re really looking.


The greatest commitments are to experiences with no known end points: friendship, marriage, parenthood, one’s own life.


Instead of pathologizing every human quirk, we should say, By the grace of this behavior, this individual has found it possible to continue.


I look at young people and marvel at their ignorance of what’s coming, and the old people look at me.

Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic – Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic, playing the Symphony No. 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich at a 1979 live performance on Bunka Kainan, Tokyo, Japan.

Missed time, Ha Jin

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning –
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.



Las traslúcidas manos del judío
labran en la penumbra los cristales
y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)

Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
casi no existen para el hombre quieto
que está soñando un claro laberinto.

No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
de sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.

Libre de la metáfora y del mito
labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
mapa de Aquel que es todas Sus estrellas.

* *

Baruch Spinoza

Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.

Un hombre engendra a Dios. Es un judío
de tristes ojos y de piel cetrina;
lo lleva el tiempo como lleva el río
una hoja en el agua que declina.

No importa. El hechicero insiste y labra
a Dios con geometría delicada;
desde su enfermedad, desde su nada,

Sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra.
El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado,
el amor que no espera ser amado.

* * *

JORGE LUIS BORGES (1899-1986). Poemas dedicados a Spinoza. Obras Completas, Edición RBA/Instituto Cervantes, 2005. Filosofía Digital, 2010.

Jorge Luis Borges


The translucent hands of the Jew
Work in the penumbra, crystals
& the evening, dying, is dread & chill.
(Evenings to evenings are equal.)

The hands & space of hyacinth
Waning in the confines of the Ghetto
Almost do not exist for the man so quiet
Who is dreaming a clear labyrinth.

He’s not perturbed by fame, that reflection
Of dreams in the dream of another mirror,
Nor by the timorous love of maidens.

Free from metaphor & myth
He works a hard crystal: the Infinite
Map of That which totals His stars.

(translation by Richard Howard, César Rennert)

Baruch Spinoza

A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
The window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
Is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
Someone is building God in a dark cup.

A man engenders God. He is a Jew.
With saddened eyes and lemon-colored skin;
Time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
A river, is borne off by waters to

Its end. No matter. The magician moved
Carves out his God with fine geometry;
From his disease, from nothing, he’s begun

To construct God, using the word. No one
Is granted such prodigious love as he:
The love that has no hope of being loved.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Baruch Spinoza” [from The Unending Rose], translation by Willis Barnstone, in Borges’ Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman. (New York: Viking, 1999), p. 383.


Prozirne ruke Židovljeve spretno
U polutami obrađuju kristal.
Popodne je u Ghettu, hladno, sjetno.
(Sva popodneva oduvijek su ista.)

Ali ni ruke ni ozračje kasno,
Zumbulnoplave kad se boje mrače,
Za šutljivca tog baš ništa ne znače
O labirintu koji snije jasnom.

Ne muči ga ni slava, odraz sanja
Što u san drugog zrcala se sklanja,
Ni djevojačka ljubav bojažljiva.

Bez metafore i bez mita, trajni
Svoj kristal glača: Zemljovid beskrajni
Onoga što se u Zvijezdama skriva.

Sabrana djela, Svezak IV. Drugi, isti (1964)
prepjev Tonko Maroević

Baruch Spinoza

Maglica zlatna, svjetlost zapadnoga
Prozočića. U sumračju nadvijen
Nad rukopisom, što je već nabijen
Beskrajem, netko revno slaže Boga.

Svog Boga jedan čovjek rodit smjera.
I to je Židov, puti maslinaste,
Očiju tužnih; i vrijeme ga tjera
Ko list što nosi rijeka kad naraste.

Al čarobnjaka strogog to ne priječi
Da bez izvanjskih, čvrstih uporišta,
Iz slabosti i iz svojega Ništa,

Izvodi Boga tek uz pomoć riječi.
Darežljivu mu ljubav sudba dade,
Jer ljubi a u uzvrat nema nade.

