Borges's Love Affair with Heraclitus
References to Heraclitus and his simile of the river into which one cannot step twice occur frequently in the poems of Jorge Luis Borges. Borges understood the river to represent both time and the constantly changing nature of human existence. In this essay I argue that while Borges embraced the reality of change, he also struggled against the threat it posed to our sense of ourselves as enduring entities. For Borges, the similarity between our personal existence and the flowing of a river cannot be the whole story. Both the poetic art and its practitioner have a claim on immortality.
In an early poem, "Year's End" (1923), Jorge Luis Borges takes the turning of the year as an occasion to consider how "something in us" endures, despite the fact that we are products of "infinite random possibilities" and "droplets in the stream of Heraclitus":
It is not the emblematic detailof replacing a two with a three,nor that barren metaphorthat brings together a time that dies and another comingupnor yet the rounding out of some astronomical processthat stuns and underminesthe altiplano1 of this night,and compels us to keep listening forthose twelve irreparable tollings of a bell.The true causeis a vague, pervasive apprehension [End Page 303] of Time's enigma;a certain awe before the miraclethat in spite of infinite random possibilities,in spite of the fact that we ourselvesare droplets in the stream of Heraclitus,there is something in us that endures:something unbudgeable,that didn't find what it was looking for.2
References to Heraclitus and his river occur in many other Borges poems:
the water moving in that riverWhere Heraclitus saw our madness mirrored("The Hourglass," 1960)
the unending river,Going yet staying, mirror of the sameInconstant Heraclitus("The Art of Poetry," 1960)
that river's timeIn whose glass Heraclitus saw the symbolOf his fleeting day("To the One Reading Me," 1964)
Night of time, which will go on forever.The river of Heraclitus, the Riddling One("Cosmogony," 1975)
You are that other I the Greek defined;You lie in wait forever. In the glossOf swaying water or of steady glass("The Looking Glass," 1975)
We hear his voice pronouncing:"Nobody can step twice into the watersOf the same river"("Heraclitus," 1976)3
First of all the metaphors is the river("Metaphors of the Thousand and One Nights," 1977)
What luck to be the invulnerable waterThat flows in Heraclitus' parable("Adam Is Your Ashes," 1977) [End Page 304]
We are the river that you once invoked,Heraclitus("The Maker," 1981)
We are the much renownedSaying of Heraclitus the Obscure("They Are Rivers," 1985)
What was it about Heraclitus's river simile that so captivated Borges? In what follows I argue that Borges saw Heraclitus not merely as the author of a compelling view of time but also as a poet who, like Borges, was acutely aware of the reality of change and the threat it posed to our sense of ourselves as enduring entities.
In another early poem, "Truco" (1923), Borges introduces a view of time that he will contrast to Heraclitus's own view of time as an irreversible sequence, later crediting the alternative conception to Pythagoras, the Stoics, Hume, and Nietzsche. Here Borges employs a chaotic card game4 as a model for the way in which life displays the "infinite random possibilities" alluded to in "Year's End":
Forty playing cards have taken the place of lifeBrightly colored talismans of pasteboardthey make us forgetful of our fates. . . .
Balky hesitationskeep interrupting the words,and just as all the possible decisionscome up again and again,the men playing tonightrepeat the ancient tricks.(CP, p. 8)
Borges will later write of this poem, "On this page of questionable worth, an idea that has always disturbed me appears for the first time. Its fullest statement is in 'A New Refutation of Time'" (CP, p. 554). That "disturbing" idea, expressed here in the lines "all the possible decisions / come up again and again," was the view that all events will reoccur in the future, as they have in the past, an infinite number of times.5 Although Borges here rejects this idea since it rests on what he characterizes as the false assumption "that time is composed of individual instants which can be distinguished from one another," his rejection is less than definitive. As he would explain in two later essays (1944 and 1946) mischievously6 entitled "A New Refutation of Time": "In the course of a life dedicated to literature and, occasionally, to metaphysical [End Page 305] perplexity, I have perceived or sensed a refutation of time, which I myself disbelieve, but which comes to visit me at night and in the weary dawns with the illusory force of an axiom. That refutation is in all my books in one way or another"(OI, p. 172).
