On Borges, Fiction’s Clay and Purpose

The lines between fiction and memoir are often blurred. This is problematic for anyone who writes and still has loved ones! I’m grateful to the blogger Tim Ferris for providing this timely quote, as I try to find an agent for The Factory: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Story.

“A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” — Jorge Luis Borges

I met Borges briefly when I was a graduate student at Columbia School of the Arts, and the likes of wannabe writers like myself were privileged enough to meet writers of that renown, and others just starting out on stories careers like Oscar Hijuelos.

Borges struck me as the worst kind of arrogant — arrogance masked with false humility. When someone in the room asked him about his support for reactionary causes, he said something to the effect of, “I am not as erudite or intelligent as you, and therefore cannot answer your question to your satisfaction.”

His voice dripped with sarcasm, and while many others in the room would have liked to ask the same question, his passive-aggressive but rapier-like response dissuaded all comers (myself included) from following up with something along the lines of, “you know full well you are the great Jorge Luis Borges, and your words carry enormous weight. Why don’t you put your fame in the service of the greater good?”

But Borges was at least consistent in his apolitical vision of the writer’s mission.

I think a writer’s duty is to be a writer, and if he can be a good writer, he is doing his duty. Besides, I think of my own opinions as being superficial. For example, I am a Conservative, I hate the Communists, I hate the Nazis, I hate the anti-Semites, and so on; but I don’t allow these opinions to find their way into my writings—except, of course, when I was greatly elated about the Six-Day War. Generally speaking, I think of keeping them in watertight compartments. Everybody knows my opinions, but as for my dreams and my stories, they should be allowed their full freedom, I think. I don’t want to intrude into them, I’m writing fiction, not fables.

I think history has taught us that Borges was in this aspect correct — fiction can’t preach morality, political or otherwise.

But a writer’s duty does include a moral component. I’m not saying that writers should moralize, and I definitely don’t think that writers need to adhere to socially acceptable morality.

But the great writers — Dickens, Celine, Joyce, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright — have a distinctive moral perspective from which they write, and which allows them to reach and influence readers across time.

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