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Borges Forgets Nietzsche

How little moral would the world appear without forgetfulness! A poet could say that God has placed forgetfulness as a doorkeeper on the threshold of human dignity.

—Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human

In his short story "Funes, the Memorious," Jorges Luis Borges writes of his singular nineteen-year-old hero, Funes: "He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and differing forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen in front)." And he goes on to say that ". . . he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details" (pp. 42–43).1 About a century earlier, in 1872, in a passage from his famous unpublished essay "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense," Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept "leaf" is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects . . . Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things . . . We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us."2 [End Page 265]

From this and other passages, mostly in "On Truth and Lies," Nietzsche scholars have derived Nietzsche's much-debated (or so-called, depending on who you talk to) "theory of perspectivism." This is the idea that, roughly speaking, "truths" about the world are at best truths uttered from the perspective of some knower, who inevitably brings to world (and thus, to those truths) a particular way of looking at things, of seeing some details and excluding others, of valuing some aspects of the world more than others, etc.

I will not be addressing the well-known problems of Nietzsche's theory of perspectivism (if indeed he had such a truth-theory).3 What interests me here is something most scholars have ignored about Nietzsche's perspectivism,4 and what Borges tries to illuminate in his strange little fable: the importance of forgetting to thinking and the difficulties memory may present to one who would think about "truth" as something more than "an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch [has] an individual name" (p. 42). For Nietzsche, and for Borges writing under Nietzsche's influence, the human facts about forgetting and remembering illustrate that our epistemological projects are much more psychological than some philosophers would like to admit. Once we acknowledge the deeply psychological character of those projects, we see that they may not be "truth" projects at all, but rather psychologically valuable (perhaps even necessary) projects of strategic falsification.


The "absent-minded" narrator of Borges's story tells us that he is adding his own tale to a collection of testimonials to Funes, as part of the project "that all those who knew him should write something about him" (pp. 35–36). Thus the play of words in the title: "Funes" is "memorious" not just because of the accident that results in his amazing and infallible memory, but also because this text is part of a larger memorial. A relationship between memory and knowing from a particular perspective is introduced immediately: Funes will be known and remembered through the gathering of many individual memorials to him. None of these testimonies will be "objective" or "impartial": all of them will necessarily preserve the perspective of the particular individual who is recalling Funes. As the narrator of our memorial confesses, his own efforts will be impoverished by "the deplorable fact of my being an Argentinian . . . when the theme is a Uruguayan" (p. 35). [End Page 266]

Our narrator offers three...