The Aleph, by Jorge Luis Borges

Caminhando - Lygia Clark

Caminhando – Lygia Clark

First Edition Provenance: Jorge Luis Borges, El aleph (Buenos Aires: Argentina: Editorial Losada, S.A. Colección Prosistas de España y América, 1949)

Excerpt Provenance: Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph, in Collected Fictions, translated to English by Andrew Hurley (New York: The Penguin Press / The Grove/Atlantic Press, 1998)


Context and Introduction by Isidoro Michan Guindi

Jorge Luis Borges -

Jorge Luis Borges, a prolific writer of poetry, essays and short stories, can be considered a lover of language who felt deeply drawn toward fantastical imagination. The parental home in which he was brought up had an abundant library in which he was exposed to universal literature, one of the doorways to his imaginary world. His English paternal grandmother had a deep influence on him and he was thus proficient in the English language. In fact, he first read Cervantes’ Don Quijote in English, and felt quite disappointed when he eventually read the original version in Spanish. It was extremely easy for him to learn languages, including French and German. He learned Italian, for instance, through reading Dante’s Divine Comedy on his train journeys to work. By dialoguing with universal texts, mythology and arcane knowledge, as well as establishing a cultural tradition that gave continuity to the nineteenth century, Borges reconstructed Argentine literature, thus becoming one of the most influential and avant-garde writers of a generation of postmodernist literary creators whose impact went beyond the Argentinian borders. His fantastical writings grounded in literature, arcane knowledge, mythology and rampant imagination have had a profound influence on both contemporary literary creation and critical theory as well as on writers not only in Latin America, but also throughout the Western world. Borges’ vision, however, ends challenging the perceptions of aesthetic modernism.

In Borges’ deeply aesthetic-oriented and intellectual texts, he holds the tension between the local dimension, the space of the city of Buenos Aires, on the one hand, and philosophical subjects, British and universal literature, encyclopedic knowledge, symbolism, mythology, and cabala, on the other. He interweaves Eastern and Western traditions with the Argentinian reality. Form, time, imagination, dreams, mirrors and doubles prevail in Borges’ work. The figure of the labyrinth and the notion of the infinite (even complex mathematical concepts that deal with the infinite) are ever present in Borges’ writings. The image of the labyrinth would seem to point to the limits and limitations of our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world, intimating that differences and alternative perspectives are both limitless and never-ending. In his literary creations, Borges endlessly questions time, space, identity, dreams, and destiny, among other facets of reality. Borges’ curious, agile, searching mind allows him to turn reality upside down and inside out in an attempt to express its multilayered complexity.

In many of his works of fiction, Borges places himself at the center of the work, explicitly or implicitly using himself as the narrator, as an imaginary Borges, a literary double of Borges, a fictionalized Borges.

Borges’ short stories themselves are like one of his core symbols: the labyrinth. The reader enters each story as he would step into a labyrinth: alone, prepared to face the circumambulations of words, texts, images, ideas, myths, memories, remembrances.

Borges’ literary work reverberates with Roland Barthes’s notion of untraceable, inexhaustible undecipherable texts that display indefinite intertextuality. Parallel to Barthes’ formulations, Borges’ writing is a map or surface with numberless entries and exits that open to all dimensions.

Various authors, such as Alberto Manguel in his lecture delivered at Boston University in 1998, have noted that the Aleph rather than the labyrinth is the figure that would symbolize Borges’ work, in particular for his aim to apprehend the totality, to reach a unifying, all-encompassing and at the same time multi-layered vision of reality. Borges’ pluralistic vision interwoven by the dialectical interrelationship and dialogue existing between unity and multiplicity can be seen as based on these two critical symbols: the Aleph and the labyrinth. As Guillermo Martínez claims in his book on Borges and mathematics (Borges y la matemática. Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2007), in his literary work, Borges also presents the fundamental mathematical concepts of infinity. Borges writes, for instance, that “an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points,” which resonates with Georg Cantor’s mathematics and philosophy of the infinite that says that the part is equivalent to the whole. Borges thus lays down a bridge between mathematics, philosophy and literature.

