Literary Writing and Personal Identity in Borges and Pessoa

Author: Shlomy Mualem, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Published: July 29, 2022

Citation: Mualem, S. (2022). Literary Writing and Personal Identity in Borges and Pessoa. IAFOR Journal of Arts & Humanities, 9(1).


In a famous passage in “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes describes the writing process as embodying the disintegration of the author’s personal identity: “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (142). This postmodern position is deeply rooted in classical Greek thought, in particular Plato’s harsh critique of poetic inspiration, conceived as “holy madness.” Is this equation valid, however? Does writing necessarily serve as the ultimate act of self-negation? This essay seeks to elucidate Jorge Luis Borges’ and Fernando Pessoa’s alternative views of authorial subjectivity. Borges and Pessoa – arguably two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – conceive the interplay between writing and self-identity in rather complex fashion. Pessoa’s term “heteronym” relates to the way in which an author’s subjectivity abruptly gives way to an idiosyncratic identity who composes the poem. This recalls the Kabbalistic idea of God’s contraction (tzimzum), the creator preserving his or her passive self-identity while giving birth to other beings from his or her inner void. Discussing Shakespeare and Whitman, Borges proposes that the act of writing is a form of self-creation in which the writer begets a unique narrative identity out of himself or herself that, transfigured, is simultaneously both the same and the other.


Jorge Luis Borges, comparative literature, heteronym, literary theory, personal identity, Fernando Pessoa, self-creation