A Persian image of a colourful bird

Weird #32: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945)

I have set myself the task of speaking about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” but it would be impossible to tell you the number of ideas that spring to mind when I contemplate the story, since they occur to me simultaneously and human language is only sequential.

Imagine a point in space in which all other points are visible: a point of light that contains all lights, the perfect seeing-stone. Now imagine that the scenes of human life and nature that you would see upon gazing into it. It would be a dizzying experience to say the least, but this is the experience of one who reads “The Aleph.”

Somehow, Borges manages to pull off his conceit of making his readers visualize an object of such absurd but sublime proportions. He does so though a series of suggestive literary allusions to the Aleph throughout history and by making the Aleph the only absurd thing in an otherwise realistic story.

Borges is known as a mystic, a blind sage, and an architect of labyrinths. His writings have inspired surrealists and poststructuralists, with his most famous story being perhaps “On Exactitude in Science,” in which a Chinese Emperor orders the creation of a map that is exactly, point-for-point, the size of his kingdom–a frequently referenced fable of postmodernism.

In addition, countless authors have referenced his work. Neil Gaiman references “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the Sandman comics, through the images of Dream’s massive library and when Destiny’s garden. Likewise, Umberto Eco was inspired by this literary Daedalus when designing the labyrinthine library that burns to the ground at the end of in The Name of the Rose–with the monk Jorges’s name eerily suggestive of the Argentinian author’s.

Though he is not “a ‘weird’ writer per se,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Borges often treats of the “inexplicable” in his fiction (296). Indeed, “The Aleph” probably includes the most inexplicable phenomenon in the VanderMeers’ collection yet.

Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aleph.jpg

The story is simple enough. The narrator, Borges,a stand-in for the author, mourns his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo, and wishes to remember her very facet and angle. Gradually, he comes to know her cousin, Carlos Argentino Danieri, whose last name contains the first and last letters of name of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri.

Like Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a medieval epic of the divine cosmos, Danieri has given himself over to a grand oeuvre: an epic poem known as The Earth, which centres “on a description of our own terraqueous globe” (297)

Danieri reflects that communications technologies like the telegraph have shrunk the size of the world and that it should now be possible to write a poem treating of the entire planet as a subject. If this story had been written today, he might have tried to versify Google Earth. It is an impossible task, yet it is a goal to which he has applies himself, and not without hubris.

The ironic thing is that The Earth, based on fragmentary excerpts provided by the author, is a wholly unremarkable poem. Yet, Danieri praises his own unmemorable verses, to the extent that the narrator realizes “the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting poetry admirable” (298), a scathing critique of criticism that would do Ben Lerner proud (see The Hatred of Poetry). But the tone of the story shifts when Danieri reveals the source of his inspiration: the Aleph.

Danieri’s house is in danger of being demolished to make way for a café expansion. But Danieri needs the house to finish his oeuvre. Why? Because the Aleph is in his basement, “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (300). He has known about the Aleph from childhood and has been contemplating it as he writes his topographical epic.

The poet prevails upon Borges to enter his basement to see the Aleph for himself, at which point Borges realizes that he could be a madman, planning to murder him like in an Edgar Allan Poe story. However, these paranoid speculations are put to rest when he sees the mighty Aleph positioned under one of the basement steps.

What follows is a description of a marvellous encounter, in which the Aleph is compared to the four-faced angel from the book of Ezekiel and to the Simorgh, the bird of Persian legend, “a bird that somehow is all birds” (301). It is Alain de Lille’s “sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (301). Later in the story, it is compared to the mirror of Iskandar dhu-al-Qarnayn–an Islamic name for Alexander the Great–which is supposed to have revealed his whole kingdom at a glance. It is even linked to Merlin’s crystal ball, alluded to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The description of what exactly Borges sees in the Aleph takes up a long paragraph consisting of one of the more memorable list-descriptions in literature:

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 …

(301-2)

The list goes on to pile on potentially infinite details, reduced to a rich series of emblems. By this accumulation of detail, Borges makes it possible for the reader to believe, for a moment at least, that such a sublime object really exists.

Finally, the narrator emerges from the basement, still stunned by seeing the corporeal remains of the beloved Beatriz, whose shrivelled, worm-eaten bones he has now seen from infinite angles. He takes his revenge on Danieri by denying that he saw anything at all, implying he is a madman.

Eventually, the house is demolished, the Aleph lost, and the narrator wanders the world with a feeling of déjà vu everywhere he treads. Gradually, his memories of the Aleph fade away.

In a postscript, however, Borges writes that he suspects he encountered a false Aleph that day in Danieri’s basement. A manuscript penned by Sir Richard Francis Burton confirms that the universe itself is believed to reside in a pillar in Cairo’s Al-Amr mosque. “Does that Aleph exist, within the heart of a stone?” asks the narrator. “Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?” (303) The story ends with his lamenting of his own forgetfulness as he loses his memories of Beatriz.