The Aleph offers access to Borges’ literary and psychic universe, being a vivid illustration of the creative power embedded in words, particularly in the realm of imagination.

Paradoxically, despite the deep fascination words and reading exerted on Borges, he developed progressive hereditary blindness, fully losing sight in 1955. Far from drifting him apart from literature, it sent his mind to more intensely inhabit what he calls “the palaces and caverns of memory” (“Shakespeare’s Memory,” in Collected Fictions, p. 1089), i.e., the most sophisticated and most primitive aspects of memory. He thus most intensely moved into the realm of imagination and visual imagery. He was forced to dictate his literary work, rather than write, thus reinforcing intonation, cadence, verse, sound, an endless spectrum of language possibilities. Rather than allowing blindness to intimidate him and experience it as a curse, Borges saw it as a gift, as an opportunity, as a way of life. Celebrating the irony of being appointed director of the National Library, when he had lost his sight, in Poem of the Gifts, Borges writes:

Let no one with tears or disapproval slight

This declaration of the majesty

Of God, who with magnificent irony

Granted me books and, at the same time, night.

He made this set of lightless eyes the lord

In this city of books, and they can only read

In the library of dreams where the dawns cede

These senseless paragraphs . . .

Excerpt 1

 “At dawn, the distance bristled with pyramids and towers. I dreamed, unbearably, of a small and orderly labyrinth at whose center lay a well; my hands could almost touch it, my eyes see it, but so bewildering and entangled were the turns that I knew I would die before I reached it.  . . . When I disentangled myself at last from that nightmare, I found that my hands were bound behind my back and I was lying in an oblong stone niche no bigger than a common grave, scraped into the caustic slope of a mountain. The sides of the cavity were humid, and had been polished as much by time as by human hands. In my chest I felt a painful throbbing, and I burned with thirst. I raised my head and cried out weakly. At the foot of the mountain ran a noiseless, impure stream, clogged by sand and rubble; on the far bank, the patent City of the Immortals shone dazzlingly in the last (or first) rays of the sun. I could see fortifications, arches, frontispieces, and forums; the foundation of it all was a stone plateau. A hundred or more irregular niches like my own riddled the mountain and the valley. In the sand had been dug shallow holes; from those wretched holes, from the niches, emerged naked men with gray skin and neglected beards. I thought I recognized these men: they belonged to the bestial lineage of the Troglodytes, who infest the shorelines of the Persian Gulf and the grottoes of Ethiopia; I was surprised neither by the fact that they did not speak nor by seeing them devour serpents.” p. 14-15

Excerpt 2

 “At the end of one corridor, a not unforeseen wall blocked my path— and a distant light fell upon me. I raised my dazzled eyes; above, vertiginously high above, I saw a circle of sky so blue it was almost purple. The metal treads of a stairway led up the wall. Weariness made my muscles slack, but I climbed the stairs, only pausing from time to time to sob clumsily with joy. Little by little I began to discern friezes and the capitals of columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble. Thus it was that I was led to ascend from the blind realm of black and intertwining labyrinths into the brilliant City. At the end of one corridor, a not unforeseen wall blocked my path— and a distant light fell upon me. I raised my dazzled eyes; above, vertiginously high above, I saw a circle of sky so blue it was almost purple. The metal treads of a stairway led up the wall. Weariness made my muscles slack, but I climbed the stairs, only pausing from time to time to sob clumsily with joy. Little by little I began to discern friezes and the capitals of columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble. Thus it was that I was led to ascend from the blind realm of black and intertwining labyrinths into the brilliant City. I emerged into a kind of small plaza—a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building, of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. More than any other feature of that incredible monument, I was arrested by the great antiquity of its construction. I felt that it had existed before humankind, before the world itself. Its patent antiquity (though somehow terrible to the eyes) seemed to accord with the labor of immortal artificers. Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered afterward that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarities, and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad. I said this, I know, n a tone of incomprehensible reproof that verged upon remorse—with more intellectual horror than sensory fear. The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality. I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. In the palace that I imperfectly explored, the architecture had no purpose. There were corridors that led nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircases with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere.” p. 16-18