Sabrana djela, svezak VI. Željezni novčić (1976)
prepjev Tonko Maroević

Tonko Maroević

Marcelo Abadi
Spinoza in Borges’ looking-glass

In the same tongue in which Spinoza refuted the Jewish authorities who brought about his expulsion from the Amsterdam Synagogue, three centuries later an Argentinean writer, long since blind, dictated a sonnet entitled “Baruch Spinoza”. Some years earlier he had dictated another sonnet, called, simply, “Spinoza”. The poet – Jorge Luis Borges, of course – is one of the most prominent writers in any tongue. He produced no famous novel, no successful play; he created no character comparable to Don Quixote, or Hamlet, or even Father Brown. But in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.

Borges claimed to be “simply a man of letters”(1); in private he had described himself as a “puzzled literary man”.Yet, though he never purported to be a philosopher, the stuff of his creation is often philosophical: the riddles on which the mind dwells while pondering problems such as the reality of the external world, the identity of the self, the nature of time.

The Vienna Circle held metaphysics to be a branch of fantastical literature. Borges shared this view, referring ironically but also appreciatively to metaphysics and enumerating among the masters of the genre authors such as Plato, Leibniz, Kant…and Spinoza, whose invention of an infinite substance with infinite attributes he considered a superb fiction.

Borges, admitting that he appraised philosophical ideas according to their aesthetic value or inasmuch as their content were singular or marvellous, never led his readers to expect a style of rigorous demonstration or sustained coherence, which is not to be found in his writings. Nevertheless, one should not hasten to conclude that he was indifferent to truth; he felt there is ultimately a close solidarity between beauty, truth and good. And if he did express deep-rooted scepticism, it was scepticism that spurred his vigilant quest.

But Spinoza deemed his own philosophy to be the true one. In his system there was no place for doubt, not even the provisory doubt of Descartes.

What, then, was the message that three centuries after his death the Dutch philosopher conveyed to the Argentinean man of letters? How is the doctrine of Spinoza to be read in the works of Borges?

In A Borges Dictionary (2), the entry on Spinoza calls attention to echoes of his geometrical method of deduction of reality in “Death and the Compass”(a rigorous detective story where the name of the philosopher appears as a clue) or, too, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, where a fictitious planet is developed, foreshadowed by a pronouncement to the effect that copulation and mirrors are abominable because they multiply the visible universe. And, of course, Spinoza’s name appears in this story also, though the narrator points out that in Tlön only thought – not thought and extension – would be conceivable as a divine attribute (which is indeed a recurrent idea of Borges’). We should, however, not overestimate these allusions. Borges’ imagination is certainly less akin to Spinoza’s doctrine than to Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, Bradley or Mauthner, whose influence is often acknowledged by the author himself and by critics. We would rather underline the fact that in hardly any of Borges’ numerous works written in collaboration – some of which are quite philosophical – does Spinoza’s name appear. On the other hand, Borges did write two poems on Spinoza but none on the other philosophers mentioned. It would seem that there is something secret, or at least private, about the relationship.

And surely this is not due solely to the fact that Spinoza was deeply admired by Borges’ father – a professor of psychology, at times a writer – who initiated his son into literature and metaphysics and, most certainly, into free-thinking, in a sometimes ostensibly religious country.

It is therefore only natural to focus on Borges’ poems on Spinoza, follow their development and attempt to understand the differences between them, as we listen to the age-old dialogue between poetry and philosophy.

The first sonnet, “Spinoza”, is to be found in a collection of poems called El otro, el mismo (The other, the same), which appeared in 1964. It is a beautiful poem, and Borges, who often pretended to forget his own writings, enjoyed reciting it to whomever asked him about it. More than ten years later, he was requested to contribute to a volume on Spinoza which the Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires was preparing in commemoration of the tricentenary of the philosopher’s death(3). Borges composed a new sonnet: this time the name was “Baruch Spinoza”.

