Review of Liberty, Individuality, and Democracy in Jorge Luis Borges

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Liberty, Individuality, and Democracy in Jorge Luis Borges. Alejandra Salinas. Lanham MD, Lexington Books: 2017.


This volume explores the writings of Jorge Luis Borges in respect to the appearance of “the political” in his work, arguing that Borges’ fiction discloses an admiration for individuality, liberal anarchism, and a tempered democracy. Salinas discusses twenty short stories and several essays in detail. Another several dozen stories, essays, and poems are touched upon or mentioned in passing, revealing Salinas’ familiarity with Borges’ entire oeuvre.

This work fills a place in Borges’ scholarship, which has overwhelmingly concentrated on his contribution to twentieth century literature and especially his deployment of overtly philosophical themes. Salinas states that she seeks to fill a “double lacuna.” First, very few have addressed Borges’ work from the point of view of political and social theory. Second, “some scholars have … failed to see to what extent the political inhabits Borges’ texts, yet his concern with individual liberty and distrust of governments not only inspired his writing but serves as a conceptual thread to his texts” (p. xi).

In addition, it may be said that by focusing on questions of political philosophy, her work complements the emphasis of other scholars on philosophical questions such as the nature of existence, time, memory, immortality, and the limits of knowledge that run through Borges’ stories. These philosophical issues and the literary feat Borges has achieved by weaving them into plausible and entertaining stories are not entirely distinct from Salinas’ vision of a political thread running through Borges’ work. As she shows especially with respect to Borges’ appreciation of the ineluctable mystery of existence, seeing the fallibility of human knowledge inhibits one’s belief in government’s competency and proper scope. Anyone skeptical of the limits of human reason and wisdom will tend to be doubtful about granting power to such imperfect creatures and distrust what any group of humans can do by making explicit rational designs for a symmetrically ordered society. Thus, when Salinas stresses Borges’ appreciation of individuality or his distrust of “Tlonic” or symmetrical utopian orders, these are grounded in Borges’ major philosophical commitments.

For example, Salinas addresses “Borges’ notion of a mysterious cosmos…deceiving to the human eye,” which is founded in his “epistemology of limitations and fallibility” (3). This theme will be familiar to Borges’ readers, but few will have stopped to reflect on how this impacts our concept of individuality, or of social order under such conditions of epistemic limitation. Humility is called for, as thinkers like Oakeshott and Hayek have said; but also, for Borges, hope. Even in apparent cosmological disorder, there is still a hope that some larger order lurks, even if only in complex repetitions of endless bookshelves or labyrinths. Moreover, human efforts do not become meaningless, even if they are provisional.

Salinas’ arguments are persuasive and cogently laid out. The book moves at a steady pace and covers surprising amounts of ground economically, giving more for a reader to consider in its 110 pages than may be expected of typical works of its kind.

The handling of “A Weary Man’s Utopia” is an example of a rare misstep. Salinas recounts that Eduardo Acevedo time travels to the future and encounters a “utopian” condition. She emphasizes Borges’ picture of “self sufficient individuals.” Yet, this is a place where “there are no public recollections of data, or history or literature, there are no books or museums and no more memories.” (5) While there is peace, “there is no inheritance,” and these people “can even do without love and friendship.” (5) This seems less a utopian image than a dystopian one. Its absurdity and inhumaneness supports what anti-utopians say, which is that the existing world is our best shot at peace and happiness, imperfect though it may be. Given Borges’ penchant for bookish, historically embedded tales, his plumbing of traditions and ancient stories, his explorations of the importance of memory, and, his writings on art and tradition, which sound almost Eliotic (4), the story of a world populated by asocial individuals detached from all past and all relationship seems an unlikely venue for defending a normative individualism. What is the point of life if it is nothing but making a house and feeding oneself, with neither past and nor friendships?

The embedded individuality of the artist would lead one to suspect extremely abstract accounts individualism, or of an idea of self-sufficiency so radical it excludes human relatedness. In later chapters where Salinas deals with democracy and Borges’ criticisms of it, it is just this sort of abstract, atomic individualism that leads to “the abuses of populism” that he decries (95). Her comment on “Our Poor Individualism” makes this point, in which a key criticism of Argentinian individualism is that it entails an insufficient respect for law, and “his countrymen do not identify with State laws and regulation.” (15). Thus, a better form of individualism would be one that, as in Europe and North America has resources for mediating the particular and general wills through a complex civil society. To put it differently, Salina’s argument shows forth more clearly when she argues that “Borges’s individuals are committed to a life-long search for a creative voice, and that they do so by engaging in conversation with multiple philosophical and literary traditions, on the basis of which they shape their own voice.” (23) Such an insight sits well with a host of theories dealing with human embeddedness, and visions of tradition in writers as different as MacIntyre, Oakeshott, Gadamer, or Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Her concluding point in the discussion of “voice” is essential to her thesis of Borges’ as a liberal anarchist: “The quest for a voice demands not confronting, subjugating, or destroying the quests of others” (41). It is a storyteller’s way of capturing the liberal practices of respect and toleration.

When Salinas treats “The Conjurors” (62-63) we see the need to preserve history and memory, but also to affirm cosmopolitan values where here is “an agreement among diverse people and groups who allow for the free and pacific pursuit of individual voices.” Here, she points out why the future world of “A Weary Man’s Utopia” should indeed be that of a wearied man. “In the real world [a peaceful and cooperative] order cannot be a perfect or a symmetrical enterprise because — as Borges and [Adam] Smith expressed so well — it will always be inhabited by people with motions of their own, and not by inert chess pieces that political plans can whimsically arrange.” As Borges puts it, such a society requires people “who have made the odd decision to be reasonable.”

