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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]