Frames /sing


Borges and Spinoza: Ground Glass

It is rare that a poet is able to analyze a philosopher to a greater degree than commentators can, especially it would seem a philosopher so un-poetic as Spinoza. And that it is done by a minor poet, a poet who does not even consider himself as one is surprising. In the last days I have thought about my long standing intution that Spinoza’s lens grinding lead to substantive influences on his his very idea of what an Idea is…that is, how he might conceive of an Idea in a way fundamentally different than Descartes did. I realize that this notion must have come from my long ago reading of Borges’ sonnet on Spinoza, one which equates his grinding of lenses which his polishing of propositions.Here is the poem and a literal translation for those interested:


Las traslúcidas manos del judío
labran en la penumbra los cristales
y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)

Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
casi no existen para el hombre quieto
que está soñando un claro laberinto.

No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
de sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.

Libre de la metáfora y del mito
labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
mapa de Aquel que es todas Sus estrellas.


The translucent hands of the Jew
Work in the penumbra, crystals
& the evening, dying, is dread & chill.
(Evenings to evenings are equal.)

The hands & space of hyacinth
Waning in the confines of the Ghetto
Almost do not exist for the man so quiet
Who is dreaming a clear labyrinth.

He’s not perturbed by fame, that reflection
Of dreams in the dream of another mirror,
Nor by the timorous love of maidens.

Free from metaphor & myth
He works a hard crystal: the Infinite
Map of That which totals His stars.

This is of course more than an honorary poem, it is a meditation, and a meditation by one of the greater literary/philosophical minds of the century. What is most remarkable about it is the way that Borges bridges the historic Spinoza to the Infinite Spinoza, through the act of lens grinding. Spinoza, in the very materiality of his act, the grinding of a hard, difficult crystal, somehow escapes history, yet in a personal sense. It is a paradox, and Borges, the lover of paradoxes, grasps this nexus point with tremendous subtlety.

What Borges said of this poem was this:

“In that sonnet, I refer specifically to the philosopher Spinoza. He is polishing crystal lenses and is polishing a rather vast crystal philosophy of the universe. I think we might consider those tasks parallel. Spinoza is polishing his lenses, Spinoza is polishing vast diamonds, his ethics.”

It would seem that Spinoza would ultimately agree with the notion that his Ethics was a vast diamond(s), a tremendous lens which he worked on for over decade. He would enjoy the idea that the work itself is a materiality, (his ontology demands it), a materiality which we too use, in combination with our own materiality. This is a physicality of idea that necessitates mutuality. I am not sure, but I believe that Borges wrote this sonnet when he was losing his vision, what would seem like a terrible loss. Here, the evening falls, and the hands become even more physical, and even less confined.

If Spinoza argues for a liberation, it would seem to be a liberation which understands freedom to be the most material of things, and his Ethics to be material construction. The internal paradoxes of such an aim, the clarity of its labyrinth, are the things which make it possible.

And here Borges himself reads his sonnet, starting a little after minute 2:40:

[written May 7, 2008]


9 responses to “Borges and Spinoza: Ground Glass

  1. Robert M. May 31, 2009 at 2:24 am

    I liked your comment on Borges and Spinoza. I would also like to add that the concept of carving the diamonds is a reference, of course, to Spinoza’s “more geometrica”, with his conception of God as a somewhat mathematical being (taken from Descartes, and pushed to new limits by Spinoza). Moreover, Borges, who was not known for writing poetry in traditional meters, chose a sonnet, which adds a structural dimension to his fascination with Spinoza’s philosophy of symmetry. Good blog.

  2. kvond May 31, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Robert Thanks for your kind thoughts. I think the reference to carving cristales/diamonds is really to Spinoza’s occupation as a lens grinder and instrument maker. (Check out the subheading on the sidebar of my blog, Spinoza’s Foci, which is reseach on the matter.) But yes, indeed when Borges says diamonds he is thinking of Spinoza’s mathematical approach to the emotions. (As a sidenote, of course Spinoza as a Jew, may have learned his lens-grinding techniques from the diamond-cutters in his Amsterdam ghetto. Perhaps Borges has something of the association of Jew and diamond cutter in mind as well.)

    I agree that Borges was not known for writing poems, but when he wrote it seems he did write in traditional, rhymed forms. I seem to remember several sonnets by him, one he even wrote simply (apparently) on a blank page in a Copy of Beowulf:

    “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf”
    by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

    At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
    moved me to study, while my night came down,
    without particular hope of satisfaction,
    the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

    Used up by the years, my memory
    loses its grip on words that I have vainly
    repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
    weaves and unweaves its weary history.

    Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
    has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
    that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
    circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

    Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
    the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

    But yes, the form of Borges’s sonnet does add to the contrast between austere form and lived life. Nice.

  3. Robert M. July 3, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Good to know about the reference of Spinoza as a lens grinder. It goes to show that there are many references that one may not know about, but are there for us to discover. Additionally, I am sure you are correct when you point out Borges’ possible reference to the fact that Spinoza was a Jew, as this is a recurring theme throughout his works, and one that has been widely studied and written about. There are even those who have accused Borges of holding antisemitic feelings.

    I am personally not that familiar with Spinoza, but I certainly like philosophy and theology, and will read the “Spinoza’s foci” link. I am, however, more well versed in Borges, and I can confirm that while he wrote sonnets and used other classical meters on occasion, most of his poetry was written without meter or a particular rhyme pattern. His poems do rhyme sometimes, but not always (at least in Spanish). Moreover, he wrote much more poetry than people suspect – it’s just that he is more well known for his short stories, and that’s what most people read. Additionally, many of his poems are written in a semi-prose style, contributing to the confusion.

    In any event, I thank you for posting an answer to my comment. I like your blog and I will try to read it with some regularity. Best regards.

  4. kvond July 3, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I hope you find the “Spinoza’s Foci” worthwhile. As much of this weblog has been devoted to, there is something distinctly missing from the historical Spinoza picture when his lens grinding and microscope/telescope instrument making is forgotten.

    And I appreciate the notes on Borges.

  5. Sebastian Pineda July 27, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Very interesting post, and a very good translation, indeed. The reference of Spinoza or Espinosa (en español) as a lens grinder shouldn´t be a mere curiositty. According to the latest biographies (see Cambridge Companion)Epinosa built no only lens but telescopes in order to see the sky. He actually kept contact with some astronomers.

  6. Juan Rizzo September 30, 2009 at 4:52 am

    Still making my way through your blog (keeps getting better!)
    By the way, Borges confessed on many occassions that most of his friends adviced him against continuing his endeavours in the particular field of poetry. Fortunately fot us he was –not unlike Spinoza– just a stubborn old craftsman. Which, in other contexts, may go by the name of wisdom…
    PS: Really enjoying “Spinoza’s foci” so far…

  7. kvond September 30, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Glad you’re enjoying the series of posts. And yes, we are fortunate the Borges followed his own lights.

  8. Pingback: Borges’ Spinoza Metered and Rhymed – Anagrammatically

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