An Infinite Loss
Born in 1899 in Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges was brought up bilingually, speaking English and Spanish, and many of his reference points are English language authors including Stevenson, Shaw, Kipling and Chesterton. While his work is often metaphysically mischievous as he plays games with time and space, it is also humorously pragmatic, and perhaps no story more so than 'The Aleph'. Dropped into a tale of rivalry and jealousy is a mind-bending scene of simultaneity, where the central character disappears into a person's basement and sees once there "...a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget...a sunset in Queretaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal...I saw my empty bedroom, I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies." The narrator offers what he sees over a page of prose even if he saw everything all at once. But that is the problem: his tale is "contaminated by literature", he must offer the events consecutively, one word after another, one sentence after another.
Yet framing this moment of impossibility is the most mundane of feelings, the sort of 'spiteful elation" that leads the narrator to exit the basement where he sees such astonishing sights and pretends he hasn't seen anything at all. He shows sympathy to the character who has introduced him to the Aleph: though what he is really practicing is revenge. He pretends he has seen nothing and says "kindly, openly pitying him, distraught, evasive, I thanked Carlos Argentino Daneri for the hospitality of his cellar and urged him to make the most of the demolition to get away from the pernicious metropolis..." Daneri wanted the narrator to see this astonishing universe before the house was destroyed, but what the narrator does is use it as an opportunity to get even with this man, who had been his great unrequited love's first cousin, and her lover. Beatriz has long since passed away and never had much interest in the narrator, a point he half-acknowledges without quite admitting the full extent of his defeat. As he says, now that she is dead, "I could devote myself to her memory without hope but also without humiliation." After all, his "fruitless devotion had annoyed her..." and it is as though he wants revenge on the cousin not only because he sees a fatuous poet, and annoying windbag, but that Daneri was also much closer to Beatriz than he could ever be; a fact the Aleph reveals when amongst everything else the narrator witnesses, there are obscene letters between the cousins.
If the tale contains within it what we can call a metaphysical paradox, it also insists on a mundane irony as well. The metaphysical paradox is how to contain in words what exists in space, and how to do so more especially when that space isn't only the basement he is in but all the things that he can see at the same time, as he looks and views the universe in all its multiplicity. This is the 'ineffable core' of the story, but there is also that mundane irony, with Borges suggesting that no matter how brilliant and mysterious the universe happens to be, there is the narrator at the centre of it, elated when he feels he has got one over his literary rival and the cousin and lover of his beloved.
Borges' language reflects the paradoxes and ironies he pursues, as he often puts words together to bring out their strange juxtaposition, to produce a thought out of their combination. We have already quoted spiteful elation, ineffable core and pernicious metropolis, but others include "inconceivable analogies", "pointless analogies", "trivial scruples" and the "vainly erotic". We don't only find such combinations in 'The Aleph' but in others stories too. In 'The Circular Ruins' there are "infinite villages" and "unanimous night"; 'Sacred verb" in 'Funes the Memorious'; "syllabic music" in 'The Garden of the Forking Paths'. Think of typical adjective/noun phrasing: deep loss; terrible tragedy; lazy fool; wicked child, and so on. Usually, they create an affirmation of assumption, a linguistic inertness all the better to forestall thought rather than generate it. What such combinations as pernicious metropolis and inconceivable analogies give to Borges's work is the hint of the impossible within the fictionalizing of the possible. If Wittgenstein famously said "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), Borges' reply might be "let us give it a go" let us try and access the metaphysically complex within the feasibility of literature.
Thus the very story, 'The Aleph' can seem like its adjective-noun combinations: taking the predictable scenario of unrequited love and literary rivalry and suggesting that one might prefer the denial of the magnificent if it allows us the pleasure of the malicious. A story about someone discovering an unknown world hidden within our own is a common enough trope of literature (from Alice in Wonderland to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). Borges knew the work of both Carroll and Lewis and shares an interest in the fantastic indeed editing an important collection with his fellow Argentinean writers, Silvina Ocampo and A. Bioy Casares. Yet he never quite imagines the world as most fantasy writers do; he conceptualises it, using the English writers he is often drawn to while showing far greater interest than most in the impossibility of Wittgenstein's terrifying claim.
In 'The Aleph', Borges thus uses the banal scenario to create problems for perception rather than the assertion of a new perception in other words rather than imagining a world contrary to our own that we must believe in given the imaginative capabilities of the writing, Borges proposes the difficulty of even beginning to describe the former, while allowing the narrator to fall back into perceptual parochialism no sooner has he escaped the basement. One may think Borges does so for easy irony, to give a twist to the tale that shows envy is greater than the ineffable, that the everyday is finally stronger than the cosmic. Yet it seems that Borges wants much more to suggest that the cosmic struggles against the pragmatic, that while the narrator cannot do much with the vision he sees, he can score very practically a small point off his literary rival by claiming he sees nothing at all. Rather than running with the notion that the fantastic offers new hope, an opening up of our imaginative faculties to the freshly possible, Borges indicates that such visions might not be of much use at all, even if a further irony is that Daneri's epic poem, based on his own experiences of the Aleph, goes on to take second prize in a national literary competition. The narrator's book didn't receive a single vote as "once again dullness and envy had their triumph." Still the narrator sees that the Aleph cannot be of much help: Daneri's "felicitous pen (no longer cluttered by the Aleph) has now set itself the task of writing an epic of our national hero, General San Martin."
'The Aleph' one can say with some confidence possesses a narrator we are unlikely to view seriously but the prose he couches his narrow-mindedness in contains a literary broad-mindedness that may leave us wondering how to take it. It isn't just that the narrator uses brilliant formulations when putting together adjectives and nouns, he also conveys to us the paradoxes of his feelings for Beatriz and of time's intricacies. Near the beginning, he is speaking of Beatriz's death and says, "I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and this slight change was the first of an endless series." At the very end of the story he says, "our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing of the years, the face of Beatriz." He might well be mean, bitter and resentful but he is also very humanly aware that the self is contingent, temporal and forgetful, destined for obliviousness on a daily basis and oblivion soon enough. To write a story only about the Aleph and its magnificence would be to enter into fantasy without taking into account the predictable that contains it. Borges wants both, to see the magnitude of the universe and the subjectivities and sensitivities of the self, evident in some of his comments elsewhere that bring the metaphysical back to the physical. "Well, time given by the watch is conventional, isn't it? But real time, for example, when you're having a tooth pulled, is only too real. Or quite different, say, from the time of fear, when the sands of time run out. Yes, I have always been obsessed by time." (Borges on Writing) Equally, time can be all-encompassing when one hates or loves. "...When you hate somebody, you think about him all the time, and in that sense become his slave. The same thing happens when we fall in love." (Borges on Writing)
In 'The Aleph', Borges all but hates Daneri and certainly loves the late Beatriz. She of course, as we have noted, shows up in the Aleph; how could she not when it contains all things, but it gives him access to information he may have only previously inferred and which would inevitably cause him immense pain: he sees in that simultaneous moment those "unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino." Out of this story of infinity, Borges arrives at the commonplaces of emotions that most will know as he explores the tension between what is beyond our imagination and within the limits of our experience. It may be read as distress indeed when someone has access to the whole world but that it feels inadequate next to the inaccessibility of a late woman one still loves and who instead adored her first cousin. Borges would often reference the scriptures so perhaps we can end by tweaking Mark 8: 36: "What is it for a man to gain the whole world only to lose his great love?" The world and all its riches can seem weak next to an infinite, though absurd, loss.
© Tony McKibbin