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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 7: Borges and Levinas Face to Face: Writing and the Riddle of Subjectivity


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Borges and Levinas Face to Face: Writing and the Riddle of Subjectivity

I do not know which of us has written this page. (Borges, 1974b, 51)

One fine day, Hermann Sörgel receives the complete memory of William Shakespeare. A scholar who has devoted his life to studying the bard’s works, the professor understands that he has been given a priceless treasure. With the key to understanding the poet’s consciousness in his hand, he will be able to perfectly interpret all his writings. Gradually, Shakespeare’s memories are absorbed into his mind. He is surprised to realize, however, that possession of the bard’s memory has only given him access to a “chaos of vague possibilities.” At this point, he begins to grasp that he still cannot decipher the enigma of Shakespeare’s luminous oeuvre, the poet’s memory only revealing the “circumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly, these circumstances do not constitute the uniqueness of the poet.” To his dismay, he also gradually finds that Shakespeare’s memory is infiltrating his own and that he must now bear the burden of two memories intertwined with one another. Personal identity being based on memory, he fears lest he will lose his sanity. In his alarm, he seeks to resume being Hermann Sörgel. Finally, he conveys Shakespeare’s memory to another person via an anonymous telephone call (CF, 513).

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