 Excerpt 3

 “That day, all was revealed to me. The Troglodytes were the Immortals; the stream and its sand-laden waters, the River sought by the rider. As for the City whose renown had spread to the very Ganges, the Immortals had destroyed it almost nine hundred years ago. Out of the shattered remains of the City’s ruin they had built on the same spot the incoherent city I had wandered through—that parody or antithesis of City which was also a temple to the irrational gods that rule the world and to those gods about whom we know nothing save that they do not resemble man. The founding of this city was the last symbol to which the Immortals had descended; it marks the point at which, esteeming all exertion vain, they resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation. They built that carapace, abandoned it, and went off to make their dwellings in the caves. In their self-absorption, they scarcely perceived the physical world.

These things were explained to me by Homer as one might explain things to a child. He also told me of his own old age and of that late journey he had made—driven, like Ulysses, by the intention to arrive at the nation of men that know not what the sea is, that eat not salted meat, that know not what an oar might be. He lived for a century in the City of the Immortals, and when it was destroyed it was he who counseled that this other one be built. We should not be surprised by that—it is rumored that after singing of the war of Ilion, he sang of the war between the frogs and rats. He was like a god who created first the Cosmos, and then Chaos.” p. 22

 Excerpt 4

 “It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose number is infinite1) by Asterion that stand [The original reads “fourteen,” but there is more than enough cause to conclude that when spoken number stands for “infinite.”] open night and day to men and also to animals. Anyone who wishes to enter may do so. Here, no womanly splendors, no palatial ostentation shall be found, but only calm and solitude. Here shall be found a house one other on the face of the earth. (Those who say there is a similar house in Egypt speak lies.) Even my detractors admit that there is not a single piece of furniture in the house. Another absurd tale is that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Need I repeat that the door stands open? Need I add that there is no lock? Furthermore, one afternoon I did go out into the streets; if I returned before nightfall, I did so because of the terrible dread inspired in me by the faces of the people—colorless faces, as flat as the palm of one’s hand. The sun had already gone down, but the helpless cry of a babe and the crude supplications of the masses were signs that I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, fell prostrate before me; some climbed up onto the stylobate of the temple of the Axes, others gathered stones. One, I believe, hid in the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot mix with commoners, even if my modesty should wish it.

The fact is, I am unique. I am not interested in what a man can publish abroad to other men; like the philosopher, I think that nothing can be communicated by the art of writing. Vexatious and trivial minutiae find no refuge in my spirit, which has been formed for greatness; I have never grasped for long the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has prevented me from learning to read. Sometimes I regret that, because the nights and the days are long.

Of course I do not lack for distractions. Sometimes I run like a charging ram through the halls of stone until I tumble dizzily to the ground; sometimes I crouch in the shadow of a wellhead or at a corner in one of the corridors and pretend I am being hunted. There are rooftops from which I can hurl myself until I am bloody. I can pretend anytime I like that I am asleep, and lie with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I actually fall asleep; sometimes by the time I open my eyes, the color of the day has changed.) But of all the games, the one I like best is pretending that there is another Assertion’s pretend that he has come to visit me, and I show him around the house. Bowing majestically, I say to him: Now let us return to our previous intersection or Let us go this way, now, out into another courtyard or I knew that you would like this rain gutter or Now you will see a cistern that has filled with sand or Now you will see how the cellar forks. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us have a good laugh over it.

