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  • Time:For Borges
  • David E. Johnson (bio)

In the Prologue to the Obras completas version of El otro, el mismo (The Other, the Same), Borges ascribed his preference for this collection of verse to the fact that it encompassed all of his particular literary obsessions: "There, likewise, are my habits: Buenos Aires, the cult of the elders, Germanic studies [la germanística], the contradiction of time that passes and the identity that endures, my stupor at the fact that time, our substance, can be shared" (1996, 2:235).1 The items in this list might be generalized in the following terms: space (Buenos Aires), the archive of cultural secrets ("the cult of the elders"), philosophy (Germanic studies), time, identity, and the possibility of community. It would be a mistake, however, to think Borges accords each of these obsessions equal importance. He does not. For Borges, the most compelling problem is "the contradiction of time that passes and the identity that endures."

In what follows, I would like to tease out the implications of this "contradiction" for a reassessment of Borges's work. My claim is not that Borges [End Page 209] consistently articulates a coherent solution to the problem of time and identity that most vexes him. I will argue in fact that he does not. Such inconsistency and incoherence, however, ought not empower either those who dismiss Borges as a philosopher or those who claim him simply for literature.2 It has never been a criterion of philosophy that it solve the problem of time and identity consistently and coherently, that is, that it solve this problem reasonably by rigorously accounting for the definition of time within the determination of identity. Indeed, Borges argued that the problem of time could not be solved: "I believe Henri Bergson said that time is the capital problem of metaphysics. If that problem were resolved, everything would be resolved. Happily, I do not believe there is any danger of it being resolved" (1996, 4:199). If the problem is both fundamental to philosophy and unsolvable, then both the concern for it and the failure to resolve it are constitutive of philosophy. According to this logic it would be impossible to exclude the Borgesian text from the philosophical archive.

Borges underscores the importance of the problem of time and identity by repeatedly insisting that time is the fundamental problem of metaphysics. In a lecture entitled "Time [El Tiempo]," Borges concluded: "time is an essential problem. I mean that we cannot do without time. Our consciousness is continually passing from one state to another, and that is time: succession" (1996, 4:199). Elsewhere, Borges intimates that although we might be divested of the intuition of space, that is, of exteriority, we cannot do without the intuition of time. "The problem of time," Borges remarks, "touches us more than the other metaphysical problems, because the others are abstract. The problem of time is our problem" (4:205). No doubt because the problem of time is our problem, Borges figures it as a problem of identity: "Who am I? Who is each one of us? Who are we?" (4:205). The problem of time touches us where we can no longer simply locate or touch ourselves. It follows, therefore, that the joint problem of time and of identity is no less a problem of space.

The distinction between space and time can be read in an anecdote Borges related to Carlos Peralta: "an Argentine philosopher and I were talking about time, and the philosopher said: 'We have made a lot of progress in that in the last years.' And I thought that if I had asked him about space surely he would [End Page 210] have answered: 'We have made a lot of progress in that in the last blocks'" (Irby et al. 1968, 108, my translation).3 In both cases the philosopher measures progress according to the particular intuition of sense under discussion, as if the measurement of space and time were absolutely discrete, as if it were possible to progress over the last few years without a spacing of time, or alternatively, as if it were possible to progress through the last few blocks without...