Jorge Luis Borges

For Bernard Shaw


 At the end of the thirteenth century Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull) attempted to solve all the mysteries by means of a frame with unequal, revolving, concentric disks, subdivided into sectors with Latin words. At the beginning of the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill expressed the fear that the number of musical combinations would some day be exhausted and that the future would hold no place for new Webers and Mozarts. At the end of the nineteenth century Kurd Lasswitz played with the overwhelming fantasy of a universal library that would record all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographic symbols, or rather everything that can be expressed, in all the languages of the world. Lull’s machine, Mill’s fear, and Lasswitz’s chaotic library may make us laugh, but they merely exaggerate a common propensity to consider metaphysics and the arts as a sort of combinatory game. Those who play that game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure, or a series of verbal structures; a book is the dialogue with the reader, and the peculiar accent he gives to its voice, and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. That dialogue is infinite. Now the words arnica silentia lunae mean “the intimate, silent, and shining moon,” and in the Aeneid they meant the interlunar period, the darkness that permitted the Greeks to enter the citadel of Troy.51 Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a narration, an axis of innumerable narrations. One literature differs from another, either before or after it, not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read. If I were able to read any contemporary page— this one, for example—as it would be read in the year 2000, I would know what literature would be like in the year 2000. The concept of literature as a formal game leads, in the best of cases, to the good work of the period and the strophe, to a proper craftsman (Johnson, Renan, Flaubert), and in the worst of cases, to the vexations of a work formed of surprises dictated by vanity and chance (Gracian, Herrera Reissig).

If literature were nothing but verbal algebra, anyone could produce any book simply by practicing variations. The lapidary formula Everything flows abbreviates the philosophy of Heraclitus in two words. Raymond Lully would tell us that, after saying the first word, one needs only to substitute intransitive verbs in order to discover the second word and to obtain, by a methodical chance, that philosophy and many, many more. But we would reply that the formula obtained by elimination would lack value and even meaning. If it is to have any virtue we must conceive it as Heraclitus did, as an experience of Heraclitus, although “Heraclitus” is only the presumable subject of that experience. I said that a book is a dialogue, a form of narration. In the dialogue an interlocutor is not the sum total or the intermediate value of what he says: it is possible for him not to speak and yet to reveal intelligence, or to emit intelligent observations and still reveal stupidity. The same occurs with literature. D’Artagnan performs innumerable feats and Don Quixote is beaten and derided, but Don Quixote’s worth is felt more deeply. This leads us to an aesthetic problem not posed heretofore: Can an author create characters that are superior to himself? I would reply that he cannot, and my negation would apply to the intellectual as well as the moral levels. I believe that creatures who are more lucid or more noble than our best moments will not issue from us. On that opinion I base my conviction of the preeminence of Shaw. The problems about labor unions and municipalities of his early works will cease to be interesting, or else have already done so; the jokes of the Pleasant Plays bid fair to being, some day, no less awkward than Shakespeare’s (humor, I suspect, is an oral genre, a sudden spark in conversation, not a written thing); the ideas expressed by the prologues and the eloquent tirades will be sought in Schopenhauer and in Samuel Butler;52 but Lavinia, Blanco Posnet, Keegan, Shotover, Richard Dudgeon, and, above all, Julius Caesar, surpass any character imagined by the art of our time. To think of Monsieur Teste or the histrionic Zarathustra of Nietzsche alongside them is to apprehend, with surprise or even astonishment, the primacy of Shaw. In 1911 Albert Soergel was able to write, repeating a commonplace of the time, “Bernard Shaw is an annihilator of the heroic concept, a killer of heroes” (Dichtung und Dichter der Zeit, 214); he did not understand that the heroic was completely independent from the romantic and was embodied in Captain Bluntschli of Arms and the Man, not in Sergius Saranoff.

The biography of Bernard Shaw by Frank Harris contains an admirable letter written by Shaw, in which he says: “I understand everything and everyone, and am nobody and nothing” (p. 228). From that nothingness (so comparable to the nothingness of God before He created the world, so comparable to the primordial divinity that another Irishman, Johannes Scotus Erigena, called Nihil), Bernard Shaw educed almost innumerable persons, or dramatis personae: the most ephemeral, I suspect, is G. B. S., who represented him to the public and who supplied such a wealth of easy witticisms for newspaper columns.