It is not just these games I have thought up—I have also thought a great deal about the house. Each part of the house occurs many times; any particular place is another place. There is not one wellhead, one courtyard, one drinking trough, one manger; there are fourteen [an infinite number of] mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, wellheads. The house is as big as the world—or rather, it is the world. Nevertheless, by making my way through every single courtyard with its wellhead and every single dusty gallery of gray stone, I have come out onto the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. That sight, I did not understand until a night vision revealed to me that there are also fourteen [an infinite number of] seas and temples. Everything exists many times, fourteen times, but there are two things in the world that apparently exist but once—on high, the intricate sun, and below, Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this huge house, and no longer remember it.” pp. 85-87

 Excerpt 5

 “Climbing up steep sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. Seen at close range, it looked like a straight, virtually interminable wall of unplastered brick, scarcely taller than a man. Dunraven said it made a circle, but one so broad that its curvature was imperceptible. Unwin recalled Nicholas of Cusa, for whom every straight line was the arc of an infinite circle…. Toward midnight, they came upon a ruined doorway, which opened onto a long, perilous entryway whose walls had no other windows or doors. Dunraven said that inside, one came to crossing after crossing in the halls, but if they always turned to the left, in less than an hour they would be at the center of the maze. Unwin nodded. Their cautious steps echoed on the stone floor; at every branching, the corridor grew narrower. They felt they were being suffocated by the house—the ceiling was very low. They were forced to walk in single file through the knotted darkness. Unwin led the way; the invisible wall, cumbered with ruggedness and angles, passed endlessly under his hand. And as he made his way slowly through the darkness, Unwin heard from his friend’s lips the story of Ibn-Hakam’s death.” p. 156

Excerpt 6

 “It is said by men worthy of belief (though Allah’s knowledge is greater) that in the first days there was a king of the isles of Babylonia who called together his architects and his priests and bade them build him a labyrinth so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way. Most unseemly was the edifice that resulted, for it is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder. In time there came to the court a king of the Arabs, and the king of Babylonia (to mock the simplicity of his guest) bade him enter the labyrinth, where the king of the Arabs wandered, humiliated and confused, until the coming of the evening, when he implored God’s aid and found the door. His lips offered no complaint, though he said to the king of Babylonia that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance. Then he returned to Arabia with his captains and his wardens and he wreaked such havoc upon the kingdoms of Babylonia, and with such great blessing by fortune, that he brought low its castles, crushed its people, and took the king of Babylonia himself captive. He tied him atop a swift-footed camel and led him into the desert. Three days they rode, and then he said to him, “O king of time and substance and cipher of the century! In Babylonia didst thou attempt to make me lose my way in a labyrinth of brass with many stairways, doors, and walls; now the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor doors to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.”

Then he untied the bonds of the king of Babylonia and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst. Glory to Him who does not die.” p. 169-170

Excerpt 7

 “Eventually the telephone lost its terrors, but in late October Carlos Argentino did call me. He was very upset; at first I didn’t recognize his voice. Dejectedly and angrily he stammered out that that now unstoppable pair Zunino and Zungri, under the pretext of expanding their already enormous “café” were going to tear down his house.

“The home of my parents—the home where I was born—the old and deeply rooted house on Calle Garay!” he repeated, perhaps drowning his grief in the melodiousness of the phrase.

It was not difficult for me to share his grief. After forty, every change becomes a hateful symbol of time’s passing; in addition, this was a house that I saw as alluding infinitely to Beatriz. I tried to make that extremely delicate point clear; my interlocutor cut me off. He said that if Zunino and Zungri persisted in their absurd plans, then Zunni, his attorney, would sue them ipso facto for damages, and force them to part with a good hundred thousand for his trouble.

Zunni’s name impressed me; his law firm, on the corner of Caseros and Tacuari, is one of proverbial sobriety. I inquired whether Zunni had already taken the case. Daneri said he’d be speaking with him that afternoon; then he hesitated, and in that flat, impersonal voice we drop into when we wish to confide something very private, he said he had to have the house so he could finish the poem—because in one corner of the cellar there was an Aleph. He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all points.