In the prologue to El otro, el mismo , Borges made fun of his “habit of writing the same page twice over, with minimal changes”, generally resulting, in his own opinion, in a somewhat inferior second version. And in the prologue to La moneda de hierro (The Iron Coin), where the second sonnet on Spinoza was included, he refers to it as a probable worsening of the first poem. So that when, years later, in answer to a journalist’s query as to his favourite compositions, he mentioned “Everness” and “one on Spinoza”(4), it is tempting to conclude that he was referring to the first sonnet of the two. Which is quite possible, but perhaps unfair.

I should imagine that Borges laid value on the fact that – surprisingly enough – the first sonnet expresses Spinoza’s doctrine more accurately than the second, which is a looser rendering and certainly a more fictionalized interpretation of Spinoza’s endeavour.I say surprisingly enough, because the second sonnet was composed after a period in which Borges undertook a thorough study of Spinoza’s works, read about them (particularly in Alain and Russell), and resolved to write a book which was to be entitled Clave de Spinoza or Clave de Baruch Spinoza (“Key to Spinoza”, or “Key to Baruch Spinoza”.) This project even appears as having been accomplished, in the playfully bogus biography of himself to be found in the Enciclopedia Sudamericana of the year 2074 which he “quotes” in the Epilogue of his Obras completas (5) (Collected Works). In Mexico, conversing with Ruffinelli, he avowed, “I am preparing a book on Spinoza’s philosophy, because I have never understood him. He has always attracted me, less than Berkeley, less than Schopenhauer, but I cannot understand Spinoza”(6).

Now, is it true that Borges could not grasp Spinoza’s philosophy? Did he understand it after resuming his studies of it? And was the book – that cipher of Spinoza more than once announced but never written – finally condensed into the fourteen lines of the second sonnet?

Let us turn to the first one. It is known that after his expulsion from the Synagogue, Spinoza had to leave Amsterdam for a sort of exile in exile, never renouncing his convictions nor embracing a new faith. In order to safeguard his proud independence, he refused, to the end of his relatively short life, chairs, pensions and honours. He preferred to make a living by polishing lenses, and this is how the first lines of the sonnet portray him:

Las traslúcidas manos del judío Labran en la penumbra los cristales. 

[The Jew’s translucent hands Polish the crystal lenses in the half-light.]

The lenses symbolize Spinoza’s days and works; one might say they also illustrate – more definitely so in the last verses of the sonnet – a central trait in Modern philosophy, which never ceased to conceive of the human mind as a mirror upon whose fidelity depends the accuracy of whatever knowledge of reality may be achieved(7).

But Modern rationalism and empiricism both had to contend with the prejudices of the revealed religions in order to ensure the constructing of science. And the struggle was not always bloodless: it often led to isolation and silence, persecution and burning at the stake. Small wonder, then, that a sinister theme should emerge immediately in the sonnet in the shape of fear and monotony:

Y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío. (Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.) 

[And the dying dusk is fear and chill. (The twilight hours are all alike.)]

However, neither fear nor monotony perturb the thinker: 

Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
Que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
Casi no existen para el hombre quieto
Que está soñando un claro laberinto. 

[The hands and the hyacinth air
That pales towards the confines of the Ghetto
Barely exist for the quiet man
Who is dreaming up a clear labyrinth.]

Most singular, this labyrinth dreamt up by Spinoza. In the sad dusk it is a light, perhaps the way. It is clear as the hand-polished crystal the dreamer transforms into lenses or as the text the poet was to evolve centuries later out of his own brave darkness.

A “clear labyrinth”: I wonder whether the expression is strictly an oxymoron. Actually, Borges’ labyrinths do not always cause despair; some there are , infinite and formless, where a man may lose his way and die; others, like the world at times, are the scene of solitude and boredom, but, then again, the scene of deeds of valour guided by love, and there are yet those that constitute a secret order towards which nostalgia is drawn and hope will strive. In 1984, from Knossos, Borges writes, “It is our precious duty to imagine that there is a labyrinth and a thread. We shall never come upon the thread. We may grasp at it and lose it in an act of faith, in a cadence, in dream, in the words we call philosophy, or in plain and simple happiness”(8).

