What do you do when you’ve seen everything? What do you do when you’ve seen the end of the universe, the beginning, the endless and infinite? How does that knowledge change you — and do you let it? Does a transcendental experience remake you, or just make you more of who you already are?
The question comes up a lot in philosophy and literature, though usually on a smaller scale than “what happens when someone encounters the infinite?” There are experiences that test the limits of human imagination: war, natural disasters, the infinite depths of the ocean and of space. Many an author has tried to capture or share those experiences and failed. In “The Aleph,” Jorge Luis Borges tackles the idea of facing the unknowable in slightly a different way: through the titular aleph itself, using metaphor to succeed where straightforward description often fails.
“The Aleph” begins with our narrator, ‘Borges,*” discussing the death of a woman who didn’t love him. It ends with his recognition that even the memory of what we care for most will fade. In between, “Borges,” who has continued his obsession with the late Beatriz Viterbo by means of an annual visit to her family, gets a glimpse of the infinite.
Beatriz’s cousin Carlos Argentino, you see, has been traveling the world, more or less, for many years, using what he calls the Aleph, a metaphysical point in his basement that allows him to see, well, everything, everywhere, all at once. Carlos Argentino has been working for years on an epic poem that will encompass his experiences of the whole world (a world he knows only through witnessing it via the Aleph). Borges, unimpressed with Carlos Argentino and even more unimpressed with his talent for poetry, treats the man with disdain; it’s not clear that Carlos Argentino thinks much of Borges, either. However, when his home is threatened, he takes Borges into his confidence, explaining that the Aleph has been his window into the world. He shows Borges the Aleph. Borges is shaken by the encounter, but decides that he is ultimately unwilling to give a man he finds incredibly annoying an inch. He dismisses the experience and the Aleph itself and encourages Carlos Argentino to go outside and touch grass (no, really). As the memory of the Aleph fades, “Borges” finds the shock of the experience fading, letting him feel surprise and shock again; he even begins to believe that the Aleph might have been a false Aleph. Carlos Argentino’s house is eventually demolished, and presumably the Aleph goes with it.
“The Aleph” is told from the perspective of a man who sees the whole world and decides he’d rather be a petty asshole than share in a transcendental mystery with someone he doesn’t like. There’s a certain crisp cynicism to “The Aleph”, most of it surrounding Borges and his relationship with Carlos Argentino, but there’s also the side note that Carlos Argentino’s terrible poetry has won second place in the National Prize for Literature. (I suppose it’s also possible that following Borges’s advice and experiencing the world really did make Carlos Argentino a better poet, as “Borges” himself suggests, but I doubt it.)
As often happens in Borges’s fiction, selfish actions become self-defeating ones. If “Borges” tried to preserve the Aleph, would his memory of Beatriz be stronger? Even if it was possible, that would require him to be a very different man. Many of Borges’s short stories focus on inevitability, with people’s choices predestined by their personalities and identity (I’m particularly fond of “The Garden of Forking Paths”). Is it really a question of fate vs. free will, when your own stubborn personality pulls you in one inevitable direction?
Borges names H.G. Wells’ “The Crystal Egg” as an influence on both “The Aleph” and “The Zahir,” another story collected in The Aleph and Other Stories. (Wikipedia names another Wells short story, “The Door in the Wall,” as inspiration, but there’s no citation for it; it’s entirely possible that the article author picked the wrong work, or that both stories influenced “The Aleph,” as they have some themes in common). In “The Crystal Egg,” an unsatisfied man learns he can see the landscape of Mars by gazing into a mysterious crystal; there appear to be many such crystals on Mars, perhaps monitoring the Earth as well as serving as a visual communication system. Borges and his characters are far less concerned about the metaphysical origins of the Aleph, and they don’t think for a moment of aliens; there is no mystery here that concerns them, just the petty, everyday rivalries and losses of a few self-absorbed twits.
Borges isn’t usually known for character details like the petty interpersonal drama of “Borges” and Carlos Argentino; he was writing metafiction decades before the term was coined, spinning plates of what would later be called magical realism, unreliable narrators, literary references from around the globe, and whatever struck his fancy in any particular story. (It’s funny, sometimes, that people act like interconnected stories and metanarratives are some recent idea, because not only are they much older than that, Jorge Luis Borges was doing it better than just about anyone else before the 20th century had even reached its midpoint.)
But the truth is that Borges’s work wouldn’t, well, work if the characters at its core weren’t recognizably human, and the “Borges” of this story and Carlos Argentino are certainly that, with their weaknesses front and center. Borges understood human nature as well as he understood history and literature and all the heady, intellectually challenging ideas we normally associate him with. It’s not entirely pettiness in these men’s hearts, either. “Borges” learned to cut the pages of the books he gave Beatriz to spare himself the disappointment of discovering that she never bothered reading them. Carlos Argentino’s devotion to the Aleph is childish and also childlike, reflecting years of attachment to the panoply of space and time and reality he could discover simply by walking down the stairs to his basement.
In the end, though, it all fades: the infinite and our remembrance of it. At least the printed word remains, for those of us willing to cut the pages and discover it.
* Borges often used a fictionalized “Borges” in his work. I’ve used “Borges” for the character and omitted the quotation marks to describe the author.
Wondering what translation of Borges to read? There’s several directions you can take. I am not fluent in Spanish, though, so take it with a grain of salt. I have used the Hurley translation because it was in my house (and I believe that it’s the easiest to obtain in print form), but the Di Giovanni translation is very readable and was done in close collaboration with Borges himself.
If you’re curious about “The Crystal Egg,” it’s here.
Art by Rick Veitch from Swamp Thing #62