In the first of those two essays Borges expresses his admiration for the cleverness with which Heraclitus crafted his simile of the river, yet he cites his own recollection of that simile as one reason for rejecting the reality of time. He begins by reminding the reader of the idealism of Bishop Berkeley (which holds that only minds and their contents exist) as well as the skepticism of David Hume (which finds no basis for belief in the existence of any subject beyond our impressions and ideas). He then sets the stage for his conclusion by describing his own frequently repeated experiences and recollections:
Let us consider a life in which repetitions are abundant: mine, for example. I never pass Recoleta cemetery without remembering that my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are buried there, as I shall be; then I remember that I have already remembered that, many times before. I cannot walk down my neighborhood streets in the solitude of the night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details. I cannot mourn the loss of a love or a friendship without reflecting that one can lose only what one has never really had. Each time I come to a certain place in the South, I think of you, Helen; each time the air brings me the scent of eucalyptus, I think of Adrogué, in my childhood; each time I remember Fragment 91 of Heraclitus: "You will not go down twice to the same river," I admire his dialectical skill, because the facility with which we accept the first meaning ("The river is different") clandestinely imposes the second one ("I am different") and gives us the illusion of having invented it. Each time I hear a Germanophile vituperating Yiddish, I pause and think that Yiddish is, after all, a German dialect, barely maculated by the language of the Holy Spirit.(OI, p. 177)
Borges appears to be making two distinct points here: (1) that some of his experiences have occurred so many times it is no longer possible to distinguish between the original experience and the subsequent recollection; and (2) that despite the fact that some experiences appear to follow upon one another in a forceful manner, it is impossible for us to tell whether their ordering reflects objective reality or is merely our own creation. (Borges cites as an example our being unable to tell whether the connection between the two meanings present in Heraclitus's aphorism imposes itself upon us or we invent it ourselves.) So if Berkeley was [End Page 306] correct in denying the existence of material substances, and Hume was correct in denying that we have any basis for believing in the existence of a self, we must conclude that we have no basis on which to identify any particular experience as occurring prior to, simultaneously with, or subsequent to any other experience:7
That pure representation of homogeneous facts—clear night, limpid wall, rural scent of honeysuckle, elemental clay—is not merely identical to the scene on that corner so many years ago; it is, without similarities or repetitions, the same. If we can perceive that identity, time is a delusion: the indifference and inseparability of one moment of time's apparent yesterday and another of its apparent today are enough to disintegrate it.(OI, p. 180)8
But, remarkably, having just dismissed time as a delusion, Borges proceeds to embrace Schopenhauer's characterization of time as circular: "By the dialectic of Berkeley and Hume I have arrived at Schopenhauer's statement: 'The form of the appearance of the will is only the present, not the past or the future. . . . Time is like an infinitely rotating circle; the descending arc is the past, the ascending one is the future; above, there is an indivisible point that touches the tangent and is the now'" (OI, p. 186).
Borges next quotes from Buddhist texts that reduce time to a series of present moments just "as a carriage wheel touches the ground in only one place when it turns," but concludes by conceding that his refutation is unbelievable:
And yet, and yet—To deny temporal succession, to deny the ego, to deny the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret assuagements. Our destiny . . . is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and iron bound. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.(OI, pp. 186–87)
While it would be tempting to suppose on the basis of this last comment that Borges found his "refutation of time" unpersuasive, the idea of circular time will continue to appear in his poems. In "The Cyclical Night" (published in 1964, two decades after the first "New Refutation of Time" essay), he credits such a view to the early Greek thinker Pythagoras and his followers: [End Page 307]
They knew, the stern disciples of Pythagoras,That stars and men are always cyclically returning,And the fatal atoms endlessly repeat the burningGolden Aphrodite, Thebans, agoras. . . .