In the first tercet on Spinoza we learn that

No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
De sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
Ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas. 

[He is not disturbed by fame, that reflection
Of dreams within the dream of another  mirror,
Nor by the timorous love of maidens.]

How could Borges fail to admire the outcast for whom his father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, had felt such devotion, the exiled philosopher who had committed himself to the passion of understanding, while declining honours and braving insecurity?

Spinoza had cast off vanity and illusion, if ever he had been burdened by them, and had scaled the heights of the unadorned essence of his calling. Now, Libre de la metáfora y del mito [Free from metaphor and myth],

for he has no craving to dazzle with rhetorical devices, and has banished from knowledge the finalism that remits man to belief in supernatural beings, Labra un arduo cristal: el infinitoMapa de Aquél que es todas Sus Estrellas. [He grinds an arduous crystal: the infiniteMap of the One who is all His stars.]

The dusk has died away. Suddenly in the darkness a refulgent crystal, like the vertiginous Aleph, shines with the radiance of all the stars. Infinity has been tamed by a memorable creation, a map of the universe which is also the map of God.

Why this equation? Because for Spinoza there is only one substance: God or Nature. Whether or not this scandalous identification was the reason for his excommunication, it is the notorious starting point of the Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata, which, for obvious reasons, was published only after his death.

Descartes, whom Spinoza had studied and commentated, moves from the self and its ignorance to eventually apprehend the existence of God and to attain knowledge of the world. Spinoza, on the other hand, starts from the ’cause of itself’ (causa sui ), which is God. And Spinoza’s divinity is not the personal and transcendent creator God of revealed religion, nor is it a being superior to ourselves and outside the order of nature, nor yet a Being who shows indignation, feels compassion, works miracles or causes His son to die for our salvation. Deus sive natura, says Spinoza: God, that is Nature. God is the only reality; outside God there is nothing. But , then, Nature is the only substance and outside Nature there is nothing. This explains why, from the time his doctrine came to be known, Spinoza has been considered by some to be an inspired pantheist, the philosopher “drunk with God” that Novalis evokes, whereas others see him as the “prince of atheists”, the stubborn naturalist who acknowledges none other than the physical order. At any rate, in Spinozism, science has no need to refer to any supernatural order whatsoever, man is not a fracture in Being and may attain salvation through philosophy, and, furthermore, the State should not be subordinate to religion(9).

In Borges’ story La escritura de Dios (The Writing of God), the magus Tzinacán, the narrator and protagonist, when relating his ecstasy, defines it as “union with divinity, with the universe” and adds, in parentheses, “I don’t know that these words differ”. Does Tzinacán’s (Borges’) thought coincide here with that of the Ethics? Yes and no. Yes, because he proclaims the identicality of God and Nature. No, because these equatable realities are in fact mere words: “I don’t know that these words differ”(10). And Borges well knows that words do not touch the hardcore of reality, that no language is the map of the world, the cipher of the universe or of a life.

This melancholy conviction, which fissures the edifice of classical rationalism, pervades the second sonnet, the one entitled “Baruch Spinoza.” Shortly prior to composing it, as we have said, Borges had applied himself to a diligent study of Spinoza’s works, which was to prelude a book on the philosopher. One of the conclusions this study had led to – presaged, no doubt, by his inveterate repudiation of all systematic thinking – was expressed in an interview some years later(11). On this occasion Borges averred that the geometrical form of the Ethics , far from being essential to Spinoza’s doctrine, was not even appropriate to its exposition. He affirmed that Spinoza “had not originally conceived the book in this manner…Only later did he endow it with this absurd machinery” Moreover, “he chose this mechanism mistakenly”. Borges deplored this, since he believed that the content of the Ethics could have been expounded without recourse to such a mechanism, just as Spinoza had expressed it in letters to his friends, which were “most readable and lovely”(12).

The author of the Ethics had intended this work to be impersonal: alone the voice of reason, with the characteristic timbre it had acquired from Galileo and Descartes, was to be audible in its development; no affectivity whatsoever should resound, however indirectly. But Borges – whose own poetry, while often purporting to be objective, springs from subterraneous emotion – discovered, behind the screen of axioms, demonstrations and corollaries, a poignant figure: the sad, tenacious, intrepid Baruch. And the sonnet “Baruch Spinoza” begins by presenting him faced with the infinite task that he has assigned himself or that has singled him out among all the men of his times:

Bruma de oro, el occidente alumbra
La ventana. El asiduo manuscrito.
Aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra. 

[A golden haze, the west glows
Through the window. The assiduous manuscript
Awaits, already laden with infinity.
Someone is constructing God in the fading light.]

It is the same time of evening, probably in the same surroundings suggested in the sonnet “Spinoza”. But the crystal transparency of the lenses is not evoked; only a window glows in the last rays of the setting sun. And there, alone, sits Baruch constraining himself to write out infinity.

The greatness of Spinoza’s task is already apparent; so, too, is his glorious, inevitable failure. Clearly, the aim outlined in the first sonnet was far from modest, or even attainable: the philosopher had set himself no less than to facetting a diamond that would reflect God, or to drawing an infinite map of the universe. But in “Baruch Spinoza” ambition is directed, perhaps by its own logic, towards another, higher order of endeavour: this God, this universe, is to be carved out of the coarse stuff of language, none the more polished for all its geometrical form.

Un hombre engendra a Dios. Es un judío
De tristes ojos y piel cetrina;
Lo lleva el tiempo como lleva el río
Una hoja en el agua que declina. 

[A man is begetting God. He is a Jew
With sad eyes and sallow skin;
Time bears him along as a river bears
A leaf on the downward flow.]

A toy in the river of time – a plaything, like the autumn leaf or the sheet of paper reverberant with the incipient poem -, Spinoza does not bemoan, as does the Heine of another of Borges’ poems (13), the “fate of being a man and being a Jew”. The one lay prostrate, recalling the “delicate melodies” he had instrumented; the other obstinately crafted a “delicate geometry”. The third quatrain of this Elizabethan sonnet goes on to say:

No importa. El hechicero insiste y labra
A Dios con geometría delicada;
Desde su enfermedad, desde su nada,
Sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra. 

[No matter. The wizard persists and fashions
God with delicate geometry;
Out of his infirmity, out of his nothingness,
He continues to erect God with the word.]

Galileo had observed that the world is a book written in mathematical characters. Borges’ metaphysician, having learnt to read – and to write – these characters, could legitimately nourish more ambitious or more feasible projects than those devised by the alchemist, or by the Prague Rabbi who engendered the Golem, the senseless mannequin barely good for sweeping out the Synagogue(14). And yet, the terms used by Borges evoke magic, the Kabbala, dreams, perchance literary creation.

Borges belittled the geometrical form of demonstration of the Ethics , showing scanty regard for its mathematical, Cartesian inspiration. The analytical geometry discovered by Descartes is reduced to a “delicate geometry”, which in turn refers back to a verbal art. Spinoza is creating God out of the word, as the poet creates the text. This word, Borges says, is uttered by the philosopher “out of his infirmity”. And perhaps nothing is farther from this idea than the view Spinoza held of himself and man in the world. While Novalis will consider life as an “infirmity of the spirit”, while Pascal was dismayed by “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces”, man according to Spinoza participates fully in being; no room is left for any sense of helplessness in the heliocentric universe proposed by Modern science (15).

