Infinity, Ineffability, and Loss in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph”

First published in 1945, “The Aleph” became one of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s most beloved stories. Like many of Borges’s works, “The Aleph” is concerned with the nature of infinity and the illusion of reality. It gleefully traverses multiple genres and modes of fiction, including fantasy, satire, allegory, memoir, epistolary fiction, and voyage narrative.

“The Aleph” is narrated by a fictionalized version of Borges who recounts his experience of the Aleph, a point in space that contains all other points in the world. The insistence upon the conflation of the author Borges with the character Borges destabilizes and distorts the demarcation between fiction and reality.

The story opens with Borges mourning the death of his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo. Borges recounts how he visits the house of Beatriz’s family on the anniversary of her death each year for several years, gradually becoming acquainted with Beatriz’s first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri.

A mediocre poet with delusions of grandeur, Daneri has made it his lifelong ambition to write an epic poem that will describe every location on the planet in ultra-precise detail. In his poem, aptly titled The Earth, Daneri substitutes mundane words like milky for luminous words like lactescent. Unsurprisingly, his poem is terrible.

When a business on the same street attempts to tear down Daneri’s house in order to expand, Daneri confides in Borges that he cannot lose his house because there is an Aleph in his basement, and he needs it to complete his poem.

Though Borges believes Daneri to be insane, he asks to see the Aleph for himself. Unbelievably, the Aleph is real, and with it Borges is able to see every place on the planet instantaneously and simultaneously. But Borges denies seeing anything to Daneri in an attempt to make him question his sanity out of an immature hate for him.

In a postscript to the events, Borges writes that Daneri let his house be demolished, but that he went on to have the first part of his epic poem published and won second place in the Argentine National Prize for Poetry. Borges also asserts that he believes that another Aleph, the real Aleph, is located in a stone pillar in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Cairo. This Aleph is believed to contain the entire universe, not merely the earth, within it. And though it cannot be seen, if one places one’s ear to the pillar, one can supposedly hear it.

The Aleph (א) is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (think aleph-bet). It symbolizes the wind, the air, and the sacred breath of life. In Kabbalistic tradition, the Aleph signifies the Ein Soph, the divine origin of all existence. The Aleph is seen as the spiritual source of all letters, speech, and language.

Though it is the origin of language, the Aleph cannot be contained by language because it comprises infinity and is therefore ineffable.

It is this failure to articulate the spectacle of the Aleph—the failure to represent it using language—that is at the heart of Borges’s story. When trying to describe the Aleph, Borges repeats the phrase “I saw” almost forty times in a single paragraph, as if through anaphora and the accumulation of details he can capture the wonder of the Aleph and thereby confirm the truth of his experience.

Yet Borges’s endeavor to convey what he saw in the Aleph is futile, for language is a medium that progresses. Words follow words and sentences follow sentences, and the reader can only read about one subject at a time. The Aleph, however, shows every place in the world at once; there is no progression from image to image or from place to place—everything is seen at the same time. Language may be asynchronous, but the Aleph is synchronous.

Because of the restrictions of language, Daneri’s poem will be a failure, and Borges’s own attempt to describe the wonders of the Aleph will be barely the shadow of the echo of the real thing. The limits of language mean that Borges cannot ever overcome the distance between signifier and signified. He cannot accurately convey his experience in words.

Just as the Aleph cannot be contained by language, it cannot be retained by memory either.

After seeing the Aleph, Borges feels certain that he will never again relate to other people or exist in the world in the same way that they do. But after a few restless nights, forgetfulness gnaws away his memories, and he returns to normality even though he does not want to.

Reflecting on his experience, one question remains to haunt Borges: did he see the real Aleph in the mosque in Cairo when he looked into Daneri’s Aleph, or was it his imagination? He realizes that he can no longer remember what he saw in the Aleph, just as he can no longer clearly remember Beatriz’s features.

In comparing these two fading memories, Borges returns to the problem of the limits of language. Just as Borges cannot articulate the world he saw in the Aleph, he cannot articulate the pain of loss.

But that is not the only meaning behind this comparison. The progression of time is inexorable, and as the bodies of our loved ones decay, our memories fade. Against out will, life goes on and balance is restored—yet nothing is ever quite the same. Ultimately, for Borges, the loss of a loved one is the loss of a world.

-contributed by Alex De Pompa




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