Every insomnia will come back, just as it was.From the very same womb the hand that is writing thisWill be reborn, Iron armies will build their own abyss.(This is what David Hume of Edinburgh says). . . .(CP, p. 132)9
In The Number of Times (1981), Borges again alludes to the idea of circular time. In his "Note for a Fantastic Tale," he invokes the tradition according to which Pythagoras lived multiple lives (CP, p. 464). In another lifetime, so Borges imagines, "the eight thousand Saxons at Hastings will defeat the Normans, as they had earlier defeated the Norwegians, and in a temple hall of Argos. Pythagoras will not recognize the shield he carried when he was Euphorbus."10 Similarly, in "Hymn," Borges speaks of "this morning," in which "Pythagoras reveals to the Greeks / that time has a shape: the circle" (CP, p. 468). And in "The Scheme of Things," he mentions that the "Stoics thought that this iron scheme / arose from fire / that like the Phoenix dies and is reborn" (CP, p. 474). On occasion, Borges admits to a certain lack of seriousness on this topic: "I am fond of the circular form. That does not mean that I believe in circular time, in the hypothesis of Pythagoras, Hume, Nietzsche, or many others. The Stoics also held that history repeats itself in exactly the same fashion. I do nothing but take advantage, to the best of my ability, of the literary possibilities of this hypothesis Nietzsche thought he had invented."11
As one might expect on the basis of his half-hearted commitment to the view of time as circular, Borges also displays some ambivalence in connection with the view of time as an irreversible sequence of events. In the first of two poems entitled "Heraclitus" (1969), Borges weaves together the themes of a succession of days and nights, sleeplessness, purification and oblivion, the river of time, time as a "web of was, is, and will be," and the self as "a sliding substance" that is identical with time:
The second twilight.The night sinking deeper into sleep.Purification and oblivion.The first twilight. [End Page 308] The morning that was the dawn.Broad day that was the morning.The luxuriant day that will become a threadbare dusk.The second twilight.That other of time's guises, night.Purification and oblivion.The first twilight. . . .The stealthy dawn and in the dawnthe Greek's dismay.What is this webof will be, is, and was?What river is thisthrough which the Ganges flows?What river is this whose source we cannot imagine?What river is thisthat washes away mythologies and swords?Sleep is useless—it flows through sleep, through the desert, through a cellar.The river carries me away and I am the river.Of some sliding substance am I made, unfathomable time.Perhaps the wellspring brims in me.Perhaps from my darknessarise the mortal and phantasmorgoric days.(CP, p. 250)
There is no suggestion here that the view of time Borges associates with Heraclitus ("the Greek") is anything less than true: we must accept the reality of time and acknowledge the inherently temporal character of our existence. There is some suggestion that time remains mysterious, and that the division between days and nights is a distinction we import into our experience of the world. But Borges evinces no sign of dissatisfaction with this "Heraclitean" perspective on time. Similarly, in "The Hourglass" (CP, pp. 88–89) Borges accepts an hourglass along with Heraclitus's moving river as appropriate symbols and measures of time's passage. He also accepts the flow of time as "entirely and all too human," and notes that while memory attempts to imprison time, "Lethe's magic flood [i.e., forgetfulness] keeps on dissolving." The poet concedes: "Nor am I fated to save myself, a chance / Creature of time, which is a stuff that slides."12
Elsewhere, however, Borges indicates that a Heraclitean identification of our personal existence with the incessant flow of a river cannot be the whole story: not everything passes away. As he had suggested in his early poem "Year's End," "there is something in us that endures: / [End Page 309] something unbudgeable / that didn't find what it was looking for." The late poem "They Are Rivers" reaches a similar conclusion. For all but its last two lines, "They Are Rivers" tells the usual story of unceasing change and dissolution:
We are time. We are the much renownedsaying of Heraclitus the obscure.We are water, not diamonds that endure;what ebbs and passes, not what holds its ground.We are that Greek who sees himself in the stream;we are the stream. His brief reflection shimmersin water which is made of shimmering mirrors,in the dark glass that shimmers like a flame.We are the stream, predestined and vain,heading down to the sea pursued by shadows.Everything said goodbye, everything goes.Memory no longer mints its coin.(CP, p. 512)13
But the poem's final two lines, like those of "Year's End," strike a contrasting note:
And nevertheless there is something that remains,and nevertheless there is something that complains.
"The Art of Poetry" provides the first of two suggestions as to what it is that remains, and how it does so. First of all, the poetic art endures—it is able "to transmute the insult of the years / Into a music, a murmuring, a symbol":
To see in death a sleep, or in the sunsetA golden sadness—such is poetry,Beggared yet immortal, poetryThat comes back like the dawn and sunset. . . .