In her treatment of “The Congress,” and the problem of representation, and many other political concepts and issues – from political myths; to images of the frontier, gaucho and caudillo; institutional politics, and morality; nationalism; fascism; and war — Salinas sheds light on the frequency of the appearance of political issues and themes in Borges’ fictions. At times, she simply allows Borges’ to speak in his oddly soft-spoken way, and a hackneyed concept like representation leaps back to life. For example, where political scientific approaches might speak of the various systems of representation and their effects on party formation, governing effectiveness, and so on, Borges’ philosophical sprite comes and asks, “what categories are really relevant?” Why not represent “ranchers, Uruguayans, founding fathers, red-bearded men, and men sitting in armchairs?” Indeed, why should red-bearded men not have a voice? From the perspective of the abstract concept of representation, anything representable may be represented. The choices we make in forming institutions are senseless without our participation in language, culture, and history, and the ocean of subtle inherited judgments that we swim in. Salinas’ implicit point here is to note the way in which Borges’ philosophical insight, wound into a story, opens up a liberating possibility for renewing political and moral discourse. The artist himself stands aside without aiming to make any direct contribution to the conclusion of that discourse, and may even deny that anything like a geometric or logical conclusion to such discourse is possible.

Chapter Five is somewhat different, because the analysis moves through his “texts and opinions” (94) including his fictional writings, but also “articles and public declarations” (95). She traces Borges’ own views on democracy and even some of his involvement in politics. Instead of describing him as having a single position on democracy, Salina sees Borges as embarked on a multi-stage journey. His views migrate from a youthful faith in democracy as a form of social interaction, inspired by Whitman; to a social democratic stance during which he supported President Hipolito Yrigoyen and hoped for a deeper social integration through politics; a pivotal turn from democracy as social pluralism to conceiving instead “a regime that prevents the concentration of power;” and then a later disillusionment with “the abuses of populism” where he sees democracy as synonymous with “a discretionary regime backed by unbridled politics” (95). Eventually, after the experience of militaristic regimes and coups, his earlier faith in democracy was restored (95).

Part of Borges’ reaction against mass democracy, and fascist and communist movements that thrive on anti-individualism was philosophical and literary. Rejections of “holism” excess rationalism, and dogmatism, continued to stream forth from his pen (105-106). He also allied himself with the Conservative Party, she recounts, “because it was the only party that did not raise any fanaticism” (106). She notes that “he supported the military revolution that ousted Peron in 1955, and he later supported other military regimes (1966, 1976) in the belief that they would secure order and liberty against democratic excess” (107). Ultimately, “the Argentine military junta that took office in 1976 later belied Borges’ naïve illusion that liberty would be better protected under their rule” (107). Some readers will this the most controversial part of Salinas’ book. A chapter on Borges’ views and political involvements distracts from a book on “the political” as disclosed through his fictions. Yet the absence of comment on Borges’ own highly publicized views and statements would be remiss. One hopes a reader has both the sympathy and sensitivity to appreciate Borges’ stance on the artist’s independence from politics, and the elusiveness of the quest for self-understanding in a country torn by violent turmoil in which a genius finds him exposed for naiveté. We who have not had such immense struggles count ourselves as fortunate not to have been tested in such crucibles. Nor do we rightly take our moral ease for wisdom.

Salinas is careful, throughout, even when dealing with Borges’ life and political acts and opinions, never to cross the line into reducing Borges’ stories to political messages. This discretion is itself an important and laudable achievement. She acknowledges Borges’ statements that his stories have no political meaning, and also, importantly, his endorsement of an entirely apolitical view of art and literature.

Salinas also believes, though, that Borges “can help increase political awareness,” since more people read fiction or see movies than take up the standards of political thought. While her treatment of the political themes in Borges’ writings is original and deftly carried out, she also reminds the reader several times that Borges is not like some mad ideological tailor, stitching opinions into the shape of stories. So even if we accept her liberal anarchist interpretation of Borges, it may be that his apolitical, and radically philosophical writings give us something of political import as well.

To emphasize what is apolitical is practically a revolutionary act in these times, where ideology commits many to the view that everything is political, and the actual size and operation of modern states in regulating many aspects of life in minute detail makes this a reality regardless of one’s ideology. By offering an apolitical mode of enjoyment, by offering a release from politics, Borges and other artists offer a freedom that transcends the political and is to be cherished for that reason. In addition, to explore philosophical themes one has to first of all dare to ask a question that veers away from received opinion not by opposing it, but by asking what it rests on. Pursuing and attempting to answer such a question, to give that opinion a ground, one learns that acts are animated by ideas, and that ideas rest on other ideas. It is not long before a new world of assumptions, distinctions, and concepts opens up and becomes inhabitable to the mind in dialogue with others. This new ideal world lies behind our ordinary world, and has a certain magic, not for being ideal, but for the fact that it is all both necessary and contingent. Our logics are certain yet provisional. As we explore the world of thoughts our changing understandings change its shape. Things we thought we knew disappear as unexpected beings take their place, and we move among different and higher platforms of understanding. The real secret of philosophy has perhaps always been the joy of escaping into this wonderland and playing in it freely, a joy that has even tempted sensible men to give up their practical lives. The necessarily unphilosophical State has never been able to understand the temptation of a liberating joy as anything but disloyalty.

Corey Abel

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Corey Abel is author of Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott (Imprint, 2005) and The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott's Conservatism (Imprint, 2010).