“It’s right under the dining room, in the cellar,” he explained. In his distress, his words fairly tumbled out. “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school. The cellar stairway is steep, and my aunt and uncle had forbidden me to go down it, but somebody said you could go around the world with that thing down there in the basement. The person, whoever it was, was referring, I later learned, to a steamer trunk, but I thought there was some magical contraption down there. I tried to sneak down the stairs, fell head over heels, and when I opened my eyes, I saw the Aleph.”

” The Aleph?” I repeated.

“Yes, the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist. I revealed my discovery to no one, but I did return. The child could not understand that he was given that privilege so that the man might carve out a poem! Zunino and Zungri shall never take it from me—never, never! Lawbook in hand, Zunni will prove that my Aleph is inalienable.”” p. 201-202

Excerpt 8

“”A glass of pseudo-cognac,” he said, “and we’ll duck right into the cellar. I must forewarn ou: dorsal decubitus is essential, as are darkness, immobility, and a certain ocular accommodation. You’ll lie on the tile floor and fix your eyes on the nineteenth step of the pertinent stairway. I’ll re-ascend the stairs, let down the trap door, and you’ll be alone. Some rodent will frighten you—easy enough to doWithin a few minutes, you will see the Aleph. The microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our proverbial friend the multum in parvo, made flesh!

“Of course,” he added, in the dining room, “if you don’t see it, that doesn’t invalidate anything I’ve told you…. Go on down; within a very short while you will be able to begin a dialogue with all the images of Beatriz.”

I descended quickly, sick of his vapid chatter. The cellar, barely wider than the stairway, was more like a well or cistern. In vain my eyes sought the trunk that Carlos Argentino had mentioned. A few burlap bags and some crates full of bottles cluttered one corner. Carlos picked up one of the bags, folded it, and laid it out very precisely.

The cushion is rather humble,” he explained,  “but if I raise it one inch higher, you’ll not see a thing, and you’ll be cast down and dejected. Stretch that great clumsy body of yours out on the floor and count up nineteen steps.”

I followed his ridiculous instructions; he finally left. He carefully let down the trap door; in spite of a chink of light that I began to make out later, the darkness seemed total. Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison. Carlos’ boasting clearly masked the deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t see his “miracle”; in order to protect his delirium, in order to hide his madness from himself, he had to kill me. I felt a vague discomfort, which I tried to attribute to my rigidity, not to the operation of a narcotic. I closed my eyes, then opened them. It was then that I saw the Aleph.” p. 204

 Excerpt 9

“Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors on the planet (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years before in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw clusters of grapes, snow, tobacco, veins of metal, water vapor, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand, saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget, saw her violent hair, her haughty body, saw a cancer in her breast, saw a circle of dry soil within a sidewalk where there had once been a tree, saw a country house in Adrogué, saw a copy of the first English translation of Pliny (Philemon Holland’s), saw every letter of every page at once (as a boy, I would be astounded that the letters in a closed book didn’t get all scrambled up together overnight), saw simultaneous night and day, saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the color of a rose in Bengal, saw my bedroom (with no one in it), saw in a study in Alkmaar a globe of the terraqueous world placed between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly, saw horses with wind-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand, saw the survivors of a battle sending postcards, saw a Tarot card in a shopwindow in Mirzapur, saw the oblique shadows of ferns on the floor of a greenhouse, saw tigers, pistons, bisons, tides, and armies saw all the ants in the world, saw a Persian astrolabe, saw in a desk drawer, (and the handwriting made me tremble), obscene, incredible, detailed letters that Beatriz had sent Carlos Argentino, saw a beloved monument in Chacarita, saw the horrendous remains of what had once, deliciously, been the Beatriz Viterbo, saw the circulation of my dark blood, saw the coils and springs of love, and the alterations of death, saw the Aleph from everywhere at once, saw the earth in the Aleph, and the Aleph once more in the earth and the earth in the Aleph, saw my face and my viscera, saw your face, and I felt dizzy, and I wept, because my eyes had seen that secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon: the inconceivable universe.” p. 206-207



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