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Mazes and Amazements

Borges and Western Philosophy


Shlomy Mualem

Borges gained his first lessons in philosophy from his father while still a young boy – an intimate home schooling that grew into a long-term obsession. Its ubiquitous presence in his thought and writing has made him one of the most distinctive literary philosophers in the West, expressing itself in a wide-ranging array of fictional essays, metaphysical parables, philosophical poetry, and multifaceted literary artifacts. In contrast to the prevailing perception of Borges as a «dogmatic sceptic» for whom philosophy serves solely aesthetic or rhetorical purposes, this volume proposes a novel approach for understanding Borges as an intellectual, together with an interpretive structure for comprehending his work, based on a systematic examination of the complex relations between literary writing and Western philosophy in his œuvre. Offering a reading of selected Borgesian texts in the light of the Western philosophers of whom he is most enamoured, and analyzing the way in which philosophical theories underpin his texts, it illustrates the fundamental tension of Borges’ writing as a manifestation of what he calls the «intellectual instinct.»
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Chapter 3: Philosophy and Ideology: Dialectical Orientalism in Borges’ Writings


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Philosophy and Ideology: Dialectical Orientalism in Borges’ Writings

“These are the lenses through which the Orient is experienced, and they shape the language, perception, and form of the encounter between East and West” (Said 1994, 58). Herein, Edward Said trenchantly argues that Western Orientalism is demonic in its power. In his seminal Orientalism (1978), he details the scope, internal consistency, and strata of this vast web of representations the West spreads over the Orient in an attempt to control and master it, believing it to constitute a “creeping danger.” It resembles the labyrinth Daedalus constructed in order to capture the minotaur. The image of the labyrinth is inaccurate, however, Said in effect believing that the web is so fine and well-made that even Westerners can no longer extract themselves from it.

I believe that Said would regard Jorge Luis Borges as an Orientalist par excellence. Not only does he appear to portray the East as mysterious and exotic – “something vast, immobile, magnificent, incomprehensible” – in typical Orientalist fashion but he also seems to accept the essentialist distinction between “East” and “West” (Borges 1984, 42). From a Saidian perspective, his writings thus embody Orientalist mental structures that serve as, in William Blake’s phrase, “mind-forg’d manacles.” In this article, I shall argue that this assessment is quite erroneous, Borges in fact presenting an aesthetic-philosophical alternative to Saidian political-ideological Orientalism – a transcultural, critical, and above all philosophical stance (in the Socratic sense...

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