The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self
By Maria Popova
You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.
What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?
It’s an abiding question with which each of us tussles periodically, and one which has occupied some of humanity’s most fertile minds. The ancient Greeks addressed it in the brilliant Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Walt Whitman marveled at the paradox of the self. Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Jack Kerouac denounced “the imaginary idea of a personal self.” Amelie Rorty taxonomized the seven layers of identity. Rebecca Goldstein examined what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change.
The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions (public library).
Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:
I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.
Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:
There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an indifference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?
I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.
It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.
Half a century before neuroscientists demonstrated that memory is the seedbed of the self, Borges writes:
There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.
In a passage of inimitable Borgesian splendor, he adds:
I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and pleasurable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rigorous self.
There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexorable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like outsiders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze.
Borges draws on two of his great influences in fortifying his point — Walt Whitman, “the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders,” and who had himself contemplated the perplexity of personal identity seven decades earlier, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose words Borges cites directly:
An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.
Echoing Kafka’s reflections on reality vs. appearance, Borges adds:
Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divinities hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance.
Citing a famous Buddhist precept of non-self — “those things of which I can perceive the beginnings and the end are not my self” — Borges illustrates its veracity with the palpable realness of its living manifestations:
I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case silence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances — a thing generally known and undisputed — but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among others. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its application to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness — the final hideout where we might track down the self — also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.
The self [is] a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.
Complement this particular fragment of Borges’s wholly terrific Selected Non-Fictions with Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on selfhood and the crucible of identity, philosopher Jacob Needleman on how we become who we are, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of free will, then revisit Borges on writing and his sublime refutation of time.
Published April 3, 2017