They say Ulysses, sick and tired of marvels,Wept with love at the sight of Ithaca,Green and simple. Art is that IthacaOf simple, green eternity, not marvels.(CP, p. 120)
In addition, as Borges indicates in "The Maker," if the poetic art has a claim on immortality, then so, at least to some extent, does its creator: "I am nothing but this pack of images / That chance shuffles and tedium [End Page 310] gives names. / Out of them, although blind and all but broken, / I have to forge the incorruptible verse / And (it is my duty) save myself" (CP, p. 472). It is in that sense, as Borges had affirmed in the opening lines of "The Maker," "we"—i.e., Heraclitus and Borges—are the river; they fashion the words that withstand the passage of time:
We are the river that you once invoked,Heraclitus. We are time, whose currentCarries along lions and mountain ranges,The tears of love, the ashes of our pleasure,Insidious and interminable hope;The vaunting names of empires now dust;Hexameters of the Greek and of the Roman.(CP, p. 472)
Thus, in spite of the fact that we are "droplets in the stream of Heraclitus," it is not the case that "everything goes." There is something in us that "endures," is "unbudgeable," "didn't find what it was looking for," "nevertheless remains," and "complains."
One aspect of Borges's belief in the (literary) survival of the poet is his repeated identification of himself with Heraclitus. At one point he speaks of himself in the first person and of "having been so many [men]," and expresses regret over an unconsummated love affair: "I, who have been so many, have never been / That man in whose arms Matilde Urbach swooned" (CP, p. 122). And although it does not appear that Matilde Urbach was Greek,14 Borges entitles this recollection "Le regret d'Héraclite." In "The Art of Poetry" he speaks of "Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same / And yet another" (p. 120). And in the late poem entitled "Heraclitus" he combines references to Heraclitus with references to himself in various periods of his life:
Heraclitus is walking in the evening stillnessOf Ephesus. The evening has just brought him,Without his having consciously decided,Along the green bank of a quiet riverWhose name and distinct course he doesn't know.There is a stone Janus,15 and some poplars.16Eying himself in the fast flowing mirror,He brings to light and polishes the sentenceThat all the many generations of menWill not let die. We hear his voice pronouncing:Nobody can step twice into the waters [End Page 311] Of the same river. He pauses. And he feels,With the astonishment of a sacred horror,That he is both a river and a fleeing.He wishes to retrieve, somehow, that morning,The previous night and evening; but he cannot.He speaks the sentence once again. He sees itPrinted clearly in its future lettersOn one of the printed pages of Burnet,17Heraclitus does not know Greek. And Janus,The god of doorways, is a Latin god.Heraclitus has no present and no past.He is merely an artifice dreamed upBy a grey man on the banks of the Red Cedar18A man who weaves hendecasyllables19So as not to dwell too much on Buenos AiresAnd its beloved faces. One is missing.20(CP, p. 402)
Borges, characteristically, both embraces and repudiates what he takes to be the message embedded in Heraclitus's river simile, much as he both embraces and rejects the view of time as circular. The temporal character of human existence justifies the likening of reality to a flowing stream. But not everything passes away; the poet who walks on the bank of the river ponders, complains, creates, and, through that creative act, endures.
I am grateful to Joseph Albernaz, Claudia Cuador, Anna Ribeiro Soy, and Eleanor Rutledge for comments on an earlier version of this essay.
1. The altiplano, or "high plain," of Bolivia is the vast expanse that includes Lake Titicaca and the world's largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. Thus here, as often elsewhere, Borges speaks of the night as a vast and empty expanse marked only by the tolling of the hours (see "Insomnia" [CP, p. 130]: "The universe of this night is as vast / as oblivion").
2. The Collected Poems of Jorge Luis Borges, trans. R. Mezey and R. Barnes (no date, location, or name of publisher given), p. 16; hereafter abbreviated CP. All English translations of Borges's poems that appear herein are from this volume.
3. This quotation from Heraclitus is taken from Plato's Cratylus: "Heraclitus says somewhere that all things give way and nothing abides, and likening existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you cannot step twice into the same river" (402a). Heraclitus was [End Page 312] remembered as the author of the doctrine of "flux," or universal change, but modern scholarship has provided good reason to challenge Plato's interpretation of Heraclitus's remarks about rivers. See the accounts in Geoffrey Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962); and Heraclitus, Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary, ed. Miroslav Marcovich, 2nd ed. (Sankt Augustin: Academic Verlag, 2001).