It is true that Descartes took an interest in magic in his youth, and true, too, that as a young man Spinoza studied the Kabbala, the mystics and the poets and was also contemporary with Pascal. But of all this there remains in the Ethics much less than what these last lines we have quoted might suggest. On the other hand, in the Fifth Part and referring to God, we do find the none too theistic idea expressed in the final couplet of the sonnet:

El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado,
El amor que no espera ser amado. 

[Love most prodigal was granted him,
The love that never expects to be loved.]

It was not Spinoza’s intention to forge a God, but to discover, deduce, an order which is the order of the unique reality or that of its only two attributes known to us: extension and thought(16).

His conception of the unity of nature is not the same as the one born of Renaissance enthusiasm, but rather the revigorating gesture that asserts scientific optimism while rationally satisfying all man’s longings and while requiring a society in which man may reveal himself.freely.

Spinoza’s God, as Borges recalled in another text, “abhors no one and loves no one”(17).How then would Spinoza expect His love?. Are not his declarations to this effect, above all, a way of underscoring the completely impersonal nature of this God of the Ethics ?

Perhaps what Borges in turn exhalts, at the close of this sonnet, is a norm akin to the one he finds and values in Robert L.Stevenson, which proclaims that man must be just, whether God be just or not and whether God exist or not(18).Likewise the poet must “work at the incorruptible verse”(19), though the material at hand be perishable.

Spinoza as portrayed in the second sonnet is stripped of his geometrical armour; his formulations are not the inexorable deduction of reality: reason is an art of the word and there is nothing to warrant any deep correspondence between this art and the world.

Nevertheless, in 1979, on being asked to name his favourite historical character, Borges unhesitatingly answered, “Spinoza, who committed his life to abstract thought”(20). It is evident then that in composing “Baruch Spinoza” it was not his intention to present the philosopher as a myth-maker who fabulizes a God promptly to be vaunted as the only and uncreated reality.

Neither should this sonnet be read as formal tribute rendered in deference to a distant thinker nor yet as a mere critique of a conceptual system. Rather does the poem mark the author’s encounter, in the labyrinth of the world and of ideas, with an old fellow-adventurer, an ally, a friend.

Despite his claims to the contrary, I believe that Borges had always understood the architecture of the edifice erected by Spinoza, but never deemed it inhabitable by man, conducive to attaining indubitable knowledge, or to experiencing a kind of eternity, to salvation.

He was sensitive to the philosopher’s deep yearnings, but disbelieved the algorithmic spells summoned up to satisfy them. The studies he undertook prior to composing the second poem annotated led him to demythologise the mathemathical apparatus of the Ethics , to view its author, ultimately, as “simply a man of letters” and to strengthen his own misgivings. They did not, however, undermine the admiration his father had passed on to him; they only altered the affective quality of this sentiment, guiding it more closely to the thinker, the laborious, mystical free-thinker, than towards the systematic result of his thought. Thus, one might say that the first sonnet is truly, and not only by virtue of its title, the poetical exposition of a quasi classical Spinoza by Borges, while the second is, no less truly, the evocation of an intimate, lovable Baruch by Jorge Luis.

In later years, Borges was to insist on his incapacity to apprehend Spinoza’s doctrine(21). Or else he would say that he could understand it, but that this doctrine constitutes a religion, not a system, and that its author should be considered a saint.(22).

Albeit, to the end of his life in 1986, Borges was wont to answer questions on Spinoza (after he became blind, answering questions was one of the ways he most used to avoid writing, or, perhaps, in order to write) with a strong feeling of admiration. I suppose he felt that the finest creation of the Ethics was its very author. The Ethics may prove not to attain Truth, or the Absolute, but it mirrors the gaze that seeks them regardless of menaces, disdaining fame and riches. Baruch, not God, is construed by the architecture of the Ethics . And history teaches us that he existed and lived up to his ideas.

Most certainly, Borges admired the audacity of Spinoza’s philosophical intention (invention) and adhered to many of its religious(23), ethical and social implications. But, above all, he perceived in the thinker’s life the acceptance of a cogent intellectual passion and saw perhaps in that life an image of his own existence, entirely committed to an unquestioned literary destiny.

