The Symbol for Eternity: A Discussion of Borges’ “The Aleph”

By Anthony Perconti

The Symbol for Eternity: A Discussion of Borges’ “The Aleph”
December 15, 2019 Parallel Worlds

As a writer, Jose Luis Borges had the uncanny ability to succinctly illustrate the conflicting essence of human life with the universe at large.  Much of his works contain themes and situations that are inherently paradoxical in nature, usually stemming from the fact that we as a species, with our finite lives and limited senses are fundamentally ill provisioned at exploring the (near) infinite depths of our universe.

His short story, “The Aleph”, is a prime example of this imperfect interface between the Micro and the Macro. In addition, within this tale, Borges also marries the two seemingly incongruous concepts of the miraculous with the mundane. What starts as a naturalistic, slice of life tale set in Argentina, suddenly takes an unexpected departure, delving the cosmological depths. 

Ever the literary trickster, Borges was wont to infuse himself as a recurring character in a great deal of his works. This idea of creating a fictional version of himself, in which ‘he’ engaged with the miraculous, was a standard trope of his. Borges begins a decade’s long tradition of paying his respects to the family home of Beatriz Viterbo, a deceased love, every April thirtieth. As the years pass, he and her cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri strike up a cordial acquaintanceship, in which Daneri shares with Borges his life’s work; an epic poem of mediocre execution, entitled The Earth. “So witless did these ideas strike me as being, so sweeping and pompous the way they were expressed, that I associated them immediately with literature…There was nothing memorable about them; I could not even judge them to be much worse than the first one. Application, resignation, and chance had conspired in their composition; the virtues that Daneri attributed to them were afterthoughts. I realised that the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable; naturally, that later work modified the poem for Daneri, but not for anyone else.” Daneri is pompous and self aggrandising to a fault.

Events take a sudden turn, when in late October of 1941, Daneri calls Borges in a panic concerning the fact that his (and Beatriz’s) childhood home is scheduled to be demolished. “ 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 contain all points.” And just like that, this master of the labyrinth traps his readers in his subtle, cunning construct. What begins as a meditation on grief, loss and the erosion of memory by time’s passage suddenly veers into the territory of the outré. It just so happens that this mediocre poet has a cosmological Artifact, an Aleph in his cellar “right under the dining room”. Borges seamlessly fuses the common humdrum of daily life with the numinous. Upon hearing this news, he immediately rushes over to Daneri’s house to inspect (and experience) this Miracle Machine; a (presumed) device so vast in power and scale that it contains and connects every point in the universe. 

“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.”

Like astronaut David Bowman from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this Borges undergoes a (temporary) degree of Transcendence. He struggles with the immensity of scope that he is confronted with, very much like a Lovecraft protagonist. Even his masterful command of language fails him. “And besides, the central problem—the enumeration, even partial enumeration, of infinity—is irresolvable. In that unbounded moment, I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts; none amazed me so much as the fact that all occupied the same point, without superposition and without transparency. What my eyes saw was simultaneous; what I shall write is successive, because language is successive.” The nature and scale of Infinity is in diametrical opposition with our limited capacity for such super-dense sensory input. Our meager tools of perception short circuit when faced with Eternity. The conclusion of “The Aleph” leaves the reader (or at least this reader) with more questions than answers. However, like this fictional Borges, there is no denying that we have encountered something transcendental, extraordinary and ultimately unknowable.