4. Truco is a popular, poker-like game in which fast play, intentional distractions, bluffing, deceptions, and humorous pranks are all regarded as fair game.
5. Borges's references to "the circularity of time" include two views: (1) that sooner or later all possible events will occur; and (2) that time (itself) repeats itself. But what he usually had in mind was the idea that whatever events have occurred and are now occurring will reoccur in precisely the same order, ad infinitum.
6. As Borges explained: "To say that a refutation is new (or old) is to attribute to it a predicate of a temporal nature, which restores the notion that the subject attempts to destroy" (Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, trans. Ruth Simms [University of Texas Press, 1964], p. 172; hereafter abbreviated OI).
7. For a different analysis of Borges's argument, see James Van Cleve, "Time, Idealism, and the Identity of Indiscernibles," Nous 36 (2002): 379–93. Van Cleve treats idealism and the thesis of the identity of indiscernibles as two separate lines of argument, whereas I regard them as two phases within a single argument.
8. Technically, what Borges's argument would establish is not that belief in time is a delusion (or that there can be no objective order of events) but only that we cannot know whether any such order exists. In any case, since Borges does not here provide grounds for accepting the views he attributes to Berkeley, Hume, and Schopenhauer, his "refutation" remains merely hypothetical. Borges elsewhere expressed the view that the truth of idealism is confirmed by the Kantian antinomies of reason and Zeno's paradoxes; see the essay "Avatars of the Tortoise," in OI, pp. 109–15.
9. Norman di Giovanni notes that Borges replaced an original reference to "the philologist Nietzsche" with this reference to David Hume: "Borges found that, long before Nietzsche, Hume had stated and justified the Stoic theory of cyclical time in the eighth of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, 1923–1967, ed. and with an introduction and notes by Norman Thomas di Giovanni [New York: Delacorte Press, 1972], p. 296; hereafter abbreviated SP).
10. The story that Pythagoras lived many lives, including one as Euphorbus, a warrior who fought at Troy, appears in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, vol. 2, Books 6–10 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), bk. 8, sects. 4–5.
11. Jorge Luis Borges, Entretien avec André Camp (Paris: Aigues-Vives, 1999), p. 63.
12. An acceptance of time's remorselessness and of the inevitability of death appears also in "To the One Reading Me" (CP, p. 193), "Cosmogony" (CP, p. 331), and "Adam Is Your Ashes" (CP, p. 444). [End Page 313]
13. As in "The Hourglass," no experience bears an unmistakable indication of when it occurred.
14. While declarations of unrequited love appear often in Borges's poetry, Matilde Urbach appears to be as fictional as the author whose remark Borges "quotes" ("Gaspar Camerarius in Deliciae Poetarum Borrusiae, VII, 16" in Dreamtigers, trans. M. Boyer and H. Morland [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964], p. 92). One student of Borges's work, Juan Bonilla, has found a reference to a Matilde Urbach in the William Joyce Cowen novel Man with Four Lives (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934); see es.oocities.com/juanbonillaweb/matilde.htm.
15. Janus is the ancient Roman god of beginnings and transitions, both temporal and spatial (thus "the god of doorways"). In "Limits" (CP, p. 148), Borges notes the presence of a four-faced stone statue of Janus in Buenos Aires's Southside neighborhood, in which he made his nightly walks. In "A Bust of Janus Speaks" (CP, p. 350), the statue expresses the idea that past and future never meet.
16. Another characteristic feature of Buenos Aires (see "memories of poplars" in "Long Walk" [CP, p. 29]).
17. The reference is to John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1892). Of course, the ancient Heraclitus "knew Greek"; it is the modern Argentinean Heraclitus who does not.
18. The Red Cedar River flows through the campus of Michigan State University at East Lansing, Michigan, where Borges was in residence during the winter term of 1976–77.
19. The hendecasyllable, a line of eleven syllables, is commonly used in Greek and Latin verse. Borges frequently referred to himself as the creator of hendecasyllables. For example, in "That One" (CP, p. 460), he speaks of himself as "a minor poet of our hemisphere, / to whom the fates of perhaps the stars have given / a body that will leave behind no son / and blindness which is semi-darkness and jail / . . . and the practiced weaving of hendecasyllables."
20. "One is missing" would appear to be a reference to Borges's mother, Leonor Acevedo de Borges, who had died the previous year. [End Page 314]