The allusions to various works of philosophy and literature make “The Aleph” a rich and powerful text. I don’t know if there really is such a legend about the Al-Amr mosque in Cairo, but the present building has been rebuilt and restored several times. The original pillars taken from pre-Islamic temples would have been lost by now, if the universe ever did dwell inside one them.

There is something magical about how texts, through the sheer power of references, can make readers believe that a thing as absurd as the Aleph can really exist, in a geographically precise location. In a sense, “The Aleph” is thus not only a fascinating “What if?” story: it is a story about how references and allusions between texts can change our perception of reality, whether the reality of a space below a basement step or of the literary quality of a mediocre poem.

Borges demonstrates that language bears no resemblance to the Real, since it is just as impossible to describe what the Aleph reveals as it is possible for language itself to alter one’s perception of reality. In this way, “The Aleph” questions and, indeed, mocks, our construction of consensual reality. (See what else I’ve written about Borges’s critical irrealism.)

The richness of these allusions makes them fascinating to contemplate, in the way of benign conspiracy theories and pseudo-archaeological theories about “the secrets of the Pyramids” and other such “hidden histories.” Maybe the real Aleph is out there, waiting to be discovered by an intrepid adventurer. However, delving deeper into these allusions does reveal real, hidden connections that are suggestive of how Borges came up with the idea for “The Aleph.”

For instance, though Hebrew legend and the Kabbalah played a role in Borges’s conception of the Aleph, another source behind it comes from Sufism, by away of Sir Richard Francis Burton. I discovered that although the Burton manuscript that Borges mentions does not exist (to my knowledge), Borges may have learned the legend of the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay,” which accompanies his translation of the One Thousand and One Nights.

Burton became a Sufi while stationed in Sindh and would have read The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar while writing his Kasidah. Burton explains his understanding of Attar’s work in what Edward Rice calls “a short, very arcane two pages” (Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, 462). In this passage, the British explorer explains in detail how the Conference is an allegory of the Sufi path to achieving oneness with God, a solution to the question of “We and Thou” (qtd. in Rice 464).

Borges may have thus learned about the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay” and not necessarily directly from a translation of Attar. This could be another case of a reference taking precedence over the original, to the point where what’s significant for Borges is not so much Attar as Burton’s two pages referencing Attar.

This opens the discussion to the connection of the Aleph to Sufism more generally. When confronted with Sufism, I think immediately about Usman Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” a novella with more than a few parallels to “The Aleph.” In this Tor.com novella, which has been recently published in a short story collection, Malik, a Pakistani Sufi author, tells a modern fairy tale about the famous jam-e jam, or the Cup of Jamshid. The Cup has Aleph-like properties, allowing users to see the world of the jinn and explore the depths of dimensional space. I’m not sure Malik was directly inspired by Borges (though it is likely); however, he did take inspiration directly from Islamic Sufi sources such as Ibn Arabi, whose Meccan Revelations are the source of the novella’s epigraph. The Cup of Jamshid is Malik’s Aleph.

This is fitting since Borges mentions “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khosru,” another name of the Cup of Jamshid, as being among the Aleph’s analogues (303). Furthermore, it is Burton, the Sufi, who supposedly provides this analogy. Thus, each of these images–Cup of Jamshid, Simorgh, and Aleph–are linked.

Alif, the fist letter of the Arabic alphabet. (SnappyGoat.com)

Given these connections, it might be possible to read “The Aleph” as expressing a Sufi mystical conception of achieving oneness with the Infinite (God). This is fascinating because it provides a link between weird fiction (the subject of this blog series) and mysticism.

Is it possible to read weird fiction texts as mystical texts? Does such a reading work for some texts and not for others? The Arabic poet Adonis’s book Sufism and Surrealism may be suggestive and useful to advancing such a thesis, since it argues about a connection between Sufism and one of the literary streams that have influenced weird fiction. It is doubtful that a category as resistant to labels as weird fiction can be called mystical, but an answer to this question will be a topic for another another time.

At risk of beginning another tangent, it is time to move on from Borges. However, if you’re interested in reading more about what I think about this story, you can read my essay “The Criticial Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.”

Next week, I will be writing about Beninese writer Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1949).

The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges – Source:
https://ilo.wikipedia.org/wiki

A new essay of mine has just been published with Graphite Publications! It builds off some ideas I express in my Master’s thesis, Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism, specifically the concept of critical irrealism.

As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.

Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.

Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.

I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.

While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.

https://graphitepublications.com/the-critical-irrealism-of-jorge-luis-borgess-aleph/

The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.

The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.

It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.

Both Malik and Borges use the vision of infinity contained in the Aleph/Cup of Jamshid to present an image of totality–and to subtly critique the possibility of representing that totality. In my article on Malik published in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, I argue that “Pauper Prince” adopts a critical irrealist aesthetic, just as Borges does in his story.

However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.