English version by Leila Ya ël


(1) Carlos Cortínez (ed.), Simply a Man of Letters, Orono, 1982

(2) A Borges Dictionary, by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Burns. Will soon appear in England, the United States and Argentina.

(3) Museo Judío de Buenos Aires, Homenaje a Baruch Spinoza, Buenos Aires,1976. The poem by Borges is on page 7.

(4La Prensa, Buenos Aires, April 8,1984.

(5) J. L. Borges, Obras completas , Buenos Aires,1981 (from now on cited as O.C.), p.1143.

(6)Cf. Plural,,Mexico, August 1974, number 35.

(7) Cf. R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1979.

(8) “El hilo de la fábula”, in Los conjurados,, Madrid,1985,p.61.

(9) F Alquié, Servitude et liberté selon Spinoza, Les cours de Sorbonne: Paris,1959,p.72.

(10) in O.C.,p.598.

(11La Opinión, Buenos Aires, August 31, 1980.

(12) For a recent discussion of the idea of geometrical order as a rhetorical device, cf. Herman de Dijn, “Conceptions of Philosophical Method in Spinoza: Logica and Mos Geometricus”, in The Review of Metaphysics, Washington D.C.,September 1986, vol.XL,No.1, issue 157.

(13) “París,1856”, in O.C.,p.914.

(14) Cf. “El alquimista” (O.C.,p.925) and “El Golem” (O.C.),p.885.

(15) Cf. F. Alquié, Nature et vérité dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Les cours de Sorbonne: Paris,1958, p.p.118,119, passim.

(16) I believe that latterly Borges (see for ex. “Nihon”, in La cifra ,Buenos Aires,1981,p.101) committed an interesting mistake: that of considering the knowable attributes of substance according to Spinoza to be space and time rather than space and thought as they in fact are. A slip of the memory or perhaps an attempt to make the existence of finite beings more comprehensible?

(17) “El primer Wells” (O.C.,p.698). In a suggestive article brought to my attention by P.F.Moreau, J. Damade quotes this essay from Otras inquisiciones and compares the indifference of Spinoza’s God to the indifference Borges shows towards the creatures of his own making. Cf.J. Damade, “Le Dieu indifférent et le voyageur immobile”, in Europe, Paris, May 1982, pp.126-130.

(18) Cf. Borges’ prologue to the translation – by himself and R.Alifano – of. Stevenson’s fables: Fábulas, Buenos Aires, 1983,p.11.

(19) “El hacedor”, in La cifra, p.50.

(20Argencard, Buenos Aires, May, 1982.

(21) See “Nihon”, in La cifra, p.101.

(22) Cf. “Spinoza, une figure pathétique”, in Europe, Paris, May 1982, pp.73-76.

(23) Borges, of course, utterly disbelieved in divine punishment or reward and ,more generally, in God, the personal God of the Bible. Sometimes he was tempted by a sort of pantheism. He recalled Bernard Shaw’s expression, “God is in the making”. “Why not [believe], Borges asked, in a God who may be evolving through stones, through plants, through beasts, through men(…), through the days to come (…)”? Cf. Carlos Cortínez (ed.),Borges the poet , Fayetteville,1986,p.24.

  First published in Studia Spinoziana 5 (1989)

© Borges Studies Online 14/04/01
© Marcelo Abadi

Keith Jarrett with Gabriel Jarrett Live in New York

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

– Simone Weil

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (The Mountain)

J.S.Bach Concerto no.1 in D Minor BWV 1052 Polina Osetinskaya Anton Gakkel

Sergey Khachatryan – Bach Sonatas & Partitas For Solo Violin

Shostakovich plays Shostakovich Prelude & Fugue Op.87 No.14

Between chaos and hope (after the earthquake in Zagreb)

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

― Bertolt Brecht

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