The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”

You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.

What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?

It’s an abiding question with which each of us tussles periodically, and one which has occupied some of humanity’s most fertile minds. The ancient Greeks addressed it in the brilliant Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Walt Whitman marveled at the paradox of the self. Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Jack Kerouac denounced “the imaginary idea of a personal self.” Amelie Rorty taxonomized the seven layers of identity. Rebecca Goldstein examined what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change.

The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions(public library).

Jorge Luis Borges, 1923

Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:

I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.

Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:

There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an in­ difference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?

I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.

Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Half a century before neuroscientists demonstrated that memory is the seedbed of the self, Borges writes:

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inac­cessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose rul­ing you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them­ selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction…



Why You Should Invite President Trump Into Your Meditation Practice

Why You Should Invite President Trump Into Your Meditation Practice
Photo by Jnzl’s Photos |

Trump Practice is accepting fear, rage, and uncertainty. Feel into it, sink into it, let it overwhelm and overtake you.

By Dr. Jay Michaelson

MAR 30, 2017

“May God bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”

This, the fictional rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof offered, was the Jewish blessing for an oppressive ruler who brought suffering upon the vulnerable.  These days, is there a Buddhist equivalent for Donald Trump?

In fact, I’ve found “Trump Practice” to be of enormous help during these last few weeks, and I want to recommend it to you. There are several kinds of Trump Practice, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: Mindfulness of Trump. It derives from this line in the Satipatthana Sutta, which outlines the four foundations of mindfulness:

A [meditator] understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with delusion, as with delusion; the consciousness without delusion, as without delusion.

In these deceptively simple instructions (which are then repeated for a number of other mind states), Gautama Buddha is offering a counterintuitive way of being in the world, one that runs directly against four billion years of evolution.

It can handle four years of Trump, too.

All animals, and most plants, move toward the pleasant and away from the unpleasant. This is how the living world works. And yet, as Mick Jagger Buddha noticed in 1964, it doesn’t work: you can’t always get what you want. Humans are intrinsically wired for dukkha [suffering], wanting the pleasant, not wanting the unpleasant, and yet unable to arrange the world accordingly.

Both Jagger and Gautama Buddha agree on the remedy: if you try sometimes (i.e., if you practice), you might find that you get what you need even if you can’t get what you want, and can’t avoid what you hate. In other words, you can notice the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, and thus coexist with both. You don’t have to be pushed and pulled by the desires and aversions that have been with us since our paramecium ancestors wiggled out of the primordial ooze.

Notice the Buddha does not say the meditator runs away from, wallows in, banishes, denies, or extinguishes greed, hatred, or delusion. Of course, we want to cultivate the conditions that lessen these unwholesome states. But in the moment of mindfulness, there is only knowing and seeing—nothing more. This mindstate is present. Adding in awareness of vedana, or feeling-tone, one might add whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. But no judgment, no avoidance, no denial.

So what about Mindfulness of Trump?

The feelings Trump evokes are often unpleasant, so it’s natural to make them want to go away. He says and does things that many of us find odious, and the more we contemplate them, the more the feelings multiply into mind states like anger, concern for our friends and neighbors, fear, uncertainty, rage. Indeed, these feelings are often quite appropriate and grounded in reality.

Of course, many people, particularly undocumented people, Muslims, people of color, Jews, trans folk, many women, and others, face not just mental threats but real physical ones as well.  But let’s stay with the mental ones for a moment. They’re what the Satipatthana Sutta is talking about. They’re also doorways to liberation and to being better allies to those who are in danger.

When unpleasant Trump thoughts arise, we, in accordance with billions of years of evolution, want to make them go away. There are many tactics available. We might pretend they aren’t there (“I’m not feeling anger—I’m Buddhist.”) or channel them into political activism that may or may not be actually useful. (Helping refugees, useful; arguing on Facebook, not useful.) Or we might escape into television, meditation retreats, alcohol, sex, whatever—again, not bad in moderation, potentially destructive and irresponsible in excess.

