On Jorge Luis Borges – ‘Advice from Borges not to Know’, by Caleb Klaces

Advice from Borges not to Know, by Caleb Klaces

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Advice from Borges not to Know


I would like to draw your attention to some lines from the work of a human called Jorge Luis Borges who lived from 1899 to 1986. If you know him already—and it is likely he will claim to live where and when you live—then he will also claim to have written this note. Do not believe him. It is his shyness speaking. He was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in ancient Greece, where he wrote the Iliad. He was given William Shakespeare’s memory, which left him wise but frightened of trains. He was forced to travel in other ways. In the cinema he sat right at the front, next to his mother. They disagreed on the identity of the killer. His mother thought the killer was the killer. He always said the killer was immortality! He has always been old. Like all old people, he won’t be able to pronounce your name—he will write out every possible spelling and decide none is right, as if you weren’t standing in front of him, watching—and yet he will read you like a book. He is an infuriating friend, a blind man obsessed with mirrors.

If and when you and I meet, I am certain that because of Borges we will be able to find common ground. The lines I offer to you are from an essay called, in English, ‘The Philosophical Language of John Wilkins’. Borges liked to write about people—like you—about whom all facts are disputed. John Wilkins, who lived three hundred years before Borges, was interested in theology, cryptography, music, the building of transparent beehives, the orbit of an invisible planet, the possibility of a trip to the moon, the possibility and principles of a universal language. I will not presume to tell you anything about most of these things. Some probably seem quaint (music!?); some of them redundant—I am sure you have devised a way to allow your bees to keep an eye on you as they make their honey. Borges describes Wilkins’s attempts to classify everything intro certain groups, which would form the basis of a language common to every human. He (Borges) concludes: ‘it is clear that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what kind of thing the universe is.’ Neither Borges nor Wilkins invented a satisfactory universal language. But the Argentinian writer did show me what I share with you nonetheless: neither of us knows what kind of thing the universe is.


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