Shaw’s basic subjects are philosophy and ethics: it is natural and inevitable that he is not esteemed in Argentina, or that he is remembered in that country only for a few epigrams. The Argentine feels that the universe is nothing but a manifestation of chance, the fortuitous combination of atoms conceived by Democritus; philosophy does not interest him. Nor does ethics: for him, social problems are nothing but a conflict of individuals or classes or nations, in which everything is licit—except ridicule or defeat.

Man’s character and its variations constitute the essential theme of the novel of our time; the lyric is the complacent magnification of amorous fortunes or misfortunes; the philosophies of Heidegger or Jaspers transform each one of us into the interesting interlocutor of a secret and continuous dialogue with nothingness or with divinity; these disciplines, which may be formally admirable, foster the illusion of the self that Vedanta condemns as a capital error. They may play at desperation and anguish, but at bottom they flatter the vanity; in that sense, they are immoral. Shaw’s work, on the other hand, leaves an aftertaste of liberation. The taste of the doctrines of Zeno’s Porch and the taste of the sagas.

Buenos Aires, 1951

— Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms

[←51]

That is how Milton and Dante interpreted those words, to judge by certain passages which seem imitative. In the Comedy (Inferno, I, 60; V, 28) we have d’ogni luce muto and dove il sol tace to indicate dark places; in the Samson Agonistes (86-89):

The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

Cf. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Miltonic Setting, 101. 164

[←52]

Also in Swedenborg. In Man and Superman we read that Hell is not a penal establishment but a state that dead sinners choose, because they feel an affinity with it, just as the good choose Heaven. Swedenborg’s treatise De Coelo et Inferno, published in 1758, expresses the same doctrine.


A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

At the end of the thirteenth century, Raymond Lully (Raimundo Lulio) was prepared to solve all arcana by means of an apparatus of concentric, revolving discs of different sizes, subdivided into sectors with Latin words; John Stuart Mill, at the beginning of the nineteenth, feared that some day the number of musical combinations would be exhausted and there would be no place in the future for indefinite Webers and Mozarts; Kurd Lasswitz, at the end of the nineteenth, toyed with the staggering fantasy of a universal library which would register all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols, in other words, all that it is given to express in all languages. Lully’s machine, Mill’s fear and Lasswitz’s chaotic library can be the subject of jokes, but they exaggerate a propension which is common: making metaphysics and the arts into a kind of play with combinations. Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite; the words amica silentia lunae now mean the intimate, silent and shining moon, and in the Aeneid they meant the interlunar period, the darkness which allowed the Greeks to enter the stronghold of Troy . . .53 Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. One literature differs from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read: if I were granted the possibility of reading any present-day page—this one, for example—as it will be read in the year two thousand, I would know what the literature of the year two thousand will be like. The conception of literature as a formalistic game leads, in the best of cases, to the fine chiseling of a period or a stanza, to an artful decorum (Johnson, Renan, Flaubert), and in the worst, to the discomforts of a work made of surprises dictated by vanity and chance (Gracián, Herrera y Reissig).

If literature were nothing more than verbal algebra, anyone could produce any book by essaying variations. The lapidary formula “Everything flows” abbreviates in two words the philosophy of Heraclitus: Raymond Lully would say that, with the first word given, it would be sufficient to essay the intransitive verbs to discover the second and obtain, thanks to methodical chance, that philosophy and many others. Here it is fitting to reply that the formula obtained by this process of elimination would lack all value and even meaning; for it to have some virtue we must conceive it in terms of Heraclitus, in terms of an experience of Heraclitus, even though “Heraclitus” is nothing more than the presumed subject of that experience. I have said that a book is a dialogue, a form of relationship; in a dialogue, an interlocutor is not the sum or average of what he says: he may not speak and still reveal that he is intelligent, he may omit intelligent observations and reveal his stupidity. The same happens with literature; d’Artagnan executes innumerable feats and Don Quixote is beaten and ridiculed, but one feels the valor of Don Quixote more. The foregoing leads us to an aesthetic problem never before posed: Can an author create characters superior to himself? I would say no and in that negation include both the intellectual and the moral. I believe that from us cannot emerge creatures more lucid or more noble than our best moments. It is on this opinion that I base my conviction of Shaw’s pre-eminence. The collective and civic problems of his early works will lose their interest, or have lost it already; the jokes in the Pleasant Plays run the risk of becoming, some day, no less uncomfortable than those of Shakespeare (humor, I suspect, is an oral genre, a sudden favor of conversation, not something written); the ideas declared in his prologues and his eloquent tirades will be found in Schopenhauer and Samuel Butler;54 but Lavinia, Blanco Posnet, Keegan, Shotover, Richard Dudgeon and, above all, Julius Caesar, surpass any character imagined by the art of our time. If we think of Monsieur Teste alongside them or Nietzsche’s histrionic Zarathustra, we can perceive with astonishment and even outrage the primacy of Shaw. In 1911, Albert Soergel could write, repeating a commonplace of the time, “Bernard Shaw is an annihilator of the heroic concept, a killer of heroes” (Dichtung und Dichter der Zeit, 214); he did not understand that the heroic might dispense with the romantic and be incarnated in Captain Bluntschli of Arms and the Man, not in Sergius Saranoff.

The biography of Bernard Shaw by Frank Harris contains an admirable letter by the former, from which I copy the following words: “I understand everything and everyone and I am nothing and no one.” From this nothingness (so comparable to that of God before creating the world, so comparable to that primordial divinity which another Irishman, Johannes Scotus Erigena, called Nihil), Bernard Shaw educed almost innumerable persons or dramatis personae: the most ephemeral of these is, I suspect, that G. B. S. who represented him in public and who lavished in the newspaper columns so many facile witticisms.

Shaw’s fundamental themes are philosophy and ethics: it is natural and inevitable that he should not be valued in this country, or that he be so only in terms of a few epigrams. The Argentine feels that the universe is nothing but a manifestation of chance, the fortuitous concourse of Democritus’ atoms; philosophy does not interest him. Nor does ethics: the social realm, for him, is reduced to a conflict of individuals or classes or nations, in which everything is licit, save being ridiculed or defeated.

Man’s character and its variations are the essential theme of the novel of our time; lyric poetry is the complacent magnification of amorous fortunes or misfortunes; the philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers make each of us the interesting interlocutor in a secret and continuous dialogue with nothingness or the divinity; these disciplines, which in the formal sense can be admirable, foment that illusion of the ego which the Vedanta censures as a capital error. They usually make a game of desperation and anguish, but at bottom they flatter our vanity; they are, in this sense, immoral. The work of Shaw, however, leaves one with a flavor of liberation. The flavor of the stoic doctrines and the flavor of the sagas.

 — Translated by James E. Irby

[←53]

Thus Milton and Dante interpreted them, to judge by certain passages which seem to be imitative. In the Commedia (Inferno, I, 60; V, 28) we have: dogni luce muto and dove il sol tace to signify dark places; in the Samson Agonistes (86-89):

The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

Cf. E. M. W. Tillyard: The Miltonic Setting, 101.

[←54]

And in Swedenborg. In Man and Superman we read that Hell is not a penal establishment but rather a state dead sinners elect for reasons of intimate affinity, just as the blessed do with Heaven; the treatise De Coelo et Inferno by Swedenborg, published in 1758, expounds the same doctrine.


SOURCE: Borges, Jorge Luis. “For Bernard Shaw”/ “A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw”; in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, introduction by James E. Irby (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), pp. 163-166.


On Man's Cowardice: Don Juan Debates the Devil
from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman

George Bernard Shaw on the Artist-philosopher

George Bernard Shaw on Conviction & Style

The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Preface to 3rd edition
by George Bernard Shaw

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes:
Selected Bibliography

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

Offsite:

On George Bernard Shaw
in R. Dumain’s Reason & Society blog


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