Trump Practice, Satipatthana practice, what I call The Gate of Tears practice (that’s a plug for my book) is to do the exact opposite: to look inside, see what’s there, accept it, and act skillfully from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. What those actions are is the subject of another article (like this one) and another practice. But the core of Trump Practice is accepting the fear, rage, uncertainty, and so on…



Philosophy tool kit

Resultado de imagem para neon image of What the...?

image edited by Web Investigator

Thinking like a philosopher need not be a strange and arcane art, if you get started with these tricks of the trade

by Alan Hájek is professor of philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research interests are in probability and decision theory, formal epistemology, and the philosophy of science and language. He publishes regularly on these topics. 

Philosophers pride themselves on thinking clearly by seeing what follows from what, exposing sophisms, spotting fallacies, and generally policing our reasoning. Many have spent years honing their skills, often deploying them on arcane topics. But these skills are not the exclusive property of rarefied sages, accessed only with a secret handshake and insider training, as much as some philosophers wish this were so. Instead, some of these skills can be captured by generalisable, all-purpose techniques for the proper conduct of thought, whatever the topic. Many of these are easily taught and learned. As such, they can be utilised by non-philosophers too. At a time when we are bombarded more than ever with specious claims and spurious inferences, clear thinking provides a much-needed safeguard that we should all strive towards.

Philosophers place a premium on certain tools for regimenting our thinking, especially logic and probability theory. However, there is a far richer toolbox at our disposal. Over the years, I have observed philosophers repeatedly using various argumentative moves or strategies, which can be encapsulated in rules of thumb that make their tasks easier. These are what might be called philosophical heuristics. This should come as no surprise: pretty much every complex activity has its heuristics, which experts teach and beginners learn – photography, calligraphy, diving, driving, football, foosball, judo, Cluedo, curling, hurling, climbing, rhyming, and so on. Such heuristics are especially well-documented for chess: ‘castle early and often’, ‘check every check’, and what have you.

There are also common heuristics for intellectual activities such as mathematics and creative writing. Here’s a good one for mathematics: if you are not making headway on a problem, modify it slightly to make it easier, and solve that one. A good heuristic for creative writing is to juxtapose familiar words and phrases in unfamiliar ways. One might use the ‘cut-up technique’, popularised by William S Burroughs and by David Bowie, in which written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text.

Yet philosophy might be thought to be especially unsuitable for such heuristics. The word ‘philosopher’ comes from the Ancient Greek philosophos, meaning ‘lover of wisdom’. And wisdom, a skeptic might insist, cannot be so easily achieved. Philosophy strives for deep, profound insights, yet heuristics might by their nature be regarded as superficial. I don’t pretend that philosophical heuristics provide shortcuts to profundity – any more than chess heuristics provide shortcuts to becoming a grandmaster. That said, grandmasters do typically castle early and often, and check every check, consciously or not; a chess textbook that ignored these heuristics would be remiss. Likewise, good philosophers do use the heuristics I identify, consciously or not, often in the service of deep insights. Indeed, philosophy textbooks have been remiss in ignoring these heuristics.

If we think of logic and probability theory as all-purpose tools for checking for the consistency and coherence of our claims at a high level of abstraction, then the philosophical heuristics collectively form more of a Swiss army knife. Some of these heuristics have a broad application, like an LED light. Others have a narrower application, but are perfect for the occasions on which they apply, like a corkscrew. There is something of a trade-off between how frequently a particular heuristic might be used, and how specific its advice is. Too general, and the heuristic doesn’t provide an applicable strategy – for example: ‘Say something insightful!’ Too specific, and it can never be used in another context – for example, ‘the reply to Pascal’s wager (that you should believe in God because doing so is the best bet) is that it leaves open which God you should believe in’. The best heuristics find ‘sweet spots’ in this trade-off.

I work in the Western ‘analytic’ tradition of philosophy. Much of analytic philosophy involves arguing for positions. So some terminology will be needed here. For our purposes, an argument is a number of premises followed by a conclusion, where the premises are intended to lend support to the conclusion. A valid argument is one in which the support is as strong as can be: the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. A sound argument is one that is valid and whose premises are true (and so its conclusion is true, too). An unsound argument is one that is either invalid or that has at least one false premise…


%d bloggers like this: